Laughing at Power, Laughing as Power: On Mike Bourscheid
by Karina Irvine
The depth of what we share can often be expressed in a joke; laughing at the same joke usually implies a sense of camaraderie, for better or for worse. A joke can also mock, deride or parody. In his performances, Mike Bourscheid uses humour, absurdity and play to critique structures of capitalism, patriarchy and hetero-normativity, and reminds us of the importance of building alliances through laughter at a time when it is most seriously needed.
In 2017, Bourscheid represented Luxembourg at the Venice Biennale, where as part of his exhibition Thank you so much for the flowers, he performed Goldbird Variations (Pas de deux) (2017), a take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s seminal compositions (Goldberg Variations, 1741). Instead of musically harmonic, Bourscheid’s Variations were gestural. In a peculiar handmade costume summoning another era, he assumed the role of a regal figure whose gestures were notably insecure—as if unsure of where to put his hands. All in a rich golden hue, the dress shirt with a starched high collar was tucked into a skirt with a crinoline that extended from his midline both frontwards and backwards, drooping like two flaccid phalluses and finished with a ruffled hem. The style of his hat was somewhere between a Dixie cup and pillbox hat, with a chinstrap. Around 20 shapes of different co-lours embroidered all over the costume prompted his deliberate and programmed gestures. In the gloves he wore, his index fingers and thumbs protruded from cut holes in each tip. Running his fingertips over a shape signalled him to shift his position: crossed arms at breast; pause; move hands on hips; pause again; then, rest an unflinching gaze on the viewer, as if studying his own pose in a mirror. It was a kind of rehearsal of fake confidence and authority, with Bourscheid channelling a hesitant and effeminate nature that worked to emasculate the alpha male stereotype, ridiculing the impotence of powerful men. An insecure big bird posing as a dignified cock.
A studied approach to gesture has been famously outlined in Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia; or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery (1806). In it, Austin warns against “undignified gesticulations, and … absurd distortions” that put the orator’s ambitions to inspire at risk of becoming laughable. Chironomia is a practical guide that illustrates a range of gestures—“Body held erect indicates steadiness and courage; Thrown back, pride; Stooping forward, condescension or compassion; Prostration, the utmost humility or abasement”—to be practiced ad infinitum, until they come naturally. Once understood and theoretically mastered, the orator has the ability to harness attention to whatever message they wish to convey. As if a contemporary, pop cultural edition of Austin’s guidebook, Bourscheid’s sequence of movements was based on cowboy films and fashion documentaries, while the focused sensuality of his cues was influenced by the German pianist, consumed by his composition. The subtlety of his gestures, in contrast to the expressive, definitive articulations in Chironomia, demonstrates an evolution of poise toward the embodied.
Using costumes, gestures and scenarios that are sometimes awkward and humiliating, but almost always tender and vulnerable, Bourscheid calls social norms and systems of power into question. In Goldbird Variations (Pas de deux), as in The wellbeing of things: A 5km race (2017), wherein the artist plays a cowboy who confides in a parrot over the course of a journey made on a treadmill, and other works, he takes aim at masculinity by presenting constructions thereof that are slightly askew. He’s influenced by and often uses traditional symbols of domesticity and women’s labour, such as aprons, embroidery and flowers. As Judith Butler rightly states, “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original,” and Bourscheid explores the fluid boundaries between genders, using his own body to experience this for himself in a way that invites the viewer to acknowledge their own position.
Bourscheid’s wit relies on the patience of the performer and viewer alike; it unfolds slowly, deliberately and delicately. He performs Goldbird Variations (Pas de deux) while standing on a slipper embedded in the back of a bronze lion—a symbol of power seen everywhere in the streets of Venice—who is also wearing slippers. Two public figures in their domicile, in the pallid light of a golden interior. The viewer, who stumbles in on the performer’s seemingly private exercise, finds themselves in a precarious position. The space melds outer and inner worlds, and this tension between public and private uncovers a shared modesty between audience and performer, exposing the contingency of power, as though the former had intruded on the control room, despite the latter having left the door open.
In 2012, Bourscheid moved from Luxembourg, where he was born, to the West Coast of Canada. Before its collapse in 1974, Luxembourg’s economy relied heavily on the steel market, which struggled to regain stability until the late ’80s. Bourscheid’s parents were labourers working through this period, his father a welder and his mother a seamstress. In a conversation with Bourscheid, he joked that now he is a seamstress while his wife, the artist Vanessa Brown, works with metal in her practice. The costumes and props that Bourscheid fastidiously produces are rooted in a personal and political past carrying implications of economic disparity, labour disputes and resilience.
His performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s off-site space late last year, Ledgers (2019), begins from his working-class upbringing with a suite of costumes inspired by industrial workwear. Bourscheid’s series of four performances was in response to Vienna-based artist Erwin Wurm’s installation, Big Disobedience (2016), located at the edge of the business district. In response to Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, Wurm created a grouping of enlarged suits fixed in exaggerated poses—a hip thrust, nudge, jab or sidelong kick—and veiled by shadows of the surrounding skyscrapers and luxury condominiums. However, the suits, which suggest high status, are left empty—a visual echo of Thoreau’s remarks that those in service of power suspend their humanity, performing their work “not as men mainly, but as machines.” Bourscheid’s intervention fills the corporeal absence of the ghostly but comedic figures with Madrigal singers, a secular troupe originating from the Renaissance and Baroque periods who usually sang through-composed literary works about serious topics, with careful vocal attention to the exact sound of each word. They moved among the suits, each with a wooden shield in hand and a megaphone supported by an armature protruding from their chest, singing in unison: “Our muscles lean and glistening … rolling dollies … hoisting heavy valuable sculptures,” while redirecting the acoustics of their song with their shields toward the neighbouring high-rises in a pandemonium of layered echoes.
Bourscheid is a labourer in his day job, working for an art-moving company. As it happens, he’d had an experience moving artwork in a neighbouring building, where he was directed to use back entrances and service elevators, unseen by the upper-class inhabitants as he tended to one of their centrepiece sculptures. While the lyrics, written by Bourscheid and Brown, resonate with a direct experience, they also reflect the precarity of artistic work and need for a supplementary income more broadly in a time when average working hours have increased with the gig economy, while job security is in constant flux and wages stagnate. They chant, “We’re not here for long. We promise… We work and we work,” the repetition of this declaration sending a dark reminder not only of the instability of precarious labour but of our place on earth. The final words of the song, “We leave you this song before, once more,” is a sounding plea that the song be repeated again and again, settling like an incessant earworm in the ears of the elite. Though it may seem absurd to galvanize a singing troupe to challenge capitalism, Ledgers undermines the commercial, materialist enterprise of the art economy and demonstrates the need to work together to quell class disparagement and enact social justice.
Bourscheid’s most recent performance earlier this year at the Western Front, Idealverein (2020), choreographed by Justine Chambers, moves away from laughing at power toward laughing as power. Idealverein, titled after a German word meaning “non-profit organization,” was a six-player game that unfolded over the course of four evenings. It resembled a sport in that the play space was demarcated by an arena, and players wore numbered uniforms. However, though the precise objective of the game was unclear, it was obvious that there was no reason to be in opposition, and that keeping score was futile.
Outfitted in leather aprons, each player was equipped with props that determined their role but limited their movements—none more so than their elaborate shoes. They wore platform sandals adorned with forged steel filigree: curlicues acted as hooks for boiled eggs, dangling sausages or tufts of long hair. The soles of the shoes were cast in skin colours selected from those represented by emojis, making for an off-putting fleshy prosthetic. Each player per.formed their rehearsed movements, gesticulating with their arms while shuffling, sliding or crawling.
Each time the players broke to huddle, their bodies became increasingly intertwined, as if constructing a single entity: draped over each other or nestled within a collective embrace. They exchanged their plans of action and needs for the next round. “I will be bugging Erika— blocking her,” one declared in a tone that posed no threat, preparing Erika to think of a defensive manoeuvre. Another solicited the need for more blue lipstick, and in the tangled huddle—through passing the tube and apply-ing—teamwork prepared the players’ lips for the next round.
The idea of gameplay has been used time and again to reflect on social structures and behaviours. In this game, the purpose seemed to be to acknowledge a shared humanity through a mix of social arrangements, strategies of communication and freedom of play. Through their shared efforts—braiding hair, applying lipstick and feeding one another eggs—the performers impressed on the audience an absurd, confusing model for society based on patience, equity and generosity.
In the end, the total points were announced for each team, which generated laughter instead of cheers from the audience since, despite their nominal distinction as the “blue” team and the “yellow” team, all the uniforms were the same colour. They were all on the same team.