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Gabriele Brandstetter: Choreographing the Swarm
Choreographing the Swarm
(p. 215 – 226)

Relational Bodies in Contemporary Performance

Gabriele Brandstetter

Choreographing the Swarm
Relational Bodies in Contemporary Performance

PDF, 12 pages

In recent times, the swarm model has become a prominent concept for the portrayal of collective movements and of transitional assemblies both in social and in media-controlled spaces ranging from surveillance cameras to google maps. Media theories exploit the swarm metaphor for concepts of locally organized political and social neighborhoods. Swarms are thus brought into play as a template in order to better comprehend phenomena like internet-based smart mobs and other non-hierarchical forms of participation.
This article asks which structural principles of movement are characteristic for swarming. How can swarms or flocks be described as choreographic processes? By considering examples from contemporary dance and performance, the article examines which decisive principles of proximity/distance and of cohesion in movement are employed, and contemplates the applied kinesthetic processes and impulses of control.
Where are the boundaries of choreographing the swarm? How are they situated? And how can the different modes of (passively) participating in the movement of a swarm and of (actively) observing the actual – but never completely determined – figurations of swarming come together in performance analysis?


This paper considers the question how choreographies and performances of swarms and of swarming show neighborhood-effects. Are the relations between swarm-participants induced more by media and/or by body-techniques? Within the conceptual framework of performing arts and choreography, the dynamics of collectives and the movements of swarms can be categorized in different patterns. In the following, I concentrate on two modes of neighborhood-effects in swarm-movement: The mode of coherence on the one hand, and the mode of dispersal (Zerstreuung) of bodies on the other. I will give evidence to both of theses modes of relating bodies – the dynamics of cohesion and the techniques of remaining related within the movement of dispersal – by some seminal examples of swarm-choreography.

Before that, I give a short outline of theories of participation and body-synchronisation in the field of performance, and discuss how they take advantage of or question swarm concepts.

My first example is the well-known phenomenon of a flash mob, a public happening which oscillates between political, media and art performance. One of the first flash mobs dates from July 2003, when about 250 people gathered at New York’s Grand Central Station before proceeding to the nearby Grand Hyatt Hotel. There, they assembled in the gallery in a calm and decorous manner. At exactly 7.12 pm, they burst into thunderous applause, which lasted for 15 seconds. After that, the crowd quickly dispersed, while police cars drew up outside with wailing sirens.

The intriguing aspect about flash mobs or smart mobs in comparison to more traditional forms of gatherings lies in their utilization of media-based applications or websites for synchronization. Referring to Howard Rheingold’s theses on smart mobs1, one could ask whether and in what ways the sudden emergence of temporary, dynamic communities can be conceived of in terms of a swarm model. What conclusions can be drawn from such forms of synchronizing human gatherings for modes of participation, if one sees the organizational form of the swarm – the non-hierarchical, self-regulating order, the temporal, rhythmical and collective spatial formation, the coherence and dissolution of the association – as a model of collective action?

The above example still refers to traditional notions of participation since the flash mob constitutes a network of participants in real-life activity. This collective activity produces an assembly which seems to behave like an audience. However, the applause is not directed to a...

  • flash mob
  • theatre studies
  • networks
  • choreography
  • dancing
  • performativity
  • performance
  • swarm model
  • public sphere

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Gabriele Brandstetter

is Professor of Theatre and Dance Studies at Freie Universität Berlin since 2003. Her research focus is on: History and aesthetics of dance from the 18th century until today, theatre and dance of the avant-garde, performance, theatricality and gender differences as well as concepts of body, movement and image. Since 2007, she is co-director of the International Centre »Interweaving performance studies«.

Other texts by Gabriele Brandstetter for DIAPHANES
Tobias Harks (ed.), Sebastian Vehlken (ed.): Neighborhood Technologies

Neighborhood Technologies expands upon sociologist Thomas Schelling’s wellknown study of segregation in major American cities, using this classic work as the basis for a new way of researching social networks across disciplines. Up to now, research has focused on macrolevel behaviors that, together, form rigid systems of neighborhood relations. But can neighborhoods, conversely, affect larger, global dynamics? This volume introduces the concept of “neighborhood technologies” as a model for intermediate, or meso-level, research into the links between local agents and neighborhood relations. Bridging the sciences and humanities, Tobias Harks and Sebastian Vehlken have assembled a group of contributors
who are either natural scientists with an interest in interdisciplinary research or tech-savvy humanists. With insights into computer science, mathematics, sociology, media and cultural studies, theater studies, and architecture, the book will inform new research.