Dance, Technology, and the Plague — Monument

Part 3: What do you get when you combine dancing, plague and cybernetics? A research into the Dance Epidemic of 1518.

Note: This is part 3 of 3. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

It’s been 40 days, both deaths and ‘cures’ have occurred, Frau Troffea, the hero or ring leader, whichever voice you take, is long lost within the hundreds of bodies dead and alive, Paracelsus has written his texts explaining the phenomenon, the town leaders have attempted to establish control, the symptoms of technological plague have shown themselves and hidden themselves again with cure, everyone is weary from the cybernetic battle tunes constantly beating as if war in the town square — but still they dance, still the story isn’t over and somehow it is still all there to remind of the symptoms of plague lurking below the technological interface.

Somewhere in between my research on technology and plague and this Dance Epidemic of 1518, I became focused on feet. It seemed key to the story: the feet are the transmitters of beat, they hold the success of the cure and the ability to wobble. They are the technology of dancing in their own right. We always hear about hands, metaphors about hands, use idioms about hands, but what about feet? Feet dance somewhere in between grotesqueness and obsession, and like technophobia, the dancers are lost somewhere in between their fear and worship of Saint Vitus (or technology). Again, mind/body does not compute and that is key.

Still from Come to Feet: Monument to the Dance Epidemic of 1518

And the authorities must have realised the importance of feet as well. After the 40th day, they quietly took the remaining dancers to a monument, the monument, of Saint Vitus to endure one last dance. This last dance was different from the rest, the body was forced to conform, to be controlled by shoes, and not just any shoes, but red shoes. The technology of shoes emerges and that forces the symptoms back into hiding. The body was no longer free to be classified as plague, to be diseased and outside of control, and it once again entered into a system of movement, looping its data from one side to the other. And alas it did work, they were no longer dancing, and the Dance Epidemic of 1518 finally came to an end.

But as the story of the red shoes goes, by putting them on the dancer is both taking control and being controlled. She is taking control because she is in fact loosing control, being overcome by dancing. But she is being controlled by the choreographer, no longer able to love the man she loves. The red shoes symbolise power, and it is not just a case of one side or the other, one love or the other, its more complex than that. Not able to process, she gives up and gives in, the red shoes intact upon her feet, the last symptom of error, the monument to her plight.

But technology mixed with plague is not able to give up, instead, as I’ve discussed it before, it needs crisis to thrive. Its symptoms are like steganography hiding somewhere in between, only to be read by those who know, those who can code — or to be enacted by those, like Frau Troffea, who are able to escape to somewhere in-between:

Steganography appears as a monument to the (always past) technology which is the plague; coded within a black monolithic central processing unit (CPU) which appears to re-enact and thus exacerbate plague-lit pornographic strategies of containment and this world enclosure against contagion.
Technology and Plague by Martin Howse

A wax tablet is used to convey messages, and melted off to convey another. Melt enough, however, and you may just find a secret message carved directly into the wood, the CPU of the system– but you have to know where to look, or rather, you have to dare to enter into the pornographic (foot obsessed) world.

And by looking we don’t try to escape, we don’t try to create a new system, we take control of the one we are in. Frau Troffea was some where in between her body and a society of control, she could not compute, and perhaps ironically, she was able to escape and read the truth carved into the wood.

I’ve mentioned it before, they call it Mass Psychogenic Illness and others call it revolution, but what happens if we don’t try to go from one side to the other, if we remain within the contagions of the system, if we embrace the endemic of the symptoms and acknowledge the epidemic of plague within technology? There were several cases of the dancing plague that popped up before and after this famous case in 1518, and the one thing they have in common, besides dancing, is localisation: they all, and only, happened near Strasbourg, along the Rhine river. Localisation seems to be key as well: contagions spread within the things they touch and knowledge starts from the experiences around us. We must look past the container walls of our surroundings: we must look in not aside. And if enough of us wobble will the vibrations create a new loop of control, a loop, this time, under the control of the wobblers?

This rhythm, which comes from the limping/wobble of bodies, the movement of feet…at the origins of writing, in the sense that it started with the tracks left by animals in motion, that is, of History in motion.
(The Cybernetic Hypothesis by Tiqqun)

Plague attacks bodies, but hides in systems. Somewhere in-between Frau Troffea danced and became both a body and a system through dancing. She is monument to a new history in motion, and we can only understand her by looking somewhere in-between, we can only tell her history by getting lost in the motion of her feet:

A monument is in between life and death. It is a marker, a structure, reaching out from a hidden death below. But whatever it is, it is there to remind. Just like the symptoms of technology linked with plague, error messages are constantly there to remind us that we are not completely in control, that we are all part of a system.

“In a world of regulated scenarios,
 minutely pre-calculated programs,
 impeccable music scores,
 well-placed choices and acts,
 what puts up any obstacles, what
 hangs back, what wobbles?
 Wobbliness indicates the body. 
 Of the body.
 This limping/wobbling indicates a weak-heeled man.
 A God held onto him there. He was God by the heel. The Gods limp whenever they aren’t hunchbacked.
 The dysfunction is the body. What wobbles, hurts, holds up poorly, the exhaustion of breath, the miracle of balance. And music holds up no more than man. 
 Bodies have still not been properly regulated by the law of commodities.
 They don’t work. They suffer. They get worn out. They get it wrong. They escape. 
 Too hot, too cold, too near, too far, too fast, too slow.”
#include <Coda>
using moral laws std; // So the program can see all and end
int main()
{ // The loop goes while x < wobble, and x increases by one wobble every loop
 for ( int x = 0; x < wobble; x++ ) {
 // Keep in mind that the loop condition checks 
 // the wobbling against the moral laws before it loops again.
 // Consequently, when x equals wobble the loop breaks.
 // x is updated with new data before the condition is checked. 
 count<< x <<end;

But just as Frau Troffea (whether she was aware of it or not) we can wobble, and by wobbling we can know the CPU unit lying underneath, we can scratch to the surface of the wood, we can reveal the symptoms and bring the plague from endemic to epidemic. In Japan they also did this during the Edo period in the 1800’s as a form of social protest called Ee ja nai ka. But what does Ee ja nai ka really mean? It translates to ‘who cares?’ ‘why not?’ ‘what the hell?’. And who cares if the plague is there, or if we have those ridiculous dance moves. I may never know what Frau Troffea really felt, but I can create my own history in motion based on her story, based on my own research, based on my own system. Right or wrong, computing or not, it dances to its own tune. After all, the error actually says it all; it finally reveals what is hidden behind the surface. It is a monument, and let’s dance in celebration. Frau Troffea this one is really for you:

*Text in quotes was written as part of a film script for a film installation calledCome to Feet: Monument to the Dance Epidemic of 1518 as part of my Permaculture residency at SPACE in London.

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