"Progressive Touch – Total Body Language Reprogramming", Michael Portnoy at KW Berlin

By Nick Currie

8 August 2017

“You are a naked, white male, alone in a room with a Larval Bouffon and a Relational Stalinist,” runs the blurb on the KW site. Not quite. I’m a clothed white male who’s been granted the exclusive right to peek out at Michael Portnoy – along with actress Lily McMenamy and a naked member of the public – from behind a makeshift screen as they enact Progressive Touch – Total Body Language Reprogramming , part of KW’s spring performance series The Weekends.

Portnoy and McMenamy are bending close to the naked man’s pubic area, intoning phrases in an invented language that strays, occasionally, into bathetic coherence: “ Guh, brooj brooj, kleem! Joon, accrue, suguh pridge pridge, growth table tort, buh buh bid joon kleed,” they intone. The vocalisations remind me of the healing rituals of Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal: Portnoy sings a constantly-permutating riff in what I estimate to be 11/4 time at 130 bpm, while McMenamy syncopates in measures of 5/4 and 7/4 at a much slower pace: “Joon kleed buh torb, guh lien, guh call risk lien, par-passu void to K-ratio flush…

The process has been disorienting from the start. We’re in an industrial building in Buch, a suburb on Berlin’s northern fringes. The subject – a banker who collects art, apparently – has been interviewed about his life while being driven here. In a separate car, I’ve been briefed by KW staff. They’ve given me explanatory texts by Portnoy, as well as a non-disclosure agreement covering aspects of the performance that might compromise the subject’s privacy. The banker has signed a different agreement, which includes permission for me to be present.

Once I’m safely tucked away behind my drape screen, the naked man is led out and placed in a piece of strangely-shaped furniture which dictates an awkward, splayed pose. There are eleven chairs in all, coloured in shades of grey and beige, corresponding – it turns out – to eleven distinct movements in the performance. They look like Gyrotonic exercise machines or the installations of Franz Erhard Walther. A faint odour of sweat and cosmetics hangs in the room, like the smell in a dance studio.

If all the secrecy and legal brouhaha smacks of hype, it’s working: twenty 45-minute sessions were snapped up within hours of the performance being announced. That may be down to McMenamy, whose “pulpy mouth and diaphanous skin have made her the mannequin of the moment,” according to one French newspaper. But it’s also because Portnoy’s performances have proved so resonant, and – beyond their value as estranged entertainment – broached some serious themes.

Michael Portnoy Progressive Touch - Total Body Language Reprogramming (2017) Photos: Suzie & Léo

Michael Portnoy Progressive Touch - Total Body Language Reprogramming (2017) Photos: Suzie & Léo

When I interviewed him for Art in America in 2009, Portnoy had already started describing himself as a “Director of Behaviour”, an artist who would set up situations involving sculpture, physical theatre, semi-improvised dialogue and interactions with members of the public. The Director of Behaviour could be a croupier in a casino, a nightclub owner or a game show host. At Documenta in 2012, for instance, I became a contestant in a Shklovskian game show called “27 Gnosis”, held on a curved floor inside a mound of mud. Resin sculptures (the “gnoses”) dotted the set, and Portnoy and his wife Ieva Misevičiūtė wore formal suits with large gaps at the back revealing naked flesh. Our task as contestants was to generate poetic word-associations using the sculptures as “heuristic or conceptual tools for attaining experiential knowledge”.

The stated intention for Progressive Touch is equally ambitious: this is behavioural therapy designed to “reprogram the corrupted source code of the white male, responsible now for the decay of progressive values around the world”. This mix of identity politics, therapy speak and the erotic radicalism of the 1960s (think of Norman O. Brown and the orgone-accumulating disciples of Wilhelm Reich) might be the form Portnoy’s personal politics genuinely take, or may be a pseudo-progressive justification for yet another situation in which a white male (Portnoy himself) assumes power over others. If that’s the case, it’s also a canny meta-critique of the vertiginous hierarchies of power, price and possibility that pertain in the art world, from its unpaid interns to its superstar curators.

I often think of Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment when I think about the Director of Behaviour: this is where we discover how easily our propensity to obedience and contextual conformism can lead to actual harm. Enacted in Germany by a Jewish artist, these rituals can have particularly chilling or vengeful resonances. But it’s a mark of the power of Portnoy’s Gesamtkunstwerk that so many contradictory ideas and references rush through my mind as I lurk behind my screen. The subject also seems stimulated as McMenamy gyrates around him like Pina Bausch re-staging Isabella Adjani’s freakout dance from the film Possession , or Kate Bush and Klaus Kinski remaking the Wuthering Heights video as disjointed jujutsu .

The performance ends and the banker is led away, looking somewhat dazed and abashed. I’m returned to normality without debriefing. On the ride back into town I glimpse a man dancing awkwardly in a kebab shop, a row of pedestrians facing a red signal on an empty street corner, a veiled woman dragging at a cigarette. It’s to Portnoy’s credit that I come away from this remarkable “reprogramming” experience convinced not of his strangeness but the world’s.

Michael Portnoy
"Progressive Touch – Total Body Language Reprogramming"
Part of the KW Berlin performance series "The Weekends"
Secret Location
5.5. – 6.5.2017

NICK CURRIE, also known as Momus, is an artist, musician and writer currently living in Osaka, Japan.

This text appears in Spike Art Quarterly #52 and is available for purchase at our online shop .