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Adam Linder: Shelf Life [blood/barre/brain/cells]

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Alexandra Balona


On the Shelf Life of Life. Adam Linder’s choreographic organism at Serralves Villa.



Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.

Lynn Margulis



The question of life is a timeless one, pursued by philosophers, scientists, artists, and others from time immemorial. Recovering this eternal enigma in the book What Is Life? [1955], microbiologist Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan propose a daring evolutionary theory that considers life—from bacterium to biosphere—as a complex autopoietic[1] system that maintains itself in its interrelation with organic and inorganic elements beyond planetary limits. Margulis and Sagan were inspired by Austrian physicist and philosopher Erwin Schrodinger’s work, someone who rejected life as a mere mechanical process and emphasised its physiochemical nature, contributing to the discovery of DNA and the molecular biology revolution. It is precisely this perception that allows us today to conceive of the bacteria that brought Earth's surface to life as our ancestors. Through symbiotic processes, these bacteria evolved into unicellular beings such as algae, or amoebas, then into multicellular ones, with lifecycles of reproduction and death, developing into animals [namely, the human], fungi, and plants. Thus, given our nonhuman past, Margulis argues, humans are not so special and independent but completely enmeshed in a continuum of life all around the planet. In fact, humans are just a tiny part of the planet’s sentient symphony. Moreover, all life on Earth is not only molecular but also astronomic, owing to its dependence on the sun as an energy source.

In Symbiotic Planet [1998], Margulis continues her research on the Gaia hypothesis, proposed in 1996 by scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, postulating that all life on the planet optimises its external environment for its own existence. The theory does not regard the Earth as a single organism, but rather as a self-generating constellation that emerges from the interaction between living and non-living matter, where human by-products, such as the technosphere, also contribute to the system’s complexity.

As Lovelock recently stated, because of the overall destruction of rainforests and the drastic reduction of biodiversity on Earth, the climate resilience of the Gaian system is about to reach, or has already reached, its tipping point. However, Margulis reminds us that “we cannot rise above nature, for nature itself transcends”​​​​​​​[2] . Life has existed on the Earth's surface for more than three million years, so the anthropocentric theory that humans can control planetary events is, in Margulis's words, a "rhetoric of the powerless"​​​​​​​[3], confirming our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, humans need to protect themselves from themselves.


Adam Linder’s Shelf Life


Inspired by Margulis’s conception of life as an autopoietic system where the biosphere and technosphere intermingle, dancer and choreographer Adam Linder presented last March Shelf Life at Serralves Villa, a durational and environmental choreographic work for four dancers that, exceptionally for this presentation, included the participation of five local children as performers. 

Commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art for the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, dedicated to live art, it premiered in early 2020, just before the pandemic. In a way, Shelf Life anticipated what the pandemic has made evident: the interdependence of different scales and elements in the planetary metabolic systems, and how a microorganism such as a virus can interfere with organic and inorganic structures on a global scale.  

Considering the Earth as a living system made up of a pulsing amalgam of organisms and the inanimate physical world, Shelf Life focuses on a particular living organism: the dancer’s body. Initially, the choreographic work was conceived by articulating three elements—the Barre, the Blood, and the Brain. For Serralves Villa, the work expanded to include a fourth element: the Cells [the child performers]. These four elements allude to different organs, as a metaphor for the dancer’s nervous system. Despite their autonomy, they articulate, resonate, and contaminate each other, and each time the performance restarts, the dancers interchange roles. 



In the hall of Serralves Villa, between the living room and the dining room, one sees a sculptural installation with ropes and construction barriers. Dressed in a yellow neoprene jumpsuit, a dancer performing the Barre repeatedly whispers "Wait… wait… wait…" using the ropes and dividers as supports for positions of strength, tension, and bodily expansion within the architectural space.

The Brain divides into left and right Brain, a pair of performers, each one in their own room. The Cells interact with both the right and left Brain, stimulating and inducing changes in the system. Next to the Barre, in the large living room, another dancer embodies the right Brain and responds to the instructions given by one of the Cells that surrounds her. To the children’s indications, such as "ten thousand years in the past," or "five minutes in the future," the right Brain responds with uncanny abstract impulses resembling a compound of bacterial organisms. 

In the Villa’s dining room, the analytical left Brain is performed by another dancer, also dressed in yellow neoprene jumpsuit. Observing and analysing themselves in the mirror, in animalistic postures, the left Brain responds with abstract movements to the Cells’ questions. The catalogue of questions is long and intriguing, adding to the uncanny atmosphere of the whole: “Who controls the air in here? Is there dreaming on the internet? Have you been crying? Are we the same species? Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? What is life? Do we feel the same about the future? What is a dancer’s presence?" The left Brain momentarily stops, and reformulates their posture as a response, though still retaining its abstract animalistic embodiment.

The Blood, performed by one of the dancers, dressed in grey neoprene trousers, moves across the different rooms in Serralves Villa in permanent pulsation, with a flowing, rhythmic vocabulary. The Blood is also responsible for manipulating the sound; wherever they go, they influence the atmosphere of each room.

Despite embodying different organs, the dancers gather at the end of the performance in the Villa’s hallway in a chain sequence, reciting a sequence of zeros and ones and agglomerating into an undefined organism. Then, the bodies-as-organs split up again, and the performers restart with different roles. Echoing a digital code or data encryption, these bodies seem more than biological, a sort of metabiotic organisms coupled with augmented digital capacities. In fact, Shelf Life seems to allude to different constellations of lifespans: it evokes the finitude of the dancers, both in their organic body and digital prosthetic extensions; the ephemerality and the value of choreographic work within the exhibition context; and also the lifespan of life on Earth, as we know it.

Adam Linder has been working for the theatrical and the exhibition contexts since 2013, stretching choreography into formats of text, costuming, service-providing, and opera. Having been awarded the Mohn Award for artistic excellence in 2016, his work has been commissioned by and presented at HAU Berlin, Serralves, Sadler’s Wells, in London, 356 Mission, in LA, and the MoMA, in New York, among others.

Linder has been questioning how choreography could function without the technical complexity of the theatre and exist for what it is — a movement that generates a certain affect and that can be presented everywhere. Thus, from 2013 and 2018, Linder developed a series of Choreographic Services [and a Footnote] created for and presented in the exhibition context. All the Choreographic Services exhibited the contract celebrated with the institution, making explicit reference to the working conditions, duration, and costs of each service rendered. The contract was part of the performance itself — a performative object as a manifesto — which reflected politically on the how, the what, and the whom of choreography. From this series, Choreographic Service no. 5, entitled Dare to Keep Kids Off Naturalism, was presented at the Serralves Museum, in 2018. It focused on how to teach theatricality to the white cube space of the museum. Organised into eight situations, it created rather pictorial and sometimes uncanny tableaux vivants inside the white museum space, making use of props, costumes, objects, and sound and dislocating white abstraction with theatricality, where visuality, sonic landscape, and performativity coalesced.

Similarly, Shelf Life collapses the modalities of choreography for the theatre and the exhibition contexts, responding with a singular lexicon of forms, movement vocabulary, and sonic atmosphere to its specific philosophical and scientific inquiry: what human life can there be between the organic and the digital, between the biological and the machine? And how can that be speculated with and through the performer's body? In this fertile, incongruous meeting between the most diverse scales — from the molecular to the organism, and from the system to the space of the museum — Linder asks how choreography can trigger a reflection on our more-than-human nature, and on the future of our interdependent and technologically interfaced superhumanity.

Shelf Life leaves this question unanswered. In fact, as Margulis reminds us, in the same way that each one of us is far more than our constituent cells, our gestures and activities lead us toward something that far surpasses us, the consequences of which are beyond our control.


Adam Linder



Serralves Foundation


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Adam Linder: Shelf Life [blood/barre/brain/cells]. Photography: André Delhaye. Cortesy of Serralve's Villa, Serralves Foundation, Porto.




Alexandra Balona is a researcher and independent curator. PhD Candidate at the European Graduate School & Lisbon Consortium, she is member of RAMPA, and co-founder with Sofia Lemos of PROSPECTIONS for Art, Education and Knowledge Production, a roving assembly for visual and performing arts. Member of Sinais de Cena editorial and scientific board, she writes dance critic at Jornal Público, and publishes regularly on performing arts. 





Adam Linder: Shelf Life [blood/barre/brain/cells]

Performers: Leah Katz, Justin Kennedy, Mickey Mahar, Brooke Stamp

Child performers: Marta Oliveira, Beatriz Magalhães, Carolina Laranjo, João Vargas, Rafael Gomes

Commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York.







Autopoiesis [from the Greek auto "auto", poiesis "creation"] was a term introduced in the 1970s by Chilean biologists and philosophers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in their work De Maquinas y Seres Vivos [translated into English in 1990 as Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living] to designate biological systems that have the ability to produce themselves, guaranteeing the maintenance of their existence.



Margulis, Lynn and Sagan, Dorion [1995], What is life? Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 217.



Margulis, Lynn [1998], Symbiotic Planet. New York: Basic Books, p. 114.



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