Between You And Me
Dominic Eichler

The title of David Rosetzky’s single-channel feature-length video How to Feel (2011) suggests that it might be part of a ‘change-your-life-for-the-better’ course, a motivational lecture or even a pop music clip. How to Feel is a catchy title because whether we are in company or alone, elated or numb, we all labour with our emotional waves, crests, troughs and urges. We are susceptible to being told how to feel better.

How to Feel ostensibly tracks a contemporary workshop or small group session, a fictional scenario in which feelings are shared openly between the participants. But it isn’t an essentialist, universally applicable ‘how-to’ manual, nor does it wish to be. It does not aspire to prey on the insecurities of potentially self-weary viewers, like emotion-management industries do, from religions to pharmaceutical companies. Instead, the work investigates the array of meanings that emerge when subjects become strangely interchangeable, when what seems personal isn’t exclusive to one person but says something about ‘us all’. Along the way, the work poignantly demonstrates the difficulty of finding the right words and gestures to communicate with each other about everyday scenarios, and in understanding the high impact feelings relating to power, violence, gender and sexuality that can underlie them. It imagines art and culture with its allowance for radical differences, complications and contradictions, as a forum for tackling the problem of producing a public version of the private in relation to others.

How to Feel comprises four puzzlingly similar sections, looped ad infinitum, that differ in subtle ways, the differences easily missed by impatient viewers. The video is designed to reward those who stay with it. The mostly indoor action seems to occur over the course of one day, in four near identical variations indicated by the protagonists arriving and leaving on bicycles, on foot and by car. These arrivals and departures, as well as the café sequences, locate the proceedings in a now-gentrified inner Melbourne suburb. But the whole thing could just as easily take place in a suburb of Stockholm, or a wealthy part of some town in the USA. The windowless, renovated loft-space, with its crisp white walls, conceptually minimal emptiness and grey floor, might be a gallery or an artist’s studio. The assembled adult cast, three men and three women, embody characters without names or particular distinctiveness. They behave as if they already know each other, or as if they don’t need to, or have agreed not to. Healthy, articulate, thoughtful and considerate, they seem solidly middle class, and like people who have already taken a lot of classes – acting, yoga, dance – or who have been in group therapy before. Their loose clothes, in subdued and coordinated tones, might be described as casual-but-studied; they suggest privilege worn lightly, consensus and belonging. There is no group leader or instructor. No one is allowed to dominate attention or action for too long and there are no big climaxes but plenty of pauses. There is no stated reason for their coming together or for what ensues.

Hot-housed in a group and assigned with abstract tasks, all of the participants are, at one point or another, put on the spot and feel some kind of strain. Depending how one counts, each variation of the day spent together consists of around 14 discrete scenes, structured by a set of dialogues and/or dance and synchronised gestures. The scenes are mostly repeated in the same order, which generates a kind of surrealistic déjà vu. It is never clear when the acting begins and ends.

The camera records the participants dispassionately, oscillating between being the anonymous if invasive observer, on one hand, and the window through which the characters can directly perform and address us, on the other. The mix of feigned reality and high artifice is constantly altering. Both the dialogues and movements seem born, at least partly, from improvisation and then become set and re-enacted multiple times. This is not meant to be easy entertainment, but it is engrossing nevertheless. We like to see other people confessing again and again.

The script was conceived by the artist and developed in collaboration with writer, theatre director and performer Margaret Cameron, with whom Rosetzky has previously worked, and most of the cast members: Stephen Phillips, Nicole Nabout, John Shrimpton and Yesse Spence. It addresses the problems of describing yourself and what you are like (or want to be like), the wish for self-improvement and change, various relationship and workplace conflicts. Intermingled with these topics are disturbing anecdotes and confessions, with undertones of sex, violence, power and powerlessness.

Cameron explained to me the working method for the piece: ‘All the performers did all texts in every combination so that familiarity and inter-changeability became second nature and the texts more and more familiar as a kind of … group autobiography … It was a very lucid process, shifting identity again and again … There were new resonances in every reading and it seemed as if the texts were new clothes for the performer.’1 One of the principal affects of the constant role swapping, aside from destabilising any notion of a sovereign subjectivity, is how it subverts assumptions about gender roles and characters in a way that subverts hetero-normative and sexist thinking. It illustrates how much our understanding and capacity for identification and empathy is coloured by binary gender norms. Although not overplayed in a camp fashion, the performance of queered cross-readings gives How to Feel much of its impact; for instance, when a crude high-school, drama-class joke about having to always play the woman’s role and ‘man boobs’ is recollected first by a man and later re-embodied by a woman.

In a way that acknowledges the limits of what can be said – or written – Rosetzky commissioned contemporary dance choreographer Stephanie Lake to collaborate on the piece. Lake responded to the texts and workshopped movements with the cast to produce movement sequences, later set to music produced by J David Franzke. She explained that: ‘Text triggered movement both improvisational and tangential, resulting in threading, manipulation, reaction and mimicry … Typical gestures like the rubbing of one’s nose become strange and unsettling when performed by all – the speaker and listeners alike.’2 The interdisciplinary approach of the work (melding theatre, dance and contemporary art), the use of untrained dancers, and of language and everyday movements recalls the pioneering work of artists and choreographers associated with the Judson Dance Theater (1962–64) in New York, such as Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay. Rosetzky was inspired by a piece by Hay, If I Sing to You (2009), in which the all-woman cast dressed as either women or men, learned all of the parts and played different roles on each nights of performance, which he saw at the Melbourne Festival.

Lake’s choreography for How to Feel studiously avoids behavioural gender distinctions, imagining the group as a fluid, interrelated, interactive, democratic constellation. Her chorus lines of ordinary gestures, duets and ensemble sequences allow for a refraction of a whole host of personal dramas in which the roles continually oscillate. Dance allows a satisfying level of abstraction, holding up a behavioural mirror through which we each can compare notes and contrast understandings about a constantly changing notion of self in social space. Given the collaborative efforts that went into the piece, namely the group work behind what we see as finished scenes, it is impressive the idea of collaboration resides not just in the finished work but also in how it was made. Perhaps the logical extension of the work is creating the right environment for group participation; Rosetzky’s first installation of the work at ACCA includes a room-sized projection and scattered beanbags – a video lounge of sorts – encouraging a non-hierarchical, casual group viewing. Thus the space in the video is, to an extent, reflected in and extended into the real space of the viewers and participants.

There is, though, a distance between the protagonists and viewers because what is said and done is mediated through video, rather than being performed live or presented as a dance theatre, which could have been viable options. Rosetzky made his name as an artist in this medium, and like earlier works this piece is also something of a moving-image genre hybrid. His filming strategies and approach have multiple points of origin. For example, the video variously recalls, in terms of style and technique, innovative cinema such as Nouvelle Vague and Cinéma Vérité, and independent filmmakers such as John Cassavetes. While also working within performance and art-video traditions, it equally acknowledges soap operas, melodramas and reality television. One of the arguments for the continuing viability of art video per se is that this crossover, genre-defying, freewheeling experimentation with structure, approach and form is possible in art video in a way that obviously it isn’t in mainstream film and television. The comparative affordability, since the mid-1990s, of digital tools for producing and editing footage, as well as Internet publishing and distribution via social networking platforms and the like, has not yet led to dissolution of the interplay of cultural hierarchies. Perhaps this self-generated, exploding online-video pop culture (running the full gambit from joyous to toxic) has only emphasised the issue of who can speak to whom convincingly and why one might want to. It also raises thorny questions regarding consciousness of what one puts out there, responsibility for it and its reception.

The intentional artifice involved in expressing real feelings face-to-face, as in How to Feel, perhaps indicates that it is also indirectly grappling with the spectre of fleshless internet-based outpourings of feelings and opinions. We are still struggling with the resultant redefinition, in the context of the virtual world, of the relationship between the personal and private vis-à-vis the public. The publishing of the private is often confrontationally immodest, apolitical and lacking in self-irony. This raises questions, such as: is the global interconnectivity of expressive selves a revolutionary tool for the multitudes or a big brother tool for neo-liberal capitalism, which we eagerly subscribe to, and what are we going to do or say if it is both? When does self-expression become self-exploitation? When do our feelings become commodities from which we are easily alienated or disenfranchised? As Rosetzky’s elegant and thought-provoking video suggests, there is a lot at stake right now in simply saying how we feel – perhaps more than ever.


Dominic Eichler is an art critic, artist, musician, curator, and co- founder of the contemporary art space Silberkuppe. He is also a contributing editor of Frieze.


The article was originally published in David Rosetzky: How to Feel, exhibition catalogue, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2011. Reproduced with permission.


1. Email correspondence with Margaret Cameron, August, 2011.

2. Email correspondence with Stephanie Lake, August, 2011.