Ordinary Magic: Aaron Dysart’s Dance Hall To-Go
By Christina Schmid
When a global pandemic hit the United States in the spring of 2020, people started doing things: long unused, dusty sewing machines were put to use, and soon colorful home-made masks served as substitutes for professionally produced air filters. With a palpable sense of solidarity in the air, artists, too, asked, what can I do? How can my art act as a catalyst for care? For artists whose creative practices have long involved active social engagement with communities, these questions were certainly not new but presented themselves with renewed relevance. For Aaron Dysart, the question of how to reach out and make a difference arrived with the full urgency of the moment.
Dysart devised mobile dance parties as creative interventions designed to bring people together, safely and with joy. On the bed of his Ford pick-up truck, Dysart installed a custom-welded metal scaffold that supports a disco ball. Added lighting, speakers, and playlist turned the truck into a mobile party unit: literally, an outdoor dancehall to go. At dusk, and at carefully selected locations, the work transforms neighborhoods, courtyards, or city parks. Reflecting lights sparkle and animate trees, facades, and faces. Bodies move with abandon, sway, or shyly toe-tap along with the rhythm. There is no prescribed or proper way to interact with the artwork. You dance or you don’t, air-drum or lip-sync or stand by. Participation is voluntary, as is partaking in this coming together outdoors, as neighbors and in community.
For Dysart, the mobile dance parties were a lo-fi, gut reaction to the pandemic panic. The events aimed to re-shape communal spaces and took place right before Minnesota’s governor issued the first order to shelter in place. As the City Artist in the City of Saint Paul (an open-ended residency that is a program of the private nonprofit, Public Art Saint Paul), Dysart found himself in a unique position: embedded in the city’s governance, the City Artist can creatively question how the public infrastructure and city systems support life in the city. And Dysart did. The City Artist position allowed Dysart to effectively engage with the city’s system for elder care.
The mobile dance parties morphed into Dance Hall To-Go, a project that aimed to serve a specific demographic: namely, seniors who lived in elder care centers, one of the most isolated and deeply affected communities in the early months of the pandemic. Dysart repurposed the truck, complete with scaffold, speakers, and a motor for rotating the disco ball. His Ford became the epicenter of open-air community dances in the courtyards of senior housing complexes and on side streets: from balconies and porches, with walkers and wheelchairs, people still reeling from the then mostly unknown threat of Covid-19 were invited to let loose for an hour or two. Dysart’s project offered one small, temporary reprieve.
As a form of public art that eschews the monumental, Dance Hall To-Go taps into the realm of relational aesthetics, a branch of contemporary art-making that foregrounds what happens between people as participants rather than between people and the objects that they contemplate. At times, an object, like a disco ball, or a shared activity – dancing, sitting down for a meal with a stranger, or writing a letter – may act as a catalyst for interactions and emergent communities, but what generally matters most are the temporary or long-lasting affective bonds that such works of art strive to enable. Open-ended and aleatory, relational aesthetics is a form of socially engaged art that does not prescribe an outcome but begs the question of what kind of world we want to live in, how we want to share space and time, and with whom.
These are not inconsequential questions. They negotiate how we imagine a public sphere and a social fabric. In “The Crisis of the Social Imaginary and Beyond,” Bojana Cvejic and Ana Vujanovic argue that “in art, every single work or project has a potential to project one possible world. We need not expect these worlds to be large, complete, spectacular, intellectually elaborated, etc. As they are – that is, as small, chaotic, clumsy, experimental, affective, etc. they probably cannot change society like a social revolution, coup d’état etc. but they can still hack the virtual world of our society rather than ‘leaving it alone’ in its actuality.” For the two cultural theorists, art is indeed the “perfect place for imagining the social and for social imagination.” They propose that, “if every work of art must nowadays implicitly answer the question ‘What is art?’ (i.e. what it proposes as the concept of art), then an image of society can be derived indirectly from that same work of art. … This could be a test for every artwork, a mental exercise: what would society be like after this work of art?” The social dimension of art that Cvejic and Vujanovic discuss is, of course, not limited to relational aesthetics and creative practices that seek community participation. But it is in projects such as Dance Hall To Go that the question of how art can express care for others and for what comes after emerges with utmost clarity.
Dysart is not alone in centering care: cultural critics and curators such as Jan Verwoert, Helen Molesworth, and Maggie Nelson have all identified and engaged with the “reparative turn” in contemporary art. Art-making as a means of repair offers a potential for healing and avenue of expressing care for others. These creative forms of caring may run counter to economic imperatives by refusing to privilege neoliberal capitalist values that inevitably prioritize self-interest, as Verwoert has argued. For Molesworth, they may unfold through “repetition, and continuity, and gentleness” and are accompanied by “continuous self-reflection and regard for others.” Nelson, in a far-ranging meditation on freedom and care, notes that reparative practices may be alive with paradox and thus far from what Grant Kester dubbed an “orthopedic aesthetic” that casts audiences as damaged and in dire need of healing by art. These nuanced distinctions matter in the evolution of Dysart’s Dance Hall To-Go.
At first glance, Dysart, who is a soft-spoken and thoughtful man, is not an obvious candidate for throwing outdoor parties illuminated by sparkling disco balls. But when he first tested the idea in 2012, in Celebrate, a party for a 70-foot-tall maple tree on the grounds of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he was struck by the “magical transformation” of trees at night: five motorized disco balls, illuminated by pin spots, created a spinning canopy of light that played along dark tree limbs, flitted across foliage, and utterly mesmerized visitors. They came, stopped, sat and stared, transfixed, at the dancing specks; some lingered for forty-five minutes. Given that the average time most people in the United States devote to looking at an individual artwork is just shy of thirty seconds – an attention span that has remained unchanged between 2001 and 2016 – the duration of engagement that Dysart witnessed was noteworthy indeed: people cared enough to stay.
The effect of Celebrate surprised the artist. For him, the mirror ball seemed a rather garish left-over from the days of disco. But rather than a jaded joke, Celebrate offered unexpected joy and a mood of celebration and enchantment to artist and audiences alike. To experiment further, Dysart brought the mirror ball indoors: In Surprise Party (2014), Dysart installed timed sensors that dimmed the overhead lights and activated a spinning disco ball as soon as visitors stepped into the gallery. Instantly, the institutional space was transformed into a playground of wonder.
Outdoors, the parties continued as well: Dysart dedicated celebrations to cows and trout. After a serious injury involving livestock, Reconciliation (2013) included baking a cake and staging parties for his non-human neighbors at a rural residency. The setting amplified the out-of-placeness of the disco-ball’s retro aesthetic. Urban vintage chic embodied by the mirror ball as the emblem of all things party landed like an alien spaceship along clear midwestern streams and pastures. Nonetheless, these moments of ostensible absurdity and disorientation held tremendous potential: What else becomes possible when things fail to align, when experiences refuse to fit smoothly into the quotidian rhythms of the familiar? And what might become visible in those deliberate breaks from the ordinary?
First, Dysart’s unlikely parties do not limit the social sphere to human beings alone. His initial questions revolved around the limits of care. How could we ever know what kind of care a non-human organism might want? The work sought to make visible the grandiose anthropocentrism of extending human notions of care to a non-human world. But once again, Dysart found himself surprised by doing and making the work: though a tree, a cow, and trout may not care in the least for a human-style party, the gesture still does something – if not for the celebrated, then for the people involved in celebrating and making the effort of extending care. The actions – baking a cake, hanging a disco ball – may only brush the surface but in doing so, they allow for encounters that may unmoor artists and audiences, “even ever so slightly, from the cultural grounding of meaning and the solidification of being over becoming.” The familiar split into human and nonhuman animals hangs suspended for a moment or two, and other modes of relating become possible. The parties hail the non-human honorees as valuable members of a network of interdependence and appreciation. Empathy, dedication, and care are not confined to people but reach farther, deeper, and may even decenter the human. The works ask us to re-consider who is included in our notions of community, who is deemed worthy of celebration – and who is not, for which reason. Dysart’s nonhuman parties propose an expansive, ecological community.
Though deeply political at heart, his work steers clear of overt ideological statements. That quality sets it apart from other artistic interventions that aim to broaden a sense of the social; for instance, from Terike Haapoja’s The Party of Others (2011), a work which proposes a political movement devoted to countering the exclusion of nonhuman animals from the social imaginary with its laws, rights, and protections. Haapoja asks, “How, then, to acknowledge the silent majority of the society? How to imagine a reality that is not based on exclusion but gives equal standing for all?” While Haapoja dares us to imagine a world where wolves have rights (in The Trial, 2016) and the silent non-human majority matters, Dysart’s work does not stage such confrontations. Instead, his nonhuman parties extend an ethos of care with a light touch and a sense of humor. In 2014, in an interview occasioned by Tree Swing, a temporary public art project on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, Dysart answers a question about his artistic intent with a question about arboreal desire: “What might a tree want?” The work, he explains, was his attempt to give “the tree something to swing on itself to have a good time.” Speculative and whimsical, Dysart’s work investigates how to deepen relationships with the nonhuman world. Call it relational aesthetics’ ecological turn.
Dance Hall To-Go grew out of these earlier disco-ball parties. Rooted in an aesthetic of care, it does not purport to heal or fix circumstances beyond the artist’s control. But the work seeks to tend to those afraid and isolated by offering a means of connection without compromising Covid protocols. The work creates a space for being together while staying safely apart. As a public artwork, it is not object-based and permanent but instead offers a temporary transformation: the familiar becomes a source of wonder; the ordinary is infused with a little bit of magic. As in all of Dysart’s parties, the lighting is crucial: the dancing specks of reflected light bouncing off the mirror ball transform public spaces, radiate outward, and set a mood, joyful and enchanted. Rectilinear housing blocks morph into nocturnal canvases for moving lights which occasion a mysteriously joyful experience. This mood may act as a counter to fear, uncertainty, and isolation, perhaps for the length of a few songs. Dysart recalls some of the perennial favorites: Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you,” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and Lou Bega’s “Mamba No. 5.” Lively and flirtatious, the songs of Dance Hall are selected by the residents.
Dance Hall To-Go treads lightly and finds joy in small gestures and minor moments, but the questions that emerge from Dysart’s practice are anything but small: How can art help imagine a world whose social realities reflect values of reciprocity, along with an ecological mindfulness that does not end with the human? Though the mobile dancehall offers only a temporary respite from the perplexing problems we live with, the pandemic among them, the questions it conjures – about mutual care, joy, and compassion – have a longer life span, as does the ongoing effort, shared by writers and visual artists, to cultivate a capacity for wonder and joy in the everyday. Dance Hall To-Go reveals how much and how little it takes to communicate care and cultivate joy. The work’s humility is not in the least defeatist but grassroots-y and activist. It deeply resonates with Helen Molesworth’s inspiration to think “about how to bring about ethical change one personal encounter at a time.” Dance Hall To-Go holds and creates space for such encounters.
Christina Schmid, Minneapolis, 2022
Christina Schmid is a writer who thinks with art and experiments with prose. She is interested in the materiality of text, haptic criticism, and the manifold ways art generates ideas. Her essays and reviews have been published online and in print, in anthologies, journals, zines, artist books, and exhibition catalogs. She works at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in Minneapolis where she teaches contemporary art, theory, and critical practice. She is a recipient of a MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant for Creative Prose.
 For a more in-depth discussion of relational aesthetics, see Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon: Les presses de reel, 2002.
 Bojana Cvejic and Ana Vujanovic, “The Crisis of the Social Imaginary and Beyond.” Accessed on August 24, 2022. https://www.academia.edu/26017681/The_Crisis_of_the_Social_Imaginary_and_Beyond.
 See Jan Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform.” In What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got To Do With It? Berlin, Ger.: Sternberg Press, 2017.
 Helen Molesworth, “The Year in Shock.” Artforum December 2016. Accessed August 28, 2022. https://www.artforum.com/print/201610/helen-molesworth-64807
 See Maggie Nelson, “Art Song.” On Freedom. Four Songs of Care and Constraint. Minneapolis:” Graywolf Press, 2021. 23-33.
 Aaron Dysart in conversation with the author on April 8, 2022, in Minneapolis.
 Lisa F. Smith, Jeffrey K. Smith, and Pablo P.L. Tinio, “Time Spent Viewing Art and Reading Labels.” Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts 11(1). February 2016. Accessed on August 24, 2022. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/296475094_Time_Spent_Viewing_Art_and_Reading_Label
 Ron Broglio, Surface Encounters. Thinking With Animals and Art. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. xx.
 Terike Haapoja, The Party of Others, 2011, quoted in T.J. Demos, “Animal Cosmopolitics: The Art of Terika Haapoja.” August 2016. Accessed August 24, 2022. https://creativeecologies.ucsc.edu/demos-haapoja/
 For an in-depth discussion of cultivating joy, see Jane Bennett, “The Wonder of Minor Experiences,” The Enchantment of Modern Life (Princeton University Press, 2001). For the practice of cultivating daily doses of joy, see Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019).
Dance Hall To-Go was a 2021-2022 project of the City Artist Program of Public Art Saint Paul with support from the McKnight Foundation and the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the MN State Arts Board thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.