Man as Machine: A Journey Back into Phase Shifting

Published on 14.06.2021, 10:46

Fase revisited at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf in the Context of 100 Years of the Bauhaus
By Rathsaran Sireekan

I. The Gray Zone 
It was a beautiful day in Düsseldorf. Inside K20’s Grabbe Hall at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the warm sunlight, shining through a good stretch of high glass panels, bathed the front half of the hall: a long, high-ceilinged, rectangular white space. It cast thin shadows of the glass panels’ steel frames onto the floor, where they subtly wavered like an anticipation. The space’s minimalist design is communicated through its pristine verticality and horizontality. There is no ornamentation—only the endless white walls, with occasional breaks from those high, iron-framed glass windows, the transparency of which allows the museum’s interior to connect with the outside world.

In the midst of all the whiteness indexing the museological function of the space, four thin, gray, square platforms ran from front to back, evoking the plinths upon which sculptural works often rest. If the museum is known as the white cube (thanks to the popularization of this modernist aesthetic by the Bauhaus) and the theater as the black box, these shallow gray platforms hinted at the hybrid nature of what would soon unfold: a dance exhibition. 

All of a sudden, with the hypnotic repetition that characterizes Steve Reich’s short musical phrases in “Piano Phase,” my heart raced at the sight of what seemed to be an eternally twirling synchronicity between two female dancers. Each stretched out one arm to form a rigorous, determined line, which was then whirled like a gyre to form endless rounds of circles and spirals. Geometry was the dance’s skeleton. At certain points the dancers’ movements miraculously shifted out of phase with each other, then back in. The effect was an eternity that seemed to have started before the dance began and to carry on even after it had finished. The presence of the black dancer especially, against that of her white counterpart, was so striking I could look only at her (most probably because Minimalism is always white—more on this soon). My heartbeats, growing ever more insistent, became sharp spasms in my head when another set of performers, dancing to “Come Out,” shoved their elbows against their bodies violently, yet so swiftly as to be nearly invisible. The affect that these movements, together with the music, engendered was contagious. There was a contact, even a contract, established between my body and theirs. To bring dance into the museum effectively, at least in the case of Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, seems to rely on geometry’s capacity to affect the viewer’s body.

Rosalind Krauss astutely described Minimalism as a practice that adopts a repetitive, additive aggregation of form, which Fase and Reich’s music quintessentially embody. But far more rarely discussed is her assertion that the viewer’s body is affected by Minimalism’s insistence on the perceptual immediacy of simple geometries. This “lived bodily perspective,” explains Krauss, is Minimalism’s re-formation and reparation of the viewing subject, “whose everyday experience is one of increasing isolation, reification, specialization, a subject who lives under the conditions of advanced industrial culture as an increasingly instrumentalized being.”  This is perhaps the reason why after almost four decades, whenever Fase is revisited, its demand on the immediacy of the viewer’s bodily experience makes it feel perpetually relevant. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, for instance, declared at the end of her review of one 1998 performance in New York: “Clearly, ‘Fase’ is not at all a dated work.” 

This 2019 Düsseldorf version was not the first time Fase—originally conceived as a coherent one-hour-long stage choreography—was broken up to better accommodate the operating hours and viewing protocols of the museum. While the stage version sees the four parts of the composition performed back to back continuously,  this museum version presented each piece still in the original order but with gaps in between, such that “Piano Phase” began at noon, “Come Out” at one o’clock, “Violin Phase” at two o’clock, and so on until that day’s closing. “Museum-goers will have the luxury of seeing dance, which would normally be performed at one time in the evening, being performed for them whenever they walk into the museum,” announced Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at the Düsseldorf press conference via a live video call from New York—where it all began when this globe-trotting work was first created in 1982.

Along with De Keersmaeker’s Work/Travail/Arbeid (2015) and the ongoing one-year The Dark Red Research Project (2019), bringing dance into the museum in the case of Fase particularly means an intensification of the Minimalist logic of repetition, which already intrinsically informs the very form of this canonical contemporary dance piece. De Keersmaeker herself confirmed this at the artist talk on the opening day: “If there are three poses that are important, we will just use them no matter how often we will have to repeat them.” Particularly at K20, this formal logic was replicated onto the work’s mode of presentation: each duet and solo making up Fase was performed repeatedly at hourly intervals over two weeks’ time.

Fase’s first museum adaptation took place at Tate Modern in London in 2012, but with its coherent stage version still part of the program.  At K20, on the contrary, the museological logic fully took over. What further distinguished the K20 version were the aforementioned four gray platforms, which both directly indicated the hybrid nature of a dance exhibition and marked the chronological order of the performance. That is, while “Piano Phase” (the first act of Fase) always rolled out only on the first pedestal, “Come Out” unfolded only on the second. Never did the performance unfold simultaneously on two pedestals.

Also particular about this revisiting of Fase at K20 was that it was the first time the two new casts of dancers—to whom De Keersmaeker decided, in 2018, to hand over this cornerstone of contemporary dance after dancing it herself for almost four decades—got to perform the museum version. The breaking up of the stage version to site-specifically fit a museum space and viewing protocols means that both the dancers and the viewers can enjoy each other’s company in greater proximity, and the mutual gazes exchanged inevitably affected all parties. The gray platforms were so faintly raised, they seemed mostly symbolic. Unlike the self-contained black box of the stage, where the dancers are totally cut off from the viewers, these gray platforms put everyone almost at the same level. Dancing on the gray zone enhanced the Minimalist insistence on the immediacy of the viewer’s bodily experience.

II. Fase at K20 in the Context of 100 jahre bauhaus im westen
Although this museum version of Fase took place in Germany, specifically in the context of the centenary of the Bauhaus, its curatorial framing inexplicably underplayed this. Inaugurated in 1986, long after the Bauhaus was actively operating in Germany, K20’s black, shiny, characteristically curved facade at one end of what is otherwise a clean perpendicular architectural design reads to this author as a playful dialogue with the Bauhaus’s modernist legacy. Designed by the Copenhagen-based Dissing+Weitling in the tradition of its founder, Arne Jacobsen, who has been hailed as an important contributor “to modernism and to the specific place Denmark and the Scandinavian countries have in the modern movement,” K20—along with other architectural designs by the firm, such as the Danish Embassy in London—however playful and reactive it may be, should still be considered an extended legacy of the modernist tradition. 

The layering of the three levels of glass curtain walls at the undulating end of K20’s facade, which forms a repetitive grid pattern, undeniably works as a visual and material reference to the famous glass facade of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau (1926), which in turn drew on his earlier design of the Fagus Factory (1911) in Alfeld, Germany.  The K20’s interior where the dance exhibition unfolded, unlike its playful facade, is a pristine example of the International Style, to which the Bauhaus (Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), among other modernist strands active in France (Le Corbusier), Holland (Jacobus Oud), Austria (Richard Neutra), and the United States, significantly contributed." Also foundational to the museum’s inception was the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia’s acquisition of eighty-eight works by Paul Klee, a central figure in Bauhaus curriculum and teaching.  It was the starting point of the museum’s collecting activity.

Along with other characteristics of the International Style, for instance the use of lightweight, mass-produced, industrial materials in repetitive modular forms and rejection of all ornament or color, the emphasis on “the use of flat surfaces, typically alternating with areas of glass” well defines the architectural features of K20’s interior.  The gridded glass and steel structure also holds a specific meaning in the context of the Bauhaus. That is, when the school evolved from its initial mysticism and anti-rationalist curriculum to training centered on forging close relationships with industrial production, merging art and technology more explicitly, the grid emerged as a new visual idiom. The glass curtain walls are a prime example of how workshops at the Bauhaus systematically experimented with diverse materials around this new structuring framework, and the geometric pattern would eventually become one of its most representative features. Leah Dickerman has noted, “If we can discern the dominant imperatives of other forms of modernism—the way faktura belongs to the Russian avant-garde of a certain moment, and fracture of Dada—then it is certainly the thorough working-over of the logic of the grid that gives overarching shape to the products of the Bauhaus.” 

The figure of the glass and the grid that encapsulates the coming together of art and industry is also a prominent feature of one of the most iconic Bauhaus paintings: Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway, 1932), hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Depicting a stairway of Gropius’s famous Dessau building whose landing is framed by the glass curtain walls, Bauhaustreppe features mannequin-like Bauhaus students ascending the stairs—a metaphor for progress and, in MoMA’s curatorial phrasing, “a utopian vision of society based on the integration of technology, art, design, and life.” 

While Bauhaus painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were busy embracing abstraction and flat surfaces, Schlemmer—who was the director of the Bauhaus theater workshop and a choreographer—was using painting to create a new kind of abstract human form in space, a form he called the Kunstfigur.  (Indeed, his famous use of masks and geometric costume designs in theater were criticized as overly doll-like mechanizations of the human body.)  Schlemmer’s Bauhaustreppe not only enhances the nexus of art and technology through its mobilization of the potent glass and grid, but also evidences his dedication to investigating the relationships between the human body and its surrounding space, which were becoming ever more closely intertwined in one way or another with industrial production; the Bauhaus ergonomic chair designs are a good case in point. Following from this art and architectural history specific to the Bauhaus, the glass and the grid as K20’s prominent architectural features, along with its adherence to the International Style, signify the relationship between not only art and technology, but also the human body and the machine. This way of seeing the dance exhibition space opens up possible alternative thinking about Fase as revisited in the context of 100 jahre bauhaus im westen at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.

III. Human as Machine: A Journey Back to the Origin of Phase Shifting 
Minimal art is susceptible to its surroundings. According to Michael Fried, it encourages viewers’ awareness of the conditions in which the work is placed and of the work’s relationship to its immediate environs.  The fact that performing Fase—whether the original version (viewable on YouTube) or the museum edition at K20—always involves bathing the dancers in the shadow of gridded steel-framed glass panels confirms that the industrial logic of the piece, even if under-discussed, has always been there. Revisiting Fase in the context of the Bauhaus, where art and technology work in tandem, also prompts us to look at the logic of repetition, which underpins Fase’s minimalist trajectory, in a different light. Given De Keersmaeker’s characteristic practice of developing choreographies that not only draw on but also tease out and expand on the principles of the music they take as their point of departure and to which they are integral, the current industrial reading of Fase also begs a reconsideration of the phase-shifting process of Reich’s early music.

One seldom-discussed fact about the origin of Reich’s phase music is that it is “indigenous to machines.”  In 1964, extremely impressed with the melodic qualities of a black preacher, Brother Walter, who was speaking-singing a sermon in San Francisco’s Union Square, Reich made two identical tape loops of his voice intoning, “It’s gonna rain.” But instead of playing “It’s gonna” on machine A and “rain” on machine B as he had intended, the two machines, unintentionally, played in unison—at first. Then, one gradually started to get ahead of the other, then gradually drifted back to unison. Reich immediately realized the phenomenon’s promising potential. Before this unexpected discovery, he had been thinking about how he could make use of two identical tape loops in unison in some particular relationship to create a new musical form related to the genre of canons and rounds, where imitations and repetitions are key. Instead, by surprise, he “discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each other.”  

As Reich’s explanation makes clear, there is something strikingly impersonal and mechanical about phase shifting as a musical process. As he himself further observed, “It just goes its way. Another aspect is its precision; there is nothing left to chance whatsoever. Once the process has been set up it inexorably works itself out.”  The mechanical origin, the impersonality, and the precision of Reich’s phase-shifting process accrued a telling implication in 1966 when Reich finally decided, after his initial hesitation, to “record . . . a short repeating melodic pattern played on the piano, made a tape loop of that pattern, and then tried to play against the loop [him]self, exactly as if it were a second tape recorder,” a process that would eventually lead to the conception of “Piano Phase.” In trying to become the tape recorder himself, he discovered that he “lacked the perfection of the machine.” He asked “what it is like to imitate a machine while playing live music,” a question also highly applicable in the context of choreographing and performing a phase piece like Fase, particularly in relation to how the performing human body takes on the mechanical behavior of phase shifting.  

Following from this, it is tempting to conclude that what we hear in Reich’s phase music and saw in the choreography of Fase at K20 (especially since the original lighting design evoking a police interrogation scene in “Come Out” was removed) is a space where the opposition of human and machine plays out. It is a relationship of tension where the mechanical and the organic collide, where the human body takes on the rhythmic repetition of mechanical pulses. It constitutes an alienation of human labor, the mechanization of the body. We see Charlie Chaplin experiencing this at the factory conveyor belt in Modern Times (1936). This dichotomist reading (which was already there since the piece was conceived through De Keersmaeker’s deliberate choice of two opposite sets of outfits) seems very plausible when considering the perpetual alternation between opposing binary forces throughout Fase—that is, the ever so swift and harsh elbow shoves against the body causing the feeling of stress, augmented by the choreography’s diagonal angularity, which then alternates with counter-poses of stretching and relaxation. This is the polarity that underlies “Come Out.” In “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase,” the childlike, airy twirls are countered with sudden twists whose firm, controlling grips of the hands insinuate a much more sinister force than the juvenile innocence usually attributed to the pieces. 

In the case of “Clapping Music” (despite not being fueled by an internal tension of polarities, except that the outfit assigned to it pits it against “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase”) it is as if we were witnessing an eventual success of the mechanization of the body through the dancers enacting, in unison, the work of two mechanical hinges, bending up and down, in and out, keeping in operation some larger machine of which they are part. This industrial reading of Fase, and especially “Come Out,” perfectly fits a strand of Marxist theory pertaining to how the body of a factory worker must temporarily relax before returning to the mechanical rhythms of the mass-production machine. Yet inasmuch as this binary reading perfectly aligns with common sense, some counter-evidence exists to resist such a conclusion. For example, if we return to Schlemmer’s aforementioned Bauhausian painting Bauhaustreppe, where the charged relationship between human and technology is fiercely debated, it is not so easy to rule out that what underpins the phase shifting process is, unequivocally, the opposition between human and machine. 

Against other critics’ condemnation of Schlemmer’s Kunstfigur in Bauhaustreppe as a mechanization of the human body, Andreas Huyssen—taking into account the Bauhaus’s utopic conviction that technology would guide art and design to a better new life after the catastrophe of World War I—advocates a reading where the opposition between the mechanical and the organic is transcended.  And surprisingly (and in a certain way uncannily), recalling Huyssen’s optimistic reading, Reich too, despite conceding that he lacks the precision of machines, embraces them much more enthusiastically than one would have imagined: “People imitating machines was always considered a sickly trip; I don’t feel that way at all, emotionally. . . . It turns out to be psychologically very useful, and even pleasurable.  

I too was utterly surprised to find myself so moved by what seemed to be an eternal wave of repetition, imitation, mirroring, and overlapping of geometric forms. At such a close distance to the dancers, which this museum version of Fase at K20 allowed, I remember feeling doubtful about how in the world it was possible that these endlessly aggregating repetitions of simple geometric shapes, seemingly without human emotions, could move me to such depths, could instill the urge to get up and swing my arms open and twirl like the dancers. Apparently there is something uncannily contagious about the geometric patterns that structurally underpin Fase’s logic of repetition—a kind of contagion invigorated by its own will to make contacts or even contracts, which any living organisms instinctually seek to effect.

Like the glass and the grid, as well as the infinity of the white verticality and horizontality that fully permeates K20, Fase’s minimal choreographic units multiply and resist any frames. De Keersmaeker herself gave this insight at the opening-night artist’s talk: that with a piece like Fase, one feels that the twirling circles were going on already before the performance started and will continue even after the show has finished. Like the Bauhaus’s and the International Style’s repetitive modular forms, which are easily reproducible and multipliable and challenge received notions of artistic practice and authorship, Fase’s eternal distribution of the geometric forms drives someone like me, who had never thought of taking up dance, to also want to embody and multiply the patterns.  An industrial seriality becomes an interpersonal one—a contract between dancers and viewers.

Here is where we reach a critical threshold. If geometric forms in Minimal art and choreography have a communicative agency to move people, Krauss’s astute identification of a paradox inherent in this school of aesthetics is worth mentioning. In its capacity to restore the immediacy of experience—as a compensation for our increasingly instrumentalized experience in late capitalist society—Krauss argues, “the Minimalist resistance to traditional composition which meant the adoption of a repetitive, additive aggregation of form . . . partakes very deeply of that formal condition that can be seen to structure consumer capitalism: the condition, that is, of seriality.”  (Corporate logos, for instance, are ideal examples of communicative geometry.) The question is whether my experience at K20 was part of what Krauss explains here, or if there is something more to phase choreography that could organize my perceptual experience in a more politically resistant way. Inasmuch as De Keersmaeker’s phase choreography is structurally informed by geometric seriality, is it automatically complicit in this late-capitalist communicative process and way of life? Or is there something inherently, and concurrently, resistant in it as well? This calls for further deliberation after a thorough and theoretically informed research.

Considering the significance of the Bauhaus context in which Fase was revisited has enabled us to look at this iconic contemporary dance in a different way: with the idea that these phase practices have, in fact, all along embodied the charged relationship between the human body and the machine. It is an identification that opens up further reconsideration and reevaluation of Fase as an artistic practice in late capitalist society.

IV. A Journey away from Eurocentrism 
The Bauhaus context that inspired a journey back to the origin of phase shifting also revealed a surprising fact about this Minimalist art form, which has always been dominated by white identities: that black subjects, in fact, lie at its heart.  These are San Francisco’s Brother Walter, whose voice was the source of the tape piece leading to the discovery of the phase shifting process, and Daniel Hamm, one of six black youths arrested during the 1964 Harlem riot for a murder he did not commit (he was later retried and acquitted), whose voice is the basis of the tape piece “Come Out.”  Given this prominent black presence immanent in both the history and the practice of phase shifting, the fact that this particular revisitation of Fase featured nonwhite performers has great significance.

Although of course black people lead varied lives and undergo diverse experiences, the choreographic decision to maintain this revival of Fase as exclusively female “because including males would give a totally different dynamic to the piece” suggests that unlike gender, race no longer constitutes difference in De Keersmaeker’s progressive practice.  This is consistent with the international nature of the company compared to the majority of dance troupes in Europe. Bringing nonwhite, particularly black, performers to the fore by having, for instance, Soa Ratsifandrihana co-open the inaugural performance at the press conference echoes recent calls for cultural institutions to decolonize their collections and programming.  Here De Keersmaeker demonstrates an awareness of the necessity to bring canons, especially those in the tradition of Minimalism, which have always been very white, out of Eurocentrism. It recalls, for instance, the Otolith Group’s 2017 two-channel video installation The Third Part of the Third Measure, whose accentuation in artistic design of the mirror effect, quintessential of Minimalism, contrasts with the hovering presence of the African American Minimalist composer and pianist Julius Eastman (1940–1990), whose music the four pianists in the video are rendering. Known for his controversial titles—such as Evil Nigger, Gay Guerilla and Crazy Nigger, from the Nigger series (1979–80)—Eastman, in the Otolith’s project, is given the visibility earlier denied him in typical representations of canonical Minimalist composers. 

Joining in this trajectory to confront the Eurocentrism underlying the Minimalist movement and bravely decolonize her own canonicity, De Keersmaeker likewise brought into visibility the black subjects who are in fact at the core of this mostly whitewashed movement in art, music, and dance. This also goes far to explain why the black presence in this particular revisitation was ever so striking amid the infinite whiteness of K20’s minimalist, Bauhaus/International Style interior. Such a strategy in choice of space and context made for a refreshing, even liberating experience.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capital Museum,” October 54 (Fall 1990): 9.

[1] Anna Kisselgoff, “Slipping In and Out of Phase with Steve Reich,” New York Times, September 26, 1998,

[1] First “Piano Phase” (1967) (24 min); then “Come Out” (1966) (14 min); followed by “Violin Phase” (1967) (16 min); and finally “Clapping Music” (1972) (7 min).

[1] Per Tate’s website, at The Tanks of Tate Modern, July 18–20 2012, “Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven will perform each part of the Fase throughout the day from Wednesday to Friday. On Thursday and Friday evenings all four parts will be performed in one hour-long performance.”

[1] Fritz Hansen, “The Egg Chair,” Internet Archive, On a trip to collect a silver medal for a chair design at the Paris fair in 1925, and subsequently a visit to Germany, Arne Jacobsen was struck by the pioneering aesthetics of architects Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, all of whom influenced his early work. “Arne Jacobsen,”,

[1] The Fagus Factory was co-designed with Adolf Meyer, who in 1919 would be appointed a master at the Bauhaus.

[1] According to the institution’s website,

[1] “International Style (modern European architectural style),” Getty Research Institute Art and Architecture Thesaurus,

[1] Leah Dickerman, “Bauhaus Fundaments,” in Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 19.

[1] MoMA web page for the artwork,

[1] Andreas Huyssen, “Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932,” in Bergdoll and Dickerman, Bauhaus 1919–1933, 318.

[1] Huyssen, “Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932,” 320.

[1] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, June 1967,

[1] Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22.

[1] Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000, 19–20, my emphasis. The main difference between phase shifting and canons is that “in the phase shifting process the melodies are usually much shorter repeating patterns, and the time interval between one melodic pattern and its imitation(s), instead of being fixed, is variable.” Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000, 20.

[1] Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000, 20, emphasis in original.

[1] Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000, 22, 24, my emphasis.

[1] Citing Gropius’s Bauhaus manifesto of 1919 to offer a different reading of Schlemmer’s figuration, Huyssen argues that Schlemmer “may forgo any individualizing physiognomy, but his groups of figures never suggest alienation and loss seen in the faceless mannequins of Giorgio de Chirico; they are always spatially connected, literally in touch, as if in communication and sharing joint purpose. . . . I read the absence of physiognomy as a fundamentally humanist, egalitarian gesture.” Huyssen, “Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932,” 318.

[1] Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000, 19–20, 54.

[1] On received notions of artistic practice and authorship see Barry Bergdoll, “Bauhaus Multiplied: Paradoxes of Architecture and Design in and after the Bauhaus,” in Bergdoll and Dickerman, Bauhaus 1919–1933, 41; Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (Suffolk: Cardinal, 1989), 73.

[1] Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capital Museum,” 910.

[1] I am using “black” as a category constructed by the Enlightenment discourse that mobilizes it as a technology of domination (and that of the self), but also significantly as a category that has endured a specific history, which must not be ignored.

[1] Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000, 1920, 22.

[1] Per the artist’s talk on opening night.

[1] However, in the perspective of the performer herself, although Ratsifandrihana admitted that it is important to engage in identity politics, she does not want to be recognized only as a black dancer—that she got the part simply because she is black. She wishes to transcend that categorical thinking. Author interview with the dancer on opening night.

[1] There is no mention of Julius Eastman in the whole The Cambridge History of American Music, ed. David Nichol (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Only white men are remembered as Minimalist avant-gardes. Andrew Male recounts how difficult it was to be “an out gay black man working in a predominantly straight white environment” in Andrew Male, “Julius Eastman: The Groundbreaking Composer America Almost Forgot,” The Guardian, September 14, 2016, Alex Ros suggests that present-day identity politics have probably played a role in Eastman’s renaissance. Alex Ros, “Julius Eastman’s Guerrilla Minimalism,” New Yorker, January 23, 2017,