File Note 108: Joachim Koester - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Filipa Ramos



Joachim Koester Images References Quote Biography Credits

Joachim Koester

Growing up as an urban child, one of the most memorable and long-lasting experiences from my early years took place in a quintessentially rural context, the site where the unexpected, the quasi-magical and the astonishing happened. There, in a mixture of horror, agony and disbelief, I was witness to a headless chicken running around for a moment before succumbing to death. Beyond the terror induced by the bird’s death, there was something more that I couldn’t come to terms with, for while I knew that people and other animals could live without a limb or an organ, it was unconceivable that a body might survive without its head. I had learned to believe that the mind controlled the flesh and that an organism was made of rulers and followers — the body as a true hierarchical system, relying on a division of labour and on a class structure where the many organs, nerves and muscles did the work and a single brain did the thinking. If the head commanded and the remaining physical body obeyed, how could a corpse move around without its brain? For the first and only time in my life, I had assisted a murder, seen a ghost and envisaged another social system, all in one go. 

It took me years to fully comprehend the emancipatory possibility of this danse macabre and to understand that, by refusing to accept death, the chicken’s disobedient body might well be celebrating its release from the tyranny of mind. Even if fleeting, this gesture provided a glimpse of what a society without a centralised brain could become: a wild and unruly celebration of liberated bodies, synchronised by the networks of their nervous systems, equally distributed from their spinal cords to the entirety of their bodily masses. 

Throughout his work, and employing various languages, modes and approaches, Joachim Koester has been exploring and pushing forward the potential of a true redistribution of consciousness and agency across bodies and environments. In doing so, he is initiating a unique reconfiguration of the perceptive and cognitive modes of living beings (human and non–). He is also bringing back to the contemporary definition of the natural its association with the deep interconnectedness of things — people, animals, plants, machines, environments — all tied together through complex networks and systems that exist beyond modern conception of the individual, atomised self — and shedding light on how the non-rational and the corporeal are essential components of perception and experience. 

Getting hold of the modern dualistic conceptions that assert a dichotomy between the natural and the cultural (and by consequence the human as opposed to the bestial, the synthetic to the organic, the imaginary to the real and so forth), Koester turns this divisive impulse against itself by consistently searching for and inducing the acephalous and tentacular essences of experience. For those perceptive and sensory moments aren’t mediated by the mind but by processes in which the body takes control over the brain, moments of trance induced by such rituals as those of dance, drug consumption or relaxation. In doing so he devises the figure of the headless body, the body whose intelligence, will, strength and intensity exists beyond the mind. Hence, he is initiating a subtle revolution that can decapitalise the all-controlling head and bring power to the whole body.

The term capital derives from the Latin caput, meaning head or top, of which the English language preserves its varied roots: geographic — capital as the city that holds the government; architectonic — the capital of a column or pillar; economic — capital as wealth or asset; juridical — capital as liable to death penalty; nautical — the captain as the one in command of a ship; and destructive — decapitate, to behead or undermine. By redistributing the pensive attributes to limbs, tissues, organs and nervous systems, Koester is triggering the deepest and possibly strongest of all anti-capitalist movements: the liberation of the body (the individual but also the social body) from its caput, its capital, thus from its potential capitalisation. The body without a head is a body that cannot be capitalised, monetised and ultimately controlled: it’s a body that rediscovers its being natural in its full animality, irrationality and viscerally intelligent manner. 

One of the most compelling modes in which Koester operates such decapitalisation is through the re-evaluation of the relationship between the body and the time that constituted it as a modern, capitalised self. With the invention of the medium of film, and cinema as its greater cultural output, time started to be measured, observed, revisited and repeated. Cinematic time invented the modern subject and opened the way to the capitalist cul-de-sac. Not by chance, the title of the video installation that opens this exhibition, The Place of Dead Roads (2013), alludes to such no-exit situation. The action of the video is set in a wooden shack, where a group of figures — women and men whose attires reference the Western period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which not coincidently matches that of the inception of cinema) — move in a conditioned, automated manner. They make convulsive gestures, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, twisting and twitching, often executing learnt movements, repeated so many times that they’ve become conditioned reflexes. Their bodies can’t fit in their skins. There is no melody, and the only rumours heard are of their own gestures. Can they perceive rhythm without sound? Can they dance without music? Can they express intensity without the self? The answer is yes. And this is possible thanks to a such ‘decapitalised’ body — a body that thinks and acts beyond its mind, whose intelligence exists in a reticular manner, spread out across its muscles and tissues, a purely electric body (to quote Koester’s 2014 film installation Body Electric).

Maybe this act, this work, this thing (2016), a new film commissioned for this exhibition, pursues such investigation of the cinematic, autonomous body by depicting a duo of Vaudeville actresses (Vaudeville theatre having a similar chronology to the Western imaginary that characterised The Place of Dead Roads, with its figures perspiring the tough and rough lifestyle of those who inhabited the arid and desolate areas of the Northern American west) who combine almost mute storytelling and dance. They speak yet cannot be heard; they rehearse gestures until they get them right, the sound of their repetitive movements filling the space of the installation. And if The Place of Dead Roads investigates the origins of the dancing body, Maybe this act, this work, this thing seems to concern its intentionality: Who do they dance for?; Who have they learnt to perform for? A body dances for itself but learns to dance for others, transforming an intimate, personal gesture into a form of spectacle, existing as a quasi-machine for another mechanical apparatus, that of the camera, that follows them in an otherwise darkened space.

From dance to another form of trance, that of hypnosis, a series of audio works developed in collaboration with artist Stefan A. Pederson, turns spectators into agents of their own state of abstraction. Three distinct hypnotic sessions are available on headphones for visitors to journey into imaginary realms whilst lying on raised platforms in the gallery. Installed as part of a scenario that includes film and photography, these guided meditations render the sculptural intensity of the videos’ moving and steady bodies into a live display of beings who have willingly abandoned themselves to the experience of listening to a voice which has the potential of leading them elsewhere, both in a temporal and physical manner, beyond the actual space of the exhibition site, and beyond the conventional, coded behaviour of visiting an exhibition. By leading the viewer’s mind to dissolve into flesh and bones, language triumphantly erupts as the strongest of all psychotropic substances and a powerful tool towards a decentralised body, which opens itself up to become the ultimate exhibition site.


The Avalanches, Wildflower, 2016

Rachel Haidu, The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers,
, 2010

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, 2014

Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of Chinese Martial Arts, 2015

Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, 1998

Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing, 1987

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, 2003

Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, 2010

Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, 1993

Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, 1966

“In cultural memory, ‘the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body.’ The process of sedimentation occurs through two kinds of practices: inscription and incorporation. Inscribing practices refer to the storage and retrieval of texts in photographs, books, audio cassettes, video cassettes, and cinema. Incorporating practices refer to body postures, gestures, facial expressions, body movements, table manners.” Paul Stoller


Joachim Koester (b.1962, Copenhagen) lives and works between New York and Copenhagen. He has exhibited widely, with solo shows at Turner Contemporary, Margate (2016); Forum Eugénio de Almeida, Evora, Portugal (2015); Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland (2014); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2013); MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (2012); Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2012); S.M.A.K., Ghent, Belgium (2012); Institut D’art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, France (2011); Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2010); The Power Plant, Toronto (2010); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2007); Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (2000) and PS1 (project space), New York (1999) among others. Selected group exhibitions include: The Crime Was Almost Perfect, Witte de With, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (2014); From the Collection, S.M.A.K, Ghent (2014); Prospectif Cinema, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2014); Habitar el tiempo, Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2014); and ARKTIS, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk (2013). Koester’s work has also been exhibited in numerous biennials including: the Taipei Biennial (2012); There is Always a Cup of Sea to Sail In, The 29th Sao Paulo Biennale, São Paulo, Brazil (2010); Manifesta 7, Trento, Italy (2008); Sharjah Biennial (2007); the Venice Biennale, Slovenian and Danish Pavilions (2006, 2005 respectively) and Documenta 10 (1997). Joachim Koester is represented by: Greene Naftali Gallery, New York; Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen; and Jan Mot, Brussels. 


Filipa Ramos is a writer and editor based in London, where she works as Editor in Chief of art-agenda and Curator of Vdrome.

Supported by Danish Arts Foundation; Embassy of Denmark, London; Greene Naftali Gallery; and the Joachim Koester Producers’ Circle.