the works of Petra Zanki
A short writing on Phillip Gemacher/Vladimir Miller: dead reckoning

     The first time I saw the video-intallation dead reckoning was in 2009, at steirscher herbst festival in Graz. I entered the darkened room of Volkskundemuseum with the other members of the audience. We entered together, as if for an evening show. We approached the two intersected screens of the installation in the middle of the room, lightened by four video-projectors hanging from above. The video showed an interior that gradually grew into a choreography by and with Philipp Gehmacher, Rémy Héritier, and Christine de Smedt. The projected, life-size dancers appeared in now, absent. However, it was as if they were alive, there and then – creating a silent, palpable illusion of performance.


That absent in now of dead reckoning, “the non-being yet already standing here,” seems crucial and valid for both performers, as well as the audience and the intersecting spaces.

The intersection and inclusion of opposites creates the structure, the set-up, and the content of performance. The pre-recorded video and the fixed set-up clash with the irrepetitiveness of the spectator’s experience. The spectators tend to stay immobile while circling around the structure in order to see the projected moving bodies. The choreography is only fragmentarily visible in full, depending on the point of view, but is theoretically presented in its whole: each movement sequence could be visible if the spectator circled around the projection at light speed.

The title of the piece suggests that we are in the process of watching and/or making/calculating one’s current position by using a previously determined position, or fix, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time, and course. But since the new positions are calculated solely on the basis of the previous ones, they are subject to cumulative errors in the position or fix, which grow with time.

This dance performance plays with its title a lot, allowing us to look backwards and inwards, into ourselves.


The choreographic gestures, sequences, and sentences are not as fixed as the specific frames that define the movement happening within. The movements remain fragile, unstable. The sequences are interrupted, and the positions re-started or replaced by holes created by the dancers moving out of the screens. The dancers enter, crash, embrace, and recollect, disfunctional as a whole. They move in and disappear while doubling, splitting, being a head, being a finger – with their double selves. Several times they act (act in the sense of being active and/or activated) as if they needed to convince themselves of their togetherness and still-in-a-space presence. In their stumbling wallops, they change directions, sometimes settled and at other times in almost frenetic disorganization. They hold onto themselves by holding the other, reasuring themselves by being together, asking for more space, each of them, alone. The condition of “being together” in dead reckoning reflects the space of both the common and the separate.

In studies of animal navigation, dead reckoning is more commonly (though not exclusively) known as path integration, and animals use it to estimate their current location based on the movements they made since their last known location. Animals such as ants, rodents, and geese have also been shown to continuously keep track of their locations relative to a starting point and return to it, an important skill to have for creatures that forage for food and then return to a fixed home. [1]

The dances of dead reckoning perform the togetherness, mirroring reflection of their selves. Their selves are approached and abandoned, removed only to be re-established again, better, finer. These bodies are anchoring to depart.




The whole actual space of Heimatsaal has been ceded to the audience. The spectator, who has a constant impression of missing the whole, runs over, around, and to the other side. His engagement is intense: both his body and his eye are involved in the process of watching. It is his free choice to decide about what to see and how: whether to be more active and see the happening in a more linear way, as a performance, or rather to stand still and see it as an installation.

And while he is choosing where and whence to follow the movement as it is being performed, whether to sit, stand, or circle around the intersection, there is another, more subtle performance: the one in which he is taking part unconsciusly. The watching of dead reckoning is being subtly performed for the entire length of the show: the attuned dance of the audience.

Plato opposed to the poetic and democratic community of the theatre a “true” community: a choreographic community where nobody remains a motionless spectator, where everybody is moving according to the communitarian rhythm determined by mathematical proportions. The spectator of dead reckoning seems to be just such a spectator: he acts by watching the event. He appropriates exactly the same initial walking movement of the dancers, which is reestablished by them on video over and over again. He participates by repeating that movement while being fully absorbed in watching, transformed into an eye, inside himself, and estrangeing his performing presence out of the self – the installation inobtrusively incites him to do so. He is free to move, yet able to retain his pure role as the specatator. The entire action happens on a very subtle level and would remain imperceptible were it not for the nameless shadows moving around the museum room and the sound of their steps, heels, and shoes tapping and cracking the parquette.


I remember having seen a BBC documentary on TV about Neron’s Domus Aurea and the crypt that the researchers unearthed back then. The journalist talked about the special chemical composition of the conserved air that preserved the frescoes from perishing. As the researchers and archeologists opened the crypt, all paintings collapsed at the moment of being touched by the outside air: the ones who opened the crypt were the first and the last persons to see the wall paintings in their splendour. The scientists preserved the rest of the frescoes by closing the entrance for further visitors and researches. When asking Phillip a day after the performance if he would compare dead reckoning to that space, which must hold its secret, and – if he could still let us see one single word, thought, or gesture as the last visible moment before the light entered the room and erased the whole – what word that would be, he said: Gegenüber.


In the nameless presence of important things unsaid that underpin this particular artwork, I see a spark of the timeless presence of an ideal community. Whether spoken wordlessly or remaining unspoken, I place those things high on the scale of my values and dream about my thoughts on the contemporary society as being barely different from those of the thinkers that reflected upon this world on the beaches of Miletus and Smyrna thousands of years ago. I try to speak about them silently, and act art for them, reducing time to a false category and reflecting on the contemporainty of all times, altogether, then, now.


Petra Zanki

translated from Croatian by Marina Miladinov


([1] Both quotations of definitions of the term dead reckoning have been taken from Wikipedia.)