Gabriele Brandstetter: Choreographing the Swarm
Choreographing the Swarm
(S. 215 – 226)

Relational Bodies in Contemporary Performance

Gabriele Brandstetter

Choreographing the Swarm
Relational Bodies in Contemporary Performance

PDF, 12 Seiten

In recent times, the swarm model has become a prominent concept for the portrayal of collective movements and of transitional assemblies both in social and in media-controlled spaces ranging from surveillance cameras to google maps. Media theories exploit the swarm metaphor for concepts of locally organized political and social neighborhoods. Swarms are thus brought into play as a template in order to better comprehend phenomena like internet-based smart mobs and other non-hierarchical forms of participation.
This article asks which structural principles of movement are characteristic for swarming. How can swarms or flocks be described as choreographic processes? By considering examples from contemporary dance and performance, the article examines which decisive principles of proximity/distance and of cohesion in movement are employed, and contemplates the applied kinesthetic processes and impulses of control.
Where are the boundaries of choreographing the swarm? How are they situated? And how can the different modes of (passively) participating in the movement of a swarm and of (actively) observing the actual – but never completely determined – figurations of swarming come together in performance analysis?


This paper considers the question how choreographies and performances of swarms and of swarming show neighborhood-effects. Are the relations between swarm-participants induced more by media and/or by body-techniques? Within the conceptual framework of performing arts and choreography, the dynamics of collectives and the movements of swarms can be categorized in different patterns. In the following, I concentrate on two modes of neighborhood-effects in swarm-movement: The mode of coherence on the one hand, and the mode of dispersal (Zerstreuung) of bodies on the other. I will give evidence to both of theses modes of relating bodies – the dynamics of cohesion and the techniques of remaining related within the movement of dispersal – by some seminal examples of swarm-choreography.

Before that, I give a short outline of theories of participation and body-synchronisation in the field of performance, and discuss how they take advantage of or question swarm concepts.

My first example is the well-known phenomenon of a flash mob, a public happening which oscillates between political, media and art performance. One of the first flash mobs dates from July 2003, when about 250 people gathered at New York’s Grand Central Station before proceeding to the nearby Grand Hyatt Hotel. There, they assembled in the gallery in a calm and decorous manner. At exactly 7.12 pm, they burst into thunderous applause, which lasted for 15 seconds. After that, the crowd quickly dispersed, while police cars drew up outside with wailing sirens.

The intriguing aspect about flash mobs or smart mobs in comparison to more traditional forms of gatherings lies in their utilization of media-based applications or websites for synchronization. Referring to Howard Rheingold’s theses on smart mobs1, one could ask whether and in what ways the sudden emergence of temporary, dynamic communities can be conceived of in terms of a swarm model. What conclusions can be drawn from such forms of synchronizing human gatherings for modes of participation, if one sees the organizational form of the swarm – the non-hierarchical, self-regulating order, the temporal, rhythmical and collective spatial formation, the coherence and dissolution of the association – as a model of collective action?

The above example still refers to traditional notions of participation since the flash mob constitutes a network of participants in real-life activity. This collective activity produces an assembly which seems to behave like an audience. However, the applause is not directed to a performance or to its actors, but itself is the performance. The visible and audible live performance exhibits the aforementioned synchronization effects of a fortuitous, temporary collective. “Participation” therefore literally means nothing more than to be a part – in contrast to be a part of a gathering which comprises a purpose. One of the anonymous organizers of the flash mobs and their applause commented: “It is wonderful to take part in something so unexpected.”2 Recently, in media theories of the Internet, the word sharism has been attributed to phenomena like flash mobs and digital communication locations.3 And in the course of the last decade, media formats like blogs, wikis, and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace constantly stirred up a discourse about new concepts of participation, and new forms of communities.4

The main focus of my inquiry lies on the transfer of movements between individuals and collective forms of actions: How can we describe the genesis, the transfer and the dynamics of such neighborhoods – in terms of mediality and corporeality, and in categories of relations: of placement and displacement, proximity and belonging, and movement and empathy.5 How can we understand processes and rhythms of action, movement and perception in terms of synchronization so as to analyse their significance for participation in collective (social and artistic) processes? And how is the synchronization of individuals and collectives organized into transformative procedures?6


As mentioned above, swarms have become not only a popular metaphor, but also a model that exemplifies different social and artistic performances of movement synchronization. In recent years, the model of the swarm has achieved the status of a paradigm in the social and cultural analysis of collective movements. I am interested in this shift of paradigm within models and theories of participation in theatre and performance, and want to know how to read the structures of swarm movements and their performativity.

What are the principles of swarm dynamics and their movements, how do they achieve their status as a model of collective synchronisation? These structures of flow and movement dynamics are instructive for the following questions of the participatory aspects and of the possibility of choreographing the swarm. Thus, in the next sections, I will briefly discuss some key aspects of swarm phenomena.

Swarm dynamics are based on three simple local rules of movement:

“Move in the direction of the centre of those nearby.”
“Move away as soon as someone comes too close.”
“Move in the average direction of your neighbours.”7

These local movement rules already lead to the complex collective movement phenomenon that has recently become more and more topical in various areas like biology, economy, media and the arts. The projection of the swarm phenomenon onto various cultural and social phenomena – from football teams and global migration movements to the formation of subversive groups – shows that literal transfers of the term and phenomenon of swarm are taking place.8 In a good part of these projections, swarm functions more as an umbrella term than a critical technical term. However, current tendencies in the adaptation of the swarm concept in the media, in marketing and communication networks show that the minimal definition of swarm movement formulates basic rules of adaptation and direction which constantly re-define the relationship between individuals and the crowd as a unit. Simultaneously, these instructions for the control of swarms reveal that the swarm phenomenon cannot be defined or depicted with exactitude. The very fuzziness und unpredictability of swarm movements is a crucial structural element of the performative organisation of swarms.

The following thoughts revolve mainly around questions of the dynamics of swarms, the organising function of rhythmical movement, and the formation, synchronisation and dynamic figures of collectives – structures of or as a choreography. The main focus lies on the complex relationship between inside and outside perspectives on swarms.


Swarms appear as rhythmically moving formations whose elements themselves are in continually changing movement relationships with one another: physical relationships that are mobile and embedded in a collective overall movement. Swarms are constantly moving, with constantly changing speed, dynamics, rhythmical figuration, shifts of direction, distance from members one to another and spatial organisation (within a finite range that is not too large). If the change of speed or direction is too abrupt and wide-ranging, the swarm formation breaks up. The coherence of swarms is therefore one of the most fascinating aspects: the rule to follow the direction of the majority, to keep moving constantly, to head for the centre while keeping close to and distant from other swarm members functions as a general structural principle. According to each type of swarm, the coherence and the identity of a swarm collective is brought about in differing ways. Moreover, swarm researchers have found that reaction times within the swarm are many times shorter than the individual reaction time of a single animal.9 The findings of swarm research in biology10, synergetics11 and complexity theory have lead to a discussion of the swarm model as an organisational model also in anthropological, sociological, political and economic science. Behavioral scientists at Leeds University12 developed a computer program that attempts to describe the behavior of bird flocks without being based on determinist premises. It shows that there are three zones surrounding each bird in a flock: an outer zone (attraction), an inner zone (repulsion) and an orientation zone (cohesion). The latter is produced by an overlap of the first two zones, those space-body segments constantly re-balance in the process of movement and in the variation of dynamics. Examinations like these of a time-space model of swarm movement attempt to initially factor out determinist explanations of swarm behavior, e.g. premises of evolutional biology. What is remarkable here is the tendency to a holistic view; the tendency to regard swarms as units, as one giant organism.13

The observation of swarms (in this case, bird flocks)14 makes visible many salient features of the phenomenon. Swarms can be described as groups of individuals or single members of the same species, who are self-organised by means of movement communication and who act jointly without central control. One of the – biological, or economic – advantages of this organisation is the increase in efficiency, for instance in reaction speeds, the ability to keep forming continually and to act flexibly and in co-ordinated fashion without prior planning. There are these patterns of flexibility, synchronisation of actions and self-organisation, which make the swarm a model for organisation-theory. In his volume Out of Control, author Kevin Kelly contemplates the potential of the rhythmical patterns of swarm-movement synchronisation, which is more flexible, creative and autopoetic than directive and hierarchical systems. And Mark Granovetter coined the term of weak ties in small world networks and related this to the synchronisation of members of certain social groups and networks – of collectives which resemble the contingent coherence and non-permanent structure of a swarm. Howard Rheingold advanced the buzz word of smart mobs, transferring the swarm model to contemporary mobile technologies of communication (via internet, cell phones, and other wireless synchronisation of movements).15 In his adaptation of the swarm phenomenon to social, economic and organisational processes he claims “highest profits through swarm intelligence”16 and promises significant transformations in business models, economy and even society: “You can only profit from swarm intelligence if you are part of the whole.”17 And this participation – coordinated through communication media – leads to one of his key postulates: “The majority is smarter than each of its members.”18 The downright (socially) utopian idea pertinent to the model of smart mobs – that is, of a community which is not organised in institutions, associations or trade unions – confers an emphatic notion of swarms to social, economic and media processes: as prospect of a »social revolution«.19

The apparent mystery of swarm intelligence is their emergent, flexible, non-hierarchical self-organisation. It is particularly this aspect that is transferred as a model to economic, military and media technological control programs.


In terms of a theory of performance and movement it is interesting that – with the swarm model – this moving entity is neither shaped as a collective by the intention of individuals, that is, by questions of regulation and controllability – nor is it simply explicable by cybernetic processes. Rather, swarm dynamics evoke approaches from complexity theory and autopoiesis. Micro- and macro-structures of communication overlap in their formation and de-figuration in movements and as movements. For the observer, the fascination type of the swarm is characterised by a paradox form(ation) of movement. The individual movements – in the throng of the bodies and the whirlwind of the overall dynamic – seem to be erratic or chaotic. For the observer, there is the pressure of being swept along by the movement (actively or emotionally). And at the same time, from the captivated observer’s outside perspective, the swarm appears as an entity that seems to be regulated as if guided by an invisible authority.

However, it is important to note that both an inside and outside view of the swarm cannot be taken simultaneously. The rule-driven irregularities captivate the gaze and let micro-structures and partial figures emerge by the processing of multiple parallel local interactions. This results in the unpredictability of a change of direction or of a collective loop. These patterns are set up elusively in time and space. This paradox configures time both as a simultaneous and a consecutive ‘unity’ as swarms create simultaneous shapes in continuous re-formations. It is a formation as a collective which does not derive its control from the act of orientation, and which is not formed by causal or functional, directional movements. The interaction of individual bodies within the swarm occurs in a rhythmical figure in space, which is kinaesthetically produced as a felt environment and appears as a swaying, roaming pattern.


The search for the meaning of swarm phenomena and the search for organisation criteria determine parts of the scientific as well as the aesthetic perception of swarms. Metaphors for the order of swarm formations, figurative images of military formations and of swarms – again and again such comparisons lead to the interpretative field of anthropomorphism, projecting human forms back onto non-human forms. Hermeneutics of bird flocks and other swarm formations date back to antiquity, to the analysis of bird migration (cranes) as prophecy and signs of fate. Evidence as history of the prevision of fate in bird flight (which, conversely, is characterised by its very unpredictability) goes by structures and units of meaning, and so does the aesthetic perception of the swarm. The beauty of the swarm’s movement, its hypnotic, transcending potential for fascination lies in the desire to discover ordered figures, ephemeral structures and images of bodies in space within the eddies of the incalculable. Here, the dynamics of the collective play with a limit that marks an overspill, (literally) overshooting this boundary in an instance of extravagance and luxury.20

The phenomenon of an irregularity that is constantly ordered through movement – the swarm as dynamic shape, which is at best comparable to the ephemerality of clouds (similarly inviting the reading of meaning or images) while simultaneously being intangible in its multipartite nature – seems to elicit ways of decoding and interpreting as well as giving rise to the creation of computer simulating models in art and the media. The lack of directional movement, or, in other words, the non-intentional, is a key characteristic of swarm dynamics and their aesthetic appearance. It is not an assignment or a causal chain of processes which determine the movement. The complexity of the shape’s movement does not follow a pattern of stimulus and reaction, and overall the open, mobile con-figuration of the swarm cannot be described as action or re-action, but as a form of movement as answering. The performativity of swarm movement as overall figuration is therefore not controlled by individual acts. Rather, it is a phenomenon of emergence. Swarm dynamics do not just have qualities of emergence, such as the unforeseeable, the unpredictable or the non-controllability of the process by the subject and its instances of control. Swarms virtually appear as embodiments of the phenomenon of emergence.


How can we understand the movements of swarming – beyond the organisation and directing of individual and collective movements by prescription of body actions, by notation or repetition? How can we describe the dynamics of coherence of bodily neighbourhoods in dance?21

Swarming in group and mass movements denotes the dissolution of fixed formations into open groups whose coherence and structure are confusing and seemingly uncontrollable. In the field of the military semantics of swarming – raised by Virgil as well as Luther and Grimm – the swarm movement corresponds to the model of partisans, in contrast to the military order in the uniform formation of the corps.22 In this, a very particular feature of the swarm comes to the fore that makes swarm phenomena exciting, especially with regard to concepts of movement in art and aesthetics: swarms embody movement beyond mimesis. The movement of a swarm cannot be imitated or repeated in exactly the same way. It may well be possible to simulate swarm phenomena, for example with a computer; and swarm effects can be induced and – to a certain degree – be set up. But swarms elude the mimetic reproduction of (physical) performance and of their emergent appearance in time and space. There is an (apparent) paradox or contradiction in the sense of imitation and reproduction. The form and formation of movement, which can be staged by means of (physical) discipline and choreographic orientation, usually has structural characteristics that are contrary to the emergent non-control in a swarm movement. For instance, the mise-en-scène of a group and mass physical movements – as a broad definition of choreography – is mostly governed by rules concerning rhythm, time and space, and marked by a time frame with a clear beginning and end. Further, in terms of its process and structure it is vulnerable to disturbances or transformable by chance disruptions. In swarm phenomena, however, the beginning and the end are difficult to identify, as are disruptions of the continuous and continuously self-transforming movement (even when disturbed). The movement of the participating individual bodies blends into the swarm configuration not by dint of imitation, but rather through para-mimetic transfer processes.

In this context, the following questions arise: Is it even possible to create swarms artificially – to produce them as art? In what ways can these emergent, complex movement-collectives function as models for choreographic work? Can swarms represent a performative model for the relation between individual and group, for the coherence of moving groups and the conditions of their co-ordination in time and space? Finally, can they be a model for an emergent unfolding of form that proceeds autopoetically, unpredictably but still in a rule-driven mode?

Artworks in the fields of dance, performance and video transfer swarm effects to their own individual mediality and materiality. This raises the question as to how swarms evince patterns of synchronizeted movements and manifest as participatory formations.

In this regard, Thomas Hauert’s choreography Accords (2008) can be seen as a seminal example. The excerpt of the dance piece contains a group movement that slowly develops in relation to Maurice Ravel’s La Valse: It starts with individual circles and lines of the dancers walking, running, slowing down, in constantly fluent movements in space. The movements seem contingent, but nevertheless there is a strong coherence within the group of the dancers. How is the process of synchronisation within a constantly changing and transforming flow of movement achieved? And how do the spatial figures of breaking away, getting closer and reaching out develop as a collective choreography? It is obvious that this kind of moving, of sharing the space and the timing of a rhythmic constellation, is not based on imitation. The emergence of a swarm-like dynamic and the coherence of this corps of dancers is part of the rhythmical processes of a spontaneous and unprescribed alignment. This drive of coherence is based on a specific training in kinaesthetic awareness: The dancers of Thomas Hauert’s company ZOO are trained in a very intense investigation of bodily awareness. This includes the complexity of movement-neighborhoods and their temporal and spatial synchronisations and de-synchronisations, in a contingent exchange with the environment and the bodily displacements.


The second example illustrates a different mode of choreographing the swarm: The performances of the Hamburg-based group LIGNA focus on movement-events in public spaces. They organize a swarming of flash mobs – collectives in public places like stations or squares (for example, train stations in Hamburg or in Leipzig).23 But unlike Rheingold’s examples, the collective movements of the LIGNA performances are not triggered by the use of smart phones, twitter or electronic media , but by an older and traditional medium: the radio. LIGNA relates to Walter Benjamin’s writings on media, and therefore – somewhat ironically – call the type and structure of these public performances a “Radioballett”. LIGNA composes a different type of swarm-effect and collective movement than Thomas Hauert’s Accords. The radio works as a medium which induces the movements, spatial figurations and temporal synchronisation by clear and simple verbal (audio-)directions – or, in other words, by external instructions. In a similar way, Janet Cardiff’s performances are based on audio- and video-mappings or movements that guide the spectator or the audience through public spaces (like a theatre, or – at the documenta 2012 – through the Kassel railway station). Thus, the audience itself becomes a performer in the play. The paradox of this media transfer of collective movement constellations is the interstice between coherence (by synchronising the movement through media-directions) and dispersal. The placements and the corporeal neighborhoods are at the same time creating topographies of belonging (to)24 and of exclusion: Who is participating in the movement of the swarm? Where are the borders of Inside and Outside? My research explores those effects of indecidability – with the specific consideration of the spatio-temporal intervals between the respective lines of action (Handlungen)25 and participation. How do transitory collectives emerge within the framings of choreography? And where are the boundaries of such collectives which evoke feelings of inclusion or exclusion among individuals, or make them refuse to participate? The modes of coherence, of a feeling of belonging to, or – in contrast – to feel free to move within the dispersing crowd as a swarming collective necessitate a “rethinking the public sphere”26 in terms of neighbors, of participation and of the space of sensing the Other.27

1 See also Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs – The Next Social Revolution (Cambridge/Ma.: Basic books, 2002).

2 See also introduction by Gabriele Brandstetter, Bettina Brandl-Risi, Kai van Eikels, Ulrike Zellmann “Übertragungen. Eine Einführung,” ed. Gabriele Brandstetter, Bettina Brandl-Risi, Kai van Eikels, SchwarmEmotion: Bewegung zwischen Affekt und Masse (Freiburg i. Br.: Rombach, 2007): p. 7–61.

3 Issac Mao, Sharism: A Mind Revolution [retrieved 03.09.2014].

4 On questions of swarm-like principles within networks and the related discourses see also Sebastian Vehlken, Zootechnologien. Eine Mediengeschichte der Schwarmforschung (Zürich: diaphanes, 2012): p. 409–414.

5 See also Brandstetter, Brandl-Risi, van Eikels, eds., SchwarmEmotion.

6 See also Kai van Eikels, “Diesseits der Versammlung. Kollektives Handeln in Bewegung: Ligna, Radioballett,” ed. Brandstetter, Brandl-Risi, van Eikels, SchwarmEmotion: Bewegung zwischen Affekt und Masse (Freiburg i. Br.: Rombach, 2007): p. 101–124.

7 Excerpts from the concept for the 10th German Trend Day (Hamburg, 2 June 2005): Schwarm-Intelligenz. Die Macht der smarten Mehrheit (engl.: Swarm Intelligence. The power of the smart majority) [retrieved 08.05.2005].

8 Michael Gamper, “Massen als Schwärme. Zum Vergleich von Tier und Menschenmenge“, ed. Eva Horn, Lucas Marco Gisi, Schwärme – Kollektive ohne Zentrum. Eine Wissensgeschichte zwischen Leben und Information (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009): p. 69–84.

9 See also “Reisegruppen. Gesellige Zugvögel,”, Das Magazin für Geo- und Naturwissenschaften [retrieved 24.11.2004].

10 See also Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (New York: Basic books, 1995).

11 See also Arkady Pikovsky/Michael Rosenblum/Jürgen Kurths, Synchronization: A Universal Concept in Nonlinear Sciences (Cambridge/UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

12 Jens Krause/Iain Couzin, “Collective Behaviour in Animals,” Tilman Küntzel, ed., Stare über Berlin. Ästhetische Analogien des Vogelsangs (Saarbrücken, Pfau Verlag, 2004): p. 24–29.

13 On questions that started to be discussed in culture studies, social studies and media theory see also Sebastian Vehlken, Zootechnologien. Eine Mediengeschichte der Schwarmforschung.

14 Compare Rudolf zur Lippe, “Die Mauersegler der Descalzos,” Scheidewege. Jahresschrift für skeptisches Denken 35 (2005/2006): p. 209–225; see also id.: “Bei den Kranichen im Linumer Bruch,” Scheidewege 36 (2006/2007): p. 378–396.

15 See also Rheingold, Smart Mobs.

16 10th German Trend Day, Schwarm-Intelligenz. Die Macht der smarten Mehrheit (engl.: Swarm Intelligence. The Power of the Smart Majority) [retrieved 08.05.2005].

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 According to Georges Bataille a swarm suggests a potential of transgression and excess, i.e. dynamics, in contrast with the economy of the division of labor. See also George Bataille: “Eroticism,” Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, eds., The Bataille Reader (Oxford: Blackwell 1998): p. 221–274.

21 See also Gabriele Brandstetter, “Swarms and Enthusiasts. Transfers in/as Choreography“, parallax 46: installing the body (2008): p. 92–104.

22 See also Carl Schmitt, Die Theorie des Partisanen. Zwischenbemerkung zum Begriff des Politischen (Berlin 1963).

23 See also Kai van Eikels, “This Side of the Gathering. The Movement of Acting Collectivity: Ligna’s Radioballett“, Performance Research, 13:1, On Choreography (March 2008), Routledge, London: p. 85–98.

24 Compare Irit Rogoff, “The Implicated,” paper presented at the conference Performing the Future at the House of World Cultures (Berlin, 9 July 2010).

25 See also Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago 1998).

26 See also Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” ed. Craig Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere (M.I.T. Press 1991), p. 109–142.

27 See also Homi K. Bhabha, Our Neighbours, Ourselves: Contemporary Reflections on Survival (Berlin 2011).

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Gabriele Brandstetter

ist Profesorin für Theaterwissenschaft und Tanzwissenschaft an der Freien Universität Berlin. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind Geschichte und Ästhetik des Tanzes seit dem 18. Jahrhundert, Avantgardistisches Theater und Tanz, Performance, Theatralität und Geschlechtsunterschiede sowie Körper-, Bewegungs- und Bildkonzepte. Seit 2007 ist sie Mitdirektorin des Internationalen Kollegs »Verflechtungen von Theaterkulturen«

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