Blogs mnartists.blog Susannah Schouweiler

Susannah Schouweiler serves as Editor-in-Chief for Mn Artists at the Walker Art Center. She has written on the arts for a number of regional and national outlets as well, including Hyperallergic, MinnPost.com, City Pages, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Public Art Review, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Knight Arts blog. Before her work with Mn Artists, Susannah was the editor of Ruminator magazine (a.k.a. Hungry Mind Review, Ruminator Review), a nationally distributed art and literature magazine. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and kids.

From Pixels to Pavement

Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that […]

PHONEBOOK-4-COVER-915x515Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that the roots of community – real community – remain remarkably constant. That sense of belonging, of fellow-feeling, that comes from participation in a vibrant community is, as ever, firmly rooted in the realm of human connection first, even if those connections are made in digital rather than physical space. (Indeed, physical proximity matters less and less in the formation of communities, thanks to the ease of connecting with like-minded folks across great distances in real time. Everywhere is local online.)

The infrastructures of communication by which a group’s members engage one another don’t, in themselves, create communities. But look closely at the support systems and embedded interests of the platforms on which we assemble, and it’s just as clear how and where we house that human exchange – particularly online – matters deeply.

Who owns and operates the “free” social media platform your community uses for its gatherings? How is work and personal information you upload to your individual profile in a “community” database used by the website hosting it? Who moderates your conversations? Who created the algorithm that determines what is gleaned for the information feed you see from those you “follow”? And to what end is that data being shaped? If your community is using a commercially-owned, proprietary platform to conduct its conversations, who pays for it? Specifically, what (or who) is being sold in the process?

The various modes of communication we use now don’t, themselves, create our communities. But the media we choose for those interactions surely shapes them. Commercial media platforms are in the business of business: the for-profit social Web is designed with invisible fencing and incentives built-in, corralling and nudging its users’ energies and conversations (more or less adeptly) in profitable directions. There’s nothing necessarily evil about the arrangement. But we’d be wise to remember that when we gin up conversation around a community question on Facebook, mobilize around viral hashtags on Twitter, exchange “likes” and “shares” and clever GIFs on Tumblr, we’re effectively working someone else’s party.

For arts communities, in particular, issues of equity and access, inclusion and visibility in our shared stories are too important to leave in the hands of salesmen. I want to see more open-source platform creation, more web-savvy intention, from the code up, at the foundation of arts communities coming together online. I want artists and independent-minded cultural producers to build transparent, responsive digital spaces for themselves that might better connect community members in conversation, from pixels to pavement, in ways that reflect the values they hold in common. Our modes of communication, as conscious communities, need to reflect the shared stakes and benefits, arguments and activism that draw us together in the first place.

This essay was originally published in PHONEBOOK 4, (Chicago, IL: Threewalls, 2015). 

 

It’s Time to Expand the Field of “Regional” Arts Writing

  I like sociologist Alison Gerber’s definition of an artist. Her way of wrestling with the vocabulary of artistic practice and “field” resonates with my own attempts to wrangle the lexicon of contemporary art-making and criticism. For her short contribution to Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove “social response,” she writes: “When I say […]

 

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Photo: Florian Klauer (Unsplash)

I like sociologist Alison Gerber’s definition of an artist. Her way of wrestling with the vocabulary of artistic practice and “field” resonates with my own attempts to wrangle the lexicon of contemporary art-making and criticism. For her short contribution to Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove “social response,” she writes:

“When I say artists, I don’t mean you and your friends. I didn’t really know that, not in my bones, until I became a quote-unquote scientist, until I sat down for a year or two and puzzled out what, exactly, I meant when I said ‘artist’ – and, more importantly, what I wanted to mean, what world I imagined when I conjured these artists. For the past few years, I’ve defined ‘artists’ for my own purposes with a proxy for artistic practice: the exhibition of artworks in public. I’ve drawn on rosters I constructed from the kinds of places where we encounter artworks: diverse presenting institutions that include galleries and museums, to be sure, but also cafes, studio crawls, churches, city streets.”

That notion of making work to share, somehow, with others in a public sphere seems to me crucial. After all, the soul of art lives not primarily in the act of a work’s creation, but in the dynamic, conversational space where two minds meet in the experience of it. It doesn’t matter if that work is presented in a gallery or on a stage or in a derelict city lot; what matters are the stories we tell each other about what we see there, the human labor of the making and sharing of it for that purpose.

Art so made and presented for others’ consideration amounts to a kind of blind query, a call from one mind to others like it. And that call is what good arts criticism answers – it’s a completion of the work, in a sense, accepting the artist’s invitation to look, to argue, to parse meaning or mystery, to find affinity there, or not.

At Mn Artists, our mission and mandate has always focused, first, around the needs of the regional arts community and improving the lives of working Minnesota artists. And for 13 years, our organization has included among its offerings a dedicated space and budget for homegrown arts writing and critical dialogue. But local artists are hungry for more than just visibility in a digital space; they want criticism and arts journalism that goes beyond simply holding a mirror up to local arts activities. Minnesota’s artists are educated, talented, sophisticated makers looking to connect their own practices here with larger currents of cultural work and conversation. They’re eager to have eyes from outside looking at work happening locally, but also invested in looking up and out and responding to what’s going on beyond our state’s borders.

Arts publishing that is mindful of its regional roots and local relevance doesn’t preclude engagement with artists, organizations, and audiences who are like-minded but may be working elsewhere. Indeed, the local arts scene is only enlivened further by those more far-reaching connections. And thanks to stability afforded by support from the McKnight Foundation and our home within the Walker Art Center, Mn Artists’ editorial efforts can afford to take a long view, to incubate that wider-network of artists, critics, and organizations across the country over time. We also have the breathing room to build a deep archive of editorial content covering disciplines – like dance, new music and jazz, poetry, visual art, social practice – that aren’t commercially viable fodder for in-depth coverage in most for-profit publications. As communities of practice and interest coalesce in the digital landscape, strict adherence to regional geographical boundaries in our editorial coverage, as a web-based platform for artists, seems not only less desirable, but even counterproductive to serving their demonstrated interests.

And so our strategies for publishing “regional” arts writing and criticism have, over the years, broadened. In recent years, we’ve adopted a wide-angle editorial strategy that serves the regional arts community by bringing outside writers, artists, and viewpoints into the fold of our coverage. Ultimately, we’re after writing and critical response with authentic regional flavor, local relevance, and a distinctively Upper Midwestern voice, but which isn’t bound by provincialism or needlessly small spheres of coverage. To my mind, it’s a declaration that the writing and artworks made in Minnesota are clearly strong enough, broadly relevant enough to resonate with audiences both here and far beyond the region.

Read more contributions to the Hand in Glove “Social Response” on Temporary Art Review.

Hand in Glove: An Introduction and Recommended Reading

—The following is excerpted from an editorial statement for Hand in Glove written by James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review. Artist-centric practices have continued to normalize as a dominant way of working in response to economic necessity, socially-aware apertures and numerous other factors. Hand-in-Glove has been a formative platform for gathering in this emergent field […]

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—The following is excerpted from an editorial statement for Hand in Glove written by James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review.

Artist-centric practices have continued to normalize as a dominant way of working in response to economic necessity, socially-aware apertures and numerous other factors. Hand-in-Glove has been a formative platform for gathering in this emergent field since its first iteration, organized by Threewalls in Chicago in 2011. Now, paired with the launch of the nascent Common Field network, it is arriving at a pivotal moment for the field more broadly. Questions of the sustainability of this notoriously precarious activity, paired with latent institutionalization and professionalization within the field, are more pressing than ever as practitioners gather to consider the paradigms and platforms through which we engage.

Hand-in-Glove, in its own words, is “an itinerant gathering created by and for the practitioners in the field of alternative art spaces, projects and organizations” that “will investigate the contexts and conditions of artist-led culture across the country.”

As perhaps the only national gathering consistently focusing on the field of alternative art spaces, projects and organizations, the evolution of Hand-in-Glove also acts as a speculative narrative about the arc of this practice. It is “by and for” the field, offering an opportunity for necessary self-assessment about both its current dynamics and future shape.

The field, such as it is – this artist-centered, alternative terrain – is formalizing. It is inscribed in institutions mobilizing down and taking on more flexible forms, as well as small scale organizations organizing through networks of support. The field is also continually shifting – projects redirecting or shuttering, organizers moving and leaving their positions, questions of sustainability, growth, equity and access always on a precipice. Hand-in-Glove is a meeting point for these complex dynamics, offering a moment of reflection on both its own development since 2011 as well as the evolutions around artist-centric practice over the past several years.

Over the next several weeks, Temporary Art ReviewMn Artists, and Common Field are embarking on collaborative and cross-platform editorial project, a social response to Hand-in-Glove, featuring framing texts on the convening, commissioned essays, and critical responses to this year’s convening, September 17 through 20, in the Twin Cities.

With these conversations, in writing and in person, we’re attempting to open a porous space in which we ask these questions back to ourselves:

What is our common field of practice and how do we advance it?

What are models of growth that don’t use the mechanisms of institutionalization?

Can we articulate our position of artist-centricity in tangible terms?

Are we successfully embodying the kind of art world we wish to see more broadly?

***

Weigh in with your own thoughts here or in the ongoing conversational threads unspooling over the coming weeks on Temporary Art Review, in their section for the Hand in Glove “Social Response.”

To prepare for the Hand in Glove convening this week, we’ve been reading up, compiling resources and links to landmark articles in this burgeoning field. Below, you’ll find a selection of suggested articles and essays, notable web resources and books, that might help us navigate as we get the lay of the land for this emerging common field.

RETHINKING DIY, “RURAL,” AND ARTS-BASED COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

  • Robert Gard’s landmark essay on arts development in smaller towns as “a laboratory through which the vision for a region is reformulated and extended,” at the forefront of a larger, national renaissance in arts and culture: “The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan” (aka “The Windmill Book”)
  • A chapter from the book, Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of The Arts in the United States, in which Maryo Gard Ewell offers valuable historical context for current trends in community-rooted, socially-engaged art: “Arts-Based Community Development: Where Did We Come From?
  • Burn the Maps” by Art of the Rural founder Matthew Fluharty on redrawing the maps of the cultural center and periphery to account for evolving demographic, cultural, and economic realities in “rural” America (Mn Artists)
  • Lane Relyea with Katy Siegel” on the historical and future implications of DIY, contemporary post-studio practices, and the M.F.A. as a rising art world institution (The Brooklyn Rail)

ART WORK AT THE INTERSECTION OF CLASS, MARKET VALUE, AND LABOR

  • Art Practical’s double-issue on “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” includes a wide-ranging assortment of essays – from writers working in economics, sociology, art history, performance studies, dance, film studies, and literature – which explore the intersections of art, activism, artistic service, compensation and labor.
  • Ben Davis’s “9.5 Theses on Art and Class
  • Sociologist Alison Gerber’s piece on art and the state, “The Nightmare Audit of an Indie Artist.” (Narratively)
  • Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy’s “Moral Views of Market Society” (The Annual Review of Sociology)
  • From Julia Bryan-Wilson’s book, Art Workers, the essay, “From Artists to Art Workers,” unpacks the implications cultural labor in the political sphere: “art work is no longer confined to describing aesthetic methods, acts of making, or art objects—the traditional referents of the term—but is implicated in artists’ collective working conditions, the demolition of the capitalist art market, and even revolution.”
  • Loren Nosan on carving out new pathways for successful artistic practice, outside the realm of “the immensely powerful consumerist machine” and the institutional and credentialing systems which perpetuate it: “Artists of the World, Unite!” (Galleryell)

COMPLICATING “SOCIAL PRACTICE”

  • Critic Ben Davis untangles some of the nuances in the question of what it means to be a political artist today in “A Critique of Social Practice Art” (International Socialist Review)
  • Is Social Practice Gentrifying Community Arts?Bad At Sports’ incisive dispatch from the Creative Time Summit (NYC), The Association of American Cultures (Providence, RI), and Hand in Glove (New Orleans): August – October 2013
  • In “Disasters Align,” Red76 founder Sam Gould makes the case for a rangier sort of socially-engaged art that forgoes easy, art world-friendly categories like “social practice” in favor of articulating a field of practice that embraces more disruptive, unabashedly irrational work and interaction. (Mn Artists)
  • An Xiao Mina writes on the nexus of artists, the internet, and social movements in “An Activism of Affirmation” (Walkerart.org)
  •  “Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Arts Institutions”  documents remarks from a lively conversation at Assembly, a social practice gathering held last year in Portland, Ore., compiled by Ariana Jacob, on the question: Does social practice belong in museums?  (Mn Artists)

WHERE HAVE WE COME FROM, AND WHERE ARE WE HEADED?

Monica Sheets offers two suggestions, writing: “These are some oldies but goodies that seem to still be highly relevant regarding the danger for (neoliberal) instrumentalization of artists’ work and socially engaged art’s problematic relationship to the political.”

Seattle’s and/or organization founder, Anne Focke, writes: “In the late 1980s, several hundred people met twice at remote locations on two islands, one on the U.S. east coast and one on the west, to consider “the creative support of the creative artist.” Sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), the first conference was held in May 1986 at Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York and the second in November 1988 on Orcas Island near the Canadian border in Washington state. These two gatherings brought together artists, arts funders, and dedicated people from organizations that serve artists. For two days (Montauk) or four days (Orcas) they talked, performed, argued, ate together, played together, and tackled critical concerns beyond the arts. They also built life-long friendships and professional relationships and provoked questions that remain today.”

Noteworthy websites and online resources:

Suggestions for further reading:

Many thanks to Maia Murphy, Maria Sykes, Alison Gerber, Shanai Matteson, Colin Kloecker, Andy Sturdevant, James McAnally, Monica Sheets, Abigail Satinsky, Jehra Patrick, Emily Gastineau, Anne Focke, Shawn(ta) Smith Cruz, and Paul Bonin Rodriguez for their contributions to the list.

Conference information:

Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) will take place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s website: http://commonfield.org/convening

Let’s consider this a working document – please feel free to add your own reading suggestions in the comments.

Superscript Required Reading

Later this week, critics and artists, journalists, editors, and all manner of people interested in the future of cultural media online will convene at the Walker Art Center for Superscript, an international conference (the first-of-its-kind, as far as we can tell) on “the future of arts criticism and journalism in a digital age.” Our featured […]

superscript

Later this week, critics and artists, journalists, editors, and all manner of people interested in the future of cultural media online will convene at the Walker Art Center for Superscript, an international conference (the first-of-its-kind, as far as we can tell) on “the future of arts criticism and journalism in a digital age.” Our featured speakers hail from an array of outlets, large and small: from Rhizome, e-flux and frieze to VICE, Pitchfork, and BuzzFeed Books; from Temporary Art Review and The New Inquiry to Creative Time Reports and the Los Angeles Times.

We’re more interested in articulating nuanced questions for consideration than offering definitive answers:

What’s the role of the “professional” critic?

Is virality killing or cultivating new audiences for the arts?

What are the promising models for funding and sustaining substantive arts reporting and criticism?

How is the web changing the way artists tell their stories or expand their practices—or how we think about art? 

We have been reading up, mulling essays and think-pieces, polemics and manifestos on the present and future issues in the field by a motley assortment of inspired artists, critics, and media folk from a range of disciplines and platforms. Below you’ll find a shortlist of the thought-provoking pieces we bookmarked and shared as we made our preparations. Please do weigh in where you see gaps in our list, and leave your own recommended reading suggestions in the comments.

Topic: Criticism, Credibility, and Collusion

Topic: Sustainability, Growth, and Ethics

Topic: Connectivity and Community

Topic: Artists as Cultural First Responders

Related information:

Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age is a three-day conference, copresented by Walker Art Center and Mn Artists (May 28–30, 2015). Here’s a list of all the ways you can participate in the conversations and events surrounding Superscript (whether you attend in person or not).

Presented as part of

Does Social Practice Belong in Museums? Artist Janaki Ranpura Responds

Recently, Mn Artists posted excerpts from a live debate on the question, “Does social practice belong in art museums?,” posed by Ariana Jacob to the audience of practitioners on hand at last summer’s Assembly in Portland, Ore.. We asked some Minnesota artists to weigh in as well. The following response comes from Janaki Ranpura, an artist who works […]

Photo from Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together, held in Portland, Ore. last summer

Photo from Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together, held in Portland, Ore. last summer

Recently, Mn Artists posted excerpts from a live debate on the question, “Does social practice belong in art museums?,” posed by Ariana Jacob to the audience of practitioners on hand at last summer’s Assembly in Portland, Ore.. We asked some Minnesota artists to weigh in as well. The following response comes from Janaki Ranpura, an artist who works in performance for stage and public space. Her work, Socially I Am Awkward, was part of the recent thinking, making, living exhibition at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery. (You can read a related essay by Walker Art Center’s Ashley Duffalo, on the difficulty of having critical conversation about such art practices, over at the main Mn Artists homepage.)

Social practice art will inevitably be represented and addressed in public institutions, including museums. This seems appropriate and beneficial to deepening the practice of artists and improving the understanding of this term.

What’s at stake?  Legitimization from institutions on one hand and, on the other, being taken seriously as artists who are delegitimizing institutions. But being taken seriously by whom?

This dichotomy assumes that the point of social practice art is to destabilize. That is not the point of this term to me. It is the point of art, but not in any way unique to social practice. Being in a museum is not art per se. Museums are a showcase for art; they mediate between art makers and the public. They also have a function of educating artists about other artists, but there are lots of forums for that, and that function is not unique to museums.

In this context, what is social practice?   Relational. It is not a term that describes outcomes; it addresses things that raise themselves up as relevant in the course of making work. These things are interdisciplinary connections and a performance aesthetic. Here, by “performance” I mean the ways that live people react to each other and to space. Results can be community building, landscape — but that is not the focus of the term. The term, “social practice,” entails a focus on intersubjective awareness and awareness of experience of a tactile space. I add tactile because the form is live. The showing up and showing off in galleries is about the legacy of a present moment. “Social practice art” does not apply to pieces that can exist without their author present; the author/artist is the conductor of a symphonic experience of presence.

The role of museums for this form.   I’m referring, then, to social practice as interior experience. It necessarily follows that such practice escapes recording. So, what can be put into a museum? Traces.

And a history of a moment is not in any way an unusual thing to put in a museum. It is, in fact, what museums mostly truck in: showing objects with vibrancy (i.e., phenomenological potency) that remind and point to the circumstance of humanity at the time of their creation. The highest of the high continue to generate primary experience — that is, what is being seen right then — as well as referencing a significant past (what I consider as an evaluative criteria). Many, many objects in collections do not do this, and sometimes this sensation is not even universal, but rather extremely circumstantial and particular. Given this, museums can, through layout and didactics, encourage in their visitors the right headspace to discover the experiential and/or phenomenological groove an object offers.

Further explanation about that: the museum provides a place quiet enough to allow primary experience (a phenomenological be-here-now) to happen, and that primary experience is triggered by objects (when I say “objects,” I’m including space and pictures). It is clear that my stance is that of an experiential artist, calling the museum simply a box in which you have experiences … but it’s usually a sophisticated box, mind you. And this thing about sophistication brings me to another point.

What’s great about museums is that there are a bunch of professionals there. What’s great about professionals is that they spend lots and lots of hours doing the thing they do. What’s great about spending lots and lots of hours is that getting good at anything takes practice. So, there are these professionals spending a lot of hours thinking about deepening the discourse of art — and it’s for the public. What a brilliant gift to civil society. It seems to me spoiled to reject that public gift. The whole point of an artistic life is to deepen the discourse. I want to do that with the best people, and museums help grow some of those people through the curators they cultivate. All this isn’t to say that I believe in educated opinions to the exclusion of amateur ones. But I would say it by way of countering the troubling argument that only naïve participants constitute a genuine public.

Interconnectedness: Grab as many hands as possible.

This leads me to an interesting observation noted in Dorothy Chansky’s review of Shannon Jackson (PDF): that assuming an anti-institutional stance, for an artist, occupies the same space of political consciousness as the neo-liberal stance that no government is good government. We are all still using the roads, the power lines, and drinking clean water. We are all paying into the museum; it is a utility to feed the public mind. To turn your back on using public institutions is akin to assuming that it is possible to live in society and simultaneously be autonomous. The term “social practice” is particularly ill-suited to that mindset.

Talking about necessary interconnectedness leads me to funding models. Funding is not within what I mean by “practicing art” – I think of the struggle to attain personal keenness and excellence, and figuring out how to transmit it, when I use that phrase. But it is certainly smart for an artist to fund life and meaning with a Robin Hood approach: that is, make sale-able objects to fund the invisible (internal, personal) experiments of social practice. This is not corrupting, it is just clever. If you are going to be an artist, it’s a lot more fun if you’re also a fox.

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In sum: social practice is about internal experience. That experience is not recordable. It is, in its ripples outside the immediate moment, hard to share. Therefore, it can only be shared as a historical phenomenon. The best examples of such practice leave historical traces that are physically vibrant enough to trigger some kind of secondary experience of immediacy (post-immediacy, phenomenology, whatever you choose to call it). We, as artists, want to share our work with as many people as possible. Museums are good collaborators in figuring out how to do that with integrity. If you don’t agree with my stance that disruption is not a purview unique to social practice, but belongs to all art in general, you will not agree with any of the rest of what is said here.

Janaki Ranpura shapes performer / participant relationships in non-traditional spaces. She has been a fellow at the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis for the past three years, where she created Ububu, a play with actors and marionettes. She is a member of Public Art St Paul’s City Art Collaboratory, a think tank of artists and scientists working on urban issues. She’s in the process of developing Your Heart Is In My Mouth, a toy theater performance about family history developed through Pillsbury House Theater and with installation components created while in residence at the MacDowell Colony. She has received awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Forecast Public Art, the Jerome Foundation, and a Citation of Excellence for her large-scale shadow theater piece, Lovesick Sea Play. She worked on Baby Marx with Pedro Reyes at Art Basel Parcours and the Walker Art Center. She trained with Larry Reed’s company, Shadowlight, at École Lecoq and at Yale University.

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography on Collaboration, Choice and Chance

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen […]

HIJACK's Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

HIJACK’s Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder
Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder in November 2013 about the premiere of HIJACK’s redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye last year at the Walker Art Center.

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography Project)

At HIJACK, do you direct your performers? If you do, how? And, if you don’t, what else do you do that might be analogous to directing? Or, maybe you don’t consider that – directing – at all?

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

There are times when we deliberately do not direct and, actually, very specifically don’t even look at people as they’re working. And that’s a specific choice, to have everybody in the room working at the same time, including us, rather than standing apart as directors, separate and looking on.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography Project)

Do you do that a lot, and rely on it as a strategy?

Kristin

I like that privacy. We’ve worked with big groups: including ourselves, there are nine in this piece and there were twelve in the work last the winter. So often, we’ve done work with just the two of us in the room, and much of that time nobody is watching. We were really interested in expanding that experience of working to include larger groups of dancers.

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

How is it, if you do work where you show somebody some moves, there’s a clear right and wrong, a quality of assessment enters the work – the sense that there’s a very specific shape you’re supposed to do. One of the things we have to try to communicate to our dancers is how to approach the instructions that they’re being given. We know how much they’re inclined to be rigorous and to frantically stick to the rules. But we want to hold on to a sense of humor about the process. It’s impossible to let go of the direction once given. As long as the approach we’re after is clear to our dancers, it’s our job to keep the directions, to keep the rules about what they’re doing, such that they don’t need continuous direction from us. We want them to have the space to solve problems and figure out how to be, how to do things in the moment within the scores that we’ve given them.

Otto 

What’s your motivation for working this way? Is it about sharing the way that you approach a dance?  Is it about instilling a desire for dancers to have to find the way in for themselves? Or, is it about letting the work be about something more, or other, than what you’d get with explicit instructions?

Kristin

It’s just about finding the right people. It’s funny: you have to have inquisitive people for this approach to work. And, boy, have we hit the jackpot! We didn’t pick people with similar backgrounds to ours, or even to each other, but they’ve all been amazing. This way of working takes a sense of humor too. For us, the question of direction has come up pretty late in the process: like, “oops we’ve said almost nothing to them about what to do.” And actually, often we just don’t interfere because we love what they’re doing already. Sometimes keeping our mouths shut is the best direction we can give, because even telling them what we like can ruin it.

Olive

What percentage of your aesthetic, if you had to come up with a percentage, would you say is based on failure, in relationship to choreographing for other people?

Arwen 

That’s such a good question! Failure!

Olive 

I’m sorry, I’m just dying to ask.

Kristin 

We’re really into being non-sequential and bouncing back and forth to various things. We’re really into corrections, lately, so it helps to have…

Olive 

To make it more difficult?

Arwen

It helps to have something be wrong, so that it can be corrected. We like to have both the wrong thing and the right thing present. For example: take a page with some of the writing crossed out. You can still read the words behind the crossed-out parts — you can see both the finished text and what has been done wrong. Both are still worth reading. There’s something valuable in simply seeing that it’s wrong, being able to read through the scribble.

I can’t give a percentage, because it goes around and around for me, in terms of what actually constitutes failure. I mean, what if the work ends up failing in the right way? Is that still failure? I don’t know. I love the way a mistake turns into success; it feels like a necessary duality behind what’s improvised and what’s set. I don’t even know where to define the two edges.

Kristin 

I actually don’t think failure is a part of our aesthetic. We could just as easily answer Otto’s question by saying 0% of our aesthetic derives from that.  I think it’s clear for us and everyone who dances that the goal is perfection, always. That’s actually very important. Holding on to a sense of humor about failing is not the same as saying, “It doesn’t really matter if my arm is here or there.” That’s never a dancer’s feeling while executing a move.

Otto 

Never mark it.

Kristin 

Never mark it.

Otto

Do you think about dramaturgy? Is it important to your work, or not? Does it even come up?

Kristin 

I need a definition, and then you might have an answer right away.

Otto

That’s part of my question though. What does “dramaturgy” mean to you?

Arwen 

I mean, I hear the word dramaturge a lot. I know choreographers, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, are hiring people to do that with them or for them… I think of it as having someone who’s specifically paying attention to the way that the images and the arc of the piece are personally and culturally relevant.

 I don’t feel the need to hire someone on the outside. That is probably because there’s two of us at the helm already, so we’re often doing the work of a dramaturge for each other. Besides, we make a point of showing work as we’re making it, especially using protocols where we glean a lot of description from audiences about what people are seeing and what it’s making them think of. We’re getting that information as we’re making the work. I think making sure there’s someone paying attention to the communication of narrative and imagery, whether it’s the choreographer or someone else, is really important. Otherwise, it’s easy to get myopic, to get swept away by the sensation of movement. We’ve definitely experienced that in group work over the years – times where we got lost in the beauty of the work of the group so that we lost track of the other stuff a dramaturge could see and hold on to.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Otto 

We’d not really worked with any dramaturgical support until recently, with Super Nature.

Kristin

Who’d you work with?

Olive 

A woman from Germany: Stefanie Hahnzog.

Otto 

Yes, and she’s trained as a theater dramaturge.

Kristin 

And did she come to Minneapolis while you were making the work?

Olive

No, we were in Germany. She came to Hamburg and dramaturged while we were in process and then we did a little exchange after.

Otto 

She watched videos [of our rehearsals], and then we talked together on Skype.

Olive 

Beyond that, Otto and I just did our own problem-solving.

Otto 

Right. We thought: We don’t need to hire outside for a dramaturge because we talk about it already. The two of us talk about the piece all the time, so why do we need anyone else? But at the same time, having the advantage of more people there with us, talking about it, was itself very interesting.

Olive 

I’ve noticed that you just call yourselves HIJACK. Other than that, do you call yourselves “choreographers” or “dance artists”? How do you refer to what you do?

Kristin 

We call ourselves a “choreographic collaboration.”

Olive 

Your avoidance of labeling seems interesting, maybe important.

Kristin 

What do you call yourselves?

Otto 

Choreographers.

Olive

We do a lot of directing…

Kristin

What does “doing a lot of directing” look or sound like for you?

Otto 

I don’t know, Kristin; you’re in, like, three of our pieces. What do you think it sounds like?

Kristin

The thing is, I don’t think of myself as feeling highly directed by you two.

Otto

Think about that duo you did with Karen [Sherman] on the table…

Kristin 

Do you mean then that, when you work, it’s tightly scored?

Otto 

We would watch what you guys were doing, and then we would give you feedback. Something like, “Make sure you change the rhythm of the way you’re doing this, because if you don’t, I have a hard time seeing what’s happening,” for instance.

Kristin 

Yeah, and then I ignored you. (Laughter) I just don’t remember a sense of being closely directed.

Otto 

That’s good, because you, as a dancer, have to be in it. I mean, the piece still has a score, and I did give you feedback. We said things like, “Don’t do this as much, do that more.” We’d let you know where we saw particularly vibrant moments; or something like, “This thing you just did really distracted me from what I want to see right now.” But at the same time, we know: you have to perform it. You have to survive that situation without the work being set. So, I can understand why that would be a broader experience of direction than the idea of us just giving you some little tips along the way.

Kristin 

This is common way of directing for us, too, I think. It’s actually a lot like what we do in our Contact Improv class every week: we just take turns watching. In a sense, someone else does your score. Then, sometimes, five of us might be doing a movement, including Arwen and I, and we’re really trying to get a very unified attack, a coherent energy and shape in our movement. One of my favorite ways to accomplish that is to have one person sit out and watch, each one of us in turn, while the others repeat the movement. That gives everybody power; and, sometimes, the act of watching is, itself, enlightening.

Olive

Let’s talk a little bit about the seeds of new projects. Where do you begin?

Kristin 

I usually travel with a list of every piece we’ve ever done.

Arwen 

Usually, the way we start a piece is by trying to do the opposite of the thing we’ve just completed.

Kristin 

The MANCC Residency was a kind of seed time for new work: we articulated our interests and each of us had three hours a day to direct independently.

Olive 

And you never talked in the evenings about what you were going to do, you just kind of did it on your own, in the moment?

Kristin 

The planning, directing, leading in the rehearsal was independent…

Olive 

What about a vision for the whole, big picture? How did that fit in the process?

Kristin 

That’s how we were designing the whole commission project, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.

Olive 

Was that the first time that you had done work that way?

Arwen

Well, it was the first time that we were thinking of making a single piece together. I mean, we’ve made pieces for each other when one of us was directing and choreographing and the other one was dancing.

Kristin 

We did that, for years, before we made something for ourselves jointly.

Arwen 

We’ve had rehearsals where we specifically take turns for set amounts of time. But to go for multiple weeks with, you know, the morning is mine and the afternoon is hers – making things independently in the knowledge that the culmination of the work was ultimately going to be one piece – that was new for us. It presented a large problem upon leaving the residency, actually: we ended up with two completely separate pieces. And we came back and we performed a couple of cabaret evenings performing the work in progress: Friday night we did Kristin’s piece, and Saturday night we did mine. We were really stumped for a long time about what to do with the material that came from that process, because these separate pieces we created had been developed more fully than usual, on their own, without being connected.

Olive

So, what did you do next to bring them together?

Arwen 

We made something completely different from them. Little by little, we have put some of that independently created stuff back in. But it was a huge quandary for a while, how to create one, united work from that material.

Olive 

When you’re choosing a title, or figuring out the starting point for the next piece – does it always feel like putting on awkward clothing? I mean, do you need the new work to begin in a place of discomfort? I mention it because, earlier, you brought up the word “comfort”? Is that unease the starting point?

Arwen 

No, not always. I can think of specific examples where we’ve actually started with an idea to create more comfort and more ease – maybe in the dance-making itself, or in our collaboration, in our conversation.

Kristin

There is some movement, some stretches of dancing, where A and B are next to each other and are very uncomfortable in sequence. It’s very inconvenient to have your body in once place and then need to lurch into the next. And if it does get convenient, then we change the score. Or, some movements are selected specifically because we love them, they’re favorites. We’re interested in watching what happens to something over time, especially what happens when we put those very inconvenient moves next to each other. And if you do the movements, even inconvenient ones, the same way for months, everything smooths out, regardless, with practice. If you perform the movements with the same music playing, even if you think you’re ignoring the music, you’re not. You’re starting to dance to the music.

"smithsoniansmith (as is)" at Bedlam Theatre Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

smithsoniansmith (as is) at Bedlam Theatre. Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

Otto 

When you go about making an evening-length piece, does that change the way you’re making the work? I ask, because when I watched smithsoniansmith — and I only saw it at Bedlam, I didn’t see it at the official opening – my feeling was, this is not evening-length.

Kristin 

You wanted more…

Otto

No. No, it’s just that what I saw were smaller pieces put together. It just didn’t seem like something conceived as a single, evening-length work.  And I‘m curious if the process of making that work, because it was just the two of you and Scott Heron, someone you hadn’t worked with on other pieces, affected the outcome. But it sounds like that “commissioning a piece” sort of feeling was a force in the room for the whole three years of development of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.

Arwen

I felt the same way about smithsoniansmith. Our thinking about “novel” movement and slow development in this latest project — things coming back around, unraveling — absolutely came from a reaction to that “commissioning a piece” feeling. A lot of the other longer pieces we’ve made were like a bunch of little pieces strung together; we believed that those individual pieces informed each other, but there was less of a sense that we needed to work toward a single, evening-length sort of feeling in the work.

We did make a number of small pieces, short pieces, as we were making this, but the way that these new pieces come together and overlap – the way the individual elements kaleidoscope and splinter off each other, how some of the same vocabulary is used in different pieces – allows each section to have a very different character, but when you put them all together, it feels less a string of pearls and more of a whole.

Kristin 

From the very beginning of our work on redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, we were intentional about seeking out pleasing examples of wholeness — things that were almost a little too big, or too complex, to keep that  sense of whole alive and perceptible. For example, I started making an effort to read, and stick with longer books, novels. I tend to prefer shorter things; I love short fiction. So, I wanted to deliberately find sustained activities, routines and cycles that pushed toward longer durations of time and that require an expanded attention span.

I mean, you can make something that’s 60 minutes long, but still just episodic – just episodic — and maybe that’s what smithsoniansmith is. That said, the two of us like dense things. But we’re also anti-filler; we have a strong aversion to wasting anyone’s time. So, from the beginning of making this larger work, we struggled with: How can we tolerate asking an audience to look at one thing that lasts so long and still have it feel rich and specific the whole time? How do we do that both compositionally and as dancers, performing in the moment?

Arwen 

Trying to figure out, compositionally, how the sound was going to work was a big part of figuring out that sense of the whole. It presented a challenge, because we like to work with found sound and often with pop sounds and those all have complete arcs of their own…

Olive 

And those songs are usually three minutes long.

Arwen

Right! So, what do you do with all those distinct beginnings, middles, and ends? How do you move away from an episodic feeling to something more unified? That was a big puzzle.

Olive 

So the music for redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye is also found sound?

Arwen 

It is.

Olive 

And you guys have mixed it up and played with those sounds? And you’re the mix master, the cutter, Kristin?

Kristin

There’s a huge question in that, about whether a pop song from the radio counts as found sound, whether or not we should ever manipulate or edit anything so “found.” Where’s the thread in those smaller parts, the “whole”? We wondered: Can we find any sound sources that we like that are already 60 minutes long?

Arwen 

We both listened to a lot of movie scores – looking for a “whole” sound with a significant duration.

Kristin

The problem is that’s someone else’s story.

Arwen 

Yeah.

Otto 

Changing the subject: Are you going to tour the piece?

Arwen 

We’re not opposed to touring the whole thing, but right now…

Otto 

(Singing) — it’s a Walker show

Arwen 

Yes, and we’ve been trying to figure out: What does that mean?

Olive 

Yeah, we’ve taken our shows all over, but there’s just no space that’s like the McGuire Theater. The luxury and the height of its space, what the lighting designer (Heidi Eckwall) was able to do in the Walker – it’s really hard to replicate in other spaces.

Kristin 

We’re getting ruined by the Walker. (Laughter)

Olive

It’s gorgeous! But you get so in love with the beauty of the space and with being able to use the proportionality it offers, that the timing of everything gets shifted. Every time you remount the work after it’s been produced for the McGuire Theater, stuff that was maybe happening in the back corner of that expansive space, you just can’t see in less well-appointed venues.

Kristin 

I’m laughing, because everything that Arwen said before about abundance and fullness — big space, big time, big cast — is very true; we both say it a lot, and we mean it. But at the same time, especially at the very beginning, we thought and talked a lot about avoiding that “doing the big show at the Walker” thing. We want to, somehow, stay outside of that; otherwise, we’d be making something that wasn’t really of us. So we thought a lot about the everyday reality of our dance lives, and said, “We’ve been teaching Contact Improv Wednesday morning, every Wednesday morning, for 12 years. It must be important to us.” So, we decided, that experience needed to be a building block of the new commission. And that wasn’t only about including Contact Improvisation, but making sure to put what we do at the center. We very deliberately sampled from movement that happened in that class in our rehearsals for the new work — specifically, every week. The cast of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye was influenced by people who were dedicated to that class. We wanted the work to be about “practice” and “class-ness,” in general.

Otto 

Let’s talk about the brass tacks of collaboration. Both HIJACK and BodyCartography Project have been in two-person collaborative teams that have worked together for 15 years or more.

Kristin

Okay: Sex or no sex? Which is the better model? (Laughter)

Otto 

Well, if you have sex — if you’re hetero – then you just end up making more kids. So, stop doing it after you got one.

Arwen 

We’re very civilized. We keep sex and procreation separate.

Olive 

And that’s a wrap. Awesome! Thank you!

Arwen 

Yeah, thank you!

__________________________________________________________________________

HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon & Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning Contact Improvisation class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon & Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, into a trio for small and/or awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project, Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org. Read a related exchange between these artists, on “How to Move Bodies in Space” here.

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography On How to Move Bodies in Space

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about some of the many behind-the-scenes variables that go into the making of a new dance work: the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of novelty, and […]

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about some of the many behind-the-scenes variables that go into the making of a new dance work: the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of novelty, and “sensory deliciousness.”

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

What have you guys been doing since Super Nature premiered?

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography)

Oh, grant reports.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography)

Identifying missing cables, buying thank-you gifts that don’t arrive at their destinations, booking plane tickets for New York, wondering if all of our cast is coming, which we’ve finally confirmed, one month before we’re all due in New York. Anything else? Trying to get some sunshine. Teaching in Ohio.

Otto

Re-adjusting to not having babysitting five to seven hours per day.

Kristin

This is actually great, because I want us to get this out of our systems—the logistics and the career and the fundraising and the tickets. Let’s not talk about that stuff.

Olive

Great! I love it. Yes.

Kristin

And maybe to get it out of my system, I’ll say where I am. I flew out of Las Vegas today, and I feel like I’m kind of tripping. But I was thinking about where I’m at right now and how it can help us talk, because I loved Las Vegas, just the sensory deliciousness, the lights, the scale, the visual, so as I was transitioning out of that I was thinking about your show, and how you dealt with scale and space and sensory deliciousness.

So there’s half—and just before Las Vegas I was at Figure Space [at Earthdance] with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, and that felt—well, one thing we were really working with was undifferentiated space. Which for them, I think, was space on an architectural scale, and space inside the body on a microscopic scale, and working in a place where you lose track of which space you’re in. I think of that as BodyCartography territory, too, so I’m not surprised to see you’re nodding to what Steve and Lisa were talking about. I’m interested in surface—just what the audience saw—and how you dealt with the [Walker Art Center’s] McGuire Theater, those ideas of space, in the actual making of the piece.

Just grab whatever part of that you want to talk about.

Otto

I think, with this piece, we always knew where it was going to be: at the McGuire Theater. For those who haven’t been there it’s a black box theater that’s 60-feet deep by 60-feet wide. It’s pretty big and the seats go right down to the floor – the first row of seats is right on the stage – which I always like. It’s a very high fly space, a very high ceiling in the theater, higher than your average contemporary dance venue. The visual artist we were working with, doing sets and costumes, originally wanted to put a drop ceiling in the theater, but we decided that would be just too much material to contend with when we were going to tour. We’ve already done a lot of shows with set elements, and we thought it seemed really excessive. Then we went on a residency on a farm —Lilysprings Farm [in Wisconsin]—and there was a really beautiful washing line. Olive had an idea to crash the washing line with the drop ceiling idea so that when people came in there would be a rope attached to the top proscenium arch and going back into a vanishing point on the upstage right side of the space. We wanted to change the scale of the space, to create a sense of dynamic change or shifting power.

Olive

Yes – between the bodies and the space itself.

Otto

So, if you were in the space underneath the line, the rope came to about five-and-a-half feet at the back wall; it functioned like a little room. Someone in the talkback said it annihilated the black box feel of the stage, to have the vanishing point just disappearing behind the wall. That’s pretty evident in the first half of the piece: it’s just black, and you have this vanishing point, and the first section—or the first beginning—has a lot of interruptions, a crash between the social and the physiological. In the second half of the piece a mobile forest comes in, and there’s fog, and, at least to me, the space changes a lot because of the trees and fog and different lighting. In the beginning [the activity feels more social], you have a sense of cause and effect, of one thing happening at a time. You can see that all change once the fog and the trees come in: the line of sight really spreads horizontally, and many different things are happening at the same time.

Olive

And to speak to this kind of undifferentiated space, we shift from a space we know to a space that we experience unconsciously, that we only know on a cellular level – on the level that’s more about biology or intuition or landscapes or things that are happening in the dark. There’s something about that horizontal space that makes it no longer about these people, or this social space. It’s bringing in many other beings, creatures, landforms, and going micro, inside ourselves at the same time.

It took a long time to figure out what the geography of the second half of Super Nature would be. It had to arrive organically, but we still had to get it there before there was a premiere [laughs].

So, that meant speeding up either the geography or the biology somehow in order to figure out what the structure of that second half of the work would be.

Kristin

Are you talking about the hurry to get it there in terms of what the performers had to traverse to be ready to be in that state at that moment?

Olive

They have to get to a point where they’re in that state, but we also have to come to an agreement ahead of time. It’s really hard for performers to make good improvisational choices around timing and space because of the sensory deprivation involved in most of the second half of the work – they’re not able to perceive everything going on around them. Some are stuck inside the mass of others’ bodies; or, somebody else’s full weight is on them, and they can’t move quickly. Some of the performers literally can’t see: they’re under a blanket, or they’re in the fog [laughs]. Some are under a tree. There’s something limiting their ability to perceive the space around them. So, the work’s structure did eventually form itself, but it was a long time coming.

I want to back up a little bit. In our history of making site-based work, it’s been hard for us not to go into the theater and use that theater as the site – that is, we’re always tempted to really play with everything that’s in the space itself. But Super Nature started with an installation piece in the gallery, with research: it began in this incredibly intimate space with one audience member at a time. After that, we needed to go into the McGuire, so the question was: How can we translate that intimacy, that level of move-or-be-moved-by-whomever-else-is-in-the-room immediacy? How can we bring it into the theater? How can we super-actively work this space to affect and be affected, as performers, and also to affect our audiences? To allow ourselves to be seen on every side of our body, but also to really create transformation in how people are watching us? Those were the questions that informed many of the structural and choreographic choices of the work, too.

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

Do you think there was something to learn from the McGuire Theater?

Olive

There’s something indulgent in it. It’s so lovely to work in that space, to have that kind of fly space and wing space, but also to have such intimacy, to have the benefit of that compressed space with the audience. I feel like it will be hard to put this work in different spaces and see how the work changes, because Super Nature was so constructed with the McGuire in mind.

Otto

What I mentioned about the first row of seats going all the way onto the stage—you don’t find that at all theaters. And in the McGuire, we were really able to use that intimacy: there are two aisles and we could move people between the house and the stage easily. We found that kind of zoom-in to be really helpful in achieving what Olive was talking about. Knowing that there are people all around you—it knocks out a degree of passivity. I didn’t see the piece, so I don’t know its effect on the audience first-hand. But I imagine, and I heard from people who did watch from the audience, that the first sections of the work, in particular, disrupted their expectations. You’re watching the stage and then something is happening in the house where the audience is, and now it’s just on the stage again, but then someone new comes in among the audience. There’s a lot of interruption – of space and of activity – and we learned the ways that we wanted to do that from the context of the McGuire.

Zeena [Parkins] didn’t compose the score to relate to the space, but she did spatialize the score specifically for the McGuire, in terms of speaker placement. The whole score emerged from behind the audience, or at the proscenium arch, or on the speakers on the stage; she also had a speaker set up in the pass-through, in the back hallway, and she had people doing live Foley up in the balconies. So, she was using different sounds and different speaker placements to try to do much the same thing we were doing in our play with proximity and affect.

Olive

I also learned what fog does in that space when you have an audience, and where the fog goes: It leaves the theater really quickly when you have an audience. So, that was another thing, on a really practical level, that I learned about that particular venue [laughs].

Arwen

You’ve worked with this composer before. Did you learn anything from working with Zeena again here?

Olive

Interesting question.  I feel like this was a more fully articulated development of ideas from Half-Life and also Mammal, our previous collaborations with her. So, in some ways the ideas in play weren’t new to me, but Super Nature represented a fuller manifestation of those ideas.

For me, being in an audience, I’m just focusing on being in the work – I’m not tracking which speaker the sound is coming from, but I do have this—whoa…whoa!—thing going on; I mean, it works on me whether I’m aware of it or not. I learned from what Zeena did that people loved that combination of live and recorded sound moving through the space; and audiences really responded to the physicalization of the sound. That’s why we were working with her, because we love that too! [Laughter] 

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen

I ask because you’re talking about working with space, and with undifferentiated space, and she’s sending sounds from different parts of the performance area, really helping to shape that space. And what’s interesting is that there was this huge difference between the audience space and the dancing space in terms of how the sounds were perceived.

Otto

Right – I mean, how you can perceive all that when you’re focused on doing your work, when you’re dancing.

Arwen

That’s where your focus is.

Otto

Yeah. Some sections of the show, I could really feel what was happening; but other times, it took a while for me to really hear what she was doing. All the sound stuff got finished near the end – Zeena is in New York and we’re in Minneapolis, so it wasn’t like she was playing along with the rehearsals.

Kristin

The real compositional choice-making was in deciding to work with Zeena again, it sounds like. Because we [HIJACK] so often use found sound, it’s striking to me how different that must be—it’s like a big saying yes and then working out the deadline. I’m sure however rich the negotiation is about little details at the end, it’s just something you said a big “Yes!” to — you’re excited to see what her sound contribution is going to be.

Otto

Well, Zeena did come here twice before the premiere. We also had sound Zeena recorded that Olive was able to play during rehearsal and at showings.

Olive

But even so it’s always different when she’s there, playing live. It’s a totally different experience, because she’s playing harp, and then she’s conducting the Foley; she was really calling the cues during the performance, even at the Walker, for various reasons. And that direct participation is a completely different thing than just our playing recordings of her music. The spatialization of the score makes sense in a different way. Some people felt, when they heard the sound in the context of an early showing – the recordings – that the score was disjunctive, like “Oh, I can tell she’s not here working with you all the time.”

Otto

One person said that.

Olive

But it was interesting feedback. I’ve never heard that feedback before. That’s an interesting, different perception of the interplay of the dance and the score. “What do you want music to do?” would have been my question back to that commenter, but I wasn’t in the conversation.

Otto

What you’re saying also brings up the importance of casting.

Olive

Casting is a choreographic choice.

Otto

Casting is the biggest thing.

Olive

For us, in our work.

BCPSNfaunSeanSmudaRamstadShogren

Pictured: Otto Ramstad and Anne Marie Shogren. Photo: Sean Smuda

Otto

But also in theater, performance, film. I read something once, a review of film, something like: “Casting is 75% of the work of the film or of what makes a film successful.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to put a percentage on it, but for our work, it’s very important. Then again, who doesn’t [think casting is important?] I’m sure there might be some people working with dancers who don’t generate their own material for whom it’s not so crucial, but if you’re going to have people making the dance with you…

Olive

Then you better love ‘em!

Otto

Better love ‘em. What you brought up with the sound, Kristin: the idea that, if you’re not controlling the music, you want to trust the person that is.

Olive

Within the sound itself, too, we’ve got layers of history with Zeena. We’ve done recordings with her that she used with the Lyon Opera Ballet – recordings from Mammal, and that we did out at Theodore Wirth Park and at the Walker. I don’t think we used any of them in Super Nature, though—

Otto

I think we used the breathing—

Olive

We used the breathing. But there’s this collection of sounds from us that she’ll use again somewhere, or that might come back again in another piece we make together. And that sort of history of collecting is interesting, too.

Kristin

I’d love to jump on the idea of continuity with your past work. I really want to ask you about Super Nature, and how successful you thought it was. It feels especially timely, like it’s a contemporary statement from you and about the culture at large.

When we, Arwen and I, are making a new piece, I’m struck by how much that process also involves thinking about old pieces. I’m surprised by how much I get out of that recollection, how much I’m enjoying saying: “Oh, that thing we made eight years ago, that was the sweet spot. And then we made some transitional pieces…”

We’re poorly equipped to assess what we’re making now, but continuing to make new work is a way of getting some distance on what you’ve made in the past; it means being able to have a really strong opinion about one’s own past work. Can we talk about some of your earlier work – say, Half Life or Symptom? Having made Super Nature, what do you now know about those pieces that you didn’t before?

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Olive

I can speak back to Holiday House now [laughter]. I can also say that Mammal was totally the idea of taking all these great moments in our work, because we didn’t have enough time with the Lyon Opera Ballet. We had 18 days there – we didn’t have enough time to invent a whole new thing, to get to know those dancers and develop a whole new piece with them. The process of making Mammal was more like: How can we pull in what we know and what we know we can teach, what we know will work and is exciting?  So, we took a whole bunch of stuff from Holiday House—scores, not choreography—and then reframed it. Really, that was the seed – those new things that started happening out of that piece – that birthed Super Nature, in a way.

That’s one tangent. And then it feels like Half Life was a whole other one – like it speaks to Super Nature in the sense that both works are responding to the environment in some way, but they’re talking about it in completely different languages. Half Life was really dark – bogged down by research and bogged down by trying to figure out how to simply bring it to fruition: how to get a visa and how to get the dancer we wanted. It was a real struggle for that work to be made manifest. Super Nature has a kind of magic, a kind of levity around it. This work easily manifested what it needed.

And then Symptom is just a completely different thread altogether from these. It’s like two people – a visual artist and a dancer onstage together – really addressing this conversation between the gallery and the stage, between the spheres of visual art and dance. Symptom just feels worlds apart. But I guess each piece that you make in some way responds to what has come before, like – “Oh! I want this piece to be really physical!” Everything bounces off—

Kristin

It’s like the antidote—

Olive

Right, a new work is the antidote, somehow, for the last experience. Symptom is the piece we made before Super Nature; it was this really cerebral work, so we knew the next piece would be super physical.

Otto

The experience of doing Mammal,  going through our previous work and taking out scores that we knew worked in other pieces and that we could effectively direct—

Olive

With people who don’t improvise a lot—

Otto

Or, who don’t already know about our work – that was very interesting and validating. Just to try to start with something not-new. I mean, you’re making something new out of existing things, but that’s not to say it feels like you’re making something old, just because you’re using things you’ve used before. Something else is still happening – because of the different casting or because you’re organizing your materials in a different way. Even just having the extra space–

Kristin

The extra space for shaping the final product, because not as much energy is invested in inventing the process – right.

Otto

There’s such a high value on novelty in contemporary dance—or whatever you want to call this field we’re in, so much pressure to create something new, always to do something different.

Olive

To reinvent your whole process.

Otto

But no one’s trying to say that to Robert Wilson!

Olive

Or Mark Morris!

Otto

Mark Morris?

Olive

Or even Bill T. Jones! [Laughter] Just to name a few… [more laughter]

Otto

Why is there such high value put on the new? Why not redo what you’ve done before and see what other things come out of it? For instance, I was trying to direct this thing we’d been doing, this one-on-one score responding to the changing space between two people; the performers weren’t really getting it, so we just did the piece as a group of people instead. And that new interpretation was the basis for a lot in Super Nature.

Arwen

I’m interested in the translation from score into movement, the manifestation of that and, from here, the translation from movement into language, or maybe audio into typed-out words. Could you describe Super Nature’s movement as movement? That is: Could you pick one section and just talk about the dance – not as if from a score, but from the perspective of seeing it? What did the dance look like? How were the performers moving?

Olive

Like a traveling, evolving individual of multiple species.

Arwen

Keep going!

Otto

Olive, you stole what I was going to say [laughter, and a long pause]. There’s a solo in the show that looks like a crash between someone who is enacting recognizable dance vocabulary, but they’re doing it in a social manner; at the same time their breathing pattern seems out of sync with what they’re doing, and then it matches what they’re doing – the breath matching the movement and the movement changing the breath coming out.

Olive

There’s a solo that turns into a trio of shooting planets, or stars that are imploding or exploding.

Kristin

I’m sure it’s hard to detach from the savvy of the intention…

Otto

That was not the intention behind the choregraphy, at all.

Arwen

But it also makes sense that you’re in a different position, being in the piece, seeing the breath score. Of course! You’re still doing this piece.

Olive

In one section, the movement coalesces in piles of bodies, like complex jigsaws.

Otto

Or, just piles of bodies where it’s hard to discern whose body parts are whose.

Kristin

I love the body puzzles. I realized in our last rehearsal with HIJACK, that we’d essentially re-choreographed your show. So, look forward to seeing your material on the McGuire stage in a year! [Laughter]

Arwen

I hadn’t recognized that till now. I’ll be sure to put “move 562 and 563 courtesy of BodyCartography” in the program.

Otto

Didn’t that also happen in Fetish?

Kristin

What? Where we stole from you? Oh yeah, there was a quote! Arwen and I had to make some moves, each of us, and the score directed us to “tell each other what we did last weekend.”

Arwen

I had cleaned the house, and Kristin had rehearsed with you! [Laughter]

Kristin

When you refer to the space-in-between score, it just makes me laugh – as if it’s this albatross, “The Score.” That’s always going to be in every piece – it’s the choreography that you’re making, of course, but it could also be a metaphor for what your collaboration is, how, as BodyCartography, you’re combining two people’s voices. And if we had another half hour—or another three hours—Arwen and I would grill you on your collaboration!

Speaking of which: I could describe our partnership, with HIJACK, a little bit. We’ve gone through phases of emphasizing different things, both for others and for ourselves. There’s sometimes been an understanding that HIJACK is a single, united voice; an authorship obscuring the fact that it’s made of two people.  But maybe now we’re in a phase where our understanding of the collaboration is more sensitized to how it’s a crashing of two individual authorships, in the choreographic process and onstage, and not necessarily always unified in so doing.

With BodyCartography, what are you-all doing?

Otto

Olive and I are making the same thing, but we’re both approaching it in our own ways: we each have different roles within the chronology of time, or different parts within the process where one of us is adding more. In Super Nature, our contributions were pretty different because Olive was watching and directing, and I was in it – so that made a big difference. Just to speak grossly, I was mostly generating scores that would either remain improvisational or become fixed, and Olive was doing more of the structuring, organizing—

Olive

—I was figuring out what the whole thing would be. Otto’s role was bringing in all those initial seeds, and manifesting them from the inside; then I was directing from the outside, figuring out how all those parts needed to speak to other parts of the piece.

Otto

I also work with details – housekeeping details, like “don’t look to the right, look to the left,” that kind of directing.

Kristin

Do you think you’ll use a setup like this again? Or, do you think you’ll seek an antidote, like a project where Olive is inside and Otto directs from the outside?

Olive

No. I think this is just what we do. I think it’s what we’ve been doing for a while now, actually, and we’re just getting clearer about articulating that.

HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning “Contact Improvisation” class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon and Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye into a piece for awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org.

mnartists’ Most-Read Blog Posts of 2013 (Spoiler Alert: Cats are Hard to Beat)

This year, here on the blog we beefed up our local arts coverage, but we also worked  to widen the scope of our stories at the same time and include sharp writing on timely national and international cultural conversations as well. To that end, there are a number of new columns around here, lots of linky […]

This year, here on the blog we beefed up our local arts coverage, but we also worked  to widen the scope of our stories at the same time and include sharp writing on timely national and international cultural conversations as well. To that end, there are a number of new columns around here, lots of linky mini-essays and discipline-mixing topical series penned by writers and artists from here and around the country — on art and science, music, dance, books, film, visual art, pop culture memes and fashion. All that, and we’ve got a clever comic strip, too.

I’m gratified to see that our most-read blog posts of 2013 mirror those evolutions and cross-pollinations: your clicks offer welcome evidence that there really is an audience eager for substantive regional arts writing.

So, before we dive into 2014, a list of our most-read blog posts from the year just gone by:

People of the Internet Still Really Like Cats: No question, our coverage of #catvidfest and its related hoo-ha was tops with readers in 2013, dominating our tally of most-read blog posts yet again. Thousands around the world responded, both to nominate and to watch contenders for this year’s Golden Kitty Award. We offered “15 Reasons to Attend a Cat Video Festival” and “10 Questions for #catvidfest Host Julie Klausner“, and readers pounced on the posts  like catnip; they also clicked through in droves to help Koo Koo Kanga Roo select the album art for their cats-themed record.

From Todd Balthazor's strip, "Pollock Theory"

From “Pollock Theory” by Todd Balthazor

Todd Balthazor’s comic for mnartists, It Is What It Is!, really hit its stride this year. His behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum strip has not only hit a sweet spot for our readers, it has earned him national notice as well. He was profiled in both the New York Times and the December 2013 issue of ARTnews magazine for his mnartists blog comic — we couldn’t be prouder.

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain). Plaster, paint. 1987/1989

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain). Plaster, paint. 1987/1989

Art and Science: Maggie Ryan Sandford’s art and science posts have been as winsome and engaging as they are erudite, and so it does our hearts good to see readers find her. Two of her posts were among our most-read stories:

“Art and the Right Brain Fallacy”

“The Fibonacci Sequence: Life Imitates Math Imitates Art”

Words woldrs woroid, Ute Bertog, 2011.

Ute Bertog, Words woldrs woroid, 2011.

Painters on Painting: Jehra Patrick’s posts on local artists picked up lots of clicks last year, particularly her coverage of painters.

“10 Artists to Watch in 2013”

“5 Artists Expanding the (Painting) Field, from the Midwest”

“Trouble in Paradise: A Conversation with Painter Melissa Loop”

“On ‘Painting in the Present Tense’”: Speaking of painting, artist and professor David Lefkowitz’s post for mnartists’ blog, in response to a particularly lively artist talk for the Walker exhibition, Painter Painter, also made our most-read list.

Mini-Golf, ArtPrize and Eyeo:

“ArtPrize Pitch Night Cheat Sheet” : On the mnartists/Walker collaboration with Grand Rapids’ annual art competition and cultural spectacle, and a local “pitch night” for a contest to encourage more Minnesota artists to participate in ArtPrize.

“Introducing the Artists and Teams of Mini Golf 2013”: Another mnartists/Walker collaboration, Artist-Designed Mini Golf, continued apace with summertime duffers in the Sculpture Garden and blog readers alike.

“5 Takeaways from Eyeo 2013”: Jehra Patrick’s rundown on new media arts and culture trends from last year’s Eyeo new media arts festival.

More from our most-read blog posts of 2013:

The Joffrey Ballet’s recent Rite of Spring: No Riots but Some Head-Scratching“: Camille LeFevre’s review of Northrop Dance’s presentation of the famed Chicago company’s performance of the historic work

Daft Punk: Need More RAM!” Tom Loftus’ charming post in anticipation of the robot duo’s buzzed-about LP from last year, Random Access Memories, and what would prove to be 2013’s official song of the summer, that album’s hit single, “Get Lucky”.

Crispin Glover’s Latest Flick: Are You Really Sure It Is Fine?” At an early June event in Duluth, Kat Mandeville walked out of a screening of Crispin Glover’s latest film, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! Outraged as much by the fact of the film’s screening as she was its provocative content, she wrote a letter in response and sent it around to me at mnartists.org. I reprinted her missive, and wrote a bit about the film, her letter, and the critical conversations prompted by both.

From Vice to Africa to Duluth, the Places of Photographer Brad Ogbonna“: A profile of a young St. Paul-to-New York City transplant rediscovering his Nigerian roots in a new project he’s working on with DIESEL + EDUN 

mnartists’ Most Popular Articles of 2013: Surly Brewing, Lady Choirs, Summer Camp, CVA’s Closing and Cindy Sherman

Below, you’ll find mnartists.org’s 20 most-read articles of 2013 — just a sampling of more than 125 original, longform essays, interviews, profiles and reviews we published in the homepage arts magazine last year. Compiling this list, I’m struck by the rapid growth of readership for the site’s journalism in recent months. Our most-read pieces routinely […]

Below, you’ll find mnartists.org’s 20 most-read articles of 2013 — just a sampling of more than 125 original, longform essays, interviews, profiles and reviews we published in the homepage arts magazine last year. Compiling this list, I’m struck by the rapid growth of readership for the site’s journalism in recent months. Our most-read pieces routinely garner thousands of page-views these days — and those are numbers that, for us, were exceptional just a few years ago. That’s thanks to our stable of talented arts journalists and critics, of course, not to mention Minnesota’s wealth notable creative work for them to write on. But it’s also thanks to you, mnartists’ engaged community of artists and arts audiences who take the time, not only to read local arts journalism, but to contribute to the conversations therein, commenting on and sharing those articles with friends via platforms like Facebook and Twitter thereby extending their reach well beyond our state’s borders. And that doesn’t just broaden the audience for mnartists’ published writing, it also raises the visibility of the art and artists whose work is covered.  So, thanks for reading — and stay tuned, would you? There’s so much more good stuff to come in 2014.

surly hgs

Surly Brewery design rendering: Garden view to the brew hall. Rendering courtesy of HGA Architects and Engineers

Surly puts architecture to work building its brand: Camille LeFevre’s report on HGA Architects’ design plans (and resulting critical blowback) for Surly Brewing’s new destination brewery in Minneapolis was our most-read essay of 2013. In her piece, she makes the case that the plan’s detractors got it all wrong: the bunker-like, Brutalist design is the perfect fulfillment of Surly’s image and brand.

cabin time

Photo: Carson Davis Brown

A history of Cabin Time: Kevin Buist profiled the tight-knit group of Midwestern artists behind the now-internationally-known project, Cabin Time. It began with some Michigan creatives, snowed in together on a vacation getaway Up North.  They made the best of their situation – building campfires, taking hikes, sharing meals and making art with the materials at hand. They also documented everything — and a scrappy, nomadic, thoroughly 21st-century artist residency was born.

CVA

College of Visual Arts in St. Paul announced it would close in June 2013. Photo courtesy of CVA

Behind the scenes of the closing of the College of Visual Arts:  Camille LeFevre dug behind the official talking points about the school’s closing, speaking to CVA’s interim president, faculty and alumni about the college’s money troubles, sinking enrollment, and community concerns about management, plus grassroots efforts to save CVA.

Samantha French

Samantha French, Emerge (clear waters), 48″ x 60″, oil on canvas, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Samantha French, escape artist: Jay Orff considers MN-to-NYC artist Samantha French’s bright, Impressionistic paintings of a summer idyll. He asks: When so much contemporary art seeks to shock and surprise, to push boundaries, is such an unabashedly pleasant, familiar style of work still relevant to the conversation?

summer camp.

Camper Jeff Barnett-Winsby. Photo: Julian Bleecker, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

The secret grace of summer camp: Thanks to Alec Soth and the Little Brown Mushroom team, a group of international artists and writers find themselves at “summer camp for socially awkward storytellers,” immersed in finding the stories hiding in plain sight within the marvelous mundanities of the Midwest – and Ira Brooker covered the story for mnartists.

cindy sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980. Gelatin silver print, 6 3/8 x 9 7/16″ (16.2 x 24 cm). The Museum of Modern Art © 2011 Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman and the art of making faces: Lightsey Darst reviewed January’s Cindy Sherman show at the Walker and calls it one of the most important bodies of feminist art today — but not for any of the reasons cited on the wall in didactics accompanying the artist’s retrospective.

Prairie Fire Lady Choir. Photo: Erin Smith

Prairie Fire Lady Choir. Photo: Erin Smith

The rise of women’s choirs: Deborah Carver profiled the burgeoning Twin Cities women’s choral scene: Prairie Fire Lady Choir, Twin Cities Women’s Choir and Nona Marie’s Anonymous Choir.

nice fish

Nice Fish and an interview in two acts: Connie Wanek spoke with poet Louis Jenkins and Tony Award-winner Mark Rylance last fall, about their collaboration on the play, Nice Fish, and its evolutions from page to stage, as they began preparations for the Guthrie’s world premiere of the production last spring. (And here’s part two of her profile, on the process of casting for the show.)

Sarah Black’s and Jillian Soto, Three Times Around the Long Way (installation view). Photo: Seth Dahlseid

Sarah Black’s and Jillian Soto, Three Times Around the Long Way (installation view). Photo: Seth Dahlseid

Art that dared you to participate: Nathan Young reviewed the sculpture exhibition, Resonating Bodies, at the Soap Factory this July. Specifically, his essay raises the question: If there are no labels on the wall, no readily available didactics, how does a viewer navigate oblique, conceptual art to figure out what they’re seeing? Are such roadmaps to engaging art obsolete?

Ballet of the Dolls perform The Red Shoes in a raw Ritz Theater

Ballet of the Dolls perform The Red Shoes in a raw Ritz Theater

The disappearance of dance curators: Both Cowles and the Southern have now forsaken curated performance seasons for rentals and bottom line-friendly shows. Walker’s dance-focused curator was recently laid off. In this essay, dance critic Lightsey Darst asks, “Are dance curators a luxury we can’t afford? Does it matter?”

More of our most-read articles and essays from 2013, including a few surprises from the archive:

“The Art Stands Alone”: Sheila Regan reviews the third Minnesota biennial at the Soap Factory — , , , curated by Art of This cofounders David Petersen and John Marks

Confessions of a Craft Show Organizer“: Crafty Planet proprietor and No Coast Craft-O-Rama cofounder, Trish Hoskins’ 2008 piece offering tips for selling your work on the craft show circuit

Lumber and Lutheran Grit“: Andy Sturdevant’s mnartists 2008 profile of artist Chris Larson saw a dramatic surge in readers upon the release of his new essay collection published this fall by Coffee House Press, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow

The Play and Power of Women in Hip Hop“: Lightsey Darst’s 2009 essay on Intermedia Arts’ annual month-long celebration of women in hip-hop, B-Girl Be

To Dream of a New Kind of Making“: Ann Klefstad’s review of Duluth Art Institute’s Confluence/Confluencia show, a collaborative exhibition last March by Cecilia Ramon and Carla Stetson

Why Venus DeMars’ Art Matters More Than Her Audit“: Ira Brooker’s essay on what happens when an artist becomes a cause célèbre

A Conversation on Painting“: Painters Joe Smith and Ruben Nusz sat down for a far-ranging conversation about self-help and primal gestures, blankets and childhood, and how to capture the unfixed, unnamed moment before language

Artists Should Be Disappointing Sometimes“: Lightsey Darst on the Low controversy at last summer’s Rock the Garden, risk-taking dance, and the inestimable value of leaving room for artistic blunders

Why Does Minnesota Still Go Crazy for Prince?”: Ira Brooker’s dispatch from this fall’s 2 a.m. concert at Paisley Park

Painting a Place Between Invention and Memory“: Ann Klefstad on Duluth-based artist Scott Murphy

Cornfield Cathedral: Seeing Karl Unnasch’s Grand Masticator

Guest post by artist Aaron Dysart: Karl Unnasch’s The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) towered like an odd cathedral in the cornfield — it’s fitting that a pilgrimage was required to view the work.  Reversing the historical course of a serf’s travel to the city for the sake of a sacred spectacle, this required a journey, […]

The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) on site in a cornfield near Reedsburg, Wisconsin, October 12, 2013. All photos by Aaron Dysart.

Karl Unnasch’s The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) on site in a cornfield near Reedsburg, Wisconsin, October 12, 2013. All photos by Aaron Dysart

Guest post by artist Aaron Dysart:

Karl Unnasch’s The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) towered like an odd cathedral in the cornfield — it’s fitting that a pilgrimage was required to view the work.  Reversing the historical course of a serf’s travel to the city for the sake of a sacred spectacle, this required a journey, leaving the urban behind for the rural, for renewal. The Ruminant was made for the Farm D-tour — on view as part of The Wormfarm Institute’s Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, Wisconsin from October 4 to 13. Unnasch’s monumental piece mashes up the histories of stained glass, comic books and farm machinery to create a funny, expansive re-telling of the harvest narrative.

Stained glass calls to mind houses of worship, often depicting saints and martyrs alongside the instruments of their torture and execution.  Without sacrificing a reverence for that material, The Ruminant swaps in comic book references, both familiar and obscure, for those heroes of Christianity.  Batman takes a knee while tending to a cabbage patch under a victory garden sign; another panel features little known comic hero Tony Chu, an FDA agent who empathically understands the whole life of things he eats.  In turning saints to superheroes, Unnasch shows us the echoes connecting them, recalling Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces.

Detail - Batman takes a knee.

Detail – Batman takes a knee.

Smaller stained panels are placed on the head of the combine, the section of machine that reaps the corn and funnels ears into the machine.  These panels each contain a central image of a hand tool, a nod to what the modern combine has replaced. Indeed, harvest time is inextricable from death, whether plant or animal: one organism survives by killing, and eating, another.  Unnasch’s hand-tools aren’t just nostalgic images, they bring a measure of honesty to his representation of  the reaping. The sharp angles of the panels, not to mention the sharp blades of the tools, highlight a sinister undercurrent to the machine’s operations referencing the savage foundation of our seasonal bounty.

pic.3 pic.4

There are such subtle story-lines throughout the piece.  On the right side of the cab are a series of images: the first panel features a small image of a termite; the middle panel depicts a child eating crayons, and the last (at the front of the cab) shows a mustached man eating an ear of corn.  Decoded: the termite “harvests” as it eats its surroundings; a small child mouths things as a way to understand and explore; and, after tens of thousands of years, humans finally figured out how to effectively combine the two impulses in the act of tending crops.  Read from left to right the series gets further and further from direct interaction with one’s surroundings.   More intriguing, when read from right to left the viewer gets more and more uncomfortable as it transitions from a normal meal, to a parent’s concern of germs, ending in the disgust that insects bring.

pic.5

On the body of the harvester, there are images of vegetables with witty sayings and puns.  The background of these panels, with their flowing arcs of color, add a sense of motion to the static machine and the little vignettes serve to propel the viewer around the work, but these one-off panels never quite rise above kitsch. They certainly don’t operate at the same level as the artist’s more complex layered sequences of narrative panels at the sides and front.

pic.6

Nit-picking aside, the gleeful mixing of material and cultural references in Unnasch’s The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) adds up to something gloriously unexpected — work that at once respects and stretches its appropriated references and their attendant histories.

The spectacle of the piece — and the pilgrimage necessary to see it — was disarming and effective.  As viewers drove up, they had to stop and disembark from their cars, they had to leave the asphalt of the city behind and step onto the field to see the work.

pic.7

About the author

Aaron Dysart is a sculptor who seeks to understand his place as an animal in the natural system. He currently lives and works in Northeast Minneapolis and is an adjunct professor at Anoka Ramsey Community College.

Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)

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