Blogs mnartists.blog Susannah Schouweiler

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for all the original arts writing published by mnartists.org at the Walker Art Center. She has written on the arts for a number of regional and national outlets as well, including MinnPost.com, City Pages, Minneapolis Observer, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Rake, Public Art Review, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Knight Arts blog. Before her work with mnartists.org, Susannah served as Editor-in-Chief for 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

15 Reasons to Attend an Internet Cat Video Festival

It’s back. A second edition of the tremendously popular Internet Cat Video Festival premieres Wednesday evening, August 28 at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. This has become so much more than an excuse to see cat videos projected in public. Here are 15 reasons to attend the Great Minnesota Cat-Together and its assorted shindigs. 15.  Cats. You […]

The world's first #CatVidFest at the Walker Art Center drew more than 10,000 people in 2012.

The world’s first #CatVidFest at the Walker Art Center drew more than 10,000 people in 2012. The second annual festival will be Wednesday, August 28 at 7 pm in the Minnesota State Fairgrounds Grandstand.

It’s back. A second edition of the tremendously popular Internet Cat Video Festival premieres Wednesday evening, August 28 at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. This has become so much more than an excuse to see cat videos projected in public. Here are 15 reasons to attend the Great Minnesota Cat-Together and its assorted shindigs.

15.  Cats. You have them, you love them, you snap photos of them as they fall adorably off things. Come, be among your people. Join in one the largest gatherings of feline fans in the world.  This humble event has grown to be recognized around the globe, and we have a brand new reel of fresh videos to share with you.

14. Spectacle. Not so much into cats? Come for the primo people-watching. Visitors to last year’s festival were calling it “the new Burning Man” for good reason. You’ll also be treated to live performances by Brian Laidlaw and the Family Trade and the indefatigably upbeat Koo Koo Kanga Roo.

13. Swag. Pick up a sweet Golden Kitty commemorative poster or #CatVidFest tour t-shirt, or choose from an assortment of other limited-edition festival tchotchkes, and show off your keen eye for culture.

12. Kitty Cosplay. Dress up as your favorite real-world feline or Internet cat-lebrity and win prizes, plus a chance at seeing your whiskered self on Animal Planet’s website. Animal Planet will have photographers roving the audience during the event, looking for the best cat costumes.

Photo from the 2012 Internet Cat Video Festival, courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Photo from the 2012 Internet Cat Video Festival, courtesy of the Walker Art Center

11. DIY/DIT activities and opportunities to get schooled in the fine art of cat care. In the spirit of Open Field, the summer-long Walker Art Center project that spawned the Internet Cat Video Festival, there will be a number of interactive artist projects throughout the event, including live painting by local artist Rudy Fig, letterpress printing by Lunalux, and an interactive cat video project with San Francisco–based artist Maria Mortati. The festival will also include representatives from the local Animal Humane Society and Caring for Cats and other animal resource nonprofits to help educate attendees on a variety of cat-related issues.

10. Funny or Die favorite Julie Klausner will be there. The prolific New York–based comedy writer, performer and podcaster extraordinaire will co-host this year’s festival.

Comedian and writer Julie Klausner, creator and host of the podcast, How Was Your Week, will co-host #CatVidFest 2013.

Comedian and writer Julie Klausner, creator and host of the podcast, How Was Your Week, will co-host #CatVidFest 2013.

9. Pro-tips from An Engineer’s Guide to Cats creators Paul Klusman and TJ Wingard.

8. See international cat video stars who call Minnesota home. Pudge the Cat and Kittens Inspired by Kittens star Maddie Kelly will be in the house.

7.  Keyboards and Flying Pop Tarts.  With over 130 million combined YouTube views, Charlie Schmidt’s iconic Keyboard Cat and Chris Torres’ looping animation Nyan Cat took the cat video from viral ephemera to full-blown pop cultural phenomenon. Meet the original cat video stars who started it all.

6. We have a Butter Cat. In celebration of the Great Minnesota Get-Together and its traditions, #CatVidFest sponsor Animal Planet has commissioned the same butter sculptor who annually carves the likeness of the Princess Kay of the Milky Way to apply her talents to the cat theme. The complete sculpture will be revealed at the festival shortly before the screening of the reel. Here’s a time-lapse of its creation.

5. Lil BUB. BUB’s owner, Mike Bridavsky, will be at the festival this year. He’s turned his viral cat video experience into a new book: Lil BUB’s Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet, which will be released September 3.

The BUB himself. Courtesy of Mike Bridavsky.

The BUB himself. Courtesy of Mike Bridavsky.

4.  And the 2013 Golden Kitty goes to… Who will walk away with the #CatVidFest hardware? Last year, Will Braden’s now iconic Henri Le Chat Noir #2 took the coveted Golden Kitty as the People’s Choice Best of Festival. Click here to view the nominated videos for 2013. Award winners will be announced at the conclusion of the festival.

3. Grumpy Cat. The perpetually dour feline will be on hand to hate on everything deep-fried and on a stick, and to complain about the weather.

2. See tomorrow’s viral sensation today. We’re debuting several new videos, including a brand new clip by last year’s Golden Kitty Award-winner, Henri Le Chat Noir creator Will Braden.  (Spoiler alert: Henri has an encounter with the cat sitter. Angst ensues.)

1. It’s not about watching cat videos, it’s about watching cat videos together. One of the main reasons why this event has been such a success with audiences around the world is that it taps into a universal desire to gather together for the sake of sharing a sincere and joyful experience. You’re going to feel good about the world when you walk out of the Grandstand Wednesday night – we promise.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE:  If you don’t get your fill of cat happiness at the festival, we have more planned for the day following, including a book signingpublic lecture on the experience of going viral, and a #CatVidFest after-party at the (appropriately named) Kitty Cat Club. So, if you don’t get the perfect Facebook pic with our favorite cat celebrity, you’ll have a better chance to catch them at these more intimate events.

Related event information:

Internet Cat Video Festival 2013 will take place August 28, 7 pm in the Minnesota State Fairgrounds Grandstand. Tickets are $10.

10 Questions for #catvidfest 2013 Co-Host Julie Klausner

JULIE KLAUSNER: Cat fancier, writer and creator of the hugely popular podcast, How Was Your Week Location: New York City Dayjob: Writer Online: http://julieklausner.com Twitter: @julieklausner Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your story? I live in New York City, and I make a living as a writer of all sorts of things, but mostly television […]

Creator and host of the podcast, How Was Your Week.

Klausner is creator and host of the podcast, How Was Your WeekShe is also cohost of this year’s Internet Cat Video Festival in the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand on Wednesday, August 28.

JULIE KLAUSNER: Cat fancier, writer and creator of the hugely popular podcast, How Was Your Week
Location: New York City
Dayjob: Writer
Online: http://julieklausner.com
Twitter: @julieklausner

Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your story?

I live in New York City, and I make a living as a writer of all sorts of things, but mostly television and occasionally books and articles. I love cats dearly. And dogs. I love animals, in general, and always have. They make me feel a very deep joy that isn’t a super-frequent occurrence in my life. I can laugh from my gut at an animal video when I feel unreachable otherwise.

How many cats do you own and what are their names?

I have one tuxedo cat, and his name is Jimmy Jazz. Before Jimmy, I lived with my beloved Smiley Muffin for 12 years. She was my heart. I miss her very dearly.

Anyone who listens to your podcast knows you’re a cat lover. Even your website’s filled with cats. What’s your personal history with felines? 

I’ve always loved cats, but I didn’t grow up with them because my mom and brother claim to be allergic. But the very same month I moved into my own place after college, I got a cat. And she was the source of endless fascination and entertainment — just watching her, enjoying her personality and proclivities. Dare I say, she was my muse.

Cats are beyond “cute” to me. They have a pompousness, a high-status inflection of “I’m better than you,” that truly makes me laugh. Because, in reality, they’re pretty dumb – they have half the frontal lobe intelligence of dogs, but they act like they’re smarter than humans. They get away with murder because they’re soft, essentially. Their faces are naturally set in this disapproving expression, and then they’ll do something ridiculous — like fall off a chair or collect pieces of garbage to hide behind your couch. The disparity between their intelligence and their affectation is just so deeply funny to me – so much unfounded confidence. They are also wonderful pets that you never have to take outside in order to facilitate their going to the bathroom, and that’s ideal for writers and lazy people who aren’t crazy about leaving the apartment when it’s raining. And there’s nothing quite like a purring cat curled up to you. It really does melt your heart like a hot knife through butter.

How did you first hear about the Internet Cat Video Festival

I can’t remember exactly when I heard about it, but it started popping up on my social media feeds, and I remember reading about it and thinking “I have to be a part of this.”

Both cat videos and the online brand you have established have proved to be far from fleeting phenomena.  What’s the future for this type of cultural production? 

It sounds cynical to say “more of the same,” but I mean it in the best possible way. Cats doing stuff will never not be fascinating to people who live with pet cats and who love cats (and there are a lot of us) – the more ordinary the scenario, the better. We like to see cats acting dumb and we always will. It’s hilarious and it’s adorable, and I’m not completely sure why. I guess there are people who collect photos of babies being silly; maybe it’s similar, only cats never grow up into adult humans.

This is a question we get all of the time, so we’re going to spin it back to you.  Are cat videos art?

I think it depends on the cat video and the context. Whenever you show something in a museum, the meaning changes. But I don’t think intention matters when it comes to art. Whether you clicked “record” on your phone to amuse your boyfriend, or you set the stage to make a masterpiece, the good stuff rises to the top like cream.

Mmm, cream.

You’ve produced a brand new video with Funny or Die that will premiere at this year’s festival: What can you tell us about it?

Well, I’m not a standup, so I always feel like I have to over-compensate whenever I go into live performances or hosting gigs — like I have to prepare a Powerpoint presentation, or a song and dance number to provide a good justification for why the hell I got the job.

So, I had this idea for a video [about the life of a cat video creator] and collaborated with Funny or Die, as well as with my pals Alex Scordelis and Jake Fogelnest, to make it. I got to work with a professional cat actor and his handler, and that was truly fascinating. Because pro cats are still cats. They won’t listen to you, even if they’re trained. They’re less skittish around people, I guess. But at one point, he was supposed to walk alongside me on a leash, and he was having NONE of that. It was completely cool, though – I picked him up and we had a lovely moment. But, yes. The moral of the story is: Cats are cats.

What are you working on now, cat-related or otherwise?

I’m writing for season three of [Funny or Die TV series] Billy on the Street and working on a couple of TV projects I hope to sell, plus a play I wrote and am rewriting. I do my podcast, How Was Your Week, every Friday [you can subscribe on iTunes!].

I’m also preparing for the next How Was Your Week Live at The Bell House, October 30, and another run of my cabaret show at Joe’s Pub the week before Thanksgiving.

What are your favorite cat videos?

I really loved Ze Frank’s Sad Cat Diaries, everything Henri has ever done, and Maru’s opus.

Any parting thoughts on the Internet Cat Video Festival and other such offline celebrations of cat video culture?

I’m all for it. It’s so fun and funny and positive. Anything that brings people together over cat videos – I’m in favor.

Related event information:

Internet Cat Video Festival 2013 will take place August 28, 7 p.m. in the Minnesota State Fairgrounds Grandstand. Tickets are $10. Find details: http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2013/internet-cat-video-festival-2

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, the […]

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Still from It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE!, 2007. Directed by Crispin Glover, written by and starring Steven C. Stewart. Courtesy of www.crispinglover.com

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, the daily newspaper, a Duluth-area arts website.

The movie was part of a headline event at the Duluth/Superior Film Festival, an exercise in masturbatory weirdness that included “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow,” featuring a one-hour dramatic narration-plus-slideshow projection conducted by the man himself, showcasing eight different re-purposed books he’s painstakingly annotated and illustrated with various flights of grotesque fantasy. By all accounts, Glover waxed on (cryptically, often incomprehensibly) for a while about the project and projected some pictures. Then they screened his new movie, a semi-autobiographical flick written by and starring Steven C. Stewart (a screenwriter who has severe cerebral palsy), directed by Glover in 2007. (This is the second in Glover’s “It” trilogy, which began with the twisted and surreal 2005 film, What Is It?)

It is Fine… is billed as a “psycho-sexual tale about a man with severe cerebral palsy and a fetish for girls with long hair. Part horror film, part exploitation picture, and part documentary of a man who cannot express his sexuality in the way he desires (due to his physical condition), this fantastical and often humorous tale is told completely from Stewart’s actual point of view – that of someone who has lived for years watching people do things he will never be able to do.” The character at the film’s center may be seriously disabled, but he’s by no means incapacitated. Indeed, he is a ladykiller in every sense of the word: the film follows episodes of his seduction and subsequent savaging of the various (silver screen–ready) women he encounters.

Violation, subjugation, torture – the film revels in sexual violence, degradation, and pain. Its subject matter is gleefully indecent, expressly made to transgress the bounds of appropriateness, intended as an assault on both viewers’ sensibilities and the Hollywood establishment. In interviews about his films, Glover presents himself as a fearless truth-teller, showing us what the corporate studio process wouldn’t dare. He says he’s putting taboo content front and center, thereby forcing us to contend with the full measure of our shared ugliness and hypocrisy; that he’s just showing us real human experience, unvarnished by wishful thinking or pretty dissembling, as seen through the lens of those typically invisible to popular culture (e.g. people with developmental and physical disabilities). The screenwriter/lead actor died shortly after making the film, but Glover’s quoted as saying he was similarly motivated, that Stewart “wanted to show that handicapped people are human, sexual and can be horrible.”

“Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow” is currently touring the country. In addition to the Duluth film festival, this month Glover stopped in Minneapolis’ Heights Theatre; he’s soon making stops in Museum of Arts and Design and IFC in New York City; Littleton, Colorado; Kansas, City, Missouri.

Engage or Boycott?

Back to our letter-writer: So, Kat Mandeville, not quite sure what she was in for, turned out to see Glover’s event in Duluth’s Zinema. She gleaned from the prefatory remarks what was in store and walked out before the screening began. In emails we’ve exchanged since then, Mandeville has indicated she felt she’d be colluding in the exploitation, part of the problem, if she’d stayed to attend the movie and talk-back that followed — even if she watched in protest and spoke up to challenge the film and audience afterward. Finding entertainment in work that exalts “rape culture” in this way, she says, including public screenings in institutionally upright venues and treating those works as merely provocative, amounts to a kind of “cannibalism.” We’re feeding off pain and hate and violence perpetrated against our sisters, wives, daughters and mothers, she argues. The problem’s a pervasive one, harmful even when it’s dressed up as “art” and presented as a provocative amusement – and when we stay to watch, we’re not just voyeurs on real pain, we’re dishonest about our part in perpetuating it.

Her published response to the Duluth iteration of “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow” and screening, in full:

In the wake of the screening of Crispin Glover’s film, It is Fine! Everything is Fine, as part of the Duluth/Superior Film Festival last weekend — a film that romanticizes a man’s explicit sexual fantasies of the rape and torture of women — I have questions for progressive Duluthians who were there and for our community as a whole.

Does one man’s pain with cerebral palsy and his being trapped in the prison of his own body eclipse the pain of female identity trapped in the misogynist-sadist fantasy of a romanticized snuff film? Is this an implicit argument the film is making? In the end, isn’t the handicapped man’s subjective experience of sexuality not so different from the increasing demand for glamorized rape and torture of women shown in social media: that of women as soulless mannequins used for sexual exploitation and the destruction of women for pleasure?

Men who were in the audience: how often can you watch rape and torture of women before it alters the way you think about women? The way you look at them? The way you fantasize about them? The way you touch them?

Women in the audience: who among you has experienced sexualized hate crimes or know a woman who has? And did you think of yourself and of these women during the film?

Fathers of daughters in the audience: how do you justify to your daughter supporting a film that fantasizes the same kind of rape and exploitation she has a one-in-three chance of experiencing herself?

And why was none of this discussed at the talk-back after the film? Yes, Glover only screens the film where he can answer questions in person, but how effective is that if the audience is too star-struck and approval-seeking to ask controversial questions?

If Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King were female, what would they think of Glover’s film and the progressive members of Duluth who lined up to support it? Or of the connection between films like Glover’s and the Steubenville high school rape case, in which boys dragged around an intoxicated, unconscious peer, stripped her and sexually assaulted her for the viewing pleasure of social media? Is our nation so desensitized to rape and torture that half of us are unclear how we should react? Would Malcolm X and Dr. King see Duluth celebrating a film like Glover’s as a community engaged in cannibalism? Would they be outraged?

Then why aren’t we?

In the talk-back, Glover remarked that films using propaganda upset him. Why was it not pointed out that 70 minutes of torture and rape romanticized in his film was, indeed, propaganda? Was it so obvious it could be dismissed with the commonly used sentiment of, “Yes, exploiting women is wrong; now move over a little, you’re blocking my view of it”? Or was it because propaganda works and our esteem for women has sunk so low that when it’s depicted on the big screen we don’t see women oppressed by hatred; we see a singular man oppressed by pain?

Do we realize how similar this is to the unconscious hate-propaganda used throughout history to perpetuate hatred of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals? That oppression and exploitation of women is among the most epic struggles, and that progress is sabotaged when a community that should know better takes part in the entertainment of rape and torture? Do we realize how normalized rape and torture has become that we can watch 70 minutes of it being romanticized without impulse to object or critique?

And where was I, you ask? Upon hearing the film’s description, I walked out before it started. Later I listened to an account of the talk-back. And as it turns out, one doesn’t have to wallow through an entire film to discern what it’s about and critique what it’s doing. Looking over the audience as we took our seats in the theater before Glover’s film, I had a feeling of dread I would be the only one to speak-up about the dehumanizing of women, and if I left, I knew no one would start that dialogue. To be sitting in a theater of artists and musicians (among others) who consider themselves elevated; feminist; radical; speakers of the oppressed, and realize none of them are going to challenge the pseudo-celebrity was a sick feeling indeed. To find out later I was entirely right, was even worse.

But despite leaving, I’m still guilty, like those who attended and didn’t speak up. I’m guilty of tolerating what shouldn’t be tolerated. I should’ve said something in the theater before I left, something like, “What are we celebrating by watching a film like this? What does this mean about the culture we’re willing to become?” Instead I simply left. And for that I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of Duluth and the naïveté that filled the Zinema seats last Saturday night. And I’m ashamed of the hypocrisy that applauded afterward.

What will it take for the average person (let alone the well-educated person) to realize it isn’t enough to like women or to love them? We must fight against the hatred directly, or change will not be possible. And to do this, we all must learn to recognize our culture’s unconscious hatred of women. Glover’s film was an opportunity to do so — an opportunity that was squandered.

My commentary and your responses can give us another chance to have the conversation. Duluth, how do you answer?

Kat Mandeville of Duluth graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with an undergraduate degree in theater. She has worked in television and film in Los Angeles, where she witnessed the exploitation of women firsthand. In the summers she studies philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.

This commentary was first published in the Opinion section of the Duluth News Tribune, 6/8/13 and reprinted on Perfect Duluth Day, 6/9/13. It is reproduced here with permission. Incidentally, there is a lively ongoing conversation in the comments section of PDD — worth a read if you’re interested.

It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE!, 74 minutes run time, 35mm color, 2007.

It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE!, 74 minutes run time, 35mm color, 2007.

So, What Do You Think?

When does work cross the line from provocation to obscenity? What’s your reaction to this and other “offensive” art, and organizations which house and promote it? If work offends you, what’s the best course of action: engagement or boycott? If you’d choose the former, what sort of community conversation can/should come out of displays of work that consciously offends the audience? At what point does titillation become outright exploitation? Is it okay to find such entertaining? What about other “offensive” art: Mapplethorpe, Piss Christ, John Ahearn’s South Bronx sculptures, misogynistic hip hop? At what point does outrage-in-action have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and meaningful public discourse about thorny issues and controversial themes?

Have any of you seen Glover’s films? What did you think of them – and the response of the audience around you?

UPDATED 5/20/13: ArtPrize Pitch Night Cheatsheet

Minnesota artists: What would you do with $5,000, 400,000 people and an entire bridge to work with? This year, the Walker Art Center is teaming up with ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan to sweeten the pot for Minnesota artists interested in participating in the prestigious annual international art competition. If you think you might have some […]

ArtPrize 2012 - photo courtesy of Brian Kelly Photography and the Walker Art Center

ArtPrize 2012 – photo courtesy of Brian Kelly Photography and the Walker Art Center

Minnesota artists: What would you do with $5,000, 400,000 people and an entire bridge to work with? This year, the Walker Art Center is teaming up with ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan to sweeten the pot for Minnesota artists interested in participating in the prestigious annual international art competition. If you think you might have some compelling public art ideas to propose, get a leg up by attending tomorrow night’s ArtPrize info session in the Walker Art Center Lecture Room. In addition to some of the local panelists involved in the Minnesota contingent of this year’s competition, ArtPrize’s Director of Exhibitions, Kevin Buist, will be on hand to offer some background on ArtPrize and to answer questions from artists interested in getting involved.

What is ArtPrize and how does the competition work?

Every fall, two thousand artists from around the world come to Grand Rapids, Michigan to compete for half a million dollars in prizes – real money is at stake here. Participating artists’ installations fill the city — from museums and galleries to restaurants, banks, and city parks. During the two-and-a-half week ArtPrize exhibition, which annually draws some 400,000 visitors, members of the public will vote to determine which artist will win the big $200,000 prize. A panel of world-renowned jurors will also select a $100,000 Juried Grand Prize winner, as well as five $20,000 winners in various categories.

And this year, during the month of May, Minnesota artists are especially invited to create proposals for an installation on Grand Rapids’ Gillett Bridge, a highly trafficked pedestrian bridge in the center of the ArtPrize exhibition. After the month-long open submissions period has closed, at a “Pitch Night” event held at the Walker on May 30, five selected finalists will give a five-minute presentation using five slides a piece to make the case for their project proposals. A panel of five local artists and curators, along with members of the audience, will be able to ask questions of the artists following their presentations. At the end of the night, the five panelists will select a Minnesota artist from among the finalists who presented their pitches. That artist will receive a $5,000 grant to realize their proposal on the Gillett Bridge; the resulting work will also be in the running for awards given during the international ArtPrize 2013 competition and exhibition in September.

ArtPrize 2013, Grand Rapids, MI is an international art competition and exhibition that runs from September 18 through October 6 and awards more than $500,000 in prizes to artists selected through both public and juried vote.

ArtPrize 2013, Grand Rapids, MI is an international art competition and exhibition that runs from September 18 through October 6 and awards more than $500,000 in prizes to artists selected through both public and juried vote.

Dates and deadlines:

ArtPrize info session: Tuesday, April 30 at 7 pm in the Lecture Room (off the Bazinet Lobby) at the Walker Art Center

Open submissions period for the Walker/ArtPrize installation on Gillett Bridge: May 1 to May 22.

Any artist living in Minnesota who is 18 years of age or older is eligible to enter. Find the full call for artists on mnartists.org.

“Pitch Night: Take it to the Bridge” - Five finalists will each have five minutes to make a pitch before our local panel of experts and a live audience. One will be selected at the end of the evening to receive a $5000 prize with which to realize their proposal for public art project on Gillett Bridge during this year’s ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The 2013 “Pitch Night” panelists:

Chris Larson, a Minnesota-based multimedia artist and educator whose work has been shown all over the world

Ben Heywood, Executive Director of the Soap Factory

Sarah Peters, a Twin Cities-based artist, writer and arts programmer who currently works as the Director of Public Engagement for Northern Lights.mn (the collaborative arts agency behind the Northern Spark Festival)

Scott Stulen, mnartists.org Project Director

Sarah Schultz, Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice at the Walker Art Center.

Gillett Bridge in Grand Rapids, MI - in the heart of this year's ArtPrize exhibition and site of a specially selected installation by a Minnesota artist this year.

Gillett Bridge in Grand Rapids, MI is a venue at the heart of this year’s ArtPrize exhibition and set aside as a site for an installation by a Minnesota artist who will be awarded $5000 to realize a proposal selected through a competitive process on “Pitch Night,” May 30 at the Walker Art Center.

Tips from ArtPrize Director of Exhibitions, Kevin Buist:

What kind of work is most likely to get the ArtPrize panelists’ attention for this special installation on the bridge? 

The panel [evaluating submissions from Minnesota artists for this installation] will be looking for a proposal for one installation on the Gillett Bridge that is both compelling and feasible.

Some questions to consider: How will the artist(s) make use of this unique space? Thousands of people cross the bridge during the event, how will crowds affect the work? Is $5,000 enough to ship and install the work? If not, what’s the plan to cover additional costs?

When and for how long will the work be installed? How many works will be chosen in total for this Walker/ArtPrize partnership?

One proposal will be chosen on “Pitch Night” for the entire bridge. An exact installation date is not set, but it will likely be one to two weeks before ArtPrize begins on September 18. The work will need to be taken town within a week after the end of ArtPrize on October 6.

Why is ArtPrize partnering with the Walker this year? Why involve Minnesota artists in this Michigan-based competition? 

“Pitch Night” is a brand new initiative for 2013. It’s a way for artists from other cities to get funding to realize ambitious projects within ArtPrize. The partnership with Walker is the first iteration of this new initiative, but we hope to expand the program to include similar partnerships with other museums in other cities.

Minnesota artists should enter ArtPrize because it’s an international art competition. It takes place in Grand Rapids, but it’s fast becoming a global showcase for emerging artists. Last year ArtPrize featured artists from 39 states and 46 countries.

What’s in it for the artists who compete? Who have been some of the previous years’ winners (are there any names we’d recognize)?

Obviously, there’s a lot of money on the line — $560,000 split between 16 awards, ten determined by public vote and six of which are juried. Winning is great, but when we talk to artists, we find that the size and level of engagement of the ArtPrize audience is an even bigger reward. Over 400,000 people visited over two-and-a-half weeks last year, and the population of Grand Rapids is only 200,000. We also find that projects can be launched quickly and without the typical level of red tape that slows down a lot of public art initiatives. ArtPrize has been embraced by the community in a unique way, and the city looks forward to an infusion of fresh ideas from all over the world. It’s an environment for artists to experiment with temporary projects that benefit from a large, engaged audience.

A list of last year’s winners can be found here: http://www.artprize.org/visit/winners

ADDENDUM 5/20/13: More from Kevin Buist about the history and philosophy behind ArtPrize and this year’s partnership with the Walker

This fall, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan will be overrun by artists. For the fifth year, my colleagues and I will stage ArtPrize, the world’s largest art competition.

More than 1,500 artists exhibiting their works at nearly 150 venues, all competing for $560,000 in awards which are distributed by public vote and professional jury. More than 400,000 visitors came to the 2012 exhibition, and even more are expected in 2013.

New for the 2013 event, ArtPrize has partnered with the Walker Art Center for a regional grant program. One artist from Minnesota will have a unique opportunity to receive a grant to help them realize an ambitious project for ArtPrize. We’re calling it “Pitch Night: Take it to the Bridge.” On May 30 at 7:00 pm in the Walker Cinema, five Minnesota artists will give each give a five minute presentation to the audience and a panel of five judges, explaining why their project should be given a $5,000 grant to create their project at ArtPrize 2013.

Why Minnesota? Why the Walker?

ArtPrize has long admired the Walker Art Center’s programming, specifically Open Field. The more we researched what they were doing and how they were thinking about the program and its relationship to the museum, the affinity between the two initiatives became clear. This quote from the introduction of Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, by Sarah Schultz and Sarah Peters, sums up the shared sensibility nicely: “Open Field is about building a more responsive and responsible museum that sets out to produce something of collective value with the public, rather than for them.”

We started ArtPrize in 2009 as a radically open experiment in how to create a city-wide contemporary art exhibition. ArtPrize doesn’t curate the show, and we don’t select the winners. In lieu of central programming, we’ve built ArtPrize.org to act almost like a dating website for artists and potential venues. Additionally, we gave the attendees, rather than the organizers, the power to decide who wins. The first year, there were ten prizes, all decided entirely by public vote, with $250,000 as the top prize. Starting the second year, we began to add juried awards into the mix.

Just last year, ArtPrize launched a $100,000 Juried Grand Prize, and five $20,000 juried prizes in various categories. These are awarded alongside $360,000 for the public vote top ten, including $200,000 for the top vote-getter.

We decided to design the event this way for several reasons:

  • Engagement with the arts is vital to creating meaningful interactions within communities. The trouble is that the arts are often overlooked by large swaths of the population. We make art impossible to ignore to give artists more ways to interrupt everyday life.
  • The competition needed to be fun, because we believe that people learn more and are more receptive to new ideas when they play.
  •  We believe that debate is good. Rather than program an exhibition in private and deliver it to the public, we’ve chosen to invite the public to be intimately involved in the production and assessment of the show. The results are delightfully messy. People all over town feverishly debate what’s good and what isn’t, or what should be considered art. The debates, and the tensions they reveal, are good outcomes.

This design has turned Grand Rapids into a community that values art and respects the opinions of all people, with the public and arts professionals coming together in an epic conversation.

–ArtPrize Director of Exhibitions, Kevin Buist

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