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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.

The Columnest: The Footlocker

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We […]

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We hadn’t picked out these things. We had acquired them at garage sales or in boxes of hand-me-downs, but that didn’t make us like them any less. Annually, these clothes had the strange appeal of seeming to belong to other children, of promising to make us other children when we put them on.

When my mother quit doing this, I don’t remember. I suppose we grew up and our now-bulkier winter things could be better stored in big Tupperwares under our beds. And then, there was the fact that we lived in Florida—north Florida, where there is a seasonal change known to residents as “winter,” but Florida nevertheless. In fact, looking back, I can hardly understand what it was all about, the footlocker, the mothballs. As a college student in Florida, I knew I had gloves, but I had no idea where they were. My warmest winter garment in regular use was an unlined leather jacket.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Maybe the winter clothes were a holdover from my mother’s own childhood. She grew up in Florida too, but somehow I imagine the world was a little colder then. My grandmother (another Floridian) routinely wore wool scarves and lined skirt suits. And I have a turn-of-the-century photograph of some mysterious old Aunt Amy standing in a full-length, long-sleeved wool dress, digging the point of her umbrella into the parched grass of central Florida. She looks unhappy, but not quite melting in her heavy clothes. Yes, the Little Ice Age, that must be it. Ended in about 1985, right?

Or, perhaps the winter clothes had to do with our annual trip to North Carolina: one week in the mountains every October. The first year we went, I was four-and-a-half, and it was the farthest north I’d ever been. We stayed that year in a house belonging to a minister friend of my grandmother’s, or to a minister friend of her minister—at any rate, it was a preacher’s house, a big house, a big old box of a house set in a sloping yard full of fallen leaves. About the actual inside of the house I remember very little, but I remember its basement. A basement! This was practically unheard of in Florida. And this basement had little windows high in the walls—too high for us to see out of, but a little swing hung from the basement rafters, and at the top of its arc my brother and I could see the brown leaves that lay bedded in all around the house.

A swing in the basement of a preacher’s house? What kind of gothic horror had we stumbled into? Surely I remember it wrong. That may be: I’ve never asked anyone in my family about this memory of mine. I like it too much; even if it’s wrong, I’m keeping it.

That is how childhood memories work, isn’t it? No one is ever quite sure about them. “I remember it this way—which is funny, because it couldn’t have been.” Or, as my father says in preface, when he’s uncertain whether he’s retelling his memory or someone else’s or a memory reconstructed from a photograph: “This may be an implanted memory.” For all their central vividness—of first-felt emotion, of self-making—childhood memories can be strangely fuzzy around the edges.

I recall a few I eventually had to reject as impossible. One involved my grandmother telling how my father (aged two or three) tumbled off the top of a two-story building and cracked his head open. In another, a pet crayfish marvelously revived—not only after death, but after I had chucked its body into the trash. A closer acquaintance with the consistency of the universe obliged me to give them both up: cracked heads stay cracked, dead crawdads stay dead. And the giving up, after some initial puzzlement, was easy: one must have been a misunderstanding, the other a dream confused with life.

I would be a different person if I had kept those memories; I gave up them up to become myself.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The footlocker held more than our warm clothes; in lower layers, it preserved cast-offs of my mother’s, things she was done wearing. Did she save them for me? I did eventually take a pintucked smock, red with white cuffs and collar and a pattern of tiny moons and suns. But the fringed suede miniskirt and vest set—I never even tried it on, and I don’t know why. My mother quit mentioning it was there. Her wedding dress, too—I used to see that every so often, lying folded under the floating shelf in the footlocker, off-white, empire-waist, with daisy chain embroidery. She didn’t bring it up when I came to be married, and neither did I.

Sometimes it seems that this whole set of memories—the footlocker, the strangers’ clothes (because my mother’s old clothes, too, described a stranger, someone I would never know), the house in Dillard with the basement swing—belongs to someone else. It’s tinged with the sunset orange of the seventies, a decade I don’t remember, though it made me. When I look this way, I become historical to myself, as curious as that photo of Aunt Amy. What is she thinking, how old is she? What does she already know? What has she given up to get here?

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

Bookish: War Letters

I’ve been struggling with this column on the literature of war for well over a month. How can I do these books, and this huge subject, justice? Yet my mind keeps returning to the idea; I find myself compulsively reading on the topic. So, I’m forging ahead, adequate to the task or not, because such […]

War reporter Martha Gellhorn and husband Ernest Hemingway with General Yu in Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941.

War reporter Martha Gellhorn and husband Ernest Hemingway with General Yu in Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941.

I’ve been struggling with this column on the literature of war for well over a month. How can I do these books, and this huge subject, justice? Yet my mind keeps returning to the idea; I find myself compulsively reading on the topic. So, I’m forging ahead, adequate to the task or not, because such books have never been timelier or more important.

In recent months we’ve seen (or, depending on your point of view, not seen enough of) the horrors involving Israel and Gaza. The total death toll since the beginning of the Iraq war has now topped 500,000 by most estimates. We’ve just engaged in a new conflict in the Middle East, this time to combat ISIS. These days, war is a constant for the United States and in many other countries throughout the world. I’m not aiming at an overtly political piece here; this isn’t an op-ed column as such. But the substance of my reading life in the last 12 to 18 months is inextricably linked to these ongoing conflicts. I find my thoughts on the books and on war as a state of being are likewise connected.

Of course, war is nothing new — it’s long been a staple of both literature and human interaction. Has anything else, excepting possibly love, inspired and ignited so much art in any genre? In the world of fiction, particularly, war has been the crux of so many well-regarded and much read works over the past decade or so. Quite possibly the most popular war novel ever is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It is a book I love and one, I would argue, that contains the finest first two pages in contemporary American literature. In fact, the Vietnam War spawned a huge amount of both reportage and fiction from the late 1960s and continuing up to the present. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn was just published in 2011 but, by all accounts, was three decades in the making. Going further back, we have All Quiet on the Western Front and most of T.E. Lawrence’s writings. Hemingway, Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Dalton Trumbo — all of them wrote well on the topic. Tug the thread and the literary tradition goes all the way back to Homer, Virgil. Start a list and the subject’s so vast, you’re bound to leave important something out.

I’ll keep my own tally to war novels I’ve read in just the last few years: works by Nathan Englander and Dave Eggers; David James Duncan and Daniel Alarcon. Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore is a short, sharp and dismal novel, and not enough readers know about it. Boubacar Boris Diop has written, poignantly, about the atrocities in Rwanda. T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It Until It Hurts centers not on conflict itself, but on the aftermath of war. The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, is set in Kandahar and notably narrated by a woman. Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days is likewise told from the point of view of a mother whose son was involved in the Osama Bin Laden raid. Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is about a Canadian soldier deployed in Afghanistan whose life unravels in many ways. Ben Fountain’s and Kevin Powers’ books, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Yellow Birds respectively, both won critical acclaim. (Powers himself is an Iraq War veteran.)

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All of this goes to show there is no shortage of new writing about war — about its camaraderie and implicit dangers, its sadness and far-reaching arm. Another thing plainly evident in this list: nearly all of these books about war are written by men. Which makes sense, to a certain degree, considering the fact that, while the consequent effects of wartime are certainly shared across population categories, women’s direct participation in military conflict is still relatively new.

Given the predominance of men’s voices here, I’m somewhat surprised when I look at my favorite nonfiction books regarding war, to realize that two of the three on my list were written by women, and written long ago. I am an unabashed fan of the NYRB Classics series. The imprint covers so much ground, and has saved so very many fine books from obscurity, that I probably could read from its list alone and be content. This series is rich in good writers who I’d have otherwise missed. Take Vasily Grossman: He has several books included in the catalog, but his most impressive work is Life And Fate. This book about World War II weighs in at 871 pages and ends in 1960. One of the first embedded journalists, Grossman traveled with the Red Army for a long time, and his wartime account was deemed so dangerous by the Soviet government that, not only was the book banned, the typewriter it was written on was confiscated. It’s a great read: if my house were on fire, I would run back in to save this book.

The next nonfiction book on my shortlist is The Face of War, a collection of war reporting written and compiled by Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn wrote about the Spanish Civil War in 1937, as well as the wars in Latin/South/Central America in the 1980s. Born in 1908, she was married to Hemingway for about five years and considered herself a resolutely anti-war writer. She covered various conflicts in Java and Vietnam, Finland and El Salvador, but more than that, she captured the lives of people who were left to occupy the ravaged margins of those wars.

Finally, I’d call your attention to Ruth Gruber’s writing. She was born in 1911 and served as a foreign correspondent, primarily in the role of photographer, for the New York Herald Tribune for more than thirty years. She is best known for her portrayal of the horrors of Jewish life during the second World War. I was so struck by her images and text, I sent a note of appreciation to Gruber about six months ago, mailed to her Upper West Side, New York City address. Her agent responded and said that, due to her age (103), she no longer corresponds directly with readers. Still, he added, she was pleased I had enjoyed her work. Look her up – Gruber’s is a legacy of wartime reporting worth remembering.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

A Sublime Feeling In My GUT: Eric William Carroll’s Theory of Everything

“You must cast off these absurd confusions and rebuild your conception of reality before the Geocubic concepts will get past the automatic rejection that occurs as your mind filters information against criterion of consistency intended to protect you from confusions but resulting in locking you into misconceptions.” – from Geocubic Theory, by Tom Gilmore (1988) […]

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

“You must cast off these absurd confusions and rebuild your conception of reality before the Geocubic concepts will get past the automatic rejection that occurs as your mind filters information against criterion of consistency intended to protect you from confusions but resulting in locking you into misconceptions.” – from Geocubic Theory, by Tom Gilmore (1988) as excerpted by Eric William Carroll in Figure 2.2 The Span of Time

I’m entranced by the images from the Hubble Space Telescope. When I first encountered the photographs several years ago, I didn’t know all that much about how they were made or even exactly what I was looking at – they showed something far away and much bigger than I could really conceive. I’ve read descriptions of the space gases and nebulas captured in the images, but I don’t really understand the science in a meaningful way.

Yet, I haven’t been able to stop looking at these photographs.

My appreciation of the images is visceral, aesthetic. Elizabeth Kessler calls it the “astronomical sublime;” she connects it to ideas of the American West depicted in photographs and paintings from the nineteenth-century by people like Albert Beirstadt, William Henry Jackson, Thomas Moran, and Timothy O’Sullivan. This framework, this art-historical vocabulary, is the one I can use to process my experience of the Hubble’s photos.

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16)- Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (NASA)

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16)- Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (NASA). The stair stepping in this image is a product of its assembly from multiple sensors and views.

The sublime involves a sensation of wonder and awe so great it couples itself with fear and trembling. The nuances of this sensation have been worked out in many ways by many people, but most useful here is the explanation put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the sublime involves not only a coupling of awe and terror but also of reason – that is, the sublime resides not in the object itself but in the mind’s apprehension of it. He writes:

Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime. Its aspect is horrible, and one must have stored one’s mind in advance with a rich stock of ideas, if such an intuition is to raise it to the pitch of a feeling in which is itself sublime – sublime because the mind has been incited to abandon sensibility, and employ itself upon ideas involving higher finality.

In the end, he argues, it is reason that allows one to cope with this overwhelming experience of the boundlessness of existence. But I fear I am too much a product of the 20th century to plumb the profundity that is necessary to experience the Romantic Sublime firsthand. Luckily, there is another route to navigate my fascination with the Pillars of Creation and the Butterfly Nebula. Classic texts on the sublime often depict humanity in the face of such wonder in heroic fashion – say, Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1817). I, for one, will gladly take NASA’s Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope (1997) as our contemporary perceiver of the sublime .

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

The Hubble images live in that liminal space between art and science, sensation and reason. Astronomers use various scanner arrays and sensors to assemble their research in ways that might be understood with the eyes. Hard scientific data is coded to color schemes and rendered accessible to sensory experience. We can use this crutch, this visualization of concrete data, to traverse the transcendent and grapple with complex concepts and abstractions that would feel insurmountable on their own.

Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope after deployment on this second servicing mission (HST SM-02). Note the telescope's open aperture door, (1997) (NASA)

Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope after deployment on this second servicing mission (HST SM-02). Note the telescope’s open aperture door, (1997) (NASA)

Grand Unified Theory (GUT) represents modern physics’ aspiration toward a model in which the fundamental forces of the universe might be merged into a single system of understanding. Such would be a big step in the direction of a Theory of Everything (TOE) which could explain, well…everything, or at least all the physical aspects of the universe. If looking at images of the cosmos invokes an aesthetic experience of the sublime, think of GUT and the subsequent TOE as its mental counterpart – a conceptual sublime.

It is into this space that artist Eric William Carroll sets off with his exhibition, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Carroll uses the duality of scientific data and the way it is represented visually as his tools for tinkering with science’s attempts to address the sublime and answer the big questions – of being and the universe. In so doing, he is equally interested in moments when research is on the cutting edge of discovery, when it has been mistaken, and when it has turned out not to even really be science at all. Carroll’s installation pulls data universally, often from unexpected sources, in order to stretch both our understanding and experience of the world.

Carroll is primarily working with photographs, those he made as well as images appropriated from various archives and scientific publications.  In both kinds of pictures, Carroll reminds us, regardless of the scale of the scientific inquiries involved (e.g. whether they’re macro investigations out into the cosmos or micro investigations into subatomic particles), the work of research is done with the aid of some sort of visual apparatus. In this way, at least, photography — reliant as it is upon lenses and other technical devices — is a kindred endeavor, a fitting approach by which to undertake a close reading of scientific ideas.

Carroll’s installation presents us with a number of images and objects, nearly all denoted as “Figure” followed by a number – named as if images collected in the few color pages at the center of some academic tome, referenced elsewhere in the surrounding blocks of text in chapters before and after. But in Carroll’s work, the images stand alone; there is no larger text to inform and contextualize them. We have captions for them in the Figures themselves and wall texts throughout the gallery. But there is no grand expounding of themes for reference beyond the physical world from which the images come and the cultural language we already possess.

Eric William Carroll, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, 2014

Eric William Carroll, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, 2014

The center of the room is filled by two tables topped with charts of space and time – ostensibly two sides of the same coin. Figure 2.1 The Span of Space charts space from the size of the universe, 1025 meters, to the size of an electron, 10-20 meters. Objects made by Carroll or on loan from individuals and institutions anchor notable increments on the chart. The expanse of the universe is marked by a dangling model of the Hubble Space Telescope on loan from Lucas Lesser, whose paper and plastic model of the telescope earned second place at the St. John the Baptist Catholic School Science Fair. The Span of Space’s fraternal twin, Figure 2.2 The Span of Time, charts time from 1020 seconds, the age of the universe, to 10-25 seconds, the “lifetime of unstable particles.” At briefest end of this chart, Carroll’s set a toilet paper tube and tinker toy constructions of particle collisions within the Hadron Collider. These simple means of representation rest near to other, more complicated and precise instruments, such as an astrolabe and a dark matter detector.

Lucas Lesser, Hubble Telescope Model, 2014

Lucas Lesser, Hubble Telescope Model, 2014

Instead of framing these scales of time and space from the poles of their reach, Carroll centers both space and time with us – humanity. To that end, he represents the space of the human body with Otto Schmitt’s Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55), on loan from the Bakken Museum. The center of the Span of Time is a single second, the “reaction time of humans;” it’s marked by a physical artifact, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, a gold-painted camera. He’s rendered a sense of space and time that extends infinitely from Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” as triggered by an electrified body. While Copernicus may have helped us shake free of the conception of the earth as the center of the universe, Carroll, in placing us at the center of his space/time tables, underscores that humanity is the unavoidable observer of all of these things. After all, why else would the acronyms of GUT and TOE be so corporeal?

Otto Schmitt’s, Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55)

Otto Schmitt’s, Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55)

Eric William Carroll, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, 2013.

Eric William Carroll, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, 2013.

Surrounding these tables are a number of individual pieces and works in clusters on the wall, each with its own unique configuration of space and time. In the large Figure 26, a sunset or sunrise sits in the center of a star field; as Carroll says in the wall text, “that single moment is multiplied countless times as potentially millions of sunrises and sunsets occur throughout the universe at any given time.” The image of the Subaru Deep Field is actually a pasted-together composite of laser prints, reminiscent of the way the Hubble image would have originally been assembled from multiple views to complete a picture of the whole grouping of stars.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 26, 2014.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 26, 2014. This work calls to mind Carroll’s previous work, Atari Sunset (2007), also dealing with the ubiquity of sunset images, where he assembled photos of sunsets and landscapes together to create one large sunset, covered with a silkscreened checkerboard to give the sensation of pixelization.

The sunset image in Carroll’s Figure 26 comes from the Farm Security Administration archives. It’s worth noting, FSA images also often evoke the westward push during the Depression, toward what was perceived as a frontier of hope during a hopeless time. While that migration, in actuality, panned out for very few, the optimism long associated with the West has much in common with that sense of anticipation and curiosity which spurs deep looking into the frontier of the spacescape – the same aesthetic similarity that Kessler finds between Hubble and Timothy O’Sullivan .

Carroll’s use of such visual resemblances endows his work with an underlying fractal resonance relating the chaos and chance of the everyday physical world to the analytic, controlled environment of experiment. The images included in Figure 69, for example, share morphological and chromatic similarities that allow one to move from a “hoodie found in Golden Gate Park” to a “yawning cat” around to a “toroidal vortex in smoke” and then to “dust found on studio floor.” Carroll’s groupings aren’t hunting for patterns where none exist, but are rather like equations for connecting disparate phenomenological experiences. In order to see just how inclusive these perceptions can be, one needs look no further than the 20 images assembled in Figure 29. The list of identifiers for each of the component images ranges from Voyager’s “Golden Record” to a pluot; also included are an embryonic stem cell, the Calabi Yau Manifold, a doorknob, and Neil Peart’s drum set. The subject of his images is just as likely to have come from the breakfast table as from the far reaches of the universe. But regardless of their provenance, Carroll brings the images together in a way that makes poetic, if not scientific, sense.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 69, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 69, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 29, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 29, 2013

In Figure 28, a photograph of a hammer is delicately balanced from a board using a rope and a ruler. Adjacent, but slightly higher, so that the boards depicted in both images align, is an upside-down version of the same photograph — an improbable sort of hardware butterfly that  uses the photograph to destabilize physics.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 28, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 28, 2013

Carroll uses sometimes crude means to illustrate elegant scientific conceptions. The slinky of Figure 31 stands in for the Ricci curvature tensor, a geometric model related to the curvature of space-time. The tinker toys and toilet paper rolls of Figure 20 represent particle collisions within the Hadron Collider.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 31, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 31, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 20, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 20, 2013

Carroll’s way of thinking in this exhibition is infectious. See his juxtapositions and your mind begins flipping through its own catalog of like and unlike images, building other idiosyncratically significant relationships, extending his model. As I look at Figure 38 — a vellum print of an electron spiraling in a bubble chamber floating on top of the spiral of an Icelandic low pressure system — I am reminded of both my own crude grade school science experiment sending particles through a small cloud chamber and Hubble’s refined image of the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 38, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 38, 2014

The Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

The Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

Albert Einstein famously said “God does not play dice with the universe.” And so, Carroll has made a portrait of Einstein comprised of black dice with white dots, increasing or decreasing the density of visible white to generate value in the portrait by rotating each die to the proper number of pips. It is a remarkable likeness for such a restrictive medium. The deviation within the portrait is in the eyes, where the pips are red, making the normally affable looking Einstein appear quite livid, as if he’s shooting lasers from his eyes. Maybe the acceptance of quantum physics has finally gotten to him.

Eric William Carroll, Einstein (dice), 2014

Eric William Carroll, Einstein (dice), 2014

Carroll’s latest Grand Unified Theory is impelled by the same search for meaning, wonder, and cosmic structure that fuels counterpart investigations by scientists. But rather than taking data from such inquiries and assembling them into tidy formulae, Carroll collects the materials of those scientific findings and their visual corollaries from everyday life, and he strings them all together into a wholly new and eloquent interpretation of that experiential data.

It seems appropriate that a 21st-century experience of the sublime might encompass both lofty and intimate scales of experience, linking the wonder of vastly distant star systems with small pleasure of fondly remembered childhood toys; the proximity of feeling connecting the near incomprehensible  complexity of quantum physics with the sense of defeat you feel when your popsicle splatters on the ground is similarly satisfying. There is an overwhelming and terrifying magnitude to these grand scientific ideas and, likewise, some comfort to be had in finding a way of understanding a semblance, if not the whole, of their meaning. Even if science cannot yet pin the idea down into an equation, maybe Carroll can help it along the way, supplying a visual understanding of cosmic design before the math gets worked out.

Related exhibition information:

Eric William Carroll’s G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2 is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) galleries from July 18 to September 28, 2014.

Lex Thompson‘s photographic work focuses on manifestations of hope and failure in the American landscape.  With a BA in history from New College of Florida, an MA in Religion and the Visual Arts from Yale University, he continued his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography.  He is Professor of Art (Photography) at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.  He is recipient of a 2010 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers, a 2008 & 2011 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. His artwork is included in collections at the Getty Research Institute, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Stanford University, University of California Los Angeles, and Yale University, among others.

2013-14 McKnight Photography Fellows: Photobook Now Available

The McKnight Artist Fellowships have marked career milestones and supported major projects for many Minnesota artists. Established in 1981, the foundation’s fellowship program is one of the oldest and largest in the country, providing artists with unrestricted funds to study, reflect, experiment, and explore – an increasingly rare and valuable offering in today’s arts landscape. […]

The McKnight Artist Fellowships have marked career milestones and supported major projects for many Minnesota artists. Established in 1981, the foundation’s fellowship program is one of the oldest and largest in the country, providing artists with unrestricted funds to study, reflect, experiment, and explore – an increasingly rare and valuable offering in today’s arts landscape. mnartists.org has overseen six rounds of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers, supporting mid-career artists residing in Minnesota who use photography as a primary means of personal, creative expression. Annually, four photo fellows are selected, each of whom receives a $25,000 award and opportunities to connect with national critics and curators, and to produce an artist book for publication. This year marks the last fellowship cycle of photography as a stand-alone discipline: beginning in 2014, the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Visual Artists was restructured to include photography among other visual arts media and, going forward, eight Visual Arts fellowships will be administered annually by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

The four McKnight Photography fellows for 2013-2014 were selected from among 108 applicants: Anthony Marchetti, Paula McCartney, Mohamud Mumin, and Alec Soth. The three arts professionals who served as jurors for this last round were Anne Havinga, Estrellita and Yousef Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Sarah Meister, Curator, Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, NY; and Hank Willis Thomas, Photographer. The fellows worked with Scott Nedrelow of Location Books to produce an ebook containing work from their recent projects and essays by Lesley Ann Martin, Executive Editor at the Aperture Foundation.

The 2013-14 McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers ebook is now available for iOS (download it here) and as a PDF. A preview of the photos and essays included is offered below.

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Anthony Marchetti, 2014

Anthony Marchetti

Anthony Marchetti is a Minneapolis-based photographer who focuses on the relationship between humans and the built environment. He is the recipient of two Minnesota State Arts Board grants and a two-time Bush Artist Fellowship finalist. This is his second McKnight Fellowship. His new project explores his maternal grandmother’s flight from Hungary near the end of World War II.

Lesley A. Martin assesses Marchetti’s recent project:

During the past few years, the photographer has retraced the possible route taken by his Grandmother through former Mitteleuropa, assembling a series of tantalizing details of place, the lush textures of real life absent the bracing presence of fact… These scenes, while wholly “real” as seen by the camera, become richly fictive in Marchetti’s cinematic reconstruction of his grandmother’s story. He is careful not to peer too balefully at what must have been to his grandmother, a tale best forgotten, allowing for an approach that is both indirect and obsessively concrete. Most critically, it is an approach that never gets locked into the traditional documentary stalemate, but rather leaves the past open for continual reassessment.

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Paula McCartney, cover and detail from Book of Trees, 2014

Paula McCartney

Paula McCartney makes photographs and artists’ books that explore the idea of constructed landscapes. McCartney earned an M.F.A. in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute and has previously received grants from the Aaron Siskind Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Her first monograph, Bird Watching, was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Martin creates a chronological taxonomy of McCartney’s production of photobooks:

What follows is a record of McCartney’s production of books over more than a decade. A close read of this output, volume by volume, offers insight into faber librum photographicus’s use of the book form as a means of encountering a print; of installing a body of work; of creating a vehicle for both personal and public consideration of images; and of the cross-fertilization of book and photograph fully-realized. What is also notable as a constant over the course of McCartney’s output is an interest in the dialogue between natural and artificial worlds and the creation of a personal, symbolic vocabulary that is able to bridge the two and that continues to be enlarged upon with each new volume.

Mohamud Mumin, Badra Ali, 2014

Mohamud Mumin

Mohamud Mumin holds a bachelor of science degree in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota. A self-taught photographer, Mumin harnesses photography’s capacity to facilitate dialogue across barriers and cultures. In his most recent body of work he centers on the Somali community in Minnesota, as they negotiate and redefine their essence and boundaries of their identity. Mumin’s recent work, The Youth/Dhallinyarada will be on view at the Frederick R. Weisman art museum through January 2015.

From Lesley Ann Martin’s essay on Mumin’s body of work:

The strongest of photographic projects are driven not just from a set of community obligations. They come from a highly personal set of questions that the artist feels can best be responded to and explored via the visual image, the collection and assessment of data visual and otherwise. In his newest series, published as Xusuus Sahmis/Scouting Memory and created as part of a recent McKnight Fellowship, Mumin expands his project to focus on portraits of women in the Minnesotan-Somali community. To date, he has photographed six young women in the same manner as the men depicted in The Youth/Dhallinyarada.

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Alec Soth, 2014

Alec Soth

Alec Soth’s photographs have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney and São Paulo Biennials. Survey exhibitions of his work have been exhibited by Jeu de Paume in Paris (2008), Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland (2008) and the Walker Art Center (2010). In 2008, Soth started his own publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom. Soth is represented by Sean Kelly in New York, Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, and is a member of Magnum Photos.

In lieu of an essay, Martin and Soth opted to publish an interview, the full text of which will appear in The PhotoBook Review in November 2014. An excerpt of the portion that appears in the ebook:

LAM: Via books from established publishers, posts on your own blog, Instagram, publishing yourself and others via the Little Brown Mushroom imprint, or most recently, workshops about storytelling for the non-storytelling pre-disposed, you have continued to push beyond prior applauded forms and to accept new challenges. How do you choose the form for a particular body of work, and when do you know it’s time to move on?

AS: It really depends on the projects. I do a lot of smallish-side projects: zines, online slideshows, that sort of things. This sort of activity is analogous to a band playing in the garage. It is meant to be quick, dirty and a bit out of control. These should be ended fairly abruptly to avoid from scrubbing away their essential spirit. My larger projects are more like studio albums. These projects take years. Generally I work on them until I’m sick of them, and then work some more.

Road Songs: Paris

The light danced on the floor of the cathedral, on peoples’ upturned faces, blouses, and sneakers. Visitors held placards diagramming the space with written text; these were stiff, a bit like the planks the monks used in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975). Up, up, up, passersby strained their necks to read the pictorial […]

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The light danced on the floor of the cathedral, on peoples’ upturned faces, blouses, and sneakers. Visitors held placards diagramming the space with written text; these were stiff, a bit like the planks the monks used in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975). Up, up, up, passersby strained their necks to read the pictorial depictions of the bible in stained glass above us. Once upon a time, when the French public was mostly illiterate, these Sainte-Chapelle images were both awe-inspiring and didactic. Now they contain iconography of a lost time, the uppermost panels obscured from easy view by their heavenly height.

We had to be proper tourists for at least one day while visiting Paris, and so we hit the medieval Sainte-Chapelle the same day as the Louvre. The Louvre, as a magnificent former palace, is the ultimate Parisian selfie destination. We saw two girls holding what I like to call “the selfie-assister.” It looked like a long metal pole with a camera attached, to both decrease the arm strain of holding a phone in one’s own hand and to make the resulting photograph look like it was taken by someone else. The New York Times recently discussed these increasingly self-involved picture takers and the strain of unyielding crowds in the old world museums of Europe. The changing landscape of tourism in Paris (among other spots) now requires the casual museum-goer to be a bit more relentless, to become an elbows-out kind of crowd navigator.

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Down the street from the iconic Moulin Rouge, the theater Les Trois Baudets modestly hides behind summer scaffolding, no windmills in sight. Les Trois Baudets, “The Three Donkeys” in English, hosts a variety of musical and theatrical events these days. Founded by music executive Jacques Canetti in the 1940s, Les Trois Baudets introduced Paris to a fair share of young singer-songwriters in its heyday; the site transformed into an erotic shop and theater for several decades in the late 20th century, and then reemerged in 2009 as a music venue for new acts once more.

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Throughout the month of July, the venue was taken over by Les Garçons, a group of three French singers who reinterpret mid-century pop hits made famous by many of the men who, years prior, graced the stage of Les Trois Baudets. Zaza Fournier, Cléa Vincent, and Luciole are the names of these three young ladies, all French pop chanteuses in their own right.

We attended the trio’s closing evening on a whim, and the evening unfolded into a charming rediscovery and reexamination of a masculine culture I never knew. The equivalent in America might be a reinterpretation of Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Nat King Cole; that said, the French post-war songbook is altogether foreign to someone raised in an Anglophone country. The audience hummed and sang along to several ditties.

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Dressed in well-fit masculine suit jackets and tomboy garb, hair down, never attempting the full-on drag act, Les Garçons engaged with, poked fun at, and reappropriated the alpha-male French singer: icons from the golden era of passionate and cheeky singer-songwriters who simplify the female body parts into soft, fruitlike objects, telling their friends of their bravado, lamenting the one that got away.

The one man on stage was a multi-instrumentalist, sporting flashy white Repetto dancing shoes à la Serge Gainsbourg. The repertoire of the evening included the brooding Gainsbourg, passionate and melancholy Charles Aznavour and Belgian legend Jacques Brel. The one song I recognized was a reinterpretation of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” which I (like most Americans) associate with the effervescent Doris Day. En français, the title is “Qui sait, qui sait, qui sait,” closer to the Spanish original (“Quizás, quizás, quizás”). Les Garçons’ version was modeled after Henri Salvador’s bouncy samba.

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To finish our stay, we were drawn to Buttes Chaumont, where we recorded a song I wrote about Voltaire and his lover, mathematician Madame du Châtelet. The 19th arrondissement is the home of Belleville and the rolling hills of this romantic manmade park. When we heard that Belleville was also Edith Piaf’s birthplace, it seemed only fitting. The ghosts of Paris are omnipresent, haunting the parks, the museums, and the minds of many young Parisians eager to reinterpret the magic of previous eras and loves never known, but just the same, lost.

Paris_train_900

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author and Caroline Fau.

An Art Historian Asks: Why Do I Like the Internet Cat Video Festival So Much?

Why do I like the Internet Cat Video Festival so much?  More to the point, why does it bother me that I like it so much? The truth is, I was taken with the idea of the festival before I ever attended.  I’m an art historian – I’m in the business of taking art seriously […]

catfest

Why do I like the Internet Cat Video Festival so much?  More to the point, why does it bother me that I like it so much? The truth is, I was taken with the idea of the festival before I ever attended.  I’m an art historian – I’m in the business of taking art seriously – but I don’t find a festival of cat videos too lowbrow for the Walker.

Why not?

It occurs to me that the internet is like a living organism — one that has drastically changed the way most people socially interact.  With all the talk in my field about art of social practice, Open Field seems to me a perfect way of making concrete the concepts under discussion. And the Walker’s internet cat video festival is a particularly successful case in point, bringing that practice into the real world.

Domestic spaces are filled with screens. Cat videos combine small, cuddly pets, digital cameras and isolated humans. Fans and makers of the form may connect virtually, but we usually watch in isolation. While many of us might enjoy the same cat videos, there’s no lasting, in-person connection. I think the festival’s wild popularity stems from its upending of that dynamic, from the quirky connections between people forged through simple physical proximity.  The  unlikely combination of internet + cats + festival is the key source of #Catvidfest’s artfulness.  Music fans expect to convene outside for Rock the Garden – hearing live music in the park is a relatively routine activity of summer. But cats and homemade YouTube videos both tend to be silly, and admitting to loving them is a little socially awkward. And those are the very elements that make the act of coming together to watch them in public at an art museum intriguing.

I went to latest iteration of the festival, back again this year on the Walker’s big green space. And I had a blast.  It was like liberating a guilty pleasure, a mass confession of sheer delight in watching banal, mostly poorly-made amateur cat videos. And just think of all the places Walker’s #Catvidfest has now toured! It’s a borderless pleasure, globally shared.  And that’s what really struck me, sitting on the Walker’s grassy knoll with thousands of strangers last week – laughing harder than I think I’ve laughed in long time. Mine was part of a collective enjoyment, and that happiness was a palpable thing, centered on flickering images on a screen of something small, fluffy and breathing.

And you know what? It was just what I needed.

I’ve been such a news junkie lately, following feeds and news stories in the hopes that, maybe, just one of the world’s current border/religious/political/racial conflicts might have found resolve since I last checked in. But no. In fact, just today, as I write this, we learned a journalist was beheaded.  As the Washington Post commented recently, the Internet Cat Video Festival  – the experience of collectively watching cats be ridiculous – provides an antidote, a shared reprieve from the dire news of the day. And the effects of that are good for all of us.

catpeople

For some, there’s surely still a nagging snootiness, the lingering question: “But is this art?” I’d point them to the work of Will Braden, hired by the Walker to curate this year’s reel of cat videos. He cleverly spliced one amusing feline feat into another in ways that got everyone howling; he added in unexpected things, like vintage cat video footage; the Minneapolis firehouse cat was a total gem.

Want to know something funny? I watch absolutely no cat videos on the internet. (I do other stupid things to waste my time online.) So, I’m not really qualified to judge the festival in terms of cat video quality.  What I can speak to are the relational aesthetics  of the event – in plain English, how well this festival fosters new relations among viewers with each other and with the contemporary, social and media world around them.

Dr. Sheila Dickinson writes about contemporary art and was Secretary of the Irish section of the International Association of Art Critics.

Bookish: On Men, Women and Searching for Common Ground

The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love?  When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds […]

Katharina Fritsch, Herz mit Zähnen (Teeth Heart).

Katharina Fritsch, Herz mit Zähnen (Teeth Heart)polyester, paint, 1998-2004.

The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love?  When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds on what’s going to resonate with readers. There are so many wrong turns a book can take – even supposed sure-things. Mostly, when something strikes it big, we are left shaking our heads in wonder. Likewise, an author’s lack of success often has little to do with the relative quality of the writing. The truth is, there are so many good books that never see commercial success.

Recently, I have had the good fortune to read two great collections of essays back to back. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me. And based on the glowing reviews and, in the case of Jamison’s new book, a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list upon its debut, I’m not alone: readers in large numbers have already found their way to these titles.

Good books are inevitably compared to what’s come before – it’s an easy shorthand approach to putting new writing in context. A lot of very positive reviews of Jamison’s book have likened her to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. On their face, such descriptions are complimentary and all to the good. Yet, I keep thinking to myself that Solnit, rather than Jamison, would be the better exemplar of that type. Like Didion and Sontag, Solnit is omnivorous in her interests, responsible for a wide-ranging assortment of nonfiction books with nothing in common but the acuity of the mind behind them. Then again, why must one great female essayist be compared to another at all? These new books by Solnit and Jamison have nothing to do with each other.

men explain things to me empathy exams

Actually, on second thought, that isn’t exactly true.

The Empathy Exams deliver on the promise of the title. Jamison’s pieces center on the question: How do we view others’ pain and empathize, or not, with it? Within that sphere of inquiry, though, her essays cover a lot of ground. One of my favorites involves an ultra-marathon, called the Barclay, in which the point of the race is that very few of its uber-fit contestants actually finish. I also love her essay about the so-called West Memphis 3 (WM3). In the wake of their convictions for killing several young boys, the three young men of the WM3 became a cause celebre: Movies were made; Eddie Vedder and other high-profile celebrities got involved in advocacy for their release. Jamison tells the story without leaning one way or the other as she recounts the details of the case. Her account is moving and full of sadness for everyone involved. She’s adept at telling us a story about a story without telling us what to believe. Other pieces in her collection are much more personal in content and tone: her recollections of being robbed and having her nose broken; essays about time spent living in a foreign country, and about her work as a medical actor, and how those scripted personalities invaded her own life and mind.

The Solnit book, Men Explain Things to Me, is harder to categorize neatly. The first and title essay is both hilarious and maddening in its brutally accurate rendering of how some men treat women. The rest of the essays are in some way about violence — most often, violence done at the hands of men. As a man, her book is hard to read, because the facts are hard to argue. Yet I could feel my resistance as I read: No, that is not me. These aren’t men I know. But again and again and again it is. Or, at least, the sort of man Solnit offers up for view is part of us. The truth is inescapable: Men commit acts of violence against women, children and one another. It’s men’s aggression that forces women to walk strategically to and from their cars at night.

Solnit comes armed with a slew of statistics. She also tells stories of things that have happened to her or her friends. And yet, she is not interested in making monsters of men. Rather, she uses these bare facts as a lens for the rest of us to see what we’d rather not face, to sketch out a philosophy about cultures of violence among men that’s rooted in lived experiences.

I walked away from Solnit’s book with one question, in particular, rattling around in my head. In an essay on violence against women on college and university campuses, she asks (and I paraphrase): “Why do we have seminars warning women and scaring women and educating women? Why do we tell them not to be alone or not to leave their drinks alone on a table? Why do we tell them to lock themselves in? Why aren’t there more seminars with men, saying, ‘Don’t do this. It isn’t okay.’”

book-jackets

After these essay collections, in an attempt to balance the scales of my reading, I turned to some fiction.  While doing time in the fifth layer of hell – a very long line at Minneapolis’ Lake Street post office – I was delighted to dip into the wicked and funny prose of Muriel Spark. Her portrayal of women in the 1940s in England reads as honest and real. Her novella, The Girls of Slender Means, is set during the war; as you make your way through the story, you bear witness to something awful that happens to characters you’ve come to love.  That got me thinking about storytelling, and what separates the very real from make-believe. What is harder to digest: that which we know to be true or a story we have been told?

From Spark, I moved on to Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, a novel first published in 1932 about poor sharecroppers trying to make their way in hard times. Page by page, I found myself thinking of James Agee and Walker Evans’ 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Just last year a new book was published, written by those same men. Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Melville House) essentially serves as an addendum to the original text, but an important one, for the unflinching view on poverty and on the lingering harm such want inflicts on all involved.

So – fairly dark. All of it, real life and fiction, both.

But that’s not all I’ve been reading. I’ve been making my way through an old biography of the Negro league legend, Josh Gibson. In memory of the great Peter Matthiessen, I also began his most recent, and last, novel, In Paradise. There’s another I’d recommend to you, but it’s only available in Canada. For months, I have been wondering why Keith Hollihan’s wonderful novel, Flagged Victor, has not been published in the United States. Silly American publishers: stop being silly. Publish this book here and now.

I have also been listening to some old music from the band, Okkervil River. They take their name from a story by Tatyana Tolstaya, and because of my love for the one (the band), I have been led to the other. That is how it sometimes goes. Okkervil River has this one song that I could listen to on a loop: it weaves together the Beach Boys tune, “Sloop John B,” with the story of John Berryman and his death. There are some great Minneapolis references in the song, too. I admit, that last is an odd segue, but one that somehow works in the context of all these stories.

Finally, I am crashing through Rafael de Grenade’s Stilwater (Milkweed Editions), in which Arizona-born de Grenade takes off for the wilds of Australia to work on a remote cattle station. Her tale is so readable and the landscape so other (to me), that I want to do nothing but immerse myself in it. I have to force myself to slow down, to give myself space to allow myself the pleasure of her world seeping into my own — if only in my mind.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

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.

Grand Rapids Border Control: Interview with Pitch Night Winner Bjorn Sparrman

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members […]

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members and a jury of experts, ranging from the practical to the conceptual.

For the uninitiated: ArtPrize is one of the largest art events in the world, attracting over 400,000 visitors last year. The festival transforms downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan for three weeks, covering parks, restaurants, stores, museums, and sidewalks with art.  Its structure fosters a tension between professional and populist views of art, awarding large cash prizes to artists selected both by jury and by popular vote.

After some deliberation, the Pitch Night jury selected The Grand River Checkpoint Project by artist Bjorn Sparrman to receive $5000 and a coveted venue at the sixth annual ArtPrize.  His piece will be installed on Gillett Bridge, a major thoroughfare in the midst of the festival, from September 24 to October 12, 2014.

mnartists.org asked Sparrman a few questions about the ideas behind his piece.

Entering Western Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

What’s your previous experience with ArtPrize?

I’ve attended ArtPrize most years since it began back in 2009, but this is my first time participating. I went to college in Grand Rapids, and as a young artist, ArtPrize was overwhelming: the crowds, the diversity of the works, the spectacle. Now that I’ve had some separation from the city and ArtPrize, I feel this is a good time for me to return and participate.

Describe your winning project. What’s the elevator pitch?

I will be erecting a border control checkpoint on the Gillett Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Grand River and connects the eastern and western sides of the city. There will be a guardhouse womaned by a Gillette Bridge Border Control Officer. Along the bridge will stand several signs, some that demand “NO PHOTOS” or “NO CELL PHONES”, and others stating, “You are now entering/leaving Eastern/Western Grand Rapids.”

How do you hope the public interacts with your project? What do you want them to experience?

The piece will bring up a lot of different images and memories for different people, some of which might be very difficult or saddening. However, I do know that everyone will be forced across this border together. If there is something specific I want people to experience, it is a feeling of temporary equality within communal constraint. I am anxious to see the various kinds of responses. There is definitely a bit of shock value.

Gillett Bridge Border Control

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

Tell us about the political implications of the project – it seems to work on several levels.

I want the border to act more as a political/national backdrop which people traverse, or are forced to traverse. We cross these kinds of borders every day. I’m just making the experience more visible. When I was thinking about the bridge and the river, I could only see fit to amplify and play with the implicit border and movement of people that was already there.

How do you think your work be read within the context of the whole festival?

I must admit that the idea came from a somewhat cynical view of ArtPrize, and of large festivals in general. You go and take pictures of the spectacular artworks. You’re encouraged to vote for your favorite pieces with your phone, but the border I’m installing will have signs expressly prohibiting photography and cellphones. Pedestrians have so much access to the city during ArtPrize, I want to make sure they aren’t taking it for granted.

What’s coming up next for you, and how can we learn more about your work?

I’ll be moving to Massachusetts this fall to begin working on a master’s degree at MIT through their Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program. I currently have a small exhibition in a Copenhagen storefront, but if you can’t make it there, you can see my work at: greenlocomotive.wix.com/beta

Pitch Night

Photo courtesy of Emily Gastineau

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