Blogs Making It

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.


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


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.


Great! I love it. Yes.


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.


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.


Yes – between the bodies and the space itself.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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.


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.


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].


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


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


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.


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


That’s where your focus is.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


One person said that.


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.


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


Casting is a choreographic choice.


Casting is the biggest thing.


For us, in our work.


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


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…


Then you better love ‘em!


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.


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—


I think we used the breathing—


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.


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


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—


It’s like the antidote—


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.


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—


With people who don’t improvise a lot—


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–


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


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.


To reinvent your whole process.


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


Or Mark Morris!


Mark Morris?


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


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.


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?


Like a traveling, evolving individual of multiple species.


Keep going!


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.


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


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


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


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.


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


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


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]


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


Didn’t that also happen in Fetish?


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.”


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


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?


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—


—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.


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


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?


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

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

Last month, 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, 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. 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:

Pitch Night

Photo courtesy of Emily Gastineau

The Value of Unrealized Projects

On June 26, five artists will take the stage in the Walker Art Center Cinema to give short pitches for projects they hope will become a reality. The event, called Pitch Night, is a collaboration between Walker,, and ArtPrize, a huge annual exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan that awards artists $560,000 in prizes […]

Preparatory drawing for Temporary's Pursuit of Permanence, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg

Preparatory drawing for Temporary’s Pursuit of Permanence, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg

On June 26, five artists will take the stage in the Walker Art Center Cinema to give short pitches for projects they hope will become a reality. The event, called Pitch Night, is a collaboration between Walker,, and ArtPrize, a huge annual exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan that awards artists $560,000 in prizes each fall. ArtPrize is open to any artist in the world, and each year more than 1500 installations occupy some 160 locations all over downtown. (Take note: applications to present your idea on Pitch Night-Minneapolis are due May 19.)

Pitch Night is a unique program within ArtPrize designed to give artists from outside Michigan extra funding for ambitious projects. For the second year, five Minnesota-based artists will give short pitches, in public, for the work they want to do — five slides and five minutes each before a live audience and a panel of five judges, about what they’d like to install on a prominent pedestrian bridge in the center of ArtPrize. After the artists’ elevator speeches, audience members and judges may then ask questions about their proposals, quizzing them on particulars both practical and conceptual. Then, after a short deliberation period, the judges will announce the winner of this year’s $5,000 grant. Last year’s Minneapolis Pitch NIght winners, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg, went on to be nominated for one of the juried awards during ArtPrize.

The obvious purpose of Pitch Night is to provide an artist with a grant of additional funds that will enable them to create and install work on a scale that might not otherwise be feasible. Equally important, though, are the four artists who don’t get a grant. Inviting artists to submit proposals, reviewing them and making notifications of grant awards via private communications (which ArtPrize also does!) is considerably easier and cheaper than staging an event like Pitch Night. So why do it?

We want to challenge artists to make their ideas public, even if those ideas aren’t fully ready for production. The act of forming an idea for a work into a concise presentation is itself valuable, both for the artist and the audience. For the artist, by way of its public articulation, their vision for a work takes a crucial step toward realization, one that’s free of the burdens of fabrication. For the audience, the artists’ pitches function as a show-and-tell showcase of creative ambition, a chance to see artists’ practices up close and to critically consider artwork in a developmental stage.

Installation view of last year's Pitch Night-winning project, which also earned a spot on the ArtPrize shortlist in the category "Use of Urban Space"

Installation view of last year’s Pitch Night-winning project, which also earned a spot on the ArtPrize shortlist in the category “Use of Urban Space”

Creative iteration is hugely valuable to artists, but it’s not always easy to achieve. Smaller, less expensive, less time-intensive work can be produced, exhibited, and critiqued via a pretty short feedback loop. This isn’t usually the case with large public projects. Conception of a project is typically followed by months (if not years) of planning, fabrication, and installation before any kind of public engagement and critical response can happen. A pitch presentation, like a drawing, is not the same as experiencing a fully realized work, but it’s still an important opportunity for display and critique.

When a work is intended to be developed for a public space, why not invite public participation early on, in the more formative stages? Articulating a vision for artwork publicly is something that should happen far more often than occasions for presenting a finished work.

Related event information:

Artists interested in throwing their hat in the ring at this year’s Pitch Night, take note: applications are due by May 19. The event itself, Pitch Night, is free and open to the public. It will happen Thursday, June 26 at 7 pm in the Walker Art Center Cinema. Find out more about the ArtPrize exhibition/competition on the website:

Kevin Buist has exhibited artwork in solo and group exhibitions in New York City and Grand Rapids, and has been featured in numerous print and online publications including the Art:21 blog, where he was a blogger-in-residence, as well as Solace Magazine, Art Hack, and SpoutBlog. At ArtPrize, Buist oversees exhibitions and cultural programming, and he also directs the ArtPrize juried awards, including selection of jurors. He programs a world-class speaker series that coincides with the event, that has included lively and provocative lectures by John Waters, Jerry Saltz, and Theaster Gates, among others.

Always In Build Mode: Women In Publishing Talk Shop

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, […]

Graywolf Press essay collections

Graywolf Press essay collections

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, you might start out making photocopies, but perhaps you’d discover a promising author whose hit debut novel would make your career. You’d rack up thanks on acknowledgments pages like they were bowling league trophies.

Turns out you don’t need to move to New York to work in publishing. But you do need to put in the time making photocopies… or else take the scary step of striking out on your own. And you also need to work very, very hard, basically forever, as the audience of a “Women in Publishing panel hosted by the University of Minnesota’s literary magazine, dislocate, recently found out.

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MFA candidate Elizabeth O’Brien moderated the April 23 discussion, which included Fiona McCrae, head of Graywolf Press; Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Historical Society Press; and Meghan Murphy and Jamie Millard, who created the literary magazine and press Paper Darts and co-founded the description-defying, arts community-meets-business online platform, Pollen.

As in the Knopf fantasy described above, McCrae and Regan started out in entry-level roles, McCrae at the storied London publishing house Faber and Faber “working for a bunch of men who couldn’t type” and taking dictation from Samuel Beckett’s editor. After working at Faber’s small Boston office, McCrae took the director position at Graywolf back when the press published only 6 to 8 books a year. Now it puts out 30, and to great acclaim: Graywolf poet Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections just won a Pulitzer, while Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine won the National Book Award for poetry last year.

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Regan graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in history and Russian literature and said, “The only thing I really wanted to do was leave the state.” She got an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1978 and “lightning struck” in the form of a big project coming down the pike and a crucial employee’s maternity leave. Regan was assigned to the project, and she stayed. In a neat six-degrees-of-separation twist, she recently edited a book by McCrae’s husband.

McCrae and Regan agreed that the important thing after getting a foot in the door is to “overperform,” even if it means “taking a manuscript home on the bus,” as McCrae put it. Regan said she still spends her days in meetings and answering emails and spends evenings and weekends working directly with manuscripts. No rest for the weary, particularly if the weary work at nonprofit presses, it seems.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

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Murphy explained that she and Millard studied literary magazines with Terri Sutton at the University of Minnesota and wanted to work in publishing, but they couldn’t seem to move past internships into permanent positions. Finally, they took matters in their own hands and founded Paper Darts; they have worked as a designer (Murphy) and in nonprofits (Millard) “to support our Paper Darts habit.” The two occupy a “weird Cinderella space,” said Murphy,with Terri Sutton and the Bush Foundation as their fairy godmothers: a year ago, Murphy and Millard received a grant to the tune of $1.5 million to turn their lit mag sideline into a full-time job. They still run Paper Darts but have since also taken over as co-CEOs of Pollen. “Our day-to-day right now is trying to build a system that will allow us to exist after the three-year grant expires,” Murphy went on. She described their schedule as follows: “We wake up, we work, we go to sleep, we wake up, we work…”

Ominously enough, McCrae said of operating a press, “It’s always in build mode.”

“Well, that’s scary,” Murphy replied.

Regan said, “It’s the definition of publish or perish.”

So, what’s so great about working in publishing, if it’s tough to get into and tough to stay afloat? Regan cited the constant exposure to new ideas and intriguing creative projects: “Every day I learn something from some passionate, crazy monomaniac who has decided to write a book.” Murphy and Millard talked about the pleasure of developing a readership through their digital presence, art and events and discovering what audience engagement looks like in the age of social media. It may all sound very seat-of-the-pants, but Millard said, “Meghan and I do our best work when we’re terrified.”

McCrae talked about the close, rewarding relationships an editor can develop with authors. “A perfect manuscript doesn’t need you,” she said, and one where every sentence needs work is a slog, but there’s a right balance that is lots of fun.

Murphy concluded with a note of realism: she was on a panel last year where a participant said that “if you love books enough, there’s a job for you. Not true,” she said. “You have to hustle. As women, you have to hustle even more.” She also had a word of advice for women writers. Often, she said, women want to wait to submit work until they judge it to be perfect, while male writers hit send more freely. She echoed the explanation many editors have given for VIDA scores showing male writers vastly outnumbering women and exhorted women writers to be “strong and confident” and, of course, to try, try again.

Guess I’d better hit “send.”

2013-2014 McKnight Photography Fellows: Now Available on iBooks

For the past 30 years, the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers program has supported the work of mid-career Minnesota artists, both to recognize their accomplishments and to assist ongoing work. The fellowship provides four annual awards which include a $25,000 stipend, visits with nationally and internationally recognized curators and critics, and the production of a […]

For the past 30 years, the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers program has supported the work of mid-career Minnesota artists, both to recognize their accomplishments and to assist ongoing work. The fellowship provides four annual awards which include a $25,000 stipend, visits with nationally and internationally recognized curators and critics, and the production of a monograph artist book or catalog. has hosted and managed the fellowship for the past five years, working with a total of 20 mid-career photographers.

The 2012-2013 McKnight Artist Fellows include an accomplished group of contemporary photographers selected by jurors Kevin Moore, an independent scholar and curator; Lisa Sutcliffe, a former Assistant Curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and current Curator of Photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum; and San Francisco artist, Todd Hido. The fellows worked closely with the McKnight Photography Fellowship staff and Minneapolis publisher Location Books to produce four distinct monographs. The completed books are published in a limited edition of 100 copies, and they represent the distinct bodies of work made by each fellow. Each book includes an introductory essay on the artist’s work written by independent curator Charlotte Cotton. Below is a preview of the newly published catalogs: see a sampling of each fellow’s images, read excerpts from the essays. We encourage you to download a copy of each through iTunes if you’d like to read more.

Frozen by Jenn Ackerman

Jenn Ackerman, Crib Ruins. Lake Superior, Feb. 2013

Jenn Ackerman

Ackerman’s work has been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Review Santa Fe/CENTER, Magnum Expression Award, the Honickman First Book Prize, Communication Arts Photography Annual and others. One of her projects, Trapped, was named Non-Traditional Photojournalism Publishing Project of the Year, and the project’s short film won an Emmy. Ackerman studied photography at the Danish School of Journalism, and received a master’s degree in visual communications from Ohio University. During the fellowship year Ackerman continued working on her project, Frozen, shooting with a 4×5 camera in the rural areas of Northern Minnesota.

From the introductory essay by Charlotte Cotton for the book, Frozen: 

Jenn Ackerman moved to Minnesota three years ago, and it is perhaps not surprising that her first mature body of work created here would engage with one of the defining characteristics of this state.  In her series, Frozen, Ackerman responds to the unique visual drama of winter weather.  She gathers a series of scenes and encounters in northern Minnesota, seen through the eyes of a newly arrived photographer, each conveying a graphic sense of the infinite terrain that the ice and snow create in the winter months.  There are solitary structures and vehicles that she finds in remote places — almost comical and anthropomorphic, resilient and even optimistic in their ability to endure these harsh winters, disconnected from regular fall or spring time use.


Teri Fullerton, from the series The Return, ongoing

Teri Fullerton

Fullerton is a 2010-11 Jerome Emerging Artist Fellow whose work has been included in 22 solo and group exhibitions in Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, Santa Fe, the Twin Cities and Paris. Fullerton grew up in Lake Tahoe, California, completed a Master’s in Education (1996) in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in Fine Art (2008) from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Fullerton traveled to both Molokai and Hawaii during her fellowship year, where she created photographic and video portraits of veterans for her project, The Return. 

From the introduction to Before Eros/After War:

Fullerton often takes an observation and something that is, for her, an emotional point of pressure, and thinks through how a photographic strategy can reveal the contradictions and hidden narratives of contemporary life.   There are a number of facets to Teri Fullerton’s photographic practice, which all centre upon the human condition of loneliness and the quest for a feeling of homecoming.  This is absolutely explicit in Fullerton’s ongoing series of photographs, which portray American military veterans.

But Fullerton also introduces her own interventions into this mediated system of desire, creating an artful gallery of ‘fantasy boyfriends’, reworking the iconography of heterosexual male desirability that the Internet now provides, reminding us of the deep-seated desires that we project so naturally upon online photographic imagery.


Jason Pearson

Pearson has exhibited his photography and drawing both nationally and internationally and is the recipient of the Jerome Foundation Travel and Research Grant (2011), Djerassi Resident Artists Program Residency (2008), The Cooper Union School of Art Residency (2007) and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center Residency Program (2007–08). His work is in a number of private collections as well as the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL. Pearson was born and raised in Minnesota. He holds a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (2002) and an MFA from Syracuse University (2007), both in photography. During his fellowship, Pearson traveled to Playa del Carmen where he staged photographs that function in tandem with a cache of images co-created with his twin brother for his project, No Kissing.

Cotton, on No Kissing:

Jason Pearson, in collaboration with his brother, has been creating a cache of photographic imagery. They construct a visual language of shared memories, notes, and proclamations that collectively provide an idiosyncratic glimpse into their histories and experiences.  Their photographs act as a set of codes and signifiers of imagined events, games and desires.  Jason Pearson has an eye for the visually strange and contradictory, and this is the overarching characteristic of all of the photographs shown here.


Katherine Turczan, Reubens and Watermelon, Ukraine, 2012

Katherine Turczan

Turczan’s work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. She was a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and 2010 Fulbright Fellow and has travelled extensively in Eastern Europe, making photographs which reflect the changes in the former Soviet Union. For her fellowship year, Turczan returned to Dneprodzerzhinsk, where she photographed the impact of social upheaval on the lives of young women in her project, Breshnev’s Daughters.

From Cotton’s essay on Breshnev’s Daughters:

Katherine Turczan uses a slow camera, the 8” x 10” large-format camera, positioned on a tripod, and that determines the gentle scrutiny that she gives her subjects.  Working in the women’s domestic spaces, with their distinct patterned carpets, wallpapers, paintings, and elegant displays of flowers, Turczan provides a sense of safety and respect in these photographic encounters with her use of black-and-white photography.  The delicacy in the play of light, of finely detailed fabrics, the women’s hair and skin are all palpably present in these monochrome scenes.

Complete catalogs, with full essays by Charlotte Cotton on these fellows’ projects, are available for download on iTunes.

Anne George: Readymade Gestures

Anne George welcomes me into her studio one sweltering Minnesota evening in late June. I’m greeted by the soft flutter of crepe paper flagging through the air as a standing fan oscillates. Her studio is — through my aspiring eyes — quite dreamy; easily 1,000 square feet laid out in the form of an “L,” […]

Untitled, Banner Series Canvas, twill tape, acrylic, 108″ x 96,” 2012

Anne George welcomes me into her studio one sweltering Minnesota evening in late June. I’m greeted by the soft flutter of crepe paper flagging through the air as a standing fan oscillates. Her studio is — through my aspiring eyes — quite dreamy; easily 1,000 square feet laid out in the form of an “L,” with generous daylight, massive walls, large utilitarian carts, flat files, a built-in bookshelf wall and seating area. Together we walk through several bodies of work, each which investigates medium as subject, and draw connections between formal interests, slippage of language, and non-fixity with respect to “gesture” and artists careers.

The artist's studio. Photo by Jehra Patrick

The artist’s studio

George’s earlier work was centralized in printmaking with a conceptual interest in sequential nature of film. Influenced by film and video’s emergence, and acceptance, into contemporary art practice during the 1990s, she transcribed an interest in time and framing into a motif of pagination carried out across books, prints, and multiples. Choice in medium, format, and therefore subject, within George’s practice tends to shift by happenstance and introduction, rather than placing an exterior interest into the medium as a vehicle. In example, her interests shifted from books and prints to working photographically, through the catalyst of simply being given a camera. The medium itself then becomes the cause for its employ. She’s not interested in resolving topical or content issues, rather the issues specific to medium, form, and the properties of both.

Untitled (Level), 1997. Image: Walker Art Center

Her earlier work in digital photography, bypassed traditional photographic concerns for framing, subject and documenting contemporary history. Rather, she became interested in the qualities of the digital mark – the pixel – and its ability to shatter and break apart an image. Digital cameras and resolution quality are now a part of everyday vernacular, but in the mid-90s this was an exploration of the nature of the object of the camera and its output – with concerns for what is can do, what kind of information does it transmit – rather then engaging the language of the photograph as commentary on, or reflexivity of, the medium.

George’s material interests are also apparent in her concerns for resolving two-dimensional design applications though drawings. She works on a smaller — we’ll call it store-bought — dimension, which bears a nice relationship to the body. Easily at arms length, the size of a torso, or something you’d carry. On that size, one’s hand can caress the paper and enjoy its smoothness, burrs, and other tactile qualities. George will also enforce the drawing paper by stretching it over foamcore, creating an airy tablet.

George approaches the substrate employing everyday materials as formal, and physical, “gestures.” For George, the notion of the gesture sprawls out in all its semiotic glory: as an action, doing, articulating movement through space, occupying dimensions, acting as lines, or compacting into iconography. One drawing bares a craft-paper brown bow on a dirtied piece of 18” x 22”paper; the charcoal-smudge across the paper’s composition a gesture as well. A decorative bow — the same thing one would find affixed to a present — is inducted as a drawing implement. As gesture, the bow has association with the act of gift giving, it signals appreciation — a warm gesture — and, located on the drawing’s surface, recalls the bodily motion of securing it with a gentle, pressing force. Its loops, folds, curves and bends, can be unraveled through one’s vision as a undulating planar line in space. All of these gestures George compresses in the bow. The drawing slips in out of flat space and sculptural space; just sitting there — half-object, half-image — it embodies art as an offering itself, being set into the world like a metaphoric open hand.

Assorted drawings.

Assorted drawings

A few other surfaces are adorned with paper shopping bag handles, seemingly functional, like little portfolios an art student might have filled with prints. Other non-traditional materials employed in the artists compositions include the ephemera of everyday: tape, paper, scraps, clippings, the kind of stuff organized by bins of some sort — recycling, discounted fabric, dust, hardware, discount. The drawings and their implements live between substrate, medium and object, each material forming a sculptural drawing or character. Though George is hesitant to say character, or even symbol; these meanings are fixed. Gesture implies malleability, movement, action. She holds her hand in the air, pursing her index finger on her thumb and waves her forearm side to side. This is the motion we all make when we perform the charade for “Drawing.” We also happen to be miming the production of a check mark, or tick. This check mark is the most reductive form of “gesture” for George — a readymade gesture – and we see this formal element reoccur throughout her oeuvre, pointing us to a movement, line, shape, and its denotation. Check. Good, I completed this. Or bad, I supposed, when next to our names on an elementary chalkboard. It is a simple and reductive motion, and drawn line, symbolizing both doing and undoing. Those things accounted for, or simply: yes.

One of the artist's book compositions

One of the artist’s book compositions

George’s palette is also reductive, working in the values and colors inherent to her substrates, drawing implements, and readymades, often black, brown and their tonal and textural variances — sometimes glossy, inky, dull, or matte. Her lack of pigment allows for greater emphasis on form, as well as removes the connotations of color from her compositions.

Along side object-drawings and material collages, George continues to work in book format. Her artists books are living documents, rather then a finalized container for a collection of content and function more like notebooks and sketchbooks.  They allow her to work in demonstrations, exercises, and modular units. On each page she introduces new problems to solve and alternate delineations to break apart, ruin, pull back, and reclaim. Each page gets eradicated and repaired, interrupted and completed. The drawings, while manipulatable, are also vulnerable, delicate and often times loosely assembled, such that an element can detach, fall or hang limply; all of these actions being gestures as well.


Untitled, Banner Series. Canvas, twill tape, acrylic. 90″ x 70,” 2012

In her newest works, the Banner series, draping tarps speak their own language, hanging raw with solid icons, panels or washy stains. While she’s not one to look into the self-awareness of medium, these new works invoke the language of painting.

George is quick to say that she has, “never been a painter,” in fact, in her formative years was adamantly anti-Painting. George recalls from her instruction that, “in the hierarchy of art processes, painting sat predictably at the top, valued over the others.” It was this disdain that motivated George to pursue less predicated avenues — or those lower on the ‘hierarchal’ totem – for production. She confirms this is an old ethos, but it is a reminder of her influences and values.

If her pages, tablets, boards, are intimate and flexible palimpsests, the tarps provide a solution for scale and durability, as well as offer an out from the traditional picture plane. The weight and texture of the material and its ability to accommodate forward-jutting attachments, allow the piece to suspend between image and object. This discursive and gestural, ne symbolic, properties of the tarp pieces are amplified when George introduces the accompaniment of tributary objects and loose images as a supporting cast. Despite the spatial orchestration of the arrangement, George is also hesitant of claiming territory in sculpture and installation – she didn’t confirm this, but I suspect that it, too, is because of the hierarchal weight of those disciplines. In plain speech she said she ‘didn’t really like having those objects around. ‘ Which, as an artist who produces wall-hanging work,  I grinningly agreed with. Where do these things live?

Does it really matter if her work fits neatly into a league of drawing, collage, sculpture or another discipline? I would argue that it does. Not that the lack of identification and medium-specificity is detrimental to knowing what she makes, but it is precisely that she is not concerned with these medial differences that defines the ambit of non-fixity of her practice. After all, an artists work is defined by as much by what it is not as by what it is. Her work is about an output that lives between and around objects and images — this is also what the works do — they escape the picture plane and point away from themselves – these are the areas of interest. It’s not the thing. It’s the movement that expresses the meaning. It’s the gesture.


The artist in her studio

With gesture as the subject, Anne George is  more interested in formal and compositional resolutions then pursuing medium or composition as a vehicle for content. Whereas some artists tend to load a lot of narrative into work — in promotion of an idea, or inclusive of a story — she’s not that kind of artist. She is willing to offer us a premise. She is also aware of that, now, and encouraged that artists to also be open to non-fixity in their work and pursuits. Gesture, in its non-fixed nature, allows for a longer life and an open reading, which also allows for artists to be agile, open their work up for new audiences and markets, and continue to offer new approaches through the gesture of their individual practices.

Posture Is Everything: An Interview with Artist Kristina Estell

Duluth-based artist Kristina Estell’s recent exhibition Posture Is Everything currently occupies the north gallery of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Composed of cool, pale blue sheets of silicone elegantly draped atop triangular wooden armature, Posture Is Everything calls to mind winding river beds, fallen skies and couch-fort mountain ranges. […]


Posture Is Everything, 2013. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Duluth-based artist Kristina Estell’s recent exhibition Posture Is Everything currently occupies the north gallery of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Composed of cool, pale blue sheets of silicone elegantly draped atop triangular wooden armature, Posture Is Everything calls to mind winding river beds, fallen skies and couch-fort mountain ranges. Like many of Estell’s sculptural forms and installations, this ethereal work evokes the gestures and forms of nature, rather then offering a direct representation of the natural world. I chatted with the artist recently by email to learn about the complex process involved in making the work in her exhibition, nature as medium, classical drapery and institutional posturing.

Jehra Patrick

I heard that the “drapery” in your piece was produced by the very labor-intensive process of painting silicone onto the walls of the MAEP space. Can you walk me through that process?

Kristina Estell

Actually, the piece in the MAEP gallery was produced in my studio! Due to material off-gassing and other concerns, the museum didn’t approve the original proposal to use the silicone on the walls of the space to create the work. A connection to the MAEP space is made apparent through the actual size of the combined dimensions of the sheets of rubber in the exhibition. These dimensions equal that of the MAEP space – 1352 sq. feet.

For Posture is Everything, the process was labor-intensive, but necessary to achieve the desired thickness – as well as to economically use the material — and to make it strong enough to support itself on such a large scale. Once I had determined the size of the pieces of rubber I needed, I mapped those dimensions out on the wall’s surface and then applied a thin layer of the silicone directly onto the wall using a three-inch chip brush. The liquid rubber is quite thick and has to be applied fairly evenly to achieve the effect that I want.

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Once the first coat is applied, the material cures for 24 hours, all the while creeping down the wall’s surface as it sets. I then laid down a layer of thin nylon mesh fabric on the silicone’s surface and applied another full coat of rubber, adhering and sandwiching the material onto the first coat of rubber. Once the second layer was set, I simply peeled the rubber off the wall, rolling it onto a large cardboard tube to keep it clean and flat. The color of the silicone rubber comes “naturally” from the chemical activator provided by the manufacturer, and it’s one of the reasons why I like using this particular kind of silicone. Another great characteristic of this silicone mold material is that it doesn’t permanently adhere to (almost) any surface except itself, which makes it very user-friendly and flexible in terms of potential applications.

treatment (covered), 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jehra Patrick

A process similar to that was used to produce a previous work, treatment (covered), completed for the Kabinett Gallery during your residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, Germany – how was that process different?

Kristina Estell

For the treatment installation, the goal was initially much more about creating a subtle and materially-charged space – treating the space, as it were. After many calculations, much prep-work, and a call for volunteer helpers, I set up a station in the middle of the gallery and just starting mixing silicone. This particular silicone was dyed with a bit of blue and gray color. Using the same small chip brush technique, my helpers and I brushed two layers of silicone onto the ceiling, walls, fixtures, windows and radiators, in this case, without the layer of fabric in between. I then let the material cure and migrate down the walls as it set.

Jehra Patrick

I’m interested in the relationship between the two pieces and your decision to repeat the action and make use of the material in a new way for the MAEP show. Can you speak to the evolution of your concept and process from one exhibition to the next?

Kristina Estell

treatment directly inspired the work at the MIA. At the end of the exhibition at the Akademie, I returned to de-install the work. Through this process, I realized a whole new experience of the material. My expectations for covering a room in silicone included, initially, the experience of the material as a direct part of the space as an installation, and secondly, being able to remove this material to retain the mold of the space as a rubber negative. In practice, the additional and unexpected part of the process became even more interesting to me as I started to remove the material from the space and learn about the spaces characteristics in such thin dimensions and at such a large scale. As the material started to come off, it began to peel itself from the wall — pulled down by its own weight — and that created really beautiful, and kind of theatrical, draping forms hanging from the surface of the walls. I found these forms so interesting, I knew I wanted to create another work that intentionally used this discovery in a more deliberate way and which might really exploit the weighty, draping potential of the rubber.

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Jehra Patrick

Silicone, or rubber, seems like a particularly unnatural and permanent [non biodegradable] material. What is the importance of the material in this work? Is it the behavior of the material or the implications of its use that you’re primarily interested in?

Kristina Estell

The silicone material I am using is, of course, industrially manipulated to have the uses and properties it does, but it is not so very far removed from [unprocessed] silicon, the chemical element found in nature, and that makes up an enormous percentage of the earth’s crust, for example. And in this rubberized form, the silicone mold material is actually not permanent. In fact, the life of all these sheets of rubber is very uncertain. The “skin” will start to degrade and the color will change over time…probably pretty dramatically within the space of just five years.

Jehra Patrick

That is interesting! I had it in my head that silicone (probably in terms of medical implants, etc.) was this permanent, fake thing. Thanks for returning me to the Periodic Table! That really gives the piece an added dimension, to think about it behaving like a skin – in form and behavior – molting off the walls, really delicate and fragile, even taking on attributes of aging.

Kristina Estell

To answer your question: Drawing lines back and forth between the material and the referring implications of its use is exactly what interests me so much in this material as a central subject and object in my work.

Processing and Computation, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist

Jehra Patrick 

Working directly with the site, as in the walls of the exhibition space, or collecting materials – such as rocks – from the area where you work appears to be a thread in your practice. Does your general studio practice guide you to work in response to your site of production? Or, does this [site-specificity] differ from your general studio practice, having more to do with preparing for a particular exhibition?

Kristina Estell

Depending on the project, where I am working at the time, etc, my working practice is very flexible. I do find inspiration in being outside of my everyday environment, and often I create work for specific locations. Many projects only exist in certain locations, but others can translate to other sites as well.  I see my studio practice as a kind of magnification process — taking a small thing from outside and blowing it up into something else within my work space.

My working practice is materially inspired but conceptually relies on finding and creating simple connections and gestures. Depending on the idea, my working practice, materials, processes change for almost every new project. Recently, I have been studying glass working and am preparing a station in the studio to start exploring this medium. I work with a material for some amount of time until I am able to understand it, how it acts and what connections I can develop between its physical properties and a set of ideas that interest me. This naturally involves a lot of trial and error, but this is also the best way to actually learn and make discoveries that can inform finishing a project and inspiring a new one.

Jehra Patrick 

The natural world has long been central to your work, yet you often approach the subject in subtle, indirect ways. Is this reflective of your own experience of nature? Or, are you simply looking for less representational ways to discuss natural forms?

Kristina Estell

That’s an interesting question. I feel like I use nature within my work as more of a medium than a subject sometimes: a set of imagery and objects to think through, learn from, processes and events that are relative to my own experience but which are also just the common experience of living today. Nature is something that holds us all; it’s a reflexive subject and it makes sense to pay attention to it that way. It’s also just the language that seems most essential to me.

Installation view of Posture is Everything, 2013. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Art

Installation view of Posture is Everything, 2013. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Art

Jehra Patrick

That is beautiful and poetic — the notion of nature as medium. This resonates with so many disciplines: painting by way of oil, photography’s use of light and chemicals, sculpture’s origination in stone.  I also appreciate your intentionality in blurring subject-object-medium and the slippage between form and materials. These poetics seem to work their way into the title of your current exhibition. Would you talk a little about that title: Posture is Everything?

Kristina Estell

I liked the ambiguity and the structure implied by the title, Posture is Everything. It is obviously resolute, but I was hoping that – in combination with seeing the work in the gallery – this resolution would be dissolved a bit and the title would help create a sense of urging effort within the sculptural forms; a sense that this dense, heavy, sagging but beautiful material — with all its references — has intentions of real structure or ‘posture’ but no such actual potential without the wooden armature underneath it. The ‘everything’ in the title makes it just priceless, bringing up an elusive sense of value and what matters. I especially thought this title would be interesting within the institution context of the art museum.

Jehra Patrick

Let’s talk more about the work’s placement within the art museum. In form, the silicone brings to mind historical imagery within a museum such as classical painting, or assemblies of objects and fabric swaths from life drawing. The armature nearly references easels. In titling, ‘everything’ might refer to all the museums holdings, or all things of greatness – art as valuables, or the art or the artist’s role, or stature, but also implies that these roles or behaviors are misleading. Do artists, or the museum posture as well?

Kristina Estell 

Yes, all these points you bring up are connections I am interested in. Right away during the install process, I was getting comments from various people about the visual similarities the piece has to other artwork within the museum and beyond. I didn’t expect such a direct relationship to specific works held by the museum, but did anticipate the relationship to the tradition of drawing, painting, still lifes and enjoyed pulling from that [classical] ‘standard’ of beauty that suggests objectivity, as well as genericness of subject.

The practice of working from drapery or fabric shapes with such attention and detail to accomplish form without content is very interesting to me; it is the most simple and empty way to illustrate ‘posture,’ or the act of posturing, which I definitely believe art does. The genre of still life most honestly reveals its postured nature. Necessarily, I do think artists and art institutions build on a series of postures that feel flexible and tenuous…at times misleading as well, but possibly just more undefined in our culture.

Kristina Estell’s work references physical material systems through an exploration of the theme of landscape and vision. As sculpture, my work exists in pieces, parts of a whole. It is ephemeral in its design as well as in the quality expressed by the use of such materials as transparent resin, sheer fabric, lenses and clear silicone. Using a range of sculptural and drawing techniques, my work aims to expand our understanding of landscape to include sites outside of our immediate periphery, which might be deeply interior or vastly exterior. These processes often result in a collection of naturally suggestive but ambiguous forms that come together to narrate a space and question our perceptions of nature.

Kristina Estell’s Posture is Everything runs until Sunday, June 20, 2013 at in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Artist’s Talks: Thursday, May 16, 2013, 7-9 p.m.
Special Guests: Thursday, June 20, 2013, 7-9 p.m.

Look for Kristina’s work in the Minnesota Biennial at The Soap Factory, where she will create drawings from materials collected from the gallery, itself.

For more on the artist, visit her website at and blog

Painter Painter Playlist: Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

What do you listen to in your studio? We asked this question to each of the artists included in the current Painter Painter exhibition. The artists responded enthusiastically with personal playlists, notes and reflections of what inspires them  or just what is currently stuck on repeat in their studio. The Painter Painter Playlist blog series will […]


What do you listen to in your studio?

We asked this question to each of the artists included in the current Painter Painter exhibition. The artists responded enthusiastically with personal playlists, notes and reflections of what inspires them  or just what is currently stuck on repeat in their studio. The Painter Painter Playlist blog series will  shares these unique compilations on a regular basis throughout the run of the exhibition.  We hope these posts give a tiny bit of insight into the personalities of the artists while sharing some kick-ass music for you to enjoy.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung leads off the series. Molly received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007, where she now teaches painting and drawing. She also  is co-founder of Julius Caesar Gallery, an artist-run exhibition space in Chicago. Molly writes:

I came of age in Olympia, Washington’s nineties indie/punk scene. Music laid out the rules of engagement and I (badly) concealed my folk tendencies while absorbing the punk critique of hippies. Love is compromised, mediated. No one is happy. Graduate school, in my early thirties, I curtailed listening completely. I have no desire to channel feeling through sound. In the past few years I’ve cataloged my record collection into mp3s; been chastised for my sepia taste, while still locked in the last few decades of twentieth century music with few exceptions. Painting is (my paintings are) DOA; gravity bound, cadaverous, but the excess of ambivalent ardor is stored in the digital cloud. Folksy rage, acoustic angst, autumnal euphorics, all with a cracked voice.  A stubborn critique from voices who knew they would be instrumentalized or “sold out” as we said in the nineties, but chose to articulate their trap anyway. These cages are social, but they are politicized, haunted, agonistic, derailed, monetized and jealous. Recently a student posted a video on my Facebook wall by a band called Girls. The song was Lust For Life, and it was chillingly lite. None of the self-lacerating rage of Iggy Pop (hence none of the wild glee,) and the video echoed the aesthetics and cast of Kids, the Larry Clark NAMBLA train wreck of a movie that set the pace for white twenty-something sexual and social intercourse in the nineties. Unprotected, non-amorous fucking and HIV fear was status quo. This is how I talk about Painting. My studio is full of silence, but I hope it seethes, whoops and throbs, like some of this.

1. The Game (acoustic demo). Echo and the Bunnymen
2. Ninety-Nine and a Half – Dorothy Love Coates

When the only available critique for the affective and cognitive labor class (ie the cultural worker) is apathy, well, my sentences get elliptical…
3. Hot Topic – Le Tigre
Name checking Yoko Ono, Gayatri Spivak, Dorothy Allison, Gertrude Stein, Valie Export, James Baldwin and so many other fighters. Don’t stop.
4. Come Again -The Au Pairs
The Rules for Sex under Network Capitalism in the guise of false feminism.
5. Season of Risk -Ether Island
6. Watchmaker – Excuse 17
7. Yr Mangled Heart – The Gossip
For Doug Ischar and my forever love of Beth Ditto, who I suspect is playing endgame in pop culture, and cuz everything I do has got a hole in it; the only way I can let the absence in.
8. The Ballad of Lucy Jordan – Marianne Faithfull
Regret is nostalgia for grown-ups. I said at the age of thirty-eight.
9. Here Come Cowboys – Psychedelic Furs
10. Vicky’s Box – The Throwing Muses

Kristin Hersh rides mood sidesaddle. When I was eighteen I thought the Throwing Muses were like the Cocteau Twins. I was a fool. I want to make paintings like Hersh makes songs. They are perfect, stubborn, thick and mutable.
11. Is This What You Wanted -Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen always knows the you he is singing to, and he knows that he will never know you. The album New Skin for the Old Ceremony is tinny, violas, a little Vegas strip mall razzmatazz and cynicism, K-Y Jelly and Steve McQueen. Neil Young and Leonard Cohen painted the 1970’s a rusty metallic orange sunset with backup singers.
12. BMFA – Martha Wainwright
13. I Don’t Like Mondays. The Boomtown Rats

Written by Bob Geldof after reading of 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who shot and killed two adults and injured eight children   at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California on January 29, 1979, because, as she said, “I don’t like Mondays, this livens up the day.” Geldof made a rock opera. I listened to this song on repeat after the Newtown Connecticut shooting. Something about the pop orchestration helps me cry.
14. I’m Not Saying – Nico
15. Throw Silver – Mecca Normal

“I used to be very careful about how I represented myself. I was responsible for everything I did and said. I learned that humour didn’t translate well. No matter how clear I thought I was I noticed that I was still misunderstood. In fact, the clearer I was, the larger the degree of misinterpretation. I regained control by deciding that I could allow that to happen. Then I was in the same position. In control. In order to get beyond this I needed to explore the dark. I would like to work my way back from the darkness taking slow steps, breathing in everything I missed along the way.”
-Jean Smith, from The Ghost of Understanding 1998
16. Faces and Names – John Cale
17. Fake Friends – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Anti-relational aesthetics anthem. What Markus Miessen calls the nightmare of participation. Or maybe I’m just bitter about not getting into Skowhegan.
18. Everything is Free – Gillian Welch
The melancholy backside of open-source downloadable culture. If everything is free now, why are we working so hard?
19. A Man Needs a Maid – Neil Young
20. People’s Parties – Joni Mitchell
21. Insanely Jealous – The Soft Boys
Green used to be the color of jealousy. Now it’s the color of virtual presence. It’s easier this way.
22. Green Gloves – The National
23. Black Walls – Mythical Beast

24. Pink Sunshine (acoustic version) – Fuzzbox
25. Roman Candle – Elliot Smith
I was an angry young woman.
26. I Shall be Released – Nina Simone
I love the beginning, when she says “y’all pushing, you’re pushing, you’re pushing, just relax, relax, you’re pushing it. It’ll go up by itself. Don’t put nothing in unless you feel it.”
27. Rise – Public Image Limited

Anger is an Energy
28. Brand New Love – Sentridoh

FINAL LIST! Monster Drawing Rally 5: More Artists, More Art, Same Entertaining Format.

Midway Contemporary Art’s Monster Drawing Rally returns! In celebration of its 5th year, the very popular annual fundraiser/community event is moving locations to the Grain Belt Bottling House at 79 13th Ave. NE Minneapolis on Saturday, December 15th from 6-10pm.  The new location will accommodate nearly twice as many artists as prior years, meaning more […]

Midway Contemporary Art’s Monster Drawing Rally returns! In celebration of its 5th year, the very popular annual fundraiser/community event is moving locations to the Grain Belt Bottling House at 79 13th Ave. NE Minneapolis on Saturday, December 15th from 6-10pm.  The new location will accommodate nearly twice as many artists as prior years, meaning more artwork and more space to socialize and scout the next acquisition to your personal collection.

For the last four years The Monster Drawing Rally has given artists living in the Twin Cities the opportunity to support the programming at Midway Contemporary Art while simultaneously gaining exposure within the community. For this years event over 80 artists will generously donate their time and talent by drawing live at the event during three one-hour rounds beginning at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm. Admission to the event is Free. Each of their drawings is available immediately for sale (first come/ first serve) for a flat price of $35.  The casual atmosphere lets visitors watch the art making process while keeping a close eye on the walls filled with finished drawings available for purchase. Even if you are not in the market for art, its still an unique opportunity to interact and watch local artists at work.

Photo courtesy Dan Ruth and Ellie Roscher

Many of you know the format, but for any first-time Monster Drawing Rally attendees here are some tips to make your evening a success.

1. There are three one-hour rounds with approximately 25 or so local artists drawing for each shift. We will be releasing the full list of artists on this blog over the course of the week.  Check back often and see if your favorite local artist will be participating.

2. This is a rare opportunity to watch and interact with an artist as they are working. I have personally participated as an artist ever year of the event, I can say it is an interesting experience from the other side of the table as well. No hiding your miscues with an attentive audience and there is a wonderful satisfaction is a meeting someone that has excitedly purchased one of your drawings.

3. All the work is a flat fee of $35. However, drawings may not be purchased, claimed, or snatched prior to hitting the wall. Conflicts or ties for purchasing a work will be resolved by drawing cards. Fighting, hoarding, hovering, or any other bad collector behavior will be sternly frowned upon.

4. At $35 you WILL find something you want to buy.

5. When you purchase the piece you will also get the contact information for the artist. If you don’t get a chance to meet them or talk to them at the event…contact them and let them know you bought their work. Artist love to meet people who  invested in their work….we really do.

6. This is one of the most community driven and artistic centric fundraisers in the city and one of the most popular.  This is also an event the rewards people that show up early and stay throughout…so plan accordingly.

Here is the full list of participating artists and their websites so you can do some pre-rally scouting.
Brendan Dawson
Brain Downs
Welles Emerson
Kelly Filreis
Mark Fischer
David Frohlich
Matt McAuliffe
Miles Mendenhall
Kelsey Olson
Melba Price
Jack Stanley
Bruce Tapola
Hannah Varn

The 5th Annual Monster Drawing Rally is sponsored by:


Reviewing the Reviewer: The Conclusion of our Conversation Between Artist Paula Mann and Critic Lightsey Darst

Editor’s note: In February 2012,’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis. A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response; […]

Steve Paul, Cyclotron from The Train Wreck is Proceeding Nicely. Pictured: Paula Mann. Photo by William Cameron, courtesy of Time Track Productions.

Editor’s note: In February 2012,’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis.

A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response; Lightsey wrote her back, and asked if she’d like to embark on an experiment, a conversation about the work, between the reviewer and reviewed, undertaken for publication here. And so began a fascinating, weeks-long exchange between the two — on art and dance and the balancing act of bringing critical judgment to bear on both; on audience perception and creative intentions, and the mettle-testing value of flopping in public. We’re publishing their back-and-forth in two installments.

You can read the first half of the conversation here.

Find the second half of their exchange below.

Related links and information: Lightsey Darst’s column on local dance last week reflected on a new collaborative, multimedia dance work by Time Track Productions, Here and After, featuring choreography by Paula Mann and media imagery by Steve Paul, with original music by Michelle Kinney (Jelloslave). The work was performed at TEK BOX  in Minneapolis September 27 through 30, 2012. You can read the review of this new work, Here and After, on now.


From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Where’s a forum for artists to talk about what they’re attempting to create?

Hi Lightsey,

First of all, just want to say that I think this conversation is immensely valuable to me as an individual artist and hopefully to others in the community. In fact, it has taken me a while to respond because there is just so much I want to say. There really isn’t a forum for artists to state what they were attempting to create. After working with young artists for over 20 years, I’m going to venture the following generalization: Most dance artists are extreme perfectionists. And, of course, we are all trained that way, and there are real-world reasons for this; the same thing applies to creation of a work. Initially, I live in the world of ideas while creating; it’s an exciting place where anything is possible and perfect. Then, you actually have to make the work, with whatever limitations are present — be they money, time, or energy. I’ve never had a piece turn out exactly the same way as I imagined it (‘O, The Humanity’ was supposed to have 20 extra people in it, etc.), and because I value the imagination as a real source for my work, there is always an uncomfortable gap between what I wished to create and what was actually created. I would like to get better at this (big sigh).

Now, on to the question of reviewing dance for public education and/or consumption: I hate to admit that I was around back then, but in the 1980s and 90s we all read reviews, and they seemed to have an impact on our careers. A good review could mean more audience, money at the box office, getting noticed by a presenter and, it could add to your artistic persona. At least, that was the game we all seemed to be playing. One person’s opinion (educated or not) had some power then.

Who reads reviews now? I can’t be sure. I know I do. It’s difficult to get my students at the university to read reviews, unless it’s required in the syllabus. Is there just too much information to consume and not enough file space left in our brains?  And getting back to your question about the real effects of technology, I’m going to step out on a proverbial limb here and say we (as humans) might have just reached a state of total brain-fry. Or maybe we will soon. Jump cut to me as a teacher, trying to help people create choreography, which requires some inward reflection. To heighten creativity, research has shown that we need to cultivate a more diffused consciousness at times, contrary to the minuscule focus necessary to watch and respond to and on our techno-devices. Simply put, we need to let our minds wander more, silence.

But the question of the purpose of reviewing and recording an event persists. How much weight does an opinion in print have? I know artists who never read reviews. More power to them, but I can’t seem to manage that, and…. I’m curious. Now, with the potential for many more voices to enter the conversation through online blogs or tweeting out short statements, I think it’s a good time to reevaluate the [critical] process.

So, a review could be a starting point for a discussion (among many diverse voices) — about the work itself and about making the work and the overall effect and place dance/movement/performance has in our society. If an audience knows more about the artist and the process used to create a work, how will it affect the audience’s experience?

A small anecdote: In 2005, Steve and I made a piece called The Train Wreck Is Proceeding Nicely — a mess of a piece to be sure, but it was so much fun to try. I think I was at my most creative, really taking risks by doing things I did not know how to do well — and I take full responsibility for that. I did try to edit the work when I realized how much information I was trying to impart, but I ran out of time and, quite frankly, perspective. Camille [LeFevre] (writing then for the Minneapolis Star-Tribuneabsolutely hated it, as it did not live up our last piece; I think your review of that show, Lightsey, was mixed (which is always OK). And after watching it, Philip Bither [performing arts curator for Walker Art Center] has not come to see any of my work since.

Ah, the harsh realities of our world. You might say, “So what, you kept working?” — and so I did, but am I working a little bit safer and thinking about audience reaction more [after that experience]? I learned a valuable personal lesson then, and I won’t go into detail, but I’ll say this: If you’ve never had a public flop, you really ought to try it — it tests your mettle.

1) About movement: I’ve looked at the role of movement vocabulary from a multitude of perspectives, and I’ve experimented a lot, too. I was trained in choreography at NYU by modernists and post–modernists. There, I saw these methodologies intertwine. Movement was developed to deliver the emotional content of the piece and sometimes the movement was just there, its reason for being not always apparent. I’ve always been able to create movement through how I move. In 2000, I stripped out all extraneous movement except what was driven and devised by character. But lately I’ve been revisiting the question of movement: What is it for? How does it function in a piece? Certainly, there’s a specific movement vocabulary — but it’s also about structure, ideas, and the movement all woven together into a whole. Your question remains: How can I, as choreographer, help the audience perceive, know, and understand what is important about that vocabulary?

2) Even though I love technology, or the images that it produces, there is always a non-technology impetus [for my work]. That said — yeah, I admit to sometimes being overwhelmed by the collaboration [between media and disciplines]; and in O, the Humanity, Robert and I were working a long time before media entered the picture. In fact, we didn’t add the media [to the work] until much later. And by saying that you weren’t sure “if I knew it or the piece knew it,” I think that might translate into: I could use more clarity; that is, to be very sure of what I was saying or say it better.

3) Yes and no. And I have no idea if the sci-fi wanderings of my imagination (or Hollywood screen writers) will really come to pass. I do wonder where we are headed as I walk down the street, and everyone I pass seems preoccupied with some device. I guess, I’d rather be occupied by the musings of my own mind, but there it is: What a difference a generation can make. Even if I’m smart enough to control the craziness of my own technology, I can’t separate myself from the rest of the world, or observations of how we, as a people, might be changing. And besides, I’m curious to see how it all turns out. About not buying the premise of the work: Well, that is the most difficult of all concerns, because the premise is my life, and the reason for that is probably my own choreographic blind spot. Now, if I could only figure out what that reason is…?

4) I probably reacted too strongly to the word “bourgeois,” which means, as I understand it, to be part of the elite. I’m a white, middle-aged, low-income artist who often wonders why she didn’t make smarter financial choices when she was younger. I consider myself a part of the 99%, and I’d like to see real change happen, socially and economically. But everything seems driven by commodity now, even art. How are we being controlled by what we think we should buy, or the art we think we should make? A student recently asked me to play ‘Words with Friends’ with him. I had to ask, “What kind of device do I need? An iPhone? Sorry, I have only a regular cell phone. iPhones are too expensive and seem like a waste of time.: Student looks at me and blinks, not knowing how to answer. For sure, I’m an alien creature (a.k.a. old).

I did kind of sense you were talking about the characters as being bourgeois, but since we use media as a way to deliver images, primarily, we are making a statement about technology simply by using it. And to use it, to be driven crazy by it, you have to be able to buy it.

Let’s keep talking,



From: Lightsey Darst
To: Paula Mann
RE: A new paradigm for reviewing?

Hi, Paula!

I pulled this line out of your letter, because I find it really compelling: “There really isn’t a forum for artists to state what they were attempting to create.”

Someone’s bound to object that the program notes are exactly that forum, but we know it isn’t true. What you’re doing in this exchange, how you’re thinking about what you put into the work and how it turned out, we don’t get to see that at all. But why not? It’s fascinating and it’s instructive. Even being “on the inside” I’m not always sure how things work, what’s pivotal for an artist’s career and how that affects the artist’s development, etc. How could we know more about this?

Your email hints at a way: We can alter the reviewing paradigm to include just this sort of exchange we’re embarked on as a regular part of the discussion around dance… except, that it’s possible no one will read it. Because, as you point out, who reads reviews now? Well, I’m not sure. I can say that when I post my articles on Facebook (more technology, I know how you love that), the articles that get the most response are invariably the personal ones — articles that go in-depth with my or someone else’s experience, that pursue the intimate side of art.

Articles, in short, like this one …

And, to make a possibly over-neat bridge (I think I’ve revealed my weakness for the smooth transition) to the topic of technology, perhaps the saving grace of all this technology might be its capacity for intimacy. Here are all these new spaces, and, yes, they tend to drive us into shallow and commodified communications; but they also allow us (if we’re persistent and clever) a lot of freedom. Hmmm: How does that relate to what you’re saying about using the technology to critique it?

A deeper idea’s coming out for me as I reread your emails: Criticism can be helpful. You’re clearly constantly looking for ways to improve your work, and it sounds as if you’d like to use public and critical perception and feedback for that purpose. It sounds obvious, but I hardly hear anybody say anything like that. Choreographers and artists don’t seem to want to admit that they could use help, and reviewers (this one included) would rather not assume such a presumptuous role. And it seems to me that we usually treat a performance as a thing in itself — accomplished, complete — rather than as part of an artist’s ongoing development.

I’m wondering how this feels from your side: Is there a prohibition on commenting on your own work this way, in public, on revealing your side of it?

Yours in dance,



From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Power to the people

Hi Lightsey,

Our final exchange and I still have so much to say (and not much time)!

Here goes: I think it’s interesting that most people don’t have the opportunity to understand the process of making art, an insider’s view, so to speak. What actually happens when creating something from nothing? I’ve been fascinated by this process, in myself and others, for some time. (I’m researching where ideas come from: intersections of brain science and creativity.)

In my mind, generally speaking, a piece has unending potential to evolve. One could work on a piece throughout a lifetime and never finish, the work being a constant reflection of your consciousness at that time. (I think there was a movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman that took on this topic.) This wouldn’t work, for practical reasons, but sometimes I like to fantasize about what kind of art would be created if the limitations of money and time were out of the picture. But limitations can sometimes produce a heightened awareness and great results: You know you’re working against time, and you absolutely have to make something happen. I’ve spent many years awake in the middle of the night, thinking through my rehearsal for the next day.

I’m glad you feel that making this (process-oriented) information available to the public would be helpful. I don’t think this kind of response can completely covered by a talk-back with the audience or in program notes, but maybe in another format…Likewise, I think it is important for artists to get a glimpse of their work through another’s eyes. And, yes, I would like my work to get better, but one has to ask: Better for whom? For what audience? I know the marketplace, and thinking about that doesn’t make me feel more creative. I think we all want people to like our work; if you truthfully don’t care, I would like to award you with some kind of Detached Creator award. So, I care, but as I get older, I do care less. I fully understand that all opinions (no matter how educated) are subjective; each person registers experiences differently, through their own unique perspective.

Finally, as to effect of technology in our personal lives… this is way too complicated for me to take up in the space I have left here. But I agree with you about the potential change in intimacy level allowed through social media. I’m truly excited that people (assuming they have access) around the world can voice their support and cumulative political power to change our world (to start a revolution, for instance).

Growing up near Detroit in the 1960s, I heard this phrase constantly: Power to the people. Sounds a bit outdated, but I think it’s happening now.  People are taking their power back. The awareness of the creative spark that exists in each of us is fundamental to understanding this innate power.

Thanks for a great exchange — I hope we can do something like this again in the future!



Below are some scenes from the 2005 performance noted above, The Train Wreck is Proceeding Nicely: