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Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography on Collaboration, Choice and Chance

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

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

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

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

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography Project)

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

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

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

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography Project)

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

Kristin

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

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

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

Otto 

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

Kristin

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

Olive

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

Arwen 

That’s such a good question! Failure!

Olive 

I’m sorry, I’m just dying to ask.

Kristin 

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

Olive 

To make it more difficult?

Arwen

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

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

Kristin 

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

Otto 

Never mark it.

Kristin 

Never mark it.

Otto

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

Kristin 

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

Otto

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

Arwen 

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

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

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

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

Otto 

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

Kristin

Who’d you work with?

Olive 

A woman from Germany: Stefanie Hahnzog.

Otto 

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

Kristin 

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

Olive

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

Otto 

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

Olive 

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

Otto 

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

Olive 

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

Kristin 

We call ourselves a “choreographic collaboration.”

Olive 

Your avoidance of labeling seems interesting, maybe important.

Kristin 

What do you call yourselves?

Otto 

Choreographers.

Olive

We do a lot of directing…

Kristin

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

Otto 

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

Kristin

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

Otto

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

Kristin 

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

Otto 

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

Kristin 

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

Otto 

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

Kristin 

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

Olive

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

Kristin 

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

Arwen 

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

Kristin 

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

Olive 

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

Kristin 

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

Olive 

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

Kristin 

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

Olive 

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

Arwen

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

Kristin 

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

Arwen 

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

Olive

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

Arwen 

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

Olive 

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

Arwen 

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

Kristin

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

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

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

Otto 

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

Kristin 

You wanted more…

Otto

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

Arwen

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

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

Kristin 

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

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

Arwen 

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

Olive 

And those songs are usually three minutes long.

Arwen

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

Olive 

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

Arwen 

It is.

Olive 

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

Kristin

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

Arwen 

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

Kristin

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

Arwen 

Yeah.

Otto 

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

Arwen 

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

Otto 

(Singing) — it’s a Walker show

Arwen 

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

Olive 

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

Kristin 

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

Olive

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

Kristin 

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

Otto 

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

Kristin

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

Otto 

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

Arwen 

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

Olive 

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

Arwen 

Yeah, thank you!

__________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

What have you guys been doing since Super Nature premiered?

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography)

Oh, grant reports.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography)

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

Otto

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

Kristin

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

Olive

Great! I love it. Yes.

Kristin

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

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

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

Otto

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

Olive

Yes – between the bodies and the space itself.

Otto

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

Olive

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

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

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

Kristin

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

Olive

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

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

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

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

Olive

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

Otto

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

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

Olive

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

Arwen

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

Olive

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

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

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen

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

Otto

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

Arwen

That’s where your focus is.

Otto

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

Kristin

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

Otto

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

Olive

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

Otto

One person said that.

Olive

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

Otto

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

Olive

Casting is a choreographic choice.

Otto

Casting is the biggest thing.

Olive

For us, in our work.

BCPSNfaunSeanSmudaRamstadShogren

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

Otto

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

Olive

Then you better love ‘em!

Otto

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

Olive

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

Otto

I think we used the breathing—

Olive

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

Kristin

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

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

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

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Olive

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

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

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

Kristin

It’s like the antidote—

Olive

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

Otto

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

Olive

With people who don’t improvise a lot—

Otto

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

Kristin

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

Otto

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

Olive

To reinvent your whole process.

Otto

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

Olive

Or Mark Morris!

Otto

Mark Morris?

Olive

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

Otto

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

Arwen

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

Olive

Like a traveling, evolving individual of multiple species.

Arwen

Keep going!

Otto

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

Olive

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

Kristin

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

Otto

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

Arwen

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

Olive

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

Otto

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

Kristin

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

Arwen

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

Otto

Didn’t that also happen in Fetish?

Kristin

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

Arwen

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

Kristin

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

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

With BodyCartography, what are you-all doing?

Otto

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

Olive

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

Otto

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

Kristin

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

Olive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entering Western Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

What’s your previous experience with ArtPrize?

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

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

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

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

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

Gillett Bridge Border Control

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitch Night

Photo courtesy of Emily Gastineau

From Vice to Africa to Duluth, the Places of Photographer Brad Ogbonna

When Brad Ogbonna was a student at Roseville Area High School in a first-ring suburb of St. Paul, he wasn’t much interested in art or photography. “I played varsity basketball in high school,” he says. It’s when he jumped the state border to attend University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he earned his Bachelor of Science […]

All photos by Brad Ogbonna, from "Places" and the Studio Africa Project with Diesel+Edun. Courtesy of the artist.

All photos by Brad Ogbonna, from “Places” and the Studio Africa Project with Diesel+Edun. Courtesy of the artist.

When Brad Ogbonna was a student at Roseville Area High School in a first-ring suburb of St. Paul, he wasn’t much interested in art or photography. “I played varsity basketball in high school,” he says. It’s when he jumped the state border to attend University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he earned his Bachelor of Science in International/Global Studies, that he started “following the blogs that were popping up.”

“I didn’t want to be in Wisconsin,” he says. “I went on blogs to see what people my age were up to, where they were going, what stories their photos were telling. It was a way to escape Wisconsin.” While living in Minneapolis one summer, he read Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which inspired him to start taking snapshots of his friends with a simple point-and-shoot camera, pictures that he’d post on his website.

"Places" - Kenya

“Places” – Kenya

After an exchange year — spent partially in Europe, and then at Queens College in Flushing, NY, where had an internship at Spin — Ogbonna returned to River Falls to finish his degree. Then, he says, things started to pop. Through a friend, Diet Coke offered him a photography project, shooting New York Fashion Week in 2011. “It was a massive first job,” he says. “Seeing my photographs posted in Times Square, I decided to make photography my career.”

Today, Ogbonna’s client list includes Top Shop, DIESEL + EDUN, VICE, Myspace, Radio City Rockettes, Maison Kitsuné, Zaarly, Facebook, The Participation Agency, BULLETT Magazine, Carmichael Lynch, and OWA Market. Locally, he’s shot for the former METRO Magazine and City Pages.

"Places" - South Africa

“Places” – South Africa

“I’m always inspired by what’s going on in Minneapolis,” says Ogbonna, who now lives in New York City. “I try to make it back every couple of months, and I’m constantly paying attention to what’s going on there. I feel like I’m part of the community, although I make my money in New York.”

The project that connected him with his Nigerian roots and led him to work with DIESEL + EDUN, and then to create “Places,” was a book about his father, George Ogbonna Sr.  Brad Obgonna’s father grew up in the village of Nkwerre, in Nigeria. During high school, his father received a list of top US colleges from an uncle. Winona State University was on the list. He’d never heard of Winona, or Minnesota, but he decided to enroll. Soon after arriving in Winona, George’s wife, who was from the same village, followed. George eventually transferred to Augsburg College. He eventually became an administrator at the University of Minnesota. She became a nurse. Their son, Brad, grew up a thoroughly American kid, despite his strict Nigerian parents.

"Places" - Kenya

“Places” – Kenya

Shortly after Brad graduated from college and moved to New York, George told his son he had cancer. He passed quickly. According to village tradition, you are buried where you grew up. So, Brad accompanied his father’s body back to Nkwerre, hung out with his Nigerian relatives, and started taking pictures. He returned a year later, as is customary to conclude the mourning period for a father, and he took more pictures—in Nkwerre but also Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Abonnema.

The result became a book, Jisike, which Obgonna self-published and quickly sold out. Images from the book were also exhibited at Oberlin College last February. “I wanted to create a tribute to my father, but also create something tangible to show my family and others in the village,” he says. The photos were really about “people’s interactions with me,” he says. “In Nkwerre, everyone knew why I was there. My Dad was very popular in the village. And the photos show how the people I met were reacting to me.”

"Places" - South Africa

“Places” – South Africa

Seeing where his parents grew up, their middle and high schools, was “a humbling experience,” Ogbonna says. “The way the kids looked at me—I was the personification of the Nigerian dream. The prospects of people making it outside of Nigeria are limited. For them to see someone whose father came from the village and did well in the U.S., and that the son comes back and forth — people are very proud of that.”

The book prepared him for his next big project, shooting for DIESEL + EDUN’s “Studio Africa,” by “building my confidence in shooting people I didn’t know and getting a feel for places.” His assignment had three components. As others shot music videos of the three innovative musical talents—Spoek, Faarrow and Olugbenga—in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, Obgonna shot behind-the-scenes footage.

He also shot the clothing for ads and in-house marketing efforts. And he photographed the scenery “to capture the aesthetics of the places we traveled to.” As to why they chose Ogbonna, he says, “I think I probably gave them street cred, because I’m an American-Nigerian artist who doesn’t shoot poverty porn. I shoot pictures that are a true slice of life of what’s going on in Africa.”

His ongoing project, “Places,” is a collection of images he’s shot around the world, from Duluth to Africa. “People are starting to pay attention to Africa in a different way,” he says. “It’s not the little brother of the world that needs taking care of, but a place where a lot of cool things are happening, with a lot of potential.” Ogbonna’s images—direct, engaging and authentic—attest to that change, and to how a Minnesota-born photographer of Nigerian heritage sees the world today.

"Places" - Kenya

“Places” – Kenya

Trouble in Paradise: A Conversation with Painter Melissa Loop

Minnesota artist Melissa Loop draws attention to the complexities and double-standards inherent in fetishizing and idealizing exotic locales, exploring the consequences of tourism through the lush, layered surfaces of her paintings. In a recent conversation, we discussed the lineage of landscape painting, from Hudson River School to Peter Doig, painting and viewing art as work […]

Melissa Loop, I Turned Your Kingdom Out, acrylic and spray paint, 2013

Melissa Loop, I Turned Your Kingdom Out, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 2013

Minnesota artist Melissa Loop draws attention to the complexities and double-standards inherent in fetishizing and idealizing exotic locales, exploring the consequences of tourism through the lush, layered surfaces of her paintings. In a recent conversation, we discussed the lineage of landscape painting, from Hudson River School to Peter Doig, painting and viewing art as work and leisure, and the recent public drama that erupted around a slanted news article about her pursuit of travel as artistic research.

Jehra Patrick

On the surface, your paintings depict fluorescent and glowing equatorial landscapes. Talk about your process for finding, taking and selecting images.

Melissa Loop

My process has changed somewhat since I’ve started traveling to the places and making a whole series around one place. Before, I chose iconic photos that appeared over and over in Google images when I searched for a place. I would be specific for each thing I wanted in the painting, though — like “Hawaiian waterfall.” So I was always constructing made up landscapes that were collaged together from various photos.  I now actually go to the area I want to make work about, but what has stayed the same are the reasons that draw me to a site in the first place. It’s rather organic, in the sense that these are just landscapes that I get obsessed with, but they are also always places that are being massively affected by climate change, colonialism, tourism – they’re all in the process of being Westernized in some fashion through globalization. But they’re exotic in some way for me. When I visit a place, I am thinking about how to tell a story about the history, culture, climate, landscape, as well as the memory or dream of the place that lasts after you leave. I’m not just interested in iconic landmarks, but also the odd-shaped rocks, plants, moments that make up a place.

Melissa Loop, A Dream of a Made up Hawaiian Island, acrylic and spray paint, 2012

Melissa Loop, A Dream of a Made up Hawaiian Island, acrylic and spray paint, 2012

Jehra Patrick

To which places have you traveled? What is your criteria for selecting your destinations?

Melissa Loop

I’ve been to the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, which was the start of my interest in the continuing colonial mindset you see behind resorts and international tourism. I’ve also been to Belize, the Mexican Yucatan near Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza. In less than a week, I will leave for the French Polynesia, where I will visit Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Bora Bora, and Nuku Hiva.

I’ve been picking places that are exotic to me, which have a rich archaeological ruins, are rapidly changing or will change drastically in my lifetime because of humans and that have a history of colonialism. I’ve learned a lot from some of my previous trips, about what works and what doesn’t. When I planned my Polynesian trip, I looked for places that were not resorts per se, or even normal hotels, but rather small places that are run by Polynesians.

Jehra Patrick

And these are not lavish places, like ‘Sandals,’ I presume…

Melissa Loop

A posh paradise is very nice for a vacation, but not conducive to locating the different sites where I draw, photograph and research every morning. Each day, I concentrate on a different location on the island to study; it is actually quite physically strenuous, requiring lots of hiking up mountains, through valleys and ungroomed terrain to get to the places that tourists really don’t reach very often. In this trip, I’m really excited about all of the archaeological ruins that I’m going to visit on the islands — particularly the most important Polynesian ruins, outside of Easter Island. I’m also meeting with a woman on Huahine who is in charge of an important cultural heritage site. On my last trip, I only had one day where I didn’t completely exhaust myself, and that’s only because I got really sick and couldn’t go anywhere.

Jehra Patrick

What has been your impression of these places you have visited? How do they hold up to both your notions of exploitation? Are they beautiful and exotic? How has actually seeing these sites in person changed your work?

Melissa Loop

When I went to Belize, I had this notion that I wanted to take pictures of the shacks – the “real place” – but I realized, after I got there, that such thinking is disrespectful of their culture. I saw how proud they are of the beauty of their country. So, the work became about, essentially, the idea of memory, misconceptions, exoticism and fantasy of the place after I returned home.  Belize doesn’t get much tourism; they caught my attention because their tiny country is the only one standing up to the cruse ship companies by putting strict rules on how many cruise tourists can enter their protected areas (if at all).  I ended up leaving there very hopeful and optimistic, because of how they take care of their land and try to grow tourism in a more sustainable way.

The place I visited in Mexico was an entirely different story. There resorts are allowed to be run like a compound that you never have to leave….unless you get bored of the beach, and then you’re shuttled to some manicured ruin. Tulum doesn’t have huge resorts, but all of the beaches are currently being transformed into this long strip of luxury eco-hotels, where they keep guards at the front of the road, like gatekeepers to the beach. It was also kind of unnerving when a guy trying to sell us a tour informed us that we could stand on the coral in the water. It really makes you wonder what’s going to be left in 50 years.

Jehra Patrick

I’d like to hear bit more about your composition and creative decision-making – your paintings, in their handling, feel like amplified or fantastic adaptations as opposed to a straight plein air study of these lands.

Melissa Loop

All of the actual paintings are made in my studio in Minneapolis; I consider what I make during the trip to be notations. I am interested in what happens between seeing and experiencing a place and the gap of memory, time, fantasy, dream, and outright lying. That’s why I like to reference grand landscape painters, like Fredric Erwin Church, because they would amp up the color, rearrange details, and try to make a place as desirable as possible. The neon and extreme saturation in my paintings come from the influence of CGI and Photoshop, and the way that everything [online] seems to want to be so loud in order to be seen and noticed. But I am also fighting with the surface by destroying and creating space through spilling paint, spray painting, dripping, and sanding so that the painting will flip back and forth between the deep painting space and a reminder that it’s all just surface and paint. For me, it is kind of a metaphor for my own struggles with my participation in global change, and the sense of helplessness that I (and I think a lot of people of our generation) feel.

Fredric Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, Oil on canvas, 1855

Fredric Erwin Church, Cotopaxi, Oil on canvas, 1855

Jehra Patrick

This exaggeration in the color choices gives your work look of “vacation-ness.” What are the complications of traveling for learning vs. traveling for leisure? Is leisure still a byproduct of your research?

Melissa Loop

I suppose it depends on a person’s definition of leisure. When I and the other Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative (MSAB) recipients were catching flak for visiting places that are usually thought of as leisure destinations, it became a joke between my husband and I that you should only receive funding if your trip will be dangerous, cold and not enjoyable. There tends to be more frustration for me when I travel for research, since my main goal then is to collect information; traveling in the manner I do is not set up for that. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to go about my research with a more scientific approach on future projects, but it’s difficult since I do need to see more than one location to do my work.  There’s also a lot of stress involved, because it is research — I’m working, even if it is amazing, fun work. This upcoming trip involves 13 flights (six flights just to get there and back, because it’s so far away), six islands and seven different lodgings. That sure isn’t what I would do to myself if I wanted to relax.

Jehra Patrick

What about the “vacation-ness” of viewing your work? Is viewing art ever about taking a moment of vacation? Isn’t museum-going a leisure activity?

Melissa Loop

For me, art is a form of escapism and I love being able to create a painting that I can “escape” into; there’s definitely this duality between what I’m doing in my studio, what we do in museums, and what we do when we travel.  Paradoxically, I think that making paintings that require me to travel so much has forced me to do the opposite of escape.

Melissa Loop, Fragment, acrylic and spray paint, 2013

Melissa Loop, Fragment, acrylic and spray paint, 2013

Jehra Patrick

In looking at your work, comparisons to Paul Gauguin and Peter Doig come to mind. Do you think they were ever criticized for the type of work they do? Also, do you think they’re saying something about the places they visit in their work, or do we love them for their palettes, their application of paint and composition. In other words, does the subject matter?

Melissa Loop

The interesting thing about Peter Doig is that most of his work deals with memories of his early childhood in Canada — it’s a kind of dream landscape. Also, he lives in Trinidad, so he’s not really a visitor. But he talks about the fact that he will always be the white guy. that he can never get away from the exoticism of a place that is so vastly different from the place he came from. I think the difference between Doig and Gauguin is that Doig isn’t trying to live out or sell some sort of hedonistic fantasy. A lot of historians criticize Gauguin, because most of what he wrote about his experiences were vastly exaggerated. He went specifically to seek out this “noble savage” sort of lifestyle; the thing is, the Polynesians had been converted to Christianity by that point, and he was highly disliked for taking on so many young lovers. Gauguin was really just perpetuating a fantasy of what he wished was there, but maybe never really was, in fact. I am interested in the notion of fantasy, but I think I am coming from a very self-critical point of view; I’m not really perpetuating a fantasy, but rather presenting the fantasy that we all have of such exotic places, acknowledging its impossibility. I think both artists tap into some inner desire we share [about "paradise"], and that its part of the appeal of the work. Besides, isn’t subject merely a vehicle for content, anyways?

Jehra Patrick

True! Within your work, that content addresses the misconceptions of place – e.g., a gorgeous island that is actually a site of exploitation. Interestingly enough, when your MSAB project received coverage, many misconceptions about artists’ funding were aired in the conversation surrounding it. What are misconceptions, for artists and these places? Aren’t both a bit romanticized? Are artists still exotic? Is there a misconstrued understanding of what it means to be an artist?

Melissa Loop, Untitled, acrylic and spray paint, 2013.

Melissa Loop

I think there is a lot of mystery, and sometimes angst, surrounding the idea of being an artist. There is this myth that we are lazy, or don’t pay taxes ourselves (apparently), and that we are bad at what we do if we have to rely on grants to help bring projects into fruition. The truth is that most successful artists have several sources of income to make their practice work, including sales, grants, and some sort of outside income, such as teaching, freelance work, or side-jobs. I feel people tend to think that we should live in poverty until the day comes when we are “discovered,” because we would just make art anyway — it’s part of that romantic Van Gogh idea.  A lot of people seemed very upset to see my blogs and figure out that not only was I not destitute, but  I also travel a lot. But I and every artist I know and respect in this community work very hard at not only making our work, but also promoting, writing and a long list of other non-creative admin-type tasks. This is a career as much as it’s a lifestyle.

Jehra Patrick

You were recently vilified by Watchdog.org’s “Minnesota Bureau,” as well as in the public commentary, for receiving a MSAB for travel purposes (among a hundred other artists of varying disciplines.) While this is a very slanted and misleading media piece, I think it’s worth making note of the interesting conversations that cascaded from this incident, including the role of the artist as both a worker and a culture-bringer, the role of grants in support of the arts and artists, and the place of government subsidy for arts and culture. These are all huge topics, I know, but I do want to provide the opportunity to initiate some of this continued conversation.

Melissa Loop

The man interviewing me asked the question: “Do you think this (traveling to French Polynesia) a good way to spend people’s tax dollars?” which I find purposely misleading, since these projects are funded by the MSAB, a small state organization that receives a small component of the Arts and Cultural Legacy Fund. The purpose of the money isn’t to send me on a trip, it is intended to make the work after, to foster gallery shows and artist talks, and to enrich Minnesota by bringing up conversations about how we can and do directly affect people and places halfway around the world through the choices we make, with how we perceive the world to be. As an artist, it is my role to spark new conversations, present new ideas, comment and make work about the times we live in. There should be a component of art that responds to these aspects of globalization. The fine arts are integral to the Minnesota creative community and artists do create create an economic return for the state.  Artists have been supported for hundreds of years through patrons, monarchies, and the church, so I’m not sure why there is this idea that a good artist never needs support to help bridge their practice.

Jehra Patrick 

What are your big takeaways from this? What are the conversations that you and fellow artists are having around the issues of artists’ means for finding monetary support and the granting system in Minnesota?

Melissa Loop

I think this conversation has highlighted the paradox of being an artist in the Midwest: here, you can be “successful” and yet never make enough money from your work to run a studio, or to make a decent living. That’s why many artists choose to go somewhere else. The grant system is a way to help us bridge some of that gap, so we can stay here and make work.

Jehra Patrick

What about the misconceptions surrounding the granting process? Do you have any suggestions for avenues of conversation where we can continue to communicate to the public accurate pictures about the roles of the artist in their communities and the ways artists find to support themselves?

Melissa Loop

The news story did accentuate some vast misconceptions about the [Artist Initiative] program; the author of the piece likened getting a grant to winning the lottery; people seemed to think awarding public money means that they should have some sort of ownership or control over how those funds are used, simply because they’re a member of the public. I actually don’t think that MSAB is opaque — anyone can go and see the panelists who are judging the grant proposals.  A real concern I had, reading the public comments, had to do with the broader feeling that they indicated a lack of value for artists and what they do; some of the commenters aren’t interested in learning about the process for applying for grants — they’re not really objecting to that so much as they don’t seem to think of artists as really “working.”

When I started a dialogue with the news reporter about the story, he just kept asking what my project had to do with the state; I realized that we were simply having two different conversations. What I do doesn’t directly produce a certain quantity of jobs or result in a monetary outcome or return on investment – that’s not the purpose of my project. This leads me to think that there is confusion about what the phrase “impact the state” means to the general public when we’re talking about the arts. Maybe it’s about changing the language. Maybe it’s about all of us artists being vocal about what we really do: educating our families, friends, co-workers. When this all came out, I realized that I, too, create that fantasy of an artist in my blogs. I never really considered myself a public person before this, and I think defending myself against things that are not even trying to be true or balanced only serves the fuel their criticisms. But I do feel a responsibility, now more than ever, to be as transparent as possible with this project and leverage it to have the most impact as possible.

Melissa Loop is a landscape painter who mines the long history of the genre and subverts it with her fantasy landscapes. Her hyper-colored canvases with their haphazard drips, neon spray paint, jumbled digitized shapes, and rainbow-infused skies literalize the artificiality of imagined paradises and bespeak her concern for ongoing globalization, colonization, and touristic expansion in exotic locations. In 2005 Loop received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

See more of the artist’s work at: melissaloop.com 

Learn more about the artist’s project at: myheartisanomad.blogspot.com

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

Painter, Painter, now on view at the Walker Art Center through October 27, 2013, includes a selection of living artists responding to the materiality and open-endedness of the medium of painting, as well as the fluidity of the role of artist as painter. Operating as painters creating new work in a time of unlimited ontologies, we […]

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Rarely Do We Stretch, Matthew Yaeger, 2013

Painter, Painter, now on view at the Walker Art Center through October 27, 2013, includes a selection of living artists responding to the materiality and open-endedness of the medium of painting, as well as the fluidity of the role of artist as painter. Operating as painters creating new work in a time of unlimited ontologies, we see these artists gathered in the exhibition for the thoughtful ways in which their practice holds strong footing in studio-based activities, demonstrates backwards-glancing at historical movements, and shows a continued interest in the material possibilities for painting, often incorporating the jargon of adjacent disciplines; all of whom produce objects with an proclivity for the genre of Abstraction. This exhibition presents an acute, though diverse, edit of broader tendencies that pivot and reshape frameworks for painting practice.

In her seminal 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Rosalind Krauss posits that, “practice is not defined in relation to a given medium…but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium…might be used.” Krauss opened up the possibility for artists – in this case, painters – to perform operations, as practice, on the collectively held idea of what constitutes “painting.” The resulting broad guidelines about what the medium is and can be, coupled with what philosopher Arthur C. Danto described as “pluralism” (i.e. the idea that no kind of output is more ‘true,’ or advanced, than another) left the terminology of painting gaping and unwieldy decades ago. It is important to note this history, as it has given artists legroom to reply, and the opportunity to reply to one-another’s replies, for some time. It is also important to note that these conversations, while historical, have been advancing for years; a discussion of “painting” is not being re-opened in 2013 — dialogue within and about the medium was never closed. This past June, New York Times critic Roberta Smith reviewed string of five exhibitions opening in Chelsea, noting the dominance of artists “examining the ways painting can merge with sculpture or conceptual art and yield pictorial hybrids that may not even involve paint; others are more focused on the medium’s traditional forms.”

In other words, these tendencies for painters are synchronic, and are representative of interests occurring nationally, internationally and locally. Positioning Painter Painter in a contemporary art museum in the Midwest is as relevant to that ongoing conversation as it would be if the exhibition were showing in a gallery in New York, if not more so; situated here, the exhbition bears witness to and charts the prominence of these currents, the immediacy of these practices and the proximity of these activities: the exhibition is here and this work is also occurring here. The Midwest is part of this conversation.

As evidence, note the following artists, all of whom are working and living in the state of Minnesota and who offer thoughtful contributions to the growing dialogue on the expanded conditions of painting though material, surface and process. Aside from pictorial strategies or abstraction of subject, abstraction is also employed as descriptive device, stretching and abstracting the medium  itself – reducing, distilling and providing partial information about the practice of painting.

Installation view of Joe Smith’s Softside at David Petersen Gallery in Minneapolis, 2013. Courtesy of the artist’s website.

Joe Smith

Smith’s practice takes conceptual coordinates as departure points for the insoluble conundrum of painting itself, seeking the possibilities – formal, conceptual and material – that occur between those coordinates, not necessarily the shortest distance. In Softside, the artist’s most recent exhibition at David Petersen Gallery, Smith selects security blankets and self-help books as his cues, taking the territory between the two as his starting point. Wooden planks suck up coppered salt like a pacifying thumb, and blankets dangle, coated in paint and varnish, serving as guides for improvements to self, and painting. These materials, though symbolic for self-help, are also corrupted from the most rudimentary painting supplies: wooden stretchers and woven substrates.

Installation view of Paintings for Germans, Sculpture for Snobs, Rochester Art Center, 2008.

Installation view of Paintings for Germans, Sculpture for Snobs, Rochester Art Center, 2008.

Bruce Tapola

Tapola’s practice has long oscillated between painting and sculpture, abstraction and figuration, often resulting in hybrids of both. Humorous and wise, his work often jabs at art historical precedents, bargains with tropes, and juxtaposes idiosyncrasies of painting’s material qualities and capabilities. Balancing the acts of looking and toying, Tapola’s practice centers on the revealed intention behind the process of art-making and the expansive terrain between image and object. Destroying, repurposing and piling traditional supports, applying gorgeous paint handling to wonky refuse materials, nesting picture-hosting contraptions and color-coated detritus — all of it resides together in non-hierarchical installations: Tapola builds and dismantles the value system around painting’s objecthood.

Words woldrs woroid, Ute Bertog, 2011

Words woldrs woroid, Ute Bertog, 2011

Ute Bertog

Bertog’s practice leverages our trust in text as signifier; her work dissociates written language’s ability to communicate through abstract gestures, cursive mark-making, and word and character-shaped forms, as well as their obfuscation. She works in layers, painting over texts and letters, allowing the language of painting itself to be the communicator by leaning on its material qualities as a means of conveyance. Sometimes her surfaces take the form of the rectangular canvas, but other times the artist crops, cuts and reduces her canvas to silhouettes of utterances. Though language is central to her concepts and forms, Bertog’s work is equally interested in miscommunication – for Bertog, abstraction preoccupies, and her texts become secondary to painting’s materiality and the non-literal qualities of picture-making.

Young and Restless, Megan McCready, 2011.

Megan McCready

McCready arrives at wall-hanging objects via a background in sculpture, and her most recent body of work emerges from the exciting territory of three-dimensional strategies that conflate within the mien of painting. Her works are produced from swaths of cloth, leather, and vinyl, pulled and stapled over sculptural forms — some plinths, others more like the rectangular praxis of easel painting. Their lush material surfaces – from loose and folded to taught and pinched – reenact the motions of prepping a canvas, or suggest the pliability of a thick impasto. Her post-minimal objects, surfaces and unconventional mark-marking explore spatial concepts and the blur the mannerisms of both painting and sculpture.

Project Index #1: Wall Construction, Matthew Yaeger, 2012

Matthew Yaeger

Functioning as both objects and studio performances, Yaeger’s conglomerations of ascetic, unassuming materials depart from the picture-plane. Sculptural in form and experienced in situ, these arrangements suggest the painting process in its most fundamental, essential state. Some are wall-fixed and others floor-resting, the self-contained, pithy interactions among ordinary, Home Depot-variety materials address painting as an act of construction, as well as art object. Distilled elements from painting, including structural elements like stretchers, or the relationships between local and applied color, operate loosely in space – sometimes literally hanging – creating sculptural references to the geometries and gestures of abstract compositions usually found on canvas.

On Wryness and Precision: A Conversation with Artist Steven Lang

Minneapolis-based artist Steven Lang’s idiosyncratic and hard-to-pin-down artistic practice ranges from collage and photography to social media and performance. The artist is comfortable with his own quirks – like an inside joke he shares with himself – and slyly indulges his deadpan humor, multiple personae and obsessive perfectionism in each project. In this conversation with […]

Steven Lang, photo: Jesse Martin, 2012

Steven Lang, photo: Jesse Martin, 2012

Minneapolis-based artist Steven Lang’s idiosyncratic and hard-to-pin-down artistic practice ranges from collage and photography to social media and performance. The artist is comfortable with his own quirks – like an inside joke he shares with himself – and slyly indulges his deadpan humor, multiple personae and obsessive perfectionism in each project. In this conversation with the artist, Steven Lang lets us in on the joke and the content behind his array of projects.

Jehra Patrick

Steven, you self-identify as a perfectionist; as an artist, is perfection related to adhering to a certain level of skill or craftsmanship in your work, or is more about personal satisfaction?

Steven Lang

I am usually kidding when I self-identify as anything. But yes, I’ve struggled with perfectionism in my work. It helps and it hurts. A balance needs to be struck. If I can’t let things go, I try to stop and look at the work of other artists who know how shake themselves loose when needed. Artists who can get into a new groove and let it ride for a bit. (I’m thinking someone like Mike Kelley vs. someone like Richard Artswager.) Then I go back and see where perfectionism has helped me and where it has hurt me.

Jehra Patrick

Your predisposition and eye for details is clear from earlier collage projects, including optical compositions of pop culture references like Mickey Mouse and Paul Bunyan. Your meticulous approach to these subjects seems contrary to their iconic nature…. Tell me more about these subjects and your pursuit of challenging art forms like micro-collage.

Steven Lang

Well, I actually see icons as an ideal form, a perfect manifestation of type. So, when I approach them as subject matter, the details matter. Not that the figures can’t morph into something else, but something of that ideal has to remain. That’s where being meticulous seems to help. I can’t imagine a sloppy rendition of Mickey Mouse (who is actually a rat if you look closely).

Steven Lang, Double Aught, #1, M.A.G.S. series, digital photograph

Jehra Patrick

The M.A.G.S. series is a nice bridge between your collage work and photographic work, where you make use of a Richard Prince-esque approach to re-photography while including found objects in your compositions. Can you talk about this process?

Steven Lang

I wanted something to do when I was too tired to move, something I could literally set up on my nightstand. That’s where I did a lot of the M.A.G.S. series, all of which I did with my phone camera. Images of the body are compelling, and I like studying the minutiae of printing techniques of any kind. Photographing magazines really reveals the way they are printed (usually four-color halftone). You also pick up on things like fingerprints, gloss and reflection, staples, folds. I love the tactile quality of magazines often more than the content. In terms of found objects, it was something that came from my collage work — incorporating material and letting the layering of information lead to (hopefully) interesting connections.

Steven Lang,Teppanyaki Grill and Supreme Buffet (To Go), $4.99/lb,  pigmented inkjet, 2011

Steven Lang,Teppanyaki Grill and Supreme Buffet (To Go), $4.99/lb, pigmented inkjet, 2011

Jehra Patrick

Comedy also plays an important role in your practice. As with the exaggerated chest hair in the M.A.G.S. series, or the S.C.A.N.S. series, where we see you making art jokes – like a parody Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty – and, at other moments, contemplating the value of technology by dropping entire meals on a scanner bed. How direct is humor in your work? Is it a conceptual interest, or do you feel like comedy is embedded – is it for you, or your audience?

Steven Lang

Q: What did the Fluxus artist say to the critic who was late? A: It’s about time.

Jehra Patrick

Hah! Okay, that was a very appropriate answer.

In addition to humor, I can sense an interest in systems and human behavior in your work. We see this take an autobiographical turn when you include your own behavior in your work, like your affinity for Diet Coke in the C.S.A. project. Talk a bit about your comfort level with revealing personal obsession in My Lonely Condition.

Steven Lang

My Diet Coke addiction was a running joke on Facebook for a long time, and I really wanted to use it as a point of departure in a piece. I had initially thought of saving all the bottles, cans, boxes, and receipts (a la David Hamlow) but decided against that since I work from home and don’t have enough space. Instead, I took the show on the road, so to speak. My Lonely Condition is a fairly light-hearted look at addiction, which of course has a darker side too. In this case, it was also about creating a travel-based photography project in addition to delivering a tangible product for the C.S.A. program.

 

2. Royal Tesoro, Royalton, MN, My Lonely Condition, 2012

2. Royal Tesoro, Royalton, MN, My Lonely Condition, 2012

 

Jehra Patrick

Other times you distance yourself from your work and introduce alter egos and characters, like Sue Earl Lang and Set Van Glen. Do you consider performance through social media to be an extension of your artistic practice?

Steven Lang

Everyone’s online presence is an alter-ego of sorts. But I consider myself an internet-based artist (as opposed to a gallery artist, street artist, book artist, etc.), particularly when it comes to photography.

Jehra Patrick

Your most recent work has taken a shift to photography, in the traditional sense. You are working with multiple camera formats and processes, and it seems like this heavily process-oriented art form would be a good fit for your detail-minded nature. Process aside, talk about your interest in shooting: You are out often, shooting in your own neighborhood and traveling – what are your interests in subject and composition?

Steven Lang

I worked my way into photography in a completely backwards manner. I had ruined my back from so many years of detailed collage work, so I decided to get a camera thinking it would be easy on my body. With very limited experience, I started looking for photographers to emulate, and for ways of looking through a camera at the world. I became attached to the process, and it helped to round out my repertoire of image making. But it also gave me a respect for photography that I didn’t have before. It’s an entire world in itself. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, but because of the nature of the medium, there are bounds: it’s either a physical/mechanical image capture of some sort, or it isn’t. The capture was either happening at a certain time, or it wasn’t. I like that. And I like the triangulation of the photographer, the camera, and the image. The presence of a camera changes the relationship so significantly it’s hard to think outside that triangle the way you can with drawing or collage.

Best Steak House, St. Paul, 2012

Jehra Patrick

You recently participated in a residency at Elsewhere from which you created a photographic project. How did your experience there inform how you continue to shoot?

Steven Lang

My experience at Elsewhere gave me the time, space, and creative license to combine all of the ways I’d been working into a single project, which ultimately became a photo book called A is for Elsewhere. The book is a diary, a typeface, a photo series, and a story all at the same time. I think of storytelling as the primary purpose of art (in its non-ironic mode), so I was glad to be able to bring that into this project too. There are lots of stories at Elsewhere, and a few dozen of them, including my own, ended up in the book. I think if I do more photography and more books, my story will be in each of them in some way. So, as much as I love detail, I’m not a photographer who is necessarily looking to be objective.

 More on Steven Lang:

Steven Lang is currently featured in the Artists in Storefronts project at Frenz Brakes on 28th and Nicollet, has work featured in Someplace Else at Friedman Iverson, and Lang has work featured in the December 18, Family Issue, of MPLSzine. Steven Lang will be the first guest on Salon Saloon’s, “The 2012 Show”, the late show, on Friday, December 28 of this year.

For the banner art of each issue of our twice-monthly newsletter, mnartists.org features a different Minnesota artist who is then profiled here, on the blog. Our Zoom In profiles offer a friendly introduction to Minnesota’s diverse arts community, a peek into the rich variety of work, across disciplines, made by creative individuals living in every corner of the state, one artist at a time.

An Ineffable, Emotional Place: The Landscapes of Tara Costello

Tara Costello’s richly painted panels have a sensibility of recollection — a feeling that you, the viewer, may have seen them somewhere before. You probably have seen her work before if you live in the Twin Cities; a seasoned member of Minneapolis longest-running collective, Rosalux, Tara has exhibited there since 2003.  Or perhaps you’ve been […]

Tara Costello, Span, Venetian Plaster on panel, 2012

Tara Costello, Span, Venetian plaster on panel, 2012

Tara Costello’s richly painted panels have a sensibility of recollection — a feeling that you, the viewer, may have seen them somewhere before. You probably have seen her work before if you live in the Twin Cities; a seasoned member of Minneapolis longest-running collective, Rosalux, Tara has exhibited there since 2003.  Or perhaps you’ve been to the place her landscapes point to, a nondescript someplace that locates the viewer in a feeling rather than a specific destination. Or perhaps you are familiar with the legacy of abstraction; you may recognize materials and surfaces that look like art objects, with a kind of family resemblance. Tara Costello’s work is produced with and recalls in layers.

Through varying compositional strategies, Tara’s paintings vacillate between familiar and unfamiliar territories, and they invite her viewers to both enter, and then distance themselves from the latitudes she creates. While she uses a painter’s vocabulary, Tara’s facility with the medium comes from an atypical background, in commercial interiors and printmaking, giving her handling of the paint a distinct physicality and awareness for her materials.

Historically, painters parted with painting-as-illusion by exposing the medium’s viscous and drippy nature, or by revealing the tools and process of painting through loose brushwork and exposed canvas. Costello is not working in brushes and canvas. Instead, she applies pigment in Venetian plaster, an interior technique that combines plaster and marble-dust, allowing for rich variances in texture, surface and finish, through application and finishing treatments. Costello uses a trowel to apply the plaster atop wood paneling, working on both constructed and found substrates. She mashes on thick, sludgy layers, then levels them, at times planning for taped off areas of color, other times improvising, allowing pigments and materials to blend in broad swipes, catching on each other, piling and separating, creating grained surfaces like Richter’s squeegeed abstract canvases.

After applying the plaster and working her surfaces, Costello approaches them with a burnishing tool as an oil painter might varnish their surface with a glossy topcoat. The burnishing tool smooths the rough surfaces of the gritty marble dust and creates a glassy, mirrored surface. Through selective burnishing, Costello’s contrasting matte and opalescent surfaces achieve a mirage of depth that can only be detected through a personal encounter, varying from lush, velvety, or shimmering, to organic, raw, muddy, and silt-y.

Heavy Metal, Venetian plaster on panel, 2012

Heavy Metal, Venetian plaster on panel, 2012

Beyond its surface attributes, working in plaster gives Costello a level of comfort and incautiousness in approaching her paintings — sometimes working subtractively, tearing back into the plaster with a trowel, perhaps a violent action but also a mark that resonates with the artist’s background as a printmaker. She can also work over these surfaces, repairing any damage, dents, or cuts with a smooth reapplication of plaster, like one might repair a wall with more efficient materials. The metaphors of building, repairing and covering in her work style point to the emotional range of material itself.

Regarding composition, we see Costello audition styles of mid-century American abstraction, discovering these forms and resolving modes of production on her own. The artist works free of historical association in favor of using these methods as a platform for working through emotion and the physical nature of plaster.

In form, Costello’s earlier work emerges from the tradition of abstract expressionism rooted in landscape. She works spontaneously in her handling and with compositional flexibility, producing mutated horizons, detectable pools of bodies of water, splashes of natural and reflected light, all through non-local color. She describes her work as hinting at the feel of the place – an ‘ineffable,’ emotional place – which for Tara is largely autobiographical. Sometimes she geolocates us to the Ballyvaughn’s rolling green hills and shimmering limestone coasts or other times we are third party to a romantic break-up.

Her work evolves into cropped portions, zoomed-in spaces in the landscape. Trees become geometry; lakes become swaths of color; rectangles are characters for barns, trees, amidst color fields. This level of reduction of her subject is akin to the  push-pull of first generation abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman, or aerial landscapes of second generation Ab-Exer Richard Diebenkorn.

Curve, Venetian plaster on panel, 2012

Curve, Venetian plaster on panel, 2012

Tara’s most recent work takes a more non-objective, but stylized turn. Her rich velvety black panels recall Harvey Quaytman’s geometric arrangements or the intense black on black of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings. Little color is introduced — perhaps white, or a single shade of green. For Costello, these panels are also emotional, but a means of issuing controlled emotion, providing her with order during personal disorder or emotional challenges. She approaches these panels with a design strategy, but leaves elements of surface and handling to chance and reaction as she continues to work through the piece.

More on Tara Costello

Tara Costello currently has work on view through SOOlocal, a pop-up boutique gallery on Nicollet Avenue and will have an exhibition with Val Jenkins this February at Rosalux Gallery.

 

For the banner art of each issue of our twice-monthly newsletter, mnartists.org features a different Minnesota artist who is then profiled here, on the blog. Our Zoom In profiles offer a friendly introduction to Minnesota’s diverse arts community, a peek into the rich variety of work, across disciplines, made by creative individuals living in every corner of the state, one artist at a time.

 

Tucker Hollingsworth’s Camera Noise: A Primer by Stephen Tapscott

What exactly are the Camera Noise pieces? A series of large photo-prints by the Tuckaghrie (”Tucker”) Hollingsworth, based on the phenomenon of “camera noise”—or rather, on the unique occurrence-patterns of visual noise on a number of separate (and probably unrepeatable) occasions. The results are playful photos of “invisible” realities, which resemble interwoven textiles. What is […]

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #58″. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

What exactly are the Camera Noise pieces?

A series of large photo-prints by the Tuckaghrie (”Tucker”) Hollingsworth, based on the phenomenon of “camera noise”—or rather, on the unique occurrence-patterns of visual noise on a number of separate (and probably unrepeatable) occasions. The results are playful photos of “invisible” realities, which resemble interwoven textiles.

What is “camera noise” anyway?

Part of the process of looking through the camera, a pattern of information that doesn’t quite fit the pattern we think we want to see. When we tell the camera to be our “eye,” it takes in lots of information, most of which fits our expectations, some of which doesn’t.  “Noise” is data, information, that’s part of the perceptual misapprehension, or imagination, or overcompensation, that happens in or through the camera—usually through its lens or through its sensor(s).  In practical terms: we tend to “see” evidence of camera noise, in amateur photos, in those weird pixels of color that seem out of place, unique, or patterned in some new strange way—a fog, a plaid, a texture, a grid—that probably isn’t part of the realistic object we thought we’d shot. They’re accurate to the camera’s perception but a little surreal to ours—or sub-real, to be precise.

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #78″. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

How did the “noise” get there?  Is it even really “there”?   

It’s a residual (or preliminary) part of the process of the camera’s process of  looking-transmuting-and-storing — a process that leaves (nearly undetectable) traces. Some of that patterning is subtly “out there” in the world, in surprising little

pools of light under a shady tree, for instance.  Other patterns left on the image come from the    way the camera perceives light, transforms it into electrical pulses, and stores it. Digital photography, in general, is a process of turning light into electrical signals and thence into digital code: the camera lens captures packets of light, the camera sensor sorts it by light waves, and the waves are turned into electrical impulses which are stored in a mathematical binary code. Later, another machine reads the digital language back: for each signal it generates back a blip of color on a screen or in a print. Assemble enough blips in recognizable patterns, and you have an image.

The interesting part is when pixels resist the system, or intrude just by being. Anomalies sneak in along the way. Too much information may enter; actual flashes of brightness might occur in the light outside the camera, so that the “noise” is anomalous but accurate. Maybe there’s grit on the lens; too much heat makes the sensor register more blue blips; the camera sensor could be weak, or maybe showing signs of age; or the camera may have –and impose– its own peculiarities. Other conditions can cause noise, as well.

And?

And so all this information enters the record somehow, both there and not there, a part of the process of perception but a part we often try to ignore, to wipe away. It is part of mediated seeing, but it’s literally an under-level–a substrate—which we try to repress. When we take a “realist” picture, we often use a program to overlay this “noise,” to overwrite it or otherwise pretend it’s not there. (But it is, Blanche, it is.) Hollingsworth’s images are bold for looking at those patterns of what we, in the main, have agreed to try not to see.

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #42″. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Do all cameras make this “noise”? Is it  a universal pattern of randomness?

All digital cameras do, from big professional models to cameras on cell-phones.

Is the randomness of camera noise a pattern?

It is if it is repeatable.

Say what?

Well, in his images Hollingsworth sometimes “frames” a unique section of random spotting and repeats the patch of random distribution, allowing the colors to change and the “new” distribution—which is now a visual pattern because it is repeated—to be rendered visible. It’s a pattern insofar as it’s repeated (this is art, not chaos repeating itself), but it’s still random at a local level of production. AND it has the repeatability of form, the result of aesthetic choice. It’s true that the camera might have repeated the pattern, but that possibility is statistically rare. The spots of noise are dependent on certain conditions; those states are unlikely to repeat again, in ordinary time and space.

Are they dots like Damien Hirst’s spots?

No.

Dots like Lichtenstein’s Pop-Art spots?

Maybe, but they’re formed from a different source, print vs. digital modes. Lichtenstein’s dots were based on graphic-art textual media; they’re about sharp edges and ironic versions of iconic forms. Pop Art spots were painted versions of the Ben-Day spots of the graphic printing-process (think of comic books): uniform in size, crisply delineated, primary colors, representational. Hollingsworth’s spots have more to do with the textile effect of the digital mode, how we weave the world together by our senses and our technology. Hollingsworth’s dotted plaids are more subtly colored than those Ben-Day dots, recalling electric impulses instead of graphic ink-spots, more flowing and interrelational, and not figurative.

Think of how your eye follows the patterns in a Pollock “drip” painting; those motions resemble how the eye reads these Hollingsworth images: there are arcs and rhythms and patterns of random splooges and splashes by which you can see how the painter’s arm moved in the process of dripping the paint. You can track that pattern of motion—but if you tried to repeat exactly the same movements with exactly the same paint, chances are you’d make different drips — same pattern, random distribution.  Pollock packs on paint, Hollingsworth pixels. As in Pollock, the pattern lives in its cloud of instances: Again, what’s at stake in the Hollingsworth model is the digital interwoven interrelations of the mind and the world and the technologies we use to comprehend and order it.

Tucker Hollingsworth, “Noise Print #48″. Flush on Aluminum. Images to 70 x 57 inches. 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Is “noise” all an interesting mistake? Is this chaos-art?

The “noise” in Hollingsworth images is neither true nor false, neither “there” nor “not there,” neither an error nor a choice, fluke nor necessary—or rather, it’s both sides of all those dualities. Hollingsworth’s images are both/and constructions that elegantly bridge some of those dualistic gaps that art-speak sometimes constructs: they are both formal and random, both nonconcrete and hauntedly figurative, both abstract (in their geometries) and representational (they present something that is actually “there”), both high-art and popular, conceptual and realist, wicked smart and sensual. Because the images are what the camera sees without telling us it is interposing the grids, these forms are both true and false at the same time — like photographs of Schrödinger’s cat.

Oh-oh. Cat pictures?

No: in fact they’re large, painting-style grids of color dots and plaids, oddly futuristic– like overhearing a new mode of music: like an elegant and whimsical trance music. An oddly sensual combination, they make the eye feel these intensely pleasurable sensations even while you’re thinking “what is this pattern of things we see without seeing we see them?” A happy dotted or plaid formalism that’s thoughtful and kind of ecstatic at the same time. Their effect is mixed, in the same moment a kind of hushed holiness and a kind of gently rippling sexiness.

It all sound kind of cerebral.

Huge, semi-musical swaths of ravishingly-colored funky plaids with occasional dots, making plausible aesthetic claims to be true and not-true at the same time. What’s not to like?

***

Related links and information:

 “What Do you See When You Turn Out the Lights?”- Read Stephen Tapscott’s related essay on Hollingsworth’s series of Camera Noise photo-prints on mnartists.org

Tucker Hollingsworth: Inside the Camera/Noise is on view through November 30 at Chowgirls Parlor 1224 2nd St. NE, Minneapolis, MN, 55413. The exhibition is open by appointment (651-955-6031); there is a reception Thursday, November 15 from 6 to 10 pm.

Find more information about the artist on his website: www.tuckerhollingsworth.com.

About the author: Stephen Tapscott is s a professor in the humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching, poetry, aesthetics and photography. He is author of eight collections of poems and essays and has a new book coming out soon, about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his trial for murder. He is also a translator from Spanish and Polish, most popularly of Pablo Neruda’s Cien sonetos de amor [One Hundred Love Sonnets]. He splits his time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and St-Denis, France.

Zoom In: Dancer/Choreographer and Photographer Megan Mayer

Our newsletter this week features the photograph above, which perfectly captures the colors and textures of Minnesota in fall, taken by Megan Mayer on a recent getaway Up North, to Gooseberry Falls State Park. Mayer is a choreographer, performing artist and photographer based in Minneapolis. She says she’s “drawn to the peripheries of performance… the […]

Megan Mayer, “Bath.” Photograph taken fall 2012 in Gooseberry Falls State Park in Northern Minnesota. Reproduced here courtesy of the artist.

Our newsletter this week features the photograph above, which perfectly captures the colors and textures of Minnesota in fall, taken by Megan Mayer on a recent getaway Up North, to Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Mayer is a choreographer, performing artist and photographer based in Minneapolis. She says she’s “drawn to the peripheries of performance… the moment when someone starts or stops performing and where that switch lives in the body.”  She describes her dance-making as a process inspired by the power of still images and cinematic scenes, saying that her photography is inextricably linked to her creative work in dance. She’s fantastic as an ensemble performer, adept at mining the chemistry of a cast and deploying their strengths and talents to great effect in her choreography. She says she “favors a detailed sensibility over virtuosity” and is primarily “interested in who is doing the moving, and how and why they in particular navigate tasks and interactions.”

“Soft Fences,” photo by Al Hall, courtesy of MANCC.

Mayer was a recent artist-in-residence at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) in Tallahassee, Florida, through a pilot partnership with The McKnight Foundation in collaboration with Springboard for the Arts. She is also a recipient of a 2010 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Choreographers, as well as a 2010 Jerome Foundation Travel Study Grant which she used to work with New York dance artist Douglas Dunn.

Megan Mayer in “Over Time,” a performance work for “Cubicle,” a web-based series by Skewed Visions. Photo by the artist.

Megan Mayer can regularly be seen on stage with Charles Campbell, Angharad Davies, Emily Johnson, Mad King Thomas, Kevin Obsatz, Karen Sherman, Laurie Van Wieren and Chris Yon. Her dances have been commissioned by The Southern Theater, The Walker Art Center and the Minnesota History Center, and she has a growing body of work of dances made for film. She holds a B.A. in Dance from the University of Minnesota.

Relevant performances and related links:

Soft Fences, a new work currently in process, was presented, in part, at the Minnesota Contemporary Presenters’ Platform in September. Soft Fences explores the euphoria and terror of space travel as a metaphor for personal change, investigating imagery of isolation and the disquieting emotional experience of being stuck in transition between gravity and momentum. The project has been created with a production team consisting of Charles Campbell, Angharad Davies, Elliott Durko Lynch, Kevin Obsatz, Stephanie Stoumbelis and Greg Waletski; the work was developed during her MANCC residency.

Coming up: a remount of 2010’s You might be expecting me, a solo she choreographed for Nic Lincoln is slated for May 2013 at the Tek Box at Cowles Center for Performing Arts. Mayer is also working on a new duet by Angharad Davies which will be performed at her show in June 2013 at the Red Eye.

Find out more about past, present and future projects on her website: http://meganmayer.com/

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