Blogs The Green Room Thinking About Performance

Defining a Vagenre: Categories of Nudity in Feminist Performance

“It is misleading to label Rebecca Patek the new Ann Liv Young when the only thing that is remotely similar in their work is that they use their vaginas.” After January’s marathon session of performance-watching during the APAP conference in New York, I was trying to put words to my frustration with one artist’s work being […]

Dress rehearsal for luciana achugar's OTRO TEATRO at Walker Art Center.  Photo: Alice Gebura

Dress rehearsal for luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Alice Gebura

“It is misleading to label Rebecca Patek the new Ann Liv Young when the only thing that is remotely similar in their work is that they use their vaginas.” After January’s marathon session of performance-watching during the APAP conference in New York, I was trying to put words to my frustration with one artist’s work being compared to that of another simply because each includes vaginal penetration in performance. “There are many different…”

I hesitated, so my colleague Josina Manu interjected, “Genres?”

“Yes, genres of performance involving vaginas.”

“Va-genres?” she offered.

“Exactly! Many different vagenres in contemporary performance and dance. It is not just one big category of vaginas on stage.”

Since the term “vagenre” was coined last month, I’ve seen luciana achugar’s latest creation, OTRO TEATRO, four times at the Walker. This immersion in a specific vagenre has given me time to reflect, and I now imagine that performances using the female reproductive system can be placed within a scale of sorts, depending on more or less vaginal influence in the artistic results. Below I begin to sketch out the range of subvagenres within this broader vagenre of performance. I invite you to contribute thoughts and criticisms in order to build more comprehensive categories and further distinguish varieties within these feminist choreographic approaches.

Level 1
Performance with “frontal” nudity, completely naked or just bottomless

This category has performers naked but not relating to their genitalia. The nudity is pedestrian in delivery. The audience may witness the unique anatomical folds and nubs between performers legs, but there is no sexual energy implied in this viewing. Of course there are questions of sexual behaviors being posed in the reading of the dance but the dancing itself doesn’t emphasize the implication of the body in an erotic context (see Melinda Ring, Michelle Boulé).

 

Level 2
Movement vocabulary is drawn from sexual organs

This provides an expanded inclusionary experience of the body as source material for creating gestural and textural extensions of what a more “civilized” interpretation of the body may generally be. This level could have subcategories of internal versus external motivations of creating new movement vocabulary combinations. I would suggest dividing the content by Level 2/External when genitals and pubic areas are extra body parts to manipulate without eroticization (see Juliana F. May) and Level 2/Internal when energetic vibrations encouraged by exaggerating the deep sensations within the pelvic floor muscles and organs are outwardly radiated as energies to demonstrate inner desire, feminine power, and primal passion without any tactile manipulation of such areas (see luciana achugar).


 

Level 3
Sexual intercourse in performance

Themes in this level of vagenre performances are explicitly dealing with human sexual behaviors and strive to be able to build reasoning around the use of penetration in action towards a literal reading of the movements. Nudity is not necessary for audience to see the use of the performer’s vagina in this category (see Rachel Patek).

 

 

Level 4
Vaginal canal as place, intercourse as movement repetition, orifices as opportunity for social commentary

This is when every aspect of the vagina, its position on the body, its ability to conceal and reveal, its habitual role in human relations, and its current ability to add taboo and risk in performance, is potential content to develop in performance. This level possibly explores abstract and non-linear as well as eroticized considerations of vaginal influences as dance (see Ann Liv Young).

 

Level 5
Orgasm as educational tool

This is the internal made visible in real time. Acts are based in realism and take great concentration on behalf of the performers to execute for a public. There is no added eroticization of the movements. Approach can be clinical or natural. The stripping of fantasy is necessary to provide a clear and accurate depiction of the physical build-up necessary to create climax (see Annie Sprinkle).

 

This is not an exhaustive or historical list of artists who work in this vagenre but rather a first attempt to create language around distinguishing the multitude of approaches in response to the use of this potent female body part in performance. I made no attempt to create the equivalent category and scale for the penis.

HIJACK at 20: Looking Back, Moving Forward, Being Here

Second by second two performers crisply count opening minutes. They mark the passage of time as dancers advance, propelled by the glacial undulation of spines. In slow motion, a minute is excavated, laid open moment by moment. Comically offsetting this gentle unfolding of present into future, the early 1990s are recalled with immediacy, clarity, and […]

HIJACK: Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon. Photo: Gene Pittman

HIJACK: Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon. Photo: Gene Pittman

Second by second two performers crisply count opening minutes. They mark the passage of time as dancers advance, propelled by the glacial undulation of spines. In slow motion, a minute is excavated, laid open moment by moment. Comically offsetting this gentle unfolding of present into future, the early 1990s are recalled with immediacy, clarity, and acoustic guitar-induced nostalgia. We thought we knew the center, but don’t you see? It wasn’t like that at all.

HIJACK’s 20th anniversary performance, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, thus begins, aptly co-mingling past, present, and future through their distinct blend of absurdity, pop songs, unexpected juxtapositions, raw edges, task-oriented repetitions, and sustained moments of humble, human beauty. Alongside this mélange of time is the blurring and problematizing of common distinctions — practice/performance, dance/not dance, and high/low culture. HIJACK co-founders and collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder play with these intersections and in-betweens, all the while maintaining a generous and calm comportment that belies methodical structure, research, and reference.

Macuga

Goshka Macuga’s Redwood Blocks for Carl Andre’s Aisle (1981) installed at the Walker Art Center

Sources
Replete with often-obscured references, backstories, and structures, HIJACK’s work draws from diverse sources to create choreography connected to dense, layered references. These sources are, however, most prominent in the process stage, where they serve as an external starting point — structure, method, or image — used for generating movement. In this manner, they both permeate and stand apart from HIJACK’s work, providing rich material for developing dance that stands alone.

At a recent Walker Art Center Talking Dance lecture, Wilder and Van Loon shared some of the visual artists whose aesthetics, approaches, and methods have informed their work. Providing a telescopic view into this arena behind the scenes, they described how art comes to influence both form and content. Goshka Macuga’s Redwood Blocks for Carl Andre’s Aisle (1981) (Displayed as stored by the Walker Art Center) brought out questions of when an object is or isn’t art. Applied to dance, this opened up nebulous distinctions between warm-up, rehearsal, and performance. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers were recreated in movement or referenced in their ordered grid. The lines of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings were translated into expansive or constrained trajectories. Inspired by Karinne Kaithley Syres’ Untitled (Perth Dickinson), the hidden activity of the stop motion animation filmmaker was transformed into detached movement sequences, centered by the completion of a series of meticulous, tiny adjustments.

The abundance of these sources and methods may inspire a desire to mine the dance for citations, to dissect movements in search of origins. Wilder and Van Loon’s lecture enabled the audience to participate in this pleasure of knowing, revealing normally hidden processes, inspirations, and histories. But they emphasized as well that direct recognition is not the goal. Indeed, they explicitly reveal references when deemed important, titling past works Amelia Earharts (2000), Hijack’s Yoko Show (2003), and Kristin is Eva Peron/Eva Hesse/Eva Braun; Arwen is Imelda Marcos (2004).

Going beyond a specific focus on the transformation of visual art into movement, HIJACK’s lecture served as an immersion into the broader ambiances, stances, and practices in which their choreography marinates. Surrounding their work are John Baldessari’s numerous attempts as final product, Claes Oldenburg’s aggrandized commonplace objects, Charles Ray’s meticulous reconstruction of a chance event, Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” of assembled detritus, Richard Serra’s list of verbs as directives for creation, and Andy Warhol’s intentional silkscreened imperfection. Running through these varied artists is a focus on the everyday, a mundane transported, transformed, and seen anew.

Charles Ray sculpture

Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture (1997)

Process

HIJACK’s work inhabits the space where the everyday becomes art, performed with a care and focus that pulls apart these divisions between art and being. They are performers and yet they never cease to be also people. Discussing their new Walker commission redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye with Linda Shapiro, Van Loon and Wilder described this tension between the aura of performance and the human who performs, explaining that “Our physical limits are plainly exposed… We invite The Ideal (in your imaginations) to hobnob with The Reality (of our effort).” One may grasp at perfection beyond the self, but there is beauty, too, in the human act of striving.

In this vein, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye presents multiple avenues for seeing process in the performance. In part this is present in the ballet barres that serve as varied set devices, but also connect the work to technique training and rehearsal spaces. Dance and visual arts are, however, not the sole sources drawn from in developing this work. In an interview with Justin Jones, and a short film for MANCC, Wilder and van Loon discussed their recent research into print media and narrative. Writing exercises became part of their creative process, undergirding movement with the momentum of narrative development – conflict, action, and resolution. Print newspapers reinforced interests in mass-produced disposability while also providing conceptual fodder – how can an error and an editor’s correction co-exist as part of a larger whole?

Process is also present in the welcoming of dialogue in both creation and performance. In this facet of their work, HIJACK invites complexity, explaining: “Our dances embrace juxtaposition. Believing work left in dialogue form opens itself to dialogue with the audience, we present two individuals’ points-of-view, yet un-reconciled.” They allow their distinct viewpoints to converse onstage rather than forcing cohesion, posing the question, “How can two different or contradictory elements (people/values) exist together?”

Looking Back, Moving Forward

redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye draws to a close, echoing across time the beginnings of HIJACK. Two women dance together, each carving into the negative space created by the other, each complementing, contrasting, and reinforcing her partner. Over the years, Van Loon and Wilder have showcased their abilities for humor, energy, grappling bodies, exaggerated costuming, elaborate partnering, and art references with teeth. Here, they present a quiet, intimate scene. Tracing pictures in air, they invite us into their world, where their bodies weave through space together, always in relation to each other, yet always distinct.

After 20 years, HIJACK provides a reminder that every performance is part of a process, a full and all-consuming event within a life of artistic development expansive in its explorations. Like the Sankofa, one strives to look back to move forward and to embrace this process of searching. Between compounded memories and the incertitude of the future, we have the chance to meet here to experience this moment together. At our most vulnerable, joyful, or daring we need only request of those closest, please, “save me a place.”

HIJACK perform the world premiere of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye December 5–7 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Artists’ Toast: After the opening night performance on Thursday, December 5; join us in the balcony bar for a toast to the artists.

Q&A with HIJACK: Stay after the performance on Friday, December 6 for a discussion with Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, moderated by Miriam Must, co-founder of Red Eye Theater.

SpeakEasy: Join us in the Balcony Bar following the performance on Saturday, December 7, for a conversation about redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye facilitated by Walker Tour Guide Mary Dew and local artist Eben Kowler.

Look Who’s Looking Now: Perceiving and Measuring Time

On Dance and Time Look Who’s Looking Now: Perceiving and Measuring Time is the second part of a series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical […]

On Dance and Time

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Eiko & Koma performing “Naked,” 2010

Look Who’s Looking Now: Perceiving and Measuring Time is the second part of a series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical meaning behind the works. Feel free to add to the discussion and share your own insights in the comment section below.

time noun

  1. indefinite, unlimited duration in which things are considered as happening in the past, present, or future; every moment there has ever been or ever will be
  2. the period between two events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; measured or measurable interval; any period in the history of man [sic] or of the universe

Time can be measured or immeasurable; represented by a metered rhythm, the duration of an event, or the sequential order of a sequence of events. It can be concrete or abstract, real or perceived. It can be all of these at once.

Human movement takes time. It has natural rhythms in both broad and narrow measurements.  In a broad sense, we alternate activity and rest; in narrow terms, there is a rhythm to our breath and heartbeat.  The sun and moon move in rhythms that dictate the flow of seasons and seconds.  Music is described in time signatures — 4/4, 2/4, 3/4 — which communicate cycles of rhythm. Time can be measured by a clock in seconds, minutes, and hours. A sequence of events involves relationships like before, after, and at once; slower than, faster than, and so on. In dance, time can be measured by the length of music, the duration of a phrase (the amount of time it takes to execute a particular movement), or the amount of time it takes an artist to convey a particular message. It is often said that when we are captivated by what we see, time feels like it goes by faster; if we are bored or uninterested, a few minutes can feel like eternity.

Choreographers work with time in a variety of ways, whether they intentionally consider philosophical aspects of time, address time as a peripheral subject of their work, or work closely and technically with a score’s time signature and duration in the process of choreographing. Discussing a dance work’s timing may be about when a performance occurred, the length of time of the performance, the rhythm of the music or movement, or how the work altered the viewer’s perception of time.

In Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, the performance is the length of time it takes the performer to walk down the side of the building. Rhythm is inherent in the act of walking, which can be sped up if we’re in a hurry or slowed down in caution. A person’s stride and the rhythm of her gait can depend on her height, weight, and leg length, among other factors.

During this performance, the dancer walked vertically down the 110-foot facade of the Walker, held by a harness and ropes, beginning at the roof and ending on the ground. At the Walker, Brown’s work took the performer three and a half minutes to perform. The duration varies depending on several factors, including the performer, the person controlling the tension of the rope, the building, and weather conditions. Every performance has layers of time in it. In this site-specific work, timing reflects the interaction of many factors, and a viewer’s sense of timing reflects factors beyond that. For example, there is a timing to the performer’s stride, which affects the timing and length of the piece. Further, the nature of the piece involves an element of danger, which creates tension, thus affecting the viewer’s sense of timing in the piece. To the performer and the live audience, the stress of the performance can make time feel like it moves slower than a clock would indicate it does. Watching the video, we can see a running clock indicating how much time has gone by and how much is left. For viewers of the video, the clock’s reminder of this consistent rhythm of the flow of time may serve to contrast, and thereby highlight, the effect of emotion on our perception of time’s rhythm.

Just as a dangerous work can affect our perception of time, our subject experience of time can affect how we perceive a work. Choreographer Bill T. Jones played with the subjectivity of time in his most recent Walker commission, Story/Time, an evening-length work comprised of a series of 70, one-minute stories.

Based on John Cage’s work, Indeterminacy, Jones wrote short stories that he performed in a randomly chosen order. The timing and pace of Jones’s storytelling changes depending on the amount of information he tries to get in to a single minute. Sometimes he has so much information to relate in one minute that he speaks so quickly as to cause confusion, while other times he draws out five words to fill an entire minute. As an exercise examining the perception of time, before every performance, he asks people to raise their hands after they believe 60 seconds have gone by.

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Bill T. Jones leads the audience through an exercise on the perception of time, 2012

Sound also affects our sense of timing, whether it’s music, text, silence, or ambient sound. The juxtaposition of movement and sound can prove symbiotic or conflicting. The relationship between the two can make us aware of time or forgetful of it; and the result can be unique to every audience member. For example, slow movement or stillness without accompanying music can reveal the variability in the sense of time. Eiko & Koma’s 2008 gallery installation Naked demonstrated this:

Eiko & Koma deliberately create works that address our perception of time. Their work approaches time in both broad and narrow, abstract and concrete ways. The use of slow and calculated movements combined with the engulfing set designs create environments free from the markers that indicate time. In his 2011 contributing essay to their retrospective catalogue, Eiko & Koma: Times Is Not Even, Space Is Not Empty, Walker Senior Curator for Performing Arts Philip Bither wrote:

Central to the experience of an Eiko & Koma work is an almost visceral sense of time’s elasticity. Their intensely focused performances – simultaneously ancient and modern, shamanistic and deeply organic, intimate and existential, gorgeous and grueling – unfold at a pace that seems to challenge linear perceptions of time itself.

The quietness of Naked can make us feel as though time is standing still, while the anticipation or the possibility of movement makes minutes go by without noticing. In a broader sense, the environment of Naked provided a sense of timelessness, free from any signs of past or future, with lighting designed to vaguely indicate the time of day. The lack of narrative gives way to the feeling that we are glimpsing into a brief moment that has been stretched out, played in slow motion over hours. Thus, the tension between stillness and anticipation, combined with the tension between the feeling of eternity and the feeling of a fleeting moment engage us, as viewers, revealing nuances and intricacies that further toy with our perception of time.

The relationship between music and movement varies from era to era and artist to artist. Many modern and contemporary choreographers stress the independence of dance from music: the idea is that while the two pair well, dance is not simply a physical illustration of music. Choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage provide an example of movement and music functioning independently of one another. Cunningham described their early collaborative explorations as creating work in which the music “was not dependent upon the dance nor the dance dependent upon the music, but which were separate identities which could, in a sense, coexist… the common denominator between the two arts was time.”

Cunningham & Cage’s working process relied heavily on chance. Cunningham’s phrases or sections would be given a numeric value and then he would throw a dice to determine the order in which sections were performed. Chance operations were also used to decide which costumes would be worn, which music would be played, and which lighting design would be used during a performance. Any connections or similarities that happened between Cunningham’s movement and Cage’s music happened because both were taking place in time, at the same time. While their collaborations were the result of chance and circumstance, many choreographers are more calculated in the relationship to music.

The work and methods of Cunningham and Cage heavily influenced the work of the Judson Dance Theater. Lucinda Childs hails from this theater, and her work, Dance, represents the opposite end of the spectrum as that of Cunningham and Cage. In Dance, Childs deliberately works with the timing and structure of the music to create the movement. In 2011, Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass remounted their collaboration with Sol LeWitt at the Walker. The music was created first, followed by the choreography, and both were then used in LeWitt’s projection.

In an interview with Bither, Childs discusses her creative process and the relationship between music and movement:

Childs: …first of all, I was very much influenced by Philip’s music and how he arrives at variation by reworking the same theme. Rather than going from theme A to theme B, he takes theme A apart and reintroduces it always in a different way. I found that very much exciting. And that’s very much what happens in the choreography and the dancing and the phrasing… It seemed to me that to just illustrate the music in and of itself in terms of the sequences and configurations was not so interesting to illustrate literally, in that sense. Or to ignore it was also, for me, not so interesting; to make a collage where what we were doing had nothing to do with what his structure is. But, in this work, especially in the first dance, we come in and out of his structure in such a way that, for me, creates a tension along with the music.

As Childs noted, her choreography does not mimic the music, but it does reinforce the structure and themes that Glass presents in his music. The timing of the movement is closely related to the timing of the music and the repeating patterns of the visual, musical, and choreographic elements create layers through which Childs reiterates the leitmotif introduced by Glass, without being redundant.

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“Dance,” by Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol LeWitt, 1979/2011

The examples above demonstrate the various ways in which our perception of time can influence and be influenced by our understanding of dance. The timing of a piece can take on a myriad of meanings; the timing of the movement, in relation to the music, the timing an individual step or series of steps, the length of time of a work, or the self-imposed constriction of time that an artist may place on herself. The level of our engagement with a piece can have a positive, negative, or even neutral effect on our perception of time. As viewers, understanding how we view and relate to time can aid in how we analyze and ultimately enjoy a piece. Articulating that information moves the conversation about dance beyond the point of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” and aids in our understanding of what it is we look for in a piece. The notion of time and our awareness of it functions as another element of dance and performance that we can discuss, deconstruct, and peel away in order to better critique the work presented as well as achieve a better understanding of ourselves and what we find fulfilling as observers.

Noticing the Feedback: A Proposal to the Contemporary Dance Field, and/or This Revolution Will Be Crowdsourced

When I asked a room filled with my peers to imagine an ideal future for presenting contemporary dance performances, they agreed on a set of qualities: a flexible space, a blurring of art and life, a place of abundance, a performance of life, a ridding of greed, intolerance and self doubt. Here, everyone finds time […]

Michele Steinwald, photo by Rino Pizzi

Michele Steinwald, photo by Rino Pizzi

When I asked a room filled with my peers to imagine an ideal future for presenting contemporary dance performances, they agreed on a set of qualities: a flexible space, a blurring of art and life, a place of abundance, a performance of life, a ridding of greed, intolerance and self doubt. Here, everyone finds time to make art, has the freedom to explore, and opportunities to be challenged.* I then asked what could a possible first step look like to get to this utopian setting, and I received as many different answers as individuals involved. The answers pointed to early education, shorter workweeks, new economic systems, arts integration, meditation, increased modes of perception. When I am in the audience, I feel the change that certain choreographers affect within their work. What they make on stage creates the change we were imagining. It is our turn, as presenters, to initiate the conversation in order to shift our practice and support such efforts in social change off stage.

Ultimately, my aim is to create an environment for an in-person experience that provokes discussion and introspection. I imagine belonging to a community center, an atmosphere accumulated from multiple activities and needs being served at once, and this sets a framework in my mind to find a balance of offerings, opportunities, and coincidences within a choreographed, yet spontaneous environment for all participants—artists and audiences—to engage in.

It will take us time to identify the elements that shape a theatrical experience and evaluate each aspect for their inherent conditions on the live performance. I can think of many places to start: the admission process (e.g. ticket prices, seating tiers, front of house ushers, messaging, fluidity of the architecture, ability to meet ones needs within the ritual of watching a performance even before it has begun, order of events, curtain speeches, program notes and playbills), and marketing (e.g. invitations, preparatory language, the distribution of the invitation, translation of artistic inspiration, educational content, historical context, curatorial intentions, background, the inside story, the hook, the social network draw, the buzz, word of mouth, critical appeal, facts, logistics, the aftermath). As we begin to untangle the conditions in which to experience live art, how we ticket and tell the art’s story determines the unspoken contract we make with patrons, and influences everyone’s ability to embody confidence and commit to the invited exchange. I note the feedback whenever a pre-show curtain speech strikes a cord with the audience or a performance noticeably alters one’s preconceived notions of the live theatrical interaction. As for inhabiting a new and potentially utopian landscape, theorist and activist Stephen Duncombe explains, “the trick is to lead people out of what they know without simply replacing this old way of being, thinking, and seeing with a new one. You need to provide space for people’s own imagination.”

A healthy and thriving non-competitive environment needs activity in order to generate excitement. Tim Griffin, executive director and chief curator at The Kitchen in New York notes:

Now one of the predicaments I think (of arts generally) is that you see culture without community. It’s not true across the board, but there’s a lack of the kind of organic exchange where the audience produces the work that produces the audience—that sort of dialogue/dialectic—is largely missing. Often things are programmed from above, as opposed to rising from below. (Evans 5)

From the Mayan calendar noting the end of the world as we know it to the Occupy movement demanding new regulations and acknowledgment of the inequities on Wall Street, there is a collective global shift in consciousness and a cry out to reclaim our future. The destructive economic forces during these recent years of financial crisis have prepared us for a new narrative. Stripped of desires to follow a prescriptive path, our guiding principles are noticeably in question.  Artists who build ideological principles into the fabrication of their art, not just within the content of the finished production, are coming to the forefront of aesthetic contributions. Hierarchical institutional containers are unnecessary to prove accreditation; labels limit experiential value and are often unwanted by audiences who assume being integrated into the whole. There is an urgency and potential creative freedom to conceive of future parameters and outcomes collaboratively, with the artists and audiences together. Our globally connected community is saturated with artistic options and perpetually plugged into endless online discourse. The public sharing of our personal contributions is able to unclutter the noise of these offerings through relationships. As constant consumers, we stop only for discovery and are energized by the potential for inspiration and renewal. There is a new dawn that draws from everything and everyone we know or have heard of, anywhere and at any time. Virtual boundaries have not been blurred they have been obliterated.

We have inherited spaces and protocols for arts participation. Modern theaters have been traditionally designed to separate the audience from the art in an environment that controls light, sound, and temperature while framing the stage, disorienting the viewer in order to suspend disbelief. The ability to cut out the everydayness of one’s outside life has been a perceived benefit to producing a world distinct from the one left at the door upon entering. In contrast, architecture of engagement starts with the premise of a gathering place, with central meeting areas where everyone has the ability to participate, design experiences and openly share nature, wellbeing, inclusion, and compassion. “Architecture and urban design are social arts, that influence human actions and interactions… [and] can also be a catalyst for change, synthesizing emerging cultural values and weaving critical new strands into the urban fabric.” How do we flatten the hierarchical aspects of proscenium theaters into venues sufficient for the participation desires of today?

As we offer dance performances as part of the commercial market, the language used to sell tickets often relies on providing some authoritative perspective from the host venue or reputable newspaper critic. The understanding of worth can alienate when trying to create a name brand for contemporary artists who have no name recognition. The top-down stamp of approval is no longer the selling point it once was with season subscriptions as a privilege to participate in the pre-selected offerings. When everything is accessible online for free, how can we continue to promote exclusivity and intimacy as a price of admission? There is no more substantial touring funding for artists to be distributed to new communities, we need new reasons to host an event. Communication is circular and has room to include all sides of the conversation. Currently our combination of marketing and architectural systems prohibit our bodily intelligence and curiosity to be engaged. As a point of entry, choreographers have started to solve these deficiencies by keeping lights on in the audience during the show (Deborah Hay), having performers enter from audience before walking on stage (luciana achugar), and starting to interact on stage before the audience is completely seated (BodyCartography Project)—taking the art experience one step closer to a more inclusive environment.

The word spontaneity is defined as a voluntary or undetermined action or movement, and is synonymous with naturalness, ease, uninhibited and unrestraint. How could those words become principles that establish a live art experience that is equally empowering for an artist as well as an observer/participant? This should be an embodied position for everyone regardless of ability; giving access determined by interest not privilege.

By closely reading and learning from the creative processes and performance practices of dance makers, Deborah Hay, luciana achugar, and BodyCartography Project–artists of various generations and nationalities—I will propose new guiding principles for the presentation of contemporary and experimental choreography. Through discovery and comparison, the understanding of the underlying values produced by the dance works of these artists surface and provide us recommendations for evaluating the conditions embedded or presumed in the field of presenting dance. Through the resulting conclusions, I hope to make an urgent field-wide suggestion to collectively examine our practices as a timely endeavor to maintain synchronicity with these artists’ works and those of the future.

Deborah Hay – Community

From the earliest point in her career to now, Deborah Hay has always immersed herself in community. She started in the 60s within the art community, known as the Judson Dance Theater, in New York drawn together around the teachings of Robert Dunn, inspired by John Cage, and committed to weekly performance and dance experimentation at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Later when she left Manhattan in the 70s, it was to live off of nature in Vermont in a communal land-sharing cooperative with other like-minded choreographers and artists. It was at that time, when she began her lifelong research into the solo form. Only, in order to tour dance works and pay her portion of the bills, as solos were unpopular and dance company were expensive to maintain, she developed a system of performing her Ten Circle Dances, published group choreographies, by being in residence in a community with nothing but herself and the choreographic instructions. She would arrive in a new location and lead anyone who wanted regardless of training to perform on the spot. In the end there would be no audience, simply and purely participants.

Over the years, Hay evolved her research practice from teaching large group choreography with untrained dancers over long periods of time and distilling those laboratory workshops into her solo choreography to providing a communal commissioning platform for multiple dancer/choreographers. Participants receive a solo choreographed by Hay during an intensive retreat with subsidies crowd-funded from each of their unique communities. The latter, called the Solo Performance Commissioning Project, ran for fourteen years annually ending in 2012. The participants pool their resources and collectively invest to purchase the rights to perform one of Hay’s solos. They leave the ten-day retreat to return to their home support systems, enriched by Hay’s coaching and group facilitation, and encouraged by a new network of peers and potential partnerships for future shared performance opportunities around the world.

Hay has developed several strategies to disseminate her dances to generations of dance makers through community-building support systems which expand the visibility of her works throughout the world. She employs deliberate language with rich word-based choreographic directions and has generously “dis-attached” herself from vetting the final product of a commissioned solo by passing along the tools necessary to facilitate the authorship of the solo to its new owner. Hay eloquently establishes the methods for fulfilling her choreographic scores for each individual dancer who commits to her working conditions. In the words of Britain’s Independent Dance co-director Fiona Millward, Deborah Hay’s choreography is riddled with “antidotes for habits that no longer serve you” (Edmunds). Hay wishes to give each performer the tools necessary to prepare them from inside the performance of the work and from the outside within their community in order to share the choreography in performance.

Her constant grassroots efforts to provide platforms for her performances have created peer networks of artists interested in her radical practices, establishing a safe environment for experimentation and research. Hay is a generous teacher and strategic organizer who has received several awards throughout her career. In 2007 when honored with a BAXten Award, choreographer Juliette Mapp presented Hay by recognizing her contributions,

Your experimental work has remained alive and contemporary over four decades, inspiring your colleagues and peers and now – new generations of choreographers and performers. Your sustained commitment and your willingness to change course provides an example for others. Your articulate writing on the body and dance has had a profound impact on the field.

Her lifelong process of creating art works in community has strong repercussions: individual empowerment, synergistic resourcefulness, liberation from/subversive of main systems of dance dissemination and distribution—all embedded into every cellular inch of her artistic contributions.

BodyCartography Project – Empathy

Building off of community (the macro) to reveal the individual (the micro), sourcing the choreographic material for performances through improvisations and somatic research conducted in the studio with their dancers, Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad of BodyCartography Project have made the idiosyncratic results of their explorations the aesthetic of their dances. Somatic training techniques (specifically Body-Mind Centering) nurture the whole person, from their place in society to the internal bodily systems that keep them alive. Often used by dancers to strengthen their alignment and prolong their capacity and career, somatically-sourced movements reveal relationships between the physical, the cognitive and the emotional landscapes in all of us. This inside-out generative method facilitates empathetic responses in the viewers whose mirror neurons record the visual experience as their own. Unlike viewing great feats of athleticism such as acrobatics or ballet, somatic vocabulary is amplified to a potentially unrealistic state in performance but ultimately stems from a common ground. For BodyCartography Project, tapping into presence is placed above external form; the performers must show up in an authentic manner each moment of the live performance, being vulnerable to their surroundings and receptively spontaneous with fellow performers and audience members within the framework of the piece.

The embodiment of movement vocabulary in dance research, development and performance has a profound communicative quality. By using shared choreographic prompts in rehearsal, performers develop bonds with one other as well as a deeply felt personal experience. Within somatic training philosophy, the body is never objectified but instead is appreciated for its emotive capacities which “illustrate… that human experience is multifaceted and reveals itself in complicated twists and turns that constantly spiral back to pick up new information” (Miller 266). It is through actions that the dancers excavate their experiential consciousness and offer this awareness as the conduit to movement inhabitation. The felt reality of the somatic body in motion summons many senses in the viewer’s own body and that experience and energetic response can recall magic. Artists like Bieringa and Ramstad who privilege the body’s intelligence over structural and choreographic hierarchy are more able to break compositional rules by following the natural narrative derived from the performers’ organic presence with knowledge and acceptance of all their multiple meanings and significances.

Somatic training also creates a heightened state of perception. The bodily awareness extends to the surrounding environment and performers establish a gaze that invites being observed. This behavior encourages the audience to actively participate in directing their focus on aspects of the performance, from the angles in body shapes to the pressure of weight being transferred in locomotion. Along with this attention to viewing, the observer removes judgment from their experience while being acutely aware of the information being shared in the moment. Viewers are able to bring their whole selves to the experience during performances as they become engaged with the dance material live.

Somatic influences also propose that audiences remove the assumptions they carry into spectatorial experiences. This ability to refresh ones expectations prior to a performance brings everyone inside the shared moment. This preparedness translates to creating a whole of the entire performance: audience members, performers, architecture, reactions and sense of time. By raising the awareness of movement patterns and opening up possibilities, new choices are offered as potentially more effective communicators. The elasticity of the entire creation as it encompasses everything unifies us and validates our individuality. This is how the spiritual, a powerful connection that remind us of our humanity, can reenter our busy lives. Inclusive behaviors are exercised by establishing a creative practice based in somatic techniques. Transitions in life are more apparent. Life is more fluid and theater more real. When somatic awareness is woven into the fibers of a performance, the creative process strengthens the community within the cast of performers, their awareness of the audience expands this community and feeds energy back to the cast in performance. Their movements and actions reinforce the empathetic feedback loop and the logic within the performance is shared and ultimately, understood.

luciana achugar – Dialogue

Originally from Uruguay, luciana achugar came of age during the downtown boom in New York City’s contemporary dance scene when emotions and exhibiting pleasure were disregarded in favor of complicated dispassionate choreography. Today her choreographic research and performances are rooted in the body’s ability to feel pleasure and create sensations. Expanding these notions in order to build a palpable connection with the audience is one of luciana achugar’s primary concerns. When coaching her dancers, she immediately reminds them of the potential the audience brings to the art form. The dancers rehearse in a true state of feeling and sensing so that viewers are able to pick up on the felt sensations brought to life on stage.

The beginning of each choreographic work starts with a conversation between achugar and her dancers. In response to her Marxist upbringing, achugar, a self-proclaimed labor equity supporter, feels it is necessary to be completely transparent about the financial opportunities and limitations for the current production. She treats each of her dancers equally, taking into consideration their needs and contributions in the creation of the work. She deliberately has chosen to work with all-female casts in reaction to the dance field being flooded with women and disproportionately males are favored in dance productions. By choosing women as collaborators and the female form as the vehicle of investigation, she provides more opportunities to women and reclaims the feminine as a site of productivity, pleasure, and creativity.

By establishing a fair working environment, the labor and equality of her dancers’ rights are at the forefront of the choreographic material in achugar’s performances. The privileging of each of their contributions to the dance, the spirit of collective consciousness achugar promotes includes the audience as they become part of the live experience of her dances. Unifying gestures, whether it is unison movements, identical factory uniform smocks, repetitive actions, and ritualistic energies, explore the individual within a community. As she explores what is universal, each of the dancers becomes more distinct and valued as a unique contributor to the whole.

Her working relationship elevates the female and flattens the single-choreographer company model. Strategies from within her group choreographic works to date have involved the audience in the final productions by sharing verbal cues that the dancers are inhabiting, inviting the viewer to imagine those same motivations, by moving through the audience not just in front of but between and behind the audience, using ritualistic repetitious movement sequences that establish patterns and that are useful in engaging the viewers by revealing the logic of the composition.

The boldness she demonstrates with her determination around expression of emotion, exposing female distinctiveness on stage, does not diminish the innovations of the artistic rigor or her directorial contributions. It is selfless and courageous to present such fragile states of being in performance in the earnest and optimistic fashion that is her calling. She has created choreographic structures for her performers in which their vulnerability is never a liability but a true strength and vehicle for dialogue. This felt generosity is palpable to viewers and can lead to new appreciation for meaning as Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice dance critic notes, “If I were to cede my ability to construct a sentence and moan my way down the page in syllables, I might better convey the visceral response [achugar’s] work induces.” Without removing the performance from the venues where they exist, achugar has heightened the connection of those involved by developing vibrational movement language, compositional phrasing with transparent motivations, and inclusive and equitable practices inside the rehearsal process to prepare for the stage experience.

Through dance we learn to become sensitive to movements, nuance, and subliminal body language. Performance- and dance-artists who acknowledge observers as willing intellectual, emotional and spiritual participants, and who invite audiences to be an extension of the performance itself start their creative process with the audience’s potential in mind. By defining a value system above their form, their creative foundation finds aesthetic solutions to move their political priorities forward. Their hope is to communicate intentions and perform an interdependent world. Dance’s gift to us is the deconstruction of any Cartesian notions, the reassimilation of our mind and body connection and its inherent intelligence, and an embodied wholeness. Dance is a body-centric art form which fundamentally aspires to join physical and energetic exchanges between humans. Bodies in movement create tones and textures. The space around the dance provides tension and landscape. Audience members are somatically inclined to receive meaning in proximity to actions. Within the role of curator, the field of presenting contemporary and experimental dance is open to a new heightened awareness and reevaluation of the best practices we have inherited and are currently employing to bring dance to a public. We have started to embrace a new sense of discipline and questioning of the terms that were constructed long ago. We have identified opportunities to support the live experience with external methods to engage dance audiences. Now it is time to evolve our practice to be inspired by the works of the artists we hold true and create supportive structures from the inside out, starting with the art.

From inside the performing arts presenters’ circle, what we are asking of ourselves and for others is to join in, to collectively imagine and discuss new approaches ensuring the livelihood of the art forms we serve. The practices at play are open to lovingly dismantle the traditional setting and restructure the residual effects to be present and ready for the future. As Nicolas Bourriaud writes:

In order to invent more effective tools and more valid viewpoints, it behoves us to understand the changes nowadays occurring in the social arena, and grasp what has already changed and what is still changing. How are we to understand the types of artistic behavior shown in exhibitions held in the 1990s, and the lines of thinking behind them, if we do not start out from the same situation as the artists?

New leadership in the arts speaks differently about innovation and risks. Recently Tim Griffin was interviewed and he mentioned, “that a lot of folks across the board are increasingly aware of the conventionality of their endeavor, of fitting the models that exist. And you can’t just conceive of the inconceivable. You have to take a gamble, to allow that possibility to exist” (Evans 5). Imagination is an active pursuit and needs to be exercised. There is no discovery without the acknowledgement and willingness to fail. Health and wellness language is being cultivated and appropriated in the business world. Researcher and Ted Talk sensation Brené Brown, who has made breakthroughs digging around personal psychology to find the root of shame, explains that the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change, is vulnerability. The only thing that cures shame is empathy. It is time we let go of the past and move forward together into the future of performing arts integration and collective personal growth.

I believe a boundary-ridden escape from daily grind, using a variety of tension creating devices such as existing architecture and invented instructions, could set the stage for events to layer within an environment. Now how can a space become tactile? How can a room be anthropomorphized? Works should not necessarily neatly fit into the settings they are performed in. Opportunities and limitations can become clearer in awkward placements and participation more obvious, while edges become softer potentially. Vantage points must be various: can greater distances expose patterns and increase insights into the craft, while proximal immersion lead to reflexive transformations?

Intellectual perspectives must be considered too, from the deliberately informed to the happily empty-minded. New York’s MOMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey defines his process of working with artists as a consideration of:

What kind of curator they need me to be. I try very hard not to have a particular style. It’s a process of paying very close attention to someone and intuiting things about that person–from the time you spent with them, from the work that you know, from what you know of them over time–and trying to figure out how to be a conduit for the best public presentation of their work.

Eleey’s articulation of starting from nothing and being open to being informed from the individual artistic processes is a clue. Acknowledging the use of intuition as a tool in the curator’s arsenal also brings us closer to strengthening the empathetic potential in public dance performances. In a recent New York Times article about socially engaged art, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts’ director Kristina Van Dyke remarked, “To me art is elastic. It can respond to many different demands made on it.”

Where is our flexibility and collegial trust to reinvent the conditions in which we do our work? Building off of Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 concept of relational aesthetics could an existing environment be accommodating so that it is “the actual event that curates the work, not the other way around.” According to Mathias Augustyniak of the design duo M/M (Paris), “there is no such place called art or culture but it’s all interwoven.” Could flattening the hierarchy between performances, art works, and creative interventions of different production scales enable interchangeability between audience and performers and solidify a cultural integrity?

Invitational language needs to consider and be designed to encourage social encounters, with innuendos that heighten senses and activate one’s curiosities. Time that stretches around syllables and sharpens to find moments to wander and wonder will interrogate from the inside out and discover from the outside in. “When we are talking about complex communication between two people–inter-human situations–everyone knows that the more indirect communication is, the more effective the message.” Artists who value and prioritize generous layering of meaning inside their works and invite us in cellularly and spiritually, affect change physically. The musician and poet, Michael Stipe shares:

It is my belief that memory is our only real contribution to the universe after our death. Our memories, however banal or meaningful, gathered throughout our lifetime, go on to become the fuel, the powers the energy that allows the universe to be as vast and as fantastic as we imagine it is.

Muscles in our bodies contain our memories. Dancers tap into the potency of movements. Everyone’s body is the antenna to understanding movement in conversation, in film, on stage. Our mirror neurons bring a dancer’s embodiment of space, time, actions, and shapes directly to the audience and our past is released from watching their execution in the present. Our civilized society has placed barriers and doubt in our cellular comprehension of bodies in motion. Bringing back an embodied permission of full consciousness as an observer will bring acceptance in this world as understanding the complexity of our very human nature is innate in tuning into the frequency of dance. Outspoken and ever-evolving choreographer Tere O’Connor confirms that “choreography eschews singularity of meaning by its very nature” (O’Connor 12). And at the end of the day, what are we left with are our experiences. Eleey continues to explain what concerns him about curating is that, like a dinner party, “there is nothing left.” And:

Like a dinner party where you hope that it is a great dinner party and you have seated everyone well and the conversation is lively, but at the end of it, apart for some dirty dishes, there is just what people remember from that evening… [that] goes back out into the world.

When we turn to ourselves to be present, we also commit to finding the solutions together. Science is mapping empathy, artists are tapping into this understanding, and we are responsible to adjust and evolve.

I imagine future performances that are as small as a thought and as big as the sky, and with no hesitations. That there would be time to reflect with drifting layers and artistic options bumping into one another, just as there should be no real obstacles in life. Brown writes:

Vulnerability is courage. It is about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives and in those moments when we show up, those are the most powerful meaning making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well, they define who we are.

As audiences show up and participate, make meaning, and lasting memories, we too need to be present to experience the work we do in order to feel the meaning and execute the needs of the art works in public presentation. It will be messy and crystal clear all at once. We need to do this work together. “Making manifestos engages the thinker-practitioner; and in this sphere, the thinker-performer is by no means a contradiction in terms. Art and thought are not incompatible after all” (Danchev xxvi). So I hope this revolution will be thoughtfully embodied, vulnerable, communal, and crowdsourced for our “contemporary condition of overabundance” needs curation and we can’t do it on our own.

The three artists/artist collaborations share the following overlapping values: They flatten hierarchies, honor individual contributions, build empathy between participants, and generously offer new opportunities and choices for engagement. In order to mirror those philosophies on the presenting side, for example, what if empathy, building and supporting live dance performance, was our goal? How would we promote and display performances differently? If we were to act intentionally with similar priorities, would we make different choices? By focusing on and researching artists who consciously and intuitively create systems and strategies to engage their audiences, what are our responsibilities and opportunities to do the same? Artists lead rigorous creative research established through choreographic choices. With that knowledge accessible, how can the conditions to present dance to publics mirror the artistic intentionality that goes into the development of a choreographic work? Could they be customized to match? Language’s expressivity can extend not only the invitation to watch but also the effect of experiencing the artwork. It is time to take advantage of the choices and opportunities a presentational platform gives all of us with these artists as our guides.

I challenge us to ask these questions and start from the art works, using the tools we have available in new ways. What if empathy was our goal? How could the meanings of the word spontaneity become principles in which we establish a live art experience that is equally empowering for an artist as well as an observer/participant?

I personally promise to embody my curatorial practice with these priorities and engage in conversation with my peers from this day forward. As I perceive abundance and opportunity, my approach changes. I engage my field as a whole being. I pledge to perform this shift in consciousness until it reveals new methods.

NOTES:

*Thanks to my classmates at ICPP (class of 2013).

˚Americans for the Arts’ Arts Index, a searchable website database which tracks arts participation by districts and calculates corresponding findings in order to anticipate the needs of the arts in every community across the nation released the 2012 report in which the data confirmed the trend that more people want to be personally engaged while experiencing the arts and increasingly consume arts via technology and value diversity. Audiences are still very much committed to the arts and cultural experiences however are avoiding traditional models of delivery. On the Arts Index blog, Stephanie Riven calls our field to collective action:

After reviewing the long list of downward trends provided by the Index, we as arts leaders need to create a new list that expands the core strategies [setting and communicating a vision, developing Collective Impact as a core strategy, and establishing a commitment to community],

to include:

the following:

-       Putting aside our own agendas and our individual needs to be the authority in the room.

-       Taking more steps toward visionary and innovative thinking at the national, state, and local level.

-       Acknowledging that “survival” is not enough.

-       Taking risks to avoid the status quo.

-       Making a commitment to continuous dialogue.

-       Seeking collaborative learning experiences geared towards new options and potential for our sector.

I wrote this proposal as part of my studies at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and invite any feedback you may have. Special thanks to my advisor Thomas Lax for his encouragement. I hope you enjoy reading!

Walker Art Center is a NPN Partner of the National Performance Network (NPN). Michèle Steinwald was supported by the NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative to attend ICPP. Major contributors of NPN include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  For more information: www.npnweb.org.

Additional sources not linked directly to text above:

Bourriaud, Nicolas, Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland. “Relational Form.” Relational Aesthetics. France: Presses Du Réel, 2010. 11. Print.

Danchev, Alex, comp. 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists.    London: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

Edmunds, Becky. “Turn Your Fucking Head.” 2013: 1:01 minutes. Documentary film.

Evans, Moriah. “Tim Griffin at The Kitchen.” Movement Research Performance Journal   #41 Fall 2012: 5-7. Print.

Miller, Gill Wright. “Postmodernism, Body-mind Centering, and the Academy.”   Exploring Body-mind Centering: An Anthology of Experience and Method. Ed. Gill Wright Miller, Pat Ethridge, and Kate Tarlow Morgan. Berkeley, CA: North   Atlantic, 2011. 247-268. Print.

O’Connor, Tere. “The Hudson Movement.” Movement Research Performance Journal       #41. Fall 2012: 12-13. Print.

Disarming Nudity Warnings: Nudes in Review

When preparing to announce each new performing arts season, part of my job is to write about the upcoming shows and add warnings about adult content or any atmospheric irritations potential audience members might need to know about: violence, nudity, loudness, strobe lights, and fog. But it was the nudity warnings that required the most […]

Eiko & Koma, Naked, 2010 Photo: Cameron Wittig

Eiko & Koma, Naked, 2010 Photo: Cameron Wittig

When preparing to announce each new performing arts season, part of my job is to write about the upcoming shows and add warnings about adult content or any atmospheric irritations potential audience members might need to know about: violence, nudity, loudness, strobe lights, and fog. But it was the nudity warnings that required the most careful wording last season. It may have seemed simple but I have been trying to be transparent, writing cautionary notes as creatively suggestive, with their tone and intentions matching the ultimate exposure in the performances.

My insistence in avoiding the use of generic nudity labels started with the John Jasperse Company’s Walker-commissioned piece Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies in May of 2010, when I wanted the audience to see beyond the nakedness to the themes enumerated in the show’s title. The warning–

(Note: Performance contains nudity and sleight of hand tricks)

–also hints at a section of the performance when the choreographer does a magic act poorly, further emphasizing what the real actions are as opposed to the intended ones.

Later in 2010, Minneapolis-based interdisciplinary choreographic collective SuperGroup performed an innocent although cheeky (in more ways than one) dance work in that year’s Choreographers’ Evening curated by Susana di Palma. Since Choreographers’ Evening is a group show of short pieces, I didn’t want to reveal who was going to be naked and ruin the surprise, and yet I didn’t want audiences anticipating something in-your-face-naked and taint the other works which were so different. SuperGroup’s piece Spring Dance Unrated was inspired by pseudo-classical Isadora Duncan style movements, so the lightness of the choreography needed to be reflected in the spirit of the warning. The language used

(Note: Performance contains joyous nudity)

–was playful and unassuming–and “joyous” became the baseline office reference for all nudity for years after. I was encouraged by this level of attention to detail and the effect it can have on positioning expectations and dissolving any loaded references.

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Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012

The ability to boldly underscore the obvious was fun in Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Untitled Feminist Show. The publicity photos never hid the fact that the performers would be naked the entire time so the warning was intentionally redundant–

(Note: performance contains [a lot of] nudity)

–in order to get to the point of what makes gender and where is humanity in the flesh.

The 2012-13 season opened in September with another Walker commission, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People’s And lose the name of action, named after the Shakespearean line in Hamlet. Last summer as we were putting out publicity materials in advance of the performances, the show was still in development and nudity was being explored but was far from confirmed. The research and themes of the piece evoked paranormal phenomena and neuroscience, so having a non-committal note–

(Warning: Some potential nudity)

–worked with the possibility that the nude parts could be cut out of the final production while also playing into the mind games of the superstitious and hallucinatory aspects of the choreography. I covered my bases by having the warning listed and still was able to stay true to the piece.

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The BodyCartography Project, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman

October’s premiere of BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature had plenty of nudity but without any sexual references. The piece explored the theme of the uncivilized versus the socialized, so to add to the atmosphere I noted this–

(Warning: Some bodies appear in their natural state)

–as part of the National Geographic-ness of the work.

During Out There, Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun was a theatrical adventure and so having a charged message–

(Warning: Full frontal nudity)

–explaining the naked parts was encouraging, emphasizing the exhilarating ride the play was.

The final exposure of the season was more haphazard in Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, and Trajal Harrell’s two-hour hot mess of a show, (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M). Also part of Out There, this performance was more of a series of overlapping solos and costume changes, part song-and-dance marathon within a character-based play. The waiting between numbers was as important as the numbers themselves. As such the language–

(Warning: Costume malfunctions. Expect nudity)

–highlighted the anticipation as much as the events.

I am considering adding this newly developed skill to my resume. The innuendos and reveals in each felt like mini works of art. If you have an idea of what to name this talent, let me know. Curator of expectations in adult content?

Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters

Dance and  the Body Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters is a four-part series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper […]

Dance and  the Body

Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters is a four-part series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical meaning behind the works. Feel free to add to the discussion and share your own insights in the comment section below.

Understanding dance performance begins with simply describing what we observe. Certain terms help us communicate these observations. For example, we can use terms that describe parts of the body, like head, face, shoulders, arms, legs, torso, and feet. We can describe how bodies in motion create shapes and divide space. We might describe the symmetry or asymmetry of the arrangement of bodies on stage, or we might describe rounded or angular motifs in the positions of the dancers (Cunningham). We might describe the dance techniques employed in the performance. Some techniques are muscular (Streb), while others require dancers to move from their bones and organs (BodyCartography Project); some techniques use breath at the center of movement (Eiko & Koma); and some techniques use all these elements. Beginning with simple descriptions of what we see, we can begin to think about how a dance performance makes us feel and what it means to us. Reflecting further on the cultural context of a performance, we can begin to consider what it might mean to its choreographers and dancers, and what its broader cultural impact might be.

The body is the instrument of dance. We – as audiences – watch how the body moves or doesn’t move.  We observe shape, movement, and technique; body size, gender, race, age, and more. We make these observations and others through visual cues whose cultural histories predate the present performance. What is communicated through dance performance depends both on the dancers’ bodies and the audiences’ cultures of perception. That is, our bodies, as viewers, are part of the meaning.

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Imagine a performance involving black dancers and white audience members. In the United States, this occurs in and communicates an ongoing negotiation of power dynamics and cultural conversations. The same can be said of a performance involving a woman dancing for an audience of men. In these examples, the significance of the dance has to do in equal part with the dancers and the audience members: race and gender are part of ever-changing cultures of racism and heteronormativity. These are only two examples of ways in which visual cues interact with audience culture to affect a performance’s meaning, message, and impact, in the field of dance and beyond. Many dancers and choreographers, aware of the complexity of visual cues, create work with such negotiations in mind.

Choreographer Bill T. Jones creates art with his audience in mind. He observes that the audience that sees his work is mostly white, and he admits that this awareness informs his choreographic choices. Jones addresses issues of interest for his audiences, challenging what he perceives to be the social and cultural assumptions viewers bring to a performance. In discussing his 2012 work Story/Time, Jones asks audiences to “watch [ourselves] watching.” He explains, “I’m always aware that I am a subjective consciousness, trying to observe something and trying to relate to it. It makes me very self-conscious, but it also makes me feel like I am participating in the world of ideas.”

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An opportunity arises to “watch [ourselves] watching” during a section of Story/Time. The same story is repeated three times, each time accompanied by a different choreographic representation – first by a black woman dancing abstractly, alone on the couch, then by the cast, narratively performing the story as it is told, and finally repeated again by the cast with their backs to audience and with their real names inserted into the story. The repetition and variation emphasizes how bodies and culture can influence the perceived meaning of a story. During the piece, Jones retells a story centering on relationships, struggle, and violence and the sequence of events that unfolds. The original version of the story is as follows:

A woman is sitting alone on the couch, distraught, because she can’t pay her mortgage. The father and daughter enter and try to comfort the mother. Then, the landlord [sic] comes in with his goons, demanding the money. The mother says, “have mercy, we don’t have the money. Please, please give us more time.” The landlord says, “I don’t care, I gave you another month already. This is not a fucking charity.” He tells his lackeys, “take the furniture.” The father screams, “But you can’t do this!” the landlord says, “not only can I do this, but I’m going to take her, as well.” The mother shouts, “no, no, no, no!” as the landlord seizes the daughter and begins ravishing her. The father tries to intervene, fails, and has a heart attack. The landlord, full of himself, walks away. The son enters the scene, witnessing the carnage. The mother tells him, “The landlord is the cause of all the troubles.” The son, full of fury, takes his revenge.

The story itself is an example of using the body as a weapon for control, reinforcing dynamics of sexism and classism.

After watching each segment, some questions to consider are: What is conveyed when it is performed by a black woman? How did the impact of the story change when the dancers pantomimed the events? How did the bodies of the people portraying each character influence your feelings about it? What do you think that means? What about when the dancers’ real names are used and they are portraying themselves? How do Jones’s presence on stage and his narration impact the overall presentation? Does the impact change when the dancers have their backs to the audience?

In all three iterations, the bodies performing on stage influence the significance of the piece and affect how it is perceived by the audience. In what way might the meaning change in relation to the cultural background of the viewer? Taken together, these considerations inspire unique interpretations that arise equally from the bodies of the performers and the bodies of the audience members.

Connotations of the body vary from community to community. In times of war, the body is often used as a weapon and as a tool of control. In the 20th century, the Democratic Republic of Congo was fraught with political and military coups, political corruption, poverty, civil wars, and human rights violations. In a 2010 performance, Congolese artist Faustin Linyekula (lin-yay-coo-la) reflected on the significance of the body during political upheaval and instability:

So, you have a body. The ultimate territory you could occupy. And you know what? History could be understood through the lens of the evolutions of forms of violence against the body. Not only the history of my country, which has been particularly violent against the body, but any people, any country, can be understood through that angle. The evolution of forms of violence against the body. So, maybe a dancer is a fortune or a curse.

As Linyekula describes, violence against the body is not restricted to select countries or cultures. Violence against the body is a common phenomenon among all human cultures, and it has evolved over time. Rape, slavery, and mutilation are examples of extreme brutality, but violence also takes on more subtle and nuanced forms through systemic racism, sexism, classism, and religionism, to name a few. Dance and performance remind us of the embodied human experience in their portrayal of relationships, emotion, struggle, perseverance, elegance, and beauty. Live performance not only invites embodied empathy for characters and actors, but invites us to see the impact of our own interactions with other people. As audience members, we experience ourselves as embodied participants in an embodied story.

The methods that performers use to get us to challenge our own notions of the body vary greatly, but they all contribute valuable information and experiences to the ongoing dialogue around the body and the cultural habits that it bears.

Deborah Hay hails from the Judson Dance Theater, a dance collective whose philosophy centered on dismantling the conventions and theatricality that often accompanied dance performance and utilized every day movement as the predominant vocabulary. They organized informal performances in unconventional places, without elaborate lighting or costuming, in an effort to convey their true selves.

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For her original performance of O’ Beautiful, Deborah Hay hired a costume designer to design a “post-apocalyptic looking costume… it did not feel appropriate to me, at all, in that it strongly influenced my dancing and really got in the way for me. I felt quite limited by the cuteness of the costume.” During one rehearsal in the Texas heat, Hay rehearsed the piece in the nude.

I’m in the studio one day and it’s so hot, I just take off all my clothes and I start performing O’ Beautiful and that was the costume. And what I experienced performing that piece without any clothes on was so phenomenal that [nudity] had to be the costume.

Hay no longer performs the piece live, renamed Beauty, but performs A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty in which she discusses the evolution of the piece while projecting two performances of it (one in the post-apocalyptic costume and the other in the nude) side by side.

Hay’s change of opinion in how to (un)dress for the piece was a response to her daily experiences (climate control). The banality of those circumstances, however, does not change the cultural significance of a woman in her 60s performing in the nude. How differently would the performance have been perceived if she were in her 20s or 30s? If she were black? If she were male? How does showing the side by side performance change the viewer’s perception? Seeing the performances side by side, we become increasingly aware of the differences that costuming has on the body and the impact costuming has on our interpretation. Since Hay no longer performs the work live, in costume or in the nude, the audience watches a video of her dancing, while she gives a lecture, live, about the work. Her academic presentation and intellectualization of the piece further de-sexualizes the performance.

Though Hay found comfort in her nudity, not every dancer or company agrees that the uncostumed self is the “true self.” In the tradition of the Harlem vogue balls, one’s true self was her or his attitude.

This realness, what is interesting, is that it includes all the artificial means that you may need to use… While realness, to be real, you may use a lot of makeup, a lot of fake bra, a lot of costumes, a lot of accessories that’s going to make you be real. So this is this interesting situation where being real is not getting rid of all the cultural elements and all the artifices, but being real is using everything you may use, from hormones to costumes to heels to fake dick to pass as what you want to pass as. – François Chaignaud

To the members of Judson Theater, their bodies “true forms” were revealed by ridding performance of traditional theatrical elements like costumes, hairstyles, and stage makeup. Dancers in Harlem’s vogue balls took an opposite approach, utilizing all available technology for altering bodies to represent their “true selves” so that the images and persona that they presented to the world matched their inner ideas of their bodies. In both cases, the notion of “realness” has the body at its center – perhaps because we, as a society, place the body at the center, taking social and cultural cues from what we see, who we see, and how we see.

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Whether making physical or philosophical observations about the dancing body, perception and understanding are undeniably influenced by the culture in which we live. Analysis of the performing body requires contextualizing the work based on the background of the choreographer, the cast performing, and the demographics of the viewers. Each participant brings with her a body of unique experiences and varied perspectives that together effect the overall reception, meaning, and impact of a work. Dance is more meaningful for viewers who bring this awareness to a performance.

Young Jean Lee Interview Part Two

    The interview with Young Jean Lee currently featured on the Walker website is only part of the conversation I had with her late December. Here’s the rest of it, with topics ranging from Ms. Lee’s potential film project, her take on archiving live theater work, and her favorite experimental theater shows she saw […]

Cataloguing performance: Who owns what?

What about the notion of ownership – how does that work in the context of performance? It’s a loaded word, to be sure, but one that comes to mind for many in the museum community when you start talking about performing arts, using language like “commissions”, or “collections,” or “acquisitions.” The question arises in the […]

What about the notion of ownership – how does that work in the context of performance? It’s a loaded word, to be sure, but one that comes to mind for many in the museum community when you start talking about performing arts, using language like “commissions”, or “collections,” or “acquisitions.” The question arises in the group discussion: Is it even appropriate to use such language in the context of performing arts? If not, then what, exactly, is the museum’s stake in its commissioned works, and what sort of institutional history is tied up in its internal cataloguing of its investments in such performance pieces?

Peter Taub, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, observes:

 “The notion of individual ownership just doesn’t apply; there are usually multiple commissioning partners behind the development of any given performance work, with shared, vested interests who are all involved in bringing that work to the stage, bringing it to completion. But those commissioning institutions also invest in residency time, in developing contextual material, and building and maintaining a web presence. How do we effectively use all these cohorts, these collaborative partners with a stake in a work, to create a commitment to quality and protocols for consistent documentation of that work? Various museums may have a different valuation for such archival materials and their use; there is no guarantee ‘documentation’ means the same thing to all of them, across the board.”

Chuck Helm of the Wexner Center for the Arts responds, “How then do you position your own investment and institutional history? Your ‘reputational capital’? Is ‘collection’ the way to talk about that?”

Joan Rothfuss, a curator and art historian, clarifies the point nicely, saying:

 “How does any institution actually ‘own’ a commission? A collection includes more than just the objects owned by the museum; an institution’s holdings are not really about collecting and buying, at their heart. ‘Collecting’ works is primarily about preserving and protecting them, presenting them for the public. The process of documenting a performance work for the ‘collection’ provides an institution with the opportunity to delve into what that work is about, to introduce it to people, expand the context to place it in conversation with other objects and projects also important to the museum. ‘Collecting’ a piece is a way an institution declares its commitment to making the work a community resource, something shared –  it’s not a declaration that the work is something to have and hold, separate from that community.”

Sarah Schultz, in the Walker’s education and community programs department echoes that sentiment, saying, “Yes, in my experience, including something in your ‘collection’ speaks of commitment. Given the notion of a museum as a body of people who are producing knowledge around objects and performances, as such when it commissions a piece, its intellectual capital is then dedicated to keeping these works alive. If it’s not in your ‘collection’ you may give these things less attention than those your institution has committed to in that way.”

Ben Harrison of the Andy Warhol Museum then brings up the sticky issue of profit: “Where does packaging and restaging the works in a museum’s collection fit in? Is the work remounted? Beyond stewardship, what about the financial considerations, the revenue generated for an institution by loaning out or remounting its ‘owned’ pieces? At the Warhol Museum, for instance, we generate much of our income through preparing curated packages of work in our collection for touring exhibitions.”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Interscape" (2000), with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg. Courtesy Tony Dougherty

And what about this: Even if you’re unconcerned with remounting a performance piece, what if, as an institution, you simply want to “animate” the pieces in your collection? What sorts of gestures can you use to bring the history of a work to life, in the exhibition of archival information and materials about a performance work after the fact?

Along those lines, Sarah Schultz of the Walker asks, “Do we have the rights to recreate those Rauschenberg costumes (in the Merce collection) for educational purposes, for a program or event? Can we create a facsimile of those materials for the sake of ‘animating the collection’ for gallery visitors?

Trevor Carlson, of MCDC quickly responds, “No, your ownership doesn’t extend that far.”

Bonnie Brooks, the Legacy fellow for the Cunningham Foundation, continues, “This brings to mind George Ballanchine: When he passed, he left his dances to a number of people, each of whom then owned the rights to those dances. What that suggests to me is there’s a precedent we’re not talking about – that particular works could be owned by someone other than the maker. There isn’t a lot of precedent for the situation, granted, but an institution might suggest they want to ‘buy’ intellectual rights to a piece, that they want to actually own every aspect of it. That may be part of what lies ahead in terms of various rights to and ownership of work.”

Philip Bither weighs in, saying, “That’s a very provocative idea, isnt’ it? But right now, a bedrock value [here] is that ownership stays with the artist. It’s written into all our commissioning agreements at the Walker: We don’t own the meat of the performance itself. Maybe, if ‘collection’ as the working lexicon is a distraction, perhaps we should change the vocabulary – call these performance commissions our ‘archive collection’ or something less loaded with connotations of ownership.”

Michele Steinwald, assistant curator for the Walker’s performing arts, goes further, saying “We’re like early investors, entitled to something like royalties if a show turns into a blockbuster, but that’s the extent of our ‘ownership’ to a work.”

“The desire to monetize the investment around commissioning work is a controversial one,” responds Bither. “And it’s something we, as the commissioners. have mixed emotions about it. You hear about the occasional blockbusters, which offer dividends to their investors (like, say, A Chorus Line). But the fact is: most of the artists we work with will never see commercial benefits, or any sort of big compensation for their work. Even if they do, our contract still doesn’t really stipulate hard details about ‘royalties,’ just that we’ll have a conversation about profit sharing if the situation arises.”

Bonnie Brooks, with the Cunningham Foundation, says, “Commissioning performance isn’t acquisitive, though. As you describe it, it’s a transactional relationship between the artist and the institution. In that case, you can discuss the trail of the performance, the tracings left behind – but the work and its documentation is simply not a collectible, as such. With regard to performing arts and visual arts: you just can’t compare the two; it’s apples and oranges.”

What happens when those categories between disciplines aren’t so neatly defined?

Robin Dowden points to an example: “Tino Seghal was commissioned by the Walker as ‘performance art’, and his work is catalogued and marked as part of the visual arts collection. Eiko & Koma were commissioned also, but Naked is not in the catalog because it wasn’t formally acquired in that way, but rather served as a kind of ‘performance’ in the galleries. How do we mix these very different sorts of projects the institution’s supporting together in a meaningful way, a coherent way – regardless of whether they came in through door #1 (visual art) or door #2 (performing art).”

And this brings the conversation in the group down to brass tacks: Assuming the artist and institution are on the same page about documentation, its contents and aims and end users – What is the best way to keep track of the information?

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Minutiae" (1954) against the backdrop of Rauschenberg’s work of the same name. Photo by Herb Migdall, 1976, courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation

This is where the grant from Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) comes in. Three partner organizations, funded by IMLS, are working on a new project to develop open source innovations to help with such institutional information gathering and preserving, CollectionSpace. Those partnering organizations – the Walker Art Center, Museum of the Moving Image, and University of California-Berkeley — are each working in a difference “community of practice” to build cataloguing software that might be seamlessly integrated into the working lives of museum professionals working with a variety of objects and information. For its part, the Walker is in the process of developing such cataloguing software for performing arts. The larger interest, by CollectionSpace and IMLS, is in establishing common tools for museums and institutions to use to change how we manage, care for, and store collections information.

Angela Spinazze, our workshop leader, closes the day’s conversations by inviting a group critique on some of the Walker’s initial forays into that new way of classifying and storing performing arts information; Robin Dowden presents a series of “wireframes” to give an idea what various cataloguing ‘pages’ might look like.

Spinazze raises this issue to the group: “At CollectionSpace, we’re trying to move in a direction that keeps true to record-keeping practices that we already know work, while also taking advantage of new software tools so that adapting to changing technologies isn’t such a burden.” She goes on to ask, “Why do our software applications feel so clunky to use? As we develop these common tools, we want to make our respositories for information more intuitive to use, because the cumbersome applications we’ve been using thus far have resulted in unhelpful silos of information, separated by department and which can’t easily be cross-referenced with one another.”

She says further, “This IMLS Grant gives us an opportunity to talk about ‘communities of practice’ – that’s why we’re talking with you, the people who work in these fields of practice, because you know best what you need to make your work flow more smoothly. We hope to share tools, share technology, and in so doing come up with common practices and interfaces that make all your jobs easier. But first, we’d need to settle upon some shared definitions of terms and establish some common goals for our ‘collections’ information.”

“Ultimately,” she says, “with a new way to gather and store information that’s more in keeping with the way your institutions and artists need to use the material gathered, we want to change the paradigm for the catalogue – not how you do your work. We’re building a new foundation, a framework on which to build what’s common across your institutions. Then, maybe we can also offer a way to configure an open-source software application to help toward that end, something any institution with similar concerns can access. This is a community-sourced approach that will always be freely shared and at no cost to users – it’s a public, not private good.”

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Related links:

Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance - “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle.”

Read the second post in the series – “How Do You Keep Both History and Magic Alive?”

Read the third post in the series – “Opening the Kimono – How much to reveal and to whom?”

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on mnartists.org, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine, MinnPost.com, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

Cataloguing performance: Opening the kimono – how much to reveal and to whom?

As we move from topics of content to access, Trevor Carlson of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company introduces the question of restricting the flow of some information about a work, privileging the use of the archive of a performance work in its entirety for only a circumscribed field of researchers and objectives. He also suggests […]

As we move from topics of content to access, Trevor Carlson of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company introduces the question of restricting the flow of some information about a work, privileging the use of the archive of a performance work in its entirety for only a circumscribed field of researchers and objectives. He also suggests that as a group, museums clarify the important distinction between the work and its documentation, arguing that the relationship between them be articulated explicitly and managed consciously in consultation with the artist responsible for the piece, and from the beginning.

In response to talk from those working on the institutional side of things, about the desire for access to everything that goes into a work, about the need to catalogue as many aspects of its creation as possible for the sake of institutional and cultural posterity, Carlson demurs, “I hear something like, ‘we have to capture what we can’ from an institution, and I get more and more protective – of the dancers in the union, of our presenters, of the artists working on the production. When you’re commissioning a piece, there are opportunities for conversation with the living artist, to include them in the decision-making about what to include in the ‘catalogue’. If that conversation about documentation is in place before the actual event occurs, you’ll have a lot less push-back later, not to mention the opportunity to establish something greater than you’d have done without the artist’s insights.”

Joseph Beuys, Filz-TV (Felt TV), 1970. This multiple, a relic of Joseph Beuys' action Felt TV (1966), is composed of three props (the boxing gloves, felt pad, and sausage) and a film of the performance. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

He goes on: “Let’s change the question about who sees the full archive, and direct it, generally, to the artist as the decision is being made. The artist as well as the institution needs to be involved in defining these terms: e.g. when we say something is needed ‘for archival purposes’ – what does that really mean? You need to ask the artist their position on how the information will be used and by whom. There’s a certain opportunity that exists in having that conversation, and in including all the artists responsible for a work — making those decisions about documentation on a case by case basis, rather than assuming there’s a certain formula applicable in every case, or a one-size fits all technique for preserving all work like this in the future. This has to be a two-way conversation. It’s just not something the institution can or should decide on its own.”

Besides, he says, “we’re putting the cart before the horse, talking about documenting something after the fact. Perhaps the artist could be asked the question about access at the time the commission is first made: ‘What do you want to capture and why?’ For instance, Beuys wanted to preserve the experience he created, and took steps to ensure that it was captured for posterity – but, even with all that documentation, we still don’t know what it was like to be in the gallery with him. With Merce, the relationship between [the work at the documentation] was very clear and comfortable: He was making performance, not film/dance [even if that performance was captured on film] until he was making film/dance. His performers wanted to work with him to perform, not to be documented. In fact, we have an agreement in place about such filming, because you go about performance in a different way when you’re being documented; the documentation piece is a separate work, an edited work that gives the illusion of capturing a discrete performance, but which takes place over the course of a whole day, maybe, in conversation with both a director of the film and the artist.”

He goes on: “And so many artists have bad video. How do you respect the artist’s art, what they’ve made, with the documentation that accompanies it? That’s an important question, too.”

Which raises another interesting concern: What is the status of the documentation as a work of art in its own right? Where does authorship come into play in this situation? How much weight does (and should) the mediated, historical documentation of a work have in relation to the temporal work itself in the archive?

Philip Bither offered this insight: “The reason for the tradition of single-camera documentation, a static video of a performance shot from the back of the house, is precisely to capture a temporal experience of the performance for archival purposes, to have something by way of a record, but where no one is telling you where to look, where no director’s vision is shaping the experience for the viewer, and no documentarian’s name is attached to it. It might be grainy, ‘bad video,’ but it’s as close as we can come to unmediated documentation. It’s never intended for public consumption, but it is something which is very useful for artists looking to recreate the performance later, or artists looking to glean insight into the process of creation.”

At this point, the workshop participants break into small groups, to brainstorm “user personas” for just who might end up using the information they and the artists gather for an institution’s collection catalogue. Who will access this historical data? What are their reasons for tapping the archive?

It’s interesting that, when all the small conversations are reported back to the group, everyone has imagined a user base for this 21st century “catalogue” that includes but goes far beyond the usual assortment of library patrons. They’ve allowed for use of the collection catalogue by documentarians, scholars, museum professionals and working artists, all of whom are accessing the archive for information about staging or re-mounting work, or for historical context or behind-the-scenes details. But in addition, with the prospect of an open-source, digital archive for such information, universal access (or something very near) to at least some of the information gathered in the cataloguing process becomes a real possibility. Each small group’s scenario allowed for new kinds of public interest – e.g. the casual “sporadically interested cultural consumers” who happen upon a digital museum performance archive through the caprice of a random Google key word search, by way of a moment’s whim.

All the presenters and curators in the room, of course, are interested in the possibility of engaging those happenstance users of the archive. Perhaps, they argue, we can leverage what’s available in our online catalogue to entice these happenstance dabblers into attending some of the live events, or entering further conversation about the ideas raised by the work, or accessing related materials and programming the museum offers. All agree: part of the benefit of a compelling performing arts “collections” catalogue would be engagement of that new user segment, those who come via alternate points of entry on the web, to cultivate a broader audience base.

Jasper Johns, A set of seven inflatalble plastic pillows that are painted wilth images taken from Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-1923 that were created for Merce Cunningham's "Walkaround Time" dance performance 1968. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

Then Ben Harrison of the Warhol Museum puts a fine point on the question: “How much do we want to open our kimonos to casually interested members of the public? How do we invite these users of a web-based archive in, engage them and encourage them to seek out accessing more, but without giving away so much sensitive and detailed behind-the-scenes data about the work to just anyone who happens by. If we give access to too much, I think we risk not serving the best interest of the artist or the institution?”

Walker visual arts curator, Betsy Carpenter, followed up: “And who among the stakeholders has the privilege of providing both public access and stewardship of those materials in the catalogue? Who ultimately owns the documentation about work in the collection? What if the artist’s and institution’s needs and desires in that regard aren’t aligned?”

And that’s the big question: Who owns what here?

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Related links:

Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance - “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle.”

Read the second post in the series – “How Do You Keep Both History and Magic Alive?”

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on mnartists.org, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine, MinnPost.com, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

Cataloguing performance: How do you keep both history and magic alive?

At Friday’s workshop, with independent scholars and writers, videographers, and representatives on hand from the Andy Warhol Museum, the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York Public Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, University Musical Society, the University of Minnesota, and of course the […]

At Friday’s workshop, with independent scholars and writers, videographers, and representatives on hand from the Andy Warhol Museum, the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York Public Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, University Musical Society, the University of Minnesota, and of course the Walker – it was a full room and a diverse representation of voices on the issues connected with archiving and documenting the performing arts.

The day began with a deceptively simple question: What does it mean to catalogue performing arts? The query has as many layers as an onion. Try to answer it, and you find yourself immediately confronted with several more questions to tackle first:

  • What do we mean when we say an institution is “collecting” performance?
  • Who owns the work?
  • Who owns the documentation of the work?
  • Who decides what should be archived and for whom it will be accessible?
  • What happens if the artist’s needs and desires, vis a vis these performance holdings and documentation materials, don’t align with those of the institution?
  • What’s primary to the historical record, the archive: the performance itself, its process of creation, or the context of public and critical response to the work?

Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts, starts the discussion off: “How does our history of presenting and commissioning works get captured and collected?” In response, both Robin Dowden, of the Walker, and Jim Leija, of Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society, spoke in terms of regularly updated, “living archives,” which would be digitized and, to some extent anyway, available for public use online. For their parts, Peter Taub (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) and Bonnie Brooks (Legacy plan fellow for the Cunningham Dance Foundation) both called attention to the “valuable texture” given to an archive through somehow capturing ephemeral response: anecdotal, eyewitness accounts of experience with the work of the sort that used to be available in letters and collectible correspondence, but which, as such media has gone by the wayside in favor of less tangible, digital modes of communication, has become increasingly hard to get hold of.

It becomes clear as participants talk that, for them, “capturing” a history means digitization of information, as well as assembling news and interviews about a work, collecting the sets and props and costumes. A thorough, useful archive requires a broad spectrum of material and information – something beyond just a recording of the performance, including also performance notes, scores, script readings, workshops, open rehearsals – all the steps that go into the making of a thing, long before you get to the premiere. The historical record could be process-oriented – including details about the development process, creative process, work process. But all seem to agree that documentation of performing arts needs to include at least some behind-the-scenes context in order to facilitate a more complete understanding a work; you need that information about the makers of it.

Jacqueline Davis, of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts summed up what many seemed to get at:  “Capturing the history of a performance means the collecting information on the whole thing, beginning to end; gathering what makes that performance real, putting everything ‘in the box’.”

Ben Harrison, of the Andy Warhol Museum, raised an important and fundamental related question, another layer on the onion: “Why do we capture it at all? Warhol captured everything – on audio, film, video. It was his practice, to try to document his scene, everything around him, thinking of his Factory and studio as a performance space. Carrying on his spirit, we do a single-camera static shot of just about everything we can. But we ask the question, too: what role is this documentation going to have? Why are we doing it? Is it just a time capsule?”

Joanna Scavone performing Bruce Nauman's "Body as a Sphere" for the Walker's 2009 exhibition "The Quick and the Dead"

Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, shifts the focus of the conversation away from institutional concerns to those of the artists themselves, emphasizing the practical and pressing motivations behind such information-gathering efforts: “For us, the question is: how do we continue to serve Merce Cunningham’s legacy through the licensing of his work, and for scholarly and educational study, when our lighting director, stage manager, wardrobe supervisor, development staff, general manager, visual artist, etc are no longer available? The ‘dance capsules’ we put together, for example – which collect some of Merce’s notes, all the costumes, set designs, the musical scores, everything that goes into a performance – were simply a practical solution to that problem, not a self-consciously revolutionary way to ‘archive’ the material. Our interest is in making that information accessible and reliable, and on our terms, for the sake of paying respect to Merce’s legacy. I should be clear: we’re not putting absolutely everything in there. Not all of Merce’s notes about a given work, or the process by which it was created, ends up in those dance capsules. Just what’s essential to ensuring they’ll be rendered later accurately and in accordance with the artists’ wishes.”

Judith Brin, a dancer and scholar, interjected, “All this talk about ‘capturing’ information has such a negative connotation to me, a terrifying connotation even – what do we put in the box that’s going to help us? On a practical level, how on earth are you going to store all this if you save everything? How do we hold on to enough mystery about the work to keep the magic alive?”

On that note, despite expressed wishes for a complete and total history, everyone soon agrees that an exhaustive archive simply isn’t feasible. Ultimately, you can’t just ‘put everything in the box.” At that point, the question of editing down the contents of the information you gather somehow becomes another layer of the onion to contend with: Deciding what to leave out of the archive turns out to be almost as important as deciding what to put in.

Bonnie Brooks, of the Cunningham Foundation asks, “That question: ‘Why are we collecting this information in the first place?’ is a central one. So much of the heart of performing arts centers on an individual’s encounter and experience with the work. What we’re talking about here then should be ‘what kinds of content surrounding a performance can have a life of their own, beyond the work on stage? Maybe we start by gathering contextual material and media, along with eyewitness narratives that might provide a way to interact in some way with the work, providing a kind of experience for newcomers to it over time, even if they never see the actual performance on stage. That’s valuable: It won’t be an experience of the performance work itself, but even the documentation, the archival record, should still be something with real life and artistry.”

Next up: “Opening the kimono” – How much do you want to let the public see?

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Related link: Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance - “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle”.

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on mnartists.org, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine, MinnPost.com, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

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