Blogs Untitled (Blog) The Interdisciplinary

One Work: Mary Coyne on Jasper Johns’s Walkaround Time

In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation.  In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will […]

Jasper Johns set elements for Walkaround Time 1968 plastic, paint Walker Art Center T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2000

Jasper Johns, set elements for Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation. 

In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will be on view at the Walker as a centerpiece of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. It will be the third time the décor elements have been on view since their acquisition in 2000, although their exhibition history, both at the Walker and at fellow arts institutions far precedes this date. Why has Walkaround Time become such a fitting icon for interdisciplinary collaborative practice, despite being one of many striking stage décor works created by leading visual artists for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?

In late 1967, Jasper Johns, who used his role as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to act as a curator rather than a creator, expressed to his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, his desire to create a stage décor for Cunningham’s new work based on the design of Duchamp’s famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass (1915–1923). Duchamp’s now well-known quip, “certainly but who is going to do all the work?” enabled the resourceful Johns to create the setting for one of Cunningham’s most well-known and richly created dances. Working in critic David Whitney’s loft on Canal Street, which afforded more space than Johns’s own studio, he stenciled the imagery from The Large Glass—”The Bride,” “The Seven Sisters,” “The Milky Way,” “The Cemetery of Uniforms,” “The Ocular Witness,” “The Glider,” and “The Chocolate Grinder”—onto vinyl sheeting, which was stretched over seven metal cube frames.  

For performances, the images “The Bride” and “The Milky Way,” which appear in the upper register of The Large Glass, were suspended from stage flies, with the remaining five units arranged below. This honored Duchamp’s request that the décor mirror the composition of his work during at least one portion of the dance. As composer Nelson Rivera has aptly noted, the dance relies on lateral movement—the dancers continually enter and exit the stage from the wings and move longitudinally across the stage either across or behind the décor elements.  This choreographic structure wryly comments on the dance’s title, which Cunningham explained  references the seemingly protracted minutes spent waiting for early computers to process information. The entire dance, from David Behrman’s spoken-word remixed score, to the décor, to the choreographic structure, is an homage to Duchamp. If it’s at all possible to summarize Marcel, Walkaround Time approaches this; the work is, in a sense, Cunningham’s variations on a Ballet Mécanique.1 The dancers themselves seem to take on the movement of machines, often stiff, mechanized. During the work’s intermission, or enter’acte, the dancers remain on stage, seated among the décor, stretching, talking—an adaptation of René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte, which screened midway through performances of the Ballet Suédois’s Relâche. During the second act of the dance, Cunningham removes his warmup clothes while running in place, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912). Although the movement and character of the dance is uniquely Cunningham’s, the choreographer embraced Duchamp’s evasive attitude towards authorship and style.

Johns himself is hesitant to claim ownership of the décor, calling the design, in a letter to former Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, “something other than a work by me.”2 Johns is correct in that Walkaround Time is something outside a work by a single artist, more a material embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s impact on the post-war avant-garde and continued influence today.

The Walker was the first to exhibit Walkaround Time within exhibition galleries in 1994 as part of Duchamp’s Leg, an exhibition that looked to this very lineage of Duchamp’s impact on the younger generations of artists. Although the company was still actively performing—Cunningham had yet to create many of his most iconic works such as BIPED (1999) and Scenario (1997)—curator Joan Rothfuss thought outside the proverbial box in seeking to include these décor works, which were recently retired, but still owned by the company in the exhibition. Only a pair of the seven vinyl pieces on view were installed in the Walker galleries. Displayed in this way, their scale and texture simulated the haptic experience of moving and carrying the pieces across a stage. In the opening sequence of Walkaround Time, Cunningham is seen running in place behind The Chocolate Grinder, allowing the clear vinyl décor to simultaneously frame and obstruct his movement. Walkaround Time is one of the few dances in which the choreography itself was developed in consideration of the décor (Cunningham had his dancers use cardboard boxes in rehearsals until Johns’s work was completed). Dancers lift and carry the cubes and then each other with little differentiation. The cube becomes body becomes readymade. 3

Installation view of Art Performs Life, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

In 1998, Walkaround Time returned to the Walker for Art Performs Life: Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones, Merce Cunningham, for which the complete décor was installed and contextualized within Cunningham’s practice and within the designs artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Rei Kawakubo had created for the company. Following this seminal installation, the Walker approached the acquisition of the décor from the Cunningham Foundation, and the work formally entered the collection in 2000. It was only the second object created as a stage décor element for Cunningham to enter a museum collection (the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired Story (1964), a combine created by Robert Rauschenberg during a performance of Cunningham’s dance of the same name).

Former Emma Desjardins, Melissa Toogood, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn and Brandon Collwes performing Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during Dancing Around the Bride. Photo: Constance Mensh

Emma Desjardins, Melissa Toogood, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn and Brandon Collwes performing Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during Dancing Around the Bride. Photo: Constance Mensh

Ironically, Walkaround Time has never been installed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. In 2011, soon after the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, included in which was an exhibition copy of Walkaround Time, the work was displayed on a low stage within the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp—a “conversation,” in the words of curator Carlos Basualdo, rather than an exhibition, that explored relationships between the leaders of post-war avant-garde. In this active and transitional installation, Basualdo and co-curator Ericka Battle allowed the work to move between décor and sculpture. When the stage was used for performances, the vinyl boxes were drawn up towards the ceiling, creating a newly configured setting to Cunningham’s choreography

The following year the décor was included in A House Full of Music: Strategies in Music and Art, an exhibition that celebrated John Cage’s centenary at the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. Although Cage did not create the score for Walkaround Time, his fingerprints on the vinyl cubes are undeniable. Cunningham’s partner since 1945, it was through Cage that Johns and Cunningham developed their close, if reverential, relationship with Duchamp. This is one of dozens of key collaborations Cage fostered through his easily generated and far-reaching network of composers and artists. Cage was more than simply a social interloper between these individuals, and it is key to note how the design of Walkaround Time was in keeping with Cage’s own artistic practice. For Cage, music contained elements of the visual. Outside of being drawn to the theatrical and dedicating much of his life and work to Cunningham’s dance company, Cage’s own musical scores, including his well-known, largely-blank pages for 4’33” (1952), conveyed an acute sense of space, that of both the paper and the space in which the composition was performed.

Walkaround Time set elements in the 2015 Philippe Parreno installation Hypothesis, 2015. Photo: © Rosalba Amorelli

In 2015, Philippe Parreno included the set elements for Walkaround Time as part of Hypothesis, an installation at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan. Parreno understood the unfixed qualities of Walkaround Time as expressed nine years before Walkaround Time by Johns: “It seems less the machine’s True Story capacities for romance than the capacity of the work to contain Duchamp’s huge precisions of thought-in-art that is conveyed by its vitality.”4

Parreno’s rearrangement of the décor in relation to the stage underscored Cage’s idea of the theatrical space as one that is inherently decentered, a space beckoning to be moved through much as the clear vinyl (or glass in Duchamp’s original work) is to be looked through. For Parreno, the décor element became an object of regeneration, a motif he re-contextualized after its creation by Duchamp and application through Cunningham and Johns. Parreno’s appropriation of Walkaround Time within his installation was a scheme used to indicate the “ability of an artwork to host another,” a type of parasitic homage in which each creation creates a possibility for something else to occur. In this way, he completed the transformation of one artwork into another, leaving the space below the suspended décor empty, a blank stage on which the shadows of The Large Glass suggested the possibility of new interpretations, embodiments, and regenerations.

In this way, Walkaround Time, with its origins at the nexus point of conceptual, performance, and composition practice, indicates superbly the shared and intersecting wavelengths Cunningham, Cage, Johns, and Duchamp rode at that moment in time, but act as a type of Rosetta Stone, rich with ideas from different perspectives that continue to foster an embodied approach to contemporary practice. The décor’s creative exhibition history to date is only the prelude to a performance in and around its clear shadows.


1 Ferdenand Léger, 1924 “dance” of Dadist collage for film.

2 Jasper Johns, letter to Kathy Halbreich, December 8, 1998, Walker Art Center archives.

3 David Vaughan notes how Walkaround Time was, at the time, one of the few times that Cunningham diverged from his philosophical approach that the music, décor and choreography be developed individually. See David Vaughan “‘Then I Thought About Marcel’: Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time” in Merce Cunningham :  Dancing in Space and Time (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), Richard Kostelanetz ed., 66–70.

4 Jasper Johns “Duchamp” in Scrap, no. 2, December 23, 1960, 4.

Low and Warped: A Playlist Inspired by Destroy All Monsters

The RISD Museum in Rhode Island recently asked me to create a playlist as an online compliment to their current exhibition, What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present. My relationship to RISD’s project hinges on my avid appreciation for the proto-punk art collective, Destroy All Monsters, which is included among the exhibition’s […]

Cary Loren, God's Oasis, 1974. Copyright the artist.

Cary Loren, John Reed, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, Basement, God’s Oasis, 1975/2011. Copyright the artist. Collection the artist.

The RISD Museum in Rhode Island recently asked me to create a playlist as an online compliment to their current exhibition, What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present. My relationship to RISD’s project hinges on my avid appreciation for the proto-punk art collective, Destroy All Monsters, which is included among the exhibition’s artists and groups. Founded in 1973 in suburban Detroit, where three of its four members were attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Destroy All Monsters has since taken on many forms. In the beginning, it was a collaboration between Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Cary Loren, and Niagara. Embracing Hollywood trash, amateur noise and sound, theatrical antics borrowed from Dada and the seminal Jack Smith, and the cut-and-paste aesthetic of zine culture, Destroy All Monsters created for themselves their own low and warped gesamtkunstwerk, an inverted utopia that celebrated the morbid and irreverent. After a few years, members cycled in and out, and Destroy All Monsters became more of an official “band,” taking on members of the legendary Detroit bands the MC5 and the Stooges. Beginning in the 1990s, the original line-up came back together, producing new visual pieces for exhibitions, performing at galleries and museums, and releasing their music, videos, and zines—most of which had never been widely available before that time. Below is the playlist commissioned by the RISD Museum, and a very brief introduction to the many characters that populate it.

The part-time punk band, part-time art collective Destroy All Monsters was a collage in and of itself—an odd mix of oddball characters, each of whom brought in unique points of view, aesthetics, and capabilities. Manifesting in what its members felt was a vacuum of culture, Destroy All Monsters momentarily created a burst of weird, erratic, trash-obsessed, monster-movie creativity that took form through audio recordings, bits and scraps of film, zines, and lost performances. Idiosyncratic and in some ways out-of-time with their surroundings, the members of Destroy All Monsters created their own vernacular culture.

The sorts of sound, language, and aesthetic they created are linked to many others—from the noisy drones of 1960s minimal music to the punk rock that would rush into existence in the years after their formation, from the level deadness of New York No Wave music to various other art-rock innovators, past and future. As a compliment to the exhibition What Nerve!, this playlist hovers momentarily amidst this and other analogous clusters of creative energy wherein art crossed over with music, high culture crossed over with low, new crossed over with out-of-date, and things generally got weird.

This playlist starts off, naturally, with a track from Destroy All Monsters—though at the time of this song’s release, group members Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw had been lost to the West Coast. The lyrics of “November 22, 1963,” written by Cary Loren, reflect on the assassination of John F. Kennedy while the music approaches punk rock with a more straightforward song structure than the band’s earlier, noise-based recordings. It then skips around at will to tracks by pioneers like Alan Vega and his band Suicide—the first band to use the word “punk” as a self-imposed descriptor; poet, drummer, and phenom Angus MacLise, who was associated with New York’s avant-garde of the 1960s, participating in the invention of early minimalist music as well as the original lineup of the Velvet Underground; and iconoclast Charlemagne Palestine, equally known for his “sonorities” on piano as for his ritually inspired performance routines, which invariably include Cognac and a host of stuffed animals.

The playlist tracks briefly through the New York No Wave scene, with selections from Lydia Lunch and her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and veers off into the strange, industrial, neo-dada world of Cosey Fanni Tuttie and Genesis P-Orridge with tracks by COUM Transmissions and their later outfit, Throbbing Gristle. Included here are several pieces by the musician, philosopher, and anti-artist Henry Flynt and his friend and sometimes-collaborator, the filmmaker, violinist, and mathematician Tony Conrad. Both of these men occupied a place among the New York avant-garde in the 1960s but left the strictures of Fluxus and musical minimalism behind in favor of other paths. Flynt pursued what he calls “hillbilly” music—a form that he felt was more egalitarian and politically open than the closed-off experiments of Stockhausen, Cage, and other lauded musical innovators of the time; and Conrad (who was also involved in the VU precursor, the Primitives) diverted his energy into filmmaking, though he continues to produce drone-based musical compositions that shed light on the musical innovations of the 1960s. Closing out the set is, again, Destroy All Monsters, whose noisy fusion of anti-music and basement-rock draws these other musical innovators and misfits into their orbit.

Sacred Spaces: Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis Discuss Scaffold Room

Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which […]


Scaffold Room installation with Okwui Okpokwasili, scenic designer R. Eric Stone, and Ralph Lemon, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014  Photo: Gene Pittman

Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which contemporary art has started to engage choreographers, drawing dance into the gallery and often asking it to behave more like an object: observing a basic structure that is repeatable and digestible throughout the run of an exhibition.

Lemon has sought to question these conditions, including the very idea that performance, or the performing body for that matter, can be objectified.

Scaffold Room features ticketed performances, an ongoing installation, and also a series of refractions: performative vignettes that explode various gestures and scenes from the ticketed performance, and take place spontaneously throughout the exhibition. Prominent in the space is a confined environment made of scaffolding that serves as both theater and installation object. Here, live performances by Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis are featured alongside video of a rural Mississippi Delta community embodied by 86-year-old Edna Carter and her extended family, with whom the artist shares a long history. The performance weaves popular culture, nature, and science fiction through personal narrative, memory, found texts, and uncanny scenes created by the artist. Lemon’s project includes language and sources from some of the most transgressive American writers of the past decades, among them punk poet and experimental novelist Kathy Acker, whose prose examines power dynamics through a lens of explicit, sometimes violent, sexuality, and science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, whose work embraces futuristic and pornographic themes.

At the time of this writing the artists are in the gallery going through the work, and the institution is preparing for an intense week. What is obvious about this project is that it is going to be brilliant, entertaining, and difficult, and it’s going to ask questions of the Walker, its visitors, and the field more generally. Back in June I met with Lemon, Okpokwasili, and Matthis for lunch in New York. They had recently returned from a residency at EMPAC, where they had been developing the piece. Ralph has long collaborated with Okpokwasili, and their artistic relationship had developed out of dance. Meanwhile, it was his first time working with Matthis, and her background as an actress meant they were developing a different vocabulary. Reading that conversation now in light of how Scaffold Room has developed, I am struck by the many insights it presents on the work in process at a time of creative transition for all involved.

Bartholomew Ryan: Okwui, you’ve worked with Ralph in the past and most recently on How Can You Stay In the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? How does this project feel different in terms of process?

Okwui Okpokwasili: It feels like a continuation. It seems there are a number of experiences from all the past projects now coexisting at once. There’s a cosmology to this universe and we are receiving signals from it. For me, it begins with Come Home Charley Patton. That’s one way Scaffold Room is different. In the other pieces there was also a collective community of people negotiating a dangerous proximity of our bodies and figuring out what that language was together, and now I’m alone. But I carry the memory of their proximity.

Ralph Lemon: It’s really a collapse of time. There’s the past. There’s the present. And there’s this future sense of real time in what we’re working on.

Ryan: In How Can You Stay in the House All Day there’s a really famous moment of you on stage where there’s this incredibly embodied and dedicated and emotional…

Okpokwasili: Just say it! The crying!

Ryan: Can you talk about that piece, because I think the degree of emotional connection is exemplary of what is not normally brought into performance art. Don’t get me wrong, I realize performance art is also about certain forms of extreme endurance or extreme portrayals of self.

Okpokwasili: But even the crying seemed wrong in a theatrical sense. It was just wrong.

Lemon: Very wrong. People were walking out like crazy.

Okpokwasili: In Washington someone stood up and said, “Will somebody do something! You’re in a theater! Will somebody help her?” It was wrong on every level. It didn’t work theatrically, and it wasn’t supposed to work, because there was nothing preparing you for it, and then it began, and nothing preparing you for it to end. We had to work on that. I had to work on how to get there every night; we had a space for me to prepare in.

We developed a crying book, and I would look at it for preparation. It was filled with images and stories of people, in pain, in joy, in ecstasy. I would go to it and find a person or an event to meditate on and then cry for, and I would open and I would be engulfed. I would think of it as a cry for the world. It was an opening up, like heart shock, or a swollen stomach, with everything heaving up like a gusher or geyser.

Lemon: That whole Deleuzian element, another source. His essay, Fiction, from Pure Immanence. What fascinates me is that Okwui’s crying was real and not real. She was really crying, but it was also fiction.

Okpokwasili: No. It was real.

Lemon: But you were on a clock.

Okpokwasili: I totally disagree with you.

Lemon: The delirium of it.

Okpokwasili: The delirium is real. Fact and fiction were bleeding into each other. To delineate one from the other is so complicated, why do it? It is real. It’s all real. It’s all not real.

Lemon: I meant in a theatrical mindset.

Okpokwasili: But it wasn’t theatrical. I mean, yes, Ralph framed it. He’s talking about my experience of it, not your design of it.

Ryan: This tension is interesting.

Okpokwasili: I think it’s an interesting place for an actor to be, for a performer to be: that place where you’re really slipping though and away; you’re completely yourself and transformed. When the audience is present, there is no fourth wall. When I look into the audience looking at you. I’m looking at you. I see you. And you see me see you. There’s no place where any of us are invisible. Perhaps that’s where it can be interesting, to think of the constructing a self in relation to the presence of strangers. It’s an inevitable layer of performance, the subtle shifts that occur when an audience is invited in.

Ryan: In Scaffold Room, my understanding is that there’s a video that shows you preparing for the work.

Lemon: Which is controversial, because it’s private; I shouldn’t have made that public and I did without asking her.

Okpokwasili: I’m over it—but I hated that. I knew it was going to happen, because someone was videotaping it. I was like: OK, it’s inevitable that this may emerge out of the private archives into the very public playing space. Let’s just say I believe that Ralph makes sacred spaces even when they are public, even though I’m not saying “sacred” in the sense that we all bow down and pray. What I mean to say is his process has integrity. And his work is densely layered with exposure. In the actual performance, my back is to the audience the entire time; in the video, I’m finally facing the audience. It was inevitable that he would find it necessary to reveal it. And I trust him to honor the work.

Lemon: And they are painful because they shouldn’t be made public. There seems to be a demand that they become public. It’s like the Giraffe Boys, too. When I watch those, I’m continually very disturbed. But it feels like it has to be made public.

Can I ask, because we never talk about this really: Is there consciousness in what you guys are working on, that includes acknowledgment that you are a black female body?

April Matthis: I feel like you talk to me a lot about that. And you talk too about how Okwui is like your avatar, physically, and how for you I look like a black woman, a black woman’s body in a way that is not like you.

Lemon: I don’t think I said any of that, but it’s great.


April Matthis in rehearsal, Scaffold Room installation, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014  Photo: Bartholomew Ryan

Matthis: Oh, you totally said it! You said exactly that. (all laugh) Because I thought about it a lot! What is secret in this process? I bring it up because I feel I am very aware of that and the questions I have around that. They have been talked about with the costume and me being associated with the red-goat girl and it being necessary that what I wear is body-conscious. I do feel I’m in conversation with that and how we talk about Beyoncé, or how we talk, or don’t talk, about Adele or Amy Winehouse, or how we see your body, Okwui, when you take off your pants, or when we see you in the video and you’re also wearing body-conscious clothing.

I feel like there’s a question that’s being asked where we have to look at our bodies and draw from that whatever kind of associations you have or don’t have. That’s on the table. We’re reading Kathy Acker, and we’re talking about the body and explicit sexual material; all of that is in the container to be considered. I don’t know how guided it is or how open it is, but it’s definitely there and it’s something that I’m aware of in how we exist in that space together and not together. And then, there are images of Edna Carter and these other women, these nameless, sometimes almost faceless women, undulating in slow motion while we’re talking about Beyoncé or whatever. The black woman body is on display. Men, too! And there are images of innocuous little boys in crazy, giraffe heads against text about—

Lemon: Rape!

Matthis: Children raping children and tiny cocks getting slapped. That’s there. That’s there for the taking. That’s what makes you get uncomfortable, and it’s a tension you keep because it’s interesting. All of that is awful. And then there’s what the Scaffold Room is and whatever white space is.

Okpokwasili: As a brown body, our bodies are not neutral bodies. Not in this society that we’re in. If I’m Ralph’s avatar, I’m also masculinized. Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman”? The whippings, the mutilations, the hangings of black women with children barely off the breast, they do not occupy the space of the feminine.

Matthis: There’s another world, too, of the dancer’s body and what we read as a dancer’s body versus what we read as not-a-dancer’s-body. There’s a certain phenotype of long, lean, this-is-what-we-enjoy-looking-at versus this-is-something-we-have-to-look-at-a-different-way that is also there too. In a way it does neutralize our skin when all things being equal are black. I always wonder, what does this mean here and now?

Ryan: What is the “here” here?

Matthis: Here is the Walker. Here is New York City, Minneapolis, the dance world, and the names of people…. The vocabulary of people who know this world, and how honestly it’s not people in this restaurant that we are in who are going to be seeing this piece. And not the people who are going walking around on the High Line, they’re not coming to see this piece.

ScaffolRoom EMPAC

Scaffold Room work-in-progress, EMPAC residency, June 2014. Photo: Ryan Jenkins

Okpokwasili: Many of these small, sophisticated audiences are largely white audiences, and they may not understand, or feel implicated by, the readings that have been compiled over centuries to land on our bodies. But even a black body, like my body, that may be in the phenotype of that long, lean, dancer body, it’s still a brown body. And it’s still in a space where it normally wouldn’t exist outside of a fetishized discourse. It’s a staged incursion from the outside.

Ryan: Given this idea of what is inevitably on display, how are you anticipating this happening in a white cube gallery at the Walker with probably a largely white audience? Is there any worry about how it might come to feel, like you’re under a microscope?

Matthis: I feel there’s no alternative Utopian space where I wish it were. I feel like it’s designed to be exactly that: to be exactly in a white box space at the Walker with a predominately white, Minnesotan audience, and not whatever the opposite would be, like at the bandshell in Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park. I guess that would be the opposite. I feel this is not for one audience or another. I guess, it might be for an audience that is interested in visual art or performance art and is used to that. For me, coming from mostly a theater background, what I appreciated most were the rules and expectations were not the same at all. I hardly ever got the notes that would be the type of notes I would get if this were a solo show in a regional theater. There are so many different decisions to make about arc, and character building, and emotional response that I’m so glad to be free of. Now if these things overlap or intersect coincidentally or intentionally you do get some of that.

What it’s about for me is shifting relationships with the audience, or with my relationship with the text, or just being inside the piece. It changes a thousand ways all the time as we go through it. It doesn’t feel finished, like a little nugget of a piece to sit and watch. It does feel more slippery than that. It feels like dance to me, and it feels durational. I don’t have any expectations of oh, because it’s here it’s going to be objectifying. People can read it that way, and I can have different moments where I feel exposed or vulnerable, but there’s different clockwork going on inside and outside.

Ryan: Can you talk about why it feels more like dance?

Matthis: It’s highly choreographed. It’s specific. It’s about space. It’s about my body in space at a particular time. There’s rhythm. It’s really about expression and movement in a way that you’re meant to look at. Every gesture that I make, or sigh, or whatever, to a certain extent is something I’m conscious of.

Ryan: As you’re improvising?

Matthis: The notes I get are more technical. Or they’ll be like, “that part was good!” or “how you said that was good.” But it’s not like theater where it would be “I’m not really sure what you’re thinking in this moment” or “I don’t believe that you’re really upset by that” or “this should make you angrier.” I never get anything like that. Something I have gotten “this should move you” or “this should move someone else.” It feels like a physical action either with my voice or with a gaze. Not to make it seem technical, but even just a way of thinking, and a mode of performing; sometimes I feel you’re my audience and that’s all this is: a musical concert. And then sometimes I feel like it is a lecture, and sometimes I feel like it’s anecdotal, and sometimes it feels like I’m going off script.

Ryan: Are you going off script at that moment, technically?

Matthis: No. (laughs). Sometimes things I said off script become a part of the script, because Ralph was like, “Oh, that’s great! Keep that in there.”

Ryan: Ralph’s identity as an artist and choreographer is very mutable, but the cliché of the choreographer is that they are totalitarian. April, what is your sense of your own autonomy as a creator within the project?

Matthis: There’s a lot a freedom and a lot of room, and that’s by design. Maybe in contrast to what Okwui’s piece is. There’s specificity in the coordination with the video, for example: timing of certain things, and accidents that must be repeated in the same way. It’s been drawn on my own execution in the room. It doesn’t feel foreign or imposed as much as it feels organic. Maybe that’s because Ralph knows I don’t have the dance vocabulary that most dancers you work with would have, and so it’s been kind of ad hoc or accidental. For instance, Ralph notes that on a break I’m skipping around because we’re in this big, giant space that we have all to ourselves. Then Ralph says, “I like that. Now do that in the piece.” (laughs).

Ryan: I love this idea of you as this ongoing magpie of gesture.

Lemon: It’s also interesting because she sees it as a dance piece, and I so don’t!

Matthis: Maybe because that’s my perception of you.

photo 2

Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Bartholomew Ryan

Lemon: No, it’s great! It’s like this whole is constantly being reconstituted.

Ryan: I approach this from a visual arts frame. It seems to me that this piece is holding up a certain inability to belong and a lack of desire to perform a structure that would be legible and comfortable from any one of those frames.

Lemon: Yeah. For me that’s the guiding principle behind making work, or my particular practice. You create these questions, or these problems, and out of them there are certain moments that I call accidents, which are not solutions to the problems but just enrich them. I wouldn’t define it as not belonging. For me, it’s closer to Fred Moten’s idea of the Fugitive. That there is a fleeting towards or away from something.That feels like an inherent quality to this work.

Matthis: And more empowered than asking to belong and falling short.

Lemon: I’m going to this white cube, and that’s thanks to the Walker, because you approached me with something that would be so perverse from the initial mind limitation, no museum space, no theater space. But then you were like, but what if it were an anti-museum space? How about if we had the biggest, whitest space we could find? And, I thought that’s so perverse. Yes. Let’s do it because it’s so problematic. That keeps the tension of it, and I’m not interested in it failing, but I am interested in having a really fraught conversation with the politics of both these worlds. I feel we are doing it in this work.

Ryan: That is bringing up a lot of problems for you in what way?

Lemon: In the not knowing, which is also a part of the fugitive work you don’t know. There’s the element of moving. I don’t know! It doesn’t fit in this. I don’t yet know how to make a work for the Burnet gallery space. I do know how to make a work for a theater and I’m trying not to make that work, and that feels counter-intuitive. But all this feels absolutely right. I don’t know how to direct, and I’m working with an actor—a really good one. What I told April early on, what I like about working with her is that I don’t really know her. I really know Okwui, but I like that contrast. There’s no hierarchy here. They’re both embodying the same space differently.

Matthis: Maybe my experimental theater background lends itself to less strict rules of what a relationship to an audience is or what a piece needs to be. So I’m comfortable with wherever and however we do it. If none of it is heard or if only part of it is observed, it still has its own logic. Your question: do I try to be true to it, or do I try to connect emotionally or connect to a character? What Ralph has written, whether or not that’s technical, I feel like this piece is a thing, and an object. and its own weird shape. As long as I’m making that shape, it doesn’t matter where that shape exists. It’s an object; it doesn’t matter if it’s hanging or if it’s on the floor or if it’s on the pedestal or if you happen upon it on a field, it’s still the object that it is. That’s all I’m working at.

Ryan: An object can be transported here or there.

Matthis: It can be looked at. It can be not looked at.

Ryan: But it changes from place to place too, right?

Matthis: It changes depending on who’s looking at it, when they’re looking at it, how they’re looking at it, how much of it they’re looking at. But, it is itself.

Lemon: And how the environment defines it. I find that very encouraging and comforting. Because April and Okwui are not the problem.

Ryan: (laughing) Right, right.

Lemon: And it’s not like I’m the problem either.

Ryan: What is the problem? Is there a problem?

Lemon: Yeah, the problem is how we inherently frame something in these particular worlds. We are going into a very defined, white, gallery space with which comes a social politic about how something is viewed and looked at. I do feel I am obliged to make sure that I am articulating as best I can that this can be looked at in a different way. It doesn’t have to be that binary argument we keep having of “Why is there a theater space in a white gallery space?”

That would be unfortunate if that’s as far as we got with this. (laughs) Or, on the other end, this is a bad performance art piece, right? (all laugh) I do feel the job, or my part of my work, in parallel is to define this thing for myself, and for April, and Okwui performatively and visually. It’s to make sure I’m creating a space where these questions are forefronted and generative. And yes, for some it’s going to shut them down. It’s going to be this or it’s going to be that. But, I do think that we can help that conversation by making it not so certain.

Ryan: Why is it called Scaffold Room?

Lemon: Because it is a scaffold! It is literal. It’s a frame. But to me, conceptually, frames are there and they’re not. If there is nothing they are framing, what are they framing? At the Walker I’ll have a frame that gets framed again by the white space, which is interesting to me. At EMPAC, where we developed the piece, we were framed in a theater. We tried to put fake white walls in the theater, but it still stayed dark.

Ryan: I like this mise en abyme. Is it theater being put on display, or is the gallery being put on display?

Lemon: Exactly!

Ryan: There’s a show opening at MHKA in Belgium in a few weeks called Don’t You Know Who I AM: Art After Identity Politics. Would you relate this work to projects in the 1990s that would have historically been identified with identity politics?

Lemon: No, and it’s a disturbing question, because I don’t want this piece to be that, but it is, in essence, part of that. I think it is a contemporary take on it. What I’m trying to do is go back to Moten’s idea of blackness: the idea of it not being post-racial, because it’s definitely racial. He’s talking about a space of blackness that he calls capacious, a place and time much more generous because lots of people can be inside that space. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. Yes, I’m using two black, female bodies and not a white, male body and an Asian body. There’s Kathy Acker, and there’s Amy Winehouse, and there’s Adele and, of course, Beyoncé.

Ryan: And there are also other people floating around. You could throw in Amiri Baraka and Genet; you could create a kind of cultural genotype.

Lemon: There’s Henry Miller.

Ryan: Moms Mabley.

Lemon: We are bringing out the fact that Henry Miller was up in Harlem studying and fucking around, I imagine. We’re talking black and beyond black. I feel what we are talking about is an acting-out culture.

Matthis: Black contains all of that. Black is not exclusionary. It’s everything. There’s a part in the text where we say, “White Brits are so white. Whiter than white Americans, so they can hold any color. That’s why they’re black.” (All laugh). But, the same could be said for blackness; it holds all the colors.

Lemon: Which is ridiculous.

Matthis: We’re all black.

Lemon: Yeah.

Matthis: It’s so much more interesting, but it doesn’t take away anything at all. It doesn’t reduce or try to neutralize. It’s vivid and powerful, everything and nothing. I always wonder, what’s the alternative? What would be less ’90s racial politics? What could possibly be less?

Ryan: I just did an exhibition 9 Artists, which was trying to think about this as well. The artists in the show embody and traverse certain identity codes including nationality, ethnicity, etc., they don’t ever truly align themselves with them. They use them when they’re convenient, or will inhabit them when they need collectivity for organization, but they also step away and reject them and create new forms of intimacy and community. Particularly in the context of contemporary art, (which has so blandly historicized this earlier period that we call “identity politics” as if you could historicize it), how does one now engage these questions without bogging oneself down in the inevitable dead ends within which these discourses have been mediated? I don’t know if bringing up that question automatically puts it into a certain kind of space?


Ralph Lemon and Okwui Okpokwasili, Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Matthis: We talk about black and white, and there are times when we’ve talked about taking out some of that language. I don’t feel this piece is bogging itself down. Now, how it gets talked about and how it gets framed fields a question like that, or starting it off with these questions, leads us down that path. But I don’t think the piece itself is doing that. A big part of that are the projections and the Carter family. They’re so removed for me. My expectation for whatever I’m worrying about, not being or hoping will get translated, will just go out the window. It’s a goat head on a woman with a red dress on and she’s fumbling with her clothes. Its not like: Here we go again, another black woman in a red dress wearing a goat head. It’s just not a recognizable enough image to be something that—

Lemon: Well, they are the future. They are so present and so historical. But here’s the problem, Bart, we are still in the ’90s. We have to keep talking about this as it’s changing. It’s different from twenty years ago. There is still something nagging at being black, or gay, or a woman. We’re still living in a society.

Ryan: It’s still a structurally racist society.

Matthis: How successful can those pieces you describe say they were?

Lemon: We are not at a place and time where we can stop talking about it. It’s just, how do we talk about it now?

Ryan: Yes, but how do you talk about it within the art world that has successfully neutralized the last way it was talked about?

Lemon: Think of all the volumes. That’s the question: who has the megaphone at the moment?

The Dancing Museum: A Manifesto/Checklist by Boris Charmatz

Many contemporary dancers are tired of the conventional theater space with its divided stage-audience structure. They seem eager to enter a shared space where audience and the objects on view coexist. In a performance, the objects, usually permanent and material, become time-based and immaterial — to the great interest of the museums. Since the early […]

Maria Hassabi, Intermission, Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale.

Maria Hassabi, Intermission, Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale

Many contemporary dancers are tired of the conventional theater space with its divided stage-audience structure. They seem eager to enter a shared space where audience and the objects on view coexist. In a performance, the objects, usually permanent and material, become time-based and immaterial — to the great interest of the museums.

Since the early 2000s, an increasing number of museums have incorporated performance into their structures, envisioning a looser, more vibrant ambiance. The New York nonprofit Performa embraced this trend and in 2005 created the first New Visual Art Performance Biennial, based on moving bodies and images instead of still objects. However, the predominant focus of museums and Performa has been on performances in the realm of visual art, conceived by visual artists, not dancers. Until recently.

In recent years, a new generation of dancers, above all the French choreographer and dancer Boris Charmatz, have attempted to redefine the role of the dancer as well as the time and space of dance performances in general. As part of the Performa 13, held in New York November 1–24, the Museum of Modern Art presented Charmatz’s project Musée de la Danse: Three collective Gestures. I saw the last part of the three-week-program called Flip Book. The first two parts, 20 Dancers for the XX Century (2012/2013) and Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended (2010), dispersed more than 20 dancers throughout the museum where they reinterpreted movements of past and contemporary choreographies while interacting with the audience.

Charmatz, the French contemporary equivalent of, let’s say, William Forsythe, has long been well-known to European audiences. He became director of the Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes, Brittany, in 2009, and as one of his first actions in that post, he renamed the center the Musée de la danse (Dancing Museum). Critical of a dance education that only required him to read one book, Charmatz made it a priority to establish an archive for dance in Rennes that can be continuously rearranged, rethought, and revisited.

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book. MoMA.

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book, performed at MoMA

In Charmatz’s view, a museum should be dancing.

Charmatz is not alone in taking inspiration from dance history. Many of his fellow contemporary dancers and choreographers are basing their works on archival material — offering evidence that the “archive fever” prevalent in the visual arts has also reached the dance world. But it still remains difficult to find historical material on dance. Charmatz’s museum is one step into the right direction.

The other main concern of contemporary dancers, the audience, is also a focus of the Dancing Museum, which aims to activate its visitors and present different contemporary notions of dance and choreography in an immediate setting. The goal: to be more vivid and responsive than museums for visual art.

The performance at MoMA, an institution still predominantly known for  showing “dead” objects (they do have a very established and ambitious film program), gave Charmatz his first opportunity to test his explorations outside of his own museum in Rennes.

Parallel to the establishment of the museum, Charmatz wrote a “Manifesto for the Dancing Museum.”  Like the museum itself, it is an invitation to fellow dancers, performers, curators, and, above all, the audience to rethink predetermined definitions of dance and to enter new grounds of experimentation and adventure.

The manifesto is based on Charmatz’s claim that dance centers are outdated since the idea that the body itself has a center belongs to the past. He urges the dance community to think outside of the conventional choreographer-interpreter-company framework and to create a more profound content for dance that is able to interact with other forms of contemporary art as well as with the audience.

The manifesto lists ten commandments dance-makers might consider when developing a museum-based performance intent upon creating a space of exchange, exuberance, and critical response. These points could be used as a checklist for dancers and museums alike when faced with the dance-in-a-museum-situation.

I picked five of Charmatz’s ten commandments and applied them to three different performances that I’ve seen in the past few years and that, in my view, represent the recent development of dancers dancing in museums: Charmatz, mainly active in Europe; Maria Hassabi, originally from Cyprus but based in New York and greatly acclaimed; and Ryan McNamara, a New York–based artist who incorporates dance into his practice.

Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer, Greater Than New York, P.S.1.

Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer, Greater Than New York, PS1

Five of Charmatz’s commandments:


(“It intends to be an introduction, an appetizer, a place for enhancing public awareness of dance and choreographic culture in the broadest sense, of the history of the body and its representations (…) stimulating the desire for knowledge.”)


(“It approaches dance and its history through a resolutely contemporary vision, questioning the ingenuous knowledge and conventions everyone has about dancing, inducing unlikely links and confrontations.”)


(“It fully acknowledging the fact that its activity does not limit itself to the quest for and the representation of the ‘authentic’ object, encouraging artists and visitors to make works of their own, while stimulating plagiarism”)


(“It is independent, but working in connection with a network of partners, building a relationships with individuals, whether they be artists of international fame, or passionate amateurs.”)


(“It exists as soon as the first gesture has been performed.”)

And now, applying them to my three performances:

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book. MoMA.

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book, MoMA

1. Boris Charmatz, Flip Book (2008/2013), MoMA

Charmatz’s performance Flip Book (2008/2013), part of Charmatz’s three-week series Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures at MoMA, interprets the images of Merce Cunningham’s choreography in David Vaughan’s 1997 book Fifty Years. This piece reveals Charmatz’s interest in documentation, archives, and scores, which is extremely relevant to today’s performance landscape.

The eccentric colorful full-body tights widely associated with Cunningham caught the museum’s audience eye, made it stop and watch possibly bringing back memories of dance performances seen in the past.

Six dancers warmed up, rehearsed, and interacted with the audience in the provocatively central Marron Atrium of MoMA. Usually, the warm-up is never public. It happens behind the scenes. At MoMA, behind-the-scenes became on-stage.

For the second part, the performers embodied the poses shown in the images of Vaughan’s book on stage in front of the audience in accordance with a Charmatz collaborator placed in between the stage and the audience who flipped through the pages of the book.

Charmatz and the dancers worked for four days on the reinterpretation of the images. The process was fast. A few minutes per images. Bang. Bang. Image after image. The associative use of the images proves transgressive and shows Charmatz’s interest in opening up a space for experimentation, whilst escaping conventions; reinventing himself over and over again, inspiring others whilst being inspired by others.

Since 2008, several iterations of Flip Book have been performed by students, amateurs, and trained dancers with no Cunningham experience and as well as by former Cunningham dancers. For Flip Book (2008/2013), Charmatz cooperated not only with the other five dancers but also with a light and sound designer, as well as with former Cunningham dancer Valda Setterfield.

They all were concerned with giving immediate access to their bodies during the MoMA performance.

“What makes a dance should go well beyond the restricted circle of those who structure it in everyday life, and open itself up to an anthropological dimension that joyfully explodes the limits induced by the strictly choreographic field,” wrote Charmatz in his “Manifesto for a National Choreographic Centre.”

Maria Hassabi, Intermission, with Gabriel Lester, Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale.

Maria Hassabi, Intermission, with Gabriel Lester, Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale

2. Maria Hassabi, Intermission #1&#2, Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale

On the stairs of a brutalist gymnasium near the Arsenale, amid works by fellow representatives of the Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, Maria Hassabi and her dancers performed during the four opening days of the biennale. Intermission #1 was presented by professional dancers, Intermission #2 by volunteers and artists.

The performers drew the attention to the eccentric space. They crawled up and down the public gallery, stopped next to or passed visitors on their way, directing their gaze towards the modernist clear architecture.

Movements were provocatively slow, as in all of Hassabi’s pieces. Suddenly, a dancer appeared next to me, touched my hand. An immediate experience, however not focused on interaction. The dancers were wrapped in thoughts. However, their movements felt like an invitation to move the body, transgressively, sideways, up and down, activating bones and limbs. We are in a gym after all.

Hassabi cooperatively integrated her piece into the Gesamtkunstwerk of the Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, in dialogue with the other works on show. She often collaborates with fellow dancers and choreographers (Hristoula Harakas), with fashion designers (threeASFOUR), as well as with light & sound designers. Jeans outfits have become her trademark.

Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer, Greater Than New York, P.S.1.

Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer, Greater Than New York, PS1

3. Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer (2010), Greater New York, PS1

McNamara’s MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET at Performa 13 was one of the highlights of the first few biennial days. To understand McNamara’s relationship with dance, it’s useful to look at his first dance piece for the Greater in New York show (2010) at PS1 because this is when performance artist Ryan became a dancer.

In the hallways, in the gallery space, outside of the PS1 building. Dance lessons everywhere. An immediate learning experience. Every day. Free of charge. All levels accepted.

For five months, McNamara trained with professional dancers 18 different dance styles, in and outside of the PS1 gallery space. These different dance styles eccentrically revealed different cultures, times, and trends. The body responds to each one in a different way. In fact, every body calls for a different style. McNamara learned them all. An amateur dancer himself, he put himself provocatively, shamelessly in the spotlight next to his professional teachers. His artistic ego accepted to be the amateur in this relationship and to cooperatively be turned into a dancer.

This public display of dance lessons made the dance profession all of a sudden seem more transparent, more vulnerable, over all more graspable to the audience. If everyone can be an artist, everyone can be a dancer, McNamara transgressively claims.

While I’m writing this, Performa 13 is continuing (until 24 November) and further dance performances are taking place in art spaces and museums. If you happen to see one, in New York or, of course, in Minneapolis, keep Charmatz’s manifesto in mind.

But most important, next time you enter a museum, be prepared to put on your dancing shoes. Museums are beginning to dance.

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