GUEST POST BY HEATHER MCSHANE
I arrived late in the evening to the opening of Jason Lazarus’s The Search at Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Left were the previous climbers’ footprints on the white-painted steps of The Search, which resembles a pyramid. Wearing a skirt and heels, I hesitated to ascend the stairs, but the footprints enticed me—and thankfully—because at the top awaits a surprise, an opening down into which a ladder leads to a space where two chairs and a table sit, illuminated by a hanging lamp. The night of the opening, two people occupied this denlike interior; one of the people seemed absorbed in drawing on the pages of, I later learned, the ledger for the signatures and comments of the pair of interlocutors. I looked on briefly, feeling voyeuristic.
The same night, outside the building, a friend introduced me to Lazarus who, upon learning I am a writer, invited me to be paired with a stranger (of a different vocation) and talk with the stranger inside The Search. (This proposition was perfect for me—I love talking to strangers.) A few days later, I received the formal invitation in my inbox to participate. Near the end of the email I read:
“I’m asking you to be onto The Search.
You are invited to be in conversation with:
Name: Scott Hunter”
From googling “Scott Hunter,” knowing from his email address his affiliation with the University of Chicago, I learned he is Scott J. Hunter—notice the J—an Associate Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics there. After a few email exchanges with him to coordinate a date and time—Lazarus had instructed us to meet for up to an hour—and Hunter befriending me on Facebook, on September 30, around 5:00, I recognized Hunter (from Facebook), approached him on the sidewalk as he paid the parking meter fee, and introduced myself. He was impeccably dressed, his patterned shirt crisp, tucked in, and he smiled and talked easily. We chatted with each other and with the employees of the gallery before we were allowed entrance to The Search. Upon our arrival, it was still occupied with two other people, who were eventually politely told their hour was over, emerging happy, almost jubilant.
Then it was our turn. We climbed the stairs and each awkwardly brought shoe to ladder rung and lowered ourselves into The Search. (Me first, again in a skirt, probably the same skirt.) Inside, it felt cozy—the warm, inviting, natural-colored wood of the walls; the soft light; the comfortable chairs—and perhaps this setting helped for the ensuing conversation. However, during the conversation, I did notice Hunter occasionally shift in his chair, I caught myself sometimes fidgeting with my pen, but these movements seemed more natural than uneasy.
Although I’m inclined to reproduce the conversation as fully as possible, Lazarus did not intend for the dialogues in The Search to be recorded. I did not bring a recording device into the space, nor did I write much in my notebook (see the image below). The following snippets—from my faulty memory—are meant to give an idea of the conversation.
For example, as initial how-do-you-know-who’s go, I learned Hunter knows Lazarus through his art because Hunter is an art collector in addition to being a psychologist. A future purchase, he hopes, is a photograph taken by Lazarus of the ceiling from Sigmund Freud’s couch.
We talked about Hunter’s work as a child psychologist. Many of his patients are cancer survivors. Radiation, chemotherapy, and other procedures performed to rid the patients’ bodies of cancer can be detrimental to the patients’ learning and thought processes. I started to think about how visceral fear is, how frightening it would be to have cells in my own body attack other cells, how fear hampers learning. I told him the original word for bear in German has been lost because to utter it, was to call it and so a euphemism was used instead.
Our discussion turned to other animals, the animals in Chicago—squirrels, opossums, foxes, wolves—yes, wolves. Hunter and his old 40-pound dog—he didn’t tell me the dog’s breed—encountered a city wolf before, running along train tracks.
Despite seemingly wild jumps in topics, most talk revolved around memory, language, and attention. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was brought up often. We discussed Freud again (his psychoanalysis and idea of the uncanny). We talked about words as metaphors, active versus passive reading and writing, learning versus teaching, and attention spans and text in the digital age. Hunter remarked he felt refreshed after our conversation ended. He included as much in the ledger.
Later, upon reflection, having mentioned David Antin to Hunter, I thought more about how talking can be writing. I like how the following recording begins with Antin saying “with the search . . . ” (he’s talking about The Tempest, but listen on for a great story about a woman who lives her life poetically): David Antin
And later still, I remembered one of the first questions I asked Hunter about his own photography—whether he preferred to work by chance or to construct a setting. My experience with The Search involved both.
The show continues through Saturday, October 15.
Heather McShane is an associate editor of Dear Navigator and a regular blogger for The Lantern Daily. She worked as an editor at World Book Encyclopedia before earning an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
September 12, 2011 · Print This Article
GUEST POST BY MONICA WESTIN
As environmental art progresses and then doubles back again between earthworks and site-specific land art to more explicitly ecological work, there’s a real question hanging in the air these days about what kind of awareness art can or even should bring to the natural world, and what successful environmental art might look like or do. Michael Wang’s article in May’s Artforum about the contemporary merging of architecture and the environment focused on the process of making the invisible visible—such as the work of experimental architect Bernard Tschumi in Santiago, who uses polluted air as “material for design”—avoiding simple propaganda about air pollution in making public encounter part of a zone of aesthetic experience that includes the weather. Wang closes his discussion with a call to “make evident” the “dissolution of boundaries” between the human and the natural.
This might seem like an overly-heady invocation to an intentionally very family-friendly art show at the Morton Arboretum—and much of the art doesn’t lend itself to much discussing in academic terms, though it’s fun for the kids to look at, like a stack of tree logs with a huge bow on top or fluttering wisps of kite-like material improbably named “Soul of the Trees”—but there are a handful of pieces that are remarkably thoughtful, even groundbreaking in their approach to the question of this boundary between nature and human. While a few works seem completely disconnected from their environment in the arboretum, others offer new perspectives on the framing of nature and the issue of medium specificity. A couple offer explicitly environmentalist messages, and a handful of them—which are as cutting-edge and thoughtful as any other art I’ve seen in Chicago this year—actually reflect on the work of this frame itself and offer up a strong model for what a critical environmental art practice might look like.
First the slightly less interesting pieces. The You are Beautiful collective presents a huge namesake sign, not unlike the Hollywood sign, at the top of a hill—white from a distance, but yellow on the sides close up. The piece is about the relation of the work to space and the perspective of the viewer, but there’s no interaction between the work and its environment; it sits in a clearing, framed by nature. It could be anywhere. Slightly more interesting but falling squarely into the old activist ecological art mold are Theodoros Zaferiropoulos’ “How Far Have We Gone?,” which turns cross-sections of a tree trunk into stepping-stones eventually disappearing into a small lake; and Thomas Matsuda’s “Purification,” consisting of tree trunks burned to charcoal and displayed provocatively amongst the living trees in the arboretum. Both are visually interesting, but they take up an old rhetoric that sometimes makes my eyes glaze over, and it’s hard to read much meaning or self-consciousness into each about the environment of the arboretum itself.
This is where I owe a big citation to Chris Millers’ review of the show in New City; Miller points out that the arboretum is “more about science than aesthetics” and is therefore “an appropriate setting for conceptual art.” Just pushing it one step further, I would argue that the arboretum is slightly artificial, itself on the boundary between the human and the natural; many plants growing there are not native to the area, and the only reason that this refuge exists is because the Morton Salt company family are generous and progressive enough to create this sort of natural simulacra. We might even think of an arboretum as having the kind of “dissolution of boundaries” that Wang discusses… and I wish more of the work had commented on this liminal, weird environment in which their environmental art would dwell.
Juan Angel Chávez’s “Jimshoe” (named after a homeless man the artist met) seems more challenging. Built with found materials and resembling a cocoon as well as garbage, the piece holds—or possibly vandalizes—a tree that young visitors to the arboretum are encouraged to climb (the day I went, the work was framed off with an orange plastic fence). The work is closed, the tree is framed (twice over for me), and it’s hard to tell whether the piece would change much if the cocoon were surrounding an industrial swingset. Similarly, Letha Wilson’s “Wall in Blue Ash Tree,” while visually interesting—on one side, a smooth white wall with branches poking through; on the other, as though backstage, the unpainted and patchwork wood, and tree, supports for the piece–also doesn’t make any strong claims for nature/art relations or boundaries as such. What makes both pieces interesting visually has to do with the material relation between processed and raw wood, but I wanted more reflexivity about the boundary, about the framing process.
Which brings me to the most unlikely suspect for the kind of thought-provoking, meta-aware praxis of environmental art people are looking for: a crochet-covered tree called “Lichen It,” created by Carol Hummel and a number of volunteers. It looks exactly as you’d imagine, but with garish colors in yellow, red, and purple that make the tree look diseased. It’s easily the most popular piece of art, the most photogenic, and the most funny (at least for people who are familiar with yarn-bombing and/or grew up with a plethora of throw pillows and afghans strangling their bedrooms) of any of the works in the show. The first time I saw it, I took some pictures for a couple posing in front of the tree and didn’t give it a second thought—until I walked fifty paces away and saw, in a groomed, manicured hedge with flowers growing in between, the same color combination of yellow, red, and purple. This garden was just as unnatural as the crochet, and the juxtaposition posed real questions to me about material, form, the way we frame nature in everyday life as well as art. In other words, it makes the invisible visible. “Nature doubly framed and overly implicated,” the show should read, and the kids would still have just as much fun.
The show runs until November 27, and since I’m writing this delinquently late, you have probably already gone to see it if you were planning to. However, I’d urge you to go again, to see what happens to each work as the natural world, and its relationship to the work, changes.
Monica Westin is the former Deputy Editor and current contributing art editor to Flavorpill in Chicago, where she also regularly writes about art and theater for New City, Chicago Magazine, and the Huffington Post. A current PhD student in rhetoric at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Monica teaches courses on arts writing and new media in DePaul University’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse department.
Guest Post by Jeriah Hildwine
I first met Conrad Freiburg in what must have been the Spring of 2008, while I was living out in Belmont Heights (about as far west as you can go and still be in the city limits) and working at an Ace Hardware in River Grove. A friend my wife Stephanie Burke had made while we were living in Baltimore was dating a guy from Chicago, a friend of Conrad’s. Unfortunately, I had to work at the hardware store while the rest of them went to visit Conrad’s studio, but when I got home from work, Stephanie described to me what she had seen: a big wooden roller coaster, down which one rolled a bowling ball. She said it was awesome.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the piece Stephanie had described to me was “The Slipping Glimpser,” its name taken from a quote by de Kooning, apparently famous although I hadn’t heard it before Conrad told me about it, fairly recently: “…When I’m falling, I’m doing all right; when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting! It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me: I’m not doing so good; I’m stiff. As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping, most of the time into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser.”
The Slipping Glimpser is a 160-foot track roller coaster, made of ash and hickory. Conrad’s carpentry skills give a level of high craft and polish to everything he makes; at his recent exhibition It Is What It Isn’t at the Hyde Park Art Center, I was amazed by the precision and craftsmanship that he put even into the wooden bracket which held the camera with which he was documenting the operation of the Self-Contained Unit of Entropy. The Slipping Glimpser’s track is designed to accommodate a bowling ball. Conrad had some custom-made clear bowling balls, like the one that Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) used in Kingpin (with the rose inside), only instead of a rose, the balls used in the Slipping Glimpser contained fragments of a previous sculpture: The Ball Dropper.
The Ball Dropper (2006) was a simple ramp in which a bowling ball was loaded into one end, rolled down the ramp to gain velocity, then hit a “ski jump” at the end to launch it over a short trajectory onto a pre-sighting target landing zone. Objects to be destroyed were placed in this landing zone, and were destroyed by the impact of the ball. The Ball Dropper was put to work as a busking device, audience members paying a small fee to have an object of their choosing destroyed by the machine. This kind of performative panhandling fits into Conrad’s work ethic, which he described to me (when he was the
visiting artist at Co-Prosperity School) as “Everything I do has to provide me with food, shelter, or art.”
Conrad has a weird, frugal humility, living simply and downplaying the significance of everything he does, which really comes across in an essay he wrote for Studio Chicago, called “The Great American Loserdom.” Many months ago, Stephanie and I visited Conrad’s studio to see what he was working on; it was a prototype of his drawing machine, a “harmonograph.” He showed us the rough prototype, about the size of a sewing table, pendulums weighted by coffee can-sized chunks of concrete, which when set to moving created spirals or more complex shapes, bow ties and butterflies of line. Conrad fed us dinner, an unexpected combination of rotisserie chicken (inexplicably, he had a rotisserie cooker in his studio), chickpeas which he had sprouted himself in a Mason jar, and oatmeal. It was strangely satisfying, and a perfect illustration to what he had been telling us, about a life in which he made do with very little, in order that nothing be allowed to get in the way of his making art.
Cut to this May, an event called Drink, Draw, and Destroy. I was running a drawing workshop and drinking martinis, but afterwards I was free to go see what Conrad was up to. He was the “Destroy” component of the event. The Self-Contained Unit of Entropy used a dropped weight to destroy small wooden sculptures that had been made by visitors to the event. I sat down at a vacant station to make one; a wooden “sled” served as the platform that would deliver my sculpture to the machine to be smashed. I went with a classic “log cabin fire” type setup: a pair of sticks (balsa wood being the material provided) laid parallel, then a second pair laid across them, and so on, each set getting slightly smaller, until the whole thing had the shape of a step pyramid. I saw another visitor making a very similar arrangement, and I must admit his reached a far more impressive height. But mine would serve, and so it was delivered to the machine. The aforementioned digital camera documented its “before” state, and then the weight was dropped, smashing it. An “after” picture was taken, and the work was complete.
This destructive device has a precedent, not only in the Ball Dropper, but also in the first work of Conrad’s I ever saw in person. A few months after we met, Conrad’s show “A Great Daydream” opened (on Friday, September 5th, 2008). “A Great Daydream” refers to Gore Vidal’s description of the Declaration of Independence. That document is central to the work in this exhibition: thirteen (as in original colonies) wall sculptures each illustrate a passage from it, and the large, central sculpture consists of a table and suspended concrete weights with their aspect ratios derived from the Declaration. The sculptures were interactive in many ways, for example in one piece the viewer can pull a cord which causes a hammer to strike a block of concrete, chipping it away very slowly. The centerpiece, though, was the large table containing fragile wooden sculptures. A crank on the wall lowered (very, very slowly) a massive concrete weight, which if lowered far enough would destroy the sculptures. Stephanie and I, after having a few
glasses of Linda’s trademark vodka punch, took turns working the crank, desperately trying to lower the block enough to destroy the sculptures, and every once in a while Linda would come out, shoo us away from the crank, and work it the other way, seeking to delay the inevitable destruction of the sculptures. It added a fine sense of drama to the whole affair, and by the time Steph and I called it a night, the sculpture was still standing.
Conrad recently had another show at Linda Warren, this one called “The Blind Light, The Pyre of Night.” The Blind Light is an eleven-sided form (an undecagon) which serves as a performance chamber, concealing a musician inside. The form of the structure is intended to suggest a space capsule such as Apollo or Gemini, bobbing in the ocean after returning to earth. The performer (when I saw it, it was Conrad himself, although he had several guest musicians perform in it as well) is concealed from the audience’s view, simultaneously eliminating the visual distraction of the performer’s appearance from the
musical experience while creating a “what’s going on in there” kind of fascination. The other works in this show include a sculptural representation of the amount of fuel it takes for a spacecraft to reach the moon, and “Burning Stars” which are incense burners with constellations of holes drilled into their aluminum covers. The whole affair, like all of Conrad’s work, has a mystical, spiritual, pseudoscientific feel to it, a cross between 19th Century Spiritualism and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
When I think now about Conrad’s career, I keep coming back to a piece which I’ve never seen, but which he old me about during his presentation at Co-Prosperity School: Catapult For A New Millennium. Built during what must have been Conrad’s last semester of Undergrad at SAIC (Fall 1999), this project was a catapult installed in a soybean field in Paris, IL on New Year’s Eve, on the border between the Eastern and Central time zones. For one hour, it was after midnight in Indiana but before midnight in Illinois, and the catapult could launch objects across the time zone and into the new millennium. He describes the purpose of the catapult as having been to launch his career through time and space, into the future. His great modesty aside, it seems to have succeeded.
I saw Modern Garage Movement (also known as MGM Grand) perform in Detroit for the first time in 2009. It was sheer luck, actually, since I’d never heard of them and had only learned about the performance from an overheard conversation at a cafe. Unsure what to expect, I showed up to a warehouse in Southwest Detroit, then in use as artist studios and a performance space by the 555 Gallery, and was directed to a huge, open room several floors up. It was the kind of space that you find scattered throughout Detroit: a gorgeous, creaking, post-industrial vastness, a bit decrepit but steadfastly built to last.
The atmosphere was disarmingly informal. Theatre chairs were arranged here and there, and the company’s three dancers chatted casually with the fifteen or twenty gradually arriving audience members. The dance began with just one dancer, lying on the floor. She spent several minutes there, gasping, heaving her torso, arching her back, and flopping her limbs heavily, dramatizing a profoundly disquieting sense of body horror. From my perspective, I couldn’t see her face, which reduced her form to something anonymous and animal.
The dance, Royce, evolved into a work of purposeful purposelessness, with the dancers at times stalking furiously around the confines of the space. Having been created over the course of a few weeks as a site-specific work, it also became a dance about the space. The dancers moved around the room’s numerous pillars in a way that emphasized the pillars as much as it did the dancers. During one especially breathtaking moment, all of the lights were turned off except those illuminating a single corner of the room. The dancing continued, now as a supporting, exclusively auditory phenomenon. (The dance had no recorded soundtrack, only the dancers’ footfalls and breathing, and the regular, rhythmic splash of passing cars driving through puddles.)
Royce was playful, too; at one point, the dancers offered the audience beer and bags of chips. At another, they started rolling objects in our direction: balls, industrial spools, tires. This level of audience acknowledgment and involvement is essential to MGM Grand’s work. Also essential is an experiential investigation of space, an interest in taking dances on the road and letting them change along the way, and a tendency to perform in unexpected places.
The company will be bringing its singular performance style to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit this Friday, July 15. They’re dancing Nut, a 2010 piece informed, in part, by the classic Motown female trio (and featuring Motown music, modified by MGM collaborator R. McNeill). Nut was conceived at MIT, developed in Detroit, and premiered in New York at The Kitchen. After Friday’s performance, it will continue to tour on the east and west coasts.
MGM Grand originated in San Francisco and its three choreographer-dancers, Biba Bell, Jmy Leary, and Piage Martin, live across the country. Bell currently lives in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, and I interviewed her after seeing a recent Detroit performance she choreographed as Urisov, a moniker used to identify her solo work, apart from MGM Grand. (“Urisov” is pronounced “your eyes of,” and is a reference to Part IV of “Hymmnn,” the concluding section of Allen Ginsberg’s long poem Kaddish).
That performance was at the 2:1 Gallery, a temporary sound art space in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. It included a dance (InGrain) during part of which the audience sat in the basement and listened to the dancers performing upstairs, as well as a sound piece (Four Corners) by Gregory Holm and Jeffrey Williams that included a vibrating tambura, a droning, electronically modified piano, and two singers vocalizing wordlessly into the rooms’ corners. I asked Bell about her distinct creative personae, her influences, and the approach MGM Grand takes toward making and performing dances.
Matthew Piper: Can you talk a bit about the distinctions between the work you do as Urisov and as part of MGM Grand? Obviously MGM Grand is a shared creative experience, and that in itself would require a different approach to making dances on your part. But is there anything more fundamentally distinct to you about the work you do in each?
Biba Bell: They are different projects with distinct histories. I guess MGM would be more like being in a band and Urisov is my solo project. In MGM we talk about the Bryon Gysin concept of the third mind, when two [or more] people come together in collaboration, and the issues, materials and creative experience produce (and are produced by) another, culminate phenomenon. It is a combination of two people, yet it becomes something else—gestalt maybe. We like to think about this in MGM as a way to think about what happens inside of the experience of performing and making work. It is about us but it is also outside of us as individuals. Urisov is more solipsistic, though it really isn’t exclusively so. It’s about collaboration, too. Maybe that’s why I was originally drawn to make up the moniker, instead of just saying everything is by Biba Bell.
MP: You mentioned to me before that performing under the Urisov moniker is, in part, a way to make your work “not about your name.” It was also clear that during InGrain, which you did not dance in, that you were nonetheless very consciously not being Biba Bell, but performing a role, complete with a costume and a distinct persona. What motivates your desire to subvert your individual identity in your work?
BB: Yes, initially when I started Urisov it was about working with people and with materials. Using the moniker Urisov makes the work about the encounter that occurs in between my own intentions and impulses and the body (my own or someone else’s), the idea, the concept, the material, etc. There are always shifts that happen with these encounters. It is not about me. It is not about control. I suppose that this way of approaching making things is not original; certainly there are plenty of artists who work with this type of openness, and so I wanted the name to not immediately signal to my identity, or be about me. Biba Bell Dance Company sounds really boring and terrible to me. Urisov can be about choreography, collaboration and performance, but it can also be writing, teaching, discussion, curation, production, etc. It can infiltrate different mediums and events.
I performed myself in InGrain, though yes I was in costume. In certain ways I was performing in support of the dancers, but I was also performing the role of the choreographer.
MP: Who are some choreographers you’d consider primary influences and how have they influenced you? From what I’ve seen of your work, I can see Merce Cunningham in, for instance, the resistance of a single “center.” I was a little surprised, though, to see minimalist influence in the performance at 2:1 a few weeks ago. Four Corners [clip below] struck me as a minimalist dance in the style of Lucinda Childs or Laura Dean, with its reduced formal vocabulary, uniform movement, and repetition, only slower than I usually associate with minimalism. (I also thought about Childs during InGrain, when a dancer rolled over on the floor repeatedly; that reminded me of her work in the John Adams’ opera Dr. Atomic, where she uses a similar technique to dramatize the perception of time slowing before the detonation of the atom bomb.)
BB: Mel Wong was a huge influence; he danced with Merce in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and was a prolific teacher in New York and then in Santa Cruz, where I met him. He is honestly one of the main reasons I am dancing today. It’s funny: the piece you refer to, Four Corners, is actually Greg [Holm] and Jeff [Williams]’s music piece. They asked me to do some dance inside of it, but it is really to supplement the music, not so much about the dance. I thought that the music was very drone-y and meditative, so I decided to do a minimalist homage to Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dances to Steve Reich’s phase pieces [clip below]. That’s what that was. So she is an influence! I can understand your Childs reference, too, with respect to that piece.
BB: InGrain was dealing with the sound of the floor, and this makes me think of Neil Greenberg’s work, because for some reason I am very aware of the sound of the body against the floor—there is a weight, not a heaviness, but a wonderful weightedness, to the dancing. It would be great to listen to one of his pieces from below. I am also influenced by Sarah Michelson in the way she organizes the audience’s perspective; she is a master at this. It is so architectural, and this relationship is dramatic, psychological, sensual. Of course I am influenced by MGM too.
MP: I’m also interested to know your and MGM Grand’s relationship with ballet. There was a great moment in Royce when the dancers stretched against a decrepit heater, and you looked like ballerinas stretching on the barre. It was a really beautiful moment, feeling at once like an homage and something darker and more ironic.
BB: We were all trained in ballet coming up. Ballet instills an enduring relationship to discipline in the body and practice. Jmy, Piage and I all have lasting physical practices. A daily practice. I think that the specificity in ballet, and the way that one learns to push against the edges of what the body can do is something that we have gone on to explore in ways that deviate from the ballet aesthetic and principle, but is refined and rigorous nonetheless.
MP: MGM Grand is interested in testing the boundaries of where dance can take place. Nut, for instance, is one of the only dances you’ve choreographed to be performed in a traditional stage setting. What opportunities does this resistance toward traditional exhibition of dance offer? What are some of the most interesting places you’ve danced?
BB: Initially it was an issue of frequency. In dance there is a unfortunate model in which one can spend many, many months working on a piece to perform for one, maybe two weekends. That would be a total of 3-8 performances. MGM began in a one-car garage because we could be in the space–we even set it up like a proscenium with the audience on the slightly graded driveway and the garage door as a ‘curtain’—as much as we wanted and do what we wanted. When we began touring the dances, we tried to set it up so we could perform as much as possible, often improvising new shows en route and performing 1-3 times a day for up to 6 weeks straight. In a sense we never really got outside of the piece, but sort of lived it out on the road. This enabled a drastically involved and generative relationship to the work. I think that I have been able to experience the work in incredible ways, letting it shift and be flexible to enable this mobility.
By eschewing the conventional venues for dance we have developed a strong taste for the myriad spaces we have/could perform in. This has an effect on our bodies, our relationship to movement inside of the dance along with our histories in technique and practice. We meet different audiences that wouldn’t generally go to a dance gig, we also get to roam outside, or at least in the margins of, the dance discipline. Our influences and aesthetic responses are not solely about dance; though this is our departure and ultimately our loyalty, we definitely operate with concerns that do not remain in the dance medium. Our work is highly visual, and our models for circulation, for touring, are really based more on a band model.
BB: What are the most interesting spaces we’ve performed in? The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur is a favorite of mine. We’ve danced in galleries, a llama barn, book stores, homes, gardens, wineries, garages (of course), bars, a goddess gift shop, Esalen, the Sol Lewitt room at MIT, and the old ice stadium locker room for the Winter Games in Turin, Italy during the Artissima Art Fair, to name a few.
MP: So obviously, there’s a prohibition against staring in our culture. In traditional performance spaces, the spectator stares at the performers, but there’s enough physical distance that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. In your work that I’ve seen, there’s a physical closeness that borders on confrontation, because the traditional boundaries between audience member and performer are transgressed. The spectator has no choice but to stare at bodies which are in extremely close proximity. For me, that heightens the experience of watching dance, making it more charged and visceral. Can you talk about the performer-spectator relationship in your work from a dancers’ (or choreographer’s) perspective?
BB: We had an interview with TimeOutNY a couple of months ago and the interviewer asked if the dance had “audience participation,” at which point I remember groaning a little, but also needing to acknowledge why that could/would be a question for us. We always consider the audience. We deal with the audience. I don’t think that we try to construct unified, controlled experiences for the audience; we like for them to be unpredictable and respond in unexpected ways. But we definitely consider them. I think as far as your comment, though, we are very aware of the highly visual nature of dance as a form and especially its intensity in performance. (Here I like to think of Peggy Phelan’s wonderful phrase regarding performance as “the maniacally charged present.”) The body is primary. We exploit this—we definitely exploit our bodies!—and this can be a strange, awkward and potentially uncomfortable thing. But we also play in obscuring the desire towards visibility. We have one dance, New Gree, where we begin the piece by having the audience hold hands and “do a very simple step—step together stop together,” then we ask them to close their eyes. The dance goes on, they eventually open them, but we do the dance with very little light, and the costumes are designed as a sort of camouflage, so we can disappear into our dim surroundings. I suppose this could constitute “audience participation,” but typically I am more interested in operating on a more subtle level. It’s about attention, focus, being in a space and situation together.
MP: You’re from the Bay Area originally and have worked extensively on both coasts. What’s exciting about Detroit to you right now? What keeps you working here?
BB: Detroit is an incredible city. There are many layers that seem to be on the surface, but are really quite hidden. Space is a big issue in NYC and SF, availability. Everything, every square inch, is accounted for. The way in which space is occupied in Detroit is very different. There are ways in which it asks the subtle body to participate, to lead the way.
“Nut” will be performed at 8:00 pm on Friday, July 15th, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Admission is free.
Matthew Piper is a Detroit-based librarian and writer.
GUEST POST BY ELIZABETH CORR
In April, Princeton Architectural Press released the first monograph by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects. Reveal is completely enthralling, so much so that it becomes impossible not to pour over every single footnote, photo caption, and insert. There are incredible nuggets of information packed throughout, all of which provide a voyeuristic glimpse into the day-to-day operations of one of the most wildly successful and innovative design firms coming out of Chicago.**
I have to admit that I tend to get nervous when an artist I admire steps boldly into new territory – in this instance writing. There is always the fear of disappointment, but fortunately Reveal does nothing of the sort.
The book is organized according to a logic that underscores much of the undertakings of Studio Gang – by material. It is this fascination, obsession really, with material that makes Studio Gang’s work so compelling. They’re consistently pushing the boundaries, and in doing so, challenging perceived limitations of materials from both performance and aesthetic perspectives. This approach to design is refreshingly scientific and deeply rooted in a process of assemblage. The studio searches for inspiration in seemingly unlikely places, and it is this guiding philosophy that distinguishes their approach from that of many other firms.
For example, when you think about steel what comes to mind? For those at Studio Gang, one answer would be samurai swords. Seems strange at first, but by the end of the essay I found myself nodding in agreement wondering why I hadn’t made that connection ages ago. This is just one example of the seemingly disparate connections Reveal pushes you to make, thereby confronting the often times insular world of architecture.
What’s particularly nice about Reveal is that it doesn’t try to do too much. That doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it really is. Since this is their first publication, Jeanne could have crammed loads of information in here, surely there is a great selection to choose from, but instead she demonstrates great restraint, letting the Studio Gang narrative come to life through a robust collection of images, sketches, foldout essays, and graphics – for those graphically inclined, the credits page is not to be missed (see this article at Imprint for numerous page illustrations from the book). As a whole, the publication challenges the commonplace way in which public discourse on architecture is shaped – i.e. around one, maybe two, superstar partners – and instead, insists upon acknowledging a broad range of collaborators (engineers, scientists, fellow architects, students to name a few) that make each of Studio Gang’s designs possible.
Reveal illuminates the idiosyncratic approach through which Studio Gang garners inspiration, and it is precisely this process that lends credence to the studio’s overall designs – designs that seamlessly articulate the needs of clients, communities and environment.
I patiently await the next installment, and something tells me I’m not alone.
**Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Jeanne Gang is a supporter of NRDC, where the writer is currently employed.
Elizabeth Corr received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her graduate work focused on contemporary African art in post-apartheid South Africa. She lives in Chicago and works at NRDC, an environmental nonprofit.