Sense as Consenus: An Interview with Justin Cabrillos

February 1, 2012 · Print This Article

"Troupe" photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

Many of these discussions about hybridity seem to center on the borders of identity: those places we feel something might end so that another substance, or self can begin. Language is essential in the communication of those boundaries; it enables a consensual agreement. The very act of naming, for instance, differentiates one body from another. I am curious about how language is embodied and how an artist invested in movement-as communication might explore that position. I thought I could interview performance artist, Justin Cabrillos. He is particularly focused on how the body and language relate: what seemed like an additional progression from my last discussion with Vanessa Place. Drawing on elements of dance, performance art, poetry, and sound art, explores an inefficient use of breath, the valleys of nonsense and physical exertion. Cabrillos was an IN>TIME Incubation Series artist-in-residence at the Chicago Cultural Center, and a 2011 LinkUP Artist at Links Hall. He recently collaborated with Every House Has a Door in a performance for artCENA in Rio De Janeiro. He is the recipient of a Greenhouse grant from the Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum.

Caroline Picard: I’m interested in how you integrate language and the body: there is something about this process that makes a lot of sense to me, in so far as both the body and language are mechanistic. In your performances, you seem to embody the two at once, calling attention to the ways in which the body gives life/animates language. At the same time, I feel like you also illustrate a kind of twitch or glitch in both, as they merge  — is there some way that you could talk about this?

Justin Cabrillos: That’s a nice way of putting it. The body does give life to language. I’m particularly interested in the twitch, tremor, trauma, and the body in crisis because it calls attention to those different kinds of bodies, which language can inhabit and can be transformed by. In my most recent piece, Troupe, I often worked with generating flow in movement and in text, which I would then disrupt, physically or vocally, with a twitch. Somehow that moment of twitch or of crisis speaks to one of many processes of giving life to the body and language. When I was making Troupe, I would often  develop movement and language separately and then superimpose them on one another. Other times, I would read about P. T. Barnum’s discussion and publicity of the different figures in his circus and I would use that to develop some of the choreography. There were moments where I sang selections of P.T. Barnum’s autobiography, but then my gestures would align with the singing and other times where I would create a gap between the image of me singing and the actual song. I might flail my arms, while I was whispering. Or, the rhythm of my gestures would be staccato, while the singing was legato. In general, this is a kind of strategy I use because I am interested in picking apart a very familiar experience and then offsetting it slightly, so that you can experience elements of the familiar and the unfamiliar simultaneously. I guess the strategy itself is mechanistic in that it is informed by digital processes. It’s kind of like watching a movie in which the soundtrack is slightly off. Though the body and language are related, I also think that they are different in many ways. Each has a different presence on stage and has different strategies for meaning making and unmaking. Dance can do things that language cannot do and vice versa. But, I’m interested in how the different things they can and cannot do bump up against one another to do something else.

"Faces, Varieties, Postures" photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

"Faces, Varieties, Postures" photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

CP: Where do you imagine the body ends and begins? Does that conception change depending on whether or not you are performing?
JC: For me the body doesn’t begin and end at the skin container, so to speak. It’s easier for me to think about bodies instead of the body. I got injured a few times this Fall, and I’ve been curious about these different bodies that these different injuries have produced. After the injuries, my body has never been the same, but that showed me even more that my body was never the same in the first place. I am interested in the way spit, feces, food, and lovers are all extensions of our bodies. The anthropologist Nadia Serematakis discusses this way that our bodies can extend beyond what we normally think of as the boundaries of ourselves. In much of the choreography and writing that I do, I often look to pulling from outside sources, music I’m listening to, books I’m reading, movement I observe in a museum—which I then alter in different ways. In Faces, Varieties, Postures, I performed several images from a Civil War Era etiquette book depicting men with their guns. I am not interested in where bodies end, but I am interested in how bodies begin and begin again. This concept doesn’t change much whether I am performing or not. I think there are multiple bodies, the performing body, the social body, the injured body, but I am invested in all of them when I think about a body because the perceived differences between them highlight their differences and commonalities. I don’t really believe that there is a neutral or blank body, whatever that would look like, and so I don’t believe in a body that ends. It just becomes something else.

CP:  What is the function of breath in your work?

JC: When I did On a Corner, this was a central concern. In the piece, I recite the alleged origins of the Corner Bakery, which are printed on their cup sleeves. I inhaled instead of exhaling the words, and allowed myself one breath between each line of text. I lost my breath and started going into spasms because of the task’s effect on my body. There I wanted to deal directly with the breath in relation to language. However, the piece became something else, as it was also a way of connecting with the audience. The sound and image of someone breathing can move someone else to breathe in a similar way, as in a Yoga class. The way we move our breath can lead us to move and breathe in different ways. This in turn can lead someone to feel different emotions that are associated with that pattern of breathing. In performance and in generating material, I play with different ways of using and misusing breath. I am drawn to different language and different vocalized sounds, like weeping or laughing in Troupe, that are somehow as basic as a breath. These sounds, among other effects, mirror a response to the audience and that somehow can construct empathy, coercion, and manipulation. At the end of Troupe, I lie on my side and laugh for several minutes with my mouth in a held smile. I have dealt with laughter in other pieces as well, but this time, I was curious about the laugh track in sitcoms. I slightly altered the usual “heh” sound to a laughed “i” sound. The repetition of it produced some laughter from audiences, while I struggled to hold myself up and push myself across the floor. Laughter was just one of many responses, but I welcome those other responses. I often use the voice and movement in ways that can create fields of responses that can conflict. I am fascinated when an audience member has an ambivalent response, and when audience members have very different responses from one another. An audience member might be laughing at something that is suffocating me, while other audience members might be well aware that I’m suffocating. I don’t see breath as having a singular function in my work, but I do think that it often establishes a sort of visceral connection with the audience that may help tap into some of the other issues I’m dealing with in a piece.

"Troupe." photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

CP: Where does sense come from?
JC: I think sense is neither objective, nor completely subjective. It is akin to consensus, and is similarly grounded in particular disciplines, social groups, and individuals.  When making a performance, I think a lot about the contract that a performer establishes with the audience. I try to establish different buoys for an audience, so that we can move further into “nonsense” and perhaps create some consensus out of that. Ultimately, I wonder how something that is called “nonsense” or that is outside of  “common” sense or that is socially awkward somehow, speaks both to the consensus of a particular group of people and to the dissensus of others.



The Public is the Teacher: An interview with Justin Cabrillos

April 28, 2011 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY MARISSA PEREL

In this guest post, Marissa Perel talks with artist Justin Cabrillos about his studio practice and his recent performance of Following Dance at the MCA Chicago. Cabrillos will also be performing at: remixed/reimagined 2011 at the MCA Chicago Performance Benefit on Thursday, June 23, 2011, at 6 pm.

Cabrillos performing Following Dance on Bridge Chairs for Sex and Gender by Vito Acconci, photo by Gwyneth Anderson

Marissa Perel: Tell me about your process for the Following Dance performance you did at the MCA as part of the Without You I’m Nothing: Interactions at the MCA.

Justin Cabrillos: I wanted to make a response to Vito Acconci because my work is largely inspired by his endurance pieces in the 1960-70’s. For this performance, I studied his Following Piece, where he followed around strangers in the city for minutes or days until they disappeared from his view. I combined techniques for following museum visitors by imitating their movements while I performed on his sculpture, Bridge Chairs for Sex and Gender.

I considered Acconci’s movements retroactively as a form of dance in Following Dance. It’s a triangulation of his voyeurism, how he moves his body motivated by that voyeurism, and the bodies of the people who lead him through space. I became interested in a public choreography.

MP: How did you take this public performance art piece and make into a dance?

JC: I started observing people in the museum in October before my performance in January. I’d go into the MCA and watch the public in museum mode. I studied how people hold themselves when they go to see art down to how they hold their weight or shift their gaze. It was a kind of movement analysis that informed how I would build the dance. I sought to embody how people interacted with the art. Or more to embody the relationship between the viewer, the objects and the space between them.

Because of the nature of the work in the Without You I’m Nothing Exhibition, viewers are moving more than they normally would, and I saw that as an opportunity for movement analysis. I also paid attention to people who didn’t choose to interact with the work, their stillness became a source of choreography for me.

Cabrillos performing a “public choreography” in Following Dance, photo by Gwyneth Anderson

Once I was performing, the ladders of the Bridge Chair enabled me to have a bird’s-eye-view of what people were doing. I could look through the Andrea Zittel piece, A-Z Cellular Compartment Units and see kids taking off their shoes and crawling around, so I’d take off my shoes and crawl around. The ladder really facilitated the voyeurism for the piece.

MP: Vito would love that!

JC: I know! I developed a system to call attention more to the viewers than to myself. If someone was directly looking at me, I wouldn’t follow that person, but the person could see who I was following. It’s like when you’re in a dance class, watching the teacher’s movements and trying to follow as best you can. In this case, the public is the teacher. The goal is not so much to parody to make fun of the viewer, but to reveal something about the viewers to one another, and to create a consciousness of the relationship between the viewer and the space of the museum.

Cabrillos following viewers of an Andrea Zittel sculpture, photo by Gwyneth Anderson

MP: How is this experience different than your experience of stage-based performance?

JC: I had to think of a different way to structure the performance. Because it wasn’t about everyone being part of my time, but about the time people were spending in the exhibition. It was like a game where I had to be hyper observant of the audience. On stage you’re rarely aware of audience members as individuals. In this piece, I had to anticipate how people would respond to my actions. It required me to simultaneously observe and perform the audience. That was a lot of information for me to contain in my body! I felt like I was possessed, inhabited by the other bodies in the room.

MP: I find that to be a compelling aspect of your work in general, how you embody your research, whether it’s historical data, responses to sites or in this case, how you are embodying a relationship between art and the audience. It seems like you have to empty yourself of your own contents in order to become a vessel for the subjects of your performances. How do you make space for this, literally in your body and conceptually?

JC: When I was on a residency with Every House Has A Door, I had the opportunity to meet Netherlands-based choreographer, Meg Stuart. Once in a critique she said, “The body is not yours.” I think it’s important to let go of your body and see what happens. This can be liberating because you can see what your body is capable of.

By the end of my performances at the MCA, I could pan across the audience and string 6 different movement combinations together from the people I observed because I was totally invested in their vocabulary. My interests are now much more activated around the space of what I’m seeing in relationship to where I am in the moment.

MP: How long were you performing Following Dance?

JC: For two hours a day over the course of 6 days. I also performed for First Friday, artsmart [an event sponsored by the MCA’s Women’s Board], and I will be performing it again for the MCA benefit.

MP: This is definitely enough experience for you to perfect the art of “observational vocabulary,” how do you keep it fresh?

JC: A lot of people talk about the conceptualism behind performance art of the 1970’s, but what I appreciate is the childlike wonder about it. One thing that’s different about this piece from my other work is that it’s light. There’s an almost childlike sense of humor about it.

During the First Friday show, I noticed a man texting on his cell phone, so I started to act like I was texting . Everyone that was watching us noticed what I did and started laughing. Another day, I noticed a woman lying inside the Convertible Clam sculpture [also made by Acconci]. I laid down in the other half of the shell and slowly copied her movements. It took her a long time to figure out what I was doing.

People seem to be of two minds when they figure me out, they either revel in the attention and play with it, or they run away. Kids are endlessly stimulating because they are always moving and they are also willing to play the game.

MP: What is it like for you to leave that way of performing and return to your studio?

JC: Even when I have physically left the space of the MCA, I’m not sure if my experience leaves me -it’s never completely over. As artists, we’re constantly living with the material of our work. I sleep and eat my material, and I try to pay attention to how my daily life is affected by the focus of my work, how my intention is shaped or directed by my interests. I work very hard to make ephemeral art, and I often ask why I am doing this. I don’t have an answer,but I think the intimacy that I get to share with the audience, based on my intimacy with the material is one of the reasons I make ephemeral art. So, it’s about sharing and extending that intimacy with the audience.

For more information on Justin Cabrillos, visit his website here.

Marissa Perel is a performance artist, writer and independent curator currently working in Chicago, IL.