Guest Post by Jane Jerardi
Miguel Gutierrez comes to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago this weekend with one of his newest works, And lose the name of action. The evening-length piece features a striking cast of note-worthy performers – Michelle Boulé, Hilary Clark, Luke George, Miguel Gutierrez, K.J. Holmes, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. Inspired by Jørgen Leth’s film The Perfect Human, the elusive logic of dance improvisation, philosophical quandaries about the brain, and the 19th century spiritualist movement, the piece draws connections between the analytical and the unexplainable, grappling with the limits of language and the ever-present spectre of death. It features music by Neal Medlyn, lighting design by Lenore Doxsee, and film/text by Boru O’Brien O’Connell.
Often cited as a provocative voice in the contemporary dance and performance scene, Gutierrez — like many in his generation — works across mediums. His poems appear as published performance texts and he designs solo performance works as well as projects with collections of performers and collaborators under the moniker the ‘Powerful People.’ A Guggenheim Fellow, his work has appeared as such venues as the Festival D’Automne in Paris; the TBA Festival/PICA in Portland, OR; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN; UNAM in Mexico City, and ImPulsTanz in Vienna, among others. Equally admired as a teacher, he has built a following for his improvisation/choreography classes as well as his ‘DEEP Aerobics’ workouts. In mid-January, I met Miguel Gutierrez at the Abrons Arts Center amidst the first weekend of the American Realness Festival – an annual festival of contemporary dance and performance in New York. We chatted in a quiet spot near the dressing rooms about his upcoming engagement at the MCA – including the powerhouse cast performing, the ghost hunt they went on during a residency to build the work, and the limits of language when it comes to dance. Here are some excerpts from our conversation…
Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY, January 13, 2013
Jane Jerardi: Maybe first we should start first with you just talking a bit about the genesis of the project you’ll be performing at the MCA, And lose the name of action?
Miguel Gutierrez: Sure. I think I’m going to paint my nails as we do this [pulls out two shades of blue metallic nail polish] if that’s okay with you.
JJ: Sure. Talk about mind and body…!
MG: It feels like the right question to paint your nails to… Well, the piece really came out of a couple of things. In some ways it was an extension of Last Meadow [Gutierrez’s previous piece], which is unusual for me, because usually when I finish a piece I want to change gears. But, by the time we got around to finishing Last Meadow, I realized I was only beginning to understand what I was doing. Towards the end of the project, I was introduced to this book The Meaning of the Body, by Mark Johnson, which calls for getting rid of the mind/body split, once and for all. It’s beautifully stated, but reading it as a dancer, there was a moment where I thought, “This seems fairly obvious.” For a person who has any kind of relationship to somatics, you of course recognize that the mind and body are connected; that perception is an embodied practice, and that all contexts are experienced through a sort of corporeal interaction. I thought to myself, This sounds like a contact improv class. And I thought, why is this new? I think it was that initial indignation that led to the piece. I felt like why isn’t this something that is known? The second impulse for the work, was my dad. My dad had a series of neurological problems in 2008. He had a series of blood clots in his brain that were note properly diagnosed for several years. He had stroke-type things and then seizures, which then progressed during my research for And lose the name of action.
JJ: That sounds scary.
MG: Aside from the fact that it sucked, I think a couple of things came out of it. Here was a person I knew in a certain way, and suddenly he was changing. It sounds sort of basic, a basic experience of change. I say basic, but it was a quite radical. Suddenly, I was subjected to doctors telling me, This is what’s happening, This is what’s not happening – but no one knows what’s happening. Everyone is guessing. You start to see that that the way we constitute a sense of self and reality are deeply subjective. And, out of your control. You’re in the hospital with your dad and there’s nothing you can do, aside from being present. At the time I was thinking, “What is it that I can offer here? As a dancer? As a person with some naïve study of somatic practices?” I can be present. I can be an emotional support. I can be resonate and present in a way that is specific to what I do. It felt clear, but I felt very conscious that I don’t share a language with these doctors. I can’t assume they know of specific somatic practices or say, “Hey, have you heard of the Feldenkrais Method?” or “Do you know about Body Mind Centering?”
JJ: You realize how marginalized some of these movement practices are.
MG: Absolutely. I mean marginalized isn’t even the word. They’re invisible. I started to see how when people talk about brain, they are talking about mind. Lots of words are being used interchangeably. There’s a lot of lack clarity in definition between disciplines. How is it that we have the same vocabulary but we aren’t using words in the same way? I started to examine the value system around my teaching and practice. What is valuable about an improvisational performance practice? It is a kind of knowledge and a way of knowing, but quite different than other modes of knowing. And I though about Why am I so invested in this ‘unknowing knowing’? Why am I so mistrustful of alleged truths? That was all the stuff that led me into And lose the name of action. Then, I started thinking about ghosts and the paranormal. What about an immaterial body? What about a discipline of study that doesn’t even presume that the body has to be tangible anymore? When we had our first residency we went on our first ghost hunt.
JJ: Tell me about that.
MG: We went on this ghost hunt with paranormal investigators–crazy ladies in Tallahassee, FL… which sounds funny, but are these ‘paranormal investigators’ wrong? For them, it is true. If they see a ghost or hear a voice, if they’re having that experience, then that’s their embodied truth. That’s what’s going on here in this conversation of perception and truth. If I experience my father as my father even if he’s in a coma, is he not my father? If I feel that this is blue [pointing to his nail polish] and this is a lighter blue than the other blue [pointing to another bottle of darker blue nail polish] and I have a certain feeling about it. Am I wrong? Because there’s actually no way for me to definitely know how blue this is. It’s all these kinds of…
JJ: Big questions. Really big questions.
MG: So, yeah [laughing] that’s what the show is about. [Joking] It’s just about a couple small things…
JJ: So how did this all play out in your explorations in the studio?
MG: A lot of talking, a lot of improvisational exploration… In the piece, the bodies are the proof of themselves.
Because of the way that the piece exists – even though the audience is onstage, even though people are really close to us – it feels like something is at a distance. I had originally thought it would be really great to make a piece that didn’t involve bodies at all. I mean why do there have to be bodies? It’s so weird and silly – why are there bodies on stage at this point in history? Can’t we just go…
JJ: Totally virtual?
MG: Yeah – not even virtual or holograms – but… there are people that are doing that – work that’s about post-human bodies – but, I am still invested in the interpersonal dynamics of being in the room with people. That’s what keeps me interested in my work.
JJ: I think it goes back to the value thing. What’s at the core of what you do?
MG: And where do you build knowledge? Where do you build a sense of how you understand things and how you perceptively locate yourself in the world? When I look at dance, I can understand it. What does that mean? Not one specific, concrete meaning. Rather, as I’m watching the dance, I am understanding it and grappling with comprehension. And that perceptual act becomes a way to construct meaning. That doesn’t necessarily translate easily into language. I mean I like words. I can talk. But, dance actually offers another perceptual experience in time. I don’t think this is exclusive to dance, either. Mark Johnson argues that reality is actually an aesthetic experience. He doesn’t use this exact language – but we’re choreographing our way through our lives. And, that feels really powerful in relationship to what performance or a body in action can do. It doesn’t always happen. Most of the time, dance is written about exclusively as a visual rendering but, that’s not the whole picture…
Working with Deborah Hay was pretty instrumental for me. Something she would say is, “The movement is just a costume for perception.” And, I feel that’s really true. That’s my experience of dancing actually… So much of what intrigues me about dancing is about contending with myself in the moment. And all the fucked-up-ness of that question.
JJ: “Contending with things in the moment” is the way that people talk often about improvisation. You’re working with a pretty incredible set of improvisers as collaborators performing in the work. I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that? I mean it’s a very diverse, powerhouse group of people.
MG: Yes. I wanted to have a group – well first, that weren’t all young 20-year olds. I wanted a diverse age range for this piece. I hadn’t worked with a group of people who were older than me before. And, I wanted a group of improvisers who could own themselves in a very clear way. I wanted to work with people who seemed restless or curious. And, I feel like that’s pretty true of this group!
JJ: So, you’re working with Michelle Boulé…
MG: Hilary Clark, Luke George, KJ Holmes, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. At first, I was a little like – oh my god, who am I to tell these people what to do? It really did feel that way. Which was great, because I wanted to be challenged directorially.
JJ: It seemed to make a lot of sense to me because you’re dealing with a kind of big existential topic – life and death, philosophical truths such as ‘person-hood’ and ‘being.’ It requires a certain maturity.
MG: Yes. It feels important that the audience is looking at people who have contended with things. I also think that I was going through something about casting in general. This thing that often happens in the dance field is people don’t take into consideration the representational value of the bodies that are there.
JJ: Which is kind of saying, maybe the visual does matter. The way that we read bodies matters.
MG: Absolutely. Bodies come marked. But, it feels like often the problem with the visual rendering thing is that people ignore it in the most important aspects in some ways. Because they think “I’m dealing with abstraction.” Or, something neutral. I know that when I first went into dance as an adult, I was excited about how it contrasted to theater, because I didn’t feel like I could get type-cast in the same way. I didn’t have to audition to fulfill just one thing. It wasn’t like – “Oh, I’m that Latino kid.” So, it’s funny to have come full circle and now become hyper-conscious about who is on the stage. But also, I think now more than ever – the way artists work – you’d be hard-pressed to find a choreographer whose not working explicitly collaboratively with their dancers. Although, I sort of suspect that’s always been true. There’s a real thought around how you have people involved in your process.
JJ: I wonder if we could talk about some of the other collaborators involved and, some of the sources because in a way you could think of sources as collaborators.
MG: Somewhere towards the beginning of the process I read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I realized that writers give themselves permission to do so much. You really can go there. You can interrelate different things. A novel – or that kind of novel let’s say – doesn’t aspire to be minimalist. Certainly there’s editing. But it doesn’t see reduction as the only compositional value to explore. As someone who has struggled with living in an aesthetic climate where minimalism is privileged above all else, I’m excited to encounter work that deals with interrelating or association. I started to realize that what we were making – in a sense – was a novel. For example, each dancer wears multiple costumes in the piece – I’d never done that before. Or, even having people leave [the stage space].
JJ: By having people leave and re-enter there could suddenly be chapters.
MG: Yes, I really feel like the piece does unfold in that way.
JJ: Even though a lot of the piece comes from the idea of embodiment, you’re also using text in the piece. Could you could talk a little bit about how the text figures into the work? What drew you to using text?
MG: The bulk of the text it written by Boru O’Brien O’Connell (who also collaborated to create video projections). Some of the text is an appropriation of George Berkeley’s writings.
Text is often used as the locator of meaning. And, if it exists in a performance – that’s when we’re like – there’s the meaning! That definitely happens in this piece. But, it also functions as a texture. It functions…almost like a kind of perfume….
JJ: That’s a nice image.
MG: …A kind of experience that’s not even exclusively about it being attached to understanding.
And lose the name of action appears at the MCA, Chicago January 31 – February 3, 2013. For more information and tickets: http://www.mcachicago.org/performances/now/all/2013/884 This performance is part of the IN>TIME Festival. http://www.in-time-performance.org/
Jane Jerardi is an artist working in the media of choreography, performance, and video installation. Currently based in Chicago, her work has been presented at such venues as Transformer and The Warehouse (Washington DC), Defibrillator (Chicago IL); Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church and the LUMEN Festival for Video and Performance (New York), among others. She is one third of the cohort that runs Adult Contemporary, an alternative art space in Logan Square. She teaches at Columbia College, Chicago, where she is also on staff at the Dance Center.
We are in the midst of a winter festival. Its occasions take place at a variety of locations across the city, featuring a variety of performance artists from all over the world. In each case, the art work at hand is dynamic and ephemeral; the culmination of hours/months/years of work fit into a small, public window of time. Audiences come to experience that time-concentrate and in so doing are transported. Born in the UK, Chicago-based performance artist, Mark Jeffery, is similarly invested in temporal, aesthetic exercises. Over the course of his career, he has a regularly incorporated collaboration and experimentation into his work. It seems fitting that he would address curation as well, opening the field of performance into an administrative capacity. The result is a bi-annual festival, IN>TIME. There have been two other iterations of this festival, in 2008 and 2010 — both of which were co-curated by Sara Schnadt and took place at the Cultural Center. This year Jeffery has expanded the scope of the project, curating roughly 26 different events at 15 different venues from January 11th – March 2nd, 2013. I wanted to ask Jeffery about the origins of this bi-annual festival, as well as how it fit in with his overall practice as an artist.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about how IN>TIME 13 came together?
Mark Jeffery: There have been two previous editions of IN>TIME in 2008 and 2010 at the Chicago Cultural Center that I co-curated with artist and Chicago Artist Resource webmaster, Sara Schnadt. Sara has since now moved to Los Angeles, but during the summer and fall of 2011, before Sara left, we discovered that our contact at the Cultural Center, lost her job. At the time there was no support for this program to continue. As a result, we considered how we could expand this festival from a one-night event at the Cultural Center to a multi-venue festival throughout the city of Chicago. We were both excited to contact and connect with local venues and spaces that we already respected for their public programming of performance, symposia, exhibition, talks, and/or readings — spaces that already had an affinity towards IN>TIME’s desire to showcase performance practices in the broadest terms. We met with curators, directors and programmers of spaces in their venues, at the Palmer House, on rooftops of hotels, in phone conversations, in meeting rooms to discuss the possibility to program work in the winter of 2013. What we didn’t expect when we cast this net was that the community would be equally excited to focus their programming on performance, giving an extended platform to this experimental form.
CP: Does IN>TIME reflect on your own orientation/aesthetic agenda as a performance arts practitioner?
MJ: I was a member of the performance group Goat Island for 13 years and have collaborated with Judd Morrissey for the past 10 years. I take collaboration and working with fellow artists very seriously. I learn so much from working with others and during my time of making performance work I have had multiple opportunities to be in many diverse and interesting contexts to present my work since 1994. For me, I grow from conversation. I learn from working with others and I see that permission, openings and discovery happen when doors are opened. I think I discovered this as a student at Dartington College of Arts from my teachers Sally Morgan, Sally Tallent, Nancy Reilly, Rona Lee, Gillian Dyson, Roger Bourke and Tim Brennan. My teachers gave me access to being curious, to being open, to allowing my voice to grow, to not be isolated, but to discover other artists and other ways of working through connecting with others.
In Goat Island I leant from my fellow collaborators and performers and director Lin Hixson to open up a space, even if this was an uncomfortable risk. In coming to America, and in the ending of Goat Island in 2009, I suddenly had to be on my own feet, here in this Midwestern city, as an Assistant Professor in Performance Art. I had to be engaged. I had to become an adult. I had to share my knowledge of the spaces, networks and connections I had made now over the past 20 years.
Chicago is my home, it is a place where I can engage through teaching, through making, through performance and exhibitions — and now also through curation, as another way to open up spaces for? collaboration. I am grateful to be here and I am grateful that 14 venues are willing and interested in working with each other to make this dream come true. For the 2008 edition of IN>TIME Sara gathered a group of makers, curators into the Chicago Cultural Center in the summer of 2006. At that time I remember saying that I would love to see how we as a city could have a multi-venue performance art festival, similar to the one where I was first curated into in 1994 as a 21-year-old in Glasgow by Performance Art Curator, Nikki Milican and her National Review of Live Art Festival. Now, seven years later we have arrived.
CP: I am always suspicious of generalizations about localized styles or approaches to a given medium, but specific environments seem to facilitate peculiar dialogues. I have heard, for instance, that New York art performance is more integrated with dance, or that Europe is more open to experimental works. I don’t know if those comments are true or not, (they certainly came out of casual and speculative conversations) but I’m interested in whether or not you feel like Chicago has a particular conversation of its own. Does IN>TIME 13 respond to that at all?
MJ: Good question. I remember being in the library as a 19 year-old at Dartington College of Arts studying Visual Performance in the UK, (Dartington was a similar place / space to Black Mountain College). In the library I would read the High Performance and P-Form journals and read reviews about performance in Chicago. In 1996 I came to Chicago for the first time to join Goat Island Performance group. For me the roots of performance came from reading those articles, from being part of Goat Island and seeing the trail end of Randolph Street Gallery — a non-profit performance/gallery space here that ended I believe in 1998. In the past 15 years that I’ve been here, I have seen some extraordinary work from performance makers in their studio performance spaces and venues here with Lucky Pierre, Dolores Wilber and her collective, Julie Laffin, Joe Silovsky, Cupola Bobber,Joan Dickinson, Larry Steger, and more recently Erica Mott, Justin Cabrillos, Joseph Ravens and Peter Carpenter. More recently I think of Chicago as a place for experimentation, a place for artists to really explore and test rigorous ideas. It is a place for research to take place, and for non-traditional, informative intersections and overlaps that to spring up unexpectedly via collectives and collaborations. That is what I get excited about. My training at Dartington and also in Goat Island taught me to be open, to be curious, to not be hierarchical, to give permission, to open up new spaces. I am about to hit 40 in 4 months and to have known this practice now for over 20 years and still be working: that’s is what I am grateful for. Performance is a medium that is forever shifting, one of the things for me about coming to Chicago and living and working in America is that things can happen. I am ambitious and a workaholic and in a funny way I am thinking of this festival as my mid-life crisis! (this is my sense of humour btw). Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to ask and see what is out there. I am lucky now to be here two decades into this practice and that when I ask certain things, like a 14 venue performance festival where hybridity, where venues that wouldn’t normally work with each other have an opportunity for exchange, for dialogue and conversation. Where doors open and the container of performance can be a storefront gallery, a video installation, a reading, a movement art endurance work, a reenactment, a meeting between museum spaces, schools, galleries, DIY spaces.
CP: How did you go about organizing the programming?
MJ: The programming of the festival came firstly from Sara and I meeting with all the venues in the summer and fall of 2011 and then slowly from there having conversations to see about what would be the best fit for each of their spaces. Some venues suggested if a particular artist would be a good fit for the festival in regards what they were already considering, venues like the Dance Center of Columbia College with Zoe I Juniper or Museum of Contemporary Art with Miguel Gutierrez and Threewalls with Mary Patten and Mathew Paul Jinks. All the venues have really exciting work that will enter their spaces and showcasing incredible talent. I am excited about the three venues I have just mentioned in the openings these spaces can present these artists. I am also excited to see how these artists present their work here in Chicago. These are highlights, other highlights for me are being able to go back to the Cultural Center and have the US premier of Spanish, Swiss based artist Maria La Ribot perform her 5 hour work Laughing Hole. I have never seen her work live but have followed her work closely with a video work of hers I show in the classroom, a documentary called La Ribot Distinguida filmed at the Tate Modern in London and the Pompidou in Paris. Through the new director of Performing Arts, Shoni Currier at the Chicago Cultural Center we are able to showcase her work. Also at Joseph Ravens Defrillator performance gallery we are able to bring Singaporean artist Lynn Lu, she will share an evening with British visual art poet cris cheek from Ohio and two emerging local artists Kitty Huffman and Hope Esser. Croatian Movement Art Group OOURR, local dance artist Peter Carpenter will be on the same bill and have been excited to follow him these past two years. at Links Hall local Chicago Artists Every House as a Door, Erica Mott and Trevor Martin, Hyde Park Art Center and having artists in residents Minouk Lim from Korea and Croatian born London-based Vlatka Horvat. The challenge to me is to keep curious and to put things together that normally wouldn’t be together in a program. I like group exhibits where experimental forms of performance, movement. Language, actions, durations, emerging, established can come together. Again, to me this comes from my training and also wanting to connect people. The curator / caretaker is first to open up a space and the last to leave.
CP: Maybe because the title of your festival is IN>TIME, I’m reminded of the ephemerality of performance, and various conversations I’ve picked up on peripherally about how to document performance, how the documentation can eclipse the performance itself as an art object, or what happens to a piece when it is recreated in a different time and context, by different performers. I realize those conversations are vast and intricate, but it occurred to me that you might be negotiating some of those as an organizer, putting together a multi-faceted, multi-venue festival. How you have been dealing with documentation?
MJ: Last week eight students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago worked with London Based artist Kira O’Reilly with the three-week visiting artist class called FROZEN IN>TENSITIES that is a course driven exhibit at SAIC. Each week there is a presentation at SAIC of the work they have been doing with the artists. With Kira the students found an old filing cabinet that has been in the green room this past semester. The filing cabinet was full of files that is an archive of the performance department when it was being chaired by the departments founder Tom Jaremba and former chair and now Graduate Division Chair, Werner Herterich. I site this filing cabinet as it became both a rich treasure trove of correspondence and a source of material for students to respond to. There were files from Linda Montano for example, and Alistair MacLennan when they visited the department. This cabinet has been making me think about how do we document our lives now in 2013. What are our filing cabinets? How do we store and retain this information, this memory of being here, especially with performance? For the class we also have 3 rooms in the Sullivan Galleries, and so we are also having this conversation about the document, of how to archive what remains. It becomes an exciting challenge. Yesterday I helped Sabri Reed, the teaching assistant for the class, take the filing cabinet on a cart from the Columbus Drive building to the Sullivan Galleries. It was quite unwieldy and heavy, but became this opportunity to walk and mark those moments of exchange spanning the past 30 years across Monroe Street. The students are also going to insert a record of their work in the class into a file and put it back into the filing cabinet for the exhibit and this will remain.
Last week I also renewed the Goat Island website as it was going to run out, the domain name in five days or something. This position between the physical and the virtual, the mixed reality of archive and document is a really interesting question for me. If we don’t maintain the upkeep of our websites what does remain. What are our filing cabinets of 2013?
CP: This image of time keeps coming back…
MJ: To me this is an experiment. Since 2006 I have also been curating and have developed series of OPENPORT A performance, sound and language festival (2007) co – curated with Nathan Butler, Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley at Links Hall, Intimate and Epic (2006) co – curated with Sara Schnadt in Millennium Park and The Simulationists (2011) co – curated with Claudia Hart and Judd Morrissey at SAIC as well as the IN>TIME series. Time becomes an important thing and I often think about how to stamp time now as it moves so quickly (the 40 thing again ;)) – yet, if you take time to make something, I think something can come through and with Sara and I meeting all the venues 18 months ago, the results of this time has come through. I come from a father who was a herdsman who milked 200 Friesian cows each day, woke at 5 and worked till 8, seven days a week. A life’s work, working for over 30 years on the same farm. There is something in building a life through projects, through ritual, through time that you can get a lot done and through the creative make a place and space for opportunity to enter. Again for this I am grateful and I always thank my teachers for giving me the space, time and attention. You work towards something to thank them.
Further Information: http://www.in-time-performance.org/