April 15, 2014 · Print This Article
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be in conversation with artist-choreographer taisha paggett. Paggett, who splits her time between Chicago and LA, is one of the many Chicago artists to be included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. If you’re in New York this week be sure to check out her performance at the Whitney starting on Weds.
Paggett’s works for the stage, gallery, and public sphere include individual and collaborative investigations into questions of the body, agency, and the phenomenology of race. Here we discuss her interest in dance, performer-audience relationships, and feeling-thinking through performance. More information on her work and practice can be found here.
I thought we’d begin with a few questions around your interest in choreography and the body, focusing in on how both might communicate a certain set of politics and also what I perceive in your work as an interest in how knowledge is produced through the body. How did you arrive at choreography? What does dance do in your work and what are it’s limitations?
my work was initially interested in addressing identity and the scars of alienation from fitting into neither a black community nor a white community, as well as the experience of coming into my sexuality and having to confront another layer of otherness. (an immediate aside: i’m a bit self-conscious using these monolithic, over-generalizing terms but you must understand that where i grew up was insidiously segregated and conservative—there was a white side of town and a black side of town and i lived in and simultaneously belonged fully to neither). it took me some time to see that my story was not a thing to make work about over and over but rather a frame or a perspective from which to ask questions. i do believe that we are reflections of our surroundings—that environment is a living entity which informs us and vice versa, and perhaps its that perspective which makes me as fascinated with space as i am with bodies… human geographies and spatial geographies.
i wasn’t initially interested in making work, i was only interested in opportunities to dance without having to make many decisions. i loved moving, i loved the type of thinking it required and i loved utilizing my body. what propelled me into making work was the accumulation of experiences in which i had to recognized how differently my body and sexuality read on stage in relation to my peers. there was a Black (modern) dance world and a white one and i grew up in the latter (again with the monoliths…) dance is tricky because it’s very collaborative and so much about relationships and interaction. more often than not as a dancer you’re living through or interpreting someone else’s vantage point… over time i started to develop an analysis in class and rehearsal that made it hard to continue moving—as much as i loved it all, i got to a point where i could not overlook the fact that i was participating in a pedagogy and performance of privilege that did not align with and required a disavowal of my own experience of the world. on top of that, i became interested in better understanding this notion of Black dance and how it was being articulated.
i’m going to stop there because i realize that i’m going long on just one aspect of your question but it’s true that those experiences politicized me and propelled me into creating work. my work continues to think through and beyond the conventions and methodologies of dance as a way to approach and create performance structures. for example, training as a type of knowing… dance is a performing art form and bodies are perpetually changing so one must be diligent about training the body. there are certain actions that one repeats to train specific muscles. it makes me think about repetition as a conceptual framework for understanding how knowledge enters the body. we are what we repeat—consciously or not, which means our habits are a type of becoming as well. i’ve created structures based on the repetition of a single set of identifiable actions (for example, Decomposition of a Continuous Whole in which i was blindfolded and drew on a wall with pastels and crayons a set score of movements over the course of several hours). the beauty of repetition is that it’s never completely the same–something in our external or internal environment is always shifting despite our desire to stay consistent and that friction within the repetition is how i believe we come into knowledge.
what dance does in my work these days is give me permission to get elemental and create what to me feels like momentary utopias of people coming together to share an experience. stripping away the excess, stretching out the movement slow as if to slow down time so that we even breath together. i guess it gives me permission to create a contemplative space… i see performance as an offering on both sides: the performer offers an experience and the viewer offers their presence. i’m also interested in creating structures that make the viewer realize that their body is as much a part of the experience as mine is… a momentary togetherness. this is true of my work with Ashley Hunt as well—we’re interested in activating the physical and sensorial body of the “viewer”… that one cannot come to an experience with only their eyes…. that the formation of the political subject requires bringing the conscious body into the equation.
Watching documentation of some of your work I am taken by the way you pay attention to speed and the control with which you execute movements lends your performances a kind of uncanny quality, a sense of mystery that calls attention to the shapes made by the body. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, how you construct movement and compose the works?
i’m not certain how long i’ll be in this slow period but it’s still very fascinating to me. i construct a framework and score first and then live in the experience of fulfilling that score. in most cases i don’t know ahead of time exactly how i’ll respond to the score until i’m in it, and because repetition is often part of the equation, i have to grapple with retracing the previous iteration of the movement (as when the score loops and i start back at the beginning) and living in the experience of doing it again based on mental and muscle memory. my approach to slowness is, on a basic level, definitely about wishing to slow down time—in an era in which everything is accelerated i feel it’s important to have a practice that goes in the opposite direction—but it’s also about wishing to create an experience that i can track and grow through in some manner. tending to the world “out there” but also being able to construct a dialogue with my inner world, my mental fluctuations, the energies that get turned on in the performance experience.. . there’s a kind of martyrdom in dance sometimes where it’s all about the audience and being frontal and impressive and virtuosic and mostly directing energy out out out and i’m interested in other possibilities, other virtuosities… my process toggles between intuition and research. sometimes my structures are informed by a certain set of readings, and sometimes they are informed by a desire to wear a certain set of clothing because they remind me of something that i can’t easily articulate.
I am thinking now about what audiences can do. How they join the work and how, for lack of a better word, they might be manipulated in the process.
i’m not interested in manipulating the audience though i supposed that would be a logical sequence for those artists who wish to take it in that direction (draw the audience in to the work, get them activated, and then twist the scene against them..? it’s a bit predatory and not my mojo—or at least i HOPE the audience doesn’t feel manipulated in my work– but sure, bringing the viewer “in” always has the potential to become manipulative because they come with a certain vulnerability and set of expectations to simply be invisible watchers…) that said, i don’t feel there’s anything particularly radical about folding the audience into a work or seeing them as part of the work. for me it grew out of an interest in paying attention to the larger frames—not just what happens “on stage” but responding to the surrounding structures and systems as well.
American modern dance critic John Martin, writes in American Dancing from 1936, “What, then, is the means of contact between the dancer and the spectator? When we see a human body moving, we see movement which is potentially producible by a human body and therefore by our own; through kinesthetic sympathy we actually reproduce it vicariously in our present muscular experience and awaken such associational connotations as might have been ours if the original movement had been of our own making. The irreducible minimum of equipment demanded of a spectator, therefore, is a kinesthetic sense in working condition.” I believe Martin’s point here is to invite audiences to feel through dancing as opposed to thinking through dancing.
I really like this though i’d add the point that “feeling” ones way through a dance is the same thing as “thinking” ones way through… if dance can do nothing i hope it gets people to understand that ideas, feelings, logic, argument, etc etc etc can and does happen across the body. that’s what makes me so irritated by the popularity of competition dance (a la So You Think You Can bla bla bla franchise, not to mention regional competition dance etc, etc): it reduces all of that intelligence into spectacle and in that realm i don’t think audiences are feeling-thinking through their bodies and experiencing kinesthetic sympathy as much as applauding and salivating over skill and effort. i think it puts forth the idea that the body is something to champion, a lame horse to be disciplined rather than something to listen to and from which to think-feel. sure, this is one perspective and we need multiple perspectives, but this is what’s educating people on dance and that’s really unfortunate, a lost opportunity. i teach in academia and i witness and work with a lot of incoming students who’ve danced for most of their lives and can do a heap of cool technical actions and dance for hours, yet are disconnected from their bodies physically and psychologically. i’d go so far as saying those experiences within my teaching practice have played a great role in shaping what i pay attention to in my own work, my desire to move away from formal notions of virtuosities towards the more contemplative, nuanced, elemental, even murky and i can only hope that an audience is willing to go there with me.
As audiences, when we speak of performance we are speaking most often about the glimpses acquired in the act of witnessing. We are speaking to our experience as it lies bound up in the delineation of time and space that is the act of performance, the curve that captures us as we are moved through the phases of the work. Accompanying this journey is a kind of willful ignorance, a reliance on the media at hand, the phone, the body, the text, the document, to describe what has escaped us, the event as it captures our imagination in its unfolding or to mediate in the moment of witnessing so that we might better understand whatâ€™s happening. There is not one way to know a performance work, there are many, and it is for that reason that the quality of performance is brought to light through the normalizing tendency of the archive.
Performance documents provide us with the frozen instant, a single moment in the event of the performance. They are tools to help our critical faculties, providing us a moment to rest and to consider what it is that has happened. This perhaps makes the most sense in relationship to the lived experience. The relationship between what my body knows through the performer’s body, a knowledge acquired through an empathetic transference of meaning(s) from the performer’s body to the audience’s and the images my mind recognizes through the documentation. We would be hard pressed to understand either, the experience or the document, without the other. Without the accompanying bodily knowledge the performance document hangs in suspended animation.
Once collected these documents form a group of materials that more often than not speak more to the interruptions of the art context than to the actual work. It would be impossible to ask of the text, photograph, moving image, body and the like to preserve for us what we can only ever hint at. Audiences and performers will always be bested by the performance as it unfurls itself before both. What we know of performative acts after witnessing and enacting them is but a fleeting memory of having done so or if very lucky, a lingering sensation. One that may motivate us, as others have suggested, to go forth and act out what we have experienced in the performance space.
Archive are a technology of bureaucracy. They are way stations for data and accumulated temporality, flattened proofs of the â€œofficialâ€ experience. The system of the archive itself is responsible for this kind of alienation. Categories, decimal numbers, and white gloves are methods of sanitation that work to preserve the individualâ€™s experience/state requirement. Once cataloged, memories of childhood, legal forms, receipts, and other accouterments are neatly laid beneath layers of fabric and cardboard. So precious are these relics that the archive must continually migrate them from one outmoded media to the next. The performance relic, however, subverts the safety of the archive. Not all archival material functions in the same way. There is a difference between documents that prove our life/work and documents that preserve the performance event, even if they both document performative tasks whose symbolic functions make permanent an abstraction. The way a notary’s signature on a form makes official the binding language of the agreement. The difference between the two is a result of the social quality of the experience. Once placed within the archive the quotidian document does little to extend the life of the proceeding. This is due to the individual nature of what it documents. The experience of going through a live event within the collectivity of the art context is a social endeavor that expands the role of the document through the sensations and collective consciousness of the group.
It is the sociality of the performance experience that prevents the performance document from falling into the normalizing mechanisms of the archive. The experience of having been to a performance and then seeing the documentation of it, even if what one finds is outside of their memory of the event, finds its fulfillment in the muscular memory of the one handling the document. By this I mean that it is easier to imagine what might have happened in a particular performance after having gone to see one, even if the two are unrelated in image and form, it is the remaining sensation of the event that is rearticulated in the body of the audience upon resuscitation by the performance document. Having spent the entirety of my life involved in performance in one way or another it is difficult for me to imagine how the experience might play out to one who is naive of the ways of the performance event but I would like to suggest here that one of the things that performance does as an art form is to simultaneously imagine and enact living alternatives and to remediate the experience of such imaginings. To present documents of that process in an entirely new context, to potentially naive audiences, such as the library, school, or museum is to depoliticize them and reinscribe them with a whole new set of contextual politics. A process that imbues the document with a different set of concerns that surely tints the experience of the document.
The performance document is possessed by the audience. It is they who own the experience that it represents. To place it within the repository it to attempt to use someone else’s signature to write your name. It may be in your possession but it is not fully yours.