“It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds. And they had all arrived at the
same building at more or less the same time. And they were all free. And they
were all asking themselves the same question: What is behind that curtain?”
Laurie Anderson – Born, Never Asked
A man enters the central, open space of a large room tautly, loudly, hammering out a rhythm. The rhythm is electrifying, rousing and unapologetically loud, even sometimes uncomfortably so. The man seems nice enough; he smiles broadly. His physicality matches the music – a broadcast and an invitation. As the rhythm varies and grows, revealing itself like an expanding fern, the man layers his voice into the aural pattern. Then, as if to say, “You’re not going to just sit there and watch me,” he beckons the audience to leave their chairs and come closer, much closer. We gather round, closer-knit, organically organized. This music is participatory, and we will play our part. At least, we’re given the option to. To dance, bounce, punctuate. Most everyone does and feels much better for it.
I could have said that Movement Research’s Spring Festival legible/illegible opened on Monday, May 11, gracefully overlaying itself on Movement Research at the Judson Church. The program began with a solo performance by Sunny Jain on the dhol, the dual sticks of the dagga and tihli hammering out an infectious rhythm, soon to be joined by Jain’s percussive vocal accompaniment. I’d then want to include a biographical attribution for Sunny Jain, attempting to diligently reference his compositional and performance resume in too few words. Then return to the main narrative and next performance, Patricia Noworol Dance Theater.
These contrasting approaches highlight and differentiate what I experienced as a participant in legible/illegible, and what I’ve come to understand about its curatorial process and intent. By participant, I don’t mean that I performed, or even helped out. It includes being a member of an audience. But not all legible/illegible events were performances. It means I was present. That’s what I believe we had in common for that time and place, before the differentiation of roles into performer, producer, spectator, press, staff, etc. These roles are indispensable, but can obscure a greater truth if the adhesive on these labels is not loosened to see what lies underneath.
legible/illegible’s full title included the subtitle: opening beyond the space of identities. The dual descriptions above of the same time frame and event seemed a fitting exercise and an opportunity to introduce a participant and performance frame, in the first instance, that might faithfully reflect this curatorial intent. The more traditional and expected approach – even required in most instances by a publication and its audience – can give the appearance of providing access but have the opposite effect of obscuring, or altogether omitting, the experience that the first approach reveals. How and when does what we know, or think we know, limit or substitute for sensation, feeling, experience? The first approach above describes the experience in language anyone can understand. The second requires, and trades on, frames of reference.
Spring Festival curators Layla Childs, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko and Samita Sinha, first (joyfully) confronted the intersection of their worlds in coming together to co-curate, not previously knowing one another. Their diverse personal, artistic and cultural practices and identities quickly became a catalyst for the issues and questions that they would ferment upon and then structure the festival to research and embody.
This process led to a wider investigation of how performance is contextualized and how art functions at personal and societal levels, along with what inhibits its function, frequently by categorization and commodification. These considerations translated into a festival that was able to offer a variety of experiences and contexts as well as integrate diverse sources and disciplines.
After Sunny Jain’s sonic kick-off, legible/illegible’s Opening event at Judson Church followed with Patricia Noworol Dance Theater presenting an excerpt from Replacement Place, which had just premiered at New York Live Arts the week before. The program concluded with a physical and vocal study by Okwui Okpokwasili finding and refinding stability across the waves of a silver foil runway lit by a single lamp; the audience was asked again to come closer, this time to sit on the floor.
The next day, Tuesday, legible/illegible relocated to Gibney Dance Center (890 Broadway) for “Placing Performance,” a discussion on how dance and performance is communicated and contextualized. The central question was how can performing artists increase literacy for their audiences of the non-linguistic form that is the craft of much dance and performance work? It was moderated by Sarah Maxfield and panelists included AUNTS and Megan Bridge (Philadelphia: thINKingDANCE and fidget).
Wednesday brought two events. First, “The Medicine of Art” at Movement Research’s Avenue C home — a part-talk, part-workshop led by Dr. Stephen Cowan – and the featured event in the festival’s greater intent to create spaces of and for healing. “The Medicine of Art” proved a rigorous attempt to research the natural relationship between healing and art, looking at the neurological and cosmological basis for how and why art can and should heal, and the balances and imbalances that the artist needs to navigate in this. Wednesday evening, legible/illegible reappeared at Barbès, the venerable Park Slope music venue, for an extended set with Tongues in Trees, whose sounds soothe and disturb, grate and take flight. Understanding that categorization can be problematic, think Velvet Underground meets John Luther Adams meets…something else uniquely theirs.
The festival continued Thursday afternoon in Prospect Park, focusing on the intersection of family and art-making through the simplicity of gathering with parents and children. Friday evening at stalwart Triskelion Arts, now in Greenpoint. Billed as “Between the No Longer and the Still to Come,” the performances included several solo works that unapologetically created worlds of their own, resonating strongly with the themes of legibility/illegibility. Performers included Bonnie Jones from Baltimore and Dana Michel from Montreal.
Saturday night: Tandem Bar, Bushwick. “Something of the Ecstatic” brought site-appropriate comedic, joyful and dark performances followed by a Basement Bhangra dance party with DJ Rekha. “Something of the Ecstatic” succeeded in proposing that performance that-doesn’t-seek-to-entertain be mixed with cabaret be mixed with dance party, and that audiences could and would embrace and respect all, at the same time, in the same place.
Sunday. Field trip! Mount Tremper Arts. “The Wild Beyond / Final Clearing” included a deep listening meditation and sound-making exploration with Pauline Oliveros and Ione, catered lunch, lots of opportunity to be alone and make new friends, a performance program including local and regional choreographers, and a closing ceremony. 10-hour day. $20, including round trip transportation from Manhattan. (How cool is that?)
Placing performance. How art can heal. Inclusive of participants and sites outside of New York City. Multiple forms, disciplines and practices. Experiential range: relaxed, heightened, dark, intense, sonic, familial, loud, sublime, sunny, wet, generously affordable.
Communion is defined as “1. a sharing, especially of intimate thoughts and feelings. 2. participation; a sharing in common” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary; 9th ed., 1995). Something noted and marked, perhaps in a wordless exchange that says we were just part of something special. That changes us and won’t be forgotten even as we move onto what’s next. It lives and flows underneath the roles of curator, performer, producer, audience but needs each to play their part.
Movement Research Director of Artistic Programs Levi Gonzalez noted that part of the premise that emerged from the curatorial process of this festival was that “gathering is enough to constitute an event.” legible/illegible tried every which way to contextualize (read: root) artistic practice and performance in a more natural sense of community, stretching and altogether deauthorizing the bounds of categorization and commodification. And, in so doing, greatly improved the odds for something special to happen, for communion.
“You were born. And so you’re free. So happy birthday.”
Laurie Anderson – Born, Never Asked
Hiram Pines is a New York City-based writer and performing artist. He’ll be performing in LEIMAY’s Qualia–Skyhole at the Gill Hodges Community Garden on September 3 and 5, and very much looking forward to participating in Movement Research’s first Fall 2015 Open Performance on September 8 at Eden’s Expressway. He can be reached at email@example.com.