Marissa Perel on Conversation Without Walls: Mutual Seductions

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November’s Conversation Without Walls at Danspace Project, entitled Mutual Seductions, presented a complex matrix of relationships between choreographers, theorists, visual artists and curators. A succession of three panel discussions developed and moderated by theorist/writer Jenn Joy, it was not only a space of conversation and investigation into ideas, but also a space of reflection for all of the speakers involved, which proved to be as challenging as it was insightful. There is a shift occurring in this part of the 21st century where the body has become more visible, desirable, perhaps more urgent, as site of artistic production.

The shift I am speaking of is not necessarily a fluid movement from one structure, be it mental or physical, to another. It can be characterized, rather as a jostling, turbulent wave that carries many questions and aspirations with it to ends that can be either groundbreaking or exploitative.

live table ornament reenactment of Marina Abramovic’s Nude with Skeleton, 2002-2005-2010 at LAMoCA gala. Image credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-michals/naked-as-they-came-eating_b_1092843.html

Take, for instance, the letter to LA MoCA director, Jeffery Deitch from Yvonne Rainer, et al published in ARTINFO. In the letter, Rainer and others call out Marina Abramovic’s questionable practices in selecting and hiring performers to sit naked under tables with their heads coming through as centerpieces for the annual gala. (For a summary of the event, read Linda Yablonsky in Artforum.)

Rainer states that the $150 the performers will receive for their work is ridiculous, paired with the disingenuous performance that will serve as no more than entertainment for those rich enough to indulge in viewing it. Rainer does not critique Abramovic’s artistic identity or her work, she critiques the artist for exploiting what she perceives as “desperate volunteerism” on the part of the performers as they become “victims of a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the showbiz themselves.”

Then, there are instances of success, such as the performance series at MoMA’s On Line exhibition this past Winter. Trisha Brown and other choreographers reconfigured the atrium of the museum into a space of inhabitation, where viewers stepped out of their perception of objects to observe performing bodies. This is it: we have entered a time where the art savants and theater-goers converge, and you are as likely to see dance in a museum as on a proscenium or other performance venue.

Trisha Brown, Sticks at MoMA. Image credit: http://www.dnainfo.com/20110112/midtown/new-moma-modern-dance-exhibit-surprises-patrons/slideshow/popup/54868

Panel #1, “Trespassing,” was concerned with exactly this juncture. Connie Butler, chief curator of drawings at MoMa and curator of the On Line exhibition brought up an exciting point about the purpose of such “trespassing,” bringing dance into the museum. She said that she was interested in presenting a new way to view art history. Instead of showing a linear thru-way from A-B as a type of logical progression, she wanted to show how drawing is connected to sculpture and movement and that historically these disciplines have influenced one another and generated new ways of making and seeing each of them.

Artist, Suzanne Bocanegra spoke of her piece, Rerememberer, performed at Judson Church in 2009, and how she had always worked alone in the studio until one day she wanted to transpose her work onto the stage. “What would it be like to play a loom and have performers and musicians playing to accompany the process?” she asked as she created a large-scale orchestra of trained and untrained musicians to accompany an amplified loom.

Choreographer, DD Dorvillier discussed her process of transposing a Beethoven symphony onto dancers performing in silence.

Featured Performa 11 artist, Mika Rottenberg, discussed what it was like to create a live performance to accompany her videos, and the labor involved with performance vs. installation work. She said that it was hard for her to conceive that the performers were giving of themselves all day in her piece. She also said that she did not know how to account for the wear and exhaustion of their bodies, however successful the piece appears to the audience.

Performer in Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler’s Seven at Nicole Klagsburn Projects. Image Credit: www.artinamericamagazine.com

The conversation that ensued, on moving across forms, from fiber art to sound, from music to dance, from video to live performance, came to a head about the particular attention to labor involved when working with people, trained and untrained. On the one hand there is the desire to stretch one’s conceptual capacity, to embody the process of weaving, or parts of an orchestra, or a virtual landscape through performance, and on the other is the concern of literal labor of this embodiment.

This discussion arose at the level of what is seen in the relationship between performer and audience. Sometimes, it is appropriate to allow the labor to come through and to make the presence of the body working within a piece known to the audience, and then there are times when the delivery of the material does not leave room for such exposure. This was outside of the argument of virtuosity, but more about how a body collaborates with another material and makes it “perform.” Butler described this in relationship to drawing, how the visual field of point, line and plane comes directly to bear on the body’s placement and how it moves in space.

Panel #2, “Intervention and Collaboration,” delved deeper into issues of labor and performance in the space of visual art institutions. Of the 3 panels, it became the most divisive over the discussion of subjectivity, economics and production.

Jenny Schlenzka, assistant curator in of the department of media and performance art at MoMA, discussed what for her is an urgent matter, how to document and archive live work in the museum, and who owns and disseminates that? She talked about “loaning” Tino Sehgal’s Kiss to the Guggenheim for his retrospective show last year.

A photo taken on an iPhone shows “The Kiss,” part of Tino Sehgal’s show at the Guggenheim 2010. Image credit: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/arts/design/01tino.html?pagewanted=all

The immaterial nature of the piece as well as the contractual parameters that restrict any visual documentation of it make it a tricky work of art to loan. It has to be reinvented each time it is performed by the artist or someone associated with him. Sehgal sells his pieces for prices that reach into six figures, as editions. Sales agreements are oral, the cash paid for them is the sole material.

Once again, the issue of labor and economics comes into play at the intersection of contemporary art and dance. Sehgal sells a dance that is a conceptual art piece. It’s not the form itself that is important, but the idea it illustrates, here the imagery of Klimt’s painting, Kiss. This is the nature of conceptual art, from urinals to brillo boxes to chairs, it’s not the object that is for sale, but the idea.

The destabilization of meaning that is clever when it comes to objects can be disturbing when the body becomes the object. From the perspective of a choreographer, this level of commoditization of a dance seems outrageous compared to even the highest awards, grants or box office sales. It is of course a difference in context and economies, the art market is unregulated and unstable, where there is high risk or high reward. The limited financial structure for the funding and sale of dance does not allow for the same level of speculation and possibility of gain.

Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly, choreographers of Reusable Parts/ Endless Love, a détournement of Sehgal’s Kiss that premiered at Danspace Project November 10th-12th, were on this panel as well. Brennan voiced concern about what is lost when an experience becomes an object, namely that the subjectivity of the performer has the potential to become diminished.

Kelly discussed the legacy of Minimalism, how it started as a critique of the subject in the 60’s and 70’s by rejecting the expressive goals of the previous generation of American artists. Now, he says, the form has been emptied of its criticality and exists without the politics that gave it charge at that time. Brennan described how in their piece, they want to create a critique of the form as it is now by bringing the audience into an encounter with the dancers’ subjectivity as trans/queer performers, dissecting and recombining the intimacy of Sehgal’s piece.

Reusable Parts/ Endless Love by Gerard and Kelly at Danspace Project. Image credit: Ruby Washington/The New York Times, November 13 2011.

Mika Tajima discussed her relationship to performance through visual art. A sculptor, her work engages live actions with the objects she makes, performed in the gallery. In a recent collaboration with video artist Charles Atlas, she created a film shoot in the gallery where the viewers’ experience was disrupted by the constant stops and starts of shooting scenes. She is interested in flipping the gallery context into her studio, and breaking down the role of the performer through the process of production.

“The Pedestrians (feat. slow and steady wins the race),” Mika Tajima and Charles Atlas 2011, Installation view at South London Gallery. Image credit: http://mikatajima.com/

At this point, Jenn Joy made a poignant association with the precariousness of the subject at this time, referencing a Hal Foster article in Artforum. Foster wrote that the art that exemplifies the early 21st century has been that which demonstrates the precarious. “…it implies an insecurity that is not natural but constructed…to evoke its perilous and privative effects but also to intimate how and why they are produced.” Joy also references Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, where she makes a new claim for intersubjectvity in order to understand the effects of war and torture beyond metaphor and symbol, as events to which we are inextricably connected.

Joy’s thoughts brought the panel to light in this way where all the panelists were concerned in one form or another, with that precariousness and making work that calls attention to or deconstructs the system of presentation and their place in that system. Schlzenka said that she is interested in the possibility of creating a system within the museum where performance is not programmed performance, but presented in a different context and given the space of visual work. On one hand, this was an exciting moment, where she illustrated the need to see live work differently, but at the same time it didn’t quite satisfy the charged atmosphere of the panel that seemed more about the desire to disrupt the system than to find a niche within it.

Panel #3: “Critical Labors”

At the start of this panel, Jenn Joy talked about the term, “stuplimity” as a paradoxical synthesis of shock and boredom to describe the edges that choreographers Jonathan Burrows and DD Dorvillier, also on the panel, work against. The term, developed by Siane Ngai in the book Ugly Feelings, is part of a larger theory that the role of the artist as one who makes use of ugly feelings to interrogate the affirmative, “go get ‘em” culture of market society.

Burrows, whose work was presented at Danspace Project as part of Performa 11, seemed invested in bringing to light issues that were expressed in the previous panel. He said that although Sehgal’s work demands a space for performance in the museum, and it seems to elevate dance’s status among the fine arts, there truly is no organic space for dance. The context arises out of the work, and even then, it can probably be re-imagined. He also said that for him, choreography is about allowing there to be other material in the room, and that it can be used as a means to employ that material. Making performance in a contemporary art context, Burrows acknowledges, implies that everything is already in the room with you.

Panelist, Huffa Frobes-Cross discussed John Baldessari’s I am making art video and Joseph Kosuth’s One and three chairs installation as his own references for understanding the work of Burrows and his collaborator Matteo Fargion. These pieces are examples of  “allowing everything to be in the room,” by way of playing with artistic production and its meaning. He also echoed Burrows’ statement that it is not the form itself that implies a context, but how artists make their own contexts and find allies in doing that. He referenced Seth Siegelaub, the dealer of conceptual art, who created a vocabulary for it so that it became a relevant genre in the art world.

“One and three chairs,” Joseph Kosuth, 1965. Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair." Image credit: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A3228&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1

More talk was had about choreography and rhythm, but at that point I had to slip out. The last interaction I recall was of the wrap-up discussion where Judy Hussie-Taylor made the case for the value of ephemeral art as being different than selling a product, and assessed a healthy suspicion among the panelists about its viability as an object. It felt strangely appropriate, as I was leaving to catch the last parts of Boris Charmatz’s Musée de la Danse: Expo Zéro at the Performa Hub, reflecting on the complexity of worlds that Charmatz’s piece promised to bridge. I have to hand it to Jenn Joy, breaking down walls is hard, but the dialogue that happens as a result changes us. Breaking out of our comfort zones in our own processes and disciplines allows for new perceptions and languages to form. Maybe we’re at the brink of that right now.

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