LAB 4/13/17

Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm 
with Andrea CrespoTere O'Connor, and Sahra Motalebi

moderated by Lumi Tan

This first session in the L.A.B. conference brought together artists of different generations, creating work with radically different outputs, to discuss issues around the performance of identity within art-making. Andrea Crespo’s exhibition at Downs and Ross gallery portrayed the artist’s identification with the dicephalic conjoined twins Britney and Abby Hensel who began to appear in mass media in the 1990s when Crespo was a child; subsequently diagnosed with body integrity identity disorder as well as gender identity disorder by doctors, Crespo’s work addresses the constructions of societal normativity. Tere O’Connor has been an integral part of the New York contemporary dance scene for thirty years, consistently seeking choreographic strategies that work outside of the social constructs of human behavior, language, and history. Sahra Motalebi’s current project, Rendering What Remains, is an open-form opera iterating as staged events, exhibitions, and a book based on an ongoing online exchange between the artist and her sister in Iran, whom she has never met. These artists share an interest in positions within the liminal spaces of their work, as well as where and how it is experienced— both in the physical spaces of performance and art-viewing, as well online—deeply affecting their relationships with audiences in these various contexts.


- Lumi Tan




I think the way that position is constructed for me has to do with two kind of concurrent chronologies: one of being young and becoming old as an artist; and the other of living in this unprecedented cultural vortex in which there’s an un-doing going on both at the level of history just changing and, more precisely, with the constant hybridization of information.  There is a kind of fetishized culture of the “new” that disassociates from history as a kind of cache. In my work, on the other hand, I am including histories and letting them strain through—even in problematic ways, as I don’t embrace them but don’t necessarily negate them either.


As a queer person and as a gay man, I think my work at the beginning was about display. It was about creating a sense of expression of self in the world. But as I immersed myself in the intrinsic qualities of dance and its root messages, I quickly moved away from the expression of self. Because there’s nothing in this form that leads you to do that. It’s a constant erasure of information to be in a dance studio, thinking of something, then creating some material that isn’t necessarily a sign-system for that thing. if you call it one thing, it’ll dissolve into another thing over time.


The construction of identity doesn’t really work well in this area, and so I really became beholden to these fundamental areas of dance, thinking about what they might be able to do and what they include. I moved away from message‑making, creating constellations of information instead that could request that we look at the relationship between language and thought in a different way. Language could be less frontal in that consideration and the construction of ideas being much more multifarious, not moving towards a point of cogency necessarily, but looking at the construction of those relativities. That’s what dance seems to do for me.


But now there is the unprecedented political time in which we’re living, which is very unlike my progression as an artist. As an older person, one experiences a kind of settling down, some kind of reduction, or something like quietude: an understanding that you really aren’t that big a part of it as you thought you were when you were young. Yet the way that the world is right now, I feel like I very much want to be political. But my question is: Even in this very difficult time, where do my politics reside in my art? Because for me the surface of dance is a subterfuge for the thought that is trying to get out from the subterranean location. There’s something about an “idea” being in a kind of temporal setting that doesn’t really come up with answers on the surface. What you’re seeing isn’t photographic. It’s being changed over time constantly.


So, I feel almost like I want to separate—and I do want to go out and scream and yell about the politics—but I’m unclear as to what degree I want to include it in my work as topical information. I haven’t seen a lot of work that’s done that very successfully. It has gotten a lot of notoriety, but it hasn’t taught me necessarily anything about these forms the way that books I’ve read have. So it’s a question for me, particularly given the multiplicitous nature of the world, where any kind of certitude that is expressed is undone by some juxtaposition with the things around it. This contingency is a central idea in dance, and I see it in the world as well. Something can be stated very strongly, but then in two weeks you’ve forgotten about it because something else has come in to twin with it.

As we talk, these things or other ideas will come up that we’ll talk about more, so I don’t have a final statement. Except: don’t judge. See this? [O’Connor points to a Ralph Lauren logo on his own shirt.] That’s a drag queen moving away from you; that’s not a polo player.

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Lumi Tan: Andrea, you referred to a “normative spectator.” Does your own storytelling or performance of identity or self-expression—or any of the ways you want to position yourself as being able to change the position of the audience—make a normative spectator impossible? Is that a consideration that you ever put into the work? To offer osme context for my question, I’m thinking as well about how we constantly hear the question, Who is the “we” that people are putting forth when saying “We need to empathize,” or “We need to understand things in a different way.” This is a question for everyone.


Sahra Motalebi: We run the grand narratives into the ground, so devising methods to tell more complex narratives, like intersectional narratives or abject and neglected ones in particular, is critical. Inasmuch as artists are able or are given platforms to allow for a certain kind of alternative relationalities—or for different subject positions to be given a platform in institutions—I’ve found that performance encounters particular hurdles given how institutions have set up the discipline. There is this idea that just the participatory aspect of performance oropenness alone, can get us anywhere. Yet this idea fails to account for the larger point of how we should make room for all, for many peoples, for multiple ways of expressing and multiple stories that have yet to be told.


Tere O’Connor: One of really strong learning experiences I had working with dance revolved around the fact that there is no possible authorship, because there’s no notation in dance.  There’s not one thing that means the same thing to a whole audience. People say American audiences can’t take a really long, slow performance, and I’m like, “Well, which audience?”  


In fact, these ideas of putting people together in groups is constantly undone at the center of my work and I talk to the dancers as well about audience identification. They’re the first audience members in a work, so they have to be constantly subjectifying everything, because that’s what’s going to happen to it. I’m not really sure how to assess how many people I might be able to reach with a message. On the other side of that, there’s people just joining in and saying, “That’s my identity too, I’m part of that.” To which I might ask, “What’s behind that and is it being commodified right now?” The audience as a market is a necessity for human beings, but at the same time, once a work reaches the market, it can become something that’s really odious for me.  I have a lot of conflicting feelings about what’s going on there, but my own practice still keeps me at this place of saying, I’m going to make a constellation of information.  I’m going to make something that looks like consciousness, not something that looks like it’s pointing and saying something. I think why a lot of people have a problem with dance is they think there’s this obfuscated narrative that is embedded in the abstraction, and you have to find the code to that thing. I’m saying, No, I’m really detaching. I’m really detaching into a place that’s just about this. Go into the whole range of your imagination for this, and bring it to what I’m doing.


LT: Andrea, are you putting forth your position, or the position you’re representing, with the intention of speaking to someone that is not a normative spectator? Or are you trying to create space for people who are not “the standard,” as in, what is assumed to be standard? 


Andrea Crespo:  I think that depends even on the body of work, because I feel I have to concede more to a normal audience in different instances. The show I recently had at MIT was very political, and about autism. Moms of autistic kids ended up showing up, as well as middle-aged autistic people, so I can’t be throwing Foucault at them, and tell them they’re abnormal, or use these academic terms that work within an art audience.You can’t go telling autistic moms your child is a “demon,” regardless of whether that wording would be engaging the historical precedent of people saying those things. I feel like it always varies. 


SM: For me, because I’m using my voice, the text is embedded in my practice, so there’s always this relationship with the audience. But in the best scenario, I would be guiding them with the specificity of some story that I’ve made up and constructed, with sets and my own voice or sound installation and other actors, and that would invite the imagination or the universality in a way that’s encouraging other people to have a subjectivity.  It’s a really basic human exchange.


TO: There are different kinds of ways of talking about this, but what you’ve said leads me to an anecdote about what I see as a huge problem, I am not a good citizen around the idea of speaking to a Trump voter, for example. I can’t let go of anything that voter’s made possible. I can’t let go at all, and I'm sure they feel the same way. It seems like the new way of just being on earth.  But that said, as I get older something that’s really changed is that I think all of this Foucault, queer theory and performance theory—which is super necessary and beautiful—has also driven us into the woods. It’s made it so the only kind of accessible information is related to injustice and power differentials. I really want art to be a place where abjection can reside. You wouldn’t otherwise have a Fassbinder —who is almost fascist,—and the importance of that art, and what it did to generations after it, or even someone like James Baldwin: radical voices that do not behave well in accordance with the policing of politically correct states of justice. But this language also blinds us to some degree. 


LT:  This is a conversation we’ve had around The Kitchen quite a bit, since we’ve also been around for a while. Tere, as the elder statesman here, could you compare how you see artists dealing with identity politics now and how it was dealt with in the 1990s during that first wave in your experience?


TO: One thing that is different is in the relationship between between market and making. I mean, there used to be a such a division in the 1980s that there wasn’t even militancy.  It was just a location. You were not doing commercial work, or you were.  That has gone away, so the erroneous journey toward a self-expression can also look very much like an overambitious need to make oneself famous. Those two things are really difficult, even in the minds of some makers at a really subtle level. The rhythms that people use in their dances can be coming from really commercial places and sending out a message of a politic they might not even want to be proffering. There are so many areas where this other world can seep into the world of creativity, and it’s not well interrogated at this point. There are a lot of tropes that are just accepted and have become really important. And you want to say “I am sorry to hurt you, but I think you’re full of shit.” The same way with dance is going to museums and stuff. You can hear some of these people talking about dance and you think, it’s just been taken.

This is so different. Think of the Punk time, when you went and the event was experiential.  Violence was in the work and in the experience of being in that room. It was like an exorcism.  It was an enactment of violence in the correct arena and people lived in a really different way there because it wasn’t really classist— although we hadn’t kind of opened the box on certain things like queerness and race as much as we have now, so that’s a different ingredient. But that’s the kind of determination that’s different for me now.


LT:  Andrea, I saw a lot of headshaking or agreement around tropes or rehashing of ideas.


AC: Generally making the kind of work I do and just being in the world, I feel like there are a lot of things that “political correctness” has unlocked, so to speak. But I think when it comes to disability, or what in disability studies you would call “freakery,” it’s just an integral part of American culture and art.  People will spice up their paintings with deformity for affect, and television does that as well: Autistic people are scary, and transgender people are going to kill you, In the art world, people just unquestionably adopt these tropes of gothic horror or things that come from the American circus and replicate that. Especially an artist whose practice involves an exposé of some kind of subaltern, like Internet culture or a disability subculture.  Even this trans obsession, the national trans obsession, it’s clearly overrepresentation.  Clearly people still don’t like trans people, even though they’re obsessed with them.  It’s just visualization and saying, “Oh, we’re making this a visible norm.”  Well, to the world or culture in general, it doesn’t mean anything.  In the disability rights movement, there’s a motto “Nothing about us without us,” and we’re very far from that. 

LT: Sahra, since you are performing the text, you have a different relationship to the work, versus Tere talking about something beyond visibility. As your show addresses your digital communications with your sister in Iran, whom you’ve never met in person, it’s clearly autobiographical and you’re speaking in the first person. But then, Tere, you are choreographing dances for other people, and declare that no movement can be the same again. Could you speak about those relationships in terms of position? Sahra, I’ve only seen you perform your own work— would others find your script legible, if others were to perform it?


SM: It’s a lot about projection and more generally about what is happening in digital communication—the performance of intimacy, performance of identity, and all these things.  But converting the performance script into a book has been really interesting, because there are all these questions of legibility and representation that have emerged. I mean, they were already there, because the opera is unmakeable.  I would never have my sister on the stage, for example.  She’s extremely religious.  I would never have her in some kind of Shirin Neshat situation, with a chador on.  I would never attempt to consider my position as the baseline for the story, and yet it is.  So converting the performance text into a book became a lot about its unmakeability andcultural difference, and now my position is an American here post-Trump, whose family can’t come to the country.


There’s still this treachery of that first person position, and how I really wanted to make it about the relationship, the unmakeability of the performance in that relationship to the text. My first person performance is at odds with the project, and as a singer or a vocalist and reading and using language in that way that’s all there, but I’ve used these devices in the text to expose all of these narratological problems. We don’t have to pretend like we live in a realm of concepts. We can engage with art and the particulars of people’s subject positions.  That’s where you have to attend to those things in a work – they’re access points for legibility and sharing. I would like to have other people perform it.  In fact, there are people who have read it.  Dorothea Hantelmann and Tino Sehgal curated a show in Belgium, and we did a reading where it was me and one other person, and we were reading simultaneously, so it was also about the breakdown of the temporal and spatial parts.


LT:  Andrea, did you ever consider creating your feature film not in the first person?


AC:  No. I don’t even know what kind of format that would have taken. 


LT: It’s very refreshing even just to read a press release that is authored by the artist, and says “I” and claims a specific narrative and position.  Tere, you often create pieces around your performers and their personalities.

TO:  It’s about knowing them, but it’s in different layers. I try to constantly create new layers so that there’s the dancers and there’s their fiction of what’s going on.  I tell their dancers to have their own stories and I don’t need to ever hear them, just like an audience member would have. So they can reside in the work in various ways on various nights. There’s also an attempt for me to read the work from as many possible vantages. I try to move the work toward what I call “areas of knowability” for as many people as might have a common knowledge to reach. There’s a great image in Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, where they’re traveling and everything in their boat falls into the ocean. A vase comes up and then a chest of drawers, and I think of that as known quantities in a dance.  They come up as a shard, and they suggest a fullness, but that’s not what they’re about. They’re residing next to and inside of an imagination, and an imaginative kind of realm that’s a shared atmosphere that everybody is swimming in. Then there’s the historical reference­—my work is very full of references to concert dance, but it doesn’t deliver that message at the same time, so there’s that bleeding through, an undoing of something that’s happening right before your eyes, messages about the less savory aspects of ballet in bodies that aren’t fully doing it, but are referring to it. Then there’s trying to understand once you have detached from all these supposed meanings, what do you do then?  How do you orchestrate what you have left, the material you have left?  That’s when it really becomes about viewing it from a distance and seeing, unlocking the code that you have introduced.


For me, the idea of dance is a journey away from language and it’s also a journey away from self.  It became that because I could say I put a movement out there on a dancer and in my mind I’m like oh, I have a little story for that.  Then right away it’s changed in them and then something gets put next to it, and things get lost so quickly and it’s futile to try to hold on to those meanings. It’s a moving toward consciousness, but it necessarily loses a sense of singular authorship because everything is just constantly moving away from you, and you become an observer of the work.


SM:  We were talking before this panel started about how performance and dance have become synonymous, but this idea is a more recent development. The vocabulary of expertise, scientific expertise, intellectual expertise, and the referencing of vocabularies, all of that calls upon positions of power and positions of dominance.

TO:  I’ve been talking to my dancers a lot about lifting the leg up to the back.  It happened to go through a Roissy? court in France and we called them arabesque with a Q-U-E on it, but really it’s what your gluts do if you hold them hard enough.  Your leg will go up to the back.  You can look at it like something French and white history, and you can stay in that cul-de-sac of only the injustice and the privilege of that history, or you can say it’s that and this and this and this and this and this. 


But that’s what is sometimes missing in this “Oh no, you didn’t” realm of policing each other, these kind of banal discussions that are always about reduction, never about amplification or rarely about amplification of the information.  I also don’t feel like I’m on earth to say, Like, people of the world, I know something you don’t know and I will deliver it to you.  I don’t feel like that. I say, People of the earth or the fourteen people who have seen my work over thirty years, I did this and I hope it’s porous enough for you to kind of come at it somehow.  I can only process the world in this way and there’s a result.  This dance comes out of it.  It’s not a picture or a story about what I’ve gone through.


Dance has had so much desire for cogency foisted upon it. Even still now that the subject matter of dance is that it’s in the museum, as opposed to what’s going on and a deep discussion of the really internal subterranean grammar of dance.  It’s much easier to say this is a museum where we are naked, or we are this, or we are that, than to say, “You know what’s interesting about the ten minutes that just went by, here’s forty things that happened just at the temporal level and they have a whole bunch of references in them.” There’s so much depth in dance that has not been talked about.  There is something going on and it happens over and over and over with dance where something that’s knowable makes people abdicate what could be a deeper, in my opinion, experience of the form. 

SM:  (To Crespo.) How long is your film?


AC:  An hour and forty-seven minutes.


SM:  I’m obsessed with this idea that the digital presence affects not only the artists, and not only the viewer’s experience. It’s all been mediated. You’re going to take a picture of the thing that you’re experiencing, and the attention span issue is legitimate with the long form. This is probably not the case with dance, but it takes a lot of bravery to assume, to presume that someone would watch and want to be there. That’s awesome.  I feel it’s art’s job—a little more now than it was before—to set up a scenario in which a deep attention can be nurtured or brought back to the experience of. An hour and forty-five minutes is a long time. 

I’m often performing in people’s exhibitions like a hired entertainer, and I really enjoy it because I love this feeling of when someone, they like come because you’ve got this language and you’re singing and phonating and then they can’t quite leave and they don’t know what to do.  They’re like “I want to see the exhibition, but you’re talking to me.”  I love that rub of the contemporary condition as well, but there’s a real sense that the people are dropping in in little bits and pieces. 


TO:  In dance, that gets scary for me because sometimes I see people dancing in front of sculptures, and I’m like “Are you relating to the sculpture as you’re dancing?” and I think they are. Dance is always in a secondary position.


SM:  Not when it becomes a sculpture. 


TO:  When does that happen?

SM:  All the time. Or becomes the moving image.

TO:  I think we might think about that differently. But my point is that it’s another kind of validation to say if you dance in front of that Rembrandt, it’s going to do something. Does anyone want to question this or are we going to keep doing it? Dance as a sideshow is difficult for me and people gawking at dance from an atrium at MoMA without having any idea what they’re looking at is difficult.


LT:  I think the institution is having a hard time with retaining attention, and is questioning the long form. 


TO:  But that’s because they only validate it as far as they can move into the realm of visual arts.  Build a theater.  Dance has been art for years.  It’s just some of it requires a theater and some of it can be in a white space but you know, it’s all valid.  You just have to make the places for it to happen.


SM:  But there is this kind of relationship that institutions have with, I don’t know, I think it’s difficult to create a false binary between the idea that with performance or film, anything temporal or durational, you should be able to take cross sections and distill it.  It’s a very well–mined subject, this idea that things come image ready. I think there’s a little bit of discomfort around the reality of that, that somehow the specificity of certain things that can happen in an institution, that aren’t about the institution. 


TO:  I do feel like sometimes when I have dance, it’s like “Wow, thanks for coming everyone.”  It’s kind of long.


SM:  Thanks for training your attention.

TO:  Well, I do.  It is difficult for some certain people to move through ambiguity.  It can be really hard for people and then there are people that really just lean into it, and are like
“Oh, that felt really good to be in that kind of place.”