Rafael Vargas Bernard, Buscando donde cargar / and my electricity withdrawl, 2018, EMT conduit, EMT junction box, wood, copper wires, micro-controller board, controllable multi-outlet, speaker, servo motor, HC-SR04 ultrasonic ranging distance sensor, 2.8 watt amp, epoxy, enamel paint and programming, 60 x 45 x 30 approximately
Rafael Vargas Bernard is a young, humorous, creative residing in Miami, Florida. His work integrates performance, installation, sculpture and technology in ways that invites the viewer to both work with technology and listen into a mechanism that may provide some fresh answers to the present and future. His mannerisms are swift and direct and his intentions include the environment, all types of people and probabilities of success and failures into his work.
BB: By investigating your work, I found that your work examines the collapse and regeneration of a system/s. When I mean by that is by the structure or infrastructure collapses or destroys our reality, yet the destruction provides an opportunity for us to re-create something newer, and in your work, you do that. You create these sculptures with these robotic mechanisms that provide a new way of working. That creates a whole new language of work-ability, functionality, and structure. Do we want governmental and socioeconomic structures to collapse? Look at Venezuela, Cuba, and even Italy. These countries are facing comic strife and are in debt billions of dollars. The structure of leadership is a culprit to the corruption that exists in the economy and segregation that exists between communities. We live in a democracy that dismisses our constitutional rights and voting power. The question comes down to: will the people have the capacity to enforce their infrastructure to build the skeleton needed for the broader structure? Will "we the people" really do for the people? Is your work a metaphor to teach the viewer how to work with a new system? Is this the only window we have to prove that something new is waiting on the other side?
RVB: I consider my interactive work a call to action challenging the passive participant (viewer) to become an active participant; not only to work with a new system, but to question it and become an integral influential part of a system. My automated work has a similar approach but focuses on participation through analysis and reaction.
BB: When I look at Air Guitar synth stick, you built a sculpture that replaced an iPhone, an old record player, and cassette player. This Devo-sculpture (as I term it) is pure garbage delightfully reinvented and an example of seizing a moment of chaos and destruction to showcase humanity's intelligence by presenting how to reinvent the wheel.
I enjoy that you allow the public to participate in your work. More specifically, in your works where there is robotics. Now I know that some produce sounds and those sounds maybe something that we are familiar with or unfamiliar with. So you provide a space for the public to hear this. Moreover, within those sounds, I am sure that messages are emitted but do you think the audience is fit and ready to receive? Are we all on the same level and have the capacity to perceive those unconscious sound-waves that can give us more information and data on things that we need to do for ourselves as humanity? I am very critical on this topic. People's behaviors and social tendencies have destroyed my reality and sense of hope. I think that it is wise to psychologically challenge the viewer/opponent by informing them we are not competent enough to come out the other side, smarter, better, and wiser. I think society flaunts a self-righteous and empty attitude of "positive vibes" and evolution.
RVB: The sounds emitted by my works are directly related to and produced by the systems they are a part of and often directly affected by the participant's actions. Although the generative process and aesthetic of the sounds in my works are constructed from an intellectual and conceptual perspective, the intention is that the effect of these on the participant be abstract and emotive.
BB: Although I love the participatory opportunities, you extend to the public, my concern is; if we know our systems fail because humans err inequity, why continue giving them chances-even at play? What I critically mean by this is that not everyone has the structure within themselves to recreate or regenerate systems that benefits others too. What I see is the omission of expected or required action. The collapse of systems is a chance for others to make it better for themselves. Societies live in the constant state of Ouroboros. Through the process of collapse or devouring ourselves, a new wholeness is found, well, at least we would like to believe this idea. On May 19th you posted the image of a sculpture. The sculpture has a yellow hue, a few cables and suspended in midair. When looking at the piece, I found a few things.
One, that it resembles a chair, and a chair is an object that is designed to be practical for the user. The second thing I found about the sculpture is that it omits sound (is this correct)? The third feature I noticed is how the sculpture seems right about to fold into itself. The fourth and fifth characteristics are the sculpture serves as a shelter, a home of protection nd solace or as an object to cowardly shield oneself from outside elements- too afraid to confront. It resembles the roof of a house. One can either protect themselves from outside elements or utilize it hide underneath itTherefore I concluded that: we sit back to receive accurate or inaccurate information that may be practical for our comfort or the poison to the demise of the structure. Am I analyzing your work on a whole other level, or is my analysis somewhat correct?
RVB: Close enough to be correct
BB: Culture is learned behaviors and ways of being because we are "born into it." Systems are cultures. Many of us are accustomed to these ways, and there is a behavioral tendency or rather a "culture of comfort" as anthropologist Sarah Mahler explains that we do things based on patterns, things we know or are born into. One of those patterns is failure. The other is a success. It is the human species that has the mental capacity to reason, but we selfishly make our immediate environments, comfortable systems for ourselves because it what we inherit and know. When I examine your work, it is apparent that you are allowing a mechanical device to explore a collaborative effort with the human race. An effort that benefits both entities.I do not think that artificial intelligence is comfortable for any of us (except for those of us born into it: which is the true meaning of “culture”). We are forced to face a culture of technology we have to slowly adapted to and have done so since the 80’s (publicly). Should AI (artificial intelligence) or robotics be given a chance to change our perception to collaborations and how that can benefit us in the present to the future? After all, humans seem handicap in many areas of labor and community.
RVB: AI, AR, and robotics can help us be more productive and achieve tasks impossible without their help, but they can also make us comfortable to the point of slothfulness. We should be actively conscious of our changing systems and perceptions and take an active part in how we evolve and change as a society.
BB: In History class and the media, we are reminded of humanity's horrifically violent failures. Do your mechanisms provide the viewer to an opportunity to acquaint themselves to a mechanical future- a future where the structures tend to industrialize our ability to repair and function properly? Why give the public the power to work with such an idea of empowerment when perhaps the audience is comfortably numb and seeking a sense of entertainment in art? Do you think they take the message seriously once they have participated with your work?
RVB: I have learned to not expect. Humans are humans and will do whatever meaningless random thing satisfies their whims. My intention is to give an opportunity for direct influence over a system as a method for engaging and empowering. A person may or may not take advantage of this opportunity. The work can still be appreciated by experiencing it in use by someone else or inactive/dormant. As in "real" life, one can be present and passive and be satisfied with an incomplete or superficial experience. The viewer has the option to be as active and experience as much as they want to. No matter what, it's still Art and it's still entertainment.
BB: Some of your work reminds me of prosthetics. There is a photo on your Instagram page uploaded on May 4th where you state "Got some new helping hands." It is funny. Your assistant is only temporary and quite practical at the moment. Many of your pieces brilliantly portray the temporal environment and material (found in the fleeting moment of despair and debris) into probable, sophisticated arrangements that serve to function. I know that a large part of your creative interventions stemmed from the disaster following hurricane Maria. Although it was a dark moment and a far cry from the Emerald City, your sense of humor quenched all thoughts despair into one of finding solutions to the problem. Have you always seen the rainbow and the pots of gold in your life, or did that particular incident in your life transform you into your better version?
RVB: I have always used humor to deal with difficult subjects. But, after living through the aftermath of Hurricane Maria plus other things that were going on in my life during that time: I was better able to see the solutions, opportunities, and positive aspects of this shit-storm called life.
BB: Rafa, you are funny.
by Leigh Lemay
“From her very flesh and blood and from the constant cycles
of filling and emptying the red vase in her belly, a woman
understands physically, emotionally and spiritually that
zeniths fade and expire, and what is left is reborn in unexpected ways and by inspired means, only to fall back to nothing, and yet be reconceived again in fully glory.”
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
'Women Who Run With the Wolves'.
Initially drawn to Catherine’s recent work via Instagram which includes both her commercial and artistic photography, I discovered amid her impressive contemporary portraiture, some of the images from her last two art exhibitions; HER – a collaborative exhibition “showing the psychological interior and external physicality of women” (m2 Gallery, Sydney, Australia) and THE SILENT THOUGHTS OF STATUES – a solo exhibition that “investigates perceptions surrounding the sensuality of the body, aging and mortality.” (Disorder Gallery, Sydney, Australia).
All the portraits were visually absorbent (enough to draw me in). They were the pictures of veteran modern dancer, Anca Frankenhaeuser from the Statues exhibition and the self-portrait, The Last Rose from HER.
Social media is now thankfully brimming with inspirational accounts advocating female body-positivity, though it is decidedly more rare to come across older women who are being celebrated with the same tenacity. I have not seen them represented with as much finesse as Catherine achieves. Anca, a septuagenarian, defies everything we are conditioned to believe about the aging female form—that it is weak, ugly, and unsophisticated. 'A process of transformation whereby women in particular become socially invisible' (Featherstone and Hepworth, 1993). Catherine's portraits of Anca are a testament to the beauty and wisdom gained throughout a life lived, and the undeniable strength women find as they age which is so often disregarded in older women.
Influenced by a white, marble Brancusi sculpture of a face that was barely there, Catherine's ethereal photographs tell a story that you are invited to be a part of but never fully grasp. Not merely a snapshot of a brief moment in time, but a performance, they are as mysterious as they are alluring.
Catherine: “At first, I was coming from a visual place where I was interested in experimenting with creating extreme high-key (light) and very low-key (dark) imagery. Conceptually, this was to highlight the contrast of woman as the archetype of purity, with the opposing archetype of woman as Salome the temptress, or as Freud described; 'the dark continent'.
Instigated by religion, perpetuated by the patriarchy and still persisting today, the low-key images in the HER exhibition were an inquiry into the fear of erotic female power and sexuality, while the lightness of the imagery in the Statues series evolved from the notion of purity, and instead developed into a sensual exploration and celebration of womanhood, particularly in the realms of fertility and maturity.
The roses that occur throughout both bodies of work originated in the self- portrait, The Last Rose, as a motif. A representation of the last of the 'potential little lives', which served as impetus for further contemplation as I found myself transitioning into menopause. A natural process that is still largely shrouded in unspoken grief and shame.”
When you meet Catherine in person, it is difficult to reconcile that she is experiencing her own grief and shame that arrives with the climacteric. She possesses a quiet poise indicative of her background in dance. A smooth, confident grace imbues all of her movements and even her speech. She exudes an elegance and ease that show up quite spectacularly in both the performative poses in her imagery and her models of choice.
In Catherine's work I detect a sensitive negotiation of her current state. I feel privy to a tribute. A deeply relatable, tender-hearted celebration of the meaningful journey preceding this phase of her life, and a courageous welcoming of the important journey to come. It is a call to honor my own passage, and an important reminder that we as women do not share in its intricacies enough.
With Dawn Chan at MBUS (Miami Beach Urban Studios/Florida International University) after a talk, in 2015. Photo courtesy, Dr. Patel
Alpesh Kantilal Patel researches LGBTQ-themed art in Poland for Fulbright Program.
Florida International University, CARTANews
by Beláxis Buil
Edited by Dr. Alpesh Kantilal Patel
Art historian and scholar Dr. Alpesh Kantilal Patel's recently published book, Productive failure: writing queer transnational South Asian art histories (Manchester University Press, 2017 provides original commentary on how queer theory can deconstruct and provide new approaches for writing art history. He sets out to write new transnational South Asian art histories - to make visible histories of artworks that remain marginalized within the discipline of art history. However, this is done through a deliberate “productive failure” - specifically, by not upholding the strictly genealogical approach that is regularly assumed for South Asian art histories. His book also examines “whiteness,” the invisible ground upon which racialized art histories often pivot, as a fraught yet productive site for writing art history. Dr. Patel has contributed to seven anthologies and is the editor of five exhibition catalogs. Research for his book projects have been supported by grants and fellowships from (among others) the National Endowment of Humanities, Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Fulbright Foundation, Arts Council England, and New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute and Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. An advocate for gender + LGBTQI equality, Dr. Patel dedicates his voice to many art magazines including Art in America, Hyperallergic, frieze, and Artforum. His scholarship, curatorial work, and art criticism have earned him a prestigious spot as an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at Florida International University in Miami. In a recent interview we sat down to discuss a new book on which he is working as well as an anthology he is coediting, what his research means to him, and to his audience
BB: Dr. Patel, I am really excited to learn about the book you are currently working on. Can you explain what you are researching for your new book? Does the book have a title? If so, can you disclose the title, or should the reader wait until the book is officially published?
How is it different or similar to your last book, Productive Failure? What topics are you dissecting, arguing or investigating? Why?
AP:The working title for the book is provisionally titled “Transregional Entanglements: Sexual Artistic Geographies.” It conceptually started to come together for me when I realized there was a fascinating connection between two artworks I really loved: California-based Tina Takemoto’s video Looking for Jiro (2011) and Tallinn, Estonia-based Jaanus Samma’s installation Not Suitable for Work: A Chairman’s Tale (2016). Takemoto explores the homoerotica and material connected to WWII incarceration camps that are part of gay Japanese American Jiro Onuma’s (1904–1990) archive, housed in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco, California, whereas Samma considers documents that are culled from official Estonia historical archives regarding Juhan Ojaste’s (1921–1990) sodomy trial during the early post-war era.
Both works dealt with LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, intersex) erasures in archives yet the likelihood these artworks would be “read” together by an art historian is slight. That is, LGBTQI Asian American subjects are positioned against an unmarked heterosexual, white American populace, while LGBTQI subjects from Estonia are situated against heterosexual Estonians. What model allows for a discussion beyond vertical relationships of power within nations and for the specter of homosexuality and communism to be seen across Asian America and Estonia, rather than only within them as closed systems? “Transregional Entanglements” attempts to explore different models to think about sexual differences that are both elastic and yet always already contextualized. It will focus on artworks examining Asian American, African American, and Latino LGBTQI subjectivities as well as artworks outside of Euro-America that are often marginalized (such as those from eastern Europe and Asia, in particular.)
My first book, Productive Failure: Writing Transnational South Asian Art Histories was about thinking about new ways of writing specifically queer and transnational South Asian art histories. “Transregional Entanglements” focuses on the entire planet. To be clear, this monograph is not about “inclusion” or ensuring “diversity” in a conventional sense. It is intent on creating new relations between and among artworks concerned with LGBTQI issues in regions often seen as bound spaces. Each chapter deliberately stages collisions and encounters between aesthetic practices that may appear unrelated at first glance. It does so to enact, perform, and instantiate cross-cultural contexts for sexual artistic geographies and thereby to bring into being a new world of intimacy and relationality across multiple times and spaces.
BB: Aside from the robust cohort of scholars such as Marsha Mekimmon, Roland Barthes, or artists Cy Twombly or Navar Bhavsar in your last book, who can the reader find in your latest endeavor of research? I know that you draw on important figures or scholars within the arts, but what about outside the field of art? I am aware of your strong, interdisciplinary background whilst studying in London. I also enjoyed how you intersect various subject matter in Productive Failure. Quite frankly, I am anticipating that again.
AP: I will draw a lot on writings on creolization, particularly those of Martinican-born poet and theoretician Édouard Glissant. Creolization references the process of cultural mixings in the Caribbean that come as a result of slavery, plantation culture, and colonialism. However, Glissant believed that creolization could refer to a broader set of sociocultural processes not only in the Caribbean but also “all the world” (Tout-monde). Moreover, art historian Irit Rogoff has gestured towards the usefulness of creolization as a theory in constructing global art histories, too. With the exception of Rogoff’s work, there surprisingly has been little engagement in the art world with creolization since the three-day workshop “Créolité and Creolization” took place in St Lucia as one of the platforms of Documenta 11 in 2002. As such, my project can make a real contribution to the consideration of creolization as useful in writing art histories.
AP: I started working on my first book in 2006. It wasn’t until 2015, though, that I began to write the final manuscript which I’d submit a year later. I’m expecting this next book to take less time to get out in the world, especially since I already have published three chapters in various anthologies--Global Encyclopedia of LGBTQ History: A-F, edited by Howard Chiang, 2019; Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present, coedited by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas, 2018; and Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories, edited by Amelia Jones and Erin Silver, 2016—that I will re-work for the new book.
All of my chapters beyond these are clearly mapped out at this point, too. They will be broken up into five thematic sections, each one organized around a concept from the aforementioned scholar Édouard Glissant’s rich lexicon, which adds texture to his conceptualization of creolization. The concepts I have chosen are “archipelago,” chaotic “root,” “opacity,” “errantry,” and “Tout-monde.” These terms provide a loose but important optic through which to examine a broad array of artists' works (paintings, video, installations, drawing, performance and photography) and to a lesser degree, events and exhibitions. I am hoping to start completing strong drafts of various chapters by the end of summer. If I can do that, then that bodes well for the book being published sooner rather than later. At the same time, I’m trying to be patient. You can’t rush research and you have to be open to the unexpected.
BB: As the reader situates into the new book, will she/he find past research integrated within the chapters, or perhaps woven into the new research? How about past sources and scholars? For example, in Productive Failure you draw in the reader’s attention by expressing your interest in Cy Twombly’s artworks and Roland Barthes’s writing suggesting a queer understanding in sexuality’? Will the reader find Twombly and Barthes in the new book? If so, how are you integrating both subjects this time around?
AP: “Transregional Entanglements” has a similar sensibility to Productive Failure in that it is interested in the philosophy of how one puts together an “art history.” The new book interrogates the limitations both of LGBTQI art histories and global art histories, both of which are constructed as mutually exclusive to a large degree. Beyond that, though, the book will have a whole new set of artists whose works I will explore including those of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, based in San Francisco, California and of Pakistani and Lebanese descent; DJ Arshia Haq, based in Los Angeles, California and of Pakistani descent; Jaanus Samma, based in Tallinn, Estonia; Pepe Mar, based in Miami, Florida and of Mexican descent; Karol Radziszewski, based in Warsaw, Poland; Salman Toor, based in New York City and of Pakistani descent; New York artist Chitra Ganesh based in Brooklyn, New York and of Indian descent; Thanh “Nu” Mai and Aiden Nguyễn, based in Saigon; LatinX artist Xandra Ibarra, based in Oakland, California; Cassils, based in Los Angeles, California; and Ebony C. Patterson, based in Kingston, Jamaica and Louisville, Kentucky.
BB: You had an amazing book signing last year at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. Have you considered a book signing in the UK or touring a few cities within the US?
AP: In November of 2017, Atif F. Sheik and Neha Ghosh kindly hosted the launch of the book at the non-profit Twelve Gates Arts (PA) of which they are co-directors/founders. It included a discussion with queer South Asian art historian Natasha P. Bissonauth. Twelve Gates Arts’ programming overlaps with many aspects of my book so it was an ideal place. Beyond that, I’ve had an opportunity to present parts of my book in universities in the US and Western Europe. I would really love to do a book tour in England given two chapters of the book deal specifically with the city of Manchester in the Mid-lands.
On another note, I’ve been so honored that the monograph has been an inspiration for artists. For instance, artists Chitra Ganesh and Sung Hwan Kim highlighted the book in their artwork/text piece “Between You and Me: Chitra Ganesh and Sung Hwan Kim,” in Artpractical.com (August 2018) and Shelly McMahon and Katrina Wu used the book as a point of departure for their exhibition, Full Disclosure, during Munich Jewelry Week (March 2019).
BB: What about broadcasting live readings from your book? I mean, Podcasts and Radio are such a fantastic way to share your work to a broader audience. You could even open up the reading via a phone line for the readers/audience to call in and ask questions. People love engaging with the original creator, writer or a specialist for some one-on-one time. It also allows the individual to become more acquainted with you. Furthermore, it is also such a great way to ‘workshop’ your research with other minds: whether like-minded or not. Geez, I wonder where I learned about work-shopping with others from (Dr. Patel copyright-all the way!).
LOL. I recently did an interview with performance art historian and curator RoseLee Goldberg. We spoke for about 90 minutes about her life for this anthology Storytellers of Art History I am co-editing with Yasmeen Siddiqui. The monograph is part of Sharon Louden’s book series, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, which is based on her best-selling eponymously titled anthology focusing on artists. I sent off the audio to get transcribed. When I got the transcription, it felt like something was lost. It underscored to me how important someone’s voice can be to how we experience his/her/their words. Oral and written language aren’t the same. So, I think you are right—podcasts and oral interviews seem so important.
BB: Work-shopping one’s work is something you have professed in your classroom to students. It is definitely a marvelous skill, or let’s call it a ‘healthy habit’ to acquire for any professional practice and research. Did one of your mentors teach you this healthy habit-or, did you just naturally perform this skill without anyone having to teach you?
AP: I would receive copious comments on my writing from my PhD advisor (and now a dear friend) the brilliant feminist art historian Amelia Jones. Her informed and regular feedback every few months was such a gift. She was tough, but I’ve never had anyone take my writing so seriously. I also knew that my experience was exceptional: most of my peers did not have supervisors who engaged as deeply as Amelia did with my writing. So, when I started teaching, I wanted to give the kind of feedback she did. Students deserve it. Of course, a PhD thesis is completed over 3-5 years, so I’ve had to adapt what work-shopping might mean for those writing MFA theses, which is completed over one semester.
BB:Dr. Patel, do you have any words of advice for young and old writers who would like to publish?
AP: Find a group with whom you can workshop your writing before you submit your manuscript to a publisher. A group will keep you motivated, too.
BB: After this book can we expect another one- or would you rather take a long vacation, somewhere far, far away?
AP: Well, writing at its best can be like being on a vacation. LOL. Seriously though, I should elaborate on the anthology Storytellers of Art History (Intellect, expected 2021) I referenced above. The writing of histories is effectively about storytelling, which by its very nature is incredibly subjective and often fictional. Yet, histories are usually taught and presented as inviolable truths. The 32 contributors to this anthology all emphasize that art history is always already multiple. The make-up of our contributors reflects that in addition to art historians, archivists as well as curators and artists have always played a central role in the writing of art histories.
Each individual has provided short, often very personal contributions indicating how they began to become passionate about their practices. Indeed, another way in which histories function more honestly as stories is if the authors become visible. The contributors responded to the same prompt in a multitude of surprising ways. The stories take various forms--a letter written to a friend, the pastiche of image and text, a children’s fable, interviews, co-authored narrative, memoir, and apology.
This anthology includes not only the voices of those who have been shaping histories for decades—such as the aforementioned RoseLee Goldberg, critic Lucy Lippard, and artist Juana Quick-To-See Smith but also those who are mid-career or just beginning to make contributions to the field—such as the co-founder of Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive, art historian Gloria Sutton, archivist Joshua Franco, and artist Viet Le. Overall, we have twice as many women than men given our strong interest in amplifying the voices of women so that they cease to be erased. More than half of the contributors focus on gender as well as sexuality, both long ignored and often censored in dominant art histories.
BB: :) Super.
Part 1 in a 2 part interview between cultural historian Petra Mason and artist Marilyn Minter
Image in header: Marilyn Minter, SCAD, Installation view.
Top image in column detail of work.
by Petra Mason
Marilyn Minter: Nasty Woman
SCAD Museum of Art
February 11 - August 2, 2020
When the phrase ‘Nasty woman’ went viral, Donald Trump accidentally launched a feminist movement. He also inadvertently re-ignited the already simmering fury of plenty of women worldwide, including artist Marilyn Minter. Minter, an artist and activist with a career that spans over five decades and as many shades of feminism and contemporary art making practices, is this year's SCAD deFINE ART honoree. Not surprisingly, at the dinner in her honor (in Savannah, Georgia, back in February 2020) Minter was also the recipient of the ‘Least likely to be invited to the White House’ award. The difference of opinion is historical: not only did Minter protest the US involvement in the Vietnam war (marrying a Vietnam vet against the war) at same the time 45 was feigning bone spurs, the artist views feminism as the ‘biggest change I’ve seen in my lifetime’.
Using video, photography and painting to get her point across, simultaneously transgressive and glamorous, Minter, always a provocateur, has a smokey eye for wetness, glitter and glamour.
Kicking off her heels to walk the several exhibitions at the SCAD deFINE ART 2020 showcase in Savannah, Georgia Petra Mason talked to curator Ariella Wolens about ‘Nasty Woman’ and with the artist in person about decades of art and activism, freckles, pubic hair and the Guerrilla Girls.
ARIELLA WOLENS: Every aspect of this is hand painted, you can see in some of the areas where it is more blurry she has painted with her fingers. You can see fingerprints in some of the areas where the light is hitting strongly. And when Marilyn created these images, if she is happy with something, she will often print it as a photograph.
As you can see from this piece, one of her largest paintings to date. She will skew the seductive aspects of advertising -- the close up range, ensuring to never leave out the microscopic details that make the body an uncomfortable thing to view: all of the taste buds of the tongue, body hairs, makeup smudges.The wetness that becomes incredibly sexual -- this is all something that she is very much celebrating, the reality of sex and femininity.
We have chosen to highlight Marilyn’s video work. In 1990 she found out it was cheaper to advertise on late night television, to buy a spot on David Letterman or Arsenio Hall than to buy a page in Artforum. So she created an advertisement for her show that was at Simon Watson Gallery which was where she presented her ‘Food Porn’ paintings. It (the ad) became an artwork in itself in which she commented on and pointed out how the artist, and the artwork, are inextricably connected to capitalist consumerism.
Marilyn Minter, SCAD, Installation view.
PETRA MASON: What is your favourite New York decade?
Marilyn Minter: Now. Except for Trump. I like the fact that now the doors are wide open for people that are not white males. It’s never been like this. Never been like this before. Look out for Tala Madani (video and painting) who recently showed at 303 Gallery. She is amazing.
PM: Do you think it’s easier for women artists now?
MM: If they are old! The world loves young bad boys and old ladies. Sometimes they love ‘bad girls’ but then only if you can sustain it. Those are the ones I emulate. If you think about Lorna Simpson or Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman. They manage to keep their game changing and they are still making work that is exciting. What I’ve learnt is it is easy to get a lot of attention, but to sustain it is difficult for every artist and the ones that don’t just repeat themselves, its difficult to listen to that inner voice and to just keep making something that’s interesting for other other people to have a dialogue with, I thought when I was really young I wrote off artist’s right and left, but now I think if you’re still showing after 30 years you’ve probably got something to say! (laughs) that’s how I’ve changed.
Part 2: Marilyn Minter
A Conversation. Curatorial Gestures: A new system, a new curatorial language
Adler Guerrier, Untitled (don't be alarmed or afraid blck), 2009An example of my use of choreographed postures is found in Adler Guerrier’s Untitled (don’t be alarmed or afraid blck; 2009). I placed Guerrier’s tall, authoritative, black protest pole directly in front of a bench.
Curatorial Gestures, #CityofWalls, 2018, Collaboration with Mohamed Soliman Labat, In Close Proximity group exhibition at FATVillage, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the background, Wissam Nassar, Beit Hanun, in the Gaza Strip, 2015
Archival Feedback, Delimiting Site No. 1b, 2016
Another function of a curatorial gestures is the insertion of performance & choreography throughout the space.
A performer taking the installation #CityofWalls apart. (Buil archives)
Curatorial Gestures, Those savages and their savage ways, 2018, Plastic, foam, toy guns, house paint
by Dr. Alpesh Kanital Patel
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
You first showed me objects that you were making that you referred to as curatorial gestures—because they weren't really artworks, and yet they weren't necessarily part of the typical curatorial process either—around 2016. How did you begin doing, or creating, these objects?
I guess what propelled me into creating these objects was that I found myself thinking about how I would contextualize an idea into an object that would then respond to the environment, or to an artist's work through the use of a particular medium. Because I’m a visual artist, it's my natural inclination, anyway, to materialize something from nothing. And I found that by creating an object art-piece, it allowed me to expand my own knowledge about a topic that I was researching, or that I was mentally massaging in my brain because it was something that I was really interested in.
Or perhaps in a very peculiar way, I was converting anxieties about a topic into something that I could physically manage. The process became an interactive session, as though I were chiseling out the idea, or carving out the space for the piece to live in. If I invited a colleague over to take a look at it, I’d noticed that they too would interact with it—investigating its surface, its textures. The person’s behavior seemed to be more of a conversation with the piece(s) than merely looking at it. This behavior then excited my curiosity, and I realized that my goal was to continue developing these gestures as a type of language, or a form of communication, or a system—a communicative system with myself, between the artist’s works, and for the viewer’s use as well.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Did the project first begin, then, outside of the normal curatorial process?
Yes, it did. I knew I was curating something into a space, and at that moment I realized that it was gestural. I knew it was artistic, because again, I'm a visual artist and I create objects. I was aware that I was creating something that was either in a space where we normally would view a piece of work or artwork, or else in an alternative space that normally wouldn't be used for viewing an artwork, and it just started happening from there.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
This reminds me of how a curator, when they're researching, might start reading or writing as a creative practice. It seems as though what you're doing is very much an extension of that. You're thinking through the making of these objects, getting a chance to really reflect on these ideas that you said were maybe creating some level of anxiety, right, that you were able to channel in a material way?
Absolutely. It was definitely research. It was research, and I was really asking myself—I always ask myself—questions such as “What does this look like?” or “What did that experience look like to me?” Sometimes I'm thinking of something, like, let's say, a social issue that we read about in the newspaper every single day. We often read about certain topics that are trends, because these sorts of things are happening every day for an extended period of time. I begin to wonder if people are paying attention to these conversations in the way they should, or, rather, if they are tuning out, because it doesn't affect their insular lives. So the process of creating an object that will allow people to revisit a topic they are probably tuning out is the motivation behind the gesture. How else can I invite the public to engage with a topic of this kind?
I noticed that we are visually offered moments such as this when looking at photojournalistic works. The photographers working in this genre are documenting what's really happening. But then I ask myself, “Okay, but what does that look like conceptually? How can I create an object that can provide enough information but yet isn’t loaded with interpretation? What does that look like in a visual form that would allow people to understand this issue on a deeper level, but without my being intrusive or really imposing any type of opinion based on my personal views? Can I accomplish this in such a way that viewers, as they digest it, can still understand what it is that I'm trying to say?”
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Okay. Wall text is often used to help the viewer understand what they're seeing. Perhaps the gestures are there in the same way, helping the viewer to feel, maybe more deeply, what's being shown in the gallery. Does that sound about right?
Yes, this is correct. It's as though the curatorial gesture starts to intersect an idea with art, with the way it's going to mobilize an individual within the space, whether the mobilization is through conversation or the way the viewer interacts physically with the piece. It initiates or invites people to think of questions that maybe they didn't consider before.
So, yes, it's an operating system. I wrote about this in my thesis. With the gesture I activate a point in space where two (or more) things are happening; I create an object that eventually allows others to interact with it. Thus, the object gets people to interface with one another, or with the gestures, and finally it swings the conversation around to all the other pieces that are surrounding that particular area.
I think that people are used to programs, and have even become conditioned to be programmed. Most folks function in systems. Now whether or not those systems or programs are a positive/negative for the individual or society is another conversation. I think that I was trying to find a way to create a program that people could be a part of such that the exhibition doesn't become divisive. In other words, I tried to eliminate the perception that the exhibition is divided between the artist/art and the public. I was consciously aware that the curatorial gestures could provide form, forum, function, and an opportunity for the public to collaborate with the artworks being exhibited.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
In a gallery setting, these gestures could be construed as an actual artwork, when they're not being presented in the manner you’ve described. As you’ve detailed them here, they're something different from that. How do you begin to make that clear to a viewer? Or how have you, in some of the exhibitions that you've done, begun to think about that?
Well, when I've written my curatorial statements and explained what the theme is about, I'll engage in a traditional type of writing where I give examples by using the artists' works, contextualizing the theme in light of their works, and then I'll insert one of my gestures within the statement itself. Then I provide a brief explanation. I plug in a gesture to discuss what it's doing, why it's there, so that when the viewer reads the statement he or she will have a clear understanding that the gestures are created by myself, by the curator, and that each gesture is acting as a piece within the exhibition space: a piece that will add to the conversation, compliment the artists’ work, and provide visual support. For the first time, though, in the online group exhibition #CANCELLED, I did not include an explanation about the gesture(s). I wanted viewers to scratch their heads that first time around.
But I do or at least try to make it clear to the audience that this is something that I'm deliberately doing. I don't give any further explanations about my own personal history as a visual artist, because I think that upon viewing one of the gestures, the audience will realize that the piece is created by an artist’s hand. I think that it's important for me to explain the gestures to the viewer in a way that will not confuse them. I don't think it would be fair either to the visual artists that I'm exhibiting or to the viewer not to explain what a particular piece is about, or what all the pieces are about. However, in time, this intention may change, because I enjoy the idea of placing the curatorial gestures anonymously throughout the space.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Let's say somebody doesn't read the wall text, which, of course, often happens. I know that when I myself go into a gallery or exhibition space, I sometimes don't want to read the wall text, at least not right away, so that I can form my own opinion. Does that work as well, do you think?
Yeah. It's worked in the past. I think it really has worked well. I've had guests approach me during exhibitions to ask a bit more about the curatorial gestures. Many times these are individuals whom I don't know. They are perfect strangers. They'll come up to me during the course of the opening and say things like "Wow, tell me more about your piece," or “How long did it take you to create the piece while organizing the exhibition”? So, these conversations have always been framed along the lines of "Tell me more about your piece."
Viewers understand that it's an artwork. Then the next series of questions takes the form of “What led you to start doing this?” At that point, I share a little bit more about how my process works, and how it happens. But it's also really important for me to state that a curatorial gesture is not a piece that's solely created from or inspired by another artist's work of art, because at the end of the day, I do regulate my own thoughts. I have my own ideas, which reflect my personal aesthetics. I have a particular flair in the way that I think and work. That's why I think that the curatorial gesture is a kind of marriage between what I'm producing and what the visual artist(s) are exhibiting in the space.
It’s important to make this point clearly. If a guest asks whether my work was inspired by another artist’s work, I respond by stating, "No, I had already begun investigating material and literature about this issue, and then I sought out artists that fit into this conversation." Of course, at that point I'm also looking at the formal aspects of curating. I am considering color, form, material, depth, dimension. I’m asking, “Is the work a moving object, or does it involve moving images”? I formally analyze the artists' works to figure out how the puzzle is going to fit together—how their works will function with my piece, and also in the environment.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I'm surprised, actually, that you discuss the gestures as artworks. I think I understand why they can be that; but you've come up with a new kind of frame to refer to the gestures. Because of this frame, for me, if they are artworks, they are artworks plus something else. I'm curious what you think about this idea: that the gestures need not be considered as artworks, but that if they are so considered, they are not only that. It's something beyond—something that explains why you've even created these curatorial gestures.
Right. Well, all this makes me think about Marcel Duchamp’s installation--the Mile of String. He organized the work within an exhibition space shared by other artists. His gesture indicates, as John Vick writes in his essay on Duchamp and the 1942 Papers of Surrealism Exhibition, an attempt to “reorder the gallery”. That installation, clearly, although it was an artwork, it was also a curatorial gesture. These objects that I'm creating are literally gestural: they're these little comments that spread throughout the space where, at that moment, I am operating as a curator. And similarly to Duchamp, I am reordering the definite structures, roles and functions we have applied to oursleves within the viewing space.
Again, it's just that my background, my history, is that of a visual artist, and for me it's easier to work with material in this way than to sit down and write something. I do conduct research, of course. But in doing this research, I always wonder if curators are getting enough information just by reading and looking up relevant material. Why not give a curator an opportunity to try to brainstorm about a topic of interest, whereby he/she can approach that topic from a different perspective by experiencing the topic directly. Give him/her a haptic opportunity, or a new tool to create something. In short, why not converse on a whole new level with the artists’ works? I think that such an approach creates an even stronger bond with the visual artist or artists who are included in the exhibition, because now you have two individuals who are speaking the same material language, visual imagery. They are both speaking through/with objects. To my mind, the conversation becomes really interesting at that point, both before and during the exhibition itself.
I haven't curated anything at a museum yet, but I'm wondering what's going to happen when I finally do have that opportunity, and I have to inform the museum that my methodology includes these curatorial gestures, which constitute a specific material practice. At that point, they may question my practice and ask, “Well, what exactly does this involve?” I'm thinking that if this means preparing the institution beforehand by sending them a copy of a book, or my thesis, or a description of my research to help the administrators understand more what it is that I'm doing, then the institution will likely see it as some type of reformist or even revolutionary approach.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
You bring up a really important point here: namely, that what you’re doing is fairly unusual. That’s why you have to give it a name, I suppose, because it isn't something everyone is already used to seeing. You probably need to name your practice for it to be recognized as such. I know many artists that curate; it's not unusual anymore. But most of the artists who curate don't see their curating as part of their artistic practice proper. They often divide these things up, and don’t even discuss their curating with their artwork. So, I find what you're doing interesting because you’re highlighting the importance of curating as part of your overall thinking and practice. Working with materials, for you, is just another way of approaching research.
Right, right. I believe in being uncategorical, or anti-categorical. I've always had an issue with categories! It's ironic because that's one of the things that we fight about most within the artist community. I want to be non-binary--I'm flexible, I'm fluid. I don't want to be placed in this or that category. But we're the first ones to categorize everything. I know that in my personal history as a visual artist, since way back, even when I was at New World School of the Arts, I already had issues with people not understanding what I was doing because everything I did was very blurry—that is, my work was a blend of categories. That doesn't mean that I was messy. It just means that I instinctively knew that I did not want to be categorized as one thing only, because I felt that this sort of pigeonholing would jeopardize the direction that I wanted to take as a visual artist.
I see my practices as all being intertwined with one another. For example, even with the curatorial gestures, one of the functions that they serve is to choreograph postures for individuals. Basically what that means is that, as a choreographer, I am paying attention to how people move within a space, and after observing them there I take note. So, when I go back to work on my curatorial gestures, I'm always thinking about choreography, asking myself how would I want to see people moving throughout the space.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I want them to waltz through. I want them to have to bend, jump up, or reach over to grab something, to sit down or stand up. I'm playing with them in space without being physically involved, as such, in their movements. Along these lines, I think that for a curator to say that she’s just a curator, or just an art historian, is a little dated. I think that if we really want to move towards a more fluid, openly communicative and non-binary role in the artistic community, it means erasing these boundaries that separate us from "other" pratices, such as choreography, movement, dance. It's very crippling to the development of a language, whether one is referring to a traditional, written language or a visual language. I think that insisting on these distinctions can actually be destructive to the institution, because then we're always going to be stuck in these systems that exist within binaries—it's just not going to get us anywhere.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I like how you’ve described your practice as non-binary, emphasizing that it doesn't have to be one thing or another, but rather can be both at the same time. What you’re doing is art-making and curating together, and, in being combined like this, they both become something else. To play devil's advocate for a moment, though, I'm interested in what you do when you're working with people who have a fairly traditional track record of using their exhibition spaces. How do you pitch your approach to them? How do you get them to be on your side?
When it comes to someone who's that dated in their approach, I don't modify what I do. But I do explain my own approach to them along the lines of "I'm going to exhibit certain pieces that were made specifically for this exhibition." I think that's the best way to negotiate these issues because it’s straightforward. It's important to speak to colleagues in this way because dated minds understand things in terms of categories. I have to be flexible and speak that same language to help them understand what I’m doing.
What’s more, I make it a point to explain my approach because I don't want them to think that I'm like other artists who, when curating, just go “plop,” inserting one of their already-made artworks in the exhibition because it has something to do with the overall theme. I’m against that. When I’m considering this kind of hybrid practice, I’m always asking, "Did you create this piece specifically for the exhibition? What is the reason for having it live in the exhibition, aside from just wanting to show a piece?"
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Yes, that's an important point. Your curatorial gestures aren’t the same as an artist simply inserting his or her work into an exhibition. Rather, what you're putting into the exhibition didn't exist before the exhibition was realized, strictly speaking.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
That’s a really key point, because there can be a lot of suspicion directed against curators who are also artists and who include their own work. Again, in your situation, it's not really a pre-existing work that you're putting into the exhibition; rather, it’s a work that emerges from, or is actually part of, the research. Am I describing that right? Does that make sense?
Yes. I never include pre-existing works. And some people have resisted my approach.
One time, for example, I brought in soil as one of my gestures. I had explained in my proposal that there would be a few gestures alongside the (solo) artist’s work. Additionally I explained that most of the gestures would consist of natural elements such as flowers and/or dirt. There was a bit of pushback. I was approached by one of the administrators who was asking why I didn't let them know that dirt was going to be involved. I was like, "That's not true. I did, and, as I mentioned previously, this is part of the curatorial gesture." There were questions surrounding the participating artist’s knowledge on the gestures. The administrators doubted my curatorial intention and speculated that I had never infromed the other artist of my gestures (as I later found out through the artist). And finally there were issues with logistics; the exhibition space required I turn in a map with exact measurements and placements of the gestures. Although I had turned in the proposal, I was still mapping out the placement of the installations in my mind. This was due to considering formal properties found in the other artist’s work, lighting in the space and taking dimensions of the works into account. So, I’ve experienced back and forth of this sort in the past.
I feel that I'm constantly taking a risk in my artistic, curatorial practice and even my career, because I am doing things that are not the norm or the standard approach. I have to fight for it to happen. Doing so can be really uncomfortable for me, because I'm trying to introduce new things—new things that are solutions, possibilities, new approaches—and in the process I receive a lot of pushback and little support. I always wonder, what am I doing? Over the longer term, is it going to be worth it? Because if I'm not going to have support and be a part of a real conversation, then what's the point?
When situations such as these arise and colleagues find out, I become an "inspiration.” People tell me they love what I'm doing, and say, "You're so badass. Your work is so cool.” But then they run off to copy what I'm doing, saying, “I was inspired by you." But then they'll get the accolades and I don't. Again, I am aware that I am introducing a new school of thought, and I truly believe in these new methods that I'm introducing. I think that they can create a whole new way of thinking for curators and research. But I just don't know if it's worth fighting for. More importantly, I don't want other researchers snatching my ideas without crediting, or citing, my research.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Yes, you should receive credit for your ideas. I see them as very interesting from a scholarly point of view. Again, when I first discussed the gestures with you, I found them to be really fascinating, because they didn't fit neatly into the boxes—just as you were saying before. They make possible a different kind of experience for the viewer. On that point, I want to go back to what you said about choreography, because that's another crucial part of these gestures, right?
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
You position your gestures within a particular space, thinking about the viewer and his or her entanglement with it. This is, in other words, a very embodied situation that you're thinking about. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Yes, I do choreograph. I mobilize viewers/participants by assigning to them what I think of as choreographed postures throughout the space. This is a generator that activates one of the many functions of the “operating system” of curatorial gestures. For example, I aimed for this effect when I curated In Close Proximity, which you actually had the opportunity to visit at FATVillage in Fort Lauderdale.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Remember that huge installation of wonderful works? One of the pieces that I was presenting—that I used to mobilize the choreographed postures—was a piece by Adler Guerrier. Let me describe it. It was like a long black post, and then it had this really big rectangular face. It resembled a large, protest sign with text and shapes. The piece was really large, and it had a stunning and authoritative presence to it. But when viewing that piece, most people have seen it either propped up against a wall or placed on the wall somewhere. Adler actually asked if I could prop the face without the post against the wall. But I insisted that the pole be included. I knew his piece needed to stand at one of the main entry points of the space.
Yet I wanted the piece to be free-floating, to appear as though it were standing on its own. I decided to bring in a bench, which was placed maybe six feet away from where Adler’s pole was standing. It was intentionally positioned to stop the viewer at this point. However, the bench provided just the right amount of space to anchor the viewer’s gaze from a distance. That bench acted as a divider between the post and themselves, causing the viewer to pace back and forth from behind the bench. The person had no choice but to acknowledge the authority the post was silently screaming for. It was commanding.
Then all of a sudden there was this dance that began happening in counts of three, a loose waltz behind the bench, a pacing back and forth, along with side steps. That was my intention. Eventually some of the guests became submissive as their backs bent, and they quietly hunched down toward the bench. It almost seemed like they were intimidated, but in actuality they were trying to find their way down to the bench, as though they were curious to listen to the pole’s protest. The participants' physicality became a choreographic phrase, set as a series of postures. Finally they’d sit there in awe, quiet, in what appeared to be a meditative state in a noisy room.
This is one of many examples I could cite with respect to choreographing a number/phrase/posture for the viewer to embody. Another example would be the installation titled #CityofWalls that I likewise created as a curatorial gesture. I strategically placed this installation forty feet northwest of Mohamed Labat's Untitled (Refugee Camp), images projected on a thirty-foot screen. Forty feet away from the screen stood #CityofWalls, an installation fabricated from cinder blocks and text written in Conté crayons.
#CityofWalls responded to Labat’s pseudo cinder-mud-block home found in the refugee camps of the Sahara, as well as the broken walls exposing cinder blocks in Nissam Wassar’s photograph twenty feet away from the installation. The house evoked the feeling of ruins and gave the impression of a broken square figuration. It also had specific openings to it, where the individual could walk in to face the projection of Mohamed's photograph. By walking in and standing at the northwesternmost point of the configuration, the viewer would echo the subject’s position in Labat’s image. Hence there was a kind of postural dance happening between the viewer in the present moment, and the person that was in the projection.
Viewers had to maneuver themselves a certain way even to get inside the configuration, plus they had to move really carefully because if they actually touched the walls, the cinder blocks would come down because they weren't secured. There was another dance happening that actually guided the person to live in or through a space, and become aware that his or her environment was temporary and unsecured. Thus I offered participants an opportunity to live/dance an unstable space. While they were exploring it, they were moving a certain way. They had to locate, or try to locate, their own safety. This feeling of unsafety is a truth with which, or in which, many of the artists themselves must live. My sense is that most curators really don't think about this particular element or experience when they're curating. I don't think that they're consciously wondering, “How can I enable the viewer/ audience to embody an unfamiliar feeling, or state of mind? How can I engage them to participate in a social dance, an interactive dance that wouldn’t require too much thought on their end, but would be, instead, felt, intuitive?”
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I remember those gestures at FATVillage. As you describe them now, I feel as though I understand them more, having had a chance to experience them. Going back to this idea of embodiment, my sense is that the whole idea of the gestures actually isn't even very object-based. There might be objects that are associated with the gestures, but in the end it's more a type or mode of embodiment that you're trying to go after through the creation of each gesture, and that positions the viewers accordingly, directing them toward a work or accentuating a theme in that work. The bench you described is another kind of gesture, isn’t it?
Yes, the bench became a gesture, absolutely. It was not part of the exhibition, per se; but by incorporating it, I used something that was already there within the space itself and that I integrated into the exhibition, and curated, so that it became a gesture. With that bench being placed in front of the piece, viewers were not obligated but rather encouraged, slightly pushed to dance around this piece.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Just now, as you described how you used the bench, I was thinking how, though it’s not a perfect analogy, that the bench gesture might be compared to Dan Flavin's barrier pieces that essentially prevent viewers from actually experiencing the entire space.
You yourself are not necessarily preventing anybody from experiencing the space; but the commonality here is that the artist is controlling the positionality of the viewer in a way that's very different than with typical exhibitions, where works are put into a space and it's not quite clear how viewers are meant to interact with them. Your gesture is perhaps not as aggressive or as pointed as these barrier pieces but like his works your gestures really demarcate space and make you feel your own body a bit more, I think, in the space.
A lot of curating in museums is still very much about staging things in a particular order. It seems as though you're taking the conversation to the next by asking: “Can we do a little bit more with the spaces within which the objects are installed?”
Right. But I must point out that Flavin's peices are super streamlined, polished works. My pieces are raw, gritty, dirty and unpolished, but equally well thought out and executed.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
It’s as if you are getting more mileage out of a particular situation that's already there.
Absolutely. Well, there are two things to keep in mind in this connection. First, you mentioned embodiment, and that’s definitely what I’m aiming for here. This is quite different from saying, "I'm trying to capture the essence of something." It has nothing to do with essence. It's always about embodiment. How can I help the individual possess this feeling, or possess this message? How can I get the viewer more involved with the piece?
Which takes me to point number two, and it's a critique. I love making art. I'm a visual artist, and I'm pretty prolific because I'm constantly creating works; but I've stayed away from art gatherings or events, because they involve too much of the wrong kind of socializing. I've paid attention to conversations while I've been at these social gatherings, and they always seem to be about one-upping each other. You know what I mean? In these gatherings, creating art gets turned into a party, or a game.
I wanted to bring people back to the art itself, bring their attention back to the artwork and to the art piece—and have them to engage with it a little bit longer, have a conversation about it. The conversation could be along the lines of "But I'm not understanding the color choice," or "This is offensive. What is she doing?" But in any case, I wanted to bring people’s attention back to the actual work of art and get everyone more involved and invested in the piece itself, to appreciate it, because we know that it requires a lot of time, labor, and resources to create a body of work. I think that people need to appreciate what art is about because it's gotten so trendy. Everybody does it now, so it's just like buying another pair of Levi jeans.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I like what you're saying, and it's such a challenging aspect of art—of art creation and art consumption. It’s true: the art world is very market-driven, and we know money plays a key role. It’s all so transparent that we can't ignore it, in a way, and you're trying to bring the focus back to the art itself. I think that your efforts are so commendable.
I'm curious: how many years have you been doing these gestures?
I've been doing these gestures for a while now. I think it was 2004 or 2005 when I was asked to curate a few video works at the Miami Beach Cinematheque during a Miami Art Week or Basel Week function. I was asked to do this as an opener to one of Lars von Trier's films. In the end, I curated four works. It was called Four Parts of a Room, conceived as a series of video works, and I created a piece for it, too. So that was like a gesture. It was part of a conversation with the other artists. So, I'm thinking that I’ve been doing this since 2003, 2004.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Wow, you’ve been doing these curatorial gestures for much longer than I realized. What you just described was what you would retrospectively call your first gesture?
Yes, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. I asked three video art makers if they would be interested in exhibiting some work. I told them that the exhibition was going to be called Four Parts to a Room, with the basic idea being that each of us has a “room,” i.e., a video work. What was happening in that room? What was taking place? I told the artists, "You can't talk about it with each other. I don't even want to know what it's about. Just go make it, and create a video no less than five minutes and no more than eight. Once it's done, send it to me and I'll splice it all together." That's what happened. The gesture, in this case, was spilicing the works into one long thread of visual storytelling without compromising anyone’s work. Each video was in its original format and aesthetic.
It was great. It was a wonderful piece—visually stunning, very poetic. That was really my first curatorial gesture. I remember I told Dana Keith, who was the director at the Miami Beach Cinematheque at the time, what my idea was, and he responded: "That's fabulous. Go for it." It’s wonderful when you can work with open-minded individuals who like what you're trying to do, and they just give you the green light. They say, in effect, "Take the ball and run with it." Then I started to ask myself, “What else can I do with this?" So, I would say that that, technically speaking, this was my first curatorial gesture.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I didn't realize your curatorial gestures actually went back that far, because what I'm now thinking is that I want to see them all, in the form of documents, uploads, and images: perhaps you could create a book of these gestures. In any case, it does seem that, if you've been doing this for about seventeen years or so, there is going to be a broad range of gestures, each of which is doing something different. To be able to teach these gestures would be wonderful.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I would love to have a toolkit of curatorial gestures as a pedagogical tool. On another note, you work with a lot of living artists, and when you're doing your gestures, you remain in contact with them. So, they're well aware of what you're doing, and they seem very supportive. In other words, they don't seem to have an issue with your work. How do you make a case for your projects when you're working with artists and you're doing these gestures?
Yes, I have to say that the artists whom I have worked with so far have been a blessing. Seriously. I'm really open about what I'm doing with them, and some of the gestures actually become collaborations. For example, during my exhibition Bad Rep(utation) (2019), I was working with three visual artists. One of them had this really cool graphic art image of what appears to be an Arab man, who is wearing traditional clothes. He’s handing over a bottle of Coke to a woman who's also wearing traditional Arab clothes, and she's sitting behind a door, gazing at this man—as if she were wondering, “Who is he?”
When I saw this image, I immediately thought, “These should be postcards." I said to the artist, Lyes, Karbourai who currently resides in Algeria, that these should be postcards, and that we should write “F*ck you, get to know me better” on the back. He's said, "I love it. Let's do it." So, as soon as I get the okay from an artist, we brainstorm about it, and then I send the person an agreement letting them know what we're doing, that I have permission to publish the work, that it's a collaboration, and so forth. So far, the visual artists I’ve worked with have been okay with it. I haven't had any issues at all.
I had another visual artist show one of his photographs as a work on fabric, which he ended up loving. He, too, asked about continuing to work together with me. So I’ve engaged in a number of collaborations with visual artists that, up to this point, haven’t been problematic.
That said, a lot of these artists whom I’ve worked with have a really great attitude about art; they want to exhibit, and to be a part of something. Their thought is, “I'd rather have my work doing this than to sit here at home not doing anything." That’s where the gestures become magical: I feel that I'm making the artists more visible and they're helping me become more visible, and we're supporting each other's work, in a cool, blurry way.
With Adler [Guerrier], who is a very prominent figure in the arts community in Miami, and who shows his work abroad, I didn’t exactly collaborate. The only extension or collaboration came from my decision to choreograph something around his piece using the bench. And Adler was okay with it. I find myself testing the artists out, getting a feel for their attitude. If I see that there’s going to be pushback of some sort, then I ask myself whether I want to have this artist in my exhibition. I ask, “Is this going to be someone that could potentially turn this into a bigger problem than it should be?” So, I'm really careful about the type of artists whom I curate as part of my exhibitions.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Understood. I wanted to bring this up again, because it’s not as though you're simply putting things into spaces and there's no discussion beforehand with the artists whose works are linked to your gestures. Rather, they are part of this conversation, that being an important part of your project, too. I wanted to ask a little bit about the idea of “curatorial practice,” because you just completed an MFA in Visual Arts: Curatorial Practice from Florida International University (FIU).
One of the key aspects of your work for me as an administrator, and here we go back to your point about the non-binary, is that a practice like yours presents both conceptual and logistical challenges. It doesn’t fit cleanly either into the studio program or the curatorial practice program; rather, it has elements of both—it’s hybrid. From the point of view of curating--rather than that of collaborating with these artists whom we've been discussing,--what has been your experience when it comes to talking with other curators? Have you had discussions with them about your gestures, and have you felt that they're interested in these kinds of approaches? Do they feel that this is something that you in particular are doing, something that can’t necessarily be replicated in other contexts?
Well, during Art Basel, as part of Miami Art Week last year, I did run into a prominent figure in Miami, who has done extensive curatorial work. I actually had the pleasure of working with her many years ago. So, this particular curator saw me and we said hello to each other, and she said how excited she was to see all the projects that I had been doing. She wanted to hear more about them. I remember her saying specifically, "I want to know more about your curatorial gestures." There seemed to be a bit of excitement in her tone.
I was excited about it too, but at this point I'm a bit protective about the curatorial gestures. I’m being protective because, as I mentioned before, I've had a couple of issues in my artistic career where people have basically snagged something of mine. For example, a curator took prints of mine to China and never returned them, and there have been other super shady incidents of that sort. In all honesty, I'm really proud of myself for not getting an attorney and taking legal action.
With the curatorial gestures, I'm at the point where I'm careful not to speak to too many curators about the project, because I’m worried that someone will like the idea. I’m concerned that they'll sit down over some coffee with me to talk, get the information that they need, and then run off and do something with it. Unfortunately, that's been my experience.
So, that's why I feel that the correct process for me to pursue with these curatorial gestures is to create a website along the lines of what you suggested previously, and also to publish my thesis, which is extensive enough to be a small book. And then I need to find other ways to legitimize this practice—for example, through articles, and conversations with the right people—so that it gets enough traction and attention, and so that I can become aligned with it as the creator and original founder. Because after that, the world's unlimited. I would imagine that I could go to schools and give workshops or a master class, teaching students how to do this. I wouldn't have a problem with that. But at this point, I'm being really careful about sharing too much information with people. I also realize that perhaps curatorial gestures will be a tag for my curatorial practice and my name. My name isn’t priviledged within the exhibition space, as the curator. I mean I do include my name in the exhibition list as Curatorial Gestures/Beláxis Buil but I have been doing this just to get people used to my practice as this thing I do. Eventually I’ll remove my name altogether.
It’s quite funny to think of another curator utilizing my practice as their own. It’s a highly conceptual practice, as you point out. Despite my idealolgy being that the curator should be visible within the exhibition space, I come back and remove myself by inserting the phrase Curatorial Gestures on the wall label, in replacement of my name. I don’t think another curator would want to use my tag. Patrons could assume that the exhibition was curated by the original founder of the curatorial gestures.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I guess it's a double-edged sword, right? Even though I'm suggesting that you do this website, that makes your material more visible and available to people. That’s great, but there can be a darker side to such access, too. Nonetheless, I do think that doing the website, publishing books, and pursuing the other routes you mentioned are essential to connecting your name to the gestures. Because then you create a genealogy or timeline that established how long you have been doing the gestures.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I just wanted to go back to something of a less practical or pragmatic nature. As a result of this conversation—and I don't think I had come to the conclusion before—it's become really clear to me now that these gestures are very much you. What I mean is that they’re not something that others could be replicate. They develop from a research process that you do, and are not something someone else could do in the same way. The gestures really have your unique signature, like your artwork would. Yet the way you're researching and thinking could be inspirational to other people. They could perhaps take it in different directions. Sometimes that can be a positive thing, when people acknowledge what you're doing and move it forward.
That's right. Last year, I won a scholarship to attend the IKT Congress, the curatorial convention that took place here in Miami. Well, we had to introduce ourselves on the first day, and during that introduction, I took the opportunity to just talk a little bit about my practice. I definitely inserted the curatorial gestures at that point, bringing them in. One of our students at FIU, a visual artist, came up to me and said that she wanted to do a curatorial gesture. I said, "That's fine, as long as you acknowledge me." That's exactly what it is. I really feel that I deserve to be acknowledged. You hear a lot of us artists in the art world complain about visibility these days. A lot of us have been invisible for so long.
It's hard for me even to say this, because I know that my work has gained some degree of attention, and I've received some great reviews and had articles published about the work. But at the same time, I’m not where I want to be in my career. Not yet. A lot of that has to do with visibility. These curatorial gestures to me are gold. I see that there's so much that I can do with them. I'm not going to just give them to anyone, not without proper credit. I don't know if that's the wrong thing to do. I don't know if that's the wrong attitude to have. It's just where I'm at.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I'll just reiterate that, with respect to academic writing, we have an unfortunate problem where people don't cite properly. They don't indicate that they're getting certain ideas from X person. I was trained very early on in my career to do that, and I see the importance of it. In fact, I over-cite. I will cite more than is strictly required, because the way I see it, you can never give enough information. Doing so doesn't take away from what you’re doing, and you can only hope that others will do the same. But it's still not a practice that many people think is important. Appropriation, in many different forms, still happens way too easily.
Absolutely. Well, appropriation is something else that I definitely discuss in the thesis. I really start digging deep into the conversation about appropriation. That’s why I’ll say to colleagues, "Hey, don't take my idea without giving me credit." But as I also said, I'm pretty generous. As I told our FIU student, "Yes, you can use it, but just acknowledge me, credit me." But I do believe that in order for us to move forward, there has to be some respectful appropriation, because it's the only way that we're going to learn from each other. Respectful borrowing or exchange can wipe out some of the divides that exist between us
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I think you’ve made a very important point here, in emphasizing that respectful appropriation is needed. It's not even that you're saying that you want to keep these things to yourself; rather, you just want to be sure that when the practice is mentioned, your name, too, is mentioned, as should be the case with your artwork or anything else that you've done. When there's respectful appropriation, that could be wonderful for what you do, because it can magnify your presence in different contexts.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
If it's done respectfully.
Absolutely. That's a really strong, powerful tool. With such respectful appropriation, you can gravitate toward so many other people whom you wouldn't have been able to reach before. It can be like an exchange between individuals.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Yes, exactly. I wanted to ask if there is anything we didn't cover in our conversation so far that we should talk about?
No, I don’t think so. Regarding the curatorial gestures, we have really covered a lot of it. For example, the idea that the gestures have more than one function.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
Yes, I think we covered a lot of territory. We discussed how you work with artists, how you work with administrators, how these gestures are embodiments in a choreography, as much as they are sort of materiality. We also talked about the need for respectful appropriation, and also that these gestures are, at the end of the day, not a replicable practice that you're selling.
Dr. Alpesh Patel:
I also really like the new term that you’ve used here—namely, choreographed postures—because it really clarifies an aspect of the gestures that's so important. I think that this term will help any remaining confusion about your gestures.
I'm so glad that we were able to talk more about this. It's nice to be able to let someone know in-depth what it's all about and why I'm doing it. I don't want to keep these gestures hidden from the rest of the world all the time.
Reforming Institutionalized Bodies in Dance: A Conversation with Kelly Robotham
Rehearsing Revelations at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, photo courtesy Kelly Robotham
Teaching, photo courtesy Kelly Robotham
Little dancers at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, photo courtesy Kelly Robotham
Photo courtesy Kelly Robotham
Photo courtesy Kelly Robotham
Students, photo courtesy Kelly Robotham
A scene from the current production of Bluebeard
(photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele) Writing about Dance.com
by Beláxis Buil
first draft edited by Beláxis Buil
final draft edited by Global English Editing
This interview has been slightly edited for grammar and sentence flow. Some of the questions and answers were rearranged to keep the idea(s), question(s), argument(s) and answer(s) organized.
Kelly Robotham was born in the Bronx, New York and raised in Miami. Her career took off in New York upon her graduation from Juilliard. After five successful years as a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Robotham has been back in Miami performing in independent projects and collaborating with institutions empowering the next generation of young dancers. She is teaching young folks to find joy in dance. I sat down with Robotham to learn a bit more about her professional past and current projects and to ask her where women of color can begin to reform the notion of institutionalized bodies in dance.
BB: I know that since you moved back to Miami, you have contributed countless hours of professorship and mentoring towards nurturing the youth in our city. Currently, you are working with a few non-profits in Miami. What has this chapter of your life been like for you? How is your mentorship impacting children? What types of changes are you noticing in children’s behaviors as they are exposed to dance and/or the performing arts on a regular basis? What are you implementing in your classroom to empower the student? Do you discuss the significance of embracing one’s cultural identity in dance?
KR: I currently work with Thomas Armour Youth Ballet (TAYB) and Miami City Ballet (MCB) teaching dance to students ages 3-18. This includes ballet, modern, contemporary, hip hop, and creative movement. This chapter has been amazing to say the least. I knew that I always wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t expect to begin teaching at the age of 26. I am so happy I decided to begin at this age. I am able to relate a little more to my students. Having a younger teacher has its perks; for example, I am still able to physically keep up with my students. When students see their teachers getting down and showing them how it’s done, it really inspires them. It’s a great feeling to see the spark in their eyes watching me dance. In terms of behavior, my students are always excited to come to my class. Many parents tell me it’s the highlight of the week for their child. I love that I have the ability to make them excited to learn. I’ve noticed when students leave my class, they leave with their heads high. It’s a confidence, a self-esteem they can carry in the world and on stage.
As an educator in Miami, my goal and purpose are to be the role model for my students at an early age. I wish I had a teacher like myself in my early years of dance. It would have changed my mentality for the better going forward. In my classroom, I am empowering my students to be confident and proud of who they are and where they come from, to embrace their peers in the same manner and understand (and accept) that it’s ok to be different – because it’s your individuality that makes you so special. What I love about teaching at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet is that it’s so diverse. Even my 3-year-olds’ creative movement class is filled with a diverse group of cultures. That class in particular is so special to me because it’s the first time many of them are in a classroom setting with students from so many different backgrounds. It’s very eye-opening for them, especially when their first ballet teacher (me) is an African-American woman. That alone is teaching and showing them so much.
Dance was created by different cultures, so when I teach ballet, hip hop, contemporary or modern and discuss the origins of each dance style, my students realize how important cultural identity is in dance. If we don’t embrace the significance of these different cultures, we won’t have these beautiful dance styles to learn.
BB: We are living tumultuous lives in America. It's worse for some than others. The pandemic and the political climate have revealed the racial disparities that exist in this country – specifically within institutions. More than ever in America’s history are we in need for reform and reparations. And I don’t mean reform just in the political landscape – I mean reform and reparation in the way we view one another, in the opportunities presented to an individual that could change their life and education. By reforming the social-educational fabric of our country, we could rewrite stories of success. I think the root of our errors truly lie with education in America. It is the first place we send our children the moment they take their first steps in the real world. The education system is flawed. It is designed to keep those born into privilege liberated while others have to protest for an equal chance at opportunity. Also, the school system continues to teach misinformed and misrepresented American history to children in the classrooms, never taking into consideration that children need to have role models early in life they can identify with. How was it for you growing up in America? What stumbling blocks did you run into in academia? Who was your role model growing up, and was your role model introduced to you via your education?
KR: Growing up in America wasn’t easy at all and still isn’t. And on top of that, let’s add the pressure of the dance industry as another hurdle. Growing up as an African-American woman in America comes with so many issues. There were situations where I had to alter my mentality to understand what was really happening. I will never forget my father telling me something so simple one day. I was preparing for a dance competition where I was aiming to win a national title. Before leaving he said, “Kelly even though you might be better than the person to your right and left, they still may not pick YOU.” I didn’t understand at first because, as a young dancer, I thought, if I’m the best and I work hard why won’t they pick me? As I got older, I began to understand what he meant by that. Growing up in America, you could be the hardest working person in your school, company, or group and not be selected because of the color of your skin. Sadly, many African-American, Latina, Caribbean, etc., parents have to teach their children this at a very young age. Of course, this shouldn’t be the lesson you learn as a child. You should simply be working on your craft or whatever you are studying. Growing up, I didn’t meet my role models until high school. I had a few: Robert Battle, Elisa Clark, and Bambi Anderson. Robert Battle at that time had a professional dance company called Battleworks and I fell in love with his work instantly. It brought out a side of me that I didn’t know existed. Elisa Clark was the repetiteur who restaged many of Battle’s pieces. Elisa was one of the best coaches I ever had. She pushed you to your limit, a limit that you didn’t know you had, but she did it in the most positive way. I ended up dancing with her during my time at Ailey. Lastly, Bambi Anderson was my Limon teacher at the New World School of Arts. Not only did I physically relate to her because she was an African-American woman, but she taught me patience. As a dancer we want quick results, and if they don’t come fast enough, we begin to get frustrated with ourselves. She taught me how to be patient with my body and dance through those frustrating times. The beautiful thing about art is allowing yourself to feel the emotion and letting it out in your dancing.
BB: I think many young dancers can learn from you, as you continue to garner and galvanize the young ones in the performing arts. Every field in the arts needs more African-American, Caribbean, Latina and Indigenous female role models to change the American narrative of success in the arts. I see a script often perpetuated in the arts, particularly in the music industry. For example, Lil’ Kim or Cardi B carry similar histories as to how they became successful. Both women are anchored within stories of hardship, life on the streets, or utilizing their bodies as tools to the next big thing. Then their success is usually acknowledged because a male role model helped define their identity and success. These narratives usually come with the representation of women as hyper-sexualized personalities. I have a problem with this. I am not sure where the idea of feminism and body empowerment became convoluted with hypersexualized fantasies of women in the arts. It is pretty sad that these stories keep repeating themselves in the mainstream media, especially when it comes to women of color. We see it in music videos all the time. How did you navigate through this in your career as a professional dancer?
KR: As many know, attending an Ailey show, you may see contemporary ballet, followed by a hip-hop piece, and closing the performance the famous Revelations. During our present time in America, hip-hop music played on the radio doesn’t always have a positive impact on our youth. The hip-hop pieces I danced always told a story, a deep story with meaning. For example, there was a hip-hop piece I danced choreographed by Rennie Harris titled Home. The dance was inspired by stories of individuals living with and affected by HIV. Using poems and images submitted by those individuals, the piece displayed the emotional isolation they felt, as well as evoking an uplifting feeling from the community. Now, as an educator, I teach my students the origins and history of hip-hop to give them a better understanding of the culture and movement. When hip-hop began in New York, it wasn’t hypersexualized. Hip-hop talked about real stories, people’s lives and the struggle of being African-American, Latina, and Caribbean in the United States. Unfortunately, we live in a time where hypersexualization sells. Therefore, as an educator, I must educate my students more than ever about the genuine root of hip-hop culture. You don’t have to hypersexualize yourself in order to inspire, be seen or be heard. Although I knew this growing up (because of how I was raised), the hip-hop piece Home demonstrated to me how the world has so many stories and how art is a platform to spark awareness.
BB: These stories of stereotypecast women in the arts are old. It is up to creatives and educators like us who do use our bodies as a form of art to rewrite how bodies of color will be represented in the arts. Misty Copeland has become the role model for many dancers of color today. Copeland is an elegant dancer and has broken many barriers. I do think she is an inspiration; however, I still have conflicting thoughts on Copeland’s career. I see Copeland on the other side of the spectrum of women of color in the arts. For example, she has had to work diligently to institutionalize her body. She moves as a ballerina is expected to move. I immediately think of Judith Jamison while she danced with Ailey. Jamison was the queen. She did not conform to anyone's standards. She had this energy to her movement. Her composure and dance were technically strong – but they were very human. Her body was real. There was nothing about Jamison that screamed “institutionalized ballerina.” I think Jamison, together with Ailey, reformed the way audiences would experience dance, understand African-American history through performance and respect bodies of color in dance. That is power. They broke from the institution. The institution of dance didn’t instruct Ailey or Jamison what to do – they did it.
This was a completely different accomplishment than Misty Copeland’s. As women of color, it seems we may be pressured to transform our selves and bodies into a standard that doesn’t naturally fit who we are. This is a lot of pressure for an individual to endure: change who you are to fit in. You attended a few great institutions: New World School of the Arts during your high school years and Julliard for your Bachelor’s. New World School of Arts, for instance, is known for pushing their dancers to their limits. Academia justifies it by naming the process “developing.” But what happens when a dancer reaches their limit and decides the training is detrimental to the point where it affects their psyche? How were these experiences for you? You went on to perform and tour with Alvin Ailey. During the time you danced with Ailey, was there a diverse group of dancers? Do you think that having a diverse group of dancers in the Ailey company made you feel comfortable? Did you ever see yourself bump into a wall during your time at these institutions? Were there educators at any one of these institutions whose teaching philosophy included the diversification of bodies and cultures in dance?
KR: Attending New World School of the Arts was a true blessing! What I loved most about my experience was being exposed to so many different students from so many different cultures and parts of Miami. The dance faculty also reflected that. Having teachers from many backgrounds inspired me and made me believe that I could really do this and make a career with dance. My teachers believed in me and I truly felt that. The moment I got to Juilliard that perspective shifted. Going from Miami, which is a melting pot of cultures, to Juilliard, where I was the only African-American woman in my class was shocking to stay the least. I wasn’t aware of this until I walked into my first class and noticed no one looked like me. I’m not just speaking about skin color, but also my body type. I am a very athletic person. When people first meet me, they often say “oh, she must be a gymnast or runner.” After the Julliard shock settled, I told myself that I had a purpose at the school. I had to be the best representation of my African-American people. I worked extremely hard in my classes, specifically ballet. That was the only class I got a B in, which for me was unacceptable. After having a one-on-one discussion with my professor I realized that they didn’t view me as a ballerina, with a ballerina body. I was told I was too muscular. I didn’t know how to fix this. I wasn’t going to the gym to lift weights. I was simply doing the dance curriculum that was given. Thankfully, my aunt was a nutritionist, and I went to her for help. She guided me to slightly change my diet to leaner proteins and foods that would change my muscle mass. I noticed that my body did change from a muscular frame (which I loved) to a thinner, more fragile frame. Starting a new semester with this new shape, I began to get A’s in ballet. Looking back at this situation maked me realize that my body should be accepted for how it naturally is during the next chapter of my career. I always had my eye on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. One of the first (and best attributes) I noticed about the company was that there were so many different body types and races in the company. I wanted to be a part of that. I needed to be in a place where I felt celebrated and could use all of my dance styles to the max. Ailey made me feel comfortable in my skin, comfortable in my body.
I did hit a bump at Juilliard. In addition to changing my body during my sophomore year, I had to sit with our director and discuss the possibilities of joining a professional company. Although my eye was always set on dancing with Ailey, I was open to what my director had to say. Excited to sit down with him, I was only disappointed. He diverted me to companies such as Ailey, Garth Fagan, Complexions. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the companies he suggested, they were all gorgeous, but I realized that I was being placed in a box – a box that they thought I fit in. Meanwhile, my other peers were diverted to European companies where you didn’t see much diversity. Now looking back on it, we were all placed in a box. During my college years, I missed NWSA so much because there I was never placed in a box. I danced and wore many different hats at NWSA, pointe, modern, contemporary, etc.
BB: Even in art, we continue to see art history centered around Eurocentric ideologies and failing to include the work of marginalized communities such as Native American Art or Aboriginal Art as important catalysts to the evolution of symbology and design in art. In dance we still see choreographers and/or educators institutionalizing children’s bodies to train in rigid practices that developed from a Eurocentric perspective. When a dancer finally enters their training – a training that unjustly politicizes the body – it impacts the way the dancer sees him/herself in performance. Think about how rigorously painful training can be for a dancer whose whole natural physique requires harder work and discipline to transform themselves to the institution’s standard. It is brutally frustrating. As children develop in the dance environment, they begin to realize there are “ideal candidates” or favorable body types. Did you face this during the early part of your dance education, or did you have physical abilities which allowed you to feel situated in an equitable environment with other dancers?
KR: I had a blend of both. I have a very athletic form which makes me a great candidate for modern and contemporary dance, but I often faced many hurdles when it came to ballet specifically because I didn’t fit the ideal body type. I had beautiful muscular lines, but it was never the right shape or size for ballet. As a teacher I want to change that. I want my students to see me and realize it is ok to have a different type of build; embrace THAT, because that’s what sets you apart from others and makes you unique, and I praise that in each of my students. I make sure my students feel special. Many dance teachers only talk about the negative and what students are doing wrong; while that is important for growth and improvement, it is just as important to tell them what they do well and praise them for that. This will be a lesson that I plan to always teach in my classes, year after year.
BB: I think one of the greatest traits that a dance educator and/or choreographer carries is the responsibility to uplift a student and build their esteem. As young students, and/or dancers, we throw ourselves out there. We live in the moment and create highly intelligible arrangements of movements – nonsensically disheveled and unconscious yet sophisticated in the form of expression it takes. We understand that children happily convulse their bodies in mid-air. We applaud this at a young age yet become so focused on unrealistic regimes when they become adults.
As children, our minds don’t play into self-criticism or judgment, until we face it in institutions. It’s a pretty drastic reality to walk into. Some of these institutions may not even realize how harsh and destructive this can be for the student. At this point in time, I would conclude that institutions are ignorant. Aside from destructive patterns found in institutional curriculums, there are attributes we gain. One of those precious gifts is a dancer’s gaining insight and physical independence when he/she decides to break from the mode. Jamison and Ailey did it. They celebrated their cultures and bodies in dance. And then there is surrender. The dancer develops an understanding of surrender in dance. The dancer/student has to develop a certain amount of trust in their mentor, as in themselves. During the process of learning we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable and comfortable with our “flaws,” learning to take risks and abandon everything that is taught. I think this concept is well exposed during our professional career on stage. After all, it was Pina Bausch who declared one must “dance with abandon.”
To “dance with abandon” is an example of how one dancer/choreographer dismantled the dance institution. Bausch realized the dancer needs to free his/herself from the rigid structure indoctrinated on the student/dancer. It’s at the moment the dancer decides to abandon every ideology inherited during their training that the dance embodied by the dancer becomes alive. The dancer is liberated during the performance. Imagine if dancers had the privilege to consistently train with choreographers like Bausch. Do you recall having a mentor who may have pointed out similar philosophies?
KR: Unfortunately, I don’t recall a mentor that pointed out that specific philosophy, but I remember my first performance with Alvin Ailey that embodied that philosophy. I felt so free, so accomplished, and so beautiful in front of an audience of 6,000 people!
BB: Exposing children (and adults) to dance is not only physically enriching, it also teaches people how to work in teams. Collaborative efforts are the path towards monumental success, whether it be in a classroom setting, in a corporation or cultural institution, or directed toward enriching communities. We can all conceptualize the importance of collaboration when participating. Dance provides this pedagogical experience. But more so, choreography helps the dancer/student explore how the choreographic composition won’t fully function unless everyone is present and participating in their role. Company collaboration means oscillating expressions of movement and ideas between yourself and the other. It’s a constant conversation between the members of the team. You had the opportunity to train a former NFL player from the New York Giants. Out of any field of work, it’s professional athletes who work in teams who really grasp this concept (and reality) to its fullest extent. What do you think the New York Giants player took away with him after he worked with you? What did you learn from him that perhaps helped your professional development as an educator and choreographer?
KR: Although the NY Giants player knew how to work as part of a team, I believe it was a shock for him, because dance was not his strong point. But we made him feel so confident. We made sure he knew that when we stepped on stage, we were there to support him, he wasn’t alone. Stepping on stage and performing something that is really new to you is extremely frightening, especially with it being broadcast on national television. Watching him rehearse, I learned a few things: positive encouragement can go a long way, it’s never too late to try something new no matter how old you are, and if you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything. The mind is a super-powerful tool that can make or break a person and their perspective of themselves. With that lesson now as an educator, I know how important it is to not just teach dance but teach students how to think and view themselves, a healthy mindset is key!
BB: Where do you see yourself professionally 15-20 years from now?
KR: In 15-20 years I see myself still as an educator touching the lives of students not just in Miami but across South Florida and the United States. This rough time, where everyone is working virtually, has opened doors for students across the nation to tune in and take my class virtually. That has been a positive for me during the pandemic, students now have more access to my classes than ever!
Many people look forward to retirement. Call me crazy, but retirement isn’t a thought at all for me. Dance is my passion, and I’ve realized this is why I was placed on this earth, to teach, empower, and inspire others. I currently teach over 450 students per week and each year that number grows.
In 15-20 years, I pray to see a change in diversity and acceptance in dance. I hope that some of my students become educators themselves and pass down the lessons I’ve taught them in order to continue the growth and the work. I hope in 15-20 years dance becomes a performing art that accepts all races, body types, and philosophies, which will inspire the world to be a better place.
Now Be Here and Beyond: Artist and Cultural Collaborator, Kim Schoenstadt
Photo by Kim Johnson; Courtesy of Kim Schoenstadt, linn meyers and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
Photo in header by Paola Kudacki, courtesy Kim Schoenstadt, Shinique Smith, and The Brooklyn Museum
Photo courtesy the artist.
Final VOLTA install, photo courtesy the artist.
by Beláxis Buil
First Draft edited by Beláxis Buil
Final Draft edited by David, Global English Editing
Kim Schoenstadt was born in Chicago, graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Long committed to the inclusion of overlooked or marginalized women, non-binary, and historically forgotten visual artists, Schoenstadt’s own artistic practice often invites viewers to be active co-creators of the visual works she initiates. Now Be Here further demonstrates her passion for the collective welfare of communities whose voices and actions add new layers of color, new perspectives, and material forms, to the art world. Schoenstadt’s work challenges curators, art historians, and institutions to go beyond their visual “culture of comfort”—a culture that can (un)intententionally alienate artists seeking to challenge existing systems and practices. At issue, specifically, are entrenched patterns of thinking and models dictating how artists are selected to become “visible” in the art world.
Below are a series of questions sent to Schoenstadt, together with her responses, that focus on how her practice as a visual artist led her to develop an extension of her work Now Be Here. Using this platform, Schoenstadt adopts the role of a cultural collaborator archiving a collective of artists who face isolation or gender or racial inequities during a tumultuous period in the United States.
BB: Kim, it gives me great pleasure to spend this time chatting with you. I enjoyed our phone conversation at the start of the pandemic. These days I am accustomed to humans being so far removed from one another: technology seems to have taken over all forms of social interaction and every conversation. We text excessively. It drives me crazy. I can’t stand it. I can tolerate it with friends, acquaintances, and colleagues whom I have known for a long period of time, but with someone I am just meeting, it can turn off my “curiosity” switch. This is particularly true with you, because as I become more and more familiar with you and your project Now Be Here—among many others works—I see a warm and inviting human being before me. I appreciate the qualities that shine through you and your work.
I find your practice to be multifaceted. Now Be Here is richly integrated with ideas of community, collaboration, and inclusivity. Where did your intention originate as you began to transform this idea into an actual project? Did you feel isolated in your practice or in your artistic community? If so, what was that like for you?
KS: Beláxis, thank you for your kind words. It is a pleasure to get to know you, and our interaction has been a nice way to start the pandemic, because it has allowed me to expand my circle of friends. So much else closed down and got quiet, so I am all the more happy we were able to continue our friendship through these stressful months. Getting to know your practice is equally humbling and inspiring.
You kind of nailed it with the isolation concept. I started Now Be Here in 2016 for several reasons. First, I was feeling disconnected from the art world. I had a child in 2008, my mother died in 2012, and that same year I had left my day job working for another artist who was very generous with introductions. I had gone from a period of going to openings every weekend and seeing shows during the day to a period when my time no longer being my own and feeling that I had become invisible. I also kept seeing the same women artists in exhibitions, and that bothered me. After seeing the inaugural Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles exhibition titled Revolution In The Making and hearing the curators say things about how there were so many artists they could have chosen, I thought, “Well, let’s show the world how many other artists there are to choose from. Seeing is believing, so let’s visually demonstrate the issue.”
BB: What city did you select as the site to inaugurate Now Be Here? Why did you select this city? I see the project has been in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. These cities are definitely great places to start. There is so much diversity in all of these urban centers, and I am sure that the inclusion of the cities’ marginalized communities in your project has helped their work, voice, and identity become more visible. How are you reaching women as well as queer and non-binary folks who might not otherwise get access to news about the project? Let’s just hypothesize for a second that there are amazing creators who live outside of major cities and do not have access to the Internet or local newspapers?
KS: I started with my own community, and honestly I wasn’t thinking it would travel. We’re about to change the URL from NowBeHereLA to NowBeHereArt so it is more clear that the project is not just regional. I was thinking that we’d do the photo in LA, and that maybe the Los Angeles Times and possibly the New York Times would cover it, but that then I would get home for dinner and get back to work on my then-upcoming show. From there it developed rather organically, with places and people reaching out to me.
Since the website was upgraded, the plan is to start by inviting each city that had events to join the website—while giving each city some time and assuming that everyone is as overwhelmed as I myself am feeling currently. So far I’ve connected with Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, and I’m about to move to the last city: the Washington metropolitan area, or DC/MD/VA (DMV). Next, I’ll move to more global approach, working with a small team of interns to develop an outreach strategy for different cities. The challenge is that we can’t do the group photos right now, and that is such a powerful moment to experience. In general, doing all this online is a bit more challenging.\
Ideally, the process will involve connecting with local artists, and seeing if we can share the project through local museums or artist groups to explore whether it is of interest to them. As with the original project, my goal is to have it be an organic connection among artists, and my role is to quietly be in the background as support. But to set up the project for success requires a lot of research, list-making, and coalition building, so that when we send out the invitation, there is an understanding of our motives and a sense of trust among everyone involved.
BB: Right, I mean there are real rural areas that are hard to reach via marketing or any other type of advertising. How could Now Be Here reach those creators? I keep thinking of rural America, South America, the Caribbean. These are just a few examples. The world is so vast, and though technology has given us the ability to connect with one another, what happens when we fail to connect with deserving creators? In any case, I am truly impressed with the outreach you have accomplished and with how many artists you have included on the platform. It gives me hope. It isn’t an easy task to organize, monitor, and keep producing such a monumental project. How have you been supported? Who makes up your core team—lovers of the arts who continue to supply such energy and vibrancy to your vision? It truly is wonderful to witness how Now Be Here continues to unfold.
KS: I agree, outreach is hard work. I believe in the slow development of relationships. Now Be Here was not done by posting on Facebook or Instagram and assuming folks would see that one post. It was done by making a lot of lists, calling a lot of friends, and then sending a direct letter to the artists. In each city that the project traveled to, I connected with a local artist collaborator. This was very important because I don’t know these communities. I know how to organize and how to make this project easy to execute, but the specific people to involve—that is a local thing.
As for how to connect, we will need to connect with the local communities to share with them how the project has unfolded and grown, and to keep them informed about the new artists who are in the directory. The more artists who are included in the directory, the easier it will be for curators and collectors and galleries to go to one place to find those artists. This was the take away from the photo: it was powerful to see the hundreds of artists to choose from, but without an easy way to see their work, it was difficult to connect with them. Once we share the project with and listen to the local artists, then the artists themselves can decide whether or not it is a good fit for them.
As for your question about how I’m supported, I can emphasize that friends, family, and artists need to support other artists. I have to say the parent network has been a big source of support. Being a parent connected me with folks I never would have met in the art world. These parents are really incredible, and they bring insights and ideas which build in a ‘yes and…’ aspect of the project. The greatest inspiration, though, comes from the artists themselves. This is a very engaged community of creators that responds helpfully when I send surveys. I don’t want to do work that no one wants done, so I send surveys occasionally to gauge the artists’ interest in topics. This is how the RESOURCES section came about. It is based on a survey I sent out a few years ago concerning what topics artists wanted teach-ins and conversations about. What came of that survey was a clear need for what a friend described as an Artist Infrastructure Initiative. I spent nearly a year working with Christina Valentine and Cole M. James on developing the idea, and we were at the point of raising funds in order to provide workshops and community conversations at little or no cost. Of course, with Covid-19, all in-person events are on indefinite hold, so I moved this part of the project online.
BB: What has been the response from curators and art historians? Have you sent the website to curators encouraging him/her/them to browse the platform for potential candidates? Is there been an example of an artist who was selected out for an exhibition?
KS: Curators are using the directory and the response has been very supportive. I’ve had a few curators call me up with projects because they wanted to expand their artist list. I can’t say if folks have ended up in shows, no one has written and shared that. The metrics from the website tell a pretty good story on how the site is being used. For example of the top 10 most visited pages five are artists pages. Going further down the list it becomes almost only artists pages visited. Or take last week- of the top 5 pages visited 3 are artists and 1 is a genre search. That tells me that folks are looking for work within a specific genre.
I’ve started working with Patricia Ortega-Miranda who is a curatorial intern from University of Maryland. She is beginning a project tentatively called the Guest Curator Initiative. The concept is that curators will browse the directory and select one artist to focus on. They would then compose scholarship in the form of an interview or a written essay which will be posted on the project website and social media. It might take form of an interview or an article. There might be a more public share like a You Tube Series. We are currently constructing the project but this is one way she felt the project could expand and further support the artists. It is still early in development but I’m very excited about working with her on this concept.
BB: Have you taken Now Be Here overseas? Is this on the horizon?
KS: I would love to take the project overseas, but we can only do that once it is safe from a public health perspective.
BB: Tell me about your practice as a visual artist. Did your practice spark this idea? And if so, how?
KS: My practice has always included projects that invite others to contribute in some way. An early work called Can Control (2006) invited others to give me instructions for a word, mark, or shape to place onto a canvas in the form of a tape drawing. After I had received all the instructions, I removed the tape drawing which exposed the drawing as a white line (the exposed canvas) on an abstracted field of others’ instructions. Another example is a project from 2016 called Book Truck #1.” This project invited local artists and curators to lend whatever book they were currently excited about, inverting the information flow from "What is of interest there?” to “What are we interested in here?” The books were housed for the duration of the exhibition on a specifically constructed book cart, and each item was cataloged with a card containing lender information. After the exhibition, a reading list or “finding aid” was available to viewers to ensure proper documentation and the continued utility of the project. Visitors to the gallery were provided a comfortable place to sit and peruse what Los Angeles artists and curators were looking at/thinking about in 2016.
To answer your question about what inspired the Now Be Here project more directly: practicing in the art-world sparked the project. Having worked as a studio manager for John Baldessari from 1991- 2012, I had accumulated insider information on how folks were talking about women artists. By the time I left the studio, the conversations weren’t as overtly sexist, but I still wasn’t seeing anything near equity in collections or exhibitions for anyone other than white men. I also happen to be good at project management, so I have a skill set that makes me good at visualizing and organizing multi-step projects.
BB: In looking at your works Exercise in Perspective #2 (2017), Perspective #6 (2018), and Exercise in Perspective #2 (2017), I see geographical mappings to locations analogous to the markings used for locational experiences. The architectural structures seem to connect to other structures through a weblike threading that expands beyond an anchoring point. It almost seems as though you were tapping into a broader idea of connectivity through a passage of time and location. I also see the weblike network as your psyche moving through space. Or maybe it’s energy moving? Can you discuss these works, your thought process during this time of your life, and what was occurring in your professional sphere? Now Be Here was already in process during the time you produced these works, correct?
KS: Oh I love that project!!! Now Be Here #1 happened in August 2016, so these works were made afterward. They are more of a reaction to the election of Donald Trump. I began thinking a lot about how two people can look at one issue or situation and come away with vastly different opinions. I also began wondering how empathy works—is it innate, intuitive, learned, or unlearned? The series began with a wall drawing combining examples of international municipal architecture. I then asked viewers to become part of the work by adding their perspective line or point of view in the form of strings extending from the wall drawing. Through that action, one is prompted to physically and emotionally recognize how their perspective interacts with others’. I set out simple rules: in adding a new perspective line, one could lift up or push down, but not remove, another perspective line. Overall, it is a series about empathy and the web of perspectives one work can inspire. When we did this project at VOLTA NY in 2017, it was fascinating because people would share their reasoning. My favorite comment was made by one person who said he or she only wanted to lift up others’ perspective lines, not push them down. In the end, I really wanted a sociologist to help make sense of all the reasons people shared concerning how their perspective lines moved/navigated the space.
The individual works in that series are dealing with context versus perspective. Each work has two parts: Context & Perspective. The context is a color block shape of a larger drawing, and the perspective is part of that drawing which is woven into the transparent frame by perspective lines. The series explores how one only sees/understands part of an issue, and never sees the full context.
BB: Where is your practice today? How has your work shifted or developed since 2016 when you started Now Be Here? Since your encounters with so many creators, have you been more enlightened in your practice as an artist and cultural producer?
KS: That’s a loaded question, my friend! My practice is still moving forward—I think. But Covid canceled much of what I had been working on for the past few years. There were ambitious reunions planned for Los Angeles and DC, and programming along with those. I also had a solo exhibition I had been working on for about a year, but that’s been pushed back. Yet there are also bright spots. The Now Be Here directory is amazing and a source of joy. I review each submission, so I get to know each artist. I’ve had curators call me and let me know how they are using the directory and how useful it is, and that is a big lift up. But beyond this, I really can’t articulate how this experience is moving my artistic path. For now, I’m just going to keep working at the pace I can handle while juggling being a mom and a partner. I’ll let you know once I get a bit further along and have a bit more perspective :)
Thank-you Beláxis for this opportunity to share the project and my work. I would like to encourage any woman-identifying or non-binary artists to join the directory HERE
Curatorial Efforts: Moving past the pandemic in the art world
A meaningful conversation with ShaLeigh Comerford:
opening the bridge of visual communication between the private and public, the social and political via dance.
opening the bridge of visual communication between the private and public, the social and political via dance.
All photos courtesy the artist, ShaLeigh Comerford
by Beláxis Buil
edited by Rachael (Global English Editing)
ShaLeigh Comerford is a caring human being who aims to democratize the human voice, the human touch, the human body, and the human experience through dance. She invites the dancer to collaborate through the choreographic process, seeking to open the bridge of visual communication between the private and public, the social and political. Each dancer shares their individual voice and story, vulnerabilities, points of view, and experiences—appointing each one as an advocate for people of all abilities.
Her profession in performance arrived at a young age, beginning with a lead role in Mill Mountain Theatre’s musical production of Alice in Wonderland. She later starred in Roanoke Children’s Theatre’s premiere production and touring version of Charlotte’s Web. Theater beckoned her. She was born to lead through the performing arts. Later, ShaLeigh apprenticed with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and has performed with Keigwin & Company, Tina Croll & Company, Dendy Dance Theater, Carolina Ballet, and Martha Clarke. Next, she performed in the restaged Batsheva Dance Company’s Minus Sixteen and an official music video for Blind by Christian Loffler.
Her list of accolades include the MAP Fund, Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Durham Arts Council, North Carolina Arts Council, Symonds Family Foundation, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, Dance Theatre Workshop, North Star Church of the Arts, and NC Artist Relief Fund. She is a recipient of the 2018 Ella Pratt Fountain Emerging Artist Award and the 2013 Institute of Contemporary Art and International Cultural Exchange Award.
I approached ShaLeigh after connecting with her in a very magical and special way. I wanted to discuss her practice, her approach to creating with other human beings during a very tumultuous and sensitive time in American history, and life during the pandemic, and find out where she sees herself 10 years from now.
BB: ShaLeigh, I am truly honored to share this time with you and have our readers learn more about you, your work, your collaborators and your projects. I would like to start with your heritage. Can you tell me more about your family, background, ancestors, and life in America?
SC: Thank you, Belaxis. I am so honored to be here with you! I was born in Roanoke, Virginia, a beautiful valley surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am the second oldest of five. My early life was a bit unusual. Part of my early childhood was spent at the Prema Dharmasala Monastic Ashram in Bedford, Virginia. Due to my parents’ interest in spiritual communes, we then passed through Illinois and eventually landed in Texas. We returned to Virginia just in time for my older sister and me to start first grade. My sister and I spent as much time being raised by our grandparents as our parents. Both of my grandfathers were drivers. My mother’s father was a famous Nascar driver who passed away before I was born. My father’s father, who we called Pawpaw, was a yellow cab driver. We lived with him and my granny when we returned to Virginia.
BB: I read that you are part Irish and Native American. Which of your parents is Irish? Who is Native American? What Nation?
SC: This is such an important question for me. I identify as Native American and Irish; both come from my father’s side. Due to mental illness, very little information was passed down to my mother from her mother. All the knowledge we have was passed down from my granny (my father’s mother) through stories. Unfortunately, there were very few complete records kept of the Cherokee people. Finding proof of our heritage has been very challenging, but to this day, we have not given up. We still have dreams, which is how we know. But until we have proof, we can only self-identify, but not assert, benefit from, or truly claim our heritage.
BB: Did your upbringing influence your decision to become a choreographer? How so? When did you realize that physical language or physical storytelling was your calling?
SC: Being a big sister was definitely my biggest influence. I did my first choreography for my school talent show when I was in the second grade, but being the second eldest of five was definitely my greatest source of inspiration, love, play, caregiving, and imagination—which all go into storytelling. I often played the role of my siblings’ second mom and spent a lot of time caring for them. I was constantly making shows, telling stories, and casting them as my stars. I wanted to create magical worlds for them, full of wonder.
BB: Did you learn Native dance(s) from your family members? What about social dance(s) from Ireland? If so, has it shaped your practice in any way? I think about my family as I ask you this question. My siblings and I were taught every social dance from Cuba and performed them at talent shows. Well, to be more specific, we performed these dances at a variety of church talent shows. I remember feeling a bit awkward after each performance. I think this had to do with so many audience members being unfamiliar with Cuban social dances and then hammering us with questions after the show was over. I guess my family was actually educating the public by performing for mixed audiences, specifically for audiences highly concentrated with white American families. I do not know if my family was actually conscious of these performances being a form of education. I think my parents were aware, but they had a difficult time expressing their efforts through words. I remember many of the questions asked by the audience were a bit insulting. This was in the 80s and 90s when America was not like today. We have come such a long way but have so much further to go.
SC: That is such a powerful memory. I’m glad we have come such a long way, but couldn’t agree more that we still have much further to go. We grew up attending public pow wows, which included a lot of dances and performances, but we never learned any Native American or social dances. The only physical practice we had was walking in the woods, connecting to nature, and trying to walk without sound like our ancestors when they would go hunting. My mother would always tell me, “walk softly on Mother Earth,” even in the house. I think that is why I began walking on my toes at an early age. But the experience of feeling so connected to nature and greater spirits has probably informed every work I have ever made. My work tends to find its purpose rooted in interconnectedness and communal responsibility. It is the stories that still echo loudest through my practice and philosophy.
BB: America is finally waking up to its real history but are we handling each confrontation the right way? I tune into the news and keep seeing one aggressive act after another. I am exhausted by it all. So many of us want to begin to heal from so much trauma. How do you heal through your practice? How do you heal others?
SC: It is a painful time. As a culture, I think we are just beginning to learn how to see and hold our lived and inherited wounds collectively. We keep running toward illusory safety in polarization, divisiveness, and tribalism as a socially prioritized spectacle over unity in our digitized society. Being seen and heard is still a priority over creating change and healing—tribal comfort over tribal change. Identification has become a new form of othering rather than honoring. We have such a long way to go, but I am grateful for the public coverage, conversations, challenges, and discourse happening now more than ever before in my lifetime. I think reactionary behaviors and beliefs result from both exposing and being exposed, while language and true understanding need time to be cultivated and, most importantly, decolonized. So much has been broken, betrayed, silenced, stolen, misunderstood, and victimized. True healing can only begin once we learn how to speak and feel togetherness, once we remember that we are all in this together and begin daring to imagine wearing each other’s stories. I hope for a time where we begin to create new experiences of empathy, new experiences of “us,” even with all our brokenness and complexities. If we can learn to truly see and utilize our privileges, we will discover our communal responsibilities and where to use our power of influence to benefit those who do not share the same.
For me personally, as a survivor, it was dance that helped me survive. I had to learn to love what I hated and what was broken. This has been a very long journey, but it has been deeply life-changing and transformative. On my journey, I found the most healing through a kind of symbolic dying, so to speak. I learned that suffering comes from resisting what is there, and what is there lives in our bodies as much, or possibly even more, than in our minds. Slowly, I began to learn how to cultivate a willingness, and later a language, that encouraged movement to arise from permitting what is there—from turning away from details and homing in on pure sensation, pure emotion, pure energy. It is how our bodies are constantly communicating with us. When we learn how to listen, we learn how to heal. And to listen, we must silence the stories, become general, become empty, and let go. This has led to some remarkable physical and emotional healing in myself and others. While I cannot take credit for healing others, I can guide them to listen to themselves so they can heal. They are their own best teachers. As a guide, I can only take them as far as I’m willing to go. So my practice asks that I prepare myself to empty, to not know, to die again, to what's there. It sounds intense, but we actually have a lot of fun in my ShaGa classes. It becomes a celebration of just being as we are together. We learn to wear our laughter and tears on our flesh, and we share the same joke.
BB: As an educator, what differences and strengths can you point out between dance and theater culture—as a viable form of education—compared to pop-culture and mainstream entertainment? I see mainstream entertainment having such a strong grip on people. Popular culture and figures influence people’s perspectives and lifestyles, whereas fine arts, dance, and theater move smaller numbers of people and in other ways. Do you think that will ever change? What about 20–30 years from now?
SC: What a great question. While I don't think it will change, I do think things will adapt, and ebb and flow like the ocean of current trends. I think people will always look for a reflection of their own resonance, and art that meets the needs of the time will thrive. I think dance and theater have begun to meet the world of pop-culture and mainstream entertainment over the past 10 years, and it has taken a bit of a back seat to commercial commodities. Appropriation has been a challenge here but simultaneously reveals the depth of its stolen value. I’d like to think that audiences in 20–30 years would still need dance and theater as much as artists. But right now, we are still headed on an unknown virtual reality path of mass consumption over creation.
BB: There is a big difference between fine art/dance/theater and mainstream pop-culture and entertainment. I find that our world—fine arts/dance/theater—is a lot more bold, cerebral, and risk-taking. Maybe this scares people, especially the cerebral, as it seems people like to be spoon-fed. What do you think?
SC: Lol. I think you are spot on with the generalities. But I also think people like to dig for meaning. It is amazing to think that artists were once only allowed to create if the divine anointed them, and philosophers were the scientists of the times. It makes me hopeful that deep down, we still want meaning. And if this is truly the case, perhaps we will lean in to wonder and revel in the bold, cerebral, risk-takers once again.
BB: Behind the scenes and artistically, you are soaring. Your work has opened critical discussions about identity, culture, and lifestyle. One of the many aspects I find intriguing about your work is your desire to democratize the role of the choreographer, the process necessary to create the work and the final work of art. Having a collective of such wonderfully diverse dancers as movers and voices means having the privilege of fresh eyes, perspectives, and interpretations of dance/movement to further develop your ideas. It also means a single work can take on a plethora of variations. When you begin working with dancers, do you approach them with a topic you want to discuss publicly or ask them what they are interested in investigating? What does this process look like in the studio?
SC: Since I began creating, I have been fortunate enough to get the idea for my next project while developing the current one. But our process is to explore these ideas together, with fresh eyes and open minds. We talk a lot. I bring my ideas as generalities and curiosities, not concrete objectives or assumptions. I aim to leave room for questions and truly engage everyone who shares the space to explore. It is important to me that everyone feels a personal honor and investment in the work and creates a platform for parts of themselves they want to share to emerge. The process then becomes a meeting of us, together, at this moment. We question and create together more like co-creators than a director and dancers. I may still come in with movement from time to time, but even that is open for personal research so it can become the dancer’s own. I have never wanted to see just a dance performance stage; I want to see people. Together, we find moments where they can live in the work and experience a part of themselves authentically. They are integral to the process, and we find our yeses together. The only difference between the dancers and myself is that I am the Virgo worker bee organizing all the moving parts and things that need to happen to run a company. Truly, I am their advocate and fundraiser. But in the studio, our only job is to cultivate truth, honor, and togetherness, even through difference.
BB: Typically, we would like to believe the dance (and art) world are advocates of social change, social justice, or even social reform, but the truth is both worlds can be quite cruel. Change does not seem to happen until an issue hits the mainstream. People find out when a social icon, celebrity, or influencer calls out a topic, and then there’s a huge wave of support from fans, institutions, and other celebrities. I think dancers, choreographers, and visual artists do not have the same amount of support and can even be frightened to speak out at times. A dancer could be experiencing discrimination based on their gender, lifestyle, or cultural practice. How do you encourage your team to speak out if facing a challenging situation?
SC: Wow, you are so spot on. This is so important and is actually an intentional practice for us—the practice of speaking difference and using difference to create opportunities for change. Right now, we are creating a new work with and for the low vision and blind community. One of our exercises is the practice of voicing our yeses and noes. This can be so hard for anyone, but especially dancers and individuals with different abilities, as we are literally trained to shut up and do rather than show up and say. We also have an ethics manual that everyone must sign—every collaborator and crew member. The manual offers a shared agreement of expectations between each individual and gives numerous outlets for support should they encounter a challenging situation.
BB: So how’s life and work been during the pandemic? Talk about A Thousand Ways to Say Hello.
SC: A lot has changed for us, just as for everyone. We have had a lot of dancers transition out of the company. The pandemic presented tremendous mental health challenges for many of us, especially dancers who thrive on moving in a community. Priorities shifted, as they should. A Thousand Ways to Say Hello was an effort to stay connected with our community and our dancers. We also wanted to challenge the kinds of connection possible and what it would mean to feel a three-dimensional world, even while connecting through our computers at home. The heart of the work resided in dissolving what felt like barriers—it aimed to share the experience as wholly as possible. The work was a poetic virtual performance that included an interactive score of instructions, questions, prompts, and physical directives designed to create an embodied experience. I am honestly not sure if we were successful in our goals. I don't think audience members actually participated but rather still plainly observed. But we were tremendously successful in creating something very special that connected us to each other and to our community.
BB: Is there anything you would like to share with our readers that I have not covered or asked?
SC: Yes! We will be premiering our next world premiere entitled enVISION: Sensory Beyond Sight, May 27th to 29th, 2022 at The Fruit in Durham, North Carolina. The work is an interdisciplinary and immersive project that does not require a viewer’s vision. It was born from a desire to create a dance-theater performance that would be accessible to both audiences with a sense of vision and people who live with a visual impairment. In a collective process, the multi-phase project brings a team of collaborators together around a single challenge: to tell a story through dance and theater beyond their visual dimension, by elaborating new atmospheres and close interaction between the performer and the spectator. The work aims to offer a sensory approach to designing an experience of dance and theater. Sighted audience members will wear a banner on their eyes as they enter and throughout the work, so both sighted and unsighted people share the experience. We hope this work will lead to new initiatives and approaches that continue to evolve inclusive practices and opportunities that focus on ability and what we can do as artists to create experiences of dance in a more meaningful way.
BB: I look forward to seeing what ShaLeigh Dance shares next with the dance community. Thank you for all your work.
SC: Thank you for creating a platform for artists to share their work and ideas. I have enjoyed the depth and thoughtfulness of your questions and sharings. Your passion is palpable and such a gift to all of us. Thank you for all you do!