Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes place in the galleries, thirteen times over the course of the exhibition’s five-month run.
Prior to the final performance of Costume Made of Nothing, I sat down with the performer, Brian J. Evans, who worked with Pope.L to develop this new piece. Join us on January 4, 2015, at 2 pm for Evans’s final performance, which coincides with the closing of Radical Presence.
Tell me about your background and training.
I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, but I moved to Gaylord, Minnesota when I was seven. I went to Gustavus Adolphus College for liberal arts and left with a dance major. I didn’t find dance until I was a sophomore and studied abroad as a junior, so I only had three semesters and two classes of dance training before I got into the field. I had always done performance and I got super lucky when one of my professors, who was in Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, set me up with an audition. At the end of two rehearsals they asked me to come dance as an apprentice, and eight years later I’m a professional performer and teaching artist.
How did you find out about the opportunity to perform in Pope.L’s piece and what was your audition like?
I found out about the audition from a friend of a friend, and when opportunities like that come up, I take them. So I looked at the video of the performance at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and my first inclination was that I didn’t want to do it. In this iteration the performer just stood there and put his arm into a hole in the wall, so I wasn’t so sure about it. But I did a little research on Pope.L and was impressed by what I found on Google. So I auditioned and went through the poses, and what then really peaked my interest was having a Skype conversation with Pope.L directly afterward. I remember he gave me directions to try out different movements, and he told me to go away and come back after thinking about it, but I decided to try to incorporate those instructions right then, on the spot. That’s when the collaboration started. I thought, ‘Good, let me try to do something that would inevitably start us on a process of collaboration.’
What was it like to work with Pope.L for that brief time that he was here in July? What was the working process?
There were three rehearsals, two to three hours each. In the first one, he said right up front that he’s not a choreographer and he’s not going to try to choreograph anything. He said that he would need me to collaborate with him to figure out the movements. He didn’t want to do what he did the other two times. The structure at the Walker is three times as big and is weight bearing. Right away we talked about his influences: Bauhaus and the German stylistic movements. We talked about character, and I thought to myself, ‘why the structure, why the costume?’
In the second rehearsal we got into it and he had this image of me hanging from the pipe. How to I get up there? Do I jump or crawl? So I improvised and crawled up and he said, “Yes, keep that.” We decided that I would say “Well” three times at different pitches and volumes. There are headphones attached to the piece, so what am I listening to? There were terms like ‘step and fetch it,’ ‘the funky chicken,’ and butoh—that’s where the walk came from. He would then send me away with different assignments like, how does this character walk, how does this thing look, how does he interact, why is he traveling, what does he do every day, and why does he continue to go to this structure? In the third rehearsal we had a set of instructions and a character sketch, and for opening night that’s what I had to work with. Since then, the character has evolved into a more multi-dimensional entity.
How has the audience reacted to this piece?
Pope.L and I talked about how it’s unimportant that there’s an audience. The character will do the performance regardless of an audience. There have been a lot of people that want to imitate me or block me when I’m moving through the space. I remember on opening night after it was done, Pope.L told me that this character doesn’t want to be touched, doesn’t want to be messed with, isn’t really inviting. I have to fight the temptation of allowing people to influence me. I don’t think this character is human so I don’t feel like I’m being mean to anybody, but I do find myself thinking, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t come close to me. I don’t know how I would react if you did.’
So it’s been interesting how people interact with me, whether they move or not. Older people tend to have a slightly more reserved reaction. I know I’ve startled people. Teenagers are always running away, but kids are fascinated. It’s performance art in a gallery, which is very different from performance on a stage. As a performer you’re trained to think that if people leave early you’re not doing your job correctly, but because this is not that, it’s been fine that some people stay for five minutes. It’s a different way of thinking about performance art.
Tell me how the performance has changed over time.
From the first time to today’s, and this was the twelfth time, it’s gone from more of a hollow character sketch of making sure I did all of the instructions right, to allowing myself to let the character interpret those instructions. That usually always changes because I, myself, as Brian, come to it differently everyday, because something’s happened or I’m thinking about something, or I’m totally focused, or I’m trying to reach a goal.
There were some performances where no one moved except for leaving and coming, and there were others where the audience would surround me and circle the structure. It’s different every time. When nobody is here I’m usually hoping that I don’t perform too quickly because there’s no one to feed off of. This was new today: when I was approaching the exhibition, I felt totally alone, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do my solo and no one’s going to see it and that’s fine.’ So that was a different mindset. I recognized people were watching me after a while, but my way into it was a solitary one.
The structure is like a prop or a second performer. How does its presence affect your performance?
I haven’t yet (maybe it will happen in the thirteenth performance) attached an identity to the structure. I will say that the structure does feel different. And that’s partly because of my physical stamina and how I’m able to approach it. The structure is the thing that keeps me grounded in what I’m doing. I always go back to it and everything is about that interaction, so I don’t ever really feel like I’m alone. Then it doesn’t really matter if anyone is watching, because this structure is consistent, unlike most things in my life [laughs]. Once we bolstered the structure, the thing became unbreakable. It’s always going to be there to support me.
Have you done any other performances that are like this—in the contemporary art realm, as opposed to performing arts, on a stage with a seated audience?
No, I’ve never performed when it’s called contemporary visual art. I’ve done things that are more along the lines of visual architecture or improvisations that had minimalistic movement parameters. This is something more in-depth. This performance has been different in that it’s just me and that structure. Every time I’ve done it, it’s gotten a bit more involved. Most of the time you don’t get to dive into a piece, you just have your weekend of performances.
Have you ever had to do something multiple times over the course of many months?
I’m part of a dance company, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, so we do a lot of touring. There are three or four full-length works that I’ve done anywhere from 30 to 50 times over the span of five months on tour. Costume Made of Nothing is different because it’s the same space, the same apparatus, the same lighting, the same area, and we’re shooting for the same duration. In the work I do with Stuart Pimsler we really want to know what the audience is thinking and feeling, and in this piece, I feel very autonomous. I wonder how many people saw me perform and what they felt and thought—and I’ll never know.
Pope.L asked me to record one of your recent performances with the idea that he would send you feedback and ask you to change aspects of the piece. I wonder how Pope.L envisions the final performance.
The little I interacted with him, I got the impression that he was very respectful of my process. The last thing he said to me, which has really influenced me, was that he was going to come by at some point. In the back of my mind I didn’t think he was actually going to, but because he said that, I always perform it like maybe he will that time. I think it was part of his plan.
Brian J. Evans of Gaylord, MN is currently in his seventh season with Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater. In addition to performing, he serves as the company’s Musical Director. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in dance. In 2009, he was recognized by the Star Tribune and the following year received a SAGE Award for Outstanding Performer. He also teaches at the Saint Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts and Young Dance, and served as Dance Program Administrator for SPDT at FAIR School Downtown. Evans has also worked with numerous directors and choreographers on productions throughout the Midwest and performed as a singer/dancer at Valley Fair, as well as appearing in a feature film.