Down with Romance!
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Down with Romance!

Sarah Michelson’s Tournamento, 2015

Commissioned to share two distinct perspectives on New Circuits: Curating Contemporary Performance, critic/poet Claudia La Rocco and writer/curator Chris Sharp decided instead to share their viewpoints as a series of email correspondences penned in the days following the Walker’s recent curatorial convening.

Hello Chris.

I hope you’re well, on your way to recovering from those 48 hours of words, words, words… At some point toward the end I texted a friend, a dance-artist, “Oh my gosh I feel like I’ve been in a black hole. I’ve done nothing but sit since Sunday. My legs hurt.” I received this reply: “Yes, a whole room of lumps deciding my entire future.”

Ha! It’s something I think about a lot, actually: how this energetic form is bounded, enabled, strangled, so often by the inert. Maybe this is why there is so little support for dancers (in visual and performing arts). The author, not the actors, are rewarded.

And but so. Where do we begin? I’m so glad we’re combining our pieces; feels too overwhelming and lonely to do it the other way, and also it would be easier to stick to our little pockets of territory that way. Maybe we get somewhere else like this.

Maybe also good to start in one’s territory, as well? Some things that come to mind, always, for me (in no particular, conscious order):

• In his conversation with Ralph Lemon and Sarah Michelson, Philip Bither asked, “If museums don’t collect dance and preserve it, who else is going to?” So often, it seems, the conversation starts already from the assumption that this is necessarily good, to collect, that it does no harm. I go back and forth on this, and typically I end up in the deeply ambivalent center.

• Back to lack of support for dancers. I still hold out hope that museums will do the right thing here, in a way that many of the monied places in the performing arts haven’t–though I have the fear that they might instead be seen as a variant of art handlers, and we all know how that ends… The class issues are fascinating, and how they tie, inevitably, to language. Maison becomes mansion, haus becomes house.

• I do worry about the colonizing drive in the visual arts, that dance will get written out of the picture (as, for example, when Maria Hassabi’s work is talked about only as it relates to sculpture and to performance art, nevermind that her work depends on highly trained dancers, coming from various lineages that read clearly in their bodies).

BUT. If the performing arts status quo (hello, Lincoln Center; hello, Brooklyn Academy of Music) can’t get with the program and see all of these choreographers as hugely important artists, but still insists on ghettoizing them as weird, fringe, experimental, avant-garde (kill me), emerging (see previous parenthetical), then maybe this world deserves to be written out.

Friday, October 2, 14:47

Hello Claudia,

Yes, on the road to recovery from a very dense 48 hours. Still digesting it all. Everything from Sarah Michelson’s Tournamento on Sunday evening to Ralph Lemon’s lecture performance Scaffold Room: (Memory) Refraction #1 on Monday night, among many other things, and words, words, words as you say. This in itself was filled with extreme ups and downs. I have to confess that my initial reaction to Michelson’s theatrically eventful non-event was one of vehement loathing. What I took to be its gleeful, self-congratulatory inscrutability gradually morphed, by dint of sheer repetition, duration, and the bewitching understatement of Ohio (the dancer), into something altogether strange. It wasn’t a question of becoming stranger through repetition, but the tiny perversions of and departures from the inscrutable model and its unapologetic, anti-virtuosic insistence on itself that eventually pushed it into an almost delightful register.

Lemon’s lecture performance, on other the hand, was a tour de force of restraint and pathos, of restrained pathos, no less apologetic in its way. Its measured deployment of a deluge-like language offered a nice counterpoint to the searching of a lot of the day’s comments. It felt absolutely human and vital–and when I say human, I mean compassionate. And, quite frankly, sitting there watching it, I wished people I loved were sitting there with me (which so rarely happens to me when experiencing art); me and my coeur d’artichaut walked out of there wanting to hug people.

Like yourself, an essential concern for me going into this convening (and subject in general) is a certain ambivalence about contemporary art’s embrace of performance, and more importantly, contemporary dance. While I love it for the simple fact that it provides more opportunity to encounter the form, I am also suspicious. It seems somehow taken for granted, or not sufficiently interrogated. Of course, one of the great things about contemporary art is its almost reckless will and capacity to accommodate a multitude of interests and disciplines, but what inevitably comes with that is the question of doing so responsibly (which is what this convening was, at least in part, about). I am also suspicious about contemporary art’s motives. What are its motives here? People like performance? Contemporary dance? (For me, two different things). Really? Is there not more to it than that?

I think one elephant in the room that was touched upon, but not sufficiently addressed in the last panel of the convening, Commissioning and Acquiring Performance, is the commodification of dance. On numerous occasions, MoMA’s Ana Janevski directly expressed a healthy skepticism of the transformation of dance into collectible form, meanwhile Chuck Helm [of the Wexner Center for the Arts] focused primarily on the logistical and ethical issues surrounding the acquisition of performance, but otherwise the impact, ontological, formal or otherwise this might have on the form, not to mention discourse, was not really broached.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


Performance and dance–two different things, yes! Very glad you said that. Somebody (was it you?) said to me that theater was about to become the new fashion in visual art, and you can see this happening a bit, but I’m skeptical that it will occur, as so far it’s only a very narrow register of dance that gets considered for museum performance. And that’s fine, I suppose, but it does mean that the gene pool becomes rather incestuous, rather quickly, and that the understanding and history of dance in the visual arts stays terribly skewed (to your great point on doing it responsibly). I’d be curious to hear your perspective on this–whether it seems like a problem, an inevitability?

And can you also say more about commodification? Of course, this has already happened in the performing arts, in numerous ways (what is touring, if not this? Or the annual conference of performing arts presenters?), which doesn’t get taken into account when people hold dance up as a form that subverts capitalism. We are, after all, in an experience economy.

It does make me think about how the commodity is shaped, which is perhaps what you are thinking about also. Back to Sarah Michelson: intriguing to see her continue to play with duration (almost six hours of dance!), while breaking the experience up into (or funneling it through) these short, intense bursts by individual performers; she has in the past talked about the radically different ways in which people consume experiences in the performing and visual arts, and of course at the Biennial many people walked out of her show, which just doesn’t happen in theaters full of dance watchers. So in her next Whitney show she underscored this point by placing the stage in between the audience and the exit (no sneaking out!), and at the Walker goes in the opposite direction.

I really appreciated Ana’s willingness to express ambivalence, and for Chuck underscoring a commissioning and production history that (maybe?) folks outside of dance don’t know. I admit, I was expecting the convening to be more about brass tacks, and more contentious.

Ralph Lemon, yeah, what to say? He makes us write all the embarrassing things.

Tuesday, October 6, 10:43

Hey hey–

Yes, performance and dance seem to be two different things (although Sam Miller in a discussion we had walking down the street one night disagreed with me; would like to know more about why he thinks this) for the simple reason that dance participates in and is the product of a very specific history and discourse replete with an entire set of highly codified conventions with which it must always contend. Meanwhile performance art, while clearly not devoid of a discourse, is liable to function within much more open parameters by virtue of how protean it is, not to mention where it can take place (anywhere). In other words, it would seem to be me that performance is lot less codified than dance. This is not to say that the two can’t touch upon each other, but they remain distinct, I believe, for these very reasons.

As for what you say about theater, that’s interesting. This brings to mind William Pope.L’s comment in the convening, when he basically said that nothing truly radical has happened since the ’20s, and that if performance, as a form, were to become more interesting, it would be by scaling up and introducing character and more narrative. There is new theater in Berlin, where I have only been once, so I don’t really feel qualified to judge it. But the reports I had of it were that it was very much a willfully amateur affair.

I agree with what you say about the narrow register of dance for museum performance, and I think there is a explanation for this. It is no coincidence that until relatively recently, most of the dance shown in museums or in the context of contemporary art was quite conceptual, e.g., Tino Sehgal (questionable), Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Boris Charmatz, or, say, Alexandra Bachzetsis (although very different from the former group, which, as we already know, is a group). I think this is primarily because such practices are particularly accessible to a non-dance–initiated audience, and this for two reasons. One is that they are operating in a conceptual mode which, for those familiar with contemporary art and conceptualism, becomes immediately legible, and perhaps even more importantly, because their process is inscribed in their presentation. They are processual. They have a tendency to explicitly reveal themselves and teach the viewer how to see them as they happen (I owe this insight, in part, to Hal Foster’s observation to the same tune in Bad New Days, and in part, to a discussion I had with an Italian curator from Rome a few years ago. Having apparently seen everything by Jérôme Bel, he professed himself to be a great fan of the choreographer, and yet his knowledge of contemporary dance was very limited. This seemed amazing to me. And yet I think it can perhaps be explained by what I wrote above). All that said, I think we’re entering a new phase of literacy of dance within contemporary art that goes beyond the processual and the conceptual (e.g., Maria Hassabi everywhere, luciana achugar in my and Gianni Jetzer’s exhibition Le Mouvement, Sarah Michelson at the Whitney, and Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker at Tate and WIELS, to name a few examples), and I think this is exciting. Do you see what I am talking about? Maybe you disagree.

And to respond to your question about commodification, you are of course totally right about living in an experience economy (a post-Fordist trope and attendant self-criticality that was totally absent from the convening–perhaps for the simple reason that the convening was essentially a lot more about practical and ethical issues than theoretical ones). But what I mean, and which I think is the source of Ana’s ambivalence, is not so much the economy that surrounds dance and its production, but treating a given piece like an object that can be bought and sold.

Medellin–Bogota (in flight)
Wednesday, October 7, 10:24 am

I wasn’t sure what to make of Pope.L’s comments around theater and performance art. Was he going after the old visual art blockade on theatricality? Of course, that hasn’t been in existence for awhile now as anything more than lip service. Look at any number of Performa commissions, which are essentially straightforward, mainstream plays, as just one example. But also when he talked about how much his refusal to have actors memorize lines ruffled feathers, it seems like he is shadowboxing here with a very specific, and traditional, theater world, because, of course, for decades now theater artists have departed from conventional plays, through devised theater and the like. Yet he seemed to be lumping everything together–or maybe I am the one making his argument less nuanced than it was (we had been listening to people talk for a long time at that point!). But this flattening of disparate histories within the performing arts happens all the time in the visual arts (and of course I am flattening these worlds myself, by talking of them as singular). Drives me nuts. (I mean, it’s no more appalling than when performing arts folks try to engage in visual art conversations without doing any research–but the performing arts has the [dubious!] advantage of not being in a position of power, and therefore not as scrutinized. The city only looks to the provinces for natural resources…)

I have to think about that, whether performance art is less codified than dance. Certainly, if you are talking about dance traditions like ballet. But once you get into mid-20th century experimentation in dance, and the resulting fractured landscape, I am not so sure. Both are bedeviled by their histories, and the audience expectations that grow up around them. In this way, maybe there is something of value in the audience illiteracy that comes from having dance in a visual art context?

Although, yes, I do think there is a growing literacy, especially in a younger generation of visual art curators, and perhaps as well this incremental broadening of what types of dance are held up by museums is simply a reflection that, in recent years, dance has increasingly turned away from the “non-dance” (stupid term) stranglehold, in which choreography and dance were separated and dance was seen as craft, female, lowly, while choreography was male (the stars were straight and white, inevitably) and from the neck up, hence conceptual (these are crude generalizations, but maybe useful for this conversation?). Artists like Michelson and Hassabi throw a gorgeous wrench into that neat little division. But still they are working in a discourse that can more easily be absorbed into a larger visual art narrative. And though I love the artists who are being taken up by museums and biennials these days, it’s very much the usual suspects, accompanied by a reinvention of the wheel.

I also think that dance has long been treated as a commodity in its own field. Again, touring! Presenters buy a show, or lease it, if you like it… Is that ultimately any different from the commodification you’re talking about? For me, and to a point brought up several times at the convening, the more pressing issue is who is allowed to control these works.? Fantastic that Huddle gets preserved, but is it then prohibitively expensive, or off limits altogether, for others? Again, this isn’t particular to visual arts: you see this in choreographic trusts, which can be huge bullies. Always this balancing act with keepers of the flames.

Did it bore you that the focus was on practical issues (was it?!)? Do you think there should have been more theory at play? I know there is often an impatience with these issues, as if they are vulgar. Funny (predictable?) that, given all the throwing around of Labor… Speaking of Pope.L, maybe my favorite moment in the entire convening was when he answered the Creative Capital (I think?) rep’s question about how to handle support for collaborative projects by saying that maybe we should all as a first step acknowledge the contortions artists (and arts organizations) go through in order to squeeze round projects into square grant applications. He used the phrase “hoo ha,” no? God bless him.

Brooklyn (still!)
Thursday, October 8

Unless you include theater, performance (art) does not have the same sense of tradition and history to rub up against and reject as dance. At least in the West, modern dance is largely unthinkable without ballet and postmodern without modern, etc. It is characterized by a series of influences and ruptures (for instance, I can think of no rupture more palpable, more articulated, than Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto). I mean, the very logic, however questionable it may be, of Performa supports what I am saying; can you imagine a dance festival/biennial predicated completely on amateurism? All that said, I’m glad you brought up the term “reinventing the wheel” (the ghost of this whole discussion) and the generative possibility of audience illiteracy. Perhaps there is no cultural production without a minimum of repetition.

Otherwise, I’m not sure if bored is the right way to describe it (in response to your question above about being bored by practical issues). What I took away from this was of a more practical order. For instance, I felt like the main thrust or point of inquiry in of the first panel, “Modeling New Platforms,” in Judy Hussie-Taylor’s presentation, was the issue of documentation or, more specifically, publications surrounding dance. This was a historicizing method she was avowedly willing to borrow from contemporary art. Meanwhile Kristy Edmunds’s spirited and charismatic presentation, deliberately unaccompanied by images, essentially advocated a practical working knowledge of the functioning and procedures of the various aspects the world of performance and the world of contemporary art. Practically speaking, it was about learning languages, histories, and procedures.

As for the panel that I led, “Site(s) of Performance,” with Adrienne Edwards, Kelly Kivland, Sam Miller, and Nate Young, I had hoped it would be a bit more contentious in so far as the general issue of sites of performance might be challenged a bit more, taken less for granted. I couldn’t (and still can’t) get Hal Foster’s question from Bad New Days out of my head when he asks, “Why has the performative returned as an almost automatic good?” Considering the confluence of the specific worlds of performance, dance, and contemporary or visual art, this seemed to be a given, something–the performative–-that everyone was already so invested in that this was not really a place to question this assumption. To address this more directly would have pushed the whole thing in a much more theoretical direction.

For me, the high points of the conference involved artists. Pope.L’s sophisticated straight shooting–such as you already mentioned–was enormously refreshing, and Maria Hassabi’s conversation with Aram Moshayedi brought up, if inadvertently, a number of the practical challenges of presenting that kind of work in an institutional setting, even the fact of where it happens and the importance thereof. For instance, when she spoke of the way people reacted to her–apparently kicking her (and she fucking kept dancing!)–outside of the Stedelijk Museum because she was not actually inside the museum, disclosed a very specific fissure at the heart of presenting this kind of work outside of the black box.

I’d be curious to know what you specifically felt was missing from the convening aside from arguing? What, for you, are some of the more urgent issues surrounding the conflation of these two strangely distinct worlds (performing art/dance and visual art)?

Mexico City
Saturday, October 10

Ah yes, that makes sense. I think I wasn’t understanding the system of your distinctions. I guess one could only say performance is as loaded with history if one doesn’t separate its development from a larger visual art history, but instead sees it as rubbing up against (great phrase), and in turn rejecting, centuries of object making. It makes me think: perhaps this is why dance is so often discussed in terms of institutional critique, because visual art is already primed to do this with bodies in space, and cannot in fact imagine them as anything other than refusal.

I realized I asked if you were bored because on the way out of Minneapolis a visual art curator remarked with some incredulity how much focus there was on practical issues, issues which I gather seemed to him simplistic and one-dimensional, and how boring this was. Something about it really struck me, and I have been trying to figure out what. I had dinner last night with several choreographers and dance artists/writers, and in our conversation there was such an emphasis on what one could see as purely practical things, but which I think led to very big philosophical questions–the question of the paltry hourly rate given to highly trained dancers doing performance art reenactments, for example, and how the dancers feel that this is a fundamental reflection of their expertise not being valued. And it’s hard to argue that it isn’t that, when you think that museums spend thousands upon thousands on an installation while nickeling and diming performers for a three-hour shift that, in reality, will eat up the entire day, once the amount of warming up and post-performance body care (all hidden or ignored costs, which the dancers subsidize–but, of course, they subsidize the dance world, too, which I’m reminded of every time I see a Kickstarter campaign launched so as to pay the dancers: &$$&%!!) is taken into account, plus the fact that a 1–4 pm shift, for example, scuttles one’s entire work day. I would have been really interested to have that conversation, for example–for the museum guy to say, “This is so boring!” and then to get into why he feels that and why this is offensive to others in the room–so as to more closely examine some of the values, and biases, we all carry around, and how those feed into what work is being presented, and how it is being presented, and how these decisions, in turn, are shaping future artistic production.

Along those same lines, yes! To talk more about these assholes kicking Maria and her dancers, and what that says about how a given society/culture looks at performers (“Why has the performative returned as an almost automatic good?” is floating around in there somewhere, I think?), how museum culture is/isn’t a reflection of that, what the museum’s responsibility is in all of this… and to have those lines of inquiry unfold in ways both practical and theoretical.

In general, I also think it would be really good to talk not about old versus new models, but about current ones. For example, in the performing arts for at least 15 years (I am sure longer, that’s just when I entered the conversation), there has been talk of the old ladder model–in which work in small NYC spaces would lead to Dance Theater Workshop/the Joyce Theater/Brooklyn Academy national touring–has imploded. But I haven’t heard an acknowledgment of that. For awhile now the model, for a very specific type of dance artist (such as Maria Hassabi), has been that a split evening at DTW (now NYLA) leads to a full evening, or works at PS 122 and the Kitchen, sparking attention from the visual art world and at the same time international festivals like ImPulsTanz, and then perhaps a Sunday Session at PS 1. Then Performa nibbles around, and then the Hammer, and then MoMA… And so the ladder is absolutely, absolutely there. I mostly do not see visual art curators attending to the work of choreographers while they are still developing in the performing art world, but of course the only way they get “discovered” is that they have been honing their voices at spaces like PS 122, Danspace, the Chocolate Factory, etc. What is good about this model? What is bad? Where is there room for improvement? What sort of work does it engender? What sort of work does it preclude? What are the gender, racial, class biases operating within it, who are the winners and losers, inevitably…all those questions, I would love to see the gatekeepers in both worlds really go at, in a space in which the artists could feel they had a platform to speak honestly without fear of repercussions?

Though maybe this is happening, only in small clusters, and maybe that is how it has to be. As one of the Walker attendees said, you can’t call a convening “two days of deal making,” so you have to have an excuse to get people together, give them something to resent, even. Because often I think what is happening now is that people are resenting each other (who gets credit for discoveries, for example, as if artists were continents) and feeling protective of their little plots of land (I will admit I feel this, when I see writers who have only focused on the visual arts plunge into writing about the performing arts, without having done adequate research, at the same time as everyone insists on the canard there’s no tradition of writing, scholarship, and critical analysis around dance and theater).

You? And also I want to hear more about your focus on this Foster question: why it stays with you, what for you are the questions behind that question…

Monday, October 12, 11:36

This model/ladder you discuss is interesting, and something that definitely needs to be discussed, both in ethical and historical, as in historicizing, terms. But to respond to your questions about Foster, I think I have a lot of suspicion around performance/dance in the museum as an automatic good because I see it being held up as this kind of imprimatur. It’s as if a commitment to a live, time-based art form somehow becomes a shorthand for authenticity, implicitly signifying an exemplary commitment to “art.” Such a belief, or even ideology, is buoyed up a by host of conflicting assumptions–to begin with, “authenticity” tout court, which necessarily implies some art forms are more authentic than others. This authenticity is implicitly predicated on a given relationship to the market, which assumes that the less money there is at stake, the more real a given art form is (e.g., performance and dance), and consequently, the more it is capable of redeeming art as an idea, as a cultural ideal (as something that transcends the pressures of the market:what trite bullshit*). The corollary of this is that in order for performance or dance to retain this specious and highly serviceable redemptive power, it must remain not so much theoretically as practically impoverished. Of course, I know all this sounds radically pessimistic. I do not necessarily mean to condemn the museum’s embrace of such practices; I’m just weary of the extent to which that embrace is motivated by an almost romantic agenda and the unexamined baggage that is liable to accompany that agenda.

*Why for instance don’t we see more performance and dance in Latin America? Latin America–my adopted context–is, after all, notorious for its allergy toward any kind of artistic practice which seems to cater to the so-called market. Indeed, were such practices intrinsically impoverished and alternatives to a market-based art economy, wouldn’t it make sense that performance and even dance would flourish in Latin America? Which is to say, shouldn’t we see more and not less of it there?

Monday, October 12

This might only mean I’m also radically pessimistic (which I like the sound of), but I appreciate all of the questions you’re asking here, and I agree that the emphasis on an authentic poverty is deeply limiting and deeply problematic. It somehow posits dance as the noble savage, while (as with so many forms of institutional critique enabled–indeed, created–by the institution) allowing the excesses to roll merrily along.

As we have to wrap up here: perhaps we might suggest “Down with Romance!” as the opening panel discussion of the (inevitable!) next round? Looking forward…

Tuesday, October 13, 14:55

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