In the Midst: Interdisciplinary Art and the Walker Art Center
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Sightlines

In the Midst: Interdisciplinary Art and the Walker Art Center

Kennis Hawkins performs a solo in Maria Hassabi's STAGING (2017) in the Walker's Gallery One. Behind her is a costume worn by Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951).

I sit on the steps between Gallery One and Two, leaning against the wall, my breathing slow and measured. I can’t remember the last time I shifted my position. In front of me, a few feet away, are dance costumes displayed on mannequins; carefully arranged on white pedestals, they seem like sculptures. To my left is a brightly colored set piece by Robert Rauschenberg made of a series of diaphanous squares of fabric and rectangles of plywood. It is bright, almost garish, most of it plastered with layers of old comic strips and paint. It is the performer in front of me who has caught my attention, though. Like me, they are largely still, only the steady rise and fall of their chest betraying their aliveness. They lie on their side, an arm beneath their head, legs akimbo. Then, ever so incrementally, they begin to move: a silver shoe slowly sweeps upwards across the marble floor, shoulders roll forward and down, bringing the dancer’s chest flat against the floor. The whole movement sequence takes a full minute; I count out the seconds to myself as I watch. A few more breaths, the limbs relax, and then their body returns to near stillness.

While the above happened some weeks ago now, the kinesthetic memory of watching dancer Kennis Hawkins move in the galleries has stayed with me. Hawkins was one of nine performers in New York–based choreographer Maria Hassabi’s new piece, STAGING. Hassabi, invited to respond to the Walker Art Center’s exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, was the first artist commissioned to premiere a piece under the auspices of the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Art Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Common Time focuses on Merce Cunningham’s decades-long collaborations with visual artists and composers who created sets, costumes, and compositions for his dance works. Watching Hassabi’s dancers reclining on the gallery floors next to the work artists like Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns produced for Cunningham, I was struck not only by the presence of the dancers’ bodies in the gallery but also by how each revealed the ephemerality of the art objects around them.

I have seen Hassabi’s work before—and performed in it—and this time as I sat on the gallery stairs, my mind drifted from the dancer’s precise performance to imagining the temporal performances of the static art objects—the costumes, the décor—sharing the gallery. The various costumes have faded and changed over time: their colors muted, the knit fabrics stretched and a bit saggy now. The paint on Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae (1954/1976) is cracked, the thin fissures in the layers of pigment spreading like fault lines across its surface. The verbs “hanging” or “placed” no longer seem apt to describe how the objects in the exhibition are installed. Rather, the artwork seems to cling precariously to the gallery walls, the longevity of their chemical composition and, thus, their own ephemeral materiality foregrounded by the presence of Hawkins and the other dancers. Interdisciplinary art or curatorial endeavors ask us—as museum-goers, scholars, historians, curators, or institutions—to reimagine what it is we know about art. The dancer is always becoming sculpture; the painting is always becoming ephemeral.1

Publicity postcard for Coco Fusco and Guillermo Goméz-Peña’s Two Undiscovered Amerindians Discover the West, performed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on September 12, 1992 in conjunction with The Year of the White Bear, a multidisciplinary program that also included a theater piece, a radio show, a series of PSAs shown on the Twin Cities’ public access TV station, and a gallery exhibition. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center Archives

The term “interdisciplinary” is a slippery one, defining as it does scholarly pursuits or aesthetic practice that fall in between established disciplines or genres. As a prefix, “inter” comes from the Latin and means: between, among, in the midst of, mutually, reciprocally, together, or during. The meaning of the prefix shifts, though, as one moves through these various definitions. While between might describe an artwork, for example, that slips between conventional classifications (e.g. painting, sculpture, drawing, dance, theater), in the midst of or together seemingly defines interdisciplinary—and thus the art it modifies—as central, not tangential, to artistic production. To be in the midst of something is to be, quite obviously, in the middle of it, a phrasing that offers both a temporal (“we were in the middle of our conversation”) and a spatial (“I was in the middle of the room”) meaning. Together, in a similar vein, implies proximity and simultaneity. Interdisciplinary art, then, is not tangential to or beside anything, but is, instead, central to contemporary practice. To understand interdisciplinary art in this way is to fully acknowledge it as pivotal to the mission of an institution like the Walker and to contemporary art more broadly.

The Walker currently finds itself addressing such definitional concerns as well as the larger implications of interdisciplinary art and what exactly the term might encompass. In the summer of 2016, the center received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to advance the study of “interdisciplinary” art. The initiative, funded for three years, was imagined in the initial grant narrative as encompassing three threads: research into the Walker’s history with “interdisciplinary” artists; the development of curatorial and programming expertise around commissioning interdisciplinary works by contemporary artists; and the use of interdisciplinarity as a methodology to reimagine the Walker’s archival and collecting apparatuses. The initiative aims to generate a set of best practices for art centers and museums increasingly confronted with contemporary art that engages multiple artistic genres and trajectories of art historical development. As the Walker passes the six-month mark of working on the initiative, this essay aims to pause and reflect upon the various ways in which interdisciplinarity has shifted—and will continue to shift—the center’s workings.

This is the first in a series of essays dedicated to explaining and exploring the initiative. Beyond outlining the project, however, this series discusses interdisciplinarity as a type of performance, which shifts how the Walker and its employees work, think, and, indeed, imagine art. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, is not simply the focus of the Mellon Initiative, but it in practice functions as a disruptive force, challenging the institution’s current structure. This series is divided into three subsequent installments: choreographing interdisciplinarity, displaying interdisciplinarity, and archiving interdisciplinarity. While each modifier—choreography, display, and the archive—carries a rich theoretical history, each also maps onto the initiative’s various threads: embodied practices, exhibition, and the ways the center collects and archives work.

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation (raft version), November 9, 1974. Performed as part of a weekend of dance performances by acclaimed American choreographer Trisha Brown, Raft Piece, as the work is now titled, is one of the historic art events the scholars in the Mellon Initiative are researching. The above photograph is one of the few images that documents Brown’s performance in Loring Park, a public park adjacent to the Walker. Original cast included: Carmen Beuchat, Trisha Brown, Caroline Goodden, and Sylvia Palcios.

The next installment in the four-part weekly series, Choreographing Interdisciplinarity, frames interdisciplinary work as a type of choreography. Here I draw upon the way dance studies scholars increasingly define “choreography”; it does not simply describe a set of movements performed in a particular order.2 Rather, it also functions as a way of discussing how we become conditioned by larger social or political structures to move and respond—both literally and metaphorically—in particular ways.3 How, for instance, does an institution or a city plan dictate the way an individual navigates a given system or space? While terms like power, agency, or control might get at similar concerns, choreography draws our attention to the body and how it moves. (So, for example, we might discuss the current administration and progressive protest movements as caught in a tense choreography, in which the president’s policies produce a set of embodied responses from critics: i.e. acts of protest in public spaces.) The Mellon Initiative is designed such that employees from distinct curatorial and programming departments come together—in proximity and simultaneity—to discuss a set of interdisciplinary projects. This design shifts in embodied ways how those employed at the Walker work: different types of conversations, collaborations, or meetings emerge. Choreographing Interdisciplinarity introduces the term as an institutional choreography that disciplines staff working across the Walker to move together in novel and innovative ways.

In Displaying Interdisciplinarity, I question how the knowledge produced from such interdisciplinary “choreographies” is revealed to a public. Such questions explore the pragmatics of mounting exhibitions of hybrid artworks. Is it possible, for example, to capture the ephemerality of live performance in a museum gallery? How does interdisciplinary art require a curator to think differently about her practice such that non-gallery or stage spaces are activated as exhibition platforms? And, perhaps, most radically, does the act of trying—and perhaps failing—to display interdisciplinary work within the Walker alter how the center understands its approach to art practice? Here I also discuss how such curatorial innovation is challenging the center to reimagine display conventions: the art installation becomes an activated stage space, the wall didactic becomes the program notes. This installment outlines examples of how the Walker is experimenting with its various exhibition and programmatic platforms to generate novel ways of presenting art to the public.

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966/1998), as installed in the 2016 Walker exhibition Less Than One. One of Monk’s earliest stage works, it was first performed at Judson Church in New York City in 1966. Working with the Walker, Monk transformed the original performance into a three-channel video installation, which in 2010 was brought into the center’s collection. It’s one example of how scholars and curators might collect performance or time-based works into museum collections.

In Archiving Interdisciplinarity, the final section of the series, I question how interdisciplinarity challenges us to reimagine what an archive might be and what it might contain. Key to the mission of most museums is collecting, preserving, and archiving artifacts or art works. Quite pragmatically, preserving and cataloguing interdisciplinary work often exceeds museums’ current archival conventions. How does a time-based performance find its way into an archive best suited for preserving textual documents? How is a multidisciplinary art piece catalogued in a museum’s collection? While such questions are leading to material shifts in the archival and collecting procedures of many institutions—the Walker included—the challenge of interdisciplinary art goes beyond simply expanding traditional classification systems to include performance or time-based art. Interdisciplinary art—and the practice of working and thinking across genres and disciplines—fundamentally asks scholars, curators, and archivists to question what exactly an archive is. As the Walker acquires and presents ever-more interdisciplinary art that slips between classifications, we must imagine the archive not as a stable collection of genre-specific entries but as a constellation of ever-shifting propositions. The archive is unsteady, composed not out of set classifications but of those things that slip and fall between categories. The performance is a sculpture, is a painting, is a sonic work, is a multiple, is a performance again.

On a recent afternoon, I walked through the Merce Cunningham: Common Time galleries again. A few other museum-goers were there, grouped in small clusters in front of various works. It was quiet, mostly just the sounds of the various film clips running in the galleries. Hassabi and her dancers were gone, having only performed for the 10 days following the opening of the exhibition. I stood on the steps, in much the same place as I had sat so many weeks earlier to watch Hawkins’ slow solo. Ever so slightly, the art works were still performing, incrementally dancing their slow, slow choreography of disintegration.


Footnotes

1 Art critics and curators described Hassabi’s previous work for a visual art context, PLASTIC, as akin to sculpture. Thomas J. Lax, “Maria Hassabi Glances,” MoMA Brochure (2015): 2–11; Raimundas Malašauskas, “o0,” Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, exhibition brochure, unpaged; Aram Moshayedi, “Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC” (Exhibition essay, Los Angeles, 2015), 1–4.

2 Dance Studies, as an academic discipline, emerged in the mid-1980s. Forwarded by such scholars as Susan Leigh Foster, dance studies challenges the conventions of dance history, which sought to articulate the origins of particular dance forms and movements or the biographies of individual choreographers or dancers. Foregoing historical chronologies, dance studies imagines dance—and related concepts like movement, choreography, and the body—as lens through which to view broader social and political contexts.

3 See scholarship by Foster and Randy Martin, amongst others, including: Susan Leigh Foster, Choreograph Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (Routledge: New York, 2011) and Choreographing History (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1995). Randy Martin, Critical Moves: Dance Studies in Theory and Politics (Duke University Press: Durham, 1998).

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