When a bird flies into a house, a room, through an open window or door, how emphatic is the shift in space. There’s what the bird becomes when it enters a foreign environment—the agitated tizzy, fluttering, darting through the same air but with a drastic deviation from where it had just been. And then there’s the transformation of the bird in the eyes of those inside the room, those who inhabit the space. A visual danger, a swirling claustrophobia, something to do with motion and helplessness. A disruption. Panic. But then one realizes that it’s just a bird, or the bird finds a corner, a place to rest, hide, and disappear. The claustrophobia becomes capacious.
A few years ago, the conversation about dance in museums was interesting. Now, I’d rather talk about the post-part—after the bird has stilled. It’s an old conversation, but it’s different now. I’m interested in thinking about how it’s different now, and about how the difference has more to do with the conversation itself than anything else.
A few years ago (a lifetime ago, it seems), I wrote the following for a panel about “dance in the art world”:
At the moment my uber art question has to do with “the value of a thing.” The economy may be our “new sacred” (has been for some time!?). And, if so, what else is there to worship and/or disrupt? A silly and yet worrisome question. The distinction of the monetization of a thing vs. the value of a thing, and in the case of performance, the value of a moment.
I wait for the day when a museum acquires a dance. Not its artifactual qualities—its archives, hardware, and residue (sweat-stained costumes)—not even something alive that poses as a performance as an object, a performative substitute for something fixed, in the voracious, inanimate spatial politic of the fixed object. I wait for the acquisition of a moment, the collecting of memory. Nothing else. This ephemerality, this nothing-else, is what I understand a dance, a performance, a work of art to be—almost any and every work of art. But that’s just me.
This statement was a bit disingenuous. At the time, I didn’t really care whether a dance could or would be acquired. This was already happening; the collection of performance was newly common, if still awkward and inconclusive. (The much-discussed acquisition of Tino Sehgal’s The Kiss in 2004 by the Museum of Modern Art, and his performance of This Progress in 2010 at the Guggenheim Museum, were popular cases in point.) I was more interested in how and why a room packed full of people would be interested in talking about what the acquisition of a moment, or a series of moments, might mean. I was also hoping that this talking, this collective discursive wonderment, might evolve into a more specific discussion of how the museum’s traditional approach to acquisition breaks down when there’s nothing actually tangible to acquire, nothing to file, nothing to store away (and when the hardcore choreographer, in resistance, imagines she wants nothing to do with any imposition of acquiring a dance).
My particular thinking about this—the immeasurable, variant scale of what and how we value anything—began disguised as a troubling matter of placement. A memorial event that contained some dancing, some crying, some standing and lying still: Untitled, performed with my longtime collaborator Okwui Okpokwasili for a private audience of friends at Danspace Project, at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, in 2008. Okwui and I had no intention of performing the piece again. But Untitled became (perhaps perversely) a hyperpublic performance at the Museum of Modern Art three years later, when the chief curator of drawings, Connie Butler, invited us to participate in “On Line,” an exhibit that argued for an “expanded history of drawing that moves off the page in space and time.” Okwui and I remapped Untitled for the museum’s atrium.
But Untitled was not the beginning, either. In 2007, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, curator Bennett Simpson was putting together an exhibition that asked what the American blues, or the notion of the “blues aesthetic,” might mean to a select group of famous artists from the 1950s through the present. The ICA’s dance curator, David Henry, asked me to put together—to curate—a significant performance series for fall 2009 to parallel the exhibition. I thought about it for some months and, eventually, wrote down the names of six choreographers then working in the United States who most interested me, without considering the blues as a determining factor.
The series never happened. Dance transgressing the museum—that particular museum—was, if inspired, a little too far-fetched at the time, and too expensive. And Simpson moved to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, just as my ideas began taking a comprehensive shape. The exhibition cohered and became “Blues for Smoke,” which debuted at MOCA in 2012 and traveled to the Whitney in 2013, accompanied by a series of concerts, readings, and performances—but no dance.
Nevertheless, the idea continued to resonate. In 2012, after “On Line,” MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich and I began discussing the possibility of my curating a series of performances in the atrium. She was enthusiastic about inviting choreographers into the museum to engage with this imposing nontraditional space. With associate curator Jenny Schlenzka, I organized Some sweet day, a series of performances by six choreographers in the atrium, a voluminous, hybrid space that is “neither/nor a place of transit or gathering,” to quote Halbreich, and that seems purposefully indeterminate in placement and in design. We invited most of the choreographers from the inchoate ICA project to join the fray and added a couple international names and one visual artist to the list: Kevin Beasley, Jérôme Bel, Deborah Hay, Faustin Linyekula, Sarah Michelson, Dean Moss, and Steve Paxton. I wanted to expand the conversation I was having with myself about the public-private character of performance: the conflict between the basic element of being alone and making work in a studio and the necessity of the work’s being seen, shared. What is the physical architecture—or outward expression—of a private intention or emotion? What is the best place or container for a choreography that is (lost and) found in its own making? Is what I’m interested in organizing choreography? Or, more specifically, am I interested in sharing something choreographic about the body that is simultaneously an external exchange with an audience? What about the important isolation quotient required for an art-making practice versus the sharing of that practice? Are they of the same importance? Does it matter?
At its center, Some sweet day asked a simple and obvious question: How might dance—and these dance-makers—inhabit this most particular of museum spaces? The series expanded from that primary question to include an almost infinite variety of concerns, from the personal to the public, from the local to the international, and from the material to the intangible. What is a good or a bad dance? What was the significance of the timing of the events, fifty years after the founding of Judson Dance Theater? What is the broader significance of the blues, black music, and race to contemporary dance? Which choreographers win in the tyranny of this antetheatrical space? And, of course, which ones lose?
Some sweet day led to Value Talks, a series of conversations between artists, scholars, and curators, co-organized with associate curator Ana Janevski at MoMA in 2013 and 2014 that considered the placement of dance and its ephemerality, its antiobject material, at the heart of that museum. Value Talks was more playful and discursive—not dances but lectures, lectures posing as performances, the live part making the prepared part less reliable, not completely predictable. Brain dancing, like all of dancing. A different intelligence. And Value Talks was everything but hyperpublic; the talks were an organized inversion back to the memorial dance, which had also been performed for an invited and private audience. Round and round indeed. But nothing sacred this time. No memorial. No tears (that I know of). It became another thing.
I instigated Value Talks partly as a means to continue some thinking in and out of my body that began with the experience and resonance of Some sweet day. The series energized the space; it was well attended, and audiences watched for much longer than the 32.5 seconds museum visitors spend, on average, looking at a piece of visual art. MoMA’s curatorial staff were pleased. But there was also quite a stir within the small “downtown” dance community about the “co-optation” of dance, and about whether a dance should be experienced in a controlled viewing environment or in a “noisy,” barely manageable, privileged, hybrid situation. An argument about the production of appearances—and it was a good one. This argument was not just about money (that power) but also about neighborhoods.
Value Talks was a moving target, in part because the series had the slippery nature of an art project. Trying to determine what a thing is as you reconstitute certain rules of habit, as you negotiate the agencies of the organization of a thing that wasn’t a “thing” before it was organized. I thought of the series as a kind of choreography, similar to Some sweet day. But it turned out to be far from choreography—too many variables in terms of institutional requirements (rules), the particular voices, the interstitial position of the events themselves. Were they talks, performances, prepared improvisations? Certainly they were live and fleeting experiments. This was why, from the very beginning, an online and printed publication became crucial (if also unwieldy, given the fraught nature of translating something live to something digital or printed). What was actually disseminated in these experiments was quite remarkable and, by nature, theatrically unadorned and spatially sequestered—there were not even enough seats. The events were also free.
My initiating presence was as a cipher for a few other voices: friends talking around the multifaceted idea of value (and values) in a kind of subliminal brainstorming. Specifically, the relationship between value and how we remember and forget something presented, something to be watched covertly or overtly in a time-based signature. An attempt at writing and talking performance with disappearing ink, perhaps. Value Talks was also a smart-alecky means for me—an audience of one—to converse with and watch the likes of Kevin Beasley, Claire Bishop, Kellie Jones, Glenn Lowry, Sarah Michelson, Yvonne Rainer, and so many others dancing with their brains in a room before a small group of people.
After the fact, Value Talks seemed to be a container ensconced in another, more explicit container—MoMA—which had held the earlier Some sweet day debate. But Value Talks, unlike Some sweet day, was discursive, and private. The vastness and publicness of MoMA, in this case, dictated a need for privacy. MoMA’s size and prominence were then also a catalyst for something more inclusive and parapublic: the rumor of Value Talks.
From the beginning, Triple Canopy circulated the rumor, another rumor, with an eye toward Value Talks existing in an additional container, which made the project more generatively unstable. Triple Canopy is not just a magazine. It is many things and people. Those people contributed at least a few opinions that circled around this moving target. They are an important part of the anfractuous flow.
This conversation has been useful in that one has to keep interested in it. I and others make stuff up about what’s happening, and, more compellingly, about what might happen, knowing that one cannot predict what will happen, given life’s ephemeral relationship to life and life’s partially ephemeral relationship to art. This imagining becomes useful to all other kinds of making stuff up: to the construction of ideas in space and time, to an audience witnessing what happens in space and time. Useful, I hope. The fact that we live in a hypercapitalistic society where relevance is in large part created through merchandising is part of this discussion and not necessarily problematic. It could actually be the locus of the conversation, or its fine edge. The economy is a fact, and a mundane one, inasmuch as it conditions everything. The rest—what’s left, what actually holds together the making—is Spiritual, or spiritual, I’d like to believe. It’s “invaluable,” to quote poet Fred Moten, and always slippery, circling the conversation like weather.