After witnessing the Performance Indeterminate Cage Opera (PICO) as a part of the John Cage Celebration at the Berkeley Art Museum last weekend, and then attending Emily Hite and Julie Potter’s recent Dance Discourse Project on dance in museums, I’ve been thinking a lot about appropriation and artistic context.
Back in June one of the many open-ended questions Julie Potter and Emily Hite raised as they launched their Dance Discourse Project in their In Dance article “Dancing in the Museum” was, “How can movement function in a space designed for another kind of art and a different kind of looking?” Their question lends itself to further inquiry: Do our expectations and perceptions, as viewers, shift depending on the venue or context of a dance piece? How can dance engage its context in dialogue? And what responsibilities do dance artists have when responding to existing exhibits within a museum?
At the Berkeley Art Museum last weekend a group of almost 30 dancers in conjunction with a large group of video artists, composers, designers and live musicians set out to pay tribute to John Cage in what presenter John Sanborn titled PICO (Performance Indeterminate Cage Opera). The dancers—a handful wearing sensor-like cameras strapped to their heads, others nude, some wearing bright colors carrying empty picture frames—became a sprawling, chaotic, circus-like tableau. While starting in the main atrium, it wasn’t long before the improvising dancers took free range of the museum, challenging typical audience-performer dynamics and ways of both looking and being seen.
Yet as PICO performers weaved throughout the museum, juxtaposing, and at times almost colliding with, the museum’s existing and unrelated Barry McGee exhibit I couldn’t help but wonder how PICO was speaking not only intentionally to John Cage but also unintentionally to Barry McGee. As I was looking at a large-scale McGee painting on the second floor a dancer approached me with an empty picture frame and began a series of mime-like gestures. The encounter with the dancer momentarily interrupted (and in doing so altered) my encounter with the McGee painting. At the same time, my proximity to the McGee painting colored my encounter with the dancer.
As PICO—whether intentionally or not—engaged the McGee exhibit, I started to question the ways in which PICO paid tribute to John Cage. I couldn’t help but wonder if PICO was an accurate interpretation of John Cage’s work. Unsure of whose call that is to make and suspecting that perhaps John Cage’s work refuses the notion of accurate interpretation in the first place, I still wondered what John Cage would make of it all. Would he feel honored? Misunderstood? Amused? Proud? Does it matter? In PICO’s program notes presenter John Sanborn remarks, “My approach to celebrating Cage, Duchamp, and Paik is to detail the connections among their legacies and address the quandary of what we do with the knowledge they left us. Yes, we can play Cage’s music, we can view Nude Descending a Staircase as an object, and we can watch Global Groove and compare it to the TV we grew up with—but how do we activate their ideas? We do it by plunging headfirst into expression, without the formality of a frame, a score, or a TV series.”