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.”
It seems fitting to utilize the moving body to activate and embody artistic ideas. During the Dance Discourse Project (DDP) panel Muriel Maffre—executive director of the Museum of Performance & Design, dance lecturer at Stanford University and longtime principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet—suggested that expressive movement shifts how we often think of the museum experience as passive, static and often disembodied by infusing the experience with embodied life. “Can the experience of the viewer be the art?” and “How can we make museums about experiencing?” Maffre questioned.
There’s no question, like Maffre suggests, that a shift in the museum paradigm is occurring. More and more dance artists are utilizing non-traditional performance spaces and incorporating the moving body into what is often thought of as the un-moving art space of the museum. Yet as a dance artist, or any artist, responds to, honors or activates the ideas of another artist (like the group of artists at the Berkeley Art Museum paying tribute to John Cage) what issues of appropriation arise? Is it necessary for dance to engage its context in dialogue?
DDP panelist Monique Jenkinson—current artist in residence at the de Young Museum, whose work while rooted in dance not only moves between genres but also explores and illuminates the often blurry fringes of genres—is currently creating works inspired and influenced by existing exhibits within the de Young Museum. As a part of her Irvine Fellowship at the de Young, Jenkinson created “Our People,” a collaborative piece with Helen Shumaker, in response to the de Young’s existing Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit. In responding, re-working and re-imagining, it seems fitting that “Our People” explores Gaultier’s politics of inclusion and his propensity for appropriation.
At the panel I asked Jenkinson how she navigates the simultaneous roles of artist, interpreter and translator and how she deals with tensions of appropriation as she responds to and inevitably becomes a part of an existing exhibit. Jenkinson excitedly responded that it is precisely the tension of appropriation (and even the practice of it) that she’s invested in exploring and illuminating within her work. By taking on multiple roles (as creator, dancer, interpreter and curator) while fully aware of the responsibilities of each, Jenkinson challenges the way we often pigeonhole the role of the dancer as the interpreter and the choreographer as the artist. Moreover, she blurs the line between those roles. Invested in this “line between” so to speak—whether in terms of object and subject, content and context or art and entertainment—Jenkinson seeks to investigate how we can best utilize those, often blurred, points of intersection. Jenkinson jokes that she was brought into the museum as an entertainer but snuck in as an artist in drag. While partly joking, it’s clear that Jenkinson is hyper aware of not only the roles she embodies but how the environment in which she embodies them in, potentially shapes those roles.
Thinking back to PICO, where a large group of artists created an original piece under the theoretical context of another artist (John Cage) within the physical context of the Berkeley Art Museum, I still wonder how best to think about the relationship between content and context. DDP panelist Michelle Lynch, program director of Dancers’ Group and curator of Meridian Dance at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, suggested that while we ought to avoid thinking of venues in terms of “making it” into one space or another, we must acknowledge the significance of any given venue in terms of its specific contextual relationship. Perhaps, there is no such thing as a truly neutral venue. The context of a work, whether a proscenium stage, black box theater, museum gallery or bustling street corner, inevitably and undeniably informs both the way in which the work is perceived and how it is remembered. Lynch questioned, “Does the work always become about the container? Should we avoid that mentality? Can dance eclipse it’s bodily container?”
Like Lynch, DDP panelist Frank Smigiel, associate curator of public programs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, questioned how we can best situate dance work in a way that brings it into dialogue with the rest of a given museum. How can museums and movement come together? During the panel Smigiel suggested that a dance work must not only be responsible for holding its space, but must also demand necessity for where it is and be aware of its relation to the larger museum space while maintaining its own integrity. Smigiel offered that we think of ways we can foster dance works in museums that operate as a kind of encounter, or brief intervention of museum space, rather than a dance show in the traditional proscenium sense. How can we re-shape museum space and dance within it? Smigiel said it best with his assertion that, “we must re-invent museums as a site of invention rather than consumption or convention”.
I happily left the DDP panel with more questions than I came with. While I’m confused and unsure how we can best lead dance into a new era of technology and art presentation, I feel hopeful and inspired that there are people (if only a small group like the one that gathered a week ago at the de Young) who are dedicated and invested in questioning an ever-changing art form. As artists, as we strive to re-invent and re-situate our selves on continually shifting platforms—whether in museum spaces or new performing contexts— it’s important to not only challenge the function of existing practices but to explore and implement new ones. In a time where the line between art and entertainment, content and context and object and subject are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between it’s important to remain aware of, and continually question, the ways in which we re-configure and re-contextualize the space we inhabit.
Katie Gaydos is a freelance dance writer who has contributed to The Daily Californian, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance and the blog Stance on Dance. Katie grew up in Santa Monica, CA where she trained at the Westside School of Ballet with Yvonne Mounsey and Colleen Neary before moving to the Bay Area to receive her BA in English Literature from UC Berkeley. Katie currently lives in San Francisco and has been dancing with KUNST-STOFF Dance Company since Fall 2011.
Photo by Michaelz1