Marissa Perel: The first artistic influences I had were in New York and were choreographers. I was really inspired by the dance world, but didn’t understand why it was marginalized in relationship to visual art. I guess I wanted to go to school to understand how dance, performance, and visual art are related. This was before I became aware of Tino Sehgal and his success, and people who have been able to make dance work as currency.
David Velasco: He is someone who is interesting in terms of dance and performance because well, I don’t want to say he was able to commodify dance, but certainly applied an economic structure to dance and performance that previously wasn’t there before.
MP: Yeah, that is also how I see his work, which is mostly because I have a reverence for dance that doesn’t have to be validated by an application to visual art [that’s me referencing The Kiss in a tongue-in-cheek way]. What is your relationship to dance?
DV: First off, I don’t have any formal dance training. I also don’t have any art historical or visual art training even though I’ve been at Artforum for 5 years, and I’ve been writing about art. I started writing about art because it seemed to be the best place that I could talk about ideas in relationship to the material world. It wasn’t stuck in academia, and it wasn’t stuck in any one discourse. Art writing, as turgid and complicated as it can get, is still one of the most interesting fields for experimental writing.
MP: It’s funny that you say that because when I told Jerry [Saltz] that I was going to interview you, he said, “I saw the best minds of his generation lost to academia,” and I was like, “what do you mean?” and he said, “talented writers that could have been critics went into academia or they fell to their teachers’ tastes.” Then he went on to say that he thought what you’re doing is so important for art criticism and it’s leading a new generation of critics.
DV: I did come out of academia in a heavy way. I went to Reed College where I studied anthropology, and then to NYU for critical theory, where I studied with great minds like Avital Ronell, who is a huge influence for me even now. But for me, I couldn’t stay there, and I didn’t want to take on academic writing as my only medium.
MP: Well, what I find compelling about your writing for Artforum is that is academic in the best way, I mean it’s critical and it works on a theoretical level as well. I think this is really important when it comes to writing about dance.
DV: Thanks, I mean I look up to writers who are seriously rooted in academia like Douglas Crimp, Claire Bishop, or Rosalind Krauss. They have distinctive styles that are just incredible to read. I don’t want to dismiss academia but as a writer, I don’t want to stay there. The thing is that I thought I was going to be a professor, but I got a prize from Art Papers for an article I wrote on David Altmejd, which led me to Artforum, and there’s been no stopping since. Dance has always been a twin trajectory for me next to writing.
I was performing for Kim Brandt, who was a curator at Dixon Place. She introduced me to Sarah Michelson for the first time. Then I performed for Sam Kim at the Kitchen in 2007, and I thought, “I really want to find a way to bring this into the fold.” I wanted to bring it into art criticism.
Then I did a 1000 Words with Sarah Michelson, and it occurred to me that there is this incredible world of artists that were being overlooked by the art critical establishment because they were not showing their work at the same venues, they weren’t socializing in the same arenas, so they weren’t being considered in the conversation. It was kind of raw for me when I started doing it, but I thought I could figure out how to figure it out. When I see a dance performance that really gets me, I can’t shake it. It sticks with me for years, so I wanted to use my form, writing, to try to access that.
MP: It’s something about accessing an ephemeral art form through writing because you almost have to re-live your experience of it to adequately convey what is was like to people who weren’t there. When you flip through Artforum, you can see the image of the painting or sculpture and a review of it, and consider that when you go to the gallery or museum during the exhibition. But when you’re reading about dance in a publication like that, or in an academic publication even, it’s often after the run is over and the purpose of the writing is different. The [ephemeral] work is having a different impact, and there is a different way it is able to last.
DV: A few things come to my mind about that statement. First of all, venues to see dance are limited, and so are the number of seats and the number of runs, which makes it harder. But even though dance is ephemeral in relationship to a painting or a sculpture, it stays with me in a way that is not ephemeral. It is at least no more ephemeral than the memory of sculpture or painting.
This is something for me that really stuns me about Sarah Michelson’s work. She really makes you believe in dance proper. It’s not simply a game. She believes in phrase work. She is able to imbue movement with meaning. Her stuff is hard to catch. She doesn’t do repertory.
MP: Yeah, she is more like a band than an institution that way. You have to be there for that show, and if you weren’t there you don’t get to know that dance.
DV: She believes there’s an energy around the specific place and the specific people that she is with. It can’t be replicated, which is terrifying because if you’re not there for those nights, you’ll never see it. Or she might tour it but she will re-tool the dance to work with each space, so it’s never the same version. Her belief in a specific place and time is challenging as a writer who wants to champion her work. I actually flew back from Amsterdam to see her piece, Dover Beach, because I knew that if I didn’t get to see it, I never would.
MP: You know, even though Michelson’s work is limited in its scope of impact, it has single-handedly had one of the greatest impacts on dancers of our generation. And it deeply informed her peers, too.
DV: Her influence definitely runs deep because her work is so powerful.
MP: Her use of duration and repetition is almost like performance art, but her phrase work is like Michael Clark punk ballet. She has an incredible visual ability to compose bodies in space in multiple ways where so much happens at the same time. She brings in so many forms, and has influenced how our generation uses repetition and music now. She also pretty much defined what is cool. Period.
DV: She is a formal master. She has an intuitive sense that contradicts a kind of Merce Cunningham Modern Dance aesthetic, but at the same time, she always has to be challenging herself; she hates being comfortable. She’ll embed dances within a dance, or she’ll put little jokes in it that no one will get. The piece might end after the audience leaves. She never bows.
MP: Yeah, I think I learned that from her, too.
DV: It’s funny to make this comparison but Ann Liv Young is the same way. She doesn’t want you to believe the show is over.
MP: Or that it was a show, even. It was real!
DV: It is real!
MP: Bowing would be like, “well, that was a really cute illusion we just saw.” But they want you to be like, “that was it!” But it’s interesting how you mentioned Cunningham. I feel that Michelson, as well as Miguel Gutierrez, come from a generation informed by a Cunningham-like dance rigor that goes along with a conceptual approach to composition.
DV: Right, a playfulness, an attention.
MP: Gutierrez, for me, opened up a gateway to performance art. It has, well an affect, which I don’t mean to be taken in the wrong way.
DV: Why, because it doesn’t mean that it’s critical?
MP: Right, but it is. And the dance is equally a rigor in itself, but is a vehicle for another experience.
DV: He has real charisma. When he is on stage, I want to watch him. It’s not just about the dance for me. It’s about that desire to watch the person in front of me. With Gutierrez, I am compelled. I can’t look away. He does wear his influences on his sleeve. He lets you know that he is equally informed by dance as postmodern or queer performance art, so that he can work really comfortably in dance venues or places like CPR or the in Boston at the ICA with Jenny Holzer. I took a bus there and back in the same 6 hours to see it.
MP: You are so committed!
DV: Well, Artforum.com is heavy on the exhibitions, so I have to do this on the side. It’s a labor of love. What’s amazing to me is how many different styles he put into one piece. His latest work, Last Meadow, literally goes all over the place. The audience has no idea how it goes from place to place, and it’s all so casual and tedious at times.
There is this big segment where Gutierrez has the microphone in his mouth and making awful sounds. You want to cry, “Why is he doing this to me?” You want to leave. He’s working you to a point that when the break comes you’re so relieved. He’s shoving it down your throat and bringing it out again.
MP: He has a distinctive relationship to aggression.
DV: It’s true.
MP: He and Ann Liv Young have that in common.
DV: Yes, they are interested in pushing the boundaries. They want to push buttons, and are interested in a kind of catharsis, though I’m not sure if it’s always their goal. But Gutierrez has that thing where he wears so many of his concepts on his sleeve, and that gives them a kind of approachability. Young’s influences are so buried that what you see is so tortured you’re never really sure if she’s thought it through. You’re always questioning that. I always think that she has, but that’s constitutive to her work, the audience questioning how much she knows.
MP: And how much of that belief you have in her. How much power you hand over to her. I thought about that when I was reading your article on her. She and Gutierrez are really dealing with power dynamics, as well as I’d say Ishmael Houston Jones. I guess you could even see this in Neal Greenberg or John Jasperse, even though they have different conceptual goals.
DV: Or Jerome Bel. He’s incredibly concerned with power. The stage is a really salient place to play out games of power, which what I find is so interesting about dance right now. It’s being done in ways that continue to be fascinating. I saw this in Bel’s Cedric Andrieux, which was all about the relationship between the choreographer and the dancer. Balanchine might have had a clear idea of what he wanted the dancer to do, but it ends up being more collaborative.
MP: Yes, it’s interesting when the dancer shapes the dance that is being made. You can see in the work how it is made for the specific dancer. That’s what we talked about with Michelson’s work. I am not sure what it is when dancers were allowed to have personalities that shape the dance. I want to bring up Raimund Hogue’s work here because it is really about his unique presence.
DV: Yeah, it’s not about being dancer with a dancer’s body. He plays disability and able-bodiedness as a dance. There is also an erotic charge with his relationship to his main dancer that is curious to me.
MP: Hogue’s body is a necessary part of the composition. He is not looking for validation about it. He’s not focusing his energy on rebelling against dance norms. It’s like the dance builds up to a sculptural moment or series of moments. He has a narrative in mind, but what you see is the visual landscape.
DV: Well, his dances are incredibly slow. You really have to sit with the work. It’s not about coming out at you and pushing you that way.
MP: That’s true. Wow, it is so complex to talk about all of this.
DV: Yes! I am finding that in this interview. It’s so elusive, being able to articulate what is working in a piece. That’s why I like to think of my writing as a response to what I see, rather than an explanation.
MP: I like that, it reminds me of Jill Johnston.
DV: You know, she died a couple weeks ago.
MP: I had no idea. God bless her.
DV: Yes, bless.