Born in 1920 in Illinois, Anna Halprin studied modern dance and later abandoned her training in favor of improvisation and other investigative movement practices. Considered one of the pioneers of postmodern dance, Halprin founded the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop in 1955, hosting and collaborating with many of the dancers and artists who later founded the Judson Dance Theater. For decades Halprin has been at the forefront of the expressive arts healing movement and continues to teach workshops at the Tamalpa Institute in Marin County, California—an organization she founded with her daughter in 1978.
As part of artforum.com’s interview series celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first dance concerts at Judson Church, Halprin gives a brief account of the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop and reflects on what dance means to her.
AFTER WORLD WAR II there was an explosion. All the old value systems were no longer appropriate. It didn’t happen all at once. It was a gradual coming together, in which like-minded artists began to move in a similar direction—rejecting European influence, searching for something new, and not quite knowing what that meant. There was no central meeting place here in San Francisco. It was as if each artist was on her or his own. As a result, many artists began to collaborate, and that’s where the word “workshop” came from. That word, for me, was influenced by the Bauhaus: the idea that art could be something that was for everyday use, something that was not esoteric or museum- or gallery-oriented.
I began to search for a way to rediscover movement, which is the basis of my art. I found that modern dance no longer felt appropriate. It was too stylistically oriented toward personalities—like the Martha Graham style or the Doris Humphrey style. Also, ballet was beginning to be incorporated and none of this felt quite right. I thought, “Well, I have two possibilities.” First, I began to study how the body works with anatomy and kinesiology, and I did human dissection while taking anatomy classes to further my research. Second, I began to use ordinary task movements, like carrying, lifting, or piling something, or just walking.
I was starting from scratch, and this was attracting young people, like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Meredith Monk—just to mention a few names that are familiar to the East Coast. It attracted people from Europe, too, and we started doing workshops in 1959 that were very exploratory and experimental. Out of these experiments emerged new information that became part of a method, and then issues came up that had to be solved which meant we needed a language for collaborating. Ultimately we developed—with the enormous influence of my late husband, Lawrence—something called the RSVP cycles, which was a method of collective creativity. The RSVP cycles led to the idea of scoring, which was very different from choreography, because scoring is based on process. Choreography is a more fixed way of working, but a score is a series of activities in space, over time, with people. Scores are recycled. You might spend a year recycling a score! It would always be a process, and it would involve all the people connected with it—the lighting person, the musician, the dancers, et cetera. And this was quite liberating.
Merce Cunningham performing on the deck at Anna Halprin's estate.
Eventually I developed a core group that was dedicated to creating new works, and we took our work all over the world. The piece that was the most talked about was Parades and Changes. When I did Parades and Changes at the Hunter College Theater in New York in 1967 I was arrested. Arrested! I couldn’t believe it. You know, sophisticated New York City, and they arrest me because I use nudity. We were all just shocked. But that’s what it was. I personally had no connection to the Judson Theater, though Simone Forti worked with my group and me for seven years. My connection was more with Fluxus, where I began to share scores. I would send a score to Yoko Ono, for example, and then she would send me a score, and then we would interact with each other through Fluxus networks.
I think of dance as a science, as a philosophy, and as an art. There doesn’t seem to be anything so different or new anymore. I think we’ve gone a long way from the Judson Theater, and from my early workshops. But those early years were exciting, a dynamic experimentation that became a foundation for where many of us are now. Experimentation was called improvisation. And what I was doing in movement now has a name: It’s called Somatics. But in 1965, that didn’t have a name.
When the Watts riots happened in Los Angeles, I was asked to come do a performance. I said, “I’m not going to do a performance. I’ll come down there and work with the African Americans at Watts Studio, and I’ll work with the white group here. Then we’ll get the two groups together and we’ll see what reconciliation’s all about.” So that’s when I started my multiracial group. I would just incorporate challenges or things that are going on in the world when they come up. I’m ninety-two years old and I’ve just finished another series of workshops. Dance keeps me stimulated because I’m relating it to what’s real for me in life. Dance has a certain kind of realism to it. Healing is one thing that was very powerful for me, personally, and continues to be, so it’s simply incorporated as part of our palette. But I don’t consider myself a healer. I hate that. It sounds so self-important. It’s just ways of expanding dance so that it’s part of life.
View of the De La Warr Pavilion with Richard Wilson’s Hang On a Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea . . ., 2012.
Richard Wilson is a British sculptor based in London. His new commission Hang On a Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea . . . will be situated the roof of the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea in East Sussex, England, until October 1. It is part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad Festival.
ALL MY IDEAS start from a formal place, so when the late Alan Haydon contacted me about doing the second rooftop sculpture project on the flat roof area of the De La Warr Pavilion in 2010, I knew the piece had to in some way announce the pavilion, which was designed by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff in 1935. I just wanted to find some way to acknowledge its iconic status.
One day on the drive home from the edge of the south coast where the Pavilion is located, the word cliff-hanger popped into my mind. I knew then that I wanted to focus on an area of the building that was seen as not being its best side––so that the building becomes the plinth, as it were, and that a sculpture could then articulate the building. I sought permission to go to the very top of the roof, and to install a facsimile of a Harrington Legionnaire coach there. That is the bus used in the 1969 film The Italian Job. It will be designed to sit right on the precipice, the very edge of the building overlooking the parking lot.
The piece is motorized––it weighs six and a half tons––and incorporates hydraulic equipment programmed to rock randomly to a maximum angle of twelve degrees. The work mimics the final sequence in The Italian Job where the bus is laden with gold bullion and half of it has gone over cliff’s edge. And obviously the bank robbers at one end of the bus are unable to get to the gold at the other end, because if they do, the whole lot tips over.
Coincidentally, Alan Haydon was able to have the project awarded with regional Cultural Festival project status. So this piece also became about England and Team GB. With the coach being red, white, and blue, I suddenly had my very own Olympic flag flying for our GB athletes. I started thinking about this film being about gold robbers who kind of pulled off the greatest heist and find themselves at the end of the film caught in something that goes nowhere. These guys were going for gold just like our Olympic athletes, so there’s a lovely parallel. The film is literally a cliff-hanger. You don’t know how it ends. What I liked about the film was this typically British humor. It’s Keystone Cops meets Lavender Hill Mob, and that humor is something I allowed into the work as well.
The ultimate goal is to make something that is structurally daring: a work that tethers on the edge of being and not being, between stability and collapse. It’s really a lot like what our athletes go through as they compete: that moment of not knowing, of being in balance, winning or defeat, in equilibrium with yourself. It speaks also of the limits one wants to go through as an artist, how daring one is willing to be in terms of ideas.
Steve Paxton was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1939 and moved to New York in 1958. There, he danced with the Merce Cunningham Company from 1961 to 1964 and was a central player in a number of profound shifts in modern dance, helping found the Judson Dance Theater in 1962 and the group Grand Union in 1970.
Yvonne Rainer likes to joke that she invented running and Paxton invented walking, and indeed many of Paxton’s early works—including Proxy, 1961, Transit, 1962, English, 1963, and Satisfyin Lover, 1967—made salient the act of walking. Paxton is also known as a founder of the movement technique known as contact improvisation. Here, as part of artforum.com’s series celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first dance concerts at Judson Church, Paxton discusses his ongoing investigations of form and movement.
YOU COULD SAY that it all comes from walking. What I’m doing is rolling around on the floor, and getting people to do these bizarre movements, coordinating things that they haven’t before. But it starts with walking.
I was raised in Arizona until I was nineteen. Tucson in the 1950s was a teen-world, a sexual-crowded-intense environment. My high school had seven thousand people in it. It was the biggest in the United States. You’ve seen photos of that era, I’m sure: teenage jalopy drivers at roller-skating carhop restaurants having burgers and Cokes and driving around the strip. It was a period of trying to keep calm in the wake of veterans returning and looking for jobs—a vast resettlement of people. We moved around a lot as my dad tried to find himself. As did everyone. That kind of settling down—which was, at least on TV, the typical housewife and the two kids—could incite a riot in a young person’s mind. It was well intended but it was awfully fake, and it did make you question.
I dropped out of university after my freshman year and decided the most interesting thing to me was dance. So I came east the summer of 1958, got a scholarship to the American Dance Festival in Connecticut, and began. I didn’t have any ambition. But I knew I wanted to study. The choreographer José Limón offered me a scholarship. I also met and studied with Merce Cunningham at ADF, and I kept going back to him for various courses. Limón eventually heard about the fact that I was working with Cunningham, and he was royally pissed off.
The Cunningham world was a hermetically sealed compartment of rehearsals and classes and tours. Judson was the opposite, a big barbecue, with all the neighbors dropping in. It’s interesting that Judson Dance Theater started at Cunningham’s studio; Cunningham and John Cage were so innovative, and there wasn’t much else happening in terms of innovation in dance. Outside of Cunningham, everybody else was hitting their mature stage; all the modern dancers had become famous. Once you become famous it’s hard to reframe that fame.
Judson for me was an exploration in form. If you look at modern dance history, the figures we hold up were rebels. Now we’re in a period where we have to conserve modern dance if we want to know what it was, but in the early days, it still had a mutational edge. Cunningham had that edge, as did Cage, as did of course many other artists of that period: De Kooning and Kline are favorites of mine, later Rauschenberg and Johns and Frank Stella and Brice Marden. You get this parade of formal explorations that were mind-boggling. Judson was that for me.
It was an idea about questioning what the elements of dance were. So in my question, I started removing choreographic ploys. I wanted to work with an element of human beings that was not constructed, technical movement, and I began to look at walking. In 1967, I was in a residency at the University of Utah, and I had forty-two friends whom I realized I might ask to be in this work, Satisfyin Lover. That piece was a statement of intent about the direction I was going, about looking at what the body does without trying to trot it up into dance or art or whatever. What were these . . . they didn’t seem to have names. We call it “quotidian movement,” but they are ancient forms, and they’re very complex. So what are they? What did we inherit?
After Judson there was a group of us who began to make work under the name of Grand Union. We improvised throughout that five-year period, so we rarely did things twice. We went through many forms in one fell swoop. Contact improvisation was just one of the modes that got employed. And I thought, “This just can’t get left behind in that weird trail of forms that we once explored in dance. It’s got something else going for it.” So I tried to figure out what it was.
In 1986 I talked to this young man who introduced himself as a recreational contacter. And I thought “Recreational contacter! Oh no, that’s what it’s becoming.” In just fifteen years it had gone from an art exploration and a performance thing to a recreation, a dating game—a sport of some sort. And I realized that I was being quite unreasonable, and that if I wanted it to be anything more than that—or if I wanted strongly for it to be something other than that—it was up to me to define what that might be.
I started something called Material for the Spine, which was a rigorous, meditative exploration of the spine and the shoulder blades and the hips and the head, the central body. And I’ve been doing that ever since. But then that leads me right back to walking. What is walking but these bizarre manipulations of the spine? I mean, not odd—they’re normal—but when you look at them there’s more there than you’d expect. There’s undulations in the spine, and the triaxial manipulation of the pelvis, and the opposition of the shoulders, and the fixity of the head, all part of the same structure. What I’m teaching is just to get people to look at what’s happening. Modern dance got off looking at what’s happening in culture or history, or at relationships between men and women. It was a good art form. But if I were to be true to that idea of evolving, then I would have to ask some new questions. So my question was walking, and my answer is . . . walking.
This summer, the New York–based artist Aura Rosenberg is participating in four group exhibitions in various cities across the US. The shows will present works made over the past twenty-five years, from her investigations into pornography to her photographs with children. Here Rosenberg discusses the evolution of these practices.
SOME OF MY WORK has been inspired by a curiously dated source: “The Afronomical Ways,” a black-light poster from 1972, which features fluorescent silhouettes of men and women posed in various sexual positions. Each position is supposed to represent a different sign of the zodiac, and each figure has an Afro. In the late 1980s, I made several body imprint paintings referencing that poster. I’ve recently returned to this work, but instead of using my own body, I’ve asked couples to make the imprints. Last spring, during the opening of my show at Sassa Trülzsch Gallery in Berlin, two dancers made one of these paintings that became part of the installation. This summer, Seth Kelly has included Sagittarius, a new work from the series, in “These Transitional Spaces,” the show he curated at Franklin Street Works in Stamford, Connecticut.
In 1988 I began to work primarily with photography and sculpture. I was sharing a summer house in the Catskills with some friends, and, with the woods nearby, I wanted to make something overtly fetishistic from the natural materials at hand. My friend Mike Ballou was dividing his time between making his own work––sculptures with porn images––and fishing for trout in a stream on the property. One day I noticed the way light hitting the rocks in this stream brought images to mind. So as a practical joke, I glued his porn clippings onto the rocks, covered them in resin, and put them back in the water for him to find. Struck by the contrast between the altered rocks and their natural setting, I started to photograph them. Robert Smithson’s essay “The Dialectical Landscape” inspired the title of this series: “The Dialectical Porn Rock.” Back in Manhattan, I started to see the rocks as things in themselves and arranged them indoors in a variety of configurations. When I moved to Berlin in 1991, this city—filled with monuments to its sometimes troubled past—became a new context for my rock works. The connection of sexuality and nature, however mediated, gave way to a sense of opposition vis-ŕ-vis the body and its control by the state. This summer, I’ll be showing outdoor installations of “The Dialectical Porn Rock” for the first time, in “Creature from the Blue Lagoon,” the show that Bob Nickas curated at Martos Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York.
In 1989 my daughter Carmen was born, and two long-term projects involving childhood overtook my work with porn. I titled the first Berlin Childhood, after Walter Benjamin’s allegorical memoir of the same name, a collection of forty-two texts written when he was in exile from the Third Reich. For this work, I shot photos of contemporary Berlin to match Benjamin’s entries from half a century earlier. The subtext to this work was my own family’s flight from Germany and my return to raise my daughter there. The second project, “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?” is a series of photo portraits of children. As a gift, I had brought face paints for Carmen’s kindergarten in Berlin. Her teacher, Marie Schmitz, and the class had a lot of fun with them. For an exhibition at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, I chose to collaborate with Marie on portraits of the painted children. Back in New York, I wondered what it would look like if I asked artists to make these paintings, which I would again photograph. Of course, the artists I invited often approached portraiture via their own practices. The children, however, were not merely blank slates. Together, the artist, the child, and I shaped images that reflected us all. The series to date includes over eighty collaborations. Because this work questioned normative relations between adults and children, it was regarded as more transgressive than my porn work. For example, some saw Mike Kelley’s stylization of my daughter as a goth, or Laurie Simmons’s portrayal of her daughter Lena as a marionette, as abusive. Ironically, in the latter case, the idea was Lena’s. Three of these portraits will be included in “Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys,” a show at LA’s OHWOW gallery this summer, curated by Alex Gartenfeld.
With Carmen now grown up, I’ve gone back to working with pornography, to renegotiate aspects of this work that weren’t fully explored. The terms, however, have changed. Just as my work with childhood spans a period of changing attitudes toward images of children, so too is my focus on pornography tied to a period shift. When I googled some of the actors whose images I used before, a website called The Golden Age of Porn came up. My old source material has become a relic. Nevertheless, the sense of lost time intrigues me, and I titled a new series of paintings, drawn from the same material, “The Golden Age.”
This summer I’m also presenting a corner installation of porn rocks in “Buy My Bananas,” Julia Trotta’s selection of women artists working with sex and comedy, at Kate Werble Gallery’s Annex Space in New York. Together these various shows offer a sampling of my oeuvre in different contexts. Hopefully, the connections will register how my work has grown organically out of lived experience and how it mirrors changes in our culture at large concerning the intersection of childhood and sexuality. At the very least, they are encouraging me to reflect on these questions.
Aura Rosenberg, Skuta Helgason/Theodora, 2008, C-print, 40 x 30". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
Aura Rosenberg, Matt Keegan/Ben, 2007, C-print, 30 x 40". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
Aura Rosenberg, Leigh Ledare/Carmen, 2008, C-print, 30 x 40". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
Aura Rosenberg, John Miller/Joey, 1996–98, C-print, 40 x 30". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
Aura Rosenberg, James Siena/Joe/Carmen, 1996–98, C-print, 40 x 30". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
Aura Rosenberg, Fred Tomaselli/Desi, 2007, C-print, 40 x 30". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
Aura Rosenberg, Christopher William/Bram, 1996–98, C-print, 40 x 30". From the series “Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?,” 1996–2009.
The singular American artist Carolee Schneemann is perhaps best known for her expressive paintings, installations, films, and videos from the past five decades and their unwavering focus on identity, subjectivity, and sexuality. Born in 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, she received her B.A. from Bard College and an M.F.A. from the University of Illinois. After moving to New York in 1961 with James Tenney, who was then a composer-in-residence at Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey, Schneemann was introduced (via composers Philip Corner and Malcolm Goldstein) to the cofounders of the Judson Dance Theater. In the mid-1960s she produced some of her earliest performances with the group at Judson Church, including Newspaper Event, 1962; Lateral Splay, 1963; Chromelodeon, 1963; and Meat Joy, 1964, and played as Manet’s Olympia in Robert Morris’s Site, 1964.
As part of artforum.com’s interview series to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first concerts at Judson, Schneemann here discusses her “love affair” with her collaborators and “the startling erotic ritual” that was Meat Joy.
To accompany her interview, Schneemann provided the following performance sketches from her personal archives.
Left and right: William Wegman, untitled, 1993, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16”.
Throughout his career, William Wegman has consistently created drawings, paintings, photographs, and videos about and within the natural world. From July 13 to October 21, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art will present “Hello Nature,” an exhibition featuring some thirty years of work inspired by Maine, where the artist spends his summers. Here Wegman discusses his long-standing relationship with nature and how it has influenced his work.
I GREW UP IN RURAL WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS in the 1940s and ’50s in an era when parental supervision wasn’t so important. We didn’t have play dates. We were on our own. In the summer I rarely slept inside—I was always in a hut I built or on some adventurous camping trip with buddies. You could just take a thirty-mile bike trip and maybe come home that night, maybe not. People didn’t worry about kidnapping. You could even hitchhike. I’m sure it was dangerous, but no one really knew that. It was a great time to be a kid. I played baseball and hockey and swam in the sandstone quarries that were in everyone’s backyard. I had a paper route. I mowed lawns. I wished I was an Indian, having read about them in the Book of Knowledge. I painted pictures of Indians using pigment made from berries. Some of my friends hunted. I fished. I knew every pond and brook you could bike or walk to. Waters beyond beckoned.
I probably first heard of Rangeley, Maine, in an issue of Field and Stream circa l955. President Eisenhower had famously fished a stream there around that time. My best fishing buddy Donald, the first of us to turn sixteen and therefore the first to drive legally, got his driver’s license and we drove there with two other teenagers. I was fourteen. It was an all-day trip from our town in Massachusetts. On the twelve-mile dirt road to Kennebago Lake, the most alluring of the Rangeley Lakes, we hit a rock and disabled our car. Bud Russell put us up at his camp, the Kennebago Lake Club, and treated us royally. He even had our car fixed. We were shown incredible fishing spots. It was a memorable eight days in l957.
Then I went to high school, college, and grad school. In l970 I moved to LA, got a dog, fished the Sierras and rivers near by. My dog Man Ray, besides being an amazing photo and video subject, was a great fishing companion. He was very respectful of the water, never disturbing the pools. A few years later I moved to New York City and fished the classic Long Island, Catskill, and Adirondack streams.
In l978, after a spell of exploring nearly every lake and river in the Northeast, I found myself in Rangeley again. I ended up buying a cabin on a small lake in the Rangeley region and ten years later an old lodge across from it, which, seven dogs later, I continue to work on and in.
Left: Yvonne Rainer, The Mind Is a Muscle (first version), 1966. Performance view, Judson Church, New York, NY, May 24, 1966. Right: Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 1965. Performance view, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, March 6, 1965. Robert Morris, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Tony Holder, Sally Gross, Robert Rauschenberg, Judith Dunn, and Joseph Schlichter. Photos: Peter Moore © Estate of Peter Moore / VAGA.
The choreographer, dancer, writer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer was born in San Francisco in 1934 and moved to New York in the 1950s, where she helped cofound the Judson Dance Theater in 1962. This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first concerts at Judson Church, and to commemorate the occasion, artforum.com is presenting a series of interviews with key participants in the group.
JUDSON’S IN MY GENES! I mean probably more than for the others. It was such a defining period for me. I came to New York in 1956 to study at the Herbert Berghof School of Acting. I studied with Lee Grant, who at that time was blacklisted because of her leftist politics. (Sandy Dennis, then seventeen, was in the same class.) I was in my early twenties, and I was no good. Objectively speaking, I never had a talent for mimesis.
A musician friend of mine was going to a dance class. She said it would be good for my acting, and I went to this class in the Village taught by Edith Stephen. She had studied African dance and Humphrey-Weidman technique, so it was very eclectic. After the first class, I asked her for an evaluation. She said, “Well, you’re not very turned out, but you’re very strong.” I loved it. I loved jumping around. I had a huge amount of energy, strong legs, and I luckily had no idea how structurally ill-adapted I was for traditional dance of any kind. I was ignorant of that until relatively recently.
At that time, Merce Cunningham didn’t have a studio of his own, and he would rent space from Edith. I would go there early and peek through the curtains, and he would be rehearsing by himself. It was like he was on ice. It was so beautiful. So when I began to use running in my early work, I made a comparison to that freedom, that pleasure in movement that I attributed to him when I first saw him—it was like the feeling I had when I ran.
After Edith, I studied for a year with Martha Graham. I slowly gravitated toward John Cage and Cunningham, and I studied with Merce for eight years and took ballet classes. But very early, I knew that I would not be accepted in any professional dance company, and that if I wanted to continue dancing, I’d have to make my own work, despite the fact that, unexpectedly, James Waring, that great choreographer of mismatched dancers, invited me into his company. I worked with him from 1961 to 1963.
In 1960, Robert Dunn, who was a kind of acolyte of Cage, was playing the piano for Merce’s classes. I think Cage induced him to teach some kind of workshop in Merce’s studio. There were five of us in the workshop that first year, including Simone Forti and Steve Paxton—Steve was already dancing with Cunningham. The initial basis of the class was analyzing Cage’s chance procedures for Fontana Mix. We all began to make work. In the following year, four more people came in. Then in 1962, some of us tried out for this annual dance concert that took place at the 92nd Street Y. We auditioned before a jury of three choreographers, and we were all turned down: Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Steve, and I. None of us made the grade.
We realized that we had to do something on our own if we wanted to show our work publicly. I was already going down to Judson Church to see productions by the Poet’s Theater there. Judson had an art gallery, too, where Claes Oldenburg and Robert Whitman and Allan Kaprow were showing work. The director was Howard Moody, this ex-marine who was the chief minister of the place—a very progressive guy. Al Carmine was the artistic director. I arranged for some of us to show Al what we were doing, and he invited us in. Later, he would say, “I didn’t quite know what I was looking at, but I sensed that it was important.” That’s how the first concert of dance at Judson took place, on July 6 of 1962. And we were launched!
I think Steve’s work was the most far-out—and kind of arcane—of everything that went on there. His stuff was the most resistant to pleasureful expectations. He was physically so gifted but absolutely refused to exploit these gifts. I can describe a dance that kind of demonstrates this. It was called Afternoon (1963). Six of us rehearsed this very difficult, Cunningham-esque movement. Remember: I had to work very hard against the strictures of my body to master this technique. And I worked my ass off to learn these steps. The dance was to be shown in a forest in New Jersey, and the audience was bused out. It took place after a rain on very mushy ground, so it was impossible to keep your balance and to do the steps as he had taught them in the studio. I was outraged. But of course it was totally deliberate on his part. He knew that the surface would affect the quality of the movement. And that’s what he was interested in, this destruction of virtuosic movement. That was his mentality, and it was very hard for a lot of people to take. Some people might say this was the spirit of Judson, but Steve was definitely in the vanguard of all the multifaceted work that emerged from the Judson cauldron.
Katie Holten is an Irish-born, New York–based multimedia artist whose work explores the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. She represented Ireland at the 2003 Venice Biennale and in 2009 created Tree Museum, a public artwork celebrating the centennial of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She was recently selected by the New Orleans Museum of Art to create a site-specific installation for the institution’s Great Hall Project series. “Drawn to the Edge” opened June 15 and will be on view through September 9.
I LOVE MAPS. I’m drawn to the macro and micro view of things—self-similar patterns found on different scales, across the physical landscape as well as through time. The shape of river deltas is found to repeat at scales all the way down to cracks in the mud. We see this in man-made as well as organic structures—a simple underlying mathematics to it all.
When I was invited to create a work for New Orleans, I immediately began thinking of those “edges” where the man-made meets the organic; where today meets yesterday, ten thousand years ago, and tomorrow; and where solid meets liquid meets air. I met locals who work with land and water and I went on expeditions to places like Cocodrie and Venice, Louisiana. I saw the extent of the problems inherent in this landscape, which is literally disappearing. Much of this is due to oil and gas prospectors who cut channels through the wetlands, allowing salt water in. As the salt water spreads, the land dies. I kept finding myself standing at the edge of the land, looking at where the water and earth touch. Silence was all around and I felt a palpable sense of foreboding.
Because I couldn’t place anything on the floor or walls of the Great Hall—as they often hold events there—I proposed suspending massive drawings from the ceiling that could be lowered to ground level, acting as walls within the space. The double-sided drawings, made on canvas, are twelve feet tall and range from sixteen to thirty-six feet long. They became sculptural in their scale. I used simple materials—graphite, charcoal, chalk, black oil stick, and sediment.
Getting up in the air to see everything from above was essential. I took hundreds of aerial photographs. Zooming in on New Orleans and flying south with Google Earth, it’s easy to spot man-made channels—all the straight lines. I used this as an aesthetic strategy—hanging the drawings to form straight lines and channels that confront visitors as soon as they enter the museum. When you walk into the Great Hall, a thirty-six-foot canvas blocks your path. It changes how you enter and navigate the museum. In this sense it’s also an architectural project.
It was important to give titles that could place the viewer within a narrative. For example, one drawing looks like a night sky, but the title is Constellations (maps of Louisiana oil and gas wells), so you realize that each of the many thousands of little dots is a well—the seemingly cosmic turns out to be a human-made manifestation of the underlying geology. I made the drawing using chalk from the Cretaceous era, which I collected from the former ocean floor in Kansas—a place intrinsically linked to southern Louisiana. Water from half of the US finds its way down the Mississippi River, carrying sediment from as far away as Pennsylvania and Montana—the same sediment that actually formed the land that is now New Orleans.
Time feeds the entire project, and in many ways the drawings are an attempt to capture it. The drawing Found Islands depicts, on one side, an island that existed 4,500 years ago where New Orleans is today, while the other side features a contemporary island formed by the combined processes of man-made events, sediment accumulation, and encroaching salt water. City (New Orleans) is an animated drawing that shows the city expanding and contracting back to its origins in an endless loop. The speed is synced to mimic the pace of a human breath—the course of several centuries is condensed to seven seconds.