Steve Roden is a Los Angeles–based sound and visual artist. His recent work can be seen in the group exhibition “Silence” at the Menil Collection in Houston, which runs through October 21; it will be on view at the Berkeley Art Museum January 30 to April 28, 2013. Here, Roden discusses the process of incorporating the works of John Cage and Walter Benjamin into his own art.
LAST YEAR, I PERFORMED John Cage’s 4'33" every day, privately––never announcing it to anybody else. It was an exercise in both writing and listening, but also an activity to see how the score could be opened up to offer activities beyond listening. By performing it daily, I explored how the piece might change through repetition, and investigated what kind of experiences it might it suggest over time. In this sense, Cage was on my mind every day.
My first true “system painting” was done about thirteen years ago and was based on one of the scores for 4'33", which consists of a paragraph of text describing the premiere of the piece. Last year I was researching the piece and realized there are at least three distinct variations of the score, so I worked with my earlier graphic system, as well as several new systems, to generate these recent paintings.
There’s a large-scale painting in the Menil exhibition where all of the color decisions are related to various permutations of the word tacet, which is Cage’s only real musical instruction in the score. It’s interesting how tacet works, because it is essentially telling the musician to be silent, and in this case to let the surroundings speak as music. The idea of the tacet as both action and nonaction offered me the idea of a painting as both a visual experience and a site for listening.
Coincidentally, while working on the Cage performances, I was invited to Berlin to research Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, and I thought, how could I not bring these two together? I performed 4'33" in the Benjamin archives as well as in Paris, where I used one of Benjamin’s notebooks as my instrument. At some point, I felt that my conversations––one with Cage and one with Benjamin––were more interesting together than separately.
I first saw Benjamin’s notebooks with a friend in 2006. In one of the notebooks, Benjamin used a series of small colored symbols to arrange his ideas. The stream of symbols looked like the kind of graphic notation explored by composers such as Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew in the early 1960s. These symbols floored me, and so I wanted to generate a series of scores from these notebooks. Furthermore, Benjamin was very visual in his notetaking, especially how he crossed things out as well as the ways he connected thoughts. I noticed that he didn’t scratch things out with any consistency, and from that I found thirty-seven different ways that he would cross out mistakes. I classified each of the forms and created a lexicon of all the ways Benjamin silenced his mistakes.
The exhibition in Berlin is the first group of works to come out of this body of research. It’s not about reverence for the source, the biography, or someone else’s work. It’s about conversing with these sources, developing a connection between things through a process that is less logical and more intuitive. I’ll be working with this material for the next couple of years; these first few exhibitions feel more like a beginning than an endpoint.
Elaine Summers was born in 1925 in Perth and was raised in Boston. In 1952 she moved to New York and attended workshops led by Robert Ellis Dunn, a musician for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The workshop group later formed the Judson Dance Theater. A choreographer, filmmaker, and pioneer of intermedia performance, Summers is also known for developing the Kinetic Awareness movement practice. On September 6th and 7th her 1976 work Windows in the Kitchen will be presented as part of the American Dance Guild Performance Festival at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater.
As part of artforum.com’s ongoing interview series celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first concerts at Judson, Summers here recounts her experiences with the group and the “friendships that were based on finding out how to work.”
BEFORE JUDSON, I was in the very first Robert Ellis Dunn choreography class in 1960, which was based on John Cage’s teaching. Of course, at that time we were all working with Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, who was lovely. I met most everybody at Juilliard, which gave me a good way to choose where to go and try to dance. One of the things that convinced me that I really wanted to be a choreographer happened during the first class. I was working on my first film with Eugene Friedman and I made a dance for it based on the legend of Ondine. Steve Paxton said very kindlynot unkindly—to me, “Well, I didn’t like that much,” which was very unusual. It was my first dance. I got puzzled, so I went home and thought about how I could change it. I thought: I like it, and I like what I’m thinking about in this piece. So, I did it againfixing a little but not much. When I finished, Steve said, “Well, I don’t like the dance any better, but you sure danced the hell out of it.” Wasn’t that a lovely thing to say?
In that class there was a space for all the strange structures we were making. Trisha Brown did a dance where the sounds from the street cause you to cross your legs or raise your arm. That whole class—it wasn’t like people came and all we did was Cage—they were all people who had ballet training. We were highly trained dancers choosing not to use a certain formula for being creative—that made a big difference at Judson. There were just these fresh minds and the works of people exploring things. That’s what the Cage thing gives you: It’s a way to break through all that you’ve been taught.
Elaine Summers, Windows in the Kitchen, 1976 (excerpt)
They were all very sophisticated, really. And they were in their twenties. (I was in my thirties and didn’t know that was too old then.) At that age in your life, you and your friends push one another in new directions and open doors. I used to feel that way about Merce’s concerts: You go there and it’s like he opens this garden door, but he doesn’t go very far—you have to look in—and then next dance he’s over here. That was his way of living, because he had so many things that he was curious about. He was a very curious man.
I was working over a stretch of time with everybody at Judson. That was one of the great things—the friendships. Friendships that were based on finding out how to work, and the important thing about work was the ideas. Judson was like this wild field of things, of people, and they’re all weeping and jumping and thinking and reading and going to the movies and everybody’s concerts. It would be very funny when a whole busload of very serious Baptists would come through the main part of the church and we were all rolling on the floor. It was so accepting and non-interfering. Now of course there’s a lot of difficulty because of the fire laws.
Someone once asked me to write my bio, and I said that my biography is my choreography. They didn’t like that at all. I think everybody’s got amazing paths: All of the beautifulness of all those scattered people. One day, I was walking down Cornelia Street where I was living and along came Meredith Monk—oh, Meredith!—and she said, “How are you doing?” And I said, “Oh! It’s just wonderful—I’m not working, I’m just making a concert.” And she said, “What do you mean you’re not working?” I said, “Well, I’m not. I’m taking the year off, and it’s costing $3,000.” She said, “Oh, Elaine! That’s working!”
The California-born, New York–based painter David Reed is a colorist known for his vibrant oil and alkyd paintings of endless ribbons and folds—a daily practice that is both biographical and conceptual. “Heart of Glass,” a retrospective of the past forty-five years of Reed’s output, is on view at the Kunstmuseum Bonn until October 7.
THE EXHIBITION IS in a big, sprawling space. It terrified me at first. Since I had once seen a Blinky Palermo show in the same galleries, I felt especially nervous. It’s on the second floor and there are skylights in every room; it’s the first place where I’ve installed my paintings in so much daylight, and it was exciting to be able to do that. The paintings seem animated, an effect of your eyes having to adjust to changing levels of brightness from the skylights.
The layout of the rooms is a classical style, with a big central gallery and a number of adjacent galleries. I decided that I wanted each room to have a very particular feeling: When visitors walk in, they feel an atmosphere, a mood, so the entry into the paintings is through emotion rather than my history or the formal history of painting. Too often in museums you have to work hard to get to that feeling. There’s no good way to enter. But if you can get through all of that and finally get to the painting, something else happens. I want a catalyst so people can participate and have particular experiences rather than conventional ones. All of my attempts at making these different kinds of installations are a way to help to get to those more intimate, personal experiences with painting.
Originally I thought the central gallery would have a lot of drawings and that it would be like a big crazy studio, but the show’s curator Christoph Schreier thought that was a bad idea and in the end he was right, so there are large paintings in the first, central room and all of them are on white grounds. The idea was that everything here would float, that all the marks would seem to travel around the room, and you wouldn’t know where the paintings began or ended—you’d wonder, how far can a painting go?
I call these my “vampire paintings.” It’s this idea that a vampire doesn’t see himself reflected in a mirror, and perhaps that’s also what it is to look at an abstract painting. What do you see reflected? Not yourself, but something else, something strange. It’s like swimming or any other experience when you lose the contours of your body, and you don’t know where you are.
The installation in the central room is filmic, in the sense that in film boundary edges aren’t the end, instead implying continuation. I wanted the show to do that. We hung one painting into the only corner, and some of the other paintings are hung all the way to the edges of the walls. You can look through into the next room and it’s as if the painting is going through into that space. Fabian Marcaccio called it a traffic intersection for painting, which I liked.
Another, smaller room, toward the back, is full of works I made in 1967 in the desert around Monument Valley. There are four sunset drawings that follow the course of the sun as it sets. I tried to finish each drawing as the sun sank below the horizon. I’ve never shown them before. I was a twenty-one-year-old with a Volkswagen Beetle and I would nail an easel to the side of it, and go out and paint in the desert. One day I noticed a cave on one of the mesas, and I thought I’d go there and rest and get out of the sun and have lunch. When I got there, looking out of the cave’s opening, it seemed very familiar to me. There was a spring on the side, and I cupped my hands and drank from the spring, and it all seemed so known to me that I decided I had a special connection to this landscape in the Southwest—maybe I had been reincarnated from a Navajo who had been there. It wasn’t until years later when I saw The Searchers by John Ford that I realized this same cave is in the film. I thought of it as a kind of media baptism, to realize how much I had been affected by the media and how much it had informed me, and how I had to pay attention to that.
After we installed, my assistants and I had a chance to do some tracings of marks in the paintings. So now we can do stencils of some of the marks and use them again in new paintings. I like this idea of the same mark being able to continue through the years.
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.