This is a condensed, edited version of a Skype conversation I had with Ame Henderson.
Re: what we are saying - What brought about the question of 'can we be together without losing ourselves'? I play in an orchestra and I ask myself this all the time. I actually live this question at work.
It's probably not that far off from the roots of this. I’m trained in dance, and this project is the second of a series of projects that began with the question of the unison gesture and how it might be rethought. I didn’t know how people could dance together without harkening some connotations that were, for me personally, not so relevant and perhaps even dangerous. Yet I was fascinated by shared movement patterns as social gestures that are immediately recognizable and felt. Reworking these formal approaches as modes for moving and thinking collaboratively allowed us to seek new sensations and new resonances through doing the same thing at the same time. So in dance, like in the orchestra, there’s a classical tradition of people doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Probably the quickest reference is the ballet with the corps de ballet. But in contemporary dance, at least when I started these projects, I felt that unison was almost taboo, that it was difficult for people to employ unison unless it was somehow ironic or almost like a quote. So I was really interested in whether or not it was possible to work on a set of questions in collaboration with a group of artists that would allow us to re-approach unison. We made a project called relay that premiered in 2010 that addressed how unison appears in dance. Could we make a unison that was unplanned, where the moment, or the potential moment of being together, was something that would arrive through a group of individuals imagining how to be together. An improvisatory unison that didn’t require that we submit to any overarching group mind or directive or hierarchy or leadership initiative. So coming out of that were similar questions around speech and shared speech and investigating choral choreography where the goal was to find a way of speaking together, but without abandoning our individual interests, desires and imaginations. Obviously it’s a pretty faltering, (laughing) imperfect appearance as unison or choral speech, but it’s always intentioned with what it’s trying to achieve and what that requires or how that feels.
For me, there’s something very present in culture as it exists right now, which is a difficulty in understanding how to be with other people, but there’s also an imperative, a necessity for doing so. We’re all - this generation in the west - a product of a push for individual expression and success. And capitalism’s project is really about individual over group, so there’s an underlying tension in the question of how people organize. How do people appear together within the current socio-political-neo-liberal (chuckles) reality. I sense that humans have been trying to organize for as long as we’ve been around. The meaning that’s made when people work on things together... there’s a polyphony of possibilities of how that manifests - as activism, as labour, as family. The multitude of ways community presents itself. To me this is something that’s utterly relatable, as is the problem of it. How it feels to be trying, at the most micro and the most macro. Trying to participate in the democratic project, as flawed as it is. How it feels to try to participate in an activist project at the community level, a family structure, even in more habitual relationships, one-on-one relationships. These are things that are happening for all of us, on the daily. We wanted to make a performance where there is a kind of multi-directionality in how people come together, and this is never fixed and never really works...and because it never works, that’s why it works (laughs). It’s our small offering, a mode for continuing to think through and feel through what it means to believe that it’s worth it to be in group arrangements as a opposed to forging on by yourself. Which is a fallacy anyway, I mean, who is really alone? Or both - we’re both always alone and always trying to navigate relationality in every direction, in many proximities.
You’ve performed this piece a few times already and have future tour dates...
This is true, we premiered it in 2013 in Toronto at The Powerplant as part of the Harbourfront Centre World Stage season. We’ve since done a little bit of touring in Canada and a couple places overseas. The performance in Kitchener, and the work to bring it back together now, is the beginning of some Ontario touring that will continue this fall with performances in North Bay, Guelph, London, Kingston and Ottawa. It’s super exciting for us because we don’t often get to tour close to home. What about being in a conversation with people and structures and communities that are closer to us? So we’ve orchestrated this tour of smaller venues, and partnering with different types of organizations.
What have you learned from having repeated this work?
It’s constant (laughs). It’s a performance that the more you work on, the more there is the know about it, the more it feels like you don’t know how to do it. One of the things that has been super beautiful is we made it with eight performers, and we’ve subsequently taught it to several other collaborators. So there’s a roster of people who know the work, so when we bring it back together, it can be a different collection of people. So it’s always changing in that respect - the particular dynamics between the group of individuals that come together to do the show each time. And then there’s our reiteration of the show’s values. The performance is based on a score, much like in experimental music. There’s a set of time-based procedures that happen, events that take place in a particular sequence. The performance of these events can look different show to show. The scores gives us some way to feel where we are both individually and as a group as we move through, and it orders our experience and lends the whole show a shape. So relearning that score, teaching that score, trying to communicate to each other what its values are - this changes because we change. How do we interpret why we did something three years ago and then determine how to do it again, and how to do it again with a sense of honesty.
Have you learned anything in doing this work that has transferred outside of the work?
One of the things that’s quite potent for me is how communication figures in this performance and how it operates on different registers without a hierarchy between the body utterance, spatial event, time event... and, I suppose, specifically with the voice and utterance, the possibilities between sound and sense. So, how speech can oscillate between something that’s almost unintelligible and moving towards sense, and then how that sense can tip into sound. This has opened up an expansive way of relating to the notion of communication in my life, and how it’s available to work on how communication operates and what it makes possible. That normative ways of having conversations and communicating allow for things, but they also foreclose other possibilities. So the performance is like a teacher - for me, I don’t know if it will teach anyone else! - it teaches me to always imagine that there are other ways to be in communication with other people and with my environment. This is the base proposal of the show, and the paradigm proposed is listening. Listening as a way of expanding perceptive capacities and therefore expanding relational capacities in the world. We start on the small scale - our group doing this performance - but I think it’s a proposal that listening might be a route through some of the impasses and disturbances that make living a challenge. What happens if we listen first?
... so that’s obviously changed my life (laughing). It’s given me so much hope actually, in the least cheesy sense. To imagine just going around listening as maybe adding something useful. It seems doable.
Can you tell me more about the “artistic research” that Public Recordings does?
The term exists in academia as a way of holding space precisely to suggest that there’s a way that working in art can contribute to knowledge production. That art working is a viable and completely legitimate mode of understanding what knowledge is and how knowledge is produced. Using this terminology requires acknowledging that it is a term actively in play in academia. But, I think [Public Recordings] uses it to propose working on process for the sake of learning more about how to work - not just producing projects and artworks and salable discreet art events or objects - but research as an attitude, as a mode of being... that we work on working, and try to understand and experiment with new ways of seeing the links between the art we’re making and the social dimensions that we’re in, and moving back and forth between those. And when we list all of those things that we do, it’s making a distinction between production-driven art working and art working that may have other aims: pedagogical, research, experience.
Also, to take some kind of responsibility for contributing to ongoing learning in our field - contemporary performance, for the most part. Our collective is really cross-disciplinary. I’m a choreographer; Evan Webber is a playwright, a writer and a performer more from the theatre tradition; Sandra Henderson has worked mostly as a theatre producer; and Jeremy McCormick is a graphic designer. That’s our core collective. Our work is choreographic and mostly situated in the contemporary arts. What the disciplinary connections are often depends on the curatorial aims of whomever it is that we’re working with or the projects specifically. We might be presented in a dance, visual arts, theatre or literary context. So when I say ‘our field’, it’s quite broad but it’s really contemporary performance gestures, like thinking about what it means to be performing now across disciplines.
And what future projects or questions are working on now?
We’ve been working on an iterative project called performance encyclopaedia which is a performance in the shape of a book. We gather a group of writer-performers and we write an encyclopaedia on the current obsessions, proclivities and positions of this group of writer-performers. Then we publish the book as a performance at the end of a period of shared writing. This project is ongoing and we continue to figure out where it can land. We’ve got a few things in the works for it. So this is something old, but also new because it’s always a new group of people who work on the book.
We’ve got a show coming up at the Canada Dance Festival which is a new work, Out of Season, the second in a series of duets between myself and a dancer-choreographer from Croatia named Matija Ferlin. This will be a Canadian premiere so I’m also at work thinking about what it means to share something for the first time with an audience, with peers. What the first moment in the life of performance feels like.
And more broadly, I’m working questions of radical pedagogy and the cross-over or the flux between art working and pedagogy. This is a more longterm engagement that considers study as a position, a mode of being in collaboration with other people, and potentially leads to something that manifests itself as both an art project and school.
Check publicrecordings.org/ for those fall tour dates of what we are saying