Dance during the Pandemic: A Roundtable Conversation
Charles Aubin, Aruna D’Souza, Brendan Fernandes, Ligia Lewis and Paul Maheke take stock of the performance world in the wake of COVID-19
Charles Aubin, Aruna D’Souza, Brendan Fernandes, Ligia Lewis and Paul Maheke take stock of the performance world in the wake of COVID-19
Aruna D’Souza How are you all making work under lockdown and what concerns has this crisis raised for you?
Brendan Fernandes A lot of my work asks how we can bring different kinds of bodies together, creating critical mass and solidarity. Before COVID-19 hit, I was developing a performance for the exhibition ‘Histórias da Dança’ [Histories of Dance] at the Museum of Art, São Paulo, involving Fluxus actions in spaces around the city. Coordinated via the iPhone AirDrop feature, people would be invited to join dancers performing to different scores. This strategy was borrowed from pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong; when the government shut down the internet to prevent demonstrators from organizing, they began communicating via AirDrop because it functions offline and can’t be traced. In an increasingly unsafe world, safe spaces can still be carved out – even if those spaces need to be virtual for the time being.
At the same time, my work is about creating physical intimacies. When social distancing became necessary, I initially felt a real sense of loss. Lately, I’ve been thinking about using fabrics or other props that will allow dancers to perform without touching. I am trying to regard these necessary distances as forms of care. Also, since institutions are inviting me to restage older works, as well as make new ones in 2021, I’m asking myself what it means to reperform: if I adapt an older performance to meet social-distancing requirements, how much of that work’s integrity will be compromised? If physical contact isn’t possible, at what point does the work become something else entirely?
ADS I’m currently co-curating an exhibition of Lorraine O’Grady’s work. When she began to preserve her early performances from the 1970s and ’80s, she treated it as a process of re-presentation, of creating new works out of the raw material of earlier ones, translating them into different media on different terms and re-dating them: ‘1983/2019’, for example. That’s such a fantastic process, because it does what we want all performance art to do: allow us to understand its history while also responding to its new context.
Charles Aubin This reminds me of the process that you have been going through, Paul, with Levant , your collaborative video installation with Ligia, and Sènsa , your performance at last year’s Performa 19 Biennial, in which you explored similar questions of visibility and invisibility.
Paul Maheke In both works, the bodies of the performers are always in and out of sight. With Sènsa, which I perform alongside my collaborators Melika Ngombe Kolongo [aka Nkisi] and Ariel Efraim Ashbel, the scenic space is created through movement amongst the audience; there is no definite stage. So, intimacy and closeness are fundamental to the work. After we’d performed the piece, Melika, Ariel and I wanted to create a video installation that would reproduce the spatial conditions of the work, the lighting and music that were almost performers alongside our bodies. But it’s currently impossible to complete that project because gathering people in a studio would potentially endanger them.
Rather than producing, I’ve been writing and thinking about how to create performance without access to a studio. The beginning of the lockdown coincided with a planned tour of my work, so my main source of income just disappeared from one day to the next. My first reaction was to alert art-world institutions to the fact that many artists won’t be able to survive this crisis. I received invitations to participate in online shows but declined because I felt that most of the proposals failed to address what the context demanded: a complete reset of the art world’s material conditions. COVID-19 has shown us how dysfunctional the system is.
BF One of the most important things I’ve taken from this moment has been staying still. I’ve never spent so much time in one place during the last ten years. Lockdown has given me permission to reimagine what making art might look like. I’m currently working on a commission for the Art Gallery of Ontario that predated the pandemic, and now we’re rehearsing on Zoom. Whereas before I was responding to the museum’s architecture, now I’m trying to incorporate Zoom’s grid system into my choreography. Maybe it will become an ongoing part of my practice.
Ligia Lewis In this moment, when everyone’s talking about social distancing, I feel more socially entangled than I have in years, precisely because of that stillness you’ve described, Brendan. This pause in production has enabled me to recalibrate my relationships and interrogate my understanding of intimacy. If you’re always busy producing work, for instance, are you experiencing real intimacy or simply the performance of intimacy? I am still committed to my choreographic practice, but I am enjoying this space to further analyse how I work.
I’ve been attending a number of protests here in Berlin and asking myself what it means that all this profound social activity is occurring while cities are shut down. The precarity that was always present is now even more visible and urgent. Maybe artistic production and hyperactivity had to pause for a minute to create space for this other social force to garner attention.
ADS I live in the mountains in Western Massachusetts and I’ve never felt more connected to a community than I do now. Culturally, we’ve always understood touch and intimacy as almost indistinguishable. Yet, in this moment, we’re finding workarounds to create new forms of genuine connection without physical presence.
All of you achieve a sense of the ‘real’ in your work – not just through touch and bodily physicality, but through sound. Has sound become an even more crucial part of your thinking now?
PM Every Sunday, I join a Zoom meeting with a group of artists in London. Yesterday, one of the participants said: ‘There is no real listening without consequence. Listening without consequence is just hearing.’ In Levant, Ligia, Melika and I were using sound as a very effective, political material because you cannot soundproof your body: you will always sense sound, even through your bones. That’s why the police weaponize it against protestors. At the same time, I’m interested in the way silence has been used in certain demonstrations to recalibrate this relationship between citizens and the state. Silent protests are very potent. These contrasts are hugely important to my work.
CA When it comes to performance, one of my main concerns as a curator is ensuring the safest environment possible. This can be as simple as defining how many people are allowed into the space or keeping an eye on the audience to ensure the performers are OK. Besides Sènsa, I’ve curated a number of intimate performances, including Jimmy Robert’s Imitation of Lives  at Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi’s Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre)  in a New York townhouse. Now, as we plan for Performa 2021, we’re having to take questions of health more seriously than ever. We will probably have more outdoor programmes and will be putting measures in place to ensure audience and performer safety. But I don’t want these parameters to dictate what kind of work gets made. We should not push artists to do more solo performances, for instance, just because they’re a ‘safer’ choice.
ADS At the same time, don’t the parameters always push the art? Obviously, we don’t yet know how this crisis will play out but so much of your work – Brendan, Ligia, Paul – lays bare the political, social and cultural framing conditions for performance.
LL Absolutely. The making of performance work won’t stop just because the conditions shift. The urgency is still there. But this is a good opportunity to pause and reflect on how – and whether – we want to reanimate these spaces.
BF I’m interested in the sonic reverberations of collective gathering. Every day here in Chicago, when the hospital shifts change over at 8pm, people come out of their houses to cheer and bang on pots in support of frontline workers. In Brazil at 8pm, people go outside and scream to protest Jaír Bolsonaro’s government and his denial of COVID-19. In both instances, there’s a proximity and collectivity created through sound. As a space for performance, too, the street is so charged; it’s where politics and opposition to social structures take place. It’s a space of sonic but also visual noise that can challenge the body without physical touch.
LL The street is a place to learn from, not instrumentalize. The necessary performance work is already happening there. It’s important to be patient with this process of learning and listening and, of course, we could take what we’ve learned to the places where we’re trained to work. I don’t mean this in a literal sense, as a direct translation, but rather as a means of allowing our collective creative processes to be transformed by finding more ethical and sustainable ways to make and present work, and by working with/in and against institutional constraints.
ADS It’s interesting to note that these protests haven’t caused the current spikes in COVID-19 transmission here in the US. Those increases are being wrought by businesses reopening too soon. Gathering to protest and change the world isn’t killing us; business as usual is.
CA COVID-19 has made the precariousness of this system, especially for performers and dancers, very clear here in the US. But when I talk to people I’ve worked with in France, I see there are some effective safety nets in place there, such as ‘intermittence’ – a government scheme guaranteeing continuous income for performers, musicians and technical staff. I’m not saying this is enough, but such schemes do provide some stability for artists and art workers, which is absent in the US.
The other thing exposed by the pandemic has been the high fixed costs associated with arts institutions, relative to how much artists get paid. At Performa, we do not have a permanent space, which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We collaborate with other organizations, co-commission works and present them in galleries, theatres or outdoor spaces. This has its limits but has also saved us from certain financial dangers.
LL I straddle two bases, Berlin and Los Angeles. When I work in the US, I am so disheartened by the conditions. They illustrate that the event of performance is what’s valued, rather than the creative process.
Dancers are artists, even if they are working under the authorship of another artist. That’s something that I know very well, having first been a dancer and interpreter, and now a choreographer and director. I feel so fortunate to have had that experience because I understand precisely how important dancers and performers are to the fabric of performance and how integral performance is to the fabric of an institution.
Museums have massive budgets to commission new sculpture and painting and move them across the globe, but they won’t pay appropriately to move people across a room. This moment gives us an opportunity to profoundly rethink that. Maybe it is this notion of the performance being an ‘event’ that’s the problem. Maybe there’s a way to integrate the process of performance more deeply inside the ecosystem of the institution. Theatre, historically, has been able to do that.
CA I want to be hopeful. We’ve seen a slow shift over the past five to ten years as museums have included more performance in their programmes. Architecturally, however, it’s only just catching on: very few museums have a green room, for instance, which is the most basic thing you should provide for performers. The task now is to address, head-on, the systemic vulnerabilities that the crisis has laid bare. An obvious place to begin would be by developing longer-term commitments to artists and performers, not treating them like one-off entertainers.
PM One way for museums to facilitate and support performance in the long term is through acquisition. It’s also a way for performance to permanently enter the collection. When one of my works was recently acquired, I had to draft an agreement between the museum, Galerie Sultana and the commissioning body, and it was only by noting everything down that I realized all of the conditions I wanted a performer to have when they interpreted this work in the future – in terms of space, physical and financial resources, and protection from discrimination or harm.
BF The idea of a performance having a theatrical ‘run’ is often a challenge for institutions, which tend to prefer new or site-specific work. The time, training and endurance it takes for a dancer to learn a piece is undervalued. The expectation that dancers perform an artist’s choreography on demand, without rehearsal, is dehumanizing and, as artists, we’re often forced to manage these unrealistic expectations. The loss of shows due to COVID-19 also means a loss of opportunities to support and collaborate with the dancers and performers who make our works. Museums are struggling financially right now and the first thing that’s often cut from their budgets is pay for performers. It sends a clear message about their institutional priorities.
LL Wages are the first thing to be cut. It’s totally medieval. And it’s been consistently normalized because of the supposed cultural cachet of performing within an institution.
ADS If a museum hires a caterer for their opening dinner, they would never say: ‘Do we have to pay the wait staff?’ Yet, they’re willing to ask: ‘Do we have to pay these highly trained dancers?’
PM I’m not trained as a dancer and, although dance has always been important to me, I didn’t consider performance a viable career because the resources were not there. When I started performing, I was usually activating the space of my own installation or exhibition, and the curators rarely considered paying me for that work.
ADS This moment of mass closure has also forced artists to realize that, maybe, we don’t need institutions in order to make work, gather information or listen. For years, artists have been struggling to relate to museums whose principles – reflected by their boards of trustees – are so out of sync with the values of the work they exhibit.
PM A lot of museums were desperate for content at the beginning of the pandemic. They were anxious about being forgotten, about being unable to get funding when the public wasn’t around to justify their existence. Even the biggest museums were paralysed and it’s forced them to re-evaluate. The same can be said for the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tsunami of solidarity statements, particularly from UK and US institutions. Will those words be followed up by actions leading to real structural change? That’s what I’m waiting for.
ADS I’d be happy if I never read another museum solidarity statement in my life, especially since they’re usually coming from museum leaderships that are at least 85 percent white. If you’re 85 percent white, you’re a racist institution: end of story. You benefit from and you reproduce white supremacy. No solidarity statement is going to change that.
BF Exactly. Right now, these institutions are performing politics instead of taking action.
This is the first time that, because of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, we can have political conversations of depth on a global scale. I’m a fifth generation Kenyan and, recently, my mother has started talking to me about living under apartheid, traumas she never spoke about before. This moment has given her a voice.
ADS On my family WhatsApp group chat, even my relatives in India are sitting around in lockdown talking – finally – about anti-blackness. Previously, it’s a conversation that I’ve only had with the youngest members of my family.
There are so many people who have experienced tremendous loss in their families. But, for the rest of us, who are relatively unscathed by the virus, this has been a moment in which we actually have the space to do the work of listening that Ligia was talking about. So often we think of listening and action as mutually opposed, without understanding that listening is a form of action.
LL We also have to refuse this idea of a return to normal. It was never normal.
ADS Are there things about this moment that you want to maintain? Structures, or ways of relating to and being creative with each other?
PM The stillness of this moment has given me the clarity to think through things that would have been impossible when I was constantly working. I want us always to be able to listen undistracted. I’m convinced that sight is an impairment to our deep understanding of things: you don’t empathize with something because you can see it. Deeper meaning always lies beneath the representation, in the shadow image. That’s why I hope for more moments of stillness.
BF When I work with dancers, I always challenge them to be still. I’m trying to give myself that challenge as well now. It is a way to question this capitalist idea that to stop moving is to be unproductive.
PM To be able to withdraw and be idle is a privilege that people of colour need.
BF When we protest, too, we want to be heard and seen. We’ve talked about noise as collective agency, but I’m also interested in the political power to manoeuvre through spaces without being asked to speak, acting only for yourself and escaping notice.
LL To recede into an ensemble is also a way of becoming less visible.
ADS I’m reminded of Sondra Perry’s Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II , a two-channel video of dancers performing in the corner of a white room. Using Photoshop, Perry erases their bodies, so they can’t be contained by stereotypes or surveillance or any other oppressive structure. Ligia and Paul, you both also have moments in your work when bodies disappear – an invisibility that confers power or freedom.
LL Yes, exactly. Like fugitivity, escaping the condition of always being a target. Paul and I love this idea that, instead of trying to make yourself legible, you retreat.
BF If you can’t be seen, you exist in a fluid state. There’s something very queer about that. I think about this less in visual than spiritual terms.
PM As a queer artist of colour, it’s hard to always have to explain myself before I can finally speak of the work. Yet, I know that if I don’t, I will be spoken for by someone else. This kind of visibility can be dangerous and oppressive. It forces artists to perform what I call ‘institutional translation’.
LL The entanglement of visibility and violence, particularly for Black folks, is something that we all have to reflect upon deeply. For me, visibility has always been a double-edged sword: it may be a necessity but it can easily get misconstrued and misused.
ADS That’s what I find so exciting about alternatives to institutional spaces. Because it’s not just about visibility or invisibility, it’s also about visibility within certain spaces and not in others. Those are important conditions.
PM Levant was all about trying to deflect the gaze of the spectator and the violence Black bodies are exposed to onstage. It created a space in which bodies became visible or disappeared from view with agency. The fleeting light and the smoke prevented the audience from seeing the performers’ bodies all at once within the black box we created. The work was a refusal to flatten the body into an image. The title, Levant, actually derives from an English verb that means to leave without paying your debts. I love that idea of having the possibility to run away from what is expected from us. Perhaps, one day, visibility won’t be equated with having to give so much.
Charles Aubin is a curator at Performa. In 2020, he organized Performa’s online exhibition ‘Bodybuilding: A Radical Broadcast’. He lives in New York, USA.
Aruna D’Souza is a writer and the editor of the forthcoming volumes Making It Modern: A Linda Nochlin Reader and Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space 1973–2018. She is the curator of ‘Both/And’, a retrospective of O’Grady’s work, which will open in March 2021 at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA. She lives in Western Massachusetts, USA.
Brendan Fernandes is an artist. In 2021, he will have solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada and his work will be included in a group exhibition at the Museum of Art of São Paulo, Brazil. He lives in Chicago, USA.
Ligia Lewis is a dancer and choreographer. Earlier this year, she presented Water Will (in Melody) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA. She lives in Berlin, Germany.
Paul Maheke is an artist. In 2021, he will have solo exhibitions at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Renaissance Society, Chicago, USA, and his work will be included in Glasgow International, UK. He lives in London, UK.
Main image: Ligia Lewis, Water Will (in Melody), 2018, performance documentation, Performance Space New York. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Maria Baranova