How Steffani Jemison Made Movement an Extension of Being

Erica N. Cardwell speaks to the artist about the artist's most recent video Toss (2021) and how her practice is ‘shared from body to body’

 

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BY Steffani Jemison AND Erica N. Cardwell in Interviews | 17 SEP 21

Erica Cardwell: Will you describe your most recent solo exhibition ‘End Over End’ at Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati? 

Stephanie Jemison: ‘End Over End’ includes videos, sculptures and drawings. The heart of the exhibition is Toss [2021], a video created during the pandemic. Toss emerged from conversations with Harlem-based athlete/gymnast and artist Alexis Page; it’s my third video that studies the movement practice of a single artist, after Similitude [2019] and Sensus Plenior [2017].

Toss also emerged from a set of specifically narrative concerns. I have long considered what it means to experience life as a series of effects without causes, rather than a meaningful chain of causes and effects. I am fascinated by Rube Goldberg machines, the way a series of banal, ordinary, predictable interactions can produce something magical, manipulating the experience of time and anticipation. In The Way Things Go [1987] by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, a single event sets off a chain of effects. One thing touches another, which touches another, which touches another. How do the things we touch touch us back? How do those exchanges change us? How do objects become extensions of our bodies and our minds? How do the things around us shape our movements?

Steffani Jemison (b. 1981, Berkeley, CA, lives and works in Brooklyn), Toss, 2021. HD color video, with sound, 42 min., 20. sec. Courtesy of the artist, Kai Matsumiya, New York, and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam. Photo: Jesse Ly
Steffani Jemison, Toss, 2021, installation view. HD color video, with sound, 42 min., 20 sec. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; photography: Jesse Ly

EC: Can you tell me more about the structure of the video?

SJ: In a portion of the video, the camera moves around Alexis as she performs a loosely choreographed routine that involves manipulating a sequence of objects we chose together: a stick (literally a twig from a tree), a mallet, a tripod, a wall, a piece of fruit we found in the park, and a wig head. This alternates with footage in which the camera – and by extension, the viewer – is being controlled and manipulated by Alexis as she tosses, catches, twists and turns with it. In the soundtrack Alexis muses about the questions I described earlier – whether her body is an object, whether her body is a tool, whether her body is being used, what it means to be a means or an end of something, and so on. She also speaks about the metaphors that help her understand how we interact with objects and with the world, focusing on the word ‘fluency’.

EC: Alexis describes her body as a tool rather than an object. I’m curious how you view sites of contact? Do they offer moments of brief connection or comprehension? I’m thinking of the objects she manipulated in the film and thinking of the movements – flips, handstands, etc. – in Escaped Lunatic [2010–11] and the brief moments of variation they offer the audience. 

! Steffani Jemison (b. 1981, Berkeley, CA, lives and works in Brooklyn), Tumbler, 2021. Aluminum, electric gear motor, belt, 3D printed nylon, rubber, PET, stones, coins, glass, water, ceramic media, grit, and soap, 17 x 17 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Kai Matsumiya, New York, and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam. Photo: Jesse Ly
Steffani Jemison, Tumbler, 2021, aluminium, electric gear motor, belt, 3D printed nylon, rubber, PET, stones, coins, glass, water, ceramic media, grit, and soap, 43 × 43 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; photography: Jesse Ly

SJ: I worked with parkour practitioners to create Escaped Lunatic. I think of the performers’ little flourishes – they add a handstand here or a lovely leap there – not as opportunities for connection or comprehension, but the opposite, moments that exceed comprehension. They are little bits of ornamentation or decoration in physical form in which the performer’s movements can’t be reduced to simply the fastest way from A to B. Spaces where the performer finds freedom within constraint.

In Toss Alexis’s manipulation of props is often quite like the ornamental, excessive movements in Escaped Lunatic. Alexis takes ordinary objects and uses them in extraordinary ways that challenge the conventional uses of those objects and, in so doing, invites us to think about how both objects and bodies can become ornament. When she tosses a wig head, does a roll, then catches it between her knees, there’s a way in which the virtuosity of her performance is excessive. It’s ‘merely’ beautiful. She is using the wig head ‘not for its intended purpose’ (a phrase that comes up often in her narration) but rather to create a frisson of pleasure, the way that virtuosity often feels like magic. In this case Alexis’s movements are magical precisely because they’re excessive, almost wasteful.

EC: Similitude will be featured in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York. Could you describe the film?

SJ: Similitude documents my research with actor Garrett Gray, who was trained in physical theatre, clowning and pantomime. In our work together, Garrett and I focused on questions like: is learning a form of mimicry? Of contamination? What are the limits of the copy? Am I always already belated? We had so many adventures when building that work. We filmed in Black-owned theatre and performance spaces, like the incredible Black Lady Theatre in Brooklyn (which was forced to close shortly afterward). We worked in public parks, too, and had an amazing encounter with a parks worker in Crown Heights who described a life-changing experience seeing Marcel Marceau in person at Carnegie Hall. We spent a lot of time looking at and learning from videos of mid-century European pantomimes like Etienne Décroux, who developed highly refined vocabularies of gesture. Similitude was structured much more loosely than earlier videos – there is a sense of testing and failure in it – which did indeed influence my approach to Toss.

Video still: Steffani Jemison, Similitude (2019). Image description: A video still depicts two transparent hands in front of a man's smiling face.
Steffani Jemison, Similitude, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam

EC: We've discussed the body as a site of contact, one where cause and effect can be witnessed. How have you observed the body to retain a similar malleability? 

SJ: It’s funny, isn’t it, how bodies persist. The origin of those big ontological questions that preoccupy us all: what does it mean to be? What does it mean to endure? To remain? What does it mean to change? There’s something paradoxical about the lived experience of being in a body, the way that you can still be you, even as your appearance transforms entirely, even as every cell is continually being refreshed and replaced, even as you are now taller or bigger or sicker or greyer or leaner than you were before. All of us are preoccupied by these questions, right? Also, to be clear, I’m skeptical of any materialist account of the way things go, even though I have my own (ideologically inflected) attraction to those explanations.

EC: Who are the artists you count as influences? Initially I thought of Yvonne Rainer in terms of the movement-based work. 

SJ:  Yvonne Rainer is, of course, incredible, and I could talk forever about why! In relation to Toss, maybe I’ll mention in particular the way she juxtaposes speech and movement, pointing to the space between them. Since the relation between movement and speech is arbitrary rather than narrative in her work, she really models what an anti-hierarchical, anti-narrative approach to ‘choreography’ or even writing might look like. I also love the way she works with anecdote to create shapes and mini containers in her dances.  

In relation to the influences for Toss, I turned less to visual artists and more to the social media and video accounts of practitioners in related areas. I spent a lot of time looking at, for example, competitive jump-ropers and stunt performers and other creative people whose practice is shared from body to body, who learn by doing and who operate outside the art world. The research honestly just involved a whole lot of practice. A lot of play and a lot of mistakes. Alexis and I took a dance class together. We also taught each other and learned from one another – mostly her teaching me. We did a lot of reading together. At the end of the day, all these resources informed the physical practice, which was itself the primary instrument used to make Toss.

Steffani Jemison's Similitude will be featured in Greater New York 2021 at MoMA PS1 this fall. Figure 8, Toss, and a selection of works from 'End Over End' will be on display at Annet Gelink gallery in November and at JOAN in Los Angeles in Spring 2022.

Main image: Steffani Jemison, 'End Over End', 2021, exhibition view, Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam

Steffani Jemison is an American artist based in Brooklyn, USA. Her work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Brooklyn Museum and other US and international venues.

Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. She teaches writing and social justice at The New School.

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