Dynamic Space: Documentation via Questions
by Emily Gastineau
In the past several years, the dance field has participated in a national conversation concerning the opportunities and pitfalls of dance performed in visual art spaces, particularly museums. The conversation has a few camps: those who groan that the trend is nothing new, those who warn that institutions are taking advantage of dance artists, those who expound on the differences between an object-centered paradigm and a body-based, ephemeral art form. The common narrative is that visual art institutions have taken revitalized interest in dance in the past several years, following art-historical developments related to the dematerialization of the art object. Or, for the more suspicious among us, their interest follows larger economic developments in which experience is paramount, attention is value, and museums design events specifically to increase attendance.
The most recent round of “dance in the museum” articles has largely been centered on the coasts, where the literal architecture and symbolic stature of museums looms larger. The Twin Cities certainly have a history of dance in visual art spaces, and the Walker Art Center has been a major innovator in situating dance and performance in its galleries. The national conversation has reflected mostly high-profile choreographers who have been invited into major visual art institutions. This depiction, however, does not necessarily reflect the broader activity at the intersection of visual art and dance, or the many permutations of how dance works can be placed in visual art spaces.
For this reason, I was excited to attend the long table discussion “Dynamic Space”, hosted by SuperGroup at Public Functionary. I’ve been wondering how the national conversation relates (or doesn’t) to the Twin Cities landscape. How the discussion could be complicated and recentered to include more models beyond the big fish in big ponds? The conversation at Public Functionary drew on a range of examples from small DIY galleries to large institutional commissions. The artists and curators present found more equivalence between large and small art spaces—a kind of flattening that I have yet to see reflected in recent writing on this topic. The question of dance in visual art spaces generated discussions on other fundamental topics: how to reimagine theatrical formats and conventions, the many factors in how audiences approach and experience performance work, and the multiple power dynamics in which each work is situated.
As a record of the conversation, I offer this set of questions. They are sourced by the group, not attributed to individuals (although a partial list of attendees can be found below).
The list functions on a meta level as well as on the ground—it’s as much a critique as it is a practical guide for artists, curators, and audiences who engage with dance in visual art spaces. The questions are not rhetorical; they’re meant to be enacted.
Discipline and context:
Why is artistic expression separated into different forms in the first place? Why are we surprised to put dance and visual art together?
How does the dance work react to the visual art context? Does it respond to the objects around it, to the viewing conventions of visual art, or to the institution itself? Which of these aspects are highlighted and which are muted?
Audience and expectation:
What does it mean that audiences come to performance in their leisure time? How does the expectation of entertainment, or at least a distinct experience, condition both audiences and artists?
Does the context of a visual art space prepare audiences for learning and active consideration more so than in a theater?
Should a dance artist avoid being a sideshow or superficial addition to a visual art space, or are there benefits to working with audience who did not necessarily come to see your work?
Space and convention:
How does the spatial configuration enable or delimit the audience’s agency? Can the audience physically choose their viewpoint on the work, and does that give them more control over how they experience and understand the work?
How do spatial conventions prepare the audience for one mode or another (e.g. a designated performance space, the presence and organization of chairs, lighting elements, etc.)? If you require a lighting grid, a dance floor, and rows of seating, why not situate your work in a theater?
How does the space provide for the needs of the bodies within it? Do bodies have access to rest, comfort, food, water, space? How do the resources for the performers compare to the resources for the audience?
What is the stated or implicit contract for performers and audience? What happens when an audience member breaks the contract? What happens when a performer breaks the contract?
Engagement and challenge:
Does the piece respect or challenge the viewer’s expectations around levels of comfort? How does this vary for viewers from different cultures? How does the work allow or disallow confrontation, challenge, or violation?
What level of engagement does the work expect from its viewers? Does it assume complacency, or does it ask the viewers to focus, activate, or contribute somehow? How much or how little stamina is involved in watching the work?
How are audiences directed to behave in the space—verbally, architecturally, or otherwise? When there is a lack of direction, do audiences reproduce conventional behaviors, or do they enact new or different behaviors?
Why are visual art spaces interested in dance right now? What does it have to do with the omnipresence of technology and the commodification of attention? How does the performance work within those dynamics?
What created the current interest in emancipating the spectator? What types of activity do we categorize as active, and which ones as passive? How can viewing be active, and how can activity be passive?
How does the space set up temporal conditions for viewing? Does the audience share the same start time and end time for the performance, or do they decide the duration themselves?
Is the piece meant to be viewed with sustained attention, or to be viewed while giving attention to other things (socializing, other artworks, etc.), or somewhere in between?
How can performance contexts encourage audience members to value experiences like anger, boredom, frustration, or anxiety?
Power and institution:
How does the art space in question function as an institution? What power dynamics, ideological constraints, economic patterns, and social contexts does it enact?
How is the power dynamic different in an artist-run gallery vs. a large museum? What is similar about the lens they place on performance work?
How does a change in context (i.e., moving out of the theater) enable the artist to redefine the conditions in which their work is situated?
How do the economic differences between visual art and dance conflict? How are artists navigating situations where resources are minimal and performance remains costly to present?
Whose responsibility is it to educate presenters about the resources that are necessary to present dance? Why does this task continue to fall to artists?
Is the expectation of a transaction (experience bought for a ticket price) different in a visual art space than in a theater?
What is the difference between selling an object and selling an experience?
A partial list of participants:
Moderator: Michèle Steinwald, Independent Curator and Producer
Rosy Simas, Choreographer
Philip Bither, William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center
Rebecca Spangenthal & Kate Sheldon, The White Page
Ben Heywood, Executive Director, The Soap Factory
Morgan Thorson, Choreographer
John Mark Hostetler, Choreographer
Tricia Khutoretsky, Director/Curator, Public Functionary
Rachel Jendrzejewski, Playwright
Sam Johnson & Jeffrey Wells, Supergroup
Pramila Vasudevan, Choreographer, Aniccha Arts
Emily Gastineau, Dance and Performance Artist, Fire Drill
Taja Will, Choreographer
Evy Muench, Choreographer, Hiponymous
Sean Smuda, Visual Artist and Curator, Shoebox Gallery
Additional contributions from April Sellers, Choreographer
Thanks to Panoply Performance Laboratory for their format of question clusters, repurposed for this context.
This discussion was hosted on April 4, 2015 at Public Functionary in Minneapolis, MN, as part of the collaborative exhibition and performance In Which ___ and Others Discover the End, including performance collective SuperGroup, installation artist Liz Miller, and the band Brute Heart.
Aaron Mattocks, “Performance at the Beginning of the 21st Century”
Hilarie M. Sheets, “When Art Isn’t On the Walls: Dance Finds a Home in Museums”
Andy Horwitz, “Visual Art Performance vs. Contemporary Performance”
Emily Gastineau is a dance and performance artist, curator, and writer based in Minneapolis. She creates performance works with Billy Mullaney under the name Fire Drill, and their work has been curated in Minneapolis, St. Paul, New York, Chicago, Portland, and the Bay Area. She co-facilitates Criticism Exchange, a reciprocal performance writing initiative. www.emilygastineau.com www.fire-drill.org
**Photo Documentation by Joe and Jen Photography**