Following a two-day event in February in which the performance series’ AUNTS and CATCH took turns trading curatorial and production practices, Carla Peterson, Artistic Director of New York Live Arts, interviewed CATCH curators Andrew Dinwiddie, Caleb Hammons and Jeff Larson, and AUNTS organizers Laurie Berg and Liliana Dirks-Goodman about the experience and what it revealed to them about their own processes. Collectively they also consider the role of curation in upholding and/or reconfiguring traditional structures of visibility, inclusivity, and power and how their respective models of performance production and presentation negotiate audience/community, space, economy, and booze.
Photo of AUNTS event by Liliana Dirks-Goodman
Andrew Dinwiddie: We had the idea for CATCH and AUNTS to trade shows. AUNTS would do CATCH and CATCH would do AUNTS, trading curatorial and producing practices. CATCH did AUNTS on a Friday night and AUNTS did CATCH on a Saturday night, and we were in the same space [The Invisible Dog]. It was nice to look at both of them with that control, in order to see them side by side.
Carla Peterson: And maybe to see the impact on your individual practices as well, to see if there was any kind of seeping through? Was it only about looking at it or was it about a critical analysis? Were you in a position to think about how you have been going forward in a particular way? It is an interesting thing to think about. Do you want to keep doing it this way? Do you want to start opening up to some other possibilities?
AD: Those questions came up through the process of doing it, rather than as part of the impetus. It honestly seemed like a silly idea that was fun for that reason. It was a kind of challenge to do a show differently from how we are used to doing a show, to do a show like someone else and impersonate their style, and to see how good of an AUNTS we could make.
Caleb Hammons: It was also as much about giving as it was about receiving a format. It was good to have to articulate what we do to each other. We have both [CATCH and AUNTS] been doing this for a long time. With CATCH we just kind of do it. We discuss within the structure, but we very rarely externally articulate what it is that we are actually doing, or define what it is because we just know.
CP: Even when the three of you got together -- which was what, ten years ago? When did CATCH start?
Jeff Larson: CATCH started almost ten years ago. Andrew and I have been doing it together for almost eight years. Caleb has been with us for four years.
CP: So you already understood, as people who start to become friends do, that there was an alignment between the two of you to begin with, and then with [Caleb] when he came on. Friends don’t say to each other, “Well, I think I like you because of da da da da da…” -- you don’t usually have those kinds of conversations with people. There was an alignment that never really needed to be articulated, which is what I think you are saying.
CH: We would talk about how we could shake it up, do a special event, or how we could change the rules for a particular event, but we already knew what the rules were. This exchange was about having the opportunity to define those for someone else.
AD: We have a factory line system: we have a new show coming out roughly every other month, we have a template (a way of doing it), and we basically do it the same every time. A few little details change for this model versus next month’s model, but otherwise we are satisfied with it and are not looking too closely at the template itself.
CP: This is a template that has been working for you guys. One can ride along in life in general when something seems to be working. It’s like we are all too busy to say, “Well, this is working so I think I’m going to take four more hours away from my sleep to work on the stuff that’s working versus the stuff that isn’t.”
It’s been an experience I’ve had here at New York Live Arts. Because I was the artistic director of DTW for five years for which I was reporting to the board and having discussions with the executive director, I was primarily in charge of what the artistic vision was. I felt like I knew what I was doing, it wasn’t my first time doing this kind of thing. Then when this merger happened with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, I was in the new position where I was meeting with Bill T. on a very frequent basis. He came into it not as a curator, but as an artistic director of a company and an intelligent thinker, but again, not as a curator. I found myself thinking, in a sometimes rather exhausting way, “Well, why do I do it this way? Why am I drawn to that? Why am I attracted to that? And why do I want to do this?”
Everything suddenly had to be articulated. I could no longer just go do legally what I wanted and believed in (albeit in line with the mission then of DTW); I had to explain a little bit. However, after having worked that way a year and a half before the organization came together, it’s one of those things in life where sometimes the really hard, exhausting, difficult things are actually good to go through. Because of that experience, I am now clearer about this stuff than I was before. I have language around my curating, which wasn’t as true before. Though language does not always equal truth.
LB: It’s language that communicates what you need it to.
CH: When you inherited [AUNTS] or took it over, were you told the rules? Or was it something you just knew because you had been around it?
LB: We participated in AUNTS and we both helped, so I would watch Rebecca [Brooks] or Jmy [Leary] run a meeting before a show, and would be a part of it. I would be like, “I want to perform over here at this time.” And then I would be like, “I don’t know how she does this. What’s going on?” Somehow it works. When we first took over AUNTS, we would talk to Jmy a lot and ask her a lot of questions. She would say, “You guys just do it, let go.”
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: The rules were really, really basic . . . very simple. One example is that you are always supposed to say yes to artists, even though that’s impossible and we can’t really say yes to everything. Were there any other real rules?
LB: People buy beer to bring, enforce the door, don’t allow anyone to give you money -- sometimes we don’t do that.
LDG: Yeah, people can give us money now.
CP: But, do you ask for it?
Photo of Andrew Dinwiddie, Caleb Hammons and Jeff Larson by Tei Blow
LDG: No, we’ve just made it an option to give a monetary donation for some shows because sometimes we think it would be really nice to give the artists some money too. There is that kind of option either at the bar or at the door to give a little money.
CP: I went to some of the really early AUNTS. Do you think the fundamental, philosophical underpinnings were based on both alternate community and alternate economy? For instance, I don’t know if you still do this because I haven’t been to them lately, but do you still trade clothes and have an open bar?
LDG: Yeah, we still do that. The melding of these two events is interesting because CATCH is really a presentation format. AUNTS is also that, but it is also a kind of tool for forging community or a sense of belonging; it’s a way to find a crowd, find a friend, and also show your work. In addition, we have the free boutique, we have the free bar, and as an audience member you are encouraged to participate in the creation of the show to some extent, or the creation of the atmosphere and environment around the show.
CP: So there’s more sort of a participatory element, even more so than CATCH.
AD: Do you think that’s explicit or just inherent since there is no strict separation between performers and audience?
LB: I don’t know. What happens during AUNTS consists largely of what happens in between the artists’ [performances]. There isn’t a clear sequence of one piece after another; it’s a little more free form. Interactions happen when you don’t know they are going to happen, which informs the experience of the audience and the performer -- you don’t really know if it’s going to work or not. I like that, but also there’s a moment where it can be scary.
I was curious about how you guys went about planning for AUNTS, because in planning for CATCH there seemed to be a lot more preliminary things that we had to do. For AUNTS, we get a bunch of people together and we kind of show up and do all of the work and organization for the evening onsite; everything gets set up and everyone gets put into order before the show.
LDG: . . . and it’s usually a mess. It looks like a mess.
One thing I noticed was that the AUNTS you guys did was an AUNTS, but it retained some of the feeling of a CATCH-type show in terms of the art that was shown and the art direction. Maybe because I wasn’t working it I could see all the different things in a clearer way. Similarly, the CATCH that we did presented the kind of art that we tend to put on the stage as well. So, there was this element of taste -- the “AUNTS taste” and the “CATCH taste” -- just put into different formats.
AD: That’s definitely something I was wondering about in advance: How possible would it be for us to do a real AUNTS, or a convincing replica of an AUNTS, and vice versa? Through meeting with each other and through a lot of emails, we worked on what you, Carla, were talking about: figuring out how to communicate what it is that we are doing (and have been doing for a long time and no longer question), figuring out how to articulate how we think about curating and producing the details of the show, and questioning what is impossible to replicate either because we are different people, because we have different tastes in artists, because we know different people, or because we are boys versus girls . . .
CH: It brings into question how much of CATCH is our taste versus the structure that we’ve put in place. It’s the same for AUNTS.
JL: That’s a good question.
CH: Are we defined by the kind of work that we respond to, or the kind of structure in which we present it? And are the structures stronger or weaker in terms of how they serve the work that we do?
Photo courtesy of Carla Peterson
CP: Are you limiting the notion of taste only to artists? Taste could actually be expanded in terms of, for instance, structure -- it’s audience, it’s architecture.
CH: Do you think that people who you thought of curating into the structure of CATCH may not be as strongly suited to perform in an AUNTS structure?
LB: Yes. It was interesting to think about curating someone for a seven-minute piece, whereas in AUNTS we can say, “Hey do you want to do something at AUNTS? You could do something for three hours or two minutes, we don’t care. And you can do it anywhere you want.” That’s very different from saying, “Hey, do you want to show seven minutes of something you’re working on?” And that’s a very different thing to ask an artist. Some artists would much rather do seven minutes in their own contained space with dedicated attention, than be in a corner possibly getting beer spilled on them. [pause, laughs] That sounds really horrible...
JL: It was easy to get some people to commit to doing an AUNTS; in fact, the breadth from which we were able to curate the show was amazing because we could think much more expansively. There were, however, certain instances when we described what the format was going to be and people balked at that structurelessness.
LB: So were there people that you asked that said no?
JL: Mhm, I can think of one in particular.
AD: Yeah, maybe a couple people. They said, “No, I think I prefer to do a CATCH some other time.”
LB: “Please ask me again when you are doing your own program…”
LDG: We had that too, though. Where someone was like, “Well, I don’t want to do an AUNTS.” And we were like, “Oh, well we aren’t doing AUNTS we are doing CATCH, so...” and they were like, “Oh, yeah perfect.” I also think that would have been interesting to have James Monaco and Jerome Ellis in an AUNTS. It was something I might not have normally thought to put in an AUNTS event because…
AD: Because it was talky?
LDG: Yeah, and because it was quieter. I don’t know that when people get to drinking and being crazy they can actually pay attention to the whole story.
CH: I think that happened with a couple of our pieces too.
LB: They got lost?
LDG: That happens all the time, I think.
CH: With one group in particular, I became worried that their performance was going to end and they were going to be upset, or that they were going to feel like this was a completely wasted opportunity or something, but they weren’t, actually. They had a great time and by the end of the piece a group had gathered to watch it and to focus on it. While it may not have been the ideal condition in which to present the work, the limitations that were put on them to create the piece -- knowing that other things were going to be happening, and there was going to be no lighting, and it all had to be self contained -- was actually useful to them as an artistic experiment. I liked that about it.
CP: What are the different kinds of learning that actually take place for artists that do AUNTS and artists that do CATCH? It’s probably not the same kind of thing…
LB: It seems like AUNTS is probably for artists to learn about what they are doing, so it can be really personal. I could be wrong, but sometimes CATCH feels like it’s to gain audience, to meet new people, to put yourself out there in a certain way. You may not get any of that at AUNTS, but when you do something else next time you’ve learned something . . . maybe that’s not always true.
LDG: I think that the word “nurturing” is kind of funny. Performing at an AUNTS, the audience is a little aggressive. Artists have told me that they feel very nurtured by Laurie’s and my presence and our interest in them, even though the only real thing we do is write them an email and invite them to perform -- but we invite them to perform in this tank of sharks, so I don’t know if that’s really nurturing. In some ways it does nurture the art, but in other ways it puts the artist and their art through a certain kind of funnel. I’m wondering if there is a specific kind of art that is going to end up coming out of AUNTS or the people that do a lot of AUNTS, because there are some artists that will just do AUNTS over and over and over again.
CP: If artists are putting something up at CATCH, aren’t they already assuming or subsuming (whatever the word is) a kind of model or structure that, except for alcohol and more fun, to some extent replicates any other venue?
AD: Yeah, it’s a pretty traditional, theatrical model.
CP: And you make it more fun, though the audience is not participating like an audience at AUNTS might be.
In terms of my association with a machine that I funnel artists into and all of the constraints that come along with that, I could just pluck somebody up from CATCH and invite them to New York Live Arts (and I have, just recently, and at other times) and they just continue what they are doing. I could easily see how it would ultimately translate. I didn’t know exactly what they were going to do -- I mean, I don’t know how many times in the course of talking to artists I’ve been interested in that from what they were talking about in the beginning and then a year later there’s no resemblance at all to that original conversation.
So, I wouldn’t go to AUNTS because I’m actually “shopping” for someone to put on the main stage (I’m not making a value judgment at all here). I would have no idea what someone was going to end up doing if I started a conversation with them. From the position that I occupy right now, I would go to CATCH because it’s fun and because I can learn about what ideas artists at CATCH are exploring. Sometimes sitting in venues, including my own, is not fun. It can be fun, but it doesn’t focus on the community aspect of it. I wish it would, because I’m more of that kind of person. That’s why I was running Movement Research before, because I really align with that kind of stuff.
Photo still of CATCH from video by Matt Tarr
LB: Maybe that is the strong part of AUNTS: it doesn’t have that option [to be shopped], so people really look at it from an artist’s point of view: “This is for me, I’m going to do this and have a good time and meet people in my community and not try and get anything except for more information.”
AD: And AUNTS has a more unified, complete, kind of everything adds up to each other and creates one gigantic, crazy experience for everybody. CATCH is more of a standard theatrical model basically.
LB: But it’s a lot of fun.
CP: It is a lot of fun.
LB: There’s a feeling when you go to a CATCH . . . a welcoming feeling that isn’t always present in some kinds of variety shows, like a shared bill show, you don’t feel the same way.
CH: We always say we are “rough and ready”. But I often think of that as applying to the audience as well, because it’s about the expectations that you have, and the ones that are put upon you as an audience member and as a performer, so that everyone can let their guard down a little, and I think that’s why it’s fun.
LDG: There is that proscenium line at CATCH between the stage and the audience, but there is also the keg, and the bar, and you are allowed to get up and do whatever you want. You can’t go on stage, but you are allowed to get up and move a little bit. People don’t do it as much as they would during AUNTS, but it is a little bit more informal and there is that community aspect to it that is intrinsic to us being the little guys on the downtown performance presenting scene. It’s as though we have these other functions besides just presenting art and performance and giving artists those kinds of performance opportunities.
CP: Well, that’s because artists are artists in ways that go beyond orchestrating their thoughts such that it fits in a particular mechanism, such as a conventional theater. Artists are artists in terms of literally their approach to life and the choices that they make all day long, how they interact with people, what confounds them, how they deal with that confounding, how they navigate the city, how they do whatever.
LDG: There are definitely a lot of other reasons an artist might choose to perform at either CATCH or AUNTS or to go there as an audience member.
CP: And I think that people (maybe less so as they get older) start to form units of one sort or another, particularly when people are young have a real need, just out of human nature, to be forming communities for themselves. You guys are in a way kind of like church. When it functions well, church can give people a container to be in and communicate, where they can be intimate with other people and share things . . . to not be alone. None of us by DNA are meant to be alone. I think New York is a particularly hard city to move in to if you don’t have that kind of thing. That’s what I think in some ways both of you are doing. It’s a really important function.The question that comes out of that for me, and I’m not thinking so much only about CATCH or AUNTS, but I’ve noticed that sometimes, in terms of people making critical distinctions around work, the community aspect of it overrules people’s ability to think critically about what it is that they are seeing. I’m not saying that the people should . . .. I’m maybe thinking more of CATCH, because CATCH does put something in there that you can actually talk about a little bit more easily. I think you can talk about what goes on at AUNTS too, but it’s a little…
LB: It could be in relation to someone else.
CP: This isn’t a negative question for me. It’s interesting to me, because where I have to live is always navigating this notion about quality or what’s going to be critically acclaimed, or talked about in rigorous, substantive ways…
LDG: You’ve got to get the Bessies.
CP: [laughs] And stuff like that.
JL: And not only does the form of CATCH lend itself toward that capacity for audience members to come in and have the kind of critical relationship we are used to; in curating the show, we also came to the artists as we chose them with that same set of expectations. So we know when we are asking someone who we feel is a risky ask. We balance that with people who hit it out of the park every time -- audience is going to love them -- and there are a lot of other balances that we try to create. But that is something that has developed over time as our audience has grown and shifted, because in the early years we didn’t have as strong a sense of that. We would go into a show and be really surprised when not a lot of people would show up, though we felt like it was a really strong show. Or, we had asked someone and thought they would be great and they really stunk it up. That is actually (we are still surprised) something that we’ve learned: how to put together a show that we are generally going to view as quality in some way or another. It often has to do with creating a sense of balance.
CP: I want to push this a little bit further. People come to CATCH ready to have a good time. That’s a great thing. What does that do, or maybe you don’t care or it doesn’t matter, relative to thinking really critically about what it is that you’ve seen. Or, is that not even a function of what CATCH does? In other words, the function is more that the artist has the opportunity to do whatever they are doing in front of an audience and then they figure out what they want to do with it afterwards. It doesn’t really matter that anyone is talking from a critical point of view. I think that people go to have a good time. There are other things they could do in their life and have fun, but they are choosing what you guys are doing, and they are interested.
Photo of AUNTS event by Liliana Dirks-Goodman
AD: When I look at other kinds of variety shows (because it’s basically a variety show what we are running) I see sometimes they have more of a competition feeling, and we definitely don’t do anything like that. I feel very critical of work that is at CATCH and part of that is because it represents us, because we are curating it. If the show isn’t going, that is a reflection of our work. So what you are saying is, if people are coming up and saying, “That was great!” maybe there is a bit of beer goggles?
CP: Yeah, what goes into that definition of “That was great”? Then you have reviewers who are writing for the New York Times who are ostensibly looking at it only from the lens of criticality. I’m not even thinking about CATCH, I’m thinking of something that had a very cool, community factor, and it wasn’t in any of the regular kinds of venues here. It was an artist that we all know and I personally thought the work was pretty weak -- one of the weakest things this artist had done -- but because people came to it through how this thing was set up, everybody walked out of there like, “That was great.” So that’s just the kind of example that I’m thinking of.
JL: When you walk in ready to have a good time, that changes the way you view things. I also feel (and this is something we try to promote) that people tend to talk to us especially about the diversity of the work over the course of the evening; that’s something that tends to be surprising and exciting to people. It’s not even necessarily that one piece stood out; it’s just that piece, and then this piece happened in the same evening . . .. That experience is something that’s exciting.
CP: It’s true that in other kinds of shared programs I definitely have the feeling that I’m sitting in the audience and supposed to like something, and not like something else; that competition kind of thing. I don’t feel like that with CATCH. What is it about what you guys do?
CH: So much of what we are showing are pieces of bigger works or works in progress and I think that perhaps having an audience that understands that and comes into the experience being not as critical opens up the space for the artists themselves to be self critical. So they aren’t worrying about how they will be received, but experiencing what it’s like to present it before an audience who isn’t necessarily going to be the most judgmental and, you know, on top of it tearing it to shreds.
Carla: Yeah, that’s probably a really important point.
Lili: Are you at all a victim of the community beer goggle?
CP: Well, I’m a victim of everything [laughs]… What I hope to do is to be as conscious as possible of anything that I’m doing. So if I am that; to have some kind of an awareness of it. This is one thing that helps about being older. There are other things that are not that great about it, but in terms of what I’m experiencing, the older I get (just because I’ve had to think about things a lot) I learn how to understand what this particular structure is capable of hopefully being. It’s harder once the boat is bigger, you can’t turn it around as fast; but to never -- simply because I’m too busy or too overwhelmed -- feel like I can step back and look at things and try to do something else, that I am completely the victim or the slave to something I’ve inherited . . . I can’t go down into the proscenium and blow up the stage. I can’t make it flexible. Artists can figure out how to make it a little bit flexible. There are some things that I just simply can’t do, but that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
When people go into a proscenium stage, they walk in from the top and there are all sorts of signals that get set up in them in terms of how they think about what their experience is going to be, whether they are aware of it or not…even if they are people who don’t go to performances very much. Usually people as kids went to a theatre once or twice and saw ballet or something. Right? So there is something that gets set up in their minds, and I am conscious of that as I am programming. I might be going farther than what you are asking, but I think that I’m always in trouble.
LDG: I think we probably have some sort of freedom because we don’t have to put our product in that box.
AD: This process made me think about a kind of “X” diagram of how, the more resources you are able to put behind something, there will be an equal and opposite number of restrictions on it. CATCH is able to give someone a bunch of sound cues and fading lights and those kind of theatrical things and a reserved half hour tech time where it’s just them in the space and they have open communication with the tech guy. But doing that limits, you know we have eight or nine artists in an evening, we have to have time limits and that kind of stuff. And y’all [AUNTS] are probably the most unfettered by restrictions, but then there is only so much you are able to do for an artist in other ways. They can do more for themselves, but you are able to provide less. Then New York Live Arts is able to provide all these beautiful lights and a great stage, give someone some cash and all that kind of stuff. But then there is the whole level of bureaucracy, you know, you have to be out of the building at ten…
CP: There are a lot more shareholders you have to deal with too, you know, people with money.
LDG: You have to go through a lot of red tape here [at NYLA] too, because you can’t ruin the Marley or what’s beneath it. Vallejo [Gantner] was in the audience at AUNTS, and he was like, “Oh man, we could never do this because we are too big, and we would have to pay all of these people and it would cost one million dollars! But you guys can just do it for free, almost.” We were like, “Well we would love to pay people …”
CP: But you aren’t doing it for free. What you are doing -- unless you are living completely by a barter system, which you are kind of replicating in the way that AUNTS works -- but you are still living in capitalism and you are putting a lot of hours into it and you aren’t getting paid. So I would say that there’s real barter, and donation, and volunteer effort and stuff, but I don’t know that the language might be a bit different.
LDG: A gift economy.
CP: Yeah, it’s gifted. I did have something else to say, but I don’t know if it’s connected, so I’ll just say it really fast. It had something to do with being caught, or trapped in the structure in which one is working, and not knowing how to even just be aware of that. This is just one simple example. When I first took over Movement Research there had been a history for a little while, certainly not a longer history, but a little while where Judson had turned into literally artists using it as their season. That’s how they were thinking of it, as their season. When I first took it over in 2002, people literally had a curtain that was hung from below the balcony, and people tried to replicate proscenium. People wore costumes and it was an artists’ season. I tried to pull that back because it was supposed to be about trying stuff out.
Then we had a year when Wendy Perron stayed in long time contact with this woman Lisa First who lives between Moscow and Minnesota. Lisa First does this Russian festival and brings it to Minneapolis. Unless you guys tell me otherwise, because this is what I like about working with younger people (I’m not about to go to the clubs until one or two in the morning, and you aren’t either anymore): Do we have really what we used to call an “underground” here? I don’t know… there’s got to be something, somewhere, stuff that’s happening that people don’t know about. But in Moscow there was literally an underground for political, economic reasons… you were in physical danger if you did some of the stuff out there. The artists really learned how to piece it, patch it and tape it together to do things.
So here these guys come in, everybody else comes in for their little tech thing, you know, like an hour before Judson with their DVD and give it to our sound person, who puts it in and stuff like this. These people had no DVD players or anything, they are making sound by dripping water off of rags that are hung over the balcony that are going into pails with microphones next to them. They had all of these ways of generating sound that were not about taking a DVD and sticking it in. It wasn’t like I learned about something I had never ever thought about before, but it was in one clear moment such a revelation to me: this is an example of how people, because of their circumstances of course, are not trapped in the same kind of way that any artists working here are in terms of what technology we have to offer and how to think creatively in other kinds of ways. That was a really great night.
CH: I think we both have been programmed as our own entities within a larger season, which has always been an interesting experience. Like Vallejo was saying, they may not have the same flexible structure to do what we do but we can provide that in a way within a larger bureaucracy or more rigid, institutional system.
CP: Well I think Live Arts or, DTW before, is absolutely dependent on what you guys do. You guys are more important than you may understand. I don’t want to do a ladder hierarchy, but nothing lands here without something happening along the way, and those artists having opportunities and communities and places of safety, and all of that stuff . . .. So I never think of this as something separate.
I’m driven more and more towards this, about feeling competitive with other institutions. But because it’s not my nature, I don’t want to think this way. But in terms of how things are going in the city at the level of Live Arts and some of the other institutions, and where the money is coming from, there are more and more feelings and behaviors of competition. I also think the number of artists that are actually really interesting artists, it’s not an infinite pool. Artists that are just making, who are really capable of doing the kind of work that this kind of an institution needs for this kind of sizable stage -- there is not just like a million billion, gazillion kinds of artists out there that can do it. And there are more and more venues opening up, more and more venues reconfiguring, and maybe Vallejo could or couldn’t do it before when he had his old place where the mice were running around dropping mice droppings everywhere, but there is no way he’s going to be able to do it in his new space. And artists need to be able to do that, have a place to do that.
I had to have a discussion internally, and I didn’t get very far in the first few days when we had Dionysus in 69, how that’s a whole other conversation about whether you can bring old work back generatively. The artists wanted everyone to go in with at least a couple of drinks in them beforehand because they just thought that then people weren’t drinking alcohol so much. They were doing every kind of possible conceivable drug that was going on there, and that is my generation. We had such insurance issues, liability issues… for just a couple of drinks.
LB: It takes all the fun out of it.
CH: We’ve done CATCH twice at P.S. 122.
CP: How was that?
AD: It was great both times, but it was a little different there than doing it in our more raw space.
CH: Because then we have external rules that we are following.
LDG: It’s hard for us to go into institutions. It’s not that it’s not valuable, or that we don’t enjoy the experience, but I think that in relation to what you are talking about with Dionysus, you want to achieve with at least one performer this ecstatic level of performance and audience engagement. We don’t get it every time, but there is a weird folksy thing that happens with people being in a certain mindset in a certain space with the right kind of energy in the performance, and it happens -- people are cheering and going crazy. The more kinds of prescribed boundaries that we have set up around it it’s more difficult.
LB: The overlap of the audience and performers gets farther and farther away the more rules there are.
CP: But on the other hand, if you think about when I used the word “church” before, it was really just a loose term because I was also thinking about tribal cultures and ritualistic practice, shamanism; those things all do have rules in terms that are set up for to people enter into, to be able to give themselves over.
Photo still of CATCH event from video by Matt Tarr
LB: And they are shared with everybody there.
CP: Yes, they’re shared. Yeah. So that’s the point you’re making.
LDG: Yeah, those things are all understood and everyone agrees that those are the rules. They don’t have to be spoken about, they are just there. And they aren’t the ones you feel like you need to push on. They are the other things like, “why can’t I have a drink?” [laughs] Bring a flask.
JL: What happens when people -- you guys don’t have a lot of rules, but I’m curious if the audience (which I think may be more likely) or performers -- somehow still are able to step over the line? For instance, you talked about your audience as being aggressive sometimes…
LDG: Recently we’ve had problems generally of men taking photos of generally naked women, because everyone has a camera phone, yeah, and sometimes it just seems a little invasive the way it is.
LB: You don’t know if that person knows.
LDG: That’s really most of it. I mean I don’t think that anyone has been unwantedly advanced upon on or attacked at an AUNTS. I can’t even think of a fight or anything that’s happened.
AD: Do you talk to them?
LB: Actually in this particular instance someone else who was performing saw it happening (and was watching at this point) went and intervened. They were like, “Hey, you can’t do that, that’s crossing the line,” and so they acted on our behalf, because Lili and I were somewhere else.
LDG: That was kind of cool, everyone was taking care of one another.
LB: You have to, otherwise it doesn’t work.
CH: Have there ever been instances where an artist will do something that you really wish you had known they were going to do in advance?
LB: There’s been some messes made that were kind of hard to clean up. [laughs]
LDG: We ask people to tell us if they are going to do something, but sometimes it’s just uncontrollable. Like feather pillows and glitter. And you’re like, “Okay, some glitter, some feathers…,” but it’s in a crowded room with 150 people and a lot of spilled beer. How are you supposed to clean that up right away? And efficiently? You can’t.
LB: That raises the issue of getting bigger as an organization or a group. For instance, one particular AUNTS event got listed on some blog and a whole bunch of people came that we didn’t know. We have never really thought of that; having a bunch of people in the group that didn’t know the rules. They had a naked performer three feet from them and they had never experienced that before. We were like, “Oh, what do we do? This is going to destroy what we do. How do we keep it?” Maybe it’s very naïve, but we make the assumption that everyone would just be part of the community. That was something where we didn’t know what we were going to do.
CP: That’s exactly what my question was. What do you do when listed on the popularity blog again?
LDG: We decided we were still going to leave it open for the audience, and hopefully the audience will grow, but let the performers know that like, there is an audience here and you are in public when you perform. They might take a picture of you. I think most of the performers don’t mind. I don’t know. But that characteristic of the audience is kind of the reality of AUNTS.
AD: AUNTS is really welcoming so many people into an actual home, it is a very trusting kind of thing.
LB: Yeah, that is true.
Jeff: What percentage is curation and what percentage is structure? I mean, when you guys watched our version of AUNTS, if you just had to say?
LB: I think a lot of that has to do with the interplay of the artists. So the people you end up curating, the energetic structure, even if you impose a really organized structure, or whatever you do, for me it’s really the interplay of artists.
Photo of AUNTS event by Liliana Dirks-Goodman
JL: Was that distinctly different?
LDG: I thought it was 50/50 structure and curation; there was that flavor, that taste, that was very CATCH. But it wasn’t as if it was just you guys who were like here’s the artist, run the show. It was run a little cleaner . . . you guys were ahead of schedule at one point. [laughs]
LB: That was amazing. Yeah I don’t know how you did that. There were a lot of people.
AD: I felt like it was a failing on our part that we couldn’t help but ask people for their technical needs beforehand. I was really interested in looking at how we were failing to do a real [AUNTS]. It was unintentional, but the number of lights we had on the center Marley made it too stage-like for what I think would be natural at an AUNTS; it gave it too much priority versus the things that were happening in other spaces.
JL: That whole use of the marley, I wondered about that from the beginning. Just the way we chose to use the space. That’s a whole other thing all together. The Invisible Dog changes the way we do CATCH dramatically. I remember having that first conversation about it when we went down that road of defining this very clear performance space for the artists. That seemed like a big choice to make given the structurelessness usually of the event. At the same time, given that it’s going to be a lot of dance, that floor is just totally unforgiving.
CH: It may have given it a bit of weight but I don’t think that there was anything that didn’t happen on the Marley that would have been better served on the Marley. Maybe people would have paid attention to it more, but I don’t think that would have made the pieces better.
CP: Have you guys ever worked at the Invisible Dog?
LDG: No, this was the first time. I thought the Marley was a good choice. The way that we generally look at it is not that the setup has to be really divergent in the space, but that if you can provide a certain resource to the artist for their performance, then you do. So if we had Marley, we would be like, “Roll it out”.
LB: I thought it worked really well, and as an audience member I saw what was on the periphery because I couldn’t see what was happening on the Marley. That was kind of fun.
LDG: The audience experience is always important too. We both do think about it in some way. That coherence was also good. It wasn’t that I felt that I was chained to the Marley, I could get up and talk to anyone I wanted or leave if I didn’t like what I was seeing. It was still a good social setting. It didn’t seem like totally un-AUNTS-like.
CP: I’m confused by the question, as simple and obvious as it maybe seems, of how much curation, how much structure. I mean, I think I understand what structure is, and I think I understand what curation is, but I’m not sure that I think of it as somehow one over the other, but somehow it’s all of a piece. Certainly there are some things that you can curate…and you are held by certain things, we curate some things for some things. So maybe there is that distinction. But I don’t know, I’m just mulling this one over.
LDG: I think the structure relates to the production, spatial set up . . . production direction maybe.
CP: Well you are also talking about choices then if you’re nomadic. Right? If you are not nomadic, then you have a given architecture you are working in. And if you are, then you are actually choosing the structure as well as doing the curating.
CH: It sure feels like to me like that is the strongest example of curation in what we do. I don’t think that we are as invested in having a critical eye on the work itself. We are choosing artists, but we are not necessarily invested in that specific piece; we are invested in programming a group of artists, presented in a specific format, with a specific experience orchestrated for the audience. We are looking at the root definition of curation, meaning “to care for.” So if we are not necessarily digging in deep to the work itself, what we are doing is caring for that artist’s process, taking that work in progress and putting it in a structure, deciding what the experience is going to look like for the spectator, how the space is going to be set up, what order they are going to perform in, what is the audience going to have as a program, are they going to be able to drink or not . . .
CP: This is such an interesting conversation because I would say even -- okay it’s 2013 -- in the turn of the last decade, if people are actually having these conversations it has really only been in the last six or seven years that the idea of talking about “curation in the performing arts” has been a topic of consideration.
LB: Like a word that’s even used?
CP: Yeah, well maybe not even used. When I was at Wexner Center nobody called themselves curators, they called themselves programmers, or presenters -- I’ve always hated that word. Even when somebody pegs that on me here I bristle because I don’t think of myself as a presenter. It’s referential to a kind of old way of working in which you literally do pick out of a cafeteria of artists, you pick them and they go on stage. That’s a presenter. That’s never been anything of interest to me in particular. I’m just making a comment, it’s just sort of interesting and exciting.
Sometimes (not here in this conversation) it’s annoying that everyone is talking about curating now. It’s as if we’ve just discovered it in a way, and maybe we have. It comes also out of the museum world’s portfolio having crashed, and having to look back on live arts -- not like they didn’t ever do that before, because they did. It’s just interesting that everyone is talking about it. I think it’s good, if sometimes annoying to me. I think it’s healthy to think about why you do what you do, and what the questions are underneath what you’re doing.
Even with the Movement Research Performance Journal (I think I’ve read every single one, because when I was running it, I just loved that they were all there. I got to read all of them), nobody was really talking about it. There were many many other issues that were being talked about, and actually, you could kind of see the waves since 1991, I think when it first came out. Like, what were the most important topics that people were wanting to look at. But nobody was really talking about curating, per se.
LDG: For me, the whole conversation about curation came out of a panel Laurie and I were on in December with Movement Research that Juliette Mapp and Jen Rosenblit put together about curation -- that was the title of the panel. Jen sort of explained to me later that what she was interested in getting at were ideas of belonging within that. How and why are you picking people or artists to be in a certain group? I think that we touched on a lot of that stuff, like, why you put things in with other things.
LB: I’m curious for CATCH and AUNTS, and you, to talk about belonging, and being on the inside or the outside of the power that comes with that . . . thinking about it as a position of power. Lili and I don’t think of ourselves as curators; we call ourselves organizers. I actually want people to do AUNTS whose work I don’t maybe personally like. I don’t want to have to be like, “Oh, yeah I stand behind this.” I mean I support the artist and what they are doing, but I’m actually really interested in the space. I’d be curious to talk about that more.
LDG: Sometimes I wonder if it’s a cop out to say that we aren’t curators. In some ways we are like, “We don’t take responsibility for this.” But in other ways it opens it up for someone else to take responsibility for it, and maybe puts it on the artists.
Photo still of CATCH event from video by Matt Tarr
CP: But I don’t know that there is a singular way that people tend to think about the word anyway. I mean, I do love the origins of the word. It’s a really beautiful way to talk about it, but I don’t know that many people think about it that way.
CH: Thinking about it that way, too, makes it in some cases easier to get behind using the word because the nature of what we do is not presenting finished products, so what we’re actually getting behind often times is a process, and I think its easier for me to get behind what an artist is trying to do, than what they actually end up doing. I’m more interested in being a part of the process.
LB: Right, the scooping…
CH: What the potential is.
JL: Well, and I’ve never made this connection before, but curation seems to speak more to potential than product. And not only in terms of how it’s supportive to artists, but it also speaks to a different kind of dynamic between the artists and the audience. That is something that we relate to and it’s something we are more accustomed to being in the art world because there is this totally different dynamic because it is about the space that you are creating. That tends to be true certainly with you guys.
LB: Right, and that’s what a curator of a museum would do. They would create space for art and it would exist in a long time frame. They would continually take care and adjust, as opposed to helping an artist go through a process, but then there is a show, and then what do you do?
CP: Yeah, although I would say from my point of view, whether it’s institutionally agreed on or not, there is that what you just said about curation, in terms of speaking to the potential rather than the product; the part that I’m excited about or happy about. In some ways it gives me the deepest satisfaction. It’s not the only thing, but it’s definitely one of the really important things about commissioning artists, so it’s a different level but yeah, you commission an artist based on what you think their potential is, but you don’t know, and you just go do what it is that you are going to do.
In contrast to maybe European producers where they are still (even though it’s changing, there is still more money) people in my position who more readily get into an artist’s face and say, “I don’t like what you are doing, you need to turn left or turn right, because it’s not working for me and I am co-commissioning the project.” I would never do that. I wish I had more time to see rehearsals when artists would be okay with me going. Not because I would so much want to weigh in, but because I would love to see the process all along, to see where they are coming from and where they are going. But, I have no interest in interfering. That is not necessarily completely shared here. I am not the artist. I am not the artist. My job is to help. I help in certain ways. You guys [AUNTS] help in some ways, and you guys [CATCH] help in other ways.
LB: But would you feel comfortable if an artist came to you, in this relationship at New York Live Arts, and said, “I would love your eye”?
CP: If they were already far enough along, that I felt like they were already on their feet, then I would be happy to do it. I don’t want to do that with young artists at all. Why should I? I’m like forty years older than them, I mean, they are the ones charting their path, not me. I don’t know where they are going. I don’t really want to be influential. I’m not their collaborator, I’m not their anything. They are figuring it out. They are doing it within the communities that they are working, and it’s the same thing with you guys. I think what would motivate a younger artist to want that is not necessarily bad, but I would just kind of wonder, you know, if they want me to come in because they really want to make work that is going to fit a certain thing, and I don’t really want to help them in that way. You’ve got to figure it out . . . where you want your work to go. Tere O’Connor, who I’ve known for so long, if he asked me, then yes, of course. Or, somebody younger than Tere, but still, someone that I really know has been charting their course, then I wouldn’t mind. But people don’t ask me that much, which is just as well.
LB: I was just curious.
CP: But that’s a conversation that goes on internally: How much should I as the artistic director be getting involved in what the artist is doing? It’s a conversation, I’m not saying that we at Live Arts have suddenly changed, or I have changed my behavior, because I haven’t. It is a conversation. It’s not a bad conversation to have, I’m not even saying it from a negative point of view. I think all conversations are all important to have, but that’s definitely something I’m not interested in, and that’s what I say, for maybe the reasons I’ve already said.
JL: What about during tech?
CP: That’s a little different, but yeah that’s more like, “what are we actually capable of?” I don’t go down during their tech either. Maybe I should?
JL: That’s something I’ve found interesting. Just thinking specifically thinking about SoHo Rep, how Sarah [Benson, Artistic Director of Soho Rep] is there. She is there and she is in it.
CP: She’s a producer.
JL: Yeah, but her voice is incredibly present.
CP: She’s a producer.
LB: That’s another role.
CP: I’m not a producer. I mean we’ve become a producer with the resident commission artist program, but even with that, Andrew, you aren’t going to the rehearsals and saying, you ought to be doing this and not that.
So, but yeah, I think in theatre it’s a little more common too, if you are a producer.
CH: Yeah, because it becomes dramaturgical, as well. Another term to throw in.
AD: We do that a little bit in tech, not to inflict ourselves, but there are definitely times when we will make suggestions to the artists, and times when the artists will ask our opinion about things. Sometimes, “should I use this song, or this song?” Or, sometimes fairly large choices…that’s not very frequent.
LDG: That happened to us.
CH: Somewhat frequently, little choices, like blackout, no blackout or bow, no bow.
AD: We have had the experience with CATCH .45 to really feed people inspiration, you might try it sometime, it was fun.
CP: Oh, are you kidding? If I wasn’t doing this job anymore and people wanted to have me come in as a collaborator/dramaturg I would love that. It’s not like I’m not interested in it. And it’s not that I don’t think that sometimes maybe I would be useful. But, maybe it’s just a ridiculousness of mine, but I don’t want to poke a hole in that. I just feel like that’s a place (and this is the DTW DNA here), but it raises the question: where does the artist ecology -- the investigations, the experimentations -- where are they all going? Let the artist do that.
Once it shifts over to what you are saying right now, it’s product anyway, they are in their tech run. I mean, that’s less… I suppose if someone wanted to ask me, should we do A or B, I would say something. That’s a little different. But I don’t offer it and I don’t insist on it, and I want them to bring their own people in and be doing that. They might ask Chloe [Brown, Director of Production at NYLA]. I’m sure she sometimes gives her opinion, but she doesn’t step in and say, “I don’t think you should be doing this,” unless it’s a technical issue.
CH: In our case at Soho Rep, Sarah [Benson, Artistic Director at Soho Rep] or I would never step in unless we were being asked.
CP: Oh, OK.
CH: If it was a question of, “Should we do this, or should we do that?” or, “This is an unknown,” we would be a part of the discussion. The culture of enforcement does exists in some theater in the city, especially a culture of coming in and saying you want to change this, and this, and this, and this as a producer. Or in some of the bigger institutions, and in some of the bigger nonprofit theatre institutions, that’s how it operates. But I think that we would never give that kind of ultimatum. If there was a question, and ours was a very strong opinion, we would ask for our preference to at least be tested. Along with other options, but that’s why you have previews.
CP: . . . which theatre is so much better about, really. In the years that I’ve been here, it’s been rare, sadly only three to maybe five or six max nights of performance… there are only a few artists, like Tere, who really does get the thing finished before it goes up. Pretty much everyone else is fiddling around with it, and changing it from night to night. That, to me, is fine. It’s not a fixed, immutable kind of thing. They should be using the run as much as anything else in terms of being able to make changes.
Also, something I was talking about with Paul [Lazar], making the point that a theater director sometimes doesn’t even know what they’re after until well into a run (and I’m thinking of you guys now just in terms of how you are working, in some respects)… this is going to sound so… we didn’t even get into the issue of gender.
LB: Oh! That’s what I wanted to talk about, but I actually have to go. I’m late for rehearsal.
LDG: I can talk about gender.
Photo of AUNTS event by Liliana Dirks-Goodman
CP: Yeah, well when the theatre director won’t even know what he or she was going after in terms of the choices they were making until like the fifth week of the run. Then they’ve seen it over and over again, and they were making their own connections about why they are doing stuff. Which is a more of… oh I never know where to go with these kinds of conversations, but is a more female way of working. More in the soup, in the embryotic fluid if you will.
AD: A couple things we didn’t get to talk about yet…gender has been interesting to me the whole time. To go back to your opening question, it would be interesting to see what we might incorporate from each other’s work. Both the things that were like, “Oh I like this so much”.
LDG: We are getting a tech person. We are getting someone to run our table, I think for the next shows. Because it was nice and it would make us enjoy the act of making the shows a lot more.
AD: I feel like we kind of couldn’t even comprehend not having a tech person. For this show we needed more tech people than usual.
CH: I loved the free bar idea. And how people were exceptionally generous when being able to have a choice. It was like going to a bar with sixteen beers on draft.
LDG: I think it’s great too. It’s amazing because you get a lot of beer, and then if you set a tip jar out at the bar, people also tip, even though you paid for this, you supplied. We are basically just giving back what you gave us. You are going to tip? Awesome.
CH: People said to me first, “Oh, I thought I would bring in my six pack, and those were the only six beers I was allowed to drink.” And then people would get really happy when they didn’t have to drink any of the six pack. But then do you buy six cheap beers and drink the six expensive beers? How do you negotiate that with yourself?
LDG: The good thing is that most people don’t know how it’s going to work out. Regardless of how many times they’ve come.
CP: Do you guys think that, and I know everyone is antsy, and I’ve just completely blown the thing I was going to do, but do you guys see what you do as very separate from, and I don’t mean literally, but do you see some kind of connections or threads, (I’ve sort of already answered this before, so maybe this is a leading question) between what an institution like Live Arts does or the Kitchen (but I don’t think of us like the Kitchen)? Like, you don’t like what you see out there, so therefore you create what you really feel is needed? And I’m not asking for lovely tributes, I’m asking for what you really think. Do you think that this institution is something that is really so not satisfying? Do you think of it all in terms of some kind of bigger soup where there are connections? Or do you see it as completely separate?
LDG: I think it’s part of an ecology. But I also think that with AUNTS, its not necessarily (we were actually just talking about this, this weekend regarding the thing that we are doing next this summer) that we are trying to fill a hole. We are just doing something because we want to do it. Because it’s fun and valuable to us. There’s other people who think the same thing. But I do think that in some ways we are like the mossy ground covering of the forest and maybe Live Arts is the tree, or something like that.
AD: Our answer is probably for me similar, it’s interesting that neither of us created CATCH or AUNTS. They are both inherited.
CP: Who did it before you guys?
AD: Jenny Seastone Stern started it. Boo Froebel asked Jenny to start a show at Galapagos in 2003. So that’s one thing; we didn’t seek out and create it, we just kind of found it and took it over, so I don’t think it’s solving a problem. There isn’t a hole that we are filling. Certainly we are parasitic on Live Arts, the Kitchen, and the theaters where there is some overlap. Live Arts commissions something and Tere shows it six months before at CATCH . . .
CP: But parasitism, it goes both ways. We have more zeros in our budget. If we are commissioning an artist and they have opportunities in other kinds of ways to be showing things without a huge amount of pressure, that’s very helpful to the artist, and therefore very helpful to us. Not that we work that way formally. We aren’t partners, and it’s not like you are going to do “x” amount of our commissioned artists or something.
CH: But we all mostly work for larger institutions as well.
CP: Yeah because you can get health benefits.
CH: We can get health benefits, and we can also get access to free printing. [laughs]
LDG: And from working here [Live Arts] I know about a lot of people, a lot of artists, and a lot of them also perform at AUNTS too. I think for us with AUNTS, the reason we are in charge of it now is because we were the two people that always showed up. So eventually Jmy was like, “You are always showing up, why don’t you help?” And so we started helping. She was like, “well I’m leaving, so you guys want to keep doing this?”
CP: So how many years has it been?
LDG: Laurie and I have been doing it now for like four years.
AD: So longer, or as long as Jmy?
LDG: I think a little bit longer than Jmy did it.
AD: Do you think you’ll try to pass it on, once you get tired of it?
LDG: I think so, I don’t know when we are going to get tired of it. One funny thing about structure is that we have a couple more structures than you guys have; we have the “populous”; our “chain curation,” which is sort of like what you did with multiple events and other people curating; then we are working on another possible structure to do in two years. But then after we do that structure, I don’t know. Will we think of another structure that will make it really exciting for us? That’s the cool thing about AUNTS, is that it’s sort of “a thing,” but then part of being the thing is that you can just destroy it anytime you want.
AUNTS, an underground platform for dance, creates events in unconventional spaces with multiple performers, overlapping performances, open dance parties, multi-disciplinary, body/non-body based, time oriented, finished/experimental/unfinished/process art. AUNTS has partnered with public venues such as the famous Clipper City schooner at the South Street Seaport, littlefield, and OfficeOps. Art organizations such as The Chocolate Factory, Dixon Place, Movement Research, TAMTAMTAM in Berlin, Germany, The American Dance Festival, Danspace Project and Chashama, as well as many repurposed spaces including The Secret Works Loft, St. Cecilia’s Convent, The Event Center, and a partnership with ClassClassClass at [email protected] a part of St. Nick’s Alliance in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
AUNTS MISSION STATEMENT: AUNTS is about having dance happen. The dance you’ve already seen, that pops into your head, that is known and expected and unknown and unexpected. Dance that seeps into the cracks of street lights, subway commotion, magazine myth, drunk nights at the bar, the family album, and the couch where you lay and softly glance at the afternoon light coming in through the window. AUNTS constantly tests a model of producing dance/performance/parties. A model that supports the development of current, present, and contemporary dancing. A model that expects to be adopted, adapted, replicated, and perpetuated by any person who would like to use it. Where performing can last five seconds or five hours; never a “work in progress.” Where the work of performing is backed by the “land of plenty” rather than “there is not enough.” Where the work of AUNTS defies the regulation of institution, capitalism, and consumerism. AUNTS is about being gracious in this world. Thank you.
Founded in Brooklyn, NY in 2003 by Jenny Seastone Stern as a home for the emerging avant-garde, Catch is an integral part of the downtown community with a history of presenting both short and in-progress works by a stunning array of emerging artists, giving them an opportunity to share the stage with an expanding galaxy of downtown luminaries. Catch has been presented all around NYC including at PS 122, The Chocolate Factory, Abrons Arts Center, The Bushwick Starr and the Invisible Dog. Catch has has traveled the country as well, with shows in Minneapolis, Portland OR (TBA Festival) and Austin (Fusebox Festival). Catch is curated by Jeff Larson, Andrew Dinwiddie and Caleb Hammons with administrative assistance from Ben Gansky.
Carla Peterson is the Artistic Director of New York Live Arts, having recently served in the same position at Dance Theater Workshop (2006-2011), and as the Executive Director of Movement Research (2002-2006). She has held numerous positions in freelance arts consulting, fundraising and management working with artists and for such foundations as the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Surdna Foundation. She currently serves on the boards of Movement Research and Mount Tremper Arts, and on the Steering Committee of the NY Dance and Performance Awards, aka “The Bessies”, under the auspices of DanceNYC. She was made a Chevalier de L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres in 2012.
AUNTS, Catch, curation, NYLA, PDF