Curator and performance scholar Charles Aubin discusses his work at Paris's Centre Pompidou and New York's Performa Biennial, focusing on the current interest in live art and performing arts curation, particularly within the context of visual art institutions. Aubin addresses the differences in curatorial strategies in a yearlong programming calendar versus a biennial, the funding structures in Europe versus the U.S. and the attendant challenges, as well as the the artistic cross-pollination he is interested in fostering between international artists and audiences.
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Abigail Levine: So, tell me a bit about your curatorial trajectory.
Charles Aubin: Well, the first key position that I had was working at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where I was part of the Live Art department as an assistant curator. Pompidou is mostly known as a museum with a world-class collection, but actually it’s a bigger endeavor. When it was created—that’s why it’s called the Centre—the idea was to house different disciplines within the same building, so the facilities were designed to support that project. You have exhibition galleries, but there is also a big theater and a smaller auditorium, a public library and movie theaters. The facilities for each of these disciplines are top-notch, which had a big impact on how disciplines developed there. Cinema, theater, dance and music could fit comfortably in the Centre, whether they were in direct conversation with the exhibitions or not. It offered leeway to either respond to the main direction in the visual arts programming or be completely independent from it. We could have our own programming within the theater—this was usually the case. We were obviously in conversation with what was happening elsewhere in the Centre, but we were also in conversation with what was happening at other theaters and dance venues in Paris. So you know…I think it was more integrated in the Parisian theater and dance programming landscape than what was happening in New York's visual art spaces, like at MoMA for instance.
AL: You don’t see their live art or performing arts programming as much in conversation with contemporary performing arts?
CA: Well it’s changing obviously, now it’s more and more integrated: for instance at MoMA with Ana [Janevski] inviting Boris Charmatz, or Trajal Harrel benefitting from a long-term research residency there. But the way that the Pompidou was created in 1977 the idea of integration of the arts meant that we consequently had ongoing conversations with venues like Théâtre de la Ville, Théâtre de la Bastille and even the Centre National de la Danse. The idea was that they were partners with whom we would co-present new works by Rachid Ouramdane, Loïc Touzé, or Eszter Salamon, and these theaters would function as a circuit for artists. The other important thing is, of course, that the financial structures and production networks in France are quite different from what you have in the US. And again, the Pompidou was part of a system of strong production support for new works. It was less about "buying," let’s say, existing works that were premiered elsewhere than playing a key role to support the creation of new works, helping in the financial aspects. So I think it’s quite different, also because of the network of choreographic centers and theaters throughout the country that are dedicated to producing and presenting new works. That gave France a different landscape for performance and performing arts compared to what dominates in the US.
AL: Did you come from a performing arts background?
CA: No, I did a Masters of humanities, but I had a lot of experiences working for festivals and curating small-scale festivals. Then I started interning at the Pompidou in the performance department because I loved the programming there and I wanted to know more about them and that got me started.
AL: And did you feel—despite this independence that you’re talking about—that being within the structure of an institution that is known primarily as a visual art venue affected your curating or the reception of the performance works?
CA: Yes definitely. It was also the time when, the 2000s, that was the high point of what was miscalled "conceptual dance" or some people even call it non danse, non-dance in French. These artists—Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Boris Charmatz, Eszter Salamon, Vera Mantero, Emmanuelle Huynh or Olga de Soto these people were strongly informed by the visual arts and conceptual strategies that underpinned the visual arts. Someone like Jérôme Bel would definitely say that Marcel Duchamp is one of the biggest influences on his work. So yes, I think that being in that place at the Pompidou was also the right occasion to see where dance was exploring other sources of influence.
AL: And in your curation, did you feel like it was then part of your purview to ask people to think this work through visual art history? I guess some of this is the question of how you understand your role as a curator.
CA: Well, I think that it started with the fact that it was intellectually stimulating, for instance when Bel uses the idea of the readymade in some of his works... Like with the Macarena dance in The Show Must Go On. Jérôme takes this existing group, repetitive choreography and inserts it in his performance but, because you’re always working with performers and human beings it’s not completely right or exact, each dancer performs it differently, it’s not like a straightforward display of objects. You obviously get the concept but it had been grafted on something that is live and unstable. I think that this intersection of performing and visual arts was a place of real intellectual engagement, so that is what drew me to include it in my curation.
AL: And so, then you came across the pond, and…
Jérôme Bel "The Show Must Go On" Photo by Mussacchio Laniello
CA: Well, there was a middle period. After I had been working there for five years, I decided that I wanted to take some time and start focusing on academic research. It was a moment a lot of research was initiated in relationship to artists like Tino Sehgal and the opening of that kind of territory for museums and galleries. This brought with it a lot of younger researchers, trying to sharpen these concepts. And the role of Claire Bishop and others had a strong impact on how one framed one's understanding of the phenomenon, as well. I felt an impulse to take some time out and to reflect on it all and, then, after two years at the RCA in London, as I said, the opportunity to come and work in New York happened, and I thought that I would take it… In fact, I had never been to Performa before. I obviously knew the program, I was following it, but I was excited to be part of the team and to work with RoseLee [Goldberg] on defining possibilities for 21st Century performance. Performa comes from a strong history of the 20th Century, so the question was: how do you define or see new practices and how do you also explore that limit between visual arts and performing arts? Like, we were talking about dance, but the boundaries are never clean cut, so it’s always in conversation, or sometimes it’s about smuggling some aspect of one practice into the other. So, that was the initial impulse for my joining Performa's curatorial team.
AL: And what do you see as the difference in mandate between the work you did at the Pompidou and Performa?
CA: Well, first of all there’s the temporality that is totally different. I think when you work on the biennial, you consider the experience of the audience from a different perspective than when you work on a yearlong program because you think of people attending several performances in one night and being dedicated for a couple of days. You basically have to channel excitement. Working on and attending my first Performa biennial at the same time, I was very surprised that we had such a dedicated audience. It created a sense of urgency that you don’t really have when you work within a regular theater on a yearlong program. So I think the answer is the sense of development of the programming over time because, as with any biennial or festival, you expect people to build their own path and understanding of it by attending several performances and to be dedicated to it, whereas on the weekly basis, you have a more diffuse contact with the audience. Another difference is the geography. As a biennial spread all over the city of New York, I feel like Performa creates new experiences and memories of the city. As a curator, this is something that I’m very excited about.
AL: And in terms of the interaction between visual arts and performing arts, particularly visual arts and dance, did you see a different dialogue or a different way of functioning? As you said, the boundaries are not clear, but Performa as I understand it, has a very clear sense of moving from the visual arts world into performance.
CA: Yes, I think that was something that was established right from the beginning by RoseLee, especially considering her background in art history, writing the first history of performance art, looking at performance through the lens of visual art. That said, one can see that dance has regularly been in conversation with other art forms in the 20th century and when you’re talking about the Ballets Russes or Judson… there are different “regimes” of collaborations between dance and the visual arts. The other interesting aspect for me being European was that, because of the financial structure of support for dance there, it nurtured a well-trained and like-minded community of dancers who wanted to challenge and deconstruct the boundaries of their medium. It’s the story of the 90s after the 80s “Nouvelle Danse” scene. Consequently, when I started working in Paris, the most interesting and experimental works were coming from what we would label dance because that’s where a lot of artists had the opportunity to have long-term research residencies.
AL: What have been your priorities in your curating at Performa? Or if not priorities, because maybe that is just curating interesting work, have there been any sort of rubrics, or modes of thinking and practice, that you’ve been shaping in particular?
CA: Well, for the last edition for instance, I was interested in looking at where that conversation on discursive works was left in France, and in Europe, so that was one of the reasons I invited Noé Soulier at Danspace —thanks to Judy [Hussie-Taylor]—because I felt that it was interesting to see where that conversation was now and why someone like Noé, who has been classically trained, wanted to use the lecture-performance format, why he went to find other philosophical sources. I think within the platform that Performa is, I was interested in picking up that aspect of the conversation. That was also one of the aspects that Lana [Wilson] and RoseLee looked at a couple of years ago with “Dance after Choreography” when they put Judson in conversation with Jérôme, Xavier, and Boris at Performa 07.
AL: And do you… Are there particular challenges or benefits that you see coming out of sort of this interest in performance and the visual arts?
CA: Well, first of all, I think it’s very positive to see that there is such an interest in performance and live works. You can’t be unhappy about it because it’s good for the artists who are working with performance; it’s also good for our work as curators that performance is recognized as part of a broader curatorial arc. Then I think one of the challenges that is still being discussed is the economic challenges for performers and creators of performances. It’s always an interesting conversation for a curator to have with an artist or a performer or a choreographer to find what is the best economic model for performance in museums and galleries because its something that is always…what’s the expression... “The elephant in the room”, right?
AL: Yes, it tends to be. Are there economic models that you think are functioning? I know Europe and the US are radically different in that respect, but in your work at Performa, are you developing any protocols?
CA: Well I think it’s always important to, in this kind of program, to learn from what one would call the performing arts model, the idea that interpreters or performers are paid for their labor, basically. Then it’s always a different situation if you’re talking about something that has already been produced and that is touring, or if it’s something that you commissioned. If it's a commission, then you work closely with the artist to make it happen. In my work, I try to be responsible that way, and I try to be very transparent with the artists I work with on the financial aspects to find ways to make things happen with the respect that artists deserve.
AL: And when.. if you’re working with European artists, is all the funding coming from Performa, or is some of it being subsidized by European sources?
CA: You know, it depends on the situation, but with European artists, we usually try to get cultural services onboard. It’s always in conversation with, yes, the national supports we can find and how we can make it happen with local partners .You know, we work very collaboratively with different theaters and venues in New York, trying to find the way to present the work here.
AL: Do you see either in your work in New York or your work in Europe that this movement of performance into visual art spaces and visual art discourse is in any sort of tension with performance happening in more traditionally theatrical venues? Does this feels like a passing moment or if it is an illumination of an ongoing conversation?
Cally Spooner "And You Were Wonderful Onstage" at Performa 2013, Photo by Paula Court
CA: Well, I guess that one of the first issues to consider is the experience of the audience and whether a work can be better seen, better understood, better experienced within the gallery setting or a theater. For instance, Jérôme’s work, The Show Must Go On, in the MoMA atrium, definitely carried a different meaning from the way it was initially conceived for the theater. That’s the reason large parts of it were not performed because it didn’t make any sense in a gallery space. Or if you think of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, keeping the gaze directed away from the audience is also something that as a curator you have to think about. I feel that when for instance you invite an artist like Cally Spooner to work at the National Academy, working with choreographer Adam Weinert, they take into consideration the historical and architectural contexts of the galleries at the National Academy to produce the experience for the visitor. But you know… I think there’s always a very strong site-specificity that you need to keep in mind to make the right decision for a work. So, I wouldn’t put them in competition; I think there are different tools that convey different understandings and different meanings, and it’s interesting to blur the lines sometimes and see if a work can be more expressive within one or another context. But that sensitivity is always something that is at the core of your work as a curator.
AL: So the curator’s job becomes well, I suppose from the root word, to care for, to find what conditions need to exist to see the work as it should.
CA: Exactly. I think that it's what is stimulating, in conversation with the artists of course. And in fact, as a curator, you’re not the owner of the reception of the work. The way that it will be perceived and understood is also something that, ultimately, happens with the spectator.
Abigail Levine, Boris Charmatz, Charles Aubin, curation, Curators, Dance and the Museum, Dance and Visual Art, Jerome Bel, Judson Dance Theater, MoMA, Performa, Pompidou, RoseLee Goldberg, Trio A, Xavier LeRoy, Yvonne Rainer