Noémie Solomon in Conversation with Will Rawls


Noémie Solomon and Will Rawls discuss DANSE: an anthology, Solomon’s new compilation of writings on contemporary dance.  The anthology uniquely comprises recent scholarship from the last fifteen years and many of the essays are published in English for the first time. As the book weaves a thread among French contemporary dance practitioners and thinkers, it also branches into the work of Europe- and U.S.-based artists and theorists, producing a dynamic portrait of transcontinental currents in contemporary dance and choreography.  The anthology was generated to accompany DANSE, a French-American Festival of Performance and Ideas, taking place in New York City, May 1-18, 2014.

Interview Date: April 28, 2014

Download a PDF of this conversation

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Will Rawls: I am here talking with Noémie Solomon about a number of things in relation to her work as a scholar and thinker and writer of performance, specifically dance, if that’s a fair.

Noémie Solomon: Yes I think so.

Will: And we’re going to be talking about the anthology that you put together for the DANSE festival, as well as some of your future projects. But first, welcome to New York.

Noémie: Thank you!

Will: What are you working on this week in relation to the DANSE festival? What are your responsibilities?

Noémie: The DANSE festival was initiated by the French Cultural Services here in NYC. They’ve invited a string of theater directors across the city to look at and program some contemporary dance artists and companies based in France. And so that gives rise to a different kind of festival: there’s not a single curator who decided on the overall program. Rather than having someone or a structure imposing a choice from the outside, this way of doing produces a grounded, very diverse, sort of rhizomatic program. Each director, I assume, made a decision according to their taste, their preferences perhaps, but also in relation to their specific audience. In this context, Sophie Claudel and Nicole Birmann-Bloom from the French cultural services approached me to take part in the festival in a particular way, or, to take care of what they called an accompagnement critique to the festival – a kind of critical, or editorial accompaniment. And I think about it in terms of a vector, a transversal line that cuts across the events of the festival, or that sometimes follows it, at a distance, running beside it. And the task unfolds across different sites and phases: the anthology constituted a first step.

Will: Beautiful book: DANSE: an anthology, I have it right here.

Noémie: So basically, one of the tasks of this anthology was to provide a singular map or a survey (however incomplete and partial these endeavors are doomed to be) of different theories around contemporary dance that have been elaborated, let’s say, in the last 10-15 years. At stake in this project was to put in relation or in dialogue discourses and authors from the French context i.e. texts that have been written in French but are not translated or often accessed within an English-language field of dance studies.

Will: In reading the book, one really understands the general pervasiveness of French thinking around experiments in dance, specifically in the late 90s and through to the present, which were very influential to me as I moved to New York and became a choreographer. This book sort of cuts open the apple in some way and looks at the various slices. And you mention in the introduction that “anthology” has this root of a “collection of flowers.” How did you come to select the texts?

Noémie: I like the apple metaphor! Yes and I realize I haven’t been able to reread the introduction since I wrote it. [Laughs]

Will: [Laughs]

Noémie: Yes there is something kind of scary, stiffening perhaps, about the project of an anthology, and it was important to remind myself of its etymology: a collection of flowers, a way of organizing the living and the moving. So thinking about the anthology not as a volume of definitive texts, of dead and still bodies, but rather in close relation to practice: to movement and dance. So yes, the relation between movement and discourse is very important here, mapping how certain contemporary dance practices have experimented with the production of discourses since the early 90s. And this trade between theory and movement must also be followed across different cultural contexts. Thinking for instance about how French critical theory has been used and read a lot here in the States.

Will: It’s everywhere.

Noémie: It’s everywhere right. And it is so interesting to me to see what is overwhelmingly used, read, discussed, and conversely, how there is resistance in translating some specific texts, authors, subjects, especially when it comes to more let’s say, experimental or obscure practices.

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Will: It’s interesting to think about Gilles Deleuze as someone whose writing has been a reference point for a lot of people who work in experimental ways around dance. And he’s someone who was writing primarily in the 70s and a lot of his major texts were being published about 30 years ago. I can’t remember actually when exactly he died but…

Noémie: I think it’s 1994 or ‘95.

Will: Yeah, ’95, but that only now there is this profound echo and a sort of institutionalization of his work–not in the sense of a foreclosure of his ideas–but precisely because his ideas leave a kind of open-ended or open concept about the body in relation to dance, which is, you know, a very open question.

Noémie: Yes, and I guess Deleuze for instance has been read, used, and re-encountered at different moments in different artistic frameworks, and in the dance field certainly his thought has been circulating for at least fifteen years or so, giving rise to manifold movements. So yes, this kind of trade between theory and practice, and also between history and practice, is something that artists have been engaged with, and that I think is worth looking at. In the 90s, for instance, through the work of the Quatuor Knust in particular, a certain American postmodern dance made a very important appearance on the French choreographic stage. And this experimentation with history, through the study of the dance score, was very important to the formation of a contemporary dance scene in France and Europe. The Quatuor Knust was a collective of dancers–Christophe Wavelet, Dominique Brun, Anne Collod and Simon Hecquet–who came together in the 90s when studying Laban Notation in Paris. They set up a series of significant projects around the re-creation of pieces they deemed emblematic of dance modernity, including a redoing of Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project – Altered Daily and Steve Paxton’s Satisfying Lover. They invited a bunch of dancers and choreographers to join them in the experiment, including Alain Buffard, Emmanuelle Huynh, Jennifer Lacey, Xavier Le Roy, and Boris Charmatz at times. This bringing together of different actors around questions of history, memory, and text was instrumental for the dance field in France and beyond. It provided material in relation to the very specific history of dance there, while opening it up to other traditions, histories, influences. Because you know France’s relation to modern dance is very different from let’s say the U.S. or Germany–and without going in too much detail–I think there’s this very important moment in 1981 when the socialists come to power and create these structures to develop and promote contemporary dance across the territory, the Centres Chorégraphiques Nationaux… Here I am… and I want to say, I’m not French. [Laughs]

Will: We have to specify that Noémie’s is not French.

Noémie: There it is. And my knowledge about French culture is somewhat diffracted, coming from Québec. But perhaps this also gives me a necessary distance. Even though I lived in France for some years.

Will: But we’re all convinced at certain times to pretend that we know a lot about French culture. [Laughs]

Noémie: Exactly.

Will: Which is maybe part of what New York is trying out - a platform for understanding of the effects of French dance on our thinking. You know–

Noémie: Yes the effects on our thinking and on our practice… So the establishment of these Centres Chorégraphiques Nationaux was a pivotal moment for dance in France. It enabled the creation of what has been labeled the danse d’auteur… It gave the means to a series of choreographers to develop singular dance vocabularies and styles…

Will: …through having these houses of culture all over France that produced a network in which the modes of production were highly elevated.

Noémie: Yes, houses of culture, and they provided a kind of base, an institutional ground really, for the flourishing of a certain contemporary dance. Which gave rise to a lot of “dance”: through big companies, particular forms of training, given aesthetics.

Will: You sort of mention this in the introduction of DANSE where these practices happening in the 90s in France were very much a critique of the system that has been comfortably in place for a while and that there was a reach to an outside system of thought by reviving a lineage, let’s say, a transcontinental lineage.

I also want to talk about Beatriz Preciado. You mention her in your introduction that she had this productive contraband between theory and practice.

Noémie: Yes, Beatriz has been a very important mentor. I met her while studying in the dance department at Paris VIII. She was teaching “Discourses on the body” and also “Gender, body, performance” which was really unique in the French academic context at that time. I encountered a way of approaching theory and discourse in a new, very dynamic way, in close relation to the making of bodies and experimental practices. Something there felt very meaningful to me, and in a sense, I feel it is through her scholarship that I ended up coming to the States to study. Beatriz is from Spain, but studied with Jacques Derrida at the New School and did her PhD at Princeton. When I first started to study with her I think in 2002, I had barely heard of Judith Butler. I mean, Gender Trouble was only translated in 2005, I think. Fifteen years after its original publication? Which is kind of interesting, given that so much of it addresses French feminism or Derrida’s thought, right?

Will: And so was she working with these Butler texts?

Noémie: Yes. Well really she was drawing an experimental genealogy, cutting across numerous authors, but bringing gender and queer theory into this French academic context, which was wild! Actually her latest book was just translated into English this fall, Testo Junkie.

Will: Testo Junkie?

Noémie: Yes Testo Junkie, as in addicted to testosterone. She engaged in a writing experiment around the history of gender by following a line of what she might call experimental philosophy, or practical philosophy, in which philosophers not only talk about ideas in an abstract way, but actually use their own body as a platform for experimentation. Think for instance of Sigmund Freud and cocaine; or Henri Michaud and mescaline.

Will: Timothy Leary and LSD.

Noémie: Yes and so on.

Will: And was this specifically in relation to theories of queerness she was working on? Or theories of performance?

Noémie: Yes, experimenting with drugs as a means to reflect on and invent modalities of gender production–through and as a series of performances.

Will: So for her, as a scholar, this relation between the body as a platform and the brain as a platform–these were very closely related, intertwining concepts like this “contraband between the body and theory.”

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Noémie: So yes, this “productive contraband” between movement and theory, between different, alternative aesthetic practices and critical theory is something she invites us to follow. It is a way perhaps to look at unexpected encounters, messy relations. In a sense it is a call to draw experimental genealogies, to reassess and reinvent the different histories that compose us in the present. And again, this is very important for some choreographic practices that are addressed in the anthology. How some artists at some point have to engage with critical theory, writing, thinking. Staging a dancing body that is always already “linguistic” as Merleau-Ponty would say.

Will: It’s not necessarily that dance is operating alongside theory but rather that theories are developing as an implementation of what dance produces; that dance itself produces knowledge; it has a cognitive aspect.

Noémie: Yes, dance produces a kind of knowledge. For me it’s really important not just to try to impose or assign a knowledge to the dancing body but to see how dance itself changes the ways in which we think about knowledge and what it can do.

Will: Still working with your introduction here if that’s good for you. You also refer to the late José Muñoz. Was he someone that you had worked with or studied with?

Noémie: Yes I did, while doing my PhD in Performance Studies here at NYU. José has also been a vital figure for so many people.

Will: You refer to his idea of the ‘burden of liveness’, in that, in thinking about the present we might actually foreclose the future or that we might foreclose futurity for minority practices or identities that could be expressed through dance. And then Bojana Kunst also talks about the “autonomous dancing body”, a body somehow isolated in the moment of dancing. How can we subvert its isolated expressiveness, by not overly emphasizing its “being in the moment” but by thinking that, in that dancing moment, it reveals histories and maybe futures?

Noémie: Yes, and of course José [Muñoz] is writing in Disidentifications in reaction to the ontology of performance, defined by Peggy Phelan as that which disappears while it is being performed. José reminds us of the political implications of locking up the experience of performance in the present, especially when it comes to certain minoritarian practices. How can we reach out to histories to invent other possibilities? How can we think of experimental dance practices as they create very spacious presents somehow, in which gestures are filled with past moments and are also stepping into futures?

Will: In the anthology the essays are wonderful because although they do collect around certain concepts and certain approaches there is also a wonderful alterity of approaches in talking about dance and choreography.

Noémie: That’s nice to hear. Questions of alterity and diversity are certainly very meaningful to me in such a project. Reading Susan Sontag recently, her journals and also the Rolling Stone interview, I was fascinated to see all those lists of books and texts she creates, or how she says then when having insomnia she dreams of creating anthologies: who to put in relation to whom, what text should be next to this one… and I think this is wonderful… creating those strange, unexpected assemblages over and over again… a weird curating of words, bodies, movements.

Will: Maybe this anthology is a performance that could open up other possible anthologies. This sort of anthology is a pretty rare thing too, in that there are very few anthologies specifically of this period of writing and thinking.

Noémie: It definitely deals with pretty recent texts. The oldest one is actually Chantal Pontbriand’s “Expanded Dance.” And I think it is a key one, first perhaps because it addresses Québécois dance, which is an important site to think about in relation to this exchange between French and American cultures. And also because it constitutes an early utterance of “expanded dance,” a decade before the notion of expanded choreography found its way back on the European contemporary dance scene. But yes, perhaps anthologies do make sense after all, to experiment with bringing things together. And I guess when you organize things, bodies, words in different ways it produces a different kind of knowledge.

One key stake was really to bring some French texts that hadn’t been translated into English, to use this opportunity and platform for translating some crucial essays. And so I decided not to include some texts that I thought were important but maybe available elsewhere. And if the plan goes well, the anthology will be published in French next year so the opposite is also true: the English texts are for the most part not available in French.

Will: Ralph Lemon. And [André] Lepecki is writing in English.

Noémie: Also, it was important to find voices and texts that were speaking about or with dance practices. Perhaps a matter of finding something embodied, visceral, corporeal about the writing.

Will: As you read through and consider the work of people that are writing on dance and for you as a writer also, how do you–when you see dance, what is your experience as a writer when you try and recount that experience in relation to this idea of practice? How do you read dances that you relate to through the practices that are represented?

Noémie: Yes, that’s an impossible question.

Will: I know.

Noémie: But it’s a wonderful question.  You know, I guess for me there’s something about dance making and dance writing that can be thought of not as opposites but in close relation.  Maybe there are ways in which movement and text are holding each other, folding onto each other, and that might be another key point in the book. Dancers repeatedly engage in writing practices, thinking and embodying ideas, putting them into practice and into motion. And that’s something dance writers that I really admire also do, right? They have a way to write about dance that is close to the gesture itself. And I don’t think we need to yet again reiterate this dichotomy between practice and theory, gesture and writing. Quite the opposite: finding bridges perhaps, creating more “productive contrabands.”

Will: Do you have a dance background?

Noémie: Yes I do.

Will: And do you still work in dance or perform as a dancer or rehearse or do you have a practice?

Noémie: Not so much these days really. For different reasons, I had to let go of dancing at a certain time. But also there are different ways of dancing for which we at times may need daily dance techniques, then also different forms of thinking and writing that help us articulate our own practice in relation to a broad set of things, histories, bodies.

Will: It’s this kind of analogous thinking that comes into dealing with dance as a subject matter. I’m a proponent of the reality that dance produces ambiguity and that it’s one of the things it does the best. And that the expanded field of dance - how can choreography be a book or a car or a traffic jam or a protest? These are all ways of producing analogous thinking in order to come closer to contextualizing this thing, which, at its center, produces ambiguity. Recently, at a Performa event titled, Who Can Write On Performance?, Claire Bishop was talking about how when she began to write about dance that she could talk about context and certain aspects of historicity but that when it came to a vocabulary about the dance itself, you know, that’s where she felt herself, if I can put words in her mouth, at a loss for what to say. So, is dance that is always moving the only kind of dance that escapes language? Or, could the dancing that Jérôme Bel produces when, according to Claire Bishop, he “de-skills” dance to the point where it becomes a speech act–could that also be a dancing body that is ambiguous?

Noémie: I love that. I think the question of ambiguity is quite resonant when it comes to the dancing body. I remember many years ago, as I was just about to move to the States, having a short discussion with Peggy Phelan after a dance performance who said to me, “Oh I know nothing about dance. I don’t speak the language.” I remember being struck by this statement, well first because Peggy had written quite a bit and beautifully about dance. And also because I was then myself wrestling with English language, figuring out what Performance Studies was about–what was that resistance about? It is as if you don’t have the experience of having danced for ten or fifteen years, there’s nothing you can say about it–you don’t hold the knowledge. Whereas, I absolutely agree with the idea of ambiguity. Perhaps what dance teaches us is nothing but ambiguity.

So we may say, yes there is a vocabulary, and certainly codes, conventions, histories, but the vocabulary is shifting too, it’s ambiguous, it’s not just in there. And I think it’s fascinating. And I think it’s also why dance has so much potential in universities, in these institutions that basically are designated as cultural producers of knowledge…

Will: …and clarity

Noémie: Yes clarity! Institutions that produce knowledge around clear thresholds of visibility and legibility.

If you’re not dancing, then the way of producing knowledge is through work analysis. For instance, at PARIS VIII University, through the work of Hubert Godard, the movement analysis classes were very important. Basically that was where knowledge would emerge from the experience of closely watching moving bodies. Godard can just, like, riff, just looking at two people standing up from a bench and then seeing micro-things and connecting that to psychoanalysis, critical theory, philosophy et cetera, et cetera. Now he’s working in the medical context looking at what he calls missing gestures. Like what happens when you have a part of your body that doesn’t engage fully, and your kinesthetic sphere, and trying to solve that problem. So he’s doing therapy mostly.

Will: I feel, as a dancer, that talking about the movement itself, wherever on the spectrum that movement lies, whether it’s sort of “not moving” or really active dancing is so important.  Bodies are not only signs or symbols.  Even if you’re looking at or thinking about visual arts practice, and installation, where you can layer and manipulate the body with signs, images, citations et cetera, there are always compelling, slippery qualities of movement that exist in those manipulations.

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Noémie: Yeah I agree with that. I strongly believe that seeing dance broadens our experience of dance. Of course it goes without saying. John Martin was writing about that in the 30s. He says this amazing thing about internal mimicry - like I always imagine this little stick figure doing the movement internally. You see Martha Graham dancing there and you kind of do it internally. [Laughs].

Will: And where is that stick figure located? Is it in your gut as you just gestured? Is it in your brain, or is it all over you?

Noémie: Where is it? And how, according to his writing, does it shape this national body, the American subject? It reminds us of how dance is a powerful medium as well. Louis XIV in the 17th century knew it. And when they created the first art academy it was actually dance, before music, painting. It was recognized that dance is like the military arts, very important in the forming of this national, homogenic, political body.

Will: 5, 6, 7, 8, and now you are a soldier. It’s the obedience that…

Noémie: …you internalize.

Will: And I know there will be another book in relation to this festival.

Noémie: Yes, the second volume will also be published with Les Presses du Reel, part of this New York series, and it will be called DANSE: a catalogue. It will also be a collection of essays, but this time it will include new texts, which I find very exciting. If the idea of the anthology was to collect things that already existed in the world, outlining the state of a field somehow, however partial and incomplete, this publication will be a mixture of some texts that will document and extend the work of the festival that is starting this week [May 1-18, 2014] and some new texts that will explore different themes and issues in the field of contemporary dance.

Will: In reading through DANSE [:an anthology] many of the choreographers and initiators of these discourses and praxes are not necessarily the same choreographers that are presenting work in DANSE, the festival. Well, there’s Claudia Triozzi, Alain Buffard… but what are these newer artists up to? When I think about Francois Chaignaud and Cecilia Bengolea, they’re working through a sort of minorization, a marking of the body with radical kinetics, and theatricality, and voguing and twerking. And when I think about Miguel Gutierrez, who is not in this festival, there’s this elevation of “me”, the specific me, dancing and giving myself to this form. This is very different from Nom donné par l’auteur [by Jérôme Bel], which is a kind of object-oriented ontology–a performance in which objects carry an expressive value comparable to that of a human body.

Noémie: Yes, and perhaps also already moving toward an ethics of things, as André Lepecki’s text in the anthology suggests: de-objectification and depersonalization in favors of circulations of affects, speeds, intensities. But yes, in a sense we started by saying that the anthology is dealing with texts that are pretty recent and yet we already feel that–although I wouldn’t say it’s dated, there are definitely some newer practices troubling this. Perhaps importantly responding or extending what we may call “a conceptual choreography”; bringing in different corporeal erotics, visceral matters, and often inserting singular histories and bodies. So yes, I am hoping the writing in the catalogue will reflect this as well.

I just saw again in Montréal this weekend Rachid Ouramdane’s piece, Far [Loin], which is not a new piece, but I think a crucial one still. It is quite moving, personal, and yet also impersonal in a way; blurring fiction and life. He’s dealing with heavy material: his father was tortured by the French army during the Algerian occupation, and also worked for the same army during the Indochine War. So he’s unweaving these familial and historical threads, folding the colonial and political onto the personal and dancing body in a very affective way. To me these practices are still vital and necessary in the dance field, in France and elsewhere. And of course, we could see Boris Charmatz’s Dancing Museum along those lines: he mentions in his manifesto that one of the things that prompted this idea of creating a dance museum is hearing on the radio that there are something like 180 museums of the sabot in France–wooden clog–but no museum of slavery. No museum of slavery, and no museum of dance. Without equating the history of slavery and colonialism to that of dance, Charmatz proposes that there is something important at stake in how we refuse, collectively, to look at the histories and the meanings assigned to and created by dancing bodies. And of course, for Charmatz, the museum in Rennes has to remain empty. He is experimenting with this constant movement of getting rid of things, dance as the “getting rid of” histories, techniques, this unraveling – deskilling, perhaps, as Claire Bishop may say. And of course it matters that dancers are doing this unraveling. Many very important practices, what they did, and are still doing, is deskilling, unraveling or unworking certain mechanisms, vocabularies, histories, conventions of dance but by operating at the threshold of what dance is. The “threshold”–meaning its interface with the world, with other practices. And to me it says so much about dance and how it can affect our lives.

Will: I think about this with Alain Buffard’s piece [Baron Samedi]: having an international cast, primarily composed of black performers who are dealing with questions of transformation, brings up the politics of authoring your own experience in relationship to French, African and U.S. histories, as well as in relationship to French contemporary dance in Buffard’s context. There are certain examples of people working now with this radical kinetics that is not apologetic about itself moving is coming back into focus.

Noémie: Yes. Radical kinetics as they unleash multiple physicalities and desires and histories. Lately I have been researching Québécois dance history and it’s been so interesting to find these bodies and practices and tremors I wouldn’t have expected to find. In the case of Québéc, strong and at times necessary nationalist politics have tended to harmonize a somewhat diverse ethnic and cultural ground. And of course when it comes to dance there’s this tension because history is a dynamic thing and when you look at the dancing gesture, well if it’s held as being so ephemeral, then it seems to barely exist in history, or, you see the need to foreground it and imagine that it always stays the same. But how can we move, write, and think with barely perceptible and yet always-morphing dancing bodies, as they speak to and queer history in the present?

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Noémie Solomon is editor of DANSE: an anthology which was published in February 2014 at Les Presses du réel. She works as a writer, teacher, dramaturge, and curator in the field of contemporary dance, and is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Arts at McGill University, Montréal. She collaborated on a series of dramaturgical and curatorial initiatives in the dance field internationally, including: Dance on Time with iDANS (Istanbul, 2009); the retrospective Move: Choreographing You at the Hayward Gallery (London, 2010); Self-Methodologies at Tanzquartier (Vienna, 2011); the Photomusée de la danse (Festival d’Avignon, 2011); and Solos and Solitudes at Danspace Project (New York, 2012-13). 

Will Rawls is a choreographer, performer and writer based in New York City. His projects have appeared at Dance Theater Workshop, The Chocolate Factory, Danspace Project, Dixon Place, The Brooklyn Museum, The Emily Harvey Foundation, Tanzquartier Wien (Vienna), Mount Tremper Arts and Williams College, a.o. Since 2006, Rawls has collaborated with Kennis Hawkins as the performance duo, Dance Gang, working parasitically in public spaces and galleries.  As a performer and interpreter Rawls has worked with Marina Abramovic, Jérôme Bel, Brian Brooks, Alain Buffard, Maria Hassabi, Noemie LaFrance, Nicholas Leichter, Neal Medlyn, David Neumann, Tino Sehgal, Shen Wei Dance Arts, and Katie Workum. Since 2010, Rawls has been a guest artist at Bard College, Barnard College, Princeton University, Williams College and a student mentor for Colorado College’s Department of Theatre and Dance.  Current publication projects: Obedience, a memoir for a choreographic object (Triple Canopy) and Leap of Fake, an essay on dance and doubt (Tanzquartier Wien (Vienna)).  He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Art History from Williams College, was a 2008 danceWEB scholar, a 2013 MacDowell Colony Fellow and is a 2014 LMCC Process Space residency recipient.

 

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Alain Buffard, Bojana Kunst, Boris Charmatz, Centre Choreogrpahique Nationaux, contemporary dance, DANSE: An Anthology, Deleuze, French critical theory, Fresh DANSE festival, Judith Butler, philosophy, Quattuor Knust, surveillance

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Will Rawls

Will Rawls is a choreographer, performer and writer based in New York City. His work investigates the formal and affective displacements of identity inherent in a non-disciplinary art practice. His pr...
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