Artist Karen Sherman Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis over email in early September for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.

In anticipation of PICA’s TBA13, Karen Sherman and I exchanged several emails about the role of dance, gender, and carpentry in her performance work. Because emails can quickly blur boundaries of style and appropriateness, some shuffling and excising took place. What ensues may appear to be an arrangement of words following other words, but our exchange was, in virtual-reality, temporally and visually fragmented, punctuated by roving, unreliable returns. (A dance?)

Karen Sherman, One With Others. Photo: Jeffrey Wells

Karen Sherman, One With Others. Photo: Jeffrey Wells

Ariel Osterweis: Hi Karen. Your new piece, One with Others, proposes a set of questions: Can movement be a refuge from words? Can objects be language? Can words be visuals? Can we, in our groping toward self-realization and being with others in the world, do without even one of these? How have you gone about exploring these questions over the past year? Did you begin with them or did they emerge from observing your own process?

Karen Sherman: Perhaps some of both….I didn’t ask myself those questions in that language at the time, but we experimented with all of those ideas….The piece we made is one arrangement of material, one troubled response to those questions. There is choreography, text, talking, conversation, music, crude carpentry, but I’m not sure there are any answers. I’m interested in space and objects and design and all those things that are part of art-making, but I’m more interested in how people are together. I think the things that pulse from project to project for me are presence and feeling.

AO: Of course, “dance” is such a tenuous term. I should ask you, what does “dance” mean to you in your own practice?

KS: I used to say that the dance world was the only one that would have me. (I shouldn’t presume the feeling is mutual, though!) There is definitely dance in One with Others….and we do talk in the piece about what a dancer is supposed to be and if any of us fit the bill. I should say that while we [do] address it head-on, the piece is about more than Dance. I have a pretty open-minded idea of what dance is, including that it can be a tool and not a product. Sometimes I make pieces that don’t have any dance in them. That being said (maybe especially with that being said) I do like to see that tool wielded by those who know how to use it. (Depending on the day, I may or may not include myself in that club.)

AO: In a description of One with Others you relay your troubled relationship to dance, that you came to it late and found your experience of dance-making in conflict with the comfort you felt with language. Are you referring to language’s capacity to signify, a certain correlative reliability (or lack thereof)?

KS: It’s not so much that dance was in conflict with a reliability of language (and in fact, I can think of fewer things less reliable than language). It’s that dance was causing me pain—not physical; psychic, emotional, artistic pain. One of the things I find fascinating and horrific about dance is that you are the in-person representation and embodiment of your artwork. A painter doesn’t have to stand next to her painting in a gallery for the entire run of the exhibition and endure critiques about the painting as critiques about her body, brain, skill, etc. Here is the unique locus of judgment in dance: you are physically scrutinized, assessed, and evaluated, and this is inseparable from the conclusions made about the artwork itself and the art-maker’s skill….I think I was drowning in the frustration to separate, not even drowning in the judgment of others. The abstract nature of dance—the way you have to start over every day because the dance doesn’t exist unless you’re doing it—all that was wearying. Words on a page stay until you change them. I always talk about that in regards to building physical things, that I find relief in how, say, the cabinet you’re building (or even the painting you are making) doesn’t change overnight when you leave. Your opinion of it or plan for what happens next may have changed, but it hasn’t. You can see it (and in the case of words, read it) and go from there. But with dance…well, it’s a constant apparition, especially if you dance in your own work. I think a few years ago, words were not only offering a kind of tangibility but they suddenly felt so much more accurate and efficient. I didn’t need many of them and the ones I did need already existed. I didn’t have anything to say with movement. It was all a bunch of babble. White noise. I was forcing myself to use it because of a sense of obligation. But after a while, I realized that my untrained dancer-ness and my weird movement and my physical failures were a language of their own.  In this way alone, dance has changed my life. It has changed how I see everything in the world. It has reordered my brain.

 

AO: In looking at your images from One with Others, I notice that you name objects after sex toys: “strap-on,” “clamps,” for example. You seem to remove the fetishistic aura of these sex toys, imbuing them with the everyday use value of DIY woodwork. While a strap-on typically conjures a rubbery faux cock and leather belts, your strap-on consists of a couple of unevenly matched wooden planks (about a foot long or less) that have been haphazardly drilled into, held together by a metal hook and, well, strapped onto the performer’s hips with a bungie cord. What has been done in your dance to arrive at this point of being strapped into the strap-on? Similarly, what is going on with your “hand clamps?” Any nipple involvement? If not, why not? Why the hands? How does gender function in this de-clamping of the nipple fetish and novel clamping of the hands? Will the audience know that you have called these items “strap-on” and “hand clamp?” Do you want to evoke sex? For you, where does sex live in dance…or does it?

KS: Regarding the objects, no, the audience will not know we call them strap-ons and hand clamps (though, er, maybe they will now). I wouldn’t say I named them after sex toys. The strap-ons, yes, that’s pretty much a perfect pun because they do indeed strap-on and a couple of them are sexually suggestive. Joanna does wear a big broom handle. But Jeff’s is more of a chastity belt. The clamps are called “clamps” because that’s exactly what they are. “Clamp” has more of a hardware/woodworking connotation, I think. And they literally are clamps that tighten down over the hands. There is a sexual component to them in that they evoke torture (a bit of BDSM) but also in that with them on, you cannot use your hands or feel anything with them.

One with Others is a trio: two lesbians, one gay man, and all pretty identifiably queer. I find it interesting how in this piece we are freed from certain restrictions and readings on our interactions because of our sexualities….The three of us can touch each other however we want because of it (technically, I suppose Joanna and I should have some restrictions but it doesn’t function that way)….We do address the fact of a trio—and in sex, a menage a trois (or polyamorous situation) is fraught with potential pitfalls. Whereas, in carpentry, a tripod is always stable.

AO: I want to pick up on this because in your thoughts on dance/Dance/”dance” you seem to accept a certain amount of failure, and this failure (at least in relation to codified techniques of concert dance) seems to be part of your aesthetic. Because your coming out and your foray into dance occurred simultaneously, I get the sense that your audiences have been privy to a kind of stumbling onto the scene on your part, that you have made visible the imperfections of the process of skill acquisition—a grappling with grace? You also indicate an embrace of the messy with your term “crude carpentry.” Why is it that you are comfortable revealing to us the hangnails of imperfect/failed Dance and carpentry but you, as you say, are interested in streamlining the awkwardness out of otherwise awkward sexual scenarios onstage? Do you value expertise differently on and off stage? In your estimation, what kinds of intimacies demand what kinds of expertise? On the one hand, there is the intimacy of a lover (or lovers), which the audience does not experience, and on the other hand, there is the intimacy of the audience (the audience-performer relationship), especially as found in smaller performance venues such as blackbox theaters, spaces that aren’t threatened by the blinged-out distance of the stage-lit proscenium. Well, do you even consider the audience to be in an intimate relationship with you in the first place? Or is the audience always abstracted, at an arm’s length?

I like the idea—especially in relationship to the “crude carpentry” in your work—of dance as a tool. I think many artists still haunted by classicism (and even modernism) think of the arts (and dance) as a tool of expression; whereas, you seem to indicate that dance is a practical tool like a hammer or drill or…language (?). I noticed that you worked at Judson for many years. Would you say your work is at all influenced by the legacy of Judson and its eschewing of its predecessors’ concert dance spectacle and virtuosity? Is that kind of what you’re getting at with the idea that dance is (just another) tool? I don’t think you mean another object, per se, as you say so beautifully that dance is a “constant apparition,” a wonderful recasting of the idea that performance is ephemeral (as discussed by Peggy Phelan and others). Whereas ephemerality is fleetingness, an apparition conjures the sense of an absent presence (or a moving-toward absence), like a ghost. It is there, but we cannot quite grasp it, hold onto it. Slippery.

Speaking of slipperiness, you astutely locate the dissimilarity between the instability of the trio/manage a trois (choreographically and sexually) and the stability of the tripod. I mean, sure, with actual humans (as opposed to tripods) we are dealing with sex and jealousy, but as I paused to more fully consider your observation, I realized it all comes down to movement. People move—physically, psychically, emotionally. They don’t always support. Tripods always support.

Do you want to talk about support? You overtly discuss your queer identity in (and around) your work and you claim that you and your performers read as gay and lesbian. While you find that people are compulsively trying to read sex into dance, I find that in the scholarly pursuit of dance studies, sex is often brushed under the rug as the field incessantly tries to legitimize itself. I also find that it can be difficult for queer-identified artists to find the same kind of support for their work as closeted artists or those who present a heterosexual aesthetic. Sure, many queer artists receive funding and may even benefit from discussing identity in their “supporting materials,” but I’m wondering about scope and type. Because you have worked on virtually every side of dance, from admin to scenic to choreographic, what have you observed in terms of the support you (and others) receive and queer subject matter in the work (performed by queer artists)?

You said you “didn’t move at all” before your simultaneous coming out and dance beginnings. Well, surely you moved! Sports? Walking the dog? Anything? I’m hearing from you that dance really opened something up for you. I think that some practitioners use dance as a hiding place or an escape. Does dance make you more you?

KS: I was very physically shut down before I started dancing in college. I did theater all through growing up and worked professionally in theater while in high school. So I did have a basic relationship to my body (“the instrument!”). But I had a few really awful experiences with dance when I was little and again in my teens, where it was glaringly clear that my version of femininity did not pass muster. I felt shamed, shunned. I stayed far away from dance and certainly from any kind of activity where my body was on display. Theater, for some reason, was the exception to this rule. I didn’t play sports (except with my brother and friends when I was really little). I do recognize now that when I was little I was very physically engaged with the world, even at ease with it on that level. That left me during most of my youth, but the facility came back immediately in college. Thank god! Dance made me more of who I once was but also asked so much of me I became someone new.

Within contemporary dance there is such a range of “technique”—and aesthetics. I’m not making work that seeks to show mistakes all the time or to cover them up. My work is…actually fairly structured and considered. I also like nuance and keeping things a little shy on dial, not too far in one direction….“Crude carpentry” isn’t about messiness; it’s about making the thing instead of being bogged down in perfection—using the materials and skills at hand. I usually call it “cowboy carpentry.” The objects themselves are a bit crude. They aren’t apologetic even as they are sometimes incomprehensible. There is a desperation in the objects, as if it had been urgent for them to come into existence. They are like the visual manifestation of a grunt, maybe. I love the hangnail image, too.

Ironically, I absolutely value expertise. I love to know how to do things well and to know information. I’m pretty fastidious in my approach to most work-related things, whether it’s dancing, choreographing, building things, or doing production work, which is what was so freeing about those objects when I started making them. I used to want to build something but wouldn’t have the right piece of wood or the right tools and so then the thing would never get made. I’d stall out before I started. But one day I just said fuck it and grabbed two pieces of scrap, put a hook on them. That became Jeffrey’s strap-on. All of the history, scars, mistakes, and missed targets on them (I had used them as backing boards for another project) exemplified so much of what I was already thinking about the dance. I had no idea until I’d made that object. This is typical for me: I’ll be working on a dance and will start making visual work or objects as a kind of distraction or downtime activity, usually thinking they have nothing to do with the dance at all, but in the end they are entirely related to the dance. This has happened enough times that I just let myself make things and try not to get in my own way too much. But I am the most anal stage technician ever. The crew I work with at the Walker Art Center’s theater will attest to that. I care a lot about straight tape lines. And one time I literally ironed the floor.

You wrote, “I think many artists still haunted by classicism (and even modernism) think of the arts (and dance) as a tool of expression; whereas, you seem to indicate that dance is a practical tool like a hammer or drill or…language (?).” I think of dance as all those things, but its deployment can change from project to project. Dance can be a tool to make something else entirely. It is a language in this piece (one of several).

Anyone making dance today is influenced by Judson, I think. I recently saw In Creases by Justin Peck of City Ballet in NYC….You could clearly see the influence of the past 50 years of experimental dance in that piece but it was very much a ballet….I didn’t know anything about dance until I started going to downtown work in NYC in the late ’80s, so the Judson influence was really all I knew for most of my career. But working at Judson for 10 years was fascinating for far more than its dance legacy because it included that dance legacy without being limited to it (visual art, theater, and poetry, not to mention social justice). The Judson dance legacy has been held in the amber in many ways, especially by the dance world…but it has a whole different dynamic within Judson itself. Social justice work has been at the core of everything Judson has done since its founding in the late 1800s, so its reasoning for giving itself fully to experimental art (not just dance but theater, poetry, and visual art) comes from a wholly realized sense of its mission and the power of the radical….To me, that’s what Judson is (that and the building itself, which I had to take care of for so long). The arts were only one place where Judson facilitated radical change. I really encourage dance people to learn more about the other aspects of Judson’s work in the arts and progressive politics.

While it’s not “eschewing predecessors,” I do feel something related living in Minneapolis. I lived in NYC for almost 20 years and when I moved to Minneapolis it was partly to shake up my process. NY taught me great rigor in my work and it serves me really well in Minneapolis where I can actually make my living as an artist (meager a living as it may be). I go back to NY a lot and can clearly see trends in dance. There is tremendous value placed on originality and yet, having some remove, it’s so apparent when everyone is being influenced by the same thing when a trend is happening. Not that I’m immune from it but working in a smaller city like Minneapolis, you can really turn your attention to how you want to say what you want to say. Most of my Minneapolis friends and I see enough national and international work to know what’s going on in our field, but a city like Minneapolis lets hear your own voice in a particular way. There are drawbacks, to be sure, but that is not one of them.

AO: As someone who spent her entire childhood (and subsequent adulthood) raised by queer mentors in an otherwise aesthetically “straight” dance world (ballet and modern dance), I became increasingly aware of the disconnection between dance company aesthetics and the identities of its makers. I think a lot of us take for granted the fact that much experimental dance is practiced by out performers and choreographers, but dance (more than performance art, perhaps) grapples with that delicate brew of identity, aesthetic, and funding. We thus detect cultural dynamics of passing, on the one hand, and announcing one’s identity, on the other. From what I can tell, you address this in the Tyra Banks section of one of your pieces in which a voiceover of an artistic proposal is juxtaposed with a panel of assessors on Tyra’s show. Hilarious. You point to the need for the artistic judging panel (I assume for a grant) to hear more about community engagement (a huge imperative as we find the arts having to do the work that the educational system should be doing in terms of teaching kids and “communities”).

KS: What you say about the gendered environment you grew up in is really interesting to me. I’ve almost never been perceived as straight. Makes me think of an op-ed I read the other day: “Why It Matters that Diana Nyad is Gay.” The argument was that if we don’t acknowledge that she is, she will be perceived as straight. That made me laugh because I took one look at her and I knew she was gay. The Tyra Banks [excerpt] is an actual panel review of one of my failed grant proposals (it was a state grant so the audio is publicly available). But the video is of a group of gay men giving fashion and sex advice to straight women on Tyra’s show. The politics of that—gay men as the arbiters of art and women)—in a piece that was partly about the gay man inside of me, felt a little dangerous!

I absolutely agree that dance is often de-sexed. Although to brush something under the rug entails giving it a lot of attention and energy. I think you’re right that legitimizing is probably a part of it. With the recent hubbub around major institutions like MOMA presenting (curating? appropriating?) dance, the field’s need to come off as intelligent and scholarly has come at a great cost to the languages and logics that make dance what it is, which are already so exceptionally sophisticated on so many levels….One of the things dance has to offer other fields and forms is its unique vocabularies, which can describe, embody, and posit all at once. It’s a gorgeous intelligence that has been mucked up by a lot of silly verbiage. It reminds me of the whole gay marriage fight. I think it’s great to have the option to get married but I really think we as a society can do better and gay people could have led that charge. Instead, we’ve pushed to be part of a problematic institution. Dance has at least as much to offer the visual art world as it stands to gain. Maybe even more. I think some of this is due to the smell of money, which, talk about apparitions, is an olfactory one.

 

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Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear in Dance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misférica, Theatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is  dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.