More Weirdness, More Joy: Performance Curation and Pedagogy at Danspace Project and the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (excerpt)
August 25, 2016
The following excerpt is from a chapter by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace Project Executive Director and Chief Curator, to be included in a forthcoming anthology Curating Live Arts: Global Perspectives, Envisioning Theory and Practice in Performance (working title) edited by Dena Davida, Jane Gabriels, Véronique Hudon, and Marc Pronovost.
In January of 2010, I launched a series of artist-curated initiatives at Danspace Project called the Platform series which set out to research new curatorial approaches to dance and performance. It was around this same time that I had a conversation at Noho Star, a few blocks from St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, with Sam Miller, then President of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Pam Tatge, then Director of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. They invited me to be part of a gathering of artists, scholars, and curators convened at Wesleyan University in the summer of 2010 to begin to design a curatorial program in performance.
For many years, I had been dissatisfied with the limitations of presenting dance and performance in traditional week-long runs. Perhaps this was due to my early training, where artistic content was necessarily considered in relationship to the specificity of site as well as social and cultural contexts. The acknowledgement that the proscenium stage, the black box theater, the white cube, the church basement, and the gymnasium are layered and loaded with histories, expectations, and assumptions is critical to my curatorial practice.
Arriving at Danspace Project in 2008, I was initially challenged by the restrictions of operating in a historic site — St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, a functioning church with weekly services — in space shared with the Poetry Project and recently with the New York Theatre Ballet. I was challenged by the opportunity to work with its historical relevance but also its marginalization within dance and art historical narratives. The Platforms’ designs were informed, in part, by trying to problem solve around these institutional and historic limitations.
In 2008, a few months after taking the helm at Danspace Project, I invited artist/choreographers Trajal Harrell, Ralph Lemon, Juliette Mapp, and Melinda Ring to be curators for a new series, which would later become the Platform series. At the time, I was engaged in a dialogue with each of them about dance and performance representation, modes of address, and slippery relationships to time, history, and architecture. We agreed on the dire need for more (and more interesting) contexts for contemporary dance and performance. Later iterations would push these concepts into new territory under artists and curators David Parker, Ishmael Houston-Jones, DD Dorvillier, Lydia Bell and Eiko Otake.
My approach to the Platforms owes much to choreographic practices. Specifically, I engaged curators informed by structured improvisations in which some aspects of the “score” were well-defined and with other prompts intentionally open-ended. I gave them the following curatorial prompts: 1) within the limitations of Danspace, how might we challenge the status quo of dance presenting?; 2) how might we consider curating as an act of inquiry and an extension of one’s artistic research?; 3) how could we begin to frame Platforms as “exhibitions that unfold over time”? The defined components of the design were and still are: 1) a guest artist as curator; 2) a print publication; 3) a guest editor; 4) commissioned public performances; 5) creative contexts to illuminate artistic or curatorial thinking. Since 2010, we have produced ten Platforms and ten catalogues. We are currently working on our 11th Platform, PLATFORM 2016: Lost and Found, and its attendant publication for fall 2016.
Danspace’s Platforms are not festivals. They are not seasons. They are not conferences or symposia. They are a new genre in performance presentation. The Platforms forefront ideas, questions, processes, and networks of relationships. They are temporary live exhibitions. They are pop-up communities formed over two years and performed over six to eight weeks. I have come to refer to this collaborative process as “relational curation.” Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics did not consciously influence my work but his ideas around how collective meanings are produced and emphasis on human interactions and social contexts are at play in the planning and implementation of the Platforms.
Artist Will Rawls once asked me if I thought the [Danspace Project] Platforms series were gendered. I’d never thought about it, but immediately replied: “Yes, feminine.” I wasn’t immediately sure why I thought this was the case. Was it because the Platforms are predicated on a series of generative relationships? Is it that they are designed as “structured improvisations” rather than as fixed or formulaic structures? Is it the idea that we can trouble conventional grammar (art/dance history also being a kind of grammar)? These ideas aren’t feminist or feminine necessarily, but maybe choreographic, so does this mean that I believe that the act of choreography is somehow feminine? (not necessarily) or feminist? (maybe).
Over the past year I have been thinking about “curatorial poetics” where curators weave together uncommon threads and juxtapose ideas without leading the audience or viewer toward a foregone conclusion. It is an approach where one enters through a side door, to paraphrase writer Claudia La Rocco. When La Rocco worked on PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets at Danspace, we talked about the poetic logic underlying the curation of the Platform and she often talked about allowing disparate but related ideas and artists to “jostle.”
It was affirming when André Lepecki talked about letting “poetic strategies lead us” in curatorial work during the “Show Me the World” symposium in Munich in October 2015. And something the artist A.L. Steiner said in a recent Artforum conversation with Helen Molesworth about the state of Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) programs resonated with the emphasis on artistic relationships in the Platforms:
What do you think . . . is the most important thing to get across here? It is bodies in proximity. . . . That’s where the value lies, and that’s the value that can’t ever be empirically measured to anyone’s satisfaction, and that’s why I think we have to keep insisting on the importance of ambiguity, open-ended conversation, and proximity. More weirdness. More joy. (Lehrer-Graiwer, 2015).
Christophe Cherix has written that a history of contemporary curation is important because it highlights “a network of relationships within the art community at the heart of emerging curatorial practice” (Obrist, 2010, p. 8). Using our diverse situations to activate relationships within our cultural communities — within the performance and dance communities and in our socio-political communities — must be at the heart of our curatorial and life practices. Activating this network of relationships made me to want to be part of the first performing arts curatorial academic program in the United States. It was the desire to create a place where those of us interested in performance curation could be in proximity to one another because too often our best curatorial conversations take place out of sight and in the margins.
– Judy Hussie-Taylor,
Danspace Project Executive Director and Chief Curator