In conversation with Johnnie Cruise Mercer: on PM4, Foundations, Thru Lines, and Media but not giving it all away
May 23, 2019
In conversation with Johnnie Cruise Mercer: on PM4, Foundations, Thru Lines, and Media but not giving it all away
by Benedict Nguyen
When Johnnie Cruise Mercer talks about the work that he helps direct into being, he uses his hands to gesture and his whole body to convey ideas that have shapes, textures, and affects impossible to convey in an interview transcript.
In the opening and closing of this conversation on April 3, he discusses how his work relates to broader patterns in contemporary performance work as well as the role of new media. Maybe in giving these outside influences space, as a director he can shape them, use them as he wants rather than as he feels expected to.
Johnnie also shared some lingering reflections on the performances of process memoir 4: The word, the spirit, and Little Rock at Danspace Project and how this work fits in the broader anthology of process memoirs he’s been co-creating with Johnnie Cruise Mercer/The Red Project NYC (TRPNYC). Over six years, TRPNYC is building eight dance works to culminate in two epic docu-theses set to premiere post-election 2020. Johnnie also discussed the accompanying film to this work as well as a broader curiosity on how media changes our understanding of what bodies can do.
Johnnie grew up a preacher’s kid where the Bible was a huge foundation in his home and in his spirituality now. He reflected that trying to tear the Book of Genesis apart and put it back together for PM4 wasn’t always enjoyable. As he put it, Genesis is “literally the beginning of the book that colonized the entire fucking world.” Throughout the conversation, Johnnie returns to the idea of foundation as the heart of a self and as a point of departure for change—be it for one individual or a broader collective. The themes reminded me of…
Benedict Nguyen: […] the last time we recorded an interview around the time of the show at in October 2018] which was PM…
Johnnie Cruise Mercer: One. Process memoir 1
BN: Yeah, the early investigations into that brought up similar questions around definitions and [ideas of radicalism and anarchy] but you were just in a different place in the process.
JCM: Process memoir 1: plunge in/to 534 at Fusebox Festival, was the first part of this anthology of process performances. Process memoir 4 is the sister to Process memoir 1. They both have a conversation but PM4 is a deeper conversation. PM1 was going from hope into nightmare. This one is nightmare falling out of, falling into hope.
BN: And was that part of your thinking in the three nights at Danspace, within that structure?
JCM: So each night had a different story or attached to it. Thru Lines create a polycentric idea, which is an Africanist aesthetic, and deciding when the Thru Lines come together and when they fall apart and when it’s chaos and when it’s not. And I’ve learned it and practiced it under other people. You saw it with Monstah Black, with Charles Anderson, with Edisa [Weeks]. I’m doing it with the focused intent of just literally continuing it with a large group of people over a large amount of time.
And these Thru Lines—I’m just gonna go ahead and break down the structure of PM4. The first thing that I started with by myself was Genesis. I realized the story was too large so I tried to figure a way to tell it over a certain amount of time. Also emotionally, Genesis, when you’re dealing with something so foundational in American history, our bodies could not probably endure doing the entire Genesis every night the same way. We would probably go crazy, deeply, that’s how much you’re doing when you’re dealing with a book like Genesis.
How are you going to fold a book onto itself? I took a nod from the Marvel universe and the idea of Thru Lines or multiverses. We took 7 Thru Lines based on the 7 days. The first three Thru Lines are the three nights of the show at Danspace. The first one is based on self-affirmation, understanding the self, and being able to step into that. The second one was called ‘catching the spirit’ or ‘the womb,’ which was more about finding spirit and bringing it into your body. And the third one was about exploding or explosion or conquest. That one was about taking all the energy in the space and moving with it. So, it was also a kind of conjuring. It was a whole ritual and its own practice.
Another Thru Line was the lighting design by Carol Mullins. That was based on Queen’s song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which I fancy to relate to “Revelations,” so it’s kind of a prequel to some of the colors. There’s a lot of things coincidentally coming up in relation to the other process memoirs. For example, in the colors, blue, red, and pink and how they collide and how they make this interesting purple or this interesting space. But I don’t want to give too much away.
There’s a whole bunch of lighting things that Carol and I were talking through and about in relation to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Just to be clear, she didn’t even light the piece with us dancing. She had a document where she went and reflected on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” broke down the lyrics, thought about sound, and created a score [for the light plot] based on framing and zoning the space. And then she put it within the space and we just moved through it. And that whole Thru Line was based on the idea “Let there be light.”
Which I definitely found interesting because she was a white woman and what that could actually mean in relation to other solo figure, which was Mikaila Ware, who was the fifth Thru Line. Mikaila’s Thru Line was based on Sarah, one of the only women in Genesis who actually had an actual voice to some degree. Not much of a voice because there was an absence of women in Genesis in general. The whole process memoir was structured around her path. The lighting was based on her walking. We [Mercer with choreographic artists Adrianne Ansley, Shanice Mason, and Thomas Tyger Moore], based [our movement] on her walking. I stepped to the side and directed and just made sure her path was clear. All the vocal patterns, which was a major part of her work, the skin design by Trebian Pollard—all of that’s in conversation with her and based on her own personal reflections on Genesis.
BN: How did this connect to “Revelations?”
JCM: I think Carol actually had a different point of view of [the lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody”]. The way she sat on it and sat in it had a lot to do with this man in despair, which we also connected to John Bernd. A lot of her lighting design was also based on Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: [Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd]1 since that was the last thing we connected with together in the space. Specifically, there was a part in the lighting of “Variations” where there were different areas lit. We took those ideas of zones and moved them based on what’s compositionally strong in the space.
My thing was more so listening to the grandness of the song and but hearing this guy, it sounds like he’s indifferent to everything. I heard a deep hope in it. More like a guy who looks around and goes, “None of this matters. What are you guys doing?” Heaven and hell are talking and it seems like a war in it somewhere and then it’s annihilation and then he comes out and he’s singing a song about something and I’m like “What is happening?” It feels like Revelations to me. I’m not sure if [Carol] took it that way but that’s what I took from it.
So six! Thru Line 6 was the music by re-innovating and really listening, deeply listening to the music. What he went from was gospel music, of course, gospel being the frame or the tool for African Americans specifically to spiritually express themselves in the feeling of oppression.
We then started to break apart and sonically layer sounds in certain ways, not for beauty, but just to find the environment and not even think about how accessible it was. [We tried] to figure out ways to create an environment that has time in it, you know what I mean? And that allows time to be whatever you would naturally experience. Which means we’re not trying to truncate time, we’re not trying to make it longer. You’re actually just experiencing the full ten minutes that feels like a long time because we’re not trying to make it short.
And the finallly, Thru Line 7 is Torian Ugworji. This Thru Line is called ‘Death.’ He created a film based on him watching PM4 and being a part of the process. This is our prototype film for something larger next year. He’s the communication for people who couldn’t come to the show. We call it Death because we feel like there’s a place after Death that still continues. And I feel like, media can go beyond even things you experience in person because it has such a huge effect over the brain in such a short amount of time. In that 12 minutes, I feel like he accomplished forty-five minutes.
And I feel like that’s something beyond what we understand. We’re approaching other deeper things that we’re changing that Torian has power to do that we don’t. That’s why it’s the seventh Thru Line, the day of rest. God made everything and went away, then social media’s left. [laughs]
BN: Looking at the continued development of this anthology, how might that
JCM: Fit into the rest of them?
BN: The Thru Lines, the social media question and film, the liveness and death of that?
JCM: [The number of] Thru Lines in the next processes may not be seven, but depending on the concept. For example, in July, there’ll be two. Basically I’m bouncing between origin stories in Marvel, origin stories in comic books, origin stories in anime, and my own origin story, and playing with it like, juggling it. So there’s only thru twolines—Two Thru Lines. [laughs]
They may not always be called Thru Lines but definitely the paths, the idea of universes or perspectives will always be touched on. Cause that’s the point: to see the other perspective or understand multiple variations on perspectives, to grow and change. Otherwise, I would only be repeating my own perspective over and over. Which I gotta say as a director, not necessarily even as a choreographer, it’s not my job to make anything, it’s my job to listen to everything, and we all make together.
JCM: What were you saying also?
BN: Also, how might social media/media as juxtaposed with live performance and death/aliveness and how those…
JCM: intertwine? So two years from now, I’m doing process memoir 7. Process memoir 7 started on my Instagram pages. It opens up ideas of possibility, specifically on media, to kind of connect choreography to that as a group or as an ensemble versus as an individual. And doing it as a movement in itself. And then when it comes into film, which has always been its own Thru Line, its own way of telling a story.
Now, it’s getting to the point where Torian comes in and he’s helping all of us direct the whole thing from the video’s perspective. In PM5, we’re thinking about trying to do a live feed of the performance, not one that’s camera’ed up but it’s almost like you’re in it with us. He’s directed himself to film this piece a certain way, to talk to certain people, and to make it an actual live situation, like a talk show.
And I think the film and the media, rather than being in relation to process memoir 7 in the future— how we actively engage it now and how it opens our scape and scope to choreography that lies beyond not the body but actually beyond our understanding of what our body can do.
And I think a lot of it has to do with actually engaging multiple bodies. Like a lot of bodies. [laughs] Which we’ve seen in history. It’s getting to a point where, how do we do that work for real? And I think some of it’s rooted in media and video. And it’s entrepreneurially the only way to do anything. I mean deeply, you have to understand video and media as a business person. There’s that whole framing in it too—you just to have to be an entrepreneur in some way. It’s a lot to listen to the system you’re in, cause what else can you do?
If anyone finds a solution, let me know. And if it includes like, living in the woods, I’m not doing that. I’m too privileged for that. Sorry. Real shit.
BN: You own it.
JCM: Mhm. Mhm.
BN: Anything else you wanna add?
JCM: Process memoir 5 is called “indigo kid” and it’s gonna be a part of the HOT! Festival at Dixon Place. I will leave that this process memoir will be the one to explain all of them. So any images you’ve seen, if you’ve only seen one, if you’ve only seen three, you can come and you’ll see why TRPNYC is a thing.
^1: Mercer performed in this reconstruction conceived by Ishmael Houston-Jones for Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost & Found.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Johnnie Cruise Mercer/Angie Pittman: A Shared Evening of New Work was presented by Danspace Project February 28-March 2, 2019.