Somewhere in the woods of Nova Scotia, a large piece of blank paper hangs from a cord strung between two thick tree trunks. The surface of it flexes and bows in the slight wind, which rustles the small plants that dot the forest floor. After a moment, a woman with a shock of white hair enters the frame, holding a jar of dark water in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. She is wearing a paper jacket and aviator sunglasses. She stares at the camera, poised and still, then dips her brush into the water and puts it to paper. The watercolor runs toward the ground in blue streaks, but she continues, undeterred. With a few simple strokes, she’s drawn a moon.
Somewhere on the plains of Wyoming, the corpse of a porcupine lies on the shoulder of a two-lane highway. Flies swarm in and out and around. After a moment, a woman, her long black hair streaked with grey, enters the frame. She’s holding a bundle of fabric. She walks slowly past the remains of the porcupine, and then sets down the bundle. Opening it tenderly, she reveals a slash of red silk and a handful of black feathers. Taking the feathers in one hand and the red fabric in the other, she dances a halting dance in front of the empty expanse of the big sky.
In the front room of Castelli Gallery on 40th St., these two women are sitting next to each other in chairs, staring at a different kind of expanse. At their feet, a line of black gaffer’s tape has marked a boundary, beyond which is performance space waiting to be filled. Objects are scattered about: a wooden statue of a Canada goose; a series of lumpen, fabric-wrapped bundles; a brace of hand bells; a wooden Japanese sandal; a chalkboard with a simple line drawing of a crescent moon, beneath which the word ‘MOON’ has been scrawled. On the back wall, a two-channel video plays, featuring the scenes described above, which slide by as part of a carefully choreographed series of images. They watch the interplay between the two channels and discuss, leaning toward one another and gesturing towards the space, imagining what they might do together in front of an audience.
Creating a performance is always a negotiation. Collapsing a sea of potential actions into a repeatable performed work, you must negotiate with reality on several different fronts: the material, the spatial, the temporal. If you’re working with collaborators, you must negotiate between the ideas and desires of all the involved artists in order to arrive at something singular that you perform together. This isn’t easy, and it’s even more difficult if the artist is performing in the work and cannot see themselves from the outside. This is why, in the scene described above, I’m sitting in a third chair, next to Eiko Otake and Joan Jonas. As the director of their collaborative performance Drawing in Circles WHY?, I facilitated another kind of translation: between the two different approaches to performance-making practiced by each of these artists.
These different approaches seem to me to be shaped by different disciplinary frameworks. Otake, who has spent decades making dance works that deploy theatrical elements to transform her audience’s experience of time, is a performing artist. The values of performing artists revolve around an encounter with audience, an encounter governed by a sense of exchange. The audience gives the artist their time and attention, and that time and attention is repaid by the artist through their performance. For a performing artist, imagining the audience’s experience shapes the work as it is created, and a performance isn’t really complete without the audience to witness it.
Jonas, on the other hand, is a performance artist. The values of performance art conceive of the audience differently. Whereas a performing artist is always imagining how the audience will receive the work and adjusting the emergent performance in order to create the specific experience they want the audience to have, a performance artist creates a performance as a kind of spatial and temporal object that the audience encounters. This imagines a different kind of relationship to the audience, one that is less dependent. A performance work doesn’t necessarily need an audience to be complete..
This meeting and mingling of performance frameworks was also a negotiation on the level of production. Co-presented by Danspace Project and Castelli Gallery, the public performances of the work involved translating between two different approaches to making artwork accessible in a live context. Mirroring the ways the artists extended themselves towards each other’s working styles, both Castelli and Danspace graciously stepped towards one another’s frameworks, coming together to materially support the emergence of the work.
As we worked to shape the performance, I watched as both artists engaged in a complex collaborative dance around and across these disciplinary borders. Otake, for whom the body is the central instrument in performance, had to find ways to inhabit the performance space during moments when Jonas was featured. To do this, she turned to objects, bringing in some of her long-standing materials (feathers, fabric) and working with them in quiet, matter-of-fact ways that gestured towards Jonas’s object-driven performance style.
Jonas, who does not consider herself a dancer (though she took class with almost every postmodern dance luminary when she was younger), had to step into moments of a different kind of presence, ones where her body was centered, not as part of a constellation of objects, but as the focus in and of itself. At one point, she and Otake danced together, framed in the light of a projected white square, holding nothing. In this moment, I could see her stepping towards Eiko’s style of performative presence, one that centers the body and performs for the audience.
Ultimately, this is what I will remember about their collaboration: not any specific performative material (though many moments linger in my memory: Otake stomping through the space as an echo of a 1970s work by Jonas, Jonas singing a Peggy Seeger song in a surprisingly powerful alto belt) but this sense that each artist, a master in her own discipline, was softening her stance, stepping outside of the familiar and towards the territory of her collaborator. As Jonas labeled the performance in its first line, it was ‘an experiment’.
In retrospect, I can see how this term, which lowered the stakes for all involved, also subtly reoriented the audience’s expectations for what they were about to witness. In a sense, it invited the audience and the artists to focus less on what was happening specifically than what was happening relationally: two artists humbly exploring together the shared contours, overlaps, and friction between their practices.
Somewhere in my memory I see Otake and Jonas standing in the center of a great mess. The floor is covered in black feathers and swathes of fabric. Both of them are wearing white. Otake hands Jonas two pieces of paper, one red and one blue. Jonas twists one into a kind of hat and places it on Otake’s head. Otake slowly sinks towards the floor as Jonas makes herself a hat from the other piece of paper before joining Eiko in a glacially-paced bow. The moment suspends itself, an indelible image of tender affection between two friends.