Beyond Vision: A Conversation with Jess Curtis

Intercontinental Collaborations #7 Guest Artists Tara Brandel and Linda Fearon; Photo by Emma Jervis

At some point in his life -which straddled the 19th and 20th centuries- French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry wrote: “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” His words became a standard for artists and thinkers interested in phenomenology and the ontological. More recently, the phrase resurfaced in the title of author Lawrence Weschler’s book (Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, 1982) about the life of West-coast visual artist Robert Irwin, who has explored perception as the fundamental issue of art for over six decades. When applied to performance viewing, do Valéry’s words suggest that the viewer’s gaze, hindered by the inherent obstacles of language and social construction, is ultimately denied access to the very essence of the work? And doesn’t performance, which relies heavily on vision but nevertheless involves other senses, allow audience members to circumvent the limitations of seeing? Could it be possible that the other four senses provide viewers a more acute access to a work?

I did not bring up Valéry’s words when meeting with Gravity’s Artistic Director Jess Curtis last week to discuss the upcoming Intercontinental Collaborations #7 (which is curated by Curtis and presented next weekend at Joe Goode Annex) although Curtis’ new work, Sight Unseen, explores the many ways in which the experience of performance can be made available beyond visual references. After talking with Curtis, who shared how his work is influenced by phenomenology and whose recent collaborations focus on making performance available to hearing and visual impaired attendees, I thought about Valéry’s words, and wondered how they applied to those for whom the act of seeing is impaired.

In addition to Sight Unseen, Intercontinental Collaborations #7 will feature the US premiere of Curtis’ 2016 piece Remote, commissioned by Croi Glan Integrated Dance from Cork, Ireland, and A Portrait of Me as You (Everything is Copy) a solo work by San Francisco artist Rachael Dichter.

Sight Unseen is a continuation of sort of some of the themes that Curtis and Claire Cunningham explored in The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, which they performed last year at CounterPulse, and in which they investigated different modes of accessibility. A sign language interpreter was available during some of the performances and the performers’ text was projected on a screen for hearing impaired audience members. Pre-show touch tours were also provided for blind and visually impaired attendees. With some of the audience sitting across the stage and at times in direct contact with the performers, the work focused on other modes of perception such as touch to disrupt the vision centric nature of performance.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Marie Tollon: Can you talk about the audio description work that you are doing for Sight Unseen?

Jess Curtis: What we are doing is experimental. Most of the examples of audio description I’ve seen are very traditional and bound up in narrative. It works for big story ballet, big plays or Broadway musicals, where you have a story. When Claire [Cunningham] and I were working on The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, we worked with Emma-Jane McHenry who does a lot of audio description in the UK. A former contemporary dancer, she has wanted to figure out how to describe contemporary movement that is not codified and not ballet. Digging into it more and more we found out that a lot of that audio description is aimed at aging people who are losing their vision but who have visual memories to refer to. Work for blind people who are blind from birth feels very different. German and blind art critic Gerald Pirner, who came to our show in Berlin, talks about how for most sighted people and for people who lose their sight, memory is really bound in visual memory. For people who are blind from birth, how they are structuring their thinking about time and space and movement is completely different.

MT: Hence the pre-show touch tours for blind and visually impaired attendees? What do these tours consist of?

JC: A lot of this stuff comes down to assessing how visual information is giving people tools for making meaning in the work. So what we do is filling in some of those gaps. For example, for the piece Claire and I did, we had this big aluminum ladder and there is this moment in the piece when Claire gets under it, slides it across the floor and it makes this huge sound. If you see it, you go “oh, that’s the sound of that giant ladder being scraped across the floor.” But if you don’t see it you may go: “What’s that sound?” So in our pre-show we go: “There’s a big ladder, it’s over here. When you hear that sound, that’s Claire moving the ladder. Claire is this tall, Jess is this tall, etc…” We ask questions: How do blind people conceptualize space? We let blind people walk around the space and get accustomed to it. There are also a lot of people who are low vision so we give them some landmarks. “There are windows over here, the light is on that side, etc.”

MT: You mentioned working with San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. How are they involved in this project?

JC: Serena Olsen, who is the head of their adult activity program, brought a bunch of folks last year to see our show and it is how I met them. Alice Sheppard also got me connected with them. Tiffany who is performing with us originally came with that group, then started to take contact classes and did an intensive with me.

MT: Did the piece start from those conversations?

JC: In one of the directions, yes. One of the things I was really interested in, when working with Claire, and which overlapped with my phenomenology and perception study, was what we did in terms of making work accessible, but also making aspects of experience that are not visual accessible. What parts of experience are not visually available? How do we make those more available? And what about language? I feel that I am in a constant tug of war and battle with language but [I am also aware of] the support of language. How does language make movement possible and how does language also limit movement? Especially when I start dancing, how can I describe what I am doing? How do you capture anything about a complex movement? When do you start to simplify what you do in order to be more easily able to talk about it? As dancers we are simplifying, limiting and picking particular movements to present to people: we take a lot off the table when we start to decide what the vocabulary of the piece is. So we are playing with that in this piece.

MT: Describing what you are doing while dancing was present in previous works. I’m thinking of The Dance That Documents Itself.

JC: This dates back all the way to working with Sara [Shelton Mann.] Sara used to do an exercise which I think she probably learned from Alwin Nikolais: saying what you are doing when you are improvising — asking students to just name exactly what they are doing as a way of getting people more conscious, more clear about what they are doing: “I raise my hand. I put my hand on the table. I shake my head left and right.”

Over the years, I’ve branched off and bastardized that. I use it a lot in the training with my students, both in improvisation and composition. A few years ago, I started playing with how when I say things, I use different tenses and I’ve made up a new word: grammarturgy. If I say ‘I pick up my glass,’ it’s slightly different than ‘I am picking up my glass,’ it’s different from ‘I am going to pick up my glass.’ All of those things make the same actions resonate in different ways. With this piece, we are playing with different grammars and tenses and different sections have different themes. One of our scores is only gerund, so you can only talk about what you are doing. It’s different from this other score where people are talking about what they sense, and that is even simpler. Those shifts create a different atmosphere. I find really interesting how by just limiting something it becomes natural and repetitive, and the poetics come out of this sort of constraint.

MT: Your piece questions the vision-centric nature of performance. Can you talk more about that?

JC: It’s something I’ve been paying attention to for a while. It’s a chapter in my dissertation, Knowing bodies / Bodies of Knowledge: Eight Experimental Practitioners of Contemporary Dance. We talk about experimental dance, what does that mean? Are we actually experimenting in the sense that we are just bastardizing the word and does it mean anything we want to try and we don’t know what exactly is going to happen or are we actually producing knowledge? I have a chapter called “Dancing in the Dark,” and it is a little bit where this is coming from. I write about Nora Chipaumire’s piece Miriam, Ishmael Houston-Jones In the Dark and Tino Sehgal’s This Variation — how those works exist in darkness and how they either eliminate or limit vision in order to produce other kinds of experiences. In the piece with Claire, there is a solo section that we called ‘Dancing in the Dark’ where I am describing what I am doing and going from very literal to more poetic. This piece has roots in all of these things. Even in the way we talk about seeing dance, our cultural monofocus is in the visuals, where actually all of our senses are involved. But we tend not to pay attention to the whole body so throughout my whole doctoral research, I was doing a lot to point to the other senses. In general I am always interested in getting people to pay attention.

Neurologically when you start breaking down something like touch, it’s about ten different things. Trying to articulate the specifics of our experience is some of the work we have been doing. “Oh I’m feeling pressure on both sides of my wrists and I’m feeling coolness toward the edge of that pressure,” and really diving in. How does that all add up to “I am feeling my hand on my wrist?” Each of those is another layer of meaning and assembling. Philosopher of consciousness and perception Alfred North Whitehead talks about the sense object as a different layer than the perceptual object. You have sensations and you even have component of sensations. I think it’s fun and interesting, and some of it can be really functional.

MT: Can you talk about curating these three works for Intercontinental Collaborations?

JC: Croi Glan Integrated Dance commissioned [Remote] in 2016 and Gravity co-produced the piece. Part of my co-producer work is to bring it here. The Intercontinental Collaborations series has been partly a way of surviving my production rhythm. I don’t have the energy and time to make a piece of the scale that Claire and I made every year. Over the years I’ve also invited pieces that I like and people whose aesthetics are related or people that I collaborate with otherwise.

MT: You share your time between San Francisco and Berlin. In Europe, there is a tradition of support of the arts that doesn’t exist in the States. Can you talk about how that manifests in the work being made in both places?

JC: One of the differences is that we are completely trapped in a discourse of entertainment in America. [Going to see a show] is a fun social thing to do or it’s an escape from your life. In Europe there is an understanding that art is where important ideas get developed, hashed out and worked with. Obviously some people think that here but the general direction of the discourse is that people care about box office numbers in a totally different way. There are also very entertaining and very virtuosic shows in Europe but the breadth of the work is much wider.

And also at this moment, [one of the main differences] is the affordability of Berlin: In Berlin I can say to dancers “I have a budget, here is an 8-week rehearsal period, be available from 10 to 6 every day” and a lot of good dancers sign on to that. And you can have a room in a shared house for 300 euros a month so you don’t have to have five jobs or a full time job. Here, I had the budget for five 4-hour rehearsals a week but I am juggling five very different schedules so I have a total of six hours each week where I have the whole cast in the room. It’s ok because you have sections and you work with different people but it’s also limiting.

MT: Can you also talk about the artistic dialogue that exists between San Francisco and Berlin?

JC: I think we have a big influence in Europe, especially between San Francisco and Berlin. Over the last 20 years there’s been a big back and forth. Stephanie Maher who danced with Margie [Jenkins] moved over to Germany and created the Ponderosa Tanzland Festival. She brought people like Keith [Hennessy], Miguel Gutierrez and me. We had a real influence in Germany in bringing discourse around gender, diversity, queerness and wildness. It’s not just artists from San Francisco [who had an influence there] but there is a solid nugget that is different from what people from New York brought. There is a particular history of activism and anti authoritarianism and revolution and protest that exists differently here, this weird D.I.Y. punk rock collectivism that is not very reverent and maybe has a different kind of history than the sort of Pina Bausch accepted cannon.