The Artist as Shaman: A Conversation with Keith Hennessy

Keith Hennessy in “Sink”. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

There is often an offering, something sweet, that melts and transforms. Once ingested it becomes body. It is chocolate that Keith Hennessy offers at the onset of Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…) or Turkish delights that he and collaborator Jassem Hindi hand out at the beginning of future friend/ships– the artists positioning themselves as proper hosts, or caring guides. The offerings are not a deceptive move, nor a futile attempt to sugarcoat the reality of tragedy, suffering or grief that surfaces later in the work. Nor are they possible amulets to brace oneself against those challenging emotions. Rather, they signal the performance as a common ritual, a ceremonial agreement in which performer(s) and viewers come together and play with the possibility of transformation.

The first two weekends of June, San Francisco audiences can come into ritual with Hennessy, as he brings back Crotch for its 10th anniversary, preceding it with Sink a week earlier. Crotch(2008) uses the work of German artist Joseph Beuys as a springboard to explore loss and grief; Sink,which premiered last December, functions as an embodied response to the current state of the world. Hennessy and I sat down to talk about his work. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Marie Tollon: Since its 2008 premiere, there has not been a year when you have not performed Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…). What are the key elements in that piece that you feel your audiences keep being drawn to?

Keith Hennessy: I think that there are two things: one is that it hits some people in a certain way and feels important. Then it won awards or was presented in international festivals so people want Crotch because of its reputation. With someone like me who has made a lot of work — and yes some of it tours but they are not well-known works, they are not archived by anyone else besides me- Crotch somehow sticks out as this signature piece.

MT: In your work, there is the sense that you are creating something together with the audience, in the moment. In Crotch, it is particularly apparent as the audience eats pieces of chocolate you’re distributing or when you sew yourself to some viewers. Can you talk more about that aspect of your work?

KH: There’s a built-in series of ways that I involve the audience in Crotch. It starts with the chocolate as this game: I’m just giving you chocolate but then later I tell you I actually touched them all and now we’re all in this artwork together so it’s both awkward and curious. Then when [audience members] hold up the lecture, there are three lines. I really only need two lines but I want three because those three are then echoed in the three people in the sewing. Those three can only be audience members. So now everyone else in the audience is thinking: “Oh, that could have been me,” or “I don’t want that to be me,” or “I want that to be me.” And if I had done it to three performers for example, or to my tech person, you would see it as “Oh, those people are in this intimate ritual” but here everyone is involved.

What are the lines of connection between the artist and the audience? That literally comes from something that I learned in high school drama classes and that was this idea that when you’re performing there is a red thread connecting your heart to the heart of the person in the audience. The idea is that the body is just one beginning but what we’re really going for is some kind of shared empathy at the spiritual or emotional level or both. So the reason it’s red is literally from this high school drama class from 40 years ago. It manifested into what seems at first like some crazy provocative body art and then somehow it just becomes the ritual that we agree to be in.

MT: What encouraged you to reference Joseph Beuys in Crotch?

KH: I had been thinking about Beuys for years. I think Beuys influenced me before I knew who he was and I think that’s true for many artists. We don’t know how big of an impact he had on sculpture, conceptual art, performance and this idea of social structure or now social practice. My work is in relation to capitalism, and I think that Beuys does propose a number of ways of working outside of the standard versions of the object and the exchange and the value — both in his way of working through performance and in pushing the idea that everyone is an artist and all labor is creative. So I start with Beuys and then by the end, I’ve cannibalized Beuys in a way to actually do something else. At the end of the piece it’s no longer about Beuys, it’s actually about the collapse of the male figure in front of you. The lecture falls apart, the attempt to actually summarize European history falls apart when you realize we cannot sustain this anymore.

MT: Yes, the collapse of the lecture points to the collapse of a system. Yet, at that moment, you are also inserting yourself and your work within a lineage and demonstrating your agency in writing or creating history in your own terms.

KH: I think both of these things are happening for sure. I use Beuys and then a history of art to put myself in the history of art and philosophy. But by the time you enter all the wedges -the post colonial, black feminist, indigenous, French structuralists, anti-fascists- you can no longer have a lineage, you end up with networks of knowledge. Even though the lecture starts with this theory of art that we work from chaos and play with it to create form, by the end of the lecture, even though some kinds of alchemy are happening, I go “OK, let’s drop it and have another kind of connection and/or project.” And that includes me playing in the collapse of the lecture but also the objects on the stage are now just an environment in which to try to energetically respond to the world. That dance is improvised but what’s set is a kind of score: How do I work between objects, the audience, the building, the seen and the unseen? So that’s where it’s asking, Is Beuys a shaman? Is the artist as shaman a useful idea? What can I sense? Can the audience tune in to my sensing so that we are now meeting energetically in this world?

MT: Did you anticipate the laughter that happens when you perform the dance?

KH: There’s almost always laughter at the beginning because the mask is silly and I’m wearing underwear. I want to begin in a joke but if people keep laughing I just keep getting weirder and weirder so it’s always important for me that by the end of the dance it’s not funny, it’s actually quite tragic.

MT: You’ve mentioned that Sink is a response to political, social and economic shifts. How is its structure malleable enough to allow for the ever-changing shifts of current politics?

KH: There’s an opening text that is prerecorded and I was convinced that six months later I would rerecord it. I went through the text, made a date with the sound engineer and then it was time to do it and I kept looking at the text and I thought: “It stands.”

There is a very long chanted song and it’s basically about trying to create a space for feeling around mass public violence. If you jump on a political train, you can have some feelings when 50 people are killed in Vegas and 17 high school kids are killed in Parkland. But then how do we deal with three churches that were just bombed in Indonesia? And this is happening in Aleppo, and this is happening in Nairobi and then Paris is now having some kind of terrorist events every six months. What is the public discourse especially for those of us in San Francisco, which has not yet been targeted in that way? Parkland has happened since then, and there are ways where each massacre makes us rethink the previous one so the lyrics have grown. Movement-wise I didn’t change the structure.

MT: In 2016, you created future friend/ships with Jassem Hindi. The piece was a response to the Arab Spring and the war in Syria. In a conversation, Jassem mentioned that blindness directed the work a bit. Is that true for Sink, which is also based on the current politics, and if not, what else directed the work?

KH: I think confusion is one of the biggest responses to politics and violence so I think the piece expresses some of that. I don’t think I would answer the same way as Jassem about the Arab Spring because he’s born in Saudi Arabia, his father is Lebanese, he has lived in both Beirut and Damascus, so when he says it’s too close, he means both in time but also to his heart. He has a personal friend who was killed in Syria. I don’t. When we were researching the work, we both did a lot of work and I’m a very deep political researcher and we had a real bond about caring but I can’t watch the blogs in Arabic, I can’t watch the blogs of people who are directly impacted coming out of homes in Aleppo and that’s what he was watching. So we are not having the same experience of the Arab Spring, I think I have already a more detached systemic one.

How to understand the current era and not make it be about Trump requires us to look at what’s happening in a bigger way. Trump is not the first person to turn the wheel because Erdoğan was already in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Putin in Russia. There are at least five countries in Africa where some leader has refused to leave. In Canada a very Trump-like person, with a very unethical past, is very close to being elected in Ontario, as the equivalent of governor. There’s a version of the extra macho white guy who does not want to give up power everywhere. I don’t think anyone knows what kind of curve it’s on, where it’s going.

One of the most subversive things of Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the thing about Trump being broke -“How broke is he?” In that way Trump becomes a symbol of the United States because the truth is the only reason any of this is functioning is because the US has helped create a global capital system where it is allowed to reprint its own money whenever it wants and needs. Other people have their money tied to the US and this is why China is saying we’re not doing that, or why Brexit is so significant, or why Norway says we’re in Europe but we’re not tying our money to Europe because when you do you lose autonomy. The US has extreme financial autonomy. Clinton and Obama were heavily criticized for increasing national debt. Trump is creating situations of increasing debts and no one is saying a word. The hypocrisy is outrageous. I only bring that up because part of what’s going on is that we are in an economic bubble that is sustained by nothing. Tech? There’s nothing there except the data. Trump? There’s nothing there, it’s just money, draining out. How long can any of this survive? We have no idea.

So there is definitely a lot of confusion. The two biggest emotional crises in the world right now are an increase of depression and an increase of anxiety and both of them in relation to trauma. The number of people in the world suffering from political trauma, multi generational trauma, war trauma, abuse trauma is only increasing with no obvious healing thing going on. Everyone’s got some mental illness. It’s normalized. So how do you make work in that? What’s the white person’s role in making work on that? Where are my feelings relevant? Where are they a distraction? And yet if you’re an artist and you are building from feeling, and one of the things you’re doing is trying to work in the realm of the psycho-emotional-spiritual, obviously you have to feel, so these paradoxes are also a part of it. So confusion is one way to say it but it’s also about being under the surface of the water and we’re swimming in it but don’t know what we are in. The water seems drinkable but we don’t really know all that’s in there.

MT: You’ve been rehearsing Crotch and Sink to present them a week apart from each other. What has that proximity brought up?

KH: I see that Crotch was already an accumulation of how I make work somehow and Sink is very much in a genre that Crotch defines — a very personal genre where every scene is a different context and I move very easily between talking, dancing, singing, doing some crazy visual physical image. They also both have an emotional through line that’s not obvious from the beginning. Crotch is looking at the work of Joseph Beuys and Sink is looking at our current politics but these are just vehicles to get at an emotional state — to what I sometimes refer to as an underground waterway, underneath the surface of the work. And when it’s good it shouldn’t just be my emotional state. I work through grief or confusion or whatever I’m doing and somehow we find a way to expand that state and then the theater becomes a place for feeling. And perhaps healing. That’s the goal.