Megan Metcalf is an art and dance historian currently working on a book about the appearance of dance and performance in art museums. She received her PhD in contemporary art history from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2018 and is a History of Art and Visual Culture fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2021–22.
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener are New York–based dance artists. Their work involves the building of collaborative worlds through improvisational techniques, digital technologies, and material construction. They have been artists-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; Mount Tremper Arts; Pieter Performance Space, Los Angeles; Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts; the New York City Center; and elsewhere.
MEGAN METCALFThis is fun—it’s rare for me to talk to people who have a shared set of strong reference points while also being supercurious about the possibilities beyond those points: you’re both concerned with how your work fits into the real world.
RASHAUN MITCHELLAnd there are often references we’re not even aware of. It’s helpful to have things pointed out, which happens in conversations like this.
MMI’m interested in how you work through conscious, overdetermined references—the teachers you’ve had, the companies you’ve danced with—in order to engage with the hidden . . . what’s it called when you encounter a little treasure?
SILAS RIENEREaster eggs? Treasure hunt?
MMEaster eggs, yeah [laughs].
SRI love building the work out of the fabric of secrets. Rashaun and I have different relationships to the amount that’s concealed or revealed. After the last show we did in New York, which was in 2019, called Switch, we had a curator say, “I just don’t understand process work.” It was the first moment of realizing, Oh, well, different people want really different things from this one form we’re deciding to call dance. The idea of “understanding” is always a big part of that.
RMWe’re working on this impossible task of trying to have people understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. These questions are really important to us now, in a way that I think our earlier work doesn’t necessarily reflect. I like that you brought up the whole secret Easter egg thing, because I feel like that connects to secrets in our earlier work. They were a big part of our work, in terms of—I hate using the word “abstraction,” but like a more abstracted language or way of communicating that somehow maybe relates back to being gay.
SRIt’s probably all related to being gay.
RM And we don’t have to go into a psychotherapy session right now, but—
MMNo, let’s psychoanalyze the work just a little bit. Can you provide an example of one of the Easter eggs in your earlier works?
SRThe way I’d describe it is that nothing was named and everything was buried. That might be related to an experience of the closet, or a fear or unwillingness to disclose a specific constellation of reference points, because I think that dance language loses something as soon as you pin it to a web of words. When words enter the conversation, the work becomes fixed. This was always a concern, especially with the early works. I think I’m more relaxed about that now, or I feel like the stakes are different, but when there was a verbal reference point early on, we were like, Oh no, this has become the only word in relation to the dance, it’s in neon lights and it’s flashing.
MMThat’s interesting because ultimately language becomes important for what you’re doing now, in terms of making scores and communicating with each other. But it sounds like early on you didn’t want that kind of language, otherwise it would have pinned things down too far.
I think that dance language loses something as soon as you pin it to a web of words.Silas Riener
RMSometimes language feels like it forecloses possibilities of experience. When you asked about Easter eggs, I was thinking about this piece Light Years that I made in 2015. That was me trying to deal with race in some way, and what it means to be a Black choreographer working with non-Black performers. My question for myself was, Is it a Black dance? And I didn’t talk about that explicitly for fear it would eclipse other topics, because that’s what identity does, I think.
SRIf you know where to look in the process of that piece, you find that hidden question and subject matter. We learned a lot of Zulu dances off the Internet as part of that process. We used a lot of James Baldwin language to generate movements. But again, all of that’s buried. It’s not in the liner notes. I think this separation of reference points or subject matter from the presentation is part of our lineage, as it relates back to Merce Cunningham and modernism. I feel it like a kind of inheritance, or baggage. The doing is more important than the talking.
MMI just watched the video of your performance for Gagosian’s Gerhard Richter Premiere [part of a livestreaming series to celebrate new exhibitions]. I’m curious about the nuts and bolts of the experience, how it came about, what the process was like. How much time did you have with those Richter paintings? Did you guys choose the music and your costumes and so on?
RMI prefer outfits, Megan, to costumes [laughter].
The initial invitation came to us at an extended moment of the pandemic, when we were feeling like there wasn’t going to be much going on. In some ways we’d set the ground for that ourselves by taking a hiatus and moving out of the city. The invitation to do this was wonderful because it gave us a foothold, but was also immediately complicated for us because it’s the medium of film and the challenge of the work being contextualized inside of someone else’s work. Knowing that it was going to be a short dance, five minutes or so, was another challenge as it’s a hard length of time to do a complete work in. We knew we couldn’t really rely on improvisation or on our “Desire Lines” practice.
SRAll of that is true; it was different from our expanded processes, in which things form themselves by evolving or adapting over time. But we did have some time with the paintings. We had several rehearsals in the gallery, which was amazing because the scale was something we really wanted to come through. Contained in the invitation was the idea of responding or reacting or interacting.
RMAnd because we’d danced in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—where the music, set, and choreography would come together for the first time at the premiere—we’re very used to dancing in front of visual art and not necessarily having to have an obvious conversation with the work we’re dancing in front of. In this situation, we were interested in some of the narrative connections—like Richter listening to [John] Cage pieces while making these paintings and knowing that Cage was a collaborator of Cunningham’s. Bringing dance into the room made a lot of sense. Rather than restaging Cunningham material, we felt it would be stronger to perform an original piece and to have the reference of Cunningham be an Easter egg, or something subterranean.
SRThe text in the recording is a Cage treatment of an E. E. Cummings poem from the collection Tulips and Chimneys . Cummings messed around with the order and repetition of things. Cage used chance procedures—the rhythms keep sort of shifting around.
RMSomething about that trajectory of the composition was interesting to us. Luckily, the curators, and all the people working on the Premiere, were also interested in this conversation.
MMThose paintings don’t have much silence in them at all.
SRYeah, they’re superintricate and dense. There’s so much information in each tiny little place. But a lot of it is also erased or obscured. Richter took photos of them at different points in his process and you can see they’ve been layered so many times. In the end there’s an element of being buried, I think.
MMThey, too, contain Easter eggs in a certain way.
I know you’re very familiar with dance on camera. The ending of this performance is especially incredible, when you’re engaged with the act of looking. How much were you able to choreograph with the filmmaker?
RMBecause we’d worked with film before, and because we were going to be shooting this in a matter of a few hours, we knew we had to be really prepared. We had specific framing suggestions: ways of entering and exiting the camera frame, what paintings we wanted to be in front of for which parts, what the sequence was. So we gave them all of that information prior to showing up. But we did this with the idea that we’re not filmmakers; we also wanted input from the videographers and to be open to what came up organically.
They were great to work with, supertalented, clear, and quick. And then the editing process was really nice because we had a few back-and-forths and we could say, Oh, that one clip isn’t our favorite take, or could you switch to the next camera like two seconds earlier, et cetera.
MMClearly, the moments of unison had to be choreographed, and I was wondering what role improvisation had in generating material or in the actual performance, as opposed to predetermined movement. Were your solos all completely choreographed?
RMThey became more and more choreographed through the creation, as the movement was repeated over and over. Even if you want to try for indeterminacy, it’s hard for the cameraperson to know how to frame you if you aren’t consistent. There’s tension because there are always a thousand questions you have to answer about every single movement: Why this movement, why put it in front of that movement and behind that other movement? Why would you choose to do it again?
SRIt’s a different idea if what you’re watching is a process of discovery, like improvisation, or a set narrative, like choreography.
MMIt strikes me that the Richter Premiere, a short, contained filmic project, stands in stark relief to your sprawling “Desire Lines” practice, which (as I understand it) underlies everything you’re doing right now. The Richter Premiere is a formed object, and then your broader practice is a way to unravel those types of formed pieces.
SRI think that’s a great way of describing it. The Richter piece is like a pie that comes out of the oven—
RMHe’s going to continue with the cooking metaphors throughout the conversation—[laughter]
SRAnd in order to make it, we need to know where everything goes in the kitchen and how to use everything. We have to be stocked and prepared with a body of work, a methodology, systems and principles, before baking the pie. “Desire Lines” is that kitchen, and Rashaun and I use it to store and organize all the accumulated knowledge and information that we communicate to each other. We’ve been making work together for a long enough time that we recognize patterns, we rely on certain practices to produce certain kinds of experiences or outcomes, and so we’re creating the recipe and the toolkit as we go.
RMI also think, for teachers or dancers or choreographers in the traditional sense, the roles are much more clearly defined and there’s a lot more control inside the execution of those roles. “Desire Lines” has allowed us to have a different relationship to control and to power dynamics, whether we’re doing staged performances or more experimental workshops. We’ve worked with nondance students, curators, and other people who may not consider themselves to be performers, which has been really fun for us. Our roles as artists are more expansive within this framework—we can shift in and out of different tasks, behaviors, and ways of relating to each other and to the world.
MMWith “Desire Lines”—as much as you can map it out—how do you know where it begins and ends? Do you have a clear sense of its origins, or have threads of it been continuing for a long time?
RMI think yes/no, both/and. In some ways it was already in existence as a path we stumbled upon, etched out by other people, and once we started going down that path, we found our own path. It does feel expansive in terms of being able to connect to something before us, but also to a kind of hope of what is possible in the future. But the specific idea of “Desire Lines” was put on a fast track when we were invited to do the “Marfa Sounding: Anna Halprin” festival in Marfa, Texas, in 2017. That was, again, one of these things where you go where the opportunities take you and suddenly we were in conversation with Anna Halprin, who we’d never really worked with. That jump-started a new way of thinking about how we could make dances and where they could live and who they could be for.
“Desire Lines” has allowed us to have a different relationship to control and to power dynamics.Rashaun Mitchell
SRFrom the very beginning of working together, there were little moments in all of the dances we were making—we didn’t invent this idea—when you had to do something repeatable, but not a dance step. It was like a tiny little bubble of improvisation that had to look the same but didn’t have any steps associated with it. Those I can trace back to the very beginning of our “Desire Lines” practice. All of the works we’ve made, separately or together, have those in them. And as more beads got added to the necklace, it started to approach a pattern and we came to call those beads or bubbles “modalities.” I think the modalities were the first building blocks when we approached the question, How do we make a show without teaching anybody any steps? Well, if modalities are like steps, they’re these little bubbles of time. How do we do that on a time-based, structural level? How do we engage with the ways each dancer navigates a group or a site or the public? So we started to build out different avenues for answering these questions.
RMAlso, we disagree about a lot of things—in a healthy way, I’d say—and I think we were looking for a container that could hold all of our different interests, including the basic tenet that we don’t have to agree. We can be doing the same thing, even, and disagree about what it is, and it felt really important to have that space to coexist.
SRNow that we live full-time up here in the Catskills, and a lot of what we do is being in the house, working on the house, we’ve talked a lot about time with no quality, or “anarchic time.” One of my favorite things to do is wake up and not really know what’s going to occupy my time, especially here at the house, because you can go down to the creek or you can pick weeds or you can pile sticks or you can renovate the bathroom or you can go through all your sweaters. That feels like a manifestation of the idea that my artwork and life and relationship and house are all actually entangled. One moment I’m working on the house, or moving two-by-fours, and I stack too many of them and it becomes a clown routine. Or another moment I’m doing construction and then suddenly I’m dancing, or I’m dancing and suddenly I’m rearranging the furniture.
MMIn the article Claudia [La Rocco] did with you for Artforum, Silas narrated “Desire Lines” as an act of refusal, refusing the repetition of having a company, doing pieces and then doing more pieces and then doing that every year. Since that was published, in 2018, you’ve done more and more with the project. Is there a way in which “Desire Lines” becomes its own brand?
SRI immediately start thinking about the merch. You know, is a “Desire Lines” T-shirt one where there’s like no holes? Or only holes. I don’t know.
MM[Laughs] It definitely doesn’t say “Desire Lines” on it.
RM“Desire Lines” only really exists in moments like this, when we’re talking about it with people like you. It’s not part of the language of the performance. For me, it’s the underpinning of what we’re doing: something emerges and gets erected for a specific time and space. So I think it’s inherently resistant to branding, and maybe we are too.
MMGiven its commitment to change and transformation.
SRYeah, it’s always going to take new information into itself. The idea that it has to change in order to live is something that feels really cool about it to me, as well as the idea of having to teach people these concepts in order to bring them into the work. We always come back to this idea that you’re doing something and you change and then you change the way you change. So “Change your change” is the slogan on the first “Desire Lines” T-shirt.
RMI think we’re saying everyone should follow their desire and see where that takes them and search for spaces where they feel like they can do that. Create your own spaces. And that’s what we have to do now. We have to take matters into our own hands.
SRAnd to find a way to interact creatively with where you are, with what you have already.
RMSo maybe as you’re packing up the rest of your house, Megan, in preparation for your move to New York, you can be thinking about that. You might try to do all the packing with your shoulder or with only your left hand, or, I don’t know, make it fun for yourself, basically, because you have to do it. There’s no way out [laughs].
MMHow to change my change. Oh my God, if I change my change at this point, I’m never going to make it to New York [laughter].
RMWe didn’t say it would be efficient [laughter].
Gerhard Richter: Cage Paintings, Gagosian, 541 West 24th Street, New York, April 19–June 26, 2021