Artist to Artist: Jennifer Monson and DD Dorvillier on the Body as Archive

DD Dorvillier and Jennifer Monson in "RMW(a) & RMW," 2010. Photo by Val Oliveiro.

DD Dorvillier and Jennifer Monson in “RMW(a) & RMW,” 2010. Photo by Val Oliveiro.

As part of our “Artist to Artist” interview series, choreographers and long-time artistic collaborators DD Dorvillier (2013 Performing Arts) and Jennifer Monson (2000 Performing Arts) sat down to discuss Jennifer’s recent performance project, Live Dancing Archive, which she presented at The Kitchen in February 2013. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
DD Dorvillier: To start, I thought I would take on something you wrote to me: “I am interested in the possibility of the body as an archive on multiple scales at once both temporal and spatial, human and adjacent to human—the particularities of experience as something that is impermanent and leaves multiple kinds of traces, and the relationships of transmission and reception in the sound scores, in the dancing and the audience.” This idea of the possibility of the body as an archive on multiple scales—do you think of this as a metaphor, or is it an actual practice, or is it something in between? In other words, what does the body as an archive LOOK like or FEEL like?
Jennifer Monson: Well, I think like all archives… Maybe I need to start by sharing with you this story that Selene Colburn told me about these archives that she was working on in Vermont. There was an important figure who donated all of her belongings to the library, and Selene told me about these “hay receipts”…
DD: What?
Jennifer: HAY receipts—so from the 1930s to the 1970s, every bit of hay they had either sold or bought was documented in these receipts.  So, if you think about this as an archive, my first question was like, What meaning can hay receipts have?! But of course there’s all kinds of meaning that we can gather, in terms of economic, political, agricultural, even atmospheric and meteorological information, that might not necessarily be apparent to the person who has been saving the receipts, but becomes apparent afterwards. The person saving the receipts is just worried about doing her taxes or something… [DD laughs] So this points to the important information about the future that is contained in our past.
In the same way, I don’t think I was really aware when I started my project Bird Brain what I was doing. [Laughs.] I wanted to dance outside and many other things. I wanted to put myself in different kinds of ecosystems and different kinds of communities and use dancing as my tool—to look at how dance might transmit information about ecological systems. And when I finished the project, that’s when I realized that there was something I couldn’t write down or talk about or edit in the video. There was something really particular about the way my body had produced knowledge about the world to myself, so my question is also: Does it produce knowledge of the world to other people through the dancing? Because the dancing has the capacity to move through space and time and evoke relationships across systems that are very much about a living body’s presence of sensory and perceptual information.
DD: It’s about a living body’s experience of presence, and whose living body is it…

Jennifer Monson, “Bird Brain,” Osprey Migration dance research clips, 2002

Jennifer: So I realized after I finished Bird Brain that there was this history of information or knowledge or experience that was in my body that I couldn’t transmit quickly to other bodies. When I was working with other dancers on other migration-based project, even on this year-long project I did at the Ridgewood Reservoir, there was still something that…I don’t want to say was lacking but something that hadn’t quite evolved in the dancers I was working with. Sometimes I wish that I had used the same dancers in all of the migrations because, for me and Alejandra [Martorell, a Bird Brain collaborator], there was an accumulation of a really vast kind of knowledge that wasn’t about dance technique or intellectual and conceptual understanding of the phenomena we were studying. It was a kind of culmination or processing through of this daily experience of living outside, teaching the workshops to different people at every performance. Every day we were tuning and honing our perceptual and sensory relationship to the world very specifically, and I think that accumulated into this archive. We were navigating and negotiating these very different landscapes, but with the same tools, and…I don’t know…if you could break down the Earth into a certain set of materials that make up this living Earth… We had this certain set of simple tools that we used to create movement in response to these basic living systems and this generated a way of knowing or understanding the landscapes and phenomena we were relating to.
DD: One thing that is really getting me is that you had this practice. Going back to what you said—that you didn’t know what you were doing with these migratory projects—but you knew to an extent because you got there, you organized it and you did this practice every day, not necessarily projecting what ultimately it is producing, but knowing that it is producing a practice. And now, looking back and calling it an archive or looking at it through an archival lens gives it a kind of distance and frame that lets you rediscover it as a practice. So this kind of archival response is a relief in that it doesn’t remain an archive that is a bundle of receipts that get donated to a library that someone has to deal with and find space and archival storage for it. But this gesture of looking towards consistent practice over several years on a big project and what it produced for you personally and also artistically—this gesture of looking back—it isn’t a looking back to finish things, it’s a looking back, but into the future somehow.
Jennifer: Yea, I think that makes a lot of sense and I think the most moving thing to me was the way in which performing the piece was a practice that was so different every night.
DD: You mean the performance recently at The Kitchen?
Jennifer: Yes, each performance was so shaped by who was in the audience and the indeterminate ways my memory and body responded to the present moment.  I was always aware of what was absent—what I am not able to literally reconstruct but am potentially able to map out through my improvisational practice. I think something about that reminds me very much of the way the world changes in front of us, or the way ecological systems change before us, and I have always made this kind of metaphor between the reconstruction of a landscape and the reconstruction of the material for this piece. You never can fully reconstruct an ecosystem. You know once it’s been disturbed it will be changed. You can only reconstruct the relationships between the different elements of the system. You know, this idea that corporations develop huge tracts of land and then create a bit of wetlands in exchange—whatever they make will have completely different dynamics. It may thrive but you can’t ever reproduce the functionality of an original wetlands (or at least we haven’t figured it out yet).

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive, 2013, part of the American Realness festival at Abrons Art Center. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive, 2013, part of the American Realness festival at Abrons Art Center. Photo by Ian Douglas.

DD: I don’t think you are, but are you drawing a line?… That a corporation could think that it could replace an ecosystem once it’s been destroyed by some kind of token synthetic invention that will in itself be its own ecosystem, but the ecosystem itself can not be replaced. So there is a certain cynicism in implying that it could be replaced first of all, but you are reconstructing a landscape in a sense that you say you are reconstructing these passages from the migration in LDA. You are doing a very similar gesture in some way, if we follow the metaphor, but it has a very different result and I don’t think it is a cynical proposal whatsoever, so I am wondering, what it is? Cause in dance the stakes are quite high for this whole spirit or reconstruction and bringing back the original performance, as if one could bring back an ecosystem that has been decimated, but I don’t think an old performance is an ecosystem that has been decimated. It just began and then ended and you were either there or you weren’t.
Jennifer: Yes, I was thinking about traces…the multiple… You know sometimes when I am dancing the set material, which is the material I have learned from the improvisations on the beach, sometimes I’m imagining or it comes into the space—a sense of expansiveness, or a memory of my feet dragging through the sand, the heat both of the lights and the memory of the light of the sun. And sometimes I’m remembering other dancers who I’ve worked with on the material. So there are multiple ways of being in the material, which I know every dancer has when they are reproducing set material. The multiple times you’ve done it are always with you. That seems to be one of the beautiful things about dance is that there is always a live dancing archive. But I think in my case the world we were generating material in was so specifically about these migratory routes and the conditions that make the ecosystems healthy and dynamic (or not), and that metaphor is always inherent in the piece of this kind of global system that the dancing is trying to understand in some way.
DD: You’re using dance as a way of understanding that ecosystem or that global system of migration. Dancing itself is an understanding—it is both a process and a result at the same time. It is a different form of knowledge, not a knowledge that is written or disseminated in linguistic ways. It is visual and sensual and kinetic.
My big question is about the artistic process, the aesthetic process of producing an art work, a dance work. Somehow, even if it doesn’t intend to, it carries the identity of its maker, and that identity in this case is comprised of these deep questions about the evolution of the planet and about humanity and sustainability. These are incredibly important preoccupations, and what I think is very interesting about your work is that it doesn’t play a game of politics. Live Dancing Archive works in dance with the integrity of an artist who has certain concerns. There is a certain politic that could be associated with following a migratory path of birds and whales and other animals, that you could ascribe to it or promote, but it seems like you really stay in a region of dance, not because you are only a dancer, but because it is your medium and you are a very good artist. What is incredible is that the thing that we are left with is Dance and Dance is a very powerful and liberating, autonomizing experience. I don’t mean to compliment you so much, but I think you deserve it. That’s the thing that seems to me really unique about your process and especially your process in Live Dancing Archive—that nature is actually not the first problem.
Jennifer: Yea, I think the piece kind of demanded from me that I bring in the subjective understanding of self—the simultaneous way that many of my concerns as an artist are a part of this piece in ways that perhaps at first I wasn’t so aware of. But they became extremely relevant and reference parts of my dancing archive that may seem peripheral to the research into ecosystems, but have to do with the whole cultural construction of ideas of nature and bodies. For example the part when I sweep cup lids across the floor with my hair, or the lip synching moment that references a very romantic yearning for “nature” that the rest of the piece is critiquing in some way. And the last section of the dance is very open and for me it does propose a future, it doesn’t end. It doesn’t end in any way.

Video: Live Dancing Archive, performed at the Chicago Improvisation Festival at Columbia College Dance Center, June 6, 2013

DD: I think that is where the politic is—in what is produced in me, the viewer, and what I make of it. The space that you have left for me to make something of it. One of the other reasons why you are not codifying is that, like you said, the dance isn’t over—it isn’t sealed. You repeat movements that you see from video, you relive multiple experiences of different dancers learning the same material, but you don’t necessarily codify steps and you aren’t building a dance outside of yourself. You are using your subjectivity expressly to retain your autonomy. So that you are not building this dance for the ages that will be perpetuated long after you are gone, but it functions very similarly to a dance like that. It has an almost similar effect, except that it is immediate. And its immediacy is the thing that seems to make it possible for me to really go somewhere. I go to a place where I don’t know something. There are really magical and powerful folkdances in the world where you go somewhere and the dancers have that power to captivate you, not through their representation but through their artful, kinesthetic dancing…
Jennifer: …and I think that for me it was so important to feel the collectivity of the project, the tension of it being a solo, but that I was bringing other bodies into the project. The immediacy of bringing the other Bird Brain dancers into my dancing opened up the possibility of me bringing other kinds of bodies as well into the space. That practice of learning the material of Morgan, Alejandra and Javier was, like you say, never a finished project. There was never a moment like, Ok, this is the material. I am looking at the videos up to the last minute. I am constantly working on reproducing the movement as accurately as I can. And there is an impossibility of that, so it becomes the idea of a practice.
DD: So, I want to put a little more out there. There are a few dichotomies you mentioned that I want to touch on—human and adjacent to human, programmed and unprogrammed bodies, wild and aesthetic bodies, the possible confusion and merging of politics and community work. I have to admit that I believe that the autonomy of the artistic work, when it is intelligent, carries the power of this politic without having to compromise its artistic freedom to the collective. I wonder if you could talk more about human and adjacent to human, programmed and non-programmed, and wild and aesthetic space.
Jennifer: You know, I look back at this process and bring critical lens to my own romanticization of the natural wildlife refuge spaces, which of course have value on multiple levels. They have value as spaces that provide critical habitat to birds, but they are also fetishized as these places where people go to experience “wilderness.” And I think there is something in the dancing bodies that creates some friction between a wild space and an aesthetic space, a programmed and unprogrammed body, and that comes up over and over again as I think about what the conditions are that gender a body or program a body to be a specific gender…
DD: You’re getting into a really interesting territory…
I think that often people describe my dancing as being animal or childlike and I resist that definition. It doesn’t feel quite right. I feel like my capacity to be in a state that might be read as animal-like is…that is why I use the term “adjacent to human” because there are times when I do feel like I expand my own comfort zone with what is human and non-human, and dancing allows me to do that. I don’t always feel like I am an animal—there is something else.  You and I have experienced that together in the dancing that we have done together, and it is, as you say, a very sensual space. Maybe one might also call it a wild space or an unprogrammed space. It’s a hard space to maintain in the culture we live in. It feels very fragile and vulnerable on the one hand, but then extremely powerful as well. Because of it’s unknowability. One can’t really define it.

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