Ann Carlson Makes Unconscious Gestures Part of an Orchestral Work

Ann Carlson has spent decades making choreography using the everyday movements of a variety of people. In her Creative Capital project, The Symphonic Body, she spends time embedded in an institution or community compiling unconscious gestures of the participants to create a moving orchestral work that she then conducts live. Now in its fourth iteration, The Symphonic Body/Water will consider the issues around water in Montana, presented by Mountain Time Arts, July 18-21.

As she touched down in the state to begin working with local politicians, ranchers, and indigenous people there, she told us more about this upcoming performance, The Symphonic Body/Water.

Alex Teplitzky: Can you tell me about The Symphonic Body and how it’s evolved over the years?

Ann Carlson: In a nutshell, it’s a performance made entirely of gestures. It’s a movement-based orchestral work. Instead of instruments, the participants in this orchestra perform gestural portraits based on their everyday actions. Those actions come out of their work day, or however their daily life manifests. I think of it as a socially-engaged project. I think of it literally as a social sculpture. Both the material and the performance of it emerge directly out of the participants. I do a lot of people watching.
Say, I meet with someone who works at a nursery, someone working in landscape architecture. I go out with her on a Monday morning and watch what she does. I literally write down her gestures:
“reaches with her right arm, digs in the earth.”

Then we come back and I pull from that list of gestures and we make this three-minute, movement-based portrait together. I make a number of those, (in the case of Symphonic Body/Water, between 40 and 50 portraits) and they all come together and become this rich, movement-based tapestry. Part of the power of it all is the transformation of the everyday functional gesture into an action that has an aesthetic impact. I call it dance; movements that evolve from a functional, utilitarian action into something that holds a potentially larger symbolic presence. And certainly, when it’s amongst other people that are also doing all these very specific gestures, it becomes this visual cacophony, almost a sort of synesthesia—you almost think you’re going to hear something, but what you’re doing is seeing a lot of things, hearing some things and these senses cross over each other in the final performance.

The project is a conceptual structure that adapts to multiple contexts. The first iteration of The Symphonic Body was performed by almost 100 people from across the Stanford University’s campus. The work itself gathers people from far flung reaches of an institution or a business or a corporation, and/or has a theme that drives the gathering of people. For this upcoming Symphonic Body happening on the southwestern Montana landscape, we’re looking at water: its use, its life force, its conservation, its resource, and all the concerns that swirl around water here and within us.

Ann Carlson works with goat farmer Jen Boyer in Montana on researching gestures for “The Symphonic Body/Water.” Photo credit: Mary Ellen Strom

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world right now, the resource of water is so critical. This upcoming iteration, The Symphonic Body/Water, is driven by an invitation to people to consider water in their lives. Mountain Time Arts reached out to some individuals that deal directly with water use to participate in this project: geologists, politicians, ranchers, recreationists, anglers, a number of indigenous individuals and Native studies scholars.

That’s the other thing that I love about The Symphonic Body: the gathering of a community for the work, and the audience reflecting and becoming part of the community also—the spectatorship includes family and friends, certainly art-goers, but the audience and performers are a reflection of one another. Do you know what I mean by that?

Alex: Sure, I imagine it’s like when you have a group exhibition, versus a solo exhibition, more people will come to see the artists that they know or are related to. More people will come to see the performers in the symphony than just people to see the work itself.

Ann: Yes, exactly.

I think it’s a big surprise to a lot of people they have it “in” them to be in something like this. I work one-on-one with participants, so the work speaks to the individual in the context of community. We find ourselves in these separate bodies, and belonging to various communities that we are connected to. The Symphonic Body speaks to that: the individual in the context of a group, actually quite literally, because each person has their own movement portrait, within a sea of other movement portraits.

The other layer that is a gathering strategy is I ask each person for three to six people that inspire them—in this context it will be around the water issue. Then I go to those six people. So I don’t author who’s in it.

Alex: It’s literally a network.

Ann: It’s a network. For instance, I just arrived in Bozeman, Montana, just a couple of hours ago today. I was walked through a house that’s being rented for me for the next six weeks as I work here. The people that live here had already been invited to be in the work. They said, “Oh, you’re the person doing that project? Someone asked us to be in it.” The lens of inspiration is another pathway through this work, and it gathers people to the work. So, in a way, all the people are performing with people that inspire them.

The Symphonic Body draws attention to how work and labor are valued, and what the hierarchy of labor is. The work brings people to this singular stage space that’s shared as a common platform, literally. Some of the people performing don’t often find themselves there, on the stage, or don’t have access to it.

Alex: What exactly are the water issues in Montana? Can you be explicit?

: I’m not an expert, here’s what Jim Madden of Mountain Time Arts explained to me: “Water resource law in the West began at the time of European settlement, and farmers and ranchers own both land and water rights. Water rights allow them to use water to irrigate crops and water livestock. The water rights have a priority based on when the right was issued: First in time, first in line. In times of drought and water shortages, the oldest rights get to use the water the longest until the water runs dry. At the same time, the health of the rivers and the streams depends on adequate in stream flow. Additionally the towns and cities place demands on a finite amount of both surface and ground water. That’s a big deal with lots of opportunities for conflict!”

As I talk to the former Mayor and the deputy Mayor, who are both performing in the project, it gets so complicated so fast. So, how an abstract, movement-based work can respond is a really interesting question. I was sitting by the Yellowstone River today thinking about this. The river is running way fast and really high—we wanted to take some photos in the river, but it’s way too high. It’s good news, in some ways, but destructive in others (flooding). How can this work hold, reflect, respond to the deep and complex issues around water? The gap between an abstract movement work and everyday on the ground issues is vast—but the people that are deeply invested in this resource of water are participating in the work. So, part of it is an opportunity to come together and get around the same table. And we literally do that after the performance: there’s a big reception and everyone comes together.

Alex: Your project speaks so much to what kind of projects Creative Capital likes to support, in that it’s impossible to talk about the project without talking about how you made the work. What does that look like for you, what kind of conversations are you having?

: This is the fifth iteration of the project so far. My proposal to Creative Capital was after the second version and I proposed to do three more performances, two smaller and one large. The very first Symphonic Body was at Stanford, as I mentioned. The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA commissioned the second version and there, I was let loose across the 50,000-member campus. Again, I traveled the institution via the lens of people’s inspiration. I met with one person and it became 100. I was able to, not codify, but understand the process of sitting down with someone, learning about their day, and observing them smack dab in the middle of their work day.

Almost everybody says, “My gestures aren’t interesting,” with the exception maybe of maintenance people, and people doing very clear physical labor. People that work on computers always say, “I have no gestures.” So, it’s enjoyable to be able to tease out what their gestures are—you did this, and then you reached for that—making a dance of the everyday, taking these unconscious gestures and bringing them to consciousness. It’s not about telling people, “you should be conscious all the time.” No. It’s just about illuminating their movements.

I find people are both vulnerable and happy to be witnessed in their work. Most of us work alone a lot. That has been the biggest surprise to me: how vulnerable it is to watch people in their offices. I’ve learned how to observe gently, particularly if the person is shy. I’m not psychoanalyzing people by any means—I’m just gathering movement vocabulary, like any choreographer does, it just happens in offices, laboratories, swimming pools, etc.

One participant I shadowed who was conducting research for a cure for multiple sclerosis, worked in an animal laboratory, I observed her meticulously cut a tiny bit of a rodent toe off some mice. It did not kill them. Her gesture was so exact and almost beautiful (problematic in other ways, of course). From there, I observed a person cleaning the men’s bathrooms all night—he had so much pride in his work. He said to me, “I do this, and I do this, and look at it now. These are my bathrooms, and I keep them.”
So, I experienced a lot of pride of place, and pride of work in the university system in particular, even though it’s also quite hierarchical with respect to the value placed and visibility of certain types of work. The Symphonic Body project draws gentle attention to how work and labor is valued, and what the hierarchy of labor is. The work brings people to a singular stage space that’s shared as a common platform, literally. Some of the people performing have never been there, on the stage, or haven’t had the opportunity to have access to it.

Alex: As someone who works in the arts, I’m always looking for ways to reach out to people who aren’t in the arts—people who work in tech, science, or politicians, they don’t think about art in their everyday lives. What I love about The Symphonic Body is how it brings different kinds of people together on the platform of art, but it’s always centered upon the performers and their work.

Ann Carlson and her orchestra perform The Symphonic Body at Stanford University, 2013. Video credit: Tijuana Petrovic.

Ann: Well, this is a continuation of a body of work that I have been working on for about 30 years. So, I was making work gathered together by a common profession, activity, or shared passion for a long time. The lawyer piece, Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg & Moore, was the first, but I’ve worked with basketball players, and nuns, and ranchers, and fly-fisherman, and gardeners, to name a few. I’ve learned how to work with anybody, really, in what I think is a way that has integrity. If anyone feels at all uncomfortable at any time, I always tell people they don’t have to do it. It’s gotta be fun on some level. But I find that generally people are willing, and eager, and interested.

There was a woman at the UCLA that ran the Digital Humanities department. She said afterward, “this was the most fun I could never have imagined having.” I loved that. I said, “Thank you, I think!” I often ask people how they get to work, and she rode her bike to work. So in the performance, everyone is sitting on a chair, just like performers in an orchestra. The first thing she did in this performance, this woman flipped upside down in her chair and pedaled over her head for three minutes.

For one iteration, I worked with a lovely man that was operations manager at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, and he also happened to be a member of the Ojibwe Tribe. He was talking me through his day at the theater. He asked me if he could tell me about what he did before he got to work because it has a lot of impact on how he worked. He said, “I start my day by thanking water.” He went on to show me a number of ceremonial gestures and actions that he does to start his own personal day. He sang and moved, there in his office, turning to the four cardinal directions. I asked him if it would be alright to include his ceremonial gestures in this Symphonic Body, and he said, “Yes, I would like that.”

This opened up a whole new world of movements for me that aren’t “functional,” to my western eye exactly, but actually perhaps functionally sacred. That experience informs how I hope to work on this upcoming iteration of The Symphonic Body in Montana.

Alex: Can you tell me about Mountain Time Arts, why was it important to you to work with them?

Ann: I was delighted to get the invitation, partially because I have a lot of love for this land. I’ve spent a lot of time here over the last 20 years. I’m not exactly a tourist here, but I don’t live here either. I was excited because of my previous collaborative work with Mary Ellen Strom, who is one of the founders of Mountain Time Arts and also because of Mountain Time Arts’ mission statement. They commission temporal, public art projects that focus on social and environmental justice issues. So, I was pleased that they asked me. The project will take place in the summer on this landscape. It’s an incredible landscape, the “last best place” some call it.
Mountain Time Arts is deeply committed to rooting much of their work in Indigenous culture and knowledge. That charge compels me as well, and I hope this project can contribute to Mountain Time Arts’ mission. That notion of letting the project author itself is a good model of reaching into various aspects of the community. Mountain Time Arts has already given me a list of people and set me up with people to talk to. So, it’s been a new way to tune the process of inviting people to perform. People in the community are already asking if they can be in the work because of the last few projects Mountain Time has done.

To me, even if the whole Symphonic Body/Water becomes a “thank you” to water, like the gentleman in the Ojibwe Tribe—if we all started our day thanking water, then there might be some major shifts in our worlds.

The other brilliant thing Mountain Time Arts did was bring in a major architect and firm in the area, Ben Lloyd of Comma-Q Architectural Firm. Comma-Q is commissioned to make a sort of band shell that can frame the work, so that the minute gestures of the performers can really be seen. All previous versions of the work have been indoors. On the landscape the scale is so different, we’ll have the Rocky Mountains behind the orchestra. So that was a brilliant idea by Mountain Time Arts to have this firm come in and make a structure or frame that will point our eye, ear, and heart towards the people, but also to integrate the work into the landscape.

Alex: I can see why you want to designate this iteration as your premiere, so to speak. My last question is how Creative Capital has been effective in your project?

Ann: Well, first of all look at the legacy of Creative Capital artists that have come before me here. Mountain Time Arts has commissioned and presented work by other artists Creative Capital has supported, like Mary Ellen Strom, Bently Spang, and Joanna Haigood. So there’s a legacy here already of the Creative Capital institution that’s powerful. For me, specifically, I feel this deep and profound momentum from Creative Capital, from you guys, literally, and the organization as a whole. It’s like this wind at my back with this project. Obviously, it’s financial too, but all of the other resources too. I love having the platform to plan out where this project would go over the course of a few years.

The invitation to consider the project more deeply and have the opportunities to really tune and work these different iterations have been wonderfully helpful. It’s so powerful to go to another organization and say, “I have this project, can I come and try it out there? You don’t have to worry about paying me.” That really changes the structure and, dare I say, power-dynamic of how I’m invited into work. Most artists are often in a position where we have an abundance of ideas and uncertainty about realizing them; often funding is an enormous part of that.

My career, how most of the work has gotten made has been based on the commissioning structure here in the US. I’m enormously appreciative of my opportunities in these regards. And, Creative Capital support has been a game-changer for me in that way.

Mountain Time Arts presents Ann Carlson’s The Symphonic Body/Water, performed in the Gallatin Valley, Montana, July 18-19, and in Emigrant, Montana, July 20-21.