“Enthusiasm for Flux”: Ellina Kevorkian and Travis Chamberlain Discuss the Liveness Is Critical Residency Program at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
August 11, 2016
In Spring 2016, a group of artists, curators, and scholars gathered for Liveness Is Critical, an intensive ten-day residency program at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. I corresponded with Ellina Kevorkian, Artistic Director for Residency Programs at Bemis, and Travis Chamberlain, Associate Curator of Performance at the New Museum in New York, about the structure of the residency and how they think about their roles in producing residency experiences more broadly.
– Lydia Bell, Danspace Project Program Director
Lydia Bell: Ellina, with the Liveness Is Critical residency program you intentionally brought together artists and curators from different live disciplines. How did you come up with the idea for Liveness Is Critical? Did the idea develop from your personal experience with residency programs?
Ellina Kevorkian: I’m a practicing visual artist but I also run the Bemis residency programs where I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to advocate for artists and their needs. I think my personal experience running in both the visual arts and performance worlds has put me in a unique position of facilitating conversation to bridge both fields. Often we’re talking about work that looks a lot like what’s being done in another discipline—what you call experimental dance, I call conceptual performance art, and so forth.
I wondered if a shared or common language between different performance disciplines could be gained in understanding how we construct our own visual and physical vocabularies. Isn’t it an accepted fact that all of us in the arts are in some way interdisciplinary, whether it be in the making, producing, presenting, researching, or writing? This to me is an economic reality as much as anything. Breaking apart the performance ecology and examining such questions as: How do administrators and artists create sustainable careers and programs? Is there a shared or common language between disciplines that will help us contextualize work for funding or presentation? I see this as a very real need.
LB: How was the residency structured?
Travis Chamberlain: There were seven of us who were invited. We were asked to articulate a question or area of inquiry prior to the residency to share with the group. The residency became about figuring out how the seven of us (and eight, with Ellina) wanted to go about structuring our time together. There was no predetermined structure, aside from asking us to meet every morning for three hours. Initially, this meant long exploratory ping-ponging conversations with no particular agenda. Later in the week, we circled back to the specific areas of inquiry we had been asked to write about prior to arrival. Each of us had a turn giving a brief presentation about our individual research and the others responded, which generated lots of helpful perspective. The final stage of the residency was figuring out how we were going to reflect on all of this work, consolidate it, and shape it into a digestible form for public discussion. That was an interesting challenge, since our conversations up to that point had been private, intimate, informal, unstructured. How could we open this conversation up in such a way that would make sense to a public? How could we make a conversation about the critical world of live art not seem completely dead, alienating, and abstract? Could a public conversation about private conversations on the subject of the critical world of live art actually model liveness?
LB: When creating residency formats for live art what do you think an institution or a curator should keep in mind?
TC: My interest in residency formats is guided by, more than anything, how such formats can create room for artists, art, and audiences to affect one another and be affected by one another in a sustained dialogue of potentiality. To produce and safeguard a space for potentiality, in counterpoint to the usual after-the-fact dialogues that focus on an analysis of the results (e.g., limiting one’s engagement with art to analysis of the products of art), strikes me as a particularly revolutionary gesture. As audience and visitors, we are accustomed to being outsiders to artistic process. We are conditioned to be complacent in our ignorance of how things get made. We are used to analyzing these things that have happened, rather than this thing that’s happening now, right in front of us—this thing that we can influence, or this thing that we are making happen. This is where vernaculars that have become increasingly codified as social practice might be interesting to consider as a potentially universalizing language that reaches beyond discipline, form, and the idea of art as something separate from the rest of the world. In my work at the New Museum, I have been interested to create space and frameworks within which people who identify as discipline-specific artists may work out their ideas with others who are not otherwise part of their conversations, keeping the dialectic between social engagement and discipline-specific discourse in play and thereby producing new pathways of understanding and articulation between the seemingly esoteric and the urgent matters of the day-to-day.
I was happy that an artist local to Omaha, Denise Chapman, was invited to be part of Liveness Is Critical at Bemis. (Denise is a theater artist and educator who works closely with local communities of color, using theater as a tool of empowerment to dramatize stories affecting that community.) Her perspective on the role that performance plays in Omaha kept our conversations grounded, bringing us back at every turn to a shared understanding of the potential real-world impact of our various musings.
EK: I feel strongly that we are faced with an inordinate amount of messaging, statements, and didactics that direct us towards a line of thought or inquiry, or even the direction of dialogue. I think it’s necessary to allow for structured time for these conversations, and to also allow for self-directed moments so that we can process our discussions in the way that makes the most sense, whether that means processing thought through physical gesture, or, for others, writing. When live artists are in process, we have to think in terms of process and accretion.
Also, in thinking of financial support, artists whose work involves the body most likely don’t have access to the same income-generative systems that visual artists do. They tend to have less time to take for a residency because of the nature of the work they do outside of art-making. We need to advocate and establish best practices for live art that are accepted by artists and institutions alike. How will the artist develop and sustain their practice? How will it be contextualized within specific settings? How will funders contemporize the bureaucracy that specifies that artists pigeon-hole themselves into one siloed discipline or another? How do you sensitize and prepare presenters for the extraordinarily physical effort that will require care when presenting this kind of work?
We live in a new media world of documentation and records. Artists are concretizing their professional arc on their websites before the work is even made and presenters scramble to create archives of an ephemeral form. After all, here I am in interview with you, but we’re not actually speaking. I’m typing this now on an airplane. By the time you receive and edit this, it will have all the signifiers or semblance of a live interview, but in actuality it’s been mediated.
LB: Do residencies take on a different kind of meaning in a time when many of us feel called to action by recent events, e.g. Orlando and Black Lives Matter?
EK: I think residencies are places of refuge for artists. They provide much-needed relief where one suspends the pressures of day-to-day living. However, deep scholarship and evaluative processes generate movement in the ways you define yourself—and I think residencies can provide transitional space for transformative experiences. And artists have always and will continue to make work that attaches aesthetics and expression to real world issues. Art and the empathic viewer have always gone hand-in-hand.
TC: The kind of residencies I have been most interested to produce provide durational environments for collaborative artists to explore questions (and approaches to questions) with each other and with visitors. I think there are different ways to think about residencies: as spaces of refuge; or an open studio (which may or may not provide a sense of refuge); a durational exchange; an individual or collective study; structured or unstructured; results-oriented or open-ended… Some residencies provide housing, studio space, presentation space, food, stipend, honorarium, etc. “Residency” is a bit of a catch-all term for a kind of sustained “being together” between venue/institution and artist, in which, by being together we may learn from and affect meaningful change within each other and each other’s work.
Generally, with finished work, we like to be able to consume it in one meal, but when the work extends beyond what is possible in one sitting, something changes, the ending is not clear. It becomes a space to speculate, to imagine a future, to recognize your potential as someone who could play an active role in shaping that future. As a curator who often works with residencies as a kind of exhibition format, I’m interested in the question of how to create a framework that anchors open-ended research for visitors. How do you help the visitor understand the importance of the role they play in being present and responsive for some small part of the residency process? How do you make it clear that work being done (or, rather, the making of a space for work to be done) is as much for them as it is for the artist? How do you get the visitor to let go of preconditioned expectations, the need for didactic explanations, the resolved situation? How might performance, or liveness, as a critical tool, then, better equip us in these organized moments of togetherness to navigate the unresolved—not with fear of instability, but with enthusiasm for flux?