Phase Transition: Aki Sasamoto and Ishmael Houston-Jones in Conversation
January 30, 2020
Aki Sasamoto: Phase Transition was published by Danspace Project on the occasion of Sasamoto’s performance installation, Phase Transition, presented by Danspace Project, January 9-18, 2020.
Edited by the curator, Lydia Bell, and designed by Kyla Arsadjaja, the publication features writing by Sasamoto, Bell, scholar Rachel Valinsky, and an intimate conversation between Sasamoto and choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones. The conversation with Houston-Jones delves into Sasamoto’s early influence in dance improvisation, especially as a dancer in the work of Yvonne Meier.
Please enjoy the audio recording of Ishmael and Aki’s conversation along with the transcription, below.
Follow this link to purchase the publication.
Aki Sasamoto and Ishmael Houston-Jones
August 21, 2019
I I was trying to remember the year we met. It was at Wesleyan University and you were a student there.
A Must be 2002?
I I know it was after 2001 because–
A Code Orange.
I Yes, I made a piece about the Department of Homeland Security. Did I audition you or were you given to me?
A I must have been given to you because I wouldn’t have passed the audition.
I Yes, you would have. I had to make a piece on a group of Wesleyan students.
A I was a dance major.
I I thought you were a sculpture major?
A I was a double major.
I Who was the sculpture professor you were working with?
A Jeffrey Schiff.
I You were doing this really interesting project placing signs around Middletown.
A Yes, it was Jeffrey Schiff’s project [Index]. He’s the one who pulled me into art even though I didn’t plan to be an art major, or dance major. I continued my friendship and peership with him afterwards. It’s always the people I meet that change my direction.
I How did you get into dance?
A I was a dancer for some student concerts. Then the chair of the department told me I should continue dancing because I’m too angry. He gave me a Permission of Instructor slip that said “Anger 101.”
I Really? Pedro?
A Yes, Pedro Alejandro.
I That’s amazing.
A And I think he had a great point because he was afraid that if I didn’t release my anger physically I would become a criminal.
I When I met you, you were early 20s?
A Yes, I must have been early 20s.
I You had these two really strong focuses. My piece was mostly improvised–it was almost totally improvised. You were really fantastic in that but you also were doing these really interesting visual art things too. That line has continued, more or less, and it goes up and down in terms of which one is stronger it seems. Is that true?
A I don’t really have a distinction about what part is dance and what part is object. Or at least I make an effort not to think too much about it. But the venues are different.
A So it happened to look like I’m doing two separate things but I actually don’t think that I have two separate lines.
I That’s really interesting, because I’ve seen your work in different venues. I saw your Whitney piece at the Biennial. What year was that?
I I saw that performance [Strange Attractors] twice. It was a dance lecture through the objects in your environment. And I saw the piece [Centripetal Run, 2012] at The Chocolate Factory. I definitely saw the one at the Whitney in more of an art context. There were similar elements in the piece at The Chocolate Factory, but it was put in a performance context. My experience of it was somehow changed by the venue.
A The expectations the audience brings are different. In a black box situation, there is a transaction of money. For the museum too, there’s an entrance fee. But also the mobility of the audience is different.
I How do you mean?
A The audience is glued to their seats. And they expect 45 minutes, or however many minutes is currently popular. And in a gallery situation you can do it like theater, but the expectations are different. They want to get out.
I Right, the audience is mobile, they can leave. There’s no expectation that they’ll stay–even though when I saw the piece at the Whitney, most people stayed.
A Right. Due to the crowdedness. It’s also funny, in a gallery context, when some people start to leave, then they all leave. Group psychology is stronger than the rules of an audience.
I The other thing that struck me about your earlier work was your use of language. You did these movement lectures and you would actually talk to the audience. I thought they were really smart and funny–how you made these cosmologies of the world and the universe.
A They were not meant to be funny. But it’s really easy to break people into laughter because there’s already tension in the air in performance.
A And then also, I have an accent and when I’m absurd it looks funnier I think.
I But you were also doing these absurdist actions, like putting yourself in a cardboard tube as you were lecturing.
A Yes, that absolutely does cause laughter.
I And also talking about underwear.
A I like the laughter lately. At the beginning I didn’t like it, I thought I was laughed at. Because I was close to the subject matter and my feelings got hurt a little bit. But laughter is just an indication of tension–
I Tension, and recognition.
I Underwear is funny, I don’t know why.
A Underwear is funny afterwards. That’s another thing–I think my breakup was still close to my heart so that’s why it hurt. But afterwards when the story becomes a story, it becomes language, and it’s a material. It doesn’t hurt anymore and it’s interesting to share now. But when the underwear was about the breakup, I was close to tears.
I Oh no, I’m sorry I laughed.
A No, it was good.
I They were leopard underwear as I recall.
A Yes, I was very into leopard print underwear.
I I can’t believe I remember that detail.
A The initial attraction to leopard print panties is strong but I learned my lesson that I have to be careful.
I One of the other striking memories I have is of a small
gallery on the LES–
I You built a wall so that the audience kept getting squished out of the gallery, which was kind of amazing.
A Yes, it was called Wrong Happy Hour, in 2014. That piece uses gallery space like a theater. The scenes in a play or dance are always mobile, the curtain is mobile, and opposed to that the gallery is pretty fixed. So to theatricalize the gallery space was fun. Also acknowledging the politics of a gallery space; pushing the audience, including the gallerist, out into the street.
I Everyone was there with their glass of white wine, chatting and looking around, and all of a sudden the walls started moving and they kept moving until we were out in the street. I thought it was very political but not in a didactic way.
A It was actually beer bottles because it was Wrong Happy Hour, cheap beer. Politics is something that I always have in my mind, but I don’t start the work with it. I try to find personal events or personal politics, and then when I make a piece and plant it in a theater or a gallery, I make an interaction with the politics inherent to that field. That’s how I want to do it, and I think pushing people out was really about me pushing my lovers out, but it spoke to another type of politics.
I I think that’s the best–starting from something more personal and letting the politics evolve.
A Do you have an experience of that? Do you think your pieces get viewed as political?
I Sometimes, yes. Issues of either gender or race are implicit in the work. It’s not where the work usually starts, but somehow because that’s the lens people come with, and the reputation, it gets written about that way even if it’s not my intention. In some of your early work, post-undergrad, you also did things in outdoor, not-gallery, not-theater spaces, like parks. Is that still around, that way of working?
A I think so. I actually haven’t done street performance lately, but I think a variety of venues is interesting. Of course, Danspace Project is not a usual theater. Different theaters are different and I like that. I take my content sometimes to open mics in comedy clubs just to test it.
I Oh wow, really.
A Yes. Or if the venue is an art fair, I might ask for a more alternative way of presenting so that I don’t get stuck with a booth.
I It brings us to why we’re speaking today. Danspace Project. How did this project come to be, and how are you thinking about using St. Mark’s Church?
A The curator, Lydia Bell, has been talking to me about possibilities for a while. The timing was rather random, but I felt ready because I like to do theatrical productions once in a while. The last one I did was a while ago–four years ago. My lighting collaborator is Madeline Best, I like to work with her.
I She’s great.
A There’s a sensibility that you need to create the otherworldliness in theater and I want to do that sometimes. This is why I said yes. And Danspace Project is pretty site-specific anyway. So I’m going to be working with pulling from things that I’ve learned from museum contexts or theater contexts and see if I can make something that’s really in-between.
I Are you transforming the space at all?
A It’s not going to be an installation piece that’s fixed. Because logistically I cannot do that. So I’m looking at how I can create that sense of installation using a very minimum setup. And the test for me is whether that could become an installation, or whether that would look like a prop. It’s not a central topic for me, but that’s what I’m interested in, in terms of venue.
I Are you thinking of it as a solo for you in the space or are you planning on having other people involved?
A As usual I’m going to place myself as a central mover. I’d like to consider object movement as part of the dancer–how I can make that apparent. I will have a musician as a collaborator, and I’m not sure how visible they are as a performer, but I would like to involve them as part of the cast. I’m not sure whether I’m going to involve one more person or not but I’m trying to first resolve the idea that the object movement will be another performer.
I When is this going to be?
A+I Ooh, soon.
I A personal question: you recently became a mother. Has that been disruptive or generative to your art practice?
A It’s pretty disruptive in terms of time. I don’t have any time to make, so it will be interesting to see how efficient I’m going to be. But a lot of people say they become more productive, so I’m counting on that. And long-term I think it will be enriching for me.
I That’s interesting because I know you have worked with [choreographer] Yvonne Meier, and I worked with Yvonne when she had her first child, and her second. She did a performance at Danspace that I was in called The Body Snatchers when she was five months pregnant. I think it was a really generative time for her. I’m not a parent, but I can imagine the time and focus of raising a child, especially a young child, could be really intense.
A Sometimes I feel like the piece might not have impact or meaning right away but maybe it will speak back to me. I’m interested in that way of looking at work more–thinking about the longevity of the maker. I don’t think it has to be immediately responsive to the time that you’re in. So I feel like “Thank God Danspace trusted me to do this.” Doing this even though I don’t know if I have enough time is a good thing, because I will see this piece afterwards and then there will be a generative aspect of it. How do you see Yvonne’s piece now, do you think that was an important piece?
I Yes, it was. I think it was about chaos–she was five months pregnant and doing cartwheels and throwing things around. We made a catapult and we were catapulting objects through the space. I think it was about her vision of the incoming chaos that was going to be a child in her life.
A I respect her work a lot. I like the way she uses artwork, or dance, as a mirror. We were talking earlier about how with politics you don’t start with, “OK, I’m going to represent how I am now,” but it does end up representing what you have been. The have been tense is interesting to me, more than what I am. Because if I already know what I am, in language or in picture, then I don’t need to make a piece. I’m curious about your experience–do your pieces reveal something to you? Is there dissonance sometimes in terms of what the piece ends up representing or how it’s written about?
I Sometimes there’s a lot of dissonance. The last piece I did in 2016, I co-directed in 2016 with Miguel Guiterrez, it was Variations on Lost and Found, which dealt with the work of John Bernd, who was someone I worked within the ‘80s who died of AIDS. We used the work of his last seven pieces as material. It was an odd thing, I’ve never done that before, using someone else’s work–the music he composed, his drawings, his scenography, his choreography. I think the piece was problematic, and I don’t know if the problems could be avoided. But I think that people who wrote about it were very moved by it. The problem that Miguel and I had is that we didn’t want to make it a memorial. We didn’t want to make this sad memorial piece or even an uplifting memorial piece. We didn’t want to have one figure be John Bernd. So we dispersed his role amongst the cast of seven dancers. Recently I made a compilation video of sections from the original work, John’s work in the ‘80s that he was in, and what we did with it. Somehow him as a solo performer always seemed stronger than what we came up with. He was dealing with AIDS, so it was a very heightened time for him, and the dancers were all in their 20s and 30s and had not gone through that period. So it was missing that kind of intensity. I think we did the best we could do, but I’m very self-critical anyway.
A Do you think it ended up being a memorial?
I No. I don’t think so. For me, it was about a lost generation. In the dance community, specifically the downtown dance community, so many people were lost during those 15 years before the newer drugs came out. So what did that mean, and what did that mean that all that work was lost? It wasn’t a memorial but it was about loss.
A I’m interested when you say you tried not to do a memorial. I feel like I always work with what not to do. I think there are a lot of no-no’s that I assign myself, like no wheels, but I use wheels all the time. I have to figure out how to not do that too much.
I It’s like making a manifesto to say no to saying no.
A This might be the first time in my life that my life has changed a lot and I have to be open to a new way of doing it. So we’ll see–it’s going to be a lot of taking chances.
I How do you think about teaching art students?
A I used to be very into it. And I’m still into it, but I’m toned down. I used to be more of an aggressive, sweaty, running around, young teacher. Now I’m thinking about listening more than shouting at them. I like the age gap that I have started to have with my students. They used to be a very similar age and so we were like, “Yeah, yeah.” But now I have to listen to what they’re interested in, and also I have to translate where my ideas come from.
A So those things that you are talking about, the lost generation, that’s not my generation but I have certain things because of when I came to New York. It was when Performa started, and performance art and performing arts were starting to have tension and mix. There was a different kind of questioning happening about how to situate audience and I don’t really see that in my art school students.
I I remember you had me come into your sculpture class one day at Columbia and do a movement class. Why did you do that?
A At the time I think there was a lot of curiosity [from performance artists] about how theater works and then a lot of curiosity on the theater side about how performance artists dealt with certain things like documentation. I thought it was good to physically meet. I always believe physically meeting is better. Even though you don’t represent dance, just knowing a real case of somebody who is working with the body felt good to introduce to them.
I I think it’s great.
A You should come again.
I I will, I would love to.
A I think academia can be a really good place to have an unexpected meeting.
I Do you think of yourself as an academic?
A I don’t think so. I should be intellectual but not academic, I think.
I Yes, there should be some rigor, but the rigor is not in books.
A Yes, it’s always a hard thing, with academia being measured by productivity, but I think art in school can bring the concerns at the fringe into the center. It’s a tricky one. If I start to act like a bow tie academic, it might be a bit of a problem.
I I would love to see you in a bow tie. I think that should be your new costume.
A Yes, as a costume that’s good. I would do that anytime as a costume.