There is probably nothing new or revelatory in my recall of AUNTS as I knew it. I sent a draft to Lili and Laurie and Lili told me she had pretty much heard it all before.
- Jmy James Kidd
BEGIN I started AUNTS with Rebecca Brooks. We had just become lesbian danseur funny fashion buddies. We took dance classes together, dressed up for mad queer events, dance events. We were going to Chez Bushwhick that summer of 2005, super fun and super male, gay male. The curators of the series at the time were Jeremy Wade, Miguel Guiterrez and Jonah Bokaer. In general gay males were really dominating the dance scene at every level except the bottom. That was one reason why I started AUNTS.
WE / I / IDEAS Rebecca Brooks and I started AUNTS together and worked out many of the details that are still in function today. We parted ways after year one due to differences in opinion and life changes; she started her Alexander training. I can be very controlling and bossy and was ripe with confused energy overflow at that time in my life, hard to work with I imagine. After Rebecca left I ran AUNTS by myself, with a little help from my friends, until I gave it over to Lili Dirks and Laurie Berg in 2009. Lili and Laurie had been at AUNTS since the beginning, helping out more and more and then it was theirs. I built what AUNTS is from that first year with Rebecca. She was truly incredible to work with, laying down the foundation that I, then Lili and Laurie, built upon. I can’t remember who came up with what initial ideas exactly, I would say that Rebecca and I came up with them together, and then I just kept working them out, adding and modifying through the various iterations of AUNTS events.
THE NAME AUNTS maybe came out of feminist theory? I think Rebecca made it up. Maybe we saw the Aunt as a once-removed caretaker person who seemed to have the very exciting life your mother did not? The clincher was pronounced one way it rhymed with DANCE.
FEMINIST THEORY I wanted AUNTS to be representative of the downtown dance field so I made up a percentage of what I thought I saw around me—something like 85% females. I failed feminist theory at UC Santa Cruz because I had a hard time sitting around an academic talking about how repressed we all were, but truly, in the NYC dance world, the females were repressed. There is a certain gay male mafia in the dance world. They are all buddies and together make a strong voice and presence. So AUNTS had to represent what was my perspective of my surroundings. My surroundings were also very white and bougie, but I didn’t address that issue.
ACTION RESPONSE I don’t think I ever really addressed anything directly with AUNTS. AUNTS was entirely responsive. I wanted to take action rather than complain about it. I didn’t think that I could change anything, but I wanted to be part of a very experimental dance scene in NYC that I didn’t think was happening at the time. I moved to NYC at the end of 2000, and always felt like I missed out on a happening dance time. It was still fun, but I didn’t feel a swirl of ideas. There was no “no-pressure place”, to just try out ideas in front of some people, not in a studio. I felt like the exchange of beliefs around me was very diluted and stale: in part because you didn’t get to try things out that might truly fail, in part because there were few unprescribed situations for dancer people to hang out. AUNTS events were designed to be a structured situation where you could see one magical performance, flounder your piece softly, social dance, invite someone to be in your next piece, get a new shirt.
As much as AUNTS was the situation for performer people to try something out, the AUNTS platform was where I tried out many of my own cockamamie ideas of curating, community organizing, questions of the zeitgeist, humanoid relations, currencies. The FREE Boutique and FREE Bar I still use today, as admission to performances at my studio in Los Angeles.
CONTROL PANEL After the first year hosting with Rebecca I receded the visibility of the leader/host role of AUNTS to give the events a more organic, radical feel. There was certainly a devised structure to each event—efficient, functional, minimal. This structure was given away, not imposed. People had choices as to where they wanted to perform and how many times they wanted to perform. They had to negotiate with other performers within the structure of the event. It was all very basic. There was no attachment to a figurehead. This is something that can be complicated. This is the thing that Lili and Laurie and others call me about most often.
Who owns AUNTS? It is a community, a cooperative in a sense, but to create a community there must be borders and leadership. Free-for-alls don’t work for long, ideas fizzle out, they need to be tended. Catch the raindrops in a container—or maybe this is not true, maybe one should just let the raindrops fall to the earth. Humans, though, need shelter, food, water, love and means of communication to survive and thrive. It is a constant negotiation and AUNTS is just that: a constant negotiation.
COMMUNITY CONNECTION I never wanted to be identified as a community organizer because of my quite dysfunctional hang-ups and super insecurities about everything, but AUNTS was completely the 70’s recreation center. I would be taking class at Movement Research or Cunningham and like the vibe of someone there I didn’t know and ask them if they were working on something or wanted to show something, anything at the next AUNTS event. At the time it seemed like there was always one coming up. I ran into Megan Byrne on the street one day around the Cunningham Studio and asked her to show work. Megan’s brother Jim would come to the shows, Lili Dirks was at the shows (because of Laurie Berg maybe?), they got together and are about to have a baby!
There was really nothing to lose. It was just time, ideas, performance, people. I really do enjoy being a community organizer, and AUNTS was my own personal lab for materialized ephemeral reciprocity conduits.
RESPONSIBILITY I don’t know why I feel such a sense of responsibility to my community; I am starting to explore this issue in therapy now. It is something that doesn’t always work for me. One reason I feel this responsibility for sure is that I have some money from my family I get every year, and not everyone has that financial cushion. I grew up without much of anything; money later came into my family through a marriage. I am very lucky to have this fatty pad in my life, I do what I can to give back to the universe that is giving to me. It is important to me to give back. Dance supported me through my life; it truly saved my life growing up. The dance education I landed in gave me a consistent structure and order and I got a chance to express and to be around a bunch of queers. That was fantastic for me! Everyone gives back in their own way and AUNTS was one of my ways.
NOW I don’t know so much of what happens. I performed at AUNTS on a boat a couple of years ago and that was super fun to get to just be a performer at an AUNTS.
TO EACH HER OWN Lili and Laurie seem to be very organized and in a good steady flow of their own with AUNTS. I sometimes get phone calls or emails about AUNTS, maybe I am an AUNTS Aunt now. I guess we are all family now, our own version of family.
THE ESTABLISHMENT INSTITUTION Laurie Berg and Liliana Dirks-Goodman, the current organizers of AUNTS.
Laurie: I have been thinking about how to simultaneously protect AUNTS and also make it accessible to as many people who are interested. To me, AUNTS has always acted outside of the institution. A platform for artists by artists. So in the spirit of experimentation, how can AUNTS interact with institutions without killing AUNTS? Can we invite institutions to participate with AUNTS just as we would invite an artist to perform? Is AUNTS itself an institution? I do not want to say yes to this prompt, but maybe the word “institution” doesn’t have to be negative, maybe it simply denotes a presence and structure.
In discussing who owns AUNTS, what is “good” for AUNTS, I came to the conclusion that AUNTS can die and be reborn as many times as it wants to—a born again virgin! If an experiment goes wrong, or isn’t interesting, then it won’t be tried in the same way again. It will be improved or abandoned. That is exactly the same structure that Jmy describes above in “action response” in reference to the artists who perform at AUNTS: the chance to fail, to flounder softly, to see or make something magical. Those things/tools/ideas are also present and available to the larger structure of AUNTS. It’s a strange loop! If this relationship can really work both ways, then I say give it away and hope it sticks. Maybe I don’t want to give it away exactly. But I want it to change the world.
Lili: There isn’t necessarily a lashing out against the establishment and I’m not sure there ever really was. Although it seemed to bubble up at times, it’s not part of the structure to be anti. AUNTS always felt to me that it started from a deep need to just be able to make something and share it, so it’s always moving on regardless of the establishment—a lot of different establishments, dance institutions, the economy, etc.—the making and sharing goes on.
Recently I have been thinking of AUNTS as a collection of individuals, not a collective; a platform that enables individual artists to experiment and that values the creation of individual style and craft; of being weird and autonomous, but with other people doing the same thing at the same time. AUNTS does not intentionally produce any specific aesthetic or quality, but one does emerge from the collection of artists present at any given time. Laurie and I facilitate this: we find and pay the rent for the venue, we send the email invites and promote as we are able, we cart clip lights all over town, and we try to accumulate as many other resources for each show that we have time to find or afford.
Money. I don’t know how to talk about that part. No institution or entity is responsible for establishing a value system around an artist’s art, especially if you want to do something that deviates from the norm—the artist is responsible for that. Money comes with a lot of expectations. There are very few sources of cash that will just let you go experiment and maybe not come back with a product, even selling tickets changes things. I hope that this is not harsh and that it can also be empowering to artists. I want AUNTS to be an open, nurturing place. I want artists to make the things they want to make and I hope we can help create a value system around it, whatever it may be, but I don’t think that we can do that by avoiding the establishment. We need to be talking to everyone, not just preaching to the choir.
In the end, I think that if we as individual artists stick with where we began, making our art because we just have to, that we will be ok, there will be enough opportunity, money, audience, and community, and this will start to change the current value systems.
“AUNTS started in 2005” is also available in READING – a zine produced by AMERICAN REALNESS 2013. The zine contains critical content relating to every artist presented in the festival, and its authors have diverse relationships to the artists they address. This project aims to make clear the value of as well as the need for this kind of work—supporting artistic production through developing thoughtful commentary.
Select articles from READING will be hosted here on Culturebot, released throughout the festival. Find the complete printed version over at American Realness, available for sale on a sliding scale—true zine/DIY style.