Annie Dorsen on “Magical” at NYLA

Anne Juren in "Magical." Photo by Christoph Lepka

Anne Juren in “Magical.” Photo by Christoph Lepka

Annie Dorsen and Anne Juren’s dance piece Magical opens tonight at New York Live Arts as part of the 2013 PS 122 COIL Festival. The below is a partial transcript of an interview Dorsen conducted with a Norwegian journalist in 2012.

With Magical you are challenging the idea of performance art as an authentic and democratic art form as you are focusing on illusion, which is a quite unusual association to performance art. What is the link between performance art and magic?

When Anne Juren and I started working together we had a simple procedure in mind , which is to flip the formal construction of performance art into a spectacular entertainment context. First we were interested to see what was produced when you do this, when you force-commodify this stuff, which is a bit resistant to this treatment. Kind of shove this anti-spectacular, democratic , anti-virtuosic anti-theatrical work into a theatrical framework. One of the things we found was that this became a fantastic way to challenge some of the essentialist assumptions about women’s bodies. That normally these artists from the 70s in some way or another had some kind of belief in the natural female body. Because we give birth, we have breasts, these milk-producing things, because of this old western split that men represents culture and women represent the natural world. Somehow we discovered that these pieces, as radical as these artists are , they kind of support this idea. That if you look inside the body you find nature. And we thought that maybe if you look inside the body, you might just find more culture. Its so over-determined, the use of women’s body. In all history, high and low. What if we cracked open the body and we found batteries? Electric lights, videos–we find more representations. And that became the relation we found: Flip this stuff from anti-virtuosic, anti-spectacular, anti-theatrical into a commodified entertainment frame. In so doing you can challenge this essentialist idea of the female body as a natural force, as opposed to the cultured privileged male body.

But you are still using the same strategies as these 70s-artist when it comes to the use of nudity and masturbation? Do you think the modern woman and man still need to be confronted with the female sexuality?

In a way “no” (laughs) I have to say in a way no, I don’t. Both Anne Juren and I are in some way ashamed that we went for this naked body thing. In a way we both had moments like a hang over thinking “What have we done?” and “I can’t believe we are gonna go on stage naked again, it is such a terrible thing that women do” and “Why does every female artist eventually stage herself naked?”. But we had an idea of what we wanted to do. So one one hand it’s such a cliché. But on the other hand we thought there is so much bullshit in our culture on this level of natural-artificial, and we kind of want to kill this idea that somehow there is a distinction between natural and artificial. The world is a collaboration between human, things, and non-human animals, non-animal living things, and you simply can’t find this “untouched” nature. This idea was invented at some point, to separate us from the world. So this was our philosophical purpose – to see if we could put a little dagger through this dichotomy.

One thing Anne and I were very interested in was what does our generation have to say to this previous generation of female artists. I think at a certain point , and this might just be speculation, but up to fairly recent time people had the idea that they could get out of this construction, that there was a way out, but I don’t think our generation believes there is a way out. The best one can do is try to pull apart the constituent elements that make up the construction and find a little state in between, finding possibilities for new ways of thinking.

Feminist performance art as the only art not swallowed by consumerism and therefore still has its political power. What is the power of feminist performance art in 2012?

I wonder what the power of feminism is in 2012.I mean, putting the art to one side I wonder what this means now. It’s a very strange thing and I am sure some feminist scholars could disagree super strong with me on what I am about to say, but I have the feeling there is a certain baseline of feminism, understood as obvious, self-evident, that is no longer called feminism. Certain things that were properly called feminist by previous generations are now so accepted and obvious that they don’t go by this name . So then you wonder: What’s left that can be called feminist? On the other hand I have got the feeling that, especially in the US, things are changing just a little bit, like just this election season, all of a sudden you see that wow, there is still this old stuff coming bubbling up in the culture like with Sandra Fluke. This law professor Sandra Fluke wanted to speak at a hearing, a Congressional hearing to determine whether insurance companies had to pay for birth control, but the panel that Congress chose consisted of 100% men and they refused to let her come speak. The right wing.. People on television and radio were calling her a slut and attacked her saying she only wanted birth control so she could go fuck everyone. So this is really old 1950s stuff, the only difference from the 1950s is that no one would say those words out loud. They would not call her a slut, but they would still be calling her a slut somehow. But.. I might be completely wrong on this level, but I think that maybe there is beginning a new feminist movement which will have yet a new shape, won’t necessarily look like 70s feminism, or 90s feminism, but something new, I wonder about it a lot. Sometimes we do magical, even in Norway , in Trondheim, we did a question session after and there was a man there asking some really amazing questions like: I never saw a naked women before without thinking I should be turned on, where I did not think I was being addressed at a sexual excitement level. So we thought: That’s interesting, you never thought you could se a naked women and not be invited to get an erection. And if I remember correctly he also started talking about this biologically, saying that babies come from a vagina and that he didn’t find this baby-making vagina sexy.

And this piece was originally a solo piece by Anne Juren, right?
Yes, Anne Juren was invited in 2009 to make a solo on the question of fashion. And she made a piece that was actually fantastic, a 15 minute piece that used a few magic tricks and had some costume changes and was quite different from what we made, but there was a bit in it, this Carolee Schneemann routine that she does that was in that piece. So when she asked me if I would like to work with her to expand the piece into a evening this was what we both pointed at. Saying we should expand on this level of taking this iconic feminist performance art and playing with it.

Are you not afraid to be caught in this clichés and the presumptions that people have to feminist performance art? Its quite a sore spot.

We do think of this , but there is also another thing we get trapped in and that is the commercial viability of this stuff. Once we say we make it entertainment, well amazingly enough, a piece with naked girls dancing to rock music sells pretty well. We have lots of tour-dates. Sometimes we just have to stop and think, well of course it’s gonna sell like hell, cause it’s naked girls, which people still like to look at. There is great stuff to look at, there’s great music, there is fun, there is magic tricks and in this sense I think we are absolutely caught in some loops. Some spectatorship and marketplace-loops. But that’s good! I have the feeling that if we stand far outside this thing, we do not really deal with it . We are implicating ourselves in how the market also responds to tits and ass. When I talk about our generation dealing with the previous generation, like, that’s a big thing to deal with. Because these feminist artist from the 70s were also “beautiful girls” . They were also not outside this loop . Maybe they did not quite realize it as much as we realize it now. But there is no doubt, that when you put a naked women up to be looked at, you’re in the loop. There is no way out of it, I believe.

Is that what you are hinting at when you claim that the female body is in a contradictory state – liberated, but at the same time objectified?

Yeah, this is pretty intractable – this question of objectification. I view it a little differently these days in the sense of more global objectification of each other, not so much only a level of women being objectified by the male gaze. But also how much I still see, in all human relations, no matter what gender, there is this kind of objectifying of the other all the time. Maybe this is even what it means, the construction is built like this, and the definition of the other is that it has to be objectified. I don’t know, I hope not. But I am wondering a lot about it .. If there is another way to learn to be together that is not on this level of subject/object-relations as we understand them now. But I don’t know if Magical addresses this directly.

The idea of transformation is quite essential to this piece, at least according to your web site description of Magical . Can you tell our readers a little bit about this idea of transformation in theatre?

Wow, that’s a hard question, we are getting into quite difficult things, but it’s a good one. What I want to say immediately is something like that the heart of theatre is this double vision, like you know that the stuff is happening just there in front of you, that it is not really separate from you, that there’s a person – in real time, doing certain things. And yet it can feel like time functions super differently or a kind of…another world seems to be opening up. Which is over-laying the real concrete situation in front of you. This is what I think Artaud means by theatre and its double. These two times that overlap, they intersect and overlap each other. So this is a super academic way to put it, but it’s what I thought when you said this about what kind of transformation theatre is. It is a transformation of perception , that you can have two thoughts in the head at the same time. Which is a bit what magic does also . In a way you could say that a magic trick is like some kind of essential element of theatre itself. That it makes you see something which is not real, but while you know it is not real it can seem real, and in a paradoxical way it IS also real, and the construction only works because of this double situation

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