Talking to Sherry Dobbin of the Watermill Center

Sherry Dobbin, photo by Lovis Dengler (2009)

A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to speak with Sherry Dobbin, co-director of Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center and the residency program that is now entering its 6th year. The program has grown substantially and now occupies a unique role in the international performance landscape. For a sense of the artists that have been in residence at Watermill, a full line-up of the 2010-2011 residents is available online here.¬†Below are excerpts from our conversation with Sherry.

Tell me a little about the history of the Watermill Residency Program.

We started it in 2006 – this is the 5th year, we’ll be announcing applications for the 6th year of the residency program in February.

The first two years was a pilot for the residency program to see what might work at the center. We started at first encouraging artists who’d been very involved working with Robert Wilson and who’d been to the summer program to apply with some of their own projects. We wanted to be able to give them the space back and see what they would do with it.

What happens in the summer program is that typically artists come together to work on projects of the Foundation – many of them future Robert Wilson productions – and they’re at very early stages of workshopping them. The summer program is about creating the physical environment as well – doing landscaping and building platforms, for example – and the artists are very hands-on in creating the physical environment at Watermill.

For the first two years there was a lot of experimentation with the length of the residencies, how to form a structure for it. And then after that Jorn Weisbrodt had really pulled together an international selection committee who would be involved in reviewing the open submissions. The interest there was not only to have their insight as to what’s going on in a global platform of the field of performance but also to have their connections to spread the word about the residency program.

The next three years we’ve developed the program by increasing the number of residencies and looking at how these residencies can run concurrently. It has allowed for artists not only to work on their projects at Watermill but also to have this dialogue with artists who are working on a completely different type of project simultaneously.

So collaboration and networking is a vital component of the residency?

Yes, absolutely. One of the amazing things that has come out of the summer program – which has been running since 1992 – is that there has been an incredible network of artists that has developed and a lot of collaborations between those artists as a result of working together during the summer. Through conversations they find like interests or subjects and they start to develop their own work.

What we wanted to be able to do in the fall and the spring was to allow an opportunity for that kind of dialogue to continue. So sometimes the artists will just have an enjoyable time having other artists there to bounce ideas off of – sometimes they’ll help with documentation, sometimes one artist will have a relationship with a venue where another artist might perform. So there’ve been a lot of really wonderful things that have come out of artists just being there and sharing the space at the same time.

What is the length of a typical residency?

The typical residency is anywhere between 1-4 weeks. What makes the residency different is the brevity of it. Part of it is because it is an isolated area but part of it is because it is infused with intense artistic stimulation. Because we have this amazing collection of fine art and artifacts throughout the building it feels like an incredibly intense and focused environment where you are constantly stimulated. It is not in an urban environment – you don’t get distracted and you really find a working life for yourself. Sometimes I have to force people to get off the site and go the 2.5 miles to the beach so they know where they are.

We’ve found that more than 4 weeks tends to be overwhelming for individuals, they need to take a break. They get overloaded. Its a good concentrated amount of time for individuals to work on an aspect of their project.

What makes a Watermill residency unique?

The residency is an opportunity for the artist to work on the creative development of the piece. There are not many other residency opportunities that are not product-driven, and this opens up a lot of freedom for the artist to change their project or their proposal completely if they’re so inclined. We want them to really to be able to play with different notions rather than feeling forced to stick to the project management they had spelled out in their application.

For example there was an application from a company called Implied Violence in Seattle and initially their proposal was to look at a trilogy of work they had done and further refine it as a group into a more finished piece. When they came to Watermill their interaction with the site and the collection had them put aside their proposal entirely and start a brand new piece that was far more ambitious than what they had originally set out to do. Its not often that an institution will not only allow that to happen but support that happening. As a result they created an incredible ambitious project that is a 24-hour piece and we’ve helped them with their relationships not only in Seattle but we helped bring them to the Donau Festival in Austria. And now they’ll also be performing a portion of it at our Guggenheim Works and Process in March.

Any other examples of how interaction with the Watermill Site has affected an artist’s process?

Floris Schonfeld is a Dutch visual artist who had submitted a proposal to stage an authentic Klingon opera. The concept behind it was to take a piece from a very foreign culture and to try and stage it with authenticity while at the same time realize you’re trying to stage it in a completely different culture. Through the process of creating the actual opera you’re also looking at questions of what happens when one culture tries to perform another culture’s work. But the great thing is with the distance of this fictional culture you don’t have to worry about issues of prejudice in the same way as if you were looking at two human cultures. Being at Watermill was great for Floris because he was able to use his experience at the Center in many ways. One is that he was able to look through our larger space – the archive space – and look at these various objects and look at them as being authentic Klingon weapons, for example. Also, he found these pots that he then asked to use as musical instruments. So he really found a way to engage completely with the resources of the center. Also we brought in John Rockwell, the theater critic, and a woman named Ida Nicolaisen who is a cultural anthropologist – so it was a wonderful opportunity for Floris to be mentored by these two authorities, – one questioning the dramatic nature of what he was creating as an artwork and then another asking these questions of whether he was truly investigating a culture.

And what about Watermill’s organizational partnerships?

What we’re trying to do with the partnerships is to open up the opportunity for the artist as much as possible. With New York Theater Workshop we’re looking for a couple of residencies that are looking to go from Watermill and have the opportunity to showcase their work at NYTW. With Center for Performance Research we’re looking for about four performances a year that once they finish their residencies will go straight to CPR and be able to give a performance there.

Its incredibly helpful for artists coming from other parts of the world to be able to present the their work in New York. So we’re trying to find a way to give the most opportunities to the artists as possible.

You are co-director of the residency program with Jorn Weisbrodt, how does that work?

The structure with Jorn and I is that he is based most of the time in the city – he also works as Robert Wilson’s manager and the executive director of RW Work. So Jorn serves as linchpin between the international community. He’s able to meet with a lot more of the partners within New York and internationally and bring those opportunities back.

The work that I do is trying to realize those opportunities – and also to make real and sincere connections to local communities as well. So I look at not only how we run the program here in Watermill but how we open up these experiences to the local public. I develop education and outreach with schools and universities and within the Latino community that is very present here, as well as making new partnerships with Middle Eastern communities or the Shinnecock nation that is based out here. I’m always trying to find ways so that the work that happens out here is not just a sector-related interest but actually how do we develop new audiences for the new work that we’re creating.

Its very important to Robert Wilson that the Center is seen as being of value to the local community; that everyone should consider art as a part of their lives. So we also hold tours and education workshops in relationship to the collection.

Does Watermill have an open application process?

We do have an open application process. The next season’s residency applications will be online in February. What we’re looking for is a very diverse range of work and individuals. We’re investigating the different genres in which people use performance – different countries, a balance between gender – but really what we’re interested in is not how you define performance but how do you constantly challenge the definition of what is performance. So this means it is open to any artists and even scholars who are interested in investigating a discussion about experimental performance.

The ideal is to try and have a good reflection of what is happening in the world in relationship to performance. It is very easy to get lost in your own culture and its interpretation of what’s happening in performance and be limited by it. So its good for artists to have an awareness of the broader spectrum of what’s going on.

It makes for another interesting aspect to pairing up residencies working at the same time. A lot of times they come from completely different cultures and this allows them to challenge themselves about their own practice and methodology. Sometimes stepping back and watching the way someone else works lets you open up your own practice.

One thought on “Talking to Sherry Dobbin of the Watermill Center”

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