Lili Chopra, Simon Dove & Gideon Lester Discuss This Year’s Crossing the Line Festival

Gerald Kurdian, part of the 2012 Crossing the Line Festival

“We as a festival, we’re not driving transdisciplinary work,” said Simon Dove. “It’s what artists are doing. We’re trying to create a platform for the work that is being made by artists about the world we live in now, using whatever means necessary; for them to have the best possible platform, within our constraints, within our framework. I think the important thing is to be pushing this idea that looking at work as discipline-specific is no longer a valid way of engaging with an artist’s practice. What’s the intention of the work? How well is that intention realized? How well does it communicate with whoever it’s intended to communicate with?”

Several weeks ago, I met with Dove and Lili Chopra at the French Institute Alliance Française‘s Upper East Side building to talk about the sixth annual Crossing the Line Festival, which opens Sept. 14 and runs for four weeks. Chopra is FIAF’s artistic director and has co-curated the festival since its inception. Dove, formerly the curator of the Netherlands’ Springdance Festival and now the director of the Herberger Institute School of Dance at Arizona State University, has served as a co-curator of Crossing the Line since the second year. And for 2012, they’ve added a third co-curator: Gideon Lester, formerly artistic director of American Repertory Theater and now director of Theater Programs at Bard College. I spoke to Lester, then in Ireland, via Skype a few days after meeting with Dove and Chopra.

Crossing the Line has emerged after only a half dozen years as perhaps New York’s premiere festival of contemporary performance work, notwithstanding the entire January scene of Under the Radar et al. That’s an impressive feat for an organization otherwise devoted to advancing French language and culture, which doesn’t have its own full performance space. The success of CTL is due in no small part, of course, to the curators’ dedication to identifying exciting artists making transdisciplinary work, art that really is pushing boundaries and finding new vocabularies to explore contemporary experience. But for all that, CTL’s success is also a matter of how the festival has positioned itself within the New York arts ecology. All three curators made nearly the same points at different times throughout our conversations: First, that CTL is helping bridge gaps in a changing arts landscape, when individual institutions no longer have sufficient resources to bring this sort of international work to New York on their own, through partnerships (with PS122, the Chocolate Factory, the Kitchen, Invisible Dog, and others). Second, that it’s helping give New York artists a bigger platform and situating them in relation to their international peers. And third, that by consciously engaging the landscape and the people of the city itself, presenting art that explores, questions, integrates with or event disintegrates the fabric of the everyday, it’s providing a unique experience for audiences.

Gideon Lester. Photo by Thomas Garcia

“I think the fact that it doesn’t take place primarily in one location gives it a great freedom,” Lester told me, “and means it can have a sort of dialogue with the the city, the landscape of the city, the cultural institutions of the city, the different communities in the city. And for me, that’s at the heart of what makes a festival exciting and successful. I think a festival is an opportunity for the inhabitants of a city to look at their city in a new way, through the eyes of artists who help them see their environment differently.”

Site specific and public art events are an annual component of CTL, but this year offers a few truly exceptional works, and none more so than Bel Borba’s DIÁRIO (através de um OLHO BAIANO) (roughly, “Diary (through a Bahian’s Eyes)”).

Borba is one of the artists that Lester was perhaps primarily responsible for bringing to this year’s mix (though all parties assured me that by the time the programming is done the decisions are very much so mutual). Lester learned about Borba’s work several years ago on a trip to Brazil, where Borba has spent the past 35 years using his native city of Salvador (in the state of Bahia) as his canvas, creating public art works situated within the 500-year-old cityscape.

“He has an amazingly symbiotic relationship with the city of Salvador,” Lester said. “His work is really deep in the fabric of that city now. The city is his canvas, and everyone in Salvador knows who he is. But his work is so local that he’s not much known outside of Bahia (state), let alone Brazil.”

In 2009, Burt Sun was commissioned to produce a book on street art in Brazil, and discovered Borba’s work. Intrigued, he set out with filmmaker André Costantini to produce a documentary about Borba, Bel Borba Aqui, which is having an NYC sneak-peek as part of the festival. At the same time, the pair will support Borba with DIÁRIO, in which the artist will do to NYC for 31 days what he’s done with Salvador for 35 years: Turn the city into his canvas and its refuse into his material, by producing a new site-specific installation each day of the festival–“Ephemeral projects all over the city which will exist then vanish,” as Lester put it, to exist only in Sun and Constantini’s documentation, which will be posted online throughout CTL.

Like Borba’s work, Danish director Lotte van den Berg’s Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia makes use of the city and its people in an unusual way. A performance will take place somewhere in Times Square; if you sign up (there’s no ticket cost) at FIAF’s website (required; space is limited so you’re encouraged to do it now), you will be given instructions that will allow you to experience the performance and (possibly) find out where it’s taking place. Otherwise it’s a live performance which may or may not disappear into the hustle-bustle of Midtown Manhattan, rendering residents and tourists alike unwitting participants in a performance that tests the boundaries between life and art. (Culturebot has an interview with van den Berg which will be published next week.)

And we’ve already written extensively about David Levine’s Habit (Sept. 21-30), which, although not strictly speaking a site-specific work, in related ways tests boundaries and expectations about seeing and experiencing art. Although Levine certainly has a reputation in New York, the resources American presenters have were insufficient for several years to get Habit to the States, despite widespread interest. In the end, CTL, by partnering with PS 122, and the almost chance offer of space in the Essex Street Market, combined to finally make it possible. And CTL is also providing platforms for emerging American artists like Jack Ferver, who’s presenting a new work Mon Ma Mes at the festival.

CTL is also trying to develop as a platform for supporting the creation of new work–something all three of the curators stress even as they acknowledge they remain limited by resources for now.

“We’re primarily a presenting festival at the moment,” said Lester, echoing Dove and Chopra, “but my interest always is in creating circumstances in which artists can really work in a generative way, so that we’re not simply presenting.”

Still, CTL was able to offer residency support to a few artists in this year’s festival, to develop new work. Gérald Kurdian (with whom we should have an interview within the next week) is presenting a new performance work called The Magic of Spectacular Theater, co-presented with Abrons Arts, on Sept. 18-19.

Lili Chopra

“He comes from a background in the visual arts and movement–he worked with Xavier Le Roy and others–and then really went into music,” Chopra said of Kurdian. “And when you listen to his CDs it’s very kind of pop music, but great, the kind of awkwardness of a voice like when you hear for the first time Antony and the Johnsons. There’s this real warmth and beauty in his voice.”

“Pop” isn’t the full description of his music, though; he was first brought to the US by Laurie Anderson when she was curating a series at the Stone. And what any of this will have to do with the show at Abrons is (at least until I speak with the artist) anyone’s guess, because for the new work he’s exploring magic.

If that sort of approach to creating work wasn’t eclectic enough for you, consider Joris Lacoste, who’s presenting 4 Prepared Dreams (Oct. 10-13). While Lacoste’s background is in theater-making, his work–like many CTL artists–is expansive and operates in diverse contexts. For the past several years, he’s developed a body of work around hypnosis, of which 4 Prepared Dreams is a component. Originally developed for a gallery show in Paris this past spring, Lacoste presented detailed descriptions of dreams as framed art works, with a hypnotist’s couch as an installation within the space. The work that was actually “sold” was the provision of the dream through hypnosis. Each dream was thus provided as an experience to one individual, provided that person and Lacoste could come to a mutual agreement about compensation, since each dream was in exchange for something negotiated with the artist, rarely involving actual money, rather than a formal purchase.

For CTL, though, Lacoste has twisted the concept around into a public program. Technically, CTL has commissioned him, as an artist, to provide four more of these dream-experiences for four New York-based artists. The public events, which happen a few hours after each session, are a discussion between Lacoste and his dream-patient.

Like Kurdian, Lacoste benefited from CTL’s residency support, which began almost a year ago, around the time he took part in Performa.

“It was great in that each residency influenced the ways in which he actually wanted to present it,” Chopra told me. “So at the end of each residency he would be like, ‘Lili, it’s completely different!'”

I’ve only been able to touch on a few of the programs in this year’s festival here, and we will be presenting more in advance of the festival (interviews with Brian Rogers, DD Dorvillier, Lotte van den Berg, Gerald Kurdian, and Joris Lacoste to come), but I hightly suggest you check out the full line-up. Some smaller one-night-only events to keep in mind are a discussion between Peter Sellars and Faustin Linyekula, a non-lecture, non-performance by Sarah Michelson (an artist Chopra and Dove expressed a continued desire to work with in the future) and the aforementioned Jack Ferver. The festival kicks off on Friday Sept. 14 with a performance (the first of three) by the fantastic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell at FIAF, and in adition to the performance events with which I’ve been primarily concerned, there are gallery shows (Steven and William Ladd in particular) as well as film screenings and more.

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