Sarah A.O. Rosner & Lydia Mokdessi talk ETLE UNIVERSE

Sarah & Lydia, June 10, 2015. Edited and condensed.

The A.O. Movement Collective’s ETLE and the Anders is an evening length queer/feminist cyborg… thing… performed by a cast of ten for an intimate audience. It’s a ravenous foray into maximalism, chronomultiplicity, moving bodies, massive spreadsheets, future fashion, looping soundscapes, biohacking, blowjobs, possession, performance, presence, absence, Anders, Heavy Sets, R.I.B. hacks, glitch theory, the monstrous feminine, and of course: time travel. ETLE and the Anders runs from on Sept. 25 to Oct. 10 at Loft172, 172 Classon Ave, Brooklyn, NY.

Photo: Sarah A.O. Rosner

Photo: Sarah A.O. Rosner

Lydia Mokdessi: So, you’re kind of staring down the end? Not that there’s not a lot left to do…

Sarah A.O. Rosner: It’s a little terrifying right now. I guess it would be crazy to not be terrified after three years to have the end in sight. Everything is moving! It’s always a question of how much to stick with the original plan and how much to listen to what the piece is telling me it is, and sometimes I feel really in tune with those decisions and sometimes it’s like a proprioception problem; not knowing exactly what the piece is. So we’ve made some changes. It’s a lot of listening to what sort of interest and support there is.

LM: That seems like a result of it being such a long term project; that it can kind of find out for itself over time what can happen and what it needs to do.

SR: Yeah! It can be hard to figure out when to admit defeat. We’re always trying to make sure that we are learning our lessons but still holding fast to what we believe. Our hope all along is that we’re doing this in a sustainable way and a fair way, if not in terms of paying everyone what they’re worth then paying everyone something; sustainable and fair within the context of the project. It has allowed us to take on a lot of collaborators that we didn’t expect to get involved with. Different kinds of artists can come in and be like, “oh, I can build a metal installation and weld it to your roof!” Like, “sure!” So we can be more textured and more broad than we could be within our own company.

LM: I remember you talking a few months ago about committing to saying yes to everything. Always being open to more feels like the thing that is radical…like, when I think about this project I can’t quite hold it all in my mind; it’s so big and so complicated and has so many entry points and you know that and are consciously moving towards that. I guess… I have developing theories about minimalism being automatically prestigious and praised and so mindful maximalism feels really rare.

SR: Wait, say more about that!

LM: I don’t know… you know, that things that are minimalist are cool or aesthetically clean and therefore more valuable or more serious, that it signals more of a brainy way of making versus an emotional or intuitive way, and maybe there’s an automatic privileging of masculinity and clarity and knowabilty… I sometimes feel driven in my own work to do the opposite, to keep throwing more stuff in there to lure someone away from whatever first impressions they were forming, because if I provide a more layered and complex experience then maybe it will be received with more specificity? Or, if there’s limited information offered then it’s easier for someone’s experience of my work to veer really far off track from what I think I’m doing. Not that that matters.

SR: Definitely. A few people have been like, “I can’t even begin to comprehend this project” and I’m like, “perfect, that’s great, awesome.” I think it invites this different way of interacting that maybe is not about knowing your relationship to the work but asking about your relationship to the work. I think that’s exciting. It was interesting to see with the visual art premieres what people gravitated towards; some people could see this idea of imposing photos over other photos and creating wormholes and we could talk about time travel and how it relates to the body, and some sci fi folks were really into the conspiracy theories and had really specific narrative questions, and it was exciting to see people starting to attach to different parts of it and then start to feel agency.

Maria Baranova's 1ND3X, ceramic work by Caitlin Rose Sweet, and sculpture by Abigail Lloyd

Maria Baranova’s 1ND3X, ceramic work by Caitlin Rose Sweet, and sculpture by Abigail Lloyd

One thing I’ve really been surprised about is how much reassuring we have to do, like, “no it’s okay you don’t get it, it’s really okay.” I think people are more conservative than they think they are, myself included. I think we all have this fear instinct; if we’re not able to know something it really is terrifying and it’s been so coded into our lives that we should be terrified of what we don’t know. Just being surprised by that and accepting that and being surprised by that again. Thinking about, “what is this fear that has been embedded into our social structure in a way that is still so primal?” Like you were saying about a privileging of masculinity and clarity and knowability, like, that’s how we think about how language developed, how agriculture developed, and what of that is actually innate in how we go through life and what of that is so taught on an ancestors’ ancestors’ ancestors’ level that it is how we understand being human? I think both of them can be present. That also becomes a challenge in the work; this makes it sound way more self-important than I mean, but, how can we be successful in trying to unravel language and time and structure and science and…

LM: Yeah, you’re really taking on a massive project, completely in earnest. 

[Laughter]

SR: Even if the goal of the project is not to actually dismantle these things, it makes it hard to communicate about in the ways of getting a review, getting funding…there’s no verb tense for this project because it actually tries to dismantle time [Laughter]. So, we are being really serious about it and then also being like, “all of this is ridiculous it isn’t actually going to change anything.” Then that becomes the central neuroses of the performance. The character of me in the piece is trying to figure out if we can actually shift anything and that for me relates to, “does art actually DO anything” and that’s very nestled into my concept of time travel.

LM: I can see how this would cause challenges in prosaic ways, like, “I can’t slot this into any category in my website,” or whatever your problem is. But, if you really take it on in earnest and you’re like “okay, well if we suspend this layer of disbelief and we go with it and then we suspend the next layer of disbelief and we all just go with it and we keep agreeing to agree” then what you find out as a group will definitely be…something. Substantive?

SR: Maintaining earnestness is definitely a golden rule for me. Someone recently was like, “you can’t actually be earnest about it, who does that anymore? We’re postmodern. We have to be ironic.” And every bone in my body was screaming no to that but part of it is having me proposing this in a very heartful, lush, almost-too-much way and working with people who can only receive it by rolling their eyes and yet they are engaged and want to keep connecting with it. To have those things keep colliding.

LM: That to me is a very specific sensation of consuming art, that I sometimes have to meet something with resistance and roll my eyes and have that immediate bristling and move through it and then I can do my best to go with it. And then what happens? We are all familiar with the conventions of our genre and I can think that everything I do is dumb and useless, but beyond the level of initial bristling how do you evaluate to what extent everyone is going with you?

SR: Right! A big part of my personal process in making this has been this crazy identity conflict because our goal has been to have these different groups engage with the work, not just the dance community. We want to reach visual art and performance art and glitch art and queer activism and sci fi, but of course each of those groups are bringing different criteria and priorities. As we swing our focus towards the performance aspect I once again have no way to measure the viewer reaction to it and that has felt very confusing but has reinforced that, okay, I just have to go with my instincts and make the thing and I’m just not going to be able to know how it’s going to land.

LM: I guess in any performance-making process you can always solicit as much feedback as you want but you never know what the thing is going to be on any given day. I know I’ve been in performances where a quarter of the way through I come to my senses and I realize, “oh, this is failing. This is going wrong. We’re failing at this.” Like, the energy is wrong or we’re not connected or something is just not landing and that’s just what it is today, and, like…shoot.

SR: More than any other project I feel like this actually could really fail. Not like, “oh some things might not land” but that it could actually be a real failure. And I would be…okay with that? I guess. It’s hard to stay committed to. I really hope we succeed. I was really into Sam Shepard in college and it was always said about him that he was willing to fail interestingly rather than succeed in a boring way, and I think that applies here. If we really explore all that we are wanting to explore and we pull off the economic structure we are attempting and all of the new and different ways collaborators are interacting and the performance fails then it will mean that we really took all the risks we said we would take.

LM: My biggest annoyance with certain dances is that feeling of, “that didn’t have to be a dance.”

SR: Yeah, totally.

LM: You can’t make a dance about something, always. Sometime you can. Some things lend themselves to embodied investigation and some things should be essays or paintings or whatever. But I also think that a dance process can become other things. You can approach something with that because that’s your primary toolbox and you can end up with something different.

SR: Yeah, this project exists in maybe a weird mid-range where certain things were like, “wouldn’t that be great as photography?!” But it wasn’t always as organic and smooth as that. We had planned to make a concept album, pornography, performances, photography, etc. etc., and then something would take three wrong turns and it would take seeing how well the photos of one aspect turned out to realize, “oh, that performance score actually isn’t working performatively” and it could be photography instead. Seeing other aspects of the project have success helped define the final form of some things. Usually my work is very multimedia and includes a lot of non-dance so a context of asking, “what actually is dance and what does it do?” was very present. Of all the questions that the project is asking that one doesn’t feel as satisfyingly answered.

LM: Is it important to you that that gets addressed?

SR: I don’t know…it doesn’t feel as important as some of the juicier questions but I would like to know why I make dances if I am going to keep doing it [laughter].

LM: Besides “I get a funny feeling about it” which is as good an answer as I have today.

SR: Right! as far as personal identity questions, that’s a big one for me right now. Am I going to keep making dances? Am I better off making pornography? Maybe there are other art forms I would rather work in.

Still from The OH Files (pictured: performer Ginny Woolf)

Still from The OH Files (pictured: performer Ginny Woolf)

LM: How did a dance-making process create a porn film? What were the day-to-day mechanics of that? Was it you with other people in a studio? Did it begin with conversations with a filmmaker?

SR: It very much began with me saying, “I would like to make porn.” It was not a thing that emerged naturally, though there are aspects of past works that I has been wanting to repurpose as porn. Lift and carry, for example, is a fetish. Men being lifted and carried around by women. Not a fetish I have found in reality, but lots of people would like my videos on YouTube because of this fetish and I became aware of it as a thing. I’m not interested in pandering to any particular fetish, but I talked to other choreographers who were like “I’m so weirded out by that, ew,” and I was like “okay, but it’s bodies doing things in relationship to other bodies? Is it really that different?”

LM: And, whatever gets your foot in the door to watch a dance video…

SR: Exactly! Not mad about it. The author Virginie Despentes has this line in her book King Kong Theory that the reason pornography is interesting and exciting and potentially revolutionary is that it “hits the blind corner of reason and sends us skidding off into the night.” I have the erection or the wetness first and then I have to go through this process of reconciling that with who I think I am as a person or what my politics are and I was like, “oh shit THAT’S what performance is.” I understand more what I’m doing and why I’m doing it when I think about that quote than anything else. That it’s a chance to have a body and have other bodies have a visceral reaction that has the potential to call into question everything they know including who they are [laughter].

LM: One very obvious way that dance performance relates to sex and fetish and porn is this conversation that seems to keep coming up about considering the witness and witnessed and the power of being watched in the context of a sanctioned performance that people paid to come see versus voyeurism and The Gaze and being walked in on.

SR: It’s slippery. I empathize with the hesitance to engage with how sex relates to even not-sexually-explicit performance.

LM: It’s porn, but in an art way.

SR: Exactly. I don’t know if that will change as I make more pornography. It might change a lot, and that would be really exciting. In terms of the process of making it, it started out as very narratively tied to the ETLE Universe and has become more about how memory and pleasure are stored in the body. What became clear in the shooting is that some of the content is fucking and some of it is erotic but is not sex. We have a sequence of performers chugging milk and it’s dripping everywhere and they’re licking it off each other and it’s amazing and I love it. We had scheduled to shoot the not-sex parts first thinking it would be good to ease into it, but as soon as the performers started fucking it was just so easy. As a choreographer, it felt like how dance-making used to feel for me where I knew how to get the best thing out of each moment and how to protect the performers and how to communicate and it just happened. My hope is that it could be something that could be sent to porn festivals and film festivals.

LM: Do you foresee aspects of the ETLE Universe living on in other ways?

SR: I think so. The rings, for example, will all be for sale. Though I don’t think that will engender the kind of engagement it would during the festival, I think it’s exciting for people to see this thing and think “I’m going to buy this cool ring shaped like beehive, oh wait it’s not a beehive it’s Etlogen, an alien hormone?” and to have that be their entry point, even if the performances are over. So the rings and photography prints will all be for sale, the graphic novel we nearly sold out of but may re-print, the porn film will be distributed online later this fall, and it’s possible that other aspects will go on to have other lives. The performances will likely not translate out of the ETLE Universe context, though.

Pictured: a ring from Jeff Poulin's Conspiracy Wearables and an image from Martha Hipley's "What's keeping you cleaved" in ETLE ILLUS

A ring from Jeff Poulin’s Conspiracy Wearables and an image from Martha Hipley’s “What’s keeping you cleaved” in graphic novel ETLE ILLUS

[discussion about the visual art market versus economy of performance, opacity of funding structures, untenable nature of professional life in the performance field, taboos around money and labor and value]

LM: …problems.

SR: …I guess that can all be categorized under life isn’t fair.

LM: Economy talk.

SR: It always happens. But I really do think work is always different when there is real exhaustion and desperation behind it, and that is really present in this community, and I think that gives a lot of dance integrity. Both in the context of how hard it is to physically make and also in the impossible economics of getting it made. Even if I don’t like a dance I can be like, “you’re really laboring and I respect that.” I realize that that gets romanticized a lot, and that romanticizing is actually really harmful and dangerous, but exhaustion and desperation are two of my favorite flavors.

LM: Mine too.

ETLE and the anders – Ian Douglas (pictured: performer Anna Adams Stark, along with performers Emily Skilings, Keith Carlon, Matt Romein, and Leah Ives


Listen to Sarah A.O. Rosner chat with Tristan Taormino about cyborgs, slow motion fantasy, milk chugging, and making queer feminist porn for the post-human future on Sex Out Loud Radio on VoiceAmerica.

Tickets for the ETLE Universe Fall Premieres, ETLE and the Anders here.


Sarah A.O. Rosner (director, choreographer, technologist, pornographer, and creator of the ETLE Universe) Sarah A.O. Rosner is a choreographer, arts businessman, and postmodern pornographer making work out of Brooklyn, NY. She founded the A.O. Movement Collective in 2006, and has been at their helm creating Anti-Ephemeral PoMo Humanist work and ideology ever since. Rosner is also the founder of arts blog Urgent Artist and freelancer collective A.O. PRO(+ductions), and has been featured as a panelist, speaker, and educator by Dance Theater Workshop, the Field, Dance NYC, CLASSCLASSCLASS, Bard College, and New York Live Arts. She pioneers radical business, champions sustainability, and loves to yell about art.  Brooklyn-based since 2008, the AOMC has performed at the RAW festival, THROW, Open Perform, WAXworks, Green Space, AUNTS, the Center for Performance Research, Dance New Amsterdam, the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center and Dance Place, as well as stairwells, rooftops, and other non-traditional spaces in Philly, MD, DC, and NY. Their first evening length premiere, 90 ways to Wake from drowning (2010), was co-presented at Joyce SoHo to rave reviews, and their current work in process, barrish, will premiere at HERE this July 12th – 14th.  The New York Times has written that the AOMC “bring[s] a raw, vulnerable quality to their movement that’s highly arresting” and the Gay City News has said that their work “communicate[s] a profound hopelessness but also a tenderness — and queerness — that embodies the new American generation.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: