For Anyone Writing About Keith Hennessy: Read This F&*king Interview
Alex: I originally thought I wasn’t going to be able to see your new show Bear/Skin before interviewing you, so I was really interested to talk to you about your work at large. I’m interested in asking questions from the perspective of a maker about your bi-coastal performing history, your intersection with NYC, from all the improvisations and work you’ve shown here over the last fifteen or twenty years, and your work with Ishmael Houston-Jones. So, let’s just start with your work at large and then we can get more into Bear/Skin as we go along. I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about the way you research within your physical practice. When I watch your work, especially after studying with you, I see this profound philosophizing within the body that feeds your improvisation, I see structures driving the choice making, and I’m curious to hear your perspective on those…
Keith: For one, I just genuinely like playing with my body, and I get off also on really thinking about the world and power and politics and justice. So, I just do those two things, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes at separate spaces and moments. I let the gap between — talking, reading, writing, protesting — whatever gaps there are between that and a studio practice of rolling around on the floor or jumping around for one hour or whatever the other ways are that I like to play with dancing and moving and bodies and embodiment…. so on. I’m kind of just doing what I want, in one sense that’s what I’m saying. I think it’s a revelation that happened pretty early in my dance training, that dancing could be a place to do anything you want, and it’s definitely a place for thinking and it’s definitely a place for studying everyday life from this microcosm of the studio or of the gesture or of the physical interaction with another body…
I did contact improv early in my practice and training. I started contact improv in 1979 and I was 19 years old, and my only previous dance training had been in social dance, and sports that have an aesthetic to them; I was a pretty serious diver as a teenager and I was a little bit of an amatuer freestyle skier. So, I was always interested in movement and forms and shapes and the body. Then, I really got into dancing through social dance, but then when I went to college and I started improvising I just had an immediate attraction and affection for improvised movement and for contact improvisation specifically. Even though I have a lot of disidentification with the culture around contact improvisation, I still use the duet form of two bodies physically encountering each other as a core practice in my work. Through that I get to move into the politics and power dynamics of social relations around gender, sexuality, race, intercultural work. I get to do all of that just through extrapolating possibilities out of contact. So, that’s both fun and interesting to me.
I’ve also both found and cultivated a community of people who are also interested in these things. So, I think that the edges of the contact improv world and the edges of the modern/post-modern dance world — we all meet in some fictional real space called contemporary dance. And now I’m part of a moving cliché of people that can meet almost anywhere in the world but mostly we can meet in New York or Vienna or Berlin or Amsterdam and occasionally San Francisco, although there’s more and more trafficking in and out of San Francisco. The more that mobility is increased for a whole certain sector of the dance world, and the more Bay area people there are working in New York, or L.A., or Portland, then there’s more people coming to visit the people that they’ve met and feeling like they have a home base there — in the last five years that has hugely increased. Even just in my own little life creating this collective communal project around Turbulence, that has become a social network where we have befriended a whole bunch of people, and not just ‘we’ but individuals in the group have made contacts wherever… There’s now more flow both in the U.S. on the west coast and from Europe to San Francisco. I guess to say all those things, I’m interested in how we build friendships and build communities and social spaces that feel good to us. So whether you use ‘queer’ as a kind of way to create a social environment where you feel safer or more inspired or whether you use dancing or whether you use activism I think one of the big things we’re doing is trying to create home spaces, places where we either feel safe or inspired or a combination of those, or where we feel activated or mobilised, and in the end where we feel useful, where there’s a place for our love or our passion or our rage or our creativity. I think that’s the big thing — so many artists and people who are inclined towards art can’t find the space to share it, to express it, to do it, to be it, to collaborate, and whether I’m really strategic, or really lucky, or overly privileged for whatever reasons, I’m in it. I’m in a place where there’s people to work with. There’s places to go. There’s a world to be constructed.
Alex: One of the things that’s so interesting to me, and that I really admire about your work and what you’re about, is that you and your work simultaneously exists in this activist, interdisciplinary, outside-of-genre place and that you really are a rallier and an organizer. When I look at your history of community organizing in San Francisco and then I look at the work that’s happening parallel to that, it’s all feeding off of one another… how does that relationship happen for you?
Keith: I have always treated this interdisciplinary-ness as a norm, not as a social norm, but as ‘duh, that’s just obvious.’ Genre seems like some weird fake constriction that no one should have ever agreed to. That being said, because of the politics of genre and my history with dancing, I actually really claim dance also. When people want to say, ‘Oh, you’re so interdisciplinary that you’re not a dancer’ I’m like, ‘Fuck you. I have done nothing but live over thirty years in dance studios, and in dance contexts, so no, you have to deal with it. I don’t care if I talked the whole show, and then peed on the floor and you didn’t see any dancing from your perspective, I don’t care what you saw. I am a dancer.’ One of the things that has happened, even out of that, is like, I’m also a choreographer. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, especially that the post-disciplinary world or terrain has spread so far academically in the visual art field that any square who’s either a funder or a presenter or a young dancer and they don’t understand that, it’s like ‘well let’s walk you through this,’ but I’m not going to tolerate it. I’m not going to tolerate people thinking that I’m not a dancer or that I don’t deserve some kind of access to dance spaces.
Alex: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this whole interview, is because I’m so not satisfied with any of the things that I see written about your work in New York. I feel like all the articles I read just miss this intense choreographic mind that’s pushing the piece — they’re missing the choreography of it, because it’s there whether or not it looks like somebody moving their arms in certain shapes. That’s why I was interested in hearing about how this force comes to be. Harping back to your work with Patrick Sculley and Ishmael Houston Jones in the 90’s — Ishmael has told me before about the process with Unsafe Unsuited, that you were a huge advocate for a practice of ‘whatever we’re doing together is rehearsal.’ Was that a transitional point for you? Something that influenced the work thereafter carrying into Turbulence?
Keith: It starts pretty early. There’s a process way before, starting in the late 80’s with Jess Curtis and Jules Beckman where we had a trio and we made two pieces together called How to Die. We had a slogan that was ‘all time spent together is profitable.’ That’s been part of the ‘if you get together but it seems like you wasted rehearsal that was still a rehearsal.’ The energetic exchange, the lack of focusing on the dance making, the inability to focus, all of these, that’s what we put into the garden that day, that’s what we did. So let’s try to find what we did in those three hours or five hours or twenty minutes. I think that’s a Judson idea that some people use but not others. I think there are people who would look at that and feel like ‘Actually no, that’s a lazy idea or that’s a scatter brain idea. I always just fucking focus from three to seven when I have my rehearsal.’ But, I think that there are plenty of ways to look at how the quotidian was reclaimed as creative practice and as material for creative work. That’s all that that sentence does; by saying ‘all time spent together is profitable,’ whatever we did, that was rehearsal. Like, you get together and one person’s really tired one person’s really hungry: well, let’s leave the studio and go have lunch and then why don’t you leave for an hour and go take a nap or go take a shower. And maybe that’s frustrating but at the same time then you’re making a piece where you’re acknowledging the bodies’ hungers and fatigues and that’s the kind of work you’re making. I’m interested in that. I think there are times to buckle down and have everyone jump up and down for an hour. What we learned in Turbulence was that, especially with a larger cast, the lack of enforcement creates a whole aesthetic. Like, ‘let’s propose a warmup, whoever wants to do it then do it.’ If that’s two thirds of the group, that’s actually a lot of energy, and then a third of the group not doing it, well let’s just see, is that a Turbulence that’s easy to sustain, or is that a disturbing Turbulence that we might need to negotiate or reconcile? Usually you find out it doesn’t matter. Eight people want to do Yoga and four people don’t, so eight people do Yoga and the other four people do whatever they want, whether that’s another focused warm-up or that’s going to have a cigarette.
Alex: I had read from the group’s writing about Turbulence that you had started conceiving it before the whole Occupy movement. But, even so, it kind of happened at this whole perfect moment where there was this huge international political movement that this work seemed to almost be this fractile of. So, talking about this idea of ‘structure’ and ‘anti-structure,’ or what can happen if you let go of the reigns a little bit — it was really reaffirming for me of a personal belief that improvisation has this potential to identify systems and propose alternatives and create parallel universes or alternate realities… so I’m wondering, what does that make space for within the work? What do you find happens when you just allow a rehearsal to be whatever the fuck it is?
Keith: I mean, what we ended up with obviously was a very messy piece. There had been some early ideas of injecting really set work within the middle of that, and that had to be abandoned. Once we opened the proces up the way we did we could never find our way back to ‘and then we’ll all do X,’ we just couldn’t do it. The most that we could do was in developing a list of things that should or could happen in a two hour period, and we got to things like there should be a single image or action at some point, even if that’s a solo with everyone else doing nothing, or there should be a moment of near silence or near stillness or both — and I did not originate those. Those came out of frustration of it always being too busy and it always being too much, it always seeming to some people like everyone’s selfish and doing what they want, without seeing what it’s like to just stop performing for moment or stop seeking attention and move into a more listening and observing place live. So those structures got added in and I think that’s what it produced — it produced a desire for stillness, it produced negotiations around attention. And then when you start having conversations, you start realizing how people need or seek attention, you realize that’s a gendered conversation, an age conversation, a racialized conversation, a who-has-experience-with-dance versus [who-doesn’t] conversation. So, all kinds of power dynamics come up, although I think that the one that comes up first and is foregrounded is almost a cliche conversation about gender around men expecting to have more attention, around taking up more space, or at least being socialized to feel comfortable doing it. So, all of those things were super productive places to be in. We didn’t ever settle them, but definitely they arose on numerous occasions and then started to become part of the structure of the piece; meaning, they started to influence how people observed themselves and each other in relation to the audience, in relation to the performance moment.
Alex: That’s what I find to be one of these invisible choreographic drives that could emerge because of giving the process space. It allows the performance to foreground what might have already been there.
Keith: And I would just say that in terms of being the choreographer of the work, that was very much a collaborative choreography. I did some opening of certain kinds of spaces and then, because I worked with a group of people who were primarily makers almost to a fault… there’s several people in there that have danced in other people’s work or performed even for each other but everyone also makes their own work. Everyone on that list, of the core twelve people in Turbulence, has made their own work, as well as most of the people we’ve invited as guests.
I know that it’s big to talk about choreographic thinking and choreographic mind, but, I tend to not use that language because I think it over emphasizes something around perception and brain activity and these things that I think take from dance some of its non-languageable activity that exists somewhere else than thought. Because I think there’s a revaluing of dance by calling it a mind or a thought, we could actually just reverse the whole thing and we could say, what if we wanted to bring more dimensionality to thinking and we stopped calling it thinking and we just started calling it dancing and be like, ‘Oh, that’s an amazing dance!’ Or, ‘the way that they’re dancing with Quantum Physics!’ Or, ‘the way that Alan Turing danced with certain ideas to be able to arrive at computational systems and structure.’ So that’s why I question the privileging of the mind and the thought.
But, there is a kind of group choreographic mind that also arose not just in the process of Turbulence, but, I think if people will trust a collective working process for long enough and not try to control each other, that some things will emerge from the group that are coming out of improvisation and collaboration, or collectivity, that produce choreographic structures or destroy choreographic structures. Like a play of choreography in terms of a writing or structuring or scoring of movement and action practices, and that came out of the group, and I think that I instigated a space for that to happen, but people ran with it. I think that in the future — the long term story of Turbulence, how to credit it — I think will get increasingly complicated. I think it will always be fake to say, ‘oh it was a collective’ and not acknowledge that I produced it, I got the money, I made the opening forays, that Julie and I wrote the first grants and so she had a different access or privilege to me and to the conception of the work in the early stages — we’re talking 2010, before there was a piece, when you have to start asking people for money and you’re writing it on paper. Then there’s the people who came into the project at the end of 2010, and then in 2011, and the last people came in in 2012. So, even arriving at what is the core cast was a three year process. And we didn’t work together all the time, but when we did work together it was intensive and it was all or nothing, and that’s true for the touring.
Alex: I’m hearing this relationship between the accidental and the intentional within your work and I was wondering how that might relate to works outside of Turbulence?
Keith: I will say that probably my biggest influence on that is Sara Shelton Mann who led a group called Contraband and who I worked with for nine years, from 1985-1994. When she worked, she would be in a very clear focused dance making practice with phrases and stuff like that, and somebody would come late to rehearsal, trip coming down the stairs, and Sarah would be like, [snaps fingers] ‘Boom! That’s in the work!’ Or, you’re in the middle of something and someone spaces out, or someone has to drink water, and Sarah’s like ‘That’s in the work!’ And it almost became a joke, like ‘That’s in the piece!’ But, Sarah was very good at that, and you know, she’s a deep witch, whose work on the energetic plains and with intuition is quite rigorous. So, there is something to be said for not using every time someone trips or every time someone drinks water — that’s not what you’re doing. So, even the idea that you’re using the accident or you’re using the bi-product or you’re using the effect two hours later, there’s still some kind of choices that are being made. I learned very early on in my improvising — for sure in my twenties — I was one of those people that would be dancing around the room and then you would go across the floor and then maybe the floor squeaked in a certain spot, and then you would play with the squeaking of that floor. And then people said, ‘you know Keith, you don’t need to squeak the floor every time you do it.’ Like, ‘It’s cool that you noticed it, and you’re showing us, oh, it’s really an improv and you’ve just found something, but, don’t lie, you’re making choices all the time.’ We’re aware of so much. This is a big thing that Steve Paxton has pointed out from the very beginning and why he developed the Small Dance — our perception is way faster than we can ever describe, than we could ever dance. We’re noticing a lot of things going on. As I’m talking to you, the wind just picked up and we only have a tiny window in the room and that tree is moving more and I catch it out of the corner of my eye. So when is it useful to go, ‘the tree moved, and I noticed it.’ And when is it like, we’re hooked into a focused thing and let’s just notice the tree but not actually have to bring it into the improv? It’s in because we feel it, but we don’t need to stop a flow of dancing to talk about it. So, somewhere between those — improvising in performance and getting feedback about when to use the accident and when not and also nine years of being with Sarah and watching her really magically, and in a kind of savant kind of way, decide when she chooses accidents. And then at the same time she’s totally an imperfect, vulnerable human being, sometimes who picks the accident that no one agrees with, and it’s like, ‘That did not seem magical at all, that seemed like you’re distracted or lazy or maybe we’re not even keeping that, or maybe it stays in the performance and it sticks out like a sore thumb that no one ever accepts.’ I’m really interested in this play between the intentional and the unintentional, which is sometimes an accident; it’s sometimes expanded, distracted, ADD perception. It could be a lot of things. It hooks into something else that’s actually about intuition and the choices that do not fit a conceptual frame in the moment that they happen, and that later can make sense to you, or not, but you’ve still actually just felt right about them. And that’s something I think that’s especially relevant when people start talking about choreographic minds and conceptual work: it’s really hard to get into intuition, magical thinking, magical behavior, the wisdom of non-intention.
Alex: Does that feed into your current work Bear/Skin at all?
Keith: Well, what’s interesting about the current work is that the current work is also a lot about dancing. I’m taking a ritual that was a fake ritual from 1913, that was already a fantasy about a ritual, and obviously the ritual of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring has done a lot of things. It’s a performative act, it energized dancing and people’s ideas about modern art in many ways. It also participated in a certain kind of Colonial or bourgeois practice around the fictional occupying of the colonized or the disappeared or the indigenous. And I’m interested in all of those problems with that work, but I also set up a whole ritual and then I go, okay, can I do this dance and now make it be a ritual about something else? Replace the virgin sacrifice with the middle-aged wise man in the bear suit who’s supposed to be walking around it. I also,crack jokes about it at the same time, that my bear suit is actually a teddy bear. Do all of those things and still occupy the center of it, and then dance it like it’s a ritual. I’m here change space and time, to bend them outside of ordinary reality, and to shift perspective, with this thing that’s repeatedly dead or repeatedly misleading. So, I’m thinking a lot about dancing and dance history and how we perceive it and what it could be, and I’m actually both making a claim for and questioning whether dance can do anything, just moving. How do you move? And also, even if you move people or move energy, or move ideas, it’s like, ‘But so what? So, what’s happening?’ So I’m in all of those pursuits and questions and claims with that piece.
Alex: So, connecting that with this idea of intuition, magic, and magical thinking that you were talking about — when I was saying ‘choreographic mind,’ I don’t think those things are actually unrelated at all. I think you languaged it much better than I did. For example, when I see these research performance videos of you walking around in the bear suit and doing the shamanistic wilderman performance in the Mission —
Keith: Which you gotta admit, there’s a bunch of amazing moments, that you could never plan. The woman who asks me if I’m Native American, and then asks me to do a dance for her, and then she comes up and gives me this incredibly warm hug after I dance for her, while the other guy, the SRO dwelling, drinking guy, who’s on the side of the thing, beat boxes to give a soundtrack to the dance. Or when I’m just trying to energetically vibe into the homeless guy who’s asleep and his feet start twitching next to me, he never saw me or heard me. I watch that video and I’m surprised.
Alex: Yeah! It’s surprising. What’s so cool about it is that there’s just this potential: it’s this space of opportunity that’s created. That’s what I think a huge part of improvisation is for me, is this space for potential. And through practicing these rituals or performance practices, whatever they are, I think all together they add up to this invisible and unrecognizable culture that’s created within each and every performance piece that one might make. That’s an incredibly unique place that’s hard to find.
Keith: Well, it’s interesting because the one where the Shamanic wilderman guy is wandering, not just in the Mission but in a particularly low-rent, high SRO, high homeless population, but also highly a creative space too, because there’s that whole alley of murals and all these things. So it’s between Sixteenth and Eighteenth Street on Mission Street, which is also a place that I’m really comfortable with. People wanted me to do something like that in Rome and I said, here’s the thing, I would really have to hang out in Rome longer to know where I was, because there [San Francisco] I really know where I am to the point where when the police fuck with me I’m like, ‘No you’re wrong, I belong here in my ridiculous costume and you can’t insult me.’ And I just talk to them for like ten minutes and the guy was like, ‘Um, you interrupted me.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t have a contract to listen to you. You were rude to me, and I’m talking over you and I’m talking until I’m done.’ I was so furious. My videographer even stopped taping halfway through, he was like, Keith and police, how did this even get going… But, the point is that I’m in a space where I’ve lived in and out of that neighborhood for thirty years. We’re in a really tense moment around police making assumptions about people and then taking actions towards them and I was like, I have the privilege to have this fight with the police and not be shot for it, so I’m doing it. But that, I don’t think I would make the same claim somewhere that was not a space that I had invested in and observed and participated in for so long.
Alex: When did this current work start to intersect with the police brutality issue? Was it out of that personal interaction?
Keith: No, it was already deep in. The text about killing cops wasn’t written for the piece originally, it was written sometime earlier in the year before the whole wave of it. Guillermo Gómez-Peña had a salon in his house, and he does these parties every now and then and they’re actually another magical world. It’s another kind of thing. If it was the fifties or the sixties these would be famous legendary parties, but they’re just a party, and he always asks people to perform at them, and he does it especially when he’s got visitors from out of town or out of the country. So, there’s these amazing encounters that happen.
But anyway, he had a late summer party and I was trying to think of what to do, and I thought maybe I would write something new, and then I was like no, the police violence thing is really up, I’m going to look through my writings and I found that I had written about cop killings at multiple times over the last fifteen years, and I brought all the texts to the party, and I said, so, do I do the text about Idriss Stelly, who was killed by the police in the Metreon Cinema in San Francisco? Do I do the time I wrote a piece after police killed a bipolar guy in his own house? Do I do the text that I wrote for this? And I started looking at this series and I was like no, I’m going to read the one that’s the most recent and is actually about ‘why don’t we kill cops?’ I hadn’t even known beforehand how I would ever read it, I didn’t even write it as a performance text, I just wrote it, and then I did this fast speaking of it and everyone was saying it’s amazing, asking if it was in my new show. And I was like, ‘Well, it wasn’t in the new show…’ until now, because now I realize that the trope around the saving of the woman in all the action films that I’ve criticized here is completely linked to the fantasy of virgin sacrifice that we would put into a dance, and the way that we actually look at dance in the history of European and American dance that we gender it female. There’s this sense of her being both a sex object and a sacrifice that’s somehow, through her sacrifice, supposed to do something for the larger community. It’s all that that’s in the action movies and the action movies are about the cop killings, which is about racial perception, and the racial perception stuff touches all the modernist appropriations of the colonized and the enslaved and the lost cultures. So, this is all one piece, but that’s the happy accident.
I wrote that piece because I was just motivated, then, performing it in a political, racially charged performance salon at Guillermo’s house where people are encouraged to tackle racism and to say the politically incorrect things, so that we can get at another kind of truth or possibility or social relation amongst each other. Because I read that in a very mixed race room, with a lot of Latinos and indigenous people in the room. So, the heat of where it was first performed, then to get support from those people to keep researching the work, to stick that in whatever I’m doing, to push the piece further, I was like, okay, this is it. And once that happened I was like, now I think the piece is done, because now I know all the parts. Because I’m going to do the bear, and I’m going to do the Right of Spring in the bears suit, and I’m going to do the dementia text, which had emerged in an earlier improv while trying the piece a year earlier. And I always said I’m going to seal the piece by wearing a contemporary Shaman outfit and treating dance as a fake healing, take the fake healing idea that I’ve been working with for the past four years and push it to this level into dancing where the dancing itself is a healing dance, whether it’s for me or whoever, and I’m going to start from the place of high pretense — like I’m a child, I’m pretending, I’m playing, except that I’m not a child and I’m not playing around, so these things are happening simultaneously. And then I’m just doing it, and everything I ever have learned about dancing or ritual, I’m trying to put into that, what is actually a very simple dance. There’s only five movements, which only after I found them through improvising did I realize that I was recasting the four directions, so I was also working in a circular structure, with four directions and a center. The basic two-step I’m calling earth, the shaking vibrating I’m calling fire, the circling I’m calling water, and the fanning postures that are somewhere between gay and these modern dance shapes is air. And then there’s the thing I only do once which is the weird little hip circle to the ground, and then in the slightly sexual humping pelvis only movement… that’s center. And then I realized I’m doing a four directions with a center dance.
Alex: How does the act of healing relate to violence and police brutality? What are you healing?
Keith: That’s an interesting thing — I’ve been in a conversation through email about language that is traumatizing or which triggers people and the history of trauma. When should we use it and when should we not? That’s especially racialized language but it also used to come up a lot around the word ‘queer’ and then it came up also around what we call the ‘T’ word, tranny, but it started with a conversation about ‘N’ word, nigger, which you can make a choice whether to publish or not. The person that I was talking to said if the word is going to appear in a text there should be a trigger warning at the top. Any time we set out to do something there’s no universal audience for it. So, I think it’s possible for almost anything that happens in live performance to be a trigger for someone. Someone’s nudity can be, or male nudity, or white male nudity — I’m just saying things that I could do that could be triggering to some people. We consider performance and dance not just a gay safe-space but actually a gay pride place, but that could also be triggering to the wrong person. So, Keith dressed up in some shamanic outfit with people only being able to look at robbed indigenous people when they look at that outfit and not take into consideration the book that I’m passing around in the room, the notes in the program. The program for the piece has details of the costume items that I’m wearing, it tells you that the blanket is a family inheritance, and the gold fabric is from Turbulence and the tights are from Remy Charlip, who is like my gay ancestor, and the pom-poms are from this tribe in northern Thailand and I went and bought them personally from them, I climbed this hill to meet them — so all of my dance worlds and my travels are in the costume. There’s a lot of energetic effort, but also jokes — the bells made from canning tops, and the sheepskin from Ikea. I even did it the other day and someone was like, ‘that’s obviously an Ikea sheepskin, we all have one, next to our bed or that we do Yoga on or whatever.’ Well, we don’t all have an Ikea sheepskin… that’s just to say I don’t think that there’s any kind of universal there. What’s healing? I’m thinking of healing not so much as a bandaid on a cut. Society is out of balance and that has to do with how we perceive ourselves in relation to each other, and I’m looking to fuck with that and to propose new ways of considering each other.
And I think for white people that means that we have to rethink about our history, where we come from, who we are, what does it mean to recognize both our lack of indigeneity and our history of indigenous people, and enter into that messy space, and I think that sometimes when we’re in an antiracist context there’s not really room for white people to be doing their own historical work, but I think that without it we have nothing to offer. Not nothing, we have a limited set of tools or services to offer the conversation. The idea that I would be going into a certain kind of intuitive or magical dance process and that it wouldn’t be something that is only a theft of a colonized group of people, that it could actually be something sort of indigenous to all of us, or that we all have a right to try to figure this out, we all have a right to try to figure out what magic can be for us and what dress-up play can be for us and how we can make symbols out of objects, and work symbolically so that we don’t have to actually manifest everything in literal ways. So, that’s some of what’s going on, is actually a demonstration of that process, and I think a lot of violence is people not being able to work symbolically, or a lot of violence is people’s symbol system being so fixed and so fucked up that they can kill people, because what they’re killing is a symbol that they’ve already dehumanized, or made not human, or made not real, or made not good, or made evil. So, I think how we work poetically and how we work symbolically and how we work with image and metaphor is super crucial. So to me, any artistic practice that gives us ways to do that is a healing practice, not because I took care of someone’s wounds, but because I’m actually trying to intervene on how violence or damage happens.
All that to be said, I don’t really think of the dance space in any kind of totalizing way as a healing or even activist event. There’s a lot of limitations to the studio practice or the theatrical practice. The inheritance that we have of the bourgeois worlds that art occupies and the real limitations of the studio door or the theater door, but I also treat them as utopian spaces, as research spaces, as a play between the private and the public, the personal and the political, all of those things.
Alex: You had said, a long time ago, something like you would rather live more in a studio than you would outside of a studio. Is that because–
Keith: Well it’s not so much that I would rather, it’s more that one day I realized that when I die, I’m going to look back and go, ‘Oh, he spent the largest portion of his life, other than sleeping, in dance studios.’ Even if I never step in another one for twenty years that’s still going to be true. The dance studio is going to be where I’ve spent the biggest portion of my life. When I realized that and I go, this is one of the most real places that I work, and it’s not insignificant, I work with hundreds of people a year if not a thousand in studios. So, if that’s one of the places that I have impact, where I have influence, that I am coaching young people, that I am planting seeds in young people, that I am collaborating with peers, in ways that change how we perceive the world around us, how we negotiate the asymmetries of power that are gendered and racialized — that’s happening pretty much daily in my working life, so, it’s not so much that I prefer the studio, it’s more that I realized that the studio is real life for me and that that is one of the biggest contributions that I’m going to make, as much as it may be one of the biggest limitations of my work. So, that’s all, it’s not so much about preference, although obviously it’s a preference, because I have been thinking at moments, especially when I was younger, ‘Should all the energy go towards activism or art or should I do both of them?’ I have definitely been someone who has retreated to the dance studio at many points in my life. During the most current wave of protest over the last five months, I’ve been in Europe almost the entire time, and I’ve really not participated, and it’s been quite alienating and bizarre, because I still am very energized by street protest, I still trust it as one of the places to work, even though I’m constantly reading critiques of protest culture, I’m working with a number of young dancers that find that the embodiment and the power dynamics in the protest world are not what they’ve been working on in the studio. They’re feeling like there’s a throwback to a kind of polarization and a kind of violent way of speaking and responding to one another that they don’t like.
There’s a zine that just came out from a group of critical art thinkers and makers in Amsterdam called ‘Disagree,’ you can see it online, the opening essay is ‘protest is dead and here’s why.’ So, even when the second Gulf War broke out in 2003, and Jijak wrote an article saying that antiwar protestors, by being antiwar are also constellating what they are against, I might be paraphrasing in a way that’s not right for Zizek, but the idea that the protest depends on the war and the war in a sense justifies itself by the presence of the protest, and this symbiotic relationship between anti-war and war, and a proposal to be thinking more queerly or more outside of these binary structures. Even though I’m up on that discourse for the last hundred years but especially in the last decade, I still get something out of being in the street, I have very rarely read anything. The way you think people who write about my work don’t really write about what’s really happening, I find that people who write about protest, and even people who are in protests, if they go to speak about it, they do not say what I think is really happening, which is about the social relations that are produced in the street, the poetry of the street and how that influences people’s lives, and then also — I mean, people write about how the protest is read through the media and then how that inspires other things, but I think that it’s not just about something visual, like ‘oh knowing people protested in Egypt makes me able to protest here,’ there’s something else going on. So anyway, it’s been hard for me to be working in my academic research around critical race stuff and antiracism and really specifically looking at antiblack racism and to be doing it in my art work that I’ve been doing and to not be also in the street where that is going on. It’s like I’m following the street right now but I’m not in it, so that’s an awkward thing for me, because usually that would be another kind of influence.
Alex: Do you feel that it’s hard for these things to be fully processed unless they’re in that ‘real’ and ‘actual’ space of the street?
Keith: I think so. I think that just as there’s no documentation for a performance that ever captures the performance, the ephemerality of the live is not reproducible. I think that you can write about what happens in protest culture, and we can think about it and we can videotape it and we can put it on the news and we can make our own independant media, all of those things but you don’t ever get the thing that happens for sure. And I would just say that I think that the bear [from Bear/Skin], the street actions of the bear — it’s only after I did the street research that the ‘fuck shit’ sign came into the indoor piece. It was not there first, I did the street action first, and then realized, oh, I’m the last bear on earth protesting, and so therefore that bear becomes a lot of things. Am I the last artist in San Francisco? Cause even anyone from out of San Francisco watches the video and they don’t know that the busses going by that are unmarked are the Google busses, are the tech busses, that those busses are filled with the new worker who does not even take public transportation. They have their own bus system that work for companies that don’t pay taxes and they use the public roads and the public bus stops for their private busses that are all wired and tinted windows. So, am I the last artist protesting? Am I the last protester and that’s why I have to protest everything on my sign? So, there’s definitely a sense of being alone in San Francisco and alone as an activist even though there’s a giant movement going on around me, tens of thousands of people are in the street for all kinds of things, there have been huge protests in Paris just around the killings of these cartoonists in the last few days.
Alex: What happened? I must have missed something important.
Keith: Three days ago, three guys walked into the leftist cartoonist [Charlie Hebdo] while there was an editorial meeting, more of them in one place than ever, and killed twelve people. Two of them are the most famous political cartoonists in the history of France — one was eighty years old and one was seventy-six years old, crusty leftist — and they’re super critical of politics and religion primarily. As Jassem [Hindi] says, ‘These are like our crusty punk uncles: they stink, they’ve got a mohawk that’s embarrassing, but we like that they’re there.’ They’re very critical of fundamental Islam, of the role of the Church, of right wing politicians… So anyway, in the name of Allah, three people took them out, and the eighteen year old who drove the car turned himself in. We’re not clear what will happen with that person. The other two, who are brothers, one of them had spent time in an Al Qaeda training camp, took hostages in a supermarket or a restaurant, and I don’t know the details, but I think in a Jewish establishment. And the French bombed the place, killing some of the hostages, and took out the two brothers. And that happened last night or today.
Alex: See another example of the gap between the studio and street… I’ve been performing the past few days and obviously removed from what’s been going on.
Keith: So, just to say, that there are Protests in Oakland but I’m in Paris, now there’s protests in Paris but I’m in New York City. So, I’ve been feeling out of step and it’s just an interesting balancing act. The work that I’m making is a response to my life in the moment, so the piece is thinking a lot about race and the street and history, but I’m also not in it. I’ve very much been in different kinds of artistic retreats and artist bubble spaces.
Alex: So, it’s a space for the actual, the imaginary, the unknown, the political to all manifest.
Keith: And I’m in conversation, live and electronic, everyday on these issues.
Alex: Which is another real, actual, imaginary, political space.
Keith: Yeah. And when you start talking about ‘everything is the rehearsal,’ and also just that, it’s not like I’m a giant news reader but I’m in the middle of the festival and an opening and I’m still tracking this, it’s still really important to me. Some version of rogue Al Qaeda operatives in Paris.
Alex: I had one more question that I’m really curious to talk about real quick, which is how the circus work that you’ve done might relate to physical risk in your work.
Keith: I did write a tiny piece about it, that’s on my blog, but I wonder if that’s maybe not easy to find, one is that I think that I’m a little bit of a physical thrill seeker and I’m also actually physically careful, I’m not actually reckless but I definitely like danger. I think what I really like is pushing the social frame about what people think is allowed or not allowed, and that that can move into physical danger seems like a really easy way to do it. So, that way I don’t need to break a window, I just need to slightly hang myself out the window, way within my safety realm, but just enough for other people to be like, ‘that’s not safe,’ and then me go. What’s safe and who determines what it is, and why is your scaredy cat-perception of your own body being projected onto mine?
I think that this is one of the things that circus and spectacle are really kind of amazing at, so as much as we have these critiques of spectacle, for a lot of things that I would agree with, I think that there’s also something to be said for the virtuosic body and how the watching of the virtuosic can be something other than just disempowering, or ‘Oh, I’m not like that,’ or ‘Oh, I’m not a supermodel,’ or ‘Oh, I’m not that flexible,’ or ‘Oh, I’m not that strong,’ or ‘Oh, I’m not that perfectly masculine or feminine…’ I think there’s other things that we can see when we see a virtuosic body, we can see someone who can do the splits in a crazy way or leap off the ground and stay in the air, I think this happens with sports all the time, and I think that there’s more than just domination or shame that can happen by watching these people; there are different ways that we can be inspired or challenged, about what’s possible. I think that the more that I’ve thought about the encroaching security state — especially since 9/11, but it was happening even before then, because even before 9/11 I was involved in anti-racist approaches to prison abolition, and critique of the prison industrial complex, and looking at how the war on drugs and the increasing privatisation of prisons was creating a security state that was allowing white and middle-class people to actually feel safer even though we were in a declining murder rate nationally. While the prison construction increase was happening in the eighties, nineties, people’s ideas about bodily safety and about what’s traumatizing, what’s triggering — that field is getting bigger and bigger. And so the space of where you’re endangering others, the space for not just expression but for movement, is shrinking. They just printed articles about how Boston is the U.S. city that is now chosen as the site for the next Olympics, so now they go into the international conversation and try to win, and people were saying that if they win, there will be an absolute, permanent loss of civil liberties for the people of Boston, because any city that hosts the Olympics does a certain whole constriction, and half of those things that they constrict on never go away. The increase of surveillance cameras, the new tactics the police develop, the movement of homeless or poor people out of centers of the city — they never come back. You don’t restore those after an Olympics.
So, I think we’re in a huge crisis that’s racial primarily, but it’s also a huge class war, around security, and I think one of the ways that we can play with that as artists is through physical risk in performance, and to frame that in ways that is not just about spooking people or giving a thrill, but is actually about pushing social limits, about how we construct notions of safety, about how concerned am I for my body, how at risk am I really? Because a lot of people wander around thinking they’re at risk all the time, and it’s like, you are not at risk, not compared to people who are really at risk, who you literally don’t give a shit about, and you don’t even know that the more that you construct a world of safety around you, the more that depends on increasing the risk of violence to the people who are not in your bubble of safety and security and comfort. And that seems really crazy to me, that people don’t understand that, that even to construct a suburb you go ‘No but I didn’t hurt anyone, I went out into the suburb,’ and it’s like, you need to look at how the whole structure is set up. It’s not quite like an Israeli settlement situation but look at the road out to where you are and the road to somewhere else, look at the school where you are and that inner city school. The schools are totally segregated again, it’s like fucking Jim Crow practically. There are complete depletion of resources to the inner city schools in many places. Manhattan is actually better than many places because of the extreme wealth here, but San Francisco is pathetic, barely any white people send their kids to public school now; they’re all in private. In many ways you can’t blame any individual family for it, for making the choice, but at the same time…
Anyways, to me this is one of the many things that’s possible with circus. And not all circus interests me, but I think that I’m really interested in the aerials for many reasons, the three dimensionality, the crazy thrill of it, but also the whole play with risk and the other genre of circus that I feel drawn to is contortion, and it’s not something I ever did, will do, could’ve been good at, but I’m really interested in the distortion of the body outside of the norm, the notion of the circus artist as a freak, and how contortion, which is primarily a female art in most of the circus that people see, but there’s some really interesting male bodies in contortion, not just in the west, occasionally in China where the most intense contortion is, but in India and Africa, and you can now see it in the last ten years in Hip-Hop Dance. It’s always been there, but we went way further with the shoulder dislocation, all the framing of the arms in turf dancing, some of these other things that are really extreme, basically contortion. But, there’s something about the freak body and the people going, ‘Wait, a body doesn’t do what I thought it could do.’ I think there’s a role for that, and I think if you do the slightest bit of research on the history of circus and you realize that this has been going on for a long time. That there have been spectacularized bodies using over exaggerated flexibility that clearly took some crazy ass training, no matter what you were born with. So, there’s something about presenting a body that doesn’t obey the laws that everyone else walking around thinks a body is ‘naturally’ subject to. Defying nature in that way, defying gravity, or bodily structure as we imagine it, that seems to be really valuable, and I’m not prepared to let that go because of a critique about virtuosity or spectacle. Don’t get me started on Circus.