EmmaGrace Skove-Epes at Gibney Work Up 4.3: “in search of mirrors, and catch the light just right”

EmmaGrace Skove-Epes on her newest work: in search of mirrors, and catch the light just right

In conversation with Katie Dean: March 5, 2018

Can you tell me a bit about your process?

This piece is the 4th iteration of this work that we’ll be showing. Other iterations have been shown at Dance Roulette, Theater for the New City, and Movement Research at the Judson Church. It started as a duet between myself and Gyrchel Moore, a longtime friend and collaborator who has worked with me on a number of pieces, and now has become a trio between the two of us and Mor Mendel.

The work draws from layers of intimacy a lot. My experience is that making something with people is in many ways inherently intimate, and that intimacy can be rich, and perhaps scary because there’s vulnerability at stake. I’m generally not interested in performance without some sort of vulnerability involved, I think because I perform as one way to really give time to the possibility to be affected and to affect, which requires vulnerability, whether on a micro or macro-scale. But I recognize that performers’ willingness to be vulnerable in creative processes, which often involves the intimacy of giving over to the process to a large degree, can also be easily abused and often without a choreographer’s or director’s awareness. I think even if collaborators on a certain project have known each other for a long time, it can take a lot of communication to ‘be on the same page’. So many things can easily get dropped or assumptions can be made in the rush to have something ‘ready’.
With this particular process, I’ve noticed that when it starts to feel like we’re working towards a performance, we’ve veered off-course, but when it feels like we’re working on building layers of our relationships that the audience will get to witness, we’re on track. I’m unquestionably grateful to be sharing the work, and especially to have had access to the cohort of Work Up artists, as they are each very powerful and have been incredibly generous in chewing on ideas and brainstorming. And I recognize, I’d be happy with the time spent if there was no performance, because the sort of time it has allowed me to spend with Gyrchel and Mor is so valuable to me.

Throughout the process, we’ve also been talking about making and performing work together as another way to spend time together. This work is highly collaborative, and while I’ve created prompts and directed many of the explorations that have lead to the material in the work, and taken on the role of sequencing and piecing things together, it’s felt critical for there to be space for us each as individuals to be able to voice desires we want to follow and explorations that we want to try on. In many ways it feels strange to consider long-term relationships with collaborators and friends, and to ‘direct’ or ‘choreograph’ ways of spending time together, as ‘director’ or ‘choreographer’ implies a power dynamic that I’m working through that feel very different from friendship. I question myself in thinking about how I always want to spend deep quality time with friends and community, and how it somehow feels easier when there’s a goal, like making something together, with a deadline or specific timeline involved. That’s something I  really want to resist, the idea that spending time together should be goal-oriented, or prioritized if it’s goal-oriented, and yet at the same time, I think that in the bustle of NYC living, having a performance date and a rehearsal schedule held me accountable to creating time to spend. The work draws from layers of intimacy a lot, and my experience is that making something with people is in some ways inherently intimate, and that intimacy can be rich or scary, or in some processes, abused. With this particular process, I’ve noticed that when it starts to feel like we’re working towards a performance, we’ve veered off-course, but when it feels like we’re working on ritual-building and building layers of our relationships that the audience will get to witness, we’re on track. I’m very grateful to be sharing the work, and especially to have had access to the cohort of Work Up artists, as they are each very powerful and have been incredibly generous in chewing on ideas and brainstorming. And I recognize, I’d be happy with the time spent if there was no performance, because the sort of time it has allowed me to spend with my collaborators is unquestionably valuable to me.

Can you speak to the objects that are part of the work?

I’ve been thinking for a while about how the way in which I’m generally interested in making work has to do with considering choreography as a way of interacting with and listening to a particular environment that already exists. Making work for black box or white box or other theatrical space (or museum or gallery) so often has this culturally white legacy attached: creating “from scratch”, working with a “blank canvas”, working with a “neutral space” and projecting one’s own reality onto a space as if nothing was there before. And of course there are plenty of people who have challenged and subverted this way of working both outside of and within those spaces, and then of course many people aren’t afforded the possibility of “blank” or “neutral”. For me, for whatever reason, bringing objects and sounds into a space has felt like a method to shift my perception of a space that is often used in a certain way and projected onto, so that I can attempt to listen to it as an environment with more sensitivity. Maybe the objects and sounds are comforting and grounding, and enable me to get out of my own way so that I can listen more clearly.

We’ve worked with these [blue glass] bottles in a previous piece. We use them as lighting instruments and to create sound. Some are filled with water and make different sounds when we blow into them, and almost in a similar way to a tuning fork vibrating the space, or vibrating water if you submerge it in water, there’s something meditative for me about following the stream of the air molecules from my lungs into this bottle, those molecules vibrating and resonating within the bottle, which vibrates and resonates the space, which vibrates and resonates me. I feel my bones vibrating. It serves as a very tangible reminder of how my actions impact the space around me and the space around me impacts me. I feel that on a very micro-somatic and physiological level, it makes tangible certain ways that energetic pathways can be carved into or impressed upon the space through making sound or dancing, and how the traces of these pathways that come before us impress upon and carve into us as occupants of a space, however temporary.

We have these piles of leaves, some of which are dried and some are preserved with glycerine, and some have writing on them. They’ve been collected from Prospect Park, which is a place I grew up going to and still live near, as well as around Gibney, as well as some in Charleston, South Carolina, where some of my family lives. They’re a vehicle for tactile sensation and sound that gives a certain feedback mechanism in a similar way that the sounds of the bottles do, and they’re so delicate, so you can’t handle them or be handled by them without changing them or being changed. The sensation, sound, and smell they offer is so specific, and they’re loaded with/embodying of life, death, transition, transformation, being in between different kinds of fleeting states. But also they have to do with a different way of trying to listen to space and place, and considering the life cycle of these leaves in regards to the life cycle of ourselves and what they’ve potentially witnessed in their year of life, vs. the life cycle of the trees they came from. Interacting with them feels like a way to take on and meditate on those questions, and to expand whatever space we’re performing in, to include what was there before the structure of the building, and what is currently surrounding the building. In thinking about the Sara Ahmed quote I’ve been working with, it feels like the leaves are a part of the second skin that unfold in the folds of the body of a building.

Can you speak about the microphone you use in the work?

We sing first without a microphone, quietly to ourselves, to each other, to the space-, and then into the microphone, and then the microphone amplifies other sounds in the space.  Microphones often bring up for me power dynamics around the voice–who gets heard– by virtue of the fact that most microphones are only really able to pick up one voice, maybe two at a time clearly. They also often connote a certain convention of performativity, or set up an expectation of relationship between who is speaking and who is listening.

In working with the Sara Ahmed text, as well as some others (Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown and Luz en lo Escuro by Gloria Anzaldúa), the quote I mentioned before in particular felt like an entrypoint into a somatic exploration of inner and outer space, and space that’s in between. Again, in thinking of what happens physically and while singing as just one example of how we affect and are affected physiologically by the spaces we inhabit, in ways that may be minute but profound nonetheless. I’m interested in tracing and giving attention to these shifts and moments of effect as a way of being, and in a way it feels like the microphone amplifies processes that are often invisible, but happening whether we hear or see them or not.

Sara Ahmed also speaks to, or my understanding of what she’s writing, is the potential of queering how we look at and interact with objects and spaces. There’s a societal value that we will interact with them in a way that’s efficient, expected and utilitarian in a culturally prescribed way, without often recognizing that how we approach or use objects and spaces, and what we think they’re for, comes from a very individual history and conditioning that is often not recognized as culturally white or capitalist or cis-hetero-patriarchal. The act of challenging these mainstream-culturally ‘normative’ uses or interacting with objects in ways that feel intuitively  “good” or “pleasurable” in some way feels maybe magical or alchemical, and a rich site for personal investigation and healing.

I notice something in your work about entering into exploration with a softness or gentleness, as a way of taking attention to small changes as a way to be more aware of the ways in which we as large bodies in space move through and affect things. For instance, putting attention into blowing air into a bottle, creating change inside that bottle, and that there is an invisible but real change that occurs, and that how you take attention to these energetic or spiritual pathways identifies and in a way gives you more opportunity to have consciousness about the ways you are existing in larger, or potentially larger, ways.

It does feel spiritual and I strongly believe that whether we can hear or see these processes or not, if we can slow down and listen, we will feel it in some way. We may not always being able to identify where it’s coming from, but the impact feels very real. There is something about walking through space, and constantly displacing molecules and being displaced, something about the slowing down to feel shifts how we do or don’t take up space, that doesn’t provide answers to any larger questions about displacement for me or taking space, but does speak to me about ways that micro patterns play out on a very macro level macro level or rather, how by not giving attention to the impact of our actions, even on a ‘small’ energetic scale, that trauma can be created in us as well as others impacted by our actions. Something about the slowing down to even recognize that process can provide alternative ways of action as well as serve as a potential site of healing. Adrienne Maree Brown writes beautifully about these linkages in her book Emergent Strategy. She discusses the concept of fractals, and how patterns repeat themselves on different scales: large-scale patterns reflect small-scale patterns, and vice versa.

I don’t know if ritual is the right word, but something about the way you work with care- with a carefulness or a purposefulness, which is maybe also related to an almost spiritual practice of slowing down in order to heal. Are there other things in your life that you find speak to this work or practice that you have been building? I know you’ve been doing book binding and creating jewelry and earrings, and these other craft-based things that are very much about tactile action, and wondering if those things came alongside this action, or if they feel like one is a release of the other.

There’s something about creation and tactile communication with objects and spaces, that feels very charged and restorative to me- these objects feel perhaps like a lock and key into a certain way of seeing, or remembering, like a looking glass. In the context of creating performance work, the tactile communication with the objects, as well as between the objects and the space, feels like it opens up the environment in which the work gets made, and the work existing in that environment. Regarding the movement that exists in the work- we enact very specific actions, and there is a purposefulness in selecting them- but simultaneously, these particular actions are also just vehicles to feel and listen in a certain way- they’re not arbitrary, but the form of the actions and the way they’re found is through interaction with the space and the materials. Movement becomes a listening to the materials and a kind of searching for what the materials can teach us, or how their presence impacts us, without needing to know or name those lessons or impacts per se, but to trust that something has been passed on and absorbed. I have a very present belief that these objects ‘talk’ to each other in their own way, through existing in the same space and through their relationships to each other in the room. These interactions charge the objects and charge us through interacting with us in a way that feels very related to magical realism. I do a lot of arranging and rearranging of objects in my room, and that certainly feels like a related ritual.

Gibney asked each Work Up artist to create a visual art piece that would accompany or illuminate the performance in some way, and all of the things you mentioned- a book I simply bound, small bottles filled with dried plants (on their way to becoming earrings), and dried leaves, are a part of that piece (currently in the gallery at Gibney alongside the works of other Work Up artists). The book I’m binding and re-binding that’s hanging in the gallery is constructed to be an in-process archive. I’ve never formally archived my work other than half-scattered photos and video, but have been considering that since this work is so much about about slowing down and feeling the difference between one moment and the next, and a frequent interaction with material, that the archival attempt requires the same materials as are in the piece, like these leaves that you can see disintegrate, or you can see how my attempt at preserving them is very temporary and is failing. There’s a relationship between the book and the tree these leaves came from- the intention is to add more objects and add more thoughts, unbind and bind it a number of times to add pages to infuse the process into this archive and have it rub off on me, through archiving/”writing” a very nonlinear story to the making of this piece.


A lot of it feels intuitive, that is comes from a certain listening, but then of course there’s a lot of desire once things are set up in a certain way, “what do we want to do?”, and it feels because of the qualitative energy that is driving the piece, it feels necessary that everyone has some desires that are able to be met even if what they get out are different than they thought they would be.

I think another thing that has to do with care and self-care. Trusting that I need to do something even though I don’t know why, even though it doesn’t make sense. Trust that while I can’t explain why, and that is desire-driven but the hope is that there’s some listening involved, there’s a tension between or a blurriness between imagination and reality, imagination as well as an attempt at listening, which ends up turning into projections onto spaces. While they’re built to listen to the space and while we do a lot of listening through slowing down, we’re also inviting a certain amount of sensuousness and intimacy with each other and the materials and the space, there’s a tension between that in desire and following through with that desire.

Anything else you’d like to speak to about the piece?

Throughout the making of it, I’ve been trying to find a way to trace and credit influences, in all of their vastly different forms. Ultimately I think it’s impossible to trace them all or know them all or name them all, both because of how I believe interconnectedness works- I believe I am influenced deeply by even fleeting exchanges or experiences I may not even remember, and that these experiences are churned and recombined in ways that lead me to make my current choices, but in a way that may be invisible to me. Despite this invisibility, it feels critical to try to name influences and to commit to uncovering those that I may not know yet. We continue to live and work and make in a society in which individual artists are uplifted for being “cutting edge” or “inventing new forms”, and in which solo authorship is praised without an acknowledgment of the immense amount of collaboration and building on the work of others, that exists in any thought, work of art. This piece would not exist were it not for Gyrchel and Mor. Organizing with Artists Co-Creating Real Equity, an antiracist collective of artists who have gone through training with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, has been instrumental in my ever-evolving understanding of the cultural underpinnings of individualism, and how this plays out in systemically racist ways within the arts.

I’ll name a few influeces that come to mind, in this moment, though if I were to think about influences in a different moment, I’d likely have a partially different answer. The texts I mentioned earlier (Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Luz en lo Escuro), I’ve been slowly reading and sipping in over the course of making the work, less as ‘traditional’ research for the piece and more because they put me in a space that feels related to how I want to exist within the piece. Poetic language that Gyrchel’s 3 year old son, Menes, brought into rehearsal: “the leaves are raining”. Facts that kids who I’ve taken care of have taught me about eclipses, and the excitement in their voices. Chani Nicholas’ writing about eclipse season, and how we process change. And an anecdote from my stepmom, in which she told me about how just in the past year the local government in Charleston, South Carolina, where she grew up and currently lives, passed a law people had been fighting for a long time, allowing all of these live oaks that were hundreds of years old to be cut down in order to make new developments. She was talking about feeling like these live oaks were witnesses to the history of the south, and how gentrification of former plantation land is another chapter to that history that these live oaks won’t continue to witness. My stepmom’s acknowledgement of these parts of natural environments that witness our actions, and living ancestors who bridge times, was a big influence in the questions I was carrying with me and chewing through in my life, while making the work. We’re all living in and with that history- and contending with it’s consequences in serious ways. While I have spent time around the live oaks in Charleston, while visiting family, this anecdote gave me space to consider what the trees in Prospect Park, not far from where I grew up and where I was collecting leaves for this piece, were and continue to be witness to, in my lifetime and before. “in search of mirrors, and catch the light just right” is not ‘about’ this phenomenon that my stepmom described, it’s not ‘content’ of the work- I’m not sure you’d see or feel anything linkable to this idea, though I don’t know. But it feels important in considering how this influenced my thinking and feeling as someone who very much believes in connections between all parts of my experience, as a non-compartmentalized being, during the time that I was making this work. I’m not interested in trying to force a connection between my work and this realization- unfortunately it feels like there’s a trend to link work to larger political issues in a way that feels at times superficial, or like it serves the artist because it makes them feel relevant. This is not what I intend, I intend to give space for the way that thoughts and art-making and conversations in ‘separate’ parts of my life, bleed in and out of each other, and become blurry. Perhaps in the way that I believe the objects talk to each other while in the same space of the work in a way that is not my ‘doing’, I believe that all of these currents of thought and action rub up against each other and inform and influence each other, even if that process is invisible or illegible.

EmmaGrace’s piece in search of mirrors, and catch the light just right will be showing as part of Work Up 4.3 at Gibney Mar 16 +17 alongside work by Melanie Greene and Summer Minerva. Tickets and more information are available here.

MARCH 16 – 17 AT 8:00 PM

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