September 1st, 2017
Adult Contemporary in conversation
Adult Contemporary, the brainchild of Katherine Brewer Ball and Svetlana Kitto, is a four-year-old reading series held in galleries across New York City, where both emerging and established artists and writers from across disciplines come together to experiement, play, and perform. Last month, I met up with with Brewer Ball and Kitto over coffee to discuss the project, their ongoinging collaboration, and their newest ventures, publishing. -L.B.
Lydia Brawner: I wanted to start with: what is Adult Contemporary? How did you get to where you are now? Can you take me through that?
Katherine Brewer Ball: Well, we met at a funeral.
Svetlana Kitto: Sort of.
KBB: Okay, we didn't meet at a funeral, but we got to know each other on the car ride to the funeral of a close mutual friend’s father.
SK: A year later, a bookstore opened in our neighborhood and Katie talked to the owner about hosting a reading series and she asked me if I would collaborate with her on it.
KBB: A reading series is a funny genre, and I liked that there was a tiny space that was filled with books. I thought it would be a fun way for us to collaborate. Lana's an oral historian and writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and I'm an academic and art writer.
SK: We immediately wanted to do something inter-genre.
SK: I mean more than anything I remember going back and forth trying to come up with a name for the series. We finally settled on Adult Contemporary, which was the name of a zine I had started before going to grad school. I liked the name because it brought some humor to the self-serious art and literary worlds I was in. We also went back and forth on the description. It was our first time trying to write something together, which was fun.
KBB: We were changing the description a lot, trying to figure out what exactly it was. At first it was so vague. One of the readers called us out, they were like, "This could be anything, basically you're saying this genre is everyone's invited." And we were like "Yeah, that's awesome!"
SK: It's kind of true. It's an open call but as time has gone by, we’ve realized what it is by doing it. And we've been doing it for four years now…
LB: So then how would you describe what it is? (laughs)
KBB: At first, we just let the people that we chose dictate it. The first reading was Roy Pérez and Cecilia Dougherty. Cecilia is a media and video artist and Roy is a poet and an academic. They're both writers, but it kept opening from there. Then next it was Reina Gossett and Laurie Weeks—
SK: —and Dale Peck.
KBB: All writers, but writers that—
SK: —do very different things.
KBB: Yeah. And are a little promiscuous. We always use that word “promiscuous.” There is a slutiness to the way we are approaching writing…
SK: Rather than a reading series where people are being selected as individuals, we were thinking about how writers’ works inform one another, so it creates its own event that's not just about marketing the writer’s book. As a writer, I also like the idea of giving space to people who don't normally write or who might not think of themselves as writers; it’s a place to experiment and see what happens. Sometimes that's been great, and sometimes it's been, you know, an experiment.
LB: From what I've seen you do, it seems like there are two threads: there is a subtle challenge to expectations of who counts as a writer, and there's this strong element of performance, of when the writing becomes something else in a live moment.
SK: Right. What we eventually came to is that we both like performative writing.
KBB: Writing that is meant to be read aloud, writing that changes a room and takes up space.
SK: As an oral historian, I'm really interested in direct address, the first person and the performance of the first person, and I also like people who tell really good stories.
KBB: What I want is to have people who identify as performers alongside people who identify as writers and academics…to say that these communities don't have to be thought of as totally distinct. I mean, dancers are in conversation with writers, and theater-y folks, and poets and it is important to me to be able to name that. People train for various things, and craft is real, but it feels good to bring various practices together. Sometimes it's a cacophony and it's weird and it's uncomfortable and sometimes, mostly, it's really beautiful to see what happens. I'm thinking about Elizabeth Reddin and how...
SK: Oh, yes!
KBB: It was at Creative Time. And she did this thing where…I mean, she's a poet—
SK: —she's a poet, but—
KBB: —it's this performance-y—
SK: —it's sort of like journaling.
KBB: It was this beautiful thing. It was her with all these scraps of paper, these tiny scraps of paper, sitting on the floor with flower essences and a tape deck and a radio, putting different tapes in the tape deck and tuning the radio, and it looks like she doesn't necessarily plan the order she reads the scraps in, but this beautiful atmosphere was created for these funny little pieces of writing, these small moments. That’s a kind of performative writing, but it's also all the things we want writing to be, like an octopus with tentacles reaching out in all these directions. Lana and I come together in our interest in what happens when writing is spoken.
SK: Right. Elizabeth Reddin is a great example because the way she presents her work is very improvisational and intimate. It’s this brave, generous act that invites the audience into something that feels private. And it stages the writing in a way that isn’t what we are used to seeing at “readings.”
KBB: We like both the things that are written down and then things that aren't necessarily written down. Like, in the third “reading” we had, when we were still in the bookstore, the musician Geo Wyeth came in and interacted with the books. It was like performance, the performance of a kind of reading. He brought his keyboard and laid on the ground and was wearing some sort of an outfit, maybe he was like—
SK: —half naked or something?
KBB: He would pick up all the books and they became these strange interesting objects. Putting a performer in a bookstore, or putting a writer in a performance venue can become a really intimate exchange of performing work in a different way.
LB: It's also so often that you work with galleries, and spaces that I wouldn’t necessarily think of as spaces for reading.
SK: The gallery container is a little bit more open to experimentation as reading space.
KBB: And in New York it’s just difficult to get spaces. We were at Molasses Books, we were at Creative Time in a kind of storage space.
SK: But it was so awesome. It was an old tenement apartment in the East Village with peeling paint and exposed pipes and every time people came in they were like, "Can we move in?"
KBB: It was two floors above the WOW Café. It felt historic. I think we didn't really define it super clearly at first except as an inter-genre-reading-series-experimentation. I think we kept saying that we were into the everyday: everyday stories.
SK: Yeah, everyday, extra-ordinary, ordinary.
KBB: We had key words and we slowly developed the shape of it based on the people we asked to read.
SK: We’ve also talked about how we want to create something of an in-between space that can make process more visible. The idea being that no matter what sort of pre-determined genre you're working in, everyone has something in common in terms of process. So, for instance, people have read the notes for a performance they are working on or an essay that explores ideas they’re working with in another genre. In creating a space like this, we’re hoping to flatten some of the genre divides.
KBB: I keep thinking about how Iván Ramos wore a leather jacket. He was totally channeling Morrissey. He's an academic, but he was performing. It's fun to see academics in more performance-based genres.
SK: Also, we liked the word "urgent." I ended up noticing that the fiction writers I was bringing were political or talking about things that served urgent purposes, historically important or politically expedient, or they would be theatrical in some way with the goal of being accessible and engaging with the audience.
LB: So, what are you working on now?
KBB: We have a book coming out in the fall.
SK: It’s a combination of past readers and artists that we asked to contribute.
KBB: It's exciting because we’re trying to move venues a little bit and turn our interest in performative writing into a physical object. And it is so beautiful; there is something so satisfying about having this brand new baby pink book.
SK: It's very promiscous.
KBB: An urgently promiscous book. Only one of the pieces, Jeannine Tang’s, was actually read at Adult Contemporary, the other ones are new works by artists who have all read or performed in the series. It’s exciting.
SK: We decided a few months ago that we were going to do it and were eventually able to secure most of the funding from Wesleyan and NYPAC (New York Performance Artists Collective). It’s a new foray for us too, to edit together. It's a labor of love.
KBB: It's exciting to edit with someone because we aren't the same. Sometimes I feel like Lana and I are the same person but we're not the same person. So that was confusing.
SK: Yeah, it's always hard. (laughter)
KBB: And sometimes we'd be like "yeah, yeah your edits yeah, yeah!" and then you'd be like "wait, what are you doing!?" We worked on figuring out what our collective editorial voice is. We have different styles, but it was, fun and complimentary. Collaboration is just so impressive to me as a project—
SK: —it's its own endeavor, beyond the work we are trying to do.
KBB: You can't sleep through it. We’re beginning to realize that part of what makes Adult Contemporary is our collaborative work, like it’s a manifestation of our friendship and how we can grow and hold a container for strange, magical and unexpected things to happen.
SK: It’s an emotional project. With each new venture, we are sort of re-committing to our love of this project and collaboration and each other. And like any relationship it takes work and communication and open-heartedness. So, our love for each other feeds the project and vice versa.
LB: So where do you see Adult Contemporary going after the book?
KBB: We're going to have a few release events. One at BAM on September 19th as part of Wendy's Subway Reading Room, with Adam Radakovich, Emily Johnson and Alex Fialho—
SK: —and one at the New York Art Book Fair on September 24th with Amelia Bande, Clara López Menéndez, Lisa Cohen and Rachel Mattson.
KBB: After that we'll keep doing events.
SK: We just had an event at Essex Flowers. We're still being invited to curate events, but we're also interested in making the publication an ongoing project. A book series.
KBB: And we have an amazing designer, Matthias Ernstberger, and he has a whole plan. So, we're going to keep doing books hopefully. Figure out how to fund art enough so that we’re not exhausted and we get to give our writers a little bit of money. Writers are never paid enough I feel like but it's nice to be able to do something. And the work really is just so beautiful.
SK: It is.
KBB: It's exciting to keep going and keep putting performers, academics and poets together. Have we had that many oral historians?
SK: Just me. Oh, and Ted! We had Ted Kerr at Essex Flowers, but oral historians are hard to come by. We've had different kinds of performers: performance artists, dancers, choreographers, musicians…
KBB: New York is full of amazing people and Adult Contemporary is an excuse to be like "Hey, we kind of think you're great, do you want to come in and hang out?"
SK: Basically. Sometimes Adult Contemporary would be the only social thing I would do for the month, ha. But we have an incredible community of friends around us that has supported us from the beginning.
KBB: It's kind of like a little party. We create the space and then step back and see what happens. I think that gentle frame works well.
SK: Yeah. I agree.
KBB: So hopefully we'll keep getting asked to do events and find new spaces to do them in. I mean, that's the thing. It's so hard to make things in New York City without capital. And this is a free thing...
LB: That feels important to the party.
SK: Yeah, it would suck if you had to pay to go to the party.
LB: Before we close out, what kind of questions do you wish that you got asked about Adult Contemporary?
KBB: I think there's something about Adult Contemporary that has been helpful for me, as someone who's spent seven or eight years in grad school to really think about the practices and writing styles that I had taken for granted. The series has pushed me towards experimentation. I’ve been thinking about how all writing is something that happens live, whether it's in the reader’s head or in a room.
SK: For me, it’s similar to teaching writing, where you're telling students all the time, "Just be free, let the pen go, play." Encouraging others to do that reminds me that the act of writing, that process, is necessarily imperfect, and it needs to be messy. I often find that really hard to put into practice in my own work, but that's changing. Doing Adult Contemporary has also opened up my mind to different genres. When we first started, I was much more singly focused on fiction writing. I've since realized that that's actually a limit I put on my own work that I don't need. I'm always going to be the type of writer who works in many genres and whose friends are artists and performers, not purely literary. So yeah. It's like a lifestyle. Adult Contemporary lifestyle.
KBB: We're in the life.
Katherine Brewer Ball is a writer based in Brooklyn. She teaches Performance Studies at Wesleyan University and is currently at work on a book project that traces contemporary black, latinx, and queer performances that break from the language of freedom to theorize escape. Her academic and creative writing has been published in Women & Performance, Artforum.com, Bomb Magazine, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Criticism, RECAPS, Little Joe, Dirty Looks, ASAP/Journal, and by ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.
Svetlana Kitto is a writer and oral historian in New York City. Her interviews, reviews and reportage have been featured in Salon, VICE, Art21, and the book Occupy (Verso, 2012) among other publications and anthologies. She has contributed interviews to oral history projects related to queer histories, race and identity, social movements, art, design and performance with the Museum of Arts and Design, the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, Danspace Project and the Brooklyn Historical Society. In early 2017, her oral history for the book Ken Tisa: Objects/Time/Offerings, published by Gordon Robichaux and Pre-Echo Press, was called a "genius catalog" by Holland Cotter at the New York Times. She is currently working on a novel called Purvs, which means swamp in Latvian, and is the name of the country's first gay club.