On Monday, September 17, the Performa Institute and NYU Steinhardt present Why Dance in the Art World?, an exciting evening where we will explore the history and future of the visual arts’ relationship to and interest in dance. The panel discussion will include historian and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet Jennifer Homans; choreographer, writer, and visual artist Ralph Lemon; MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka; and Artforum.com editor and Artforum contributor David Velasco, moderated by Performa founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg.
As we count down the days to this groundbreaking event, we will look back through Performa’s archives as we search for the answer to “Why Dance in the Art World?”
Today, we have Performa artist Kelly Nipper in conversation with RoseLee Goldberg, November 2008:
RoseLee Goldberg: You work in photography, video, and performance. Can you talk about your training in these various mediums?
Kelly Nipper: I was interested in sculpture early on, but later gravitated toward photography, video, and installation. The movement from one to the other had to do with making, marking, or carving space and time. In graduate school at CalArts, I used photographs of people in my installations. I think I was afraid to work with real people in live performance. With a camera, there’s always a barrier, a distance between the subject and the person behind the camera, whereas performance requires a lot of direct, hands-on work. I am more of the observer type and prefer to keep a distance. Once I left school, I started incorporating live performers into my installations, and it took me about eight years or so to understand on a practical level what that meant. There are now a lot of people involved in each of my pieces, but I still have to be able to get the distance of an observer to make the work happen.
What was the first piece you made once you stepped away from the camera?
I’m not sure I ever stepped away from the camera—that for me is what makes performance both challenging and necessary. The first time I worked with live performers as part of an installation was in Soap #2, a group exhibition presented at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis in 1995. For my piece, Blond, a single performer wearing white terrycloth from head to toe, chewing flavorless bubble gum, and blowing bubbles stood in a long hallway containing a two-door cabinet and several ceiling fans. It was the middle of winter and there was no heat in the building; my sister was the performer, and my mother called it “the icebox piece.” Looking back, I think maybe it was an experiment in understanding different surfaces and materials, working with inside and outside, light and dark.
Did you photograph the performance?
Only as documentation.
When did you start working with dancers?
In 1998, at the same place. I don’t come out of a dance background. I don’t speak the language of dance—but I wanted to explore other dimensions of space and time. I first began working with the choreographer Liz Maxwell, who I met through Sarah Roberts at CalArts, and she translated for me, acting as an intermediary between the performers and myself and coming up with a way to make the movement score. The title of the work I made with her was norma—practice for conditioner.
Strange title. Where does it come from?
Norma was the name given to the rulers in ancient Rome who first determined the standard plan for laying out city streets in relationship to one another and to buildings. They eventually became known as the Normans. When you use a camera, it forces you to organize things in a series of steps. Working with the idea of Norma as a starting point was a way of controlling my process, of framing ideas and holding them together, much like city planning. It was in this work that I became interested in the science of movement. There were three dancers, weather balloons, and nitrogen tanks containing thirty hours worth of nitrogen that drained slowly through hoses into the space, adding an additional atmospheric “layer” to the piece. I’m not sure if it was about making a picture or about stretching time. Actually, I think it’s all about time. Making a photograph is a highly aestheticized process, but what I was doing in norma—and what I’m still doing in Floyd on the Floor—is stretching images in time. The environment is a shifting shape.
You frequently mention the importance of the Midwest in your work. Why?
The Midwestern landscape has a lot to do with the aesthetic of my work. It’s desolate, and most of the year it’s dark. Everything is gray and one image melts into the next. I’m obsessed with underground and with tunnels. In the Midwest it’s so cold that a lot takes place underground, or in enclosed environments that either simulate nature or allow you to feel as though you are part of nature—buildings connected by glass skyways, for example, so that you can see what’s outside without actually being exposed to it. The large expanses of white, of frozen water that changes form, also had a huge effect on what I do.
What’s Midwestern about Floyd on the Floor?
KN: I think it’s the suggestion of the landscape and of storms, but also the level of craft in the work. I associate the Midwest with craft, so in Floyd on the Floor I combine my feelings about Midwestern geography—where nature and weather are omnipresent—with a kind of “honest craftsmanship” that I associate with the region.
Where does the title come from?
It refers to Hurricane Floyd, the 1999 storm that devastated Florida and the East Coast of the United States. Floyd on the Floor is derived from three ongoing, research-based studies—Sapphire, Circle Circle, and Weather Center—that explore the hurricane as a form of unmeasured movement that forms elementally, circles out from the eye, and develops and changes over time.
How did this piece begin?
I started working on Floyd in 1999. I first wrote an elaborate proposal for a show in Europe that included the parachutes and a lot more dancers. While I didn’t get to do that piece, the ideas stayed. Floyd began with a circle and a square. Through Liz, I had learned about Rudolf Laban, which opened up my entire world. I loved Laban’s notation system and the shapes and symbols that make up his language—crystals, platonic solids—which also appear in nature. A figure stands in a space in the center of a crystal; lines extend through the center of the body and out into space. Laban’s ideas made so much sense to me in the bigger picture of life, the way everything connects to everything else in time and space. They became an important part of Floyd.
Floyd on the Floor is a performance that involves eight dancers, but you’re not a choreographer. How did you design the dance, and what should we call you in this role?
I’m a visual artist who uses choreography to shape my ideas about space and time and weather and emotions. I worked with an amazing group of dancers in Floyd. One of them, Sarah Leddy, is a certified Laban Movement Analyst. She worked with the dancers in using the weight of their bodies to carve space and to develop their awareness of the body as a tool to use in my work. It’s a very long, slow process that takes incredible patience, endurance, and commitment from the dancers.
You never see their faces. They’re always wearing masks.
They’re all wearing masks in the shape of numbers. You couldn’t always read them when the dancers were upright. Sometimes they had to be lying down or upside down for you to read them. Guillermo is 6, Sara is 8. This comes from an Ayn Rand novel, Anthem (1938), which I read in college. It had a huge effect on my thinking about the world and the direction in which we’re heading.
At one point there’s a recording of voices speaking in French. It’s an excerpt from Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville . Why Alphaville, and why that particular excerpt?
Very simply, the film is about a city, Alphaville, which is built around and run by a computer, which eventually destructs, so everyone in the city begins to die. The image of how they die—pressing their bodies and faces flat against the walls of buildings as though melting into the walls, and then sliding down them, until they end up face down on the floor—was incredibly powerful for me. The conversation in the film between the man and the woman is about love and the relationship between technology and feelings. They’re talking about different forms of communication, which is what’s going on in the performance—touch between two people, space between two people, communicating and creating relationships.
Extending lines in time and space again.
Yes. French is also the language of Structuralism and of ballet. I liked the fact that people might not understand the French, that they would be one layer removed from the conversation.
The section of Floyd that you presented at Judson was the first in a trilogy. You are planning to present the second and third parts as individual performances, and then ultimately to present all three parts at once, simultaneously in one exhibition space.
Yes, and the project as a whole is called Floyd on the Floor, just like the section presented during Performa 07. Even though sections are being produced in different places, Floyd on the Floor is one large work that is shifting shape within the parameters of the circle. The structure has grown in the same way that a storm develops. I don’t think it’s going to be clear what the project is about until the entire work is completed.
How will you know when the work is completed?
I can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel now. Having the entire work performed together is when it will be completed.
Do you know how long the complete work will run?
Floyd on the Floor at the Judson Church for Performa 07 was about thirty minutes. I think the final piece, including all three parts, will be the same length or a little longer.
The images of Floyd on the Floor are incredibly beautiful, and cry out to be photographed. Will you do that?
Probably not, but who knows. I work hard not to get hung up on things like documentation, or the picture frame, or the audience’s place in a performance. These are things that art history has been grappling with for quite some time, and for me, they’re kind of over-cooked, over-thought or maybe even boring at this point in my work. Maybe I’ll make a film of Floyd on the Floor eventually.
You worked with Allan Kaprow for nine years. How has that shaped your ideas?
The total environment has always been important to me, and of course working with Allan had a lot to do with that. He also taught me that it was okay to say, “I changed my mind,” which is something he did regularly. Tamara [Bloomberg, now the manager of Kaprow’s estate] and I were challenged every day with that statement, which made archiving his materials almost impossible—exactly how he liked it! On some days Allan would sit on the sofa in his studio and read the Dewey book or the Cage book or the Duchamp book for the zillionth time. The books were so worn from use—fading, broken spines, pages tagged with Post-it notes. He would explain to Tamara and me how he wasn’t an artist but a “garbage collector,” and subsequently Tamara and I were “waste removal.” There are so many ways that Allan shaped me. His work and his papers he presented on art education to organizations such as the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1960s have also had an enormous influence on me as a person, an artist, and now as a teacher. I learned a great deal from him—what to do, what not to do, and when to do.
This interview was excerpted from Everywhere and All at Once: An Anthology of Writings on Performa 07. Why Dance in the Art World? takes place at Judson Memorial Church on Monday, September 17. Join us.