Trajal Harrell on Twenty Looks

By Tim Griffin

Sep 24, 2014

As the presentation of Trajal Harrell’s Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (curated by Matthew Lyons) came to a close last week, director and chief curator Tim Griffin spoke with the artist.

Tim Griffin: What was the genesis of the series? Or better, what prompted your question, “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ballroom scene had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns?”

Trajal Harrell: Around 2007 or 2008, my work started to be shown internationally, and I realized that no one abroad understood where the work was coming from. Although Judson had become well known in European contemporary dance, they weren’t familiar with the voguing tradition. And they certainly hadn’t seen how my own research on these things had developed. So I felt that I had to go back to the basics and reintroduce the work—which I realized would also offer a kind of culmination of thinking about how aspects of a non-dominant culture could ideally migrate into another, more dominant cultural space. Things get hijacked, renamed, replaced, and re-appropriated—like the Blues as it moved into Rock-and-Roll—and my question was meant to consider how any person might turn this situation to their advantage: How can we restructure that migration? I started thinking about multiplicity and products, where if one thing gets stolen, there’s another thing to replace or substitute for it. This brought to mind David Hammons’s selling snowballs, and Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,L,XL—and over time this evolved into the idea of doing the series in sizes.

TG: Was there something specific to that time in New York as well that made you want to grasp those questions? I understand how there would be a loss of context went you went abroad, but was there anything related happening here?

TH: Looking even further back, I did feel very isolated, insofar as Judson had been somewhat forgotten in New York. People were less interested in pedestrian movement than, say, in Cunningham, and then there were those who were only interested in somatic practices. At the same time, while I knew there was an earlier generation of important artists in Europe who had appropriated such things from Judson, I didn’t feel right to just appropriate their working strategies. I remembered how Steve Paxton once said, “You all never rebelled against us.” So in retrospect, I think there was this incredible gap—a weird sense that this amazing history had happened, and yet dance had gone backwards. The history had become invisible.

TG: And this has changed.

TH: The Internet gave people more access to goings-on in Europe and, more locally, I remember the incredible impact of Baryshnikov’s recreating some Judson works in a project called “Past Forward.”

But even when Judson was finally reappearing I realized—and this arose in conversation with my colleague Patricia Hoffbauer—that these appropriations of Judson by younger artists lacked any criticality about its supposed neutrality. People weren’t using the critical tools that they were using in other disciplines to look at this period. How could we ignore that Judson was socially inscribed, culturally inscribed, sexually inscribed, and racially inscribed? And this is when I realized that voguing uptown was taking place during the same time period as Judson, which offered another lens through which to see it. Of course, this juxtaposition required that I problematize my own position within that gaze, because, of course, I was not a voguer. I was not in a house, or associated with a house.

TG: It’s crucial that you implicate yourself in this process of stealing, reusing, or even mainstreaming—even if only within dance.

TH: That’s why the project had such complexity for me. The series came into being, I think, when people were really conceptually stuck in dance. In other words, when Judson was re-found here, people didn’t know what to do. It was clear that dance couldn’t just be a virtuosic body, but what was the alternative? A lot of us here and in Europe were suddenly not dancing, which became boring—though I want to be clear I’m not anti-boredom— boredom can be rich. It’s just that there seemed to be an uncertainty about how to bring the body back in dialogue with that. Something about voguing allowed a different way to walk—literally—through that Judson history and come out on the other side. In this way, one could be completely and conceptually invested in the history, but could also move it forward a bit, generating something else.

TG: In this regard, you’ve often talked about a connection between uptown and downtown making this historical dialogue possible.

TH: Yes, and I really tried to get at that in Small, which is kind of my manifesto. I was not the first person to use voguing in contemporary dance, but what I’ve wanted to do is look at the theories underlying voguing: What is its theory about “realness,” and how does that relate to the “authenticity” of postmodern dance? This approach, I hope, kept me from utilizing voguing in an empty appropriation that just spices up my contemporary dance.

TG: I have to ask about theory and dance. If you’re onstage, you place your audience in the discursive field—even going so far as to hand out theoretical texts to read in the middle of one performance. Why, and how would you explain theory’s impact in such a presentation?

TH: I think people are in the discursive field, whether I place them there or not. The question is which part of the field do we pay attention to and engage. People do not come to performances blank. They read marketing, not to mention bringing their own history of experience and thought. So I try to use whatever I think the performance needs. Though, it’s really only in (XS) where I hand out theoretical texts along with some other writing. As it is the first piece, chronologically, in the series, I wanted to set a foundation that people could explore after the performance. That piece takes place primarily in the dark, and those texts are meant to be read also after seeing the work, so that there is an expanded frame of the performance, and also of seeing and reading.

TG: Critical theory in art and architecture has also impacted the very structuring of the series, as you mention both Hammons and Koolhaas—who have particular pertinence here when it comes to the different economies of dance and art. Could you explain your thinking a bit more in this respect?

TH: The reality is that there’s such a limited amount of capital in dance, which can only support a relatively small number of artists. I’ve been incredibly lucky, but this historical sense in dance of a golden time when the American dancer is discovered in Europe and tours a single piece every year—and this is the top of the apparatus—just isn’t sustainable today. Contemporary visual art, on the other hand, is able to regenerate capital in many different kinds of ways. And so I took a cue and, in a very short period of time, just flooded the market with a lot of work, which is unusual for a young artist—or for any entity other than, say, a ballet company like Ballet Frankfurt or Tanztheater Wuppertal that can maintain a repertoire. I went from doing seven performances in 2010 to doing sixty in 2011. That changed my life.

Here again, it really was about moving from a non-dominant culture to survive in a more dominant culture, thinking about Hammons selling snowballs in the street while taking into consideration basic marketing strategies in branding: If people buy your lipstick, then they may buy your concealer; and if they buy your concealer, then they might buy your eyeliner. Sure, enough, people starting buying my snowballs. But I won’t do this every time, or even really ever again. The production and distribution of a work is inseparable from its meaning, and this just worked conceptually for this series. That said, for more dance artists to take production and distribution more into account certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

TG: Taking a step back in closing, you’ve completed your look at 20 Looks at The Kitchen. How has it fit or overturned your expectations?

TH: You know, I have been thinking about that a lot, because I have moved on. I am into different work now. So it feels a bit like a homecoming for so much work originally presented in New York, but also like a graduation.

Maybe something that feels especially good is how I can see that art institutions have changed a little since the beginning of this series. I didn’t get into this in any way to validate voguing, because it doesn’t need me, and it doesn’t look to our kind of artistic institutions for validation. It’s really a form that exists in its community. And yet a few weeks ago when I saw Leiomy, the famous voguer, dancing at MoMA as part of Boris Charmatz’ 20 Dancers for the XXth Century, I cried, because I couldn’t have imagined that even just a decade ago. I just remember seeing her and crying, and thinking, “My god, when I started this research in 1999 I thought this was just not possible—and now it’s possible.” There have been a lot of contributing factors, from Judith Butler to the Trans movement and beyond, all of it coming together. I guess I hope that this series, presented now, is also a celebration of that kind of inclusiveness.

Photograph by Paula Court

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