Dispatch from dOCUMENTA (13)

Will Rawls in Conversation with Thomas J. Lax

Dancer and choreographer Will Rawls (b. 1978) recently finished performing in British-German artist Tino Sehgal’s (b. 1976) This Variation, in dOCUMENTA (13). Founded in 1955 in the wake of World War II, documenta is an exhibition of international contemporary art occurring every five years in Kassel, Germany. In This Variation, audience-members enter a darkened room in Hugenottenhaus, a disused building in Kassel constructed by migrant workers in the early nineteenth century. A group of contemporary dancers, singers, musicians, physical theater actors and a mime respond with sounds, speech fragments and movement phrases, what Rawls calls a “dramaturgy of events”. The work is made live, as the order, volume, and direction of the dramaturgy are decided by and communicated amongst the dancers in direct response to the audience. While Sehgal eschews standard museum interpretive devices for his work (wall texts, press images and even contracts when work is acquired into permanent collections), his work is understood through the encounters and memories of the players and publics who interact with it. Below, Studio Museum Assistant Curator Thomas J. Lax sits down to Gchat with Rawls about his experience in This Variation.

Thomas Lax: In the press release for dOCUMENTA (13), curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev states that the exhibition "takes a spatial or, rather, ‘locational’ turn, highlighting the significance of a physical place." Can you talk about the relationship between This Variation and Hugenottenhaus?

Will Rawls: Although the room This Variation takes place in was a concert and performance space where musicians played for balls, it is not a revisionist history of Hugenottenhaus. In an alternate reading, Christov-Bakagriev's prioritization of locational significance could be applied to the significance of the presence of people—both dancers and visitors. This Variation places the visitor inside of their bodies at this particular place and time in their art-going experience. Many of Tino’s work carry a “this” in the title. For me “this” refers to this particular moment in time, with this particular visitor or reader, and with this particular interpreter. It is an attempt to draw a visitor into direct dialogue with the work that tries to illuminate their presence and the presence of the work in the space where they both happen to be.

The room we are in is effective in that as a player and as a visitor, one can feel the room come to life and shift around oneself; there is a sense of containment and proximity that is crucial to the sensory experience of the work. The experience of living in Kassel is a kind of social project to me—we have replanted our lives here and we understand ourselves somehow as works of art and also real people who need to make connections to our surroundings and each other, build rhythms, tour the exhibitions, etc. I imagine a visitor gets the sense, and are implicated in the fact that these works of art are inhabited and peopled. The visitors' presence refracts, complicates, co-produces ours. And vice versa.

TL: That’s a fully-bodied and helpful way of describing the “variation” named by the work. Like Tino's other works that disallow expository writing, This Variation’s title is perhaps the most legible place where text about the work appears. Can you talk about some of the specific variations you've experienced as a dancer in the work?

WR: What This Variation was on June 9 is far from what it was at the end of the run in September. In the trial runs of the work in March in Rennes at the Musée de la Danse and in April in Geneva, the early rehearsal groups began to work out what kinds of internal cues the piece would need to enable us to shift the work in a direction that would seem to respond to the visitors, or room tone or the vibe of the group. It is a very responsive work—it could be retitled This Responsiveness or This Listening. For the players, having a set of choreographies that we can play, like a deck of cards, allows for a certain range of choice. At times, it is crucial to cut something short that the group has wandered into. At other times, it is crucial to pump up our energy or hush down a group of loud visitors who are raucously fumbling their way through the room. Having the range of choice then allows us (and this happens more and more) to head into the unknown when we are improvising music and dancing, when we are composing vocal tracks or dancing outside of the set material of the piece. There is a lot of unknown territory, physical and vocal terrain that varies depending on, again, the players present in the room. And THIS is the piece. It is for me. And I think it is for Tino as well.

TL: If the visitor doesn’t know where the choreographed sections end and the improvisation begins, why is their distinction important?

WR: Their distinction is important to me personally, as a player in the work, because I feel able to step away from the “deck of cards”, introduce a unique sound, or add to someone else’s unique sound or movement. These departures keep the work interesting and make sense to me in response to the task of constructing the work new every time we step into that room. Other players have other agendas and interests; mine happen to be revealing the shift from set material into improvisation, and back again, revealing some kind of mechanisms at work, communicating that the work is living and breathing and thinking, as well as singing and dancing. There is no prescription for how this might happen; sometimes it has to do with resisting what song has been initiated, what card has been played, and running some kind of sonic interference or stopping it or speeding it up or making a sign that the spatial configuration of the song should change—complicating the sheer pleasure of the song and dance routine, making it clear to the visitors that not everyone in the room is ready or willing to launch into the same song and dance at a given moment. It is asserting my individuality inside of a deeply social practice. Some songs and dances feel right following what has come before; others feel really wrong. Sometimes remixing a song feels better than doing it outright; and at my most favorite moments we leave the set material behind and compose something we couldn’t have expected. I believe the visitors can sense this if they stay with us long enough. Of course, all of this is totally subjective judgment. The piece is politics and politics is variations on a few themes. We players have developed an enormous amount of respect for each other, but this does not mean that we always arrive at consensus.

TL: How is the “unknown” performative territory you’re describing communicated to the audience? How is the audience interpellated more generally? documenta is an international art event, and even if the majority might understand the English and German the players speak, the American pop songs you sing will inevitably have a different resonance for audience members of different cultural or linguistic backgrounds. Can you talk about how viewers are guided in what is a space that is physically dark and whose reference points are, metaphorically, variedly lit?

WR: At times when we are speaking in English in the work, I feel that the non-native English-speaking visitors might have a tricky time following us. But the speaking is a small part of the work. The use of music and movement are the primary elements of the work and these have a broader impact. In terms of the use of American pop music, it is widespread enough at this point to have more of a connective effect on a general public than an alienating one. The question of American pop music's cultural hegemony, for better or for worse, is a language that many people speak, or have heard. It is a conscious choice of Tino's to work within this American pop format (though some of the music comes from European bands). The familiar music presents a kind of "history painting," in Tino's words, of a certain cultural moment. But the question of who relates to this history painting is up for grabs; it is a decidedly limited, Western framework, but perhaps so is the concept of history painting as such. The work does not have a system for guiding people through the experience of cultural difference and I think this is one of its strengths. I do not relate to all of the songs we do, which also motivates me to make different choices about when and how they occur in the piece; this navigation of my own feelings inside of the work could be a way to reflect a visitor’s navigation.

When the improvisation starts, this is when the piece veers away from specific references to the past, even a recent past, and articulates a right nowness. We are creating a sonic and physical reality that is fresh, or at least deeply personal to each player and which morphs and stretches into a kind of group practice of reality. At the same time, the unity of us knowing what the choreography is and them not knowing also maintains a kind of distance. This is where the improvised material comes in. This is where the piece is really thinking differently. As players, we are thinking differently about ourselves, what we each might be producing and consequently, at the best times, this can appeal to a visitor's listening skills as they step into the unknown with us.

TL: The work is produced as much by Sehgal’s prompts as by the players and the audience members. Can you talk about how you see authorship functioning in this work?

WR: The piece certainly brings up and contributes to a dialogue about authorship that has been circulating more widely as large museum projects involve more and more dancers. The concept of improvising a structure to the piece every day belongs to Tino. But Tino also worked very closely with Louise Höjer (who has installed or worked within every project of his for the last seven years) and Frank Willens (who installs much of Tino's dance work). Tino concretized the movement and vocal ideas in and through the bodies of Louise and Frank. Then when I arrived in Berlin to rehearse for the work in May, Tino, Louise and Frank were there to teach us a selected number of songs to which they had worked out voice parts with the help of composer Ari Benjamin Meyer. But as we were learning these songs, Tino kept repeating, "This is not the piece."  He wanted us to be quite clear about the fact that it would in fact be the process of choosing when and how these choreographies would come into play at a given moment in the work. The idea of authorship being shared and belonging to multiple people—as is often true of group dance work—is highly complex, filtered, process, re-processed and honed in a deep exchange.

TL: Tell me about one specific memory you have of an exchange with an audience.

WR: Sometime in August, a group of eight young boys came into the room, and as is often the case with younger people, they loved running around in the dark and agitating each other, darting in and around the adults (whose eyes adjust more slowly), making noise, spooking themselves. They were part of a birthday party, which I think is very cool. When I was eleven I don't think I would have chosen documenta as a destination for my birthday. They were disruptive, but only in a classic theater going sense. If we were at a contemporary dance concert they would have been subdued. But they were "using" the piece, producing their own experience, which is always really nice to see. After they had been in the room for a while it became evident to our group that we needed to find a way to integrate them, to channel their energy into the work—to respond, to shape-shift. We players started a vocal improvisation and the boys had taken a liking to the sound I was making. So they gathered around me and they picked up on my bass beat and I began to conduct them. I led them around the room and they were thrilled to feel validated and supported somehow; it became a kind of joyous, hyperactive but organized processional in a circle around the room that was backed up by the other players and witnessed by the visitors.

TL: That’s so fun! As was this. Thanks for making the time to chat Will!

Upcoming programs surrounding dOCUMENTA (13):

100 Notes – 100 Thoughts
Thursday, October 18, 7pm

A reflection on dOCUMENTA (13) Notebooks by Avital Ronell, with a response by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
More information: http://artistsspace.org/programs/100-notes100-thoughts/

*Panel on dOCUMENTA (13) at The Cooper Union
Saturday, October 20, 5pm

More information: http://documenta13cooperunion.eventbrite.com/#
*Sold out.