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Judson Dance Theater at MoMA – Where History Meets Radical Movement

by Thomas Lax & Ana Janevski
October 31, 2018

This interview with Thomas Lax and Ana Janevski, exhibition curators at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, was conducted and condensed by frank news. A discussion about Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, and how the historical exhibition is perhaps more relelvant than ever.

The exhibition is running at MoMA through February 3, 2019.

frank: How was the exhibition conceptualized from the beginning, within the department?

Ana: The media performance department has a long history with Judson. We have already worked with Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton. There was already a series of relationships that were formed with those artists, and somehow also working with contemporary dancers, choreographers, with those visual artists, Judson was always a recurring term. So we thought it was really important to go back to these artists and talk to them, and try to think together about what an exhibition of Judson Dance Theater could be.

Where does the line fall between performance art and dance? Do you think there is a line?

Thomas: In many ways the exhibition tries to trace the interdisciplinary practices that in the late 1950s, and early 1960s produced Judson Dance Theater. These were a group of choreographers, composers, musicians, film makers, poets coming together. At the end of the day, while they worked with one another, inside of each other's work they still maintain their own identities of makers of dance or makers of painting. I think what you see is the emergence of the category of performance art, which wouldn't come about until later in the 1960s and you see a kind of laboratory or a primordial goop through which that term would mean something today.

How do you relate the live performances that are being restaged and the actual objects being presented in the exhibition itself?

Ana: That was a big challenge of the exhibition. It was how to find this great balance between the live performances and the objects and the different kinds of material that are in the exhibition. We did really thorough research of all the material available, the photos, ephemera, drawings, magazines, costumes, scores. We also thought it was important to talk to some of the protagonists.

We incorporated the oral histories. The spoken word was important.

Also, the way the exhibition is organized, at the atrium, where there are live performances surrounded by the galleries. The fact that there are also some of the live performances in the galleries, it shows how dance can be transmitted and translated in different ways. In all the performances, dance is something that you have to repeat many times. Plus showing films that were done at the time with some of the film makers that were crucial to the exhibition. They were not only recording Judson performances but thinking about how to use film in an artistic way.

Do you think that staging the performances at MoMA changes the way the exhibition was presented?

Thomas: In a major way.

The fact that we've tried to think through how to take live action in a group of singular individuals, and place them into their historical context is one way that we've tried to battle the amnesia or historical perspective that in many ways, predominates our culture today, and the moment where the internet and social media have allowed for all things to live in quick succession and proximity to one another without a deep and rigorous look at the ways in which those things were constituted or enabled to be made alive every day.

I think the context of the Museum of Modern Art, the context of an exhibition, in particular, allowed for a way to think about the kind of collective social and political history of this group of artists. That is what we have tried to do through a presentation of archival materials and other adjacent sites close to Judson. To say that this group of people didn't emerge out of a vacuum, but there was a specific time and place through which their practices were made significant, but also to have a direct relationship to our moment today.

The history of New York City, the history of dislocation, the history of what it means to come together and work with your colleagues that animated much of the work that occurred in 1962. The stakes of that work live and continue through, until this moment in 2018.

How do you mitigate the difference in freedom, that they had then as dancers and performers, then you do now? With everything staged and recorded, do you think that freedom in some ways is lost?

Ana: Those were definitely different times, so there was a moment of the 60s, there was a moment when those artists were extremely young, they were out of school, they decided to use the basement of the church for doing workshops and experiment, and it is a very specific context that you cannot recreate. Maybe it is not important to recreate? What you can somehow relate to and what it is important to keep in mind is, what happened then? What are those changes? What is the experimentation? What is the community feeling that they had? What are the radical things that they did with modern dance? How they worked together. How they relate to the space that they were performing to the other venues in the city. How they organized their work in a very democratic way. I think those are the important things that can be an element of freedom that we can relate to today or we can aspire to today. For sure the context that was there is completely different to what it is now, but it doesn't mean that some kind of understanding and work with this material is impossible.

What lessons do you think we can learn as far as using dance and performance as a medium for activism, for rage, for communicating? Or do you think you present it and let people make up their own minds?

Thomas: The question you're asking, about the relationship between art and politics, between base movement, pure action, between multiple people, and the significance of that in the larger social world, is one that has animated our thinking about this exhibition from the very beginning but also our own approaches to why we work at a public institution, or what it means to collaborate with one another.

You are asking the central question of not the exhibition but what it means to work at any institution, or be inside of culture, today and in any moment.

The way I've come to understand how, in this exhibition in particular, the stakes of political action occur is through an experiment or an anticipation of democracy. In other words, thinking about Simone Forti, Huddle, which happens 3 times a day, 3 times a week, behind where we are standing right now, is a work where you have 8 people, in a deep squat, holding one another, in which one person leaves the group and proceeds to climb on top of the people below them, the community so to speak, that supports them, but also that they weigh down on that, can smell them, and feel their weight in their body.

In many ways, I see it as kind of practice for what it means to be democratic. If you think about in the United States, the voting rights act, being the first moment of the promise of democracy beginning to actualize itself. That happens 3 years after that work is made, so in quite literal historical terms, many of the things that are happening, in terms of practicing democracy, anticipate the very instantiation of what democracy could be in the country.

I think that we are still living in that anticipatory moment, where we are hoping for something to come to pass, but it's still a question of whether it can. Physically being inside of that space, you recognize those things, not just as abstractions or ideas, but as actual things that inhabit your body and that are the space between your body and somebody else's body. Starting from that very anatomical, itemized, social and embedded, entangled place is one way that we can bring people into this conversation.

Do you think that dance and performance art are more accessible forms of art for people who are not familiar with art in general?

Ana: I think it depends a lot about the framing, about the presentation. Eventually, any kind of art can be accessible. It depends on how generous you are in presenting the art and explaining in the working and different tools that go around an exhibition. It's not just about presenting something in the space. Whether it's dance, or object, it's all a series of discussions you have with your colleagues or thinking about the different educational materials for a simple label, a title.

Art can be extremely democratic, if we want it to.

This is also what we learn from the Judson artists, because the same stakes the same problems they face somehow fifty years ago are very much the same problem we are still facing politically. From Judson, they also learned how to be political in that way. Maybe they were not exactly at that moment? Then for sure, a lot of them, became later. Judson itself is a church, Judson Memorial Church, it is still a very social and politically engaged place. We also learn from them how to be accessible, they have dance performances on Monday and Wednesday.

I think art can be extremely accessible including dance and performance. It is on us to make it accessible.

With performance, and the Forti and Paxton choreographing all these different moments, do you think it's the same work of art when different dancers are dancing it?

Ana: I think it's not, but that's not the point. It is never the same work of art when they are doing it. When the work is repeated, it’s never when you do it in the 60s or in the 70s. When we can see the David Gordon piece, The Matter, talks about that, from the solo hidden in 62 at the Judson, he incorporated in his piece, The Matter, in the 70s that he was performing since then. It's always the same and different at the same time, and that, I think, is the beauty of that.

Who is this exhibition for?

Thomas: I would say this exhibition on the one hand for a community of dancers, choreographers, artist and their allies and it’s for strangers. It's for people who we don't know, it's for people who don't know what Judson Memorial Church is or was or what the stakes of Judson Dance Theater meant and continue to mean today. I think we try to make a project that people could enter into. Where they would know every name and see themselves recognized on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. Also, for somebody who would just look at a performance by Yvonne Rainer, and be stunned and moved by how quizzical this thing before them was. Take that experience of not knowing and looking, and looking again, and perhaps through that, find themselves looking closely at the world around them. I think that's who the shows is for.

What's one thing that makes you excited about this exhibition?

Thomas: I am a student of Judson. After working with Ana and Martha Joseph, and many people on a wonderful team, for the last three years, to study everything we could find and talk to as many people as possible who went through the doors of the church in the early 1960s. I am learning something new with every performance I see, and I continue to be a student of this moment.

The pleasure of the show is to actually be humbled by how much more there is to learn about the work every time it is performed.

Ana: Similarly, I would say it's the spirit of the collaboration that is behind this show. Every show is like that, and this show in particular. We claim it, in an important way. As Thomas said, it's about learning and it's about working together.

Thank you.