Back in November for Critical Correspondence, I spoke with San Francisco-based choreographer Laura Arrington, to confer about the creative process for her newest work Wag. The work premiered as a part of a shared evening with Bay Area artist Jesse Hewit. Their shared evening, The Dog Show, took place at Z Space in San Francisco, December 8-11, 2011. We discuss making dance on both coasts, the value of an audience, and how language breeds expectations. Interview Date: November 17, 2011
Milka Djordjevich: How and why did you started making work and what that process was like?
Laura Arrington: I wanted to make work in school and was making work in school. I went to New York and stopped making work and kind of stopped dancing all together. I moved out here [San Francisco] with a former partner and fell back into it because it’s a lot easier here than in other places, and I just kept doing it.
Milka Djordjevich: When you started making work again, what were some of the ideas or motivations about wanting to make work? And what kind of work? Did it have any relationship to what you had done in school?
Laura Arrington: I was thinking about that a lot. Why making things has been my thing all my life. All of the times I have reinvested in making it, it’s been quite simple and as silly as it sounds, just about imagination or a playfulness or something. I came out to California and started doing it again just because everything wasn’t as conditional as it was in New York. There are a lot of resources and an ease to making things here. I got really into it again.
Milka Djordjevich: You said, “the ease to making work here.” Can you talk about what that ease is? And I’m curious about how a certain environment, or even the city itself, conditions and frames how someone makes work? Even if it’s just the logistical day-to-day things.
Laura Arrington: When I first got out here, it was really different. The Garage was where I started making things and there wasn’t the amount of interest in making shows there as there is now. So, space was readily available. And there was no pressure because there was no audience. It was just literally: you get the key, you show up, you work on some shit, and maybe twenty people are there, at most, and then you’re done. So that felt like the perfect kind of conditions for me. And things have since changed a little bit. There’s a little more identity around the performance community and maybe it’s not as relaxed as it was when I first got here. But, that’s what was really nice about making work because I started to meet people who were making work under the same conditions, like Phillip Huang and Jesse Hewit. That sense of us being able to relax into it is something that is really different.
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Milka Djordjevich: Or having the space for failure?
Laura Arrington: Yeah. It just didn’t matter. It was really just me and I didn’t know anybody. I knew one friend of mine who had moved out to the Bay from New York as well, then a girl I went to college with and a girl I just met in a dance class. There was no pressure on any of it. You know, the Bay doesn’t have the same identity as other places, especially New York. There’s not that pressure of you’re never going to “make it” or whatever that means.
Milka Djordjevich: Well, what does that mean anywhere [laughs]?
Laura Arrington: Totally. But I think people think that.
Milka Djordjevich: Yeah, I’m surprised that there are people who feel that. But, ultimately, when you try to describe those who “make it” to people outside of whatever small community these people work in, are they really making it? We’re not really working in the same commercial models.
Laura Arrington: I think that’s the thing. Even with that filter, I didn’t have to engage with that at all when I came out here. It almost felt like being a little kid again and putting on shows for your friends. That’s what’s really interesting too. You can capitalize on that. Like, the Home Theater Festival out here has now become this whole other thing, but started off as absolutely that. Just play around in your bedroom and make a show. That’s become the identity of the festival and it’s capitalizing on that approach and turning that into an aesthetic and an artistic statement.
Milka Djordjevich: It’s basically acknowledging what people already do and making it a valid thing as opposed to acting like it’s some how less valid because it isn’t part of an institution or doesn’t have the same sort of production values. That’s how people are working anyways and the facade of production value is totally nonexistent. In working that way, I am assuming that things have shifted for you now? You have shown your work more, probably have been given more support and have worked with some institutions?
Laura Arrington: Yeah. Right before the biggest show I’ve ever done – in terms of all of the sort of administrative work – the conditions for making work really, really shifted. I still feel really connected to the original impetus for making stuff. But, it does always shift things and it does change the way that things have to happen. Even the mediation that happens in the process. Right now, I got grant support for the show, but it’s not as mediated as other shows – I have a lot of freedom. But, I have worked with institutions and felt like, “That’s something different.” Specifically, what happened with SQUART and also a Counterpulse residency I had. So, I feel like right now I am just trying to wrestle with why I am actually making work, what I am making it for, and what is my relationship to releasing it, letting it be seen. I don’t feel like I know any of that right now. But, I think those are the questions you have to start asking yourself as I’ve started to have more people involved, more interest and large-scale shows. But, also realizing how detrimental that can be to getting work done.
SQUART’s a really great example because it was one of those things that was just an idea and we did it and I kept doing it. It was all of the circumstances around it that kept changing, but SQUART stayed the same.
Milka Djordjevich: Can you describe SQUART?
Laura Arrington: SQUART is Spontaneous Queer Art. It’s a show I started a year and a half ago that happens a couple times a year. Usually, a group of about forty artists show up and in a compressed period of time make something. It’s usually about two hours but we have done one in a twenty-four hour period of time. It’s literally the same container: It’s a bunch of strangers, a couple requirements, a small amount of time, and then a show. It was really interesting watching SQUART shift from place to place and seeing how different each place that SQUART existed in, how it was received, even noticing that sense of mediation. It started off at The Garage, and it went to the Lab, and SoMA Arts, and it went to Headlands. At the Garage, nobody gave a shit about it. But then at Headlands, it was this amazing experience with all these incredible people who were involved, but there was a lot of justification that had to happen: why should this exist? What are you doing this for? And, so even those filters, having to deal with those questions, and even having those conversations, I thought, “Oh, this is really different.” It also shifted the way you think about things. Like if you’re constantly having to justify the existence of something or explain why it matters or what’s relevant about it. Or, convince someone to show up to it. It’s kind of impactful in terms of how you do things.
Milka Djordjevich: It also seems with SQUART, there’s probably this element of the ownership being of the community and people have a hand in its existence and what it is. And as it happens, as people have witnessed it, as people have expectations and as people are doing it, more becomes invested which then, probably, complicates it because them emerge differing opinions about what it is.
But I wonder then, in relationship to making work, I know you said that you still have many questions about the expectations of making work in this community. But do you find yourself starting a work and thinking about the ideas that are going to be a part of it? And how to make choices with who you’ve worked with and stuff? Is there this element of the voice of the community? Or certain people that start to guide you? Or do you fight against your community? Because, I have been thinking a lot about this – both making work in New York and starting to make work here. I am starting to really embrace the fact that when I make work that is going to be shown in New York, even though I am trying to think more broadly about it, I still know where it’s going to happen, who the people are, who are, more or less, going to come to it. And, I come here, and realize, oh, it’s a different situation. And, then I am starting to re-question what it is that I do.
Photo courtesy of Laura Arrington
Laura Arrington: Yeah, it’s that thing about how things are received and how even the circumstances around how they’re made, impacts the work. I am definitely thinking about that a lot, especially if I am thinking about coming to New York. I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting about San Francisco. It’s a small community and it is a community where there is a premium placed on collectives and the community here. That can take you in a lot of different directions. For me, right now, I am really trying to move away from that. I do recognize how the smallness of the community can really impact what you’re making. So, realizing on some level there is a group of people that I know will be there and they may not like it, but they’ll be there and they’ll be supportive. But that doesn’t seem like enough for my investment in making the work. So I think that’s the thing: trying to figure out what are these barometers or compasses that I use to figure out how to make choices and really trying to connect whatever the internal ones are. And that sounds really selfish and really silly but, trying to figure out why I am actually interested in everything that I am doing and, if I actually am interested in what I’m doing. Because, I think, again, habit is real and ritual is real and it can become sort of stayed and repetitive really easily.
At this specific moment, I am really trying to reinvest in my own interest and that feels really important. Especially since what I have done in the time I’ve been here has been about community and has been about creating a sense. I am not interested in community as this, “let’s get together and like each other,” like art serving community. I am interested in community serving art. SQUART was about getting people together and getting them working, but it’s also about what happens to an idea if it gets passed around a bunch. I am not just by myself working in the studio, or doing a show, but just trying to create relationships and dialogue and actual investment in the health of the community as art makers, as opposed to people. I feel like I’ve swung a little far in that direction and I am just trying to focus, focus, focus in personal investment. Does that make sense?
Milka Djordjevich: I think there has probably been so much focus on community that community art gets a bad rap for all of this. If the emphasis is on community acceptance or tolerance, it’s like, “Oh, we love anything! Everything’s great!” Versus communities doing art like you’re saying, I think really emphasizes ideas and ideas that come from individuals and how they work as a group. Then how does that perpetuate a shift or independent thinking in art making and what not. I think that’s a big point.
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I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about the piece you are making now and, maybe, where it started and how it’s changed?
Laura Arrington: Yeah, it’s gone through a lot of different changes and this is, again, I think the reason I am in this place where I am curious about personal investment: I get a little bit too eager to do too much too quickly. I was coming right off my Counterpulse show and Jesse Hewit and I were planning our next move – Jesse Hewit, who’s a person who I collaborate with, more with producing evenings than making work together – I just had an eagerness to do the next thing. I was writing all of these grants for this piece Fox Den which was the third section of this triptych of work that I was making. It started with this piece, Fingerbird, the second piece was called Hot Wings, and this third installment was going to be Fox Den. And then I just really skewed all of my language. I just skewed everything to what I thought would be a grantable project, or a fundable project, or that would work: “It’s a trio of pieces, all dealing with this one issue, and it’s all about femininity…” You know, really organized really palpable and really consumable, in terms of an idea for a project. So I started working on it. I was doing a residency at this place, Headlands Center for the Arts, in Marin for two months. I started working on it right away. I was just realizing that, even my writing about my work like that and thinking of the piece as this organized, really simple, projecty project, was just totally in the way of me doing anything that I was interested in. I felt like I was so committed to how I was talking about the work and how I was writing about the work. So, I made all of this material and hated all of it. I just really felt disconnected from it, so I scrapped all of it and started again. Then everything in my personal life got a little shaky and again I scrapped everything. This actual piece is not done. It’s going up in three weeks. It’s totally not done, I don’t know what it is. There are themes and ideas that I am working with but, it’s not–
Milka Djordjevich: –It’s not like a package.
Laura Arrington: Totally. It’s all kind of being revealed to me. Which is actually the way I like to work. I find it really frustrating that you have to know what your project is before you do it. It’s not something that’s even close to being a thing yet. I am wrestling with it right now, but at least I am really interested and at least it feels really alive and keeps me up and all that stuff. More than anything we’ve dealt a lot with difficulty in the process. Doing something and being like “No,” doing something, “No,” doing something and throwing it out. Looking a lot at difficulty and how pushing happens and limitation. So, we’re working a lot with movements of the body, movements of the mind, image, the constructs of how we show work even.
And it’s called Wag, it refers to a movement of a dog’s tail. That’s the one thing that’s been really true about all of this: my dog has been a main inspiration for the piece. Even just trying to figure out what the indicators are in terms of that relationship, I am feeling out that behavior and how interesting it is to me. Even just the action of his tail always wagging. It sounds really simple, obviously. So, it’s almost like an unsure piece in that it’s very personal and it’s not cerebrally constructed. If you read the grant language for the piece it wouldn’t actually make any sense for what it is now [laughs]. I’ve just been thinking a lot about it again, that sense of the relationship between the system and how the system gets enacted, or how structure gets enacted. I think it’s also active in the piece. The idea of how to make the work and the way you operate within that structure. It’s also the desire to create structure, to create static realities. That at some point you meet the moment where the structure no longer supports the thing anymore and the structure sort of falls apart.
Milka Djordjevich: That’s interesting. You have the grant language and the regular language, and you have this theme and you actually make the work, and shit happens and it doesn’t happen. However the struggle between individual interests and what actually manifests, what actually happens in rehearsal, that’s probably what this is now, but it probably keeps happening in a way. It’s not like the process of making work is always so simple and so. Part of art making is playing the game of having to deal with those things and then negotiating what you reveal to the outside about what the process actually is.
Laura Arrington: Well, I think maybe that’s part of it. It’s just me being a really young artist. It’s obvious that it’s understood that you do “this” a certain way. But I think maybe this is my moment of being like, “Oh, that’s not real.” Then it begs the question about this system of how we make work. Why are we doing that? Why don’t we just accept that that’s the structure? What does that do to reality? If there’s this massive rolf between what the work is, how it’s marketed, how it’s presented. Then what are we doing? Are we just saying, “Oh, I don’t trust people to be able to receive something.” And why? Why are we all complacent, you know?
Photo courtesy of Laura Arrington
Milka Djordjevich: It’s funny because I think whenever I write marketing language, it’s always a huge struggle. No matter how many times I’ve done it or what the work is. I always read other people’s marketing language to get a sense of how people have decided to write about their work and how it is framed by the expectation of people’s work, and I reflect back on having seen the work or not and seeing how the language worked. On one level, I ultimately read marketing language and more or less have no fucking idea what the piece is going to look like. I think there are some people who are maybe more clear and if their body of work is more familiar, people can kind of get that sense. And on another level, I watch the work and I generally forget about the marking language once I see it. Maybe that’s because I am an artist myself and whatever.
But on another level, aside from marketing language: What is the expectation of an audience having either seen your work before, or performance work in general? What is the struggle of trying to make a new work knowing that people have expectations of what your past work was, in this community or in performance in general? How to negotiate trying to do something new or different that is your interest and may challenge that? And how to emancipate the audience from their expectation and to engage in it?
Laura Arrington: Yeah, I think it’s a huge problem. I don’t know what the answer would be. The thing is, you want to have integrity, right? And you want to live in a way you feel good about. We were talking before about how much making work affects life, how we think about ourselves and how if we are always making these concessions for things, there’s going to be a result. There is so much disconnect in the information we give audiences in terms of advertising, marketing, and all that stuff is just about insecurity and this lack of trust. I don’t know, I don’t have anything interesting to say about it…
Milka Djordjevich: Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot of stuff about my work and what my values are and I suddenly realized, I am not interested in educating an audience because they’re missing something when it comes to performance work. For me, it’s important to acknowledge that, no, they already have the necessary information and they are going to be different from the person sitting next to them. That information is just as valid as having a lot of information or having none at all. I think that it’s important for that moment in time, that experience in time to stand on its own. It’s tricky because it’s such a small community in general, when it comes to more experimental performance work, and it tends to attract the same sort of people. So then that’s the frame to contextualize in a certain way. It’s really hard to practice what you preach because, ultimately, it is a specific audience and it’s not like you want to make work for, I don’t know, Hollywood or whatever.
Laura Arrington: But, I do feel like I would just to be able to accept that and not have so many conditions on things. I think that’s the thing: the conditional. It just creates, again, a sense of insecurity and a sense of anxiety around what the work could or couldn’t be. And, that’s basically what this whole piece I’ve been working on is about.