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SALTA: A self-interview on curation
Pseudo-, anti-, and total dance
In the Spring of 2015, the Oakland-based dance collective SALTA co-wrote this self-interview about our monthly performance series, which appears below as an excerpt. We took the structure of the self-interview from Everybody’s Toolbox, a contemporary dance platform that offers structures, games, and scores for choreographers. We asked questions of ourselves and took turns answering and editing each other’s responses. We are aware that Critical Correspondence largely publishes interviews between artists, which encourages conversation and dialogue about work rather than the monologue of artist statements. While the self-interview might appear narcissistic/navel-gazey, we took the format as a useful mode of group writing, in which all of our voices would comprise the ‘self’ of the interview. We were inspired by what the process of interviewing does: that we would learn what we think through the exercise of responding to each other’s questions. The form of the self-interview corresponds to the anonymity we employ when working on SALTA projects. Responding to the cult of personality and artist as brand, we choose to be known only as SALTA rather than as a collection of individuals. What remains here is a trace of an ongoing dialogue as we continue to define what exactly we are doing together and how this doing together can hold and refigure our individual desires, visions, and politics. The full text of “Pseudo-, anti-, and total dance: A self-interview on curation” will be published in forthcoming book, currently titled Curating Live Arts edited by CICA-ICAC/Communauté internationale des commissaires des arts de la scène — International Community of Performing Arts Curators (www.cica-icac.org).
Q: What is SALTA and what does it do?
SALTA is a curatorial collective of seven dancers based in Oakland, California. Salta is also a Latin word meaning ‘to leap’ or ‘to jump,’ appearing in the Latin phrase: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! (“Rhodes is here, here is where you jump!”). The maxim originates from the punchline from Aesop’s fable The Boasting Traveler. In the story, a traveler claims that when in Rhodes, he performed an impressive jump, and that there were witnesses who could attest to his feat. A bystander interrupts him to introject, “Now, my good man, if this be all true there is no need of witnesses. Suppose this to be Rhodes and leap for us (Aesop, 2014, p. 22).” The fable points to the importance of actually doing the deeds that we claim or aspire to for ourselves. Karl Marx cites the phrase hic Rhodus, hic salta! in his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1963) and offers an alternative translation: “… a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Here is the rose, here dance! (p. 19).” It is in this spirit of leaping and dancing within present social and political conditions that SALTA formed as a collective.
Responding to the precariousness of making dance in the Bay Area, we came together as a collective in 2012 with the intention of starting our own space for rehearsal and performance. Since that time, our aims have shifted, expanded, and changed to include projects that make space for dance to happen more broadly. For the past three years, we have curated a free monthly performance series that takes place in a different venue each month, collaborating with an ever-expanding network of spaces, communities, and performers. Admission to SALTA shows is always a non-monetary donation to the free bar and boutique, where everyone eats, drinks, and shops for free. This non-commercial context frees us to be inclusive, experimental, and eccentric in our curation.
In 2014, SALTA participated in the founding of the Omni Oakland Commons – a community space in North Oakland collectively – run by a number of artistic and activist groups. This collective of collectives includes a bookstore/cafe, a poetry press, a community print studio, a radical pedagogy project, a hacker space, and many others. The large building contains a ballroom space and a former disco, both of which we make use of as studio space to host affordable rehearsals, classes, and performances. Working in this collective context of the Omni allows us to bring dance practices into conversation with a broader horizon of cultural and activist projects in Oakland.
We let ourselves not know what SALTA is entirely. As a collective, we try things out as experiments, leaving space for our sense of what our group is and does to morph. We do not necessarily have a continuous or static identity as a group. In addition to putting on our event series, we have collaboratively made and performed a dance with all seven of us. We have hosted and performed in queer burlesque nights. We presently have an ongoing reading group, where we discuss articles and interviews. We speak on community panels. We start online writing platforms. We make zines. We value spending time together, talking about dance, politics, and friendship. We vibe and see what happens.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
Q: How would you describe SALTA’s curatorial stylings?
We curate monthly events that offer an informal, inclusive space for people to show and interface with performance. The structure of our events is often loose, and the aesthetic is DIY. Our primary focus is taking care of the artists we invite to perform and leaving room for audience to take in the work and participate in variable ways. In the vein of the 1950s and 1960s happenings in New York City, we create events that, in Kaprow’s words:
“…invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of art and (one hopes) life. […] a Happening is rough and sudden and often feels ‘dirty.’ Dirt we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything, including visitors, can grow a little in such circumstances.” (Kaprow, 1993, p. 18)
Similarly, our curatorial style embraces the dirty, the punk, the feral. We want to create a fertile ground for wild things to grow. Motivated by a scarcity of venues for artists to show experimental work and a growing weariness for traditional models for presenting dance, we offer a platform that we ourselves would want to participate in, a platform that is not concerned with hosting totally planned, precisely executed, and cooly managed dance performances. Sometimes it’s successful, and at other times, a total failure. Prior to working together as SALTA, none of us understood ourselves as curators, and we are not entirely comfortable with the role now. The process of curating SALTA events has become an art practice as well as an organizing project.
As one mode of approaching the question of how to curate, we adopted a ‘yes policy,’ used by the curatorial collective AUNTS in NYC. We tried, when at all possible, to say ‘yes’ to anyone who approached us interested in performing, volunteering, and hosting. We find it is satisfying (although not always comfortable) to be in the same risk situation as the artist. For us, risk involves not being in total control of content. It means not putting constraints on artists’ work and being surprised, sometimes even shocked and embarrassed. We curate in alternative modes and spaces in order to encourage artists to try things that they might not do at a more formal showing. Because of the freedom that SALTA shows permit, performers’ relationship to the audience can sometimes be alien, challenging, or straight up offensive. In recent months, we have had to critically reflect on our ‘yes policy’ and consider the impact of potentially offensive work on the diverse community we are interested in fostering.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
Over the past three years we have employed various curatorial methods for our events. Some shows are closer to a party with simultaneous and overlapping performance art, dance and sound, while others are more formal presentations of work. We have experimented with chain curation in which we invite an artist who invites another artist who invites another. We have organized evenings around spatial and thematic constraints: an evening of dances set in the round, an evening of task based performance, an evening of stale dance, and so forth. We have invited guest curators to facilitate new formats, such as an evening called Short&Sweet of three minute dances from Montreal’s Wants&Needs Danse. We have co-curated events with Brooklyn-based collective AUNTS, with San Francisco’s annual FRESH Festival, with SOMArts, with our local mentors Margit Galanter and Abby Crain. After a show, we ask ourselves, ‘what did we learn?’ We expect that our events will continue to shift and evolve, get weird and fail gloriously as we continue to work with new artists and venues throughout the Bay Area.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
Q: How does SALTA negotiate space and spaces?
Since our first evening of performance in June of 2012, we have curated twenty-six performances, each held in a space donated to us. We have hosted performances in store-front art spaces, pristine dance studios, several houses, live/work warehouses, galleries large and small, cafes, yoga studios, communes, spaces finished and unfinished, fixed and vanishing, old and new. Each has required a different vision of who might perform there and how, as well as a flexibility and openness from us, the performers, and the audience. There is a network of people who consistently come to our events (who are interested in the shifting environments), as well as new audience members at every show (who may come because of an affiliation with the performers or with the space hosting us that night).
This shifting of space reflects the inevitable and organic connection between art and its environment. We have seen how the atmosphere created by the physical size, aesthetic, or mission of the space contextualizes the performances in a particular way. Suddenly, an evening can become a feminist night of performance when hosted in a feminist space. Or an evening housed in an art gallery can become about the creation of art objects through performance. Or a dance in a small, crowded, hot room becomes necessarily intimate. We are interested in this space/content relationship and how this variable influences each event.
The structure of inhabiting new and donated spaces has allowed us to offer dance events that are free to audience members. It has also provided us with the opportunity to envision our performances and collective as having a different relationship to capitalism – where we rely less on funding and public/corporate sponsorship, and more on connections and relationships with our surrounding communities and the resources they can provide. Within this framework we have not had to align with values or missions we don’t support. By not relying on a model of arts curation dependent on the interests of funders, we can provide a platform for artists to experiment without limiting themselves to predetermined or easily legible conceptions of ‘success.’
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
Q: How does SALTA approach collectivity?
SALTA approaches our work together – curation, making work, organizing events, staying on top of details – as multiplicitously as possible. We are invested in collaboration in a deep and essential way, but we allow for a fluid definition of what that means. We have no codified rubric for how to collectively run meetings, reach agreements, make decisions, curate, or run a show. We change how we operate, modifying and honing based on what works for us and others and what does not.
SALTA’s process has been described as a swirl, and friends have remarked that the fact that we have no system points to how well it’s working. Douglas Dunn’s description of The Grand Union’s process gets at an essential aspect of our own: “Whoever speaks, speaks. Whoever dances, dances (Ramsay, 1991, p. 106).” We come together, identify what we’re excited about, what needs to be done, and then we go do it. Working together is for us an attuning of this relational swirl to keep our hearts and minds deeply invested in the process, the outcome, and the surprises that come with it.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
We find this to be a joyful model that also aligns with our politics: a commitment to commoning, pooling resources, creating space outside of institutions, and searching for alternate modes of working within and outside of hierarchy, patriarchy and capitalism. Through collaboration, we want to investigate what becomes socially and artistically possible by working together horizontally. We connect with Goat Island’s description of their working process as “a decentering expansion [where] divisions between individuals and ideas of authorship are blurred (Lewis, 2005, p. 258).” While we’re aware of some of the strengths of a more informal, collective process, we’re also sensitive to the ways that power can operate invisibly within any group. This informs our desire to remain self-reflexive and continue to evolve our working methods. We are also all good friends and that comes with the ups and downs of learning how to communicate with each other as we navigate our patterns, tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses.
Q: How would you describe SALTA’s relationship to other collective projects?
The seed of our project came from our relationships to the AUNTS series in New York and to a space in Los Angeles called Pieter PASD. A few of us lived in New York and were inspired by the AUNTS events we attended. One of the people who founded AUNTS, Jmy James Kidd moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to start a Pieter, a dance studio and performance space. Several of us spent time at Pieter for residencies and performances, which sparked an interest in having a space of our own. Through conversations and support from Jmy, we decided to come together as a group and see what might be possible in the Oakland context.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
As we look to past examples of collectivity, we have been influenced by collaborative performance groups such as Goat Island, Judson Church, the Grand Union, and the Japanese Gutai group, all of whom worked horizontally rather than under the name of a single artist. We are also implicitly inspired by the environments and happenings instigated by Allan Kaprow for their ability to open up what it means to encounter an artwork and to encounter each other in the space of the artwork. In alignment with these artists and movements, we are looking to create space for dance to happen in a way that falls outside the typical consumer experience for performances. We attempt to show works in radical juxtaposition to each other and give space for the audience to be an active part of the event.
Much about our aesthetic and interest in DIY production comes from punk and anti-establishment ethics. Our events often emulate the way small independent bands play in people’s living rooms, basements, and garages. Some of us grew up participating in these punk scenes and continue to be inspired by the dedication of punks to making their own spaces and not waiting for opportunities to emerge elsewhere.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
Q: What questions or concerns are pressing for you as a collective right now?
We are invested in reflecting critically on our events and our practice. In what ways do SALTA events participate in broader dynamics surrounding gentrification? As a group of white cis-women, in what ways can we actively support, and take leadership from, artists and communities of color? How do we understand the possible connections between demographics and aesthetic forms? What does de-colonizing our series entail? How do we understand our events in relation to the increase in events produced by museums and art galleries geared toward the influx of tech gentrification?
In the fall of 2014, we had an event called “anti-boredom, pro-party curation clusterfuck event situation.” At this event we wanted to open up our curatorial decision-making process to everyone who came and hopefully get connected to new communities and artists we had not seen or already knew. We facilitated discussions and decision making structures to decide where the event would be, who would perform, and the theme or structure of the evening. We asked people to come prepared to engage, make calls, really plan out the whole event. We tried this as a structure and learned a lot about how much people are willing to engage and how we could better facilitate what we had hoped might happen. It sort of worked out, but our main aim of inviting artists from communities outside our more familiar sphere did not happen.
In fact, outside our event, later in the night, a person of color was verbally harassed by two men who were at our event. This and other racist incidents in Oakland led us to question how can we create safe space? Do we need a bouncer? Do we need more language to frame our events as explicitly anti-racist and feminist? Recently, we all watched an interview with bell hooks and Laverne Cox, and in the interview hooks says, “White people love safe space!” She is of the opinion that silent safe space in not what we need. Instead, space should be made for loving, direct and honest dialogue about problematic issues. So the question we are grappling with now is how to incorporate space for loving direct dialogue within a performance event setting.
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
In the summer of 2014, news came out that someone in our community, who had supported our project, had been involved in a situation of sexual violence. This brought up a number of questions for us about what sort of event spaces we want to facilitate and how we can be in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault and other forms of violence. Parties and performances are spaces of merriment, but they can also be spaces of violence and predatory behavior. We are interested in exploring proactive models for addressing situations of sexual violence, such as establishing a network of support liaisons who can be present at events to help address inappropriate and unacceptable behavior. These concerns come from our commitment to feminism and addressing gender based violence in our lives and communities.
The next big question we are considering is how our project will unfold. In the beginning we thought we would open a physical dance space, and instead we now focus on creating and finding space everywhere. As our interests individually shift, and as we see other models of curation, we are figuring out how our malleable structure can change over time. We also are considering some of the financial resources that have come our way. Although the entrance to our events is non-monetary and we strive to work outside commodified structures, we still do receive funding from various grants and local funding. What do we do with capital when we have it? Currently, we are considering how our equipment can be a public resource for artists. In the past we have donated our funding to local political organizations or payed various artists and DJs in a sort of haphazard way. We are considering more intentionally how we wish to interface with the economies of art and performance, in terms of where we have events, how we structure them, who performs at them, and how we use our resources as they pertain to those choices.
We wonder how our curatorial practice can continue to support our individual art practices and lives. Because we dedicate a lot of time to this project, how can SALTA be a generative force for us? As we all navigate our own lives and decisions, how do we continue to find the same wave to ride?
photo: Chani Bockwinkel
SALTA is a collective of seven dancers who curate a free monthly mobile performance series in Oakland, CA. We are invested in feminisms, collaboration, and dance parties.