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Elsewhere: Nell Breyer in conversation with Kinebago’s Sara Smith
Critical Correspondence is pleased to share with you a conversation from Kinebago, a magazine created to foster the documentation and contemplation of dance and movement-based practices in New England. Here, Boston-based artist Nell Breyer talks with Kinebago founder Sara Smith about “A Dance in Sol LeWitt’s ‘Bars of Color Within Squares (MIT)’” a performance project staged on LeWitt’s polychrome terrazzo floor completed for the atrium of MIT’s Green Center for Physics in 2007. It premiered in December 2010 and was re-staged as part of the MIT150 Festival of Art, Science and Technology in May 2011. This interview was recorded about a month before the MIT festival.
Kinebago/Sara Smith: Nell, you have training in so many disciplines: painting, dance, you have a degree in neuroscience, I’m not sure what you would say you studied at MIT…
Nell Breyer: The media lab [at MIT] is design-media…it incorporates design ideas, some aesthetic ideas, some practical production ideas, like the idea of an “end user.“ And I was in an education group, so we were thinking a lot about how children learn.
Kinebago: When you were studying each discipline were they tied to one another in your thinking? Is there cross over?
Nell: I definitely pursued them with the idea that they were going to help inform me in my general interest in perceiving motion. I was under the…well, not necessarily a misguided impression, but definitely under an impression that, if I understood how the brain worked, I would be able to really make sense of what the process of capturing movement was about. And I was originally capturing movement on a 2-D surface with painting and drawing.
Kinebago: Were you capturing human movement, were you working with the figure?
Nell: Yeah, I was always interested in human movement, probably because of dance. I think people have different entry points into dance and movement, and mine was definitely visual, and I was always a slow learner actually because when you’re watching, your body is not so much doing, so I think that interested me, that you can see and re-see and continually find anew what the movement “is” as you’re watching, because you can pay attention to so many different aspects, I find that really unique and exciting. I also think that movement is a rare universal language. So if you talk to people in the movement fields, they’ve almost always worked with people from other countries, I mean, I’ve hardly met a person in dance who hasn’t had extensive in-the-studio interactions with a dancer from another country. And there’s no boundary, it’s all about the work, engaging through movement for something else, a very borderless kind of exchange. So those aspects of movement I find very powerful.
And then I had this theory [laughs] that if a painter is working with the basic variables that the visual cortex also processes, that is color, form or line, and dynamic form or vector or a stroke…
Nell: Yeah, exactly. So probably, the way we understand motion – perceptually, visually and kinetically – there must be also some very similar kind of parallel neurophysiological organization that movers —that’s athletes and dancers and yoga people and martial artists—are also tapping into, intuitively. And then, what are those structures? So this was a set of questions that never got answered as I went into neuroscience, and I ended up looking at semantic processing in the human brain. We ran a whole lot of studies looking at how language is organized and if nerve cells are responding differently to different types of word meanings.
Neuroscience has so exploded in the last fifty years. One of the most interesting ideas that has emerged…is the still quite controversial discovery of mirror neurons, which is still very much a question mark as to whether they really exist, what do they do, etc. But one hypothesis is that these are neurons that enable a sort of empathetic response – an imagination of something through seeing rather than doing. So the initial discovery was by a grad student in Italy who was eating an ice cream cone when he walked into their lab. He approached a monkey that had set up with intracranial electrode recordings, so they had an electrode actually monitoring a single cell, and that cell was supposed to respond to hand motion. He saw that the cells were firing when the monkey was watching him eat the ice cream cone and moving his hand, in addition to when the monkey moved its own hand. This was a breakthrough discovery, with lots of potential implications for human beings.
Kinebago: That’s interesting. Like in dance, we often have the experience as audience members…you know, you watch someone leap across the stage and your body feels like it could jump too…so this idea is maybe not such a surprise to us…
Nell: Right, right, of course! But what’s interesting is that now they have some evidence to suggest that there could be cells that respond to two or more kinds of stimuli: one is when a part of the body moves, another is when they see someone else move that part of the body. They still don’t know the precise behavior of mirror neurons, but this has made people much more prone to accept the idea that motor processing is much broader than was previously speculated, that it’s really these networks of overlaid representations and stimuli.
So this was the baseline for then this work I started doing in video, which was to take all the knowledge that a dancer has, and put it in space, and make the viewer move, in order to see. This was developing software that processed a live video stream, and we took out all the information that wasn’t change. So if the viewer stands still, you don’t see anything, and if the viewer moves, you see the difference between where they were and where they are right now.
Kinebago: So, we would see visual representation of the trace of the movement?
Nell: Yeah, and what the trace looks like is what we play with or what we modulate. So, the way in real life you can pay attention to many different types of things when you say “I see the movement.” You can see tick-tick-ticka-ticka-ticka [traces a staccato trajectory in the air] or you see swoosh [draws large arc] or you see the volume of space that’s displaced when you move, or you feel your hand move, or you remember the time you went like that… There’s like twenty different things you can focus on, and what this video software tries to do is to force you to chose just one because it draws the outline of the arc of your hand, or it draws the volume, or it just reveals what’s behind that volume, or it does many other things depending on where we are and what we’re doing. But that was the idea, it was the baseline: there is nothing unless you move. And then once you move, what there is, is really just the movement, drawn out in a particular way.
Kinebago: Now, do you see this as taking the body out, so you can focus on the movement?
Nell: That’s a really interesting question…does the body go out…. Well, I’ll tell you what happens…and I’ve been having this argument about if this is really about the body in space, or is it really about a sort of narcissistic tendency in us to just like to watch ourselves? So I obviously don’t want it to be just a narcissistic exercise, but I do think that one hook is a narcissistic impulse and one hook is a social impulse, because when we set this up in various locations, like Dance Theater Workshop [DTW] in Chelsea, or the World Financial Center at Ground Zero in Manhattan, or there’s a piece here at the Brigham [and Women’s hospital], what is true is that if people see themselves doing something like walking down a sidewalk, they’re more likely to say “oh” and stop and start to play with their own image and its traces.
And then what tends to happen is there’s an interesting dislocation of attention. So people stop paying attention so much to their body, and start paying attention to how it’s affecting the space. Well, I just talked to Krzysztof Wodiczko [visual artist, professor emeritus at MIT], who said, “well is this really affecting the space? You’re not actually drawing attention to the architecture…” I guess my hope is that it starts to let people sit in a space, play in a space, and then start to observe other people doing the same thing, watching them do that, there’s a kind of… we now create an impromptu stage in this public space, and through movement start to become aware of these forms that we can generate and that they have an impact and reside invisibly in the space. So, okay, let’s go back to your question… so, people go out of their body when they’re doing this, there’s a kind of weird…[they] stop being self-conscious, but their body becomes much more exploratory.
Kinebago: They’ll do things they don’t usually do
Nell: Exactly. So their body is much more expressive and expanded. It was great to do this at DTW, because there were a ton of dancers there, so they were doing, crazy turns, and they were doing it all out on the street, because that’s where the cameras were set up. And then they’d look into the theater [through the street facing windows], to get the feedback of what they’re doing. And going back to Krzysztof’s critique of “so what’s your point, is it just to get everyone to be like a kid?” – my point isn’t to get everyone to be like a kid, but my point is to tap into that thing where you are exploring movement potential without inhibition, and then seeing what the impact is on a location. And it’s a surface impact, because I usually work with a projection, or screens, and usually it’s not recorded. So it’s drawn out in real time, and there’s a tiny little bit of short-term memory as the image is dissolved.
Kinebago: Like dance.
Nell: Exactly. So it’s also very much about the temporality of that experience, and how it’s already gone by the time you’ve noticed it. The other thing I find so fantastically paradoxical and delicious in movement is that it contains opposites. It’s in the moment and in the past—it’s already gone as it’s happening. And it’s extremely personal and individual and it’s collective and massive and recurrent at the same time. It’s very concrete and very abstract. It’s these bizarre poles, which you can bop between and it still is true to what movement is. So you can feel, as you walk through the World Financial Center there’s this crazy rush of people, hundreds and hundreds of people go by, and my moment is unique, you know, this is me, but then if you zoom out, and you realize what the flow of people is, you realize, a billion people have done that everyday at all hours, just what I did. So there’s this way that it’s extremely true to the person and true to the collective activity of people at the same time.
Kinebago: I feel like those ideas can have political implications, you can take them into a political sphere. Is that something you set out with, or is it just something you notice, the results of the experiment?
Nell: I’m very much interested in these formal, perceptual experiential aspects…my own experience is all about individuals and their experiences; that’s really where I’m trying to engage people. I think it is important to argue in my work that I am very much interested in how the observer responds to the participant. So in the DTW setup, there were dual-channel cameras set up going out into the street, and people could chose to go out and be a participant, they could choose to stay in and be a viewer, and when they observed, there were two places they could look. And I guess I would argue that it’s a kind of democratic…or I hope that the viewer becomes active, that they can feel they can have choice in how much they are creating the work, taking a point of view, and how much they are participating actively, which is one of my big gripes about dance in a theater. What I really enjoy about dance is doing it, not necessarily seeing it…I like seeing it, but much less than I like doing it, and that’s because it’s physical. It’s also visual, but it’s really engaging on this physical, visceral and communal level. And I’d like to take that passive that’s-them-and-this-is-me construct or framework out of at least my work and try to get people to say, oh, it’s all me, I have choices about which me I’m choosing at which moment. I’m the observer, I’m the doer, I’m the maker of the work, I’m the receiver, and so are all these people around me who are also exploring, playing and creating new and dissolving images all the time. So the whole experience is much more plastic.
Kinebago: Well, I see those things very much at play in your Sol Lewitt piece. Though it’s not an interactive media piece, it’s not a traditional dance venue or performance. It has more of a traditional audience-performer relationship, but it is playing with these ideas.
Nell: It’s interesting that you saw that, because I was like, oh, this is weird, I’m doing this thing that’s back to, here’s the spectators, and there’s the participants. But the idea we’re trying to work on now, that Dejan Srhoj was instrumental in trying to help develop, is how do we plunge the viewers back into the space actively and get them to be so close to it that they can’t even see it, or certainly can’t see it the way they could when they were up above.
Kinebago: So, can we back up a minute and will you talk a bit about your original intent with the Sol Lewitt piece?
Nell: Well, I mean, the first intent was just to do a dance in that space—it’s a really cool space—it was very superficial…but also because the space in the context of MIT is very remarkable. I was here for 10 years, and I have some flavor of how the institution works, and some flavor of the spaces, and it’s an extremely streamlined institution, you never find a passageway that doesn’t go somewhere. Basically the campus is a passage. It’s functional, everything here functions. That piece [Sol Lewitt’s “Bars of Color within Squares (MIT),” 2007] was a commission, almost the last commission before he died. And it was very unusual. The only reason they were able to do it was they found these local Massachusetts artisans who made this special kind of terrazzo—it was a very particular bright color palette he was working with and exploring the last decade or two of his life—so there was a lot of great coincidences that happened. The Physics department was at first resistant to doing this floor and then they totally came around and they embrace it and love it and protect it very keenly. But it’s in this unique location between the exterior and the interior core of the building…
Kinebago: It doesn’t really have a specific function…
Nell: It has no function at all! And it’s totally hidden and is extremely peaceful. So where on the rest of campus do you feel that sort of tranquility or meditative calm, the ability to see light and color and form, with no purpose other than that? So, while it was a superficial impulse of mine, it’s also this a remarkable sort of gem inside an institution that essentially does not function like that. And while art is ostensibly embraced inside MIT, it’s not embraced the way science is embraced, or engineering or…which is understandable, but my argument is that it should be. So trying to draw attention to and get people to reappreciate art was certainly a political aim—very local politics, MIT!
It was interesting to work with Dejan [Srhoj] and Sarah [Baumert], who both don’t come from here, and were sort of the prime collaborators. And their observations were that MIT is such a highly perfected, streamlined place. And the Sol Lewitt seems to be very perfected, but there are actually all of these reflections that it’s manmade, that things wear down, that people are prone to error, and that is very human. So we thought a lot about these two different perceptions. When you’re very close to the ground, you make these micro-discoveries that mean that it’s your place. You found that dried lettuce leaf on the windowsill, you found the dead fly. And then it’s your story, your map, and it imprints in your brain in a different way.
Kinebago: So there’s the transition space between most of the piece, at least as it existed previously, where the audience is looking down from above…and that seemed primarily to be about the audience seeing the space in a certain kind of way, macro. And then there’s this transition when that part ends, and the audience comes down onto the floor itself, and they’re given these maps and they can explore the space and see those micro things that maybe make the space seem less perfect, that make it seem more lived in. When you were working with the dancers on the first section, what were you hoping to have the audience notice while watching the dancers?
Nell: So the way it’s set up, with the audience on the third and fourth floors, they look down. They have to stand and peer over the space. And the space itself is so geometrically symmetrical, balanced. I first wanted to propose the experience of something like throwing marbles that spill out over the space. It goes along and kind of spills out, collects itself and then spills out, collects itself and spills out. Each of the squares gets occupied for a moment in a pseudo-random configuration, like ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding [Nell makes a motion of something spilling and stopping] and the attention flicks onto parts of these squares, so you feel like it’s inhabited for a moment. And the way the marbles were thrown, we just go and stop, go and stop, on a flat surface, and we’re all standing.
And then the idea was to sit in a few select locations, and to try to go deep into that space and go into the deep space that Sol Lewitt designed. His isometric color bars have parallel lines that introduce depth into each of the squares. Each one has a different pattern: there’s a cubit, there’s a diagonal, an archway. And so we basically created a rule set for that section where there was a ninety-degree shift in gravity, which was unique to each square. So then when the dancers stand up and break that illusion, and there’s this shift, where you know it’s correct, but you see it wrong. So it was a lot about what happens when your eyes start to take over and your brain has to adjust again. So we can play in and out of it.
And then there’s this other section when the audience comes down and starts exploring the space on their own with printed guides to objects on a very minute scale. A main idea was to let the dance be a way of studying the squares and how the squares operate on you, and the movement should be helping that happen. That was my initial approach. And being able to shift between the individual and the collective rule system, then the instances of the rule, that sort of thing.
I was also very aware of the seminal collaboration piece by Sol LeWitt, Lucinda Childs and Phillip Glass (“Dance”) that played with precisely the illusions of scale, perspectival and visual orientation, as well as the feeling of distance and formalism shrouding a dance.
Kinebago: You talked about this parameter relating to the “gravity” in each square. Within that did you give [the dancers] direction for how they should move?
Nell: Yeah, I mean, it was very clear. Sarah Baumert, Sarah Witt and I really developed the choreographies for the six squares. And it was really clear as we were working on those that you would do it correctly or not correctly. We worked a lot with video, and we would film ourselves.
Kinebago: From above?
Nell: Yeah. So, it either works or it doesn’t. It was extremely specific. You’re lying down so you don’t move the way that you would normally move, so it’s not intuitive. And you have to see by recording, you can’t see it when you’re on the floor because the scale of the square is actually quite big and you can’t tell. So there was a lot of feedback that had to happen. And Sarah [Baumert] choreographed the three-minute unison section. So she took snippets from each of the squares and created a dance phrase pretty quickly, like in 45 minutes or something, and then taught everyone in that line. And then the first section, we created a controlled improv, there was basically a stop-start listening rule, and then we introduced a couple more rules as we went along and choices that the performers could make. The movement was structured, but not like, “you have to put your foot here, you have to put your hand there.”
And we are definitely now going to try to tightly time and choreograph how the guides bring the people down into the space. And it was important for me to have some of the performers be the guides. I think we’re going to change a bit of that, how the large-scale movement occurs as people are touring through the space. And maybe all the dancers will be down on the ground. The two things that I think are important in that transition are, you’re forced to confront people you’ve seen from a formal perspective, and also that there’s no gradual shift. You don’t walk to the space, seeing it get closer and closer, you go through the stairwell and are suddenly in a very different, close relationship to the space. You go from macro to micro view, with no transition for that shift. And then the option for people to remain up, so they can look down to see the other people in the space so they get some self-reflection, there’s some audience that’s up looking, and some that’s down mingling, so they can see how they would be in the space. There should be some of that.
Kinebago: Did you know you would show it a second time?
Nell: Well, no…but when I learned about MIT’s FAST Festival, this big MIT 150 celebration—they’re doing a whole festival throughout the semester, celebrating the connections between art and science and technology—I thought oh, it would be a really good fit for the festival. And I’m also hopefully going to do a gallery show during the month of May where we take some of the original footage—this is going to be shown at Carol and Sons on Harrison Ave—we kind of do an immersive installation with two sides of his back room, with simultaneous multiple channels of a video projection large, and invite the audience to view it while laying down, with some type of interactive video feed on the ceiling, so they’ll get some kind of glimpse of themselves and also see the projections. I would like to make the performance into something that relates to the original work, but isn’t necessarily in the Lewitt space, either in relation to a different Lewitt work, or in a theatrical space where we could shift the whole thing. Thinking of creating new relationships to the location, a shift in perspective. But I like the idea of breaking the…it’s one of my gripes with poor old dance…
Kinebago: The proscenium doesn’t work for you?
Nell: Yeah–well, I mean, dance is such an old, communal form. Why we’ve created this separation is just beyond me. Like, if you watch kids, or you study traditional folk dance or sacred dance, it’s all about the community expression, so why we’ve now made it all about individuals….
Kinebago: Will you talk a bit about your interest in the local community and your involvement in creating performance events and bridging art and dance activity in the Boston area? Last time we spoke you talked about your vision of Boston as a potential center for arts research, building on the resources and reputation it’s built for scientific and academic research and development.
Nell: I was working between here and New York and found some great collaborators and did a lot of work not in Boston, and the more I became grounded here, the more I thought we should bring more people here. And I participated in an informal art/tech group out of MIT called the Collision Collective, which included a number of great artist-scientist types like Jonathan Bachrach, Amanda Parkes, Dan Paluska and others, and produces a lot of experimental interactive art and technology shows. I also worked with Dedalus Wainwright and Alissa Cardone under George Fifield’s guidance, to create “Ideas in Motion” a sub-festival of the Boston Cyberarts Festival that focused on movement and technology. I then worked with Larissa Harris and Meg Rotzel on bringing back Xavier LeRoy who came to do a wonderful three-month residency last year in what is now MIT’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology. Xavier worked with local and MIT artists as well as international guest artists he invited, in order to develop a piece that he showed here at MIT last spring.
My general feeling is that there is incredible brainpower, research power, intelligence, wealth and education here in Boston. There are interesting art-tech initiatives and interesting curators out there. The curator of the Contemporary collection at the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston] has really done a lot; David Henry at the ICA [Institute for Contemporary Art/Boston] is also taking risks in his programming; Harvard is redesigning all their museums, there are also new initiatives like Artists in Context. So there’s great potential there, and there are a lot of curators in the arts trying to bring energy and attention to young artists. But the dance field doesn’t have access to a broad range of international or even national work. Young artists need to be exposed to work that pushes them, be involved in processes that grow their understanding of what the field is. I was very lucky to get to go to Europe to study and work intensively with many different international artists, but I still don’t get out enough to see stuff, and it’s a necessity in the performing arts. So I definitely feel there is an untapped potential here. Recently, the MCC did reach out to the dance community and invited a group of artists to come talk about the state of dance in Massachusetts.
There is a longtime committed community here, but I feel that there needs to be some way to get the people at places like Genzyme [a biotechnology company located in Cambridge]…there’s a lot of support for experimental research, backing of that, and institutions could support innovative dance, but they don’t. And that means supporting emerging artists here, bringing in artists from outside—regional, national, international— to let them develop process. That would be a niche that somewhere like New York doesn’t have. And obviously, in dance, that’s like gold! If you have time and space to develop a work, you have the potential to develop a good work. If you have time to develop work, you can bring people in to get feedback, you have time to sit in something for more than three seconds.
I guess the missing link is there’s no advocate in dance right now who’s been able to break through and penetrate those uninterested communities in Boston. There should be a way to hook up with institutions across the state. There’s a lot of missing energy around that. …It’s really hard. But it would be a great way to distinguish Boston.
Kinebago: And if you want to encourage young artists, you need to show them a greater variety.
Nell: Right. And there should be a way here, there should be a way. There are successful artists who are living in Boston because they value the quality of life. And if there was just one more step taken where there was an identity created for Boston and this region – an identity that underscored Artistic Research in Dance… It could be a fantastic region for growth in the field. There are so many institutions of higher learning in the Boston area. I mean, why not create a studio for international, national and regional dance artist residencies in each of these?