Claudia La Rocco ventured from Brooklyn to Long Island City, Queens, where the video and dance artist Brian Rogers is the founding artistic director of the interdisciplinary Chocolate Factory Theater. They were joined briefly by his partner-in-crime, executive director Sheila Lewandowski.
Claudia La Rocco (Rail): I was thinking about your vision as an artistic director and as an artist, and how those two things feed each other—or the ways in which you try to keep them separate.
Brian Rogers: I only try to keep them separate—and I don’t know how successful I’ve been at doing it. I’m getting more successful at it, I think—so that I don’t risk letting one completely consume the other. It’s mostly about making sure that I actually have enough time and resources to make my own work. There’s so much need on the other side that it could just take up everything.
Rail: And you have a venue, the Chocolate Factory, so that it’s possible to fall into the awful spot of just throwing an undercooked work of yours into the season.
Rogers: Right, right, right, exactly. I actually really want it to be a thing where one complements and feeds the other and contributes to some kind of shared—not a shared aesthetic necessarily—but a shared series of questions, artists who have similar paths of investigation that they’re trying to do in different ways.
Rail: People always talk about the fact that the Chocolate Factory is artist-run; it’s obviously hugely important to people, and it’s a big part of your identity. But at the same time, when I did that article about you guys last year, people couldn’t really pinpoint what the Chocolate Factory’s aesthetic was.
Rogers: It would be bad if we got to a place where a person could easily identify the aesthetic. It’s dangerous to put a box around something before you’ve even made the thing. Like closing all sorts of doors, you know what I mean? And then I also just come from this place of—maybe because I’m an artist—I don’t want anyone trying to tell me how to talk about what I do.
Rail: But I do think an important way in which a theater can serve artists—and this doesn’t happen very often—is that the place itself has an integrity. I mean there’s an openness to it so you don’t think, “Okay, I’m going to Theater X so I will see this type of work,” but there is this sense in which the work feels contained within the integrity of the place. So you were just saying a minute ago that there’s a big box in your theater that is not what it needs to be?
Rail: What are you guys making?
Rogers: Well—I can share this conceptual language that I wrote for the grants—
Rail: As soon as you said “conceptual,” head goes into the hands. [Laughter.]
Rogers: If you want to apply for a grant to make a piece, you have to describe the piece that you’re going to make in a specific way well in advance of the piece being made. So you often just make up a bunch of bullshit. But I’ve started in recent years trying to actually be intentional about that and write language about the thing that I want to make that is the thing that I want to make, and use the process as an opportunity to ask myself a lot of questions.
Rail: Instead of just a cover letter for your art.
Rogers: Right, right, right. And I also found that when I started to do that, the response improved. I don’t know if that’s just coincidence or maybe because I’ve been making work for longer, and so now I’m finally getting a little traction, or people see more in the actual writing that helps them understand what I’m trying to do.
So we’re making this new piece, Hot Box, and we think of it as either a companion to the last show, Selective Memory, or a sequel. It’s mostly this notion I had of, okay, we developed this technological framework to go after this very specific question I had: what is it to construct something durational in time that’s just about looking at an image and trying really, really hard not to add anything to it, just to look at the thing for what it is, and what that means? We made that piece and there was still a lot further to go, and I wanted to find a way to continue in the same mode. I had been thinking about—this might be really boring to talk about—but I’ve been watching Apocalypse Now a lot— —
Rail: In a dark room, alone, with a little whiskey?
Rogers: In a dark room, alone, yeah, and I’ve been watching the films that Werner Herzog made with Klaus Kinski. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them, but Herzog made this amazing film about Kinski after he died called My Best Fiend. It’s a great, great film. They had this violently symbiotic relationship—there are moments on film where you see Klaus Kinski saying, “Where’s that gun? I’m going to shoot that motherfucker.” So they make these films where the actual image is generally this elegiac, calm, beautiful, well-composed thing, and then all of the stuff outside of the camera frame is this sort of noxious, violent, chaotic, hot thing. So we’re thinking about ways to create a chaotic performance situation, and then try to make a really still film out of it. So I had this thought of actually making a hot box, a box that’s 150 degrees; we go into the box and we sort of physically break down, but we’re trying while that happens to make these compositions that are actually very beautiful and still. And that’s the idea, basically.
Rail: And it will actually be that temperature? Not 150, but as hot as you guys can stand?
Rogers: Somehow. Or some digression from that. The story of Apocalypse Now is that Marlon Brando showed up, he had gained like 300 lbs and hadn’t read the script, and they had to remake that whole sequence at the end to accommodate those things, and I was like, oh, we should just all get really fat.
Rail: That would be amazing to see a piece situated, at least to some extent, in the contemporary dance world that was about people getting really fat. I feel that’s been done in other areas, but the dance world hasn’t really— —
Rogers: Well there’s that thing in movies, you know, Robert de Niro decides to get fat and then he gets skinny again right after.
Rail: Or Super Size Me.
Rogers: Yeah, so Madeline Best kind of refused to do that. And that’s reasonable. Now we’re in this thing like, we’re going to spend a lot of time getting drunk.
Rail: I’m thinking of that Spalding Gray monologue where he’s been in—what are those huts in Arizona? Or just the Woosters getting fucked up.
Rogers: Well there’s the Woosters dropping acid and trying to rehearse The Crucible. I don’t want to repeat. I’m just trying to think of ways to force ourselves physically into extreme states and then try to focus. Whereas the last piece was much more intentionally minimalist—we’re just going to stand in one place—now we have to make it harder for ourselves.
Rail: I’m not getting the sense that you’re thinking about this in connection with body or endurance art— —
Rogers: No—it’s not a piece about the body, it’s about making a piece when the body happens to be in pain. I mean we could go in that direction but I feel like that’s a dangerous road for me to take; there’s this tradition of people who have already made really interesting work in that vein. And some people, I mean like Ann Liv Young is still sort of, kind of existing in that.
Rail: Right. Sort of, kind of.
Rogers: Yeah. That’s a different frame than I’m trying to work in. But I find it super interesting.
Rail: But it feels so historical. It is fascinating, but also I wonder what that scene would look like in 2011. How it would fit the surrounding culture when so many of the pressures that were on the body in those days are not there, not with the same fears.
Rogers: There are still sexual politics, obviously, but I feel that you have to work much harder to get to a place where you’re really pushing the boundaries of that now. Just getting naked— —
Rail: Is boring. Or can easily be—well, the audience can go there really quickly.
Rogers: Yeah. I mean, I feel like we’re just super desensitized to sex and nakedness and stuff because of Internet pornography. That stuff is so ubiquitous now that you almost have to get—I feel like body art now would have to become this much more violent thing.
Rail: Yes, the larger culture is desensitized to it, but I think the performance art and dance worlds are desensitized, too, not even necessarily in reference to porn, but because all of these strategies have been used so often. So, anyway, you built this box and it’s not working; you built the wrong box, is that it?
Rogers: Well, we just started this week. I have always been really frustrated with the process of working with other people and having rehearsals and having to make work on schedules, I’m just not good at that.
Rail: Organizing people, or being in control?
Rogers: Organizing people, and even though I am a control freak and the things I make are highly controlled, I don’t like having to do it under the circumstances of, “Okay, we’re working from 4 to 6, and you’re the performer and I want you to do this.” There are people who do that extremely well. I was talking about this with Dan Safer on a panel at CUNY last year, where he talked about how he loves managing that kind of chaos, all the people, and their competing needs and personalities— —
Rail: And you see that in his work for sure.
Rogers: And I just hate it. I get really depressed when I’m around it, and I feel like people are using all my brain space. And so with the last piece, the way that we actually made it, we were like, “None of us are artists, we’re just doing this technical thing, and we’re just going to sit here until we get an idea.” It involves this enormous amount of procrastination and wasted time.
Rail: Biting the nails.
Rogers: Which I actually love doing. And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have this venue. There’s a reason people make work the way they do, and a lot of that is cost-driven; you have to rent rehearsal space by the hour, and you can’t just waste it all.
Rail: It’s four o’clock on a Thursday: go, be creative.
Rogers: Yeah, you need to make something, you gotta get out of here with something.
Rail: You want the freedom to not have to be creative.
Rogers: And having people in the room with me who don’t get upset by the fact that we didn’t do anything, that’s really key. It’s sort of terrifying at the same time to do that, because you’re going through this thing again, knowing that, at least for me, my original ideas are always bad and you have to create the space so that new ideas can pop up. That only happens for me when I get bored, get really bored.
Rail: Yeah, that boredom creates the space where an idea can come through. So much of it is just clearing out the junk. If I start thinking “Oh, I’m going to make this,” there’s all this weird, self-conscious junk that’s in there, and then that gets cleared out, and you do it, and you think, “Oh god, this is awful, I’m a disaster.” Then you flush yourself out of your system, and that’s when something can happen. So this last piece I saw at Abrons, the horror the horror (I have plenty of energy to drive over there), was a collaborative effort?
Rogers: Yes, totally unrelated to any of my work. I mean I did it, so I guess it is related somehow. That piece had a completely different kind of aesthetic than my other work. And that was on purpose. I mean, I organized that group of people, but that was the extent of the directorial impulse. Once we started to do it, we hardly got to rehearse it, and it was made that way, we were mostly just trying to feel each other out, and we were going to show up and do something. And not being able to obsess about it too much, or prepare, or really tell anybody else what to do— —
Rail: To frustrate your own impulses.
Rogers: Yeah, I wanted to have to show up and do something. That was really fun for me. It’s not the kind of work that I would ever make alone. It’s not my vocabulary. So it was really nice to get to do that with Shaun Irons, Lauren Petty, and Madeline Best.
Rail: Where would you say your vocabulary is coming from?
Rogers: I’m interested in what cinematic narrative is—how when you juxtapose one image with another, the mind automatically creates a meaning from that juxtaposition. And maybe it’s because our minds have been trained to do that, from watching TV and movies and stuff. I’m really interested in what’s possible inside that tool. Selective Memory was about trying to take everything away except that; it was an image of a person and juxtapositions, and not trying to create any kind of meaning from any of it, but knowing that people would create meaning anyway, and how long can we sustain that. In a weird kind of way it’s not even about the image, it’s about all of the signifiers of the image, or the frame that the image is inside. And what’s actually inside the frame could be almost anything; we could make a movie about a rock— —
Rail: Yeah, but is that fair? You said that this piece at Abrons, and the piece you’re working on now, and Selective Memory aren’t connected, but the connection that I think of is Madeline’s face and how you are playing with this woman who is the object and yet controlling herself. And with your work it’s the male gaze—there are these loaded things that you are either dealing with or saying, “Yes, those are here, but we’re not dealing with them.” So it’s not a film of a rock in that sense.
Rogers: No, you’re right, you’re totally right. And we’ve struggled with the whole issue of the male gaze. We have to find a way to subvert that more in this, because it’s something we didn’t set out to do, but a lot of people’s response to that last piece was, “Oh, so there’s this woman inside a box and there’s this guy outside the box, and the guy is sort of representing us, who are watching, and blah blah blah.” I don’t really find that interesting, but I know that it’s a part of it, and you can’t really just say, “Oh that’s not what I’m doing.” It’s still there.
Rail: You started out as a “theater artist,” and now you are situated more in a dance context, but you’re also doing video work. I wonder if you could talk about that transition, even though I’m sort of setting up a false dichotomy.
Rogers: I think of myself as being in the dance context, in terms of the work that is happening here and the people I’m friends with, and the artists I follow, and that kind of thing. And it’s also a reaction simply to the fact that when I was making stuff that I thought of as theater pieces, they were never well received, and I was generally not happy with them either. This is maybe just my own bullshit, but I felt really constrained by the way people would respond to my work—maybe this is totally true in dance, maybe it’s just that I’m more comfortable with dance-world expectations, but when I was making theater pieces and asking theater reviewers to see them and there were theater audiences coming, whatever the fuck that means, they would always respond, pro or con, to its narrative sensibility.
Rail: That’s a huge tyranny in the theater world, as a generalization. Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater talked about that when she said, “we had the right piece in the wrong theater.”
Rogers: That’s a huge, huge problem for me. Or because I was making theater things with video in them, people would always refer to it negatively in relationship to a tradition that I wasn’t even a part of. There’s this thing in theater, in dance too: the anxiety of influence—that it’s important to work for someone like Elizabeth LeCompte and then you make work that is sort of derivative of her, and then you find your own voice outside of it, but the tropes continue. I think it’s the same thing in dance: you dance for Paul Taylor, and then you can make work of your own.
Rail: But that has fallen off more than in theater.
Rogers: I’m not sure why, but when we got to New York, I didn’t even try to go and intern at the Wooster Group. I was following all that work. But I felt like I was making stuff, and it just didn’t fit, and I was never getting any traction. I mean, you make work and you just feel like, “Wow, I spent all this time doing it, I didn’t like the results, and no one gave a shit about it.”
Rail: Great. [Laughs.]
Rogers: It’s the triple whammy. So for me it came to a place of, fuck it, I’m just going to do whatever I want, and I’m not going to worry about it anymore. Somehow it just made sense: I’ll probably just have better luck if I think of this as dance.
Rail: This makes me think of Jérôme Bel versus Tino Sehgal. Bel’s work is situated in theaters, and that’s an important part of it.
Rogers: But he’s a dance artist, though.
Rail: He’s a dance artist. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant theater in the larger sense, something about the proscenium.
Rogers: Sure, sure. But if you were to look at the work you would say, actually, that’s a theater piece, but he’s existing in the dance world.
Rail: Or visual; I mean, he can play with those boundaries. Especially now, what museum in the world doesn’t want to say, “We have a Jérôme Bel piece.”
Rogers: Good for him; he’s a really strong artist.
Rail: Yes, good for him. My irritation is not with him; it’s with the museums. Sehgal, on the other hand, really positions himself, in that for his work to be understood, it needs to be in a museum. Do you have a sense of your work needing to be in specific spaces? Could it be in a gallery? Is it site specific in every case?
Rogers: No, it could be situated in lots of different ways. It becomes situated in this space because I take the time to situate it in this place. It has to be made for where it goes. But if I had a different kind of space, I could make something that went into it. I don’t make pieces that could just automatically fit into a Dance Theater Workshop-style proscenium; I’d have to think really hard about how to do that.
Rail: I would think it would fit better in a gallery than in a DTW or a BAM.
Rogers: People have had that response but I’ve had no luck getting visual art people interested in what I do.
Rail: We’ve talked about this so many times, how little crossover there is between disciplines and audiences these days. The work sometimes comes from different generating impulses that might be in direct conversation with each other, but no one is listening. If you’re at the Kitchen for a music show, it’s a music crowd; if it’s a theater, it’s a theater crowd.
Rogers: Some of the old timers, I shouldn’t call them old timers, like the Judson crowd or whatever— —
Rail: I think they are old timers. I mean, that’s great.
Rogers: Right. They talk about it like it was totally different then—I wonder if it’s true—that there was all of this interconnectedness. Maybe it was just a smaller scene, therefore there was room for overlap— —
Rail: There wasn’t as much money, and if you just look at who was sleeping with who— —
Rogers: I was on a Movement Research panel last spring with Joan Jonas, and she made these amazing comments about how we think of the Judson period as where all of this stuff broke through or whatever, and she just kept saying, that was posthumous: the fact that it is considered this touchstone moment in history, that came later.
Rail: Interviewing Eliot Feld several years ago, I called him an artist who makes live work; he stopped me, and he said, really vehemently, “I am a choreographer.” And then maybe two years ago, there was this whole spate of choreographers wanting to distance themselves from such explicit associations with the dance world. And now I feel like I’m not hearing either of those extremes.
Rogers: I think we’re in a vague, middle place. The circle of artists I am around, I actually feel are on this weird, and possibly really great, anti-careerist track. You know a couple of years ago there was almost a manifesto response to it, it was kind of like, “This is what I do, this is not what I do,” and now people are like, “Ehh whatever, call it whatever you like, I don’t care if you understand it or if this will further my career,” because there’s no career to be had anymore.
Rail: I’m just doing what I’m doing.
Rogers: Right. And even now I feel like they aren’t doing it with the same degree of determination that they were maybe doing it with before.
Rail: It’s not defensive, maybe?
Rogers: Yeah, maybe.
Rail: Do you think of there being a contemporary aesthetic, and if so, do you place yourself within it?
Rogers: I do think there’s an overriding contemporary aesthetic that happens, and it always morphs and you can follow it morphing. I think every artist, myself included, would say they don’t see their work inside that. I would even argue that I’m actually old fashioned in some way. The material that I am drawing from is 1960s minimalism stuff. I find aesthetics as a question to be really difficult in general, and right now, especially, it’s a real crutch. It’s so easy to fall into, to wrap what you have into this nice aesthetic package.
Rail: A crutch for artists, for curators, for writers?
Rogers: For everyone. It becomes a frame, a way of looking at something, and also an expectation. And it engenders a kind of modishness, it becomes a thing like, oh this is not what I expected. The Wooster Group is one of the examples that I feel have managed somehow to stay in a certain kind of aesthetic framework for all these years, and still not just be regurgitating; there’s still a lot of meat underneath all that stuff.
Rail: It’s a ridiculous question, anyway: “What is the contemporary aesthetic?” But what are some of the things that you are seeing a lot of these days? What keeps popping up for you on stages?
Rogers: It’s almost like a return to the ’80s punk scene, certain things that I equate with it, a messiness, a noisiness, an obnoxiousness, I don’t mean that in just the bad ways— —
Rail: But carefully crafted messiness, right? I mean, my sense in the ’80s, reading someone like C. Carr, I get the sense that it was much messier then. Or maybe that’s just my ignorance.
Rogers: It would actually be impossible for anyone to be messy in that way in this day and age, because now we’ve processed that period of time as a thing. Even if you are entering into it fully, you are still commenting on it, and that gets complicated. But whereas five years ago there was lots of noodling with microphone cables, and it became this fetishizing of the tech; now it’s like a big scream.
Rail: And maybe more movement recently?
Rogers: Oh yeah, people have been dancing again, for sure. People would have been embarrassed to use the word choreography a few years ago, and now they’re not.
Rail: I was talking to Stephen Petronio a couple of years ago about what it was like to have a really identifiable aesthetic and technique and style at a time when that is so not fashionable. He just rolled his eyes, and said “That’s gone in and out of style ten times since I’ve been working.”
Rogers: Worrying about what’s relevant—I hate those questions in a lot of ways. Is a certain kind of work relevant now, is a certain kind of work fashionable now? It’s totally human and natural, because people want some way to sift through the noise and stuff.
Rail: It’s also about orthodoxies—like Trisha Brown saying she had to give herself permission to say “yes” to things at a certain point; after the Judson folks broke from the orthodoxy of Martha Graham and the sort of high priestess idea of dance, it became its own orthodoxy. So we’ve talked a lot in the past about the importance of staying small, and you guys are now in the place of thinking about your future.
Sheila Lewandowski: The question (for us and lots of other nonprofits and charities) is whether or not we should exist. The feedback from the artists, the trustees, and our funders was twofold: yes, there will always be a need for incubators, and, yes, you must stay small. But we’re in a neighborhood that we can’t afford to be in anymore, so is there some help for us to stay where we are?
Rail: That’s still radical for many people, the idea of staying small, and not necessarily existing in perpetuity.
Rogers: It’s actually anti-American. The American mentality is, we should all get richer, we should all have more stuff, our economy is based on a growth model, our economy is only succeeding if it’s growing.
Rail: If you look at what major publications think is important to cover, they think it’s the big institutions; I understand that, but in terms of art, it also makes no sense to me. It’s this difference between what is marginalized and what is specialized.
Lewandowksi: On the other hand, people who are very wealthy want the one-of-a-kind thing; mass-producing is not for the people who want the niche or the specialty item, it’s for everybody else.
Rail: It’s like the Fall For Dance festival: Happy Meals for everyone!
Rogers: It’s almost embracing the YouTube model: the more content out there, the better we’re all going to be, and more is just not more. It’s an ecosystem; we’re the plankton, and if there is no more plankton for the big fish—the big institutions—to eat, they’re all going to die.
Rail: I agree with that ecosystem model to a certain extent, but what it does not illuminate is the fact that, often in the art world, the plankton are much more interesting than the whales.
Rogers: Sure, I completely agree with that. And I wish there was some way for the world to see that too; I don’t know if that is human nature, or the culture that we live in.
Rail: But if you are recognized by everybody as the thing that everybody wants to see, how do you stay small? You talk a lot about the niche audience for bands.
Rogers: Music is a good example of this: there’s an exponential correlation between actual impact, immediate impact, and influence. This is true for performance art and dance—the number of people that were at the Judson performances versus the influence of that period. If you think about music, the bands from the ’80s that are thought of as deeply influential, none of them sold a lot, and they didn’t have massive audiences at that point. That is really interesting to remember. There was this article about the Brooklyn Museum and how it was failing because its attendance numbers were soft—that’s completely the wrong metric. It’s a really shortsighted view of the importance of whatever it is that you are doing. But it’s hard not to care about those things; you want people to see what you are doing.
Rail: But what qualities do you want? As an artist, what are the qualities you want to encourage in your audience? And as an audience member, what are the things that attract you in art?
Rogers: If you ever meet people who come to New York, and you ask them why they are here, it’s because it’s a place where curious people can find something they’re interested in and insert themselves into it. And that can be anything. And that has nothing to do with Lincoln Center, nothing to do with the Metropolitan Museum, nothing to do with big places.
Lewandowski: I do feel, when talking to people who are involved in the major institutions, just like a major bank or any other big institution, there’s this feeling that, as the small guy, we either don’t need to exist, or that we will always exist and they don’t need to do anything to make sure that we exist.
Rail: And they are also too big to fail.
Rail: What would New York look like with no City Center, no Lincoln Center, no BAM? It might be kind of great.
Rogers: Well that’s sort of like New York in the interesting time that everyone remembers and refers to that we weren’t here for, the 1980s. Right now artists are fetishizing the ’80s.
Rail: It’s true. That is part of the contemporary aesthetic!
Rogers: What’s happening in the downtown scene totally mirrors the oldies music scene—you know how 10 years ago there was an ’80s nostalgia moment in music, everyone was listening to Duran Duran again or something, and now if you turn on the radio people are nostalgic for grunge rock in the ’90s? The noodling period of people and their little cords and stuff is nostalgic for Judson, and now people are nostalgic for CBGB or the Pyramid Club or 8BC—the same places that I am nostalgic for but never went to. I think that informs why a lot of people are interested in the Earl Dax club series Pussy Faggot!, and performances in clubs, and being punk-rockesque.
Rail: People who were part of the ’80s scene seem to be both happy with what Earl is doing and critical of a lack of an edge in the work they see at these events: “It’s not political, it’s not charged, it’s not dangerous enough.” I think that’s because the city is not political and dangerous and charged in the same way. But there is such a nostalgia.
Rogers: But it’s also hard to know whether that’s true, because it could all be an issue of context, and how their eyes saw the work then.
Rail: Or how we see it. The city doesn’t seem particularly political and charged to me right now, but maybe I’m just not able to see it.
Rogers: But yeah, if we can’t stay small, we’re going to have to die, we have to die.
Rail: It would be great if that’s where the interview ends.
Rogers: But there’s this weird tension around what it means to stay small, because we want to support artists better and pay them more money, which I think is crucially important. But that means raising additional funds. We’re actually in a period of budget growth. We’re raising more money, so it’s a question of when to stop, maybe. It’s like knowing the point at which it’s the biggest that we are comfortable to get. You cross that line, and then these other factors start to take over.
Rail: Well, I also think it’s a question of what type of bigger. How many artists do you present per season?
Rogers: 12 to 13. It’s half of anybody else.
Rail: If you stay at that level, and those artists get double of what they get now, that’s great.
Rogers: That is the path that we want to take. There are challenges to that. There are always funders who are interested in numbers—how many artists are you supporting? Not, are you supporting that number in a meaningful way? It’s a tricky thing. The way that they calculate impact is not the way that I calculate impact.
Rail: For some reason that makes me think of your hotbox.
Rogers: I don’t know what I’m trying to make.
Rail: Well, I think it is that element of not knowing, and not pushing to get out of that. That’s probably why the idea of writing a novel is so foreign to me, because I think there’s a structure that I need to have in place in advance, which I’m sure is not the case. But the reason why I always start to try to write a novel and fail, is that I have this ignorant little idea that I have to have a novel structure, whereas poetry and criticism and essays, the figuring out of the structure makes sense to me as I’m doing it.
Rogers: There’s an idea, there’s something in my head, so it’s not like I’m totally directionless. But I have no idea how to get there in practical terms. Your instinct is to problem solve, find a way to do it—but to do that, you have to exist in this place of total stasis much longer than is comfortable to do. And I have to resist this urge to fix that.