Layers of Possibility: Site-specific dance and the River to River Festival
June 15 – 24, 2018
The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC)'s River To River Festival stages art and performances throughout lower Manhattan, enlivening civic buildings and other public spaces with free events. The festival originated as part of the post-September 11th economic revitalization, demonstrating that the neighborhood was safe and resilient. LMCC became the lead curator and producer of the festival in 2011, and River To River now offers a burst of activity in the neighborhood. Festival fans and unsuspecting passersby alike can encounter art in unexpected places. Now, the River to River Festival brings art to a variety of venues across lower Manhattan—though in this case, “venue” means plazas or landmarked buildings. I spoke with Danielle King, LMCC Director of Cultural Programs, and artists Cori Olinghouse and enrico d. wey in separate phone interviews in early June.
River To River presents a mix of new and new-to-the-festival works, and much logistical planning and curatorial coordination goes into matching artists with sites. King pointed out that the process happens differently for each artist: “It depends on the nature of the project, and the attributes of a site an artist might want to work with, or play against.” King has been part of the festival since 2012, so she keeps a ready list of sites that are available and easier to work with. “We know which spaces are our go-tos, but each one has its own feel and texture, it's own quirks and guidelines about what we can and cannot do,” she said. The conversation with artists often starts, unsurprisingly, in very abstract terms, and eventually funnels into more concrete decisions once they start touring the spaces.
King describes the festival's curation as commissions and presentations, differentiating between work that is new and work that has been seen before. However, because the nature of the festival is site-specific, even existing work will (ideally) meld to its environment, or find useful friction within it. “Once we know what a project needs, we take a walk around the neighborhood and start weighing possibilities,” she said. “I'm often the translator between the artist's creative practice and the operator of the site. I try to convey needs, interest, and concerns for both parties.”
As she spoke with Olinghouse during the curatorial process, King knew that one of her goals for Grandma was to create an installation. “Some of Cori's other opportunities had focused on the more performative elements of the work,” King said. “She was able to bring in some objects, but this installation made it possible to really invest in the impetus behind the project. We just wanted to find a space where she didn't have to work in a piecemeal way.”
Cori Olinghouse's Grandma has been performed in various venues, but with River to River came the opportunity to take up residence in LMCC's own studio space. “It reminds me of an old department store, like JC Penny's,” Olinghouse said. “It has dingy white walls and awkward dimensions.” The installation opened a portal into the world of Grandma, a world exploring Olinghouse's personal family history and relation to the conspicuous, often sinister, consumption practices of white, middle-class America. “I'm able to generate greater intimacy with the audience,” Olinghouse said. “They can smell food debris; they're sitting on plastic. I wanted to give people an embodied relationship to the work, rather than an optical one.” She's interested in the intimacy between audience and materials, and the animated quality of the materials themselves (think of the way Wonder Bread reforms itself after you squeeze it). “I wanted people to be situated in this world, and implicated in it.”
Initially, artist enrico d. wey imagined the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, home to the National Museum of the American Indian—New York, and its rotunda, as his site. As it turned out, Federal Hall was a better fit. “When I was walking around with enrico, he had his creative practice and methodology in place, but he didn't yet know what the work would be,” King said. “Knowing that other artists had used Federal Hall in the past, he immediately started to approach how the audience might experience the site in new ways.”
wey's work centers on memory and the ways a built monument runs counter to the process of forgetting. His work, silent :: partner, is a new presentation made for the festival. Because Federal Hall is a public monument, wey wasn't able to rehearse in the space more than a couple of times. Many visits, during his creative process, focused on observing visitors in the space. “It was about impressions, seeing how sound carries in the space, the specific use of building materials and historical craftsmanship,” he said. “Watching how people moved, and the reverence they had toward the space, was of particular interest to me.” A huge statue of George Washington stands outside of Federal Hall, marking the approximate site where he was inaugurated in front of the original Federal Hall building (the current structure is a newer building). “It was erected in 1882, the year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed,” wey said. He began touring New York, visiting monuments and memorials, especially in lower Manhattan, to get a sense of the competing and parallel memories. “During my process, I don't see these kind of things as coincidence. I noticed that the timelines are similar and I started piecing things together, because I was sensitized to them. It's about where I place my consciousness and what appears.”
“Site-specific performance” is an oft-used term, creating an odd dichotomy between “sites” and “theaters,” as if performances in black box or proscenium spaces aren't taking place on a site. Both Olinghouse and wey conceive of site-specificity in terms of how the site can shape or reshape their work, rather than the other way around. Olinghouse approaches each performance as an iteration, rather than a reconstruction, seeing her work rooted in a life-long improvisational practice. “I'm really interested in how the wildness or liveness from a performance can carry forward,” she said. She'd rather not get hung up on the reproduction of a particular choreographic form. For his part, wey is puzzled by the term “site-specific.” “I understand how it came to be,” he says, “But there's tension in how you negotiate choreography within a site. I can't say I do site-specific work, but I'm very conscious of what the space is and what it has to offer.” These artists use the restrictions and possibilities available in a site to uncover new layers of their process and work.