Justin Bond (Rail): Well, first of all, congratulations on your ten year anniversary. Does it make you feel old that you’ve been working on this?
Jemma Nelson: Well, no.
Rail: On your ten year anniversary, isn’t it nice to have an opportunity to look at what you’ve done and put things in a new perspective?
Nelson: That’s the general drive of being an artist, you’re always pushing yourself, always trying to advance.
Rail: But when you reach a milestone like this it’s a time where you can allow yourself the luxury of looking back, and maybe giving yourself a pat on the back. I’m just wondering if you feel that way.
Caden Manson: I’m proud of the company, and how it’s grown and the talent of everyone that’s been in it, and how they all have grown in those ten years, too. Also where we’ve been and the audiences we’ve reached, because I think it’s a unique opportunity to be able to have played the places that we’ve played in Europe and in the United States on both coasts, because the audiences are different in each place.
Nelson: The idea of the weekend at Abrons Arts Center is that it’s past, present, and future. You can come see these video installations that represent past work, “SOS Animals” and “The Imitation.” And then there’s the present, which is “The Sleep,” which is the musical collaboration that we’ve been working on with Theo Kogan and Sean Pierce. And there’s the future in “Flesh Tone,” which is our new group work, which is still in development.
Rail: I was at your very first casting call, and have seen your process: cultivating actors, and training them and getting them into the mindset and the physical exertion that it takes for the complexity of the choreography of your pieces. The first one we did, which was “CLEARCUT, catastrophe!,” had a certain amount of choreography, but it really jumped from there to the next piece, which was “Shelf Life.” With the amount of choreography and the complexity of what you had your actors do, there was probably a huge learning curve for you. But now, bringing the new actors in, I would imagine that it’s exciting for them.
Manson: I have a real structure of how I lead them into the work, because I used to just throw everything at the actors at the same time, and it can bog down the process because they’re juggling all of these directions. They have physical and emotional directions, and they have cinematic blocking and stage blocking. I’ve been able to layer those in, so that they have an easier time to the finish line. I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned from doing this for a while.
Nelson: It’s exciting because they’re making the discoveries for the first time. You get that sort of contagion of excitement from them of “Look at this” and “What can I do here?” When you see them playing on-screen with the technique and pushing it. And you’re pushing it as well, because you’re revisiting those concepts.
Rail: When you think about the arc of the work, from “CLEARCUT” through “Shelf Life” to “Flesh Tone,” how do you see your themes and concepts of what the work represents maturing or changing? In the big picture, do you feel like you’ve really changed what you’re trying to express, or like you’ve honed the technique of expressing it and what you’re trying to say hasn’t changed much? I feel like a lot of artists, myself included, we find new, and creative, and hopefully more sophisticated ways of saying the same thing. How do you feel between “Shelf Life,” which was about a consumerist world and a certain alienation that was involved, and “Flesh Tone,” that has changed in relation to your experiences of how the world has changed?
Manson: We’re always making one play. Not that each play is the same play, but each play is another chapter of the same play. So, we’re on our 11th chapter.
Rail: Chapter 11. Hope you don’t go bankrupt!
Manson: Yeah well [knocks on table, laughs]. I think that alienation is a big part of the work. The work is queer. I was back behind the screen at the very early stages of the rehearsal, working with the new actors, trying to get them to cross the cameras so that one character can cross the screen, and it’s so fake. It’s all about presentation, in a very queer way. People would say, “Oh, it’s campy, it’s campy!” but that doesn’t accurately describe the situation—
Bond: You’re presenting realness, and when people are confronted with this presented form of realness, it seems camp, because they don’t perceive their own presentation as “real.”
Rail: I love that. It’s true, you’re right. Because you’re forcing people to confront a presentation of their realness, so they say it’s camp because it’s second guessed, which they don’t do. They’re not aware that they’re presenting something that they’ve been handed as a construct.
Nelson: The work intentionally makes the audience active. It asks them to make decisions and take a stance as to how they’re going to put this character together. What’s the story line they’re going to watch and how will they value it? For some it makes them uncomfortable, because it implicates them as being a part of this system or questioning its values. The characters and the story line and everything is about very literally and visibly crossing boundaries all the time, and that can be unsettling for someone who wants a direct narrative.
Rail: And it’s a critique of the consumerist short-cut, especially in “SOS”, right? That was very much a critique of the consumerist shortcut to homogenization, where as you can relate to the products, you can relate to the way they’re used, you can relate to all of that, so therefore you feel safe with people, because you have that same consumerist language.
Nelson: And the consumerist language is an economy of power, too, as well as an economy of identity. So when you’re identifying yourself with products or products are substitutes for aspects of yourself and your personality, and those products are made by governments and corporations, it’s a real narrative of power and trading power and subverting power; about how you identify with or reject those attributes to be the person that you want to be or the conglomeration of what it is that you see as yourself.
Rail: It takes that and it makes the people who are presenting that to you "other," and that’s how it becomes subversive and dangerous. It’s a commentary on how frightening it is when people step outside of the prescribed behavior, and then become dangerous.
Nelson: Why can’t we take these codes of the movie industry and television industry, and use them ourselves? Why can’t we take those weapons and use them as our own, take that language back and that power back and invert it in that way? That theme has been from the beginning and we keep returning to it, but at the same time you’re always modulating it and thinking “What can we say about politics? What can we say about violence with this? What can we say through the different pieces?”
Rail: Where do you see yourselves going next? Is this ten years a launch-pad for something new? What’s your vision for Big Art Group, except for getting more hot young actors so people still like to see your performers naked?
Manson: Exactly. On that note, I love having a company in New York. I love the ensemble of Big Art Group. It’s an extended network. Big Art Group is a very open network. You can come and go as you want. And I just love the relationship we all have together in creating work in New York, because it’s difficult.
Rail: But if not, then, where did your inspiration initially come from for “Flesh Tone?” Were there source materials for that you used as a springboard?
Manson: In “Flesh Tone,” we were thinking a lot about, well, if the Iraq War is over, the people that went to the Middle East not to be soldiers, but to make money. When they return, what happens to them? It’s not like they were there serving the country, they were there serving the corporation. So what if one of these people was in an IED explosion, as a truck driver, and he came back to the States without a face? The war has always been overseas, in the Middle East, but actually all the aftermath is here. If you think about the Great Recession and you think about whole expanses of America that are being foreclosed on–and we sort of collided those two ideas together to make “Flesh Tone.” This idea of a man who’s coming back who is unidentifiable, who is returning to his family who he’s also left to serve the corporation, and coming back to an aftermath from a war he’s been in somewhere else.
Nelson: If you look at the tropes of returning soldiers, one of the classical ones is Jason and Medea, and we inverted it. What if, coming back, instead of Medea, this feminine power being the outsider, what if Jason was the outsider? I think another inspiration for this show, in particular, was Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons.
Rail: Which we had [13 Moons] last year. What’s interesting with Jason and Medea and that conflation of masculine and feminine is these people that are coming back now from their get-rich-quick scheme, come back to an economy that’s completely collapsed, where white males are feeling so alienated from the power structure that exists here, that statistically, women make up a higher percentage of the work force than men do now, and that actually white men are becoming one of the minorities of this country. It’s an interesting thing to look at, “Flesh Tone.”
Nelson: We tend to look at the literary villains as potential heroes.
Rail: Nathan’s advocating aborting all male fetuses, until they make up for the hundred and ten million girls that have been lost in the last forty or fifty years. But, you know, that’s just part of a utopian dream.¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
Big Art Group’s Take Over runs April 15-18 at Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street. “The Sleep” at 7 p.m. in the Experimental. “Flesh Tone” at 8:30 p.m. in the Playhouse. Tickets are $15. Video installation in the Underground daily from noon to 10 p.m., free. For more information, visit www.bigartgroup.com.