I keep seeing Lauren Bakst’s performance work Private Collection: in the gallery space of a Bushwick apartment complex, the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church, a downtown loft on Broadway. It seems to me that Bakst is always working: as a teacher of choreography at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she also makes work with students and curates a lecture series; as an editor at Movement Research Performance Journal; as the recipient of many residencies, including one she currently holds in NYC at The Kitchen called Dance and Process. I am drawn to the flow of her work life as a snapshot of the young artist— prolific and multidisciplinary—and as a mirror of my own artistic coming-of-age, boundless with the desire to experiment.
While Private Collection is the title for a formally mutating work—speech and action reorder performance to performance—it always begins (textually) with the description of a room, which some might recognize as the common site of a therapeutic encounter: “This is the couch. This is a window. This is the chair. This is another chair.” The opaque sterility of the description provides the backdrop for a memory-tour devoid of nostalgia, but full of inescapable haunting. A deep stream-of-consciousness is rhythmically rendered through postures of waiting—lowering oneself into a phantom seat, holding up a wall, shuffling into a new facing. Sex and observational comedy drift in and out of the text’s anecdotal structure, and the stories themselves seem to be ones of drift. At the exact moment an intimacy could be captured, the self refuses merger. It’s a “solo” show, to be old-fashioned, yet the notion of solo is heavy with quotation, as a self is only ever composed of what is collected through the myriad relations that constitute a life. Currently the piece appears as a duet between Chanterelle Menashe Ribes and Bakst, and a few days ago when I visited Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery at 54 Ludlow Street in preparation for showings on May 11 and 12, it was Ribes giving Bakst performance notes.
Here is a conversation between Bakst and me that thinks through an embrace of narrative from the perspective of private-public disciplines.
Jess Barbagallo (Rail): What is Private Collection?
Lauren Bakst: With this work, I’m letting the different kinds of relationships that happen in the room at the moment of performance speak to other intimate relationships that precede the performance. The work is co-locating this archive of intimacies, and then placing them inside a real-time relationship with the audience and with Chanterelle at the moment of performance. I think of the material like an index, which is equal parts movement and text.
Rail: Have you always been interested in narrative?
Bakst: I’ve been pretty anti-narrative before this project. That’s something embedded in my relationship to dancing. I’ve been critical, particularly as a teacher, of dance that attempts to tell a story or be narrative-driven, or moments when dance gets reduced in an attempt to locate its “about-ness.” However, writing is really my practice, and language brings me into moving. I’m more and more interested in how a relationship to the body gets framed, and how language can do that.
Rail: It sounds like it’s about aperture, shrinking or growing the frame.
Bakst: I create situations where the audience is asked to shift between different modes of viewing—the conversational and the theatrical—so that a person’s relation to viewing isn’t static, but that things happen in the performance that remind you that you’re watching something. I feel resistant to passive spectatorship, which doesn’t mean theatrical forms necessarily illicit passivity. While certain content could be considered “personal,” I am interested in an audience member’s experience of familiarity and dissonance with the material. I want it to feel like something they can touch, like, I’ve seen that, felt that before.
Rail: So it’s uncanny. I bring this up because of the connection to Freud and the role of psychoanalysis in your work. You participate in analysis yourself. I’m curious about the way it informs you as an artist.
Bakst: My mentor Donna Faye [Burchfield] says: Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to. I’m trying to pay attention to sensations of the uncanny in my everyday encounters with the world. In psychoanalysis, there’s a constant recursivity to making present or registering your sense of understanding around something that’s previously taken place, which I feel is inherent to performance. You rehearse something alone, and then, in the encounter with the audience, new knowledges emerge. It can fail.
Rail: Would the failure be people saying, “I don’t understand what I saw?”
Bakst: I don’t think it’s necessarily about legibility, although I think people usually understand more than they let themselves think they do. They are always having a feeling, an experience. I’m curious about what happens in an experience of not understanding. How did you not understand? It’s related to teaching. You try to help students recognize what they already know. I think that audiences are pretty smart.
Rail: You briefly mentioned your collaborator Chanterelle Ribes, and I wondered how you select those with whom you collaborate. The piece is called Private Collection, and a collection implies to me a curation. I wonder if you consider the intimacies you keep to be a kind of curation. Or is that language cold?
Bakst: I don’t think it’s cold. The root of the word curation is to care for, and so that’s always helpful to think about in the increasingly professionalized notion of what it means to curate. Part of what this work is addressing is the role of the performer. I think about myself as a performer, and with that comes a sensitivity to what modes of direction make me feel alive, and what modes do the opposite. I’ve written a monologue in the piece specific to my concerns as a protagonist in the work. When Chanterelle performs it back to me—she’s being herself as me, and it feels like we are living mirrors or echoes of each other. But she’s also transforming it as she does it, and we keep transforming it back and forth until it becomes something else. There’s a kind of playful transparency, an unsettling of the relationship between choreographer and dancer or director and performer.
Rail: Is that a critique of traditional art hierarchies or organization?
Bakst: I don’t find those structures very productive, but assuming a role to flip it or undo it does feel generative. The way Chanterelle and I started working in the studio took on a traditional dancer-choreographer relationship, in one sense. I generated material from my body and taught it to her. But the relationship and work keeps unfolding in and out of the rehearsal room. It’s important to note that Chanterelle’s primary profession is not as a performer. We met through group analysis.
Rail: Describe what group analysis is.
Bakst: Group analysis or group therapy—it’s group analysis, but that can sound snobby. Group therapy...
Rail: Why would that sound snobby?
Bakst: I think analysis can feel, and can be, guarded and inaccessible depending on where you’re coming from. And very disciplinary.
Rail: Psychoanalytic theory pops up in all kinds of art criticism and is part of a certain mainstream discourse. I wonder how many people who use its language actually participate in it.
Bakst: I was reading Leo Bersani’s The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (1986), and he talks about the relationship between theory and practice, but also speculation: “Psychoanalysis is an unprecedented attempt to give a theoretical account of precisely those forces which obstruct, undermine, play havoc with theoretical accounts themselves. From this perspective oppositions between theory and practice and between the thinker and history are false … or they’re like symptomatic oppositions which both reveal and disguise an antagonism internal to thought itself.” He’s positing that the magic of psychoanalysis is that it undoes the theories which form it, but then also re-establishes them ad infinitum.
Rail: It sounds like Brecht! It makes all the mechanisms transparent. But tell me—what’s group?
Bakst: Group places the form of an individual analysis session in the context of a group. I am part of a group with seven other people, and we all see the same analyst. We meet once a week for ninety minutes. We often talk about “being in the room.” There’s an emphasis on talking to each other about how we feel about each other in real time. It’s a practice. There’s also a sense of ongoingness or lack of finality.
Rail: Does it resemble a soap opera?
Bakst: The pleasure of spectatorship and performance is present. There are times when a conversation is unfolding between two people in the room, and it’s really about the two of them, but you’re there witnessing it. That can feel play-like or like a scene from a movie you wish you had seen, and those are really gratifying moments. People often feel sorry—“Am I taking up too much space? Was that too much about us?” But everyone else is like, “No—keep going!”
Rail: So is this what sparked your interest in narrative?
Bakst: Prior to being in group, my work often involved scripts and conversations—usually with the audience—but I think definitely narrative, or more precisely, using text to observe and recall the affects of micro, intimate encounters, emerged after being in group. I became interested in the generosity of storytelling because it can function as a window into another worldview. Something that dance does remarkably is attuning to the materiality of the room, of the body and the floor and each other. I wanted to use language and storytelling to draw on that capacity to be very much here and also move somewhere else. In [Italo] Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), a guidebook for writing, he talks about quickness. He tells the story of Charlemagne and the magic ring, in which Charlemagne falls madly in love with whoever, whatever is holding the ring—a young girl, an archbishop, a lake. The ring functions as a magic object, or link, that moves the reader through three very different events or relationships very quickly. I find that useful in thinking about associative powers and putting different things next to each other. Which I guess is kind of why I’m thinking about a collection.
Rail: When you say something simple as stories hold the possibility of other worldviews, I’m ethically comforted. I read something and decide, that’s truth. I become myopic in my devotion if something is convincing enough. It doesn’t sound like you hold anything that tight.
Bakst: I don’t. I think that maybe the aesthetic or ethic or position of the collection has to do with this relationship to the idea of “private,” which I am putting quotations around. In Testo Junkie (2008), Paul B. Preciado dispels the idea of the private—there is no private. For example, he writes about the couch in his apartment. The couch is this tool that makes you feel like your space is yours and your time is yours and your home is yours and your leisure is yours. It choreographs you into a particular relationship to living. The ways in which we relate to ourselves and others in what we deem private spaces are actually the fabric of public life and where we make a lot of ideas around how we feel about each other and the world. I’m trying to interrogate the encounters I find myself inside of in my own “private” life, whether that be in domestic spaces or romantic relationships or friendships. The room of psychoanalysis is private, but it materializes in your public life. To me that is the direct mirror of making performance. I am trying to interrogate that practice of what you do in a closed room and then how that can shape an encounter.