CORI OLINGHOUSE with Gillian Jakab
MoMA’s Judson exhibition includes a three-month performance program that features, each in multi-week installations, the work of the postmodern collective’s individual choreographers, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown. The final segment, dedicated to Brown, runs from December 17 – January 16 and takes the form of a moving image installation. Video serves not only as a record of Brown’s work, but also as a partner in her multidisciplinary pieces.
Cori Olinghouse—a former dancer and archivist of the Trisha Brown Company—sifted through the Brown archives to gather the material for the installation. Olinghouse is the founder/director of The Portal Project, a living archives initiative dedicated to the transmission of performance through archival and curatorial frameworks. Identifying footage that would represent new entry points into Brown’s early work, Olinghouse and renowned video artist Charles Atlas collaborated to create the installation for MoMA. Gillian Jakab sat down with Olinghouse at MoMA’s café to talk about her work with Trisha Brown and the exhibition.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): So how did you go from being a dancer in the Trisha Brown Dance Company to working with the choreographer’s archives
Cori Olinghouse: Before I started dancing in Trisha’s company, I apprenticed with Jon Gartenberg—a film historian, archivist, and curator; he catalogued the experimental films at MoMA in the ’70s. [. . .] I began a dialogue with him a year prior to dancing in the company in 2001, my [archival] practices in time-based media and performance were always in tandem.
Rail: They complement each other. I was thinking about how in Trisha’s work there’s both the moving-image film and performance. I went to BAM last month to see the Trisha Brown program of three early works . . .
Olinghouse: I reconstructed one of them!
Rail: Oh! You did?
Olinghouse: Yeah, I reconstructed Pamplona Stones (1974).
Rail: That was great! Well, in the first one, Ballet (1968), with the two tight rope wires, it was amazing to see the archival footage of Trisha crawling between rooftops paired with the live performance of a dancer, suspended, crawling across the stage.
So in the Judson exhibition, I was curious about the decision to include only moving images in the program dedicated to Trisha rather than live performance.
Olinghouse: There were a number of different forces. We had been in conversation with MoMA for a period of time around Trisha’s archive, talking about the relationship between recorded and live [material], as well as Trisha’s creative process and relationship to film as a kind of living inscription, or record, or feedback loop of her relationship to gesture.
What I encountered [in the archive] was a kind of intimacy, a kind of liveness and wildness in the documentation, which doesn’t always happen in archival material. I think it comes from the way Trisha was engaging documentation as an extension of practice. And then, you know, many of her earliest experiments were actually with film.
Much of the material [in the installation] has been unseen by the public and was only recently uncovered through the company’s preservation efforts. There’s one document of Trisha demonstrating phrase material from Glacial Decoy—the only recording of this kind. And what’s remarkable, is you can see [. . .] the multi-dimensionality of the movements, the slippery speed of her kinetic thinking, and her wildness—you can see it without the gestures being overly codified in any way.
And so, with the Judson exhibition, part of the interest was to look at ideas of liveness to interrogate: what are the mechanisms for bringing Trisha’s interdisciplinary practice to life? In this moment in time? Especially now that she’s passed. What are some of the ways that we can bring Trisha’s body, and her embodied intelligence, into the space?
Rail: How do you channel her . . .
Olinghouse: Yeah. So...the moving image installation was a means to summon her bodily presence through many of these rare recordings. And also because, in Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, the exhibition that MoMA organized in 2017, Charlie Atlas did such an incredible job animating Trisha’s material, specifically around his installation of Glacial Decoy.
Considering that Trisha had had these collaborations with experimental filmmakers and video artists from the ’60s forward, we wanted to extend her collaborative work through MoMA’s collaborative work with Charlie Atlas.
Rail: Tell me more about how you worked with Charlie for Judson exhibition.
Olinghouse: [. . .] When MoMA and the Trisha Brown Dance Company came together, there was this interest in constructing a collaboration between [me], who brings a proximity to Trisha’s practice by way of having danced and archived her work, and Charlie—a veteran video artist, having worked with moving image and performance since the ’70s.
In the beginning, we had a few meetings to wrap our minds around the unruliness of the proposal. I ended up suggesting we start by constructing a checklist of film and video elements. [. . .] I wasn’t so interested in trying to just approach this as a chronology. Not unlike many of the artists from the Judson. [Trisha] had a little bit of antagonism to being purely historicized through that lens.
Trisha certainly had her own feelings about Judson that she would talk to us about. In the early years, she was working with so many structures that were based on John Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy and organized structures that were partially a way to just analyze [. . .] what constitutes a choreography. I know she would call some of her early dance experiments “dance machines.” Like with Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), the beginning, middle, and end of the dance created a spatial, temporal, site-based relationship to [Joe Schlichter] moving down seven floors of space.
Prior to these experiments, her Judson peers critisized her solo work as being too personal and subjective, too emotional. Specifically, Trillium (1962), which Susan Rosenberg discusses in her book Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art.
Rail: There are photos of Trillium in the exhibition . . .
Olinghouse: Yeah, it’s very much about dance that disappears—dance, as Trisha says, that you can’t put in the bank. [. . .]
I was interested in finding material that would incite or provoke a visceral response in the viewers, while not trying to compose the material in a pedagogical or tautological fashion. [I also tried to] show the complexity of her own sort of refusal of her early structured pieces.
I constructed this checklist to focus on three major aspects. The first was her early collaborations with experimental filmmakers. Beginning with Homemade (1966) in which she wears a projector that casts a film of the same dance on all surfaces of the space. She was already embarking on these kind of experiments in the early years of Judson; most people think of multimedia beginnings in the 1980s. Then I wanted to show the structured Accumulation works she was creating after Judson by way of taking up incremental gesture and ideas of form [. . .] and then into Water Motor (1978), wanting memory to be the score, wanting improvisation. I remember Trisha describing Water Motor as being “wild assed.”
Rail: Oh yeah, I think I read that somewhere in the exhibition materials! I loved that.
Olinghouse: There’s a lot of writing she created while developing Water Motor . . . that’s where that quote is pulled from. It’s just totally physical, wild abandon. On some level, kind of the opposite interrogation from those earlier works. As so, the installation is meant to move through a topology of Trisha’s practice, looking at the experiments that loosely surrounded the Judson years.
The checklist became a kind of place of dialogue about Trisha. And then Charlie could respond. Having organized a way in which he could integrate all the multiple kinds of performance footage, Charlie started to construct what now is a sixty-five minute installation that’s composed of three, almost twenty-two minute segments. He constructed the first edit, then we engaged in a call and response, back and forth, series of conversations to look at ways of bringing forward Trisha’s liveness.
And then I think the other challenge . . . because this work represents many other filmmakers’ documentation of Trisha, is that it was already highly mediated material he was dealing with. So there’s a lot of complexity in that.
Rail: Right, there are many perspectives involved. That brings me back to the point you raised of Trisha’s early collaborations and how you’re mirroring them in putting together the installation. Another thing that the exhibition does is portray the Judson artists as a collective, while also devoting segments of the performance program to the work of individual choreographers. You revealed that Trisha had her own ideas about the historicizing, the grouping, the institutionalizing of Judson. I’m curious how you would describe the ways she relates to the other Judson artists and the ways she departs from them.
Olinghouse: During the time I was working with Trisha, she talked about the artists from that time period as being her colleagues, as the people who influenced her. [I remember her] talking about Simone Forti as one of the first people who was coining this idea of structured improvisation. I know that Trisha’s early experiments were formative in the sense that she was both getting to play with a kind of processed-based, social practice around experiments of: what is form? what is gesture? what is dance? what is choreography? When she started making Water Motor and then into Glacial Decoy in 1979, she returned, essentially, to the virtuosity of her own dancing. It’s my understanding, that this was something she felt that she had to hide during the Judson period.
Rail: Within the everyday, pedestrian aesthetic . . .
Olinghouse: Exactly, so I think that even though there was that nonchalance or quotidian gesture layered into the work, Trisha is polyrhythmic and multidirectional; she moves through so many fluid state changes in the body—I think her interests transitioned to being about dancing. This seems to be her departure from her early experiments: this return to the body, return to dancing, return to wildness.
Rail: Yeah, it’s fascinating to see you trace these different shifts in her career. I know with works like Set and Reset in the ’80s she switched gears toward creating more proscenium works and more set repertory for her company. In terms of documentation, there’s a contrast with the lesser-seen, earlier experimentations that you’re bringing to our attention through the videos. How do they both contribute to the documentation of her work? A proscenium piece seems easier to set . . . and reset.
Olinghouse: Well, she was never interested in going back and being part of the work as it was reconstructed. She was always focused on what she was making that was new. Trisha was really [intent] on the work not becoming overly codified, on it still carrying her own idiosyncratic approach to moving.
Rail: That’s a beautiful way to describe the ongoing project of cultivating the “liveness” in Trisha’s work. It also speaks to a question a lot of people have about how to move forward with the legacy of a choreographer who is no longer with us. There’s been kind of a layered “goodbye” and revisiting of her work from the time she became sick to her passing a year and half ago. The company hasn’t followed a clear legacy plan in the fashion of other choreographers, like Merce Cunningham, but rather has gone with the flow, revisiting and accumulating, much like Trisha’s movement philosophy. I’m curious how you would say this exhibition contributes to this journey of honoring her legacy?
Olinghouse: It’s really a good and tough question. I mean, in a kind of wonderful way, there were so many complex and maverick aspects to her personality that you see as evidence of the way she moves. So many different kinds of qualities coalescing and so much irreverence; she was always looking for combustion and moments where certain kind of forms bump up against each other. Trisha’s spirit creates an interesting set of challenges in trying to envision a legacy. I think that on some level the fits and starts that have emerged as the company has tried to consider what a path forward might look like, take all those bends in the road that I see in Trisha’s dancing.
Trisha did say that she was really interested in her archive being treated as a living organism going forward, and I really do see that potential. And especially because so much of it is so intimately filmed, so much of the material has to do with gestures that are private, gestures that are unseen, the camera does capture the intimacy and tactility of her choreographic mind in movement, along with her drawings and writings. Once artist practitioners, scholars, and others get to really engage with this material, her archive offers a whole other side of Trisha that was kept very private. For me, the archive becomes a kind of portal into her creative process. And then these question of what happens to the live work? That’s a whole other animal. All to say, that I see the potential for Trisha’s work to live on through many trajectories and spaces.
Rail: Like right here at MoMA.
Olinghouse: Yeah, early on Trisha’s work exploded the performative potential of white cube and museum spaces. In terms of this Judson exhibition, there are so many different layers of familiarity among the postmodern performance community, the general public, and even certain visual art communities. For some audiences, there’s a discovery of Judson for the first time.
Rail: Which is interesting, because when I speak with very dance-minded people there’s almost a Judson fatigue, but it’s so fresh and new to some of the different audiences that MoMA brings in.
Olinghouse: That’s part of what I imagine Thomas [Lax] and Ana [Janevski] were mediating by way of curating the show: a certain contingency of people who are worn out by these histories and concerns, and then trying to deal with all of the multiple origin stories—how each of the artists talks about this time period. It’s a lot of complexity to wrangle. [. . .] They’ve brought [these concerns] to life in a way that has so much movement, both between recorded and live components, so you can feel something of that multi-directionality as you go through the show.
Gillian Jakab is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.