On June 20, taisha paggett performed her site-specific solo performance work, Decomposition of a Continuous Whole, on the 4th floor of the Phi Centre. While street sounds drifted in with a steady breeze through the open windows, her ongoing performance captivated drop-in visitors for over three hours. The next day, DHC/ART educators Marie-Hélène Lemaire and Emily Keenlyside sat down with taisha to talk about time, shared learning, and political resistance.
Marie-Hélène Lemaire: First of all, thank you for yesterday’s performance — it was such a gift, and so powerful. Let’s start there. In it you move slowly in space, blindfolded. We understand the politics of this performance as challenging the dominant cultural regimes of visuality, knowing through the intellect over the body, and speed. Could you expand a bit on this way of engaging with space, and how this engagement has evolved over the years that you have been performing this piece?
taisha paggett: The question of speed is significant; it’s related to time and learning. Blindfolding myself and moving in a direction that required the use of my left arm (I’m not left-handed) were ways to create constraints for myself within the structure, so that there was something for me to learn or have to figure out inside of the dance. So the performance was an experience for me as much as it was an experience for outsiders.
In the piece I have to move at a pace slow enough that I am able to track what I’m doing, so that I can recall those actions again and again within the score. With each repetition of the score, there’s another layer of detail. How the hip or the top of the head hit along the wall; I try to recreate but also bring whatever is new. I don’t feel like I am moving slowly per se, but that’s what the visual becomes. That said, I have been interested in this idea of inverted virtuosity in my performances.
After I made the original work in 2009, there were two or three other works that followed that had a similar structure of working in expanded time and playing with repetition as a way of learning.
It was about bringing to the forefront the process of learning-as-performance, not a process of performing something that has already been learned. When I started making work following about three years of post-grad school digestion, this perspective was meaningful and generative to me. To get from under the stress of being analyzed on technical prowess or how well I did my spins and leaps. Not to say those things aren’t valid, and I am very interested in precision, but outside of the formalized notions of virtuosity. Like what is the virtuosity of drawing a line across three or four hours? I think a lot about shifting perception, how we see things. There is a virtuosity to what I was doing — that wasn’t just a flat line, there is a virtuosity if you choose to sit inside the time of it. It’s like hanging out with a tree. Have you ever spent time with a tree and just gotten inside the time and learned that the tree is actually a very dynamic being? It’s kind of similar. That’s the avenue that I am on.
MHL: You mentioned the performance is as much an experience for you as it is for the outsider. I had a question related to this. You once said "I see performance as an offering on both sides: the performer offers an experience and the viewer offers their presence." I would love for you to elaborate on this in light of yesterday’s performance. As you drew, blindfolded, for more than three hours, how would you describe this relationship, this dialogue, that was gradually unfolding with the audience?
tp: Performance is a two-way experience. It’s like the saying "if the tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Decomposition of a Continuous Whole was the first performance work that I made following grad school and following a long period of touring set works of choreographers in large venues, night after night. I was occupied with questions of how to unpack the experience of being a body on display, and of course not only being a body on display but being a black body on display, being a queer body on display, being a female body on display. These questions were very political for me, but at the same time, on a basic level, I think I needed some assurance that there was more to this dance thing than just putting my body on the line for someone else to consume visually. I wondered how much could I strip away and still call a given experience a dance. Decomposition of a Continuous Whole was about creating a structure where I could stand inside my own sense of time and space and not be beholdened to the gaze of the viewer…
Allowing my sense of time, gesture and action to slow down also produces a type of exchange or viewership that makes sense to me. It’s almost like an excuse just to get people to be in one place together. This piece is slightly different because the blindfold, in a way, creates a natural barrier. It catalyzes a different exchange, a type of non-verbal communication. When a performer is without vision, it doesn’t undo or solve the question of the gaze but rather it produces a different kind of spectatorship. We watch differently when we know the person is looking back at us or not.
MHL: You were talking about a different type of virtuosity in drawing this line, these numerous coloured lines. In Decomposition of a Continuous Whole you are refusing the limitations of conventional drawing by expanding it to an entire room and also by conceiving of it as an extension of the gestures and movements of your entire body. As I was watching you yesterday I felt like you were opening up a space where dualities are kind of blurred and brought together in different ways. What more would you like to say about joining drawing and performance in this way?
tp: From my perspective dancers not only produce movement but they also produce space. My interest in drawing came from a desire to reveal those traces of labor. As I was moving, I had to remind myself that I’m not doing this to draw, I’m doing this to move, I’m doing this to dance. And the drawing is just a mark of my action. People talk about the interactivity of dance and drawing. For example I have a colleague who teaches painting and he gets his students doing movement work, because all of the actions of the paint brush, your capacity to perfect lines, comes through the body. But I think I could have chosen so many other materials to use to be the trace of the action. It’s really about the movement. The duality is that there’s the static and the active, there’s the moving body and the trace that’s left behind, and that creates some type of polarity in itself. Especially when I’m gone, there is only this thing in absence of the body, and I feel that the repetition is important because it reveals, not just one single line or choreography, but rather a narrative of labour, of action. In general I try to work my way out of dualities so it’s interesting that you saw that. Any dualities and polarities — of black and white, of anything, I’m always trying to find the middle, murky, other ground between the two things. I will say one more thing about the drawing that makes it significant: when I made this work, one of the choreographers I was working with, Kelly Nipper, was doing a lot of research into the work of movement analyst Rudolf Laban. A dance theorist and teacher, he developed this very systematic way of defining movement in relation to points in space. The movement was about finding these arcs, curves, and lines, and so that was in my body. I think that if I was working with cotton balls, I wouldn’t be able to exact that — the reference wouldn’t have been so clear.
Emily Keenlyside: For those who are unfamiliar with it, The School for the Movement of Technicolor People, which you initiated and created with dance company WXPT and in collaboration with Ashley Hunt and Kim Zumpfe, is a recent exhibition/installation that comprises a series of public workshops with multiple collaborators and takes the form of a dance school and performance space. I wanted to ask you to describe for us the group dynamic in workshops comprising both dancers and those people who don’t self-identify as dancers.
tp: There are two groups within the school. One group is the company, which was founded and formed as a temporary dance project before the school itself was devised. And that population of 14-16 people made up the facilitators of the curriculum and were also the schools' participants. Only a fraction came from a formal dance background; others are activists, community organizers, visual artists, actors. We were working from the perspective that if you have a body you can dance, and that dance was a way to build a conversation around a set of ideas.
And so that sensibility was brought into the school. All the classes were open to the public. I think what supported the kind of open environment that allowed people of all levels and experience to take up and stand inside the work, was the language we used to describe the classes; the language was a blended description of movement, actions — what we’re going to practice physically, and it also described how those physical ideas intersect with political questions of who we are out in the world. I think it’s a big thing that we saw ourselves as dancers, that there was a continuity between being in the studio and being out in our communities. We worked from a perspective that we are moving as a way to have a conversation about what is actually really relevant for us right now in our lives with the public. Which for this school was talking about black life. And black death.
EK: I’d like to elaborate on this last point. As I was looking at all of the workshop offerings I noticed that one of the facilitators was addressing systemic violence, and I immediately got thinking about the current American context - institutional and direct physical violence, as well as very recent government and media responses to hate crime. How does this backdrop shape the teaching and learning of/through dance?
tp: One of the central questions the school sought to answer was “What is a black dance curriculum today?” And I use this term black dance not to reference Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey and the history of amazing African-American choreographers and dance forms, but to conjure that up and then take a left turn to this idea of black dance as a term to articulate the state of the American black body today, the material of which itself is in perpetually obsolescence. Dancing is a type of survival, a type of embodied negotiation; you are constantly in motion, much like the perspective and lived experience of many black Americans, where sense of place, identity, safety, security, is under constant negotiation if not fully absent. From my perspective - and of course as a dancer I’m a bit bias - the school came about as a way to have another perspective, another doorway to walk into this messy house that we have in the States, which is the state of how black bodies are treated and policed. And of course I also think that when we talk about these things there is a lot of trauma beneath it. When we learn as activists to stand up and “speak truth to power,” there’s a lot of trauma beneath that. I think having to talk about complex things and also feel your body at the same time is radical because the body itself helps unlock difficult histories.
A lot of the curricula’s content was built from conversations that took place amongst the company in our rehearsals prior to the schools. The practices that we were involved in were all grounded in contact improvisation. It’s a form that I studied and one that’s really complicated being a body of colour; there’s a whole complex history. But there’s this fundamental aspect of it, in which you’re constantly having to deal with the weight of another body. It demands a certain tactileness… we can’t just have a conversation, I have to hold you. We have a conversation and you have to hold me; there’s another layer of learning that happens. Going back to presence and this exchange of audience and viewer, I feel there’s this mutuality. We have to be in exchange — it can’t just be you seeing me, or me dancing for you — there has to be this negotiation because it’s always already there.
In the visual realm, one of the central images is a body being lifted, and that also came out of our contact improvisation work and this idea of resistance. Radical street activist resistance, but also resistance to gravity, and the idea that at a seat level, the first level of resistance we experience is learning how to stand. And if you hold that type of resistance in your body while also trying have dialogue and interaction with other people about a political sense of resistance, it will take you there. Always remembering your body.
EK: The one last thing I’d like to ask is this: what have you learned through your own practice that you would share with emerging artists, educators, or activists who are interested in engaging their work at the intersection of contemporary art, pedagogy, and grass roots community organizing?
tp: What have I learned from my own practice that I would share… Someone along the way gave me permission to ask questions, ask questions about everything. I took that on, and that’s what my practice has been. It’s been about asking questions of the form, why things are the way they are. I think that is the best thing that you can pass on to a young artist: the capacity to be curious and question things. The ways things are doesn’t have to be this way. All the things in this room could be upside down, you know? A radical, wild curiosity I feel is what has shaped me. It’s beautiful to build your name and reputation out in the world, but for me, being a dancer and artist is more about learning how to survive. Learning to have a voice — and agency — and to build a perspective and a philosophical framework for other people to take up and turn into their own.
EK/MHL: Thank you so much.
Article written by Marie-Hélène Lemaire and Emily Keenlyside (DHC/ART Education)
Photo credits: taisha paggett, Decomposition of a Continuous Whole. With the permission of DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photos: Marc-Olivier Bécotte.
Joan Jonas: From Away is on view at DHC/ART until September 18 and the next event from the Affinities series will take place on August 26 at the Phi Centre.