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Ralph Lemon

“Parallels” goes out with an all-day marathon

Photograph: Ian Douglas
Ralph Lemon, Danspace Project, Parallels
The final “Parallels” showdown could only have been conceived in the ever-imaginative, please-surprise-me mind of visual artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon. On Saturday 31, Danspace Project bids farewell to its current Platform series—programming that explores black dance and marks the 30th anniversary of the original “Parallels”—with “An All Day Event. The End.” For the production, Lemon has chosen 12 artists from multiple disciplines, including an 11-year-old Brooklyn dancer. Participants will interact with a sculptural object by visual artist Nari Ward, with video by Jim Findlay and lighting by Roderick Murray, and the performances, which will overlap, occur every hour beginning at 11am. (Doors, mind you, open at 11:30am—a typical Lemon twist.) Danspace Project isn’t his only priority; on Thursday 29, Lemon opens “1856 Cessna Road,” a solo art show at the Studio Museum in Harlem that draws on the artist’s eight-year relationship with Walter Carter, a Mississippi man who became a profound muse. The two projects, it turns out, aren’t so unrelated. Lemon, who was in the original “Parallels,” spoke about race and dance, what “the end” might entail and more.

How did you dream up this marathon?
The history of this is kind of interesting, right? [“Parallels”] is something we did 30 years ago, and I think about how I haven’t really changed that much in my proclivity for being oblivious. I was just in New York or Minneapolis doing my thing, and I got invited to be part of this through Cynthia Hedstrom, who was at Danspace at the time, and it was really fun. I wasn’t so much thinking, I’m involved in this curatorial platform about black choreography. It was just like, I have an opportunity to perform at Danspace, which felt like a really legitimate space at the time. And then I went in and did my work and that was cool. I didn’t feel like I was connected to this community. Although I got to know Ish [Ishmael Houston-Jones, the curator of both the original and current “Parallels”], and I knew Blondell [Cummings] through Meredith Monk already. It was kind of great because she was a real champion of my beginning forays into making dances, and I’m grateful for that. I got to meet Bebe Miller, and then she and I did some work later, a duet, which was commissioned by Liz Thompson at Jacob’s Pillow. But I felt like there were other people more aware of the racial cosmology of things, and it was more important or more interesting to them than maybe it was to me. The rest of us, I think, were all just kind of doing our thing. Except for Ish; maybe it was really on his radar way back then, which is really cool. So when this came up again after 30 years, I had a nice discussion with him. I wasn’t so sure how interested I was in its potential meaning—I’m not sure it meant anything to me. Race is always interesting, but not so much when it’s contextualized as that. [Laughs]

How do you make it interesting?
It’s like, How can I subvert it or be a little more transgressive about it? I feel like it is slippery; it is really, really slippery. Always. But I know it exists and, visually, it’s emphatic. That’s how I’ve been working with it, especially through the whole Geography Trilogy [Lemon’s ten-year project that explored art, race and identity]. It’s more about how an audience is going to perceive a certain kind of abstraction through something as emphatic as a stage full of black bodies. Or black and Asian bodies. Or African bodies, whatever that is. I felt like I was really using race as material even though, psychically, yes, I was being connected and manipulated in a way just by the reality of race as an energy in the world. So I had a lot of misgivings about being part of this or what I would do and then I decided, Well yeah I have to be involved; but if I do something, I don’t want to just work with all black performers. And I mentioned this to Ish, and he goes, “No, you have to do that because that’s part of the curatorial demands of the platform—unless you can give me a good reason why you have to work with not all black bodies.” So I said, “Okay,” and then I kind of couldn’t come up with one. [Laughs] Dean Moss, of course, did.

He curated “Black Dance,” an evening featuring no black choreographers.
He was spot on. So my idea came from a collaboration that Nari Ward and I had done five or six years ago at the University of Connecticut. He constructed this incredible vehicle—it was almost mythological—out of a wheelchair, and I found it very stunning. I thought, I’m going to put some kind of connective tissue to it, a rope or something. He was working with these young art students, and I said, “Let’s make them performers. Let’s create a 12-hour durational work where they tie themselves to this vehicle, and they negotiate their bodies with this thing in an enclosed space.” So they have no audience, which brings in the question: Are they actually performing?

That’s wild.
We videotaped them, so there was really no one watching them—although I found a little crack in the wall where I could peek in. I was very pleased with that experience and the collaboration. It was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of this [marathon], and I don’t know why other than that. I can work with a number of my friends of color and just ask them to conceptually disguise themselves. So there’s this idea of erasing the center of this platform, of its concept, in a way that can be visual and playful—which also internalizes [the performers’] relationship to the thing and that brings it closer to its original concept, right? Of not having an audience and an enclosed space. So that’s kind of where we’re at. I just visited Nari today and instead of one object, he’s building a whole kind of vehicle playground.

What will it look like?
There will be quite a few objects in the space with wheels on them, made from found material that are also—in the way Nari has treated them—very enlightened. They have this sort of detritus quality of light that I think is going to be really interesting in the space.

Will the installation be in the center of the space?

Yeah. We have the day before, so Nari will come in and install them. There will be 12 performers, and every hour there will be a different light format by Rick Murray. On the ceiling, there will be projected text from [Paul] Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance. In that essay he says: “To be is not to inhabit; human space becoming that of no one becomes a progression of nowhere. The presence of absence, the pursuit of form is only a technical pursuit of time.” So it’s a perfect play on my feelings and misgivings and delusions about whether race is important right now or not. Of course it is, but it isn’t.

How do you balance being a choreographer with being a curator-observer?

The curatorial thing—I feel like I kind of fell into that. Judy [Hussie-Taylor, the executive director of Danspace] has been a lovely instigator. Her interest, from day one, was bringing in artists to curate seasons. So I did “I Get Lost,” and that was a naïve experiment: How do I invite artists to dance around something that interests me? I think that’s still the point for me. This Danspace marathon feels less curatorial and more like I’m creating this kind of hybrid thing; because it’s really about Nari and my relationship to him, and what he’s bringing to the work. It’s also about my relationship to Jim Findlay and his video genius and our collaboration.

And his work will be projected on the ceiling, right?
Yeah. So it’s there, but it’s not there. It’s a text that’s about the aesthetics of invisibility and yet our disappearance. And do you watch it, when do you not watch it, do you ever see it?

It’s not only above your head; it’s literally over your head.

Exactly. With Rick and lights, it’s about what’s seen and what’s not seen and how something becomes more illuminated. Technically, it’s really fun to think about that. That part feels very fulfilling. Of course, how these friends come in and play and negotiate our concerns within this collective landscape that we’re setting up—how that gets played out physically, performatively, I don’t know.

Are you participating?
I might. [Laughs]

Shouldn’t you go last?
Well Ish is going to close it because he should finish this. But I like the structure of it. I like that it’s all day, and there’s no ticket price, and you can come and go. Conceptually, it is very satisfying for me to think about how it can exist without an audience. It’s going to begin at a certain time and end at a certain time. And that each performer is negotiating an hour—that’s a long time. There’s no way anyone’s going to come and sit and watch someone do something for an hour, so it’s really demanding a temporal observer relationship. [Laughs] This thing has its own life.

Are there rules on what they can do or cannot do?
After seeing Nari’s objects today, I kind of have to start from, not scratch, but I have to revise the original rules.

What were they?
That [the performers] have to be somehow connected to this object, and they have an hour to negotiate that relationship. And they have to design some kind of disguise for themselves that’s really interesting and not just, “Put on a costume.” Because an audience won’t know who’s going when, so you don’t know if you’re going to show up for Okwui [Okpokwasili] or David Thomson or April Matthis or niv Acosta. You’re not going to know when these people are performing. They will know, so they’ll invite their friends I think, which will be good. [Laughs] There are also a couple of actors, a writer and Kevin Beasley, a brilliant art student I met at Yale this year, who’s going to be deejaying an incredible sonic piece. There’s an 11-year-old girl named Willow Parchment, who has an hour. She and I worked together yesterday. I got her through BAX [Brooklyn Arts Exchange]. She has a whole score. I’ve asked all the performers to come with a score so there’s a framework.

Is this the first time you’ve worked with a child?
No. When I first moved to New York, I did a piece where I worked with a number of kids up in Harlem. It was a little group that we ended up calling the Harlem Storytellers. [Laughs] I’ve always wanted to go back to that, and I do feel like I want to make a work with all kids at some point. I just think that energy is so special.

You’ve always talked about how you’re inspired by James Baldwin. Is there a link to that in this program?
I haven’t thought of James so much in this work, other than his outsider quality and the contradiction: His work was so much about race, but also not. I felt like he was hanging onto race, because it was an energy he was sort of stuck with. And he died in the south of France; that’s where he found his peace. At the end, his creative and artistic being seemed to rely so much on his blackness. I feel like he had to keep going back to race to make himself feel relevant when, in reality, I think he was beyond it. Of course, he would bury me with a lecture telling me how that was not the case. [Laughs] It’s impossible, but of course I’m saying this from this kind of 21st-century perspective, too, right? I do think in his writings and his history that he was displaced a lot. That was also his rage: That he was beyond it, and he couldn’t be beyond it. He wasn’t allowed. He was also dealing with the issue of sexuality, which was creating a whole different kind of outsider discourse. To me, the outsider discourse is more interesting. But, yeah, this particular platform is dealing with that idea. Yet I don’t think any of these performers are really outsiders now. They’re part of a community. [Pauses] They’re absolutely part of a community, but they’re still outsiders. That’s our struggle. And then I think, Are we even outsiders? Are we just part of this larger ecology, and this is just the way it is and then we find ways to make work within the truth of the ecology?

How exactly?
There’s a truth here I think. It was the same for Merce [Cunningham]. It was the same for Martha [Graham]. I doubt things will be different 50 years from now. Unless there is some remarkable shift in how our work and way of working is valued. I mean if the visual art world finds a way to commodify performance, then maybe—but then it will just be for a handful of people. I do think the nature of work and how we make work is shifting and has to keep shifting. Is there some possibility that this shifting can find a different kind of value, a different kind of economy? That interests me.

Can you elaborate?
I go back to this whole discussion of dance in museums, and the whole Tino Sehgal sort of study and the selling of performances. [Laughs] Especially from someone who came from a dance background, but consciously moved into a visual art economy. I’m not sure that’s relevant to this discussion, but there is the possibility that something temporal, like a dance, can be acquired. There are enough people with crazy, disposable incomes. The whole nature of buying and selling art, as we know it, is a game. Yes, there’s certainly an appreciation of these objects, but at the same time, it’s the play of how something is evaluated. This dead shark is worth this much. Or could be worth that much. There’s something ridiculous about it, but then money on that level is very abstract. Its game potential keeps it activated, meaningful.

Do you mean the gamble of art collecting?
The play of it. I don’t know if it’s even a gamble. After a while, it’s nothing. It’s so much money, it’s meaningless. Maybe dance is next. [Laughs] Right? Other than the curiosity of its fashion. I don’t think you go into [the visual art] world without ever having some question of, “What’s the value? What is the economy of this?” And that is really the new sacred, for better or for worse. I can look at Sarah [Michelson]’s new work [Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer] and go, “Sacred. I was moved.” I leave really happy. Kind of like going to some art church or something. I don’t need to think about, Is she going to sell that floor? What’s going to happen to the neon? Will that go to a museum? I don’t ask those questions, but I’m sure the art world was looking at it with a very different point of view. And that’s not bad. And it’s interesting when you think about this historically. The great works of Steve Paxton or Lucinda Childs or Trisha Brown or Merce Cunningham: On their purest level, the work and the artist disappear. There’s a video, maybe there’s a reconstruction or something, but it might be nice if it doesn’t really disappear. What does that mean? Beyond a retrospective of bringing an old dance back. Is there a way of holding onto the temporality of this work beyond that? And I feel like new work, at least in my optimism, is now generating that question. And I don’t know—maybe Balanchine did it already. There’s this kind of energy about the work that’s beyond the work. But is there a model for that?

How did you meet Nari?
He was in the Whitney Biennial many years ago. He had a hearse in one of the galleries that was completely covered in tar. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. And I found ways to meet this guy. [Laughs] I figured out how to get in touch with him. He was doing a show in an abandoned building up in Harlem, which is now his house. He ended up buying it. When I met Nari, he was making all this work by himself. It was really labor-intensive, handmade stuff that was very rigorous and elaborate and dense and very, very beautiful. And I asked if he’d like to collaborate on this work I was making called Geography. In his studio, he had this doorway full of bottles he had strung together. So it was the first iteration of the bottle piece [in Geography, the first piece in Lemon’s three-part Geography Trilogy project]. It was so perfect; it was like the perfect piece of art because it dealt with light and holding light and the translucency of seeing. You can see through something, but what are you really seeing, and how much are you seeing and what are you really seeing?

And the weight of it, too.
And the weight. There are all of these very interesting contradictions. So, yeah, we collaborated on Geography. He built the whole bottle curtain, and the bedspring curtains, and I think we really enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve learned a lot from each other about how to work in our own separate ways. Every once in a while we get together and collaborate on something. He’s been really busy and at first he didn’t think he had time for this [“Parallels” event], but then he called and went, “I’ve got to do this because we haven’t worked together in a while.”

He has a show coming up too, right?
Yeah. His show is opening the day before we load in. Then we have the marathon performance.

And when does your art show, “1856 Cessna Road,” open at the Studio Museum in Harlem?
On March 29th. It’s totally crazy. If I would think about it, I would freak out.

How do you remain so calm?
My new motto is: “Focus is food.” I feel like I do the thing that I need to do on that day or in that hour, and then I feel really good, and there’s a lot of substantial thinking and work that needs to be done. If I thought about the overall picture, yeah, I’d freak out. And the Studio Museum is great because it’s older material of my work with Walter [Carter]; it’s not like I’m putting together stuff that’s brand new. It’s what I’ve been building on for a while. It’s ready to go, and it’s just a matter of getting it into the space. I’m working with a really great curator.

Who?
Thomas Lax. I just feel like he represents that next generation of curatorial practices where they don’t have a hierarchy. He loves performance; he loves dance; he’s got a clear, really smart relationship to 21st-century visual art. It’s not like, Oh that’s that, and this is this. I feel like there are a number of young, good curators now who think that way. That was a big draw for this [exhibition], because I knew that it was going to be a lot of work. But getting the Walter work up there for that audience—it just feels really important.

How are you putting your experiences with Walter into context for a public who may not know much about your work?
Thomas has been working really hard writing an essay; I don’t want him to say anything. [Laughs] But he’s figured out a way to say what he has to say about it for that audience in a really concise and intelligent way that doesn’t dumb it down and doesn’t give it all away. I like, even for myself, that there has to be some context. I think that’s an important negotiation for me. You know how much I love playing that game of, “I don’t want you to know what I’m doing, but I do.” But having that [Harlem] audience, there’s a different kind of demand that I wouldn’t have if I were downtown or in Chelsea, and that feels really exciting. It’s karmic or something. So in some respects, there’s a real interesting, connected conversation between the show and the marathon. I feel that even though the marathon is going to be a lot broader and a lot messier and a lot more unknown and more out of my control, it will still deal with a kind of black body politic.

That’s what the exhibit and marathon have in common. But also the fact that there was so much unknown regarding the time you spent with Walter is another interesting connection.

Exactly. At the same time, Walter was so advanced as a human being. And it’s also ultimately not about race. I mean we’re looking at this black Mississippi man. I honor it. That mythology is certainly in the work. But for Walter, it’s just like, I’m an old man.

I’ve seen a lot.
[Laughs] I’ve seen a lot. I’m an old man. And there are lots of us in the world.

An All Day Event. The End. is at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery on Mar 31.

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