A conversation: Chloë Bass on PRELUDE 2014
“This year the Prelude festival is going to be different”: this is the first sentence of the Curators’ welcome to the 2014 Prelude Festival. Known as the “un-official kick off event of the fall season” for the makers and lovers of experimental performance, Prelude14 (October 8th – 10th, 2014) was not shy to announce itself as having changed deeply this year. Four women were selected to identify the new shape of this three-day event. Four themes emerged to be discussed during workshops, panels, performances, and installations; four different curatorial approaches revealed new aspects of performance itself as a field. I sat down to talk to Chloë Bass, one of the four artist-curators who developed the festival.
- In the Brooklyn Rail article about Prelude, I read: “For three days every October, more than 30 artists present, in dizzying succession, short works in progress — be they dance, theater, installation, song cycle, or just a really well constructed burrito.” Why the burrito?
Well, that was a joke that I didn’t make myself. But maybe, if we analyze how a burrito is made, it does provide an immediate visual reference to what an experience of Prelude might be like. A mixture of different kinds of artistic expressions that seem to be confused, but in the end are really enjoyable. Maybe the article says “burrito” referring to the thought that performance can be present everywhere, in anything. This festival was presented as a platform where people get a chance to share their own thoughts and, moreover, where presenters and audiences are together at the same time, in a horizontal space where ideas can be spread easily and fluidly. In organizing Prelude 14, the other curators and I brainstormed for months, speaking to each other and letting personal interests emerge naturally, and I think this dialogue will really shape the audience experience. This year, for the first time, the curatorial team was composed of four women, with four different attitudes towards the performance world: I’m a conceptual artist, Jackie Sibblies Drury is a playwright, Sarah Rose Leonard as a theatre director and a producer, and Allison Lyman is a dramaturg. This is the first time that I’ve participated in Prelude and it was great to be there as an artist and a curator at the same time.
- Since I cannot find any information about the previous editions of the festival on the internet, could you give me a brief panoramic of the evolution of Prelude from 2003 till now?
This is not my festival. I was invited to Prelude by Allison Lyman, who works at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center (The Martin E.Segal Theatre Center, http://thesegalcenter.org/). Frank Hentschker, who still runs the Segal Center, founded Prelude in 2003. He is still the Executive Director of the festival and of the Segal. This year Frank asked artists to curate the festival. So we had four different perspectives, but the same fundamental questions about what compels us to make artistic work: why do we do these difficult things? How can we do them better?
- The artist as a curator: this is one of the new concepts for this year’s festival, right? The curatorial role has always been seen as something without boundaries or without a precise definition. So one very common thing that happens these days is that the artist becomes the curator of his/her own work. I noticed that in your personal work as an artist, you also think a lot about the curatorial as a way to deepen your ideas.
I make performances that take a long time because I’m interested in the archival practice and in the process of producing and creating, rather than in a finished product with pragmatic results. My performances involve people being in the same place, gathered together. I’m not really making pieces that can be presented on a stage. There’s really nothing to be watched: either you’re participating in the work, or the work won’t happen. It’s not theatrical representation in any way.
I think that one way audiences can enter into conceptual art is though the use of a safe framework, which sometimes is what a curator has to provide to an artist he/she’s working with. We see the curatorial role sometimes as a teaching role about, or sometimes as a provoking counterpart to, the art. For me, the safe framework is really important, which is why I need to examine it in depth by myself as an artist as well: since I’m working with people, with bodies and minds, I need to give them a frame in which they can move freely. But if I leave too much space in the framework, the people I’m working with will be confused: too much personal choice can sometimes result in a lack of a clear path to go follow. For Tea Will Be Served, a performance that’s part of a much bigger project called The Bureau of Self Recognition, I worked with an architect to create special wearable tables to be used in the performance. Guests were connected to one another as they moved around the space to collect the tea things. Interspersed with these activities, tea “menus” were actually questions to be asked in a dialogue. Each partner received a slightly different menu. This performanceprimarily addressed the relationship between expectations and reality. The performance also aimed to make guests, rather than me, the artist, the central featured performers, generating the “watched” content for themselves as they experienced it. I served only as the mediator and guide (http://chloebass.com/work/bureau-of-self-recogntion/tea-will-be-served). All of these seemingly set roles become arguable: the artist, the curator, or the audience.
- About the themes of Prelude14 (care, endurance/loss, honesty, and intimacy). On the website, referring to care, you said: “Previously, when asked to curate, I have thought of care as a form of collection: I make choices because I care. But choice is only the beginning of care. True care is participation itself. It takes time. It takes closeness. It’s annoying.” I think this sentence reveals something about our current vision about curating: we don’t have time, we prefer to do something easy and fast. That’s why we tend not to be caring. Because care needs time, patience and so much effort. In this society, we don’t have the patience to withstand effort. Here, what you’re doing in the environment of this three day festival, you’re asking people to stay, to make an effort to be together and to talk about themselves. I think, rather than the process of linkage you underline on the website, it’s one of the most interesting thing of this platform because it asks us to make an effort.
The four themes emerged naturally in conversation with the other curators. As I said, we spoke a lot about what we’re interested in and so it was very easy, in the end, to narrow down the main topics of the festival.
I always wanted to work with care. I think is really important — this idea of staying, making a connection and through that making an effort. It’s very essential to my work. The project I presented for the festival was also about that. It was just a place for people to stay and make an effort. What I performed really was nothing: I performed the presentation of the space (The Resource Room).
I’ve worked with lots of different organizations during the last few years, and this has been both inside and outside of the United States. Here in the US, people are asking me to prepare massively complicated performances without thinking of payment. In Europe, it was different: if a curator called me, it was because he or she already knew there was money to pay me. We don’t pay people here. Artists, and particularly performers, tend to go non- or underpaid. And in fact the result of the project is totally up to the artist: the organization or the institution that is hosting usually takes very little responsibility for the work. The vast majority of what I do is production of material, and the process of working: that’s my own responsibility. To decide to make and promote a project is totally up to me. I think that there are exceptions but few understand that the artist’s time is a working time with value.
I’m not an economist. There’s tons and tons of stuff I don’t know. But I do see certain things becoming more visible and one of those things is labor. Maybe if I present my own labor as part of my practice, that visibility already helps me, because I’m getting paid as the result of what I’m doing in front of other people, and helps to facilitate some conversations of what we’re giving value to. If you don’t have money, what is it that you can do as an artist? What can you do as an organization?
Coming back to the question: linguistically “curation” and “care” have the same root, they’re the same word. And lots of people seem to have lost the main significance of that word. To take away care from curation is degrading: it’s degrading for the artist, and for the curator him or herself. We can relate what I’ve said about care also to the art world environment: a good relationship between an artist and a curator needs dialogue, time and patience. I’m not expecting my curator to be my mother: I think this equation of care goes both ways. The participation in each other’s lives and ideas enriches the work, enriches the people themselves, enriches the critical practice around the work and enriches the experience for the audience which probably, in the end, enriches the collectors too. It’s just slow.
I’m actually forcing slow time, that’s another theme I address in my work. I make long performances, which is not always what my participants are expecting. Participation as an active practice of awareness doesn’t have to been seen as anything complicated. It’s a very enriching and deepening experience, but it’s also quite natural and doesn’t have to be exhausting. But I think we have to re-educate people to have these experiences of participation and interaction: that’s my goal when I make longer work. I ask people to spend not only the time of having dinner together, for example, but also to be with me while I’m cooking the dinner itself (Process Dinner). I’m not an old fashioned person: I like technology, I think it’s very helpful to create and maintain some of the relationships we have. The internet has a great power of connection. But if I reprogram your sense of social time through my work, that will go with you for the rest of your life. So what is the effect of my work? It’s very slow, that’s the only thing I know so far. I know this sparking moment of recognition of yourself, of time, of being with others, will come up again and change you in the future. I know it’s very ambitious, but that’s what I’m going for.
- The last but not the least question about this last edition of Prelude Festival, but also related to your work: The Resource Room, like your best known work The Bureau of Self-Recognition, reveals a sort of attitude you have towards archival practice. You are constantly trying to capture and frame a process, the life process. This operation can be seen both as an impossible strain and as an attempt to reach a deep level of awareness for the shapes of our daily behaviors. Why did you decide to focus of your research on that?
Well, that’s what we have. That’s really all we have. If I said I didn’t want to enrich people, I would be telling a lie. And I think it’s things like this, sharing a cup of tea, that could really enrich us. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am, somebody is having a cup of tea somewhere.
About the Resource Room, the work I presented for Prelude: I don’t know if you know what a resource room is in the US. All public schools have a space where children of all ages with learning disabilities can go for a certain amount of time, extra time, and reinforce their learning gaps. You send your children to work with specialists. It’s something that gives people the possibility to practice and deepen something they already know. “You don’t know what you’re supposed to know,” and that’s why we send people to resource rooms.
I wanted to do that with the idea of performer and audience relationships. I think that people think that they know what they’re supposed to know about being an audience member. And they think they know the external role of the performer standing in front of them and making things. I argued that we don’t know that anymore. So the relationship between the artist and the audience has been changed. And I would like to re-educate people a little bit, through activities of connection, to do better. So anytime people came in, they had an opportunity to do that either directly with me or with other people who were visiting the space. The room was masquerading as the back half of an exhibition existing in the gallery — so I was copying their furniture and their language, which I was given permission to do. And I installed myself as an artwork there.
I think it’s really ironic that we have lots of these festivals — maybe not ironic, problematic — we have all of these festivals that the primary reason for having them is to bring like-minded people together. But then those like minded people spend all of their time in silence as audience members, while the professionals are speaking. And was the professional in the case of Prelude. But my professional capacity and desire is to give other people the chance to speak to one another because they’re going to be surrounded by their peers. So why just not make a space to talk?