Conversation with Babette Mangolte about her Whitney Museum show, and more

Last month I was able to sit down with Babette Mangolte, the filmmaker and photographer whose work is currently featured in at the Whitney’s Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama — Manhattan, 1970-1980. In the Tribeca loft the artist has called her home and studio since 1974, Mangolte shared some thought about the Whitney show, current modes of performance and her memories and reflections on working with artists including Robert Morris, Richard Foreman, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Sylvia Palacios Whitman.

MC: Your images of Richard Foreman, Yvonne Rainer and Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s performances helped define their work.  Could you expand a little on how it was working with them? How did you perceive your role in the relationship?

BM: I never felt I was collaborating; I took photographs of things I liked to see more than once. I needed to see it once, form an opinion and if I liked it, I would photograph it. I was always there, I was hanging around when people were warming up, in the space, many performances were done at the last minute actually. You got a sense of what was important for them. I always felt that the more time I spent around the work, the better my photographs were going to be. You can’t do photography by snapshot. But photographing is not a totally calculated act, I don’t think so at all. It is a question of luck and also instinct about the work. You have to work at developing your instinct about the aesthetics of the artists you photograph.

MC: Your work is predominantly featured at the Whitney Museum’s performance art exhibition:  Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama — Manhattan, 1970-1980; your photograph of Sylvia Palacios Whitman is actually the poster image for the show—yet you are not actually credited as an artist in the exhibition. What are your thoughts on this?

Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Sonnabend Gallery,

Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Passing Through, performance at Sonnabend Gallery, New York, May 20, 1977. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Babette Mangolte; © 1977 All reproduction rights reserved.

BM: Photographers of performance are often dismissed as just being just documentarian and nothing else. Intentionally the art market wants the photographer to disappear behind the subject matter of the photograph, with the performance artist’s name and the performance title. Some performance artists want to appropriate your images as they are the only things they have of their work to sell.

The purpose of my photography was to make sure the work I was photographing did not disappear. It is an affirmation of the importance of the work I photographed that indeed that has happened. But Yvonne [Rainer], Steve [Paxton], Trisha [Brown] and Richard [Foreman] would not have disappeared because of the quality and resonance of their work, and my strength, I think, was to mostly photograph very talented people. And in doing that, I got myself a very good education! This is what 1970’s art was about. People were doing what they wanted to do and were open to spending time for others selflessly. It was the spirit of John Cage.

I was fortunate because I was interested in space, and so much of the performance work at that time was about space. Dance, however is more about movement than space, and about the way the movement is functioning within the space. In my work you always get a perspective of the space in which the dance is performed, and that is the big difference, I think, with the other photographers of the period.

When I went to see Richard Foreman’s play Total Recall in December 1970, I said to myself “nobody is seeing this play, so I have to photograph it because the photograph will be the record of its existence. If I don’t photograph it within the run of the play, it will disappear.” And definitely, Richard’s work was about space. It was about structuring space with props and the bodies of the performers. So I owe a lot to Richard, and to Yvonne too. She was the first dancer whom I photographed.

The fact that as a photographer I am not credited as an artist is not only recent, it was even worse in the past but it could be increasing with time and the predominance of the art market. It is interesting because performance was originally a mode of art production to avoid the art market. The photograph tends to be evacuated so it is the subject of the photograph, the performance that is discussed and studied. But many people shot, for example [Trisha Brown’s] Roof Piece in 1973: Peter Moore, Johan Albers and maybe even Nataniel Tileston were there next to me. I was not the only photographers there, but I’m the only one who created the photograph that became emblematic of the piece. You have to accept a level of contribution from the photographer in an image of a given piece.

MC: Can you talk more about how your photographs work as documents of the performances?

BM: My photographs don’t really require captions. They can work in a vitrine or in a display to represent the work of Stuart Sherman or whoever the subject may be. And because I shoot in series my photographs often evoke a succession of actions that forms a narrative like a graphic novel. But to really understand performances you need to bring an element of duration, or time. In inventing my installation “Reading Yvonne Rainer’s this is the story about a woman who…” I wanted to show the enfolding time of the story as well as create a time experience for the Whitney visitors. The display of photographs, script pages, and films fragments under that angled vitrine adds that element of time. You can look and read chronologically. You re-activate the archive by returning to what that piece reading “this is the story about a woman who…” is about, and not just visually but also thematically. The display includes written description and Yvonne’s score and script.  You experience the performance through a series of fragmented texts and images, and that is how we think today, in fragments.

There is a problem in art history, which tends to over categorize things by medium or techniques. In the 1990s you would see an exhibition on performance art and Yvonne Rainer and Richard Foreman would not be included. Yvonne was still considered a choreographer, part of the dance world and not a performance artist. Now that idea is quaint and not including performance, dance and avant-garde theater in one show can not be done. That would not have happened twenty years ago. Context is what is chronicled in the Whitney show. Jay [Sanders], curator of Rituals of Rented Island puts Richard Foreman and Stuart Sherman in the same show, because not only they knew each other well, work together and were influences for each others in spite of their differences, but the period was so much about this cross hybridization between activities and people.

Jack Smith, Cologne Art Fair

Jack Smith, Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (a.k.a. Material Landlordism of Bagdad, a.k.a. The Secret of the Brassiere Factory), Cologne Art Fair, Germany, October 26–31, 1977. All images © Jack Smith Archive, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

MC: What do you think of the museum transitioning into a site of live performance? For you, is there a specific value to be found in live performance that cannot translate into the archive?

BM: I am not sure. I think both archives and actual re-enactment are needed to understand a performance work. But I also think that looking at a painting also requires time: you don’t look at a painting in a second. You need to get closer to see details, you need to have a spatial relation with the work even if it is a flat surface. I made a film on looking at painting, which is very much a time-based activity. Looking takes time. You can see that desire to put time into the museum in the Whitney show, and that is actually great. The show is mostly an archival show but time is inscribed in it so you are conscious of the time-based activity that is performance. What is also great in the Whiney show is the conversations between each rooms and specific work, every gallery brought a different flavor from the period. For example putting Jared Bark and Sylvia Palacios Whitman next to each other was a great idea because they knew each other quite well, they came from the same circle, but at the same time they both had this shared recognition of the importance of the object.

MC: Over the past several weeks we have had radically different approaches to performance by the New York Museums—the Whitney’s exhibition was heavily archival, relying almost entirely on documents and documentation where MOMA’s support of choreographer Boris Charmatz’s Musee de la Danse emphasized live performance as a mode for historicizing work. The “problem” of including performance art into the museum is certainly something that has been a lively topic of discussion over the past few years.

BM: Marina Abromvić’s The Artist is Present changed the way performance art was thought about. In my opinion, the archival aspect to the show on the sixth floor was less interesting than Marina’s performance in the Atrium at MOMA. The video documentation of Marina in the early 1970 was able to impose a presence that was more vivid than the recreations with live dancers.

In terms of retrospective, the most beautiful show was Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim. It was important for them to have time based documentation and actual live performance. So the desire to do both an archival show and schedule specific performances seems to be what museums are trying to do.

For me, the most interesting reflection about performance displayed in museum is coming from Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim where Marina re-enacted pieces from performance history with idiosyncratic interpretation of her own, for instance with  Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconti and Bruce Nauman whose performance was never actually performed but just scripted by Nauman. Nauman’s score emphasized how the face of the performer was never seen, but at the Guggenheim, Marina performed before a glass wall, and you saw her through it. It was very interesting for performance history, as Marina’s performance was often the opposite of the documented performances that inspired her.

MC: Indeed, and that’s just what Marina intended. It is interesting to compare that to Boris Charmatz’s Musee de la Danse at MoMA. In the first week (the exhibition was presented as a series of three weekly performances) dancers performed loosely within the galleries, performing a series of historically important choreographic works from the 20th Century.

BM:  Yes, again, but as you came upon those dancers without much indication of the identity of the dances being performed or the identity of the dancers, as a educational exhibition model it may not have been very successful. I personally was extremely frustrated by it. The enactment of Charmatz’s new choreography inspired by David Vaughan’s book of fifty years of photographs of Merce Cunningham and company was, I think, a total failure in evoking Merce Cunningham and his endless invention. To get back to Rituals of Rented Island it is important to notice that the show is about the context of a period as much as about the specificities of some performances from the period of the 1970s.

MC: It is interesting to think of MoMA’s exhibition as an experiment in exhibiting performance other than the archive.

BM: Yes, but in terms of the Rituals of Rented Island, that is not just an archival show. For example, the installation for Jack Smith was not invented by the curator but was a reconstruction of the installation Smith did at the Cologne art fair [Art Cologne, 1977].

In the exhibition, often only one time-based work of one performance could be shown per room, if you don’t want to use headphones you can only have one time-based work. If Richard [Foreman] or Sylvia [Palacios Whitman] had kept more of their props, that would have added another dimension. But that’s also a reflection of the time. I know Jay [Sanders] tried to find objects for Stuart Sherman but could not find any. So there is that other idea of object-based performance, which is very different than movement based performance.

MC: Much of your work is so directly related to the idea of the archive; your installation pieces are like opening up an archive into the history of avant-garde performance and dance.

Jill Kroesen, U.S Custom's House

Jill Kroesen, Excuse Me I Feel Like Multiplying, performance at U. S. Customs House, New York, May 27, 1979. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Nathaniel Tileston.

BM: Yes, that was the point actually. I have an archive, but the archive is inert if it is not activated by an idea of how to present it. In general most of the photographs I have printed are moments that have been agreed upon between me, and the performance artist. Trisha [Brown] was so good at selecting the best photograph. She has a great eye. The archive has to be brought alive in the right museum setting.

Babette Mangolte, Rituals of a Rented Island, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York through February 2, 2014.

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