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CONVERSATIONS

Choreographic Objects: William Forsythe

William Forsythe and Emilio Montevideo in Conversation.

The American dancer and choreographer William Forsythe on his first exhibition at Gagosian Le Bourget, Paris: robots and choreography and the “optical human puzzle” provided by the formal potential of human bodies interacting.

Emilio Montevideo: Would you kindly introduce our readers to the exhibition Choreographic Objects at Gagosian Le Bourget, France?

William Forsythe: Parallel to my choreographic career, I have since the late 1980s been making and exhibiting in museums and other institutional spaces my Choreographic Objects—installations, film works, discrete interactive sculptures, instructions. However diverse the scale and nature of these projects, they all strive to give the viewer an unadorned sense of their own physical self-image and to return the analysis of kinetic phenomena that was previously the exclusive purview of professionals to a platform that speaks clearly to nonspecialists. Most of the Choreographic Objects serve as surrogates for real-life interactions with the human environment: stepping off the curb, running to catch a bus, avoiding a swinging door, and so on. The objects simply isolate coordinational transactions that abound in one’s normal everyday environment: not tipping a chair; not stubbing your toe. What I often attempt to do is to isolate phenomena that are so fully integrated into our unconscious physical selves they are invisible to us.It seems significant that Gagosian is presenting my work at a time when the art world is embracing choreography in all its forms. At Gagosian Le Bourget we’re showing three works, each of which demonstrates a different principle of the Choreographic Objects, from pure observatory spectacle to focused direct interaction. The gallery, with its upper-level passerelle on all sides, provides an ideal architectural context for one of my favorite Choreographic Objects to date: Black Flags (2015), a twenty-eight-minute duet for two standard industrial robots. In total contrast to this huge spectacle is the small-scale interactive work Towards the Diagnostic Gaze. The film Alignigung 2 is the latest in a series of video works that I have created in collaboration with some of the world’s greatest dancers.

EM: It’s very impressive how you unleash in Black Flags a very linear, sophisticated mode, calling upon the choreographic capabilities of industrial machines and fabric. What interests you in this process?

WF: I am fascinated by demonstrations where flags or banners are used to express social or political unification or solidarity—civic ceremonies, sports, political rallies. In those contexts the flags are powered by humans, which is often very challenging. It’s obvious that whoever wields them is dedicating his or her entire body to the task in a very specific way. I was fascinated by this and sought to employ the idea differently. The initial impulse of Black Flags was calligraphic, inspired in part by my choreography As a Garden in This Setting (1992), in which a performer maneuvers a length of ribbon attached to a fly-fishing pole in order to perform a 3D calligraphic choreography onstage. I thought that I could simply use a motion-capture of his demonstration and map it onto a program for the robots. But I discovered that it didn’t translate; it was way too complex. The robots, which are standard industrial models, possess an extraordinary strength and elegance, with six rotating joints, meaning six degrees of freedom, which offers a planar complexity that, for my practical purposes, is inexhaustible. The base weighs eight tons to counter the kinetic forces. Extending their reach from five meters to thirteen meters with flag-weighted poles introduces a significant accumulation of complex shear forces. In Black Flags the robots wield the huge banners, which, as they furl and unfurl, make visible the air that constitutes the third compositional element. Sometimes the banners work in parallel, synchronic actions. At others they separate and digress, or come to complete stasis—a state that that is utterly impossible for a human being to effect. The sweeping, fluttering flags translate the digital algorithm controlling the robots into dramatic contrapuntal movement sequences which, although minutely programmed according to complex calculations and exceedingly strenuous, appear at once effortless, autonomous, and unpredictable. Although this work irresistibly prompts reflection on the post-human and postindustrial condition, my choreography of the robots is not at the service of direct theatrical or emotive affect. Rather, I am seeking to engage with wholly abstract values, modeling complex surfaces into monumental yet ethereal volumes. Black Flags combines the presence of monumental abstract sculpture with performative dynamics.

EM: In a certain way also Alignigung 2 uses two performers as a form of basic material to create a sculptural work, dictated by the assemblative possibilities of bodies. What is the concept behind this piece?

WF: Alignigung 2 is one of an ongoing series of video installations distilled from live performances that I call “entanglements,” which I have choreographed with some of the most renowned dancers of our time. In these optical human puzzles, time and space are collapsed into the density of bodily interaction. While it is obvious to the viewer that there are two different bodies in the composition, the complex “threading” of these bodies into their own negative spaces creates optical conundrums that frequently defy the apparent visual logic of the situation. In this particular piece, Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit, a break-dancer possessed of supernatural flexibility, and Riley Watts, a former dancer with the Forsythe Company, grasp each other in a succession of configurations so complex that it is difficult to determine where one body ends and the other begins. Although these works recall the figures of Baroque sculpture, it is important to consider that their material is exclusively the human body and its formal potential. The title itself is also a wordplay that threads two languages together. The English word “align” sounds like the German word allein (alone). That English word has been inserted into the German word Einigung (agreement). So the “threaded” result is a paradox—to align with oneself and another, while alone.

EM: Towards the Diagnostic Gaze expresses itself as a form of involuntary human micro-choreography. How did you come up with a duster as a means (or, technically, a tool) to make this possible?

WF: Like the robot, the feather duster is an everyday tool, ubiquitous and readily available. Placing it on a stone shelf inscribed with the instruction “Hold the object absolutely still,” it becomes the focus of human will as the viewer grasps hold of it and attempts to quiet the nervous energies of its plumes—which is impossible, of course. The feather duster registers the human body’s every tremor and pulse. Many of the Choreographic Objects have to do with acknowledging mortality. Our bodies are precisely not machines; they are fragile, subject to ebbs and flows. The world does not come at us in evenly measured portions but in a contrapuntal cloud. Our predictive faculty exists for our own self-preservation, and through evolution we became capable of recognizing precariousness and deriving as much information from it as possible so that our relationship with the world developed heuristically. So, in a certain sense, the Choreographic Objects provide us with cues for our future levels of self-knowledge—what we need to recognize. For example, if you are shaking way too much with the feather duster of Towards the Diagnostic Gaze, you need to consider whether you, specifically, might need clinical help or whether it is, generally, reflective of the human condition. The Choreographic Objects are diagnostic equations that ask: How are we in the world as bodies? It’s evident that we’re not robots.

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