HomePage Magazine Press
Ocula Magazine  |  Conversations   |  Artist, USA
Conversation  |  Artist, USA

Ryan McNamara

In Conversation with
Robin Peckham
Hong Kong, 29 May 2014

Ryan McNamara surfaced with the ingenious ballet Meem

, which handily won the Malcolm McLaren award at last year’s Performa in New York. For his first performance in Asia, commissioned by Yana and Stephen Peel as part of the Chai Wan Nites warehouse party during Art Basel in Hong Kong on 16 May, he shocked and awed with 20 dancers who invaded the space on a dump truck, threw down pedestals amidst the crowd, and proceeded to race through 20 stations dictated by an ominous voice and projected instructions: 11. BEYONCE WHILE RIHANNA, RIHANNA WHILE BEYONCE 16. PAS DE BOUREE WALL [sic]. By the end of the 20 minute barrage, viewers were soaked in spit tea, bumped with colored paints, knocked into the bar, pulled to the ground, and profoundly judged—to say nothing of the dancers themselves. The work was a deft fusion of body and—for lack of a better word—soul, collapsing the standard viewing practices of 2014 into a series of quick moves that appeared simultaneously made for and resistant to social media dispersion. It all seems to happen too fast and yet, as McNamara maintains, what matters is that we are somehow still able to make sense of it all. An experience that will not soon be forgotten, it will also not be too readily recalled.

How did you prepare for Score over the course of your week in Hong Kong?

The piece had 20 performers in it, six of them New York-based and the rest Hong Kong-based. I worked with the local contingent over video and sent them documents, but I met them for the first time four days in advance. We rehearsed all day Wednesday and Thursday, and then got into the space for the first time on Friday. It was pretty demanding. I have a great group of people I’ve worked with in New York for years and years now, which I think might make me a little spoiled, because they know exactly what’s going on and can fill in the blanks. It was an opportunity for me to explain my work to myself in order to be able to explain it to people who are working with me, which was actually really useful, to look at this stuff through fresh eyes. It was an experiment.

How did you find these dancers?

Yana Peel, who commissioned the piece, knew a choreographer named Alice Rensy who works with dancers a lot. This wasn’t necessarily a dance piece, but it has some dance elements to it, and the response was that the majority of the Hong Kong dance scene is pretty traditional.  Instead of being able to just come in and work with a dance company, Alice really had to go around and find people one by one. She understood that the presence of the performer was more important than virtuosity. I’ve said in the past that one of my few skills is being a good casting director, and in New York I really have this great group of people that shine, so it was interesting working without that big aspect.

So what is the piece?

It’s called Score. On the most basic level, it’s 20 performers, 20 performances, 20 minutes. The word score in English means twenty, but it is also the notation of performance and refers to games as well. All three definitions are involved. It’s very Brechtian in that it announces its “score” before it happens. It’s a relentless piece, not simultaneous but consecutive. It’s a structure I haven’t really worked with before: really rigid, really about keeping on task. What I liked about creating this structure is that each performer has to find a place very quickly within each one of those 20 performances. It’s about really being able to enter into that one-minute performance as if it were an evening length performance, really get in there, and then drop it instantly. In a way it’s more of a mental exercise than a physical one. They’re very diverse performances, with a constant flow: why have one when you can have 20? It’s overwhelming for the dancers, and I think also for the audience. By the fifth one in you’ve forgotten the first one.

It seems to engage with more of a legacy of modernist dance or experimental theater. Does it speak to a different audience here?

Everything I make is situation-specific. A gallery audience has a very different flow than this kind of thing, which was hundreds of people in a room together who might have been a little bit drunk. That’s a very different energy to work with. A gallery in Milan with four people coming in over the course of a day versus a gallery in Chelsea where a hundred people come in throughout a day is also a different dynamic, and these different modes of audience really affect the piece. Did people come just for this or are they stopping by on their way to lots of other things? The fact that it’s a private commission also becomes part of the material. What do you do when there’s a party going on? How do I take over that energy? That’s the challenge of this piece, rather than creating an environment in a gallery where people are going specifically to experience the piece. There’s a party going on, and I’m very aware of that and I’m not at all against it.. The idea of just doing a gallery show every year and a half, I would go crazy with the same flow of people, the same white walls. I love these opportunities that come my way that aren’t as pure. Purity is overrated. This was about dealing with an audience in a vast open space like this, placing a rigid structure within that in order to make sense of this big open room with hundreds of people. It had to really overtake the space.

How did you translate your work to Hong Kong?

Art fair audiences are odd because they’re local, but also exist in this complete non-place as well. I did a lot of research into Hong Kong history and popular culture, so there are a few nods to things that people who live here will have understood in a way that other people didn’t. But it is a strange thing about this biennial and art fair circuit - that it’s the same group of people who move around. It’s local and it’s not local. I worked with a few things very American, and a few that were very specifically Hong Kong. I also worked with Cantonese translators, so there was an element of language in it. The structure of this piece might live on in other iterations, but there are definitely things that only make sense to this very specific iteration, particularly in working with the dancers who are based here.

Were you first interested in the questions your work addresses, or did you come from this particular medium terms of dance and performance?

I studied visual art, first photography and then later combined media. It all came out of thinking about art audiences, and what’s interesting about them is that they still really believe in coming together. There’s still this idea of aura, that it’s worth actually going somewhere to experience something, which makes for an interesting, self-selecting group of people. It’s actually very specific to this group of people. I went from photography, which can look great in a book or a gallery or many other formats, but I was thinking—you have all these people coming together, in this space, at this time. What can exploit that? That’s how I arrived at performance. It’s about this moment, these people, all in a room together. It’s amazing how that continues at a certain scale of belief, that we’re flying halfway across the world to go see some objects or a video. That’s weird.

So your interest wasn’t really with internet culture specifically?

This piece definitely picks up on a lot of this, this constant flow of information. One meme after another coming at you to the point that you’ve already completely forgotten about that thing you were obsessed with yesterday afternoon. That cycle is really interesting to me, the idea that I check the news in the morning and by the afternoon there have been seven different headlines. That’s an odd thing that we’ve all gotten used to. Those headlines can be so hilariously different, from maybe a total puff piece about Hilary Clinton’s new haircut to something happening in Syria. Somehow we are all able to make sense of it. It’s an amazing thing that our brain can do. The last piece I did obviously very cheekily laid out what it was—a story ballet about the internet—but there was no technology in it at all, except for the speakers. These pieces try to look at the architecture of the internet, the new structure of information dissemination, rather than actually looking at the technology that does those things. It makes sense to use human bodies to talk about how all this is affecting human bodies.

And how do you think it is affecting human bodies?

I had the internet in high school, so I remember a time as an eight-year-old before the internet. My 18-year-old brother grew up with the internet, turning on a computer before he could talk. I’m amazed at how little difference there is. There’s this idea of a generational technology gap, but our brains can adjust so quickly that I think its more about individuals than generations. We are doing things now that I dreamed about when I was 10, but now that it’s actually here it’s not fantastic, it just is what it is, and that’s actually the most shocking thing. With these projects I have stepped back to examine these changes, but that’s less about necessity and more about curiosity. We just do, we just find a way to make it make sense. I think it’s ridiculous how the popular press talks about how our attention span has been shot. People really can pay attention now, we do. But maybe it’s not so focused. It’s 360-degree attention. There are so many things going on at once that we have total attention all the time. Multidimensional attention. That transition was never marked for me. Watching TV as a kid in Arizona for hours a day, that was one-dimensional. Now you’re checking your phone and five things on your computer at the same time. That wasn’t a marked difference, it just happened, and everything is fine. So what does that mean? How did that happen? Why are we not traumatized? I feel like we should be, but we’re not.

Looking at artists interested in posthumanism, the human body rarely ever appears in the work. There’s no figuration, no liveness. Things either fall off or are added on to the body, but there’s no body there in the work.

I’m in my body—that’s your lens to see the world, so it makes sense that it can disappear into the edges of attention. But if my knee hurts, that takes precedence over anything else. I watched Her on the plane to Hong Kong, so I’ve been thinking about these ideas of posthuman existence. I love the clunkiness of the human body, which we still have to deal with all the time, and technology has to deal with it too in its interfaces. The stupidity of the human body almost rivals its elegance. There are places where technology can’t even approach the sophistication of the human body; there’s still so much about the human body we haven’t figured out. It’s an amazingly sophisticated machine, but on the other hand it’s this stupid and clunky machine stuck with its own mass. The elegance of pure computation has to be covered by a patina of interface so masses of humans can engage with it, which invariably dumbs it down in a way.

And I think it make sense that these two things happen at the same time, this turn to performance just as I was spending more time in front of a screen than ever before. It makes total sense to me. Though it’s not like I was thinking, “My god, I’m spending so much time without human contact, I should go see dance!” It was not a conscious thing, but it did happen at the same time. I don’t want to make it a hokey thing—there’s no body so let’s bring bodies in—because I think it’s much more complicated than that. As much as we don’t want them to be in there, bodies  are always around, no matter how posthuman our existence becomes. There’s nothing wrong with sitting in front of a screen, but the way that my brain works I would not be able to explore technology through the technology. I have to step outside of it. But nostalgia for the analogue, I have none.

Are you interested in contemporary dance?

Yeah, I see as much contemporary dance as contemporary art. I see all kinds. There’s a lot happening in museums now, particularly a big push with French conceptualist people in New York right now like Xavier Le Roy. I’m not a choreographer. At the Whitney Biennial, there’s an choreographer Miguel Gutierrez who is working with a dancer I’ve worked with in the past, so there are conversations going both ways. But interestingly, most of that seems to be happening on a curatorial level. Curators are bringing dancers in rather than artists and choreographers working together. In the 1960s or 1970s it was more artist-to-artist, with Rauschenberg and Cunningham and all of these things happening in an organic way. Now it’s a curator trying to bring dance and visual art together for a show. I’m happy that’s happening, but it can also create a weird tension. I’m hoping to integrate them in a more organic way, rather than putting them in a museum and saying go at it. There’s a way of doing it on a more grassroots level that would make it more like a community, rather than bringing disparate parts together to make an eclectic exhibition.

You’re more interested in the Judson Dance Theater model?

Sure, that was an amazing moment when they all came together, Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer and the gang. I hate nostalgia so I shouldn’t say these things, but there was something very special about that. But that’s through the lens of history—who knows what actually happened, I can’t tell you because I wasn’t born yet. It seems that in New York at that time, if you were at all thinking outside the box in any form, you would find each other, because there weren’t that many of you. Now each of those universes is so big—dance is huge and visual art is very huge—that you don’t need to leave your own little pocket anymore to find like-minded people, but something is lost when you're a little too like-minded. I could go on about the market-driven visual art world, there’s a lot I could say about that. I can’t avoid the nostalgia around that moment, which makes me a little annoyed.

Are you an outsider in relation to the dance world?

Definitely. Well. There’s really no good answer for that. I would never call myself a choreographer because I’m not, and I never took dance classes except for a piece I did at PS1 where I took dance classes every day for five months. But that was a piece. My teachers who came every day had been training since they were five. Other than that I have no dance education. But I go see a lot, and the dancers I work with are my friends so I see their work. At the end of the day, I am a visual artist, and I like my work to be seen through that lens. In the past the New York Times has sent the dance critic to review my work. That’s one way of doing it, but it’s not the way I’m looking at it. It wasn’t necessarily a bad review. Not to puff myself up, but I’m pretty sure the piece was more interesting than the way he explained it. The signifiers are a little different, or the way that things are read from culture to culture. Within the piece he reviewed there is a Martha Graham piece from 1981, and for him that’s a dated piece. So he says that’s a done conversation, dated piece, bad choice. But for me, I want you to ask why: Why would I have chosen a piece from the 1980s? Let’s go a little further with that. What else could be at play there? There are total benefits for me not having a dance education because I can see things in a certain way, but there are also many, many drawbacks. I’ve been slow even to learn ballet terms, which are the basis for most forms of dance. There’s a lot of those terms in the piece for Hong Kong. I will forever be a person who thinks of the visual first. Seeing the work in stills, almost, and that comes from a different place than someone who’s more interested in the actual movement or the quality of the movement.

Do you ever have problems giving direction? Do your dancers appreciate the different languages you’re speaking? Do they find it productive?

Totally. They’re definitely doing things they have not done before, for different audiences and in different scenarios. I’ve never done a proscenium piece. The first time I actually choreographed a piece, Meem, it was amazing how well it went, although in some cases I’m relying on the fact that these dancers know me so well. I think it’s good for people to be required not to take things for granted. That makes you a lazy artist. I have to figure out how to translate these things, from my visuals to their actual body. It’s an interesting communication process, and they get frustrated sometimes. “This entire time you wanted me to do a grand rond de jambe, but you don’t know what that is!” Now I know. Rehearsal time is magic. Dancers think it’s so hilarious when art people come to rehearsal, because it can be so exotic, moving from one world to the other, and breaking down what is actually very normal. I like creating these moments where these different worlds come together.

Do you ever present your live performance as video after the fact?

For artist talks I definitely do. I usually try to find somewhat more interesting ways to present the work to a secondary audience that’s not just video documentation. Sometimes I think stills do a better job than video because there’s a false specificity to video where it can be seen as close to the original piece, whereas you understand that the still image is just a representation. There’s something clunky and literal about video as well. I’m still working on it. I’m very interested in how I can translate that. So far the best way I’ve seen is very, very short videos, taking a 70-minute performance and making it two minutes, leaving specific impressions rather than actually trying to remake the experience. In a way everything should be site-specific. Out of a site-specific performance you end up with the raw materials of documentation, and you can make a new piece out of that, which may or may not do a good job of relaying what happened the first time. Sometimes the representation becomes objects that I make in my studio.

What kind of objects?

I make sculptures that integrate props, costumes, and even some of the still images. I think of them as these sort of forgotten costumes and props that create their own performances in my studio, performing on their own, creating their own thing. I’m not really worried about relaying what happened, but rather want to start out with these very specific and charged raw materials to create something new with. That’s exciting because, after working on a very intensive project—and don’t get me wrong, I love the people I work with—it’s very nice to just not have to schedule anything, to just go into my studio and work on creative endeavors in there, just me and these objects. Instant gratification of my hands making something. That balance is really important to me, which is something else that puts me in the visual art camp, because I really need that studio time.

Is that what circulates in the gallery and museum system?

Yes, I like gallery shows with stuff as well. I like art of all kinds. I hope that what I make stands on its own, because it has to. You don’t get the performance with it. I’ve sold two performances, actual performances, but other than that you get the object. That’s important, and I never want to lose that. I’m in museum collections through the objects, rather than attempts of representations of my performances. With my documentation, I shoot it myself—it’s performance with a camera. They’re not performance stills. It’s very rarely something actually taken during the performance. I think of each piece as having many different branches—performance, photography, sculpture. I take the photos myself because I’m a photographer at the end of the day. The framing and all of that is very important to me, so I think of it as if its another project that just happens to have the same performers and same costumes. It can be vastly different from what was actually in the original piece. I love souvenir. I like that they’re these weird souvenirs from the piece. They’re related but they’re not the actual thing.

Will anything else come out of Score?

We’ll see. I’ve already been thinking about that. I was just looking at my weird suitcase full of bizarre things, and there are definitely some things that could come out of this. Once these raw materials have been transformed through the performance, they’ll come out on the other side as irresistible to my studio practice. This summer I’ll make stuff. —[O]

Sign up to be notified when new articles like this one are published in Ocula Magazine.
Sign Up