An Interview with Jen Rosenblit

In early April 2016, Chinati’s Special Projects and Programs Coordinator Darby Hillman conducted an interview with current Artist in Residence Jen Rosenblit. Among other subjects, their conversation covered matters of performance in challenging and non-traditional spaces, sports and what an “invitation to watch” can mean.

Chinati presented a workshop performance of Jen Rosenblit’s Clap Hands at the Arena on Friday, April 15, 2016 at 8:00 PM. The event was free to the public.

Jen Rosenblit has been making performance in New York City since 2005.  Jen worked at Chinati with a company of dancers and technicians: Elliott Jenetopulos, Andy Kobilka, Lexi Welch and Effie Bowen.


DH: If you could talk a little bit about Clap Hands itself…

JR: So, the way my actual, physical life was shaping up, and not being in any one city for any long period of time, I started to think about the sustainability of making work and the economics. I was thinking “what is the scale of the work I can make right now?” And so the idea of a solo came up. I’ve never worked in the solo form and I don’t really have an interest in it; my interest in making performances is to work with other people, so, to kind of cheat out of my own idea of making a solo, I had a conversation with a long-time collaborator who was originally in the work—Addys Gonzales—he’s been in all of the works for the past 10 or 15 years, really, but more than that he’s been a dramaturge of sorts—his ideas have helped shape the way that I expanded my ideas, thinking not just about dance, but about art and performance, and how to make these ideas in to artworks. Not just situating them as movements in space, but really thinking about architecture, design, how it relates to other things that exist in the world—not just theater and dance. So, the initial proposal to him was: “Will you help me make a solo?” Quickly we started working together, but without dancing, or without building these dance vocabularies; we were working with materials that were just in my studio, random blocks of wood, exercise balls, the actual architecture of the space which was a big warehouse, the pillars in the room. We started addressing materiality in a way that I hadn’t yet: “what is it to stand next to a big pole? Can that pole take on a kind of body to it? So, now is this a duet?” Addressing things that are a bit more inside of architecture than exist in traditional dance modalities. Eventually we got rid of these materials and decided to purchase and work with a specific material, which was all of this felt. I’ve worked with felt before, in costuming specifically. This synthetic felt is just interesting to me, sculpturally, so I decided I would buy a ton of it. Before I figured out what I would do with it, we would just work; we replaced the random items with this very particular item that was very bright and took on a lot of its own personality and intensity. Sort of sneakily, behind our understanding, it started to be a duet with him and I, then actually much bigger than a duet because we had all this material. It started to really be a trio. We were doing things like using the felt as a floor, taping [it] down. We’d tape down swatches so the space was just covered. We started developing an idea of this soft piece: everything would happen on soft floor…we would do soft things to each other.

This piece has been in progress for two years, and has had many different iterations; that was the beginning. I got a bit dissatisfied with working in that theatrical way of “this is a floor …in a theater…it’s just made of felt.” So I cut the felt up more and started folding it in my studio, setting it in the windowsill, on the table, looking at it as actual material, not trying to turn it into something else. I started really researching “what are the properties of this material, and the uselessness of bright pink synthetic felt—that it can’t be really used in any functional way.”

DH: Well, that’s a good segue into my next question, regarding architecture. I know that you had come to Marfa before; you’d seen the space. What was it about the Arena, specifically, that was exciting or intriguing to you, in terms of its challenges [as a performance space]?

JR: Yeah, when I came to do the site visit, I don’t even know if I was looking to decide on a space, I was looking to understand how this whole experience was going to influence the work. This whole work has been set up based in residencies that are abroad, outside of New York City; to try to actually shake this sense of home, or this knowledge of space and place. Because I’ve been making work in New York now for 11 years, I kind of know what I can do to please certain people; I know what I can do in certain spaces and not in other spaces. I was interested in surprising myself with touch: how big this scale could be, how small it could be, where it could be/happen. First there was a strong curiosity in the spaces relating to Judd, having a small sense of the very strong particularities of his work. Not just of what the work looks like but how it can be seen, how it is preserved, how it’s maintained, and the space around the work —I relate to that. The work isn’t just the piece; it’s the experience of the work in the room. That’s a hard thing for me. In some really specific, linear dance spaces, they just want to see the bodies moving beautifully, but I want to see what the ceiling looks like… I want to see what the material of the floor is, I want to have control over the type of seats that the audience sits in—not to control the whole room, but really, to create an experience that is particular to the moment. I went on all the tours with Rob [Weiner] and I got a lot of information, but the Arena was, simply, the space. It was big; it has a theatricality to it, but an odd one. The gravel floor was really the most of interest to me because it’s the most precarious item. Normally, for a performance, the flooring is protected, it’s something sturdy and steady, so that you can do all the things that you’re planning, appropriately. This gravel and uneven ground was of the utmost interest. I knew it would be the most problematic thing, especially at the end, to add this other layer. And while it’s super challenging now, I knew, about a year ago, that that would be the final layer that I would want. I’m in a place where I’m wondering, “Do I even know what I want? What elements can I add in, to expand the knowledge of my working process?” So the Arena, not to mention the gorgeous light that comes in… I was really interested in the Judd doors being there, I was interested in the doors being on the outside of the space, this constant invitation to come in… Something very deeply embedded into the work is this invitation that constantly proposes itself as a problem as well. How can I keep expanding and opening up my idea of what an “invitation to watch” is? The Arena felt super clearly the space I was interested in working in. Not to mention that almost all the spaces [have] these beds, or situations for rest. All of my work is constantly addressing the more intimate space of home, some kind of interior space, especially in Clap Hands. Part of the text we do really circles around the phenomenology of a table and a chair. We mention the table not as a bed, to not confuse different architectures with another, but “what are the ways in which a table can function as a place to rest, or gather?” I align myself with: this is a bedroom because there’s a bed in here. It’s not: an end table, seven lamps, etc.—it’s not this sort of American collection of creating rooms…

DH: Designating spaces to these specific acts.

JR: Yeah, and often the beds are in the middle of the room, not shoved over into a corner. The things that I feel and I relate to about his spaces are that they’re considerate of space, not just the forms in the space. That’s something that I find to be deeply dance. I often get critiques or confusion around my work: a writer will write and say “The dancers stood still for so long.” But what they’re not seeing is, “the dancer stood still for so long while a light was shifting up at the ceiling.” That’s sometimes the problem I have with dance, that it’s only seen through movement in the body, but I actually find the room and anything occurring in the room interesting, the way that things are positioned in relation to each other.

DH: You were saying earlier how dance spaces, spaces that have been designated as places to perform movement, rarely consider the furniture, if there’s any furniture at all; maybe it isn’t even necessary to have windows in a space like that. It’s interesting to take the notion of dance, placing it in the spaces where there is already a natural movement—people walk in and out of the Arena all the time, people come in to theaters and museums… But to implant another consideration of that movement in the space is really interesting, and [it] does make sense to be using the Arena in that way. Even the nature of Arena suggests performance.

JR: Yeah. Clap Hands is very explicitly dealing with ideas of sport. You’ll see in the costuming: Andy is in a wrestling singlet, Effie is in a fencing jumper, and I’m in boxing gear. It wasn’t planned from the beginning, but part of my process is just collecting information as I go. I do have an interest in ideas of sport, I mean, I grew up doing sports, I have four brothers. With Clap Hands we decided to work directly inside of certain visual problems, so spaces that offered us problematic scenarios that we’re not trying to overcome, we’re trying to work inside of, which is hard for these performers who just want to do it right, you know—myself included. Through the specific personalities of Andy, Effie and myself, joking around and collecting information, we started developing ideas that were cycling around different kinds of sports that situated themselves in a fight, or a match, because of the confusion between “Is this a solo? Is this a duet? Is this a trio? Who can disappear at a certain point so that this trio can become a duet, so that it’s a match?” Effie has this thing where she’s essentially fighting herself—she’s fencing herself—which is already interesting because fencing is this bourgeois activity that is not really a fight, you know, it’s very high class —it’s not actually about fighting.

DH: Like a theatrical representation of a fight.

JR: Yeah, and it’s extremely precise, all of these things are, but it’s much more different than boxing or wrestling.

DH: It is much more like a dance, too—there’s a choreography to it.

JR: Psychologically the other fencer is a mirror of you; you’re in the same gear, not even a different color necessarily, so there’s a psychology around fencing that is very interesting. And it’s about a solo, essentially, this unison movement that you’re not supposed to distinguish; with other sports it’s really about teams. So from there we started developing: “Ok, how can we make bigger this problem of sport that’s coming out?”… Everything that’s associated with Andy and his music station is yellow, because everyday he comes into the studio wearing some kind of yellow, it’s his favorite color, so, whether it seems useless or important, we let ideas stick to the work, and then we kind of blow them up to an absurd level until we become curious about meaning all over again. We’ve stuck with the fencing idea for so long that it doesn’t even feel like fencing or sport anymore, it’s like an abstract. All the architecture around it is dropped away and I just watch this form moving…and meaning… For me personally, I have more questions around what meaning could be, rather than what a fencer means. So yeah, sport is in there, and the idea of a match, or a game, or this teasing or taunting of each other. The Arena felt appropriate, for sure. Also that outside courtyard; there’s something odd and appealing about a completely cement space; I mean, most of [Judd’s] spaces are these hard cement spaces that then offer the body a place to rest, or bathe, or be outside/be inside. I’m very interested in that.

DH: it’s an odd… “stay away but come close”…

JR: Which is maybe my motto: ‘Stay away but come close.” [laughs]

DH: You mentioned that you’ve been quite a nomad in the last year. I know it’s a short residency, but has living in Marfa and living at Chinati informed anything for you, or presented some specific challenges?

JR: Definitely, for sure. Slowing down is such a struggle, but a place like this demands it because no one’s moving super fast. It’s also an interesting moment in the work to be forced to slow down, which is another thing I was looking for, not just the space, to shift the work, but actually, this is the first residency where there is lifestyle shift, you know—I’m still working all day, but the difference between having a glass of wine and seeing the stars at the end of a long work day versus having a glass of wine at the end of a long day in an apartment, not wanting to go outside…

Also just the relationships of people, the ways in which they’re willing to help—yesterday was extremely sweet and tender to have lunch with the kids and Michael [Roch] and Adele [Powers] and perform for them. These things are collecting in the work… yeah, definitely the pace is interesting for me right now. My instinct and my strange fear factors that come in when getting close to showing a work, especially in New York City—it’s like, “let’s speed up, let’s tidy up, let’s make this the shiny thing it needs to be,” but actually the slowing down reveals more of the mess, and when you see more of the mess it’s, “OK, there’s a lot more here than I thought.” It’s not this isolated, clean perfect thing and then there’s more information to choose from. I’m from a small town; I haven’t been in that small town situation in a long time and there’s something familiar about people waving when they pass you, you know, taking a little bit longer in the coffee shop, about having a checklist of eight things to do and you only get two done in the day. It’s a funny reminder that things have their own logic with time. City time doesn’t translate to desert time. So I have appreciated, and was happy that, I was here a week before everyone [in my company], to sink in. I knew I needed that sink-in time, not even sleep-and-do-nothing time; I needed to understand how time really does shift based on where you are, and that’s in the work somehow.

DH: Where are you from, originally?

JR: I’m from Maine. Very northern: Norway. All the towns surrounding where I’m from are named after European countries…

DH: You understand then, coming from a place like that—there is a different sort of social language that happens. In New York or other big cities, you keep this pace because something else is waiting to happen after that, and here it’s …there’s really nothing waiting, it’s just a matter of enacting and activating the space.

JR: Yeah, and I know that shapes the work. So much of artwork in New York is based off of how big your studio is. Sculptors are making sculptures based on how wide their doorframe is which, maybe not once you get a certain level of funding, but up into the place I’m at and may even a few years past me, most of the way we work is based on economics and access. And, while I’m happy to work within my means, I was also excited to work outside of my means, to get pushed and stretched a bit. This show is much bigger than I planned for, it has many more people than what I thought a solo was going to be, it has more objects in it than I originally planned for, it has a large checklist of things that need to get done that I didn’t intend to be there at the beginning. I’m really happy to see what this has become because it doesn’t feel like I sat in my room and decided on things before they happened. It felt like things happened through different experiences, talking to different people, going to different locations. I mean, just yesterday, we were in the hardware store and really arguing over if we should get an aloe plant and put it on the musicians table, and maybe get a dead one and spray paint it pink! [laughs] It was a full-on argument, because we felt like, well this is information here! So it’s silly things like that. We all happen to be very curious people and we pay attention to the people we’re around. Even just Michael’s insane generosity—there are jokes flying in the room of how we can get something about Michael in the work. It happens to be a group of people who are funny and interested in everything surrounding them, which seems to be in the nature of what Judd was doing. Maybe it comes out differently, visually, but I think in a sort of manifesto along those lines.

DH: So, this piece will go on to be performed in New York in late April, and then I think I read that you were working on another sort of follow-up to this. Will that also be something that you workshop in different spaces?

JR: It’s going to happen a little differently. I’ve been planning it all along, that this, Clap Hands, would take about two years to complete the research, and pretty early in the process I planned a companion work. Sort of spiritually in this way of thinking I was making a solo, secretly knowing and hoping that it wouldn’t be a solo but somehow it would sneak in other people and other things, I thought, “well, if the first idea is a solo, then the second idea should be a companion piece to sort of fulfill that aloneness, to sort of partner it off or offer the research another thought.” So the next piece is a duet between myself and a musician based in Amsterdam. We’re actually going to work mostly at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, so it’s interesting: it will have a base. It will have a home that we will work at, but it will go back to New York in 2017, to The Kitchen. But it will be in their gallery space and it will use some elements: it will use the benches that we use in Clap Hands, it will use the light boxes that Elliot’s making now. It’s going be, at least visually right now, loosely based off of Arakawa and Gins. Arakawa is an architect and Gins is a poet, and they’re partners—I think Arakawa just passed away. But they have all these ideas and phenomenologies around architecture and what spaces are appropriate for the body to live in. I think one of their things, why they don’t like architecture, is because it only sets up a space for people to die: Architecture is about death. It’s not bendable, it’s not flexible, it’s such a dominant voice; so part of their work is in crazy houses that have floors that are mound-like or uneven; spiral staircases is one of their features. We’re kind of looking at that idea of architecture, …maybe even a floor that is uneven in a gallery space: the performance happens on top, and the audience is also on top…

DH: I think what Judd was doing here was creating a dialogue between art, architecture, the light; you’ve added movement to all of that, which is a really interesting, exciting thing.

JR: And I also know nothing about architecture, which is great.

DH: I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily; you’re coming to it with a unique notion of it. I don’t think Judd knew a lot about architecture either until he started practicing and working with it, or I think, until his work was being installed in spaces in an unsatisfying way: that was the impetus to start creating his own. With this companion piece it sounds like you’re taking that even further in terms of, “OK, how can we not only [alter the] space with movement, but the structure itself?” Maybe the gravel of the Arena is a step in that direction, too.

JR: It definitely is.

DH: Cool. Exciting—I’m so glad you’re here.

JR: I’m happy to be here. Yeah, it’s equally scary and completely amazing, and the best decision to be essentially a seven-hour flight away from New York right before the premiere.

DH: Really?

JR: Well, yeah. It’s: if we were in New York we would probably have that tape in two seconds. Those things are not such a big deal. There’s always a solution. I would not have been able to finish the piece here without bringing in the lighting designer, without Elliot and Lexi. I have tried making work that really works with the space before and it’s just too much—I need a team, it’s too overwhelming. I have all these ideas and I don’t know how to rig things. So it’s working because there are so many people here, which is another thing: I’m like, “should I have really been managing five people right before a premiere?”

DH: They seem to be of like mind, and know that there is a common goal, which is to find meaning in this movement. They wouldn’t be your team if they weren’t on the same page.

JR: Exactly. I think that the constellation of them work together; the constellation of them together is that of a bunch of curious and strange people who are really interested in finding logic, not just doing what’s already been done, but trying something new; not just being radical for the sake of being radical or conventional for the sake of convention, but finding logic inside of whatever emerges. And that’s my deepest interest in making whatever kind of art, writing, performance—whatever it is— finding logic. Logic that might be connected to something that’s familiar but is ultimately unfamiliar. That’s sort of what I told the kids yesterday: “you’re going to see us make shapes with the felt, and while we might make a shape that looks like a mountain, it’s not a mountain, it’s a piece of felt.” I don’t have to think about the meaning of ‘mountain,” I just let the information pass through my head. Michael even said “It reminded me of a Robert Wilson piece,” which is cool to me, because that’s an influence, but he came back a few minutes later and said, “No, it reminded me of a moment in my life when I remember being influenced by a Robert Wilson piece.” That, to me, is the most interesting part of watching dance, that it does have the possibility of reminding you or recalling things that are familiar but, at the same time, moving bodies are so abstract that they really don’t mean anything. Language creates meaning, but it’s hard to know what dance means. I don’t really work inside of meaning—even though, sometimes it does appear, sort of uncontrollably. So after he said that I thought, “Oh, OK—now I remember why I like dance.”

DH: That’s great—it makes sense considering your motives in all of this. Thank you.

JR: Thank you.

All photographs by Chani Bockwinkel.