InterviewsWeekend

On Emerson, Process, and the Room within a Room: A Conversation with Karinne Keithley Syers

Karinne Syers (photo by Jenny Mary Tai Liu)
Karinne Keithley Syers (photo by Jenny Mary Tai Liu)

Watching Karinne Keithley Syers dance is like watching someone tell a ghost story with her hands and eyes. One hand obscures her vision while the other guides her body through unknown territory. Where she is, or how she arrived there, feels less pertinent than her strong sense of self-awareness and sincere commitment to not knowing.

During the last week of July, I spoke with Karinne, an interdisciplinary artist working in performance since 1995 and a founder and co-editor of the 53rd State Press, which publishes new performance writing, and her collaborator, Sara Smith, as they prepared for a preview of “Another Tree Dance,” presented as part of the 6th Annual Mount Tremper Arts Summer Festival. “Another Tree Dance” will premiere at the Chocolate Factory on October 2, 2013.

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Christine Shan Shan Hou: The script for “Another Tree Dance” is playful yet densely layered. However, while watching you rehearse, there is a sense of lightness in your movement and exploration.

You received your MFA in Playwriting at Brooklyn College and are currently pursuing a PhD in English. Can you elaborate a little bit about your relationship between your movement and literary practice?

Karinne Keithley Syers: I was always reading, but movement came first as an artistic medium. I describe my undergraduate studies at Hampshire College as philosophy realized in the context of choreographic thinking, which is not limited to movement.

When I make dances though, my thought process emerges from text and audio work, partially because I haven’t been able to keep up a studio practice. Recuperating the dance has been a private part of my last year or so, which included an Authentic Movement practice.

Every time I’ve started working in a new medium it was because I wanted to address more than I could in dance. I made a show about the history of fruit cultivation, which is the first time I played a ukulele. Then I got tired of going to CD shops trying to find music, so I started making my own sound. Then I met the playwright Mac Wellman and started studying with him even though I didn’t plan on it.

All of my interests have developed organically out of making performance, where there’s no reason to be a strict choreographer or a dramatist. It doesn’t make sense to draw distinctions between the various things you can have happen in a room, which includes installation.

For instance, this show will have a book that the audience is given at the end to take home. There’s continuity between media, but the way I allow myself to compose is choreographic in all instances. The judgment that tells me where to go and what to keep comes from years of making dance before I started playing with anything else. I have been hovering down a long path.

When I was at Brooklyn College, I needed a job and ended up teaching English composition. I liked teaching English opposed to showing up as “the artist.” When you travel and teach as a visiting artist, you’re presenting yourself in a generous way, but with weird undertones that encourage ego and overexposure.

I wanted to draw back from that so I taught English. I decided to get a PhD so that I can get paid more to do it. I always wanted to pursue doctoral studies; I just didn’t know in which discipline — it’s both an old impulse and accidental.

"The Collector" (2013),  from an idiosyncratic card deck representing different temperaments through varieties of work. All images are drawn by Sara Smith, digitally colored by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, and then made into 35 mm slides. Images will be projected as part of Another Tree Dance.
“The Collector” (2013), from an idiosyncratic card deck representing different temperaments through varieties of work. All images are drawn by Sara Smith, digitally colored by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, and then made into 35 mm slides. Images will be projected as part of Another Tree Dance. (courtesy the artists)

CH: You describe “Another Tree Dance” as being a “generalized occult” in relation to your dissertation on Ralph Waldo Emerson. What draws you to Emerson?

KKS: In “Nature” (1836), Emerson writes:

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.

The realization that he speaks of is a form of kinship. When I say a “generalized occult” it is because there is no particular in this kinship. In “Another Tree Dance,” I make broad references to tarot cards, but it’s not specifically coming out of a tarot practice. Instead, I am licensing the technique of sounding the meaning of something.

I had a homing instinct when I first started my PhD process at the Graduate Center at CUNY. I was interested in finding a secret genealogy to the kind of work I was making, as well as the work of my friends in theater and playwriting.

At the Graduate Center, I took “American Aesthetics,” a seminar taught by Joan Richardson, who is my dissertation advisor. In the seminar, she goes through a lineage that starts with Jonathan Edwards and goes as contemporary as Susan Howe. One of the major stops on that path is Emerson. I remember reading his essay, “Circles” (1841), and feeling a kinship of thought with his description of life as always being in process, and truth as being provisional. But it was Joan who introduced me to him. Over the years, as I continued studying American Literature, his sentences kept recurring to me as little attractors. They eventually become labels for a certain type of idea; I started to accrete significance around these lines.

Originally, my dissertation was on process and experiment, and I was trying to track it as part of this American Literature lineage. I started writing the Emerson chapter first because it felt like groundwork for all the other figures — Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry James. The chapter kept expanding and I found new corners of the Emerson scholarship that were off the original prospectus. I ended up ditching the rest of the figures and sticking with him.

"The Sleep Side" (2013) (click to enlarge)
“The Sleep Side” (2013) (click to enlarge)

CH: In your script for “Another Tree Dance” there are ten figures, or “emblems,” as you call them: The Topiarist, The Cartographer, The Projectionist, and The Sonagrapher, to name a few. These “emblems” read like abstract portraits or milestones in one’s life. How do they function, or structure the piece?

KKS: The emblems came out of the first residency that Sara and I did in California. She asked me a lot of questions and talked me through my dissertation. We decoupled the commitments and major images that animated the whole region of thought from an academic argument. The emblems remove the performance from the burden of scholarship because it has to function for people who are not necessarily part of that conversation. In the performance we do a slideshow of some sentences from Emerson’s essay “Experience” (1844), but we made a rule to never mention Emerson directly.

I also think of the emblems astrologically — as ruling influences reemerging every time I do something new. I do a lot of the same thing in different contexts; it’s part of my moving from one discipline to the next, continuing the same project as a beginner.

CH: During our studio visit, I watched you and Sara interact with each other. Karinne, you seemed to be performing for Sara, while she reacted. You describe “Another Tree Dance” as a solo performance made in conversation with interdisciplinary artist and librarian Sara Smith. Can you talk a little bit about your collaborative process?

Sara Smith: Karinne and I have been working together for 20 years, in which time I’ve been watching what she has been doing. She is an associative thinker and maker. Part of my role is to help her associate all of the various things she had been involved with in the past.

KKS: The piece is about a return and an effort to make less secret the sense of continuity between my doctoral and performance work, which originated in dance. I asked myself: “How do I make this a feasible project since I’m not really a “solo” artist?” And then I thought: “I need Sara to make this with me.” However, it’s a very private project, and it’s my project; I have to complete it. “Another Tree Dance” comes out of my own solitude, which is why it’s a conversation and not a co-creation. When questions about what we’re making arise, we find our answers in either Emerson, or the natural history of my own work.

SS: My role in the conversation is to ask Karinne questions. We are involved in similar interests and materials, but in different ways. I am bringing all the experience of Karinne to bear on the task. Instead of me saying, “I think you should do this now,” I would ask: “Does this feel like it’s within the constellation of things you’re working on?”

KKS: I also think Sara has this role because she’s outside of it. She’s not authoring or performing in it; she’s not trying to drive it from her intuition. But since we know each other so well — Sara has known me since I became a modern dancer — she can see what it is I need to go after and help steer it.

CH: Your work feels very fluid and rids the notion of “genre” which at times can be confining and rigid. It seems like academia needs more interdisciplinary thinkers as a way of thinking outside the limits of the institution.

KKS: I think all of the heroes of academia — Benjamin, Nietzsche, or Emerson — write with this frame of mind. When I was 18, an important mentor in my life pointed me to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I read that book for five years, and not even all of it, just a couple of chapters over and over again, which is how I learned to choreograph.

CH: “Hovering” is a word you used to talk about your path, and a verb that comes up frequently in your script for “Another Tree Dance.” I associate hovering with a form of navigation, a slow way of exploring a new place. Being close to the ground, without ever touching it …

KKS: That word relates to my interest in fiction and the role it plays in my creative work. Fiction is a form of coming together to experience things. These things can be superimposed on a day, or in the case of a performance, a room. I like to describe it as putting some of your being into the picture. What are these shared abstractions? How do they relate to the feeling of thinking? William James writes about how thought is felt. A lot of cognitive science that I have drawn from my own work argues through the fact of embodiment as the context of our thought.

Hovering allows me to register the experience of thinking through musical circuits, like little stories, or room tones, or more specifically about moving from room to room, pool to pool, and not moving through a plot. This is also another way to describe how the emblems generate the structure of the performance.

I remember reading in Moby-Dick that there’s a set of rivers within the ocean. The wind and air have the same quality. These channels are not articulated from the larger body of water or air, but serve as pathways useful to sailors and meteorologists. Part of hovering tries to sense these thought channels; I can feel myself moving from one point to another, even though these channels have yet to be mapped. I am interested in arriving at the map.

The value of dimness before the pattern emerges is something I cull from Emerson. For a new pattern to emerge you have to persist in a place that is not legible and not necessarily sweet. I appreciate philosophers who remind me of this process. Emerson continually tries to take away your grounding, reminding you to be humble. You cannot get where you want to go except by surprise and the best to do it is to persist. You have to let go of your ideas of what work is in order to figure out what it is. This is always a recurring problem and recurring pleasure.

"The Sonographer" (2013)
“The Sonographer” (2013)

CH: The idea of recurrence and the rivers within the ocean in Moby-Dick reminds me of this line in “Experience”: “Life itself is a bubble and a skepticism, and a sleep within a sleep.” This also comes up in your script where you write:

As if a room could be superimposed on another room, on this room even. And the tone of the room shall be delicate and queer, as it ever was. The event shall be characterized by its disappearance, a hovering after a hovering, before the canopy relaxes and the hovering is over.

 You are going inside and then inside again, a sort of fractal investigation.

KKS: The interior within an interior is a place I’ve been scripting for a very long time and it’s always a place that gives way to a new place. However, it’s not like tunneling to the center of the earth. In Mac Wellman’s Antigone, which he wrote for Big Dance Theater, Antigone’s plight of being buried alive is subverted when she slips out a hole into bottom of the world. She comes to this new place, which is actually the point of a compass. This part has always stuck in my mind. What is the exit from the interior? Fiction allows me to make connections and not have to worry about the physics of it.

SS: So you hit a wall, but in a fictional world there are possibilities in the wall. Where does this lead?

CH: It also reminds me of a specific hand gesture you were practicing in the studio. It looked like you were following an imaginary rope within an enclosed space — it felt both claustrophobic and open. That image connected to this other line in your script: “I enter the room with a heap of miscellany and begin to assemble it into new arrangements. This tiny work in the face of the news and the violence it is a kind of security.”

This goes back to the room within a room, the sleep within a sleep, or to refer to another one of Emerson’s lines: “Dream delivers us to dream.”

KKS: Violence within and violence without — part of this will be in the book the audience will receive at the end of the show, which will be called My Ralph Waldo Emerson like Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, but with less of an explication. I am interested in the idea of finding security in transition — if what’s universal is process and truth, then your security is in committing to process.

It took me a while to realize that this is also connected to Emerson’s statement in “Experience” about life being “a flitting state, a tent for the night.” He then goes into these biblical spaces: “ … and do thou, sick or well, finish that stint. Thou art sick, but shalt not be worse, and the universe, which holds thee dear, shall be the better.”

In this case, Emerson is referring to sickness and death, but in general, loss characterizes all experience in his essay, and the idea of the universe holding you dear as it allows you to die is for me the same notion as committing to process.

I wrote those lines on the day of the Boston marathon bombings. I have this baby boy, and I thought to myself, “What do you do? Do you guard yourself and hope you’re never exposed to violence?” We live in this privileged world where we might not be exposed to violence, especially compared to most people, but we have to learn to move through the world without making ourselves a gated community. The idea of violence is very tiny in this piece, but I’m planning to tease that out after my performance.

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