Art museums and performing artists have a complicated relationship. Though to some they may seem like a natural pairing, or at least a reasonable one, there’s an inherent tension: museums were built around the preservation and display of static objects, while the performing arts move. Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) have been struggling for half a century to figure out how to collect and exhibit “time-based art,” which often ends up meaning performance in the context of visual art rather than in the context of dance or theater.
But if modern art museums propose to be temples of painting, sculpture, architecture, and film, why not dance and theater? Where will the work of those pioneers and practitioners be preserved?
In the last few years, art institutions have begun to devote themselves to this question more earnestly than ever before. Performance has become more of a regular part of museum programming, especially at MoMA, which in 2008 appended the words “and Performance Art” to the title of the Department of Media and the following year launched an ongoing performance program series. That series included a three-week dance program last fall called Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures. One of the events, “20 Dancers for the XX Century,” brought in performers to “perform, recall, appropriate, and transmit acclaimed yet forgotten solo works of the last century that were originally conceived or performed by some of the most significant modernist and postmodernist dancers, choreographers, and performance artists.” Adam Weinert was one of those performers, bringing to life the work of pioneering modern dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn.
Last Friday, however, Weinert launched a sort of addendum to his performance — or perhaps one could consider it the second act. Called “The Reaccession of Ted Shawn,” the project is an augmented reality app for smartphones and tablets that, when the device is pointed at certain intersections and wall texts within MoMA, plays videos of Weinert’s performances of Shawn’s work, as well as archival footage of Shawn himself performing (the floor plan is rigged as well). The intervention is unobtrusive and unsanctioned by the museum.
As Weiner explains on the project’s website, the impetus for the app was the museum’s fraught history with dance, and Shawn specifically:
Shawn made a gift of his works to MoMA in the 1940’s, but the museum later gave away these materials to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Weinert contends that if he had been considered an “Artist” they would not have been able to do so. MoMA’s own policies are such that they do not sell or give away works by living artists and Shawn was living at the time of his deaccession. … By installing the re-performances of Ted Shawn’s choreography inside the museum walls, Weinert strives to perform an act of “Reaccession”.
When I heard about the project, I was totally fascinated, both by the ingenuity of Weinert’s rebellion and the larger context in which it fits. I emailed him to learn more.
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Jillian Steinhauer: For those who don’t know him (myself included), can you tell us a bit about Ted Shawn?
Adam Weinert: Ted Shawn was a leading force of early American modern dance. In 1915, he co-founded the Denishawn School, arguably the first school for modern dance, whose notable pupils include Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. He is also the founder of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts and the well-known all-male modern dance company Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. Choreographically, Shawn crafted a movement vocabulary that connected with agrarian and other labor practices. He did this in part because, at that time, most Americans held laboring jobs, and it was them who he wished to celebrate and with whom he sought an audience. The memoirs of Barton Mumaw, Shawn’s principal dancer and lover for many years, reveals that Shawn incorporated farm work and labor into his creative process and physical training practice.
JS: Can you tell me a little about your relationship to his work and your process of recreating Shawn’s dances at Jacob’s Pillow?
AW: In the spring of 2013 I was commissioned to re-perform some early solo work by Ted Shawn at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the event “20 Dancers for the XX Century,” curated by Boris Charmatz. The exhibit proposed that the main musum space for dance could be the human body, and as such, I endeavored to become a living archive of the work of Ted Shawn. Unlike many of the other artists represented in the exhibit, Ted Shawn has no company in existence today, so the process of revival was very different. I spent my research fellowship at Jacob’s Pillow dancing in the studios they built, reconstructing the movement from books, photographs, videom and rumor. It felt at times as if I were dancing with ghosts. Since a relationship to land, labor, and body is so crucial to that body of work, I endeavored to recreate Shawn’s physical practice as authentically as possible by reconstructing Shawn’s technique class, engaging with farm work, and even his daily practice of nude sunbathing. The works performed included “Four Solos Based on American Folk Music,” first choreographed in 1931, and “Pierrot in the Dead City” from 1932.
JS: What works of his did Shawn gift to MoMA in the 1940s? When did the museum deaccession them?
AW: It is difficult to find exact records of what was given and when, but MoMA in the 1930s and 1940s was a very progressive institution. In that time, the museum created new departments devoted to architecture and design, film and video, and photography, in addition to painting and sculpture, drawings, prints and illustrated books. With all of the expansions taking place, I think it seemed very plausible at the time that the museum would start collecting performance works as well, leading Shawn to make the gift of his work, repertory, and ephemera. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts opened its doors in 1965, and that’s where his collection currently resides.
JS: How did you come up with the idea of using an app to initiate the reaccession? Can you explain a bit more about how the app actually functions?
AW: The idea to install my re-performances of the Ted Shawn solos in augmented reality at the museum came after the initial “live” performances. It seemed to me that everyone in the audience was watching me through their smartphones anyway, as they were photographing, tweeting, or texting about the shows. It’s already the interface of choice, so why not engage with that? Just as Ted Shawn used the movement of labor to communicate with everyday Americans in the 1930s, I wanted to find a way to engage a contemporary audience.
The app works using image-recognition technology. So basically, participants can see my re-performances, as well as archival footage of Ted Shawn’s solos, by looking through the viewfinder on their phones at the galleries where I performed. The MoMA floor plan map is also rigged, so you can take that home with you or look at it online to the same effect. There are directions on the project’s website.
JS: I’m curious about the tension of you being invited to perform these works at MoMA but still feeling like that wasn’t enough on the museum’s part, prompting you to initiate this reaccession project. Any thoughts on this?
AW: In my experiences performing at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Museum, among others, I bore witness to the extreme differences and complications that arise in presenting dance works in museum spaces. The choreographer cedes control over time, perspective, attention, and temperature in this context, and the work that results is often radically different. Furthermore, every performance I’ve been involved with in a museum has resulted in injury. The apparatus that supports performance work, long taken for granted in theatrical settings, becomes a site of conflict in this new arena. Transient, performative gestures are part of a body of artistic practice that is separate from the conventional display of discrete objects in art institutions, so it may come as no surprise that these tensions arise.
JS: From what I understand, the dance community has a tenuous relationship with modern art institutions like MoMA over their approach to dance and performing arts. You get at this in your press release when you write, “Weinert contends that if [Shawn] had been considered an ‘Artist’ they would not have been able to [deaccession his gift].” How do you think modern art museums — or even MoMA specifically — should embrace dance, and how does that compare with what you see happening now?
AW: I think that the museum is taking on performance in exciting and thoughtful ways, but that there are learning curves on both sides of the equation. How can the museum frame performance works appropriately? How to present them? How to preserve them? With “The Reaccession of Ted Shawn,” I wanted to initiate a conversation and perhaps propose an alternative way to present performance works in museum spaces.