Wednesday 10/15

SHOP TALK: Archiving Performance: Research through Dance with Jennifer Monson

by Travis Chamberlain, Associate Curator of Performance and Manager of Public Programs, and Jennifer Monson, tagged with Jennifer Monson, Travis Chamberlain, Tara Hart, Archives, Digital Archive, R&D Season, Shop Talk-Archiving Performance, Shop Talk
Cover Image:

Jennifer Monson, Sky Room Concert with Jeff Kolar and Jennifer Monson, 2013. Rehearsal image. Performance: New Museum, New York. Photo: Jessica Wallen, Fall 2013 R&D Season Fellow

Since 2000, dancer and choreographer Jennifer Monson has produced a number of projects that have utilized dance to investigate cultural understandings of nature. Monson’s “Live Dancing Archive” (“LDA”; 2011–ongoing), which was included as part of “Performance Archiving Performance” at the New Museum last fall, proposes that dance is an embodied, research-generated practice, and that dance systems themselves are archival bodies. She organizes “LDA” and other dance projects out of the nonprofit organization Monson operates under an organization called Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance (iLAND), which is committed to supporting environmental sustainability through cross-disciplinary research between dancers, artists, environmentalists, scientists, urban designers, et al. By bringing her choreographic research into outdoor settings and creating a framework for viewing it through workshops, panel discussions, and community involvement, Monson has found ways to engage audiences in a heightened physical and sensory experience of the organic phenomena and systems that surround us.

“LDA” is comprised of three main components that occur in multiple iterations: an ongoing online archive, a series of dances, and a video installation. From October 15 to 18, 2014, Monson will remount “LDA” at New York Live Arts as a series of performances, workshops, and public conversations. The curator of “PAP,” Travis Chamberlain, Associate Curator of Performance and Manager of Public Programs at the New Museum, will be in conversation with Monson on Thursday, October 16, as part of this programming. In advance of their public conversation, Chamberlain and Monson discuss the multiple archiving systems employed by “LDA.” Considering the body’s uniquely expressive potential as a repository of environmental experiences, they delve into the relationship between digital archives as highly structured organizing systems that are dependent on software, and the largely indeterminate systems found in nature. This conversation unfolded in consultation with Tara Hart, the Museum’s Digital Archivist from 2011 to 2013, as part of the Six Degrees series “Shop Talk: Archiving Performance,” which considers archival procedures for documenting performance at the Museum.

Travis Chamberlain: “Live Dancing Archive” developed out of your interest in the dynamic relationships between living organisms in specific ecosystems and the desire to respond to these specific systems through the form of dance. The piece specifically comes out of the research that you did in an earlier work titled BIRD BRAIN (2000–06), which you’ve described as a “multi-year navigational dance touring project that follows the migratory pathways of birds and gray whales on their journeys across the north and south hemispheres.” For this project you did three tours across North America: The first looked at the movements of gray whales along the West Coast, the second followed ospreys along the East Coast, and the third tracked geese and ducks at locations mid-continent. At various sites along the migratory pathways of these animals, you and your team of researchers improvised in the open air, responding to the environment through dance. Records of this research produced over fifty hours of video captured by Robin Vachal, photo documentation of the events, dancers’ journals, your creative notes and plans for workshops and performances, as well as programs, schedules, and other ephemera generated by partners. This content was subsequently processed for the first phase of the ongoing online component of “LDA.” Launched in 2011, continues to function as a repository for your ongoing research exploring the relationship of place to self as well as the ideological constructions of environment and embodied identities.

Unlike an ecosystem found in nature, the online component of “LDA” is a mechanical system that relies on software as the dominant form of organization. You chose to use the software CollectiveAccess, an open-source content management software that allows users to catalog and manage records for objects, events, and people, and offers the ability to create important contextual relationships between entities. Incidentally, you initially reviewed the New Museum’s Digital Archive, which inspired your decision to utilize the same software. Considering your focus on dance that investigates movement of animals within nature, what initially drew you to using such technology (archiving software) to organize and present some of your research? And do you feel that the online archival portion of “LDA” appropriately retains a link to the body and to other less-obviously determinate systems found in the natural world?

Jennifer Monson: The process of creating the online archive made me have to think about organizing systems and taxonomies of knowledge, not only within that archive but also in my approach to the choreography. The quality of information in the body is much harder for me to categorize than, say, the photographs and videos, and even that was incredibly challenging to designate groupings for: Medium-specific classifications were easiest to choose (objects are grouped as moving images, still images, or text), but I also decided to tag items based on context and participants (people, places, and events) and by terms (varying from animal to beach grass to hospitality).

The way the project unfolded, with the three different modes developing simultaneously, meant the elements fed back and forth in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated before embarking on the process. Most systems of delivery are mechanical—for example literature, music, cinema—but that doesn’t preclude them from getting at the poetics of knowledge and meaning. Our experience of nature is predominately mediated at this particular moment in time, so, in some ways, it makes sense to have a system for sharing environmental and choreographic knowledge that is organized through software. The digital archive allows for various media to be displayed side-by-side so that, for example, a viewer can see photos, videos, journal entries, and press releases associated with any given event. Much like the New Museum’s Digital Archive, which organizes its records around occurrences such as events or exhibitions, the “LDA” online archive is organized around events as well.

Jennifer Monson, “Live Dancing Archive,” 2012–ongoing. “Performance Archiving Performance,” 2012–13. Installation view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Jessica Wallen, Fall 2013 R&D Season Fellow

TC: “LDA” developed further to include two more components that premiered at the Kitchen in 2013: a video installation by Vachal and a solo dance, where you directly utilized the online archive as material to create a new dance for the stage. Offering your body as an archive, the solo embodies your theoretical approach, one where queer politics and an understanding of the environment are inextricably linked. Connections are established between your work in the ’90s, when an involvement in queer activism influenced your choreography, and the subsequent strategies developed after BIRD BRAIN for investigating phenomena such as animal migrations, geological formations, and watersheds. These connections are possible, as you’ve said, because a queer understanding of bodies is rooted in the idea that they are both natural and constructed, not unlike the landscapes that you now engage with through your current research practice. Why was it important to express “LDA” through these different formats?

JM: This online archive is a very different kind of archive than the one contained within the dance or video documentation of the dance and its production. Each component of the larger “LDA” archive provides a very different kind of documentation, and all are in dialogue with each other in compelling ways that get at the experience of these projects, which use dance as a means of researching environmental systems.

TC: In 2013, the Bessie Committee, the group that chooses the NYC Dance and Performance Award recipients yearly, nominated you in the category of Performer for the solo component of “LDA” that premiered at the Kitchen. In an open letter to the committee, published last year in Movement Research Performance Journal #43, you decline your nomination for the award as a way of addressing the definition of “Performer” and your role as a dancer within “LDA.” You stress that you are not the sole performer in a performance like the one at the Kitchen, but rather that such a performance is an archive of a particular body of research undertaken by many dancers, and that, for the solo dance pieces, you use your body as one way to present this archive’s contents. You state:

I am proposing that dance has the capacity to function as an archival container of the experiences of a range of phenomena that can only be collected through the perceptual research inherent in the practices I have developed. That is why it can only be danced in my body. It is not something that I “perform”—it is the way in which (specific) places, experiences, and states live in my dancing. 1

Could you speak about how you conceive of and experience your body, or dance, as an archive of other performers’ dance and animals’ movements in nature?

JM: After the BIRD BRAIN project I continued to make work that was responsive to environmental phenomena such as the iMAP (Interdisciplinary Mobile Architecture and Performance)/Ridgewood Reservoir Project (2007), The Mahomet Aquifer Project (2009), and The SIP (Sustained Immersive Process)/Watershed (2010); I was finding that there was a kind of information in my body that was hard to transmit to other dancers. It wasn’t as much technical dance knowledge as what I began to think of as a kind of ecological information that had to do with the ways in which the landscapes, phenomena, and places I had previously danced through persisted in my dancing. This question of what that knowledge was exactly, how to research it, and how to define it, was what compelled me to develop “LDA.”

The BIRD BRAIN project was much larger than any performance I had ever done. The challenge of archiving the work fully demanded I engage multiple formats. The public workshops, panels, informal discussions, and experiences of scientific, aesthetic, and community importance layered in my body in ways that are inherently and structurally different from the digital archive and the video. This has to do with improvisation and the liveliness of interacting with the audience during the performance. New relational systems arrive out of the different experiences that are brought into the performance space. I think the concept of “LDA” allows audiences to bring their own experience via their own embodied archives into the space. This is incredible to sense as a performer—that as I conjure and recall my own experiences, I am met with a new field of experience that is coming from the audience and this feels particular to environmental understanding. It is reminiscent of how scientists are defining novel ecosystems, these systems being both designed by scientists themselves and observed as existing ecosystems adapt to climate change.

TC: Can you give an example of how these new relational systems and colliding fields of experience between you and the audience manifest in your performance?

JM: The bulk of the material for “LDA” comes from the Osprey Migration tour of the BIRD BRAIN project. Midway through this eight-week tour that started in Wells, Maine, in 2002, we spent several days on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina developing our creative research, reflecting on and developing the dance components without the pressure of performance or workshops with the public. There were four dances created in relation to each other by Javier Cardona, Alejandra Martorell, Morgan Thorson, and myself. The initial solo was danced by me for three minutes, then Javier used his experience of my dance as a map to create his improvised dance. Morgan followed using the experiences of both my dance and Javier’s as a map for her’s, and, lastly, Alejandra followed using all three dances as a map for movement.

Studying Vachal’s videos of these dances has given me a way to see the “map” inside of everyone’s dance and understand the different ways each person was using that choreographic concept to create the landscape of the beach as we experienced it through each other’s dancing. In the new version of “LDA” at New York Live Arts this week, Niall Jones, Tatyana Tenenbaum, and I will be dancing four of the dance maps in an overlapping series. Over time the space accumulates the maps of the different places, and movement in the dance recreates the environment of that day at the beach at Ocracoke. As we perform the dances, layers of kinetic memory come into play of not only watching the video but of also watching each other learn the dance, watching me in the original solo at the Kitchen, and, in my case, recalling the distant memory of watching the orginal dances back in 2002 at Ocracoke. We are also recalling experiences of dancing out at Rockaway Beach this summer during our creative process. Our dancing is shaped by the relationship between the form of the dance, the layers of memory, and the perception of the space that the audience brings to the experience of witnessing the dancing. Sometimes completely new environments are constituted in my body and imagination as I dance the material.

During performances, I think this kind of transmission of environmental space is enhanced by the quality of the music that composer Jeff Kolar has created. Generated live through field experiments in AM/FM, shortwave, citizens’ band, and unlicensed radio spectrums, Kolar’s musical scores for each presentation of “LDA” are necessarily site-specific and respond directly to external weather phenomena, wireless technology systems, and human activity. In line with this way of composing sound, the dancing never feels like a direct translation of another person’s dance or an animal’s movement, rather, it’s more about the spatial and temporal conditions that bring that movement into being. “LDA,” through the combination of sound, light, and dance, is restoring a set of relationships that draws on history and the presence of the audience simultaneously.

TC: Related to your comments about the information that audiences transmit to you during a performance and how that affects your dancing of the archive, it is interesting to consider the pamphlet of Scores for archiving indeterminate systems (2013), which you developed as part of your presentation of “LDA” at the New Museum. Organized according to conceptual frameworks you initially developed in BIRD BRAIN: Osprey Migration, this pamphlet encourages its readers to activate the scores contained within it in order to create their own research through the movement and interaction of bodies in a natural setting. The collection of scores emphasizes the potential of bodies to document (and eventually archive) other ecosystems you have not worked with and that, with awareness, there could be a live dancing archive in all of us. Does the pamphlet constitute another method of archiving your research in and through the bodies of others, and how might you capture this research for others to encounter within “LDA”? In the introduction you invited others to develop their own scores and email them to you—could this develop into another element of the project?

JM: Yes, there is something about the entire experience of working on an archive that is also about what is missing from the collection of materials. I guess all archives point to what isn’t there, or what you wish were there, or how you construct an idea of what occurred through the records you can provide.

The pamphlets do that with an eye to the future. I will likely never know how people engage with the scores as I will not be there or have documentation, but, in my imagination, I envision that new scores are being created, that new embodied archives are being constructed and shared, and that this opens up a potentiality beyond what I can know. I think this is an important point for me—to focus on the potentiality versus the loss of what has gone missing—as it is a counterbalance to the sadness I have for the permanent changes and losses that have happened to the ecosystems I grew up with.

Relatedly, when you look back at the New Museum’s amazing archive of panels and performances, many of which you experienced firsthand, what do you wish were there? What would you have done differently with the documentation?

TC: Like you I feel a sadness for the things that are lost—or, rather, for the things that never were but could have been.

The performances that I organized at the Museum before 2012 were recorded on a fairly low-resolution camera with no operator—as a result, the shot was static and had to be pulled back all the way in order to take in the whole room. You can see the performers’ entire bodies, but very little of their facial expressions or other subtle details in dress and movement. Aside from resource constraints, which limited the range of documentation that we could produce, we did this because it was convention: In the world of theater (which is my background), when you submitted work samples to grant committees or presenters for consideration, you were asked to supply video documentation like I have just described, with no manipulations indicative of video as a medium. The argument at the time was that a static full-stage single-shot recording was somehow more direct and honest as a document than a recording with zooms, close-ups, multiple angles, etc. According to this logic, video documentation that uses camera operators and edits adds a veneer of cinematic stylization that cannot be trusted as an accurate record of live performance.

Fortunately, since no one really wants to endure the torture that is watching a static shot of an evening-length performance, the standards around video documentation of live performance seems to be shifting. While the use of variable frames and multiple angles in performance documentation risks drawing indiscriminately on the influence of cinema, videos utilizing such techniques are generally more interesting to watch than having to sit through ninety minutes of the same unwavering shot.Documentation that utilizes multiple angles, edits, and other cinematic strategies allows aspects of the performance, beyond the fundamentals of its staging, to become legible. Attendant with the ubiquity of inexpensive digital video in recent years has come a general understanding that, while any camera angle is inherently limiting, we shouldn’t deny the elements of the medium and should attempt to produce something that, in its framing and editing, does a half-decent job of suggesting (I won’t say “capturing”) the energies of a performance. Of course, this means hiring camera operators and an editor and adds a whole new layer of production and postproduction to the already complex task of producing performance.

Jennifer Monson, Sky Room Concert with Jeff Kolar and Jennifer Monson, 2013. Rehearsal image. Performance at New Museum. Photo: Jessica Wallen, Fall 2013 R&D Season Fellow

In considering how to create documentation that recognizes both the translation between mediums and itself as authored interpretation, your Sky Room Concert with Jeff Kolar and Jennifer Monson with Kolar at the Museum comes to mind. This event, performed in conjunction with “Performance Archiving Performance,” took place on the evening of October 24, 2013, at 7 p.m. The Sky Room is a room on the seventh floor of the Museum with ceiling-to-floor windows that allow a largely unimpeded skyline view. For this performance, you had the lights turned off so the only illumination was provided by the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the moon, the stars, the lights from the planes flying overhead, and a glowing red EXIT sign (that we couldn’t legally turn off and somehow added to the effect). When audience members entered, they were guided one by one through the near-total darkness and were invited to lie on the floor. After some time, you and another dancer, Kyli Kleven, who lay among the audience, slowly sat up. Jennifer, you moved so slowly at first that it was hard to know if anything was happening at all. Some audience members sat up as well, so it was difficult for a moment to distinguish you (the dancers) from them (the audience). I imagined movement where there may have been none. Eventually my senses adjusted to observe subtle environmental details: the room, the sound of the elevators in the building going up and down, the modulations of light in the skyline, the sounds of cars in the streets.… My eyes adjusted to the darkness too, and, as you began to move around the room, details of your body became dimensional, even colorful.

Of course, it would have been impossible to produce a legible video document of this, but we did set up a camera to record nonetheless. What can be seen on the tape, barely, are tiny dots of light in the skyline, which occasionally disappear because your body, without even a silhouette to indicate form, presumably moves somewhere between the lights in the distance and the camera. We also have some photos of you preparing for this performance earlier in the day when the sun was still out, and they are beautiful. But the most legible record for me is this subjective recollection via written text. As a form of documentation, I find that the more I focus on trying to convey precise details in this narration, the more my language skews toward the poetic (for better or worse).

Coming, in part, out of the Education Department’s engagement with you and other “PAP” artists is a working set of specialized documentation options that production staff can facilitate at the request of curators and organizers of public programs. The plan is for these documentation options to be shared during preproduction meetings, prompting organizers—potentially in collaboration with artists or guest speakers—to consider and account for the best mode of documentation as part of the conception of the presentation itself. I remember that our decision to record video of Sky Room Concert was last-minute and one that you questioned at the time. I am curious what your feelings are in hindsight on the documentation that exists? Perhaps the video has some value as an anti-document, a record of loss, a testament to presence over representation. For me, it provides a clear example of the limitations of video documentation, and, for that reason, I find it to be an especially prescient and valuable record with regard to its production within “PAP” and the questions about documentation of performance that were, in part, the subject of that project. Looking back, do you regret our decision to create such a document, and is there another way that you would have preferred the event to be recorded?

JM: I appreciate your acknowledgment that video documentation has limitations—especially with regard to improvisatory forms that rely on the audience’s participation to actualize them—but I wonder if there is a way to get documentation from the audience that goes beyond discourse in the form of talking immediately after the performance? Is there a better way to capture the kinesthetic experience of the viewer?

In hindsight I am glad that there is a video document of the performance, but your description of it and of your experience of the performance would probably give me more pleasure and information than watching it. Although, now I want to view the video, I want to see the city lights of that night, I want to see the dance as a mere shadow of a body moving in front of the lens. That is to say, the photographs and your descriptions do seem to capture the ephemeral nature of the performance in their own way. I still feel that the best documentary form is performance itself, especially when documenting an improvisatory performance work, because it is responsive to changing contexts and has a resilience that is important to think about in this moment.

Jennifer Monson, Sky Room Concert with Jeff Kolar and Jennifer Monson, 2013. Video, color, sound, 52:03 min. Performance: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum


Developed from the creative research process Monson employed in BIRD BRAIN: Osprey Migration (2000–06), her Scores for archiving indeterminate systems offers maps to engage with the movement of our own bodies, senses, and perceptions in different environments. She explains: “Some of the scores are notes from warm-ups and are about the preparation of the body; some are regular practices designed to research orientation and navigation through our senses and perceptual shifts.”

Encouraging others to participate in expanding the potentiality of individual bodies to document and archive ecosystems, in this pamphlet of scores, the artist asks users to create their own scores and then submit copies to her: “The extra room on these pages is for you to write in your own scores. Participate in the archive for this project by sending copies of your scores to” The pamphlet is available for viewing here.

On July 28, 2013, Monson sent a letter to the Bessie Committee, the group that chooses NYC Dance and Performance Awards yearly, requesting removal of her nomination from the award category of Performer. She explained that her dancing in “LDA” “is not something that I ‘perform’—it is the way in which those places, experiences, and states (of specific ecosystems) live in my dancing,” in her body as “an archival container” of experiences. Her argument was that the “performing” element of her dancing cannot be judged separately for two additional reasons: It is but one component of the entire “environment” she creates with sound, light, and movement, and, as an improviser, she doesn’t “perform” but rather creates a work as she dances. Read Monson’s letter here.

Launched in 2011, the online archive for “LDA” is a repository of videos, still images, texts, and other ephemera that documents the continuation of Monson’s choreographic research with others. Following are a few select highlights:

This diagram by Monson, drawn in 2000, is a schematic visualization of various components of the BIRD BRAIN project and the four migrations.

This video documents the four solo performances by Monson and the three dancers, Javier Cardona, Alejandra Martorell, and Morgan Thorson, on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, which took place as part of the creative research process for BIRD BRAIN project and formed the basis for their research in “LDA.” These four dances were created in relation to each other, with the previous dancers’ dances serving as a “map” for what follows.

Thorson, a dancer in BIRD BRAIN, gives an account of her experience of observing and dancing at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on September 7, 2002.

1. Jennifer Monson, “News: Letter to the Bessies Committee,” Movement Research Performance Journal 43 (Fall 2013): 3.

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