Karen Christopher: The duet residencies

In the following piece, performance-maker Karen Christopher reflects on what makes an ideal artist’s residency, and also reflects on a particular instance of a residency she undertook last year at the University of Roehampton in London. The ‘artist’s residency’ is so much a part of the ecology of art-making, but it is relatively rare to talk about its form. Rather, we see the results of the residency, the ‘work’. For artists like Christopher, however, the distinction between process and output is particularly difficult to locate. In some sense, the process is the ‘work’ so much that an accounting of the work needs also to be an accounting of the making of the work. As we continue to refine what it means to conduct practice-based research, it becomes increasingly important to think through how we create these accounts.

Christopher describes her version of the ideal residency thus:

Ideally a residency takes place in a dedicated spot, a spot where those involved can set up an atmosphere dedicated to the work we hope to do. It is a container for what might come. We don’t yet know what shape that will take so it helps if it is somewhat expansive. It needs to be without distraction and yet somehow open to contamination. It needs to be stimulating without being overwhelming. It needs to be quiet enough for listening but with something to listen for.

The residency places us in a context offset from our usual habit. This newness is engineered to unlock routine and find possibilities in a shape becoming ours while we attempt to inhabit it. It is a place to be a tourist and see with unaccustomed eyes. It is a brand new outfit that requires us to reconsider our shape. It is a break and a hollow place, it is a cradle and a bridge, it is a state of mind and a set of measurements.

Both with the performance company Goat Island, and now as the company Haranczak/Navarre, Christopher’s work has for many years been concerned with all the contingencies of space, time and event that condition her response to the material of performance. In this way, her work might be said to be foremost about possibility – what makes something possible, how can possibility be staged, and how can impossibility be confronted? The extended reflections below, which appear something like a rehearsal diary, also document small instances of chance and mistake which affect the configuration of the possible in the room. The form of the residency is particularly geared towards the possible: in this instance, the possibility of collaboration and the possibility of continuation. Describing a moment of misunderstanding with collaborator Lucy Cash, Christopher notes how they absorb the misunderstanding into the work. Students observing this moment are surprised by how fluently Christopher and Cash are able to make this transformation. The technique of tuning to possibility comes from years of practice. One of the values of the document below is a glimpse into how this technique is developed.

– Johanna Linsley

The duet residencies

Karen Christopher

My performance company is called Haranczak/Navarre; currently we are in the process of producing a series of duets. The residencies discussed below were part of Haranczak/Navarre’s duet series and functioned as a testing process for a decision regarding possible duet partners; a sounding out of the alchemy between us at this point in time. As if we were testing the air and the pressure and the air pressure.

Each project in Haranczak/Navarre’s ongoing duet series is jointly made, directed and performed by me and another artist. Each duet functions as research into new methods of collaboration without a single director. Duet partners here share in defining the working process, the schedule and overall timeframe, and methods for generating material. We are seeking to avoid hierarchies in decision-making, and we are using duets as a direct form of collaboration with no majority rule and no mitigation between points of view.

Chris Goode and Karen Christopher, photo CJ Mitchell

Chris Goode and Karen Christopher, photo CJ Mitchell

Collaboration invites the inclusion of multiple voices, and exercises the ability to involve divergent viewpoints. I am using collaborative methods in support of practicing restraint, tolerance and flexibility in responding to difference. In collaborative processes we are looking for multiple answers to the questions we pose. We are not hoping to find just the one answer that we hope fits all circumstances. Part of collaborating is allowing influences at play in the world around us to affect the direction of the work we make. So we amble around for awhile trying and testing where we are in relation to each other, our surroundings, and our current interests and with the material that we bring to the moment.

In five days we are able to turn what might happen into what does actually happen and this sets up the possibility that we might be able to design a working process that tunes in to how we two best work together.

It’s hard to know before you start on any given week how much is going to be possible in that time. Sometimes the work comes faster and sometimes it goes slower or maybe it’s always the same speed but the result is what varies or the perception of the result, or the apparent value of the result. Sometimes the result is elusive. Sometimes the result soaks in over time. So I suppose it depends on what happens next between us and how we process what happened between us on those five days in the studio. In some ways we will be measuring up a former possible future with the one that began to come into focus as we spent time working together.

Week commencing 19 January 2015: Duet Residency with Chris Goode

Because we expected visitors and we thought they might come while we were in the middle of something and we might not want to be disturbed repeatedly and finding it necessary to explain what we were up to and in order to make ourselves feel more hospitable in any case we wrote a message to be read on the door or picked up from a small pile of printouts:

Inside this room two people, Chris Goode and Karen Christopher, are working.
You’re very welcome to come into the room: don’t worry, you won’t interrupt the work that’s going on.

 

Chris Goode and Karen Christopher, photo CJ Mitchell

Chris Goode and Karen Christopher, photo CJ Mitchell

They might be talking, they might be staring into the middle distance—whatever they are doing it is work toward making a performance and this is part of a very early stage in that process. When they started on Monday, there was nothing.

You can make your own decisions about how you want to be in the room with them; only, be kind. If they’re not very responsive to your arrival, don’t be disheartened. They’re concentrating hard but they’re pleased that you’re here.

 

They might actually turn from what they are doing and address you directly but in the event they don’t it isn’t because you aren’t interesting or beautiful or worthy of attention; it is because of the work.

 

Before you enter the room, you might like to take a moment to think about what kind of experience you’re hoping for, and how you will know if it’s happening, and what you might do if it’s not.

 

Thank you for being here.

The visitors at any time were a special event that charged the room with the energy of their presence and with our reaction to being observed (and our feelings to greater and lesser extent of needing to serve). At one point there were 17 visitors, a class, who got up and left because it was the end of class (and they’d received a signal from their tutor that leaving was now possible). This occurred while we were in the middle of doing something. And, fair enough, they weren’t our prisoners; we were showing something precisely because they were there but also it was work for us that we should have been doing anyway. It was our job to do this. And while they were leaving and I was doing the scar belly dance and Chris was reading a list of things to be punished by a night in the box, I was thinking: this is interesting, this is kind of good, it’s a good time to leave—but I didn’t take that thought very far. A few minutes later I walked down the hall and the tutor for that class was somewhere there and I said “you picked a good time to leave” and she said “oh sorry” (thinking I was being sarcastic) but no, I meant it. It seemed that to convince her that I meant it, I had to say why I thought it had been a good time to leave. I heard myself say: Because if the audience leaves during that dance it is as though the dance never stops, it is still continuing even as they wait for the bus or have a chuckle round the corner or check their phones for the next thing. Maybe it doesn’t stay with all of them or even with many of them but the possibility existed that even just for one of them, the dance continued and the continuation of it resonated. And this is precisely why you want to be visited and contaminated by your visitors during a creative process because in communicating with others you make clear some of your own thoughts. Or you have observations that push forward into your consciousness rather than lingering dormant in the back of your mind. And it gave me a way to end a piece that hasn’t begun. This ending might never be used but these flashes create a climate of small opportunity spikes and these build a sense of hope and this makes a confident foundation for trying things. And everything is not always perfect and sometimes I really need to be left alone to work but there is benefit in the tumult that comes with the leakage of other people into the creative atmosphere we are trying to create when we are trying to pull a performance out of thin air.

On the last of the five days with Chris Goode we wrote about the way Friday was different from Monday on this particular week. I wrote:

The room is thicker now with less of a flutter. Not as transfixed by the dead flies and the constant air travel overhead. Let’s not do something about flight safety and house flies or why haven’t we.

 

Calm is here and the quiet of the room is aloud. Loud enough all by itself. The listening is more and less. The space in my head is wider and more directed. We know a bit more what we don’t know about what the work might be.

 

Testing is the only way to know what we are as two. As two we can imagine or try to imagine what might happen or we might be hesitant to think about it because setting something down in brain matter in a linear explainable verbalised way might pave the way for entrenchment or disappointment or unnecessary disagreement—the kind that gets hung up on a technicality. So maybe we didn’t know what to expect or didn’t know what we expected and then what actually happened has cleared that up to some extent.

 

And the people who have stepped into the room on one or more than one occasion during the week have left a residue and we carry what they said and how they breathed in here, we carry that with us when we think about what we are doing or what we have done in this room.

 

So it is thicker. It is thicker with the materials we introduced into the process: the stones and the hands as puppets and as if something were happening (and if we say it is, it is) and if it is something, we do need to figure out what, and we did manage some of that. Our source material had begun to speak to us. The material was speaking directly to our nervous systems: punishment, naming, the mechanism of the inner ear, hero worship and myth-making as a tactic for maintaining sanity, and something about smiles and transcendence.

 

Ten feet tall with the list of things to be punished. And something about where to look and how these people turn their gaze and look or don’t look. We look at them and see or don’t see everything that is there to see and over time more and slower it looks like something else or more like itself but slower and more room for conjecture and puncture. We focus on rules both official and unconsciously imposed: stay where you are because there are rules and everyone makes a rule to live by or looks for one and if you haven’t got one it is mayhem or if you have got one but not the right one it is mayhem or if yours is different from mine it is mayhem.

[and then I went to wikipedia and found the following]

“Mayhem is a criminal offence consisting of the intentional maiming of another person.

 

Under the common law of England and Wales and other common law jurisdictions, it originally consisted of the intentional and wanton removal of a body part that would handicap a person’s ability to defend himself in combat. Under the strict common law definition, initially this required damage to an eye or a limb, while cutting off an ear or a nose was deemed not sufficiently disabling. Later the meaning of the crime expanded to encompass any mutilation, disfigurement, or crippling act done using any instrument.”

Karen Christopher and Chris Goode, photo CJ Mitchell

Karen Christopher and Chris Goode, photo CJ Mitchell

And then I thought about the thin line between using the word and knowing what it means, between using it and questioning that use, between finding out that it means something different than I thought but finding out that everyone who heard me use it had the same misapprehension I did. So then what does the word mean? And this followed by remembering how grateful I am that someone, some many ones, made this language that we use and gave it to us.

 

Week commencing 16 February 2015: Duet Residency with Lucy Cash

On the first day in this five-day studio residency Lucy asked me what it was like to work with the different duet partners I’ve been working with. I resisted answering. It was hard to say without setting up a model for Lucy—people can only be the way they are—I do find I am a different creature with different people, my palate of responses is calibrated to what I perceive in the action between us.

Lucy and I misunderstood each other several times about very fundamental parts of what we were doing. But taking the long view, our focus was on making material, and these moments simply continued to propel us toward what we were aiming at. Like walking robots who are designed to walk via a series of stumbles and tumbles, thus surmounting the robot’s most difficult obstacle—the pitfalls of perambulation—we agree to consider the mental stumble, the thought stutters, part of how we communicate with each other rather than a sign of its impossibility.

Normally we conceived or composed a performance directive and then followed it. As a result of something I said, Lucy produced this sequence in reverse. I performed an action and then she pronounced a directive. I was surprised. Surprised is good. There is potential in surprise.

Lucy Cash in residency with Karen Christopher, photo CJ Mitchell

Lucy Cash in residency with Karen Christopher, photo CJ Mitchell

Everything we mentioned or focused on acted upon us—even the incidental played a part in how we activated the ideas in the room. There was an abandoned water bottle in the room. I removed it only to retrieve it later when I needed a river. The students watching said: “you didn’t worry about the part that didn’t work, you just found another approach, you didn’t stop to dwell on that, you just kept going”. Without stalling from inertia in the face of a failing plan we changed tactics and, drawing from a chain of events set in motion by every single thing that had happened earlier that day, we carried on attempting to pull performance material into the here and now. We hadn’t noticed the switch and now the students were teaching us what we’d done.

How does one keep ones head in the moment? Post-moment is all we seem to have. Moment is a gift to post-moment in the same way that everything I do is a gift to future-Karen and either sets future-Karen up well or not-so-well but is always a present in good faith.

But all is still not yet clear, even if I squint my eyes. And here now I wish to say that it became clear and then cloudy again; the material, a creature which loomed and then slid back into the dark waters. I saw, before its retreat, a possibility of the individual parts coming together to perform as colours do and then falling apart into something less than meaning. The creature not quite formed. Try again tomorrow. And yet contours were visible. An interdependent collection at a range of distances. A toll booth that adds up the proceeds, a voice that continues after the parade has passed. And if we continue working, the contours will stop slipping and eventually we will see through the fog to the performance taking shape in the clearing.

We read (aloud, in the room) from an interview with the painter Bridget Riley: she says the colours and shapes participate in the event conceived by herself. We read (aloud, in the room) from Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter about the way the assemblage of both intentional influence and the natural properties of materials conspire to create event and the equal participation of human intention and material action and interaction make a single voice or land on a surface together to present one layer of event at one particular point in time. We responded to these readings.

And we tell ourselves this: A performance directive is a way to contribute to (or create) a future conversation. By holding up a performance which releases thought when they look at it, activate the audience to release meaning.

There is something we hoped for or expected even if we didn’t know it and when the end of the week comes we realise what we do have and we have to find a way to love that, even if it isn’t the same as what we’d expected or hoped for, even though we were unconscious of it. Beyond that love, it may or may not be good for performance but finding that love will be what keeps our minds working.

 

Karen Christopher is a collaborative performance maker, performer, and teacher. Her practice includes listening for the unnoticed, the almost invisible, and the very quiet. Her company, Haranczak/Navarre Performance Projects, is creating a series of duet performances devoted to re-defining the collaborative process with each duet pair. www.karenchristopher.co.uk

 

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