About Practice: Liam Everett and Hope Mohr in Conversation

This conversation is re-printed from Liam Everett: Without an Audience.
Published by Altman Siegel, San Francisco and kamel mennour, Paris/London, 2018.
Designed by Colpa Press. Full color, 12 x 9 inches, Softcover, 156 pages. Texts by
Jenny Gheith, Jonathan Griffin, Hope Mohr and Liam Everett.

As part of his San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape, Liam Everett invited San Francisco-based choreographer Hope Mohr to hold weekly open rehearsals within the exhibition space as a way to consider questions regarding the nature of practice. Over the course of the show, Everett and Mohr corresponded via email. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Hope Mohr: I hesitate to call the marks that constitute your paintings marks because they are more like shadows or memories of action. They are not representational. Likewise, I want to push dancers away from line. A question I constantly pose to myself is: How can I be rigorous and specific without shaping material? In your paintings I sense some kindred refusals: refusal of line, of legibility, of shape.

Liam Everett: For me it’s not necessarily a refusal of line and representation, so much as a confrontation with what is directly in front of me: the actual space and its immediate content. In your notes from the first rehearsal at the museum, you list directives to the dancers, one of which states: “Put the space into your body.” This “putting the space into the body” is something I practice in the literal sense in the studio. For example, I’ll take a tool or some other random object, soak it in ink and then place it directly on to the surface of the painting as way to produce a stain or a crude monoprint. The question for me is, How can this contact between myself and the painting be developed and continue to occur in order to expose the nature of practice within the studio? What kind of actions set up the conduit for this to happen?

In both representation and abstraction there is a certain level of concealment I want to remain aware of. The practice of painting has a way of revealing what is concealed and this allows for an intimacy with that which is present. On the other hand, I am often puzzled by the way this intimacy is jeopardized or even lost completely when the work is shown in the context of a public exhibition. It seems to me that at the very base of presentation lives the groundwork for deception, and what is the opposite of intimacy: artificiality. In other words, to show the work can result in a situation that not only deceives the viewer but also undermines both the work and the practice as it does not share the practicing; instead only the product of the excercise is visible. I’m wondering, Hope, if you share this overtly dramatic and perhaps somewhat tragicomic view of presentation versus practice?

HM: Perhaps what I call refusal (of idea/form — e.g., line), you call engagement (with what is happening in the room). You have said that out of engagement, not out of an a priori conceptual refusal, legibility and shape are eclipsed, by energy.  

As a choreographer, I toggle back and forth between different modes of engagement with the material — the mind/body that responds to the present moment, and the compositional mind that evaluates and edits material. Do you experience compositional mind as a mode that comes and goes, as something that happens separate from your engagement with materials, or as an omnipresent layer of awareness that is impossible to isolate from your response to the present moment? How do you relate to your own compositional impulses? You’ve said that you try to avoid any relationship between elements in your work. When I visited your studio, you said, “I know a painting is finished when it rejects me.” Are you trying to undermine compositional mind through raw engagement/response? Don’t you think composition is unavoidable?  

You say, “In both representation and abstraction there is a certain level of concealment.” Later you say that presentation is “the opposite of intimacy: artificiality.” This is exactly the question I have been poking at for years, asking, How does process become performance? Even in “finished” dances, I’m interested in avoiding a feeling of presentation. Where does the presentational feeling come from? The audience? The art itself? Within the body it can sometimes come from the nature of the artist’s thought — how clearly and decisively choices are made. When a dancer performs as if they know exactly what’s next — that feels like (looks like) performance. And yet, skilled improvisers can make decisions as if they are set choreography.  A feeling of performance can also be a function of muscle tone. How hard the skin is to the outside world. Or a function of the performer’s gaze: How translucent is it? I’m fascinated by ambiguous combinations of these variables. Specific set forms, for example, combined with an open quality of seeing on the part of the performer. A lot is determined by how the performer sees while performing. If their gaze is hard and closed off, this reinforces a (sense of, or actual) distance. It’s this (sense of) distance that contributes to a sense of performance. A feeling of performance can also come from form itself. How hard-edged is the form? How much unison or difference is there? Does it feel “made” or does it feel porous? Are these qualities of form functions of shape? Tempo? Texture? Does the quality of performance originate in form itself, or in the way a dancer activates the form?

I’m not sure I can say, like you, that a work of mine is finished when it rejects me. I will reject a dance before it rejects me (and then it isn’t finished).  I admit: A dance of mine isn’t finished until I recognize it as satisfying a set of private aesthetic criteria. Aren’t you saying something similar, when you are on the lookout for the moment, the tipping point, when a painting rejects you? As I am nearing a performance, I become more willful, more compositional. It’s impossible to escape the context of performance, unless I go into the studio and say nothing will be made here and nothing will be seen, which is a different kind of artificial, not that interesting, and I dare say, pointless. Perhaps we’re using performance as a foil not because we’re ambivalent about performance (I’m not), but because we’re interested in that nebulous tipping point where practice becomes performance. What happens in that instant? If you resist product so much, why be a painter? How do you reconcile with the inexorable end point of painting, which is an object on a wall? How does this end point inform your engagement and enter your awareness?

LE: I should clarify that in the studio I am not interested in outright denying the possibility of completion or resolution. Nor I am refusing the exercise of making something that can or will eventually be recognized as a painting. The question for me is, How can a painting be brought forth or presented in such a way and within a certain condition/context that it is “always painting?” To broaden the question: What are the ways in which things can be allowed to demonstrate their animate qualities? By allowing this kind of questioning to be the basis of my studio practice, I have discovered that completion is not a relevant goal or even a possibility. On the contrary the notion of the end only becomes a refuge for concealment and distraction. In other words if an end point arrives in my process I view it as stagnation and my first instinct is therefore to prod the condition back into process or to somehow stimulate its static form. Perhaps the ideal condition for me is when practice not only floods into the final performance but also into the gap that has been created between the viewer and maker and similarly between the studio and exhibition space.

The other question or problem that I am always faced with is: Once the painting arrives at the gallery or museum is it not automatically a product?

I’d like to consider the practice of painting as a stand-in for being, or one way in which to allow being to appear and/or be exposed. Surely dance, music, drama, or writing can do this as well. For me the question of painting as product comes down to one’s own perspective. Subjectively and objectively I see the paintings as animate objects existing within a flexible compendium that could be simply one experience in a bottomless pool of experiences.

Maybe I can correlate this perspective I’m talking about to your concern regarding the performer’s gaze. It is within the realm of the gaze that we encounter the work, the exhibition space, the viewer, the performer, etc. We also experience other levels of gaze through the body, via touch, sound, and taste. But ultimately what I feel needs to be articulated within any practice is not the type of gaze one is projecting but instead what system or condition is supporting this perspective (this gaze), and in what ways can this gaze be revealed? Furthermore, can the practice be shared in such way that it invites the viewer to not only see the work but also to be seen by the work itself, or even more ideally, the working of the work?

HM: I want to talk more about your methods for presenting your work “in such a way and within a certain condition/context that it is ‘always painting.’” What specific techniques do you use to prod a static form back into the realm of process? How do you use materials to produce unpredictable variations? Can you describe an example of how you might interact with a stick or piece of wire that you find around the studio?

In the world of dance, some of the methods I use to try and keep material more porous include the avoidance or sabotage of unison, the cross-fading of forms into each other (avoiding hard shifts), improvising in extreme slowness so as to find material “in between” known places in the body, using falling, forcing movement to occur at high speed, or imposing unexpected, muscular stops inside “known” material. The idea is to shift actions quickly enough so that the brain does not have time to plan or edit.

Also, when dancers have an obligation to listen to or wait for each other, forms tend to harden.  Obligations or relationships among dancers impact how form reads. This reminds me of your comment that you try to avoid relationships among forms in your work. Do you think composition can exist without relationship? Do you use any techniques to subvert compositional mind? If you find yourself composing in the middle of action, how do you respond to that impulse? I think talking about techniques is important because so much traditional technique is used to harden artists to the environment. What techniques are available to us to open and respond to it instead?

I think we’re both working toward that elusive place where method, process, and practice are present in the finished work. In Lawrence Weschsler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Conversations with Robert Irwin, Irwin says:

The finished canvas at one level is only an incidental relic, a fossil of that original process of discovery: not only do you have to be present before these paintings in order to experience them, it may be that you have to have made them as well . . . the process was intimate to the solution. I sometimes wonder if anyone in the world has seen those paintings but me.

LE: The question of how to prod a static form back into the realm of process is always at play for me, as it presents both a form of resistance and also a kind of friction. In order to allow this to happen in the studio as well as in the exhibition space my method is to abandon the narrative. In other words I think it is absolutely necessary to avoid any kind of linear path in the way of working, thus dissolving any relationship between means and end, therefore allowing my process to repeat itself or to “return.” With this way of practicing the question of whether or not a work is “good” or “bad” also becomes irrelevant.

The techniques I use in the studio in order to support a space of flux are so crude and primitive that I will refrain from explaining them in detail. Think of a cat half-awake, swatting at a fly or a dog chasing its tail — round and round, back and forth: intentional actions that appear futile, games that have no possible outcome in terms of win or loss. The objective is to move and be moved in such a way that there is not even the question of where to begin.

Composition always shows up when we look at the work, regardless of its true content. As soon as we point in the direction of the work we begin to make order of its appearance. I prefer to think of my paintings and performances as seeing-things instead of things that are made to be seen. They are literally porous and therefore allow light and air to move through them. Or they can harden and sag or collapse and fade. Their temperature is in flux as well, always responding to the immediate environment.

If I recognize a gesture or a form in my painting, I erase it. If the residue of that erasure shows something familiar, I erase it. I disturb everything that appears known or familiar. This is repeated until a threshold arrives.

With painting there is always an element of concealment at play, as the surface hides the system of support that allows the image(s) to be present. My hunch is that if one investigates the ontology of dance there is a similar level of deception, perhaps even more elaborate. Is the dancing revealed or is it veiled, diluted by its own means of presentation?

HM: In our conversations, you have talked a lot about your interest in the structures that support the work. We’ve talked about “finding the tremor,” for example, meaning a practice of pushing the painting, as an object and an action, to the edge of its support system. You are interested in challenging and revealing the limits of supporting structures.  In dance, the primary system of support is the ground. So I want to talk about the significance of the floor in your exhibition.

You not only painted the floor, but built and installed a special floor for the show at SFMOMA — literally and metaphorically raising the floor up. This grand gesture — sorry, I know you said nothing in the show was made by gesture, but the floor itself is a macro gesture of significance — this grand gesture draws attention to the ground and places value in it, thereby honoring the body, the horizontal, and the dancer. The vocabulary emerging in my process with the dancers inside your exhibition is intensely floor-bound and in explicit relationship to gravity (we’re always in relationship to gravity, but some actions make this more obvious than others). The floor is a continuation of the picture plane, painted with the same methods as the canvases hanging on the walls. Can you talk more about your decision to create a floor for the show?

LE: I would say that it is the inverse: the floor was made first and the “picture plane” is a continuation of this surface or system of support. The presence of the floor for me also renders the room in flux, as its primary purpose is to hold the rehearsals and I mean this quite literally. The floor therefore is permanently in process or always being made, as it does not just hold gestures, prints, and stains but also the ongoing accumulation of light, air, dust, and of course moving bodies. The floor is often viewed as being beneath us but in essence it is always rising and/or raising what the viewer can potentially experience in the form of appearance(s). Up and out of this system are the walls and then the ceiling and inside it all our being. This is one of the things that is so compelling to me about dance: the invisible friction that is produced between the moving body weighted or falling via gravity and the rising surface-floor that is holding it. What kind of energy, either physical or metaphysical, is produced out of this condition in which one form is always falling and the other always rising?

The floor for me also raises questions about what constitutes aesthetic “finish” as well as the problem of composition. For example, if the floor is considered a stage or even a pedestal, the viewer is then immediately implicated as an element of that which is on display, albeit involuntarily. In this context the exhibition must be viewed as a work in progress — it is changing both formally and aesthetically with every body that comes and goes within it. Perhaps this is another crude ploy of mine to avoid the finished work. What is certain is that the inclusion of the floor refuses to give me a sense of familiarity. I have no true idea how the moving bodies will affect the exhibition space, each accompanied by their individual moods and experience.

HM: In your studio practice do you move between being inside the work physically and being outside the work as an observer? I have found in dancemaking that this movement in and out of the work is essential to staying connected with both a physical and a visual understanding of the nature of the material.

In rehearsals at SFMOMA alongside your work, I have been exploring how sensuality can shatter abstraction. When does the body become form and form become the body? When I look at your work I see both the body (its traces) and abstraction. I also think that physical effort or sensation is one key to making work that is more trace than sign.

“I prefer to think of my paintings and performances as seeing-things instead of things that are made to be seen.” Do you want audiences to have any particular kind of experience when they interact with your work?  You’ve said that you know a painting is done when it rejects you. Do you want your work to also reject its audience in some way?

In more traditional dance (ballet for example), the dancer is supposed to make the dance look effortless. Even in more contemporary work, a performance comes only after hours and hours of rehearsal, behind-the-scenes effort leading up to a culminating performance. There’s a traditional modernist value of mastery and virtuosity. Of course Yvonne Rainer’s famous, “No to virtuosity” launched a thousand postmodern ships. But even in postmodern work, certain rehearsal ethos prevail. By inviting me into your exhibit to rehearse with dancers in front of the public, we are in a sense saying no to expectations of mastery. And yet it’s hard for me to get past my own expectation that I am rehearsing toward something else, toward some future goal or presentation that will be more perfect than the present.  It is a powerful statement to say that the rehearsal is the end itself. The practice is the product. Many visitors to the museum ask me, “When will you be performing this work?” I should respond, “now.”