Inside the Archive with Jennifer Monson
by Paul David Young
“Dancing is my tool to generate research on the landscape,” Jennifer Monson told me. It is an “embodied relationship with the world and how we understand it.” We spoke as she was beginning to rehearse for her restaging of Live Dancing Archive at New York Live Arts and her thoughts about what she would present were evolving.
What Monson means by research involves investigation into hard science as well as spending time at swamps and beaches, filming, watching, and dancing. Her BIRDBRAIN project, which provides part of the background for Live Dancing Archive, entailed this kind of multipronged approach, in this case specifically with respect to the migration of the osprey, a coastal raptor. Hundreds of volunteers and a morphing assemblage of collaborators engaged in direct observation and documentation in the outdoors. By reviewing the films and improvising, Monson transformed these observations into dance, which itself evolved in form as it moved from the wilderness to the stage. Robin Vachal’s video installation, now on view at Live Arts, documents this process, as does the online archive by Youngjae Josephine Bae. Monson stressed that whatever happens on the stage is only one component of the total piece.
Though she has danced outdoors, she has returned to presenting her work in conventional performance spaces. “Dancing outside, the flow of energy is really vast. The impact is in relation to other movement going on. There is a way that the energy continues and disperses. Dancing outside is always destabilizing you,” she said. She was “very moved” by the way the dances that she staged outdoors disappeared into the landscape in which they were created, like “white on white.” Inside the theater, she explained, there is “a tighter border, a concentration. I am able to negotiate and communicate in a more focused way. The dancing can be quite different.”
The AIDS crisis and queer activism motivated her early career. Since 2000, her work has drawn from migratory behavior in the wilderness, even as her understanding of the wild has itself shifted. She said she started out with a simple view of untouched nature, but her experience showed her that it was a more complex thing, sometimes disturbed by human intervention and sometimes restored. She discovered the border spaces of compromised ecologies and saw that they could be productive environments where rebirth and reinvention are possible. In our dialogue, though she occasionally uses such terms herself, she was dismissive of any specific terminology, such as “the wild” or “nature,” that might be used to approximate her nuanced understanding of the subject matter of her work, saying that she wants to “de-naturalize” such words.
Live Dancing Archive has been presented several times in different venues and forms, including just last year in New York at The Kitchen. The addition of two new dancers, Niall Jones and Tatyana Tenenbaum, is Monson’s focus for this new iteration at Live Arts. For her, the vital question is how and/or whether she will be able to convey the embodied knowledge of the dances that evolved out of the BIRDBRAIN project to these new dancers who have not had the same years of experience, observing and improvising. It has historically always been true for dance that someone teaches someone else how to do it. In this re-presentation, it is uncertain what Monson can transmit to others, how much is lost in the transmission, and what has to change or might fruitfully or accidentally change as that body of knowledge is transferred to and re-performed by Jones and Tenenbaum. The model of the “archive” might here be understood as a process that manifests itself in time-based work, through the always imperfect replicators of human bodies, dancing, moving and vocalizing. Inevitably the archive reveals itself to be porous, faulty, and unstable, and therefore interesting to investigate, as both a dancer and a spectator. The similarity of biological and ecological processes springs readily to mind. In evolution, the variances in DNA transmission create biological diversity and change the species and the world around it. Ecologies, the collective repositories of life forms and their systems of interactions, are constantly morphing, whether as a result of human intervention or otherwise.
Jeff Kolar contributes a score for Live Dancing Archive that is site-responsive: he controls a handmade chain of radio transmitters responding to electromagnetic frequencies as they are affected by wireless systems surrounding New York Live Arts. Monson’s creative process involves an analogous sensorial response to the elements in the wilderness. In her dance she seeks to reveal the agency and materiality of the phenomena that her research has discovered.