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Travis Chamberlain In Conversation with AUNTS

This piece is part of a special project of mapping performance “ecologies” in New-York, created for TAR Magazine in 2015.

Performance Within An Institution

Travis Chamberlain is the Associate Curator for Performance and Director of Public Programs at the New Museum. Liliana Dirks-Goodman and Laurie Berg are the organizers of AUNTS (auntsisdance.com), a platform for dance and performance.
We met on a Sunday afternoon at the front of 59 Jefferson street in Bushwick, the former Secret Works Loft and home of Liliana Dirks Goodman where AUNTS was in action until recently, when the Secret Works group had lost their lease. We talked while walking around the building, understanding it's architecture and the environment that allowed AUNTS to happen so naturally and openly.

Travis Chamberlain: Could you talk about your first encounter with AUNTS?

Laurie Berg: I remember the way that they were using the spaces, people working in these loft areas and on the floor and in the kitchen, and things were just kind of tumbling out of every corner of the apartment,  and there were also all of these people that I have seen in class or I had seen perform, my teachers were there.  And so it was this cross generational and also cross disciplinary- musicians, and dancers and visual artists were there and everyone was just sharing this experience, and for me being new to New-York, that was really important. For both Lili and me, situating ourselves within this community was really important and we were helping out as much as we could, and then Jmy who was running this by herself for a while moved to LA to open a space there and so we took it over in 2009.

TC: And at that point were there any headquarters for Aunts?

Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Not really. It happened a lot, I think 3 years she would do these king curation events in the Fall and there would be 4 events. She would pick about 15 artists and they would each curate another artist along the line so that all four events were curated partly by her but mostly by the community of artists. Those events happened at the Brooklyn Events Center which was this really weird space in BedStuy and had a basement level and at different points in time there would be different spaces that would be open, the basement at one point only had one room and then on another year there was this dungeon-y back room that was open, it was this super strange space and the people who owned it used it for everything, like bingo, a recording studio, I think there might have been some kind of a church at some point.

TC: That's the place on 59 Jefferson Street. And how did having that place change what Aunts was and how it operated?

LDG: That space was really great because there weren't a lot of rules and we could do almost whatever we wanted. There wen't all these steps to go through in terms of organizing so we would just schedule a month in advance and I would just tell everyone at the loft that I was gonna do that and people would really get on board, some of my roommates would even end up showing work but we could almost do anything we wanted. Like there was the kitchen so we started making dinner for the artists to have before we have our meeting. We could stay up and work until 4 in the morning if we wanted to so the dance party aspect became very developed, and no rules against like fluids or anything

LB: So people performed everywhere, did works in the shower, in the kitchen, in every corner of the loft

TC: So why taking it to other places if you had this ideal space?

LDG: It allowed us the freedom to continue experimenting what the structure of Aunts could be, and because what we do is so dependent on the space, the space influences so much of how people use it or how people react to it and how people act. When we go into new spaces and new possibilities, it's infinite, it's a meeting of both a new community and a new architecture.

LB: It has the structure that we built, It's challenging it keeps things interesting for us and also when you find a space in NY that looks exciting to you and you get to use it you have to go for it. Most of the spaces that we've used are already gone. For example, we did a performance at St. Cecilia's which was a church and a school and convent that was abandoned and through the grape-vine I've heard that someone was doing an art show there and so I called father Kirsch who decided that since the place is empty he would like to offer it to artists. So I called him and he said yes, just give us a donation and so we had this 4 storied convent that we could do whatever we want with. 

TC: You refer to yourself as organizers- could you talk about the term in relation to choreographer/curator

LDG: Since working with you we started thinking about the choreography of Aunts, as an assembly of (kinds of) autonomies

LB: It's a challenge to create the structure but then once we say go- we let things happen. We call ourselves organizers because we make the event happen. There are certainly elements of choreography in it, mostly in the way we choose to set-up the space but than what ever happens is the work of the participating artists, so it's not fully choreography. And in terms of curation- because we are very open and we want this to remain an open structure- Lily and I are not taking care of anyone, we just allow them to do their art. We create a structure that is flexible enough to allow a sort of autonomy. But people pass in and out of the structure, through Aunts, we are not gathering people.

“AUNTSforcamera” Production Week: Open Studios (September 10–14, 2014). Photo: Travis Chamberlain. Pictured: IMMA/MESS in production for  STAGING STAGES

“AUNTSforcamera” Production Week: Open Studios (September 10–14, 2014). Photo: Travis Chamberlain. Pictured: IMMA/MESS in production for STAGING STAGES

“AUNTSforcamera” Production Week: Open Studios (September 10–14, 2014). Photo: Travis Chamberlain. Pictured: Cara Francis dances with a drone in production for her work  REMOTE

“AUNTSforcamera” Production Week: Open Studios (September 10–14, 2014). Photo: Travis Chamberlain. Pictured: Cara Francis dances with a drone in production for her work REMOTE

TC: I met Laurie and Lily through a project I was doing with Movement Research at Judson Church, called “Rethinking the Imprint of Judson Dance Theater 50 Years Later” and it was part of the 50th anniversary of the Judson Dance Theater project which occurred at the Judson Memorial Church in Lower Manhattan and was 60-62 short-lived but very important that created community around the space and also was the sight of some very important innovation in contemporary performance and dance that continues to resonate and influence performance art and dance practices today. One of the questions that came up was around a collective community. These residencies that I had planned would be given to individual artists, but the community decided to nominate Aunts for this and they took it as an opportunity to invite anyone from the community to rehearse at that time. All of these rehearsals would be open rehearsals, so this was an opportunity to have access to the New-Museum and to be presented in a way at the New Museum.

LB: Well, I remember the meeting and one of the lingering questions was: why do we have to choose individual artists? Why can't everyone do this? And I remember thinking- well, the New-Museum can't open the front gates and allow everyone to come in, but Aunts can! We had 30 artists who came to work there and they rehearsed on top of each other, we had lunch every day and this was open to the public

TC: Thinking about the door policy when working with Aunts has been really interesting. Aunts has this  policy that when you come in you have to bring something- either in the form of donation to an open bar, item for the free boutique or perhaps something for a potluck. At the New Museum, the admission automatically allowed access to Aunts, and it wasn't free either. So at the project with Stedlijk and Trouw we wanted to target that question of how to preserve that aspect of exchange where to attend an Aunts you have to participate and bring something, or become part of Aunts.  Visitors to the space immediately had a great response, not knowing what they were seeing, maybe they read the info text outside, but they would walk in and the space felt so warm and inviting and there were so many things going on, you couldn't tell if it was intentional or not but someone would do something very virtuosic and then someone else was sitting down making notes and then someone was shooting video portraits with a camera in the back and someone would pull out this giant inflatable thing and flop around. They were negotiating what it meant to rehearse in that moment, and that was really interesting. So then people would come in the space and just stay, for a long time, longer than they would stay in the normal galleries. They would stay about 45 minutes, easy and then strike a conversation with the artists, it just felt natural, it didn't feel forced, or staged.

“AUNTSforcamera” Production Week: Open Studios (September 10–14, 2014). Photo: Travis Chamberlain

“AUNTSforcamera” Production Week: Open Studios (September 10–14, 2014). Photo: Travis Chamberlain

(Lital D: In what way was working within an institution different?)

LDG: Where Travis was advocating between Aunts and the institution we were working with the artists to create a productive space

LB: Boundaries started to break down really beautifully between artists and each work was influenced by the others.

LDG: It's harder but then there are the little things that we do, that idea of care. Making lunches for the artists as an action.

LB: We are care takers of the structure and not necessarily care takers of individuals within that structure.

LB: Travis once called Aunts a liquid, so I would imagine us as this coffee stain and then we would just write AUNTS on it.

TC: When working with Aunts one should have their boundaries clear because otherwise Aunts would just spread everywhere.