INTERVIEW WITH EMILY ROYSDON BY KIM EINARSSON
11.8 2010 on a boat trip in the Stockholm achipelago
Kim Einarsson: In your coming project for Konsthall C, you have been using Sergels torg as a starting point for your project. What interests you about that place?
Emily Roysdon: Through the years I have been exploring how political movements are represented, and it is because of this that I was attracted by Sergels torg as a place. In recent projects I have been connecting that to a wider understanding of choreography – choreography as organized movement in an aesthetic and political sense.
What is so fascinating for me with Sergels torg is that it is a planned site for political protest. At the same time; when you approach the actual place and look down on it from the railing above, Sergels Torg turns into a panopticicon and an abstraction.
KE: You have chosen to call your exhibition at Konsthalll C Sense and Sense, which you mentioned is a quotation from the political theorist Chantal Mouffe. Could you say something about that? And is Chantal Mouffe and her ideas about a polemic public space an important inspiration for you?
ER: I read these three words next to each other while working on this project and they struck me as a simple way to point to differences and possibilities. It’s a simple repetition, but it doubles in on itself to make 'sense' less clear, common sense questioned, and non-sense present. In particular I think Sense and Sense made sense for how I was thinking about Sergels torg as a utopian space, a practical site, an ideological location, and a representation of the city. The way an idea of 'free movement' and people demonstrating comes to be represented by an abstraction and in turn comes to represent the idea of the city. Its quite circular. It's a positive image for people, but coming from the outside and from a different system, it's also provocative.
When Mouffee says 'sense and sense' she is talking about consensus and governing through avoiding conflicts,"...the agreement on what we can perceive and of the meaning of what we can perceive." When I first read these passages in her text it reflected my thinking around ecstatic resistance, by engaging a vocabulary of the impossible, intelligible, etc... and I liked that connection as well. In general I have read Mouffe before for her theorization of agonistic public space, and that’s why I picked up this text now in Stockholm. During this project I was also re-reading Evictions by Rosalyn Deutsche and re-visiting a lot of essays on photography. Thinking about this public stage.
Sense and Sense also became the gap between planned use and improvisation that I was most interested in for this project.
KE: When reading about your work, it is often said that you focus on choreography and political action. What’s your take on choreography?
ER: Yes, it’s funny because I think I use it very differently than other people do when talking about my work. I think of choreography simply as movement in space and time. I think about it in terms of social movements. I started to study international politics first, so I was coming at this through looking at the way people move. And most of my projects are about organizing people. So even my writing and my curatorial work are grounded in ideas about movement and movements.
KE: When you say organizing and movement, does that have anything to do with control from your part?
ER: No, it’s more about improvisation than control. I think about the relationship between place, improvisation, use, proper use and planning. What is so fascinating for me with Sergels Torg is that it is a planned place for protest and social movements. But what I see there now, the vernacular of it, everybody is just zigzagging across it and walking. So it is interesting to think of a different vocabulary. To think about movement, what it means to plan a place for protest to happen and what does that do to the rest of the city and how are things activated and used. Is everything used properly and what is proper use?
KE: How do you relate the term performance?
ER: I don’t use that word really, I much more prefer to use a vocabulary of movement and choreography instead of performance and event. And I think they are categorically different. I don’t like to work with the spectacle and the boundaries of performance, or at least how people commonly refer to the term – like something starting and ending.
KE: How do you see the relationship between your different modes of working;
you write, perform in a band, make art, curate and edit a journal, quite often in collaboration with others?
ER: I think I never really did differentiate them. I think now that I’m continuing in everything equally it is something I negotiate because of disciplinary boundaries that other people use to categorize and understand. To me it is all quite natural. Again, I think it relates to the same vocabulary in terms of organizing. It is very important for me to relate what I do to people around me.
I mean writing seems for me to be a very crucial way for me to learn and to make some things more concrete. I feel like my practice is very much about language and vocabulary. And even if I say I am going to write a straight essay based on philosophical ideas, I cannot write them in a really straightforward way. Of course I could do it, but that is just not interesting to me.
KE: In 2001 you, Ginger Brooks Takahashi and K8 Hardy founded LTTR, which is a feminist queergender collective. You were publishing a journal, and had a quite immaterial practice – focusing on performances and events. How do you see the relationship between your engagement in LTTR and the individual and maybe more object-oriented works you have exhibited this year in exhibitions like The Greater NY at Moma PS1 or at The Whitney Biennial?
ER: That is interesting, because I recently recognized that every single time I start a project I start from zero. Like when thinking about this project I do for Konsthall C, I actually go back to the place of “Do I want to be an artist?”. I do that every time, and I think it would be a hell of a lot easier if I didn’t do that. But each time I re-build the path to where I am. So I don’t have that more holistic way of thinking that everything is one thing. Each time I have to ask “What is it I want to do? And what tools do I need to do that?”
But it all comes from the same place. LTTR is not very different either from my drive to write or organizing the Ecstatic Resistance project. It is probably because my interest in politics and in organizing that I have that drive to be more than myself, to include other people’s thinking and projects. To relate other people’s projects to each other to see where we are.
KE: For this project you have worked with performance artist Megan Palaima aka MPA. How did the collaboration between you and MPA come about? And could you say something about the relationship you have in this specific project?
ER: I have a lot of respect for Megan’s practice and also a little bit of fascination – because I both identify with it and at the same time feel it so beyond myself in a way. I love the physicality of her practice and intensity. And that is really the form of what she does. There is always something at risk in Megan’s work, both conceptually and physically. So I have known her for a while and I have watched her. So basically I knew I would like to work with her again in a more comprehensive way.
A lot of the images I would like to create have bodies in them. The images are quite often not realizable you know and Megan pushes that. She likes a challenge, and she will do difficult things. She really thinks about the deepest practicalities of what it takes for a body to do something and that is a really fun way for me to think about the images that I would like to make. So we come at it from different perspectives, and that makes a great conversation. I feel that these conversations really impacted how this work is going to be. I am pretty ‘meta’, so getting into the details with Megan and then going through the challenges of figuring out what is possible and not possible, and improvising a solution is really fun.
KE: But would you say that both of you are the authors of this work?
ER: Well, I think I provided the structure and framing for the project, as well as the form via the photos, videos and stuff, and Megan and I collaborated on the process and movement.
When I invited Megan to Stockholm and told her what I wanted to do, she said: “This is great, I like to get an assignment, and I like a Roysdon challenge.” But it is not exactly like I am the director or the choreographer and she is the performer. It’s more like I presented a challenge and together we figured out how to do that. So it’s a kind of collaboration, maybe a queer collaboration. Megan is very generous with her energy.
…Especially the video, it doesn’t work without her. It’s not like anybody could do it. The reason the video works is because every once in a while, you understand what she is trying to do, and if she is not trying as hard as she is, then it doesn’t work. And if she would be trained more than she is, it wouldn’t work. And it is also because we have shared politics, investments and visions so we can talk about things in a way where I don’t have to explain certain things and she trusts me. I did not even tell her so much what we were going to do before we landed in Stockholm to do it. She’s just like: “yeah, let’s do it, whatever it is, let’s do it”. I like those kinds of relationships. And it is not about being able to be bossy, but it is about figuring something out and improvising together.
When we go out to Sergels Torg at 5 o’clock in the morning, I have a really strong idea what I want, but I am not exactly sure it is going to happen, and I don’t want to plan too much. It is just in my nature not to. So it is about throwing in all the ideas, talking for days, showing up, checking out the conditions and then doing it, doing something that makes sense in that moment. And she can do that, and we can do that together, so it works well. I think it’s about respect for each others practice and process, and a sense of humor… and adventure.
KE: You just said it is not about being bossy, but in quite many of your collaborations you have the role of the curator, the editor or the director. Those practices don’t necessarily mean that you are in a leading position, but there is certain kind of responsibility connected to them, right?
ER: They all explicitly deal with organization, and sometimes even performing organization. But if you think about the power dynamics of these roles, to me, I think I’m more interested in building conceptual frames and improvising inside of them. So I don’t feel like people are not instrumentalized, because there is so much conversation.
The most important thing for me is the conceptual frame, the improvisation and the “who am I doing it with”. It’s about the conversations precipitated by the process of working together. I remember when I did a performance at Weld, here in Stockholm, some years ago. Dean Spade, an old friend, happened to be in town at the same time so I wrote him into the performance. He is a trans activist and lawyer and he would rather die than wear a body suit in front of a bunch of strangers. And he said: “What am I doing? There is nobody else in the world I would do this for!” I just think, this is a really interesting thing for us to do together.
KE: As you mentioned earlier, you have curated a group exhibition where you developed the concept “ecstatic resistance”, which was also the title of the project. In the text you wrote for the show it said:
“Ecstatic Resistance is a project, practice, partial philosophy and set of strategies. It develops the positionality of the impossible alongside a call to re-articulate the imaginary. Ecstatic Resistance is about the limits of representation and legibility — the limits of the intelligible, and strategies that undermine hegemonic oppositions. It wants to talk about pleasure in the domain of resistance — sexualizing modern structures in order to centralize instability and plasticity in life, living, and the self. It is about waiting, and the temporality of change. Ecstatic Resistance wants to think about all that is unthinkable and unspeakable in the Eurocentric, phallocentric world order.”
KE: How do you deal with the concept of ecstatic resistance in your own practice?
ER: My own interests and passions share a vocabulary with the project, but the concept was a way of interacting with a set of ideas and potentials that I was experiencing in the world—I didn't develop this concept to explain my own work, but I do of course identify with it. My process is very much based in language, and a project can really be born in the relationship between two words. “Ecstatic resistance” set forth a vocabulary of the impossible and the imaginary, but right now my personal practice is more involved in the relationship between struggle and improvisation.
It is something I struggle with in a way though, because I don’t want to have invented something to explain my own practice. It is really about approaching the concepts of language and the impossibility and the imaginary in ourselves. But it is also much more practical about activating a certain vocabulary around work. And it is an inspiration, the vocabulary, the artists whom I relate the concept to and who I relate to. It’s an inspiration.
KE: Did your approach to the concept change during the time your worked with it?
ER: At some point I thought, perhaps it is about a very specific cultural moment, but later I changed my idea and looked broader and eventually included people like Adrian Piper and Ulrike Ottinger, and thinking about related practices, but not from my generation specifically. I have heard from people who think that ecstatic resistance is a concept that is much more locked to my generation, a sort of post-Bush phenomenon, but I don’t think that is true. I think that understanding is part of the impulse to describe a movement, which is not something that I was trying to do.…It is a political desire. I saw a lot of work that I care about so much, really radical work with bold ambitions that was not really thought of as political work and I wanted to sort of explode that, and say that political art can look like this too.
KE: Social movement is key concept in your work, and your first video was even called Social Movement. I have the feeling you have a very broad understanding of what social movement can be, could say something about that?
ER: In that video there were explicitly two things, one that was looking at the dance that came out of Judson Church when they were incorporating vernacular movements, like the works of Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, etc.... The other element of that video is me thinking about representations of groups. Being interested in all kinds of political and social movements, in counter cultures, and the way that one image or one person comes to represent this whole body. At that time I was working in a collective and really experiencing these things as well as thinking critically about them.
KE: There have been a lot of art projects around in which artists explore important historical social movements, collectives and people coming together in groups for a certain political struggle. Sometimes, I think some of these projects deal too much with representation and too little with agency.
ER: Yes, I was going to say that, that I worry about futility. And I was worried about that with Ecstatic Resistance. I was saying: This is totally not a joke, this is not an art exercise. I’m less interested in a political activity within the space of the gallery.
KE: So you rather do political activity outside of the gallery space?
ER: I’m not fully an activist – a lot of my friends are - and at certain points that has troubled me. But this is what I end up doing. This is my labour and this is how I talk about things. But I do consider projects like LTTR and Ecstatic Restiance…I value that kind of thinking and process as political work.
KE: I guess I always struggle with the question of why to work within a gallery room? And how can I bring in certain political issues into the space without disarming the political agency of it, and instrumentalizing the artists and their works.
ER: I can really agree with you, and I am not resolved about it. But working within a interdisciplinary field, because I think that is what art is — it is just an interdisciplinary field for me. I do think we can shift the way things around us are understood. That would be my most basic justification for what I allow myself to do. For me, froSense and Sensem here, from Ecstatic Resistance to ‘social movement’, it’s all about the way people move in political ways, in counter-cultural ways, in formal ways and conceptual ways. That is why Sergels Torg is so fascinating to me.