AO On Site – Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Photoset and Interview with Noémie Lafrance ‘The White Box Project’ Performance at Black & White Gallery Saturday, September 17th; performance runs through September 24-25

September 23rd, 2011

Running from corner to corner – in a specified order in relation to other corner groups. All photos on site for Art Observed by Samuel Sveen.

Noémie Lafrance’s latest piece, The White Box Project, is full of running and screaming, grouping and awkward exclusivity, exploring audience participation and mob mentality; a “minimalist dance performance [that] challenges the implied separation between the art object and its viewing subject.” Each performance is followed by a discussion with the artist, thus further shaping the remaining performances in an “evolutive” process. Famous for her grand public dance performances, Lafrance has staged shows in places ranging from her home to galleries to McCarren Park Pool to the facades of Frank Gehry, as well as choreographing the award winning video for Feist’s “1, 2, 3, 4.”

Showing three September weekends in the courtyard of the Black & White Gallery in Brooklyn, performances run every Saturday at 4:30, 5:30, and 6:30 pm, with two additional encore performances added to this last Sunday, the 25th of September, at 6:30 and 7:30 pm.
Art Observed was fortunate enough to sit down with Noémie in her Williamsburg studio for the following interview.

Noémie Lafrance recording the group discussion after a performance.

More text and images after the jump…

Dancers run and shout random phrases amid the still skeptical crowd.

One group of audience members traverse the space around dancers on the floor.

Art Observed: The press material talks about your White Box show blurring the line between audience and art. This is not a new concept, i.e. John Cage’s 4:33, etc., so I was interested to see how you would spin this in a new way. And you seem to have done that, somehow twisting the trendy ‘flash mob’ to your liking. Placing the performance within a gallery-like space, with a somewhat-unsuspecting audience, you slowly let them ‘in’ on the act, by the end soliciting total participation in random group acts of art. What are your thoughts on the flash mob and how would you describe your take on it?

Noémie Lafrance: The way I see the flash mob is that it’s a moment of surprise in a public space – a group of people start dancing or something, and the rest of the public is not aware that this is going to happen, or sometimes there is a little publicity that’s made around it, but in general the people don’t know what’s going to happen. There might be a few people who start it, and a few more might join in, but then that’s the confines of it – I mean there’s nothing else that happens after that. But with the event that I’m creating, it’s more like I want to make a flash mob with everybody, so it’s almost like the public or the audience that’s there is the flash mob as well. So in a sense, they’re invited to see the performance, but then they become the performance. That’s the idea.

Dancers began the piece posing in corners, or lying down throughout the space.

AO: With many of your pieces, like the dances across Frank Gehry buildings, or Descent, in a staircase, or the McCarren Park Agora and Agora II, you like to work in ‘everyday environments.’ Yet they are all very framed and staged as artistic events. Have you ever thought of going more ‘guerrilla’ with your work, or I’m sure you already have?

Lafrance: I have, yeah. You know there are some pros and cons to that. The disadvantage, I guess, is the fact that you are not necessarily welcome, and you may be violating some laws or some rules or whatever, which can be an issue. I have nothing against it, but it gets to be a problem that you have to deal with. The other thing is money – it’s harder to find money for that, in a sense, if you can’t charge for tickets, or get a commission or funding, for something more guerrilla. You might be able to find funding, but usually the standard sources of funding are looking for a venue or for something where there’s some kind of ‘permission’ involved. But with this work the thing that’s interesting is that there is the phenomenon of the context, where people are buying a ticket and coming to the show – of course they’re standing there expecting something to happen. And we have to play with that expectation. But then there’s doing it in a gallery opening where nobody’s expecting it, for example – which was more similar to what we did on Friday at the opening because there was a gallery opening for the separate show inside the Black & White Gallery, and there was also our show, so it was sort of a joint opening. And we did let people know that we would do an excerpt of the show, but half the people there didn’t know and so it was more like that feeling, but it was also a busy opening where people’s heads are also elsewhere, with drinks or socializing and all that – they’re not there to become an audience member.

AO: Did you have the bag check like you did at the normal performance?

Lafrance: No, no, we didn’t have any of that, so it was more like people were just there, right, so the bag check and all those things kind of help us make the merge between the audience and the performers because you can’t tell when no one has a bag anyway. But in that context it was different – it was more like we needed to aggress the audience more, and they less became the performance other than by how we changed their location and how we changed there relationship to us. So you know sometimes we look at them, sometimes they look at us, sometimes we’re around them, sometimes we’re inside them, sometimes we’re carving a space, or we made them into lines or that kind of thing. That’s a form of reversal where we make them the performance, but it doesn’t go as deep as how we’re doing it with the group of people who are purposely coming to be in the show, which has a lot of other ramifications – like somebody might come because they’re interested in audience participation. So it opens up that, but you know we probably wouldn’t be able to achieve the same thing in the guerrilla style, even though I’m interested in doing it that way. And I think each different context requires a different approach – that’s what I’m learning from this project. It’s an ‘evolutive’ performance – which is a word I made up – but it really means it’s in constant evolution. And you know, people are saying back to me, ‘Oh yeah, you’re gonna ask for feedback from the audience and change it based on that – oh, yeah right.’  But it’s actually very very true that this is the process that I’m using, and it’s actually proven to work very well. I’m asking the audience, ‘What does it feel like to you to participate, and what will make you want to do it or not want to do it? What are the limitations that we’re all confronted with, you know, socially, when we’re in this kind of public context?’ And people are responding with a lot of valuable information that maybe I could come up with on my own, but… not really, actually. Like, there are things that we have done on the first show that were completely different. But they were completely different not because of the material – it wasn’t like the dance was different – it was the same material – but it was just the way that we approached the public, and the order which it appeared, that made it more obvious who the dancers were and who the audience was.

AO: Yeah there was something about shoes in the first performance, right?

Yeah, shoes were an issue because all the dancers were wearing sneakers and they were kind of dressed similarly. I tried to have them dress like audience but that didn’t really work. So I pushed it to the next level the next week – I gave them all notes about costumes, individually, like, ‘You wear these kind of shoes or you wear this kind of dress’ – still their own, but just not something you’d wear to dance in. And I also asked them to behave more seriously as audience members, as if they were also taken back by the situation, acting like, ‘What’s going on? Who’s who?’ – they were doing that as well. It really worked and I think that was great, that they were acting like that and it was working perfectly. In fact I think in that performance, even at the end you still didn’t know who the dancers were.

AO: Yeah I was looking at the photos online, and I thought, ‘Oh, that guy was a dancer! I had no idea!’

One of my friends that I brought with me to the show texted me later, ‘I just keep wishing that they’d riffed off the audience more. Less planning.”

Lafrance: Yeah and that’s a note that I’m adding, based on some of the audience feedback.

AO: But she was not even participating as much as, say, me, who was actually trying to just be the ‘observer’ with the camera and not get immersed in it, but by the end I was running with everyone else, having a blast with everyone else. She was much more stand-offish, so hearing that from her…

Lafrance: It’s interesting that people don’t want to participate themselves but really want to see others participate. And it’s challenging because you can’t do something too complex – it’s dance and you don’t want to do something people can’t do, and eventually it becomes a little childish or too simple, but I’m trying to just not be afraid of that because it’s really the atmosphere that’s created that’s really interesting between people, and their relationships, and I’m pushing that as well to the next level. But I think that’s a very good comment and I actually already sent that note to the dancers, saying, ‘I’m now giving you permission to follow the audience leads.’ I gave some examples of some audience things that I saw that could be followed, like during the ‘entering entering entering/exiting exiting exiting’ part, (when everyone moves forward and backwards as a group) there were two people who started to say ‘blocking blocking blocking’ and started to block us. So if a lot of dancers joined into that, and all started saying ‘blocking blocking blocking,’ that theme is now being explored, and maybe more audience will join as well. But just the idea that that’s a possibility is very interesting because then we can start going into unknown directions, and also because it reveals the power of the audience and how they can change things – in the moment they can add to the aesthetic of the project, which is what I want to happen.

A dancer whispers instructions, face to face.

AO: The whole piece seemed to be playing with power – like we talked about afterward – how they’re telling us to do this or do that. One dancer personally told me, ‘You’re going to go meet someone in the corner,’ so I did that – I walked over to the corner and introduced myself, “Hey I’m here, I’m meeting you because I was told to do so.’ And that’s what I said, aware of the strange power thing going on. And when we were running at one point, I decided to just sit, saying, ‘I’m sitting, I’m sitting,’ like the blocking thing.
 My favorite part was when a dancer looked me in the eyes and whispered to me to run back and forth from wall to wall, and just repeat five words over and over. I said ‘I wish I had a cheeseburger’ – which turns out to be more than five words, but anyway that was a really fun thing because I felt really involved, important even, as I was running and talking and contributing to the performance. So maybe have more actors join me, running and repeating my own phrase with me? Or get the whole crowd running and saying the same thing?

Lafrance: Yeah, that part I’m either going to extend that way, or I’m also thinking of giving other people other secrets, so that they can start doing other stuff. So people who feel like they weren’t let in on the secret can be let in on another secret.

I just read in the Village Voice how the writer thought you should let us in on the secret, but then exclude us again, or something like that.

Lafrance: Well, she saw a different show than you, completely different. What she’s saying should happen is what did happen in the show that you saw – that’s why it doesn’t make sense to you. Now we’re talking about the ‘next generation’ idea, like if people like you, who came to the show this Saturday, come to the next show, then you know more about the license you have to participate, so you might be more enticed to not only participate sooner, but also do more adventurous stuff, right? Because you’re social boundaries of ‘should I’ or ‘should I not, am I supposed to…’ are now concluded, that actually, this is permitted so I can do this. So now you might be trying things and you just might be testing the limit more. So the idea is that you would be first generation, and then somebody who was there the first weekend, would be second generation. So you‘re the first generation of people who are in the know, so you’re almost acting like a dancer in away, like a catalyst. You can monitor things as well. You can actually change the course, or add to it – like you know about the five word thing, and you might decide to just do it, or tell other people about it, or you might be like, ‘let me get five people to say my phrase.’ You know that you can do stuff… I find that interesting, this idea. Like in the future we can push it, have people who know more come up with stuff ahead of time, you know – it could get more complex.

A non-dancer participates, lying down.

AO: Yeah – I was thinking of doing something with handstands, just something ridiculous like that.

Yeah there’s that also – the contrast of, ‘am I gonna steal the show, or take it over?’ I’m kind of interested in the idea that there may be an audience take over, where the audience starts doing something as a group that overpowers what we’re doing. That could be interesting to see happen. But right now we’re still sort of the secret agents and we’re responsible for most of what’s happening, and people are mostly following what we’re doing. But it’s interesting to realize that ‘to do with’ or ‘to do against’ is also still a form of participation. It’s just a different one – but they’re both participation. There’s this saying, ‘doing what your mother says to do or doing what she says not to do is still doing something in relation to your mother.’ So this idea of rebelling is still a relationship… or, there also may be another thing, totally different. But yes, the power play is an interesting thing for me also, how people follow instructions very easily. But I’m interested on the other side, what happens when you don’t give people instructions, and how even without instructions they’ll obey or they’ll follow.

A dancer taps himself last to kneel down, before beginning to scream.

Yeah, like the herd thing. The turning point for me was when we were all tapped to kneel down, then we all just started screaming. It felt like, ‘Oh, we’re all just being ridiculous, we’re all in this sort of frame of release, where we’re all just being ridiculous.’ That’s where your setting in the white box seems very important. As in, could you do that on the street, guerrilla style? People aren’t really willing to be that ridiculous, but in that closed box…

Lafrance: I mean I’m thinking of even doing it at gallery opening. In Sweden we were doing something like this in a plaza. The fact that it was a large space, with a lot of people moving fast and traveling through the space, gave it another quality. It was more transient. We were doing little spits of things, little moments… and then the dancer would just walk off and disappear in the crowd. You would lose them completely. In a gallery you can’t just disappear, though at the show you were at, there were a lot of people and you could kind of disappear in the crowd. When there are less people someone could follow you around, with their eyes or whatever. But when you are in different places, like Grand Central or somewhere with a lot of movement – fast movement, walking – it’s different than if you have people standing around. All those different contexts affect speed and the level of attention and the rhythm that you have to interfere that space with, you know. Otherwise you’re doing something and it’s not impacting the space or the people in the space. But I’ve been wanting to do this exploration because I’ve been working on another larger project that’s going to involve a lot more audience participation on a larger scale. I’m interested in that research in general and those are things that I’m coming up with, but I’m interested in becoming even more of a specialist at manipulating those kinds of situations. So it’s a real learning experience for me as an ‘interaction-director,’ trying to find out what can affect a situation in different contexts.

And you’re trying to do it with leading by example, or secretly. But I’m thinking of Dan Deacon – who’s more of an electronic musician – that also incorporates group performance. On the microphone he’ll say, ‘Alright, we’re all gonna circle up,’ and then he’ll have one person run around inside the circle and give high fives to everyone for a few laps, then switch out for another high fiver. Or you’ll all put your hands on the person’s head in front of you and think about the Lion King or something. But he tells you to do all this stuff, and everyone participates… so I guess your trick is to do this without telling them to do this?

Also I wanted to ask you about a recent article in the NYTimes about Youtube and how it’s killed performance art. It talks about flash mobs, how there was one on Wall Street the other day that no one really paid attention to, or how on Chatroulette, someone faked death, but no one cared, laughed at it even. We’ve just been so flooded with so much performance art that no one cares anymore. How do you think Youtube plays into that? Because I was also skeptical of filming your performance; I wasn’t sure if you’d want me to reproduce our own very personal experience of actually being there by putting it on the Internet – does Youtube kill that?

Lafrance: Right. Well, I mean, it’s interesting because Youtube has several layers to me. The first layer is the opportunity to have a more democratic broadcasting outlet. But it’s so democratic that it’s flooded with stuff – there’s so much stuff that it’s hard to sort it out, it’s hard to search through it. The television is set up like a funnel – there’s only a small amount of people who actually make it through out of all those would like to. Whereas Youtube has these lines going everywhere of people connecting to each other. And sometimes there’s one person or video that is seen by a lot of people. So you have the opportunity to broadcast anything, and it can be seen by a large amount of people, but what is going to affect whether it’s seen or not is not necessarily even the quality because you can have something really good on Youtube, but if it just came from nowhere, nobody will know about it until it starts to accumulate hits and so on, so it’s not just quality. And with television, there’s this idea of being based on quality – there are judges at the door who decide what goes through the funnel. But youtube is not like that – you vote for what’s good. Also, this is aside from the fact that the advertising world is promoting videos, or the videos themselves are being used for advertising, going viral or whatever.
But… so that’s like the first layer – the privilege to be broadcast, and now anything can be broadcast, so it dilutes it, but it allows it to be seen. So there are some things that would have never gotten on television that we would never have known about that are now popular on Youtube.

AO: It’s kind of like your idea that the audience becomes the art.

Lafrance: It is, and that’s a reflection of that, and I think that’s a reflection of something that’s happening in our time. Right now the focus is on real people – sometimes the focus is on heroes or supernatural humans, but that’s a fashion, a fad, you know.  It goes back and forth, from the super hero to when the ‘regular’ people are cool, the girl next door. That’s part of what Youtube has done culturally – it’s bringing us back to seeing how the girl in her living room is interesting; the natural, the reality TV. …Of course reality TV is another issue… but…
To go back to your question, the relationship between Youtube and live work is another thing to me. Youtube is going to allow you to document live work, but you have to always remember that the documentation is not the work, the documentation of the work is the documentation of the work, and it lives within the limitations of that medium. So if you’re filming something that happens live, you’ll never be able to render what happened live. But you’re showing a video interpretation of it, right? It’s framed, it’s zoomed in or out, it’s this angle or that angle. But it’s nothing like being there. First of all, because you’re not there, and because you’re not there you can’t affect it – you know what I’m saying? I think that’s the really important thing – in a live performance, you’re there, and even though it’s not socially acceptable to mess around with the performance in a live context, you still have that option, and if you wanted to you could get up on stage and start doing stuff. But you can’t do that with Youtube – you absolutely cannot. You can respond with comments and all that, but it’s remote. You can’t affect the actual film. So this film is finished, it’s done. It’s recorded and it’s over. I don’t think that Youtube is killing anything that’s happening live. But I think that the fact that we have recorded medias has killed a lot of the live opportunities already – I don’t think Youtube is responsible for that. I think Youtube is an offshoot. But in the times when we couldn’t record music or theater or narrative or whatever, didn’t have film or records, the distribution of art was a completely different thing. Now because you can distribute these recorded things, you have access to the music in your house – you don’t have to go see the band play. And we’re all clear that going to see the band play has another dimension to it, it’s another thrill. It’s not just because you’re in the same room with the band, but you’re also with the audience, and this event. And I think events are different in nature, and they will always be.
The computer has become a little too important. It’s practical and all, but I hate when I’m being called a ‘computer user’ – what’s that? I’m a person, and I use a computer, but I’m not a computer user! You know? If that’s what we have become, then we’re useless, we’re actually a slave to the computer. And that’s not acceptable in my view. I mean we spend a lot of time on the computer, but it’s alienating us from being able to actually connect with people and being in a real live situation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to explore with this piece – what happens when we’re all in a real live situation together and we have options. Let’s not forget that we have options. We don’t have to do what everybody’s doing, we don’t have to not do what we’re told to do – we can do whatever we want! But we don’t operate this way anymore – we’re so… what’s the word? I don’t want to say ‘brainwashed’… we’re just so programmed or whatever. I’ll remember and I’ll email it to you.

Noémie Lafrance, after the performance.

The entrance on Driggs to the Black & White Gallery.

-S. Sveen

Related Links:

Noémie Lafrance [Sens Productions]
The White Box Project [Official Site]
Did Youtube Kill Performance Art? [NY Times]
Noémie Lafrance Would Like To Push You Around [Village Voice]