Break it Down, Break it Open: A Conversation with Physical Education
I am interested in gathering and peopling and entangling around ways to uproot a system that bears a logic of exclusion, a system that has said some are worthy of sight and recognition and most of us are not. and this uprooting we do together and for a long time and as soon as possible. and there is no telling what emerges after that.
-Litia Perta “Against Curation or Losing Your Grip”
Physical Education is a Portland-based collective comprised of performers Lucy Yim, Takahiro Yamamoto, Allie Hankins and keyon gaskin. Formed in response to a need for critical dialogue around performance, each member has a distinct movement practice which has evolved in response to the group’s pedagogical inquiries. After receiving a Precipice Fund grant through the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in 2014, Physical Education expanded their practice to spark participatory engagement within the community through events like reading groups, aerobics classes, and dance parties.
At their in-progress performance at pop-up art venue Short Space on November 7th, PE began by performing separate pieces all at once, letting observers come and go. They held the ultimate anti-intermission during which they stripped down to thongs and t-shirts and danced to “Popcorn” by Hot Butter. They performed final pieces one-by-one. Yim successfully solicited audience members to scream into a stack of baloney slices, later speaking about her mother, who had once served baloney to her fried into UFO-like discs. Hankins spoke about sexual disappointment and simulated the sound of jiggling jello into a microphone. Yamamoto silently vibrated during a series of brief gestures.
During all of this, it became clear that Physical Education cares little about adhering to traditionally defined boundaries within the worlds of dance or art. They’re more interested in playfully skewing the relationship between participant and observer; exploring the transcendent potential of getting people in a room and seeing what happens. This was reflected the following week during the reading group they organized, which drew a group of varied disciplines. We discussed texts that ranged from CA Conrad’s “Somatic Poetry Exercises” to a Triple Canopy piece on the genealogy of “International Art English.” A question seemed to form: How do we express ourselves genuinely within increasingly codified and opaque art institutions? and how do we create spaces that encourage this expression? No cohesive answer could possibly have presented itself during those two hours, but the meeting itself served as a reminder of how opportunities to gather and learn from one another can be so rewarding; especially so when much of the critical discourse around art-making occurs within academia or online. I met with Physical Education afterwards to talk about their current work. keyon gaskin, currently performing in Berlin, joined the conversation via video chat.
Anastasia Tuazon: Could we talk about the origin of Physical Education and how you met?
Taka Yamamoto: (to Lucy Yim) You’re the godmother of the name “Physical Education.”
Lucy Yim: The story I always tell is that it came out of the need to be critically engaging with dance and performance. I don’t know where that came from, but it’s something that I felt was being echoed by a lot of people in the community: why don’t we do some kind of a reading group where we just send each other stuff and meet? And the people that showed up were me, Taka and Allie. Keyon was gone at the time (I think he was doing Turbulence) but when he came back he was like “I want in.”
AT: Which year was that?
LY: That was 2013. So that whole year (2013-14) was us meeting as the four of us. It was kind of loose how we would do it, but we were really needing it.
TY: We started with just one article at a time. Then Keyon was providing several articles, plus videos.
LY: Podcasts, interviews, we would get together and talk about them, and talk about other stuff.
TY: Talk about life.
LY: Our anxieties, our current processes. It’s very much influenced our individual practices and then time passed, and people were going away and doing their things, but we really wanted it to keep going so we applied for the Precipice Fund. That kind of changed what it was – this question of how do we take what we’re doing and then open it up to people and what does that look like? That felt like an important thing to for us to do so it wasn’t some exclusive club in the corner.
Allie Hankins: When we made it a public endeavor we expanded beyond just having a reading-based meeting. We brought in people and curated local performers. I started teaching a dance class called TRANSCENDENTAEROBICOURAGE and we had artist’s talks and dance parties. Well, we tried to have a dance party once.
TY: Right. (laughs)
AH: We were trying to figure out: how do all of these parts feed the whole? The whole being creating a place where people of all artistic backgrounds (including no artistic background) can feel comfortable and invited to come have this critical discourse around performance.
AT: What is the space between dance and performance art in the work you do? I was curious about how you felt towards those terms and whether they’re limiting.
LY: There is a desire in my practice (that I see reflected in the group’s practice) to question exactly that. What are my own preconceived ideas around what this title means, or what this institution means? What’s my own paranoia and neuroses around it and how do I work alongside it? How do I break things open for myself, in a way? So I think that there is this desire to not label myself as this or as that, but I also don’t want to deny that I have an educational background in dance.
AH: I also have a degree in dance. I like my dancer self. I like that I’m skilled at that and I’ve worked really hard at it for a lot of my life, but I certainly see value beyond virtuosic dance moves – although I think that as it’s own thing is totally legit and awesome. I’m definitely influenced by where I am. In Seattle, I was more afraid to not be making “recognizable dance work” whereas in Portland I felt sort of nudged. Let your dance self gooo… Break out a little! The energy here is a lot more critical and heady and conceptual.
LY: I think you gravitated towards people that were thinking in those ways.
TY: That’s true.
LY: Which is part of the formation of this. We kind of gravitated towards one another.
Keyon Gaskin: I’ve become more interested in this idea that in its reception. Dance is often times less seen as this conceptually rigorous thinking form. Someone can “just” dance, you know? Whereas performance art has all the capacity and the capability that art-making as a thinking, conceptually rigorous, experimental object can somehow encompass. I’m interested in that conversation, but not so interested in delineating. Because of that, I do say I’m coming from a lineage of dance, because I’m very much into this idea that dance is a conceptually rigorous, thinking form that doesn’t have to be or look like a specific movement vocabulary. Also, I rarely call myself a performance artist. Do you guys call yourselves performance artists?
LY, AH, TY: No.
LY: I’ll say a “performer.”
KG: It makes me think of Hennessy Youngman. Was it Joseph Beuys that he was talking about, or Bruce Nauman? The one where he’s like, you can’t do that anymore because it’s already been done?
LY: Nauman, yeah.
KG: I feel like it’s like that. You can’t call yourself a performance artist anymore because Bruce Nauman already did it.
LY: I wrote a letter to Bruce Nauman. It was like a “Fuck you, Bruce Nauman.”
TY: Oh my God!
LY: I’ve never shared it with anyone. (laughs) I should bring it out.
AT: And Taka, you were calling yourself an “aspiring dancer,” which I took to be a joke. I’m still figuring that one out.
TY: The community we’ve built so far around PE – let’s say today’s reading group – looking at it, there were so many people from different genres. We wanted to be inclusive and encompass the genres that mirror how we want to engage in this art form. So, I’m influenced by dance practice (I was practicing Cunningham the other day, I’m still practicing Cunningham), but at the same time I know that’s not the only thing I want to do. I have all these different palettes of things I can pick and choose.
AT: Portland’s seemingly this place where people feel like they can do that – artists are writers/poets, they are dancers – there’s a lot of that hybrid creative energy and maybe just an interest in not specializing.
AH: It’s interesting to hear Taka say he’s an aspiring dancer because I know what he means. I know you mean you’re not a technician. You don’t have extensive training in technique, and yet you have danced with one of the most influential, established, important choreographers, Xavier Le Roy.
TY: But he’s not a technician.
AH: I know, but I’m saying he’s definitely considered in the realm of dance and you have danced for him and so you are “a professional dancer,” right? If we’re just looking at semantics here… (laughs)
TY: I see where you’re going.
AH: You are actually way more established than I am. I’ve never worked with anyone of that caliber, right? So if you’re going by that, I’m the aspiring dancer.
LY: Break it down!
AH: …and you’re the established dancer. It’s interesting. I would agree that my technique probably is stronger than yours because I spend way more time doing it, but as far as professional accomplishments – you have me beat, you know? I’m not like, putting a value judgment on it though.
LY: What’s so fascinating to me about dance, and being a dancer, is that we’re in relation to ourselves as a tool in ways that’s very different, I think, than other art forms. Some people have an affinity to that and other people don’t, so I feel like by saying you’re an aspiring dancer, you’re being self aware.
AH: Taka, you said something about how you had done an exercise in a Deborah Hay workshop incorrectly and I caught myself doing the same fucking thing that people do to me all the time where I was like “You didn’t do it wrong, you just did it your way!” thereby totally removing all your power and expertise around this craft. We do not need to run in and save each other all the time from self deprecation. (to LY) I don’t know if you experience this as a woman – anytime I’m self critical about my work, every time I say “Oh yeah, I fucked that up.” people are really quick to be like “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. You need to be more tender. You can’t be judgy all the time.” And I’m like, “Hey! Fuck you. I know what i’m capable of. I fell short in my opinion, and I’m allowed to say that.” Especially after a work in progress showing, it’s always something I struggle with.
LY: I hear that. If the conversation that you’re having with the audience is of self-deprecation then that’s what they have to relate to – because we’re inside of it ourselves and we can’t always see what the loudest thing is that’s coming through – which is why we have the in progress showings in the first place – because we’re like fuck, I do not know how the outside is seeing.
AH: Like, what.. does.. this.. look like?!
LY: …and there’s a sphere of – Oh my god, maybe I’m making something that’s extremely offensive – that’s somehow misogynistic, racist, all these things – that it’s so embedded in me that I can’t even see it? You know? (laughs)
AT: I was recently at a performance in Montreal, it was a collaboration between a musician and a dancer (Karen Fennel and Jackie Gallant’s The Trouble With Reality). In the end there was a moment, meant to be humorous, where they were like “Hope there was enough dancing!” I thought that was this really apt way of acknowledging the expectation of viewing a dance performance as if you’re in spectator mode, being entertained, and if it ends up being performance art and things are different – slower, more conceptual – maybe people’s expectations are challenged if they know you as a dancer. One of the main differences in how I’ve seen it is the way you engage with the audience – the tension in people wondering: am I watching? Or am I also a part of this?
AH: I’ve been thinking a lot about it in relation to theater. This is influenced by a very specific essay that I read (The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism by Beatriz Colomina), so this is kind of bullshit, but there’s a certain degree of penetrating that a body has to do inside of a space to say “I’m in this space now.” – the way a body has to move through space and the way their gaze has to penetrate a very particular part of the space. Performing last Saturday, I’m thinking a lot about moments where I’m calibrating penetrability and impenetrability. If I’m reading to myself and then writing to myself no one feels totally let in, but the minute I bring myself out into the space and have someone tie my shoe then something shifts. People feel a little bit more involved, a little less at ease, and the moment I’m back to reading it’s like: Ok. I can watch again. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to play with that.
LY: After I did Devastation Melody, I can’t experience myself (and have no idea how it feels for you guys), but one of the things that I was reflecting on was; how do you let in an audience? And why? How do you, and why do you?
KG: Watching something or engaging something or having your gaze on something isn’t…it isn’t a passive act to me. I’m interested in implicating that – like we are all here present in this room and thus we are all in some way making this happen. There is something that can be extremely violent about the gaze, or there is something that can be very, very violent about consuming the body through spectatorship, right? I think about how much access I give to me or how vulnerable I allow myself to be in a moment, and being able to effectively change that. But is that bullshit though? Do I have control over that? I guess my defenses can be up, but I don’t know. I wonder how how much I have control over that – how penetrable am I at any given moment. Who decided that really? Do I get to decide that? Or is the way that they’re watching deciding that?
AT: Thinking about larger ways to engage people – alternatives to just existing within an institution – the reading group is a gesture towards that although it’s still not always the easiest thing. What is a real community? That’s something that I often wonder about – in the art world and in Portland.
LY: I feel fucked up about that, for sure. I really don’t understand community – and I’m trying to understand that for myself, on a personal level, and of course artistically. It feels very confusing to me. Maybe we’re not far enough out of it to see what it is?
KG: There seems to be more crossover between fields, areas, genres, mediums. That sort of thing really happens in Portland in a way that doesn’t happen perhaps on a mass level in other places where community is more defined through mediums. Not wholly, obviously – and queerness really fucks this up. Queer communities kind of work across mediums. In Portland, that delineation is less, which might contribute to what Lucy’s talking about – it feeling impossible to really grasp because it’s not so definable.
AT: It’s a vibrant community in a lot of ways, but also lacking things.
LY: What are some of the things you would name as lacking?
AT: Maybe I do see a lack of support for people of color. I know of things that are there, but I don’t know of enough dedicated resources. When it seems like this is a place where we need that.
LY: I think there are people having those conversations and there are a lot of POC workshops and meeting groups. I just went to one this week and I’m just learning about that history of Portland. Just like everything else, it’s very systematic and to dismantle or unravel or create alongside it takes a certain amount of effort. One of my concerns is if we’re constantly just saying “Portland’s so white! I don’t see any people of color here!” I’m like fuck – by you saying that you’re erasing people. Why aren’t you seeing them? They exist in this city, you’re just not leaving the inner city limits. You’re not looking, because it’s there. I get a little frustrated sometimes.
AT: I always wonder: do I not know about stuff that I should? Is it just me, and my perspective?
KG: …and I think about how we keep others from moving there in saying those things as well, but these communities are there. There’s erasure of people who are there. Perhaps within communities that we’re in there are systematically white spaces, you know?
AT: And it’s obviously not just Portland.]
KG: Exactly. So then what work is being done to make them not just necessarily inclusive, but all inclusive spaces, ideally?