Whitney Hunter Interview Transcript

Chicago| Part one: Saturday, April 13th, 2013 @ Dfbrl8r Performance Art Gallery
Recording length: 41:15

Whitney Hunter – Performance Artist
David LaGaccia – Collaborating Journalist

This conversation took place in the morning, several hours before Whitney was to perform his first piece at Dfbrl8tr gallery on April 13th, 2013 as a part of his performance series, the 1st AMERICAN SHAPIST HOUSE for the PRACTICE of PERFORMANCE/RITUAL: this conversation was between Whitney and I. In order to maintain a sense of neutrality and a sense of expectation, we both agreed that I would be kept unaware of what Whitney would do in his performance. We also both agreed that we would record a “before” conversation to be taken place before his first performance in Chicago, and an “after” conversation, to be taken place after his performances in Chicago. This is the resulted first conversation:

David: Alright, so um— I guess explain to me first what you mean by First American Shapist Performance Artist.

Whitney: Ok—um—Well Shapist is um— a sort of art movement I guess you can say that uh, me and two of my other friends came up with—um—in the sort of deep late night conversations about art and  everything. We were talking about basically, like—um—like one of the reasons we make art and uh, we all found a commonality in our sort of work that was really about how people, changing the perceptions of sort of what people expect from black artists, from artists in general, and it’s like, what is our responsibility as artists, and the things that—one thing we found in common is that we’re all interested in this idea of—uh—let’s say, opening these portals of—um—perception, how you perceive what you perceive and how you understand that, and so—*laughs* basically we were like thinking of different ways to like coin, and then like, what is it, you know start talking about Modernism, and Modernist, and Futurist, and what all of those movements were about and we thought, well, Shapist— I mean, we somehow came up with the idea of Shaping, shaping, shaping—um—emotions, shaping perceptions really, so um—in preparing for this show I had another title for it, and then um—when the structure of the set from the seven day to the sort of two day six hour structure came about, I thought, oh I need a new, I need to call it something else, because it doesn’t seem to be, I mean that title that I was calling it which I don’t even remember—um—return, it was like—uh— To the Earth—To the Earth the Body, something returns, like basically in short it was called Return, and the I thought no, I changed that, so I said ‘Oh maybe this is an opportunity to kind of like present this idea of Shapism,’and  um—because I use it in my artist statement and everything from the moment we kind of conceived of it and so, that really is what it is, you know this this interest in wanting to kind of like shape in a way, shape perception, or present you with these action based—uh—activates, images that in a way open up sort of the mind for a broader sort of perception of what you’re experiencing.

David: Ok, so you’re kind of like trying to coin the phrase…

Whitney: I guess so *laughs*

David: *Laughs*

Whitney: I mean I guess you can kind of see it that way in this sense it’s like I’m presenting this idea of Shapism. Um—yeah, so sure.

David: I guess we could talk about more—this was planned to be like a seven day longer event, now it’s a two-day event, uh, What was your original plan for that seven day event.

Whitney: Basically the original plan was to do exactly what I’m doing in six-hours but do it over a seven day period, which means, some of the performances on within the seven days, may be shorter or longer, uh, based on what each performance was. But when it became the six-hour thing I thought, ‘Oh, how about really condensing all of that, all of those ideas, into one performance, you know, performance, yeah so, that’s really what that was.

David: How um—are you familiar with doing more longer work? What’s the longest work you’ve done?

Whitney: Five hours.

David: Five hours?

Whitney: Five hours yeah.

David: Ok so this will probably be your longest work.

Whitney: This will be the longest, yeah, yeah.

David: So how are you going to prepare for that?

Whitney: Um…well

David: Mentally, physically…

Whitney: Mentally, yeah. I think what I’ve been doing a lot is thinking about my preparations for shorter work, the shorter works that I’ve  done, uh—and trying to apply that to this—and a lot of it has to do with, uh—sort of reconnecting with this idea of presence and liveness, and calm and you know, dedication, and commitment to the moment, um—so I don’t know if there, I don’t know if I’ve prepared a particular way other than making myself aware that ‘Ok in this six hours, what I’m challenging myself with is this, is— this obstacle of staying in the moment, and staying present’, um—so yeah, I don’t  know that I’ve done. I mean, one thing that I’ve done has been writing, you know, writing, writing the ideas about the performance down in a way to give me a map, in order to map out how I’m going through this six hours, and knowing that I have these tradeposts that I’m going to get to and that will let me know where I am in this six hours, but, but in the preparation of the writing it done, it gives me, it give me this mental thing like, ‘Ok, you do know what you’re doing.’ And as long as you keep that in the forefront of your mind, then your—the performance will go as it should.

David: Does it take a lot of stamina, this idea of staying in the moment, or staying committed to presence— does that like take a lot of stamina, a lot of energy…

Whitney: Yes it does.

David: …Over a longer period of time?

Whitney: Yeah, over a longer period of time. I think, uh—one of the things that I’ve been kind of thinking about is this idea when efficiency becomes sort of most paramount. When like, when all extraneous activity is pushed aside and all I’m left with is the primary act or activity that I’m doing, and how efficiently can I do that in order that I stay really—yeah so I think that over a long period of time, you know within six hours somewhere in there this idea of efficiency will sort of kick in and that’s—so I don’t know when exactly, but um—I’m anticipating that in a way.

David: Um…You have these planned things to do, and you want to do this idea of being efficient in doing these…this set course of this objectives…

Whitney: Yeah.

David: How do you gauge time in that respect, because for my experience in performing, you kind of lose time, either you can go too fast or you can go too slow, or, I remember at Grace Space you were conscious, like ‘Oh was that too long, do you think that went too long?’ How do you gauge that time?

Whitney: I don’t know. In the, when I did that five hour reading instillation performance [Note: At Fitness], I gauged the time by where I was in the reading, and so I said to myself ‘that every time I got to the end of like a particular passage within a particular chapter or something like that, I would get up and make a walk around the space,’ and um—but there was no clock or anything there, so, um—that was the only way that I knew. I don’t know. In this case I think, what I’m, what I’m going to do is I have to ask someone to be a marker for me, and just say, you know like, one hour, like one, like almost tally, or maybe someone can come out and just make a mark somewhere, and that lets me know one hour has passed, two hours has passed, three hours,  because it is a long period, and it potentially could go longer, or it could potentially go significantly shorter. So it is a pretty daunting idea to know that what I’m doing is subjecting myself to a sort of time frame, but  at the same time, I’m not being conscious of it in terms of  calculated time. I don’t know, it’s going to be interesting to experience, I mean, I’m doing it, sort of, doing it tomorrow, presenting the piece again tomorrow, so maybe I’ll learn something today that will sort of help me tomorrow or something like that.

David: So you feel you can learn from your performances that you’ve done?

Whitney: Yeah, yeah I think within the process of doing the piece, I am conscious of what’s happening, and I’m conscious of, what those things…what those things that are happening, what information those things are giving me. Yeah, so I think that then perhaps I then have the option of sort of, if that, in this case doing it again, I have the option of, sort of notating that, that information that I’ve gotten, or physically notating, write it down in a journal or something, or, mentally just kind of storing it, and trying to sort of be conscious of it in the representation of the piece…yeah the re-performance of the piece. So I think there is room to obviously learn the more you do anything, and I think in this case, what I’ll learn is, well, I don’t know what I’ll learn.

David: Because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Whitney: Exactly, exactly. I don’t know what to expect from the, from the viewer, from the audience that’s here. I don’t know if anybody will actually come, and who will stay for six hours, who will stay for ten minutes, you know all of that—sort of external stuff , I don’t know, and then internally, you know there’s some things that I know about doing what I’m going to do, but, in the doing of it is when I’ll really know what is actually happening.

David: I guess, uh, you really have to have an understanding of your body, how it reacts to like these stresses in terms like again stamina. How has performance gotten you in tune of understanding what your body can do and what it can’t do?

Whitney: I think I basically set up these scenarios that give me back information about that.

David: Well I just want to inject that you are from a dancing background so you, you’ve probably done some, you stayed in shape, you’ve worked out, you’ve done conditioning, so you’re pretty aware of what body and what your limitations are.

Whitney: Yeah, it’s true, it’s true. Yeah, so it’s true, with all of the knowledge that I have from all my years of, sort of pure dance work, you know I have this thing that’s like once you’ve learned something you can’t unlearn it. You can use it or not use it, but like I know, I know what my body can do, and I know how I can push that body in different scenarios, by setting up different scenarios that enable me to push that. One thing for instance is my, sort of conscious, um—consciously in a way not rehearsing something. What that does, it doesn’t allow me to get used to the time that it takes for something to happen; it doesn’t allow me to understand  this particular something, you know, inside and out, and you know from dance what we learn is that, you know, you rehearse so that you learn something inside and out so you understand all of the possible, uh—variables that can happen that go in to making that thing, that go into performing that thing so that when that thing happens, maybe something while that activity is going on, something unexpected happens, you know how to deal with that. But now as, you know, as I’m doing more performance art based work, that becomes more complicated, because what I’ve said to myself is ‘I am consciously not going to submit myself to the practices, of sort of pure dance in order to learn something else, in order to learn, about time, how to become conscious of time, in an activity, in an action based, you know, task or something.’

David: Are you saying that you don’t what to be conscious of time in your performance?

Whitney: I do.

David: You do.

Whitney: But it’s not a consciousness that’s framed by counts or framed by a musical score or something like that. It is a time that’s based on—it’s almost like something, something is done when it is done. So a task is complete when it is done, not a task that’s complete after sixteen counts. Right? Because that gives you a different—sort of approach to doing that particular thing, and in dance we count our actions with numbers, or you know, with a musical score even if we don’t, you know, count—count the movement, we are, we are framed by the score, you know, whatever the meter of the score is, and in this piece in particular, there—there is, that doesn’t exist. Only until the end of the piece, there is a score that I am using that—that will be, that will do exactly that, but it is an improvised movement, so—so I haven’t choreographed to it, just simply responding to the music; I know the music, but I’m trying to be honest about my—sort of physical responses to the music that I’m using.

David: This goes into like our conversation right before we got here, how in dance you have a product, you have a—you have to hit all these spots or it’s a failure, but in performance it’s more of a process. You learn as you go, you— something may happen but you may need to amend it, and adapt to it in real time.

Whitney: *laughs* Yeah, dance is sort of like a time-based product. You know in a sense that the finished product is itself in a way a process, but it’s—it’s a process that kind of has a beginning and an end, a clear beginning and an end based on either a story or the score or the vocabulary you’ve created or that, whereas performance I can speak specifically in this piece, um—it really is this idea that I can abandon the action whenever I want to, based on my level of feeling like, ok it’s completed—I feel like that’s done, I can go on to the next thing. There is no beginning or ending, because it’s not really about the product, although I have a frame, I have an idea, an overall idea about what, as we were talking about last night the aesthetic, what this thing is supposed to look like when it’s done. But I have an idea about it ‘Will actually look like that?’ maybe not. Right? It will only look like what I’m thinking it will look like if I’m honest about all the points that lead up to that thing.

David: I that the eh…the term I’ve heard over and over again from performance artists, planned but not rehearsed, um, I think that’s a good term, I think that’s kind of like what you’re going for. Where you have a plan of what you want to do, but it’s unrehearsed, you’re not counting all the variables that come between the steps, each step.

Whitney: It’s kind of like a blueprint. Yeah. It’s like a blueprint, you know what I mean? I mean, maybe not exactly blueprint, because a blueprint is pretty exact, but I mean, if you cut something , you know if a wall is cut an eighth of an inch shorter, you know, that could be, that could mean falling of a ceiling *laughs* or something like that, whereas I think there is more freedom in performance based on what you’re doing, in fact, if you’re building a structure, yeah you have to perhaps consider that, but I think you’re right, this planned action or planned versus rehearsed. I call my sort of script “Action Plan” in terms because I feel like it is a plan of action; this is what I’m intending to do, these are my intentions, my physical intentions through the piece. And I’m pretty sure I’ll do them, but how I do them and to what intensity, level of intensity and everything, that might change based on my feeling at that moment, or the feeling that I’m getting at that moment. Maybe if I feel like that something has gone on too long, I can push through it more quickly.  You know what I mean? Especially in this sense of six hours, if I feel like, boy I’m getting tired, how do I deal with that? In this particular moment is very extran…very difficult, you know? Maybe I just push through it faster or something. Or maybe I stay with that and deal with the difficulty of that, of this particular section.

David: Explore that sensation.

Whitney: Yeah, because that could give off something that that sort of gives this, potentially gives this idea of, what’s the word, not dedicated, but like, well like commitment and like really pushing through. You know, this psychological thing of boy this looks really hard, he’s in this fourth hour and he looks exhausted, but he’s staying with it, he’s staying with it, endurance, you know like, yeah.

David: There’s several things I want to get to, but um, when going into a performance, what do you feel is the ideal mindset? Do you feel…

Whitney: Neutrality.

David: Yeah.

Whitney: Neutrality.

David: Because there’s a clear difference between, you know, how you go about your day walking around, and then ‘O.k., I want to prepare for a performance.’ Like a mental preparation. But should performance just be an everyday, have that everyday kind of feel of action?

Whitney: No, I don’t think so, I mean because if that’s the case, then, you know, people could just watch, watch the actions of, of everyday pedestrian life, and in fact, that’s where I get a lot of my impetuous for performing is sort of the everyday, but I think in a way performance is the heightening of the everyday through you know, um—through putting a spotlight on this very sort of, maybe this mundane act as walking. Something like that.

David: Ok, so like in context, with aesthetic considerations or not just, I don’t want to say sloppy, but an attitude of not caring of—

Whitney: Yeah, no I think maybe that’s sort of ah, a misconception about performance art is that it is an art of, of disregard, let’s say, you know like, what we’re doing, well anyone can do it, right? But in fact I don’t think so, I think in a way, as I think of performance as a medium, what is the medium of performance? What are the properties? What are the things about performance that make performance a particular medium? And I think one of those things is being aware of things like time , how time can be manipulated, space, how you can use the space in relation to yourself, you know, the viewer, and in particular, like an object, or something, how—how space can be manipulated in that way. Another thing I think about performance is really this idea of, I mean liveness, presence, you know, what is, how do you get these people to watch this act that they see every day? You know, um—. Maybe it’s through repetition? Maybe it’s through dynamic changes? Maybe it’s through, yeah, intensity that’s kind of dynamic . And it really depends on if you use, you’re using an object, or you’re creating an object. Are you using your voice in some way? Are you using your body in some way?  I remember seeing a performance of this guy, I can’t remember, where he was from, I think they were from Finland or something like that. And he had this piece where, it was a longish piece, but a one point he ah… starts saying this word whiskey, and he kept saying whiskey, whiskey, whiskey, whiskey, but then he was also drinking whiskey, and so, like, the way in which he said it was affected by him drinking the whiskey because obviously he was getting drunk basically, but he just kept digging, let’s say digging into this word whiskey and it just every time you heard it, it started doing something else to you perceptually, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really an interesting way of using space, you know, I mean because the voice travels in space and we hear, we hear sounds as vibrations bouncing around and then this affect let’s say of the intoxication, inebriation, affecting how  the sound came out. It sounded more complicated to get out because you know, what was physiologically happening with the alcohol and his body and so on. I think something very simple like that is an acknowledgement of a performance as a medium in terms of the awareness of these things of time and space and presence, and how your body is affected by all of that.

David: And I guess the idea of using a space to the advantage of your performance, so I guess if you’re doing a performance in Dfbrl8r, ok this is where I’m going to be performing, how can I best use this space, how will it best bring to my performance?

Whitney: Yeah exactly. A lot of my works I, even if they’re not particularly site specific, I do take into account the space of, the site of the performance, let’s say, because I think it is very important in where you want people to view it, you know, because that’s in performance art, that’s sometimes very, it varies, because it’s not a proscenium or anything like that, so you can really ask people to…to view from wherever they want to view from or they can move around during the performance, so yeah I think that, yeah, this idea of using the space to your advantage, and knowing the space then using the properties of that space is in fact, yes, very an important and key element in performance, because it’s not an assumed thing, you know, like the proscenium stage is assumed. You make works—you make works for a fourth wall, right? That you know people aren’t coming up to your space, so this is your sort of sacred space on the stage with this protective fourth wall, and then you have the audience in the black in the dark that you can’t see maybe. I mean, obviously those tropes have been pushed and expanded throughout our time in pure dance with the post-modernists and you know, avant-garde, and everything like that, but—but, you know, when you talk about the proscenium that that there’s an assumption there, that the audience is watching, that there is, they are passively watching, you know, as opposed to in particular let’s say in the Dfbr8r, um—the closeness of it, the intimacy of the space and you in the space with the viewer, it’s almost there, there active in it, because it’s so close. Right? They have a more direct connection with what you’re doing.

David: What is your view on audience involvement? I know like in some performances people are really like hushed, and oh we’ve got to be respectful to the artist, we’ve got to stand far back. Or do you, would you, how would you react to somebody was like having a conversation in the corner that has nothing to do with your performance? Is there a respect that needs to be paid to the performance, or do you feel that the audience is part of the performance?

Whitney: You know I think if the piece is interactive, meaning I’m asking audience at some point in the piece to help me complete that piece by their participation, then I can expect them to be detached and then attach at some point. It’s like if it’s interactive you got to set up that environment so that they feel not necessarily that they need to be talking and chit-chatting around, but they feel this thing where, ‘Ok I’m a part of this right away. But if it’s something that feels like it wants to be more of an observed experience, then it is distracting, it is distracting to have people, observers not focused in on what the performance is. And it’s tricky in performance art because, you know, you know, we’re presenting it as if is an exhibition, as if you know, this live art thing is happening , and when you go to galleries and museums, we all know that one can come and go. You know, they can come, they can ‘oh I’ve seen this,’ and keep going kind of thing, so there is this little, you know this fine line between sort of like, the theatre and performance, and what we expect from the observer of this performance. Some people, audience people are, they know this, and they push, they push that in terms of like physically engaging themselves in your work, even if it’s not, you know, something you want to have happen, but you know in that case I’ve seen, you know, performers kindly ask them, like ‘no this isn’t for you to do, this is for me to do,’ and that’s something that in theatre and dance it would never happen like that. If someone ran up on stage…

David: It’s just assumed.

Whitney: Well, I’m saying if someone ran up on stage during a dance performance or something, I mean, you will be so like ‘What is this person doing?’ The audience would be like ‘Where is he going, where is she going? What is happening?’ It would just completely throw a loop in it, and the dancer would be expected to maintain what they’re doing.

David: Even in the…

Whitney: Yes totally, unless that person is physically doing something to you, like if someone ran up, and grabbed you, or something in the middle of one of your, a solo or something like that, I mean—there is this assumption like, ‘What did you do, did you get him off of you and keep going?’ *laughs* It’s a weird thing, in performance art, if someone did that totally the performer at that point is free to say, ‘Hey get off me, I’m performing!’ you know what I mean? And then get back to what they’re doing, and decide to stop. So the expectations of sort of, unwarranted…

David: *laughs* That’s what we talk about not being able to expect what’s happening! *laughs*

Whitney: Exactly, so like, I don’t know, maybe somebody will be so affected by something that I do today that it might cause them to physically want to do something in the space to me with me, I don’t know! But…I don’t know. I say I hope not, but maybe it might add something! *laughs*

David: It will really charge the energy!

Whitney: Exactly! But sometimes that opens up the road for others to say, ‘Oh, ok, I guess we’re supposed to do this.’ So, I have some works that are interactive, and I welcome, sort of the participation of the audience, because it actually completes the work for me.

David: So how do you feel that you establish the trust with audience?

Whitney: That’s a tricky one.

David: Because there’s a mutual trust between the audience and the performer, and the performer and the audience.

Whitney: I think it has something to do with—I don’t know, I don’t know if this is the definitive thing, but it might have something to do with my preparation, my focus, my—attention to the process even in starting, before the sort of big event happens, like everything that happens before that is important so I think that somehow people get this sense of ‘Ok let’s be respectful.’ I mean, I think it’s kind of in my work, this kind of reverence kind of thing; I kind of push that a little bit too.

I think that generally people want to watch and be a part of something, and so it’s perhaps also in the configuring where the audience is. Are they on that side, am I on this side, are they around me, are the—, am I in the middle of them? All of that is, has to do with community versus non-community.

David: Well even in the reverse role, I’ve seen performances, where like, I felt like the performer took too many liberties, and it’s just, I felt like you’re—the performer was, destroying the trust between the audience and the performer.

Whitney:  Yeah, that always will become like an intervention, where the audience feels like, they just want to get in there, because they think it’s performance art and I can. But that really depends on what the performer has presented you, what options they have presented you in that. Yeah.

David: Um…we have like ten minutes left on this thing.

So I wanted to go back to something you mentioned in your workshop [Note: Held at Dfbrl8r on the 12th], the idea that, the idea that you want to hit certain actions, staying on it, staying on a path. I brought up ‘Well, ok so what if you start doing an action, but you want to explore that action and deviate from the path?’ Do you feel that—what’s your position on spontaneity in your own performances?

Whitney: I think, um—as again, you know this idea of having a plan, and knowing that in that plan you have a particular objective. If your objective is to create this wall to piss on, I don’t know *laughs*. You know, if you don’t actually create the wall , and you just actually take a piss, then it’s a question of do you feel like you’ve succeeded in your completing your intention, your task? Or do you feel like you haven’t? You know—. I think there is spontaneity. Speaking from my perspective, if I have a particular thing that has to happen so that a next thing can happen, then between point A and point B, there is room. Like if I’m hammering a nail into—into a 2×4, and I know that I have four nails that I want to go into there, and I start to hammer and then one of the nails breaks off, I’m free as a performer to go away, get another nail, and get that fourth one in there. As opposed to, like, that’s not the end of the piece if that, if that, if one of the nails breaks off. If that is the kind of thing where in life shit happens, how are you going to keep going?

David: How are you going to deal with it? We’re coming back to this idea of performance as process, because you can’t plan for that nail to break. I remember how back in Grace Space, you um—were trying to light, your dirt on fire, but it wouldn’t light so you did something, another action that you probably didn’t plan for, but it probably, whether it turned out bad better worse, we don’t know. But— it’s what happened.

Whitney: In order to finish that.

David: It was the completion of that performance.

Whitney: So I think, I think in that there, that is the spontaneity, to know that, I can go away, get something to complete that task, or I can make sure I have enough nails over here. Unless in fact, the piece is about if a nail bends, then that doesn’t go in.

David: A deliberate failure, that’s what happens.

Whitney: So there is in the sense like—it seems like a backwards thing in terms of like, not rehearsing, because like, well if you rehearse, you would know, you know, maybe I better have some more nails here. But my sort of analogy here is that you don’t practice to walk across the street. I mean, as a little kid you’re taught this is what you do, but when you get older, you don’t practice that. You don’t say, ‘Ok, when I go out, this is what I’m going to do to cross the street.’ You get out there and you use all of the knowledge that you have about crossing the street at that moment.

David: It’s not even conscious. You’re not even thinking about it.

Whitney: Right, right.

Exactly, and you say, ‘Ok I’m crossing the street.’ I mean, if a nail, the fourth nail doesn’t come in, I didn’t have to rehearse that the nail didn’t go in. Like, what if the nail doesn’t go in? Well, if the nail doesn’t go in, and I’m supposed to make four in, then I’ll take that nail out, reach over here get another one, and pound that nail in, and keep going in this process. So that’s my position on it. That there is room as long as you staying sort of true and honest to what your intention here is. If it’s four nails in the wood, get four nails in the wood. Because if you don’t, that could send, that could send you into another tangent that may not help you complete, complete in quotes, you know, this thing. Not complete as in the final product, but complete as in, this step leads to this step.

David: All right we’re done, we have to—we’re done.

Whitney: Ok.