Sonya Robbins

Sonya Robbins of robbinschilds in "Layla and Sonya Go Camping," 2009

1. Do you consider yourself a performance artist?

For the past few years I’ve cycled through a range of terminology. I used to refer to myself as a ‘choreographer’ which then evolved into a ‘movement artist’ and in the last year or so I’ve been throwing ‘performance artist’ into the mix. My creative partner (Layla Childs) and I are never quite sure how to identify as our work utilizes many different forms. I guess our latest term is that we’re ‘trans genre’, we’ve been enjoying that one quite a bit.

2. What was the first performance art you ever encountered in your life?

Easy. My first glimpse of ‘performance art’ was in the film Legal Eagles when Daryl Hannah (who played an edgy downtown performance artist) did a show for Robert Redford. Her performance had projections, disjointed confusing text, fire and sinister/sexy movements. I was 12 at the time and I thought it was amazing.

3. Do you make distinctions between performance art and other forms of performance?

This is a timely question since what used to be a more direct way to distinguish one from another—namely what venue you were going to—is no longer a sure fire prediction as to what is presented. More and more I’m seeing what I would have considered ‘performance art’ in traditional dance spaces and ‘dance’ in galleries, etc. So I guess the above indicates that I do make distinctions as I’m watching something, although I’d say it’s more of an automatic, habitual process rather than something I think is important to do as a viewer. In fact thinking about this from the perspective of a ‘viewer’ I might argue that for me I have a richer experience of watching when I don’t assign a label (dance, performance art, theater) to what I’m looking at. However there’s another aspect to this, which is the conversation the artist has with a presenter. In that scenario I think that we (robbinschilds) try to be clear about whether or not we are intending to present a ‘dance piece’ which for us might require a more specific type of presentation (I’m thinking both technically but also how the work is promoted) or a durational piece which has no precise beginning-middle-end and which we imagine people dropping in and out of over the course of the exploration.

4. What makes a performance successful?

Hard to say exactly as this is constantly changing! It seems these days that it’s the things I almost hate that end up staying with me the longest. I like it when I’m still mulling over a performance days later. I do consistently appreciate a clear structure. Since we’re talking about time based work, the sequencing of ‘events’ feels important. I want to find meaning or sense in the order of the live events, and when the structure accumulates in a way that registers it’s incredibly satisfying. When that doesn’t happen for me, I go into the void of randomness. Where I’m wondering “why do I need to be watching any of this?” And that’s a dark, depressing void.

5. How do you construct your public?

Well, since we generally agree to most of the opportunities that come our way I’d say our public is constructed in a somewhat mish mash way. I think we’ve been seen in visual art institutions as often as we’ve been seen in theaters. Each of those environments brings a different crowd. The audience in a museum comes to our work with less context which can be liberating but there’s also less commitment to seeing a performance through. Our dance audience is comprised of peers, friends and colleagues. So I imagine those folks see our performances as part of a trajectory, both a personal robbinschilds trajectory but also they are framing it in relation to other current dance work.

6. Have you found support in the art world, the theater world, dance world, or other worlds, for the development and presentation of your work?

Mainly yes. Since our work spans a few genres I feel very fortunate to have had invitations to make things for different types of spaces. And the worlds I think we occupy are dance and visual art and then more recently film (we’ve not had much experience working within the theater world). There are projects that Layla and I make that we know can only work in a traditional dance space. And then there are the ideas that translate better in a gallery. Generally speaking the curators and artistic directors who occupy these worlds get the span of our focus and are open to talking about our projects from that perspective. Now if you expand the definition of ‘support’ to include criticism, in that case I don’t think we feel that our projects have been equally supported by these worlds. In our experience it has been hard to have our whole projects reviewed by dance critics, who tend to focus primarily on the movement element only and disregard the other elements at play. Certainly our more probing criticism has come from visual art critics who are less concerned about what ballet school we might have attended when we were 12. That sounds pretty catty but oh well!

robbinchilds / A.L. Steiner, C.L.U.E., 2007

7. What did you study in school? Did you have mentors?

I went to Bard College in the early to mid 90’s and graduated with a degree in Dance. At that point the school was super small and the Dance department was still housed in this funky building in the woods. They’ve got a fancy new Frank Gehry building now. The dance department at Bard was unusual in that you were awarded a BA in composition not dance technique. So although you had to take technique classes daily you were also required to choreograph a finished work each semester. I was kind of obsessed with all of my teachers at the time, but if I had to single out one it would be the amazing Susan Osberg. Susan would make the craziest 39 count phrases that went on and on which she could never remember or reverse to the other side. She also would have us do long experiential improvisations out in the woods (I’m thinking in particular of her leading us on a now legendary two hour slow motion walk through this river and waterfall that was on campus).

8. Who/what inspires your most recent body of work?

The most recent finished work that we presented, ‘Sonya and Layla Go Camping,’ began out of a physical limitation that Layla was dealing with due to a surgery at the time. So in a way that whole project was based on being physically but also a bit creatively blocked. Because we’re a duo much of our inspiration is generated by our endless, and I mean ENDLESS conversations. Talking and story telling have become a major part of our practice. About mid-way through the making of that project we saw Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film ‘Celine and Julie go boating’ which in French (…vont en bateau) is a double entendre for getting caught up in a story that someone is telling you. We were smitten, and we ended up citing elements of that film in our performance. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention ‘Seinfeld’ here as another source of inspiration. It’s definitely a clear example of generating a project, a joke, a story out of nothing.

9. How important is your body to your work?

Honestly this ebbs and flows depending on what we’re working on. Over the last few years we’ve moved away from creating dense movement based choreography. That’s not to say the body isn’t important, but rather that the body in our work is most of the time shown either ‘rehearsing’ a movement or walking a pathway. I do sometimes miss the days of working on elaborate dance phrases, and who knows maybe someday we’ll get back to that. But for now the body in our work is presented in a more pedestrian (actually we use the term ‘extra-pedestrian’) state.

10. Have you been encouraged by recent developments in public discourse around performance art?

Overall I think it’s encouraging to see the public’s growing awareness about performance art. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise as I think robbinschilds has received many opportunities due to the increase in interest and the effect it has had on museum programming. There are, no surprise, issues of tokenism that come up when a particular medium is suddenly super trendy. And sometimes, at least in our experience, the same curators who were initially very excited about the idea of live performance happening at their institutions become less enthusiastic when it comes to dealing with the actual logistical needs. So that can feel discouraging from an art maker perspective. And we could have a whole other conversation about the economics of programming performance in visual art institutions, there’s plenty to be discouraged about in that arena! But stepping away from an art maker perspective, overall I think the increased awareness of performance is a good thing. I loved that the Abramovic show was such a hot topic these last few months. I was glad that it generated so much dialogue—even vomit! And because of all that buzz I’m still parsing through my own thoughts about her retrospective, about the chair piece, about the success/failure of re-performing old work, about the public response to nudity.

11. What does your family think about your work?

Ha, that’s a good question! Once, when she was in her 90’s I showed my grandmother a video of an early piece I had made and her only comment was “Martha Graham must be rolling over in her grave”. The rest of my family is very enthusiastic about what we’re doing though, very proud. I would say that some projects generate more specific discussion with my parents than others, but that’s probably true with anyone. My brother is a London based conceptual sculptor and he’s definitely my toughest family critic. He’s pretty forthright, which is kind of refreshing.

12. Is performance art a medium?

Well, it’s hard to think of it as just one medium right? I mean since it tends to incorporate so many forms. I think performance art is slippery in that it can’t easily be named, labeled, pinned down. There’s no easy “if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck it must be…” performance art rule. And because of that so many things could potentially fit under the umbrella of performance art. I wish I had a tidy response to this question but the more I mull it over the more labyrinthine my thoughts!

robbinschilds, Seriously Heavy (i hurt myself hurting you), 2006

This entry was posted in Collaboration, Conceptual, Dance, Durational, Everyday, Humor, New York, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

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