Transcript edited from a conversation on the occasion of the exhibition study now steady, on October 7, 2023, at CARA.
This transcript is edited from a conversation between artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis and CARA's Executive Director and Chief Curator Manuela Moscoso, which took place on October 7, 2023, at CARA, on the occasion of Ligia Lewis’s exhibition, study now steady, on view through February 4, 2024.
I am incredibly happy to do this show with Ligia because we've been trying to do something together for I don't know how many years. I came across her work when I was doing the Liverpool Biennial [11th Edition, 2023]. We wanted to do something live there, but as everybody experienced, the pandemic really affected our bodies, our way of communicating, and our practices. And we quickly realized that we were not going to be able to do anything together at that time. However, Ligia was already producing a work for the Hammer Museum. Being able to continue a practice through the means of video, in the case of deader than dead, became a possibility that opened many doors for Ligia’s practice, especially during the pandemic. And that's one of the works we are showing at CARA as part of study now steady. Later on, I invited Ligia to do a show, so we started to think about what could happen here at CARA and what it would be like for us as an organization. But for me, the possibility of inviting Ligia meant thinking about how we can support her practice in a way that otherwise might not have that support; what are the resources that can really take your work to a place where you want to take it? This is how A Plot A Scandal and study now steady happened.
Ligia, I wanted to start by asking you about the experience of your work being on a stage… Your work on stage is quite intense. It's very timed. It's a lot of textures. It's about endurance. And it has a curve of time and experience. I want to ask you first about the way that this practice of putting work on a stage unfolds for you. How much time is needed for this way of working with the body and these embodiments of movements? And it starts with matter. It doesn't start with the story, necessarily. There may be bits and pieces, but it’s really about being in a space, working with your own self and expanding from there. So, I wanted to talk about that first—how your work really starts from nothing and moves into something.
I'm so grateful for our continued conversation and also that we had the time to wait until something like this could happen. It makes a lot of sense because this arrived at a perfect moment, when I felt myself transitioning, or reaching a limit, within what I could do on stage. Which is not to say that I'm over the stage, I love the stage, but there are many limits to stage work. I was already starting to think about other ways of sharing my practice that depart from critical questions about embodiment—“how do we see a body?”, “what is a body?” essentially, and who determines that? How do we put that body in relation to multiple things? So working critically from the body, I've been building outwards. It's probably very boring to say as a choreographer that I make score-based works, or works that develop out of a series of scores inspired by sound or text or images or a series of questions... But that's essentially what I do—I meditate on a series of questions, I start moving in space, and I record myself, because I'm more interested in how I see a body than how I'm experiencing it. And that's to say that I'm much more interested in creating something I want to see than something I want to do. When I am developing stage work, I work very visually. I was always considering light and sound and the landscape in which this choreographic work would unfold. I can't separate choreography from how it's being seen even relationally, in relationship to the audience… how this experience unfolds.
I started very simply, with a very simple, very minimal score. It very much was based on the resources I had, which were none when I was making it [laughs]... So I made a score-based work, which was like a silent, wailing score, where I imagine I'm singing this final spellbinding note for eternity. And then it's a sustained climax. And at the moment I presented that work, which is called Sensation 1, my first solo, in 2011, it became clear for me that I was interested in a certain kind of affect, and that that was the core of my practice—how to stage Black affect, essentially. I was departing from a history, a postmodern dance trajectory that I felt couldn't host these questions. So that work is very simple, but it's still a work I return to, because it allowed me to think more critically about embodiment and what a body has come to mean, or to interrogate various processes of meaning making through the body.
I was trained with this idea, this kind of universal idea of a neutral space, even a neutral sensibility of embodiment. And I recognized that every time I entered onto the stage there was this moment of disfigurement that happened. For me, this had to do with questions of representation. I've worked a lot with disfigurement, I've worked with the ecstatic, I've worked with these processes of becoming disfigured, and with these bodies then mobilized in and against one another and the space they perform in. This was a recurring theme. And then I understood that I wanted to set those things in relation to others.
So, I continue to build and ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I stage things that are difficult even for me. The process of creating a work is often a process of asking a series of difficult questions for myself. Often, I find myself in the space of critique, and a work doesn't always necessarily move beyond it. I've come to be okay with that [laughs]. I've accepted that that's where I'm at and that's part of my process. I've just continued to develop outward. You know, the etymology of theater is theatron, “seeing place.” And seeing is not not violent, right? There's so much that's missed in seeing, and potentially imagined, all of which can be detrimental.
This kind of haunting, or this tension that happens, is something that gets played out in really dramatic ways inside of my stage works. So I continue to develop work outward, working with other bodies that are raced differently, gendered differently, and I attend to these bodies and the complications of seeing these bodies. I've never felt that the stage was a free place, ever. I don't even know what freedom looks like. So I've just been busy with other things, basically, and that culminates in a work like A Plot A Scandal, which is probably the most personal work. It is a stage work that I developed and then turned into a film work.
I describe my process as building a series of fictions. I use the body as a way to narrate a certain kind of script. I try to treat the body, or at least the series of movements, as speech. It's kind of mimetic, but it also undergoes a process of alienation and estrangement that makes the absurdity of it more visible.
It's interesting what you're saying about these being somehow against representation. This struggle is in every stage work that I've seen, and is also present in the work here at CARA. It's sort of negation and possibility at the same time. In deader than dead, you go against and toward the screen, which is probably different than on the stage. But what is powerful is how you translated the stage onto the screen and made a video; you created the vision of the camera in a very particular way that is also present in your stage work. In any of your works, we as viewers are always very much present. Though maybe in A Plot A Scandal, the audience is the least present. Seeing the film, we can actually see how you break this distance. It's trying to do something, but then resisting and going back and forth. There is a kind of resilience, but there is a weight as well…
Depending on the work, the scores play out differently. On the occasion of study now steady, which is the score that's unfolding upstairs, it's a practice as a series of score-based materials that start with this fear of me, or this condition of me seeing you seeing me. And that turns into a kind of haunted space for us to inhabit.
At the core of my practice is a question about race and representation and how to deal with these questions of how much a body can bear or not bear, particularly in representation. How do you represent something that's unrepresentable? I've tried to slide into creating a space where the materiality of the body, its actual weight, its thingliness, can be laid bare and for this to unfold dramaturgically… Like using allegory as a way to step to the side of certain things that cannot be stated in the present. The work is very imagistic. The works tend to point to another time or use another sonic landscape to add to a little bit of distance. There's also this thing that we do with the me-seeing-you-seeing-me, this space of estrangement. I'm literally trying to make corporeal this Brechtian theatrical mode of seeing, of distanciation, which is just a theatrical mechanism. Chinese opera also has this, you know? It's very plastic. You're always looking at your audience. I've developed a physicality as of late that uses this thing of estrangement even more, and the space of isolation.
I think in study now steady it's very present.
It's very present, absolutely.
It's so raw there as well, although at least the pink wall color in the study now steady score room somehow creates this fiction and affect, this fictional place... But it's very raw and we are so close to each other in the room. I think even as an audience, we are very close to each other. We’re sitting there with other bodies who are performing and you [the performers] kind of acknowledge us, but also not. You have this relationship with us, but with each other as well—you're almost touching, and you know that you are with each other, but you can never really be together. It's this impossibility of being together, which is a little bit sad.
It's true. It's very lonely and isolating in some ways, but also feels very honest. We do these rituals to prepare ourselves for the intensity of the practice and what we're going through, actually, and the difficulty of coming together, because history's a bitch, it just is. I'm stuck with that question of how we actually come together—are we seeing what we think we're seeing?
I'm someone who also has a kind of love affair with this idea of fugitivity. Not as a point of escape, but more as a retreat, a temporary retreat, to come back to do the work. Because I know the lies that come with that kind of visibility and being seen, as we all have come to know, particularly in the United States, under the carceral gaze, surveillance, and the rest. And then also the co-opting of politics or aesthetics to have them be regurgitated in a softer, more palatable form; being seen as an opportunity to be co-opted. I mean, there's so many corrupt, horrifying scripts that we all know so well. So, I work from a psychic space. It’s difficult but then there's something that emerges through the process of doing, which is that, strangely enough, by naming the problem and feeling hopeless inside of it, we can simultaneously throw the violence back to the witness, the observer, the spectator… There's a process of externalization that happens through these practices, where we start to make fun of the things we're trapped in, this loop that we all know so well. It becomes a dark playground that we inhabit.
So long as I don't lie to myself that just having space and time is going to lend itself to freedom or freedom of expression—freedom, anyway, is a word I don't love—then I can create something with others and accept that there's more work to be done. A lot more work to be done. Not to give the illusion that our presence does anything. That's another thing: to think structurally about the problem, but work experientially and always return back to the structural problem. It does feel kind of hopeless, for sure. And that's just where I'm at.
But you also kind of escape from it, sometimes, like you're saying. There's a sense of humor in it. Because it's the absurdity of the situation, which we can feel with each other—this idea of trying to be together, but the impossibility of it. And it’s present in study now steady. But also, thinking of A Plot A Scandal, with all these characters—this is probably where you give more of the historical background, and of course, where you delve more into your relationship with your own history and your own subjectivity. What is your understanding of your own self in relation to this history that sustains the absurdity of not being, of this kind of horror that we live in? In A Plot A Scandal, there are all these characters like [John] Locke... they are absurd. [Laughs] Are these people who we should cherish? I forget the words in English, but he's very decadent, so decadent. There's a lot of humor in that, especially in the stage work. These characters, what are they? These are the people who created some sort of maximizing rule.
But then you go back to your own history, your great-grandmother, and recuperate that as a much stronger force within a history that has to be told. Can you tell us a little bit more about A Plot A Scandal?
Sure. The starting point was me being in this village where my great-grandmother and grandmother were born, Dios Dira, in the southern part of the Dominican Republic, in the region of San Cristobal. It’s a kind of Black enclave in the southern part of the island. I've been returning to that place. My mother spends more time there now with my father as well. On one of my trips, a group of white Dominican men came and asked people if they had papers for the property, for the land that they were living on. And if anyone knows the history of this region, most people don't have that... Property is a legal term introduced through all different forms of fucked up law. The conditions on this part of the island are mostly, you know, folks who are a product of maroonage. There's an important activist, Mamá Tingó, who famously said, “those who work the land, that is their land right.” She was assassinated in the 1970s by the government at the time. So, there's this fear of Black ownership of property.
And then simultaneously, this idea of property in and of itself as being so Western. And spending more time in Dios Dira… I don't know how, but an Italian family ended up moving not so far from the family. These condos start to go up and it’s just totally absurd, the possibility that there would be more dispossession. It's just horrifying. And so that was the kind of kernel for me—the very condition of property being an entirely Western phenomenon, especially because my great-grandmother did practice Dominican Palo and is known in that region for doing that. She practiced traditional medicine as well. And these are stories told to me only much later when my mother started to share these stories. So yeah, all the complexities of getting to learn about Lolon Zapata [Ligia's great grandmother], who essentially is the figure that I turn to, and the point of departure for A Plot A Scandal, becomes the story itself. The impossibility of knowing Palo, actually... Not having been given this kind of knowledge. Being cut off from it because it was made illegal at one point as well. All of these conditions of Westernization, these ideas of progress, when they're mapped in the region, those who suffer are the Black and Indigenous folk.
A Plot A Scandal is a story about the scandal of property. Plot—a story, a piece of land. John Locke appears, of course, because he introduces this idea of a right to life, liberty, and property, and the fact that life and property are entangled already as part of the problem, also within the conditions of enslavement. That's what makes it so brutal, is that it's Black people who continue to be dispossessed. It is too cruel. It's too fucked up. So, a way for me to approach this was... I use humor as a tactic because I feel like it doesn't pretend. I've never been a fan of, for example, documentary theater. It's a genre of theater that's very popular in Germany, maybe less here. But documentary, or facts transparently shared, for me, has always been something I've wrestled with. I've always used fiction or allegory or image making as a way to make something to the side of something horrifying. To point to the problem.
In A Plot A Scandal I'm John Locke [laughs]. I mean, I used that British wig, and I dragged him to filth in the stage work. Literally. And the thing is, John Locke is everywhere. He’s all of us also, because we all participate in racial capitalism. So, it's also this mess of not being able to entirely step to the side of this thing that has determined so much.
So John Locke appears, and parts of the Code Noir—which was the French government's slave doctrine—and questions about property. How detailed that doctrine really is... I mean, I only took a few of the articles, but I included it just to get a sense of the brutality of this law, of the language. And who's determined to be a slave or not a slave. These particular articles, when placed in the context of... I don't like to separate the Dominican Republic from Haiti, because I think that is a colonial divide, and I am trying to think about the Caribbean, the diaspora at large, and not get trapped in the logic of the nation-state, because of all of the movement that happened between the fifteenth century all the way up until the Haitian Revolution. There was so much movement between the islands, because everyone was escaping. So I try not to get trapped... I feel like the only way to talk about the Dominican Republic is also to talk about Haiti. And then [in A Plot A Scandal], there is also a Cuban revolutionary, José Aponte, who is essentially decapitated because his book of drawings of Black noblemen and Black people living outside of the master's plot is discovered.
So I'm pointing to all of these different kinds of rebellions happening over this long durée of rebellion. There's a lot in there [laughs]. My sister Sarah was also my dramaturg and she's doing a lot of historical work, particularly about this region. We were sitting together and doing research and I was overwhelmed with how many rebellions actually took place. Like, multiple, from 1521 all the way up. And they continue. There’s this long scene of rebellion, followed by rebellion, rebellion… The work is not done. To be reminded that there's still work to be done so long as our communities continue to get dispossessed. We need to be prepared. So that was the spirit in which A Plot A Scandal was made. And the spirit of Lolon is what guided me there.
In a way, as the spirit of the continuous fight...
But then so many things get taken away from us. The tools needed to figure out another way to live, another form of life. It's so frustrating to me that the things that provide other forms of life are the very things that are destroyed constantly under racial capitalism. That's the conflict.
You talked about disfiguration in the case of deader than dead, but in the stage work as well it’s very present, because these bodies have trained inside these loops [the study now steady scores]. But then you reorganize and get together and it's a whole process of being together, not together, by yourself, against yourself, almost.
There are moments as well where it's like, you're in your subconscious, trying to make sense of what is happening outside. But you are totally inside. This idea of being alive and dead, in your work—there is something in between that is a kind of living, but dying, but living, but dying. Being without a life means so many things. And I feel somehow you stretch that.
What I'm trying to do, particularly upstairs, and also in part with deader than dead is to point to a kind of deathly script—versus the death of the particular subjects, which is a little bit different—through the use of allegory and metaphor. I try to point to the conditions of the reality that we live in.
It was also a point of strong resistance against this hyper representational mode that everyone entered in relation to all of the Black life that is being lost. Of course, I'm not totally against it, but I wanted to make something to the side of that, to look at what might have to die. What might we have to let go of in order for that life to actually be a life worth living? That we can actually live fully. I've always had a kind of hostile relationship to museums, because I never went to them myself. I felt uncomfortable. I didn't feel seen, or I actually felt too seen. And then I sometimes find myself working in these spaces and it’s interesting. It's not that I'm entirely opposed to them, but there's something about what can live. What kind of life can happen here?
I like to point to things that are unfinished. Unfinished work, let's say that.
You started to talk at the beginning about the sonic part, which is a collaboration with your twin brother [Twin Shadow]. It’s interesting that you have this affective structure that supports you, it’s quite beautiful. But at the same time, I feel like the soundscape in every work you do is very particular. Like in deader than dead there is a moment where the microphone has this effect that is very specifically from pop music. And then there's this distortion...
It's very particular how you use the sonic as well in A Plot A Scandal. How you mix, in every stage work that you do, the sonic and the light, the sonic and color—they make a powerful language within your work. It would be interesting to hear more about the process of production. Does music actually come before? Is it part of your idea for the work? How do you create this sort of temperature? It's like a texture, a material texture that can be felt even within the pink room upstairs with the medieval chants, which in a way produces something, these two things together.
I've been using sound as a way to signify time, or history, for a while, but history that's also lived in the present. In minor matter, the piece starts with early Renaissance music and moves forward. That's a kind of meditation on Black diaspora. And what is Europe's Renaissance for Black folks? Then it moves forward across all these different sonic registers.
In deader than dead it's also a Guillaume Machaut lament. I loved that it was called a complaint—that's a musical term for a long mourning, this long lament that's on loop. I use that as a kind of backdrop for deader than dead. This idea of looping came to the fore dramaturgically because of that musical complaint. I love the idea of a complaint [laughs]. To try to touch on that poetically.
I'm also using medieval choral music upstairs mixed with drones. These kinds of medieval landscapes appear and are recurring inside of the pieces. It’s this moment of friction—like when Europe decides to map the world in its image. This historical moment that has just overdetermined so much, it's crazy. I think I have to reckon with the fact that I'm as much a product of that... That's what I'm dealing with, at least for myself. And how to really attend to that. The traditions that I've learned, the things that I'm educated in are that—part of a Euro-American tradition. So, not to pretend like I can entirely step to the side of that. No, it's accepting that it’s part of my script now. And what to do with that, in a way? It's messy.
The rehearsals of study now steady are happening here on the second floor. And something we talked about was how often it made sense for you to be here. That it’s a process of something happening, not only about presentation. That was a very important exercise—how a work can be not only about presentation.
So again, a little bit about this idea of representation at the same time, but it’s a process that is happening, a rehearsal, where you are learning the process as it happens as well.
Yes. It's honest to my practice. When I develop scores, we're practicing them like crazy so that it becomes a second skin, almost, the language of the body. So to call it a study, it is a study... All of my work, all of my questions, really depart from the body. Doing these strange things, specifying them, not entirely knowing why they're appearing, but attending to them anyway, trying to listen to what they're doing, and then translating them to other bodies, and then all of us doing them, and returning and listening, and then going back into reading things, and then seeing and intuiting… Just listening to the materiality of the body and where it takes me. It's very rich. It's very rewarding, experientially.
I usually wouldn't present a study. My stage works are really much more controlled in a way. But opening up this process upstairs was really important for me, to have a space for the processual, to materialize that and see what this unfolding provides for us as an experience and as another way to work and think. Because a lot of thinking happens for me through doing these scores. To practice that with others is super important. They’re hyper relational, the scores. We're tripping for sure.
Miguel [Angel Guzman], Corey [Scott-Gilbert], Trinity [Dawn Bobo], the dancers, are here.
[Speaking to the dancers] I know we had two loops today, so we're exhausted. But I'm very grateful, very grateful for their commitment to doing this. It's hard [laughs].