Grand Union (2018) is both an ode to pivotal postmodern dance and a foray into some of the taboos and possibilities surrounding family in contemporary art. Over the course of a long weekend in August, nestled behind the remnants of a tall white picket fence, a family performs routine household tasks such as making coffee, reading the newspaper, and washing their hair in the sink. They sometimes follow each other, do things together, and occasionally act as one big nuclear family. Increasingly, they practice 60s and 70s avant-garde dance. This diurnal structure explores modeling, copying, and other feats of representation involved in both art practice and growing up.
Director: Helen Miller; Camera: Helen Miller, Alex Auriema, Deniz Tortum; Sound: Jerry McDonald, Ernst Karel; Post-production: HAOS Film
Grand Union was installed at the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo in 2018 as part of Practices of Attention curated by Stefanie Hessler and D. Graham Burnett. Previously, the film was included in the 2018 Visions du Réel Media Library and selected to screen as a work-in-progress at Dance Films Association in New York and the New England Graduate Media Symposium in Boston.
Production and post-production made possible by The James K. Spriggs Foundation.
This Is the House (2016)
If you were asked to celebrate the legacy of the Bauhaus at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where would you begin? We sent an open call to all members of the GSD community who grew up in an environment designed by an architect affiliated with the school. Students and staff responded with photographs chronicling their connections to a range of spaces and we found homes, so to speak, for their pictures in common areas of Gund Hall.
The installation site and mode of display for each set of photographs submitted were suggested by elements of the pictured house or landscape that resonated with the architecture of Gund. For example, photographs of tables, wall lamps, floor-to-ceiling windows, hallways and stairwells were sometimes placed next to analogous objects and architectural features at the GSD. Pictures of Christmas morning, birthdays, and cooperative living took on new life amidst routine events at the school.
A play between private and institutional space animated the collective legacy we gathered. As we installed them, glossy photos of a unique two-story study almost disappeared into the Frances Loeb Library woodwork. Snapshots of college students under signature lighting fixtures hung around the corner from posters announcing campus-wide events. The expansive use of the space in many of the images challenged their celebrated design and provided a counterpoint to the GSD's contemporary, often abstract vocabulary of digital models and plans.
The photographs also conveyed markers of privilege and class—the New York City skyline, a well-manicured park—raising questions about the beneficiaries of the Bauhaus legacy and its programmatic reformulation of craft, tradition, and home. Each set of photographs represented part of a household or landscape and in its specifics also pointed towards aspects of space, family, and community that sit outside these frames. The resulting exhibit suggested an institutional continuity—Harvard design professionals forming a society unto itself molding its own potential future and growing up in the tillage of its past.
Helen Miller, Vero Smith, Youngjoo Song, and Joe Steele
Exaggerating Your Pattern and Adopting the Opposite (2016)
Exaggerating Your Pattern and Adopting the Opposite is a two-channel video bringing together family and postmodern dance. In the first video, projected on one side of a wall, I lead my family through a Feldenkrais Method of somatic education lesson in front of the house where we spent summers growing up (after collectively clearing the view for the camera). The lesson is called “Exaggerating your pattern and adopting the opposite”. Side-by-side, about a window’s width apart, we take our places in a lineup that resembles a sex ed chart, except that we’re ordered according to age rather than sex or height—father, mother, sister, sister, brother, brother—holding the place of our brother Nicholas, who was Down syndrome and passed away nine years ago.
An early cut of my film Grand Union, which consists of interior shots of the same family and house, is projected on the other side of the wall. I intend this video as a kind of alternative home movie and project it at a smaller, more intimate scale than the video of the exterior of the house. In Grand Union, my family and I carry out routine household tasks such as making coffee, reading the newspaper and washing our hair in the sink. Increasingly, we practice 60s and 70s postmodern dance. The footage follows from everyday actions to dance inspired by the everyday.
In the early 70s, postmodern dancer Trisha Brown recounts her intention to dance “so that the audience does not know whether [she has] stopped dancing.” Playing on this idea, my family and I move in such a way that the audience cannot be sure we have started dancing. Questions of intention and motivation trouble the naturalism and highlight the performative aspects of our everyday activity. Layers of ambiguity and the sometimes arbitrary feel of the postmodern score both alienate and bond family members, making room for the audience.
Exaggerating Your Pattern and Adopting the Opposite screened with performative and educational components at Industry Lab in Cambridge, MA as part of the group exhibition Changes (2016) curated by Christine An. In addition, an early iteration of the project was nominated for Platform 2016, an annual publication encapsulating the year at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
WORK IN PROGRESS
And After these things
The responsibility of domestic work is often shared across community and class, one form of domesticity intimately tied to the next, one care-taking arrangement nesting in another. As a mother steps away, another mother steps in. One parent goes abroad to work, another stays home. Some men cook. The woman that cares for someone else's children as if they were her own cares differently for her own children, and her own children's children. Grown children sometimes care for their caretakers in turn. How do we come to fill our role or roles in this extended family of care-taking and giving? What is the significance of our opportunities, options, and decisions in this regard? As the filmmaker visits her own extended family, And After These Things explores this two-fold question of how one has been cared for and how one comes to care.
And After These Things was awarded a Harvard Film Study Center Fellowship in 2016-17.
Maid’s Rooms is a series of black-and-white portraits of former caregivers and their employers accompanied by interviews. Set in the so-called maid's rooms of Manhattan apartments, the project pictures people with various ties to one another and a domestic space they used to share.
Nominated for a St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award 2018.
The Art of Learning
We sift through old photographs or scroll through images on Facebook, naming people we know or used to know. Instead, a selection of photos of children gathered using the search “kids at the park” and a group of physical therapists they’ll never meet. The different playgrounds and communities that use them complicate the project and also highlight similarities between the activities in which the children are engaged.
Without personal connections preoccupying our perception, the other practitioners and I are free to make informed guesses about the steps, big and small, of human movement and early childhood development pictured in the photographs. How to structure an inquiry into movement we learn without even knowing it, or without "knowing it by its name"? How to see a normally invisible language, adapted and improvised but no less shared across communities and generations?
Eventually, I would like to organize an exhibition or durational performance in which the photographs are projected (projected rather than printed out in order to assuage concerns about the privacy of the children… reminding viewers that these images are ephemeral and already in circulation). Alongside the projections, the practitioners and I will explore, in our own bodies, the movement lessons we’ve drawn out of the images.
Middle Years (My Sister’s Kids)
Jessie leans on her hand on the grass, her shoulder lifted and head tilted as a result, leans her other elbow on her chest to help hold up her other hand. She looks out, her face echoed by the plate of food. She holds her hand still as if in the act of bringing a piece of food to her mouth. Her commitment to assisting in the making of this photograph is evident in the gently-held quality of her pose and wide-eyed expression.
I'd like to reach out to Jessie today to see if she would be open to experimenting on film with somatic education lessons inspired by this picture. I could also join forces with my sister’s kids or my friends’ kids….
The gesture of leaning in The New Mothers (1989), taken only a year later than Jessie at 7 (1988), is still a matter of propping oneself up in places. Jessie falls into her left hip; she is more aware of herself, perhaps, and the way it feels to be looked at, to look back. It’s bright enough for sunglasses, apparently, but her sister's movements don't stack or play off of one another in the same way (they do in a different way, of course). Jessie tucks her chin and narrows in on us.
Again, I intend to reach out to Jessie and her sister, to see if they would be open to exploring somatics lessons while I film. I'm curious about the geometry of a person's movements as they are pictured in Mann's portraits, as well as the way that these young women became public figures of a kind. The layers of fiction and reality in and around the photographs speak of a generation’s memories and about memory more broadly. (Again, I could also join forces with my sister’s kids and my friends’ kids….)
Some Are Born to Sweet Delight
Some Are Born to Sweet Delight, a recent pillow installation, is ongoing at PRACTICE SPACE in Cambridge, MA. The pillow here is inspired by the wooden floors of galleries, renovated homes, and other locations of gentrification. PRACTICE SPACE itself is a hybrid of the art and business that often follow one another into urban neighborhoods. I made this pillow with organic color grown cotton and indigo denim material from the leftover pile at PRACTICE SPACE, which sells clothing and ceramics in addition to hosting artists and artisans. Once completed, the pillow was placed in front of a wall-mounted iPad running bootleg footage of the Grand Union, an improvisation group beloved by New York City dancers in the 1970s, and a bookshelf of obscure performance art. Such revolutionary art once took advantage of the same spaces that Soho and Chelsea galleries maintain today.
Comparative Anatomy of Angels
The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (CCVA) at Harvard University, the only building in North America designed by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, hosts the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies and the Harvard Film Archive. Recently, or until recently, with the addition of Motto Books and an invigorated exhibition program, CCVA felt empty and underutilized, with the majority of Harvard undergraduate students busy pursuing other subjects in other buildings. The uninhabited spaces of CCVA from 2010-13 inspired the canvas building pillows pictured here. The natural oak gall dye created subtle variations that spoke to the color and quality of the buildings poured concrete floors, columns, and stairs. The pillows are filled with buckwheat hulls. They are meditation pillows, in a sense. Pillows for holing up in a corner or stretching out. Folded and unfolded, they animate the potential accordion of the staircase. They are modular and portable. They are pillows for whatever use students, employees, and other building visitors find for them, a reminder to take one's physical comfort into consideration when working or making art. Extending and adapting the gesture of a building designed with a body in mind, the pillows were initially installed with an esoteric reading list of 20th century texts on somatics, printed out and placed on top. Lately, one of the pillows lives in a metal file cabinet in a locked classroom where a member of the building staff has stashed it so that he can find it during break and rest his neck, on which he has had multiple surgeries.
Portraits of Performers (2015)
Performers is a series of acrylic paintings exploring themes of partnering and mentoring through a sustained effort to see, and paint, people in a complimentary light (the way a person might view her parents or people who have cared for her). A related series, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (title taken from Bruce Nauman and Mungo Thompson), portrays a group of contemporary artists in the style Native Americans were often painted by the British, grappling with identity and cultural appropriation through the complicated roles played by ambition and fetishization in contemporary art. And Readers is a series of portraits of poets and fiction writers giving readings.
W2, M, W1 (2014)
Front centre, touching one another, three identical grey urns about one yard high. From each a head protrudes, the neck held fast in the urn’s mouth. The heads are those, from left to right as seen from the auditorium, of W2, M and W1. They face undeviatingly front throughout the Play.
—Opening stage directions, Samuel Beckett’s Play (1963
W2, M, W1 pairs the text and stark set design of Samuel Beckett’s Play with somatic practice and contemporary dance. W2, M, W1 refers to Play’s stock romantic characters—a mistress, a man and a woman—and resituates their affair within the context of movement. In contrast to the urn-dwelling actors in Play, the performers in W2, M, W1 appear on exercise mats, where they simultaneously deliver their lines and explore embodied movement–from the structured sequences of the Feldenkrais Method to the more free-form partnering of Contact Improvisation. The characters speak compulsively but move with increasing fluidity, pushing the capacity for refinement and differentiation in their gestures and playing on the relationship of body and voice. In conversation with Beckett’s Play, where the habitual isolation of the characters prevents them from establishing any sense of real connection, W2, M, W1 explores the human capacity for non-verbal communication. Riffing on rhythmical, poetic, non-ideational aspects of Beckett's language, the grammar and improvisational potential of human movement come to the fore.
W2, M, W1 was performed at Mobius, an experimental art space in Cambridge, MA.
Walking Around the Room (2010)
I attached a cellphone to my right hand and made a video of what that part of my body might see and hear if it could as I walked around the studio. Then I separated the footage into individual frames and used a piece of newsprint paper to cover the part of the studio that appeared in each frame, more or less. When I took the paper down after a few weeks, a little residue remained where each piece of paper had been wheat-pasted to the wall or window. At night, the traces of paper, traces of my wrist's movement while walking, almost blended into the lights reflected in the Carpenter Center glass.
The Time (2010)
I attached a cellphone to my right hand and made a video of what that part of my body might see and hear if it could as I walked around the studio. Then I separated the footage into individual frames and made this model picturing the variety of speeds inherent in a single step. As my arm swings in front of me, the image blurs; as the weight of my hand hangs down and I lift my foot, the image comes into focus. The differences in speed, weight and direction accumulate, and could be broken down ad nauseam.
Untitled (Walking) 2010
I attached borrowed cellphones to myself, pressed record, and walked around the perimeter of the studio. The resulting footage, projected onto a collection of pedestals, pictures the pronounced rhythm and variety inherent in walking, normally experienced as constant. The moving objects, images, sounds and changing perspectives are reminiscent of Paul Cezanne and David Hockney’s still life paintings and photographs. Also, Steve McQueen’s early video installation work, such as Drumroll, 1998, in which the artist attached three cameras to an oil drum and rolled it through the streets of Manhattan, and Dan Graham’s body-based installations including Body Press, 1972, which consists of two synchronized silent 16mm-film projections of films made by two bodies facing and moving around one another.
Untitled (Walking) could also be seen to invert Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967). Where Nauman adopted constraints inherent to art making and “the studio” to direct and offset his movements, Untitled (Walking) takes the body’s own measurements and movements as determining factors. In his deadpan manner, Nauman creates a picture of contrasts, juxtaposing the squares of art and architecture with the curves of the body. Untitled (Walking) is more earnest, perhaps, subsuming the rectangular room in the turning circles of human movement itself. Both Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square and Untitled (Walking) take the rectangle of the camera as a frame.
This invariance, or the ability to experience something as complicated as walking without batting an eye, is acquired. At one point, the infinite movements of our body, including our eyes, showed up in our conscious perception.
DRAWING PRACTICE (2000s)
Landscape and Architecture
around the Apartment
Drawings of Pictures of paintings in Progress
A Memory, Which Can Always Be Fished Out, 2018
33rd Bienal de São Paulo
Role: Feldenkrais practitioner, Choreographer, Performer
Photo Credit: Ale Ruaro
Object Lesson, 2018, Wildflower Montessori School
Exploring different approaches to drawing objects, plant and animal life alongside young artists in a single room storefront school.
Fictitious Pivot, 2017, Michelle Lopez
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts
Role: Performer, Vocalist
Estarser Joint Symposium, 2016, The Order of the Third Bird
Museum of Jurassic Technology
Role: Performer, Interpreter of Objects
Never Realized, 2011
Ceiling drawings approximating planter boxes that only ever appeared as drawings in the original plans for The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
Collaboration with Louisa Denison, Harvard Food Literacy Project Coordinator.
See www.aestheticrelationalexercises.com for more of my collaborative work at the intersection of art and somatic practice.