Outtakes: Choreographer Keith Hennessey on PICA Symposium and Residency

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly


The Portland Pride Festival and Parade may have already passed, but Pride is far from over. Starting Thursday, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art presents “Bodies, Identities, and Alternative Economies,” a symposium featuring queer artists including choreographer Keith Hennessey June 21-24.

I recently interviewed Hennessey in advance of the symposium and his upcoming artist’s residency with PICA. Check out the full interview below, read more about the symposium here, and stay tuned for more interviews in the coming days.

PQ Monthly:
Tell me about your residency with PICA. How will you be spending your time?

Keith Hennessey: Most of our time will be spent rehearsing, which includes talking and dancing and singing and playing with cardboard and sharing stories about money and class and the larger economic situations and the tiny gestures of economic relationships in our personal lives and Occupy and our relationship to protest and uprising, rage and despair. We’ll be at Studio 2 seven hours each day, 10 people from the core team plus 3 guest artists from Portland: Keyon Gaskin, Roya Amirsoleymani, and Takahiro Yamamoto.

PQ: What is Turbulence about? What questions does it pose?

Hennessey: Instigated before Occupy, Turbulence is a performance research lab sparked by the bank crashes and bailouts of 2008. Starting with Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine and the documentary Inside Job, we started asking questions about value, worth, money, hierarchy, power and more. Our research is not systematic, we’re not scientists, but rather poets of the body and the theater…

PQ: What inspires you to use dance to talk about the economy? It seems like a unconventional choice.

Hennessey: We should all be engaging questions of economy and class, with whatever resources and talents we have. I just happen to be a maker of dance-based experimental performance so that’s where I’m making this inquiry. Of course your word choice recalls Brecht, didn’t he say something about an era of unconventional weapons requires unconventional art… Whatever he said he defended unconventional theater tactics as the only way to inspire a struggle to understand and to liberate.

PQ: What does your creative process look like?

Hennessey: Messy. Unfocused. ADHD. Obsessive compulsive. Ridiculous. Like a family picnic. Like kindergarten. A playground with several things going on at once, that may or may not go well together. Alternating between mystic dictatorial control (keep them guessing) and anarchist collaboration (everyone do what you want and figure out how to support each other or get out of the way).

PQ: Tell me about Crotch. How have audiences responded to that piece? Where did the inspiration for that piece come from?

Hennessey: I never intended to make a work about my gay divorce and I surely never intended to make a work about Joseph Beuys. But then I did the latter to avoid the former and ended up doing both. Crotch is an odd work that includes very conventional theatrical entertainment and more obscure practices that hybridize installation and ritual. People laugh. A few people cry. Many agree to come into the strange world of the performance and feel themselves in a new way.

PQ: What are most looking forward to?

Hennessey: To working! The Portland residency is about stopping all the other things I do everyday, and avoiding the distractions of my home and friends. I am looking forward to experimenting with our new trapeze-type rigging and to dancing to pop music and to fake healing sessions with the guest artists from Portland.

PQ: How does your work tie in with the themes of Bodies, Identities and Alternative Economies?

Hennessey: The intersections of these themes is the heart of Turbulence. The core team of collaborators is comprised primarily but not exclusively of queer or LGBT identified artists. For all of us, the body is central to our artistic practice and inquiry. A queer approach to understanding the body – both personal body and social body – is a shared tactic of this particular group of collaborators. Gender, class, race/ethnicity, age, physical training, immigration history…are all implicated in this queer-inspired, body-based inquiry of economy. At this point (in neoliberal capitalism) there is a question about the potential of any alternative. Turbulence disrupts our own habits of art making, imagining most liberal humanism as supporting  the current crises of inequity, and dares to play with utopian ideas of ‘alternative’ and ‘anarchism.’

PQ: How would you define a alternative economies and what does that have to do with art?

Hennessey: If alternative suggests non traditional, non mainstream, non normative, or queer, then art can be a rehearsal or laboratory of alternatives. Anything that reconsiders mutual aid and disrupts normative hierarchies will produce, if only for a ‘moment,’ an alternative economy.

PQ: In what ways does your work invite audience participation?

Hennessey: To witness a live performance is already a form of engaged participation. Additionally, Crotch invites the audience out of their seats, into a more direct encounter with the artist and the objects on stage. Turbulence begins with an interactive game. In breaking some of the basic rules of theater, some folks in the audience realize that they don’t have to play their standard role either.

PQ: What does it mean to create queer art?

Hennessey: Most art is queer, no?

PQ: Can you recommend a “summer reading” book?

Hennessey: Our summer reading includes Sara Jane Bailes Performance Theatre & the Poetics of Failure, Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, and several books on money, financialization, economics, the current crisis and global resistance. I’ve barely been reading any fiction but my recent fave is Justin Chin’s 98 Wounds. It’s dark and troubling but funny too. Most importantly it moved me, stirred things up, scared and charmed me. When I think of books I am overwhelmed by how many good ones there are…