A blog following the creation of the projects in "We’re Watching" by Curatorial Fellow Anna Gallagher-Ross, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Class of 2017.


Michelle Ellsworth uses her expansive definition of dance as well as video, text, performance sculptures, and the World Wide Web to explore topics ranging from pharmaceutical art to experimental surveillance. Consistently commingling with technology and objects, her recent innovative works were highlighted in the New York Times’ article Best of Dance 2015 under the heading “Dances With Gadgets.” Among her honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship (2016), Doris Duke Impact Award (2015), a NEFA National Dance Project Grant (2014), a Creative Capital Fellowship (2013), and a USA Artists Knight Fellowship in Dance (2012). She has received three National Performance Network Creation Fund Commissions (2004, 2007, and 2016). Highlights in her performing career include presenting at The Chocolate Factory, On The Boards, Danspace, Diverseworks, and also at the Noorderzon, Contemporary Latitudes, Fusebox, and TBA Festivals.

She spoke with Miriam Felton-Dansky about her work in progress for We’re Watching, titled The Rehearsal Artist.


Miriam Felton Dansky: Tell me about the inspiration for The Rehearsal Artist.

Michelle Ellsworth: The piece that precedes this was called Clytigation. For that work I remixed Aeschylus’ Oresteia and looked at how the Trojan War impacted the legal protocols that appear at the end of the Oresteia, when Athena sets up the first ever murder trial, and how profound that was for the legal system. I was looking at post-9/11 conditions, and how legal protocols shifted after that with regard to the use of drones, surveillance, torture, and the suspension of habeas corpus. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work State of Exception (2004) as well as American philosopher Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009) and Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) came up for me. Some of these ideas from Clytigation have lingered and become part of The Rehearsal Artist.  I have kept reading and trying to create a kind of kinaesthetic replica of what I’m feeling, seeing, and thinking about in the geopolitical world and my personal experience …specifically about watching and being watched.

This larger thinking about surveillance came up against my experience with being watched as a performer. I have this recurring thing that happens to me as an artist, which is that I like to make work but I have a profound resistance to performing it. I started thinking, maybe there is a loophole where I could use the idea of “remote sensing,” which allows you to get information about a subject without touching it. Does everybody know what remote sensing is?

MFD: I don’t. Could you explain?

Hypothohearsal for The Rehearsal Artist, front view. Photo by Satchel Spencer.

ME: The military uses it. It’s the acquisition of information without being on site. You can shoot a beam at something and then the data comes back to you—like sonar. So I thought if I could get more distance from the audience, or if I could not know when they were collecting my “data,” I would feel more comfortable. So, my lack of comfort in performing was colliding with this practice of remote sensing by the military, and the whole idea of knowing something from a distance. Then I started thinking about the relationship of performance to social science experiments, and that’s what took me to the observation of performers or “subjects through one-way glass, and the role of the audience as a practitioner of surveillance. This one-way transmission amplifies the surveillance aspect but also insulates the performer from the presence of the audience.

MFD: How did you start creating the piece?

ME: I started with this awareness that I needed the ability to rotate around the axis of my nose—because that kind of disorientation seemed important. I talked to designer Bruce Miller, who said: “Oh, you need a giant wheel, and then you can rotate around the axis of your nose.” In my mind, the performers are like participants in an experiment. The language of science resonates for me: if I keep changing the variables in each performance, then I’m collecting different their data. I call each run through of the work a “hypothohearsal,” because they are half experiments and half rehearsals. So there’s the one-way glass, and this giant wheel, and the dancer’s head in isolation. The performer or the “subject” doesn’t have a sense of the audience at all, they’re just looking at themselves through this one-way glass. I did a bunch of experiments a few weeks ago where I put twenty-two people in the wheel and the documentation of those experiments will be installed in the Fisher Center lobby.

MFD: So, is each iteration of the piece different?

ME: Yes. For the version that will be on display in the lobby, I had a consistent score, however in the space I will be working on different subjects, and I will have many options. We’ll do it 48 times, and there will be 48 different versions of the piece.

MFD: Thinking about this as an experiment, does the audience come away with some kind of conclusion, or with information gathered?

Hypothohearsal for The Rehearsal Artist, side view.
Photo by Satchel Spencer.

ME: I don’t have any ambition as to how this piece reads to the audience. The art I find myself most responsive to is work that shifts my perspective or that helps me to reconsider, even ever so humbly or mildly, something that I had already filed on the shelf called “I got that.” If I did have an ambition it would be that. But it could just be about the experience of watching the dancer.   I was never that great executer of turns as a dancer. I could never do more than two, maybe three pirouettes. But now when I turn in the wheel, I’m like “woohoo, I’m turning now… I’m a turning dancer!” It can be visual, it can be geopolitical, and there are other components. I’m definitely also working on the absence of my father from the planet, I think sometimes The Rehearsal Artist is all a death practice. When I’m in the head box it definitely feels like death practice. Whether that’s legible in any way, I don’t know.

MFD: I’m wondering whether the physical space of the Fisher Center has influenced the way you have thought about constructing the piece.

ME: I wouldn’t say the architecture, nearly as much as the generosity and the attention of the Fisher Center team and their philosophical commitment to supporting work…that has been profound. It’s been the house of “yes,” and for a premiere and an early iteration that has been really helpful.


Miriam Felton-Dansky is a professor in Bard’s Theater & Performance Program.

To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.

Watch the trailer for The Rehearsal Artist:






Foundation for Healing. Photo by Samuel Miller.

Samuel Miller is a queer filmmaker, writer, and theater artist based in Los Angeles and New York. Obsessed with authenticity, digital environments, and hauntings both literal and metaphorical, Miller’s work deconstructs classic elements of pop culture as well as formal aspects of film and theater to humorously macabre ends. Miller’s full-length video/performance hybrid work, Chambers of Desire premiered at Bard College in 2015 and had its west coast premier at Magnet SF, as part of an anniversary event for Act Up! While attending Bard, Miller curated the Gravitas Theater Festival and premiered three original theater works. He graduated from Bard College in 2015. 

Recently Miller spoke with Rebecca Capper about his upcoming work, Foundation for Healing, which is a form of virtual reality therapy that focuses on exorcising the trauma and hyper vigilance that can be caused by living under mass surveillance. Foundation for Healing will premier at We’re Watching this April.


Rebecca Capper: Why are you making Foundation for Healing?

Samuel Miller: My first impulse was to explore what my own relationship to surveillance is and I discovered that I personally don’t value privacy that much, perhaps not as much as I should. That’s what my relationship with surveillance is. My data just doesn’t seem that important to me, and that, I think, comes from a place of extreme privilege. Taking a step back, I asked myself why my first impulse was to tell everyone, “your data doesn’t matter, let it all go free” and it made me wonder why I had this impulse to tell everyone that privacy doesn’t matter. Then it developed into this idea: what if there was some therapy, some organization, where the mission or goal is to dissolve the concepts of personal privacy, technological privacy, and digital privacy. After that, I asked myself: Instead of opening up people’s relationship to data collection, what is the most nurturing thing I could do with this thought, instead of the most exploitative? Then I thought: what if there was an organization that does not reveal all your information, but rather helps you cope with the fact that privacy is somewhat of a myth. The Foundation for Healing works with how to heal yourself in this time, how to come up with something kind and nurturing.

RC: It seems there could be a theme of spirituality, almost verging on religious, in this work. Is that in there?

SM: If there is anything religious it probably is a distortion of what came from my original interview with the performer. Structurally the piece is four separate videos that each represent someone’s self-care routine in relation to surveillance. So, I interviewed all of my performers and asked them about their relationships with surveillance and what kind of self-care routines they practice. After that, I built in elements of fiction, so the performers would not feel as if they were giving away anything too personal. My last work was about narrative, so I wanted to draw back from that and do something more tonal. I wanted to work on visual texture as opposed to story, and that seems to lend a level of spirituality to the piece.

RC: That makes sense. I think sometimes when narrative or language is taken away, and there’s someone just being or existing in an event, it can turn pastoral in some odd way.

SM: Right. I absolutely agree.

RC: How about the role of the viewer and their Virtual Reality (VR) headset? What will they see?

SM: Compliance was a big theme of my research. We are very compliant with our own data, often giving it up to power structures in exchange for god knows what. Every time you click “accept” on a “terms and agreements” page or access a non-secure Wi-Fi network, you’re engaging in this really sinister act of compliance that makes you incalculably vulnerable. My piece starts with a similar act of compliance in which the viewer essentially puts on a blindfold, in this case a VR headset, in a crowded space. By sitting down to watch Foundation for Healing and agreeing to engage with the piece, you’re accepting the fact that you will not know what’s going on around you during the viewing. People will watch you watching the piece since it’s in a very public area, but to engage in Foundation for Healing there is no way around making yourself vulnerable.

RC: Have you worked with VR before?

SM: I have never worked with VR before. This project is the first time and I absolutely love it. It’s the coolest thing. I was quite skeptical of it and then the first video I shot was so much fun. I’m used to 2D filmmaking and I’ve practiced 3D video, but VR is a whole new concept. It takes away everything I know about how to compose a shot or how to light an environment. It all had to go out the door, which left me with a lot room to play around.

RC: What’s it like to be the youngest artist participating in this biennial?

SM: It’s such an honor to be invited to participate in this amazing experience. While attending Bard, I was in love with the Fisher Center and their groundbreaking new programming. So, in becoming a part of that, I feel like I really have to show up with something good. If I were famous, I would phone it in. I’m going to be a total hack some day and love every minute.


Rebecca Capper is a senior in the Department of Theater and Performance, Bard College.

To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.


Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson founded Big Art Group in 1999 in New York City as a company for the creation of contemporary performance. Big Art Group’s work exists in the contemporary stream of expanded performance, wherein traditional narratives and established performer-audience relationships have been opened up to create possibilities of innovative discovery.  Big Art Group blends high and low technology, marginal and mainstream culture, and blunt investigation to drive questions about contemporary experience. Manson and Nelson also created the social network and website ContemporaryPerformance.com for the exchange, diffusion and innovation of ideas in contemporary performance by global artists, and host an annual festival in New York’s Lower East Side in January called Special Effects, to showcase experiments in new practices in the field.

This March Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson of Big Art Group were in residence at the Fisher Center for Performing Arts working on Opacity, which will preview at WE’RE WATCHING in April. On the snowiest day of the year, when the Fisher Center, along with all of Bard campus was shut down due to snow, I had a phone conversation with Manson and Nelson, who, despite the flurries and the closures, continued to work with their creative team at their lodgings in nearby Germantown.


Anna Gallagher-Ross: How are you doing on this snow day?

Caden Manson: We have food, we have booze. We are working. Everyone is here. We have live motion capture and 3D models in the kitchen, we have surveillance research in the living room, and some performance exercises in the basement.

AGR: Who is here with you on this residency?

CM: With us is an assistant video designer, a performer who is also doing the 3D modeling and live motion capture, and an assistant director who is compiling a lot of the interviews and documents, the language we are using for our script. Such as it is.

AGR: Could you say a bit more about this script, such as it is?

CM: It’s a “love story.” We wanted a simple story that was commonplace, very quotidian, so we decided it would be a person looking through apps to connect. This person finds someone, goes and has coffee, and actually connects with another person. They then decide to go somewhere more intimate, and all the while they are using interfaces to find each other, find the place to meet, find the place to go to, find the car to get into, use a map to get to the place they are going to. These interfaces are pervasive. There are five scenes, and each scene is built out of five search terms. We select the five terms, and then we use a Python program to scrape Twitter, which means to collect a thousand recent tweets that use those terms, and then we build the script from that. The script is then live fed to the performer’s ears, and they speak those lines to one another.

Rehearsals for Opacity, March 2017.
Photo by Anya Kopischke ’17.

Jemma Nelson: We are using natural language generation techniques, or methods of creating understandable texts via computational analysis and synthesis. Unlike research or commercial natural language applications, however, we are less concerned with the “sense” of the generated texts—we like the absurdity and abstraction of our results.

AGR: Where on the Internet are these texts coming from?

CM: We use Twitter but also search results of different engines and more long-form websites. We have two sets of search terms, because the the play begins with language about trying to connect online. For that we use search results based around this theme. And as we progress through the play, we begin to add terms about surveillance and security. So what starts as a script about two people trying to connect online, a kind of love story about meeting in real life through these interfaces, slowly becomes inflected by the language of freedom and surveillance and security.

AGR: This show is built around the framework of the interface. Could you speak about the inspiration for this project and also what you mean by interface?

CM: What we mean by interface is the GUI (graphical user interface) that you use to communicate and project yourself through, usually via computer or phone. These opaque user interfaces of apps like Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, Messenger, and Maps. We are interested in the way the visual that you look at on your phone hides all of the technology and code behind it, and how that’s dangerous. Also how that affects the way we relate to each other, or connect.

JN: More abstractly, the interface is a boundary site, a border line; an exchange that enables us to access information, that promotes usability, but in that process things get translated and things get changed, and sometimes those processes that happen at that site are hidden and not visible to us, and so they are taken for granted. That error, change and failure are part of the inspiration or interest in it for us.

Rehearsals for Opacity, March 2017.
Photo by Anya Kopischke ’17.

AGR: These interfaces say a lot about who we are and how we live, but also who makes them. What is the relationship between surveillance and the interface? The relationship between opacity and surveillance?

JN: We have entered a new era of mass data surveillance, a sort of statistical era where a lot of what our society is governed by is the data that is collected. We know that this data is driving decisions on a governmental level, on a scientific level, on a healthcare level, but we also know now that it is driving decisions on a personal level. For instance, it impacts how we decide to meet someone. The idea that I’m going to go meet someone, or I am going to try find a stranger to meet in a romantic way or even in a social way is now governed by this transition through the interface. What concerns us is what you are being shown, but also what you are not being shown. The categories that are being assigned for you, to you, that you take part in choosing. There are lots of decisions being made about visibility and invisibility. Most of those decisions around that, whether done by companies or government regulations, are not visible to us, and we take a lot of what is displayed on a screen for granted. We look at a new version of a phone or computer, or even more abstract interfaces, and we don’t pay attention to the potentially sinister implications of commonplace elements: ratings, location services, snapshots.

AGR: It seems that each new version of these interfaces have less and less holes—they are increasingly more impermeable, more opaque.

JN: As we talk about working in the cloud, and all these intelligent devices, the impact of surveillance surrounds us more and more, and yet in that surrounding, in these decisions, there are little ‘micro’ decisions that may seem benign, that function to categorize a person, or designate where they live, for example, but these things can have real world effects on a number population scale, and we don’t understand those effects yet. But all these structural things are now being built into how we interact with the world, how we see the world, and how we project ourselves out to the world.

AGR: What role do you see the spectator having in April?

JN: We are thinking about this performance as a kind of machine, as a program in itself, and so we’re thinking of the way we are giving it directives. The show changes based on different participants and it is flexible in a way so that the language can be swapped out, the certain triggers in the piece can be swapped out, generating new conversations. So we are thinking of it performatively in a different way. Its designed to be so it’s not fixed in the way you’d think of a conventional play.

CM: It is a different way of working with the performers because they are more participants than they are performers. For me, in the history of Big Art Group, our work is rehearsed within and inch of its life, and is comprised of hundreds and hundreds of cues, which are played by the people, you know, we don’t have stage managers, everyone is playing their own instrument—a light is an instrument, the media instrument, the sound is an instrument. And for this piece, although it is a quieter piece, it is a lot more out of control. It’s got all these “if-thens,” a series of hypotheticals, of possibilities. It starts off so that the audience can understand the situation and the language makes sense together, but then we place a schism in scene four, we break the story. The language, as that connection happens for them, changes from them talking about wanting to get together and find intimacy, to fears of surveillance and of being watched.


To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.

In Progress: An Interview with Hasan Elahi of RETINA

Hasan Elahi is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines issues of surveillance, citizenship, migration, transport, and
borders and frontiers. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions at venues such as SITE Santa Fe, Centre Georges Pompidou, Sundance Film Festival, Kassel Kulturbahnhof, The Hermitage, and at the Venice Biennale. Elahi was recently invited to speak about his work at the Tate Modern, Einstein Forum, the American Association of Artificial Intelligence, the International Association of Privacy Professionals, World Economic Forum, and at TED Global. His awards include grants from the Creative Capital Foundation, Art Matters Foundation, and a Ford Foundation/Phillip Morris National Fellowship. His work is frequently in the media and has been covered by The New York Times, Forbes, Wired, CNN, ABC, CBS, NPR, and has appeared on Al Jazeera, Fox News, and on The Colbert Report. He is currently Associate Professor of Art at University of Maryland and from 2011 to 2014 was Director of Design | Cultures + Creativity in the Honors College. In 2010, he was an Alpert/MacDowell Fellow and in 2009, was Resident Faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

He spoke with Rebecca Capper about his work in progress for WE’RE WATCHING, titled Retina.


Rebecca Capper: What inspired you to make this new work?

Hasan Elahi: Retina is really an examination of how we see things.  I was thinking about using Google street view as a camera source for this work and Retina is a blown up Google screenshot of a street view to 64 feet wide. At that scale, it does some interesting perceptual things and the image falls apart. It’s also inverted, the way an early camera obscura would see—it’s the earliest form of photography—so in a way it’s kind of this geeky photography project, but also taking into account that a lot of photography today is machines taking photos for other machines and humans will never interact with most of these images.

RC: Speaking of cameras, can you talk about your own personal relationship with cameras over time?

HE: I have a conflicted relationship with photography. It’s funny because I never identified as a photographer until recently, and only in the last year or so when photographers started saying I was a photographer. I’m not exactly trained in it. When I was in early college I shot a lot of bands and concerts, but it’s a totally different type of photography now and most of the stuff I’m doing these days is with a cell phone. I never associated my practice with a certain medium or particular discipline or technique and I’ve always looked at it as how can I find the most appropriate method for my idea and that’s how it came about.

RC: You spoke about “mediums” or “methods” a moment ago, this being a site specific piece, how has the space shaped the work? Has it affected your image sourcing?

HE: The Fisher Center is an incredible piece of architecture; it’s an iconic work. It’s interesting when you look at the outside of this gorgeous stainless steel organic form and compare the inside and its super sharp white space. I’m interested in that dichotomy and I like the juxtaposition of that. It’s as if you could see through the wall of the building and the image is the nearest Google Street View image in front of the building. I find it interesting to imagine as if there was a huge lens and a tiny hole in the building and the image came through onto the opposite wall. You see an inverted image of the original image. I’m really interested in collapsing that space. The geography and the Google Street View image could really be anywhere, but the specificity of it and the fact that it can only really be that one spot is really important in the work. I think similarly when you look at my other work, like the photos on my tracking site, those images could be anywhere, but they’re so hyper specific that if you experience that same space, it can only be that one spot.

RC:  Talking about “seeing” a bit more. The title… why Retina? Why not optic nerve or iris or some other part of the eye?

HE: I went back and forth with a lot of those. I was at my eye doctor getting my eyes checked as I’m at that age now where my eyes are changing and I’ve been much more sensitive to the changes in my own vision than I ever was in the past. I didn’t know this before, but at that appointment, my eye doctor told me that you’re always seeing everything upside down and your brain flips the image. I’ve become more conscious of my vision recently and I generally question what I’m seeing more.

RC: How does Retina intersect with the politics of surveillance for you?

HE: In considering surveillance we tend to think of it as a very 21st century concept, yet we’ve always been watched. We’ve had several thousands of years of being watched from above; G-d —all knowing— as the original surveillance camera. This might sound sarcastic, but there’s a very similar omniscience that a lot of these data companies have about us. I think we don’t consider many things as surveillance until it’s put in that context for us. Similarly, when you hyper aestheticize an image your brain no longer reads it as surveillance, but reads it as landscape and I think there’s something that also happens when you take that Google Street View image and you aestheticize it.

RC: Is there anything you think the audience should know before viewing the piece?

HE: I’m sure some of the audience at the festival will be from outside of the Bard community, but chances are the majority of people interacting with that piece will be the students and the people at Bard, particularly the people at the Fisher Center. People who are used to seeing their surroundings. They’ll recognize the shapes of the trees, for instance, and know their surroundings. The audience will bring to the work some of that predisposed knowledge. But something new will happen for them too because the image is going to be so large that it will tear up and deteriorate before them. When you take a typical screen image and blow it up to 64 feet, the information in the image degrades optically and perceptually. And yet, some of that original information will carry over and that information will still be legible to the viewer.


Rebecca Capper is a senior in the Department of Theater and Performance, Bard College.

To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.


IN PROGRESS: An interview with Annie Dorsen of The Great Outdoors

Annie Dorsen works across the fields of theater, film, dance, and digital performance. Between 2010 and 2015, she created a trilogy of algorithmic performances: Hello Hi There, A Piece of Work, and Yesterday Tomorrow. She is a 2017 recipient of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Theater/Performance award, and a 2014 recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. She has taught at Bard College, New York University, Fordham University, and the University of Chicago.

 She spoke with Miriam Felton-Dansky about her work in progress for We’re Watching, titled The Great Outdoors.


Miriam Felton-Dansky: Tell me about the inspiration for the project and how it evolved from an initial idea.

Annie Dorsen: In a way it started as two projects. I had made some videos that used YouTube comments and pop songs, and I got totally fascinated by comments and commenting. I loved reading them; I find them so interesting and weird, and sometimes horrible. A comment is disconnected from a body, of course, but you can still somehow feel the person behind it. Both anonymous and very very specific. I’m interested in what language produces on its own, situations in which you have no other information about the speaker than the words—in performance contexts, when you don’t have an actor—when you just have the language in some kind of pure, readable form. Do you start to imagine bodies? Do you start to imagine characters?

Around the same time I was fantasizing about being under the stars. I thought maybe I would do a piece in a planetarium, maybe connected to research I’ve been doing on Leibniz and the origins of computer science. But at some point I moved the Leibniz material to another project and kept the planetarium for the comments. So that was the starting point: internet comments and a planetarium.

MFD: I remember you’d been describing this project in terms of landscape too. Is that still part of the project?

AD: Yes. Once I got the planetarium, and started spending some time in it, I began thinking about the sublime—that feeling of overwhelming wonder, attraction, repulsion, anxiety….it seemed connected to the notion of the Internet as a kind of virtual landscape.

And then the fourth element in the mix is entropy, which I started reading about in terms of information theory, and then later in the physics sense.

MFD: Entropy is both an information science and a natural science term, right?

AD: Right. In thermodynamics, entropy is about the expenditure of energy over time. We will eventually exhaust all available energy – this is what they call “heat death” – and the universe will wind down into a kind of undifferentiated mass of random particles. It’s also about the unidirectional nature of time: in the classic example, you can’t unmix the milk from the coffee. In the information theory sense, entropy has to do with how you measure the information content of messages. Or to put it another way, how to measure the unpredictability of data or information: the more unpredictable, the higher the information content. They’re actually the same, the info theory and the physics meanings – both are about the movement from order to disorder.

How this will all materialize in the four dimensions of the performance is still an open question.

MFD: But that might effect some kind of progression in the piece?

AD: That’s where we’re starting from, seeing if we can use entropy as a dramatic structure, or arc.

MFD: Who is collaborating with you on the piece?

AD: I’m working with a programmer named Miles Thompson, who’s done a lot of work with neural networks, machine learning. Onome Ekeh, a visual artist, and a composer named Sébastien Roux. Ryan Holsopple is designing the systems for the planetarium show, and the performer is Natalie Galpern.

MFD: How do you imagine spectators taking in this piece?

AD:  I’m hoping it will feel like sitting around a digital campfire. The audience will gather around the flickering projector, with all kinds of text and stories summoned down to us from the “cloud.” I think of it as a storytelling piece, in a very old sense: we gather together to hear the stories of our ancestors. Those stories that tell a community about itself, about what it is. But what are those stories for us now? Maybe they’re coming not so much from the ancestors as from each other, right now, two seconds ago.

MFD: This collective thing, that’s bubbling up everywhere, not localized…

AD: Exactly. And then there’s the feeling you have when you’re out under the real stars. You feel dreamy, and contemplative, and open, and in a slightly altered state of awareness and relaxation. Our planetarium produces that feeling too, even though it’s clearly a digital image.

MFD: Will there be some kind of contrast between that peacefulness and the quality of the comments themselves, which might be angry, or obscene, or nonsensical?

AD: This is one of the questions we’ll be bringing into rehearsal. On the Internet, as we know well, people are extraordinarily reactive, quick to take offense. It’s not just that without body cues it’s hard to tell people’s tone—it’s also I think that we know there are terrible people out there. We assume bad intentions. In this piece, we can look at comments more as speech artifacts from the world rather than as something that implicates us in a dialogue. So maybe this question of being able to relax and look at the stars and listen to these voices coming from the ether, or from the digital realm—maybe in this context we can hear these comments with more sympathy, or at least curiosity.

MFD: What online spaces did you gather comments from? Was that an aesthetic decision?

AD: It wasn’t an aesthetic decision, but it’s had an aesthetic impact. We spent some time trying to collect different sites that had interesting comments, but not every site will let you do a big query to download comments. We ended up going for Reddit because you can take as much information as you want – and for any topic you can think of, there’s at least one subreddit devoted to that topic. We have a list of the top thousand most popular subreddits, and I’ve been picking which ones we want to keep in our mix. That’s had an aesthetic impact because even though you may have one subreddit that’s about alt-right politics, and another that’s a support group for parents of teenagers with cancer, and so on—very different styles—there is still something Reddit-ish about both of them.

MFD: The biennial’s theme is surveillance. Do you see overlap with what you’re working on in this project?

AD: Yes. First, in terms of not knowing who’s out there, who’s watching, who’s reading, who’s listening. But then…we think about surveillance as a tool of state or corporate control, but it’s also a way of watching. That slightly detached, but somehow still purposeful scanning of lots of material…it’s connected to this idea of the Internet sublime, of how we cope with the vastness of it, the virtually infinite.


Miriam Felton-Dansky is a professor in Bard’s Theater & Performance Program.


To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.


Recently I sat down with Alexandro Segade to discuss the inspiration and creative process behind his speculative, multimedia theater epic Future St. which will be part of WE’RE WATCHING this April. Segade is an interdisciplinary artist whose work in performance, video, and multi-media installation uses genres, and the theories associated with them, to foreground the politics and myths of representation. Segade is a founding member of the collective My Barbarian, with Malik Gaines and Jade Gordon. Segade and Gaines have also collaborated on performance projects including a recently debut of a choral opera based on an unpublished novel by science fiction author Octavia Butler. Segade is co- chair of the Film/Video department at Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts and teaches in the BFA program at Parsons in New York City. Segade was born in San Diego, CA, and lives and works in New York and Los Angeles.


Anna Gallagher-Ross: Since November, and even prior to that time, we’ve been watching this dystopian discourse unfold in the political arena, which at times can feel like a sci-fi saga.

Alexandro Segade: Absolutely.

AGR: In light of that, could you talk about what sparked Future Street?

 AS: It’s interesting that right after the election, people started to talk about how 1984 had become a bestseller again. In all my work, I have attempted to address both the concerns of the moment and the historical and artistic precedents for the moment.

AGR: Right.

AS: And during this moment, and leading up to it, other dystopian novels and films were being looked at as models for understanding what was happening and what was to come, from Parable of the Sower to The Handmaid’s Tale. My piece, Future St, which describes a utopia for some, and dystopia for the rest, talks about a lot of the issues we contend with right now: autocracy, spectacle, performances of masculinity, feminism and queerness, technology, and surveillance.  The piece grew very slowly out of my MFA thesis at UCLA, where I was making work about the debate around gay marriage.  It was 2008, California had voted for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state. There was a window when gay marriage was legal and my partner Malik Gaines and I got married, knowing that our marriage was going to be contested. The feeling I had at that moment was one of a kind: on the one hand there was the election of Obama, and a promise that democracy could function, but on the other hand, we had everybody voting against our personal relationship. I was also interested in the debate within queer communities: not everybody thought “marriage equality” was a great idea. It normalizes relationships, forecloses possibilities, is a marker of privilege, and institutionalizes intimacy.

AGR: What was your perspective on this debate?

AS: Ultimately, Malik and I were ambivalent about marriage, but we needed healthcare, and we wanted to be able to visit each other if we ended up in the hospital. I started to make performances in order to understand these contradictions: writing speeches and conversations, having performers rehearse them, resulting in installations and videos, but I hadn’t found a form. Finally, I found my solution in genre itself: tropes that offer us both a space of possibility and a structure that can be resisted. Science fiction was the perfect way to go because I was thinking so much about what societies could be. The idea was to take all of these anxieties about this marriage debate and ask: what would happen if a society were built to affirm my identity, rather than destroy it?  I started writing about a future homosexual police state, affirming fears on all sides of the gay marriage debate. I imagined a society based on cloning, with clones who were mandated to marry each other, who were also cops, just sitting in a cop car talking about their relationship and the society that they were sworn to protect.  And from there a whole world started to get built.

AGR: You produced a series of performances on this subject, right?

AS: Yes. The first one was called Replicant v. Separatist, which was about the clone cops policing the younger generation who didn’t like the idea of gay marriage and were rebelling against the sexual identity mandated by the clones. Then that developed into another piece called Other Boys and Other Stories which focused more on this generational dissonance. The third performance, Holo Library, is where surveillance began to play a role. I wanted to explore how sexuality and identity have become part of a media landscape that involves screens, sexting, the ways people communicate without a physical body-to-body relationship. In L.A., a lot of gay bars were closing and a big reason was apps like Grindr and SCRUFF. I was thinking about what it means when we start to meditate sexuality, when our relationship is with a screen, rather than a person. I started imagining: what if the screens had consciousness and they were actually aware of their function as conduits? And after Holo Library there was a project called Boy Band Audition which was the least scripted. In it, I would pretend to be the future, and that I was putting together a boy band from the present in order to change the timeline with a hit single. It was a really funny piece.

Future St. brings all these threads together into one one evening length piece. I’ve brought together a team of artists that I really admire. Casting has been an adventure because I’m from L.A. and most of the performers that I’ve worked with on this project are in California. It is really important to me that the actors have a stake in the material so I’ve been going to an LGBTQ-supportive acting studio in New York City. I’m working with actors who identify as gay, trans, and gender queer. I didn’t want this performance to be a bunch of cis male muscle guys wandering around onstage pretending it’s the future…to me that would be really scary.

AGR: Absolutely. Could you say a bit more about the dystopian science fiction models that Future St. draws upon?

AS: I’m a huge fan of science fiction. Ursula Le Guin, Samuel R Delany, and Octavia Butler are three of my favorite writers of all time. I also really like HP Lovecraft. There are also certain filmic examples like Blade Runner, which was one of the first movies I saw in the theater and I remember forgetting I even existed. I just lived in it, was completely seduced by the aesthetic and the mise-en-scéne. As an X-Men comics fan, I love melancholy and existentialism.

AGR: Not to nerd out, but your plot of clones and rebels also makes me think of early Batman, which features the mutant rebellion, who eventually become the sons of Batman…What is so fascinating is you are playing with these science fiction tropes, which in many ways in can be quite normative, and you are inserting this queer, feminist politics…

AS: Completely. As I got older I realized some of the flaws of Blade Runner, such as its unrelenting male gaze. I thought a lot about that image of the woman on a screen that floats above the city in that film. I play with that image in Future St. Why is there a woman on the screen? Is that an interface that could be masking a consciousness of some kind? In Future St. there is this group of older women who are called the Mother’s Brigade, who precede the clone culture and represent the generation of feminists that includes the artist Mary Kelly, who was my mentor at UCLA, and also, of course, my own mother, Irina Kaplan-Segade, who is an activist with GLSEN. What is easily overlooked in the kinds of debates that we have right now is that a lot of the tools for understanding what’s happening can be found in older models of critique and liberation. Feminism is an important touchstone here. I don’t know how we could have an understanding of gender, or more broadly, humanity, without feminist critique.

AGR: Could you talk a bit about the relationship between spectacle and surveillance in Future St.?

AS: That’s an interesting question. We often talk about spectacle in relation to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Debord understood that we were becoming a society mediated through images, and it is the case now that everyone’s relationships are mediated through images. The Situationist critique was that we aren’t living our full lives and therefore we need some kind of participatory situation. But one thing that wasn’t technologically possible for the Situationists was the possibility of direct participation in that spectacle.  Eventually we became the content providers for the spectacle through that participation, and the content we provide can be and is surveilled.

In developing this imaginary gay autocratic state, I’ve been doing research on the connections between fringe homosexual politics and Fascism. We have all of these different permutations, from the Nazi Ernst Rohm, to gay skinheads like Nicky Crane, slain Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, tech tycoon Peter Thiel, and I-don’t-know-what-you-would-call-him Milo Yiannopoulos, who is finally in trouble for making statements that seem to support pedophilia, I guess. Yiannopoulos used various subcultural outlets, such as 4Chan and Breitbart, to communicate with his audience, but when re-contextualized his statements became evidence that could be used against him.  Privacy no longer exists as such, and surveillance becomes a frame for the data we produce—willingly or not.  People don’t always pay attention to it until it’s time to pay attention to it, but the information is out there.

This is a large part of Future St. The main character finds himself in trouble because everything that he’s ever done has been tracked, and the Replicant police have collected a script about his life, including his memories, and it is their interpretation of that script that determines his fate. In the current moment, when I am on Facebook, I have the sense of surveilling myself and of self-censorship. I put tape over the camera on my laptop, and I keep reading about people’s cell phones being searched at borders. Paranoia is normalized. We are living inside of a spectacle that leads to surveillance automatically: it’s a loop.

AGR: I agree. When I first read about Future St., it seemed fantastic, but also all too real.

AS: I think that’s something that we’ve been thinking about as we work on the text and the design. We keep asking ourselves: is this science fiction? That’s the thing with speculative fiction: it is always this commentary on the current the moment. It feels like it’s futuristic but really it is about the time we are living in.


To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.




IN PROGRESS: An Interview with John Lucas, Claudia Rankine, and Will Rawls of “What Remains”


This past January team members of What Remains were in residence at The Fisher Center for Performing Arts. Premiering at WE’RE WATCHING this April, What Remains is a collaboration between poet, essayist, playwright, and editor, Claudia Rankine, author of the acclaimed poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, among other important works; documentary photographer and filmmaker John Lucas, who has directed and produced several cutting-edge multimedia projects including a collaborative series of video essays with Rankine entitled “Situations”; and artist and writer, Will Rawls, who works with dance, objects, sound and speech in solo and group performances that explore the idea of self and becoming. This interview was conducted at the beginning of the creative process for What Remains.


Anna Gallagher-Ross: What was the inspiration for this project and what brought you all together to work on it?

Claudia Rankine: We were brought together by Gideon Lester, the Artistic Director of Theatre and Dance at Bard College. He initially approached me and John because of the work we’ve done documenting racial violence against black men and women in America. He then invited Will Rawls to choreograph and create movement that spoke directly to our line of inquiry. We are also working closely with Homi K. Bhabha, given his recent work on refugee crisis in the U.S. and Europe. The umbrella that we’re working under is this idea of surveillance, even as What Remains thinks specifically about the limited movement of targeted bodies.

John Lucas: Yes, Gideon had come across some of the videos essays entitled “Situations” that I collaborate on with Claudia. These video essays circle around some of same themes that the project was addressing so Gideon approached us wondering if we would want to get involved with the project.

Will Rawls: The inspiration for this project is the rather dark desire to contour the space of erasure that is foisted upon people of color across cultural, legislative, and social fields in the U.S. Claudia, John, and I have been figuring out a way to construct a performance work that can both represent and palpably enact this kind of void. Claudia speaks of this void as an “already dead space”—a term that is both frightening and productive for me. It is important to say that the void is not a metaphor nor is the void empty, far from it. The void is a space of potential energy, one that is both deathly but also charged with liveness and will power.

AGR: What is your perspective on this project in light of the immigration ban Trump has ordered?

CR: From the beginning of Trump’s run, the issue of closing the borders has always been front-and-center. His presidency has turned rhetoric into devastation for hundreds of families, individuals believing themselves here legitimately, holders of green cards, in addition to refugees and undocumented Americans. We want the piece to reflect the deliberate and shameful loss of mobility these human beings are experiencing.

JL: Being a documentary photographer and filmmaker, I have always been the observer, the “surveiller,” so to be collaborating on a project that centers around surveillance is very interesting to me.  I think what the immigration ban has done is brought into the mainstream consciousness, that is the white American conscious, what immigrants and people of color have always lived under, the weary and watchful eye of the overseer.

AGR: What are you each contributing to this project and/or what is your approach to these themes?

CR: I am working on a script.

JL: I will be contributing visuals that will be projected during the live performance as well as in an installation piece.

WR: I am working as director and choreographer. Thus far I spend my time in rehearsals with the performers (3 dancers and 1 sound artist) and then in meetings with Claudia and John discussing the role of text and video. I have written and performed text in my own work for years and enjoy exploring both the expository and textural elements of language. A symbolic word becomes a texture when the person saying it is also imbuing their speaking with a deep physicality. So I am bringing various practices of stuttering, slurring, repetition, and so on, into rehearsals with the performers to explore this idea.

Also, dance can function both as a symbolic form and as a symbolically ambiguous form that is difficult to read or make sense of, even when it is being “beautiful.” I like both of these possibilities and feel that they align with how I am trying to work with text in the piece as well. So I am expecting that a full spectrum of legibility and illegibility—in both text and movement—to be present in the work. The question of legibility of course reflects back on your question about surveillance. When is it important to self-announce in the face of constant erasure and when is it more crucial to remain opaque as a form of resistance to white hegemony that enforces and requires a surveilled transparency at all times. Édouard Glissant speaks of the right to opacity in his work The Poetics of Relation and I am aiming to create a work that claims this right.

AGR: Could you say a bit more about how this project speaks to theme of surveillance?

WR: Black bodies have always been under surveillance in this country—whether that surveillance has been in terms of police control, video surveillance or racist legal policy that has the tireless capacity to reinvent itself from era to era. Black people have nonetheless continued to invent art and political positions to circumnavigate and counteract these suppressive forces. The point of departure for this work is to experiment with the possibility of performance as a place of discovery and self-determination while addressing these kinds of forces. Something I’m particularly focused on is how performance, especially in the Western theatrical and visual arts context, is one in which the audience is predominantly white. The performers in What Remains all identify as black. The reality of this tension is something we are exploring in rehearsals.

AGR: How do you see the role of spectatorship and witnessing within the immersive environment that you will be constructing in Tower Storage at the Fisher Center this April? Do you imagine these collective encounters that engage in this “memorialization” as a way of repositioning subjects? 

JL: My hope is that we can turn a bit of the gaze back onto the audience. Maybe we can create a bit of discomfort or awareness of being observed.

WR: We are not engaging in memorialization per se. That word feels too imbued with an institutional agenda that I associate with governments. Also, the performers in this piece are alive right now, and I would never want the grandiose gesture of memorialization to overshadow their immense talent and presence as performers in the here and now. This piece does speak to a history of violence in the U.S. that must be reckoned with but not in order to congeal into a memorial. My interest is in how to construct a performance that will address the ethics of exposure—the power differential and dynamic feedback loop between an audience and performers. In this feedback loop lies all of the death and life of which Claudia, John and I speak.

To find out more and to purchase tickets click here.







Introducing WE’RE WATCHING


We’re Watching is a performance exhibition about surveillance, and the second edition of the Live Arts Bard Biennial.  We refer to the biennial as a “performance exhibition” because it borrows elements from the infrastructures of art exhibitions and performance festivals.  This experimental, hybrid format provides an extraordinary context in which to encounter the work of leading contemporary artists.

We launched the LAB Biennial in 2014 with The House is Open, a performance exhibition that explored the dynamic relationship between the worlds of the performing and visual arts.  Frank Gehry’s magnificent building usually functions as a classical performance venue with designated areas for spectators and performers, but The House is Open offered a very different relational structure, transforming the theatre into a temporary museum. The public was invited to roam through spaces in the building that are usually off limits, and to engage with art projects installed in temporary “galleries” made from backstage areas, wings, storage rooms, hidden corridors, and lobbies, as well as more conventional performance venues.  The constant flow of spectators and site-specific projects created new public spaces in unexpected corners, and the whole Fisher Center became a welcoming and inclusive site for art.  The experience taught us a great deal about the building, and inspired us to  imagine new environments in which to experience and reflect on contemporary art and performance.  This was how the LAB Biennial was born.

Each edition of the Biennial will take as its subject a question or challenge for the twenty-first century.  LAB will invite a group of artists from across disciplines to consider the question from multiple perspectives and forms, creating a complex, and sometimes contradictory matrix of ideas.  The performance exhibition is the culmination of a two-year cycle of artist research and development, which also includes undergraduate courses at Bard, conferences and colloquia, artist residencies, and experiments.  We see the Biennial as a kind of brain trust, in which artists, scholars, students, and the public come together to reflect on a matter of great significance to our world.

The subject of the 2017 Biennial We’re Watching is the systems and technologies of surveillance, and their impact on our contemporary lives.  The exhibition includes seven new performances and installations—several of them commissioned by LAB—by artists working across the disciplines of theater, dance, performance, visual art, film and video, sound, and virtual reality.

Surveillance is not a new subject for the art world.  From Andy Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space to Trevor Paglen’s photographic documentation of the NSA and Jill Magid’s performances for CCTV, artists have long grappled with the visible and invisible infrastructures of the surveillance state.  Theater, too, has studied the interplay of spectator and spectated since the invention of drama; the very word “theater” derived from the Greek for “the watching place.”  In the The Empty Space Peter Brook famously reminds us that an act of surveillance is inherent to all performance:

“A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

The technologies and systems of surveillance are, however, expanding at an unprecedented rate in the 21st century, and are changing and challenging the way we relate to government, law enforcement, corporations, and each other.  The artists of We’re Watching are interrogating the new realities of our age, from social media and chatrooms to biometrics, WikiLeaks, drone warfare, corporate spying, and state interference in elections.

Performance is a profoundly human medium, and We’re Watching will explore the human impact of life in a state of surveillance.  We invite you to join us as we collectively consider questions that shape our networked lives: How does surveillance affect our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our sense of ourselves as citizens?  Who is watching us, and whom are we watching?  In an age of increasing activism and resistance, can watching be a political act?  Does privacy still matter? We’re Watching will not provide answers, but offers a space for complex thought, reflection, and fantasy—so vital to the sustenance of our democracy.

We look forward to welcoming you to the Fisher Center for four remarkable days this April.


Gideon Lester, Artistic Director, Theater & Dance