The following conversation took place at Anthology Film Archives in New York on January 9, 2017, after the premier of Adam Pendleton’s video portrait Just Back From Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, commissioned by the Performa Institute. The conversation was moderated by the project’s curator, Adrienne Edwards. This text is a companion piece to Adam Pendleton’s poem “Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer,” published in e-flux journal 79, February 2017.
Adrienne Edwards: As a way to think through formal concerns in art-making and the complexity of doing so in the face of conditions that impose a certain kind of ethical imperative upon the work, I wanted to start with the program for The Mind is a Muscle in 1968, from its debut at the Anderson Theater here in New York. The program reads:
The condition for making my stuff lies in the continuation of my interest and energy. Just as ideological issues have no bearing on the nature of the work, neither does the tenor of the current political and institutional conditions have any bearing on its execution. The world disintegrates around me. My connection to the world-in-crisis remains tenuous and remote. I can foresee a time when this remoteness must necessarily end, though I cannot foresee exactly when or how the relationship will change or what circumstances will incite me to a different kind of action. Perhaps nothing short of universal female military conscription will affect my function (the ipso facto physical fitness of dancers will make them the first victims); or a call for a worldwide cessation of individual functions, to include the termination of genocide. This statement is not an apology. It is a reflection of a state of a mind that reacts with horror and disbelief upon seeing a Vietnamese shot dead on TV—not at the sight of death, however, but at the fact that the TV can be shut off afterwards as after a bad Western. My body remains the enduring reality.
—Yvonne Rainer, March 1968
Immediately after this period, you do Trio A with flags. You enter into a moment of real coming to terms with an ethical imperative. I wanted to mention all this as a segue into asking what you thought about the film.
Yvonne Rainer: I thought it was great! I didn’t know what to expect. We talked for a couple of hours in that diner—three hours I believe. So when Adam told me he was going to make a fifteen-minute piece, I was surprised. But he really distilled a great many things into this work. And I am just amazed at how he took things from his own experience, too. Some of the quotations are totally out of context and fictionalized. He did research into my work and made it personal for himself, while also quoting me. So it is a very complex piece for me. As you saw, it brought me almost to tears at one point because it was so … I’m easily brought to tears these days anyway. As the title suggests, I had just come back from LA after having what was, for me, an extraordinary experience with two of my contemporaries, improvising for an hour in a gallery. So it was a very gratuitous moment that we came together and had this conversation. It brought the past and the present together. Where are we now if not at a point in the history of our country that is both horrifying and energizing and demanding of us. We are seeing the kinds of resistance, protest, and demonstrations that were almost everyday occurrences during the Vietnam War and before the invasion of Iraq and in other moments in my memory—demonstrations in which I participated. So it is amazing that Adam did all that in fifteen minutes.
AE: Adam, there is a kind of opacity to your Black Dada paintings. There’s a veneer you can’t quite get behind. That’s a bit like the way you work, too. There were elements and aspects to how you prepared this piece that I wasn’t a part of and Yvonne wasn’t a part of. I wasn’t there for the shoot, for example. When we had dinner together last summer to talk about what we might do together, Yvonne actually asked you to be as much a part of the piece as she was …
YR: Adam, you wouldn’t have done that yourself—put yourself in the picture—if I hadn’t asked you to?
Adam Pendleton: No. [laughs]
YR: Oh, thank god. I couldn’t have sustained it myself.
AP: Before I say anything else I want to say thank you to you, Yvonne, for agreeing to sit down with me and engage as another artist. As you hear in the beginning of the video, we don’t know each other that well. Making art is a kind of risk, perpetually, and sometimes it’s an honest one. When we sat down we had an honest exchange about who we are, where we come from, our difference in experience simply by the gap of time that exists between us. But there was a trust and empathy and that was greatly appreciated, so thank you.
On a more matte-of-fact note, you proposed a more interesting conundrum when you said that you wanted me to be part of the piece. This is the third video portrait that I’ve done. The first one was of Lorraine O’Grady, who is an African-American conceptual artist based here in New York. The second one was of David Hilliard, who was the former chief of staff and founding member of the Black Panther Party. I’m not in either of those. You can hear my voice in the O’Grady piece but you never see my body. So on the one hand I wanted to honor your wishes that I be in the piece, but I also wanted, as I often do, to disappear.
YR: But you didn’t.
AP: No I didn’t. [laughs]
YR: I mean you could have in the editing.
AP: Yes, I could have in the editing. There was a lot of whispering going on when we were shooting the piece because the camera guys knew they had a semi-directive that I didn’t want to be in any shots.
YR: There are no close-ups of you, right?
AP: We actually ended up with three cameras, which was a kind of solution and a distraction, because I also didn’t want you to think during the shooting that we were solely focusing on you. It’s not readily apparent, but interestingly enough the diner became a kind of a character. It gave us this activity of sitting down, ordering tea, eating together. These rituals were played out against a backdrop—against, if you will, a stream of content or a stream of language.
YR: I’m amazed at how much juice you got out of this old warhorse of mine, Trio A. I keep thinking, what else can be done with this dance?
AP: It’s far from an old warhorse. One of the things that interests me about how your work functions, and how my work functions, is a tendency towards radical juxtaposition. In this particular instance, I’m working within the confines of film. This is a single-channel piece, so I’m not able to have two things in the frame at once—you can hear something, you can see something, at least in the way I’m presenting it. But I think laying the gospel music over the piece—“I Am Saved,” which is a gospel song that no one really knows, from an album entitled This May Be My Last Time Singing—gives a different geometry of attention to the movement that Trio A captures. It gives the piece an honesty, a radical simplicity.
YR: What about the beginning song, which is so redolent with sentiment?
AP: When I was reading your memoir Feelings are Facts, I kept dog-earing the pages where you made references to music. The book was published in 2006, and I am not sure how long you worked on it before it was published, but it was interesting to me that music was often the vehicle or the device that would drive your memory. You mention watching films when you were growing up in San Francisco and hearing “La Mer” over one of them—I don’t remember which one. So in a strange way, my use of “La Mer” in the video is really a note from your own writing, from your own work.
YR: I don’t remember it.
AE: You both cite other texts as sources and references in your work. Adam, would you talk about how you came up with the actual text that Yvonne read? You mentioned that there were elements that came from Yvonne’s Feelings are Facts that you subjected to another assemblage—much like you did in the Black Dada Reader, where there’s an assembly of different writers who are also seemingly incommensurable, but you put them together.
AP: Some of the texts that you hear Yvonne read are from the Black Dada Reader, specifically Stokely Carmichael’s “The Pitfalls of Liberalism,” which he wrote in 1969. You also have “Shameful Conditions and Occurrences,” which Yvonne wrote. You have “The Ballot or the Bullet,” which was written in 1964 by Malcom X and delivered in Cleveland, Ohio; Yvonne only reads one line from this text: “They’re beginning to see what they used to only look at.” You also have a reference to Ron Silliman. And bracketing a text from a book about Black Lives Matter that was written by a Princeton professor. You have a letter to Yvonne from Barbara Dilley about Dilley’s experience performing Continuous Project–Altered Daily at the University of Missouri.
YR: Is that in there?
AP: That is in there.
YR: Do you have it here?
AP: I do have it. I brought the script with me. You were actually only hearing excerpts from a much longer letter and I ended up pulling the sentences that begin with “I remember.”
YR: Ah, that is from the letter that was published in Feelings are Facts. I thought you were making that up. [audience laughs]
AP: I took away a lot of the context, so it became a sort of parallel track for me.
YR: That’s why I said at the beginning that it was fictionalized, but there’s nothing fictionalized in the film. They’re all quotations.
YR: I just don’t remember my own stuff. Give me a break, wait until you guys are eighty. [audience laughs]
AE: I was struck by the fact that Trio A had its fiftieth anniversary last year. This made me think about all the things that were happening around the time that Trio A was made. There was the Vietnam War. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. expanded the Civil Rights Movement to think about issues affecting all poor people. It’s uncanny that we are still dealing with many of the same issues today. The National Organization for Women was established. The Black Panther Party was founded. There was the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia. So it’s an incredible moment. Yvonne, I sense that when you turned toward filmmaking you were somehow trying to address all these things happening around you. You addressed complexities around identity and how certain identities are challenged in this country—in particular, women. But you also talked about women of color, you talked about poor people. I would love for you to comment on that moment where you clearly felt a desire to address these issues somehow.
YR: In my work in the Sixties, there was a split between aesthetic rebellions or dialogues, and my activism around the Vietnam War. Steve Paxton incorporated some of that resistance into some of his pieces but I didn’t, which is why I had to move into film, where one is allowed more latitude to deal with social and political issues. Today, I can’t help thinking about how this country has been involved in the so-called “War on Terrorism” for over a decade. It’s beginning to look like another Thirty-Years War. It’s all being conducted by young poor people who don’t have another way to make a living in this country. It’s more appalling than ever. I tell my friends to stay calm …
AE: Adam, over the last year and a half your work has turned more and more towards ethical issues, from your decision to create a Black Lives Matter flag for the Belgian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, to the new work that you debuted at Pace this summer, Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy). How do you think about that evolution in your work?
AP: The simplest way to respond is to say that as artists I hope we are creating documents that matter. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, I had to respond to the absurdity of the situation, which is to also say, to the violence of the situation. There became an imperative to respond, but not so much to “deal with it” or to “address it,” but rather to bring it into a gracious space where the complexity that these issues deserve could reside. For me, that was the space of my work. So it’s a kind of call to arms, but it’s also, I would argue, a move towards abstraction, because there’s something ethical about being illegible, about the human project not being something that is readily reduced to “he’s a that” and “she’s a this.” There’s something ethical about the potential to understand the power of collective difference in general.
AE: I was thinking about this in relation to the Dadaists. We associate them with a desire to express a certain nihilism or anarchy, to create a nonsensical language. For them, that was revolutionary. But here we are one hundred years later trying to revolt against systems that are nonsensical. So what is revolutionary in the face of this? Is it a kind of measured reserve in aesthetics that allows us to be subversive, that allows us not to be so readily available? And is this problem particular to the US? Are we living through a peculiar form of Americana right now? Or is this true of Western civilization in general?
YR: I keep thinking of the juxtaposition between “BLT” and the killings by policemen, representing daily life in all its mundanity. I’m just amazed at how you got all of this into the same small pot, Adam.
AE: But that’s also true of your work, Yvonne. You also created an open container for such concerns.
YR: Well, in my current work with the so-called Raindears, they dance and I read. The reading is full of complaints and rants and humor. I stick a page in front of one of them, interrupting what he or she is doing, and they read. There’s a real split between movement and language.
AP: I think of them as parallel tracks as well. That was actually something I kept underlining while reading Feelings are Facts and interviews with you—I kept writing “process … process … process,” and those were the moments where I …
YR: They keep intersecting. Well, in film you can do that.
AP: Right. You can do it in film and on a flat plane too. It’s just a different kind of resistance.
AE: Let’s now take questions from the audience.
Audience member 1: Yvonne, could comment on the section where you do the “arm drop” and how that interweaves trust and generosity?
YR: That was invented by Steve Paxton and me in the Sixties. I hadn’t done it with Steve or anyone else since then, but in the LA performance that preceded the conversation with Adam, Steve came over to me and offered his arms and we started to do it. He described the origin of it as we were doing it: “You invited me to dinner and made chicken, and we got stoned on pot and we just started to do the arm drop. We’d never done it before, it just sort of happened. And as we did it, I asked you what was in that chicken, and you said, ‘Chicken.’ And of course because we were stoned, we roared with laughter.” In the performance in LA, instead of roaring with laughter I started to cry because I had a kind of Proustian moment in the convergence of the sensation of the arms and the memory of that evening, which I hadn’t thought about for over forty years … It seems that Steve in his teachings still uses it, and and I probably will too in workshops from now on. It is a very satisfying move. Do you want to demonstrate, Adam?
AP: No, I don’t do it well.
YR: Yes, you do. We just didn’t do it long enough. It’s in the movie. So that’s the story. What was the question again?
Audience member 1: I think that game is about trust and generosity. When it’s folded into this piece, that’s what I think about. Maybe you could comment on the content that was put on the table, in terms of having that evoke this game?
AP: It wasn’t as explicit as that. I brought a text for Yvonne to read and Yvonne brought this gesture. It was an exchange in that way.
YR: We’d had about three hours and it was obviously the end of the conversation. I had to go off to Trader Joe’s. Which again is like BLT …
AE: … the ordinary is extraordinary these days.
Image: Still from Adam Pendleton, Just back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–2017. Single-channel black-and-white video. 13’ 51." Courtesy of the artist.