As I emerged from the subway, it seemed even more intolerably hot than before. I found myself on a little strip with a few stores, a McDonald's, and a parking lot that serviced a series of apartment houses, and industrial buildings. That was about it. Standing there like an easy target with directions in hand, I walked a few long blocks, the only pedestrian in sight. I found myself standing in front of a large red brick building. It looked more like an old high school, than an old factory.

The studio was a clean airy place with white curtains flowing freely in a breeze from the open windows. It felt peaceful in contrast to the story I'd heard upon entering of the armed robbery in the building, and especially calm considering the hectic schedule that was marked out on a large wall calendar. Said Mahrouf, J Mandle's co-director, softly introduced himself and asked me if I wanted anything to drink.

 

Then we sat down to talk.

J Mandle Performance is a non-profit experimental arts organization. Since 1996, the mission of the organization has been to "create site-specific performances in unexpected locations, to heighten the public's perception of its every day environment." The performances usually take place in public spaces, using architectural costume design by Said Mahrouf, unusual slow moving choreography, and commissioned thematic music. Each of these elements is united under one focus of exploration and perception.

 

The most recent J Mandle performance happened this July on Broadway, in the storefront window of The New Museum in SOHO. It was part of a museum exhibit entitled The Time of Our Lives, which focused on aging and the passage of time. The set design was based on a sundial, and the performance featured two dancers dressed in white fabric panels that seemed to be literally connected the architecture of the set. They moved extremely slowly in a circular manner, reminiscent of the sundial, "in order to contrast variation with continuity." The music was broadcast from two speakers placed outside, right on the street. The goal was to get people to stop and watch in the midst of walking down Broadway, one of New York's most bustling streets. The storefront window was to "serve as a symbolic witness to the passage of time, and as a mirror reflecting society, and how we stand in our constantly changing lives."

See JMandle talk about "When"
in QuickTime video

part 1 (630k)

part 2 (550k)

IM: The movements in your performances are very unique. How do you find performers or artists?

JM: We do everything. Word of mouth. We do auditions, which we advertise at dance schools. We hold pretty lengthy auditions. About two hours long when we're looking at dancers, we have them walk across the floor very slowly. It's very important that all the dancers are willing to go where we are conceptually so I explain a lot about the company, what we're aiming for and what we're looking for specifically in each project. We do very simple exercises. Sometimes we have them hold cardboard geometries, which we ask them to change in spatial relationship to the space of the audition. We do improvisations, and we also have them do combinations. The other person who's not here who is very important to this team is Joanna Oniszczuk. She's our art choreographer. She choreographed the last two performances my company has done. Before that, she was a dancer for us.

IM: Should the individual characteristics of the dancers stand out? Or do you want them to meld into the piece and the concept?

 

JM: The mode of movement that we use a lot is an exaggerated tempo--very slow. And it's important that when you ask someone to move very slowly that they don't lose and collapse all of their energy. One thing that we're looking for is a sort of brightness, and the ability to maintain a focus and clarity. We look for creativity in terms of improvisation, although that's not the first and foremost. We look for a certain kind of poise and grace. Sometimes we may be looking for something as practical as a height for a costume, or for trying to match a crew of dancers in features, or facial features, so that they look similar to one another. There are lots of things that our eyes are jumping around, looking for.

IM: In "When", what was your goal?
JM: Age is everything about time. It's bound up in time. And what we wanted to do was to get at the concept of age through time, and more importantly to look at the idea of perception. Getting people to stop in a busy metropolitan area and to actually watch a very slowly evolving piece was very important. In our studies about the psychological perception of aging, was this idea of change: the perception of change.

We really began this whole process a year ago with a question: How do we know when we've aged? Because for me, when they asked us to do a project about aging, it didn't mean "old age." If you're one week old or you're 60 years old it doesn't mean there's a decline. I think particularly they were focusing on geriatrics: a new academic field of study. We were trying to sort of crack open a general question. Our approach was to minimize all huge distinctions. So we did everything in white. We didn't have dramatic color of light, it was a very plain wash of light. We used characters who looked similar to each other, and very slow movement that changed very gradually. We wanted people to actually stay and wait for change. When do you observe change? When do you see, when do you notice change is happening? There were interesting case studies that we read about people who actually couldn't perceive time. They were frozen in a constant present, or they were trapped in the past. Something would happen that would cause a trauma that would all of a sudden lock them back in 1945. So I was interested in these kind of extreme cases and the way you perceive time tells you about yourself.

IM: Can you explain this concept? And what have you discovered that people are discovering about themselves?

Said: We discussed this for the research.

JM: I think it depended also on whether you were sitting down watching the piece, if you were planning to attend the piece, if you were just traveling by.

Said: And then from across the street you wouldn't see so much change. You would have thought these are two mannequins in a storefront. You would have a harder time to see change. When you got closer you could see that there was much faster movement than what you saw from across the street.

JM: I had a conversation with two people, and it was wonderful to hear their reactions. It wasn't just 'oh, it was a nice piece,' but they found themselves hypnotized by the piece and so drawn in that the hour went by like that (snap!). And they couldn't believe when it was over, and there was still radiance from the music, a vibration of this low base level that we used. They started to observe what was going on the glass plane, the clouds reflected in the sky, moving by. They could feel thoughts moving through their heads, and they had this meditation-like experience. We didn't say we wanted this to be a meditation, but it's interesting that some people were pulled into it in that way. Also, Paul Geluso had an agenda with the music. He created 57 minutes of a drone. Then he improvised with this contra-base with different melodies weaving in and out of the piece. So in that way, he was paralleling what we were doing in the movement and the static of the piece, which was to have a sense of continuity and through that to bring small changes and variations. So again, when you're faced with change, how do you respond?

M: How does your experience in architecture play into the company's projects?

IJM: I worked for an architect for two and half years when I moved to New York, for Steven Hall. His use of phenomenology was very inspiring to me.

IM: What is phenomenology?
JM: Phenomenology is, basically, looking at the idea of perception. The easiest way to describe it is trying to get at the taken-for-grantedness aspect of life. Looking at very basic elemental things. That's what we try to do as well. You walk past the same street every day on your way to work. And you know, if someone comes to visit you in New York for example, and you take them around the city, all of sudden you walk down the street and you say " Oh my God! I never realized that that building had that yellow cornice on the top." Because you are going with someone with a new eye, something is drawn out for you. Like that water tower that the English artist Rachel Whiteread cast in resin on top of a building. Something that's everyday is changed in some moment either in your changing relationship to the space or through the changing of that space itself, so then that changes your relationship. So we like to point out things. You want to exaggerate for the audience by pointing to that detail during the performance. Or in our piece last October, there was an invisible history to the urban environment.

 

IM: What was that performance called?
JM: "Kalch", which is the Dutch word for chalk, or lime. I was interested to get at very early Manhattan history, that this landscape used to be so much different than it is today. The only remaining trace of it is this small concrete park. The idea was to bring that history to the surface for people.

IM: Did you actually look back at Manhattan history, and chose to focus on the pond?
JM: It was more like serendipity. I was working in Steven Hall's office and he had a bunch of old maps of Manhattan, and I saw this huge pond, like a stain on the map. I thought well what is this? It sparked my curiosity

 

"Kalch" was performed in October of 1998, in Lower Manhattan. It was inspired by Julia's discovery that Collect Pond once lay where City Hall Park is now. It featured 11 dancers in bright yellow costumes outlining the perimeter of the pond with marks left by their chalk shoes. The performance was designed to change the every day lives of passers-by, and bring to the surface the location and history of Collect Pond. With the growth of Manhattan, the pond was eventually polluted and then smothered by landfill, and the only remaining trace of the pond is the waterlogged sub-soil under the park. To this day, some buildings in the area still occasionally experience basement flooding.

IM: What was the reaction when you actually carried out the performance?
JM: People were very shocked at first to have all of these yellow characters arrive.

IM: What did the color yellow symbolize?
JM: Drawing public attention in public space

 

IM: Your costumes are architectural. How important are they, and how do they play into the piece?
JM: In Kalch, we started with the idea of excavation. And so we were interested in shoveling. And so we abstracted the movement of shoveling into these connected arms. There were some characters whose arms separated with a box around their arms that had programs inside the box which they would hand out by crumpling and leaving on the ground. Pointing at this idea of pollution, which was the cause of the
burial of the pond in the 1800s.

IM: Did you rehearse in your studio?
Said: On the third floor there is a huge space which was offered to us to use for this period.
JM: We also went to the park out here. And it was very beautiful at night. We had 11 dancers all in a line, and we'd have them walk back and forth in front of the building, in these straight lines. They sort of looked like sea turtles arriving on the shore, or people marching to their death. Said and I were very curious about how you would use the bright color yellow. How do you lower the energy of bright yellow? How do you make it tragic or sad? It's a very happy bright color.

 

IM: What music did you use?
JM: Miguel Lopez composed the sound. He works with Sound Lab. We had two contrasting sounds with sound carriers. (Two performers actually had speakers strapped to their backs)
Said: It was very earthy.
JM: It was the patterning of water. Circular sounds. More sensual sounds. The workers were more percussive.

IM: Your next performance, "Six Square" is scheduled for September 16th. What is it about?
JM: We were approached by the Storefront for Art and Architecture Gallery downtown to create a project. We thought immediately that "Six Square" would be the perfect project. It's the perfect marriage of the concept of Six Square, and the concept of the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Both of them are born of this idea of inside and out; between a facade and a complex interior space.

On September 16th, J Mandle Performance will launch a re-staging of "Six Square" at the New York Storefront for Art and Architecture. Originally performed in June of 1998, Six Square was about transforming the relationship between the East and West walls of the Leperq Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The piece uses six dancers to explore space, dimension and geometry. The dancers wear black cloaks which they eventually remove to unveil a red interior that works within the context of the lighting and architectural space. Although Said and Julia insist that this performance is still a work in progress, I had the opportunity to see a model of the set, and get a brief explanation of how they hope the performance will be staged. They are still working on getting the city to close down Kenmare Street between Mulberry and Lafayette so that the audience can obtain some distance while viewing the piece.

IM: Was there ever any resistance to the work you are doing?
Said: We usually have very nice reactions. Seeing something on the street that is unusual always brings up the question of "is this necessary? What is happening?"

 

IM: Is provoking thought one of your goals?
JM: Absolutely. And sparking curiosity. A lot of people approach abstract art with the thought that there is one right way to get it. That's not our feeling about it. We're not a didactic performance company. However it's interesting to let people know the design concepts that surrounded it in its inception. So I think we do that in a modest way. Kalch was a very different project in that sense, because we were trying to lead people to a discovery about a broad history. We laid out certain facts for them written by an historian who specialized in that area. It had so many issues of cultural borderlines and implications: slavery, grave sites, that site is filled with things. We wanted to draw peoples' attention and say this is an important historical location that should not be erased. It's interesting to look at this, and ask, "what do you think?" Similar to having labels in a gallery. Sometimes it's very disturbing to me to have a curator present a huge text in an exhibition to tell me how important this artist was. Why I should look their work, and how I should look at their work. I think that's not appropriate, that's not my approach. And The New Museum is an interesting institution. The New Museum has a program where they have visitors write labels, and actually post those labels next to the artwork. Marsha Tucker and her educational staff are very visionary in this way.

 

IM: How did you come to meet Philip Glass?
JM: I worked for Robert Wilson and I toured with him, in Europe as his assistant. Heís an American theater director but he does a lot of his projects in Europe. He did Time Rocker here, he brought Alice to BAM. He had a huge impact on me. While working with him, I met Philip Glass, who often writes the music for his productions.

IM: Who else has influenced your work?
JM: We both feel very strongly about an artist named James Turrell, a California light artist. He has a piece at PS1 in Queens called "The Meeting Room", which is very beautiful. It's just a square hole in the ceiling. He's also very curious about phenomenology and perception.

IM: It seems that your work looks very good in photographs. Is that part of the concept - the ability to stop the movement and still have a beautiful image?
Said: It's absolutely intentional. Every little detail is discussed. Which composition are we taking, what do we crop off.
JM: Composition is very key.

IM: You once said your work was most closely related to mural painting?
JM: I said that in relation to "Row Boats". At that moment I was most interested indoing storefront window projects. And I was interested in how one plane, the pane of glass, represents something to an audience, as you compress space. You can play with issues in perspective and importance and composition and tell a story through framing things, and condensing the space.

IM: When did you first recognize that you were an artist?
JM: Just from the very beginning I knew. I think "artist" is such a tricky word. I create and I enjoy turning out projects and when I have an idea, I have to get it out. It has to be realized in one way or another. It's just a matter ofÖthat's what's normal for me.
Said:
Yes, a necessity to create. I realized much later that what I was doing was not what I wanted to do. I started with economics, and I was also doing something else. Which I enjoyed much more. Painting and taking extra courses.

 

Said: (cont.) In doing this I decide to go to an art academy and I felt much more relieved. And now every year, you step ahead and you learn more and you give more, and your vision is much clearer every year. So you're always challenged by doing something better than you did before. To continue on what you did before.

IM: How do you feel about the superior standpoint galleries and museums often take in presenting work?
JM: There is something to be said for gallery spaces and museum spaces when you have a pure white space, and the way you can set off an object and create this kind of exquisite serene or controlled environment. There's something around it though. Maybe a gallery has an attitude so that their work is valued at a higher price. That's economics.

IM: I think the public perception of performance art falls into a gray area. The average person doesn't know what to make of a lot of things, particularly things that are very conceptual. Do you hope that your work brings more understanding to the average person?

 

JM: I think that people have a very low estimate of other people's ability to perceive period. For me to say that we're out there trying to teach someone what conceptual art is about, or that we're there to teach them about the history of the pond, like we have some higher authority over the common man on the street.... The way I see it, we're all in the same mess together. I'm just trying to say that I saw this corner over here, "do you want to take a look at this corner?" We see that corner and it inspires a whole other world for us. And maybe that's interesting to somebody else, and maybe that takes them into some kind of story about a relationship with their aunt or their grandmother, Öthat's open, and I want to leave that open. With every performance that I've done, each time, it only raises my feeling about the so-called common man on the street. It adds an inspiring touch to that everyday world out there. Interactions with people are charming. I'm charmed by young boys, who come up with their fat Walkmans and their big headphones on, and they peel them off and there's a spark in their eye while they're looking at our project. They see something there that they really liked. I don't ask them what they saw but that's enough for us, to feel some sense of gratification.

 

It was 2:30 when I left them that Thursday afternoon. And I felt a sense of renewal somehow. I went downstairs and looked for the exit to the building courtyard I had heard about, but I wasn't lucky enough to find it. I noticed there were loading docks on the ground floor and I heard the old sounds of the factory echoing. The trucks loading and unloading their crates, workmen yelling instructions over the hum of the idle engines. When I came out of the building, the sun had traversed the sky just enough to let the building cast a shadow on the street and for a while, I walked in the cool shade. I noticed the shape of the pebbles on the ground; gray irregular nuggets, pieces of sidewalk crushed by the rumble of the trucks now passing by. I turned left and a man sat on a stool selling fresh fruit juices from the back of his truck. Another man, only ten feet away, turned the handle of what looked like an old meat grinder but there was a long thick stem being drawn into it: sugar cane. He was squeezing sugar cane juice right here on a street in Brooklyn. Just like they might do in Barbados. It seemed like another world.

 

And then I passed an old bathhouse. At first it looked like an ordinary old building, whitewashed to clean up the neighborhood. And then I noticed the Roman style architecture, the separate entrances for men and women, and the relief work. And a whole world of other people's memories flooded through me. And I thought of something Julia had said: "Ö.I remember seeing weird things as a kid, things that would spark me, that maybe I didn't understand, and it gave me a bad taste in my mouth. Or maybe I thought 'god I've never seen anything like that!' and it gave me a very positive experience. But all those things still float back through, these little mysteries."

**** END ****

Visit the JMandle performance web site

jamndleperformance.org

CREDITS

Author:

Nathalie Wechsler

Photo:

IMNYC