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Pace Live

Moriah Evans Talks "Be My Muse," Institutional Critique, and Dancing Amid Rauschenberg’s Art

An Interview with Mark Beasley

Published Friday, Dec 17, 2021

In a recent interview, Mark Beasley, curatorial director of Pace Live, and choreographer and artist Moriah Evans discussed the performances of Be My Muse at Pace Gallery in New York this fall. During their wide-ranging conversation, Beasley and Evans parse the origins and structure of the work, examine the performance’s disruptive qualities, and more. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mark Beasley: We are here to discuss your presentation of Be My Muse at Pace Gallery in 2021. As I understand it, it has been presented three times before. This was its fourth presentation and its first time in New York. It's been presented in very different spaces, from gallery to museum, and to different audiences—was it first presented at the Villa Empain in Brussels?

Moriah Evans: Yes, it was at the Villa Empain in Brussels in 2016. Asad Raza, Tino Sehgal, and Dorothea von Hantelmann curated an exhibition called Decor with works by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, and Daniel Buren, among others. Each artist took a room of the Villa and created work with the notion of decoration in mind. As a resident at the Villa, I performed inside of the exhibition, within and amongst the various installations. In some sense, these works became the set in which I performed.

MB: It seems of interest that Be My Muse has passed through many different types of spaces. I believe in 2017, related to a Walker Art Center exhibition, it was in FD13 [in Minneapolis]—is that an artist-run not-for-profit?

ME: It's a small-scale not-for-profit. I performed it at an artist-run collective called Yeah Maybe. In that version of the work, I performed in a gallery that was closed off, so the performance was only the muse and myself—no one else could watch it.

MB: And then, of course, it was presented at the Hirshhorn, when I was a curator there, as part of a group exhibition in 2018—ultimately, the Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian went on to purchase Be My Muse, which was the second work of performance that the Smithsonian had purchased, the first being a piece by Tino Sehgal. I'm very interested in what sets this apart, perhaps, from that generation, or how it kind of engages those former conversations around socially engaged practice. But first let's discuss the general structure of the piece.

Be My Muse—it's you and an invited other. You don't select them, they sign up. You don't know who they are in advance, and the invitation is to spend—I think they’re told the time—always 49 minutes, but they're not told much else other than that. They know the venue, but they don't know the format. It's broken down into timed sections that the muse is placed in control of, using an iPhone stopwatch and checking off every seven minutes, or multiples of seven, one section lasting twenty-one minutes. People's responses to it—and I've seen it in a museum and then at Pace—have been broad. What was your reasoning for the structure and how did you want it to operate on your muse? Is it defined more for your control or for the ability of the muse to offer information?

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Moriah Evans: Be My Muse, in Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2018, Photo by Erin Schaff

ME: The time structure is really an artifact from my practice ... When I'm working with new ideas, I often use the time element of seven minutes and multiples of seven minutes as a timestamp to try out an idea, for it to expire, and to see if I want to keep going or change direction. In Be My Muse, it functions as this very mechanical formal structure of seven minutes, 14 minutes, 21 minutes, and seven minutes, which totals 49 minutes. It's kind of an A-B-C-A structure if you think of the units of time on a formal level. The rhythm of the sections and what happens when and for how long were constructed as an accumulation of getting to know someone. For example, the most intimate part of the piece is the longest—21 minutes—and it happens 21 minutes into the piece. Also, the instruction-based title is significant because the piece was also an attempt to make a solo. An attempt because I don't believe a solo is a possible project—art is always made inter-subjectively, meaning is made inter-subjectively. We're always inside of relational habits and systems of understanding. I ask the muse if they are okay to be in charge of the timer because I want them to feel both control over and responsibility towards me and the situation.

MB: When we met recently with one of your dancers and collaborators Lizzie Feidelson, you were carrying your notebooks that detailed the beginnings of Be My Muse. You started by asking people who you'd worked with or collaborated with what they made of you in the broadest sense, what they thought of you—what characteristics you display, how you operate in the world...

ME: In terms of where Be My Muse came from, you know, I had made two large works— kind of a diptych—Social Dance 1-8: Index and Social Dance 9-12: Encounter, both in 2015. They were both large group pieces, and I spent so much time directing other people and how I wanted them to be, to behave, to embody concepts … minutely describing and, in some ways, controlling and directing how they embody themselves. So, when I started Be My Muse, my first step was interviews with everyone I had ever collaborated or worked with. I asked them about the process, how they saw it, how they saw me inside of it. I recorded all those conversations and transcribed those interviews, which are still part of the notebooks in the piece.

Secondarily, I asked everybody to literally describe what I look like—in writing. I wanted to turn the gaze onto me rather than my gaze onto others. I told them to be honest, critical—the same things I tell my muse to be in the piece itself. I critically relate to the world and performance and art, and I guess I was asking that to be reflected back onto me. It can be literal or expansive, metaphorical, whatever. So, these descriptions are people's portraits of me, in a sense.

MB: It's interesting with Be My Muse because there's this seemingly generous invitation, and it is generous, but quickly you start to understand that the structure places you in control of the subject: the muse. The term you used—obviously, the language changes every time, but it sticks to a certain kind of broad script—was “the conditions for discomfort.” And there's this push-pull with each of the muses, which changes dramatically from person to person. Is there a real interest in the feedback from a community that isn't art trained, necessarily? Is the idea to reach out to the amateur to refresh your take on choreography and dance?

ME: I definitely think that is one wish of the work. After my dances Index and Encounter, I was a bit exasperated with my habits of making and with the social relations that go on in an inherently collaborative art form. In terms of opening it up beyond an interior, exclusive art community dialogue—yes, that's why I don't select the muses and, instead, surrender to chance, fate, and the momentary random encounter. I don't have any interest in carefully selecting the muses. The Smithsonian is free, so the range of visitors that come to that institution is extremely vast. It's part of some kind of tourism of nationhood in the United States. That all makes the Smithsonian a really compelling place to perform the work and, I think, a kind of open social space with different types of access to art.

MB: Can you tell me about the ways you play with the notion of the muse in the work?

ME: My work is deeply engaged with feminisms. I'm a little provocative with questions of gender construction. People often think of the trope of the female muse. Of course, this has been open and rewritten plenty, but there is a hangover of patriarchal assumptions around the role of the artist or the muse. The muse and the artist are open containers. What binds us together is our contract of time through this strict mechanical structure reinforced by the device of my phone—a pervasive technology yet an intimate device. I am interested in the collapse of public and private and the accompanying tensions. I'm also interested in, politically or even just interpersonally, what presence is and how two people who are complete strangers can meet and have a kind of intimate exchange that is meaningful.

I'm also interested in giving up control—I can't always control certain things that happen in the work, and so much is dependent on the decisions of the muse. However, I'm invested that certain politics and ethics of the work are upheld and that my muse has a meaningful experience. The question of whether I am wasting their time is a line in the piece. I modulate the scenario to ensure there is something at stake in this encounter between the two of us, between us and the public, and between the work and the world outside. All these encounters are imbued with similar questions about what expression is, what it means to be on display, what it means to sign up for this notion of inspiring another. Ideally, it's an exchange and a dialogue. I take notes from all my muses. I reuse material by recycling opinions or thoughts of the muses from one cycle to the next, saying things like, “One of my muses mentioned this to me…”

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MB: Beyond you—the artist and the muse—there's the institution, which effectively becomes the third element of the work. There’s a very pointed and particular background hum of institutional critique that obviously has its precedents if one thinks of artists such as Michael Asher through to contemporary artists like Andrea Fraser, through to artists such as Tino Sehgal. What place does the institution have within the work and, specifically, how did it change with Pace?

ME: I think to be contemporary, at this point, you have to embed your practice with some information of institutional critique. So, yes, of course, I think through artists like Andrea Fraser or Michael Asher and Tino, with whom I've worked. This piece requires an institution. I casually toss out examples of the kinds of co-dependencies we all have. The artist is dependent upon the muse. I am dependent upon my organs. We are dependent upon the frame of the institution. The constant construction of meaning during the performance, the presence of each person, the aura of the institution, and what kind of behavior is encouraged or discouraged inform how we inhabit space. There are social choreographies that we are subjected to as bodies and as people.

I've never actually performed my own work in a commercial gallery before; however, Pace does not feel like a commercial gallery because it's so architecturally specific and a great space for performance. Rauschenberg’s Apogamy Pods are really beautiful works, but I was asking myself: “How am I going to circulate in this space? How am I going to make an interruption into it? How do I elevate the muse? Where might we go where we would generally not be allowed?” I often use performance as a space of exemption that gives us license to exist otherwise, or gives access to interior zones within an institution itself. For example, the eighth floor of the gallery is a bit of a VIP section for private meetings. So, bringing the public to that space felt important to do at Pace in order to expose some of the interior dynamics of how this art commerce system works.

Be My Muse is an important transitional piece for me. I went on to make Figuring (2018), Configure (2018) and BASTARDS (2019). These are pieces that work with and on the interiority of the body and questions about what it means to move from the unseen, the invisible—spaces or places you can feel but you cannot see. Be My Muse is a bit of a precursor. What does it mean to be inside of an institution where the access is limited and controlled, or to be within spaces that are not always available? Also, there is the question of putting someone on display, which is redundant because everyone is already always on display, but we do not necessarily recognize this. So, there's a kind of crossing of boundaries that is important in terms of how I work with the institution and the muse as well as what I think performance offers us in general, in order for a kind of … I wouldn't go so far as to call it a cathartic experience … but a certain type of gravitas.

MB: There is something cathartic about it. You know, in the last seven minutes of the piece, I don't know if I'm giving too much away…

You invite your muse to select a piece of music and to dance for you if they’d like. Sometimes they don't. Often, they do. Often, they ask you to dance with them. There’s an almost cliché sacredness to the museum and its function, and I recall with the Hirshhorn, and also with Pace, the liberation and joy of being able to dance in the museum in a much more affecting way than the rave-in-the-museum moments of the early 2000s in which a culture from without was forced into a space that that it couldn’t host—it wasn't the right kind of ritual space. Be My Muse brings pop culture and bodies into the museum or gallery in a really interesting way. It's a genuine rupture—like, genuine. There are many attempts, but this piece specifically succeeds in attaining a break in normal programming and re-tuning space, which I think is very rare.

I wanted to talk a little bit more about the process with your muse. That construction—how you first present or introduce them to dance. You present a series and set of movements: the slapping of the feet on the floor, the literal bumping against the walls of the institution, the faked out choking, the pretend weeping—it's very dynamic and alarming early on. Can you describe those different stages?

ME: In the first seven minutes, I do a basic set of various actions and the order changes based on my affective reading of the muse. I'm hyper aware of their energy as they are why I'm performing. I ask the muse to enter the space and then I follow after them. I try to stitch an invisible network between me and them, aligning our different body parts or energies somatically. While reading the muse’s energy, I decide the order of actions. So, the sequences change with each muse.

I do that face-hair movement, face jiggle. It’s a really abject but very visceral, up-close distortion: a constant movement of my face where I let my skin be very relaxed. A subject that dissolves in front of you, but it is dissolving itself forcefully. The muses generally seem to like it, which surprises me because it's kind of intense.

I also do the pelvis-feet locomotion that's extremely loud. I insert my body between the wall and the floor, I cough and cry and laugh—all in a very abject way. I'm not faking it. I'm producing it with my body, with my muscles and my esophagus. I bang the walls aggressively. I do facial mirroring, where I copy, literally, the facial expression of the muse. I alter and exaggerate to get the muse to engage with me and to reveal all the ways they are already performing and influencing the performance. It's a non-verbal way of making someone cognizant of their own presence, I think, or how they're influencing what transpires. And there's this rolling activity—choreography—that also happens in the first seven minutes.

The work is constructed so that I am connecting with the muse while simultaneously disarming them. The energy of the muse determines aspects of the energetic scope of the work. Then, in the next 14 minutes, I lay out certain interests I have in the work itself on a conceptual level. I ask them their opinions and I try to get their information, their thoughts, their reactions. That's also when I try to elevate them. And I go through a wide range of affects, too, in how I speak—sometimes I yell at them, sometimes I whisper. I'm always aware of how provocative or how caring I'm being, and I'm always listening to them.

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MB: It comes as close as it can to breaking the muse, but that never happens. I've spoken to many, many of the participants, the muses, and it's always quite remarkable the extent to which they've connected with you as a person. There is always a moment of catharsis, however aware they are of the form or of institutions. Something happens, every time.

ME: I feel like it’s my job as the artist to make something happen, and for something to happen to them. And when I'm talking, I go through that whole continuum of expression of display: the museum as a house of muses, the role of the muse and the artist, the role of presence and time—what is really going on inside of various manifestations of this art apparatus, whichever one we're in, because that's kind of the contract we're in. Even this idea of Be My Muse: that's already an artistic contract, but it's open to anybody who wants to sign up for it.

Inter-subjective dependency is obviously a huge theme, and I use organ donation to kind of talk about that ecosystem of thinking around it and concepts of interior and exterior space and self. These topics can be extended on the level of embodiment and move to the level of inside and outside of the institution, like accessible space and inaccessible space in different kinds of ways … I have a real conversation while always moving and dancing in this non-pedestrian way. They are free to kind of do whatever they want, though I begin that section with positioning them above and asking them to experience the space from this elevated place.

MB: At Pace, Rauschenberg was also in the room, so to speak. Rauschenberg is somebody that collaborated across form, specifically with dancers, but also with designers. What within Rauschenberg’s legacy affected your engagement with the muse? What was Rauschenberg for you at that moment? Somebody described it tongue-in-cheek as a threesome.

ME: Even though I love Rauschenberg, it's always hard, if you have your own frame, to be inside the frame of another artist. The conceit of the Apogamy Pods is asexual reproduction—that works of art can reproduce themselves based on how someone encounters, connects, and makes meaning from them. There is space for the other in the paintings, and I felt there was space for me to be alongside them while still trying to honor Rauschenberg's legacy. Rauschenberg really believed in art as an encounter and that art is inherently collaborative. Rauschenberg is a muse for me, in a way, as are a lot of other great artists. He understood what makes an event and how to find the performativity in quotidian materials and subjects.

MB: One last question, which is a big one. I don't know if this is your first performance during this moment in time and history. We don't yet quite know what it means to return to a form of sociability and performance per se. How do you feel about our present moment and its impact upon performance?

ME: Performance requires presence, and we couldn't gather throughout most of the last two years. This was the first performance I’ve done during the pandemic where everything was very proximate and proximal. My other pandemic performance experiences were on stages where public and stage are clearly delineated. The pandemic makes performance more significant, despite the fact that live performance is still compromised and complicated. People are now more aware of their bodies and how vulnerable and dependent a body is. Dance is a great medium for expressing and exploring that—it can ask other people's bodies to be in space in ways that maybe they're not super comfortable with. I think that has meaning in renewed ways. I was worried about people being very fearful in the work because of the pandemic’s mandate of distance. And this work doesn't value distance—it values intimacy. So, it was really nice to see that everybody who went through the piece was really available and open to that and not fearful at all. In that way, I feel quite optimistic for performance and for the human condition. We need and want each other—we're reliant upon each other.

Pace Live — Moriah Evans Talks Be My Muse, Institutional Critique, and Dancing Amid Rauschenberg’s Art, Dec 17, 2021