Will Rawls Portrait

Photo by Kennis Hawkins


In Will Rawls’s Performance "I make me [sic]," Autobiography Takes Center Stage

Published Friday, Jul 22, 2022

Choreographer Will Rawls presented his work I make me [sic] at Pace’s recently opened Los Angeles gallery earlier this year, marking the debut Pace Live performance at the space. Through his multidisciplinary practice, Rawls brings movement and language together. Layered and experimental, I make me [sic] functions as a portrait of Rawls’s past performance labor. In the following interview, the artist discusses the conceptual underpinnings and origins of I make me [sic], the work’s physical and spoken components, and malleability in performance.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Claire Selvin: To start off, can you tell me a bit about the production of I make me [sic]—how and where did you first perform it?

Will Rawls: I make me [sic] was a commission for the Greater New York exhibition at MoMA PS1 in 2015-16. Performance was being presented in a couple different spaces at the museum, and I chose the upstairs gallery, which at the time had two huge Louise Lawler photographs. As is often the case with performance in a museum context, performers are asked to perform in and around and in front of other artists’ work, which became an interesting challenge for this solo.

At the time, I had been working on a series of projects that were thinking through my own personal archive as a dancer, the different kinds of training I’ve had, and different kinds of performance experiences over the course of, at that point, my 15 years in New York, as well as my work as an interpreter for performance artists like Marina Abramović and Tino Sehgal. So, I had a lot of material to work with and I was thinking about how to reconstruct some of these performances as a way to tell my life story. I make me [sic] examines what it means to be a body that’s been a vehicle for other people’s aesthetics and the questions that that raises around authorship and labor—the idea that no performance can ever have solo authorship.

I think if you're asking other people to perform for you, the performance doesn't exist without the performers. So, I often find there’s this interesting, blurry line that haunts dance performance a lot more so than—I think—visual art. The solo artist tends to get celebrated for being a solo artist, and oftentimes the labor that helps make the work disappears. And so, as a dance maker, I feel like I'm in a unique position to pose those questions in my practice because they're so prevalent in the medium. Because of the Louise Lawler context or background, I thought, “Okay, I'm going to work with Louise's practice, which is a critical, feminist practice.”

Ultimately, her work is about doubling—a sort of critical doubling. So, I thought that was a great theme to support me being a kind of body double for other people’s aesthetics. Those were the key questions I was working with at the time. I thought it'd be interesting to alternate between spoken anecdotes and then performance excerpts—without the anecdotes explaining all of the performance—to see what it’s like to have these radically different kinds of materials together in a time-based work.

I make me [sic] examines what it means to be a body that’s been a vehicle for other people’s aesthetics and the questions that that raises around authorship and labor.

Will Rawls

CS: Can you tell me about the relationships between the spoken and choreographed elements of I make me [sic]?

WR: The writing came first, and I was taking the form of a lecture-performance and trying to play with that format a little bit. Each time I speak in the performance, it’s a slightly different style: a personal anecdote or a motivational lecture, for instance. Some of it is excerpted as a style of speaking that comes from working with Tino Sehgal in his Guggenheim piece called This Progress.

I make me [sic] has an alphabetically structured introduction of words—I don’t go through the whole alphabet, which speaks to the unfinished nature of self-portraiture I’m thinking through. Interspersed after those anecdotes is a dance excerpt of some kind. For the presentation at Pace LA, I chose three performance excerpts. One was a dance that I learned by watching it being rehearsed when I was working with the Brian Brooks Moving Company; another was an excerpt from the Tino Sehgal work at the Guggenheim; and the other was an interpretation of being a zombie extra from a Will Smith film that I danced in. All of these have very different physicality—I want to showcase very different ways of performing so that I can in some way talk about the breadth of what dance is and can do.

There are multiple ways of talking in the lecture performance and there are multiple performance strategies and aesthetics that I'm presenting. So, it's about the heterogeneity of what my body can produce and reproduce. I think that dance communicates radically differently from language and verbal narration—I want dance and performance to hold its own space. I wanted to bring those things close together without making them have to support each other. There's a kind of a cognitive toggling that the audience does between understanding language and understanding dance, but not seeing them in an expository relationship.

Watch Will Rawls perform I make me [sic] at Pace Gallery, Los Angeles

CS: Does that approach to this relationship between language and movement vary depending on the work?

WR: It varies depending on the work. Just as I have so many dance bodies inside of my body, I have a lot of vocal and writerly bodies in my body. So, it depends on the project.

But in the last five or six years I’ve been really focused on the voice as a material, working with different vocal practices to give shape and texture to the voice and make it a very embodied sound. I’m pulling from experimental singers. If there are texts I’m communicating, they will become distorted and tend towards a sound texture that has more of an affective resonance than an explanatory meaning.

This is very much how I’m thinking through Black performance in general. This term is meant to cover so many styles of expression, but usually gets narrowed into more prevalent entertainment mediums. I think of Black performance as a profoundly malleable, unstable, and emergent way of navigating and narrating the world in real time in front of an audience. I’m interested in the contingency of Black performance depending on the context, the space, and the audience. I’m interested in maintaining these open-ended, resonant, emotional expressions in performance.

CS: Is there an open-endedness to the different performances of I make me [sic] since it debuted? Has it changed or evolved since then?

WR: The alphabet structure has allowed me to add new words, remove words, and change those lists of words that I recite to talk about the present moment. There are some things that feel crucial to mention each time and some parts that are new and relate to the specific context of a given performance. I have to rethink how it lives in space—being in a gallery of PS1 versus the courtyard of Pace LA was radically different in terms of acoustics. Instead of the Louise Lawler works, I had a beautiful bougainvillea trellis that kind of concealed me. I could disappear inside of it and reemerge—so all these enactments of visibility and invisibility became possible there.

So, it absolutely it changes, and that's crucial because it's an autobiography.

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