Editor's Note: Emily Johnson is an artist close to Northrop's heart. SHORE, her third performance in a trilogy of works, is being presented by Northrop next week. For full details of the performance, go here. For an even deeper look at this artist's work, enjoy the below interview with Emily Johnson. This is the first of two blog posts of interview questions from Emily; stay tuned for part two tomorrow!
Northrop: When we interviewed you last spring about Niicugni, the second in this trilogy of works (SHORE being the third), you said as you’re making one work in this series, the next one begins. At what point in your process did you know what SHORE would encompass?
Emily Johnson: It was a natural progression—I remember looking around the room during one of our fish-skin sewing workshops during the making of Niicugni. I was overwhelmed with gratitude—for all of the energy and work people were donating to Niicugni through their preparations and sewing of the fish-skins. I decided I needed to continue to research this—why people come together and how the energy and actions of a group of people can have an effect on a project, on the world.
I also started thinking about how volunteerism and art making are intertwined. I mean, it’s really how life and art making are intertwined. We all give our time and attention and energy to things and places we value. But can this scope broaden? Can we care more? About each other? About the world? About art? To me it seemed a direct connection—to continue looking at gathering—to create moments of gathering—around listening to story, around work, performance, food—and to make something that directly relates to my way of seeing performance in connection with the world.
N: Can you talk about some of the ways in which your trajectory for the trilogy has evolved over the last four years?
EJ: I never had a trajectory for the trilogy in mind. What has developed is a series of interwoven works that concentrically move out into the world.
The Thank-you Bar was created for a small audience and the performers to be housed on stage…It was rooted in memory and in creating new memories, rooted in home and in creating a new home. “Do you remember that story I told you about the tree?”
Niicugni moved out from the The Thank-you Bar—from the stage to the audience seats, to the lanterns hanging over everyone in the room and the lobby. It moved into the ground because of our intention; we thought about the ground holding the building up. We thought about how that ground supports us all and connects us all, across the entire world. We also thought about our ancestors who have become ground, about ourselves who will one day, too. Community members joined us on stage in an effort to acknowledge every single presence in the room. Who is here, who used to be? How is the past connected to the present—in a very normal and also super spiritual way?
SHORE starts in the world. We gather to listen to stories about where we are: place, home, land (with wide interpretations of these words and ideas, from many local authors). We gather to work—pick up trash or plant or envision what we can make happen, together. We gather to experience performance and we gather to share food. It’s all about the effort—the effort of cleaning a park equal to the effort of making and performing, equal to harvesting, to cooking a meal, to creating and sharing stories, to spending time with one another. That effort can be strong and it can also be gentle. It does take attention. SHORE takes attention and action—to attend, to participate, to DO. I am in love with the idea of attention and action combined—with tuning in to how our actions and thoughts and words, both on stage and in the world, really do have an effect.
N: How did you determine that SHORE needed four parts (performance, community action, story, and feast)?
EJ: I think about growing up. My family gathered —and still does—for harvest; of salmon, clams, halibut, moose, berries….mostly salmon though. And when I was young this was a really big deal. Cousins, aunts, uncles, extended family, all gathered at the beach and at my grandma’s house (The Que-Ana Bar—quyana is the Yup’ik word for thank you) to catch the fish and to clean it, strip it, smoke it, kippur it….Some of my fondest memories are these family times of harvest. It was very hard work. And in that work there was story, there were jokes, there was drama, there were kids learning how to do what the adults were doing and there were kids getting dirty, running and rolling down the hills. We would eat, of course, and we were also preparing our meals for the coming year. These are the gathering moments that I subconsciously extrapolated for SHORE. James Everest, my longtime collaborator, pointed this out to me. Here is what I want: for our moments of gathering together to be good so that we can envision and prepare for and make possible a future that can also be good.
N: All four of these parts function as a whole in, what you call, a performance installation. Can you talk about the line between performance and installation?
EJ: There is no line…to me performance is about connecting to the world. To include the word installation in what I make is to acknowledge that the performances I make are in the world—are in every part of the gallery or theater—I don’t make performances that happen at a distance in front of you. I don’t even make performances that are primarily for seeing. They are for experiencing; for smelling, for listening to the sounds coming from above or behind or under you. They include the audience moving from outside to inside. They include paying attention or noticing the building we are in or the ground we are on. Yes, there are THINGS that make up the installation part of performance: fish-skin lanterns everywhere (Niicugni), a visual art exhibit (The Thank-you Bar) photos of silent story (coming for SHORE), sandwiches and blankets (Heat and Life), or a weird display of cut up onions, ham, and cigarettes (Pamela)…and these things are the performance too. The things are equal to the movement, to the story, to the music, to the ambiance, to the intention. So there is no line—it’s all one performance installation. And it takes a lot of people—a ton of people to make these works—collaborators and volunteers, administrators, partners, funders, audience, friends, family—we are all part of it. I enjoy thinking of the moment of performance or action as one moment in the trajectory of a project. Every action and preparation up to the action/performance is equal to the performance itself. And everyone who chooses to be involved—as audience or participant or collaborator, is equally important to the work.
N: The set design for the SHORE performances are very open, quite spare - no curtains, no masking - we see the enormity of the backstage spaces - what are your intentions behind that?
EJ: Ain Gordon (director) and I want you to see it all—experience it all. It’s just like walking down the street and you need to itch your ear. You wouldn’t wait until you are around the corner (or behind a stage curtain) to itch your ear…you would just scratch it. I guess that is a simple example. I think open space is beautiful—is inspiring. I like seeing the inner workings of things—in SHORE you see it all—you see us walk onto stage, you see us dance incredibly intricate and effortful dance, you also see us still and thinking, you see us put on or take off our mics, our jackets, our clothes, you see everyone on stage—dancers and choir and kids—breathe. You see the technical effects—the lights, the snow, everything as what it is. It is magic and real at the same time. Sometimes I teach this way of looking—a way of looking at things and not naming or judging them. Say you could open your eyes and let everything in front of you—color, objects, light, trees—flood to you as visual information. You see everything—but you see everything in relation to everything else. When I do this I am more connected to what I see and I also feel less invasive to the world. I can see a tree and let the tree be a tree without naming it, without separating myself from it. I let it be itself and in that way, I see it more clearly.
There are, of course, a few surprises—worlds within worlds, memories within memories. Theaters within theaters. Stories within stories...
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview on the blog tomorrow!