The Interrogator Volume 3
June 2011
Artist Justin Cabrillos interviewed by Noé Cuéllar and Adam Rose.

Photo by Noé Cuéllar

NC: What is posture?

JC: On one level, it is one possibility for the carriage of the body. Etymologically, it means "to put or place." However, it's also a mode of communication because it has to do with the attitude of the body. "Proper" posture is a kind of standard position in dance and in etiquette. We're told to stand or "sit up straight." For me, posture and the manipulation of it, is a means of generating movement and voice. For some it is a base. I prefer to think of it as an escalator, a moving staircase.

NC: How did you develop your voice? What are some of your favorite voices?

JC: I initially began working with the voice at poetry readings, where I combined elements of non-linguistic vocalization, drawing from elements of sound poetry, in order to arrive at my current mixture of words and nonsense. This led me to think about the variety of dynamic approaches to language and to the voice in general. During the summer of 2008 I spent some time working with sound poet/artist Jaap Blonk, who introduced me to a variety of techniques and strategies for handling the voice. I had previously been working with the international phonetic alphabet to systematize my approach, and Jaap helped me deepen that research. I also studied voice with an opera singer in 2010 to increase my range.
   I admire the voices of Jaap Blonk, Sainkho Namtchylak, Maja Ratkje, Miranda July, Caroline Bergvall, David Moss, etc. The list goes on.

NC: What were you exploring in your work Ha (2009), and how does it relate to other works?

JC: Ha came soon after On a Corner which was also an exploration of voice, breath, and endurance. Ha was a similar approach, but instead of dealing with speaking while inhaling, I became more interested in exhalation. At one point in the performance, I exclaim "Ha" at different moments with my mouth full of flour to project it onto black felt. I was interested in the materiality of the voice and wanted to experiment with different ways of measuring it. I also had been really interested in site-sensitive work, so I wanted to combine my voice work with movement, different tasks, and compose them in space. Ha was also a chance for me to explore the gesture of "laughing." I wondered how it was and could be embodied. Ha was important as well because it was one of the first times I really tried combining several of my different concerns and modes of performance: voice, movement, endurance, space, and text.

NC: What was the academic-artistic transition like for you?

JC: The transition was a bit difficult at first, especially when I first came to grad school for my MFAW. There seemed to be prejudice in some circles toward creative work that was "academic." At first, I turned away from anything that seemed "academic," and focused on more intuitive approaches, as I was consistently encouraged not to over-think things. At the time, I did need to back off of that less intuitive approach that was comfortable for me. After a year of that, I began to work with Matthew Goulish and Lin Hixson, who especially encouraged the sort of hybrid of creativity and research that emerged in my process. The pejorative "academic" has since acquired more positive associations for me. I like the term "rigorous" for some of the work that might receive this critique. Actually, I hope we can someday do away with the distinction between academic and intuitive (or at least, the prejudices surrounding this distinction) that persists in a number of creative circles. The academic training I received, in my opinion, really helped me coordinate the variety of disciplines and methods of research that continue to inform my work. It also helped me define my stakes. Even now, I will periodically ask myself, "Why am I making this performance?" The difference now is that my answer to that question can be more intuitive, or less tangible. And, I am more comfortable these days about not having to have an answer altogether.

AR: Is the dichotomy academic/intuitive related to the distinction between high and low culture?
Has that distinction faded in contemporary art or is it constantly being redrawn?

JC: The dichotomy between academic/intuitive is related partly to the distinction between "high" and "low" culture. Though, I think the distinction seems more permeable in the art world. There is a lot of reference to pop culture in art. For me this perceived academic/intuitive difference can go both ways. Much of the humanities, for example, have been taking pop culture and the everyday as subjects for inquiry, as they approach it in the same way they analyze a poem or a piece of art.
   I think the distinction hasn't faded away. Yet, artists do get caught in these debates among themselves, when institutions tend to materialize the distinction. The moment something is shown in a museum, it achieves a certain aura. But, these days, with public art and any kind of art that exists outside of a museum, the recognition of it as art gives it a certain status that is outside the everyday. I think the lines are being redrawn, but it is no longer a matter of high versus low in the traditional sense. I'm not even sure what constitutes academic and intuitive anymore because what might be intuitive to one person, might have come from years of training, and may seem completely inherited--depending on who you ask. And, by the same token, something that is incredibly academic to one person, may feel completely immediate and intuitive to another person. I'm as suspicious of the word "intuitive" as I am of the word "natural." I just find it unfortunate that the labels that emerge out of these lines are given more power when people identify with them deliberately and exclude others based on their identifications. So, the social reality of people grouping themselves based on these lines and aesthetics is something that artists do as well. It makes me often wonder, who is redrawing these lines? Of course, we can trace it to the notion of disciplines in an educational context and the specific training that people get, but all of that is also reinforced by artists' own cliques and debates surrounding what counts as art.

AR: What is your interest in P.T. Barnum?

JC: I became interested in P.T. Barnum when I did a site-sensitive piece for the Cultural Center last year, as part of the IN>TIME performance series. I was researching the dual histories of the building as both library and Civil War memorial. I was looking at the time period in which it was built, and encountered Barnum's name in multiple texts. One of my former teachers at SAIC, Trevor Martin, also had encouraged me to do more research on him. I thought it was so awesome that P.T. Barnum had popularized different entertainment forms such as the musical concert and the circus. He also worked hard to change the public's attitude toward theater, which during his time, was seen as "low" culture, a place of evil.

Photo by Noé Cuéllar

NC: Your source material for Following Dance was generated on-site as you imitated gallery visitor's gestures. Do you often observe people to generate movement and text?

JC: I do observe people among other things. I also observe animals and children. I've been interested in how people operate or behave in different spaces, around different people, and in different social situations. What are the possibilities that are apparently available to them? What seems to be off limits? Textually, I often appropriate language from historical contexts, such as a Civil War Era Ettiquette book in Faces, Varieties, Postures. Since I've been working with text in a more minimal way lately, I often observe snippets of political speeches and everyday conversations: the laughter, guffaws, or "um's" that seem to have a different relationship to the body than actual words. This kind of communication also has its own quality of concealment and disclosure.

NC: Talk more about your experience of Following Dance, particularly the daily repetition, the variety of gestures, audience behavior... How did you feel about engagement and disengagement during performance?

JC: I spent about two months watching people. As I was figuring out the best way to observe people during the research phase, I remember walking a few feet behind people in the space and copying them without them catching on to me. That was a lot of fun. This daily repetition helped me construct various rules, so that I could have a little more control about shaping the experience. For example, I would not imitate the movements of people who were looking directly at me, so that it didn't become too much like a mime show. Not that I have anything against mimes; I was just after something specific. Once those people who caught on to me looked away, however, I was free to continue to copy them. I enjoyed that sort of game that we would engage in, akin to peek-a-boo. Children often caught on to the game structure more quickly than the adults, and I enjoyed imitating them the most because they exhibited the least predictable and most erratic movement in relation to the art. Because the show had interactive art, I imitated viewers with crossed arms and viewers who would lie in the giant Acconci Convertible Clam Shelter. I would crawl like the viewers in Zittel's inhabitable structure, which luckily had windows for me to continue to see and imitate the viewers.
   I felt the engagement or disengagement during the performance were interrelated. If someone was not engaged by what I was doing, or just happened to not be watching me, I still could use their disengaged movement as material. I became intrigued by the Museum mode that many people entered. I was equally invested in performing their disengagement. People's movements were excited, bored, and/or tentative. Also, there were a variety of modes of interaction with the art that were off limits. Everyone had to take their shoes off to interact with certain pieces, so the gesture of taking shoes off or putting on gloves were frequent. Visitors, at times, didn't know that I was performing, and I didn't always want them to know. I purposely wore ordinary clothes to ensure that they didn't initially know. A few times people would try to climb the ladder as I had done, but would be asked by security to get off the ladder. When viewers didn't know what I was doing, I was able to get really close to them and imitate them, while onlookers--who were aware of me--watched and compared my movement with the movement of the person I was imitating. So, the performance allowed me to include those who were disengaged, or unaware, as a part of the piece.

AR: You talk about observing political speeches lately... Is political speech fundamentally about concealment and disclosure?

JC: Political speech seems to revel in the distinction between concealment and disclosure. I'm not sure what political speech fundamentally is about. It conceals as much as (if not more than) it discloses, but I think from a marketing standpoint, the rhetoric of concealment and disclosure in the media, often can be a way to simply get more ratings.

AR: Are political sex scandals popular then as a complementary language of revelation?

JC: Yeah. It does suggest that the sheer act of disclosing anything is what has become popular. It's similar to when Survivor reveals the winner in the last episode, or when Lost introduces a cliffhanger at the end of every episode. I guess, this is a place where political speech shares the aesthetic strategies of a TV show. We might encounter political speech as an interruption of an episode of Lost, and this creates a tendency to become numb to the realities of a political cliffhanger, which has real consequences. In that sense, political speech itself is also about consumption, our perpetual hunger for more cliffhangers. Since there is such a massive amount of information out there thanks to the internet and new media, politicians worry differently about concealment and disclosure. Several people I've talked to have had no idea about the revolution in Egypt.

AR: What is the language of revolution?

JC: I'm not sure revolution has a language (and when I say language here I mean it in a general way). This also depends on which revolution we are talking about. A revolution in the language of art, dance, poetry, etc, seems to come from the excess, that which is perceived as being outside the standard at a given time. But, revolution can also take the form of a return to something, to a particular form that has lost favor. At the same time, it's just art, or it's just dance, or it's just poetry. The language of a political revolution is different. It seems to have lost a particular meaning, as it has acquired all sorts of poetic meaning. What dadaists did for art is certainly not the same as a revolution in Egypt. Language in it's more popular forms, via Facebook for example has mobilized people in massive ways and has a farther reach than what happens in the less attended art opening. Nonetheless, I do think poetry and art (in its less popular forms) can have repercussions that somehow reverberate and inspire political action. Art in all its forms can present a vision of the world, not as it is, but as it could be. Maybe, it can present us with a new or remembered language, one with a less oppressive syntax. Then again, what do I know? I'm just an artist.

Photo by Noé Cuéllar

Justin Cabrillos is an artist, writer, and performer based in Chicago. Cabrillos received his MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work often investigates the verbal and nonverbal communication that shape the possibilities for movement in various contexts. He was a summer fellow at Ox-Bow School of Art, he was an IN>TIME Incubation Series artist-in-residence at the Chicago Cultural Center, and he is a 2011 LinkUP Artist at Links Hall. He recently collaborated with Every House Has a Door in a performance for artCENA in Rio De Janeiro. He is a recipient of a Greenhouse grant from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum.