Brian Rogers talks about reprising his performance piece Hot Box, the challenges of performing, and his compulsion to keep creating.
I meet Brian at The Chocolate Factory (the performance space he and his wife Sheila Lewandowski founded and run in Long Island City) before we go for drinks. Sheila’s in there counting change for a neighboring business. She’s got on a warm wooly sweater and a cough. Brian’s looking at the computer. He’s sporting a new beard, hasn’t shaved since September which may have something to do with having made a new performance, traveled to four countries, presented six shows by other people, and participated in an artist residency in Seattle and his first gallery exhibition in Brooklyn, all in the last few months. The beard is cute. And I’m glad to get to see my friend for a few hours. We walk to Domaine and talk about many things, not all printed here. I start with the upcoming January 12–15 reprise performances (at The Chocolate Factory co-presented with PS122 as part of the COIL Festival of his performance, Hot Box). Press materials describe Hot Box as loud, dark, messy and inspired by films like Apocalypse Now, but we discuss the through line of quiet found within the piece. Brian’s work as a director straddles dance, theater, film, installation, computer programming, and music making. I find his work immersive and meditative, original and sophisticated. His mind is just as wonderful. I’m interested to hear what he’s thinking about right now.
Aynsley Vandenbroucke [laughter] We can totally digress, but I have a few questions to start with. How do you feel about redoing Hot Box a couple of months after the premiere?
Brian Rogers On the level of performing in it, I’m dreading it completely. Largely because normally when I make something, I can, after a while, think about what it was and for my own benefit decide whether it worked or didn’t. And I haven’t been able to do that with this piece because I’m in it. I made the thing and put it out there. And what I want to do is work on it more but I don’t know how. I’m happy to have the piece out there again, to have more people to see it. But APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) is nerve-wracking and the audiences aren’t as good and everyone’s a little manic and exhausted. But I want my work to tour someday and it makes sense to do it and they invited me so it’s fine. I don’t think of myself as a performer. Being in my thing stresses me out to no end.
AV I was thinking about these three levels of engagement you have with performance. You’re an audience member and curator looking at work, a creator shaping your own work, and then, in this piece, a performer, totally inside the work.
BR Being an audience member has been different this year. I’ve learned how to be really Zen about it. I used to get really upset and feel trapped if I was seeing something I just couldn’t stand and I still sometimes feel the weight of my own obligation to really be present at something but now, instead of feeling enraged, I can go somewhere else and just experience it. I can’t do that in my own work. In terms of being in the work, it’s only the bad parts. I don’t get a rush from performing, from bringing technique or skill. I’m always having to question. Am I just jacking off here? Why am I putting myself in the work? Am I pushing enough? Am I pushing too far? All of these things about what I made, all these negative thoughts. And of course the state I get into is miserable, ok now it’s time to go feel like shit for four hours.
AV I had a list of big questions and this touches into that. You’re questioning why you’re in Hot Box. And I’ve read really interesting things about why you, Brian, are in this piece (so you don’t need to have performers sitting around waiting, etc.) But I also wonder about this: why make a performance at all? Do you have any thoughts about that?
BR Oh I know. I have many thoughts about that, many questions. And it’s mostly the thing we [Brian and his collaborators, Madeline Best and Mike Rugnetta] argued about. Why isn’t this a movie? I do think ultimately I’m going to end up making a movie. I know that I am.
AV I guess my question isn’t why performance over movie, but it’s interesting you go there. My question is more why make anything at all.
BR It’s something I ask of people all the time. And I know the reason I make things is I feel a compulsion for it. Not because I can have a well reasoned response to it. I can’t think of a really good reason ever. I’m either miserable making something or even more miserable not making something.
BR I really envy people who don’t seem to have that compulsion in the same way. They’re like, “I have a job I like well enough. And I have a family or a kid or whatever. And I have a nice home and that’s plenty.” And I’m always suspicious of people like that. Like maybe they’re just full of shit and they don’t really mean it. But maybe I’m just super jealous. Like why do I feel the need to keep doing this? It’s not like it’s impacting that many people in the world. It’s not going to get me rich or famous. There’s nothing it gives me that’s that tangible out in the world.
AV Could you describe the compulsion? What does it feel like in your body or mind?
BR It’s really specific to me. Like someone with a hyperactivity disorder or like a low level form of autism in the sense that I’m agitated and then the switch flips and I’m not agitated and I’m calm. But it’s short lived.
AV And what makes the shift? Do you know?
BR Just by going to the place and working. When I make something and I’m happy about it, I feel calm. But of course within one day that reverses. I never feel good about something I’ve done for more than one day.
AV What is it in that moment when you’re happy with something you’ve made? What’s the quality of it?
BR My whole body feels good. And tension-free. It releases tension. It’s like sex. Yeah. Oh, I made something and that’s good. So these last six months of feeling miserable, at least I feel good now. The way I work, I have to sit there and procrastinate and wait for it to happen to me. We’ve talked about this before. I can’t strategize my way into it, make good decisions into it. I have to sit there. I’m just knotted up, sort of knowing that eventually something I can hopefully work from will come, but being afraid that it never will.
AV What is it that brings the feeling of calm? Is it a certain kind of order, excitement, integrity?
BR The word order makes sense. When everything is where I want it to be—this is totally related because my work is so much about spatial things—so when everything is where it’s supposed to be, it’s like, Ah! The whole segment of my brain that’s revolting against a sense of disorder relaxes.
AV Do you think your brain is revolting about the disorder of making work or against the disorder of life in general?
BR Both for sure, life in general. I have a strong desire to make little things I can understand. Part of the reason this piece is so hard is that I don’t understand it. I don’t subscribe to the notion of karma. I kind of wish I did but I think the world is just completely chaotic and disordered. To make some little thing, to feel I organized this, I understand it, it’s super helpful to me.
AV It’s interesting that it starts from this place of sitting around. That you don’t try to impose the order until it starts imposing itself. That takes such trust. And balls.
BR It’s nerve-wracking. And there’s no guarantee that it’ll work. But I do know—and this is something I’ve seen in a lot of artists I’ve worked with—there are plenty of people who’ve developed ways of working that they think of as building their way out of the unknown part of it. They know how to make a piece and it’s done one month before it’s premiered. But I think they’re shutting off a whole world of possibilities. When you make one decision you’re excluding some others. And once you go too far down that road, you’re committed. When I used to make theatre pieces, I used to do this thing, and it didn’t work at all, but I would make a piece and then two days before it was supposed to open I would explode the piece and start all over. People would never work with me again. But I’d be like, everything we just worked on, fuck it, we’re throwing it out. And that would make people insanely upset.
AV Do you set yourself parameters to begin with? Or none? Or is there a point along the way when you bring in limitations?
BR There are huge limitations. It’s like the work itself is confronting the impossibility of having enough limitations. I need more. How far can you strip away?
AV I’m curious. On the one hand there’s this sense of going in and allowing boredom and unknowing. But it also feels like, perhaps, you start with this really tight box which isn’t so unknowing.
BR Right. But the things that can fit in that box have an expansiveness in a weird kind of way. Part of me thinks I have to shake that up and make myself work in a different way. I’ve been thinking about things like automatic writing, like the beat writers would do. Get up and just make the pen move for an hour and not think about it. Sometimes I think I have to find a way inside of what I’m making to do something like that. But I don’t know. I wonder if there’s a false sense of productivity in that. Because you’re moving. Something’s being done. As opposed to what we do which is really just sitting there.
AV Is there some way while you’re sitting there that you’re asking for answers to come?
AV And how are you doing that, even just in your mind? Is it a certain kind of presence? Is it actively seeking or just open for answers to come?
BR Sometimes we have conversations, but they get too circuitous. It’s useful but you can get deceived. Part of it, too, is sitting there resisting the thing I know I need which is just relaxing. But it’s hard and you feel tense and sometimes whole days go by and nothing happens.
AV Do you see it at all as a religious practice?
BR Um, no. It might be better if I did. There’s a lot about it externally that feels similar. But I know I don’t bring the same level of, I guess, meditation to it. I’m not submitting to the notion of the thing. I wish. I’d probably be better, in relation to the performance of the thing, if I could. But I don’t know how. I maybe need to go to the Zen monastery.
AV My experience of your work, especially in these last two pieces, Hot Box and Selective Memory, is that there is space for me to enter the work in my own way. Because of this I feel truly respected as an audience member. I feel a sensitivity on your end that seems to come from your own experience of being an active, thinking, and reflecting audience member. Your pieces are so much about me bringing in whatever I bring to them. Or letting those things go and having time to grapple with my own approach and presence, or lack thereof. I have to come to terms with my own mind as I sit there, and that feels like my Zen practice. And it’s interesting because sitting there feels related to your descriptions of making the piece. A kind of trust needs to happen…. It’s ok to sit here a while.
AV But it’s important to remember that that stuff wouldn’t exist if there weren’t actually a fairly tightly controlled sequence of events. For it to feel as undirected as it does, it is actually very directed. Directed in a certain kind of way, knowing how to leave…which is the thing I’m most interested in. It’s the reason these are performances and not installations or movies. It’s important for me that the people watching it watch it for the amount of time I ask them to. Obviously there are people who watch it and then turn away from it, don’t want to feel it, feel it’s boring.
AV There’s a certain kind of accountability. You’re all there in real life.
BR Right. And I’m asking them to stay for a certain amount of time. Which is something that’s deceiving about what happens in galleries and museums for most people most of the time, this idea that the spectator has control over how much or little time they give something. It’s a cop-out. They can say they saw something after watching for a minute.
AV It becomes consumerist.
BR People always ask me why I don’t just make installations.
AV Why do they ask?
BR Because the work is so visual, so much about the environment and image. I think the performances are actually quite crucial to it, but I don’t know that people experience it in quite the same way.
AV It’s kind of a shame. Like performance has to be something busybody, jumping out at you and an installation is more about creating a space. But it feels to me that good performances are so much about creating a space to exist in.
BR I 100% agree. People say this all the time, “We live in a hyper-accelerated culture and there’s so much visual and audio information available to us all the time, we’re all hyped up on it, we’ve become like ADD kids.” And I think some of that is true, I was raised this way, I would resist, get frustrated by boredom. But I’m really interested in sinking into boredom. It’s satisfying when time can stop for a while, when I’m not focused on how long I’ve been somewhere or where I’ll be next. I don’t know if my work does that, but that’s what I hope to do with it.
AV You’re using technology and moving images; these things that we often say make us ADD. But you’re using them to take us back to very basic human experiences.
BR I think that’s true. And that can also be confusing. It’s interesting; I’m sort of referring to a film aesthetic. I’m going back in time. There was a moment when experimental filmmakers were doing this in the ’60s. Stan Brakhage and whatever. Now the sort of dominating pop aesthetic is so hyperactive. There’s an assumed wisdom that the job of the product is to hold the attention of the spectator.
BR And so it’s this constant thing of, “Oh, you lost me there. I was with you and then you lost me again.” I’m so deeply not interested in that interaction. What are you bringing into this equation? What do you want to bring? It’s not even about me saying, “You do the work.” It’s me as a spectator wanting the space to assert myself into it. I don’t even think of it as work. I think of it as space. I don’t think my stuff demands work from its audience. It’s just if you want to think about something here, you can think about it. Maybe you just want to kill an hour in a dark room. What’s so bad about that?
AV One last question, perhaps related and perhaps totally not, why do you think art is important?
BR Oh God.
AV Why do you run The Chocolate Factory? There are the personal reasons, the sense of order that making art sometimes helps you find, needing space to make that work. But why is it important in general that art exists?
BR For me, it’s the only response to the world that I think adds anything to it, honestly. One of the things that’s recently buzzed about and sounds really glib so I kind of want to resist it is that museums are interested in performance now because, well, people want experience. We’ve had enough stimulation and I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in a community of people. And in my place here, it’s a tiny community of people who have shared interests, who respond to the world we live in. And I wouldn’t say it adds meaning but it’s meaningful. I think as someone who doesn’t understand why life is worth it, here’s something I can latch onto that’s interesting. That’s kind of the beginning and end of it. It’s sort of as simple as that.
Aynsley Vandenbroucke is a choreographer, curator, and movement analyst. Her newest evening-length performance will premiere at The Chocolate Factory May 15-18. She co-founded Mount Tremper Arts in the Catskills and teaches at Princeton University. www.movementgroup.org
Brian Rogers’ Hot Box will be performed at The Chocolate Factory, co-presented by PS122 as a part of the COIL Festival, January 12-15th.