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Interview: Faye Driscoll talks process, vulnerability, and the inheritance of performance amid her ‘Come On In’ at PICA

Call it meditation, performance, soundscape, transcendence, dance: Driscoll’s 'Come On In' solo exhibit pushes boundaries and challenges traditional definitions of dance performance.

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As I entered Portland Institute for Contemporary Art on a sunny afternoon, a hush fell over me. The space was dim and vast; a cool breeze whisked back and forth across the gallery. I looked across the concrete room to see a series of rectangular bed-like platforms, all twin-sized apart from one double bed, situated at different heights before a slowly changing backdrop of colorful lights. This is the scene of Faye Driscoll’s solo exhibition, Come On In, an immersive audience-participatory experience featuring no stage and no performers that’s taking place at PICA for two more stretches, Dec. 28-30 and again Jan. 6-15.

“Come On In,” 2020. Installation view, Walker Art Center. Photograph by Bobby Rogers. Image courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

After taking off my shoes and placing them in a cubby I walked across waves of thick shag carpet; an inviting black sea. The seams under my feet were hard against soft patches of fabric that led to the beds; islands of comfortable white memory foam. The first platform I walked toward was the double bed, which featured two over-ear headphones on cords, each next to a single plastic button. I laid down side by side near the person who attended the event with me. We chose to press the button at the same time, and our separate— yet similar— experiences began.

“Make yourself very comfortable,” the recording started, directing us to release our feet in our mind’s eye and take inventory of relaxation throughout our body up to our throats, a method of body awareness often found in mindfulness classes and Gaga Movement Language laboratories.

“My baby, my baby, my baby,” continued the audio at this platform, Search Engine (2021), followed by a series of intimate images and directions. Starting softly and slowly by asking me to release and imagine myself falling back into the arms of someone who loves me and can’t get enough of me, making mention of sensations like “a slug tongue in my mouth” and “floating,” the recording gradually amplified over the course of roughly six minutes toward a more aggressive tone, incorporating repetitive electronic verbiage and double entendres that asked the listener to “search,” “search harder and deeper through the search engine,” and “come and find me,” all seeming to culminate in an auditory, tonal, and technological climax.

The next five platforms, on which I lay solo, provided similar cacophonies of emotion, direction, and imagery. “My dove, my dove, my dove,” Driscoll cooed into my ear during Will You Hold My Head? (2020), which depicted a swarm of crows in a tree. Her voice explained, “You hear your mother cry and you open your mouth to comfort her but your lips only part a little bit.” I opened my fingers, as per her directions, and allowed my eyes to well with tears.

“Harden your face. Now, crack it. Crack it into a smile,” she insisted alternatively on another platform before softening the listener yet again in Recycled Bitch (2020) with the words and phrases, “You are a little bunny… a big softy…” and, “Who are you but all the hands that have ever held you?”

“Come On In,” 2020. Installation view, Walker Art Center. Photograph by Bobby Rogers. Image courtesy of Walker Art Center.

Choreographer, performer, and multi-disciplinary artist Driscoll is no stranger to pushing just the right boundaries for just the right amounts of time. She was commissioned in February 2020 by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to make her first-ever solo gallery exhibition. The event was then canceled due to Covid-19, but later came to Portland’s PICA by way of Seattle’s On the Boards.

“I’ve gotten some really strong sense of a whole journey people have gone on through the work. They went through a whole range of emotions and came out transformed or altered,” Driscoll told me over the phone one morning, “I’ve witnessed people getting choked up … but I try not to get too attached to the outcomes or experiences because it’s so much about them and what they’re open to. The work is [simply] the work.”

“Because I imagine so much of what the specific experience will be like, I also had to do a lot of letting go,” she continued. “In a live performance, one can have the illusion of control, but with the gallery setting, you can’t control what people do. To participate in Come On In is essentially an optional experience for the viewer.”

While some may consider it a significant decampment from her typical dancer-heavy, body-focused works, Come On In runs true to the same vein as her other tender, absurdist, and daring performances. There is nothing sterile about the experience, even though it takes place in the timed-ticket, socially distant atmosphere of a post-Covid-19 world, with person after person pressing socked feet, bare hands, clothed legs, and heavy heads on the white mattresses; perspiring, shifting, and following directions with delight, confusion, anger, or a myriad of other possible reactions within the circumstance of their uniquely personal experience. Performance viewers, who so often become accustomed to sitting motionless in a row of theater seats, are transformed into performers for both themselves and for the pairs of eyes glimpsing them at a distance. The participants become the spectacle, and therefore the term is reconstructed from a relative “circus act” into an alternate definition for a tableaux of delight, curiosity, and activation of internal sensory exploration.

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When I asked whether Come On In may impact the way Driscoll looks at performance, she replied, “It already has. I find myself reimagining and letting go. It has already impacted my thinking as I start to make my next time-based theater project. I feel like it’s opened a lot of things up for me.”

Within the rollercoaster that is Come On In, I felt prodded into a sense of safety and emotional understanding. Despite, or perhaps because of, Driscoll’s direct and unapologetic repetitions of hard-edged phrases like “I want your body,” “take it,” “come here,” “come inside your mouth,” “can you see?,” “can you hear me?,” and “are you there?,” I felt an overwhelming sense of power. Rather than unsettle me, the imagery draped me in an evanescent sense of infinity. On one of my final platforms, I was asked to fall back into the arms of my mother, and of my mother’s mother, and of the arms of her mother before her, and her mother’s before that, and so on exponentially as far back as I could imagine. I was gifted, by Driscoll’s strict yet comforting voice, with a chance to return to my origins, a chance to connect with the biological matriarchal thread of my heritage, to confront head-on our societal dependence on technology and the cyberworld that draws us out of our bodies with the brute-force promise of immediacy and instant gratification, and to discover myself as a being of infinite reflective possibilities. Call it a meditation, call it a performance, a soundscape, a transcendence, a dance— at the end of it all, when the recordings went silent, I felt known.

***

A FEW DAYS AFTER ATTENDING Come On In at PICA, I was able to share a phone call with Driscoll to talk about process, vulnerability, the inheritance of performance, and the responsibility of the viewer:

What inspired you to begin creating dance performance work, and how did you decide to pursue this art form?

I had a bit of inheritance as my parents were both performers; a dancer and actor mom and an actor dad. I started dancing as a toddler, and in some ways, it was both choice and choiceless. It was something I didn’t stop doing, though there was a juncture in my young life while I was performing and a point I decided to stop. But dance kept bringing me back in and I decided to commit in a new form as director and choreographer. 

Come On In did not feature a stage or performers (other than the audience). Can you tell me a little bit about how this process was different from your typical creation process? Were there any unique challenges?

I wanted there to be a sense of stakes for the experience. I started the process of creating audio choreographies and later set up the tableaux vivants of bodies in the pose listening. Some of the most unique challenges included the lack of a set time frame; different time limitations were available to me and I had no obligation, at that point, to even complete the piece. I was writing and listening and doing crazy body scans over and over by myself to create the audio. It was a heavy psychological experience drawing from directives and prompts from other live performances in which I also wanted to create a quiet and multi-layered retrospective at the same time. For my recording process, I would write, record, listen. Then I would rewrite. I did a lot of thinking before writing… getting tone right and getting pacing right. I then worked with an editor to edit out bad takes or room tone.

Come On In involved written prompts spoken to the listener. Do you consider yourself a writer?

Not really, but in some sense, I choreograph language. I think about the way language extends into the body. Language is important because it is how we navigate so much of our lives.

Your artist statement on your website likens the actions of your performers to “rapid fire flip-books of human emotion.” How does Come On In touch on this aspect of your work without the traditional performers present?

Through the ear and imagination. Through the sensations conjured in each piece as you do them. Some of what the piece is doing is calling out the depth of imagination and calling out what we imagine our bodies to be and what it becomes. Capitalism makes bodies into problems to solve or fix. The audio pieces are incantations to playfully invite you to consider an alternative; a much less linear way to be. That’s what my performers are often tossed with. They have so many layers that they are holding in their bodies in the performance, and I ask them to activate a similar amount of layers as depicted in the audio prompts.

Why did you choose the particular foam bed pedestals and headphones that were used in Come On In?

The headphones were noise-canceling to bring the voice close and also sort of direct you where to lay. I wanted my voice to be close—right next to you. The pedestals were all built to different heights and we had originally talked about them being almost replications of museum sculptural bases as seen in traditional gallery spaces. They had to be comfortable, and I was interested in the different layers they could create. The same went for the carpet; that the body could be drawn to them. 

Do you think you will continue to explore this realm of audience-activated audio/interactive performance?

I do. I plan to continue it alongside my practice of creative live performance. Earlier interactions of this project have already been sent into people’s homes; some all the way to Europe, and some private audio pieces sent to email inboxes during the earlier height of the pandemic.

Your performances often place a lot of responsibility in the hands of viewers; asking them to participate, to be present, to go inside themselves, and to recall and imagine emotions and specific feelings of physicality in order to activate their setting. Do you ever worry that you are asking too much of them, and how do you grapple with or reconcile giving your audience that imperative role in your work?

I think in my performances the audience is invited in with the option to be involved. With Come On In, there is a bit more responsibility placed on the participant. There is a more direct invitation to your body … “Do this for me.” It’s a much more direct call. While I don’t worry about asking too much, I may worry that some people will not show up for the ask. These activations and prompts are meant to enliven the dead, dissociated, addicted parts of our bodies that we’ve left in the dust of great technological progress. I’m trying to stretch my voice into you and call you into my body. The question is: will you meet it? What I’m asking you to do is very ambiguous.

Your work encompasses tenderness, vulnerability, and honesty so candidly. How do you cultivate and maintain this openness?

Vulnerability is one of my primary values in my artistic value system, and it’s something I’m most drawn to in other people’s work. There’s no prescription that it must look a certain way, but there’s a certain presence of fragility and mortality in the work. Vulnerability is a daily practice for me … a rigorous daily practice to not clog myself up and numb myself out and be so guarded that I can’t participate in this life and in this world. Vulnerability is not what’s most encouraged in our community. Our community structure is much more produced, encouraging “harder faster better younger.”

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for artists just beginning to step into the world of experimental and multi-disciplinary dance performance? Or people in general?

I always find comfort in knowing that whatever you are looking for or need (collaborators, creative inspiration, etc.) is often quite close. Come into your own attention and start exactly where you are. Take a day off your screen. Take the time to feel your own brain in its own particular patterns.

About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

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