Not the Same Old Song and Dance: Recent Encounters with Karen Adelman and Flora Wiegmann

Flora Wiegmann performing Wandering (Detail)
at Orange County Museum of Art

On Superbowl Sunday afternoon, February 6, I went to OCMA to catch a Sunday Salon on performative practices, which featured talks with California Biennial artists Micha Cárdenas, Carlee Fernandez, Flora Wiegmann, and David Wilson. I was most struck by Wiegmann’s talk, in which she discussed the evolution of her practice while standing in front of her filmed work, Wandering (Still). The artist comes from a dance background, graduating from Columbia College with a BA in Dance, and practiced as a member of several different dance companies. She eventually grew bored with the repertoire-based world of professional dance, however, and found herself increasingly drawn to the more experimental aspects of the visual arts.

In 2003, she and Drew Heitzler collaborated to open Champion Fine Art, a two-year series of artist-curated shows with spaces in Brooklyn and Culver City. Champion Fine Art ended the year I moved to LA (2005), but its legacy lives on, as I often hear about the great shows that were organized in the Culver City space, and what a great gathering spot it was for artists. At the Brooklyn space, Wiegmann and fellow dancer Felicia Ballos created the De-Installation Series, nine dances that responded to artworks installed in the gallery, on the eve of their de-installation. Most of the artworks would be removed for the performance, but on occasion, some would remain. This series, which has since been recreated for galleries in New York and France, pretty much marked the beginning of Wiegmann’s current practice, which in her own words, “usurps the practice of visual artists… to broaden the platform for dance by making works on film, site-specific dances, endurance pieces, and collaborative performance projects.”

Yvonne Rainer, Terrain, 1963

During her talk, Wiegmann waxed a bit nostalgic about the heyday of Judson Dance Theater, when dance mixed freely with Happenings and other experimental art forms in the creative hothouse that was the 1960s New York art scene, and dancers like Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Anna Halprin, and Trisha Brown made important works whose legacies are still being grappled with today. Since that pivotal decade, the boundaries between “performance art” and “the performing arts” seem to have been somewhat re-established. Nonetheless, isn’t dance-based work now having a renaissance of sorts in the increasingly fertile, cross-pollinating Los Angeles art scene? I posed this question to Wiegmann, and her response was yes, we’re getting there, but at the moment, she is still seeing a lot of dancers participating in the projects of other artists, but not necessarily initiating their own.

Certainly notable exceptions to this (in addition to Wiegmann herself) are Taisha Paggett, whose self-choreographed and heavily theory-driven dance performances I’ve written about several times on this blog, and Ryan Heffington, whose populist take on dance was recently the subject of a MOCA Engagement Party residency. A community of sorts has also coalesced around Pieter PASD, a performance space that was co-founded by dancer Jmy Leary and that holds regular movement workshops. And, I first became familiar with Wiegmann’s work through the stellar ICA Philly exhibition, Dance with Camera, which also included strong pieces by LA-based artists Kelly Nipper, Mike Kelley, and Elad Lassry—that show by itself was proof of the continuing pervasiveness of dance in the visual arts, and in the LA art scene today. I guess I have good faith that we’ll “get there”—that in fact, we’re entering a period of creativity in the LA scene, and perhaps the global scene, that will rival that of 1960s New York.

Karen Adelman performing
Aspirations at Control Room

While dance has a long and influential history in contemporary art, singing is another matter. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that any notable avant-garde scenes have coalesced around the art of singing the way they did around dance. Singing has been more of an individual’s pursuit. The formidable Diamanda Galas is the first artist who comes to mind; classically trained with much of her output taking the form of musical opuses and theatrical productions, she nonetheless pushed so hard on so many boundaries that much of her work must be considered as performance art. More recently, Juliana Snapper, also a classically trained opera singer, has been creating performances that test the limits of vocal expression; she has also collaborated on performative works with artists like Ron Athey and Elana Mann. And certainly, artists like Kalup Linzy and Dynasty Handbag, among others, weave songs into a larger body of work.

I was recently excited to learn that another strong individual is entering the singing fray, and that with her well-conceived practice, she has the potential to bring song to the forefront of performance art. Karen Adelman has a performance practice first and foremost; that practice concentrates on singing, and specifically the singing of popular songs, as the platform for her inquiries. A trained vocalist, Adelman is in her first year of MFA studies at USC and does not yet have a website. In fact, she told me that she is “actively fighting” such concerns at the moment in an effort to really focus on the dynamics of “live-ness.“

At USC’s Open Studios on February 5, Adelman played a reel of videos which documented pieces that blended the singing of popular songs with spoken monologues. She also told me that she is currently working on a series in which she sings specific songs to chosen individuals. The singing of the songs becomes a framework within which she can investigate the variegated interactive dynamics that occur. What kind of feelings pass between her and the other person? How does their relationship change, or not? Do the song lyrics seem to frame the artist, or frame the listener? This series is not being documented.

Then on February 11, during an opening reception at Control Room, Adelman reprised a performance that she had done at Eighth Veil’s booth at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair. This piece, titled Aspirations, functions as a powerful launching point for her young practice.

A tape of a woman speaking slowly and clearly is played; she begins by laying out the building blocks of voice and song, talking about the importance of breath and where the energy comes from. Adelman follows her instructions closely and seriously, breathing as the woman describes, fluttering her lips in preparation for song. During an interval, music is cued and Adelman falls into songstress mode, suddenly making seductive eye contact with members of her audience as she croons Half As Much (a Hank Williams standard that has been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Ray Charles). The rest of the performance alternates between the taped spoken word—in which the anonymous woman discusses related concepts such as the use value of song, the social context of singing, and the space created for inquiries—and Adelman’s bursts of beautiful, alluring melody.

This performance seemed to both break down the components of Adelman’s inquiry, and provide a pliant space in which the artist could begin to tease out the emotional and psychological pulls inherent in the singing of popular songs; we saw both the underlying critical musculature of her practice and some of the possible directions it may take. The work’s perfect title is both a nod to the importance of breath in singing, and an announcement of the artist’s ambitions. I for one can’t wait to see, and hear, more.

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