Sophia Michahelles & Alex Kahn
Co-founders, Processional Arts Workshop
Conducted by Lauren Drapala on November 4, 2019 at Red Hook, New York
Sophia Michahelles (left) and Alex Kahn (right) at their home and workshop at Rokeby Farms in Red Hook, New York, November 4, 2019. Photo by Lauren Drapala.
Sophia Michahelles began her career as a maker and performer by creating set designs and puppetry for theatrical productions at McGill University. She is also a performer with Basil Twist’s Obie-award winning Symphonie Fantastique and has created and performed solo puppet shows, including Georgette's Debut, her one-woman drag burlesque of George Bush. Alex Kahn is a visual artist whose work draws on his cross-disciplinary background in theatrical design, printmaking and digital arts, sculptural installation, and pageant puppetry. He previously served as the Technical Director at the NYC-based Kitchen Performance Center (c. 1990–1993), chaired the Printmaking Department at the Maine College of Art (2000–2004) and continues to maintain an independent practice as a theatrical designer, printmaker, installation artist, and teacher.
In this interview, Sophia Michahelles and Alex Kahn describe their career to date working together at the intersection of puppetry, community, performance, and public space. They discuss their work with New York's Village Halloween Parade (New York, New York, 1998–present), Pageant Puppetry Workshop and Midsummer Procession (Morinesio, Italy, 2002–present), Ebune: A West African Rite of Spring (Museum of African Culture, Portland, Maine, 2003–2004), Commute of the Species (Katonah Museum, New York, New York to Katonah, New York, 2010), The Black Cat Committee: A Kiev Puppetscape, Andriyivskyy Descent Kiev, Ukraine, 2011), Odysseus at Hell Gate (Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, New York, 2011), Morningside Lights (Harlem, New York, 2012–present), The Architectural League's Beaux Arts Ball (69th Regiment Armory, New York, New York, 2013), Procession of Confessions (PEN World Voices, New York, New York 2014) and WHIRL: The Worlds of Robert Chanler (Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Miami, Florida, 2016).
Interview duration: 1 hour and 58 minutes.
Sophia Michahelles (SM): Do you want to go first?
Alex Kahn (AK): Um, no. [laughs.] We are a small nonprofit, ever-shifting ensemble of artists, and our mission is to create site specific human-powered and community-built performances in public spaces that work within the framework of the tradition of processions, parades and Carnivalesque performances.
LD: [to SM] Would you like to add anything to that?
SM: No, I think that was actually an excellent definition.
LD: As a follow up to that, how do each of you describe your roles within this group?
SM: We do work very closely together. I mean, I think there are certain aspects of the work that we might take on, but I think that over the years we really have gotten very good at kind of figuring out, "Okay, Alex is taking this on—I'll take this other aspect on." And that applies to aspects of design, or aspects of just production, or even within the context of a public workshop: scanning the room and seeing, "Alex is on that side of the room—I'll go to that side of the room." I think that there are there are things that we tend to gravitate towards and we know each other's styles. We've been working together for twenty-one years and not all collaborators work this way, but I think that we tend to approach things in not radically dissimilar ways and then, from the inside out, work out who does what.
LD: Can you talk about some of those places that you tend to gravitate?
SM: I would say Alex is very good at having the first story—the basic idea of a story. I think I tend to think more in images and Alex is really good at thinking about things in terms of a narrative. It could be a more formed thing, but sometimes it's just the first idea, and then we will work out images together. Does that seem—
AK: We could also look at it as a form and content kind of shift where narrative—another way of saying, that is—the conceptual framework of what are we going to do. We come into a historic house or into an urban situation and we both do a fair amount of research. But, then out of that emerges this sort of like condensed mobile story that we're going to tell. That's a lot of the content framework. But then there's also the design element. Even within the design, Sophia is more likely to address costuming—working with textile and pattern and design. I will gravitate more towards structural design and sculptural design.
SM: And lighting.
AK: And lighting. Lighting and projection, and stuff like that. But then there's a lot of places those areas intersect. I mean, if you're talking about a costume that's fifteen feet tall, then there's going to be a structural component to the textile element. Inversely, you could possibly have an element of design that's built into something that is structural in terms of how the infrastructure shows through in a lighting context and things like that. So, it's quite cross-pollinated in a lot of ways and when we sit down with an actual conceptual design, we sort of naturally delegate within that given year's framework, or that given performance's framework, to one place or another.
SM: And sometimes the delegation is more—I will take on these creatures or this aspect of the design, and you [speaking to AK] will take on this other one. And sometimes it's more, like, I'll take on this component of this ensemble. [...] There can be clearer places to separate and sometimes it really is "I'll work on this aspect of a body and you'll work on this other aspect of a body."
AK: There is also a huge human element to all of this. I mean, when we talk about this kind of work, the first entry point for a lot of people is the materials, the methods, the technologies that we're using. And that is a big part of it. But none of that means anything unless if you're talking about a performance that has sixty to a hundred people in it. None of that means anything until you have bodies that are actually animating these things. The human engineering is a huge part of this. How do you talk to people? How do you bring volunteers into the process? How do you direct non-professional performers? How do you create a performance where you only have one brief rehearsal or no rehearsal? In some contexts. We've also delegated in that area as well where Sophia does a lot more of the one-on-one coordination of volunteers—talking to people, figuring out where they're going to be comfortable. Are they bringing kids along with them in this procession? Is there a role for them to play? What happens if they miss a rehearsal? Can they still be in the final performance or do they have to switch places with somebody? All of that, like, one-on-one, making people feel welcomed and respected in the process—that's very much Sophia's area of expertise. I am often more comfortable, once we're actually all there and people are in their costumes or puppets or visual elements, to address a large group in as concise a way I can, and actually direct a performance so that they end up doing the thing that we want them to do. But you know, if you have the wrong people, or not the right number of people, or people who aren't actually going to see it through to performance, the direction doesn't mean anything either. You have to have, at that point, the groundwork that goes into preparing people for the kind of commitment that they're going to undertake.
LD: So, I guess along those lines, is there a typical organizational structure in place when you take on a project? You've outlined the roles that both of you play, but are there other people that are consistently involved?
AK: It's very interesting over the years because, there have been people we've hired on occasion or people who come and will volunteer for a solid month. Like, for Halloween, we have one person who comes from England, who is a professional costumer, teaches performance design and by any standard is a total professional. And basically, she just loves the Halloween Parade [New York City's Village Halloween Parade] and she wants to be a part of that looser, haphazard design: last-minute stuff that happens when we're doing this grass roots, giant performance kind of thing. I think she gets a lot out of that.
AK: That's Kate Whitehead, who you can interview if you want. She's here. She takes on a kind of leadership role. We come up with the basic concept, for example, for Halloween. And then she is very much an implementer of large swaths of that and helps direct the volunteers and helps basically organize the whole thing and does a lot of tech support and all of that. Beyond that level, we basically have what's what in acting would be called an ensemble cast. There are probably fifteen or twenty people who have just volunteered to puppeteer year after year, after year, after year. Some of them ten, fifteen years come back every year—not just for the Halloween Parade, but for other New York area things that we do. Some of them have taken our workshop in Italy and have come there to do work with us. And that allows us to do so much more, because you don't know if somebody has just signed up on a forum and says, "I want to carry a giant fifteen-foot tall white rabbit puppet"—you don't know if they really know what they're getting into, if they can do it. Whereas, if it's Albert Melendez, "oh, that's Albert. We know he can do it. We know he will follow directions. We know he will be precise in this certain way. We know that he will take this role on in a different way from, say, Alex Bratcher, who will bring an impromptu energy to it, but is not so much like following the note-for-note instructions." And within an ensemble cast, you can plug people into different roles where more or less improvisation is going to benefit the overall performance, where you have stronger people and more fragile people, more graceful people and more just purely physical people. And we've gotten to know these volunteers over the years so that when we start casting things in the overall performance. We at least know that key positions are going to have some people in each position who are absolutely solid.
SM: And, I would say that this is true for the Halloween Parade and other projects that we do in and around New York City, because we have developed this amazing group of performers and people who come and help build projects—who come to the public workshops. But it's not the case when we do many other projects where we go to a new place. And so it does allow us to be more ambitious in our designs—certainly in the Halloween Parade, where we can take risks that we might not take if it's a first time event in Houston or Miami. When we go to new places, we know that we might not know anyone there, but we know that through the process of the public workshops, which will typically take place ten days previous to the event, we will also learn more about people there. People might initially come in and say, "Oh, I'm not a performer," or, "I just want help papier mâché" or whatever. And then, they'll get involved in the story and in the performance and realize, "Well, I'm performing, but I'm performing by carrying a lantern or by being an arm of the puppet. I don't have to go and speak to a crowd." They can be part of the thing or they're in a mask, or you know, some people who may not be performers, feel comfortable with this. And then people who are performers can jump in and be part of a more impromptu performance that doesn't require months of rehearsal or that kind of thing. So, we are still able to kind of figure out who the cast is in places where we are new. Relating to that—I think this was part of your initial question—when we do projects in new places, but also in the Halloween Parade, having a volunteer coordinator, having someone who's not us—who is tracking who's coming to the workshops, who's coming to a rehearsal, communicating with all the volunteers—is critical because we don't have time to do it while we're in the midst of a project. We can work with someone and sort of oversee what the information coming in is and what the information going out should be. But because people are such a huge part of the work that we do, it is really important for someone to be that communicator because we can't. We can't build at the scale that we build and we can't perform on the scale that we perform without someone really tracking and making sure people show up at the right time and know what to expect and feel welcome.
LD: That makes a lot of sense.
AK: We also work—among the volunteers—with a whole structure of captains. Almost everything we do is done in multiples. To have an impact on the street, you can't have one mask walking down the middle of the street. You've seen the Halloween Parade and it just wouldn't show up. So it's sort of like, "Oh, we like this character. Okay. Make twenty of them." And once you designate a captain or two captains of that section, it's much easier to communicate subtleties of a performance to one person and direct them individually and then have them direct just their group. And then, they don't have to worry about anything else. They can just focus on their posse of leaf masks, or Max characters or whatever—you know, from this year's Halloween Parade. Those are some of the masked characters that we had. And that way the dissemination of information is much more streamlined, because talking to one hundred people all at once, you have varying degrees of attentiveness. You don't know if you're really getting through. Nobody has an opportunity to ask questions back. But, if there's a captain, there's a lot more interchange, and they also learn things as a micro ensemble within the larger ensemble that they can experiment with. They can come back and say, "Hey, we have this idea if we all turn our heads to the right and then beat the drum—does that work for you?" "Oh, yes, that's great." So they're going to put more time into their performance than we could because that's all they have to worry about. That actually extends even to the building process. We've often had situations where, you know, there were elements that needed final painting. And if it were up to us, we would take ten to fifteen minutes to paint each element and just get it done. There's twenty of them. We don't have the time. There's other things that are prioritized. But if you hand those elements to twenty different people and say, this is all you need to do today, you're going to get one person who's going to spend six to eight hours painting this thing. So when we did these Day of the Dead skeletons in tandem with a Haitian artist [Didier Civil] in 2010, we did something like that. We carefully selected who had the painting skills to carry this on. But the level of detail and the level of originality and uniqueness within each particular skeleton head that we gave them was stunning. You know, if it had been up to us, we would have done a sort of generic, you know, throw a couple of decorations on it, it's done, which has its own charms in terms of the immediacy of scenic painting. But sometimes it's really nice to be able to say to somebody, "you can just lose yourself in this process for an entire day." And at the end of the day, we'll have something that's a real work of art that comes out of it.
SM: Along with the idea of creating multiples, there are a few lessons we've learned over the years. One is that you can come up with a formula and easily teach it to a group of volunteers. Referring back to this year's Halloween Parade performance—we had ten leaf-men heads and there was a way of doing them, and it was an easier thing to teach a group of volunteers than, say, figure one out: "okay, that looks good. Great, okay, we did that one. Let's do this totally different thing." It doesn't lend itself to delegation. So, that idea of repetition works well if you're working with volunteers and then translates really well to performance because it owns the street in a different way than a single mask or a single puppet would do. But, the other thing that it does is if there's a group of people doing something, they're never going to be doing exactly the same thing. So they're all going to have personalities within sameness. And that's something, that if we were making all of the leaf-men, or all of the skeleton heads or whatever, it would be just the two of us. Both of our ways of painting, or our ways of sculpting would kind of be repetitive, whereas if you have a group of people, then you have this wonderful synergy because they're all doing something similar, but they all bring a slightly different style to them. That's something that's very important to us, and sometimes, for some projects, that is key. There is a lantern procession that we do in Morningside Park in New York City called Morningside Lights, which we started in collaboration with Columbia University's Arts Initiative and Miller Theater. It's a lantern procession that starts in Morningside Park and ends up on campus, and each year we develop a theme and for that project—we don't design anything. We really design the concept and we teach people the techniques. The techniques change year by year, where, the way that we built the lanterns will change depending on what it is that we're making. But, the individual designs are open to the people who come to the workshop. And so this year, for example, we did "Island," and it was part of a larger theme of the year for water on campus at Columbia this year, but also, you know, for us it was a way of looking at climate change and sort of looking at this idea of rising sea levels and the fact that islands are often the ones that are at the forefront of the reality of climate change. And the larger idea of isolation, that, as humans we may be going through it now. There are all sorts of entry points. We would have focused exclusively on that, whereas when we were opening it up to the public. Some people got really excited about that as a subtext and worked with lanterns that address that. But, other people had totally different approaches. I don't remember how many lanterns we made, but it was sort of an archipelago of about fifty: many large and then some smaller ones. Collectively, there were totally different, totally different concerns. And so, to us, the idea of working with large groups of people—sometimes we really focus on this idea of multiples, but sometimes we really look at the idea of multiples opening up to individual interpretation, which is beyond the capacity of two people, to invent many. How many versions of this can we come up with? You end up as an artist being stuck in certain ways of seeing things, and this allows us to come up with an idea and see where it goes.
AK: In a way, it imparts a kind of art of curation. We're setting up an intellectual framework. Think about the mythology and the history and the legacy of what islands mean to us as humans. And that could be mythological. It can be historical. It can be from literature, you know, countless references. And, by creating that conduit for other people's creativity, who are essentially creating a curated show. But, that curation ends up being collectively a different kind of distributed authorship underneath one larger authorship of processional arts. So, it's an interesting thing because in talking about contemporary art, people often have interesting questions around what is the nature of authorship in this day and age. Sol Lewitt sort of broke that open with creating formulas for other people to make his drawings. Certainly Jeff Koons, as you know, has a factory that makes his work. But, in a more interesting sense, there are people like Mark Dion who will do these community interactive pieces where they'll dredge stuff out of the Thames River and with the community build a museum. It's all Mark Dion when he does that. I mean, he is the overseer of a broader concept, but he's not just allowing people to participate in the making of his work. He needs them to be reflected in that work, because the work is a reflection of the people who are participating. So, you know, it breaks down some of these ideas of authorship that exist in the fine art world and starts to be maybe more relevant to the way art making works in other parts of the world or in the craft world or things like that, where there is this distributed sense of collective making. And that's something we think about a lot. Often, community artists are sort of kind of classed as—"Oh, well, you're doing this good thing for a group of kids in some underserved neighborhood, but it's not really art because you're allowing a bunch of eight year olds to make your work." And our whole thing is like, "No, by harnessing their energies and channeling it in a way that has integrity and specificity, you're making work you could not have made yourself. You're creating a work that would otherwise not be able to exist." And it's not in any way secondary to the quality of the lone artist in his garret studio, making the master painting in the modernist paradigm. So for us, we consider ourselves very much in that contemporary mold of challenging—where does the authorship happen in a work? And even in our own work, as Sophia was saying, there's a sliding scale. So, for Halloween, we'll work out conceptual drawings from the very beginning because there's a particular vision. It's a commission for the parade. It has to happen in a certain way, although there's many avenues for creativity that volunteers will bring into that. And then, for something like Morningside Lights, like it really is much more about just harnessing the imaginations of fifty to a hundred people and making that, their imaginations, part of what we're revealing. What is the shared perspective on a given theme that people bring in and how can we make that physically manifest?
LD: Well, thank you. In many ways you have both brought up so many interesting points that have been consistent threads throughout this course [Craft and Design in the USA, 1945-Present, Bard Graduate Center, taught by professor Catherine Whalen]. And it leads perfectly to my next question. Do you find it productive to think of your work within the broader fields of fine art, craft, or design?
AK: I think it's useful to the point that it's useful and then it has to be jettisoned when it's no longer useful. You know, in the sense that, if we aspire to be spoken of in the same circles as practicing contemporary performance artists who come out of the kind of MFA-world and the gallery world, you know, you can sort of bristle at, "why aren't we considered in that same breath?" But at the same time, you step back from it and say, "well, we're sort of like that. We're also not really in the puppetry world either." The puppetry world doesn't really acknowledge what we do in the same circles as, say, practicing on-stage puppeteers would, because we're not doing staged works. We're not doing proscenium stage puppet narratives over the course of a ninety-minute thing. We're partly in the Carnival world. So, when we went to Trinidad on a Fulbright in 2006 and people asked, "what do you do? What's your practice?" We were able, for once in our lives, to say, "well, we do mas," which is the Trinidadian term for the masquerade, that is that one of the three key components of Carnival in Trinidad, the other two being calypso and steel band. But, you know, we said, "we do mas" and they're like, "oh, okay, we understand what that is." Because the masquerade bands in Trinidad largely do similar work to what we do in terms of having many, many people in mass costume, body extension. Less puppetry, but there is some aspect of animatronic symbols like that that they bring in. And, these huge king and queen costumes. They immediately knew what we were because we fit into a genre that they grasped. So, I say that it's useful in the sense that we have applied for things and been involved with communities of makers based on our ability to masquerade as one thing or another, depending on who is doing the funding and the supporting. So, if the grant, for example, is like, "we support community-based artists," we're community-based artists. If the grant is "we're looking for visual artists," well, we're sculptors. It's just that our sculptures and 3-D designs happen in the context of wearable art moving through public space. You know, "we only support puppeteers." Well, sure, we're basically puppeteers, but we do puppets on the street as opposed to being on the stage. So, it helps to be a little bit flexible and versatile in terms of your self-definitions. The reality is that we exist in a kind of niche of a gestalt practice that brings in all of those different things, which is why when we had to choose a name for our nonprofit and we find all kinds of creative names and fun names. And there are some wonderful things that kind of came through that brainstorming process. In the end, we were like, "nobody has ever really used the term processional art as a genre of making." And we feel like that defines what we do, even though it brings in dance, masking, costume, sculpture, projection, sound—you know, all of that stuff. Puppetry. If we can call ourselves Processional Arts Workshop, people will get that processional art is a thing unto itself that has many intersections with other fields, but it really fundamentally is its own way of making. So, we'll pretend that we're any number of things. But in the end of the day, that's what we are.
SM: I will add, on maybe a more personal note, that I really enjoy being at the intersection of many disciplines that other people belong to and the feeling like there aren't that many people that I know of that as contemporary artists do specifically what we do—though there are many people who do things that involve an aspect of what we do. But, it can also be a little lonely. There are moments where I'm like, but I want my community! Usually in the winter. [laughs.] And then, you know, a little while later, I'm actually quite happy that we're creating our own way.
AK: But, there are a few contemporary artists who have done amazing work in processional art and for whom that term would be totally comfortable and familiar. There's one guy we met in Trinidad who has since become kind of global. His name is Marlon Griffiths and he started out designing children's Carnival in Trinidad, which is actually where most of the innovative design happens now, because grown-ups just want to party and have a good time and wear a bikini and beads, and it's a little bit of more of a party culture than an art culture, whereas the children are willing to wear any number of crazy contraptions so that they can be part of the judging process and all that. Anyway, a little background. But, Marlon started designing children's Carnival bands and then left Trinidad. He went on a residency to Japan, where there's also a huge artistic festival tradition and then has now sort of brought Trinidadian postcolonial politics into public spaces as kind of these ceremonial armor pieces that he creates. He's done work in South Africa, at the Tate in London, South Korea. So he's done some amazing work and he's sort of made it something that within the realm of contemporary art, people can talk about and say, "Oh yeah, artists walking in a procession with wearable work that isn't quite costume, that isn't quite sculpture and it manifests itself in a certain way." What I find fascinating is that for him, drawing on the legacy of hundreds of years of Carnival practice is a natural. Like, that's where his sources come from. He worked with this guy, Peter Minshall, who is a legendary Carnival designer, did several Olympic ceremonies, does amazing, dark, challenging work and, you know, with literally thousands of people in his pieces. And when I've seen the contemporary art world in New York attempt to do this—there was a project that was called the Art Parade for a number of years that was run out of Jeffrey Deitch projects. He's since moved on to California and the Art Parade sort of dissipated. But, for the artists who are participating in that, who are all part of the Chelsea Soho art scene, like, "We're doing this crazy thing where art comes out and it does art in the street while it's moving. And oh my God, it's so radical." And the work was, you know, not that interesting. And it was sort of solo people wearing a thing and walking and there was none of that sense of the mass of one hundred people doing a thing at once in a wave. And I was just fascinated because they were uprooted or were separated from their own, what could be, canonical legacy of art history from which they could draw. But, nobody was looking at Trinidadian work or Brazilian work or the work that happens at Fasnacht in Switzerland. They were just looking at other contemporary artists. So it'd be like if you wanted to be, you know, a blues musician, but you could only look at pop music as your source and you'd never heard of John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters or something like that. Or, if you wanted to be a painter, but had never looked at Matisse or Picasso. They were just separated from this wellspring of amazing work that's done largely namelessly and collectively in a lot of Carnival cultures around the world, but has every bit the same sophistication and complexity and storytelling that any kind of contemporary performance might. So, I'm always interested in how people sort of parlay—like, how do you figure out what your background and what your legacy is? What are you drawing from? A lot of craft artists don't have to worry about that so much because there's often a very established legacy of craft. If you're a potter, there are potters you're going to look at if you are a weaver or textile artist, there are people who are trailblazers in those areas and they tend to sort of know each other's works in a really clear and present way. But if you're talking about parade art, it's not quite as clear and you have to do a little bit more digging to figure out who are my forebears—that, while we're not making work, has been a really important part of our practice. You know, traveling to Trinidad, to Switzerland, to Croatia, to various places, wherever we can, to kind of feed our own practice by looking at people who have really been doing this in some cases literally for thousands of years.
LD: So, that's a perfect segue way to my next question—can you talk about your first collaboration together?
SM: 1998. We worked together on creating a performance for the Halloween Parade. Alex had worked with the previous designers. Debbie Lee Cohen, primarily, but Mark Kindschi and Maya Kanazawa. [Kate Whitehead walks into kitchen] Hi, Kate! Okay. There had been a few years without new work. And then, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Halloween Parade [to AK] well, you should tell it. I'm talking about your version of it. But, I came on because Alex had been working on the parade and then I came on to work with him on this design that he had proposed to the director of the parade.
Puppets and performers for Metamorphosis, Processional Art Workshop's first Halloween Parade, New York, New York, 1998. Photo courtesy of PAW.
LD: And they were all volunteers?
AK: All volunteers. You know, not only was it fulfilling a need for them, but it was giving us a whole new way of designing large scale work on a limited budget. You know, if we had hired a scene shop to do exactly the same work we did, it would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars of expensive skilled labor. And whereas the people who were doing the sewing, some of them were very skilled costumers and the quality of work was just as good. So, we realized it's like designing multiples not only as an end result is desirable for parade art, but it's also desirable as a thing that you can do efficiently through the process of volunteer-based building. So that, if you're doing twenty completely different puppets, everybody has to learn twenty completely different processes. But if you're going to make a group of five, ten, twenty or a hundred things, that lends itself to that whole workday process. So over time, we've gotten better at tuning that building process in a way that's very—it's not quite Henry Ford-esque, but it has this sense of people find their way into the assembly line and they do one thing. You don't give somebody a start to finish project. You give them a satisfying but relatively limited component of it. And they pass it on to the next person. And at the end of the day, you know, somebody who's making eight man fingers or something like that, whose only job was to cut bamboo into three different lengths, drill holes in the end and stick a piece of wire in them, sees those hands actually animated and moving and come to life. And so that's really fun: to see what the end result is when it comes out the far end of the factory that you've actually, with the help of twenty or thirty other people, made this this thing happen.
SM: Yeah, I think it took me a good number of years to really feel comfortable with the fact that people were not coming solely because they felt sorry for us that we were not going to make our deadline. There was this perfect exchange of, we need help and we are offering people an opportunity to come to a beautiful place and be in a social situation, which is not just them sitting around a table, papier mâché-ing or sewing or whatever it is. They are a part of a social context that is easy because everyone has a thing to do and there's no pressure, but also, an artistic context that some people, who think of themselves as artists or define themselves as non-artists, both can come together and it's part of a larger collective performance. And the person cutting the bamboo for the hands can feel just as—like that is just as important a job as the final painting. They're all necessary. Just this idea of collective making and is really important for people. And it was not something that I had ever thought of before specifically. I don't think either of us went into this with a sense of, we need to make social art. It really was out of necessity. But, having established this way of working, it created the situation where at first it was only the Halloween Parade, and then, later on with all these other events that we do, there is this sense of, especially with annual events, there is a sense of, "It's that time of year again and we're all coming together to do this thing." And some people are new each year and some people are returning. But there's that sense of, "we are an ensemble. We are a collective working together." Coming into this experience from a theater background, there was all of this pressure towards opening night—the sense of the unveiling. In a way, opening night, meaning Halloween night, was like, "Well, we've all been working together in a way." The first workday, the first puppet raising is more of an opening night for us than the performance, because it is the unveiling of the idea and because physically there's nothing there yet. It's just so nice to go into that process with hundreds of people with you, whether they are physically with you on the night of Halloween or not, but have been helping make it and are invested in the project. And that translates to other projects that may be annual events. Or sometimes there are new projects, but just people are like, "we took our time. We took care and time and we invested it and we thought this was a good idea. We thought we would jump in."
LD: Sophia, you mentioned your theater background and Alex had talked about you doing some puppetry work at McGill. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
SM: Yes, I did actually do some puppetry work at McGill. My plan was to become an architect, but I didn't want to do study architecture as an undergrad, so I did an art history program at McGill, which I loved. Because I always had drawn and painted and made stuff, I decided not to go to art school and McGill had no art program, a friend of mine at some point asked if I could design a set for a small play. It was very easy. It was very little. Theater was not something I did, particularly, but I realized that I was really interested in set design, and in a way it sort of satisfied a lot of what I was interested in in architecture, in terms of creating space. But it was more immediate and I loved the collaboration that theater offers. I was the set designer and then there's a lighting designer and the director and the actors and everyone was coming at this same piece from different perspectives. That was a real eye opener for me and I changed course and said, "Okay, forget architecture, I'm going to be a set designer." And then, at the end of my last year, one of the larger performances was a South African play called Tooth and Nail by the Junction Avenue Theater Company, and it involved five large-scale puppets that interacted with the actors and I didn't want to do it. I had to choose between that and something that I thought would be better for my CV and I was going to graduate and I thought that was the better plan. It was a more serious thing. But the director had seen other work that I had been doing on in smaller productions on campus, and I'm glad she insisted because it was this great learning experience for me. Again, like a couple of years after my first introduction to set design where I realized, "Oh, I love creating space," but, I had forgotten about movement. I'd forgotten about the idea. That same thing that I loved about theater—in terms of collaborating with the other perspectives—what I loved about working on that performance was that I was creating puppets that were going to interact with actors. It was not a puppet play—it was an exchange of these different species. And that really opened up a whole new way of thinking, and it was from that that I then went and started working with Alex on Metamorphosis, building these Luna moths. And to me, that step, of taking a performance outside of the theater and onto the street, was a natural one—that sense that we're going to still design something, but we're going to put it out into the public realm, made a lot of sense. In many ways during those first few years working as we were, we worked on the Halloween Parade and we started developing projects on our own, where there was no history of processions or parades. Seeding our own processions, as it were. Whether it's the beginning of a procession that may become an annual event or like the Halloween Parade, which had been going on for twenty-five years at that point and had grown to be this very large event. What an effect an ephemeral performance in public space—which is what a procession is—what kind of an effect it has on public space. In many ways I realized I actually haven't strayed that far from architecture. I am actually still satisfying this idea, that is maybe more urban design than architecture. But just the anticipation of a public event like the Halloween Parade and the residue, the memory, of it that people have can really affect their sense of local public space. Whether it's urban space or whether it's like the project that we do in the Alps, in Italy, where it's a teeny village and we go through the fields to the church and back. But especially when it's an annual event, it really does affect people's memory of a street that they walk down every day and it changes their perception of that space. And it also allows them to take ownership of that space, if they're contributing their work, if they're contributing their performance, if they're contributing, in many cases, their stories or their images to processions that we are creating, where they get to make a change.
AK: There was a theorist at MIT in the urban planning program there, twenty or thirty years ago, whose name is J. Mark Schuster. He had this great term for what Sophia is describing, which is "signature ephemera." He basically said that urban designers should be thinking about the presence of ritual performance as a key component of how they think about making an urban space or redesigning an urban space. That if you don't cultivate it or allow fertile ground for these temporary performative rituals—and they might be artistic or they might even be like, he uses the swan boats in Boston Common as an example, or bourse or markets or bazaars or whatever—but, he says that if there isn't some acknowledgment that things that come and go and leave an imprint is important in urban space, you'll end up with this soulless public space that is nothing but space and there's no accommodation for time. So, I find that really inspiring that an urban theorist was seeing this work in the same terms.
SM: Yeah, that's definitely it. I mean, as a background to the work that we're doing, I think that's something that we're both interested in. In terms of thinking more about how the work that we do—and Carnival and public performances in general—affects space and how can we keep that in mind in our work.
LD: The same question for Alex. How did you first get involved with this medium before you and Sophia started working together?
AK: Yeah, I feel like there's three stories that sort of intertwine in a non-linear way. So, it definitely wasn't a planned career path. I did fine art, or, as they called it in the program where I was studying, visual art/visual environmental studies, when I was in college.
LD: And where was that?
AK: At Harvard. There was a program there that was really based on the Bauhaus model, where they weren't trying to generate a bunch of studio artists who would then try to get their work into galleries, but they wanted you to see more broadly in terms of visual culture. So, there were people designing fonts. There were people designing playgrounds for blind children. There were people just writing theory. It was that it was a much more broad-based kind of approach to how visual things affect us in society. But my primary focus was sculpture and painting and that evolved into room-sized installations—what we would call today, immersive experiences. And then within those immersive experiences, there were puppetry components—motors and things that were driven by servos and things like that. So, I would open a door in a wardrobe kind of structure and people would pass through the wardrobe into this fantasy realm and then be ejected through the back end of it at the end. And as I was working on that, I was thinking, "what I'm really trying to do here is change the point of encounter between the viewer and the artwork." That, really, it was a collection of painted works and kinetic sculptures, but I didn't want them to be on white pedestals in a white box. I didn't want people to have the luxury of clinical detachment from the work. I wanted them to feel like they were in a place and more experiencing a posture of discovery than presentation. So how do you engineer that? Well, you can do that through installation work, but I was thinking to myself as I was doing the work that there are cultures where that's a given: where the way in which people interact with their visual culture is much more intimate, much more personal, much more embodied with some sense of religion or ritual practice or things like that. So after I graduated, I got this grant to go to Nepal and I lived there for a year. I went to festivals and I painted thangkas, traditional Buddhist scrolls, which are very ritually determined. You know, you have to put this icon in this spot and this thing has to be this color and hand gestures and facial expressions are all predetermined. But I was really interested in how at the end of that practice these things get consecrated and then they get used in religious practice. I wouldn't say people worship them—I think that's a misunderstanding of Buddhist practice, but, they become condensation points for practice. They become a place which gives you a visualization that helps you go further in your practice. And I was like, that's so amazing. Nobody is looking at these things and saying, "I would have done it differently. I don't really like the color or the design. Man, yeah, I could use that maybe above the mantelpiece." That would be unthinkable. You know, they were invested presences for the people who use them. And then in the festivals it was the same thing. They were building huge effigies. I watched people build giant Buddhas out of butter and flour and then throw them off cliffs, which in the Himalayas there's some pretty serious cliffs, things off of. [laughs.] In the process of having a procession with sound and all this stuff. So, you know, that all got into my head in terms of like this is an entirely different way of engaging artistic works. But I didn't want to come back to the US and become a Buddhist monk and do Buddhist processions. I wasn't particularly into adopting or appropriating Tibetan culture as what I needed to do. But I thought there must be things I can draw from this. And at the same time, I needed to make a living. So I ended up finding myself doing a lot of theatrical work.
LD: At around what time was this?
Workshop space for Processional Arts Workshop at Rokeby Farms, Red Hook, New York, 2019. Photo by Lauren Drapala.
LD: And this was Jeanne—?
AK: Jeanne Fleming, director of the Halloween Parade, to design the twenty-fifth anniversary. So that was 1998. I took a semester off of graduate school, you know, hooked up with Sophia as a partner, and we design that twenty-fifth anniversary parade. And then it got complicated because I got a job teaching printmaking in Maine [Maine College of Art] and the printmaking—you know, it's funny. People are like, "Oh, that's completely different from doing giant puppet parades in the street." I was kind of like, "Well, no, not so much." I mean, Bread and Puppet, for example, is very renowned for their street theater, a huge component of the director's, Peter Schumann, work is his work in printmaking, because for him, it's multiples, it's variations on a theme, very much our workshop process. It's a very public art form because if you make one hundred of something, it means you can sell it for cheap or give it away. So often in our work, even today, there's a component of gifting. In this previous Halloween Parade, we were giving seed packets out as part of our wilderness ethos that we were creating around the wild things that we had made. So, even that was a component of stamping, dissemination, printing. So that also became a component of the work. Sometime around 2006, I'd been teaching full time and coming back to Rokeby to design with Sophia the Halloween Parades for these big weekend workshops that we did. And it was starting to feel like quite a stretch to be teaching a full load, to be a department chair and to be designing the Halloween Parade all through October. I was sort of feeling like there were two trains on slightly diverging tracks. And sooner or later, you're going to have to decide which one you're on. I applied for a Fulbright to go to Trinidad and got the Fulbright. So Sophia and I packed up and moved to Trinidad for six months to just be working on Carnival there. I took a leave of absence from teaching and then extended that leave of absence when we came back and did a few projects. Not that much at that time. We were not a nonprofit. We were not getting that many jobs, but it was sort of like, well, people do seem sort of interested in this kind of work. And then eventually, after I'd taken two years of leave of absence, the dean was sort of like, are you actually going to come back or is this just like an infinite leave of absence? The implication being, like, you know, pick your train—it's time. So, not without some agonizing, we decided to jettison the stable, retirement fund, health care-endowed teaching job and go into creating our own nonprofit, which we incorporated in 2005. The 501(c)(3) was established in 2008. And since then, that has been our full time job. When people ask, "How did you get into this and why?," I can tell you the narrative. I can't really answer the question, but those are the threads.
SM: And again, going back—sorry, I cut you off.
AK: Well, I was just going to add that, in the end, going back to that Nepal thing—that idea of engineering, fertile and unorthodox encounters between the art and the viewer—that's still there. I mean, that's very much a part of every time a puppet reaches its hand over the barricades to touch a spectator, every time we create an immersive environment that people can wander through and have that posture of discovery rather than presentation. I think that's still manifest. So although we're not doing Buddhist processions, I feel like that was that was seminal in a way of restructuring time and space and how we do procession.
SM: I can't remember what I was going to say.
LD: Well, I wanted to track back a bit because I don't think I realized that the Halloween Parade had had such a long legacy at Rokeby before your work together. And so, Sophia, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relationship with Rokeby.
SM: Yeah. So, I guess, for the record, Rokeby is my family's house and estate, which has been in the family—the house was built in 1815, but the property has been in the family—I'm the eleventh generation. Our daughter is the twelfth generation of kids to live at Rokeby as direct lineage, which is rare, particularly in this country. So, it's this very interesting place and one of the many ways that we keep the property going is that a lot of the—not the main house, but a lot of the buildings around the farm and the property are rented to tenants and some are people who stay for a few years and go. And then we have a few tenants who've been here for a very long time. And, Jeanne Fleming, the director of the Halloween Parade, has been here since the seventies and even before she started working with Ralph Lee on the Halloween Parade. When she did become the director of the Halloween Parade, she invited Debbie Lee Cohen and Mark and Maya to come and work out of her house and to reintroduce that element of puppetry or—not reintroduce it, but keep it going after Ralph Lee's tenure. So, there was a history of puppetry relating to Halloween Parade happening and puppets getting built at Rokeby. The way that they built the puppets for the most part was not in public workshops. It was a smaller group of people working really hard for the month of October. But, the parade was also a smaller event—significantly smaller than it is now. So my aunt, Ania Aldrich, was part of that—a lot of the earlier puppets from the eighties she worked on and a lot of them are her—maybe not the overall design—but her painting and her artistry. And so it was funny because when I was at McGill and the director asked me to design these puppets for Tooth and Nail because the other components of design were taken on by faculty, but none of them wanted to have anything to do with puppetry—first of all, I was trying to get out of it, but also, I just thought it was really funny because I was like, how did you know this was my family business? [laughs.] I can't escape! And then when I did finally say yes, even though I ventured into this project, really having never done anything like it and I was trying to figure things out, I had three other students working with me and I was a half hour ahead of them in terms of figuring things out, but I did have a few people that I knew through the Halloween Parade, one of them being Alex, who in the summer I had sort of interviewed. "Okay, just tell me stuff!" I don't know. I remember this early conversation that we had where I was taking notes, I think, "Okay, you know, like a backpack with a pole coming out. Oh, that's brilliant. Okay." You know, like the sort of things that I might have figured out and some of them probably not. But it was just helpful to know that there were a few people out there who could help me if I really wanted.
AK: Did you talk to Basil at that point?
SM: [to AK] I talked to you and I talked to Basil Twist, who is a puppeteer in New York City. I mean, I remember going to Basil's studio and just looking through all of his—he had all these magazines and I was just so thirsty for that stuff because I was like, "Okay, I've accepted this commission and I had never paid any attention to puppetry specifically, and I had a sense for what was going on in the Halloween Parade, somewhat, but only peripherally, tangentially." So it was this interesting connection. It was just nice to know that there was a community of people out there. But then within that, I had to invent things on my own for this purpose, which was different—which was a staged performance.
LD: So along those same lines, you've mentioned the precedent of Ralph Lee's Giant Puppets, which premiered for the Halloween Parade in 1973. Can you talk a bit more about your relationship with his work, or any other inspirations?
SM: Well, I would say Ralph is an absolute inspiration. He does really amazing work. He's just a great person. We only met him about ten years ago, I think. We had met him—
AK: We encountered him at the Jim Henson Festival at the Public Theater in 2000 [Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre, Joseph Papp Public Theatre, New York]. I guess we brought the moths [from Metamorphosis] down. But that was like a glancing moment.
SM: Yeah. We didn't have any interaction with him particularly. But then we had a common friend who, about ten years ago said you all must meet and Ralph and his wife Casey came up for lunch and we just had this lovely day. And then subsequently, we saw them in the city and have had a few—it was just nice to meet this person whose work we had admired and whose work in some way we had inherited. You know, we've inherited some of his legacy. And just to realize what a what an inspiring person he was as well as his work.
Ralph Lee's Sweeper Figures in New York City’s Village Halloween Parade, undated. Photo courtesy of PAW.
SM: He is definitely one of those people that I look back to in terms of inspiration, or, just knowing that he's out there and that we're following in his footsteps. And just technically, he does a lot of work with cardboard and he is using corrugation like nobody's business—[laughs.] He just he has this real hand at making beautiful things, but in an understated way that also helps transform material, and transform space, and transform your experience. In ways that are unexpected, by being honest, in a way, about what's going on, and I think that that is part of what his desire in starting the Halloween Parade was, as I understand it. First of all, New York City in the mid seventies was a rather dangerous place, and I think he kind of wanted to create a safe place through using theater in the streets that people could come and celebrate Halloween, but also tie it back to—it is this interesting paradox—tie it back to a non-urban, maybe mythological roots of not necessarily the specific mythology of Halloween, but just the sense of being. The wilderness and the unknown that Halloween opens up and while doing it in the city, but in the Village, which at the time specifically in the seventies was city, but not so city.
AK: I'd also say that he was able to do that partly because he does exude this sense of joy in this work. Not that he is happy go lucky, like. Ralph has sides to him in terms of the narrative that he's conveying. The work can be very dark and he's dealing with serious mythological themes in a lot of his work. But his public presence of inviting people into this sense of joy in this work is palpable. And I think without that, the Halloween Parade would never have become what it was. I think he was able to translate his delight in his own creations to the larger audience that then were brought on to carry them, which is a lot like the history of us sharing images of our work and having people come in and share in that joy. But, it's now one o'clock. The people are clamoring for food.
LD: Yes, let's take a break and we'll start back up after lunch. [Break for one hour.]
LD: Okay, so we're going to start up again. Are there specific projects that have been particularly foundational for your practice?
AK: Yeah, I mean, in the sense that if you start out from the premise that you're going to take a parade and turn that into an art form, then you start thinking about, "What are the mechanics of a parade?" For example, what is a parade without an audience? And how does that affect what you do with the participants of the parade in terms of allowing them to see one another to be both audience and performer at the same time? For example, when we started a project in Italy in 2002 in this very small village, we were essentially experimenting to see if we could take the workshop process that we developed for the Halloween Parade and take it to a completely different context, different community and how that would work. Would it sink roots into that community and yield something interesting or would it not work because there isn't a big Halloween Parade that already preexists? That was a place where the end result was a parade—a procession of maybe a hundred people and then eventually grew to two hundred, three hundred people, in which there simply are not enough people in that part of Italy to be an audience. So, everybody is carrying something and nobody is watching. So that changes the whole perspective right there, because the whole experience of it is no longer about spectator and performer. It's about, more like, an act of ritual theater that has to be done on a regular basis. So we've continued that project over the years, but then we started breaking down the parade form in other ways.
Odysseus at Hell Gate, Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, New York, August 29, 2011. Photo courtesy of PAW.
Procession of Confession, PEN World Voices Festival, New York, New York, May 12, 2014. Photo courtesy of PAW.
SM: I was going to add a couple of examples that I was thinking of when Alex was talking, building on the unexpected presentation, or encounter, of a parade or a procession. There was one project that we did in Kiev, in 2011 [The Black Cat Committee: A Kiev Puppetscape, Andriyivskyy Descent Kiev, Ukraine]. We were inspired by Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov lived in Kiev and the procession route was going right by his house in this historic street. So, we took one of the main characters from that very Carnivalesque book, which is this black cat, and had created these costumes of cats that stole or were processing through with windows that are the classic Kiev windows, which were recreating the empty space of the house. And the students we were working with—we invited them to bring in projections, still or video projections, that we could—
SM: Images that we could then project onto the windows, so the windows became projection screens. This is something that often happens, where we invite the people we're working with to offer some amount of imagery, whether it's the entire lantern, like in Morningside Lights or whether we create an architecture and then there is specific element that is contributed. But it's especially important when we're coming from far away. We are not from Kiev. And, you know, we'd done our research, but we were not the ones who would come up with imagery, and we framed it as imagery that's important to you that might be representative of this place. But that place could be Ukraine. It could be the city. It could be the neighborhood. It could be contemporary events. It could be anything. And because we left it open, we had a whole range of imagery that came in, from the classic postcard of the blue sky and the yellow wheat fields to images of dissidents who had been assassinated, to a beautiful film that one of the students had made taking the tram at night—the very feeling of Kiev, and all of these images were projected onto the windows. And there were all these sort of side performances, but the whole performance—the whole procession was not announced so much as a procession. We worked with the students to kind of leak it on their social media. So there was a crowd of people who knew something was going on and it was at a time of day which was sort of transitional in the life of that street. And it was so interesting to see [...] We were hearing all this feedback through the students and from people who were talking to us about how they didn't know if it was a protest. There were various things going on in the life of Kiev at that time. They were like, oh, it's protesting the demolition of this historic architecture and protesting the evacuation of all the stray cats and dogs. It's an art piece. It's a flash mob. It's like nobody knew what to make of it. And that, partly because of how we presented it and partly because the imagery was so varied, created this somewhat unusual and complex piece. And the other example I was thinking of was that we did a project in collaboration with the Katonah Museum of Art a number of years ago. They had an exhibit that had a lot of puppetry in it. They commissioned us to do a procession to open the exhibit. And, because Katonah, New York is a commuter community, we started a procession at Grand Central Station, and added elements at stations, building up on our way to Katonah, and it was a procession of invasive species. And so, we were celebrating the invasive species. What was the title of the piece? I can't remember now.
SM: Yes, Commute of the Species. So, we had in historical order of appearance in the new world: pigeons and rats and water chestnuts and various things.
AK: Almost. The MTA made us switch the rats, just because of the order of how things came on, and the order in which the species appeared in the new world. Rats ended up coming on at 125th Street. And the MTA was like, "There are no rats in New York City."
SM: There are no rats in Manhattan, specifically. So they had to come on in White Plains, so we had to switch that.
AK: This has since been debunked. [laughs].
LD: Yes, I can personally attest to this.
SM: So could we, at the time, but they apparently didn't know. Anyway, these various forms are really fun to play with in terms of, "Okay, well, what is a procession? Can it be multiple strands coming together like at Socrates Sculpture Park? Can it happen on a train, where the audience is really not expecting it and might not understand why there is this invasion of rats or starlings?" There had to be smaller elements and we had to design within that context, but it's really great as artists to have the freedom to explore what the boundaries of the form are. They all wore business suits, too, and they had business cards with their Latin names on them. So, you know, the water chestnut would float past you and say, "Oh, my card," and it would say "Trapa natans, Invasive species #1685" or whatever it showed up. Again, printmaking linked to procession like multiple gifts that you could leave behind.
LD: To follow up, can you speak a little bit more about how these projects develop. Are they mostly driven by an organization that wants to work with you?
AK: Almost always.
SM: With some exceptions. It's really helpful for us to have a local organization that we can collaborate with. Because we tend to travel, because we tend to go into communities where we are outsiders, it's helpful on a practical level, but it's also helpful to sort of be invited in and it's like having an ambassador. We can go in and do some basic research and say, "Okay, we think these are interesting aspects that we should explore, but then we often do hold—whether it's a town hall meeting or a series of meetings with people that the organization says, "Okay, these are people in the community who might have stories to tell." Or "We're interested in some other aspect," and they connect us with someone who can speak specifically about that. But just to have real human research and then, also, once the designs are in place, to have a local organization that has a mailing list, that can advertise and knows how to get people, because again, we're coming from the outside and we need to connect with a community and is very hard for us to do that kind of community building while we're designing a project, while we're very far away, because we don't have those connections. So, for example, the project that we did in Kiev was this funny situation where we had initially been invited to be part of a festival, which is called the Gogol Festival: Gogolfest. They invited us, but they didn't have the funding, so we applied for a grant. We got the grant. And then, meanwhile, I think days within us getting the grant, the festival folded. So, we had this grant, we had developed the whole project and we were really excited, but we had this orphaned project. We very much needed to connect with someone, some organization in Kiev, because we couldn't just show up and say, "Hello, we're going to create a procession!" And so it took us some time to then connect with a local theater who then connected us with a local group of students from this university, and those connections remain. It was a project that could be scaled down a little bit and ended up being wonderful because it had this sort of unexpected invasion quality.
AK: The director, whose students we were working with was totally mystified by what we were doing, as he was a very traditional director. So here we came all the way to Kiev to do a treatment of Bulgakov, who was a Ukrainian writer, although he didn't identify himself as such. And meanwhile, you had this Ukrainian director who was, you know, vehemently Ukrainian, proudly, patriotically Ukrainian. And what was he doing? He was directing Eugene O'Neill. So we had this interesting ships passing in the night pang.
SM:—and he thought Bulgakov was actually ethnically Russian, not Ukrainian. And so, there were some political problems there. I mean, it was really interesting. He felt that Bulgakov was no good and we should not be doing it.
AK: Right. He wanted us to do this Ukrainian poet from the seventeenth century. Anyway, so it was interesting on that count, as well—that we came in with a preconception that the most famous artist or writer from that city—maybe after Gogol, the second most famous—was somebody that they completely repudiated. And so then we had to backtrack and figure out, "Well, is that just his opinion or are we stepping into a minefield here of we're going to celebrate something that is really roundly dismissed by the people who live there?" And it became fairly clear fairly soon that it was just his specific artistic, directorial opinion, but that the character of the black cat that we were working with was beloved throughout Russia and Ukraine as a as a classic trickster. What I was going to say—I want to backtrack a little bit earlier. You know, one of the things Sophia is talking about is how we're activating these communities to bring in their imagery and their interests. And that was certainly the case in Kiev where it was there was no piece without the content that those students brought in. Their projections in the windows were what filled the piece and we were essentially saying, "We're neutral vessels of what it is that you collectively will evoke," which is a really fun way to make work. To simply say, "I'll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don't know," to quote Velvet Underground. There have been other pieces where it's a historic house, like Vizcaya [Vizcaya Museum & Gardens] in Miami, where really, it's research-driven in tandem with the organization. The people that they're trying to reach out to might have no relationship at all to the museum or the house. Maybe they've never been there. Maybe they don't want to pay the eighteen dollar admission fee to wander the gardens. Maybe they're from underserved communities and they couldn't afford to go there if they wanted to. So at Vizcaya, it really is more about us doing all the ground research with their staff and using their archives and developing a narrative, and then making the building process a kind of outreach that is much more meaningful than simply bringing a bus load of people and giving them a tour. So, people who had never been there were able to, you know, over various years that we've been doing projects there, build work based on history that we act as interlocutors for, and that gets them interested in a way that they wouldn't have been. So, it isn't their heritage, it isn't their tradition, but pretty soon, they become co-owners in the historical legacy that is Vizcaya and that works really well with a lot of historic houses that, you know, once somebody has visited once, why should they ever go back again? You know, contemporary art is a really effective way to say, when you come back again, you're going to see this through different lens, or, you're going to engage with the collection through an act of replicating it in a building process, or, you're going to perform on the grounds of that place. Those are all innovative and much more kinetic ways of getting people to engage in an interaction with an institution.
LD: Yeah, that's a point very well made. Part of what I wanted to ask you both was how you see your work differently when it is a one-time connection of parts versus the practice of the annual tradition?
AK: Great question. Yeah. And it's hard to predict which of those things any one project will become. There's a first time for every project and there's always the possibility, depending on the situation and the sponsors and the community that we're working with it: what would this be like if it became an annual thing? And, there have been some projects where we knew from the get-go that this is not going to become an annual procession. Like, when we did the Beaux Arts Ball for the Architectural League of New York. They bring in a different visual artist every year who does a design component of the ball or a performative component. The ball is in a different place and it brings together all the great architectural minds of New York City for a night of Carnivalesque fun. We knew that we were not going to do that ball in that place as who we were year in and year out, because that was not the nature of that annual event. But, there are other events where we started out, like Morningside Lights, as a one-time commission and it was a let's see what happens kind of thing. It was only after the event that, from the all the public support and the feedback and the sense of how will it work that people said, "Are you going to do it again?" And we often talk about the evolution of events, where, the first year it's like, "What the hell was that like?" People have no idea. They think this thing came out of the woods and it was amazing and it was illuminated and it was talking about our personal community stories. And then it was gone. So there's that. And then the second year is kind of like, "Oh, I remember this. This is that thing that happened last year. They did it again." But, the third year comes along and there's this kind of thing that happens where the inevitability of it starts sinking in, and it no longer is the third time something has happened, but it's, "Oh, that's that thing that happens every year." And it doesn't take long before it becomes part of the urban rhythm, or, the ritual rhythm of a given place. And people will just be like, "What's the theme next year?" And as soon as they start asking that, because we often shift the theme around the background of the general overall context, you know that you've gotten people involved in it as a sense of "this now happens. This is just a thing. I don't—we don't—know who organizes it. We don't know who funds it. We don't know a lot about it. But it's that thing that happens every year in the park or at the historic house or along the beach or whatever it may be." And it's fascinating to see how that happens, because there is also a point at which on a few projects, we've let the project go and the project continues without us. And that's what we really like, because we don't have enough time in the year to cultivate everything as an annual event. Or, if we did, we would stop making room for new work. So, we started a project in Maine when I was teaching there. There was a procession of rams. We did it in tandem with the local African museum [Museum of African Culture in Portland, Maine] that had this Nigerian, sort of medicine man, shaman-type person who wanted to have a spring festival in the Nigerian Ibo tradition, that holds that the ram is the symbol of spring. It's called the Ebune [Ebune: Procession of the Ram, 2003-2004]. And we did it one year. We did the second year, and then we left. We went to Trinidad and it just kept on going for a number of years, and when we checked in on the website a few years ago, the explanation of the event was like, "Rumor has it that it was started by a professor at the Maine College of Art many years ago, but we're not quite sure what the origins are." And that to me was a great moment. Like, for once, I didn't mind the anonymity at all. It was kind of like, wow, who started Christmas, you know? So that annualizing of something [...] it can happen, but some plants are perennial and some are annuals. Or some are self-seeding annuals. You never know exactly when that seed falls in the ground what it's going to do.
LD: Sophia, how do you feel about the "annualizing" process?
SM: I mean, from our perspective, there's two opposing forces. In a way, an annual event becomes easier because logistically there is so much work to be done if we start an event, especially because we're in collaboration with an organization that may or may not quite understand how it is that we work and what needs to be done and what needs to be acquired—there's just physical infrastructure that needs to be figured out. People need to be invited and convinced. So, the second and third years of events are often much, much easier on that front. It's like, in Miami, you can do this. In Houston, you could do that. In New York, you figure out. With these organizations, these things work. That makes it so much easier, because there is an institutional memory. And once that's established, usually by year three, because, just as the people have that sense of maturing and understanding of the event, the collaborative production side of things takes a few years, as well. And then it frees us up to then play with the subject matter more. We can take more risks. But, on the other hand, it's also really fun to not fill up our calendar with annual events and to have the excitement of, you know, we're going to go explore a whole new site and we're going to start a whole new conversation and think, for ourselves, "Okay, if there's an annual event, even if we play with the formula, there is a form that we develop that we know works and we're not going to necessarily radically change it because of the benefits that some repetition offers." But, then it's really fun to have both in our calendars. I'm trying to think of other art forms, or other artists, who have that balance? I mean, I think some forms will lend themselves to that. But I love doing both. I love the excitement of picking up and going to a new place and being in a completely new world, even with how much more stressful and difficult that is, both artistically and practically. But we also thinking about the Halloween Parade, that we've been doing the longest. So, this was our twenty-first year and in many ways, looking at that arc, just speaking creatively, we kind of figure things out. It took us a number of years and then there was this period where I realized, like, I'm kind of bored. It's sort of the same. I mean, the performances were different each year, but there was this realization that we're going through the same ritual every year and there's a numbing quality to it. And then we came out of it by realizing like we can take much greater risks, artistically speaking, that then allow it to be so much more interesting and fun. And I think that that's something that all artists go through in some shape or form, like, I've thrown the same kind of pot, or, I've been stuck in this rut of painting for so long or, you know, whatever it is. Even if you think you're innovating and you are innovating, but then you realize like, let's just do something completely different within the parameters of this parade or this context. So, I think the Halloween Parade the last few years have been a lot of fun and have certainly renewed my interest in the event because we just have the freedom to take risks in a way that we might not be as adventurous in other contexts.
AK: That freedom is partly imparted by the people who come back year in and year out, because, you know, there's always a point where you say, "Well, I think it would be really cool to see this thing happen, but would that be fun for somebody to do in the parade? Would they would they say, 'what, you want me to carry a box that becomes part of some weird wall of animal parts? And it doesn't have any moving parts. I can't dance with it. I'm just holding this basically static thing on a stick.'" And we went through that when we did Cabinet of Curiosities a few years ago, where we had all of these museum cabinets that had parts of animals in them. And then it became an exquisite corpse where we recombine them in lots of different combinations. At the beginning of the year, our anxiety was not "Can we build this?" or "Will it work visually?", but "Will our volunteers want to do this thing, because they're coming to have a good time. They want to enjoy themselves." So, it came down to this philosophical question of, are we providing them with the means by which they can enjoy the Halloween Parade or are they providing us with the means by which we can create or work? And if in doing the latter, are they actually having an even better time? Like, is that what they ultimately want to be part—a massive, human-powered work of kinetic artwork? What we've learned over the years is that that is, in fact the case. They love it when they can dance and have a good time and they wear a funny mask or they have fun arm extensions or whatever, but they're willing to do almost anything to have that kind of transpersonal experience of being part of a work of art bigger than yourself.
SM: And I would say that the "they," is partly people who come back and partly new people. But somehow, the enthusiasm is infectious.
LD: I am wondering how you define the ownership of what PAW creates. What is the lifecycle is for the puppets created as part of the workshop?
SM: I think this is a slightly unusual situation, but the project that we started in Italy in 2002, which is a very small village where there are about six people who live year round [...] I mean, it's a very small place and there are other villages nearby. There's a larger community than the six people there. There are people who own houses that they inherited from their parents and grandparents, who don't live there full time, but are still very much part of village life. So there is a community that has very much participated in this project, as well as outsiders who come. We run that project as a weeklong workshop, so people have come internationally and spend a week there and we teach our workshop and it ends in this community celebration. And at this point, an entire generation of kids have grown up with this tradition of the Morinesio Procession [Morinesio Solstice Project, 2002-] that happens in the spring. And we have done it every year. We started doing it every year. But, in the last maybe ten years, it's actually not quite possible for us to run it every year because it's the only project that we really do that's tuition-based, because it's the weeklong workshop helps support our travel and our time there. But all of the puppets, because they're pretty much all puppet there, are based on stories that we've gathered about life in the village. So whether it's folklore or whether it's, like, what did you harvest or some of the key characters that have existed or some traditions that exist in that place—and very much that place, like, the higher mountains of this valley, not a general sense of northern Italy—because all of the puppets come from stories that people have told us, there is this real sense of ownership of them and they're all stored in this one house that belongs to someone, but it's not renovated. So it's like, you can just keep them. So we call it the Morinesio Puppet Museum. And so in the last few years, because we've only been going every other year, this artist [Francesca Corbelletto] who now lives there, who worked with us two years ago, then with our full blessing, in the interim year brought out a certain number of the puppets and created new ones with kids. She was an artist working with a lot of local children. And so the hope is that she and the kids will do it again this year.
LD: What is her name?
SM: Her name is Francesca Corbelletto. So, potentially this is turning into a situation where we do the larger procession and then, on alternate years, she runs a smaller version with the children where they do all of the work of building new elements and there are fewer elements and they are smaller, but also bring out some number of the larger puppets that they have grown up with. I mean, these kids, the children she's working with are probably eight years old, ten years old, twelve years old. So, they've never known Morinesio, this village, without this procession. And so, when it first happened a year ago, there was a real sense of "We've made it. This project is successful because it doesn't require us to be there for it to happen." We love going there. We're happy to go back. We hope to go back for many years. But it's not one hundred percent reliant on us to exist. And that's not always possible in other projects, because usually, you know, if we are not coming back, the elements that we make cannot be stored or, people don't really know what to do with them, or we come in as guest artists for an event that already happens and we might make a few things and then leave them and then other people continue using them. But in that case, it's usually part of an event that preexists us, so it's a different sense of authorship that we are handing over, but that was a really moving moment for us.
AK: From a curation or preservation perspective, it's an interesting question, because is the work being preserved the objects that have a way of being deployed? Or is it a choreography and a way of interacting with a community that requires props and certain visual objects to make it into a visual spectacle? And the answer to that question is different in every project. So, for example, the work that we did at Vizcaya—there were Vizcaya-specific lanterns that, really, all you'd need to do is have some music at night and walk with them through the gardens and it would be true to the spirit with which the original projects were conceived. It doesn't really require a whole lot on our part to make that happen. But, there are other projects that we've done, like the Socrates multiple processions that had a gifting component and performative component and specific soundscape. Those objects, some fragments of them still exist in our collection because we didn't want to part with them, but that piece will probably never be restaged. And that's true of most of the performative work that we've done. It happens once in a moment and even if it's an annual event, the thematic performance that we do for that particular year is not coming back and it's parts then dissipate into the community. So, it's a unique situation because, you know, I've read with great interest some of Joan Acocella's writings about dance companies and what do they do when the founder dies, or when the founder retires, and they all have different answers to that question. Pina Bausch did one thing, Tricia Brown did something else. Merce Cunningham shut down completely. They all have a different idea of "What is the thing that our practice does that has any kind of immortality? Is it only through documentation? Is it through maintaining a kind of ethic of performance, but creating new work? Is it restaging old works? Like, what would that look like?" And we don't have an answer for our work, because our work changes depending on the context
SM: Yeah, I do really love the ephemerality of the performances and this is very much tied to Carnival where you would never restage. I mean, there are traditions where you might bring out the same costume, and you play the one character your entire life. That exists, but often elements that are made in collective workshops are intended to be cast off, thrown off of the cliff, burned in effigy. Whatever ending there is, there is an ephemeral sense built in. In Trinidad, as soon as the final stage is passed, people just take off their costumes and throw them away. In Mardi Gras, beads are thrown and if they fall on the ground, they're worthless. What makes them worthy?
SM: Valuable, thank you. It is the exchange—the moment of exchange. And I feel like that is something that I love about our work because it's crazy. We just spent an entire month working extremely hard, with lots of people helping us, building this performance, and it may or may not ever come back again for a Halloween Parade. This one may—there are certain elements that we have ideas about how they may be redeployed, but often they're not. But it's just that the mountain of work for the final event doesn't make sense. But the process of a month of intense collaboration—that is the performance. It is the month-long performance, not the evening of performance, even if we do it a dozen times along the parade route. And so that experience, if we were never to build anything new, would be dead. And the experience, whether they see the experience of collaborative building or the experience of the live performance and the interaction with the audience or the non-audience, or, as Alex says, restaging it in a different site doesn't always work. To me, that's what's important. So, therefore documentation is key as a way of remembering it. But not necessarily the physical objects themselves, although oftentimes I sort of want to burn everything in effigy and then there are other moments of sentimentality, where I'm like, but I really like that fish.
AK: It's funny within the Halloween Parade itself, there is that disposability of each year's theme, but every once in a while something from a theme has the wherewithal to transcend its own mortality and sneak into the perennial puppets that come back every year. And it's always an interesting process because the opening salvo of the parade is a bunch of day of the dead skeletons and they dance and they frolic and they revel in the face of death, which is the fundamental core value of Carnival, right? I mean, we're reveling in the face of death. And it's a great inversion of the ultimate hierarchy. So every once in a while, there'll be a piece that we create for the new work that just seems sufficiently in that spirit, like, evoking the deep traditions of Halloween that it can make it into the opening section. And then it lives forever, because it just comes back until it's so beaten up that we can't restore it anymore. And so that first section of the parade does have some cycle through. But there are some elements in there that have been there for thirty years that really go back a long time.
LD: Well, I think that might be a perfect cyclical way to end our conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
SM: We talked a lot.
LD: Yeah, we did talk a lot!
SM: We do like to talk. Yeah. It's really fun. I mean, I sort of said this little bit earlier, but it is really nice to have the opportunity to reflect. Especially right now. We're not done with our season—we have a couple more projects, but Halloween is a big thing, and to just have the time to step back and think of the big picture stuff.
LD: Well, thank you so much for sharing this with me. You've raised so many interesting points and questions related to your own practice that have a lot of resonance with the discussions around making, in general.
AK: It's nice to be asked probing questions, as opposed to, like, "How much money it cost to buy those materials?" The standard, on-the-street journalists have no idea how to even enter the work because you have to approach it with a certain level of seriousness about it, even though it can be very whimsical work. It does delve into traditions that are anything but whimsical. They go back to the core of our ritual practices and culture.
LD: Well, thank you.
[End of interview]