Social Choreography Turns Audience into Artmakers

“Parliament” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2018. Photo by Christina Gangos.

When you think about experiencing art, what comes to mind? Likely, you imagine going to a museum to look at paintings, or to the theater to watch a play.

What if instead of observing art, you—and the people around you—were the art?

That’s one of the many ideas behind “Amendment,” a project by Michael Kliën and his Laboratory for Social Choreography, that demonstrates his approach to art making—art as constituted entirely of the interactions of the people in the room.

Four years ago, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University hosted Kliën’s “Parliament.” Participants signed up to remain in a gallery space with each other, without speaking and without electronic devices, for up to six or seven hours at a time.

After an initial period of awkwardness and uncertainty, members of “Parliament” found ways to communicate and respond to each other’s movements. Spontaneous interactions emerged. Imaginations activated.

According to Kliën, this kind of experience provokes deep questions about “how we should be in the world”—as individuals, and with each other.

Comic style drawing of a pregnant person surrounded by animals
This concept art for Amendment reflects an origin story drawn from another of Kliën’s projects, the “Social Dreaming Matrix.” Illustration by Rafal Kosakoski.

Unlike “Parliament,” “Amendment” lasts an hour and a half. During the first fifteen minutes, participants will be given instructions that will guide their actions and interactions for the next seventy-five minutes.

Kliën says that part of the instructions, or “propositions,” for “Amendment” is a new origin story for humanity, one reflects new conceptions of “how we relate to the natural world, to others, and to ourselves.” This story was drawn from another of his social choreography projects, the “Social Dreaming Matrix,” which interwove dreams from hundreds of participants during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the first fifteen minutes, the participants are free to move, respond to the music playing in the space, interact with each other, negotiate their roles in the piece, and “understand and resist familiar social—and perhaps personal—patterns,” says Kliën. No participants are obligated to do anything they don’t want to do.

There are no recordings and no observers. Everyone is a participant. “There’s nothing but the experience,” said Kliën. “That’s the art.”

Who should sign up for “Amendment”? Anyone 18 years or older, “with a sense of adventure,” said Kliën. Comfortable clothes should be worn, allowing for easy movement and easy sitting on the floor.

Participants can sign up for one or both “Amendment” sessions, which take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 18 and Tuesday, April 19 in the Rubenstein Art Center, or “Ruby,” at Duke University. On Wednesday, April 20, at noon, there will be an open reflection session for people who took part in the sessions in the Ruby Lounge.

Sign up by emailing the Laboratory for Social Choreography at labsc@duke.edu.

“Community” is Theme of 2018 “What Is Good Art?” Exhibition

The Kenan Institute for Ethics’ annual What Is Good Art? exhibition was begun as a means to explore how visual art and ethics are intertwined. Every year, students across the Duke campus are invited by Team Kenan, the student branch of the KIE, to submit original works of art that explore ideas of how we should live, the role that art plays in our lives, and its impact on how we see the world.

The 2018 exhibition theme — “Community” — originated from a Team Kenan discussion about what shapes our identity and how our associations define us. How do we agree on a shared basis for experiencing and navigating the world around us? Do we choose our communities or do they choose us?

This year’s exhibition opened on Monday, April 23rd with a well-attended afternoon reception. The works on display were reviewed by a distinguished panel of experts in art and/or ethics and were selected for their interesting combination of aesthetic accomplishment and reflection on the notion of community. Some of the works demand change, some may make the viewer grimace, laugh, squirm, cry, and/or wonder, and all confront the question, “How ought we live?”

The 17 works on view include photographs, drawings, video, paintings, and mixed media works.

Judges’ Awards

First Prize: FORM Magazine (Cassidy von Seggern, editor-in-chief), Solidary and Solitary: An Introspective, video, run-time 3:40.

Second Prize: Sheridan Wilbur
 (Political Science, 2019), Activists – Are You Asleep Too?, photograph.

Third Prize (tie):

  • Danielle Smith (MFAEDA, 2019), I don’t Understand, mixed media.
  • Adam Beskind (Music and Public Policy, 2020), Afterglow, photograph.

Audience Choice Award (3-way tie):

  • Nathan Liang (Trinity, 2021), Thinking Without the Box, charcoal on paper.
  • Jackson Steger (Public Policy, 2018), Under the Surface – Empathy at Duke, video, run-time 3:49.
  • Jeainny Kim (Visual Arts, 2018), Mandalay Bay Suite 2017, scanner prints.

What Is Good Art? is on display as a collective exhibition in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery of the West Duke Building through May 16, 2018.

Student submissions for ethics art competition due February 21

wiga_gray_400-01Each spring, Team Kenan holds the WIGA competition around a different theme. Duke University students are encouraged to submit entries to compete for four prizes, and have their work displayed in a collective exhibition in the Keohane Kenan Gallery of the West Duke Building. A distinguished panel of experts in art and/or ethics convene to select pieces for display. All Duke students are invited to submit works in any medium for the spring contest and exhibition around the theme of “What Were You Thinking?.”

As always, the WIGA theme is intentionally broad and open to many interpretations.

[suffusion-multic][suffusion-column width=’1/3′]Prizes:

  • First Prize: $500
  • Second Prize: $300
  • Third Prize: $100
  • Gallery Choice Prize: $100

[/suffusion-column][suffusion-column width=’2/3′]How to submit:

  • Download the submission guidelines and submit with a digital photo or video of your work.
  • If you have any questions, please email dan.smith@duke.edu.
  • Submissions will be due on Tuesday, February 21st by 11:59:59pm EST. The exhibition opening and prize announcement will be scheduled for mid-March.
  • Submit your artwork!



There is, in my haphazardly arranged wire desk organizer, a small sheet of paper that’s sat untouched since last October. It is untouched, but even worse, it is uncolored; this is a sheet that emerged from a coloring book, all thin black curved lines buffering a large peace sign, overlaid with the words “confidence,” “collaboration,” “creativity.” This sheet is my souvenir from my first volunteering gig with Girls Rock NC, a nonprofit organization that may best be described by its adherence to the three nouns listed above. Girls Rock NC—with sister orgs in several states—“empowers girls and women—through creative expression—to become confident and engaged members of our communities.” Its staff and volunteers, many of whom are local artists and musicians, facilitate summer camps, workshops, and other development opportunities for young women and women-identified community members.

I’m thinking about those three nouns this week, as I sat dumbstruck and disgusted by the news on campus this week, and as I came in to work on Thursday, noting in passing the Duke Chronicle’s front-page headline: “We are not afraid. We stand together.” It so happens that this week also marks the 20-year anniversary of Tejana musician Selena’s death. Reading about Selena—about whose work I am minimally familiar and limited to Spanish language-class curricula—led me to a 2009 video interview (conducted by Duke Press) with poet and performance scholar Deborah Paredez. Paredez is talking about her then-just-published text Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, and specifically about the creation of the term “Selenidad.” She explains how her use of the Spanish suffix -idad, which makes a non-noun word into a noun, “evoke[s] something that was of Selena but not just her.” Selenidad is at once specific and general, a holding pattern for the various types of emotional production surrounding Selena’s fame, music, and afterlife. Selenidad is different, but not separate from, other –idads: creatividad (creativity) and comunidad (community).

I don’t know much about Selena, but I want to—I want to know how her legacy speaks to Latin@ culture in the United States today, about how her status as a woman musician shaped women in music today. About how young women—Tejana, Latina, or otherwise—look to her for inspiration or affirmation. I want to draw a line between her work and that of Kathleen Hanna, and her band Bikini Hill, the subject of our final film (The Punk Singer) in this year’s Ethics Film Series. Hanna is another unapologetic frontwoman of a pioneering musical group—one about whom academic texts and non-academic texts alike could, and have, been written. Prior to Bikini Kill’s emergence as a band, the title was used for a “zine”—a self-published documentary compendium of texts, illustrations, and other materials celebrating and advocating for feminist art and music.

As it turns out, these zines included coloring books, with sheets perhaps not unlike the one that continues to sit at my desk. They circulated (and continue to circulate) in order to widen the circle of affirmation and community especially among women. Likewise, my decision to screen The Punk Singer is both curatorial and personal: it is a move to both further widen this circle and to contribute to its documentation—to see how ideas and emotions overlap, how identities take shape both on-screen and in the movie theater (and in the concert crowd, and so on). By deciding to engage with the cultural production of Selena, or of Kathleen Hanna, in the present-tense, we are bringing their work into a new space of existence—in other words, a space, like Selenidad, that is both them and not-them.


Writing Area 919

I didn’t make it to the opening party for Area 919 last weekend, but I like to imagine that if I had, I’d have imitated the movements of a small child, insofar as I’d be playful and hop around but I would not—definitely not—touch the art. I’d bend over to peer through the open circles of Casey Cook’s undulating sculpture Whoa, Nelly! Through the holes my eyes would settle upon a painting on the opposite wall, which would mean they’d fixate on the dark grain of Damian Stamer’s Requiem. What at first looks like a contained interior scene—an abandoned piano, an old chair—slowly begins to expand: objects composed of scraped paint uncover other objects, until, hey, is that a tree branch up there? Looks like it. The wall placard explains that Stamer “create[s] haunting environments borrowed from the rural landscape of north Durham County, where he grew up.” I’m reminded of a recent holiday drive through north Durham, and then through Oxford, and then through southwest Virginia. I remember the darkness under the eaves of stately Oxford houses, which made me think about the riots Tim Tyson writes about in Blood Done Sign My Name. But I also remember how the sunset gathered on the long flat lawns outside the downtown, lawns abutting forests that looked like they could go on forever. If I could tie all that together in a painting, maybe it’d look—or feel—something like how Stamer’s looks and feels to me now.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

In my opening remarks for this year’s Ethics Film Series, which began this week with The Visitor, I gave some background for the theme—“Sound Beliefs.” I’ve given this background before, in writing and in speech; I repeat it, like a mantra: I wanted to pick something, some things, that felt both tactile and complex. I use this phrase as if the two terms stand in opposition, but when I say it they always hang together. I felt the same urge as I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Stamer’s painting, and then again when I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Neill Prewitt and Yuxtapongo’s installation Exploded Hipster, whose contents—local band and record label shirts, a stray Converse shoe, all crowdsourced from the Triangle’s music community—snake outward on the white gallery wall. Tactile, yes; they’re t-shirts, once hugged by warm bodies, some of whom I probably know personally, many of whom I probably follow on Twitter. I imagine a landscape of friendship and artistry, idiosyncratic and colorful, abstract and necessarily unfamiliar, to a certain degree (i.e., who did that Merge t-shirt belong to? Ah, yes, we’ve once made eye contact). But I also see that landscape, in front of me. I almost want to stick my arm through, to try it on for a while.

Area 919 is powerful in its assertion of a creative world through the hanging together of multiple creative worlds. This is something that art, and its curation, do well. “All of [the artists of Area 919] contribute to a vibrant and innovative artist community, helping to establish the Triangle as a growing creative center,” the exhibition detail reads. In effect, that exhibition detail is writing the community into a space, just as its artists are writing, painting, molding, imaging their selves, and their works, into a space. I feel similarly when I read the words of the women featured in “A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina,” and the words of the many commenters, insisting that the New York Times should have included another woman chef, another women-helmed restaurant, to more holistically honor the vibrancy of North Carolina’s food scene. That web would look different, yes—as it would look different, from the get-go, from any one chef’s, or artist’s, perspective. And so it would from yours or mine.

It’s possible, but not easy, to build community on the foundation of diversity; it’s possible, but even less easy, for that sense of community to be validated externally in a way that feels fair, representative, and holistic to those who did the work in the first place. And yet that is the work that remains: the getting up in the morning, the painting, the writing, the meeting people, the attending (or not attending). The pieces included in Area 919 honor that work by bringing different worlds together in one space: so tactile that you, and you, and you, can peer through the circles, too.


One More for the Archive

I’ve been meaning to update you all on the documentary project I’ve been working on since June. As I wrote back in the summer, I traveled to Dublin with the DukeEngage cohort to undertake my own investigation: the recent suspension, via the Dublin City Council, of The Exchange, a collective arts center in downtown Dublin. At present, I’m 34 pages deep in transcriptions from interviews I conducted with Exchange volunteers, activists, academics, arts administrators, and politicians. Once I’ve transcribed the last few interviews, I’ll begin to post updates on the blog from time to time as I put the pieces of the story together.

It’s still difficult to visualize, at this point, what exactly the story I write will look like. But I am certain, especially in the midst of ongoing press about the closure of The Exchange and similar arts venues in Dublin, that the story I write will attempt to interrogate both the closures themselves and the ways in which I came to know them, and their sphere of actors and participants. Why do I care? What experiences stateside, both personally felt and otherwise, contribute to my interest in the collapse of creative spaces anywhere? What kind of story can a relative ‘outsider’ tell about these stories generally, and The Exchange’s story specifically?

A few days ago, writer, artist, and radio documentarian Gareth Stack published a short audio documentary about the startling trend of creative spaces closing in the city, and what can be inferred from this trend about Dublin’s, and Ireland’s financial wherewithal. Put another way, in the prelude to his report: “Could the city’s economic status be gauged from the number of independent arts spaces that’ve closed down, suggesting a new competition for space?” In the piece, Gareth interviews representatives of several different arts spaces about gentrification, the relationship between art-making and place, and the ways in which arts organizations’ structures are changing as demand for real estate threatens to erase them.

Gareth actually contacted me over the summer, referred by an Exchange volunteer who I talked to several times during the two weeks I was in the city. He was just then beginning the radio piece and was looking for more contacts, more stories of spaces being threatened with closure (or in the process of closing). His piece is helpful as I continue to contextualize The Exchange’s story within other ones, as well as recreate my experience from the summer on the pages of a Word document.

But the thing I like most about Gareth’s piece—which stands alone as culture reportage—is the way it’s embedded, on his personal website, within a longer (written) narrative of his own connection to these creative spaces, especially The Exchange. You can read this piece, replete with photos from his time at The Exchange,  here. He talks about how he found both The Exchange and another non-hierarchical collective space, Seomra Spraoi, after graduating from college. “I found myself footloose and penniless,” he writes. “Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate.” Volunteering at The Exchange offered him an alternative, and quickly became a vibrant community in which he played a key part. He calls his time there “three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life.” The language he uses to describe and to commemorate his time there is not dissimilar from that of other volunteers I interviewed over the summer. I have hours of audio recordings that are made up, simply, of different voices describing their favorite events, exhibitions, and moments spent at The Exchange. The details of their experience testify to the venue’s uniqueness. I wonder, still, what it would’ve been like to be there.

Gareth’s longer narrative is another voice, and another testimony, for this evolving archive. (Several of the volunteers I interviewed told me my piece would add to the archive, too). And I say “evolving” because in the wake of these closures there’s another trend forming: what these people will do with their memories, with their relationships, with their art, with their activism. There’s the question of what Dublin’s —or Durham’s, or any city’s—creative architecture will look like in 10 years, but there’s also the question of what it will look like in two months. And this archive is part of that doing.