With SHOW, Justin Tornow Attempts the Impossible: an Economically Viable Performance Experiment that Promotes Freedom and Flexibility | Dance | Indy Week
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With SHOW, Justin Tornow Attempts the Impossible: an Economically Viable Performance Experiment that Promotes Freedom and Flexibility 

Justin Tornow

Photo by Alex Maness

Justin Tornow

The choreographer Justin Tornow recently walked me through The Fruit's seemingly unending cavernous rooms, describing the similarly proportioned scope of her newest work. Distilling all the layers of SHOW—a collaborative cross-disciplinary project that will inhabit the space for five nights this week—is impossible, and necessarily so. The work comes together anew each night and leaves several elements to chance. But I'll try.

During the first half of SHOW, attendees will be able to explore—with "control and agency," videographer Alex Maness says—several rooms housing art installations and artists working in response to certain themes: absence and presence, visibility and invisibility.

In the second half, COMPANY dancers will perform in The Fruit's pillared space. Throughout, subtle and overt mechanisms, including video surveillance, will invert the conventional separation between artist and audience. The whole thing, Tornow explains, is meant to feel a bit like a museum, albeit one that centers on performance work and the presence of everyone inhabiting the space.

"There's a lot about performance, or at least choreography, that can feel withheld, like there's some kind of hidden meaning. I'm really not about that," Tornow says. "If [audiences] just look and listen and feel whatever they feel and think what they think, that's what we want."

SHOW is Tornow, Maness, and visual artist Heather Gordon's latest large-scale collaboration for several performers, following last summer's multimedia extravaganza No.19/Modulations. (Greensboro-based lighting designer Chris Fleming is the fourth principal collaborator in SHOW.) It's also Tornow's first work for COMPANY since she spent more than a month last fall as an artist-in-residence at TanzART Atelier in Kirschau, Germany, where she developed No. 22/Penumbra, a performance in conjunction with Gordon's exhibit And Then the Sun Swallowed Me at CAM Raleigh last February.

In Europe, Tornow had time to get mad about the state of arts funding in the U.S.—about how artmaking seems inseparable from capitalistic assignments of monetary value, even for independent artists like her, who rely on local economic buy-in. These concerns are taking on more weight as development spirals out of control in Durham. Tornow has used crowdfunding not only to partly pay for SHOW, but also to call attention to the minimum production costs, $12,000, for a work on this scale.

These issues are particularly urgent in performance, where traditional strategies of documentation and funding—which, Gordon points out, more easily apply to a concrete object like a painting—are not always viable. The conundrum relates to the relationship between performance and audience. Does one necessitate the other?

"I have a tricky relationship with spectatorship and what it means to perform," Tornow says. "I'm interested in performance as research instead of just performance for others—a way that performance can be valued as an internal experience for the performer as much as an external experience for the person witnessing." This line of thinking runs through SHOW.

On one hand, there's the richness of all that will happen inside The Fruit's many rooms—what we could call the piece's content. In one room, a light installation by Kai Riedl and Sean Thegen plays with progressive dimming and shock-like brightening; in another, several well-known local artists examine the prompt "absence and presence." In the second half, COMPANY works through Tornow's signature angular phrasings in a rectangle bounded by scrims that will incorporate Maness's surveillance footage.

On the other hand, SHOW uses content to redirect attention to context, to the frames that enclose the work: walls, lighting, sound score. How do these elements make a performance possible, and even encourage open-mindedness about what performance is? Tornow says The Fruit is the only space where they could make multiple large-scale installations, thanks to its large footprint and owner Tim Walter's openness. In being deeply customizable, The Fruit "allows the audience to experience what SHOW could be, and not have a fixed idea about it," Tornow says.

In a way, then, this is a work about possibility, how a set of discrete structural conditions actually creates more options for performers and audience members. Tornow's M.O. is to "create a structure that promotes a maximum amount of freedom," which is reflected in her trust in her collaborators, a COMPANY hallmark and a nod to the influence of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. This approach resonates with Tornow's aim to empower audience members to feel their own agency, to examine how their presence contributes to SHOW.

But how can SHOW's conceptual rigor extend beyond the five-night run? (It will be video-documented each night, and ultimately, a public website will provide links to all the participating artists' work.) The key lies in its porosity, its potential to unleash its energies elsewhere.

Tornow and Gordon want to develop a manual that documents SHOW's concrete technical elements—a sprung floor bounded by scrim, a room with down spot lights, and so on. This manual could be "distributed to likeminded artists in other communities," Gordon says, allowing others to replicate SHOW's conditions while filling in the content according to their own interests.

It's an innovative artistic model, one that expands a creative vision outward while tethering it to SHOW's unique iteration in Durham. And it's one we should pay particular attention to as independent artists in the Triangle and elsewhere look for creative paths toward building solidarity, as well as to present, document, and advance their work.

"This is what I've dreamed up, what I think is interesting inside the scrim box," Tornow says. "But if I said 'absence and presence' to another group of people in a different part of the world, what would they do with it?" Then she rephrases the question slightly: "What could they do with it?"

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