Chicago Performs is an annual celebration of performance that highlights the wealth of innovative work being made by artists in Chicago today. The 2023 series was organized by former curator, Tara Aisha Willis, with Laura Paige Kyber, Curatorial Associate.
I am thrilled to welcome you to MCA Chicago’s second annual Chicago Performs series! This four-day weekend of live art and performance showcases the vitality of artists creating work in Chicago, elevating them on a national platform in the city they call home. Three interdisciplinary artists—Irene Hsiao, Anjal Chande, and Jonas Becker—have each carefully crafted and/or reimagined performances for the series. This work was made possible with the support of the New Works Initiative, a set of programs designed to develop new works and foster connections between artists, audiences, and communities. Chicago Performs spotlights the depth and range of the city’s creative landscape, supporting artists as they expand the scale of their practices with works made with Chicago, for Chicago, and beyond Chicago.
Our world has changed drastically since the MCA debuted Chicago Performs in the fall of 2022, when the series celebrated the return of live arts with performances that explored joy as a path to more expansive ways of living and being together. This year our city finds itself implicated in and affected by disasters both global and local, as smoke plumes from Canada reach our doorstep, as Lahaina reels from last month’s wildfires in Maui, and as the pandemic continues to shape the way we live. While we rejoice at reuniting artists and audiences, both locally at our museum and in arts and culture more broadly, we also contend with urgent and immediate questions about the future.
Performance is ephemeral. We experience it briefly, as an act of creation between performer and audience. It denies fixity and, therefore, is anti-capitalist in nature, providing an escape while still creating space for recognition, healing, or catharsis; it also holds a mirror up to society through which we may gain radically new perspectives on familiar issues. Through the improvisatory and embodied nature of their works, this year’s Chicago Performs artists ask audiences to slow down and pause long enough to soak in and experience the moment, and to give attention to what might otherwise be taken for granted. Whether an artist tests the limits of physical strength in response to diminishing environmental and political conditions (Becker), meditates on the quotidian movements of our everyday lives to explore the narratives that shape our identities (Chande), or moves silently and mysteriously through space on a spectrum between object and human to question the way we interact with art (Hsiao), their works invite us to recalibrate our sense of urgency through the use of sound, body, movement, object, and text.
Over these four days Hsiao, Chande, and Becker will challenge us to notice the subtle details of our world, and how, over time, our attention to those details may change the way we live and think. With these works I hope you will find time for moments of reflection and collaboration with artists, performers, and those around you. Thank you for sharing your time with us.
—Laura Paige Kyber
Curatorial Associate, Performance
Irene Hsiao, Blue Alice
Irene Hsiao is a dancer who creates performances in conversation with visual artworks within museums, galleries, and public spaces. As part of Chicago Performs 2023, Hsiao performs Blue Alice, a durational movement piece performed in a sculptural costume made of tarp and mylar. Performed in the museum’s gallery spaces and in response to works on view, Blue Alice operates on a spectrum between human and object; thinking of the costume as a shell or shelter through which viewers observe the performer, Hsiao’s improvised performance plays with conventional norms about interacting with art and performance in a museum setting.
Interview with the Artist
Hsiao discussed her work with Curatorial Associate Laura Paige ahead of Chicago Works 2023. Their conversation, which took place via email throughout August 2023, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Laura Paige Kyber: How did Blue Alice begin?
Irene Hsiao: Blue Alice was initially inspired by materials in Almost Studio’s design for the 2021 Ragdale Ring, specifically a blue tarp that was covering an orange carpet laid out in the parking lot to be flattened for use in their architectural design. I was drawn to the way the color popped against the bright macaroni-orange of the carpet, as well as the mirrored elements in their design. When they told me the tarp was not part of their work, I decided to wear it as my costume, which was created by Vin Reed. The mirrors are rendered in mylar, a material I had played with extensively in a 2018 project at the Art Institute with Philippe Parreno’s My Room Is Another Fish Bowl, an installation of mylar balloon fish. The movement for this performance was initially driven by the texture, sound, and properties of these materials, as well as words by Simone Weil—“Only the light that falls continually from the sky gives a tree the energy to push powerful roots into the earth. The tree is actually rooted in the sky”—which gave me the insight I needed to perform the work with a severe injury.
I first began to understand Blue Alice as a character within the Pop Stars! exhibition at 21c Museum Hotel, as their first artist in residence in 2022. As a shiny surface, an outsized being, and a product created from everyday materials, Blue Alice developed an interiority in dialogue with the other images of celebrity within the exhibition, the concept of pop art, and the hybrid space of 21c, a museum and a hotel that combines contemporary art, commerce, events, and touristic yearning, for amusement. At 21c, the piece also unexpectedly acquired some wonderful collaborators who explored Blue Alice through the camera, including Ricardo E. Adame, Christina Demos, Justin Jones, and Nigel Barker.
In gala performances at the MCA and Lookingglass Theatre, Blue Alice became a curious guest at the party, functioning as a mediator between the hubbub of the festivities and the other reality of the space—as a gallery for contemporary visual art, as a closed theater under construction in a space with a water pump on the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue.
In this iteration at the MCA, the piece changes again according to its context. Stripped of companions, muted in sound, barred from entering the galleries, and staged as an event, I wonder what she will become this time—perhaps only a meditation on a color Yves Klein described as “the invisible becoming visible . . . beyond the dimensions of which other colors partake.”
LPK: How do you identify as an artist? Which artists do you look to as peers or predecessors?
IH: I work in dance, photography, video, and writing, all of which are ways of being, knowing, and discovering. My work is experimental and unfolds in response to artworks, objects, materials, architectural space, and time. What I create emerges as an improvisatory process driven by curiosity, which is often piqued by observation and refined through obsession—often an obsession with returning to the same space or seeing the same object or artwork again and again in all its lights and aspects.
Visual art guides my practice: how does the material move? How does its form shape our motions? What can its concept and process teach us? In my experiments, I strive to create uncanny situations that cause people to slow down and look, to question what they perceive, and to respond with their own creativity.
I began my independent practice as a museum visitor, and my work frequently comes from the perspective of a curious visitor. I often invite other visitors to participate in my practice of perception and experimentation by offering scores, art materials, props, and other opportunities, for others to interpret, redirect, and modify the work.
Ultimately, this means I share a process rather than a product. The results have shown me that when people collaborate, unexpected beauty, insight, and community occur. I am inspired by visual art and places where art is experienced. I’m curious about process, presence, collaboration, connection, and community. And I’m committed to sharing my work in ways that are free to the public and open to participation, evolution, and discovery.
As a dancer, I have been fortunate to perform with Kinetech Arts, Labayen Dance, Winifred Haun & Dancers, Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement, Lenora Lee Dance, Erica Mott Productions, Yin He Dance, Nejla Yatkin, South Chicago Dance Theatre, Meadows Dance Collective, Carole McCurdy, Freedom From and Freedom To, and others. This fall I will be performing in Freedom From and Freedom To and the Instigation Festival, as well as with Mandala South Asian Performing Arts, in a new work by Nejla Yatkin.
I also serve as a witness and chronicler for many artists as a freelance writer, often at the Chicago Reader.
LPK: What types of spaces do you usually place your work in?
IH: Museums inspire me as cultivated social spaces for the contemplation of objects, where visitors have autonomy over the distance, duration, and depth of their engagement, and alter the conditions of the place by their choices. I also create outdoors, where I am similarly held by an environment of change—changing light, changing wind, changing beings, changing time.
LPK: What do you love about performance in Chicago?
IH: As both a performer and an audience member, I love the opportunity to be present with others in a moment that is created by all of us, together, in this time and space.
LPK: How do you approach collaboration in your work?
IH: I think the most exciting collaborations occur as spontaneous encounters that produce something unexpected, resulting in something that could not be created without the unique individuals, objects, sites, and environments present.
LPK: What do you want audiences to take with them after experiencing your work?
IH: I don’t know. Each iteration of the work is a new experiment. I hope we share a moment we create together. I am curious to find out.
Performance Irene Hsiao
Costume Vin Reed
About the Performers
Irene Hsiao creates performances in conversation with visual art in museums, galleries, and public spaces, a practice that includes site-specific interaction with visual artworks and experimental engagement with artists, institutions, and the public. Her work includes durational improvisation, interactive installations, dances for stage, video, and virtual performance. She is a 2022–23 Fellow at High Concept Labs, the first Artist in Residence at 21c Museum Hotel in 2022–23, inaugural Artist in Residence at the Smart Museum of Art in 2020 and 2021, and a 2020 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist. She has received individual artist awards from the Illinois Arts Council Agency and City of Chicago Department of Culture & Special Events.
Vin Reed combines his skills in design, photography, and illustration in dance partnerships with companies including Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, DanceWorks Chicago, The Seldoms, Dance for Life, and Same Planet Performance Project. Reed’s costume and fashion work has been featured on the NBC Morning Show and at the Museum of Contemporary Art retrospective Break Out. Recently he costumed Katie Kadan in Season 17 of The Voice. He has photographed hundreds of Chicago choreographers and his photos of Chicago dancers have been exhibited internationally. Reed was a founding board member of DanceWorks Chicago and currently sits on their Advisory Board. In 2019 he received Hedwig Dance Award for Dance Advocacy.
Special Thanks from the Artist
Special thanks to Ragdale Foundation, Samuel J. Lewis II, 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, Alice Gray Stites, Juli Lowe, Roell Schmidt, Laura Paige Kyber, and Tara Aisha Willis.
Anjal Chande, The Next Cup of Tea
Anjal Chande is an artist and the founder of Soham Dance Space, a home for creative practice, live performance, critical dialogue, and community gatherings in the East Pilsen neighborhood. As part of Chicago Performs 2023, Chande performs The Next Cup of Tea, a solo performance incorporating elements of dance and theater that investigates how to make sense of the never-ending impulses that run through our heads, our everyday moments, and our contradictory experiences. Chande engages with improvisational dance and storytelling to reflect on capitalism, being brown in a stratified America, routine interactions with her grandfather, the paradox of art, and more. Through interaction with abstract objects she uses as props, Chande contrasts the normality of daily physical routine with the incessant, gnawing quality of inner feelings eager to be seen, heard, and understood. Juxtaposing the personal, political, and philosophical aspects of the individual experience, The Next Cup of Tea serves as an invitation to reflect on our kaleidoscopic interior, and to accept the task of deciphering whatever it is we feel today.
Interview with the Artist
Chande spoke with Curatorial Associate Laura Paige Kyber about her performance ahead of Chicago Performs 2023. Their conversation, which took place on August 3, 2023, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Laura Paige Kyber: Tell me about the work you’re presenting as a part of Chicago Performs. What do you want people to know about it?
Anjal Chande: I am performing a project that is, I just tallied, seven years in the works. The first iteration was in September 2016, so it’s really wild to look back at a project that has had such a sense of longevity to it. It’s one of the few projects that I’ve allowed myself the opportunity to sit with for a really long time and just iterate on. It’s called The Next Cup of Tea. So much of our inner, lived experience is just a constant toggle between different energies and reckonings and contradictions, and I think in the simplest sense, the act of making tea is sort of a container for sitting with what is emerging for us daily: what is surfacing, what we are feeling, what we are reckoning with, what we are chewing on, what is keeping us up at night. So the act of making tea is a chance to sit with all this stuff. The piece creates an entryway into a juxtaposition of the very ordinary and mundane with the more kaleidoscopic, interior chaos of our emotional thought planes. In doing so, it also reveals that mundane moments or recurring emotions are in fact not that ordinary, but are actually charged and special and demanding of our attention, if only we were to heed the call. So, from there I began a sort of zigzag into this project.
LPK: I didn’t know you started this piece in 2016, and now here we are! The time you’ve been thinking in this mode precedes the time of the pandemic. Were you, and are you now, thinking about domestic life or domestic labor in relation to this piece?
AC: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting association. I feel like that word, “domestic,” has a lot of connotations that don’t resonate for me. It’s often framed, especially in terms of domestic labor, as what’s valued or not valued or what is gendered in particular ways. I think I’m more concerned with the act of slowing down as something that’s not legible to or even debated by capitalism. I want to think about the act of drinking tea in any context. So whether you’re in your own familiar home space and you’re pausing to make yourself a cup of tea, or you are out adventuring in the world and you find a little hill station where they can brew you some steamy chai, or you are here, in the theater, and all that is available is the cafe’s espresso machine—that becomes the entry point into a moment of stillness. It’s wherever you are, whatever the beverage might be, that it becomes the opening into opportunities to sit still and take pause and be with. Of course, there can be a very commodified aspect to how we engage with tea and coffee shop culture, but I’m more interested in how if we can peel back the boxes of our commodified relationship to tea, we might get to a more elemental place.
LPK: How do you identify as an artist?
AC: At this point in my life, I identify as simply an artist, and I feel pretty clear about shedding any disciplinary attachments. I feel like I’ve arrived at a more anti-disciplinary relationship to my art, and the word “artist” feels like the most all-encompassing term for the different creative impulses we have throughout our lives. Sometimes we are more producers or creators, or editors, or we are holders of other people’s things that need to be held. Everything is in my toolbox, and I’m tired of categorizing or qualifying it. While growing up, my attachment to the notion of being a dancer was sort of put on me, and I think it sort of stifled my ability to make art because I was always ranking who was I first; I’m a dancer first, and then I’m a musician second, but then I compose music, and I also write, and so on and so forth. I always needed to have a list, or internal hierarchy, for some reason. Maybe I was catering to some kind of legible disciplinary allegiance, but I’ve since let go of all that, and I’m starting to see my broad, unboxable artistic impulses as what drive my artistry.
LPK: What elements of your creative practice show up in this work?
AC: The work will have dance, humming, live music, poetry, prose, spoken word, rhythmic footwork. We’ll have performance art, we’ll have playing, and a lot of improvisation. I’ll be grappling, asking questions, getting out of the way, making space for the power of these creative tools to just erupt in the space, and to be with a lot of dissonance. As opposed to much of what I’ve made in older projects, which had more fixed choreography, planned composition, predetermined crafted repertoire, and narrative throughline with a resolution.
LPK: Is the text autobiographical?
AC: Yeah. It’s funny, there was a point where I was like, can you make a dance-theater memoir? Can you make a performance memoir? And I think there were moments in this process where I was like, is that what I’m doing? There’s some of that energy, but I think it’s not so filled in.
LPK: You’re based in Chicago now, but your life has taken you to lots of geographic locations. I know you spent time in Germany, and you just used the term dance-theater, which has particular meaning in that country. Tell me more about the trajectory you’ve been on, and how these various places in your life coalesce into who you are now as an artist.
AC: Chicago is where I grew up dancing, and inevitably you inherit ideas of what dance is, or what the field is, or what it means to be an artist. I’m not sure if I can attribute this to the location itself. I lived in New York for a time, and I felt like there was a relationship to creative energy there. I was not actually focused on dance while in New York, so my relationship to creativity—across genre—was very visceral, and I thought, “this is what creativity, and active, alive community feels like.” When I was back in Chicago I fell back into my patterns, and it wasn’t until I was in California, in the Bay Area, where I began to experience more blurring of the lines of genre. It’s easy to feel boxed into what your peer artists are doing, and who you consider your peer artists to be. Something about being elsewhere was able to help me expand these notions. And fortunately, I was able to experience a lot more comradery or genuine curiosity in each other’s work. Living abroad in Berlin was so liberating because nobody knew me, and I wanted to be in a place where I could truly shed the sort of subconscious holding of how other people were understanding me and my work. That’s where my improvisational practice took off. I was dancing for myself, and that opened up my ability to tune into my own inner voice and slowly start to discern the shackles I had been carrying for a long time. Also, Berlin has an expansive notion of what dance is, and that definitely fed into the sense that everything’s on the table. I went to Berlin on a Fulbright to find out what it was about that place that made it so conducive for artists. I wanted to understand the historical, economic, political, and ideological factors that led to the conditions that built the creative city.
I think being in Berlin helped to challenge the myopia I felt of being an American. For me, that myopia was so intense, and impossible to be aware of without consciously trying to step outside of it. This arc of being in a few different places, and then coming back from Berlin has allowed me to become a very different person, and I’ve now had the opportunity to build conviction and clarity around what matters to me as an artist that’s become unshakeable. I think the luxury of making art over one’s modest lifetime, and to explore and situate that work in different contexts, and then distill who are you and what your impulses are, has allowed me to arrive at a place where I’m no longer as susceptible to just falling in line or back into old, habituated paradigms. That feels so refreshing and celebratory, that when I returned to Chicago in 2019 I was able to build a very different relationship to the Chicago dance community, and I could explore it on my own terms and according to my value system.
LPK: Because you have so many different aspects to your artistic practice, when do you choose performance? Why is performance the right medium for one idea, or writing for another? What does performance do that another form doesn’t?
AC: I think the biggest thing, and it’s thematically present in my work, is the notion of presence. I think live performance and gathering is powerful because we are present with each other, and we become aware of our neighbor sitting next to us, or the performer, or the witness. I explore in my project my relationship with my grandfather; we didn’t do much, but we got together, we sat next to each other, and the way in which his presence could fill up a room, even if only a few words were exchanged. That is so powerful, and that’s one of the superpowers of performance. What can be exchanged—in terms of energetic, emotional, inspirational exchange—is just so different when you have that ingredient of presence.
LPK: Who are you collaborating with in this work, and how do you approach your collaborative relationships?
AC: I just started working with Sharon Udoh, and I’m so thrilled by what is becoming possible in this relationship. Sharon’s a brilliant pianist and singer, and a very emotionally literate soul who is so committed to intuitively supporting the dear and detailed moments of this work. It’s been so wonderful to find someone willing to build this intuitive bridge between their piano and my vocalizations, as well as between their musical lineage and mine, which is heavily influenced by South Asian traditions. I get so excited by what’s possible in the interlingual space between musical approaches, and we’ve been having a great time braiding and bridging our sonic languages.
I’m also working with a friend, David Ofori-Amoah, who is just a wonderful person and a very brilliant designer. When I had the impulse a long time ago to start to work in the material dimension, he just took my ideas and made them real and fantastic. It probably began with me taking a piece of construction paper and cutting it up into different shapes, and then figuring out what that was doing for me, then taking the idea to him and finding a way to turn that into props and a set. That’s been amazing and so fulfilling. I’m increasingly more interested in the material world; I’m learning carpentry, and I just want to be more knowledgeable about how things are built. I feel this really visceral relationship to the physical architecture of space and felt weight of objects, so it’s very exciting to have a collaborator who works in product design building real tactile objects, and to find this kind of creative exchange with David.
LPK: What does being in this space, the MCA’s theater, allow for the work? To what extent does it prompt you to reimagine the work? Does being a part of Chicago Performs shift your practice?
AC: Yeah, I mean, I’ve never had access to a piano! I’ve gotten such a kick out of the fact that I can just email the staff here and request things like the piano and a lavalier microphone for this rehearsal, which is eight weeks prior to the show. To have access to that support for my experimentation is so unique for me.
LPK: Does it open up possibilities for how you envision projects in the future?
AC: The answer is kind of dark. I feel like every future project that doesn’t have this sort of resource attached to it is going to take me back to thinking small. But it gives you permission to be honest about what you really want and crave, if it helps to experience something, to then know the value of it, and then to know if you want to really assert that as a need in a future project. So often we, as artists, are faced with taking an opportunity because something’s better than nothing, even if the conditions aren’t ideal. I think having the MCA supporting a project with the lifespan of this one is meaningful and allows me to reconsider what kind of timeline I need to be on when building work.
This opportunity at the MCA also makes me imagine what it would be like if such resources were decentralized across community arts organizations, and what kind of creative possibilities that could unleash. It is not lost on me, the institution I am sitting inside of, and I remain curious about producing models for redistributing those privileges.
LPK: You spoke earlier about your relationship to the dance community in Chicago. Tell me about the rehearsal space you run, Soham Dance Space. What does “soham” mean?
AC: It’s a philosophically abstract word. It’s a Sanskrit word that means “I am that,” which is like, I am that state of bliss, or consciousness, or contemplation, or joy. I am that fierceness. I’m that which I need or seek, whatever that might be. It can be used as a mantra. To me, it’s the idea of making space—literally and figuratively—for whatever we yearn for. I founded Soham in 2007, and I am personally at a point of reflection, thinking about how I understand what that project has been. I have thought of it as an Etch A Sketch; this vehicle, umbrella, container that you can sketch your way through, shake it all out, and build anew, allowing it to be a responsive organization to my own needs as an artist, but also to the creative moment, the political moment, the urgent questions, the necessary reallocation of resources.
LPK: Is Soham Dance Space a project that you would’ve done in any city or is it something that you felt was necessary for Chicago?
AC: I’m not sure about that. I think it’s something that I needed to do to create an alternate reality. I was responding to contexts that didn’t feel right for the kind of art that I valued. It was a way to create a different paradigm and to keep asking the questions of: How do you do that? How do you do it differently? I think, regardless of location, it felt like the way to make my art that was practical to me. It was a thing that I had to do. I needed it.
I think that across the work I do at Soham and my creative work, I have a strong desire to turn the light on where creativity lives in our society, and how we can locate our innate, creative capacities. It seems oxymoronic to me that one would need to tap into their creative capacity, but there are hierarchies and systems that create this sense of limited access, of who gets to do the thing and in what way. I just want to rip that apart and give us back the sense that you don’t need permission; it’s you and who you are. I feel like it’s related to the politically oppressive systems that we are always swimming inside of. We can’t solve all of these depressive dynamics if we can’t imagine our way towards solutions. If we’re constantly waiting for permission to be creative and trust our own inner voice, then we’re never going to have the courage to dismantle everything: the Islamophobia, the transphobia, the fatphobia, just every fricking problem, racial capitalism, every single system that is literally turning ourselves against ourselves. We’re not going to find a way out. I think Soham is what I’m doing to enact that in a really embodied way. I think solidarity is a big driver of a lot of the choices that I make. It’s a real commitment to just turning things around and not being afraid of our own imagination.
LPK: This sounds very related to what you’re thinking about in The Next Cup of Tea. What do you want audiences to take away after they experience this work?
AC: I guess the first thing that comes to my mind is permission to cry, to grieve, to reckon. Permission to ask difficult questions. To have the fearlessness to sit with things that are really hard to sit with, to find increased comfort with discomfort, the sense of urgency to lead with care, and the courage to find ways to come together. Those things would be cool. Yeah, I don’t know. Those things would be really cool.
Creator/Performer Anjal Chande
Musician/Performer Sharon Udoh
Structures Designer David Ofori-Amoah
Costumer Maggie Bridger
Lighting Design Matt Sharp
Production Assistant Zachary Nicol
Prop Assistant Amanda Maraist
Special Thanks from the Artist
Tremendous gratitude to all the collaborators who supported numerous iterations across seven years of developing this work, especially most recently through a digital version during the pandemic (2021) and a live performance at Tanztage in Berlin (2019): Gina Hoch-Stall (dramaturg), Jesse Hunter (musician), Karl Olson (musician), Josh Anderson (cinematographer), Emese Csornai (lighting design), David Ofori-Amoah (material design), Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos Jr. (dramaturg), and Sophia New (mentor).
Jonas Becker, New Normal
Jonas N. T. Becker makes photographs, videos, and performances that explore how systems of power place value on the body and the resource-rich landscape. As part of Chicago Performs 2023, Becker performs New Normal, a work which embodies the experience of coping with environmental, political, and social trauma. The performers’ actions oscillate between struggle and care as they negotiate rocks, pebbles, and one another; they test their limits, adjusting and readjusting as they physically respond to collapsing environmental and political conditions.
Interview with the Artist
Becker spoke with Curatorial Associate Laura Paige Kyber about his performance ahead of Chicago Performs 2023. Their conversation, which took place on August 7, 2023, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Laura Paige Kyber: Your piece is called New Normal. Tell me about how you chose this title.
JB: I started working on this project in 2019, and at the time, “new normal” was a term I was hearing in pop culture more and more. Since then, the evolution of that phrase, and its usage, has exploded. I’m interested in it as an idea because, to me, it describes the experience of slow violence. It’s the slow, maybe gradual, but nonetheless persistent, degradation of conditions and what we’ve come to expect as our social contract—whether that’s environmental conditions, civil liberties, the safety or the self-governance of our own bodies, or other issues, and it felt important to think about this through the lens of the body, and how we process as both a group and as individuals in our own bodies.
In contrast to sudden ruptures and headlining news, this sort of slow shift feels dangerous to me because it’s so much harder to notice. Really, this line of inquiry goes back even further for me to the 2016 presidential election; on the one hand, people around me were outraged, devastated, and surprised, but other parts of my community were saying the disenfranchisement that many were feeling in that moment had been happening to them all along. Something that runs throughout this work is this idea that the “new normal” is something that’s incredibly subjective based on your level of privilege and experience.
LPK: There are different moments of awareness for different people.
JB: Yes. Some radical bodies resist normalization and, for others, the “new normal” is nothing new. So, we have to think about who the “we” is when we think about which “new normal” we’re talking about.
LPK: There are a lot of intergenerational mashups in the songs you’re bringing into the work.
JB: Yes, totally. More broadly, my works often address how different generations are related—whether that’s generations of extractive practices around land or how politics are passed down. In New Normal, music is one way the piece brings attention to the way I’m thinking about generations. There are a lot of different generational and cultural references in the songs, ranging from the 1930s up until yesterday. One of the arrangements that I’m working with right now transitions from “This Land is Your Land” into “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” By bridging those two moments in history I want to bring up thoughts about land, responsibility, what it means to be a “we,” and how that’s shifted over time. What did radicality or idealism look like in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, versus today? I think there’s a lot being erased through that song, “This Land Is Your Land,” and maybe that’s something we can only see through the eyes of today, but that’s part of what’s happening in the pairing. I want to look across those two generations and see what’s shifted.
LPK: The piece is structured into a series of gestures. Previously I think you had nine gestures, and this time you’re creating more, rearranging them and iterating on them, combining them with songs and vocalizations. How did you determine those gestures and how do they represent the ideas in the work?
JB: When I started this project, I was really interested in how this slow violence, whether it’s toward the environment, civil liberties, or access to healthcare for transgender folks, could look in the body. As I worked with my ensemble a few themes came to the surface, one of which was endurance and another was illusion; so, the ways we use illusions to help us endure the day to day, the things we say to ourselves to make it better. After that, we started to think about struggle and support. You’ll see us struggle against each other and ideas we feel are harming us, but then we also support each other in community. By pairing those two sets of ideas, we generated most of the gestures that are in the piece—they are meant to either highlight the process of slow violence or reflect on various coping processes.
Also, it was important to me to create gestures that were decidedly not virtuosic. The people in this cast are experienced performers, but I wanted to create a bridge to the audience that let them know that even though this is a set of very considered, deeply researched, and rehearsed gestures and choreography, these are also movements that might happen in our everyday lives.
LPK: Typically, you are known as someone who makes photographs and films, and now, here you are making performance. Why was performance the right discipline for this set of ideas?
JB: I identify as an interdisciplinary, conceptual, and research-based artist over any one medium, but yes, I have often worked in lens-based media—which includes photography and film—and I often think about what it means to look and to be seen. But mostly in my work, the idea comes first, and the medium is about finding a form that is suitable for the inquiry.
The questions in New Normal came out of a photographic project I have called Better or Equal Use. I’m photographing 23 former mining sites in Appalachia that have been redeveloped into prisons, golf courses, and strip malls, after having been ravaged by mining. Driving around the region making the photographs, I was struck by the coal dust filling the air and streams I had grown up drinking from filled with chemicals. Our bodies are 98 percent water, but what water? And I began to see that we are also becoming increasingly made up of the land itself; there is no way to regard land and our bodies as separate. At this point, my practice shifted towards performance where I felt like, at least for this work, I could address both the environment and the body together. For New Normal, the mediation of the body that occurs in photography didn’t make sense.
LPK: Who are the people that you are centering in this work? How did you go about casting New Normal?
JB: The first time I put this work together in 2019, it was really a relational process. The first person I was working with was somebody who had been a former student and became a collaborator, and then from there it kind of branched out; they asked somebody and so on. Through that we built this close-knit conversation, which was important because the work came out of a conversational fluency with one another. Those who were available are performing with us now, and others have continued to stay part of the work’s evolution more informally.
For this new iteration, I wanted to shift the piece’s meaning by thinking about who I invited to join the cast. I had this experience while driving back to Chicago from North Carolina, and I stopped to visit a friend in Knoxville, Tennessee. We went to a drag show, which was going to be the last legally presented drag show before the ban on drag came down, and I felt this sense of urgency. New Normal applies to many communities, aspects of the environment, many things, but it felt urgent to address parts of my own community, and to specifically address issues of trans identity and embodiment in 2023, so that’s why I put the casting call out for all transmasculine folks. Each member of our new cast has brought a unique perspective and contribution to the work that’s made the work grow.
Though not new to the project, my work with Vocal Director Adrian Wood was important for the expansion of New Normal—one of the goals for this iteration was to introduce more vocal elements. We sifted through protest music and pop songs, considering how lyrical meaning could be altered or even inverted through movements, bringing attention to specific topics like the environment and queerness and creating moments of camp.
LPK: Making a performance is such a collaborative process. How is that different from your experience of making photographs or video? Have you had to adapt your practice?
JB: Yeah. When I teach Intro to Photography, for example, everybody says they want to freeze or capture a moment. It’s about this immediate taking of the embodied, taking of the transient, and fixing it. And for me, performance is the exact opposite. It’s an experience where, if you weren’t there, you missed it. There’s a demand that’s made by being in space with another human body that is not possible in any other medium. I don’t know that it’s changed my practice, but I think it’s a great alternative when that sort of immediacy is called for. I think it’s much harder to desensitize ourselves to standing in front of another human being.
I think another thing I’m really interested in is how performance can be integrated into the presentation of visual art objects. I don’t necessarily think of them as separate.
LPK: When you showed the work in 2019 it was in a public space, and now it’s going to be in the MCA’s theater. How do you think this changes the framing of the work?
JB: In any presentation of my work, I consider the particular architecture and cultural context. New Normal is an iterative performance meant to be presented in both public space and stage, but the different contexts change the way the work is experienced. New Normal pairs illusion and endurance as ways of coping with slow violence. In the theater, the idea of illusion is framed differently than in a public space, because our expectations around artifice are different in the theater. This time I’ve amplified certain gestures and moments that reference queer club culture. There’s a moment where we sing an arrangement of “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, and another where a performer has a solo singing “End of the World,” originally sung by Skeeter Davis in the 1960s, and those moments get campier in the theater.
I’m interested in how to create an embodied experience of this concept of “new normal” for the audience as well—I want them to notice a shift in their own physical conditions. In public space the performance and audience comingle, and the space that the audience is standing in gets more and more crowded. In the theater it’s really about the light, which is something I’ve been excited about working with and integrating into the piece. The light will shift very slowly from dark to very light, and the idea is, do you notice? Maybe you notice at the end when things become uncomfortable, but did you notice as it was building and you maybe could have done something?
LPK: What do you hope audiences will leave with after they’ve experienced this work?
JB: Really simply, some amount of empathy for, or reflection on, the things we accept on a daily basis, even if it’s something as small as how the lunch hour gets eaten by emails, or incremental shifts in the deeply urgent issues around the safety of our bodies, or the degradation of the environment, or the rapidly evaporating rights of transgender people. I don’t think the piece is necessarily a call to action as much as a call to awareness, especially for how this slow shift impacts some communities more greatly than others.
Creator Jonas N. T. Becker
Vocal Director Adrian Wood
Performers Reign Drop, Sami Ismat, Julian Terrell Otis, Izah Ransohoff, Ashaan Simone, Jean Wildest
Prop Fabrication Steven Besic and Li-Ming Hu
Lighting Design Matt Sharp
Dramaturgy Aram Atamian, Zachary Nicol
About the Performers
Jonas N. T. Becker (Creator; he/they) makes photographs, videos, and performances that explore how systems of power place value on the body and the resource-rich landscape. His practice is research based, excavating layers of mainstream and marginalized histories, particularly in rural America. Each of Becker’s projects focuses on a specific landscape, drawing attention to interrelated histories and human impact. Becker has exhibited internationally, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Craft Contemporary Los Angeles, Lancaster Museum of Art, and ICA LA, with an upcoming survey exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Recent awards include Magnum Foundation Counter Histories Award, Wexner Artist Residency Award, Ohio State University Humanities Fellowship, Montalvo Art Center Residency, and Six Points Fellowship. Becker works between his home state of West Virginia and Chicago, IL, where he is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Adrian Wood (Music Director; they/them) creates soundscapes, videos, transmissions, and live works that emerge from sonic collisions of identity and landscape. They have been recognized and awarded through institutions including UnionDocs, The University of Michigan, Experimental Sound Studio, and the University of Chicago. Wood currently works as Multimedia Producer with the Repair Lab at the University of Virginia.
Reign Drop (Performer; they/he) is a trans artist, collaborator, and organizer. Over the last six years, they have grown roots in the Chicago dance community focusing on creating sustainable and accessible dance spaces for all ages. They research contemporary movements that demonstrate autonomy, liberation, and connection.
Sami Ismat (Performer; he/him), a Syrian performance and theater research-practitioner, challenges norms via interdisciplinary art shaped by their refugee experience. His work defies conventions, traversing borders and transcending conventional identity notions, and his projects underscore his dedication to narrative transformation. Ismat is a faculty member at Chicago institutions and is a contributing scholar to Deconstructing the Myths of Islamic Art and Arab Stages journal.
Julian Terrell Otis (Performer; he/him), a multidisciplinary artist, creative vocalist, and composer, progressively pushes positive energy into his interests in experimental music, movement, and theater-making. As a vocalist he has worked with George Lewis, Nicole Mitchell, Vijay Iyer, Renee Baker, Douglas R Ewart, Angel Bat Dawid, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, and Chicago Sinfonietta, among others.
Izah Ransohoff (Performer; they/he) is a performance artist and playtime enthusiast. They cohost and curate a variety show called YUCK! that celebrates all things yucky. Ransohoff is a metalworker, ceramicist, raver, and teacher. He has performed at the Hyde Park Art Center, Mana Contemporary, Roman Susan, and Links Hall.
Ashaand Simone (Performer; he/they) specializes in trans audacity. You can catch them in Chicago with Mandala South Asian Performing Arts, Such Creatures, and Ishti Collective. Other favorite credits include work with Nick Cave, Ashwaty Chennat, Yes Ma’am Circus, The Laws Group, Joel Hall Dancers, Two Penguins Productions, Abhijeet, Alix Schillaci, The Fly Honey Show, Haven Theatre, Jarrett Rashad, and Kim Brandt. For more, check them out on Instagram @ashaandti.
Jean Wildest (Performer; he/they) blends dance, burlesque, and circus into engaging movement patterns with heartfelt storytelling. Recent works include Dancing People, an acro chairlesque cowboy number, and Just a Touch, a queer trio piece created with support from the Walder Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Learn more about Wildest’s work at jeanwildest.com.
Steven Besic (Set Carpenter; he/him) works throughout Chicago as a residential finish carpenter and has extensive background as a designer, technician, and stage manager in the city’s vibrant theater community including work with The National Pastime Theater, American Theater Company, and Sideshow, and nationally with the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.
Li-Ming Hu (Prop Fabrication; she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist and former Power Ranger from Aotearoa/New Zealand who is currently based in New York City. She has an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, exhibited at Co-Prosperity, Roots and Culture and Mana Contemporary in Chicago and will be debuting a new performance at The 8th Floor NYC later this year.
Previous Cast and Collaborators: Aram Atamian, Fran E. Gallagher, Li-Ming Hu, Zachary Nicol, Divyamaan Sahoo, Luan Joy Sherman, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste
Special Thanks from the Artist
The New Normal Ensemble thanks January Parkos Arnall for her vision and support bringing this work into being. Thank you to Tara Aisha Willis for supporting the project as part of Chicago Performs, including but not limited to excellent readings, feedback, and all of the best questions. Thank you to Laura Paige Kyber and Sandy Guttman who have cared for the project and tirelessly facilitated its success through Chicago Performs. Thank you both. Thanks to Mana Contemporary and Watershed Art and Ecology for providing us space to develop and grow New Normal. Thanks to the cast, including the previous cast members and collaborators who have continued to support the work from afar, and the current cast, who have expanded the performance in new ways—thank you for your commitment and energy! A particular thanks for the creative partnership of vocal director Adrian Wood. This project was developed through ongoing support from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, beginning with the work’s presentation during MCA In Progress and through Chicago Performs this past summer, and I am extremely grateful for the institution’s creative partnership and commitment to New Normal. This work is dedicated to my mother Judith Transue and child Ocean Transue, and all the generations who have worked for change.
The MCA’s headline performance series On Stage returns in Spring 2024 with Resonance, featuring works by four artists exploring how our lived experiences are voiced in society with sonorous force. More information coming soon.
Chicago Performs is supported by The New Works Initiative, which puts the creative process at the heart of the MCA’s relationship with Chicago by supporting the development of new performances and creative projects. Lead support for the New Works Initiative is provided by Elizabeth A. Liebman.
Lead support for the 2023–24 season of MCA Performance and Public Programs is also provided by Elizabeth A. Liebman.
Generous support is provided by Ginger Farley and Bob Shapiro, Martha Struthers Farley and Donald C. Farley, Jr. Family Foundation, N.A., Trustee; Susan Manning and Doug Doetsch; Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund; and an anonymous donor.
Additional generous support is provided by Diane Kahan and Anne L. Kaplan.
The MCA is a proud member of the Museums in the Park and receives major support from the Chicago Park District.