by Douglas Ashford


by Ángela Sánchez de Vera


by Dani Sanchis


by Derek Bentley


by Juanli Carrión


Robbins childs


ARTSCAPE:We are now at the New Museum in N.Y. with Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs, members of the artistic group Robbinschilds, which started in 2003. We’re going to discuss their work, especially in its relation to this issue’s focus.

Surrealism may be considered the first art movement that centered on dreams, which these artists saw as performing deconstructive operations on reality. In your work, Seriously Heavy (I hurt myself hurting you), you seem to be performing an analogous operation, reconstructing the world of the emotions, dismembering and projecting them over a living architecture. Am I understanding this correctly? Or perhaps I should say, more simply, could you tell me a little bit about your symbolism?

ROBBINSCHILDS:To give you a quick background, we knew we wanted to make a piece. Ideas were stirring around. We were both going through sort of personal dark times. Both of us separately, but sort of simultaneously. We had, previously to that piece, always created our [own] set, so we would build a set environment for a performance, and that is where I think we began a shared interest in the sort of built environment or architecture. So we were thinking about how we would want to build something like all of these sand dunes out of some kind of material.

I think, just to interject, that we had a preexisting conceptual idea of unsteady surfaces, of uneven topography, of ups and downs, of high and low places. Then Sonya ended up going to a party at this skateboarding bowl, called Autumn Skate Bowl. And she said, “You’ve got to see this space.” It kind of resonated with us as a better space than a space we could create ourselves.

And also the space is … the construction of the bowl. It’s made of wood, so it has an organic quality like a sand dune. It just happens to be concave rather than with a high place. And also it’s housed inside of a turn-of-the-century, turn-of-the-19th-century warehouse. So the setting, the warehouse itself, is a really incredible space. And then to go inside the warehouse and find another incredible environment, it was just layers of interesting places, which, again, in a traditional theater you’re not going to have that kind of surprise.

So that was what attracted us initially to working with that kind of topography or cavity, and I think the symbolic nature that it took on happened after we had decided.


Still from C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience) (2007). Courtesy the artists and Taxter & Spengemann.

So, maybe we are talking about an accidental or “found” symbolism, in the way the Surrealists talked of found objects?

Like when you’re making anything that exists in an actual place. It’s all hypothetical until you’re actually working in the space itself. So until we really got into the bowl and started to work within the actual environment … It was difficult. There were splinters in the floor. It was painful. It’s not a firm dance floor. There’s a sort of hard metal rim around the whole bowl. There were skaters in there all the time, and we’d sort of share the space. And we’d get in and rehearse at 7 in the morning.

A lot about it was challenging. It definitely infused … Aside from what was happening for us personally, I think the act of making that dance was particularly hard, and it infused that personality into the piece itself.

It was definitely our darkest work we had ever made, and I think our most emotional work that we had ever made at that point. So I think the symbolic marriage between our idea, our conceptual ideas of just space … We were interested in the sand dune and the topography and then we found that it sort of coalesced with our emotional state. The difficulty of working in that space created kind of the personality, or the aura, or feeling around that work. So I think, like you were saying, it had an evolution.

In your work, there is an obsession with certain kinds of spaces. And if there is a symbolism involved, it could be, as in Seriously Heavy, the symbolism of the space. In other Works, there’s another symbolism with other objects and architecture. But, overall, I see a link between the architecture and emotions.

To summarize – ‘more than just Seriously Heavy, but thinking about all the works we’ve created – the architecture is less emotionally symbolic. We take a very stylized approach into whether it’s creating the space or finding a space that appeals to us. There’s always an aesthetic choice there that’s beyond symbolizing anything, but which is just an interest in the space itself.

I think, as an extension of that, that we talk a lot about an energy imprint that’s left in a space. So that there’d be an architecture of a hallway or a hotel ballroom, and we think about it as layers of time of an imprint that would happen in that space. Almost like architecture imitating geology, and the erosion of something or the building of something, or the shifting of some kind of tectonic plate idea. So we’re interested in the shifting nature of space, as it’s affected by a human touch, then reading that temperature, that environment, and creating a piece that puts together an amalgamation of different times, within either a real space or an imaginary space, or even a combination of spaces, because in Half Space, we made a piece that wasn’t supposed to depict a certain hotel ballroom. It was sort of this idea of multiple spaces overlapping.

Much in the way that if you take – and New York’s a great example of this – any city or place where there are layers of use on an existing building, not only different layers of a single space, but making a hybrid space [such as] between an airport or a hotel. That was the most imaginary piece we made, where we were borrowing from lots of different elements and combining them.

According to Derrida, in one aspect, deconstruction examines how a conceptual structure is created from the fusion of historical processes and metaphorical accumulations. What appears pristine and evident in the structure is illusionary. The structure is rather a palimpsest with various layers showing through the surface for those who know how to look. This is what you touched on when you talked of spaces that accumulate sediments of human use. Can we apply this concept to the reality of your art. Is this part of your process?

I’m glad it’s a hard question, because what it brings up for me is that we don’t have a uniform process for our works, and I think we’re only becoming more aware of that now that we’ve gone through some cycles. Of course there are similarities, and there are obsessions, and motifs that are repeating…

[There’s] a thread line that comes through all of the works, that other people sometimes tell us [they see]. … [People will be] telling us, “Oh, you’ve made these associations between the pieces.” We’re just now starting to understand what the evolution of our process has been.

We’re both thinking about this a lot right now because we are creating a new performance piece that we will do in May. The process that we’re working in for this new piece feels radically different from [that of] some of the previous works. I actually think that’s a very conscious intention of ours, at the moment, to try as much as we can to stay very aware of process and of how we can work in different ways in our process. In terms of the process of Rope or Seriously Heavy or C.L.U.E.

I would say, that we began making works together, [and] I think our approach came from the fact that we had danced together in college, we’ve known each other for many years. So we’ve been kind of growing together, growing into finding what our ideas really are. So when we began in 2003 with this piece, Rope, at the beginning of working as a collaborative duo, a huge part of our process is that we are two people, one of us has a thought, we immediately share it with the other, which gives the other one an idea, which immediately starts a process of deconstruction, because it has to be unpacked.

[So] it’s already a conversation. That’s a huge part of what makes us who we are, this constant dialogue that we have. A huge part of our work is the talking: idea, idea, idea, back and forth. It becomes very symbiotic, where we can finish the thought for each other. That’s very rich for us. We get a lot of stimulation. Sometimes I have an idea and it’s just a seed and I could develop it a little further, but I would rather share it while it’s really nascent and fresh.

And that is the style of our collaboration. There are other forms of collaboration, which are much more separate, where you do a piece and you do a piece. But that’s not the process in which we work, which is very fused.

We worked similarly until we worked on Seriously Heavy, where we found a space instead of creating a space. But before we had done Seriously Heavy, we had filmed for this piece C.L.U.E., that you saw at the New Museum, and in that piece, that opened up a whole other realm, which was to be very responsive, to respond to what was actually there. We had done that by creating a set and then responding to it. But it was all our own idea, so the response was almost less open-ended. So when we went out into landscape and natural space and human-made spaces out in the West and in New York, upstate, we were opening up our process. We had created a language, a dialogue of movements that we brought with us, and a color wheel that we used to anchor the piece, and what ended up happening inside of that was very magical.

It also taught us to appreciate the role spontaneity has in time-based art forms. Prior to that we had been very controlling about how our work was seen and how we created the work, very specific. There’s a big through line in performance starting from the ’60s of using improvisation. That was not an interest of ours previously. Going into the real world and being forced to respond to the spontaneous events of an uneven surface started planting a seed of interest in the idea of improvisation and of allowing something different or unexpected to happen.

Looking at the through lines that do exist in our process, [we see] the interest of letting there be room for something unexpected or new to come up, since Seriously Heavy, and in C.L.U.E., and now in our new piece, that’s guiding us in our rehearsal process.

To try to come back to the realm of the symbolic, or deconstruction of ideas, when you’re working in a non-narrative form (we sometimes use language, but we don’t think of it as narrative), you are allowing the residue of actual things that have happened to you, combined with your conceptual ideas, to come out. I don’t think that we actually think about things so symbolically, but there are segments of true things that get codified into a personal language and those symbols wouldn’t necessarily be something that would be obvious or known to other people, but become assimilated in us as having meaning and then those pieces get put together for a performance work. So that’s a little bit of a distinction from an actual symbol, but there are little bits of material being made.


Seriously Heavy (i hurt myself hurting you). Courtesy of the artist. Photos by A. L. Steiner.

When I see your work, in my opinion, one very interesting aspect is the use of corridors, connecting spaces, public space, vestibules, all of which are places of transit. And in these spaces you create emotional textures. For me it’s both disturbing and attractive. Because corridors or other places of passing through are not usually imagined as containing emotions or significant human actions.

If we use the airport corridor as an example … it’s a space between other spaces. It’s like a suspensión. But if you think about what dance or performance is, you’re watching something for the most part in motion. There are static moments in a performance that are used to create rhythm between motion, or to suspend something and get your attention.

I think [by the way] a big reason why people can feel alienated by dances, [is] they’re looking for something specific to latch onto, some certain meaning, but it’s actually a fluid way of understanding something, [not a specific meaning].

A corridor is a very imaginative space, when you’re going somewhere, there’s a lot of potential energy.

I would say that what you’re describing is a question of temporality or of noticing time. That’s something that interests us in performance. When people make performances of people just standing, even if they’re not in motion, what you, as a viewer, are being asked to do, is notice time and [in that piece] the time is what is in motion. So we’re noticing this moment is static for a long time and just the fact that I’m noticing the time passing is making it interesting.

That aspect of performance is very attractive to us, to play with your perception of time and actually getting back into an essential state where we’re noticing the micro-shifts of time.

I agree that, generally, as people move from point A to point B, whether that’s through a corridor or a sidewalk, or even spending a night in a hotel, anything that feels transitional, or anonymous, they’re not going to be maybe as aware of time in those spaces. So, for us, it’s like a fusion of a place where you might ignore the passage of time, where you’re not that connected to your body or your place, and overlaying it with asking you to be aware and present, the way we are in a theater, ideally.

What we’re working on right now is the furthest stretch away from this way of thinking. You really should come to the show. It’s really different. It’s not about a place at all. We’ve taken away the actual place, and it’s existing in a conceptual place.

In your piece C.L.U.E., while dissecting the visual color spectrum, you dissect the light that constructs reality. It’s a little bit like Half Space, but with quotidian objects, but also with an edge of Surrealism. Could you describe how that work evolved from the beginning? Was it all worked through carefully or were there sudden inspirations that caused you to change direction?

I think the shift happened while we were filming, because [remember] the project is in multiple tiers. There’s a video, there’s a performance with a video, and there are multiple different performances that we’ve done, so there’s no one finished completed version of C.L.U.E. It’s more like a way of being or seeing, like an entry point.

We had a very specific idea when we first envisioned making a video piece and we prepared to carry out that idea. Then, when we were shooting, actually creating footage, that’s when we had to embrace the spontaneity of being out in the real world, and responding. It was great. We were happy to embrace it and it infused our ideas and took them even further.

Then, coming back and editing the video, for me, it did really reflect a lot of the initial ideas I had. So the creation of the footage was [also] one stage of the piece, the conceiving of the project was another, and the editing of the project was another, and then creating a live performance was another. Each strand had different life spans and processes, but the thing that was most surprising for me about parrying my original idea with an outcome of sorts was in the creation of the live performance. The creation of the video was more than I could have imagined, but it was vaguely what I was imagining. The creation of the performance, and maybe this is true with live performance in general, was hugely surprising. And it’s only now that we’ve had another cycle of performing C.L.U.E. here at the New Museum that I have a better understanding of what aspects are successful in the performance, and what aspects were less successful.

I wanted to just talk about the idea of the surreal a little bit, too, because sometimes we talk about C.L.U.E. as being almost within the psychedelic realm, so we can find different words for this feeling, almost a heightened awareness. Something that I think happened to us in the filming of that project was that when we were out in these incredible environments – sometimes incredible because they were beautiful, or sometimes incredible because they were so ugly, and equally incredible in both of those places, or even in a really mundane place, or ugly in a way like the Home Depot, but very much a part of our “now” cultural experience – was something about going into the use of these monochromatic color-coded costumes. Yes, we were wearing a monochromatic same color costume, Sonny and I in each scene, but the costume was almost like a lens to see through, so that the viewer is looking at us in the costume, but it’s almost like the costume gave us the ability to see on a heightened level, so that perception becomes larger. And I think that that does in some ways translate in the experience of the viewer.

And also [there’s] just the joy of a road trip, the feeling of going to place after place after place. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom in that and joy in that kind of expression. So that’s not really surreal, but I think the use of color does open up a portal into another dimensión [as does] the arrangement of the way we edit it, so that at one moment we’re in one environment, and we snap into another environment, but we’re still wearing the same color, doing the same action or dance, so we string together those realms.

That was always an original idea from the first moment of conception, in that sense. I don’t know that we labeled it as a surreal esthetic, but I agree with you that it is, and that it is defying logic and it’s absurd, like how could you get to all these places, but that element was always there for C.L.U.E., right from the beginning. We imagined sequencing the material in that way, then, of course, a million decisions were made in the editing room, as to how to produce it, but as a concept that you could sort of be a time traveler or a space traveler, which is the power of film editing. For me, that was why I wanted to make a video piece, because, when we’re dealing with the reality of the theater, you don’t have that liberty of cutting and pasting.


Images of the intallation of C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience) at The New Museum (2008). Courtesy the artists and Taxter & Spengemann. Installation photos by Benoit Pailley.

You say you want to explore the relationship between human being and landscape, and the freedom that exists in their union, in contrast with consumerism and banal architecture. What do you mean when you say banal architecture?

Something that occurred to me is that the very first thing we ever did with video was way back when we were buying some set props in a Home Depot aisle, again in a corridor, and A.L. Steiner was shooting the video and we started performing some of our dance material in the Home Depot – it doesn’t get more banal than a gigantic box store, especially in America – and we were instantly attracted [to that].

There was something so absurd about us doing our odd dance in this environment. It was just such an unlikely combination of somebody pushing their cart next to us as we’re doing our little dance together.

In our lives as people we feel pretty politically identified, but our work isn’t political. But in this way I think it is a political statement to do something like dance which is so human, so organic and so unagressive – we got kicked out of the Home Depot – but to do it in a banal place, like a superstore or a mall, or a parking lot, whatever it is where you’re sort of dwarfed by a consumer mentality and a set of rules that as a shopper you have to abide by. We were breaking those rules, in such a gentle way we were breaking those rules, but it was clear [we were breaking them] when we were at the supermarket in L.A. [and] we got kicked out of there.

The camera is really the issue these days. In certain spaces you’re not allowed to film. That was even interesting to discover. That is why we appreciate what would look banal. It’s an interesting backdrop for us. We feel like it juxtaposes nicely.

I like this idea of contrast. In conclusion, could you talk about upcoming projects?

We have a working title, Sonya and Layla Go Camping, this is sort of a reference to a film by Jacques Rivette called Celine and Julie Go Boating.

We were working with performance and video in this work, with a group. It’s the two of us and four other performers, so we’re working in a group dynamic, which we haven’t done in a while because we’ve been working with C.L.U.E. for a long time. So we’re really opening up our process of working to include a lot of input from our other performers. I don’t think we want to say too much about the work. We’re exploring process in that work, our own process and the process of making performance.

We’ve also made a new video piece that will be screened as part of that performance. That video is very much our own video work, but it has a lot of inspiration from that film by Jacques Rivette. We’re referencing aspects of that film, which we found interesting and potent for what we’re thinking about right now, but it’s a very very different type of project than C.L.U.E.

I want to ask one further question. All your business is as part of a collective. I think the performing arts need collectives. But can you tell me something about working with other people. How do you find the musicians, the video editor, and so on?

What we don’t do anymore, in terms of traditionally, from a dance perspective, we don’t have auditions for performers. We did that a long time ago. In terms of the people we want to work with who are performing our work live, I think we’re attracted to a quality of person-ness that somebody can bring to the stage, so that they’re not so much a blank performer but they are themselves completing a physical act. We’re just not attracted to sameness necessarily. We’re interested in people remaining somewhat who they are, which doesn’t mean that they’re going to act like themselves necessarily, but in their bodies, in their physicality especially, while we love a certain amount of technique, and all of that is important, we don’t want that to weigh down the material itself, so that would be for the performers’ collaboration. I think we work with people we feel inspired by.

For the video we were collaborating with Steiner who we edited the video with. We have a personal history with her and with AJ Blandford, so it’s partly that we just work with our friends, and Steiner is a visual artist with a lot of experience. She makes video work as well as photography. That was a natural, organic process.

The one thing that was really incredible for us was working with Kinski, the Seattle-based band that made the sound for C.L.U.E. This is a little sidebar. AJ had just heard them play live in Los Angeles right before we went out on the road trip to shoot, so she brought the CD. None of us had heard them and we were just obsessed with it and played it out of the car while we filmed the whole time, just in love with it. It was just the perfect sound. So when we started editing, we started using their music, knowing we would have to get permission, but we just couldn’t imagine it being with anything else.

Because it had become the sound track of the process of making the footage, so when it came to editing, it was so present in our minds from the memory of shooting, and I do think that the sound for C.L.U.E. and the images of C.L.U.E are in perfect harmony, and that’s just one of those magical things that happened. But since we didn’t know them, we had to do some footwork to try to make contact and ask for permission and reach out. And who are these wacky performers who are saying, “We’re working on a video and using your music and would you look at it … and our dream is that one day you come and perform with us …”

At first we thought, they’re going to think we’re insane, and they finally watched the video and loved it and were so flattered by it and ended up coming and creating an original score for our live work at P.S. 122 last year. That was one of those creative dreams, where you think I just want this thing, it’s so wonderful and I feel so lucky that we got to have that experience live with them, that was just like a really joyous convergence.

Last Friday, I was at the Film Forum to see Made in the USA. And I kept seeing connections to your work. In this film, there’s a woman who appears in a specific place, a very photographic place, and then she jumps to another place and another place. All these places are very colorful like in C.L.U.E.

You might also want to see Celine and Julie Go Boating, this film that we saw. It’s three and a half hours long, experimental, kind of wacky. It’s a little messy, but there are some really interesting ideas in the film. It’s a film with two women as the characters that take you through both reality and Surrealism, so I think you would enjoy it.

Thank you very much, I hope I meet you another time at the Kitchen.

Past Number 00