April-May 2013

Joshua Lubin-Levy’s correspondence with Dean Moss


What about the "Calvinist" sects made them such "doers"?  So much so that that they pushed out both into the frontier and to the forefront of many social issues. (the exception being the role of women, but in the case of pioneer women and abolitionist women even that sensibility was effectively challenged)  I'm interested in the greater effects of radical activism: how do we benefit over time? What are the processes, are they the same or different than now, and in what ways?  It's not lost on me that part of the process of humanizing the slave was granting it the christian god.


Here's the research on Calvinism.  I'm not quite used to delivering research in this format so let me know if this is useful. 

What about the Calvinist Sect made them such doers?

The doer quality of the Calvinist sects is an interesting conundrum, given the foundations of Calvin’s thought.  Against the ritual and ceremony of earlier religious iterations, Calvinism marks this profound turn towards scripture alone and toward a more ascetic style of worship.  Marked by the belief that one was either elect or non-elect, that nothing one did could get one into God’s favor, Calvinism took this hard edge belief in predestination and the utter autonomy of God.  That is to say, human activity was all too human to be considered capable of intervening in God’s plan – God was entirely sovereign and it was foolish to think repentance or ritual could impact that sovereign power. 

So the question necessarily arises, if everything is predestined, why do anything at all?  There are a few ways people have read this.  Perhaps the most famous and foundational is Max Weber’s argument that Calvinism gave rise to “a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” such that becoming a doer was partially about mitigating against this loneliness.  Part of this was the fact that if no one could be sure whether they were saved or not-saved, then acting like you were saved, performing your agency to do God’s work was perhaps part of “counteracting feelings of religious anxiety” (67).  Weber describes this sense of working in a calling, and working as a kind of individualism that mascquerades as for the common good, as the foundation of American Capitalism.

Another component of Weber’s argument is that the doer quality, or what Weber calls labour in a calling, is part of participating in God’s plan for the world by demonstrating one’s capacity to participate within a social order and to work towards a common (rather than individual) good - “labour in a calling which serves the mundane life of the community” (64).  Doing God’s work and working for the common good were often indistinguishable in this way. Furthermore, within the predestined world, sin was no longer a weakness that could be overcome but a sign of one’s contamination and non-electness – thus the sinners were not merely in need of repenting but were actually a threat to one’s own sense of being part of the elect. 

That’s all to say, doing seems to have had this two fold meaning for the Calvinists.  On the one hand it demonstrated or conveyed a sense of certainty (which could be related to the idea of being certain one was already following God’s plan, doing God’s work).  On the other hand, it seemed to be about bringing about the destiny or future laid out by God, working towards the goal that supposedly certain future in which one’s salvation would be confirmed.  This is also, of course, against the backdrop of religions in which either ritual/ceremony could alter this preordained future, and in which the elites (monarch, the educated, the upper class) received more religious favor than the rest.  Calvinism was a validation of the common man, the poor, the working classes, as the truly Godly. 

What made Calvinists push out into the Frontier?

Pushing into the frontier has to be tied to the sense of predestination and the doctrine of manifest destiny.  Part of this push also has to do with the fact that Calvinism and similar sects were far more mobile than other religions.  Based on the primacy of scripture and the sovereignty of God (rather than the physical and central church itself), congregations could form quite literally anywhere a preacher picked up a bible and began preaching.  Furthermore, because these Calvinist sects promoted the individual’s authority to interpret the bible for himself and thereby democratize religious practice (taking it out of the hands of the educated an the elite), part of what allowed for religion in the New World was simply the capacity to find oneself a congregation – and the Frontier was of course an important component of that religious expansion.

What seems interesting about this, and towards your point about radicalism over time, is the way it works almost in a parasitic way.  For example, the doctrine of predestination and of turning towards scripture alone (which is Calvinism) allowed for a radical break from the institution of the Church of England and other denominations built around monarchy, hierarchy, social class, education and a general sense of elitism.  Predestination put religion back in the hands of the common man and allowed for new faith to spring up and challenge old doctrine – so you have wildly proliferating sects of Christianity throughout the New World.  Of course, once new churches are built and frontier land occupied, the principles of manifest destiny and predestination become a threat to the very thing they helped build.  If new churches are to sustain they have to work against the spirit of independence that allowed for their creation.  Equality and democracy latched onto the historical conditions of early American settlers, eventually becoming the foundation of the nation, and in that sense consuming its host (to return the parasitic metaphor I can’t quite shake).  Just to note as well, while Calvinism was this radical break, in the mid 1800s there was a strong backlash against Calvinism as too stringent, too predestined – and Methodism, Free Will Baptism and other sects began to critique the growing the institutionalization of Calvinism, that once rogue religious force.

“The ideology of "manifest destiny" that emerged in the 1840s and inspired the policy of westward expansion through the remainder of the century was an outgrowth of this newly millenarian form of Calvinist providentialism. The man who coined the term, journalist John L. O'Sullivan, insisted that it was "by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government."” – See: http://www.newrepublic.com/blog/damon-linker/calvin-and-american-exceptionalism#

Pioneer Women, Abolitionist Women, Radical Activism and Calvinism?

The question of the “radical” is a tough notion to speak to, if not least because radicalism seems to be so contextual.  We can find examples of theories of radicalism dating way back in philosophical thought.  Here I’m thinking of Lucretius where he attempts to theorize how change happens and he develops a concept that was utterly rejected at the time that the world is made up of particles like raindrops and when they swerve a change occurs (many have called this the precursor to modern physics) – Karl Marx then pick ups Lucretius and writes a dissertation on him that leads to his own theorization of capitalism and the agency of the revolutionary worker, who is the worker that becomes conscious of his own condition, in some sense become the human that swerves from the status quo.  So radical begetting radical across the span of hundreds of years maybe?

But more concretely, there is certainly an association between Calvinism and democracy and egalitarian principles.  Nathan O. Hatch writes brilliantly about the way the principles of the American Revolution, as a revolt against hierarchy and tradition, suffused the religious culture of America with a sense that the nation’s only future was in the capacity to meet each other as free human beings (rather than in being able to access its history or tradition).  That notion gets complicated easily where ‘free’ does not mean liberated by any means, but rather free to exercise God’s plan.  So some argued that freedom meant equality for people.  Some argued freedom was in God’s predestined “racial order” found in slavery.  Even within the different religious sects, there was no necessary agreement over social and political issues such as slavery – especially because within the proliferating of religious culture the primary principle was to establish the right of every individual to think and act for himself, and especially to interpret the scripture for him or herself. 

From Hatch: “The passion for equality during these years equaled the passionate rejection of the past.  Rather than looking backward and clinging to an older moral economy, insurgent religious leaders espoused convictions that were essentially modern and individualistic.  These convictions defied elite privilege and vested interests and anticipated a millennial dawn of equality and justice. Yet, to achieve these visions of the common good, they favored means inseparable from the individual’s pursuit of spiritual and temporal well-being.  They assumed that the leveling of aristocracy, root and branch, would naturally draw people together in harmony and equality. In this way, religious movements eager to preserve the supernatural in everyday life had the ironic effect of accelerating the break-up of traditional society and the advent of a social order of competition, self-expression, and free enterprise.  In this moment of democratic aspiration, religious leaders could not foresee that their assault upon mediating structures could produce a society in which grasping entrepreneurs could erect new forms of tyranny in religious, political, and economic institutions.” (14)

With Calvinism God’s plan became a universal force that did not require the sanctity of more ritualized religions to access.  No elect pope, simply a successful preacher who could rally a crowd and inspire them to listen.  Alongside the notion that everyone was to think and act for themselves, and in the service of the common good, the quality of leadership became particularly important.  Certain religious movements took hold mainly because of the theatricality of the preachers.  This appreciation for leadership certain wasn’t limited in its social scope – an in fact the educated and elite fell under attack as corrupt when it came to speaking the word of God.  I haven’t come across any information on female preachers, (though of course the active involvement of women in the abolitionist movement certain has a relation to the sense of equality and liberty that all would share within) but there are well documented Black Church leaders that arose during this time.  Certainly there was resistance not to mention backlash, as the egalitarian church brought Christianity to everyone the white congregants began to enforce stricter social prohibitions against who could and could not worship together, not to mention heating up the debate about slavery within the church itself.  The proslavery sentiment actually increased after the early 1800s.  In response Black preachers increasingly expounded the independence of the Black church, and though this segregation maybe have been forcefully put into place, the foundation of religious services for slaves became an extremely important site for congregating outside the surveillance of the white slave owners, and particularly a site for political organizing. 

What are the processes of Radical Activism then and now?

A lot of church organizing in the US seems to come out of the sense that religion should be non-heirarchical and all encompassing, so that young preachers could preach wherever a congregations could be found, regardless of class status or social belonging.  Outsiders were welcome as they could create a groundswell of political and religious activity that was at the root of any movement.  The point being that individual and collective agency abounded such that “religious populism, reflecting the passions of ordinary people and the charisma of democratic movement-builders, remains among the oldest and deepest impulses in American life” (Hatch 5).  It was here that American Revolution and the principles of American Democracy took root not only on the basis of equality but of casting off tradition, of rejecting the need to look back in order to establish the present, but rather began looking forward towards the destiny of oneself as well as of the nation. Within this climate there was a rising distrust of any leader or empowered individual – thus leadership both arose and changed hands quickly.  The church was seen as a liberating force, one that gave God back to the common man and began to take his daily life seriously (admitting his dreams, for instance, as having a religious meaning), and most importantly a force that derived its power not from tradition but from its capacity to produce and retain an audience. 

Sources and Other Reading Notes

John T. McNeill. McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism, first published in 1954

Sacvan Bercovitch has an interesting thesis in American Jeremiad  that the basic premise or question for American religious culture became not “who are we” but rather “when will our mission be fulfilled?” The expectation of participating in a destiny or predestined future, rather than in looking for meaning and purpose of one’s life within the present, seems to reverberate across radical social movements.  Such movements often seem to focus on the future come.  Even MLK, after the passing of the first Civil Rights Acts in 1964/65, gave a speech titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” illustrating the need to outline a new horizon for action.  

Nathan O. Hatch The Democratization of American Christianity

Max Weber The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Edmund S. Morgan The Meaning of Independence:

  John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson

Albert J. Raboteau “The Black Experience in American Evangelism:

  The Meaning of Slavery” in The Evangelical Tradition in America

Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Modernity Donald G. Mathews

Research for johnbrown

gametophyte inc.home.html

August 2013

Marya Warshaw asks Dean Moss a question:


“Why do you want teens in johnbrown?”


Things don’t come to me all at once or maybe they do but I fail understand them all at once and have to sift through multiple layers of ideas, feelings and experience, to gain a modicum of understanding. It takes time. So at the beginning the sought for solution wasn’t at all about teens. It was this conceptual thrashing for a way to incorporate an essential aspect of audience participation. One that forwarded my practice in its exploration of self and other.

The investigation of viewer participation in my work has gone from a passive touring of an ongoing performance, to taking on the role of performers, to mirroring the artist/audience interplay as a utopic creative community.  In all cases the viewer/participant entered a work created to articulate their onstage experience for access to a vulnerability unattainable by professional performers. The goal of these works was to generate a layered visceral/intellectual experience for both on and off stage audiences. Still the metaphor was of the performers (self) presenting the audience participant (other) in an act of transition initiation, or becoming as part of the work itself (self). Resulting in a hierarchical but well digested metaphoric equation where other = self, and self is constant.

johnbrown was somewhat different. Because it considers a figure in history and evaluates a legacy, I saw myself and my practice as an outsider looking in: as other.  But it was not an other in a transition to self (becoming/depicting John Brown or his legacy) as in past works, rather it was in transition to another other: fractured into time/space/race/politic distorted reference points.  It took awhile to realize the deeper implication of the difference: that perhaps this work needed a circumstance where self was neither centralized point nor conceptual solution, but just another other.  That democratizing insight changed the nature of audience participation in the production, flipping it from us articulating them, to them articulating us.  Resulting in a more horizontal ideation where other = other, change is constant, and self’s a processing error.

But what does this have to do with teens? In manifesting a decentralized viewpoint for the performance of johnbrown several strategies were put into place. They involve a segmented structure, the use of multidisciplinary elements, and most relevantly a cross generational perspective, that allows the work a certain paradox.  As one part of the the production looks back 150+ years to assess and reflect upon historical figures, another part projects forward that process of looking, assimilated and revalued by young people at least a generation younger from the production’s creators. By thus assigning the role of arbiter to unfettered teens, the work is enabled to draw parallels not only to the immediate audience experience, but to the broad dissemination of change through culture over time.

To achieve this dynamic it’s crucial that the teens are intimate with the production: as technical assistants, documentarians, commentators, and audience doppelgängers. That they engage physically with craft and rigorous aesthetic process; discourse on history, otherness, the power of radical compassion.  That they share in the idealism of the work and thereby its risk of failure.  Because in high-level risk and the idealistic attempt to surmount it one can discover selflessness and its role in the ability to achieve change. This is the same fundamental process that forced from the abolitionist a deeper sense of reflection and magnified his impact.  The teens through their participation help mirror that process in johnbrown, and that is why I want them.


February 21, 2014

Performers Interviewed by Sarah Holcman:

Dance in Process (DiP) Artist Dean Moss and the performers of his newest work, johnbrown, talk with Sarah Holcman about the legacy of the controversial abolitionist, personal histories, and the development of the work through an extended creative process.

In conversation here are Dean Moss and performers Kacie Chang, Julia Cumming, Cassie Mey, Sari Nordman, and Asher Woodworth.

Sarah: The work is titled johnbrown. I know the story of John Brown. I know he’s a white abolitionist. I get the sense, based on the way Dean works and other things I’ve read about the piece, that this is not a narrative or telling of John Brown’s life.

Kacie: It’s a reflection on the legacy of John Brown, more than anything else. It’s more like a coloring of what formed him or how we think of him now.

Julia: We are all familiar with John Brown’s legacy. But this piece has a lot of aspects, like the play that Tom Bradshaw wrote, that touch on his personal life, his marital relationships, etc. which are not touched on other works. So it’s different in that way.

Cassie: It’s also about human beings and our relationship to history in a broader stroke and the way that we reflect back and carry the weight of history forward in our own bodies and experiences. I was thinking of the word “conjuring;” to me it’s like a conjuring of energy and a conjuring of radical action and what it means to stand up for what you believe in and to be a vulnerable human while events are unfolding around you and how you interact with the largeness of the structures that say who you are.

Sari: I guess in some ways John Brown could be an artist who has a concept for something, an idea, and he struggled and I think that can relate to us as people. So there’s the history but then there’s also the personal struggle and the artistic or conceptual struggle of wanting to create something or change the world or give meaning to something.

Sarah: How do these ideas resonate with you in work you’re doing outside of this process, in your personal life or other artistic projects?

Sari: Of course Dean influences me a lot. (All laugh.) The logical way of thinking, and seeing the layers of work. That’s its not just about putting steps together but seeing how things relate to each other.

Cassie: There’s a conceptual overlay in having worked on the piece for so long, with the amount of time that we’ve spent. It makes the language, even the language with which we speak to each other in rehearsal, what comes out, what is viewed, it’s a rich language and it has so many threads that interweave throughout the piece and I’m sure that comes into my life. It’s hard to articulate.

Asher: In working with Dean there has been this kind of play back and forth in the process between how closely the work is to a historical framework, or the historical events that surrounded John Brown’s life, the events at Harpers Ferry, etc., and something entirely different, something much more universal, that could emerge through an artist’s struggle in trying to make something. There’s an incredible universality to the themes that we’re working with. But what’s so interesting is that Dean insists…he gets really nitty gritty about particular historical details sometimes. And it should be said, part of this process is coming to grips with what we’re doing and not always knowing ahead of time. And I suspect, insisting on that specificity, that historical reference, is because it acts as a tool to create something that is universal but also tangible that actually conveys the legacy of John Brown or whatever larger themes that are at play.

Sarah: I’m interested to know what kind of research you’re each doing when you’re not in the studio with Dean.

Sari: I saw a Civil War photography exhibit with Dean at the Met. I saw a war photography exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that was more recent history. That was interesting information, seeing the grief, people getting killed, the destruction. But then there’s the heroism, the heroes coming back home, who is waiting at home, and we saw that in the photos.

Kacie: I’ve been reading a lot of books about John Brown from different perspectives and books about that time period out West. About the Comanche, the frontier, what that experience would have been like living in Kansas, what life was like in that time period. How stark and violent it was. That puts into context what he did.

Asher: When I leave here I live in Maine; I grow food and I work on a boat and I consider that to be quite rich research for this process that goes directly into my body. It’s not intellectualized research. I’ve also been reading about John Brown. We also read about the Calvinists – John Brown was a Calvinist – about the work ethic and his choices and how God informed his life. That is really fascinating but then there’s this other type of research. The vocabulary that I’m doing in the piece has to do with manual labor. So when I’m getting my hands dirty and then I come back into the studio I bring that with me and when I’m out there there’s an awareness that those things are connected.

Julia: You can do a certain amount of research and know about the events that took place in his life but once you get that down, you build your relationship with who you think he was and take inspiration from that. There are so many different ways to feel about how controversial he was. So you take what you can to be inspired and think about how he was an artist in what he did.

Sarah: Dean, your last collaboration with Laylah [Ali] was in 2005. Was there any activity between then and now? What prompted the re-convening?

Dean: While we were doing the piece in 2005, Laylah had mentioned John Brown. She had kind of discovered him; she was really interested in him. She also really liked the process that we had created and so she had this idea to approach a performative circumstance that explores John Brown. But that was many years ago, and a whole other piece happened - two pieces happened - between then and now. And so a lot else went on. 

The last piece (figures on a field) was based on her work; it was based on her Greenheads series of paintings. This was based… She had an idea of John Brown and I had an idea of John Brown and we started smashing those two ideas together and what you’re seeing now is a kind of…  I think her role has changed in relation to the current work. Laylah comes in now more as a consultant than a collaborator.

The work has taken a very particular turn because of the group of people I’m working with now initially were going to be a different group of people. But because it turned out to be these specific people, their histories and backgrounds, it turned into a much richer circumstance. I don’t think it would have ever been a mundane or didactic “let’s just talk about John Brown, hero of the Civil War”. He’s not that kind of guy, and this work is not that kind of work, and I’m not that kind of guy either. But, and I hand it back to my dancers because the work has grown up around them and they’ve had incredible input into what the work touches upon. This [gesturing toward the dancers] collaboration is by far the most potent collaboration. It makes the work what it is.

Sarah: Kacie, you have a long history with Dean. Can you talk about how this process has evolved over time with different iterations of the work being shown at Danspace Project and MoMA? How has it changed as different performers have entered or left the process?

Kacie: When Dean first started talking about making this work, we spent a lot of time referencing an earlier work that we had done together, american deluxe. There was a relationship between the legacy of John Brown, the radicalism, and the effort to change the world, the effort to effect change and his relationship to violence that had a lot to do with american deluxe, so we brought a lot of that material in. The process has been a kind of shredding of that material and going to the bare bones of it. So what was very personal becomes more universal and about our circumstance now. That was a big part of the process for me, looking back at the old work. And what was personal about the legacy of John Brown is that the legacy affects us all, so the process has grown from there. So it’s about finding things, making things, throwing them away, taking a kernel from those and moving forward, and building the work on the artists Dean has working with him.

Cassie: Going back to how the process is affecting our lives… I think it’s gone the other way, I think there’s a real generosity with Dean in terms of seeing each of us in our own context, pulling out the autobiography of each performer, and then shredding it in the process and tweaking it into what it becomes. For instance, I have family from the Midwest, from Nebraska, and we’ve been talking about the history of John Brown in Kansas and the relationship to this historical event in Kansas... don’t quote me on the history... but there was a river named Marsh of Swans and we came to this reference to Swan Lake given my history in ballet and also my family history from that part of the country. Dean saw all that and we worked that material, we transformed it through the process. I think for each of us that’s been an aspect of this work.

Sarah: Audience participation has been a part of Dean’s recent works. I was actually one of the last women to be interviewed in Nameless Forest. I believe I told you onstage that I was terrified – that was me. (All laugh.) So, will the audience be involved in some way in this work?

Kacie: We’re going to involve some teens. Julia is going to be leading them. As they help and manage us in the space we hope that the audience identifies with them and through them experience the piece in a more intimate way.

Sarah: How did you find them? Who are these teenagers?

Dean:  I did a workshop at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and I found about three teenage participants that will work with us as production assistants. The production assistants function as a lens through which the audience watches the work so they’re looking at a generational circumstance. They also function in opposition to the other works I’ve made. In the other works, the performers host the audience onstage or the audience becomes part of the performance, but we appear to control the circumstance. In this piece the teens control the circumstance. They stage-manage, they present, it is through their eyes. They comment on the work. The audience is watching johnbrown through them so it makes their participation a different kind of involvement. It’s less aggressive toward the audience but in a way more intimate when you see these young people prepare the stage, creating the scene that together we illuminate.

Sarah: (To the performers.) We don’t often interview the performers, right? Is there any last thing you’d like to share? About the process? Your relationship with Dean? This is your big moment!

Sari: The process has been that we have these rehearsal periods and then a break. There is a history happening when we’re having these different rehearsal periods because you forget things and then you revisit them and you add on and it’s like you’re retelling the story. There’s something about the sense of the story… it becomes yours.

Asher: Yeah, we’ve had unusual amounts of time between rehearsal periods. Having the process be so long has helped it develop its own sense of history, these cycles.

Julia: Because of time between rehearsals, you change, you grow, based on things that happen in the world around you. When you come back to it, it changes… what makes sense or what doesn’t make sense anymore. It gets closer to you, keeps it fresh, closer to who you are as an artist. 

DiP is Dance in Process, Gibney Dance Center’s immersive residency program designed to provide dance makers with a concentrated period of creative time in a private studio and adjacent production office, as well as artistic and technical resources, and a stipend - without leaving New York City.

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