This past January 19 through the 21st, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presented the west coast premier of Dean Moss’s Nameless Forest.  As part of THEOFFCENTER effort to contribute critical discourse into dance performance, Tessa Wills sat down with Dean Moss and asked him a few questions. 

Tessa: Hi Dean. What are you most excited about in this piece?

Dean: I’m always excited about the audience and the kind of experience they get. That’s what drives me. I just had a final rehearsal with the dancers where I asked them…reminded them…they’re taking the audience on a ride…the audience has to believe you [the performer] is going on this ride too, so they can go along with you…this is not a shadow play, this is a sophisticated audience…

It’s like when you go and see a movie, the special effects fool us the first time, we will suspend our disbelief for a second, but we are so much more experienced about interpersonal dynamics and relationships now.  When you bring your presence to an audience, they can see right through you that you’re ‘acting’…they will suspend their disbelief, but if you give them more than that, they will go with you. And that’s a huge benefit.

Tessa: I was really struck by the pieces reflection on the evolution of American Identity and integration of “the other” in the work. What’s it like making work about American identity at this cultural moment?

Dean: I think its mostly confusing there’s so many options….and Americans are aggressive about wanting to have those options, but are really lazy about committing to them…they want to be able to do all these things, but they don’t want to do they work…they are late realizing that the ramifications of choosing one…what happens when you say…”OK; I’m this, and that, and the other”…can you do that and keep the complexity and the openness to all the options going?

Dean Moss, Nameless forest, Pictured: Eric Conroe, Pedro Jiménez, and DJ McDonald — credit: Julieta Cervantes

It used to be that whether you were black, or gay, or transgender… and you were “other”…it was clear…but now you have all of those “others” really moving into centre of society and that has a whole other implication!….what does that mean?…it opens up many possibilities….what’s now the other? and how do you define that?….and since this phenomena is not evenly across society….it’s chunks of understanding in different places geographically across America. Here, for example, there is a really digested understanding. But its not like that in other places. So i think…just having a lay of the land..the topography of identity in this country…just having a sense of it is a lot….

And i think that this work in some way explores what the individual is to the group…and vice versa, and the ramifications in that of identity. In this piece we kind of initiate an audience into looking at the world our way. and we feel like that way involves a kind of…understanding of the difficulty of creating identity….creating an artists identity, creating an identity of other.

That is what some Sungmyung Chun’s [South Korean Scuptor and poet; a collaborator in Nameless Forest] work steams from…that is the original inspiration, which was how this painful process of coming into knowing oneself. In his sculptures the pain is reflected in the eaten and bruised sculptures that are mostly all his face.  What we do as performers in this piece, instead of putting on bloody makeup is to show an experience….we involve ourselves in the same experience that we involve the audience in…we initiate them into a world where that kind of image is valued…where this self inflected circumstance is part of what we look for, we aspire to, we find value in..and that is part of an interesting relationship the community has to an individual. its the way that an individual brings compassion to a community…the community becomes compassionate when it can see itself in others…i think that is something that art does and can do.

Tessa: This piece is an amazingly complex collaboration between sculptors, musicians, performers, technicians, visual artists, even photojournalists and war commentators. To me, your ability to lead this many diverse practices into a single art experience speaks to your project of integrating the “other” into a space of co-authoring. What specific skills do you utilize as an artist which facilitate this co-authorship?

Dean: for a while i was a curator at The Kitchen in New York. I did that for 5 years. And for another 5 i was an advisor. During that time i did a lot of working with emerging artists, even as I was one myself. What i found was i was good at casting…i was good at looking at people, and putting them together. and i liked my role…how my role diminished. I was able to get myself on the outside of something, and look at the grouping and really feed off of that…set it up and get out of it…and i think that affected how i began making work how i wanted to replicate that process of pulling in other an initial impetus…and then through the process putting myself through it…

Tessa: …becaming the outsider?

Dean Moss, Nameless forest, Pictured: Aaron Hodges, audience members and Pedro Jiménez (in striped shirt) seated — credit: Paula Court

Dean: We have to negotiate each other, and in a way that pulled me out of being the only person whose mark making…as an artist I am actually reacting to all the pressures, the issues between artists..the process of making something together, shared creativity and at the same time…I think there’s a lot of pressure…or maybe that’s not the right word…there’s a lot of challenge in it…and…since we are making an object that’s separate from ourselves…that we are making something that we are not in, but making together. I feel that we are coming together to birth something else, which reflects our struggle, our negotiating around each other as people, not just as artists doing a job, but as people. I’m interested as a collaborator in not just taking what you do better or different from what i do…but in the negotiation.

Its’ this varied and dynamic world that I’m interested in bringing in,…the way that its brutal…i want that in my work. And there’s some value i have for it.

Tessa: So you dealt with the concept of “ anoutsider” by utilizing your curatorial skills in a new way, in an artistic way to effectively put yourself on the outside of a group of people. But the critical difference is you have a place of power from that outside position…they are working with your vision. And you use that special power to create value around images of struggle and violence which we, your audience might otherwise avoid or misunderstand. Your work seems like an interrogation of the phenomena of art and identity, as much as it is an aesthetic experience.

Thank-you so much for your time, Dean. Welcome to San Francisco.

Nameless Forest was presented as part of the YBCA’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between audiences and artists, passive observation and active engagement. Nameless forest was rooted in two years of exploratory communication between Moss and Chun.


Outsider Tactics – Three questions for Dean Moss