Be With Me:

The Revelatory Work of Dean Moss

by Abbe Schriber

Studio Magazine Summer/Fall 2011

The Studio Museum in Harlem, NYC

    A sense of becoming, or metamorphosis, permeates the work of artist/choreographer/curator Dean Moss. As an attendee to one of Moss’s immersive, multidisciplinary performances, you might be selected to transition seamlessly (or awkwardly) from audience to performer, in a shift that is sure to forever alter your conceptions of the roles of each.  Moss is above all committed to his audience and trusts the intense emotional and aesthetic power of the ultimate surrender: of audience to the performers’ instructions. And conversely, Moss engages in a kind of surrender of his own, by allowing room for spontaneity and risking the direction of an artwork on participation and interaction. As audience contribution has been increasingly privileged by performance artists and art institutions, Moss’s work stands out as especially generous and powerfully about his viewers in a way that differs from most performance, which might use participation to further the ends of the artist. All of Moss’s work displays a vested dedication to the contradictions and fragility of interpersonal connections—though his performances can be quite dark, they constantly work toward the possibilities of understanding, embodying, and ever really knowing another human being.


    Over the last decade, in addition to becoming more concerned with the role of the audience, Moss has investigated collaboration as a conceptual conceit and creative process. Though he works closely with musicians, set designers, dancers, choreographers and writers, Moss’s collaborative efforts with visual artists in particular have proved to be especially fruitful starting points for the open exchange and reconfiguration of ideas, usually through a performative translation of the artist’s body of work.


    Moss’s first collaboration was the 2005 piece figures on a field with artist Laylah Ali (b. 1968), whose work is represented in the Studio Museum’s permanent collection. figures on a field, like Moss’s collaborative performances since, translated the experience of the artwork to the stage, rather than the work itself. Based on Ali’s ongoing series of detailed gouache-on-paper paintings that depict flat, brightly colored characters called “Greenheads,” figures on a field included a docent-led tour of the performance during the performance, rethinking the relationships between audience and performer, and audience and work. In addition, Moss used movements, gestures and props—dodgeballs, clothing, belts—that subtly referenced the suggested narratives in Ali’s paintings.

    Moss’s latest project, two years in the making, is a tour de force called Nameless forest that will have already debuted at The Kitchen in May 2011 by the time this article is published. Nameless forest expands and challenges the scale of collaboration and audience involvement found in Moss’s previously mentioned works, further questioning the responsibilities of community and the individual in both art-making and society at large. It was created in conjunction with Korean sculptor, painter and installation artist Sungmyung Chun (b. 1970) after the two recognized shared elements and processes in their respective practices. Part sculpture and part installation, Chun’s dystopic mise-en-scènes are heavily influenced by theater and cinema, featuring a muted color palette and dramatic lighting. The figures, who wear striped shirts and whose faces are eerie clones of the artist’s, interlock in scenes of aggression and violence. In one work, a figure holds a knife against the throat of another figure (whose face mirrors his own). In another, a boy or man (it is not quite clear which) stands alone amid litter on the floor, a knife in his hand and a rag dripping with blue paint stuffed in his mouth. As he did with Ali in figures on a field, Moss renders, translates and distills the unnerving aesthetics and theatrical storytelling of Chun’s work into the environment of Nameless forest. The choreography generates movement that, though meticulously tailored to each performer’s role, is unrestrained and highly physical, convulsive and even violent, seeming to trace the unresolved storylines in Chun’s work. Through motion, Moss establishes narrative in unconventional, fragmented ways, eschewing any linear expository structure—as he put it, dance is itself an “automatic narrative,” one that by default provides an “abstract story of personhood.”

    Nameless forest is a collective enterprise on a larger scale than any of Moss’s previous works. In addition to the aesthetic collaboration with Chun, there are journal entries and depictions of war by photojournalist Michael Kamber, neon sculptures by artist Gandalf Gavan original music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello costuming by Roxana Ramseur and lighting by Vincent Vigilante. Then there are the performers, representing a wide variety of backgrounds, technical abilities and interests, and ranging in age from twenty-six to fifty-seven. Many of the movements are derived directly from their idiosyncrasies and individual responses to the choreography Moss—who does not appear in the piece—proposed. Again, Moss involves the audience, too, in a kind of ritual process of becoming that wavers between comfort and discomfort, intimacy and distance, stability and uncertainty. Discussing the piece, he invoked a quote by Andy Warhol that begins with the phrase, “being born is like being kidnapped.”

    Though not quite a metaphor for birth, Nameless forest echoes the arbitrary, overwhelming reality of where and how we emerge into life, and how we then muddle through the isolation, pain, and crisis that weaves throughout it. Thus Moss describes the effect of the work on these participants as “a wounding and examination of the audience.” Up to twelve audience members are seated onstage and called upon to interact directly with the performers, while the remainder of the audience watches from the traditional, removed perspective. This separation creates two vastly different experiences of Nameless forest: a full immersion into the events unfolding onstage and a more distant, consumptive experience, in which we empathize with our fellow audience members from afar. The brilliance of Moss’s work lies partly in this emotional mixture of compassion and confusion we feel while watching the metamorphosis, as audience members engage in situations that are by turns awkward, unpleasant, intimate and instructive. “Be with me,” the performers whisper at one point to the audience participants, and no matter our level of spectatorship, we have no desire to do anything but—Moss’s work draws us in, invites us not just to be, but to become.