PRINT March 2010



Kelly Nipper, Shifting Shapes, 2010, stills from a multichannel color video.

IT ALL BEGAN WITH A HURRICANE NAMED FLOYD; where it will end is anyone’s guess. What happens in between is Los Angeles–based artist Kelly Nipper’s Floyd on the Floor. Ongoing since 2005, Floyd on the Floor is a sprawling metaproject to which Nipper continually adds components, the most recent being the video Weather Center, which went on view at the end of February in the Whitney Biennial, and a performance and a video, both titled Shifting Shapes, that will be exhibited this month at Zurich’s Migros Museum für Gegenwartkunst. Nipper’s nominal interest is the weather—weather, of course, having long been a subject of fascination for poets and thinkers: Goethe had his famous “weather glass,” Heidegger his career as a World War I weatherman, while the propitious functioning of “isotherms and isotheres” on a “fine day in August 1913” frames the placid conditions from which erupt Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities (1930/1942). But this preoccupation betrays a deeper interest in those very human attempts to intellectualize or domesticate forces that overwhelm or escape us. Art is embroiled in these conditions: “The work is the weather,” Nipper says, paraphrasing Merce Cunningham. Indeed, dance has often served as a productive site for explorations of the unfixed; it elicits its own somatic meteorology, which Nipper figures against, and in tension with, various quantifying or abstracting systems.

Nipper’s work is as fugitive and hard to pin down as a brisk cold front, but the most salient components of Floyd on the Floor, so far, may be enumerated as follows: There’s the eponymous performance for Performa 07 at the historic Judson Church gymnasium in New York, in which eight dancers—four men and four women—slowly, tenaciously executed tasks (partnering and crawling on all fours, turning and winding parachutes around their ankles) across a white floor strewn with arcane symbols. There’s Sapphire, 2008, a four-minute black-and-white video that features a dancer (Sarah Leddy) tracing a path around an invisible polyhedron, and Circle Circle, 2007, a two-channel video (installed vis-à-vis—or rather dos-à-dos) whose central image is a woman in a leotard, back to the camera, moving her hips counterclockwise. Then there’s Weather Center, 2009: Now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it’s another short black-and-white video featuring a single dancer (Taisha Paggett); she wears a dress made of thick, patterned upholstery fabric and a simple mask as she sits and repeats the variously sharp and viscous, primitive-looking gestures of Mary Wigman’s 1914 Witch Dance. Here the camera performs as well, gently dipping and panning across Paggett’s body, dancing with the dancer. (Recall Maya Deren’s seminal Study in Choreography for Camera, 1945, and Hilary Harris’s Nine Variations on a Dance Theme, 1966.) Most recent is the video and performance Shifting Shapes, a project that features two dancers tracing more polyhedrons on a set that resembles the armature of a view camera. Nipper’s videos are typically short loops that appear to be shot in neutral interzones, rehearsal spaces, or photography studios; the impression is of something out of time, out of context. They flirt with the hermetic, but the system is not closed—or not yet closed. Nipper imagines someday laying all these works out in one final exhalation.

Excerpt from Kelly Nipper's Weather Center, 2009.

Nipper is a question. She makes “dance” but identifies as a visual artist; indeed, her interest is less in dance proper than in dance’s many mediations, which helps explain her attraction to the esoteric discipline of Labanotation. This wholly scientific but also somewhat impractical system of movement notation was developed by choreographer Rudolf Laban in the 1920s and elaborated and codified by his student Ann Hutchinson Guest; like preceding, less effective, attempts at “writing” dance (the Beauchamp-Feuillet system for ballet, or Vladimir Stepanov’s 1892 Alphabet des Mouvements du Corps Humain, for example), Labanotation is at once a symptom of and a frustrated antidote to the anxiety surrounding dance’s ephemerality. Nipper herself indulges this anxiety as much as she objectifies it, “studying” these studies and then losing herself in the “mess”—the branching, interrelated, multiformat works that result, not to mention the dance-video stills, archival research materials, and often morbid farragoes (New York Times obituaries, taxidermied rats) that the artist posts on a blog that reads as a work of its own. Nipper’s material, then, is dance’s history and its records: The choreography for a dancer in one of her videos or performances might not be (at least to her) “choreography” proper at all, but rather the demonstration of a particular Labanotation “scale” or a reprisal of another dance (by Wigman, a modern dancer who also studied with Laban).

Not all of Nipper’s choreography is “found”; Weather Center, for example, includes an interlude in which Paggett rises and delivers a set of whirling gestures created from structured improvisation. The break itself, however, is in response to a text—an early critical analysis that describes a section of the Witch Dance, not on film, in which Wigman stands up—that serves to anchor the score within a chain of historical significations. Nipper’s movement, whether through quotation or loose association, is often syntagmatic, tethered to a metonymic inevitability. The abnegation of a kind of choreographic “taste” or “agency” is both appealing and troubling and removes—on one level, anyway—Nipper from the game of entertainment or spectacle. At the same time, she skirts the particular impasses of dance isms by straddling the field as a sort of participant-observer. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have her affinities. Examples: the unique movement explorations of Cunningham and the Judson Dance Theater, as well as the performance ideologies of John Cage, Allan Kaprow, and David Tudor.

In keeping with these influences, Floyd on the Floor is a project driven less by narrative than by teleology. Despite its freewheeling logic, there is an air of the inexorable, even the apocalyptic. The whole work seems to be an attempt to move away from its own central motif—1999’s Hurricane Floyd—via near-heroic feats of unmooring: from the hurricane’s original geography (as Nipper transplants, in the 2009 video Black Forest, the storm from the Atlantic Coast to Germany’s coniferous wilderness), its ontology (the hurricane “becomes” in Nipper’s mind’s eye an image of a man, facedown on the floor), and even, one could say, its temporality (to “use” this hurricane now is also in a sense to displace it, to remove it from the increasingly remote epoch of premillennial tension during which it was born). There have of course been more powerful and devastating hurricanes since, but it’s clear that for Nipper the relative arbitrariness of the original sign is crucial to its utility: To locate the “most” of something—the most powerful, most relevant hurricane—is to apply a logic that already overdetermines the artmaking process and thus neutralizes the art that results. Floyd by now exists apart from Floyd; Nipper needed an organizing signifier to catalyze her process, but one diffuse enough that the signified could expand and stray. “I worked for Allan Kaprow for almost ten years,” she notes. “He was the master of ‘Let me change my mind.’” Nipper clearly takes after Kaprow in this regard. One wonders in the end what this floor is, and what it will look like when we reach it.
David Velasco

Kelly Nipper, Floyd on the Floor, 2005–. Performance view, Judson Church, New York, November 14, 2007. Libby Buchanan and Guillermo Ortega Tanus.

FLOYD IS NAMED after Hurricane Floyd, a Category 4 Atlantic storm. (The name Floyd comes from Lloyd, meaning gray.) At first I was drawn to the fact that it’s a man’s name. But there’s also this idea of the sky falling—I mean, formally speaking. And Floyd on the Floor is about how everything falls to a horizontal plane.

I look at everyday experience like this: Everything falls flat to the ground and vice versa—ground to sky. Instead, I’m interested in this eventual breakdown into geometry, into basic forms or principles that create everything—in theory. This is part of the appeal of something like Labanotation, which is an effort to develop a universal signage system for movement; it exists at the intersection of verbal and nonverbal experience.

I first wrote the proposal for Floyd on the Floor in 1999—at that point, there weren’t many specifics, but I knew it was going to deal with the hurricane and parachutes—and then I put it away, because I was freaking people out. They’d come over for studio visits and I’d say, “There are twenty-four dancers in this piece.” That’s a lot of dancers, unless you’re the New York City Ballet. So that went in a drawer for a while, and when I brought it back out in 2005 (for a studio visit) I decided I was going to base the work on these three research-based studies—I called them Sapphire, Circle Circle, and Weather Center—which would develop into a series of videos, objects, and live-event pieces. Of course, the plan has changed over time, and now I’m working on an additional section called Shifting Shapes, the video and performance that will be shown in March at the Migros Museum.

Structurally, though not necessarily chronologically, the series begins with Sapphire. A sapphire is a jewel, and if you look through it you see triangles, a fractured landscape; it recalls for me the elemental conditions in the formation of a hurricane, which is, in one sense, made up of circles, which can themselves be broken down into triangles. The video features a Laban movement analyst named Sarah Leddy performing these girdle scales—also called equator scales—that I’m obsessed with. They relate to the clock as an object or machine that keeps time. The creation-clock follows the creation-equator. Laban’s ideas and theories are based on the Platonic solids and how they orient the figure in space; if you’re standing in the center of an icosahedron and you stretch out your limbs, each vertex corresponds to a point toward which a limb extends. But it’s dealing with lines that go from the center of the body all the way out through the universe. The girdle scale, like all of his scales, is this continuous thing. There’s no beginning or end. Sapphire isn’t choreographed. Rather, the dancer is showing the scale. She’s doing the scale—not performing it. That’s a distinction I make. Calling it performance situates it within the context of the performing arts, and I don’t think the work really does anything in that realm. Tying these explorations of time, space, and movement to an object-based practice (including photography) is what makes the work interesting for me.

Kelly Nipper, Circle Circle, 2007, stills from a two-channel color video, 10 minutes.

Circle Circle was the second study. It’s a two-channel video featuring a dancer performing a circular movement with her hips. As you look at these projections, you realize that it’s just her doing one thing over and over again. I could have just shot her one time and then repeated it, but it’s important that each of the circle’s iterations is different. The channels are projected across from each other, so the audience has to stand between them, and they’re very, very large. It’s the weather. It creates an atmosphere, the effect of two fronts coming together (which is how hurricanes are formed).

Repetition is a form of recording. I think about repetition and patterns—things that get done over and over again—as being equivalent to a vase sitting on a table: an object, something that appears solid in form. That process of repetition and inscription, of going over and over, is equal to a thing. With a repeated action, you can see over time how that thing is changing, but it is those differences that end up articulating its contours. With the vase, though, you take it as being fixed.

In the third section, Weather Center, it’s a different thing entirely; my interest here is less repetition than expression. The video features one of the Floyd dancers, Taisha Paggett, with whom I’ve worked the longest. The choreography for Weather Center derives from a one-minute film of a 1914 performance of Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance, which is a dance that happens primarily on the floor. One thing that interests me about Wigman and her work is that she was a student of Laban’s. Because she studied with him, her work is grounded in his geometries, but then she went and built an expressive movement practice from it. Although her practice still deals with fundamental issues of weight and surface; both Laban and Wigman make work that begins with the body’s core (rather than the spine). There’s also this amazing way in which Wigman would organize her dances according to whether they were “light” or “dark” pieces. When she put an evening program together, there was always a “dark” piece at the center of the schedule that was surrounded by “light” works.

I work less with dance per se than with the science of movement. I don’t see myself as a choreographer whatsoever. I’m a visual artist who works with bodies. My original training is as a photographer, and much of my work is about stop-time. That’s how I think about a photograph: removing something from a continuum. When I work with dancers—and I work with dancers because they know their bodies more than anyone—there’s a lot of what appears to be, or is understood as, stillness. The live events tend to be very slow, and it’s definitely grinding on everyone involved.

For Performa 07, I developed a performance for Floyd on the Floor proper. (I consider this my first actual “performance” work; in a way, though, I feel like even here I never stepped away from the camera.) The costumes were designed by Leah Piehl and included masks that covered the dancers’ faces. The masks were inscribed with numbers, which were only legible when the dancers were in particular positions—lying down, upside down, etc. In the land of my art, Sarah isn’t Sarah, Sarah is number eight; Taisha is number two. In Weather Center, Taisha’s mask is bloodred (even though the video is in black-and-white), so the idea—this won’t be clear until the whole project is done—is that the “number” masks are the first layer of the dancers’ faces. Expression is completely wiped away. If you remove the mask, it’s just like if you take the first layer of skin off the face—just blood and nothing more. The dancer is recognized through movement, through the body. It’s getting rid of the false front of the face.

The fourth section of this whole project, Shifting Shapes, actually evolved from the live-event version of Floyd on the Floor. The Performa event originally consisted of five parts: “Polar Bears,” “Stopped Shapes,” “Shifting Shapes,” “Clouds,” and “Clocks.” In the score for Shifting Shapes, the dancers are tracing the periphery of the icosahedron, just as Sarah Leddy did for Sapphire. It was a little hard to see, and it seems that everyone thought it was a waltz or ballroom dance. The video and performance sections of Shifting Shapes have been removed from Floyd on the Floor and now exist as a variation or supplement to the main piece; they extend the Floydian logic but also exist apart from it. I did a sketch of Shifting Shapes as a performance at Art Basel Miami Beach. The dancers continue to do the girdle scale, but on a set that recalls the interior of a large-format view camera. The camera signifies again my interest in suspended time; indeed, all of Floyd deals with these different forms of time.

I have in mind an image of “Floyd” as this actual guy lying facedown on a floor. I don’t have a narrative wrapped around him. It’s just these isolated thoughts. Though I do think about this a lot: The earth and the weather and the temperature keep going up. Things just keep getting hotter and hotter and eventually everything is going to start on fire. Everything becomes more and more malleable and shifts shape. Or changes form. It will just eventually catch on fire and then burn down to nothing again—to one flat surface.
—Kelly Nipper