Self-professed rebel Karole Armitage leaped into fame when she worked with Madonna on the pop star’s music video for “Vogue” in 1990. Born in 1954 in Wisconsin, Armitage was exposed to ballet at an early age and went on to dance for George Balanchine in the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland at nineteen. Armitage later joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1976, and began to work with dancer-choreographer Michael Clark and artist Charles Atlas in 1983. Armitage’s first prominent choreographic piece, however, the bombastic Drastic-classicism from 1981, established her signature fusion style, showcasing balletic line with a postmodernist improvised bent. Dancers wore black leather pointe shoes and ripped up warmers while splaying their legs in erotic frenzy as a rock band simultaneously performed on stage. The piece won her the moniker “punk ballerina,” a nod to her incorporation of subculture within her technical compositions.

Armitage later choreographed standout works such as Wild Thing, 1988, with a Jimi Hendrix score, and The Watteau Duets, 1985, a pas de deux set to fierce, atonal timpani. She and her New York–based company, Armitage Gone! Dance, return to New York Live Arts this month with Mechanics of the Dance Machine, a labyrinthine performance in black, red, and white light, which plays at NYLA January 31–February 2 and February 5–7.

Here the drastic-classicist speaks about the inner workings of her latest work and about the frenetic energy required when changing step.

Interview with Karole Armitage.

— As told to Frank Expósito

Left: Cover of Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group (2013). Right: The Nation of Ulysses performing in 1989. Ian Svenonius (center). (Photo: Don Lewis)

Ian Svenonius has been a lead vocalist and songwriter in bands for over twenty-four years, including the Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, and Chain & the Gang. Based in Washington, DC, he published The Psychic Soviet (Drag City) in 2006, and hosted a talk show for titled Soft Focus from 2007 to 2010. His new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock’n’Roll Group, was published by Akashic this month, and serves as part warning, part manual, and part spiritual dérive for anyone looking to take up musical instruments in the interest of forming a rock ’n’ roll group.

THE APPROACH FOR THE BOOK was that I, along with my research team, had to have a long séance with multiple dead rock stars making appearances, because they’re the only people who don’t have vested interests in the material world. They could say anything they wanted about their former compatriots. Living rock musicians are very political; they’re too invested in appearances and they can’t tell the truth. Ultimately, a band isn’t the personal lives of the people in it. The group is what the group did—the live music, the pictures—otherwise it’s pretty dull. Or a lie.

I’m really interested in the nonephemeral manifestations of a band. Most of my possessions are worthless scraps of paper, but at least they’re physical materializations of moments and groups I’ve been in. There’s a chapter in the book about this, where the ghosts we interviewed discuss the importance of the record cover. It’s not just nostalgia—in the 45 era, bands had no public face, but when they’re given faces through the album cover, that’s when you see them becoming more ideological—in other words, that’s when the meaning develops beyond sonic excitement. Without the cover, despite their best efforts, bands can’t have meaning. That’s why, with the Internet, they don’t have meaning anymore. They are fighting for their lives for any shred of meaning. The material aspect of a band actually happened organically, because a record company could make more money with a big cover, and you have to fill it with something—words or pictures. Form follows function.

When you talk about the genealogy of rock ’n’ roll, everyone’s really striving to give credit to where credit is due—that is, to bluesmen. So there’s this whole idea of cultural thievery surrounding the origins of rock ’n’ roll. But that’s adjourned, because the bluesmen were all stealing from each other. So as soon as music is put out in the air, it belongs to everybody. It’s just like visual art, fashion, or illustration. As soon as some new style comes about, within fifteen minutes the advertising world is already running with it. And it’s the same with musical styles. So this cultural guilt that we have about rock ’n’ roll, it’s not misplaced, because it’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about—it’s legitimate to think about exploitation and culture and what music or art means for particular cultures. But I think it’s simplifying rock ’n’ roll to say that it’s just blues music. Rock ’n’ roll is an immediate art form, like performance art. There’s something about a particular kind of underground that closes its doors to the rest of the world that is actually very valuable. It gives you a sense of what you’re doing, otherwise, you’re lost in a void, and you’re just pissing in the ocean.

For Americans, alienation is the state of grace. Our alienation is what we cling to. And that’s how you know that you’re talking to a real American. It’s that whole outsider thing. Politics don’t speak to us. We are singular, and our art is mystical. Abstract Expressionism was supposed to be intrinsically American, right? But rock ’n’ roll is really the true American export. Abstract Expressionism was one version of that, and rock ’n’ roll really finishes the sentence. It’s not only alienated expression, it’s total social alienation. That’s our claim to fame. That’s what we’ve given the world.

In the USA, everything has to be monetized. Things get a lot of respect if they make a lot of money. So unless you’re fantastically successful, your contribution is considered shit. Cultural workers occupy a weird niche under capitalism—your work is considered play, but at the same time it has this kind of mystical value. You’re kind of envied and loathed by normal workers and the professional class.

You become what you hate. If you look at America, it’s obsessed with totalitarianism. It hates totalitarianism—all the Soviet stuff. But ultimately, the thing that destroyed the Soviet Union, or coincided with the destruction of the Soviet Union, was the beginning of the Internet. And what is the Internet? It’s more Big Brother than the Soviets could ever have dreamed: Wikipedia is the single source of all information, and then there’s Facebook. They are more nefarious than anything that could have existed under communism.

— As told to Matthew Porter

Claude Wampler, N’a pas un gramme de charisme. (Not an ounce of charisma.), 2013, digital collage.

Claude Wampler is a New York–based artist who investigates the boundaries of spectatorship in the visual and performing arts. Here, she discusses the impetuses behind her latest work, N’a pas un gramme de charisme., (Not an ounce of charisma.), which she created in collaboration with Amelia Saul, Antonius Wiriadjaja, and John Tremblay. N’a pas un gramme de charisme. will be presented at the Kitchen in New York from January 31 to February 3, 2013.

I’M A VISUAL ARTIST, but I also work in the field of performance. I always consider myself a visual artist because it is all visual art in the end. I find that using the terms performance art or performance artist immediately evokes something for the audience that is very different than what I’m making or what I want to be seen as making. It’s not that I don’t like performance art. I do. I have a great deal of respect for it, but it seems to have this sort of stupefying effect on the viewer as soon as they categorize the work as such. The audience often rely heavily on what they believe they’re going to be consuming and they will see the work through the lens of the medium that they assume it inhabits. In some ways this is great for an artist because he or she can use it to the advantage of the work. But it has a limiting effect on how people view the piece or the pace with which they view it. It also affects how flexible the audience can be while watching a work unfold. For instance, how is a piece different if it’s called “dance” versus “sculpture”?

More and more institutions are showing performance and highlighting these questions. For Sarah Michelson to win the Bucksbaum Award last year, for example, is significant, and that means something has shifted. But I’m not sure if that’s trickled down to the audience yet. I’m still very interested in the boundaries of these categories—by putting sculpture in museums and then putting performance around that sculpture, for instance—because people don’t really expect or suspect the person next to them to be part of the work. Similarly, I’ll do something like that with a performance, in which people assume the focus is on the stage and that’s where they’re supposed to look: The lights go out, they stare forward for however long the piece is, and then they clap and leave. That relationship to the work is very clear. Here, an audience knows how to behave; there is a choreographed or rehearsed conduct. They are often extremely obedient, which is a little scary to me, but it’s also very useful because it creates a field for disruption, where artists can play with their willingness.

I’m also interested in the durational work of theater—that it has a beginning, middle, and end. I enjoy these boundaries because I know that it’s quite possible for a work to be endless. N’a pas un gramme de charisme. began a long time ago and it doesn’t end on February 3; it just keeps going. I’ve always worked with this kind of ambiguity: Instead of having a curtain call at the end of the show, I’ve emailed the audience two weeks later with the curtain call, which could include people they didn’t expect to be in the show—like the person sitting next to them. N’a pas un gramme de charisme. is part of this territory. It extends the time of the work beyond what happens at the Kitchen. I might find that the audience has no appetite for this—that really the liveness is what it’s all about and beyond that it’s just a bunch of MP3s and little video clips that people don’t really care about. I don’t know; I’m still figuring that out.

I found the title when I was reading a review of a performance in a French magazine. I came across that sentence describing the actress in the film, and I thought, “Oh my God, that’s so beautiful. If I could only achieve ‘Not one gram of charisma.’ What does that even look like?” I find some performances today on a death march toward excitement. It’s always a one-upmanship of how hard you can work your dancers before they collapse of exhaustion or how much artwork can we stuff in one space or how much can be endured; how many people can you stare at for months on end? It’s all about charisma and people’s personal abilities to capture the attention of audiences. What if I have no charisma? What if I sit there and no one wants to even look at my face? I think that’s what the show is. It’s a contrary reaction to the total hysteria of the performance art world right now and that demand for the next big thing that someone’s going to do. I think audiences really want somebody to entertain them and make them feel special. I want to refuse this demand. Although, it is true that I am making work and it is going to be dramatic and I can’t help that.

— As told to Samara Davis

Joan Semmel


From her feted Technicolor paintings of copulating couples to more recent canvases of her aging nude body, the feminist critique in Joan Semmel’s five-decade career of self-exposure has always been blunt, unwavering. Born in 1932 in the Bronx, Semmel moved to Madrid in the 1960s and then back to New York in the 1970s, where she turned from abstraction to figuration—specifically to a non-idealized, non-narrative self-portraiture based on pictures taken from her own perspective. Now a professor emeritus of painting at Rutgers University, Semmel has shown her work in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including “Shifting the Gaze” at the Jewish Museum in 2010, “Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel” at the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2008, and the decisive 2007 touring exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Movement,” which began at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Semmel’s latest show, “A Lucid Eye,” runs at the Bronx Museum from January 24 to June 9, 2013. The exhibition, curated by Antonio Sergio Bessa, includes twenty-seven of Semmel’s self-portraits from the past six years. She will also have a solo exhibition of new work at Alexander Gray Associates in New York from April 17 to May 25, 2013. Here she discusses showing her paintings in her home borough as well as what it has meant to be an “outsider” for so many years.

Interview with Joan Semmel.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

John Torreano, Dark Matters Collide with Doradus, 2012, acrylic paint, gems, and wood balls on plywood panels, 7 x 7’’.

John Torreano is a New York–based artist and curator. He has taught in New York University’s studio art program since 1992. Torreano’s “Dark Matters Everywhere: Paintings, Prints & Sculpture” spans over twenty years of his gem-based works and is on view at Carl Solway Gallery in Cincinnati through March 23, 2013.

BEFORE THERE WERE GEMS ON MY PAINTINGS, there were dots. At the time I was working in the style of lyrical abstraction and wanted to push against Greenberg’s idea of painting’s essentialism. I was painting dots to create additional illusions of space, to emphasize contradictory aspects within the work. The dots looked like stars, but I thought of them in a formalist sense, like shapes in an amorphous, chemical space. Larry Aldrich—who actually coined the term lyrical abstraction—saw these works and hated them! He said, “John, you make these beautiful paintings, and then you put these dots on them. It’s like pimples on an adolescent boy!” Eventually I got rid of almost everything except the dot. By the early 1970s, I had replaced the dots with gems.

I should specify that I use the terms jewels and gems interchangeably and that both words refer to different kinds of plastic and glass. In 1972, I was an artist-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was making plaques by stretching felt over plywood. I liked the material contrasts between the glass jewels and the felt. I was distributing the gems in random patterns across the plaques. And that was what did it for me—that was the spark! Unfortunately, most of those Art Institute works are now gone, though I believe Lynda Benglis and Jennifer Bartlett have one and maybe Joel Shapiro.

The column paintings emerged from a desire to get more space in the studio by making “thin” paintings. At that time I was making paintings that had giant quarter-round moldings on the edges. The molding served to bulge the painting out toward the viewer, like an expanding universe. I wanted the gems front and center. When I envisioned the idea for the column paintings it was, “Oh, I’ll just eliminate the canvas and join the two-quarter rounds together to make a half round column.” I liked the column shape for painting because it was another way of attacking the idea of painting as a window that contained information—or painting as a container of meaning—and put it into a more transactional space. The rounded surface bulged out toward the viewer from the wall in a 180-degree curve from the wall, which in essence meant each person in the room could have an equal transactional relationship with painting. With these “paintings” there could be no hierarchical point of view. There was a 180-degree equality for the viewers. Yet, at the same time, each viewer’s location was marked particular by the specific reflectivity of the gems.

When Lynda Benglis first saw the columns she said, “Well John, you’re really making crosses because of your Catholicity. Why don’t you just make crosses?” Her comment caused an epiphany. I thought, Oh my God, she’s right! I had always viewed my use of the gems through a highly intellectualized, highly formalized framework and all of a sudden I was challenged to think of them in terms of content. Suddenly the inlaid gems in the columns could reference the syphilitic wounds of Christ, as in Matthias Grünewald’s fourteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece, and the sparkles from the gems were like vigil lights, and so on. I had to own these iconic readings. From that point on I began to see form and content as inextricable—you can’t have one without the other. I took up Lynda’s challenge and made a whole series of crosses, which were controversial in themselves.

— As told to Alex Jovanovich

Tracey Emin


Tracey Emin, I Don’t Believe in Love but I Believe in You, 2012, neon, dimensions variable.

In the second segment of this two-part interview conducted during Art Basel Miami Beach, Tracey Emin addresses the fictions of being an art celebrity. Her first interview delved into her new self-portraits, which are drawn from photographs, not memory. Emin’s first solo museum exhibition in the US will open in December 2013 at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

I HAVE A FANTASY DREAM PERSON. He’s a writer—a novelist. He dresses like a writer would, with cozy clothes. And he works out every day. He’s fit. He can walk for miles and he’s not vain. He absolutely adores me. He’s really pleased that I like traveling and gallivanting too. See, he doesn’t like going out; he can’t because he has to write all the time. When I come in at 2 AM and I’m really drunk, he makes sure that I get to bed (he was still up, working of course). He makes sure I have a glass of water and some aspirin. Then when I dream and wake up in the middle of the night, he writes down my dream so I don’t forget it. In the morning, he wakes me up and asks me, “So what happened last night? Did you have a good time?” And I tell him what happened.

I was in a group show called “Brilliant!” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1995. They had placed my tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963–95, in a really shitty place. When we had to put down what we wanted for our artwork, I had written one thing: It had to be somewhere quiet. People were supposed to go inside the tent and read the hand-stitched names of all the people I had ever slept with. But instead, they put my work in a tiny space in the middle of four people’s sound pieces. I complained but they said there was nowhere else it was going to go and that that was the end of it. And I wasn’t the only one. Gillian Wearing insisted on having a projector but instead was given a monitor on the stairs. I had nothing I wanted.

But don’t feel sorry for me. I got my tent and dragged it out of the museum, down the escalator, and out the front door. It was mine and I owned it. There was nothing they could do about it. In response, they said that with my attitude, I would never show in a museum in America again. This was in 1995. Ironically, I haven’t had one since, until now. There just isn’t room in America for the celebrity artist. You had Andy Warhol. You had Jeff Koons, even though he decided to back off from the spotlight. Richard Prince backed off too. They all backed off. No one wanted to do it. No one could go after Warhol. That’s America’s ceiling.

In Britain, we never had that. By the time art happened twenty years ago in Britain, there wasn’t a place to put it. America had had art magazines since the 1950s. We only had Frieze and small columns in The Times, Art Review, and The Guardian. We didn’t fit in. We exploded from those pages into the mainstream. We went onto the news coverage and the front pages. We were the first generation of British artists to live our lives by doing it. If I were to die today, it would be front-page news in England. Even the fashion magazines loved us. We were the people being photographed, the young things. It was us, Kate Moss, the bands, and all those other models. It was like a wild happening.

The night before my tent was destroyed in a fire in 2004, thirteen children had been killed in Afghanistan by a bomb in their school. I was asked to remake my tent. But I had forgotten about it. Something more important was happening. It wouldn’t have been the same if I had remade it. It wouldn’t have had the smell.

In my house in France, I have a lake that’s only there from November to March. When I’m there in the summer by myself, it’s a dry bowl and then the rest of the time it’s filled with water. I never see it full. I began writing a book about it called The Vanishing Lake. You can just see this lofty figure there when the lake is wet and when the lake is gone. This woman lives in this house on her own, with her memories. It doesn’t matter what’s real in it. The 2002 Thames and Hudson book The Art of Tracey Emin is so factually incorrect. The events that take place in my book are just as imaginary, like the main character screaming, “You never loved me!” at her lover. But I don’t know what the male character’s name is yet. George? He could be American, my fantasy dream person. I never really thought about that before.

— As told to Frank Expósito