We’re having this conversation just a couple weeks after you uninstalled CROWDS at Wassaic Commons, and now you’re immediately installing it here at La MaMa Galleria in the city. What was it like to, in the first place, install this piece in a barn setting? And then what was it like to take it here? How does the character of the piece change depending on the setting?
In terms of the conditions, it's been wildly different. When I got to the barn, it was brutally hot and the whole interior was completely scorched [Ed. from a fire in the 1970s] and so installing was a matter of contending with the heat, with the shaking of the train, with the charcoal dust, the pigeon poop dust, and the family of bats living in the chimney. It was a space where I very much felt the conditions of Wassaic and nature. Part of what I have come to love about installation is how material it is; after months and months and months of looking at a computer screen, to get into a space where you're touching wood and glue and metal and looking at the design of a room and really inhabiting that room. It was really fun to be — I hope this isn’t gross — encrusted in sweat and charcoal dust, and then we would jump in the stream behind the barn every few hours to wash off the charcoal.
Here, it's been very clean, which has its own pleasures.
Yeah, there are no nearby streams on the Lower East Side.
Exactly. Both spaces have had very different conditions and very different materials. In terms of details, one of the ways in which that manifests is in the benches. My friend Rory Macfarlane, who's an architect and artist, helped design custom benches for both installations, and Michael Boyd, the director of La Galleria, fabricated them for this installation. They’re a way into the space — picking up on the structure of it and trying to use the benches to mask into the space.
But I’ve also been thinking about the space itself: how can these screens and the sound be positioned in a way that's going to best animate this work?
Yeah, the dimensions of this space are very different from Wassaic Commons.
Absolutely. That barn is so massive. I could push the screens further apart, and there was a little more of an element of discovery and agency for the viewer to be able to move into the space and be pulled by different sound channels and the light of the projection. In a space like this where it's more compressed, the shape of the overlap has to be what pulls the viewer in, rather than the distance between [the screens].
Everywhere I've installed CROWDS, I’ve created this similar zigzag of screens that emulates the basic crowd control patterns that you have, say, in the airport security queue — that zigzagging that's meant to turn a mass of people into an orderly queue. The idea is to layer the screens in a way that gently allows that choreography of viewers to happen — to have them be loose enough in their design that people can choose to move between them in the order that they choose — but also to have them overlapping in such a way that you can never have a view of all three screens. The first channel is this bird's eye view, the second is this wrapping-around dolly shot, and the third is this face-in-the-crowd shot. Each a very different perspective of access to a crowd body, and no viewer can have a totalizing view where they can access all three at once.
That’s really where I started from: how can I arrange them to make sure that viewers have that choreographic agency, but also those limitations?
How does time play into that? Because I noticed when walking around that the timing of the videos is descynchronized as well — it’s not like you’re watching, say, second 30 of the performance on each screen at the same time.
There are a few elements to it. The first is sort of a practical element: there’s no score, so the timing of the dance is enabled solely through the dancers’ performance. By the time that we shot we had been working together for four months and [the dancers] were able to move very much in sync, but that synchronicity didn't mean that their timing was identical every take.
But it was also an intentional choice to have that oscillation in timing, because you experience time in a different way depending on where you are in relationship to a crowd. So if you are, for example, very immersed in a crowd, certain elements are going to feel heightened, sped up, elongated. Whereas from a distance, there might be a greater sense of compression. So each viewpoint has its own sense of timing. They're all looping continuously and synchronously, but there are those oscillations — one screen will move ahead while another one is taking a little bit longer to get to that moment.
There’s also a little bit of sonic recall. You could, let's say, be looking at the third screen and hear something happening that you've already seen in another screen. It uses that echo of sound to pull the viewer in-between these different viewpoints. They all move forward together, but they have a different texture to their temporality.
Can you talk a little more about that four-month process?
The process started with me creating a list of crowd typologies and breaking down what I thought were the choreographic elements of each of those crowd types — looking specifically to formation, gesture, direction of the bodies, rhythm, pacing, and, very importantly, thresholds. When does a crowd type cease to be itself? And how does that manifest? For example, if a crowd of pilgrims is no longer facing the direction of their site of pilgrimage, perhaps they’re no longer a group of pilgrims. Where do those thresholds exist? How rigid are they? And then thinking about how they can be manipulated or mutated to turn that crowd type into another. Where is there a softness in these typologies that can bring into contact crowds that we see as very disparate, or crowds where there’s perhaps a slippage that we don't notice?
I watched hours and hours of YouTube videos of those different crowd types, annotating these different elements of their choreography and looking at crowds across time periods and geographic locations. Of course, this is limited largely to the 20th and 21st century because this project is also very focused on addressing what tropes of cinematic language are used to document these different crowd types. Do we use wide shots for particular groups of people versus close ups? Are we on the ground? Are we above? How are they edited?
That research happened for four or five months before I started with the dancers. Each rehearsal day we’d focus on a different crowd type. I would often share a video or two with the dancers, but the rehearsals would largely start with the dancers sharing their own memories of seeing or being in the crowd type we were discussing before restaging it in varying degrees of detail or control. For example, a dancer from Querétaro, Mexico showed us how he moshes in his community, and a dancer from the UK had been rugby captain and she taught us how to do a scrum.
Then we would have about 30 to 45 minutes of what we started calling “crowding,” which was our riff on flocking: this Viewpoints theatre technique where you flock by echoing the movement of the person in front and next to you and, therefore, keep in sync. The dancers would start very close together, articulate to one another what they thought was the logic of that crowd type, and then start by adhering to that logic. Then it would evolve and devolve into whatever crowd formation or experience they wanted — by dissenting, by taking up leadership, by introducing new gestures, new rhythms, etc.
I would just stand to the side and let them go for 45 minutes, and then pull out things that were interesting to me and incorporate them into the structure that I had plotted based on the typological research I had done. The sequence I had set was based on what crowd types I could turn into another based on those thresholds. The idea being to emulate the form of murmuration, which is this flocking pattern of starlings and other birds where they’re constantly folding in on themselves. At every point that you see them as a recognizable shape or form, it mutates again.
The shoot itself was three days. Our shoot was organized such that you could have two cameras shooting at a time and they wouldn't see each other, and also organized around the time of day because there are these massive concrete towers that cast very distinctive shadows. We split up the shots necessary for all three channels between the three days, so there are shots in the third channel that were shot at the same time as this first channel. But that was after four months of rehearsing together for two to three hours one to two times a week. It actually felt like not enough time, even though it sounds like a long time.
What made you to want to look into crowds in the first place? Hours and hours of YouTube videos is a time commitment.
The first inspiration was actually as a young child seeing murmuration and being totally mesmerized by it. And in general, my practice is very focused on the choreographic languages that exist outside of dance, so observing crowds has certainly always been a pastime for me, however strange it might be.
But I'd say the urgency to make it now was the sense that, with rises in authoritarian regimes, anti-immigrant sentiment, and populism, more and more there is an invocation of a choreographic language in how we talk about groups and collectives of people, I felt the need to bring to light how that choreography is invoked and embedded in our discourses. So much of how we think and talk about political and social life invokes a sort of choreographic knowledge of the experiences of other people and of collective experiences, and that knowledge is rarely interrogated.
How do you think of the difference between the choreographies of public space and private space? I'm thinking of your Home Exercises piece, where you’re looking at aging people in their homes.
I approach both projects similarly in that I always start with some element of choreographic annotation.
With [Home Exercises], I started by interviewing the performers in the project, who were mostly aging individuals who had come to dance more recently in life. I’d first ask them to recount their kinesthetic and somatic experiences in their daily routines, and then would ask them to enact or perform for me elements of that routine they described. I wrote down what they described and showed to me as a kind of choreographic description or score. Largely what I was responding to was the interplay or duet between bodies and their home spaces, how there was so much intimacy with the objects and materials of their home environment.
I was doing a similar thing with these videos of crowds. The choreographies are very different, but there's certainly an interaction with the architecture of public space and how those spaces are controlled — whether through surveillance, policing, the built space itself, or, of course, the choreography of bodies within them.
I want to end with maybe a little bit of an abstract and broad question.
I love abstract questions.
[Laughs.] Great, then you're going to love this one. At the beginning of the interview, you talked about the materiality of installation in contrast to the work at a computer screen that went into it. But it seems like there's also a third step there: it starts with something very physical that you’re working on with dancers, then it becomes something you’re putting together on a screen by yourself, and then it comes to an installation, which feels kind of like a middle ground between those physical and digital stages.
So I guess the question is: What happens to choreography/dance when it gets translated into video? And then what happens when it gets re-translated — if that’s the word for it — into an installation?
Well, I guess there's two steps that I would want to add into the different transferences you're talking about. The first is this very, very solitary process that happens before I ever step into the room with the dancers. And then it's such a relief to be in a room with dancers because, in a way, this project is really a documentation of the process that the dancers and I went through. So coming to install it, the dancers’ absence is really felt. There’s something that occurs between a group of dancers in a room, a sense of knowledge and shared understanding that enables things to emerge that everyone else is exterior to.
Of course the beauty is that then it can be interpreted by other people. I love, and fear, that turning over to viewers — that we relinquish control, that you are going to make of it what you will.
Do you think about that as another crowd typology in a sense?
100%, in terms of viewers. The reason why this is installed in the way it is is to enable a viewing crowd to form. It's a kind of crowd that I don't have control over, though I have a certain influence through designing the space, and that is fascinating to me — to see what emerges in the gallery itself.
To come back to your question about the different steps, I haven’t fully been able to describe this feeling yet, but I'm going to try. I experienced a peculiar pleasure in de-installing in Wassaic, because it was such a unique space and such a massive space. It took a while to install. Myself and two very helpful friends installed for about five days. And once I took everything down, I just had this wonderful, uncanny feeling wandering around the barn. That I knew that room, and that something had transpired between me and that space.
I suppose it's not dissimilar from leaving a dance studio or a film set and feeling the echoes of what has happened in that room. There's a weird loss in that what happens in each space doesn't get to have all of the actors of the last one. The dancers are from 13 different countries, and in my dream world, I had thousands of dollars to fly them all out here, but that didn’t happen. So I don't fully know what to make of those transferences between spaces, but I certainly feel them. And hope to account for them in some way, one day.
Sarah Friedland is a filmmaker and choreographer working at the intersection of moving images and moving bodies. Through hybrid, narrative, and experimental filmmaking, multi-channel video installation, and site-specific live dance performance, she stages and scripts bodies and cameras in concert with one another to elucidate and distill the undetected, embodied patterns of social life and the body politic. Facilitating a research process integrating found movements, gestures, and postures from cinema and archival footage, embodied memories, and contemporary dance languages, she choreographs through practices of interviewing, pre- and re-enactment, adaptation, and improvisational play, shaping dances with diverse communities of performers and movers—from professional dancers to cohorts of seniors and teenagers.
Her work has screened and been presented in numerous festivals and film spaces including New York Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, Ann Arbor Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, BAMcinématek, Mubi, and Anthology Film Archives, in art spaces such as Performa19 Biennial, La MaMa Galleria, MoMA, Sharjah Art Foundation, MAM Rio, Nasher Museum, Wassaic Project, and Manifattura delle Arti (Bologna), and in dance spaces including the American Dance Festival and Dixon Place, among others. Her work has been supported by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Film at Lincoln Center, Dance Films Association, Art Factory International, NYSCA/Wave Farm, Rhode Island State Council of the Arts/NEA, Berlinale Talents, where she was one of 10 selected screenwriter/directors for the 2017 Script Station/Project Lab, and most recently by the Bronx Museum, where she was an AIM Emerging Artist Fellow in 2020. Sarah graduated from Brown University's department of Modern Culture and Media and started her career assisting filmmakers including Steve McQueen, Mike S. Ryan, and Kelly Reichardt. Sarah has worked on collaborative research and writing projects with media theorists Wendy Chun on slut-shaming and new media leaks, with Erin Brannigan on the dancing body on film, and has an ongoing collaboration with writer, scholar, and programmer Tess Takahashi on masses and embodiment. She has taught workshops on dance film and been a guest artist at Brown, Yale, Skidmore, Reed, and University of Utah, among others, in addition to teaching filmmaking to older adults in senior centers through Brooklyn Arts Council’s Su Casa program. In 2021, Sarah was a Pina Bausch Fellow for Dance and Choreography, collaborating with artists Wen Hui and Eiko Otake, a NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Video/Film, and was awarded the Jerome Foundation’s 2021 New York City Film, Video, and Digital Production grant for her feature film in development, Familiar Touch.
Take a Selfie of Me
2019 Summer Festival