Scoring the Symposium: Susy Bielak and Amanda Jane Graham on “Performed in the Present Tense”

On April 8 and 9 an international group of curators, scholars and performers convened at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art for “Performed in the Present Tense,” a free two-day symposium considering the present field of performance art.

Inspired by the Block Museum exhibition, “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s,”  participants examined the work of Moorman and other artists who have engaged with performance, the frame of the score, curating performance and being curated as performers themselves. 

The symposium was co-sponsored by Northwestern’s departments of Art History, Art Theory and practice, and performance studies; the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities; the School of Communication’s dance program; and Mellon Dance Studies  The two-day program was organized by Susy Bielak, associate director of engagement and curator of public practice at the Block Museum, and visiting scholar Amanda Jane Graham, Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.

The following interview was conducted by Kate Rebecca Morris  for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s  fnewsmagazine:

Kate Rebecca Morris: What made you see this Charlotte Moorman exhibition as an opportunity to organize an academic event that so closely relates theory, history and practice?

Susy Bielak & Amanda Jane Graham: When Amanda was offered the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies position she was informed that there was a strong possibility that she might be able to align one of her classes to museum programming. She had been writing about post-war art in NYC in her dissertation and knew a little bit about Moorman’s role as a curator of the Avant-Garde Festivals, festivals that featured experimental artists of all types including dancers. After chatting with Susy and a few of the Charlotte Moorman exhibition curators she began to make additional links between choreographers and artists like Simone Forti and Trisha Brown and Moorman.

Susy first learned of the position she now holds through Joan Rothfus, a former colleague at the Walker Art Center, and one of the six curators of A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s. There was sympathy between underpinning issues of the Moorman exhibition and programmatic platforms that Susy had been developing at the Walker Art Museum at the juncture of performance and scholarship, embodiment and discourse. Bielak came to the Block and Northwestern with a focus on interdisciplinary, pedagogy, and the arts.


Brendan Fernandes with Anna Harrer, Acting Out: Pointing In The Museum. Photo: Sean Su Photography

KM: How did you go about selecting your speakers and performance programming? I know that, usually, symposia at academic conferences are based on proposals, which takes months in advance. What was your planning timeline?

SB & AG: We were in conversation for almost a year and a half before actuating the program. The two of us met shortly after Amanda arrived to campus to begin brainstorming conversations about how Mellon Dance and the Dance Department could be involved in museum programming.

At first, we considered doing a series of events inspired by Moorman’s own repertoire. Amanda shared a proposal with me for a program series framed in relationship to her course, Scoring the Avant Garde. There was great overlap between this proposal and programmatic directions the Block’s engagement team was already developing. This sparked what became a rich and fruitful collaboration between the two of us, in which the initial framework shifted in shape and focus through ongoing dialogue.

We decided a symposium would be the most meaningful programmatic platform to put historic and contemporary practices into contact; to pursue pressing questions of the field; to interweave performance, pedagogy, and professional practices; and to create a closer university community. Integrating pedagogy was a key shared goal; for Amanda, to involve her students, and the Block to enact the museum’s teaching and learning mission.

We identified and honed in on a series of motivating questions focused on the score, performance, reperformance, and contemporary and historical practices of curation:

  • How do the practices of the Avant-Garde Festival—both the manifold roles of Charlotte Moorman (as avatar, instigator, coordinator, curator) and the work of the many Festival participants—relate to practices today?
  • Scores are often diagrammatic or textual, and usually are bound to the page. What is the translation between the page and the exhibition/performance? How can a static graphic score organize space and objects, catalyze movement, or even serve as a curatorial thesis?
  • How, in turn, can curation reignite the meaning of a score?
  • How does a performance curator/performance artist embody the roles of collaborator, producer, instigator?

In the spirit of the lively, embodied, and experimental project of the Avant Garde Festival, we aimed to generate a program stretching beyond a traditional symposium.

Amanda Jane Graham, Brendan Fernandes, Travis Chamberlain, Jenny Schlenzka and Susy Bielak in conversation. Photo: Sean Su Photography

SB & AG: We were committed to highlighting the talents and interests of colleagues at Northwestern. This was an opportunity to embody an aspirational mission of interdisciplinarity at Northwestern. For example, Elliot Mercer, Didier Morelli, Ira Murfin—the three graduate students who performed historical works on Friday night—are all seasoned performers, but had never had an opportunity to perform in a cross-departmental and public context at Northwestern.

Some of the program evolved organically. In the planning process, we were lucky to come into contact with faculty who are also invested in performance practice and history. Susy met with Stephan Moore, a new lecturer in RTVF, shortly after his arrival and immediately connected him to Ira S. Murfin, with whom he collaborated on a John Cage work. Francesca Pola, an Italian Fulbright scholar and curator with expertise in the European avant-garde came on board as soon as we met. Similarly, we engaged post-doctoral Kaplan Digital Humanities Fellow Danny Snelson and his collaborator Mashinka Firunts, whose practices in publishing and poetry were a natural fit to highlight the role of language and media distribution. Amanda invited interdisciplinary artist Brendan Fernandes as a Kaplan Institute artist-in-residence in relationship to our evolving collaboration.

We selected our visiting curators, Travis Chamberlain from the New Museum and Jenny Schlenzka from MoMA PS1, based on their innovative approaches to the evolving practices of performance curation in a contemporary art museum context.

Our collaboration on the symposium extended to co-hosting choreographer and writer Simone Forti for an immersive campus visit; a project initiated by the Block that naturally evolved into a pedagogical experience co-hosted and co-led by the two of us.

There was a constant conversation. We were enmeshed.

Northwestern Student Iris Hsu performs original score Dance Remains, created for the course Scoring the Avant-Garde. Photo: Sean Su Photography

KM: If you could score the performance of programming the symposium in relation to the exhibition, what might that “score” look like?

Charlotte Moorman’s rolodex.

Our googleshare docs.

Our chronic email exchange.


KM: What place does the art museum hold in art education, especially a museum located on a fairly self-sufficient college campus.

SB: I think of museums as expanded classrooms. I learned about scale and perspective in elementary school drawing lessons on the floors of the Carnegie Museum. My classroom expanded to the museum and I’ve carried that with me—understanding museums simultaneously as civic and pedagogical spaces.

In my professional career, I’ve used museums as a resource to teach and consult on courses using art as a tool for critical thought. This has included a range of university classes embedded within the context of a museum, most recently, a Northwestern Art History course on museology co-taught with my Block Museum colleagues Lisa Corrin and Kathleen Berzock. In this class, we explored how museums have shaped ideas about national identity, self and “other”, and modernity. We also considered the shifting terrain of what constitutes “art”—such as performance art and social practice—and how the structures of museums are adapting to this shifting terrain.

Courses are just the start of pedagogy in the context of a museum, particularly a university art museum. I’ve used artworks as a resource to talk to teens about race, wall labels to teach art students about personal statements, and exhibitions to host workshops about issues ranging from capital punishment to gender equity. What brought me to the Block is a deep belief in its teaching and learning mission, and understanding that university museums are uniquely positioned to use art as a means to consider issues and ideas of relevance to our lives.

On a campus, a teaching museum is analogous to a teaching hospital, with students embedded in all aspects of what we do, from curating exhibitions to producing events. We’ve done a lot of work as a staff to create a kind of “third space” where students and community members alike can engage on many different levels—from visiting the galleries to seeing an avant-garde or classic movie, and from coming to a performance or lecture, to participating in a town hall meeting.  Part of our mission is to reach out beyond the campus. This can look like bringing together artists and educators for a congress on art and social justice, or actively contributing to a city-wide performing arts triennial.

AG: While I was completing my PhD at the University of Rochester I was the graduate director of a small student run contemporary art gallery called Hartnett. There, I worked with undergraduates on exhibition design and publicity for a wide variety of up and coming and well known artists, including William Kentridge. Many of the students I mentored have since gone on to pursue careers in the arts. Prior to graduate school I worked as an art teacher in the Brooklyn public schools. In that role, I sought to introduce my elementary and junior high school students to the New York art world through collaborations with institutions like Lincoln Center and BRIC.

When my students saw their work on the walls of “legitimate” art institutions they began to conceive of themselves as artists. This was such an incredible revelation! When I began teaching at Northwestern I again wanted my students to develop a relationship with an art institution so I made a point to reach out to the curators at the Block who were receptive to my ideas and eager to work with my class. The students in my Scoring the Avant-Garde course studied the history of postwar Avant-Garde performance in the United States, especially as it related to Charlotte Moorman. Because I believe in practice as research I not only assigned conventional research papers I also asked my students to create scores and artworks based  loosely on those by artists and performers including John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Anna Halprin, and Yoko Ono.

After much workshopping, they performed these scores in the Block Museum during the Performed in the Present Tense symposium. This is all to say that I think the museum, especially the university museum, can have a central role not only in art education but also in humanities education at large. Whether my students eventually choose to go into the arts or they become physicists, lawyers, or copywriters (these are but a few of my students’ occupational aspirations) their experiences in the museum–making connections between archival documents and current social issues; professionalizing as they negotiate their artistic visions with artists and museum staff (and me); conceiving of the museum as a laboratory for artistic and intellectual pursuits–will stay with them and, I expect, inform how they lead, collaborate, listen, look, and learn.

Students perform Simone Forti’s Huddle (1963) Photo: Sean Su Photography

KM: Is this level of integration between Performed in the Present Tense and A Feast of Astonishments is a rare thing in academia and art institutions?

SB & AG: We recognize that the relationship we’ve been able to foster over the last two years is rare. We feel lucky in that, from the beginning, we’ve worked really well together. We see this as a foundation for the success of the symposium– combined with our deep mutual interest in the subject matter, and a shared ability to stay nimble, receptive, and curious.

There is a logic to housing this kind of project within the context of a university museum. Students have regular access to the museum, and integrating faculty and students into the fabric of the museum is part of its mission. We were able to balance the goals of producing a program for the field, with equal weight on pedagogy. Our positions and investment in the project also afforded the time, care, and work involved in producing a project of this scale and timeline.


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