15 Minutes with Simone Forti and Peter Frank

LAMag spoke to the legendary dancer about her upbringing in Los Angeles, her performative works ”Dance Constructions,” and connection with art critic Frank through the Fluxus movement

In this interview, LA Magazine speaks to dancer, choreographer, and mentor Simone Forti on her self-titled exhibition, Simone Forti, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. LAMag also asked notable art critic Peter Frank to participate in this conversation, as they share an art history connection through the Fluxus movement. Fluxus was a movement that originated in the 1960s and highlighted the artistic process over the finished product. We speak about Simone’s upbringing in Los Angeles and her performative works titled Dance Constructions, go in-depth on some of her contemporary artists, and discuss the sources for her inspiration. 

LAMag: Thank you both for being here today. Congratulations, Simone, on such an excellent exhibition and fabulous performance. It was enjoyable to be there and bear witness on opening day and to see how you also interacted with watching the performers and their movements. Thank you also, Peter, for being here today. Since you are both connected through the Fluxus movement, what does the term Fluxus mean to you? 

Forti: I’ll go first. I’ve been skirting around Fluxus. The founder of Fluxus, artist George Maciunas, thought I was part of Fluxus. He thought that I do a few things that have that kind of humor. What’s the name of the artist that made the bicycle wheel? 

Frank: Marcel Duchamp?

Forti: I would say Duchamp was Fluxus. What do you think of that, Peter? 

Frank: He was the grandfather to Fluxus, or like John Cage’s father, the genes are there. 

Forti: Did I ever do anything Fluxus? 

Frank: Oh, I think so. 

Forti: Onion Walk (1961) could be Fluxus. In the performance, an onion sits on its side atop a wine bottle. Getting an onion that’s already started to sprout is paramount because then it’ll just grow and grow and shift its weight and fall off. It’s a performance by the onion.

All: [laugh] 

Forti: It’s hard to be there when it happens.

Frank: In Fluxus, the humor is central. Simone is more Fluxus than she realizes. The Dance Constructions can be seen as a gesture and structure in a broad view. Everything is paired down to its essence. And the nearest event or motion is framed in a context that takes it away from its purely functional meaning. It gives the performance a self-standing presence of the Dance Constructions, an equal weight to the bodies and devices performing. They are proto-Minimalist, and Fluxus is Minimalist in its aesthetic, except in happenings by performance artist Dick Higgins. 

I grew up in Sausalito in Marin County and learned that you [Simone Forti] also worked with postmodern dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin. I want to ask you about the Marin County “Dance Deck” and if you just wanted to share some stories about your time in the Bay Area. 

Forti: I came across Anna when she was changing her direction from running a dance school with choreographer Welland Lathrop and working with techniques from Martha Graham. Anna was quitting teaching in that way and turning towards improvisation. She was questioning what that would be for her, how she would teach it, and how she would develop her technique. A few of us were the material she could explore and try things on. Dancers A.A. Leath, John Graham, Anna, and I were the nucleus of these Saturday workshops with dozens of people. It was so exciting to be with an artist and be their material as they were finding a new direction. 

Where were you in Marin County when this was going on? 

Forti: We were in Kentfield, and the deck was on a space down the hill from the house that her husband, Larry Halprin, had designed. The grounds were extraordinary. Being outdoors, she worked mainly with kinesthetic awareness but not to suggest slow and delicate movements. Any movement that occurred could become material, moving intuitively with these impressions. 

Peter, when was the first time that you first encountered Simone’s work?

Frank: I was a teenager in the sixties reading about all the events in New York and trying to get to as much of it as possible. I was across the bridge in New Jersey at the time. I started going into the city by myself, and indeed, once I started college at Columbia University, I had access to all the performances. The first time I saw Simone perform was about 1970, well after the heyday of the Judson Dance Theater. People involved with the Judson Dance Theater started to diffuse and teach all over downtown Manhattan and to export their aesthetic to places like CalArts, which boasted several Fluxus faculty. 

Who was teaching at CalArts at that time?

Frank: Artists Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota were there—also, artists Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Ken Friedman, and poet Emmett Williams. 

I also saw Nam June Paik’s work with Hans Haacke from the Venice Biennale in 1993 at SFMOMA. It was incredible. Simone, when did you first hear the term “performance art,” and what did that mean to you in correspondence to dance? 

Forti: I’m still determining if I heard it for a long time. It took a while for the term to take hold. I took classes at the Merce Cunningham studio with [musicologist] Robert Ellis Dunn and became aware of what performance could be. Bob Dunn gave us the assignment of coming back the following week with a three minute piece and only working on it for three minutes during the week. That’s when I understood the notion of performance.

What ties do you have to Los Angeles?

Forti: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles and left when I graduated from Fairfax High School. I went to the East Coast to live in Vermont at Mad Brook Farm with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, a group who had dropped out and lived in the woods. When my mother was 90, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept an eye on her until she passed away at 99, when I was teaching at UCLA. 

I went to UCLA for art school and remembered reading about you. What were your first experiences with dance here in Los Angeles?

Forti: It was in high school. They let me have the choice of taking gym classes or modern dance. So I took contemporary dance, and there was an exceptional teacher; I wish I could remember her name. She had us improvising and bringing in music that we wanted to work with, and it was the real stuff, a formative experience. So that was wonderful. And I only did a little dancing in Los Angeles beyond that. I wanted to mention to Peter that I remember the review you wrote of my book Handbook in Motion (1974), and I thought at the time that it was an excellent review and that it talked about it in ways that I could understand and I appreciate that. 

Can you tell us about your review, Peter?

Forti: Interesting that you bring that up, Simone. The Nova Scotia College Press initially published Handbook in Motion. I reviewed a whole bunch of them for the SoHo Weekly News [issued from 1973 to 1982 in New York City], where I was the first art critic to write about publications and performances, and I wrote this review in this context. By then, people had isolated the term “Performance Art” as this umbrella term of identification for experiments in live action. Some of them were choreographic, theatrical, sourced in visual art, or sound. The street works of the late sixties were done a lot by poets Vito Acconci and John Giorno. They would make these simple gestures by passing out flyers on the streets. And they’d define a particular area in Manhattan and activate it for several hours with whatever each of them was doing. SoHo was waking up as an artist’s site. Do you remember any of those street work events, Simone, in 1969? 

Forti: I was at CalArts and then at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, but I remember Peter Van Riper’s performance work. 

Frank: Peter was one of the big Fluxus converts to come out of CalArts. I curated a show with Ken Friedman called Young Fluxus in 1982 for Artist Space. Peter was one of the young artists who wanted to show the spirit of the movement itself.

Peter, in terms of Simone’s current work at the MOCA, what do you take away from this exhibition, and what have you learned from this body of work being put together, especially given some of it hasn’t been seen in so many years? 

Frank: It fills gaps in my knowledge of what Simone has done, not just in dance itself, but in media and apparatuses that support her concepts and realizations. The holograms jogged my memory. The exhibition is very satisfying in gaining a sense of, first and foremost, who Simone is as an artist. Second, it’s a matter of the heritage of the avant-garde. 

Simone, what was the impetus for working with holograms, and where did that idea originate? 

Forti: Well, at the time, I was married to Peter Van Riper, and he was very close friends with holographer Lloyd G. Cross. And it was Peter’s idea that Lloyd and I should collaborate. So that was the impetus, and the holograms you see in the exhibition were made in San Francisco. My part of the process took a little bit of time. I had ideas for the movements I wanted, and making those holograms involved taking a 35-millimeter film of me on a revolving platform, and then Llyod didn’t need me anymore. But it took a long time for Lloyd to make a hologram, so after we shot a lot of film, I kept writing to him that I was looking forward to seeing the result.

Frank: Where did the idea of the revolving platform come from? 

Forti: Lloyd was interested in making holograms with movement. Up til then, there’d been a lot of action with holograms, but they didn’t move. So he set up a series of holograms of each frame so that as you walk around it, the viewer can see the light passing as it does through each frame of 35-millimeter film. I was trying to figure out, partly from just a sensation point of view, and partly from going to the Natural History Museum, looking at the thigh bone and how it changed from reptile to being under the weight of the body, to then be standing up, and trying to understand the transition from standing to sitting on the floor. I could frame that and have it looked at, and you could walk around it this way, you could walk around it that way and see the movement, how it was happening. 

That’s so fascinating. Regarding the performances, Simone, how did you decide to include the Dance Constructions pieces Slant Board (1961), Huddle (1961), and Hangers (1961) in the exhibition? 

Forti: It’s sort of like, let’s put the slant board there and hang the ropes there, and then we’ll do the huddle here. It is very much one with the space. I loved that the room was big, empty, and very distinguishable from how I previously saw it. 

Frank: And I thought that the physical pieces were beautiful in the space. To usually see it filled with Rothko paintings or Giacometti sculptures and see it transform into Simone’s domain was undoubtedly a successful aesthetic. No artworks were hanging or standing in Simone’s show. It is instead all these devices for performing. 

Forti: Yes. Well, we ran into a huddle in the center. That was the one piece that relied on something other than a built structure. It can be anywhere from six to nine people, and they form a close huddle together to be a strong unit. Then they take turns climbing over, on top of one another, and down again, becoming part of the supporting structure. They take turns with someone else going up, climbing over, and down again. Each of the three pieces had a duration of 10 minutes. They are durational pieces. Three days a week, performers activate it four times a day. 

Frank: The Huddle is a fascinating piece because it’s seething, roiling, and constantly moving, almost volcanic.

I also want to discuss the ocean pieces too, Simone. Where did that concept come from, and what was it like to produce those works as they’re much more recent? 

Forti: Correct. Jason Underhill shot it, and we have been creating pieces together in one shot. At my age, I paid my dues. If I want to get down on the ground and squiggle in the sand, I can do it. 

Frank: You’ve earned the squiggle. 

Forti: Yes, I’ve earned the squiggle! I considered the Japanese Gutai Art Association and artist Kazuo Shiraga’s performance, Challenging Mud (Doro ni idomu) (1955). He was in his swim shorts in this pile of wet clay or mud, getting hand fistfuls, throwing it, and pushing into the clay. Then I thought of wet newspapers and that I could do that. 

Shiraga was known for painting with his feet. I’m obsessed with his paintings and first saw them at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris with artist Hiley Saintsirch.

Forti: I also love artist Saburo Murakami’s performance, Passage (1956), with those frames covered with paper where he walks through it.

Frank: Yes, he bursts from layers of standing paper!

Simone, as a final question, what makes Los Angeles a significant place to you?

Forti: The BOX gallery and Mara McCarthy have been very important to me. Mara has encouraged me to do my work, and sometimes I tell her, “I have nothing to show.” And she would say, “Yes, you do.” Writer Fred Dewey also encouraged me to write and mentored me. In Ocean Park, I ran a workshop every Friday, which is one of my most wonderful memories.

Thank you both for this interview.

Frank: It’s a great pleasure to speak with Simone and to speak with her about the history that she’s creating and the accounts that we share. I’ll do it again anytime.

Simone Forti is organized by associate curators Alex Sloane, Rebecca Lowery, and guest curator Jason Underhill. The exhibition is open through April 2, 2023, and admission is free. 

Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA), 250 S Grand Ave
Dance Constructions performance schedule:
Thursdays: 3:30 pm, 4:45 pm, 6 pm, and 7:15 pm
Saturdays and Sundays: 12:30 pm, 1:45 pm, 3 pm, and 4:15 pm
Admission: free

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