Preservation, performed on October 11, 2022, as part of Yve Laris Cohen: Studio/Theater, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 7, 2022–January 1, 2023. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

In November 2020, a fire destroyed the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow, a historic summer dance festival in Becket, Massachusetts. Brooklyn-based artist Yve Laris Cohen salvaged the building’s remains and has transformed them into a site-specific installation titled Studio/Theater, which is currently on view in MoMA’s Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio. The result is a theater within a theater, and an unexpected conversation between two institutions, and their shared history with fire as a traumatic, transformative event.

I recently sat down with Laris Cohen to talk about this installation and his process for creating two performances—Preservation and Conservation—that alternate weekly on Wednesday evenings over the course of the show.
—Martha Joseph, The Phyllis Ann and Walter Borten Assistant Curator, Department of Media and Performance

Yve Laris Cohen’s Preservation, performed at MoMA on October 11, 2022

Yve Laris Cohen’s Preservation, performed at MoMA on October 11, 2022

Martha Joseph: When visitors walk into Studio/Theater, they see architectural elements from the Doris Duke (formerly named the Studio/Theatre): the one remaining exterior wall and the theatrical pipe grid that was used to support lighting equipment and for other rigging purposes. How did you think about the relationship between the installation elements and the space of the Kravis Studio?

Yve Laris Cohen: Right away, I wanted to map one theater onto another. The Kravis Studio was the template that would guide the assembly. I imagined the Studio would reanimate the fire’s detritus as a theater, and in so doing become more of a theater itself.

The exterior wall you mention has an inherent, overbearing drama; it is scenic automatically, like a theatrical flat. Put against or in front of a wall, its redundancy, excess, and loss of function could solidify its role as an aesthetic object. I needed it to be more unstable, ambiguously positioned in relation to sculpture, set, and architecture, and drifting closer to or farther from those categories over the course of an evening performance, or during daytime Museum hours. The burnt wall performs (or at least attempts to perform) dutifully as a MoMA wall, even as its blown-out windows and collapsed roof fail to contain light and sound in either direction.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Doris Duke Theatre’s pipe grid are reworked into an assembly following the geometric arrangement of the steel beams that form MoMA’s technical grid. The fire transfigured the rectilinear pipes of the Jacob’s Pillow grid into curved, snaking tangles that take twisted, meandering paths from one intersection to the next. Right angles have become acute or obtuse. Uniform, perpendicular, straight-lined grids are a mainstay of many large-scale Minimalist works in the 20th-century sculpture canon. Here, a trauma has softened the angular structure that buttresses much of that pivotal sculptural work. The injured grid is sinuous and bent, feminized and queer.

Yve Laris Cohen’s Conservation, performed at MoMA on October 18, 2022

Yve Laris Cohen’s Conservation, performed at MoMA on October 18, 2022

The Kravis Studio is MoMA’s flexible space for live art and time-based media, built during the expansion in 2019, and it happens to be the only space in the Museum with a tension grid—a permanently installed modular wire grid system that provides easy access to theatrical lighting, audio cables, loudspeakers, and stage rigging to be used in theatrical performances. What theatrical aspects of MoMA’s grid generally were important to you as you crafted the framework for the installation?

More important than any aspect of MoMA’s tension grid on its own was the mobile tension system I wanted to establish between the MoMA grid and the Jacob’s Pillow burnt pipe grid. They are mutually dependent and exert a force on one another.

One thing that excites me about theater architecture is that much of it is repurposed from other fields and industries. For example, the particular type of pipe that composes the Jacob’s Pillow grid is most often used in plumbing; it was designed to transport high-pressure liquids inside it rather than bear exterior weight, as it does in a theatrical application. Cheeseboroughs—the galvanized steel couplers that join pipes running in different directions—come from construction scaffolding, but on building worksites the pipes stand vertically rather than forming horizontal networks. Theatrical rigging is a derivation of the rope-and-pulley–based rigging technology of sailing ships. Even the wire rope tension grid you name—a more recent invention that can act as a floor for technicians walking above while simultaneously supporting the weight of gear, scenery, or artwork hanging below—adopted its interwoven, net-like design from chain-link fencing and animal enclosures. When these materials enter—or rather, become—a theater they are reoriented from the vertical to the horizontal plane. A fence or a border becomes a safety net underfoot. Writer and scholar Sara Ahmed calls this “queer use”: when something is used to perform a function different from the one for which it was intended. Even within MoMA’s slick and elegant architecture, the Studio can’t help but be a little scrappy, can’t help but use things queerly, as it borrows and retools and improvises. An idea that I hope is drawn out in some of the performances is that art museums already perform theater in their everyday operations—even in the absence of a dedicated performance space or performance programming.

Installation view of the exhibition Yve Laris Cohen: Studio/Theater

Installation view of the exhibition Yve Laris Cohen: Studio/Theater

You created a work in which the main sculpture moves during the performances. When the grid moves, its status changes from sculpture to more of a theatrical object or set piece. Your work puts pressure on a lot of institutional practices around engaging with objects in performance here at the museum by asking things to perform differently.

It was one of these early discussions about how the Jacob’s Pillow remains would enter the Museum that gave me the idea to make the pipe grid move during performances. The grid moves so it can keep moving—so it can avoid (ontological) stasis. It was only later that I realized this is what pipe grids do: they raise and lower. That’s their natural movement path, which I had taken for granted just from my years of dancing in theatrical spaces.

Why do they raise and lower in a traditional theatrical environment?

You could say it’s an accommodation of sorts, for the technicians: pipe battens are brought down to ground level so they can be loaded or unloaded with theatrical lighting instruments, curtains, and rigging equipment. This avoids the use of ladders or lifts.

But here you’re queering that movement because it’s not moving in order to have additional fixtures put on. It’s moving for another reason entirely.

In Preservation, we’re discussing the longevity of dance institutions and how Jacob’s Pillow has prolonged its institutional life, partly through the physical, structural expansion of its campus. In the meantime, the grid’s lowering mimics its own collapse during the fire. We’re talking about building the theater as it’s coming down. In Conservation, we discuss the emergence of the Department of Conservation at MoMA, but ultimately it is about the inevitable deterioration of the collection’s holdings and everything that conservators are up against in their work to stave off that decay. We chart the eventual material breakdown of the installation over the coming centuries, as the grid rises overhead. So there is something oppositional in each performance with the grid movement: as it’s going up, its descent is implied, and vice versa.

While you are manually cranking the grid up and/or down, you are interviewing the performers in each piece, in a sort of live oral history or documentary.

As far as asking questions, it feels important for me to be doing that in my body—to be exerting myself, to be doing something difficult, and to be physically in a different place by the end of the performance than I am at the beginning. And it does inform how I’m asking questions. What happens in my body isn’t linear, but it is progressive.

Why is difficulty important to you?

It’s not about difficulty for difficulty’s sake. And it’s not about physical prowess. It’s about a way of being with the installation, as well as being with the performers.

The runtime of the performances is determined, in part, by how slowly I need to crank the winch in order to sustain it continuously from start to finish.

It’s a bit of an endurance performance. You crank the winch for two hours.

I’m thinking about the various temporalities at play: acute trauma versus chronic illness; surgery versus maintenance through lifelong medication; the whirlwind restoration of the paintings affected by the fire versus the unglamorous long-term work of daily dusting that makes up the majority of conservation work. I didn’t want to create another fire as a performance. This has the pace of something chronic.

Preservation, October 11, 2022

Preservation, October 11, 2022

Preservation, October 11, 2022

Preservation, October 11, 2022

Most of the performers in Preservation and Conservation have a professional affiliation with either Jacob’s Pillow or MoMA. How does that tie into your ideas around labor and performance as it plays out in the work?

Most of the performers who speak while standing under or within the deformed pipe grid are current or former Jacob’s Pillow and MoMA employees or independent contractors. In Conservation, exploring MoMA’s 1958 fire brings two other institutions—Bellevue Hospital and the Conservation Center at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts—into play. In a sense, it was these four institutions who made the “casting” decisions through their hiring practices, in some cases many decades ago, and I’m just mobilizing this existing infrastructure. In both performances, the speakers’ contributions are isolated: I interview the performers one at a time and the performers don’t share what transpired during their time with me once they return to the shared green room. We do this to preserve discipline-specific language and divergent points of view, and avoid the calcification of a single perspective. I’m looking forward to debriefing with the performers after a year of working in this way.

Conservation examines every physical aspect of the MoMA installation, including the room itself. It begins with the Pillow remains, tracing the material aftermath of the fire, and then pivots to recount the 1958 MoMA fire and its role, not just in generating the Museum’s Conservation department, but also in shaping academic discourses in art conservation. Finally, the performance turns to my own body—specifically my diseased intestines—as a material component of the installation experiencing its own ongoing fire.

One of the main elements is the presence of a stenographer. Why did you choose this as the primary form of performance documentation for the work?

This decision stemmed from a comment Ann Hutchinson Guest made to me during an early research conversation. Ann—the world’s foremost dance notation expert who had a deep, 80-year connection to Jacob’s Pillow—died this year at age 103. In describing the initial relationship between Labanotation (a symbol-based system for analyzing and recording movement developed by Rudolph von Laban) and other technologies for performance documentation and reproduction, Ann said, “Video was our enemy.” I had hoped Ann would be one of the Preservation performers, and I didn’t want to assume an ideological position opposed to Ann’s by having a camera document my own work. Shorthand, like dance notation, is a symbolic written language that produces a record that is long and narrow in shape. The term “stenography” is a derivation of the Greek stenos (narrow) and graphein (writing). In medicine, stenosis is an undesirable narrowing of a tubular structure, such as the intestine. This link arises in the Conservation performance, when the narrowing of the steel pipes’ internal diameters is discussed as part of the unavoidable process of their decomposition.

Yve Laris Cohen: Studio/Theater, organized by Martha Joseph, The Phyllis Ann and Walter Borten Assistant Curator of Media and Performance, with May Makki, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance. Performances produced by Lizzie Gorfaine, Producer, with Jessie Gold, Assistant Performance Coordinator, and Olivia Rousey, Assistant Performance Coordinator, Performance and Live Programs, continues at MoMA through January 1, 2023.