by by Eve Essex

illustration by by Galen Broderick & Emma Price

A Chicago-based artist with roots in theater, Catherine Sullivan has developed a multi-media practice that merges choreography, theater and cinema into intricately constructed narrative video works. In her work, a surrealist fluidity of characters, space and non-linear time finds a counterpoint in consistently angular, staccato movement and speech--suggestive of early modernism, absurdist dada poetry and Nijinsky's choreography. Large ensemble casts act out plots that cross hierarchical narratives of imperialism and capitalism with the literal power dynamics and economies of a performing ensemble. The individual actors are subject to the regime of the group, and their seemingly chaotic motions become methods of 'coping.' Sullivan spoke with the Independent about the relationship between her working process and narrative.

Cultivation, control and progress have repeatedly emerged as narrative themes in your work. They also seem crucial to the language of movement in the work. Can you talk about how these themes emerge in your scores?  
Not all of the movement is conceived of in terms of a score. Each project suggests a different methodology for creating movement, and the approach is generally determined by a combination of things related to the content--the references, the desired effects, the qualities of the performers, etc. In a general sense there is the attempt to create an ecology of performing subjects who are responding to regimes of instructions which are conditioned by various cultural ideologies. In something like "Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land," they were acting out pantomimes which were derived from a nationalistic novel. The pantomime was a choreographic approach which could animate the arbitrary collectivity I wanted to address in the piece.
In musical scores there is a standardized language of notation that is supplemented by descriptive text when necessary, but a generous amount of specification is left to the performer's interpretation. How much specificity goes into your initial plans, how does your language vary according to the project and to what degree does your direction supplement the score?
Yes, there are aspects of the work that are highly scored, but the behavior which the score attempts to order is impossible to quantify. Even if something is highly scored, it consists of elements which are highly specific to the actor, so much so that they are almost unknowable. In a way then, structure is constituted by the very thing that threatens it--some kind of pure sensation. My direction is a matter of trying to play with different alignments of the action and the setting so that what emerges is a new experience of the cultural motifs I am interested in.
So the unpredictability of a performer's interpretation is built into your process? 
Their interpretation is the basis of everything you see. I am only animating it in different ways.
To what degree does the ensemble dictate the roles of individual players? Does a performer learn to 'possess' their character as a subject? Or are characters more dependent on a figure's relation to the whole--learning to occupy their place in a system?
It's more like they are embodying different attitudes, states, responses to physical, emotional or psychological stimuli. They can also imitate, reference, remember, sing, dance or speak. There are different things we do to play with the dynamics or placement of these tasks, and sometimes it is wholly subjective and at other times it is purely technical. Sometimes they regard each other and react and at other times they are asked to focus on something internal which is endlessly absorbing. It really depends on the content and the moment, and it applies all of the traditions of dramatic acting and none of them at the same time.
How much does practice--the rehearsal process--clarify the work? How does this performer/character/ensemble dynamic clarify the work? 
That's an interesting question because rehearsal is necessary and productive, it allows me to create the performances and then focus on photographing them for the films. But our rehearsals are not about perfecting material, they are more about building textures and dynamics, and this approach doesn't clarify anything. It generates lots of different options, and this can be tedious
Can you talk about the relationship of these issues to the works' thematic occurrences of control and progress as narrative?  
It is all work that involves a high degree of concentration. I think that generates a sense that the performers are coping with a regime that has its own progressive logic. They are responding to it. There are different questions then that this raises about what it means to succeed or fail within this setting. Failure with the task can represent a kind of independence, and success a kind of limitation. Control or lack of it is framed by ideological perspectives which come with any number of judgments.
You've worked in video, installation, and live performance--is your process similar, different, in each medium? Can you talk about how the variation and irrepeatability inherent in live performance play into the development of a permanent product as video?
The process is similar, but I really enjoy the aspect of the live performances that places the work in the end, outside of my control. With the films there is always the partnership of photography, there is always information being framed out. With the live works there truly is an evident ecology, one where the eyes have the pleasure to look at what they want. Issues of emphasis are very different.

Last year, your video "The Chittendens" showed at the Boston ICA, as a single channel--but it has also shown as 5-6 projections. Can you talk about the modularity of your installations? Can each element stand on its own?  Is there a hierarchy?

"The Chittendens" consists of five components, one of which is a double screen. Each component has a different strategy and I like to think that the components enhance one another but are not necessarily co-dependent. They are all pretty intricately conceived, so there isn't any one more prominent than another. Since the pieces are generally traveling, I enjoy seeing them in different configurations, I enjoy addressing them to different interiors. A modular approach has come to make the most sense, and I often edit the pieces for different occasions. I also think it provides an opportunity to develop different things in the material, knowing that it will have the effect of overlapping spheres with similar and dissimilar attributes.
Is this variability in any way related to the performer/ensemble dynamic? 
Yes, I think there is something interesting about tasks that are carried out by the ensemble in one situation and then in another by an individual in another. There is a different interpretation of the stakes or consequences.

EVE ESSEX RISD '09 responds to physical, emotional or psychological stimuli.