Q+A with Charli Brissey

Charli Brissey (BFA ’08, MFA ’14) is no stranger to VCUarts—they received their BFA in Dance + Choreography and their MFA in Kinetic Imaging here in Richmond. Now, they’re an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan department of dance, teaching technology focused classes that incorporate elements of women’s studies.

Q: Can you talk about how you utilize movement as a way of discussing societal identity standards?

Thinking choreographically has become central to not only my work as an artist, but also as a researcher and, perhaps most importantly, to how I hope to move through the world as a thoughtful person. I spend a lot of time thinking about technology and infrastructure, how bodies and “things” get moved through the world, reproduced or ignored completely based on systems built for and by certain individuals. That is total choreography to me. In terms of identity, I think a lot about how we come to understand our bodies and the ways in which they move through the world via very choreographic elements of repetition, accumulation, spatial orientation, arrival, overflow, structure, form and so much more.

Everything about phenomenology reads as dancing to me! How we shape attitudes towards things or become oriented in some directions and not others, who has the privilege to do certain things and move certain directions. Studying movement gives me a platform to challenge my own thinking in these ways, to dig deep into my assumptions, biases and habits, and to constantly hold myself (and hopefully others around me) accountable for how we are taking up space in the word. Also, dance has completely transformed everything I ever thought I knew about gender! If only my little tomboi ten-year-old self knew that dance was in my future. ☺

Q: Considering your background in dance, can you talk about how Kinetic Imaging fits into your practice and your teaching style?

My time in Kinetic Imaging changed everything! I was always interested in technology but had never really asked myself the big questions. What really is technology? Through what infrastructures are technologies brought into the world, and who gets to use them? Who doesn’t? Asking these broader, more philosophical questions regarding technology really changed how I thought about the tools I worked with as an artist: cameras, iMac computers, sound recording devices, Final Cut Pro, my body, my gender, my queerness, my dancing. It kind of exploded my world open in ways I am definitely still figuring out, and probably will always be questioning.

I’d never really considered technology as a “choreographic tool” until my years as a grad student in KI. Since moving back toward the dance world, it’s given me such an invigorating, rich (and different) perspective on movement that I feel so very lucky be able to draw on. I have this whole other way of thinking that I could bring back into my work as a choreographer.

Q: What role do your students play in your own art practice? Do they influence you in some way?

The students influence me in every way. I am lucky to teach so many different kinds of classes. I teach technique class where we are sweating together for hours, physically challenging what “technique” even means in contemporary times and how to unearth the many brilliant intelligences that live deep in all of our bodies. I get to teach composition classes where we gruel over the incredibly complicated process of translating things that matter to us (identity, politics, power, revolution) into our work as artists. I teach theory where we all challenge each other to constantly reconsider our biases and assumptions of the ways the world works, meanings and metaphor changing over and over. I wouldn’t get to experience any of that without the students. They keep me curious and fiery; we’re constantly chasing after something together. It means everything to me to have that energy around, to have hungry people around that care about the hard questions and complicated conversations. This is why I make art. Making art is one part of the larger ecology. It is in no way a separate world from teaching. My work as a teacher and my work as an artist are undeniably entangled. I need and want them both in the pot together.

Q: Whether they’re funny, academic, time with friends or memories from the studio, are there any particularly memorable moments from your time in KI?

There are so many. I was working on a project my first year where I needed to build a giant confession booth (I had just read Foucault for the first time and was obsessing over concepts of shame, diagnosis and the act of “confessing” something). My dad was visiting, who also happens to be brilliant at building things, so I had him shacked up in my studio all day helping me build this giant confession booth, also with my pitbull Laika in there “helping.” It was hilarious and also very sweet. We just sat around sweating and grueling over this giant, ugly, plywood confession booth all day, and my dad just kept asking, “Why the hell are we building this again?”

Q: What shifts have you seen in your work since graduating from KI?

My work feels much more integrated now than it did then. Meaning that my work as a dancer/choreographer and my interests in technology and digital mediums makes a lot more sense now to me. They aren’t as separate or aesthetically different as they once were. I’m also very nerdy, always theorizing and chasing concepts that are slightly over my head, and the ways in which that kind of thinking makes its way into my work as an artist is more articulate and grounded now. I also make much larger scale work now, and I’ve leaned hard into work that is ecologically and scientifically driven. That’s always been the case to an extent, but my work is really research-focused in a way now, meaning that there is always massive parts of the project that end up becoming more scholarly writing or presented in academic spaces.

I’m writing a book right now, which I never thought would happen!

Q: Any exciting news or things upcoming for you that we should be aware of?

The book I’m writing is called Dancing at the End of the World: Choreographies of Time and Uncertainty, a very extensive study into how we might look choreographically at our relationships to material environments in our current political-ecological climate. It centers dance and choreography as invaluable methodologies to research social, political, technological and environmental phenomena. 

I also just started my largest research project to date: an interdisciplinary multi-year study called Agua Viva: Choreographies of the Sea. I am looking choreographically at the evolution of fish and benthic ecosystems as potentially radical sites to inform how we move through our precarious terrestrial future. It is emerging through intersections of dance, science and technology studies, and queer/feminist theory, and will result in an evening length performance, a video series and an interactive archival website that will document the research process and include all field notes, data sets, interviews, videos, photographs, diagrams and other process components.

You can follow Charli’s work on their website. Be sure to keep an eye out for their book Dancing at the End of the World: Choreographies of Time and Uncertainty, to be published in the summer of 2020.

Published on January 15, 2019

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