By Dawn Watson
Scoring a residency isn’t necessarily as life changing as winning the lottery, but for an artist, it can bring nearly as many rewards.
Removed from the mundanity of day-to-day concerns—namely making sure there are enough resources for the basics of food, shelter and clothing—foe many artists, residency provides the freedom for to focus nearly solely on the creative process without the worries of seeking and attaining provision. And when a residency is offered by a place as prestigious as the Water Mill Center, there are whole other levels of opportunity attached. There, each year up to 20 collectives and individual artists are offered residency, where they are offered the facilities and support needed to create and develop works that critically investigate, challenge and extend their practice.
Two such artists, Andrew Ondrejcak and Ebe Oke, have been in residency since October 10. Each will culminate their experiences as artists in residence at the Watermill Center with open rehearsals, for public viewing, on Saturday, November 5.
In his residency, Mr. Ondrejcak, who has collaborated with Shara Nova on her “My Brightest Diamond,” explores the themes of gender and identity in a new opera inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando.” Written, directed and designed by Mr. Ondrejcak, the title role will be performed by Ms. Nova during the open rehearsal.
The artist is no stranger to Watermill Center, nor to its founder, Robert Wilson. He’s been in residency at the center in the past and has also had his works curated by Mr. Wilson for the Guggenheim’s “Works in Process” exhibit in 2011. He’s also performed with legendary performance artist and Wilson friend, Marina Abramovic, in “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010.
Here’s what he has to say about his experience at Water Mill:
The Express: How has this experience at the Watermill Center compared to when you were here making “Veneration #1” at Watermill Center and your previous experiences with Mr. Wilson?
Mr. Ondrejcak: I made a performance for the Guggenheim during the summer 2010 while Bob was also here working on his projects. So there were many guests and artists at the Center rushing around, lots of gardening and cleaning and anxious performers trying to impress, and secret make-out sessions and trips to the beach in the early morning.
But this month, I’m here alone with my collaborators and the feeling is vastly different (though secret make-out sessions do happen, naturally). For me, the Center has been a private, quiet time for me to sketch freely and to generate ideas with my talented collaborators, without the looming pressures of rehearsals and production.
It feels like the whole center is my sketchbook, with collaborators working in various rooms, reading weird books and printing strange, inspiring images, pulling items from the art collection – everything is fair game for me because everything informs my process at this point.
The Express: Has it been daunting to mount “Orlando” knowing that Wilson did his own version in 1989, Sally Potter made the 1992 film and Sarah Ruhl adapted it for the stage in 2010?
Mr. Ondrejcak: Well this chronology sounds like the character of “Orlando,” traversing time, giving each artist a chance to muse of Orlando’s existence. I’m using Woolf’s novel as inspiration—as a jumping-off point to examine my own experiences of queerness and ideas about the interconnectivity of time.
I’m not making a faithful adaptation of the novel (no way!). I am adhering to Woolf’s dramatic structure and, of course, the central themes of the novel are of import, but my libretto is made of original text and includes personal stories from my life and the lives of my collaborators. So I don’t feel the burden of history pressing upon me. Not yet, at least.
The Express: You and Shara Nova have worked together before. How does “Orlando” fit in with your previous collaborations?
Mr. Ondrejcak: “Orlando” builds on themes from our previous works—that the flesh is temporary and malleable, that identity is not rigid, that core human experiences transcend body, time, place, gender. Shara and I have slippery transcendental tendencies, which come out in our works; everything I’ve written for Shara contains lives that are intertwined despite the boundaries of time or space.
There is something (and I’m not sure exactly what) that pervades all of my writing—some kind of shape-shifting deity, no, not deity, but some sort of divine spirit that exists in and through us—something that connects my experiences to the rest of humanity and to history. I long for deep connections so “Orlando” feels particularly relevant to me.
I suggested to Shara that I’d like to write a new version of this story for her, for us, and she said, “OKAY YEASS,” and so, now, here we are.
The Express: What would you say to those who might not be familiar with this type of work? Why should people come to the open studio?
Mr. Ondrejcak: People should visit an artists’ studio because it’s a glimpse into the artists’ process, and the process is oftentimes more interesting than the final work. I’m not saying that my process in particular is exemplary (indeed it is messy and crude and nerdy and disgustingly lonely) but it is a safe space for ideas to incubate. It’s important to see that, and to feel it.
Ideas grow in the walls and in books and in brains and then, suddenly, they are manifest on the page, on the stage. So any time that I can be privy to this experience of creation (no matter how glamorous or trashy the studio may be), I see it as an opportunity to cultivate curiosity and I always GO.
During his residency at Watermill, Mr. Oke has created new electronic works, which incorporate language experiments, including bird and insect sounds used as instruments, structural maps and rhythmic guides. The experimental artist, electroacoustic composer and performance poet, who crafts avant-garde pop music exploring the idea of “otherness,” has collaborated and performed with Brian Eno and headlined at The Kitchen for “Synth Nights,” curated by Laurie Anderson. He also regularly collaborates as a composer and dancer with choreographer and performance artist Nissa Nishikawa and has scored the award-winning films “We Are Many” and “Julian.”
The Express: This is your first residency at the Watermill Center. What was your introduction to this place?
Mr. Oke: I’d heard about the Watermill Center for a while so when Laurie Anderson suggested we take a trip there when we were in The Springs I was thrilled. We arrived to a hive of activity and the director encouraged me to apply.
I do see myself returning in the future. It feels incredibly familiar. I relate to Bob’s desire for order, simplicity and symbolism. I can imagine the act of arranging megaliths on the grounds or placing the chairs and artifacts must give him some inner peace.
The Express: How has the experience there informed your work so far?
Mr. Oke: I’m learning more and more to just trust my intuition. I’ve always been very conceptual with my work, however right now I’m marrying that with a non-teleological or non-goal oriented approach to composition.
The library here is comprehensive. It’s covers all my interests. I’ve been reading texts by Agnes Martin as well as learning about the creative approaches of John Cage and looking at Bob’s archives to see how he brings his stagecraft together. The information I’ve absorbed here has had a liberating effect on my own process.
The Express: Besides Laurie Anderson, any other artists here in New York who you have worked with, been influenced by, have touched your life or process?
Mr. Oke: I’ve been many influenced by many artists who have been associated with New York, probably more so than any other city.
I grew up reading about many of these artists. I’ve spent time with the poets John Giorno and Ira Cohen. Giorno’s work blew me away when I saw him perform in London. He was so youthful, like a glowing baby, and his words ecstatically cascaded out of him.
I met him after and he encouraged me to get in touch when I was next visiting New York. He lives in a building he shared with Burroughs called “the bunker.” I don’t remember seeing many or any books; there were instead rows of scrolls neatly lined up along the walls.
He talked to me about his Buddhist practice, which I was only beginning to touch upon then, and we read each other our poems over tea. Such a beautiful human. Both performances I’ve seen of his have been very life affirming for me.
AA Bronson is an artist I’ve collaborated with and whom I consider a kind of mentor. He was part of the General Idea collective and now lives in Berlin with his husband, Mark. I’ve been involved in several of his shows and have composed music as installations for his exhibitions. The last one we did together was for Art Basel in Switzerland. I’ve always been drawn to the company of people older than me.
The Express: Describe what the audience should expect of your open rehearsal?
Mr. Oke: Reaching an alpha state possibly? I’m planning to conduct an immersive listening experience of my work, “Field,” which is a sound painting or sonic landscape that’s half an hour long. I may also give a little introduction to my work and explain the different veins that my work takes and possibly share a song or two from the record I’m making inspired by bird sounds which explores my idea of the “creature self.”
The Express: What would you say to those who might not be familiar with this type of work? Why should they come?
Mr. Oke: The creation of “Field” was a kind of self-healing experience and exercise in following an intuitive process. It has three parts but I think I will just present the first one. I listen to it as a way to give my nervous system a deep rest.
Hopefully the work might give them a glimpse of some unknown terrain within themselves. This is what I’m always searching for as an artist—the new frontiers. I may return to the Watermill Center at a later date to present a performance.
The Express: What have I not asked that you think is important to mention?
Mr. Oke: Places like the Watermill Center are very rare and we are lucky to have it exist in the world. I asked Bob if other places like this existed and he could only name two or three. Hopefully this spirit of support for younger artists will endure with future generations in an increasingly corporate world.
The Watermill Center will present two open rehearsals by a pair of its current artists in residence, Andrew Ondrejcak and Ebe Oke, on Saturday, November 5. Mr. Ondrejcak’s open rehearsal will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. and Mr. Oke’s open rehearsal will be from 3 to 4 p.m. Learn more at www.watermillcenter.org.