Hartnett Gallery was thrilled to host Sarah Friedland’s exhibition Assembled Choreographies online in Spring 2021. The following is an interview held between Sarah Friedland and the Hartnett Gallery’s Publicity Manager, Ryan Maciel, which addresses her work, its creation, and its significance.
Ryan: So, just to get started, where’d you grow up, where did you go to school, what were you interested in?
Sarah: So, my origin story. I am the twin daughter of two Jewish educators from Santa Barbara, California. As a teenager I started getting really interested in image-making and photography on the one hand, and dance on the other. And my photography just kept getting more kinetic. Individual images started becoming diptychs and then triptychs and then I was playing with stop motion animation and I had a really great photography teacher who sort of nudged me: “if we look at the patterns here it seems like you want to make films.” I also grew up with a cinephile mom, so I definitely was steeped in watching a lot of movies from a young age.
I went to college and started studying modern culture and media, which was about media theory and understanding different forms and conventions within modern culture, coming out of a tradition of semiotics, at the same time that I was studying modern dance and choreography. And so there was a sort of collision course of these two moving forms. The first films that I was making as a student were experimental dance films. At the same time that I was studying choreography, I was getting really interested in the choreography of cinema and how bodies are patterned within moving image forms.
After college, I realized that I had all of these ideas and theories swarming in my head but that I really had no idea how people actually make films in a marketplace and in industry. And so I spent the first three years out of college working as an assistant, PA, script coordinator, researcher, etcetera. I did the gamut of entry-level film jobs to try and understand how things actually work in production.
R: Yeah and reading some of your other interviews I saw that you ended up working with a scholar in Australia that was very important in this intersection of film and dance that you’re interested in. I found that really cool, could you talk a bit about that?
S: That experience was super formative for me. While I was still a student, I took a semester off to go to Sydney to work with Professor Erin Brannigan, who wrote this incredible book called Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image that brings film theory and dance theory together to try and understand how embodiment is framed on camera in different film forms. She looks at everything from Hollywood musicals to avant-garde cinema. I read her book as an undergrad and had the wonderful feeling that I had found the theoretical framework I’d been looking for and needing and yet hadn’t found in the books I was reading at the time, which were primarily in this vein of film theory, where there’s so much written about the body on film but the body is kind of rendered static. And so her writing animated for me this idea of bringing a choreographic lens to moving image forms.
So I wrote Erin a cold email when I was nineteen basically saying, like, “I love your book, it’s changed how I think about everything. If I can find a way to get to Australia, will you work with me?” and amazingly she said yes. So I moved to Sydney for about five months and was her research assistant and mentee and wrote a paper with her guidance, and did a semester of focused study just with her, while working part-time for a production company in Sydney. Her writing and her teaching continue to resonate in how I make work between these two forms.
R: So after college you’re in New York, and doing these entry level film jobs, getting involved with film production in the real world. From there are you continuously doing your own photography, film, choreography? How do you get more into your independent creative endeavors?
S: I mean, it’s a transition that’s still happening. I guess the turning point for me, the real wake-up call, was when I fell asleep in one of my own dance rehearsals, because I was working these 14-16 hour days in production and then trying to eke out space for my own work on the side and I really was struggling with that balance and didn’t really love the work I was making. I was just too exhausted. And so I started gradually doing more day jobs that were combining part-time or gig-based jobs where I could have more flexibility to carve out time for my own work and started transitioning away from full-time jobs where all your energy is going to supporting someone else’s vision. I started working as a caregiver for elderly artists with dementia, and doing more grant writing and research assistant stuff on the side and basically trying to change the ratio of how much of my day is labor for others versus for my own work. And that’s continued to transform and now I’m primarily working by day as an educator, teaching dance filmmaking.
R: Maybe we can go a bit into the work itself. First off we have Drills, CROWDS and Home Exercises that we’re showing online. In Home exercises you’re working with the aging population and then with Drills you have some school children among others. What was it like coordinating and working with those particular groups?
S: Both projects were really different experiences. Home Exercises was coming out of this time where I just started working with aging individuals in my day job, and was recovering from shoulder surgeries and so it was a moment where I wasn’t able to work with more “virtuosic,” full body movement and was thinking more about the micro-choreographies of daily life. And that film really came out of my collaboration with Rachel Balaban who produced the film, and teaches dance for the aging population and for individuals with Parkinson’s. So we put out this open call, an invitation to her community of students, to be performers in our film and a part of the choreographic exchange it proposed. We started by having off-camera conversations with everybody who said they were interested about their daily home movements, structured as what I have been calling “embodied interviewing”, where I use the dialogic pattern of an on-camera filmic interview but what is exchanged is movement-based: gestural, postural, etc. We had a really tiny crew – three people – so that we didn’t have to rush. We didn’t want anyone to feel like they had to move faster or more efficiently. It was wonderful to be welcomed back into our performers’ homes and spend a full day with them, with only a part of the day actually shooting. The shared ethic to make the film at a slow and leisurely pace was important.
Drills has three sections and each one was cast differently. The group of students emerged from a collaboration with two teenage performers who I had collaborated with on a prior short film and wanted to work with again — Milo and Emma Cenholt-Haulund — who reached out to peers in their community of performers and students to invite to participate, guided by their mother Iben who joined us as the casting director for this section of the film. The process of working with the students was unique from the rest of the film because Jacob Z. Gross, who is a mental health counselor and facilitator, joined us to help safely lead a workshop where we could work through and talk together about how these choreographies feel in their bodies and how we might disrupt them. It was important for me to have someone in the room who was thinking primarily about their mental health rather than the film so that those two wouldn’t be in conflict with one another.
R: I think that was something I found interesting about Drills, this weighty material, which I would say feels very intense in moments. But at the same time, there’s this—I’m not sure I want to say element of fun—but you know when they’re playing around in the parking lot. It’s like this interesting kind of contrast between these elements.
S: I don’t think it’s problematic to say that there’s an element of fun because that was part of how we were thinking about the process. The first step was articulating to each other, what is the choreography here? I was asking, “if you were to describe this choreography or direct your peers to perform this drill, what would you say to them?” Even though these drills are fairly simple, this strata of embodied experiences is often not named or identified even though it’s so crucial to our experiences.
But then step two was saying, “okay if we want to disrupt these drills and the futures they imagine, how might we see choreography as a way of designing that future? How can we change these rules and patterns to disrupt the futures that they imagine?” And so, my intervention of the little loop-the-loop in their evacuation line was one gesture towards that disruption, and perhaps a fun or frivolous one at that. I was asking the students to come up with their own forms of play and pleasure, that could disrupt the choreography. And even with the boy scout and meditation sections, we were thinking through how can these little acts of choreographic play disrupt what these drills anticipate? So I think you’re totally right that playfulness comes into contact with the violent possibilities of the choreography.
R: I read a bit about the way that you were thinking about CROWDS as you were creating it, and that you’re trying to capture this subject of the crowd, which is kind of unique. It sounded like you had an interesting research project behind that, so could you talk a bit about how you came to that process and how you were looking at different crowds and formulating what it was that you want to represent in the work?
S: The initial inspirations for the project were multiple. One of them was just noticing the way that our discourses refer to collective life, social life, political life, often invoke choreography, without perhaps intending to, or naming it as such. For example, at the time that I first started researching, Trump was talking all the time about a “caravan” or “invasion” of migrants and his language describing the movement of migrants towards the border would take on all of these racist and xenophobic tropes. But part of the fear-mongering in his xenophobic rhetoric was enacted by describing the mass movement as something invasive, overwhelming, accumulating. The choreography invoked was a way of evoking fear. I started noticing how much our discourses of collective life have this level of the choreographic that’s unattended to and yet so embedded in our politics. I wanted to understand what are the choreographic grammars of crowds and how do moving image representations of them play out in our politics? There are very specific tropes and conventions to how crowds are documented in moving images and then circulate as moving image excerpts.
I felt the first step for me was understanding these choreographies as they exist typographically. How do you distinguish one crowd type from another in their movement patterns? For example, if a group of pilgrims is no longer facing the direction of a pilgrimage, what do they become? What is the distinction between a mob, a riot, and a protest? We know the choreographic threshold when we see it. Which isn’t to say the distinction is solely choreographic. Of course, so many of these discourses that invoke crowds are gendered, raced, classed, etc. But the choreographic is embedded in those constructions at the same time.
I started by making a list of every crowd type name I could think of and then started using the YouTube algorithm to watch documentation of those crowds across different locations and time periods, annotating the choreographic patterns: its formations, rhythms, sense of directionality etc. looking also for where the threshold was. When does one crowd type become another? And how do we identify it?
R: For me personally when we were looking at the works that we were going to show this year at the gallery, CROWDS in particular stuck out to me. Because, I imagine, since the time that you were producing this a lot of the themes that it deals with have intensified so much. We’ve seen protests and civil unrest here in the US and elsewhere. Thinking about a bunch of people in a courtyard kind of interacting physically with each other, is so viscerally different now due to the pandemic. How are you grappling with the meaning of this work both as you were making it, and as it’s continuing to evolve in our cultural contexts today?
S: I think that’s such an important question and it’s something I’m still making sense of because so many of our moving image narratives of this year have played out in crowds. You can think, for example, of all the images of formerly crowded public spaces now vacant, circulated as signifiers of the rupture of social life. As did images of prohibited crowds like Miami’s spring break, as signifiers of the risk of social life. And then to go from that to imagery of Black Lives Matter protests and other pro-democracy protests around the world where the crowd signifies moments of upheaval in which the crowd represents a liberatory possibility. And then, of course, the convoluted crowd imagery of January 6th, which Tess and I get into in our conversation. This year has only intensified for me the feeling that in our discourses around collective life, crowd imagery often functions as a visual shorthand for the state of the public and their politics.
R: I think a big theme that I see in your work is this idea of choreography of everyday life, where it’s not just, you’re going to see dance, it’s more about existing in the world and the movements associated with that. How did that come out in the way you were designing the CROWDS installation originally and how has that changed for the online exhibition that you put together for the gallery?
S: The work of preparing CROWDS for Hartnett was an act of translation. The installation was originally designed to be seen in a gallery space, with three overlapping screens that are positioned to create an open yet patterned form of crowd control snaking through the three different perspectives of the crowd. Jonas Eltes’ and my idea was that rather than creating a virtual gallery or a simulacrum of a room, we would try and create a sense of the movement of viewing in that room through toggling between the three perspectives on your desktop. It felt like we were taking the choreographic score of movement between the three perspectives and screens, and translating it into digital gestures.