Interview with Claudia La Rocco

Visiting Artist Profiles

Interview with Claudia La Rocco

By Bean Gilsdorf October 23, 2013

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.

 Claudia La Rocco was a 2013 artist in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts.

Claudia La Rocco has written criticism on performance for The New York Times, Artforum, and The Brooklyn Rail. More importantly, though, she is a poet and she approaches criticism as a form of the literary arts, often playing with the formal aspects of writing by bringing in visual elements or by using a particular structure (like a script) to make the words on the page coalesce into something more than mere text. La Rocco founded and runs The Performance Club, which won a 2011 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and has recently collaborated on interdisciplinary projects with artist Brett Goodroad, the choreographers Karen Sherman and Thomas Lehmen, and the interdisciplinary performance company Findlay//Sandsmark. I caught up with La Rocco during her residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, where she was editing a future compilation of her poetry, essays, and reviews.

Claudia La Rocco interviewing the Romanian playwrights Vera Ion and Mihaela Michailov at the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York following showings of their work, 2012. Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New was co-presented with the Immigrants' Theatre Project and was a Performance Club event.

Bean Gilsdorf: How did you become a dance and performance critic?

Claudia La Rocco: Just after I got out of school I got this gig as an editor at the Associated Press, and for part of the time I was able to write about visual arts, books, even once in a while about TV—almost everything except dance. As I remember it, my editor called me into her office one day and said, “What do you know about dance?” I said, “I don’t really know anything about dance.” And she said, “Well, how would you like to write about dance? I need some dance writers.” I remember recognizing this as something I should say yes to and at the same time being panic stricken. So I said, “Sure, I can take some classes and read and figure out something to write about…” and she was like, “Nope, Baryshnikov is dancing on Thursday and I need a review of that and you’re going to cover it.” So that was how I started.

BG: And how did that go?

CLR: I hated it. I was terrified that I was looking at the wrong things or saying the wrong things that I didn’t even have the right to be talking about this stuff. And I did end up taking classes, just to get a sense of it in my body and get over that sense of being a fraud. And then at a certain point the fact that it was an impossible thing to do—write about performance—started to get really exciting. My training is in poetry, and I started seeing a lot of the similarities. My way into a lot of contemporary dance is through poetic structures. Structurally, the two forms seem to be in conversation in interesting ways.

BG: I think that “fraud” feeling is what keeps a lot of people from writing about the arts, and I know you teach writing. Do you get that a lot in your classes?

Claudia La Rocco, Rashaun Mitchell, Davison Scandrett and Silas Riener. Taste, 2013; site-specific performance and installation by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, in collaboration with Claudia La Rocco and Davison Scandrett. Costumes by James Kidd. Presented at the BFI Gallery in Miami, in collaboration with O, Miami. Photo: Lilly Echeverria.

CLR: What I get more often are writers who want to wrap themselves in expert voices. They just become waiters for other people’s ideas, and that’s really problematic. You’re standing here in front of this piece, what do you think about it—not Derrida or Foucault or Judith Butler. New writers will pull from other sources because they don’t know how to talk about something; and they’re led to believe that there is one right answer and that in order to sound smart they have to read the right books.

BG: Your own reviews use a variety of formats, or styles or genres, like handwritten text and visuals, or the form of a script. When you are developing a response to a performance, how do you decide what format it’s going to take?

CLR: If I’m writing for a particular publication I will respect whatever conventions or expectations it has. If The New York Times sends me to review something, then I understand how many words I have and it’ll be a prose format. And when I say conventions I don’t mean that the writing can’t be absolutely rich and aspire to art, so even that becomes a structured improvisation. I try to approach it so that the form finds itself, and I’ll play with rules or make exercises. On my website, for example, where I have total freedom—I’m sure in ways that are good and bad for me as a writer—I’ll sit down and write for the length of watching a performance, and I’ll publish that unedited. In general, I don’t try to go in with an idea—oh, it’s going to look like this—because as a writer I’m not so interested in that, in the same way that when I am an audience member I don’t want to say oh, I know what this is. That stuff gets in the way of one’s eyes.

The text, by La Rocco, was written (after reading five pages of Edward Said) as a site-specific piece for the wall of Teixeira’s studio as part of his Translation(s), a project developed at Headlands Center for the Arts, 2013.

BG: Is there a difference between writing a piece of criticism about a static work of art and writing about something that’s performative?

CLR: I don’t think so. Everything depends on the day and the person. The more I do this, the less I know how to do it. That sounds hopelessly pretentious! I don’t mean to say that I don’t know what I’m doing, but the more I write, the less that—definitively—I can say this is what this is.

BG: So, less pedantic? I feel that you work along a continuum from poetry to criticism, and there can be very fine shadings.

CLR: For example, the format of the Paul Chan interview: he and I just hit it off and ended up talking in his studio for about six hours. During our conversation we started making comments about what the final interview was going to be like, and at a certain point it just seemed to make sense that we would have laughter and ambient noise be a part of it, because in the context of what we were talking about—this idea of how to get at a live experience and what the documentation looks like—it made sense. But I didn’t go in thinking we’re going to do it this way.

BG: It sounds like you just trust the process, and you trust that you’re intelligent enough to show up and work with whatever material you’re given.

CLR: And it’s also more fun to just go in and not know what you’re going to do than to be laboring under expectations and obligations—that seems really impoverished to me. So yeah, I guess that I trust myself to be smart enough…or, just this is what I got, this is who I am. And it is up to other people to decide if I am writing really interesting criticism that straddles genres or if it’s self-indulgent bullshit. And, the world being what it is, I expect that people would have both of those responses, and that’s fine.

Claudia La Rocco. Photo: José Carlos Teixeira.

BG: Let’s go back to the Paul Chan interview and some ideas about performance and documentation. I think you said something like, “Documentation takes all the unpredictability out of work that is live and lively.” It sounds like that’s what you’re trying to work against in your approach to performances you’ll be writing about; you’re building in unpredictability for yourself. If you come in with a set of expectations about your own reaction, then you lose a lot of potential.

CLR: And you’re not seeing. I remember reading reviews when I was trying to get up to speed with dance criticism and being mystified, stuff like, “but of course, this wasn’t dance”—so that means you have a checklist, right? And that’s such a profoundly uninteresting framework. Was the piece saying something? Was in it conversation with other ideas? Did you respond to that? Were you pissed off? There are these false securities of “objective” criticism or analysis, but you walk in and you are who you are that day. I should clarify that I’m not against documentation. I think Paul and I were talking about the Abramović retrospective in that interview, and you have to think about what the intentions of her early work were versus what they are now. I think that’s a really interesting commentary on how people’s intentions shift as they get older. You can read the entire Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art as about one’s own mortality…

BG: Which a lot of her work was about anyway.

CLR: But commenting on mortality when you’re thirty is very different than when you’re sixty.

BG: When you’re thirty you put a skeleton on your naked body, and when you’re sixty you try to build a museum.

CLR: Yes!

BG: Another thing that you said in the Paul Chan interview was, “I hate the idea of criticism as the rough draft of history.” Let’s talk about that.1

CLR: I think criticism is one person’s flawed and subjective account of an experience. What I don’t like about the “rough draft of history” statement is that it somehow elevates criticism to this thing that is set in the record book. It places an undue emphasis on getting it right or getting it down for posterity, and I don’t think criticism is reliable that way. People have all sorts of agendas, and the “rough draft” of history would be implicated in the production of a “one true version” of a history. Also, it diminishes what criticism can do as an elucidation of thought, as an art form on the page, it diminishes what can be really galvanizing and powerful about this form, and it aggrandizes it in a way that is distasteful to me. And if people are writing with that over their shoulders, I don’t think it’s doing them any favors.

This conversation we’re having will be rendered so differently on the page. There won’t be this air coming in, and you won’t hear the birds outside, or see what your face is doing when I’m speaking. One of the things that I love about performance is that if you weren’t there, then you weren’t there. It does disappear, and we disappear, and so we want to keep everything, but we can’t keep anything.


  1. See An Interview by Claudia La Rocco and Paul Chan. The Brooklyn Rail, published July 8, 2010. Accessed September 26th, 2013.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content