Artist Profile: Emily Johnson
Emily Johnson performing atop ‘Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House’ by Jeffrey Gibson, Image by Scott Lynch.
Socrates’ Curator & Director of Exhibitions, Jess Wilcox, interviewed Emily Johnson about Johnson’s artistic practice and performance at the Park.
Jess Wilcox: Can you tell us where you’re from and how you came to do what you do?
Emily Johnson: I’m an artist and a dance-maker, a person who loves generating gatherings and building relationships in on-going activations with people and our more-than-human-kin.
The first time I knew I was dancing was when I was a kid. I was back home, where I grew up in what is called Alaska, and playing in the woods. I wrapped my arms around a tree, trying to get my fingers to clasp on the other side. I looked up and it was an Aspen tree, and the top was swaying. I could FEEL the sway, with my little body pressed to the trunk. I remember thinking of the roots that were under my feet and I thought to myself… ”whoa, I’m dancing with this tree.” You know those kid things that stay with you? This feeling, this understanding that the tree was teaching me, guiding me (well, I understand it this way now, I don’t think I did then) – it’s like I can still feel that slight sway in my body.
The land I grew up on is Dena’ina land. I am from the Yup’ik Nation and live now on the Lower East Side of Mannahatta in Lenapehoking.
My reasons to become a dancer are different from the reasons I became a choreographer, but they are both related to land.
JW: What’s your history with Jeffrey Gibson? What conversations between you two have been productive?
EJ: I feel like I’ve always known Jeffrey! What a wonderful feeling! I’m laughing to myself right now because I honestly can’t pinpoint when or where we met. It’s like we’ve been in a growing constellation together for a long time.
Our conversations move and flow from art to justice to babies to the “history” of our artmaking practices. We speak of our ongoing makings and activations with community and with students as well as the ways we see settler colonial failures, which are actually the SUCCESSES of the ongoing settler colonial project – impacting people and artists and communities we love.
It gets hard and we call on one another in trying moments. I appreciate that about us. We can be out of touch for what seems like a long while. Then, we’re generating a moment into something else, through laughing or crying… I love you Jeffrey!
JW: Can you discuss your motivation for collaborating with Nataneh River? Their contribution to ‘The Ways We Love…’ was incredibly powerful. How did you meet and why did you include them in this performance?
EJ: Nataneh and I met when they were here with their kin, working and visiting their homelands for the first time. I’m so thankful to have met them when they were on that journey. We met around a fire and harvest and I think those beings – the fire, and the corn – are a part of our story together. I hope our story continues for a long time.
We planned for Nataneh to be at Socrates for the performance, returning to their homelands to offer their poem and continue to build their own journey here. Because of the pandemic it wasn’t possible. I think of their work as truth embedded in earth and moving through spirit. Their homeland, this ground and water here, needs to hear their work, their voice. Lenape homeland needs Lenapeyok. I was honored but nervous to share their words because I deeply cared that what they wrote would resonate through my voice to the beings it was intended for.
JW: The story of your grandmother giving birth in the canoe adds a very intimate layer to the ‘The Ways We Love…’ How do storytelling, personal narrative, and intimacy relate for you?
EJ: They’re all the same thing to me! I grew up near my Grandma’s bar, the Que-Ana Bar – which I talk (and have made work about) alot. I think of the stories I heard there: the weaving narratives; the bits a kid hears and doesn’t fully get but knows are naughty; the sad stuff; the family stuff; the hilarity of a place full of people – some related, others strangers, some drunk, others just drinking coffee and playing scrabble…
That and the fires we had down at the beach when we’d harvest salmon – listening to our aunties, uncles, and everyone talk, laugh, and decide what was next: to check the net or wait, run to town or back to grandma’s, cook or keep chatting… I guess I grew up loving the details and the in between. That’s where the intimacy is for me.
JW: The performance of ‘The Ways We Love…’ begins with each performer introducing themselves, touching on their heritage, and offering a sort-of Indigenous Land Acknowledgment for the place they are from – establishing an existing in a relationship with occupied land. Why this beginning?
EJ: It was very much a Land Acknowledgement and a way for each person to embody and share that part of themselves in the way they wanted. It introduced the audience to the breadth of place, people and, relations across time and space that were present at the performance. I hope some folx listening thought of the land they are from, and the land we were all on together at that moment too. My prompt for the performers was to imagine the future they want existed. What is that future?
JW: I love the title of the work: ‘The Ways We Love and The Ways We Love Better – Monumental Movement Toward Being Future Being(s).’ Can you discuss how the idea of “love” informs your work?
EJ: That is a beautiful question. I will be thinking about this for a long time. Thank you for that.
I love the processes involved in building ethical relationships and changing systemic harm, erasure, violence, and extraction. I f-ing love it! I love people who are in and committed to those processes and I love how collectively we will build that better future together day by day. I’m an eternal optimist, as you can tell.
JW: I like that your title ‘The Ways We Love and The Ways We Love Better – Monumental Movement Toward Being Better Being(s)’ focuses on the future. I’ve heard the term “Indigenous Futurism” used in relation to Jeff’s work. Do you relate to this term?
EJ: Yes, I am an Indigenous futurist. I even have the tee-shirt that says it – thanks Santiago! We build futures because we are still here through past and continuing colonizing forces. We were meant to be exterminated, removed. Our ancestors live through us. We are here because of what they dreamed and made possible. We must continue that and make the futures – liberated, sovereign, full of joy and Indigenous and Black power – for the future ancestors to come.
JW: What do you think performance, storytelling, and collaboration bring to the discussion of monuments right now?
EJ: Myself and the performers of ‘The Ways We Love…’ are intermediaries between breaths. Between air space. Between those who can breathe and move and those who cannot anymore. We are not conjuring them, but we are conjuring joy of them, with them, for them. We are offering it to them again and again, in respectful remembrance and protection, until no more breaths are taken from us.
Those of us who danced were thinking of those taken from us – such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Trans and Two-Spirit and the Black Trans Lives, towards all of whom we extend our love. We took deep breaths for them, danced for them – and these actions are a kind of monument too. It’s a way to be in space, as my friend, thought partner, and colleague Karyn Recollet writes about – to glyph space.
We need exactly what the ‘MONUMENTS NOW’ show is creating: Indigenous and Black conceived structures as well as conceptual and physically-shared spaces that crumble monuments to genocide.
JW: The performance of ‘The Ways We Love…’ begins with the gifting of Sehsapsing corn seeds and ends with the planting of tobacco seedlings, a sort of return to the land. Can you discuss the importance of plants and harvest in your work?
EJ: The tree I danced with as a child comes to mind. Maybe that tree is still teaching me… I hope and think so. The Sehsapsing corn seeds that we gifted to audience members, who now have the responsibility and honor of care for them, came from plants that were grown from previously gifted seeds. The seeds were from folx at the Lenape Center – who offered them to us in an effort to call Lenape people back home.
In 2019, a program called First Nations Dialogues gifted the first seeds. The corn mentioned when describing how Nataneh and I first met, was grown from those seeds. What an amazing thing to have seeds, plants, corn, and trees build the way to relationships that when tended, can also grow.
I want to acknowledge that the honor of holding these seeds must be considered in relation to the forced displacement of Lenape people.
JW: Related to parks, greenspace, and non-human beings – I also know you’re involved in activism to prevent the destruction of trees in East River Park to make way for flood protection, which is of course only necessary due to man-made (or better say settler-colonial-made) climate change. Can you tell us more?
EJ: I’m so glad you asked. The work to protect 1,000 trees and 57 acres of green space that is East River Park is essential. This effort is connected to all rematriative protections happening right now across all lands and atmospheres. #stopline3 #stopracistrezonings #protecthearctic #frackouttabk #standwithshinnecock #MKEA2020 #saveeastriverpark #bearsearsstrong #eastgippsland #noconsent #MMIWGT2S #LANDBACK
Emily Johnson Bio
Emily Johnson is an artist who makes body-based work. She is a land and water protector and an activist for justice, sovereignty and well-being. A Bessie Award-winning choreographer, Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Award, she is based in New York City. Originally from Alaska, Emily is of the Yup’ik Nation, and since 1998 has created work that considers the experience of sensing and seeing performance. Her dances function as portals and installations, engaging audiences within and through space, time, and environment—interacting with a place’s architecture, peoples, history and role in community. Emily is trying to make a world where performance is part of life; where performance is an integral connection to each other, our environment, our stories, our past, present and future.
Her choreography and gatherings have been presented across the United States and Australia. Recently she choreographed the Santa Fe Opera production of ‘Doctor Atomic,’ directed by Peter Sellars. Her large-scale project, ‘Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars’ is an all-night outdoor performance gathering taking place amongst 84 community-hand-made quilts. It premiered in Lenapehoking (NYC) in 2017, and was presented in Chicagou (Chicago) in 2019. Her new work in development, ‘Being Future Being,’ considers future creation stories and present joy.
Emily’s writing has been published and commissioned by ArtsLink Australia, unMagazine, Dance Research Journal (University of Cambridge Press); SFMOMA; Transmotion Journal, University of Kent; Movement Research Journal; Pew Center for Arts and Heritage; and the compilation Imagined Theaters (Routledge), edited by Daniel Sack. She was an advisory committee member for Creative Time’s 10th Anniversary Summit and a Phase One working group member of Creating New Futures. She serves on the advisory committee for Advancing Indigenous Performance Initiative of Western Arts Alliance, The Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and the Native American Arts Program Expansion Committee for Idyllwild Arts. Emily is the Pueblo Arts Collaborative Diplomat at Santa Fe Opera, and a lead organiser of First Nations Dialogues.
Emily hosts monthly ceremonial fires on the Lower East Side of Mannahatta in partnership with Abrons Arts Center. She is part of a US based advisory group—including Reuben Roqueni, Ed Bourgeois, Lori Pourier, Ronee Penoi, and Vallejo Gantner—who are developing a Global First Nations Performance Network.
Jess Wilcox Bio
Jess Wilcox is the Curator & Director of Exhibitions at Socrates Sculpture Park where she has curated several group and solo exhibitions including ‘Chronos Cosmos: Deep Time, Open Space’; Virginia Overton: ‘Built’; ‘Nari Ward: G.O.A.T., again’; ’The Socrates Annual’ exhibitions; and the Folly/Function architectural competition. From 2011-2015 she worked at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, organizing public programs and public artworks including Agitprop!, an exhibition of historical and contemporary political art. Wilcox has a BA from Barnard College and a Master’s degree from Bard CCS.
Programming for Jeffrey Gibson‘s ‘Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House‘ is made possible by generous support from VIA Art Fund; Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; Kavi Gupta, Chicago; and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. It is also made possible with funds from the NYSCA Electronic Media/Film in Partnership with Wave Farm: Media Arts Assistance Fund, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.