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Talking to Emily Johnson: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview

The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has created a series of interviews with artists and arts leaders to address issues of diversity and social inclusion in contemporary performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with our team to ask ourselves how we can insure that people from all points on the age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and cultural spectra have a place in the conversation. We invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our artist surveys here, and stay tuned as we synthesize our findings and share them online.

Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson
Photo by Cameron Wittig

1. How do you identify yourself? How does your identity influence or inform your work?

A friend of mine introduces himself, his culture, his identity with a poem. The poem is about where his is from, who his mom is and where she is from, what she does; who his father is and where he is from, what he has done. It places him. It gives us context for knowing him, his identity, and for knowing why we need to know it. It’s one of his many important poems.

Here is something I wrote a while ago: Identity is so peculiar. It is simultaneously personal and extremely public. Who I am is perhaps not what people always see. If only we trusted people to know themselves and name themselves, perhaps then we could respect layers of identity and community.

I recently introduced myself in a public forum and I said “I’m Emily Johnson. I’m a choreographer, I make performance installations. I’m from the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. I am Yup’ik on my father’s side and my Alaskan family is from Akiak and Bethel.  I tell you this because this is where I am from and it is also where my work is from: the physical place of Alaska, and the constant confluence of my heritage and performance work.” I also said that I live in Minneapolis.

On my website bio I wrote:

“Emily grew up in her native Alaska playing basketball and running long distance. At 18 she left rural life, moved to Minneapolis, and quite by accident, learned to become a choreographer and performer. For the past 18 years, city living has swirled around her, dragging her away from the physical space of Alaska; the summer and fall family rituals of hunting and fishing, then smoking, drying, canning and freezing food. She is pulled back when Midwesterners and others ask her if she lived in an igloo (myth), if she has an Eskimo name (no), and if it is OK to say the word “Eskimo” (rarely). She is of Yup’ik descent, though she does not speak the language – yet. Emotionally, she is tied to the landscape of South Central Alaska where she was born and to the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta where her family is from.”

To answer your question: I am Emily Johnson. I make performance installations. I am from Alaska. I am a Native Alaskan woman of Yup’ik descent. I live in Minneapolis.

It’s a really long answer, but it takes all these words and I give these examples because it’s not simple to say: “I am of Yup’ik descent.” In Native culture and at gatherings it is correct and respectful to say your name, where you are from, your tribal affiliation(s), your clan(s) if you have them; you say who your parents are, and/or your grandparents – you name lineage and land. If you can, you introduce yourself first in your language and then in the language most people in the room speak. Sometimes you continue with why you are speaking, what brought you to this introduction — often this is about work and values. This is identity. It can take a long time. This is what I have been taught. And when I hear Native people introduce themselves – when I hear my friend Jay Bad Heart Bull’s poem – I feel honored. I feel honored to know what I have just been told. Sometimes I find connections – someone lets me know that they too are from Alaska, or from the village my grandma is from. The identity of one person begins a new relationship and continues relationships already established or those passed on (my great-grandma knew your great-grandma). My friend and colleague Reuben Roqueni talks about the respect present in how we introduce ourselves, “One, it is a matter of respect to introduce yourself, to identify yourself properly as these affiliations carry cultural weight. Two, it is matter of respect to your family and tribe and is a reflection of the way that Native people identify ourselves by our culture. Three, it is a matter of recognition to our ancestors who are ever present. Fourth, it is a matter of recognition to PLACE – as the land too defines us.”

Identity is cultural and introductions are cultural.

And then there is the complexity –

“I am of Yup’ik descent.” The words themselves are not simple so I can’t just say that and then pretend that you know what I mean. My mixed identity is full of beauty and horror. And to complicate it further, the words are understood differently and therefore communicate something different everywhere that I am. How then does a spoken identity have meaning? Just like saying “dance” or “dancer” or “choreographer” or “performance maker” or “dance maker” – all these words are full of meanings and associations that create a different context and understanding with whomever we speak to and wherever we are. To force a radically simplified identity is violent. To make someone check a box about their ethnicity, gender, discipline, etc. perpetuates violence and a narrow view and interpretation of the world. I like your question about identity – it encourages a long form answer.

When I listen to an artist talk about their dance work then I start to get it, I get a bit about who they are and I understand what they mean by their particular way of defining themselves as a dance artist. It’s so interesting –  how we locate ourselves, our identity, our work in our cultures. And so, sometimes to listen to the words and sometimes to speak the words…To get into conversation…to trust what I know/feel/think/have made up/have been taught – sometimes that’s the important work. Sometimes, when I speak of being Yup’ik, it is accepted. Sometimes, when I speak of being Yup’ik, it conjures a million preconceived notions. I am not those preconceived notions. It’s the same when I speak of being a dance-maker.

I am deeply from Alaska. Like forever deep. Before it was Alaska deep. My being indigenous to Alaska land is absolutely part of my internal identity and also of my work. Like I wrote above: my work comes from the physical place of Alaska and the constant confluence of my heritage and contemporary performance work. What does that confluence mean? It means that I respect performance as a deeply embedded part of life, history, and connection to place, time, and each other. It means that the work I make now is informed and challenged by this respect. Being Yup’ik doesn’t inform my work – that would be like saying, “being me informs my work” – which I do suppose is perhaps always the case – it’s just so obvious that most artists don’t have to talk that way.  Being Yup’ik informs my life – my life then informs my work.

This is not to say that I don’t work with this known identity framework – in one work I made and deconstructed an igloo – gave blocks of paper turned ice to each audience member. It was my way of offering a bit of beauty to everyone – the glowing paper blocks were gorgeous. It was also my way of deconstructing a myth, a way of saying, “ here, take this. Take responsibility for this image.” This image, this notion of people from the north living in igloos – it comes from somewhere – let’s hold it, recognize it and transform it into something real that we can analyze and decide to change. In that work, the igloo-myth starts to stand for many myths and stereotypes, many pre-conceived notions.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself?

The challenges I knowingly face in the field based on my identity are related to my long answer above…the challenges are often about language, about pre-conceived notions, about a fascination with Alaska. I don’t mean that a fascination with Alaska is wrong, but it is wrong when it overshadows an interview or a conversation with a presenter (I can’t think of an example where it overshadowed a conversation with an audience member though which is nice). On one occasion I started to wonder if the presenter I was working with even really cared about my work – it started to seem that they only cared about my identity and how their definition of my identity would sell. Unfortunately, this proved true and felt disgusting. It doesn’t happen often, but I do need to keep aware.

I also need to be explicitly clear on language about myself, my identity, and how it relates to my work because it’s often misconstrued. In blurbs, websites, on paper…people often write in a way that it – their interpretation of my identity – becomes the whole story. It’s exhausting. I tire of educating and fixing mistakes or responding to ill-conceived questions. But I think it is exhausting because it’s so important. It’s important to me that my identity is not misconstrued. It’s important to me that my culture(s) is/are not mis-represented. I think this is why I ask that we trust one another to know ourselves and to name ourselves. I don’t care if you call yourself an orange gorilla. If that’s what you want to say and you know everything you can know, given your upbringing and choices and wonderful or shitty happenstances about being that orange gorilla, then know it and say it and I’ll accept it.

3. Where do you (or can you) locate representations of your culture [community] within contemporary performance?

I can take this question many ways. I reside in many communities – my Native community, my performance maker/doer community, my Minneapolis community, my neighborhood, my Alaska community, my New York community, my wherever I am performing community, my family community, my Catalyst community, the community I find myself with on the bus….often times these communities merge or are the same and oftentimes they are not. Yes, I can locate many of my communities (cultures) within contemporary performance – because I go to performances all over the place: in basements of bodegas, Quyana Nights at Alaska Federation of Natives conference, stuff in parks, and on stages and in festivals all over the country.

Do I find representations of my (Native/Yup’ik/American Indian/Alaska Native) culture within contemporary performance? If I read the question this way then the word ‘representation’ is troubling because “representations” of my culture (usually by persons outside of my culture(s) are very often very, very wrong. So while I might see references to or representations of my cultures/histories on stages/in life it’s often not a good thing.

But if you mean “Do I find other artists of Native/Yup’ik/American Indian/Alaska Native heritage working in contemporary performance and working with themes of identity and culture (ie: representing their culture)?” then first we have to look at the word contemporary. Quyana Nights at AFN is certainly contemporary even though many people would name the dances shared there “traditional.” The Camai Festival in Bethel, AK –  which I’ve never been to but follow from afar – is contemporary in the same way and also inclusive of many artists from many nations. The dances in these festivals and others are sometimes new and sometimes have been passed down for a very long time. But they are happening now, on stages and in gymnasiums. Not only happening. They are alive and working within culture, history, identity, politics, society, desires, wishes, prayers.

4. Are there moments in which your cultural identity [community] is misrepresented or underrepresented, and how do you address this?

Misrepresentation happens all the time in many ways (I mean you’re talking to an artist who is Native – there are hundreds of years of misrepresentation to get through). I wrote about the challenges and complexities of speaking and writing of my Yup’ik identity. How could I expect a writer or a presenter or fellow artists to speak correctly and with knowledge given that it is so difficult? But I do. I do expect it. And it’s really not that hard – it’s more about respect and listening than anything, right? Aretha Aoki and I have a smile dance about this. We created a duet of smiles that we know – that we use – when we are faced with an absurd, ignorant, silly, or offensive question or comment about our identity, our heritage. They are knowing smiles, they are wry, full belly laughter smiles, and smiles that aren’t really smiles. So I address it with my work, with conversation, in interviews, writing; in solidarity with other artists, with other people, scholars, and organizations we’ll figure out how to make a world where respect for layers of identity and community and culture is a given.

It’s not just about identity – how often has an artists’ work been written about incorrectly? How often has our research been misconstrued? How often has the short blurb become the fixed thing when it is not at all the correct thing? I think it’s a larger problem…a need to condense/prioritize/simplify/categorize/even colonize. But we can do it differently. We can listen to people talk about their identity, where they come from. Our words about our lives and our identities are important and interesting. We can listen to artists talk about themselves, their ideas, their work. Even if the words are complex or hard to categorize or make us a little uncomfortable. We can let the words be; we don’t have to change them, simplify them, or add our own.

Misrepresentation that comes from a simple mistake or that can be fixed is one thing (I’m often called a “Yup’ik Indian” for example, which is just…wrong). But sometimes I see some strange amalgam of pre-conceived notion, altered words, and mis-information written about as truth. One time someone wrote that I sang ‘a Yup’ik chant.’ In reality, I sang a line from a Hank Williams song. The words were quite clearly: “I am so lonesome” (sung in English) and the tune was definitely country. For a while I stopped sending press to a writer because it seemed they only wanted to write about Alaska. This is when my identity becomes a label. This is misrepresentation of another form. This is unchecked racism. I have to fight against this, too. Most people in the world do.

I’m lucky though – that I get to talk about misrepresentation; that I get to share my work with people and my thoughts in interviews like this. I wonder about the people we’re not hearing from — how will we get to know the amazingly brilliant performance/dance makers living or growing up right now in the Bush in Alaska, or in any number of thriving and/or not thriving villages, small towns, or reservations across the country…how will we get to know them? There is no real path from these places to the contemporary performance field – even if one wanted to take that path. So what is the path that is set out for new makers of performance? Does it come from a certain geographic area? A certain economic spectrum? A certain upbringing? A certain culture? Does it have to be this way? Can we change it?

5. Have you been a working artist in another culture [community]? Has this experience exposed something about current practices that we can learn from?

I work in many different communities all the time and I feel very lucky for this. What I learn and try to practice in my work is something about inclusion and connection. Taking many forms, inclusion and connection can be super powerful words and actions. It makes me think about how dances can be broad – how the presentation of work can be very different looking than what we are used to or have become accustomed to. It makes me think that the rules we have set up for ourselves – even that there is an audience and that that group of people is different from the performers – aren’t very useful to many, many artists and many, many audiences

6. Have you worked in other cities/regions and can you tell us about the reception of your work there in comparison to NYC?

I have worked in communities all over the US and the reception to my work in NYC as compared to everywhere else is pretty much the same and super enjoyable for me as an artist; I don’t find a huge variation in how my work is received in a large city or in a small town, on the East Coast, or on the West…I am thinking about this all the time though. I drive on my tours and as I move through this country – through all its varied geographies, cultures, places, cities, suburbs, small towns, reservations, gas stations… – I think about how my dances would be received. And honestly – honestly – I think if given the right amount of time for conversation, to create the right context – I could perform my work anywhere. That’s my goal at least – that my work connects to places and to people.

Humor and stories though – these parts of my work are received differently in different places – of course – it’s interesting and one of the reasons I love to tour – to see/hear/feel how place is an active part of how we view the world.

Stories. We recently toured a work called Niicugni to Alaska. There are many stories in Niicugni and many of these stories have animals in them. What I notice about Alaska is that stories are let to settle. Stories have a history and place everywhere, but in Alaska this is especially palpable. The stories we spoke in Niicugni were accepted differently, more wholly perhaps in Alaska. Wholly maybe isn’t the right word more…realistically…maybe that is the word…no….more “part of this world and not part of a theater world”…or rather…. “ok, this is theater, yes, but it is also our world because we are all sitting here together, aren’t we? and the world is so close, it’s outside these walls and it’s under our feet. it’s the air and it’s our home outside and it’s us sitting in here. so yes, this is theater and it is ALSO the world”…Yes that’s it. And maybe this was based on familiarity and contact with animals and land? Or maybe it’s because I start that show with a story of imperialism and colonization and while colonization is present throughout this country, it started not that very long ago in Alaska… Or, there is one story that Aretha Aoki tells about a bear coming through in the present tense…and in Alaska it is possible that you could see a bear come through your yard right before you come to the theater. Not likely – but possible. Aretha then turns herself into a bear and even though this is a fantastical imagining maybe in Alaska it was simply accepted differently because of the first truth/possibility about a bear walking by.

7. Describe an ideal situation in which your work is presented. Is there anything you’d like your audience to know about you before viewing your work?

The ideal situation for my work is in a space dedicated solely to my work for a pre-determined and amply adequate tech and preparation time. Sometimes this is indoors, sometimes outdoors. Also, there has been a site visit months prior and during this site visit we met not only with tech and marketing staff, but also with someone or many people and organizations in the community. We then had time to build upon these meetings, creating relationships, making our residency, our performance, and the special projects related to our performances run smoothly with a great audience who had an aptly whetted appetite and curiosity for the work. Also, maybe Keith Hennessey led a workshop about viewing work without expectation before the show? There is no Q and A but there is some time and space for people who want to talk to talk. Maybe people want to take a walk? Have a meal? The work we do with the community we are presented in relates to the performed work, is part of the performed work, or runs in parallel streams to the performed work – in whichever case, people get excited about the particular performance we are in town to do, but also about performance work in general – together we get a sense that performance is an important part of life and an integral way of viewing the world.

I do usually provide some kind of context for my work. Once it was a related art exhibit that the audience spent time in before coming into the theater. Once it was an installation in the lobby related to the set. Once we handed out blankets, hot cider, and peanut butter sandwiches in reference to survival, comfort, and disaster relief . I usually write a letter to the audience that is included in the program; it is never strictly informational and it does not tell people what to expect. It often poses some questions and it is there because I like to give audiences a sense of my values as a dance-maker and a sense of what I am thinking about. It feels like a chance to let people read my own words – in case there was any misrepresentation or preconceived notion coming in.

Emily Johnson makes performance work. She is originally from Alaska and is currently based in Minneapolis. www.catalystdance.com


About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective


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