Artists Reach Out: Yanira Castro - Gibney
Week of August 8, 2020
Making space for

Artists Reach Out: Yanira Castro

Photo of a woman with white hair looking at her notebook.

ARTISTS REACH OUT: REFLECTIONS IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

Senior Curatorial Director Eva Yaa Asantewaa dreamed this series of interviews, Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation, out of grief for her work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance.

“In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there’s no distancing around what we still can share with one another—our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I’m glad they’re part of our beautiful community, and I’m eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Senior Curatorial Director

This interview features Yanira Castro, interdisciplinary artist, and 2016-17 Gibney Dance in Process (DiP) Resident artist.


I am a Puerto Rican interdisciplinary artist living in NYC for 26 years. Since 2009, I have made performances, videos, and installations with a team of collaborators under the moniker, a canary torsi. a canary torsi’s practice has involved creating systems, scores, and software programs that ensure that elements of performance (choreography, text, music, environment) unfold in real time in response to the presence/participation of the audience. This way of working complicates issues of authorship and asks questions about how we, the people in the space together, deal with image and meaning-making and the power structures inherent in performance. I am lucky to have made, shown, toured work consistently, to have received grants and awards, and to get to be in a working practice with amazing people, all of whom I am missing. acanarytorsi.org.

woman in a white long skirt as people court her forward.

Yanira Castro’s Court/Garden, photo by Maria Baranova.

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

I had my first dance festival gig get postponed. It was a week at the Bates Festival, teaching and presenting work. Occasionally there comes a situation that feels like a marker; this gig felt like one of them. Last time I was at the Festival was over two decades ago. I was twenty and making that turn on the road towards a future.

Returning to Bates felt like the future meeting the past, the circle coming around, the young and older self meeting in the studios. That won’t be happening quite in the same way. Now, those classes I was going to teach might go online. I didn’t even have an email address when I was 20. The word “web” was…well, you know, it was woven by Charlotte.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

When I was 8 and I was asked what I wanted to do with my life by the school librarian, everyone before me had answered teacher or firefighter. I had no answer. Whatever it was, it wasn’t anything I could name. At some point the word artist got attached to the idea of “I don’t know but not that.”

I went to Amherst College because Emily Dickinson had lived there. I thought I would write novels. I thought I had written a few. Instead I saw Sankai Juku’s performance Unetsu at UMass and decided I had to be wherever the people were who got to do that. I had no idea what I was looking at, but it looked like freedom to me. In my imagination I stopped writing after that. I took a Scripts & Scores class with Professor Wendy Woodson at Amherst, and I haven’t stopped since.

Person in a red cape as they walk forward.
Yanira Castro’s Last Audience, photo by Simon Courchel.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

I am practicing being in the unknown, which is something I should have already been practicing and thought I was, but I was kidding myself. Writing scores has always been about embracing what might happen and daring myself to not get in the way, but vision often gets in the way.

Practicing the unknown and envisioning are difficult bedfellows. Hence my addiction with performance. But now I am envisioning how we might re-enter gathering. What might be the things we will desire, need—what kind of assurances, what kind of understandings about space and proximity?

I envision us all at our first physical gatherings…unsure what to do with that 6’ between us. In my room alone, I practice with the few theater materials I had with me when we went into sheltering-in-place: light gels, Mylar. I am continuing that practice of shaping sight.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I care about the potential of seeing differently…creating spaces and circumstances for people, containers for potential experiences, with all the conflict inherent in that—the practice of embracing the unknown bumping right up with the vision of spectacle, which is to say control and authority. Gathering, for me, has always been about acknowledging a central conflict: “I want to be with you” rubbing up against “communing is hard work.”

I could argue my performance life is about discomfort with the power of the spotlight: on who and what does it shine and who decides? When I was 10, I was ill and paralyzed and was brought out with other kids in wheelchairs to shake hands with the Harlem Globetrotters. Who is the spectacle? For me, it was the audience.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

My practice has been taking the shape of a score-writing class for this new online platform, @freeskewl. It started only three weeks ago, and it has a full roster of Zoom and Insta Live classes. How quickly and uncomfortably that became a way.

The class is called #PromptsforPlayandLightness which is really unlike me. I am not a particularly light person. But keeping things simple seems necessary (wasn’t it always?), and I am equating lightness with unburdening, which could be a release of the darkest bile in you.

In this class, I have allowed myself to create an environment from a score for the people taking the class as they work on their scores. This has kept me in the intentional process of scoring with the unknown, of playing with perception and attending to the liveness of the moment. It was always an important survival skill, but there is a way in which this virus has revealed the essential.

Briefly, share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now. 

Spending time in the dirt trying to make things grow has been healing. I bought some wildflower seeds, and seeing the first signs of growth has given me something to attend to that moves me forward and yes, envisioning. I am imagining bright, red poppies.

 

To read all of Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Artists Reach Out interviews, visit infinitebody.blogspot.com.

 

Top photo by Anna M. Maynard.