I first encountered the work of an American Italian Postmodern artist, dancer, choreographer, and writer, Simone Forti three years ago. As I was conducting movement research about the evolution of sleep patterns in predatory and prey animals, Forti's work inspired me to bridge language with movement and curiosity with empathy. Her dance seems to belong to both ancient traditions of moving religiously, with ecstasy, and to more direct and concise scientific approaches to the body in motion. Forti's drawings, sound pieces, movement experiments and writings have a playful and raw quality, dedicated to the in-depth and honest explorations of natural phenomena in this world.

Forti is one of the pioneers of Postmodern dancers and Fluxus artists, who revolutionized the artworld in the 1960s and '70s in the USA. Her work continues to defy art traditions and institutional practices today, inspiring new generations of dancers and artists worldwide. Forti is a recipient of various prestigious awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship in Dance in 2005 and a Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts in 2011. Her work has been shown at international venues such as the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Forti is represented by The Box LA Gallery.

Simone Forti. Al Di Là: An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles, (Feb. 1, 2020). Photo: Steve Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of the artists and REDCAT, LA.

Note: The text below is a transcription of the phone conversation Simone Forti and I had in November, 2020. The text has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Salome Kokoladze: You are considered one of Margaret H’Doubler’s legacies, who had more of a scientific approach to dance, incorporating physiology and kinesiology in her curriculum. According to H’Doubler, natural is not without form, but represents perfect, correct [1]. Can you tell me in what ways you have applied this belief to your practice?

Simone Forti: Well, that's going back to the very beginning of my study with Anna Halprin. She was just breaking away from working with technique, dance technique, and focusing on improvisation. Halprin had different ways in which she focused on movement improvisation. One was that anatomical approach. We would look at, for instance, the shoulder area. She had a skeleton and books with images; we would talk about the different joints and really look at that area by examining different forms of information. Then she would have us explore on our own, maybe throwing our arm with the sense of momentum of a swing or weight bearing. As we would move that area of our body, the rest of the body became involved to support, because the movement would shift our weight. We might have also wanted to move fast to see how the speed affected the subject of our study. Halprin would encourage us to be inspired by the movement that was coming from this point of reference to which the whole body was relating.

This was a way of improvising, let us say, it was dance improvisation with that anatomical focus. This approach to studying movement was not the only way we were improvising. Halprin's studio was outdoors in the woods. She had us observing movement of the clouds, of the leaves on the ground as we walked, or also of solid things like a tree, the bark of the tree. We would abstract some quality that we saw, touched or felt, and tried to bring it into our body, into our movement. In a way, we used our eyes to select what we would take as a score, and what we saw in our environment. That process was really just as strong as the anatomical approach.

I carried the memory of the anatomical point of reference to when I spent quite a few years observing animals in a zoo. I studied how animals are structured and how I am structured, how their movement is different than mine. But I would also try their movement. For instance, when a bear wants to turn to the left, it will swing its head over to the left, and that movement pulls the rest of the body along. And that is not how I would usually turn, so I was curious to try the movement. I would also try to hop like a rabbit. I observed how a particular rabbit would land and from where the start of the movement seemed to come. I think this study would have been different if I had not had the experience of working with Anna Halprin. And the thread of movement improvisation goes back to Margaret H’Doubler.

SK: Do you remember any specific observation (of trees, clouds etc.) that moved you deeply or with which you identified when improvising on Anna Halprin's dance deck?

SF: I do remember once in a while Robert Morris would take one of the classes with Anna Halprin. One time, we had the task of spending time in the environment to select an object and work with its qualities. It turns out that Robert had looked at a stone. When it was his time to show what he had found, he laid down on the floor. He took two or three minutes to compress himself together until he was as much in a ball as possible with a little surface of himself on the floor and he became a stone.

SK: What do you hope to learn from the experience of looking at other bodies, let's say, animal bodies that you observed in a zoo?

SF: I was developing a movement vocabulary with which I was improvising. I would be inspired from one animal to another. I started doing a lot of these observations in Rome because I was living near the zoo. I also remember going to Turin, where they had the Egyptian and Etruscan Museum. I was interested in some of the gods, some of the deities that were part animal. In my improvisations, I had those in mind too.

Simone Forti. Animal Study - Ox (Breathing), (1982). Ink on paper, 10 5/8 x 12 5/8 x 1 1/2 inches framed. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and The Box, LA.
Simone Forti. Sleep Walkers / Zoo Mantras, (1968/2010). Performance at artist’s residence, Los Angeles, September 7, 2010. Photo: Jason Underhill. Credit: Courtesy of the artist, The Box, LA and Jason Underhill.

More recently, I have been closely watching the ants in my kitchen. I stopped going to the zoo. I do not know things change, but also the zoos are very sad. When I moved out to Vermont, to the countryside, I thought I would start seeing animals in the woods. But they stay away. It is hard to see them. However, I had a vegetable garden and there I started to notice a lot of worms, beetles and different little animals in the ground. I even started finding some movement myself from watching. Worms are really interesting, how they stretch forward and then they pull their hind parts together, and stretch forward and pull their hind parts together. Well, I can do that. And at one time that was part of my movement vocabulary.

SK: More generally, what is the significance of quotidian and repetitive movements for you?

SF: Looking back many decades, I was working differently at different times. But I am thinking of, for instance, the Dance Constructions, which came before looking at animals. I am also reminded of the Slant Board, which is a dance piece with a board, a wooden surface at a 45-degree angle with some chords to help climb around. To climb the board, it is a normal movement in relation to the task, to the job of climbing around on the board. But I think that my interest was to feel the strength in my arms, to feel the strength in my body, and also to see people simply moving and the beauty in that. I was also interested in the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and in the feeling of looking at the material, which is the body in motion, without stylizing it or without using it for some other reason, but to look at it.

This sort of movement also comes through in my work with Charlemagne Palestine. In Illuminations, I am dancing, I am working with the dynamic forces of running in circles. It is a study of circling, momentum and centrifugal force while he is working with sound waves. I have really worked in different ways. In working with Charlemagne, I am confronted pretty directly with the forces encountered when you run in a circle. Rather than stylizing the movement, again, it is working as much as I can with the raw material.

SK: Can you further describe the process of collaborating with Charlemagne Palestine and your movement inspiration for Illuminations ?

SF: At the start of the work with Charlemagne, we were both at the California Institute of the Arts. There was a beautiful, not very big studio with a wooden floor and wonderful piano. We called that space the temple. We were going in there, I do not know, maybe three, four times a week. And he would play while I was finding what dance I was going to make based on how I felt like moving with this music. I started doing the circling and then I did a lot of drawings of circles. I was working with the geometry of the Star of David, how the Arabic numerals fit on it. I have made drawings that were coming along with my movement. But to find the movement I was moving.

Simone Forti and Charlemagne Palestine. Illuminations, (1971–ongoing). Performed at Vleeshal Markt, Middelburg, April 2, 2016. Photo: Marian van der Weide. Credit: Courtesy of the artists and Vleeshal, Middelburg.
Simone Forti. Illuminations - Red Vegetable Ink, (1972). Vegetable ink and pencil on vellum 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and The Box, LA.

SK: How has your work evolved or changed more recently?

SF: I am writing more poetry these days. I am trying to find a form. I do not know if I would call it poetry. Some poems, sometimes. I am kind of testing around, engaging in different processes. I think I am still looking for something, a form on which I can start depending. If you are interested, you can read some of my recent poems in the latest publication of the PEAK Journal.

SK: Are there any emerging dancers or movement artists whom you find inspiring?

SF: Well, you know, I was just thinking that I really need to be more open or not so lazy, to see what is going on. I almost know more about New York than Los Angeles. There is a lot of work confronting systemic racism, which is very energetic and motivating force right now in many art forms including dance. I would recommend looking into Danspace Project in New York City for those interested in dance, choreography and movement improvisation.



[1] Margaret H’Doubler. Dance: A Creative Art Experience. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. 93.

Born in the Mekong Delta, Hoa Nguyen was raised and educated in the United States and has lived in Canada since 2011. She is the author of several books of poetry including As Long As Trees Last, Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008, and Violet Energy Ingots, which was nominated for a 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize. An experienced and popular teacher of poetics, Hoa teaches for Miami University’s low residency MFA program, as co-chair of writing in the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, as associated faculty for University of Guelph, and as a popular poetics workshop leader in cyberspace and Toronto. Hoa’s anticipated book, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, directs poetry toward history, hauntings, and diasporic experiences and includes biographical verse of her mother, who once rode stunt motorcycles in an all-woman Vietnamese circus troupe. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure will be published in April 2021 by Wave books.

Hoa Nguyen, 2020. Photo by KT Nguyen Smith

Salome Kokoladze: These past several months I have been thinking about how the root of language and poetry is immediacy, emerging out of the desire for communal gatherings, the desire for togetherness. Dreams also often have been interpreted in different cultures as the “soul’s” need to wander and expand beyond itself. What happens to language/poetry/dreams as we are deprived of immediate physical connectivity during the Covid-19 pandemic? Have you noticed any shifts in the way you write, speak or dream?

Hoa Nguyen: During the pandemic I am finding collective communication to take a muffled quality. Incomplete without the bodies of togetherness, without an embodied interactivity and energetic exchange of sharing space. Maybe that is why language as poetry is a place we find intensity and intimacies, because the language of poetry can create an energetically charged space.

Of my 2020 dreams that call for closer attention, the kind that help organize the psyche into a new pattern of understanding these have featured rage and violence. Disturbing dreams during a disturbing time. One, memorably featured a beloved departed one; together we formed a group of women who participated in a communal plan to kill a villainous agent using a bell-shaped weapon and hard strikes to the head. The blows reverberated in violent tones that echoed in our arms. I came to see the dream as a reading of this moment and cultural transformation, an urgency and need for communities to break through, speak boldly, depose despots, take charge, deface, dissemble, replace what is malignant, and not be afraid: asserting, forcefully, to do so.

The bell shaped weapon is an interesting inversion. Instead of the tool of the hammer that strikes, we value the container, the cup, the bell that sounds, what is held in collective listening, and associated with awakening. It’s beyond language, really.

SK: We often talk about a poet’s cultural heritage and its impact on their work. I am curious about how poems themselves have “motherlands”, emerging out of a specific object or a place. (I keep thinking, for example, about the cave image that opens Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, and the ways in which that cave holds both the poet and the work.) What are some images/places/objects that have “mothered” your latest poems?

HN: When I began writing my book A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure I turned to the I Ching, a book I found in my teen years along with the Tao Te Ching. I had arrived at my first ever writing residency at the Millay Colony (Millay was also a poet I read as a teenager) and began to write towards the poems that would become A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. It was in Edna St. Vincent’s old barn. My writing studio was on the upper floor with a view to a meadow, also cave-like. Three times in a row, I threw hexagram 51 (Shock, Arousing Thunder) and it grew into an emblem inhabiting/animating the whole book, linked later in the image of tarot in The Tower.

I Ching Hexagram 51
The Tower Card of the Aquarian Deck

SK: In a Q&A for diaCRITICS you mention that “the Vietnamese people have always considered themselves poets” and that this knowledge “granted you an essential permission to write poetry”. To feel deserving to create something (or anything at all) seems inseparable from being human; yet so many of us today feel undeserving or not yet deserving to call ourselves creatives. I also think about my own culture and folklore; for Georgians poetry had been inseparable from everyday life. Poetry used to belong both to the royalty/elite and to “common folk”. Today we have individual poets, but communities, nations at large do not call themselves poets. How does the loss of the shared poetic consciousness affect a poet? How does it affect you?

HN: The denial of creativity was not so about me feeling that I was undeserving (undeserving as a self-held belief) but as a mirrored expression. I literally did not feel afforded a self that I could recognize much less a future self that could also be a poet. As I mentioned earlier, some of my earliest reading of poetry were anthologies with Edna St. Vincent Millay and in her I saw, at least, a 20 c woman writer who could act with independence and claim an outward bohemian life of poetry.

The anthology A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích included poems by Anonymous that is a voice of the folk culture you speak ofand reminded me of the outside-of-timeness that poetry directs, a perspective of reality outside of how it is typically constructed. Our shared kinships as music in meaning. Or as fellow first decan Aquarius Jack Spicer put it, “Words must be led across time, not preserved against it”.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of three novels and two nonfiction titles, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her new book, The Freezer Door, described by Maggie Nelson as “a book about not belonging that left me feeling deeply less alone", will be published by Semiotext(e) on November 24, 2020. Sycamore’s most recent novel, Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp Press 2018), was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco (City Lights 2013), won a Lambda Literary Award. And her most recent anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press 2012), was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s voice, in her latest book The Freezer Door, touches, traces both pains and joys many of us have not yet named for ourselves. To follow the map of the body means to find yourself in a city. The illusion of moving forward, upward that traditional narratives tend to carry, is taken over by turns and twirls that have no one trajectory. These are the paths to dreaming.

You can pre-order The Freezer Door from Elliott Bay Book Company.

Sycamore will be on a book tour for The Freezer Door starting November 19, 2020. For the event schedule and tickets follow this link.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Photo by Jesse Mann

Salome Kokoladze: Your latest book, The Freezer Door reminded me that desires and dreams are located not just inside the body. To dream in the city and to dream are predicated by or inseparable from dreaming of the city. How do we keep dreaming/desiring if cities are constantly strategizing against its own inhabitants, especially marginalized inhabitants?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: To me, the dream of the city is that you will find everyone and everything that you never imagined. But our gentrified cities of today foreclose this possibility more than they allow it. People walk around with gates in their eyes instead of an openness to experience or surprise or that sudden moment that might change everything. I still want that moment to be possible. Those moments, I want them all. But I worry that the density of urban imagination has instead become a walled-off mindset, a suburbanized way of looking at the world that doesn’t allow us to dream, or not to dream wildly enough. But I still believe in the city if we let down our guard and allow the unexpected in. I think this has happened with protest during the pandemic, right? To hear a sudden cry of Black Lives Matter and rush outside to join in, to scream with our neighbors every day at 8 pm in support of essential workers, or to yell Abolish the Police, or just to yell, to sigh, to let it all out, to join one another, to breathe, to expand the possibilities for connection in spite of everything that wants us to disappear, this is the dream of the city.

The Freezer Door excerpt, page 60

SK: As I was reading The Freezer Door, I thought about plant seeds and branches my mom collects around my hometown, Batumi. She has grown trees in plastic containers from what she finds and by now she has so much of the vegetation of our parks (variety of palm trees, olives, etc.). The yearning to propagate outdoors into indoors, external into internal, public into private, can involve a sort of an inherent failure (caricaturing), but it can also be essential in resisting isolation. What I see in your work is this, but also a reversal of the process: taking the most intimate parts of ourselves and attempting to propagate them outdoors, into the public. Can you talk about what this process means to you and why this sort of “propagation” is essential in countering the suburban fears that seize the urban environments?

MBS: One of my favorite things about Seattle is the trees. Something that would just be a bush somewhere else, it’s this giant thing. There are so many huge trees behind buildings, towering above. I feel such a closeness to them, and I think that plays a role in The Freezer Door, right? As well as the sex that happens under cover of the trees, when I hope it will connect me to myself, when it does and it doesn’t. But this isn’t the fault of the trees.

I believe that desire should be a public force, not something private or privatized, not just an individual feeling but a collective act. The city to me means what happens outside with other people, not just what happens inside. I’m always in search of those sudden moments of connection—across identity, beyond routine, outside of the scripted. And yet so often this kind of intimacy feels impossible in our current gentrified cities. But at least in Seattle, when people let me down, I always have the camaraderie of the trees.

Seattle, Photos by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (@mbsycamore on Instagram)

SK: When I first came to the US one of the points the queer-feminist discourse emphasized that inspired me was the necessity to get paid for the labor that went unnoticed as labor before. After a while though I couldn’t stop feeling that this demand sometimes led to saying “capitalize on everything you do”. Is this belief a survival strategy in a country that lacks adequate social programming, or is it a belief that maintains the status quo of privatized aspirations and prevents relationships that are borne out of desire, rather than opportunism?

MBS: Obviously there’s so much wealth in this country, and it goes to so few people. And it goes to the military and weapons of mass destruction, policing, surveillance, prison profiteering, and every other horrible exploitative institution or industry. So it’s clear that we need redistribution of these resources so that everyone can thrive. Even if we cut the military budget by half, we’d have all the resources we need for universal housing and healthcare, free public transportation, healthy food for everyone, and on and on. I say this first because the issue is a structural one. And also it’s about value—to take one example, artists in this country are not valued unless we are commoditized, and once your work is commoditized it’s dead. So I would say that we all have the right to make the work that gives us meaning, that helps us to survive, and that we should not be forced to economic desperation in order to do that. Paying people for marginalized or stigmatized work can be a crucial tool for individual autonomy and survival, but the larger solution has to be a structural one if our goal is communal care. Let’s work to abolish all the institutions that oppress us, so that they don’t continue to destroy lives, and drain resources from everything that matters. And, at the same time, let’s create alternatives to support one another on our own terms, not just the sad terms that the brutal world around us demands.

Seattle, Photos by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (@mbsycamore on Instagram)

SK: There is a moment in The Freezer Door, where you connect nostalgia with hope (61). You resist or don’t trust either of them. When I first learned the word nostalgia, it was in a literature class, reading short stories by a Georgian writer who has emigrated from the country. I always thought migration and nostalgia were inseparable. Nostalgia cradled the incessant longing for home. The state of nostalgia is the state of denying both the past and the present, because they are too overwhelming; the denial gives birth to hope. I understand why it is important to keep the past raw, to cultivate honesty, to find new strategies to look the present in the eye. But do you think we should always resist nostalgia? Can nostalgia sometimes be a way to not give up on places/spaces/people we have left behind?

MBS: I would never suggest that anyone give up on a survival strategy that is working, and you describe nostalgia as it relates to migration so beautifully here. I believe we need to honor and mourn and remember the past, not a romanticized or simplified version but the actual experience in all its nuance and complication. And I think nostalgia doesn’t allow this. Nostalgia offers a mythology of a past that never existed, and as long as we are stuck in that imagined past, we can’t create a future that works. I think when you say the denial gives birth to hope, I would say that if hope is predicated on denial, it isn’t really hope. Denial prevents change, prevents meaningful connection, it prevents accountability. I like to think that the antidote to nostalgia is truth. If we can truly face our experiences in all their messiness, trauma, depth of feeling, impact, frustration, devastation, and possibility, then maybe we can actualize our dreams.