In this interview, artist Deville Cohen discusses his practice and observations on the current moment. Writing from his studio and home in Brooklyn, New York, Deville tells readers about his new dance company, Hand to Mouth, which he launched in August 2020 with the support of PS122 Gallery in New York. Hand to Mouth is a dance company of sentient and inanimate collaborators invested in the labor of survival. The project is being developed through 2020-2021 and the culminating exhibition and performance series is slated for the Spring of 2021 at PS122 Gallery.
In his practice, Deville creates kinetic videos, installations, and theater works, using sculptural and performative techniques, to reflect on the intimate yet artificial relationships we have to everyday objects, images, and environments.
This interview was conducted in August 2020 as part of Artis’ series, From the Desk of…. In this series, we check in with artists, curators, and collectors about their recent projects, reflections on social distancing and quarantine, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how they are practicing, experiencing, and engaging with art.
Tell us about your company, Hand to Mouth. What is the company’s working process? How is this process informed by the present moment, given social distancing and quarantine regulations?
The title of the project, Hand to Mouth, is a reflection on materialistic hardships. In the symbolic meaning of the phrase, the distance between an individual’s mouth and hand establishes the limited perspectives that are accessible. Anything beyond these physical and metaphorical ranges is, in the framework of this project, considered unrealistic or fantastical. In this instance, accessibility is the measure of availability. The company project, as a sculptural and social systems, reimagines those dynamics, structures, and processes through collaborations between bodies, forms, and props.
Given that COVID-19 is not going anywhere, Hand to Mouth will develop remotely until we can practice movements that involve contact, use the same props, and share physical space with a live audience. For the next nine months, I developed a series of workshops that I’m working on with the three dancers, Tushrik Fredrick, Margaux Marielle-Tréhoüart, and Laura K. Nicoll. Titled NOTIONS, the workshops are intended for the three dancers to engage with nine sets of costume-designed props that I construct. Each prop distills an abstract idea, one of the nine NOTIONS , and represents manifestations of the project’s conceptual framework. For each NOTION workshop, I invite an individual to be in conversation with us, and to collaborate on a text that will serve as a dramaturgical guide for that workshop.
As we work from a distance, from our distinct perspectives and personal spaces, these props become the conductors and containers of our empirical physical knowledge and information. The movements, language, physical materials, and devices that will be generated in this provisional process will become a Document : a recollection of our personal and collective encounters through objecthood. In the next phase of the process, when we meet in person, this Document will serve as the record of our exchanged touch and intimacies.
Our project website for Hand to Mouth is designed to allow for experiential viewership and functions as a virtual open studio, where we share the vulnerabilities and intimacies of our working process. We launched on the full moon of August 3, 2020, and the project will continue to operate on a cosmic calendar. For the next nine moons, we will workshop one notion each month. The outcomes of the monthly workshops—which include videos, images and texts—will be published on our website and will be shared with viewers through a lunar newsletter. To join the newsletter click moon.
Why did you decide to form the company?
This project emerged from a personal state of disillusionment and frustration. I was experiencing a heightened sense of crisis, which I now register as a fictional crisis. The crisis materialized from an insistent desire for our reality to function despite the failures of the current system. In response to a strong sense of incongruence with the world, I deconditioned myself from accepting these failed systems, so that I could develop my own understanding and logic for the way things could work. In this process, desire and longing become survival strategies.
Hand to Mouth asks, how does our rehearsed, limited engagement with the world—which is full of deficiencies and self-deprivation—restrict our non-material experiences? What is possible artistically, outside of pre-existing disciplines and formats? In what ways are we responsible for rethinking structures of distribution and consumption of materials and resources? And can our aspirations, motivations, desires, and hopes transcend what is physically and spiritually available to us?
Informed by architectural models, collage, and jigsaw-puzzles, Hand to Mouth acknowledges negative spaces—from cutouts, movements, collages, etc.—as stand-alone shapes. These negative shapes become the positive architecture and economy for consumption and refuse. The props, set design, movements, sound, and video mapping that are part of this project, are informed by this imprudent environment.
Hand to Mouth imagines a condition in which the body reformulates systems of participation, production, and presentation, like a fictional sculptural system. Can we, as dissected individuals in a fragmented ruined landscape, constitute a newly formed entity that has the ability to steer away from the limited direction of consumption practices, and instead, towards a manifesting power of possibilities?
How are you staying connected to friends, family, and colleagues? What does community and solidarity mean to you nowadays?
At the onset of the pandemic, I felt that the world outside was temporarily becoming my dysfunctional projection of it. I thought that we were going to continue to be more lonely, desire more intimacy, and experience even more financial instabilities during this pandemic. And while deeply embedded in these new experiences, in June, we were also confronted with the strong presence of longstanding racism, injustice, and ongoing police brutality; overt violence and our complicity with its existence.
As a dance company, community, and group of individuals faced with global uncertainty, and forced into our respective personal spaces due to the pandemic, we approach our work and collaboration with dystopic optimism. We commit to practicing vulnerability in our attitudes and practices. Maintaining intimacy, not losing touch with one another, and sharing resources, feel like the right values on which to focus our care.
Deville Cohen is a New York City based visual artist and a director. He studied sculpture at the KHB Berlin from 2002-2007 and received his MFA in film/video from Bard College NY in 2010. His videos and installations were shown internationally in museums and galleries such as MoMA PS1; SFMoMA; The CCA Tel-Aviv; and The Living Art Museum, Reykjavik. He began creating for the stage during a residency at the Wooster Group Performance Garage in the summer of 2014. His creation underline in collaboration with the composer Hugo Morales was commissioned and co-produced by the Deutsche Oper Berlin and The Munich Biennale for New Music Theater in 2016. In 2018 he co-created MENAGERIE with choreographer Shamel Pitts for Gibney Dance Company in NYC. In 2019 his new creation McGuffin was commissioned and produced by The Center of The Less Good Idea in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was an artist in residence at Recess Art; EMPAC Troy, NY; Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) workspace, NYC; Fountainhead in Miami; and LMCC Process-Space NYC. www.devillecohen.art