News: Meet Isabel Lewis - Creative Practitioner

Wednesday 22 March 2017

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Since 2009 Isabel Lewis has been investigating the role of artist as host. Her signature Occasions: celebratory and sensory gatherings of things, people, plants, music, and dance that offer an alternative to the sterility and visual dominance of the traditional exhibition format. With the Occasions Lewis creates a more complete, bodily experience for the visitor offering an open situation in which guests may freely enter, exit, and revisit. Exploring modes of connection and attention, Lewis shapes a sensorial experience that responds to the energies of her guests. Her occasions investigate how the subtle introduction of a word, sound, movement, or scent can shift perception and awaken the importance of being together. Previous Occasions have been presented at Shanghai Ming Contemporary Art Museum; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Dia: Chelsea and Dia: Beacon, New York; the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève; Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin; Frieze London; Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Kunsthalle Basel; Liverpool Biennial, and Tanz Im August Berlin. Isabel Lewis lives and works in Berlin.

When did you decide you wanted to be a creative practitioner?

I don’t know that there was a conscious choice on my part. Seemed that dancing was always something I was doing and was a very integrated part of my upbringing. I do remember a “leap of faith” moment when I was living in New York and working a number of different “day” or rather night jobs as was often the case: coat-check girl, go-go dancer, fashion retail, bartender, barista, etc. Over the course of a few years I had been gradually decreasing the number of hours spent doing those jobs and increasing the number of hours spent on artistic work. There came a year where I felt like, ok, this is the time to take the leap, to stop obsessively worrying about paying the rent and commit to a different trajectory…that meant that I took on every single artistic project, my own or the projects of others, and I was spread pretty thin and kind of burned out after a long period with absolutely no weekends or time off…but I also did a number of new things, worked as an editor and writer for the Movement Research Performance Journal, worked as a programmer and curator for a number exhibitions and festivals, and as a dancer for several NYC-based choreographers while still creating my own work. Not long after this I moved to Berlin.

How do you incorporate dancing into the Occasions?

As a dancer, working with dance in a social space is a way of energetically treating the situation, a way of crafting and choreographing a vibe. Because I don’t put dance on a stage at a distance, there is this incredibly direct capacity to work with the emphatic response between humans and the resonance between humans in relation to things we are co-present with like architecture, furniture, or ideas. I am very interested in dance as it emerges out of culture and from within cultures and the ways we engage with it to celebrate, to mourn, to achieve altered states, to praise, to socialize, rather than as a spectacle to be watched from the distanced perspective of the stage. I feel the occasions reintegrate dance into life, into social life. There are different kinds of choreographies that emerge in the occasions. There are sometimes set sequences of movements to a specific music, there are sometimes improvisational scores, or what I like to think of as aesthetic or affective clouds of content that dancers move within.

What do you enjoy most about creating and performing?

Well, the funny thing is I don’t necessarily “enjoy” performing…I take it very seriously, and it’s always an incredibly intense and not exactly comfortable or pleasant but it’s deep for me. Of course once things are rolling there are moments of pleasure, mostly in the feeling of communion with guests if I am open enough to pick up on it. Creating happens. It’s this urgent/emergent thing, a continuous process with a very varied landscape. Feels like it’s about being awake to the world and in the world and yes, this is very enjoyable.

You are at Tate Modern with Ten Days and Six Nights, how did this collaboration come about?

You’ll have to ask Catherine Wood and Andrea Lissoni that. I know they were both present when I hosted a few occasions during Frieze Art Fair in 2014.

London is sometimes referred to as ‘the dance capital of the world’ – do you agree with that? What would make it better to work in?

This is one of those tricky claims to make especially in such a globalized world where there are so many constantly forming, dissolving, and shifting centres…I am lucky enough to have connections to the NYC experimental dance scene and the vibrant community that operates around Movement Research and feel closely connected to the dance scenes in Berlin and Brussels but I am only just getting to know the London scene through the cast of dancers I am working with for the Live Exhibition that are all London-based. I am eager to continue process together and getting to hear from them their thoughts and feelings about the London dance scene. I can say that the UK electronic dance music scene and London club culture is thrilling and inspiring!

You are busy travelling with your work, how do you find the space to create new pieces of work?

Maybe I don’t make new pieces of work. I consider the occasions porous and contingent processes that are always developing as I live my life and they are emergent when they are being presented. I haven’t made work that adheres to the modernist notion of “art” as discrete entities of observation since 2009. The last piece I made that functions in this way will be included during the Live Exhibition and it’s called STRANGE ACTION and it is a solo dance work that has a clear beginning and end and lasts 40 minutes.

Where do you draw inspiration from when creating or performing live?

I listen and get as sensitive as possible to the actual live situation as it unfolds in time and space. I try to get as receptive as I can with all of my sensory and empathic capacities. Who are my visitors at that moment, what is their energetic vibrations, what can I create specifically for them?

What piece of advice would you give to creative practitioners beginning their journey, a bit of advice you wish you knew when you were starting out?

It’s urgent, everything is at stake, it’s a matter of life and death! AND you can’t take it that seriously! It’s helpful to retain a sense of humour and worry is worthless. I am working at following my own advice in this very moment.

What things help you create or develop new works? Do you have a favourite space, or routine that percolates ideas?

I have a 29 square meter apartment on a quiet street in Berlin that I share with a sofa, a bed, 5 large plants, some books, and 3 large windows. Being home can be a rare luxury but when I am there I immediately notice the grounding and centring effects it has on me.

Would you say that collaboration is necessary to creating or developing work?

Yes, it’s also necessary to being human and to even what constitutes our notion of “human”. We are in fact an enormous collections or gatherings of microorganisms, minerals, water, energy, and more. Jane Bennett says of Spinoza in her book Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things, Spinoza suggests, the more kinds of bodies with which a human body can productively affiliate, the greater the prospects for an intelligent way of life.”

BMW Tate Live Exhibition Ten Days Six Nights. Isabel Lewis will be in residence throughout the duration of the exhibition hosting a number of her signature occasions, combining music, food, drink and perfume to create an alternative environment for dance, discussions and invited musicians.

BMW Tate Live Exhibition Ten Days Six Nights
24 MARCH – 2 APRIL 2017
Free during normal day opening hours
(Charge for evening performances)
Tate Modern
Websuite :

An Occasion with Isabel Lewis (Part I) (Frieze Projects, 2014) from Frieze Art Fair on Vimeo.

More about Isabel Lewis
Isabel Lewis (b. 1981, Dominican Republic) is an artist of Dominican and American origin who grew up on a suburban island off the coast of southwest Florida. Whilst living in New York, Lewis danced for many choreographers and from 2004 exhibited commissioned works at The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, New Museum and Movement Research at Judson Church, amongst others. Lewis moved to Berlin in 2009, where she spent the next two years working as an editor and DJ, before creating her solo show STRANGE ACTION (2010). Isabel draws from her training in literary criticism, dance, and choreography as well as from party and popular culture.

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