Portland based Physical Education (P.E.) is comprised of dance and performance artists keyon gaskin, Allie Hankins, Lu Yim and Takahiro Yamamoto. P.E.’s vision is to offer performance audiences, artists of all mediums and curious individuals, immersive methods of engaging with dance and performance. The group sat down for a fun and enlightening conversations about the origins of P.E., and the role it plays in each of the dancers lives.
Spencer: So to begin, I’m curious to hear how PE started? What is the origin story for the collaboration?
Silence, then everyone bursts out laughing….
Allie: That is pretty much it in a nutshell.
Lu: It started out of conversations in 2013 about wanting and needing to engage with dance and performance more critically during a project that Taka, keyon and I were involved in. We decided to start a reading group and Physical Education was the first name that came up for it. And Allie was like, hey I want to come.
keyon: No, that’s not right. Because y’all met and then I was like, “hey I want to come.”
Lu: Oh yeah yeah, so we had decided to meet, and I think you (keyon) were out of town for the first one so you knew about it but you were out of town.
keyon: no it was maybe just you two (lu and taka) and then we joined.
Allie: And it was really like: would choose an essay to read and then another one. And we would get together and talk about them, and we would also drink and eat and go off on whatever tangents. Just let it go as long as it went. And then at some point we said “oh, what if this became an open public thing where people could just come and discuss?” There is no rigid sort of way to talk about these texts, and we can just be in a room with a bunch of people. Then we got the Precipice Fund and that’s when things went public.
keyon: At its core was this thing of “come as you are,” and all levels of engagement are valid, and it was really fun. That was a big part of it too, it was super social, amongst the four of us, and kind of like an alternative criticality where we could really be able to go deep. And that was the thing about keeping it small, at first, was to not have that kind of pressure to say the right thing. Really being able to be with friends and talk shit and recognize that “I don’t know how much farther the conversation can go when the structure is so lucid and social and always so layered.”
Spencer: Were you responding to the lack of something in Portland, or the lack of something in the dance community through its inception?
Taka: I think we liked the fact that we geeked out on Martha Graham.
Lu: I don’t know what you are talking about.
Taka: You don’t know what I’m talking about? We were talking about martha graham, and I didn’t know much about her, but for Light Noise we geeked out on it, and we read something. And we talked about how she was a force of presentation. Something like that. Right?
Lu: Yeah yeah we naturally started to talk about the research that was behind that project. And I don’t think that was something I had personally engaged with so much in other dance processes and that was exciting.
It wasn’t so much out of response to lack but it was more, “oh, this is nice, we need to keep this going.”
Yeah, I remember being really excited about the idea because I think many of us, when we make work, were reading a lot of material. That peripheral inspiration that comes into the picture when you’re making a thing, and just sort of just being able to process through the ways we got to different ideas. This associative thinking that often happens in making work, and often trying to read pretty heady texts around performance. And I don’t really consider myself an academic or anything like this, and so sometimes being like, “oh this is hard to read alone because I wanna try and talk through this with other people, but who can I do that with?” And this seemed like a really good opportunity to do it with people that I trust who I can ask questions around, and I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or anything like this or already know the answers. And that’s what was exciting for me.
And keyon introduced the component about the video, not just the reading.
It was also nice to have a group of folks that were interested in be just working, everyone was kind of thinking in other ways and some of the texts that we were using were by architects, and it felt like a group where we could really push our understanding of performance and these sort of things to allow more space within that. I don’t really feel that it really felt like a lack of Portland, I also feel like it feels very of Portland in a way. Because I do feel like a lot of times there’s more crossover between disciplines and genres aren’t so important. There’s more room to play in between them and I feel like this group was generative for me for that.
Somebody said, “when we went public.” What led to PE going public and how did it change the nature of the group, do you think?
People were knockin’ on the door asking, “you have a reading group? How come I can’t come?” And we were like, “well, you can’t come because this is just something we do! ‘Cause if we let you come, then we’re gonna have to let everybody come and then we’re not gonna have this nice, intimate group anymore.” I can’t remember if Precipice Fund sort of came up and then we thought, “oh, actually, what we’re doing could really work with this grant.”
We changed it a lot. I mean, we haven’t had an intimate, just the four of us, reading group since then. I don’t think.
We had our beach week.
Oh we did. We had our beach week. Yeah, that was cute.
And I miss that dynamic a little bit. I mean, none of us are ever in town anymore anyway. It’s interesting thinking in terms of fun and leisure versus work, the way it’s gotten a bit muddy. One unspoken agreement that we’ve all had is, we’re not gonna do things if it’s not fun. But, that being said, it can sometimes be a little stressful or unwieldy because we’re like, “oh shit, this fucking deadline and I’m in New York and I’m in Stockholm and I’m in Japan and I’m in Minneapolis and who the fuck’s gonna do the Google Doc?” And it can kind of become this scramble which I think can be stressful but also it’s fine. We’re not professional. This is not a professional organization, we’re not a fuckin’ 501(c)(3), we’re not tryin’ to have this cohesive way of working. We’re just trying to make it work when it can. But sometimes it does feel like, “oh, I wish it could just be us in a room, drinking wine and talking about whatever… more… fun.”
I have this question around workshops in general and the idea of that form of the workshop or even the name of the group, Physical Education. Who’s teaching, who’s learning, and what has the project taught you over the years?
Well there was a class that I wanted to do, and then Physical Education was the perfect excuse to put it out in the world as something that could be associated with reading, performance, and artists lectures. That it can exist in the same sort of realm and programming as these other things and that a physical embodiment of whatever ideas that get presented in that workshop can then lead to a different type of understanding of the other events going on around it.
So a class might be like: have a conversation about some essay, and then we also hear Samantha Wall talk about her process and then we have this artist share and then we’re gonna go get really sweaty in an aerobics class, but then all of those ideas are carried with you through that class and maybe they’ll come up or maybe you’ll think about them differently after you’re sweaty and tired. You might take your own physical embodiment of ideas to a performance that weekend that you then watch and maybe all of these things kinda can get carried through those various experiences so you’re coming to a performance with new lenses. So that was TRANSCENDENTAEROBICOURAGE. But we’ve taught a lot of different workshops.
I’ve been thinking about the workshop versus the formal performance, too, and how those things might relate to each other, build off of each other or be in contrast…
I definitely feel like this group, I’ve been thinking about the name, and just over the years thinking about how things have shifted and changed, in my work, and especially in relationship with this group. I think for me, something that I’ve really been coming to a lot lately is less delineation between all of these things: between my living experience and my work, sales, and art. It’s also heinous that art, in this very Western way of looking at it, separates everyday living experience. It’s interesting to think hoow so much of what we look at are objects from the past are functional objects as well.
I think this group and Physical Education thinks about how our bodies are always teaching us and this way in which we can always be learning. Thoughtfulness and conceptuality and all of these things exist in the world that we’re in all of the time. It doesn’t have to be this kind of elite or separate kind of way of thinking about work and art in relationship to the body and embodiment and these practices. I don’t know, that’s kind of all over the place, but I do feel like this group has helped me… we talk about it as a support group sometimes. And I think there is space for all of that to kind of be in there and mix around and chew on.
It’s not just people asking me what is Physical Education, it’s the fact that I’m actually wearing a PE shirt as a form of my outfit (points to shirt). We sold 30 shirts last sale, which is kind of big but we are not making a lot of money off of it, so it’s more we’re having fun with the designs, and that’s actually what you kind of talked about?
I’m also thinking about something you (Lu) and I talked about when we were out one night. Something that happened in Amsterdam. Someone had brought you out to teach a workshop and you showed up and you did something very unconventional: you didn’t structure it like a typical workshop. And you showed up in a way that they kind of questioned you about it, like, “oh, but aren’t you going to teach them something? Aren’t you going to do something?”
We had this conversation around the notion of “you asked me to come engage with these people and I’m gonna do that and it’s not my fault that you wanted it to look like a lesson plan. I’m bringing myself and my experience to this room right now and so are they and we’re gonna go ahead and do that thing.” I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something around that, which I’ve been thinking a lot about since Physical Education began. What is it to get hired to come and teach a workshop? What’s the responsibility in that? How have I been thinking about that responsibility? How have I been taking on so much… I get so stressed about the idea of teaching, because I’m like, “what if I’m not smart enough? What if they hate it? What if they don’t have a good time? I forget that just the act of showing up and bringing all of my years of experience in this field to the room with other people, there’s already so much there, there’s more than enough there, and to be able to be flexible in that environment instead of grasping on to some lesson plan for the sake of controlling the situation. I’m thinking a lot more about that in terms of teaching.
That idea of expectations is really rich. It’s something to play with too. And just challenging people’s expectations of anything, especially around teaching and the labor because so much of it an honorarium or whatever and it’s underpaid for what really is. I’m curious, how much space do you want PE to take up in the bigger picture of each of your lives? Where do you see it fitting?
I mean, it’s shifted a lot over the years. It’s different all the time. I was just watching this video montage of this performance that we did in 2014? thinking to myself, “aw, look, we’re babies!”
We were really actively working through ideas and trying things out and for all of us. Those things developed into what our next work was going to be. There’s something potent about that time we formed and when we started doing stuff together that has had such an effect on all of our practices that I think now when we get together it just feels different. We’re just, not so young anymore.
Hate to go there. Not that we’re old, but it is a different kind of support and a different kind of decision to come back together and keep doing things together then it was.
When I think back to that time I’m like, “Look! Think about the potential here. Physical Education is going to become this giant, wonderful sustainable thing that’s gonna support our work and support us as friends and it’s also gonna bring a bunch of people together, and it’s gonna be this vehicle for all these things to happen all the time. There’s a future here.” And then years go by and then all of the other things that have to happen in life start to happen and you’re just like, “oh, it’s just kinda gonna look like this for now. And oh, then it’s, oh, it’s gonna look like this today…”
This is the part about getting older?
I don’t have that much time or energy anymore, but I really like these people, so I’m gonna keep investing in it in whatever way feels reasonable. I was thinking about your question of how much space do I want this to take up and I think the answer to that for me is I want it to take up more space because I want to remember what that energy felt like. But I also sometimes need it to take up a whole lot less space. The administration that has to go on around it. I’ve never been good at that, and I forget that when I have these big dreams, I’m like, “oh no no, but I hate admin work.” Physical Education’s always somewhere around here, and then every once in awhile, I’m lucky enough to have it be the focus, but it has to be super flexy.
I love that about it. I feel like I never really had expectations at all of what it would become, although I’ve always been like, “oh, we’re doing this?! Yes! Sure!” It’s this fun, mad, flexy thing.
It feels like it does take up the amount of space that we have capacity for. So sometimes it is smaller, and it isn’t happening sometimes because we don’t have the capacity. But I like that, I think it is a different thing that keeps bringing us back together but I do really like these folks. I love the stuff we do and it still feels like a space that even though it’s a very different way of pushing back or doing things. Think about the works we did at Composition. How different, and similar. But it is still pushing, it’s still a generative ground. It still feels like a generative playground in that way.
Things always happen when we come and do these events and spend a substantial amount of time together in a space–it feels like a magic. Sometimes trouble comes through and we’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen. We better be ready. This time there better be a nurse practitioner in the audience-
Everybody knows that Physical Education is something that we do, but we are not of it. I was thinking about it. It’s like, “remember Allie of Physical Education?” And nobody’s gonna say that to us. So this entity is so interesting because the sense of belonging is so not, it is a part of our life.
I kinda like the idea that everybody’s in Physical Education, whoever is engaged with it. Maybe we’re the little nucleus or something that’s keeping it going or maybe the heart of the thing, but everybody engages, you’re always kind of a part of it.
Well and it’s definitely kind of a lens, I think, or a method of thinking that once someone understands a lens, they can then apply it whenever. It’s like that idea, there’s new ideas around exercises or it’s actually any steps or exercise or going up the stairs once is technically exercise, so you can kind of claim it in that practice and extending that to art I think is really empowering to say, “actually, this is performance, or this is an artist’s practice, even if it’s just sitting in a room and talking or something.”
Or microdosing on mushrooms on the coast in a cabin.
Yes. In a wetsuit.
Wearing a wetsuit.
Those fucking wetsuits.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program