“Let’s mess it completely up”: a conversation with Barbara Adler


Carrying over from our last artist, Ileanna, who is working with cooking in her piece, I asked Barbara for a favourite recipe. Her answer was this Grapefruit Pudding Cake:


She said it’s “a bit of work but completely worth it in every way.” She also recommends adding bitters-infused whipped cream for an extra touch.


I met Barbara at the Gold Saucer studio on a Tuesday evening, just before she began setting up for Sawdust Collector, the weekly performance series she co-curates there. This felt quite fitting because, as she put it, “Sawdust Collector is all about making connections between things,” and I would soon learn that this is a theme that runs through all her work. Her work spans event making, which she sees as a practice in itself, literary performance, and music. She is very active in each of these disciplines. Barbara told me that even after doing an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studies, she doesn’t think there is an answer to the question of what interdisciplinarity really is, but that personally, it’s very clear that engaging in many things at once is important to her practice. This shows up in her creative process, and also on a more broad level, in her views on art and on how to be in the world.

Reaching into disparate source materials is a big part of how she creates, and this is especially true for the piece she is working on for Shooting Gallery, which draws inspiration from such wide ranging subjects as fashion forecasting and decoy ducks used in duck hunting. I was curious to know how these will come together in the piece when it is performed, but also curious about what that process looks like for her. How does she do the bringing together? Barbara said that despite working in many mediums, she tends to “see the world most as a writer,” so her approach is to think in terms of metaphor, where difference is what provides the opportunity to make connection. She also said that she uses “metaphor as a way of doing work” because of the mental effort required to link disparate ideas, and this effort is a practice that for her extends beyond art making as well:

“I think being in better relationship is kind of a worthwhile goal as a human being . . . the practice of attention, and care, and respect that you (ideally) bring to the process of putting together connections between material[s] is, I think, something that you could practice as a human being, how you exist in the world. Which is not to say that I achieve this every time — but that attentiveness to where things come from, respect[ing] where things come from but then also see[ing] how they work together, is kind of a good way, I think, to be, as a human. To have respect for boundaries but also see commonality.”

I was interested in this sense of responsibility to materials that she described, and when I asked her more about it, she told me that part of her initial inspiration for this piece was a quote from Marxist theorist Alexander Kluge: “All things are enchanted people.” She explained:

“Every object has memories of people in it — that’s a really nice, present sort of surface metaphor, but [Kluge] is also talking about how commodity objects kind of congeal human labour and human experience.”

This idea allows objects much more complex histories than we might typically assume. She told me that another early inspiration for this piece was a bag of decoy ducks that she acquired, which came to her from the son of the original owner, in a bag that had never been opened by him. She spoke about attempting to deal with the history of these objects, how they came to her, and what it means for her to use them in a performance (which centres around a fictional narrative). This brought up the implications of telling stories that are not one’s own, and I found Barbara’s take on this particularly interesting:

“It’s really present in the air right now I think, people thinking about telling a story from a different culture or a different life experience, but I think I’m also interested in having more sensitivity about telling a story of someone who’s close to you. . . family is usually thought of as fair game or friends are thought of as fair game, or people you encounter in your everyday life are usually thought of as people you could talk about but . . . you’re still kind of setting something for someone that they didn’t necessarily have a choice in.”

Barbara pragmatically explained this complicated, probably impossible to resolve question without pretending to have an answer. But she is troubling these ideas, questioning the purposes of telling stories, of making the personal public, and truth vs fiction (among other things). She told me very honestly: “The truth in this particular story is I bought something from someone whose father had died, and now I’m making work about it and I have no connection to them. And that’s already like, it’s not the grossest form of appropriation, but it is.”

One approach she is taking in response to these questions is “paying attention and putting work into material, and trying to write in response to [these] objects.” She told me, “I don’t want to stop telling stories, but I think having a little anxiety about [it] is good maybe.”

Another one of Barbara’s approaches to making work (she was speaking specifically to writing here) is to be “as fine-grained as possible,” her aim with language being to “make the abstract sensible.” She also said, “I admire people who can leave things hanging for longer, I have kind of this tendency to want to touch it with words all the time.” (As someone who often has difficulty expressing things in words, I felt that there was something admirable in that drive towards specificity.) But Barbara also told me she finds it very enjoyable when work gives a certain level of uncertainty, which she described as “slipperiness.” She said:

“I like it when you don’t quite know what you’re looking at, I like it when you think you know and then are misdirected, I like having a question about whether the person speaking to me is totally earnest, or playing a trick, I like that kind of shiftiness, like things that don’t really resolve themselves. I think maybe that’s part of why I also like taking all these different kinds of materials and trying to put them together: because they don’t perfectly fit. So there’s always a shifting and a readjustment between all of them at any point.”

This shifting and readjustment lives in Barbara’s process until almost the very end, as she keeps things unfixed until quite close to showing a new work, and allows each element to change in response to the others changing. Speaking with Barbara I got a strong impression of constant and thorough questioning. She told me that one thing she has learned from working in many disciplines is the value of having a “curious stranger’s eye.” She also loves coming into new processes with the attitude, “let’s mess it completely up.” Sounds great to me.

Sawdust Collector runs every Tuesday at the Gold Saucer Studio starting at 9:30pm. https://www.facebook.com/sawdustcollector/

“Let’s mess it completely up”: a conversation with Barbara Adler

Being ready to accept blushing: a conversation with Ileanna Cheladyn


Ileanna’s answer to the question:

What song are you currently most likely to play as soon as you get in the studio?

was Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush”.

I put it on as I started going through my notes, and it struck me as having a quality to it that connected with a sense I got of what Ileanna is working on. Something which I find a bit hard to put into words, but which I would fumble towards with words like personal, like pleasurable, like generous, like honest, like gets you somewhere deep.


Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 12.33.43 AMAt one point we were speaking about preparation, and Ileanna said, “You take notes to prepare for when you’re going to do the thing, but really, for you, the notes will forever be what remains.” So, in that spirit, the above are the notes I took while she and I spoke. Below is another version of what talking to her was like.


Despite knowing each other peripherally for quite some time, last Friday was the first time Ileanna and I ever really had a one on one conversation. I was welcomed into her home, served a delicious meal, and given the pleasure of hearing about her thoughts on dance and other things, as well as her practice, which currently centres around recipes and cooking.

“I’m super interested in cooking but also really interested in ways of making dancing; because I don’t feel super interested in the ways of making dance that I was taught, I suppose, or the ways I was exposed to in dance school. And so I started thinking of recipes as a way of making dance, and finding choreography that way. Because they are generative through their structure, and I really appreciate that.”

There is a thread of temporality, which I found interesting, to the way Ileanna sees recipes. Using them as scores which can be meticulously followed, or (her usual cooking method) used as a loose guide, this generative nature relates to the future; but she is also interested in the traces they leave after the fact, as a certain kind of archive, often notated again and again with different adjustments made.

We also spoke a bit about the problems and complexities of our collective and personal dance histories, and the myriad things, aside from technique, that are inevitably inherited by students of western contemporary dance. She told me that after a long journey of studying different forms and at different institutions, she has come to treat training in dance as a means to “feel more alive.” And that while she’s still “really invested in all the structures and intricacies, et cetera et cetera, of dance . . .  it’s sort of being pushed out by [her] interests in just being human, and not trying to be a super-human, or an abstract human.” She is not interested in the body as metaphor:

“I just don’t want to be this abstract thing making shapes onstage, pretending that I’m not, you know, paying bills.”

In that spirit, she is approaching this piece with a welcoming of the anxiety she experiences being in front of big crowds. Asking herself, “what do I need to do in order to do this thing that I do in private (cooking), in front of a large audience?” she has come to invite awkwardness, silliness, shaking, blushing, and all the other things that for her come with performance nerves.

“Maybe because I get so uncomfortable with myself onstage, I just sort of imagine people taking pleasure in my discomfort in this way of like, I’m okay with them watching me get uncomfortable, probably blushing really hard and maybe shaking a little bit. But I do that so they don’t have to — maybe?” 

When I asked her how she works when she’s alone in the studio, she said: “What it usually comes down to is very very physical tasks. When I want to be dancing, or engage my body in any way, I’m like, ‘Oh, sagittal plane! Vertical plane! Push ups!’ These are things that are really successful for me to find a new state to then start working from. So it’s like perpetually warming up.”

Again we had arrived at a theme: that the preparation is ‘the thing.’

Regarding this perpetually warming up she also said:

“Maybe it’s this place of being ready to accept blushing, and shaking, in front of people. And [being] prepared to take that on. Because through the warming up process I can become aware of myself in a proprioceptive sense, to then start inviting the gaze.”

Ileanna told me that she works with improvisation “in part because I don’t know how to choreograph steps. Like I just don’t know how to do that. But I know how to choreograph feelings…? Yep. So improvisation comes in handy a lot for the end.” I couldn’t help but smile at the idea of choreographing feelings. Remembering her previously saying, regarding audiences, “Don’t give them what they want,”  I asked her what she thought about manipulation on the part of the performer. She said:

“I think we all have desires when we watch performance, and [so] people can have those, and I can’t control them — but maybe I just want to interrupt things.”

After I stopped recording and about an hour after our conversation had been straying further and further away from the ostensible purposes of our interview, I asked her something about what’s next for her, or what her plans are down the road, or some other impossible to answer question. She said, “I’m prone to abstract things, especially my future.” And I thought, what a delightful way to approach the unknown: abstractly.


Francesca Frewer, guest curator

Being ready to accept blushing: a conversation with Ileanna Cheladyn