Anna Martine Whitehead. Preparatory study for Amanda Williams’s Embodied Sensations. 2021. Courtesy the artist

A Conversation with Amanda Williams about Embodied Sensations

Curators and educators talk with the artist about her participatory project at MoMA, and how it helps process this moment.

Alethea Rockwell: Embodied Sensations is really unlike anything we’ve ever done before at the Museum. It’s an interactive project that explores questions of public space, power, equality, and inequality during the global pandemic. Could you describe the work, and how it connects to our specific moment in time?

Amanda Williams: Embodied Sensations is a participatory work that will take place in the MoMA atrium. It is grappling with ideas of social and physical mobility and immobility, and trying to think about this moment that we collectively find ourselves in. It also brings people who, for the first time, have felt isolation or a lack of inclusion together with all kinds of communities that have felt that way forever. So the work tries to use this unprecedented moment to create a shared understanding of what these experiences are like through shared sensations, or embodied experiences.

Embodied Sensations takes place primarily in two realms. One is the digital or virtual realm, which we’re calling the keyboard side, and the other is in the physical space of the museum, which we are calling the participant side. These two realms are going to be interacting through an online survey that poses a series of questions about social and physical immobility. The answers will then get translated into instructions for physical movements that visitors can sign up to perform on site at the museum. The gestures reflect the kinds of bodily experiences that historically disadvantaged or excluded groups might experience, so everything from “hands up” to “curling into a ball” to “hiding in plain sight.” The variety of movements will be determined by the questions, linking the performances to the survey of different spatial and social experiences people have or have not had in the past year.

Installation view of Amanda Williams: Embodied Sensations

Installation view of Amanda Williams: Embodied Sensations

AR: And could you describe what the installation in the atrium will be?

The installation draws on the urgency of the moment in which we all find ourselves, which has forced everyone to make really major life changes to our daily routines, rituals, and experiences. In the museum, this has meant removing the furniture throughout the public spaces that could potentially present surfaces for the Coronavirus, and moving those chairs and tables and benches to the basement. So I’ve worked to move the furniture into the atrium space, into the center of the museum, and am asking participants who are already navigating so many foreign movements to also navigate the furniture, which now has a completely different meaning in relation to the viewers in the audience.

Ana Janevski: So the furniture almost becomes a little bit like a maze or an obstacle course, with stacks and a somewhat precarious arrangement?

Yes, the furniture went from being something that has been thought of as a way to welcome or provide comfort to visitors—a moment to pause, a moment to rest, a moment to wait for or to chat with a friend—to becoming objects that are hazardous or (as we could see even in something like the invasion of the Capitol) even becoming weapons or barriers. So it’s an opportunity to highlight how quickly things that seem mundane and that have been designed for a certain purpose can take on an entirely new identity based on factors that are happening around them.

Installation view of Amanda Williams: Embodied Sensations

Installation view of Amanda Williams: Embodied Sensations

Anna Martine Whitehead. Preparatory study for Amanda Williams’s Embodied Sensations. 2021

Anna Martine Whitehead. Preparatory study for Amanda Williams’s Embodied Sensations. 2021

AR: Can you talk about how this project has taken shape over the past year in relation to the transformation of public space during COVID-19 and the pandemic?

There was an initial kind of shock when the world had to shut was a disembodied sensation. When, all of a sudden, you had to wait to enter a grocery store. When you couldn’t hug a loved one. All these things have to do with space and the way that we occupy all sorts of spaces. And also the way we took for granted our ability to interact or choose not to interact in public spaces. That was all removed from us. And so I think a lot of the anxiety and frustration that we see across the country has to do not only with people declaring this to be a violation of their rights, but also with the realization that public space isn’t free in the first place.

And so when your movements become regulated in spaces that you think you have control over, that’s where you see the tension. Everything from the sidewalk, to how far you can negotiate your front porch or lawn to receive your mail or to talk to a neighbor, has made people become hyper-aware of space. We’re forever emblazoned with six feet as some kind of marker of acceptable distance. And so it’s going to be really interesting to see what it now means for entire societies to be in tune with their bodies in relation to these metrics of space. It was always there, but it was something that many people didn’t really concern themselves with before now.

AJ: Can you talk about how you and your collaborator, the Chicago-based choreographer Anna Martine Whitehead, conceived the movements in the atrium?

In thinking about how Embodied Sensations would play itself out as a performative work in the atrium, the first aha moment was the realization that the constraints that were practical and necessary for the museum could also be really powerful analogies and metaphors for how people were experiencing their daily lives. I began thinking about what happens when entire built environment spaces begin to have terms, whether you know it or not or whether you have to adhere to those terms or not. And so how do you translate that into that space? I’m not a performance artist, but I do think about bodies and space all the time. So Embodied Sensations seemed like a natural extension of these questions, and it felt like it had to be a performative work in order to express the kinds of things that I was thinking about.

So I called on Anna Martine Whitehead here in Chicago, who has an amazing practice and has looked in her own work at the relationship of territories and bodies. And I thought that she could be fantastic as a guide and collaborator in helping me make these translations. Intuitively, I had a lot of understanding about what I was imagining and how I was thinking about the body. But in terms of performance, I really leaned on her heavily to think about how to create a kind of bridge between participants with no background in performance, and the performance community that thinks about this all the time. Are there ways that we can marry those two groups together and imagine how we could bring these experiences to life?

It feels like people may be in tune with the prospect of having to have their body do something they’re not used to having it do, or being told to do something and having to follow instructions. It’s something everybody has suddenly had to contend with this year. I think it’s important too that we acknowledge the absurdity of the moment in working on this, and then really bring it back to the art and the making of art as a way to find our collective way through this.

Amanda Williams. Preparatory study for Embodied Sensations. 2021

Amanda Williams. Preparatory study for Embodied Sensations. 2021

I think the questions—as much as the movements themselves—are going to reverberate with people’s bodies.
Amanda Williams

Michelle Kuo: With the online survey, you’ve posed very provocative and thoughtful questions that force people to reflect on what it even means to interact through a questionnaire in the first place. How much choice do we really have when we navigate space physically, but also virtually and online? What is ingrained habit, what’s involuntary and what is deliberate, what is intentional, how much agency do we have? I wonder if you could talk about the questions themselves and these larger issues of power and movement and control.

I think the questions became another opportunity to have people understand that our range of choices is not as broad as we think it is, and when we’re presented with information in a way that is comfortable or that we can see a little bit of ourselves in, we end up giving away more than we should or is necessary.

For example, there’s a question like, “What have you resisted most?” and the answers offered are “change,” “rest,” “arrest,” or “I don’t resist, it’s dangerous.” Each one of these options allows a point of view that might or might not be your own experience. And so if you see yourself in it, that’s fine, but more than likely you’re going to find a response that is familiar but is not your own, and it’s going to offer a moment to pause, to think about what it means to resist arrest in this past year, for example. What does it mean if you fear any kind of power and you don’t resist at all?

So it’s powerful to formulate these questions and these prompts to diverge from things that might be familiar. You know, words that have become part of our social lexicon, like retreat, mean something different now. Care means something different now. Personal space means something different now. So each of the questions can make you think profoundly about something that has been happening but maybe you’ve not given space to it, or you haven’t paused to grapple with what it means.

There was actually a question, and we changed the answer, about what is priceless. And I think the initial answer that we offered was, “One more hour with my dad.” That was my answer, but we expanded it so that it might capture the experience of a lot of people who have experienced loss, but experienced it in ways that maybe they don’t want to talk about. So we can give space for people to grieve about all kinds of things and try not to create hierarchies or minimize experiences and the range of experiences people have had.

So how do we use language to do this? The questions we use seem very straightforward but are able to get at very touchy subjects in a way that people wouldn’t necessarily open themselves up to, if you just went up to them and said, “What has been the most profound thing that has happened to you during the pandemic?”

I think the questions—as much as the movements themselves—are going to reverberate with people’s bodies. There’ll be shoulders tightening or there’ll be wincing or there’ll be a double take or there’ll be a laugh or there’ll be tears.

Amanda Williams. Preparatory study for Embodied Sensations. 2021

Amanda Williams. Preparatory study for Embodied Sensations. 2021

Anna Martine Whitehead. Preparatory study for Amanda Williams’s Embodied Sensations. 2021

Anna Martine Whitehead. Preparatory study for Amanda Williams’s Embodied Sensations. 2021

MK: I wanted to ask you a question about crowds. I think a really special part of your project is that you’re asking for large-scale participation in the online survey, but the questions are so intimate and personal that people are able to respond really individually, and still create data that shows a larger trend. And I think there’s something similar happening in the way people will be responding in the atrium, where groups of people essentially doing the same thing will show the differences between how people react to the same instructions.

On the experiential, in-person side, I think it’s going to be interesting to see how many people want to go along with things because they’re not exactly sure what’s going on. And that uncertainty has baked into it, oddly, a desire to conform or a desire to not stand out for a lot of people. And then there will be people for whom this is an opportunity for their body to do something that it normally doesn’t get to do, where they get to act out or embody someone else’s sensations in a way that’s empowering, or in a way that they didn’t know that they had the authority to do. So I’m interested in whether people will resist what they’re being asked to do because it makes them uncomfortable, or whether they will embrace these foreign ways of being because they’ve had to do that now for the past year.

My entire life I’ve been invested in making space. What I’ve also learned from participating in [the current MoMA exhibition] Reconstructions: Blackness and Architecture in America and the formation of the Black Reconstruction Collective, which is a direct result of being invited to be part of that exhibition, is that for Black artists or Black practitioners, when we are given a platform, often that platform is not really ready to handle a different world view or a different way of operating. I’m not really so invested in architecture in the way that it’s been framed in the Western canon. I’m much more interested in space and how we can do things to have people navigate space or have autonomy in space in the way that they think is important. And sometimes that involves a building or a structure. But oftentimes, especially with public space, it does not. It is about power.

AR: I am wondering whether you can speculate about the afterlife of Embodied Sensations. For us at MoMA, but also for our audiences or even for your own practice.

I hope that visitors who are engaged in Embodied Sensations, or maybe just observe it while they’re visiting the museum, take away something about how to process this moment. And I’m hoping that it seems extremely foreign five years from now.

For my own practice, I hope that something about this project is going to spark the next. Something will emerge. I’m not worried about that. I’m open to whatever that is. But I’m more excited about that profound shift that this work helps someone make in this moment because they didn’t have words or experiences to locate themselves. That it seems mundane and then it becomes pivotal for someone for some reason I could not have predicted. I am invested in this becoming a moment for people to find themselves in a way they didn’t think they were going to when they bought their ticket to visit MoMA on a Saturday or Sunday.

Amanda Williams. Preparatory study for Embodied Sensations. 2021

Amanda Williams. Preparatory study for Embodied Sensations. 2021

Participate in Amanda Williams: Embodied Sensations

Create a performance
Take an anonymous survey—and your responses will be used to create new participatory performances at MoMA each week.

Become a performer
Register to be part of a performance at MoMA. Performances are free and take place every Thursday and Sunday at 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. Performing involves reading and following simple, accessible movement instructions in a socially distanced environment. All are welcome; registration is limited.

You can also read more on post about Amanda Williams's Color(ed) Theory, also currently on view at MoMA.