Keeping his art unpredictable

February 2015 - Jason Akira Somma, 2008 - 2009 Dance Protégé

Presented as part of the Under Construction series of New York’s Park Avenue Armory – a leading art institute presenting unconventional work – Somma’s interactive work with the Flex dancer community explores a merging of artistic, technological and media practices. In 2008–2009, Jason Akira Somma was protégé in the Rolex Arts Initiative to celebrated, Czech-born choreographer Jiří Kylián. They have continued to work together since their mentoring year and their latest collaboration is East Shadow, an original work inspired by the plays of Samuel Beckett and dedicated to the victims of Japan’s 2011 tsunami.

Rolex Arts Initiative: Your newest work, presented at the Armory, is part of the Under Construction series. Does that mean that it’s a work in progress and that it will eventually be presented elsewhere?
Jason Akira Somma: It’s an extension of my artist in residency at the Park Avenue Armory. During the residency, you develop work that will eventually find a home. The staff at the Armory said it was the most ambitious thing anyone had ever done for a showing there because I invaded four rooms and had four installations.
My residency began in February and is roughly for a year. I’m following up many expressions of interest by museums that would like to host the work, including one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art [the MET], which I wasn’t expecting, and the Geementemuseum in Den Haag. Some galleries in New York, The Hague, and in Amsterdam are interested in showing some of my autonomous work, including interactive videos and digitally hacked photos.

Often you build unpredictability or chance into your creations, the way images appear or are projected. Why do you do that?

It’s definitely an important theme in my work. I view myself as a visual artist, but the nature of my work has a performative element. It comes from my dance training, keeping things alive and unpredictable. It allows for moments of such beauty. It’s a spiritual decision as well, because the more we try to hold onto something, the less we own it. When you decide to let things be, it’s remarkable what chance can create. It has always yielded great results. Also, when the audience is aware of the unpredictability, I’ve seen first-hand how it takes them away.

You’re based in New York, but you’re not tied to one city.

No. definitely not. That’s what’s been so exciting to be at the Armory, I’ve had more opportunity than ever to have my work seen in New York and in America. Europe has been more receptive and generous to my career than my own country, so it's nice to have credible visibility in my homeland.

One of the high points of your career so far was Phosphene Variations in 2012, based on a performance by the famous dancer, Frances Wessells, then, remarkably, aged in her early 90s. Are you still in contact?
I’m still working with her. She was my improv [improvization] teacher in college and she did so much for contemporary dance in America; she’s an unsung hero.
I believe she will be 97 or 98 next year, so if I do something with the MET and the Performa Festival I’m hoping to bring her in with another dancer because we’ve actually not shown that piece in New York. It would be a new incarnation of the Variations.

How frequently do you communicate with Jiří Kylián?

Jiří and I communicate every other day. We’re family at this point… seriously, we get upset with each other when we go a week without corresponding. We often forget and step back and say: “Can you really believe we actually met through Rolex?”

What was your last collaboration?

Jiří has always wanted to stay contemporary. He has a thirst for learning and growing still, despite being the master he is. Our last collaboration was the most intense so far. It’s called East Shadow, and it was a very difficult piece because it was such a new adventure. It was very theatrical, and a massive production. I had to make a 50-minute video and a soundtrack that would play alongside the performance piece. I became a kind of co-director on it. We’ve been touring the piece quite a bit and still have more to do. We presented it in Japan, Monte Carlo and Greece, and obviously in Holland [where Kylián is based].
If there was any grey area between Jiří and I, it disappeared during East Shadow because I worked on that project 80 days straight in Holland. We were tied at the hip essentially and I learned even more working from him on that process. I catch myself working on my own work, and using his words and the lessons I’ve acquired working with him. One of the most important things is his ability to make sure the process is fun, to make sure we’re laughing, no matter how difficult the obstacles become. The response to the piece has been really wonderful, It’s a really emotional piece. People come up to us afterwards, hugging us and crying.

To view part of Under Construction, visit https://vimeo.com/111610469