Theater is Not a Dirty Word: An Interview with Tobin Rothlein, Current MFA Candidate at MICA

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grass2webTobin Rothlein, still from Still Life with Strangers, Dual Channel HD Video, 2013

MICA’s MFAST program, also known as the Low Residency MFA, is currently exhibiting thesis shows in Myerhoff, Decker, and Studio Center Galleries. Now that his thesis is up in the gallery, Tobin Rothlein, one of the current candidates, agreed to discuss the evolution of his work and practice in conjunction with his graduate studies and other professional projects.

Cara Ober: You are a Philadelphia based artist and your work explores “the intersections of dance, performance, and visual arts.” You are a Pew Fellow in Performance Art and your work has been presented at The Whitney Museum, Battersea Arts Center in the UK, and Metahouse Phnom Penh Galleries in Cambodia, to name a few places. While you were finding professional success in your field, why did you want to enroll in an MFA program and why this one?

Tobin Rothlein: Success is a pretty relative term. I was really happy for the international opportunities I was receiving, and the work in Whitney Altria, but there was something missing in my practice. I had big questions I wasn’t finding the time to answer. And there was a danger I was feeling, of starting to repeat, being asked to do the same thing over and over again. I was also known as a collaborative artist, but I was missing the time to develop some of my ideas. The pursuit of an MFA was a way to slow down my practice. That what I was looking for. That interruption and opportunity to rebuild was very important to me.

The low residency was a must for me. I did not want to interrupt my professional work completely. Through a low residency program I was able to mediate my discoveries in the graduate school environment with the art and performance world I was part of at the same time. It was very difficult, but I think also very important in being able to apply the knowledge in a practical way. Inevitably, the professional work did slow down, but my ideas of what that work would be were changing. I managed to continue work in Cambodia throughout the program, and that formed a substantial part of my thinking, the way those two experiences coincided.

grasswebTobin Rothlein, Grass 1 and Grass 2, Sod, soil, and mirror, 2013

We also were navigating the recession in the art world while I was in grad school. It hit the non-profits later. That was not fun. But all that negotiation, and time to return to reading, to a studio separate from the Miller Rothlein studio, and out of the eyesight of Philadelphia funders and critics, that was very important.

I also wanted in on the dialogue happening in the visual arts, this discussion on dance and performance within the contemporary art sphere. I had bumped up against a wall in the art world. I was told by a curator that the visual arts world had plenty of their own performance people, that they didn’t need voices from the outside or from dance. Honestly at that time I really didn’t know much of what was going on … so I was a total outsider. And it was really funny, that around the time I was being accepted in the Philadelphia dance world, receiving choreographic grant money etc., I was being turned away for being a ‘dance person’ by someone in the visual arts world. I laugh about it now, I mean, it was just one person. But I was annoyed back then. I felt an MFA would also be a way to enter that conversation. Its my intention that my voice be a part of that. I’m glad that now it can be. Someone recently said I should contact that curator and tell them how their rejection inspired me, and reopen the conversation. I think I might. I’m pretty sure they won’t even remember.

CO: For the past four years, you have been a student in MICA’s low residency ‘MFAST’ MFA program. How has your work changed over these past few years? How have you changed and grown as an artist?

TR: I would say the biggest change in my work is a result of a much deeper understanding of what performance means to me, and how performance intersects with sculpture and dance and contemporary theoretical frameworks. What is visually, or structurally, different about it though, as artwork that is experienced and perceived by an audience? The boundaries between media are even more perforated now, performance merges into sculpture and dance. The traces of a body, and of actions are recorded through materials over longer periods of time. The work is not as easy to classify, but more sure of itself – more comfortable with being different, and I really love that about it. I have also changed the way in which the work interacts with the viewer, whether it is functioning in a way to choreograph the spectator, or engaging the viewer in its own completion. You, the viewer are more empowered. You have more choices.

LIE WITH MEwebTobin Rothlein, still from Still Life with Strangers, Dual Channel HD Video, 2013

CO: MICA has been criticized in the past, and recently, for its lack of performance art classes and mentors. Do you consider yourself a performance artist? How receptive was the institution to your choice in media?

TR: Performance Artist is a label I would use in describing myself, but I don’t fit entirely into that box, so I’d prefer to use just “artist.” I think there is a substantial difference between the greater institution MICA (with a Capitol M) and the MFAST program, as far as how things are reviewed, understood or received. I can speak best to the MFAST program, which has been receptive, supportive, and at times appropriately critical to the work I have done in the program. The program has been very open to letting me go wherever my exploration has led me.

In my particular case, the lack of a performance art mentor was not a problem, because I was looking for mentors who were versed in performance, but had a strong framework in other visual arts media, specifically sculpture and contemporary critical theory. I was looking to find ways to frame and integrate what I knew about performance into the visual arts, looking to theory pertaining to drawing and sculpture and media, and ways I could adapt it to what I was doing and thinking. That was the perspective I was seeking, because I had spent a lot of time already in the performance and dance world.

I was able to get what I needed and more from the mentors in the MFAST program, but I do hope in the future they find someone who brings that performance aspect. There are people that could really benefit, and I am sure I would have too, but I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything. It actually seems like a problem at many schools, how to teach performance, and what to teach. It’s an interesting dilemma. People have barely figured performance art out and now dance has thrust onto the art school scene. I don’t know how many art schools are ready for that. It makes this an exciting time to be doing this type of work. And I stand straddling both worlds… which I have come to terms with. I quite like it now.

stillweb1Tobin Rothlein, still from Still Life with Strangers, Dual Channel HD Video, 2013

CO: You have been the co-founder, with Amanda Miller, and producing artistic director of Miller Rothlein since 2004, a performance company. What exactly does your company do? Where and who is your audience?

TR: Miller Rothlein was founded for creation, research and education in the area we were just talking about – the intersections of dance, performance and visual art. Between Amanda and myself, we have a long history of dance, performance, and video art. We are located in Philadelphia, and after a short stint at Vox Populi we have settled into a home base at Crane Arts Center White Space, which is a medium sized white box gallery and performance space. When the work is not there, it is usually outside the theatre or gallery altogether. On the street, or being presented elsewhere. Our audience is a mix of visual arts and live arts supporters, which makes for an interesting dialogue. Developing the audience has not been easy, as we often have a way of upsetting expectation all around – but that is important for us to do and we have ended up with a loyal following. Many of the people who repeatedly show up for what we do will tell you they are not into dance or visual arts in particular, they were just taken to see something, they liked it, and they kept coming back. We particularly like these audience members. I look to hear their feedback first.

CO: Can you give me an example of some of your favorite Miller Rothlein projects?

That’s tough. It’s usually the project coming up over the horizon, the one we don’t have any money for yet, the one that we are still dreaming up but is still unformed. Right now that would be a massive trip around the United States on scooters, in which I will continue the Lie With Me project (conversations lying with strangers And recorded as hand choreographies). And we will continue to install sidewalk pieces all along the way. These are street-based horizontal works that choreograph the public in different ways.

I started some very simple works on a gallery floors in Cambodia years ago, and Amanda really developed some complex choreographic sidewalk pieces in Philadelphia last year. We have merged these ideas. We are excited about that, and finding the means to make it happen, but there are lots of shows we love… Still Life, in which the entire space is taken up with performance and video art and the audience shifts and wanders and finds its way in-between. Or the show opening this fall, “Forbidden Creature Virgin Whore” where Amanda takes a humorous irreverent look at the myths of classical dance through a contemporary feminist lens. I love where that one has been heading.

Then there’s Generate Degenerate, which is a piece for three performers, a dancer and two bicyclists. The whole piece runs on the kinetic energy created by the three. That one is sort of close to our hearts. It will be in Kansas City in the fall. I’m babbling on… Punch, a vicious and funny look at the Punch and Judy and Pulcinella myths. I really want to bring that one to Baltimore one of these days. I think it would be great here. Baltimore would get it. But anyway. We love what we do at Miller Rothlein, as you can probably tell. Even though it’s hard to run a company these days, the payoff is when we can create this kind of work. Work that plays by its own rules.

CO: As an artist whose work doesn’t fit into many ‘visual art categories,’ how is your perspective on contemporary art different than many of your colleagues? Do you see this as a challenge or a benefit to your practice?

TR: A benefit. I’ll assume by colleague you mean the other students at MICA. My perspective is different because my experience and history are different. Theater is not as dirty of a word to me. Dance is not as new and intriguing of a word. My understanding of performance is unique to me, I believe, it encompasses a different cast of characters as it bleeds into dance. I am excited to share those ideas with others. But really, in the program we are so focused on content, theory, and intention, we often aren’t so focused on medium at all. And all of our unique experience and histories benefit the other. The biggest benefit I see for myself is in the multilingualism I am developing, (Is that a word, multilingualism? Can I make up words once a have an MFA?) anyway, what I mean is, I am working hard all the time to cross-translate into the language of dance and performance and visual arts. To find a common language and to integrate my experience across disciplines. Visual language and discipline-specific language, and how these effects work and artists. That is very interesting to me.

topog gallerysmallTobin Rothlein, from Topographies, performed sculpture, 2013

CO: Your MFA thesis work is up at MICA currently, through July 13 with a reception on July 12. What should visitors expect from your thesis work?

TR: They can expect to give it time, if they like. To just approach it with an open mind.

All of the work changes, it shifts. The piece Topographies (the one constructed of hundreds and hundreds of egg flats) has times with live performers engaged within it, and times without, but it is always a performance, it is always changing. It never really starts or finishes. The video installation leaves a lot of connections and association to the viewer, it won’t be the same for any two people I imagine.

CO: What is unique or different about the current thesis shows up at MICA, both from your work and your classmates?

TR: I think as a group we are not afraid to try out the most unusual of our ideas. To test new waters even in our thesis shows. So there are surprises, especially for those who take time with the works.

topoggrosswebTobin Rothlein, from Topographies, performed sculpture, 2012 pictured: Performer Paul Struck

CO: Is there a specific or idea or aesthetic, which unites the work or are all of you, more or less, working in your own independent directions?

TR: While I would say all of our work is clearly different, their are unintentional ideas, or theoretical frameworks that unite. We have been in the same critical theory course for years now, and we are all close. So yes, our own directions but with shared influence. When you see the show it looks as though we are from a school. MFAST 2013 has that feeling of a school. I think we are all interested in the visual language of the work we make, the semiotics, to differing degrees of course. But these shows all interact with the viewer and challenge traditional notions of image and meaning making. I think we all believe art can be whatever it wants to be, and we understand that the work is not us. It’s a hard question, and I’m probably leaning the answer towards my interests, but I think that is what we share.

topographies1webTobin Rothlein, from Topographies, performed sculpture, 2013

CO: What are you looking forward to most, after your thesis comes down? How do you plan to use your new MFA degree in the future?

TR: After the thesis comes down? Well I’ll be resting after moving 4000 pounds of dirt. I’m looking forward to a shower. A nap. Some rest. Playing with some new ideas here in Baltimore, with new Baltimore friends, before I say goodbye.

With that MFA… Like I said earlier, I am excited to be part of the conversation as performance and dance develops into the contemporary art world, as those worlds affect and change each other. I did not pursue a degree in order to teach, but I am now also interested in some small teaching engagements, ways I might continue to develop and share my ideas with new practitioners, to have some influence on how performance develops. I have started talking to some programs about possibilities. I will continue pursuing international work, and work within communities like the projects in Cambodia. In the meantime, I will continue just making work as long as I can, maybe I’ll even make something out of that very expensive little piece of diploma paper. Make it dance. Who knows.

To see more of Tobin’s work, go to his website at

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