a situation of relations: A Conversation with Adam Linder about “The WANT
Laurel McLaughlin with Adam Linder

OFFEROR: One who gives and does not receive, takes possession, of one who receives to subsist and so cannot give back.

OFFEREE: There were desires, they fell all around us and have been kicked to the ground

The WANT,” Adam Linder, 20191

Copy of 04_Adam Linder_The WANT_Credit_Andrea Rossetti
Photo by Andrea Rossetti

Towards the end of August, over the phone, Adam Linder shared the immense intellectual exchanges that contributed to his work, “The WANT.” Linder carefully parsed how value is volleyed back and forth in a “situation of relations”—rendered indeterminate amidst amorphous dual forces. Rather than a continuation of his “Service” works, Linder and his performers, Jess Gadani, Justin F. Kennedy, Jasmine Orpilla, and Roger Sala Reyner, delve into the poetics of transaction.

Laurel McLaughlin (LM): “The WANT” first premiered in 2018 at HAU Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. What are your hopes for its West Coast premiere at TBA in Portland?

Adam Linder (AL): I think it’s always really rewarding to come back to a live work after a little bit of time. I feel that when a choreography is made, or “finished,” it is actually just the beginning. So, I guess what I’m excited about with Portland and LA is playing the work again and seeing how it shifts in that very substantial but fine work of how liveness plays itself out every night. It’s all in the micro-shifts, the flow of the performers’ energy and the vibe of different audiences. The more my works are performed, the more I get to know about them.

LM: The work is based on French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès’ In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields, 1985—a play composed of a singular act between a “Client” and a “Dealer.” The transaction in which they engage engrosses the narrative, ultimately unveiling the struggle behind the psychological conundrum of knowing “the other.” As a means of entry to your work “The WANT,” which departs from Koltès, could you tell me about how this opera came about, and also about your interaction with Ethan Braun, who scored the work, and Shahryar Nashat who staged it, and how this developed into an opera?

Copy of 03_Adam Linder_The WANT_Credit_Andrea Rossetti (1)
Photo by Andrea Rossetti

AL: Well, I guess, it started with an itch of mine to tackle the form of opera. My work addresses all forms within the performing arts and quite actively jumps between them. I make costume, I compose text, I incorporate vocal forms in my works, but I am a dancer at heart; so somehow making an opera was the next card to play.

As the stars aligned, I learnt of this work by Koltès and it sparked a desire to take this play that has always been performed in a conventional way—a very straight theater mode—and turn it into opera. Ethan and I met because I was looking for the right composer to work with me and, as he is an irregular fit for the classical music world, that made him a natural fit for me. Shahryar is a different story. We’ve been in and out of each other’s work for years and he’s my boyfriend. Read the BOMB article; says it all.2

LM: Could you walk me through the two acts of the opera?

AL: In “The WANT,” following the Koltès original, there’s not exactly a plot development in the conventional sense. In Act 1 there’s a raising of stakes, a facing-off between the Offerors and Offerees. This makes you think: is this about desire or a one-time encounter? Or, is this about two people from very different cultures trying to understand each other and negotiate? There’s a tension in Act 1 that gets established. And then what happens is the whole MO shifts.

In Act 2, the players start to unify, at the beginning they flirt with the signification of the historical figure of the Hassidic Jew: the archetypical merchant of Europe. It all starts to become much more fluid—in terms of what qualities are determined by what side of the argument—you no longer have this kind of division between the two sides. Somehow, everyone becomes the Offeror and everyone becomes the Offeree.

I think what also arises toward the end of the work, is that there’s an acknowledgement and giving over to a whole other kind of transaction or negotiation, which is the actual situation between the performers and the audience. And eventually the work heads closer toward abstraction, with much less solidity in terms of the characteristics of the two sides.

LM: The opera features singers, dancers, and actors, Jess Gadani, Justin F. Kennedy, Jasmine Orpilla, and Roger Sala Reyner, as “Offerors” and “Offerees”—groups which embody the client/dealer types. How does your innovation of collectivity operate in the transaction, as opposed to “the individual”?

AL: The work in its original form had just two people. My work is a very unfaithful reworking, so there is little of the original Koltès text in my libretto. It has always been staged as a two-person—two guys—play. In the way I have structured the work, Jess and Justin are the Offerors, and Jasmine and Roger are the Offerees—but it becomes quite fluid. Just like the original play, it is never determined who wants what from whom and what it is they want and what it is they can offer. It’s always meddling in grey area. But I push the grey area of sexuality, race, and gender (and spiritual identification) far more than the original.

LM: The play has been described as the process to know “the other.” How do the performers wrestle with this irresolution between client/dealer?

AL: What is revealed is that perhaps the sensibilities that seem to be in opposition between the Offerors and Offeree actually constitute each of them individually. It’s not exactly a conclusion—because Koltès’s work and my work are both very inconclusive—but I think what is understood is that neither of these sides can be defined as characteristic of any certain qualities. In the beginning, Koltès’s Client and my Offerees, are more rational, vulnerable, defensive, whereas the Dealer, or my Offerors, are more gregarious, flirty, cunning. But, in turn, both sides at one point or another, exude all these sensibilities: negotiating desire for each other, negotiating a way of seeing the world, or even how polar sensibilities can negotiate each other. I guess you could say “the other” becomes the “other” of yourself.

LM: You mentioned earlier that other texts—whether embodied or literary—were formative for the work. And your libretto references many, such as Missy Elliott and Derrida. So, could you talk more about how language functions through these samples and citations?

AL: What I did was basically take Koltès’s work and reduce and reduce and reduce so there was a very small amount of the original that would simply be the skeleton for this encounter. Then I took the skeleton and I fleshed it out by patch-working texts from various thinkers or artists that helped me get deeper into this work.

But maybe some of the most important are: a text called Living Currency by Klossowski—it’s a really complicated text that talks about desire, or what he calls the voluptuous emotion, and speculates on how it could be extracted and commodified as an economic force.3 Then there’s the Poetics of Relation by Glissant which could be understood as a text about the transactions of power, language and poetics as a result of the (predominantly) French colonial impact.4 Then there’s a third important primary text for my reworking which was, “What is a ‘Relevant’ Translation,” by Derrida.5 These three were the game-changing texts for me, but there was a lot of other thinking and patch-working that went on, like lyrical lines from Tricky or Missy Elliot. These three texts were very formative because they were dealing with post-colonialism, the fallout of the Western Enlightenment project, economy and desire, and the power of language.

LM: You’ve worked with the concept of transaction in previous works, such as your “Service” series, which you’ve mentioned, including Choreographic Service No. 1: Some Cleaning, 2013; Choreographic Service No. 2: Some Proximity, 2014; Choreographic Service No. 3: Some Riding, 2015; Choreographic Service No. 4: Some Strands of Support, 2016; and Service No. 5: Dare to Keep Kids Off Naturalism, 2019. These works made choreographic labor not only transparent, but also traced the economic terrain surrounding performance within art spaces and museums.6The WANT” feels like a continuation in some ways of this previous work, but from an interior perspective—as if we’re seeing the internal adjudications of the performers. Do you see it building on this previous work, or pivoting from it?

AL: Let’s just say I’ve dealt with questions and operations around value in a lot of my work. In the Services, there was a particular formulation of how choreography would be framed and put forward. So, I think you’re right, I think “The WANT” is bringing it person to person, or people to people. Those questions around economic value are there, but “The WANT” is not as geared toward that. “The WANT” exists much more as an affective, poetic response to these ideas, rather than a conceptual approach.

What is more apparent in “The WANT” is that the question of transaction is more a question of relations. And Koltès says—and I don’t have this quote exactly correct—that as soon as you put money into the equation, you cancel out relations. As long as there is a concrete measure of value, you diminish the need for ongoing relations between parties.

Ultimately what I’m invested in with all these works, is not “choreography is worth this, and in relation to objects, and you should treat it like this.” Yes, okay, there’s a pride for the form, but I am more interested in setting up a situation of relations that have stakes, rather than producing a form of critique.

LM: Along those lines of revealing stakes without pointing to a conclusion, could you tell me about the interaction between performer and audience? It’s been said that much of your work pushes the boundaries of the social contract of theater between audience and performer—do you see your work in this light, and namely, “The WANT” in such a way?

AL: I do not believe my work, in general, pushes the boundaries of the social contract of theater, but there is an element of addressing this contract in “The WANT.” I think my work tends to rub incongruous forms or sensibilities together with tension, plays games with conventional value measures, and blurs the edges of what performing form, or format, belongs where. I am interested in an overarching and meta question of “who can perform what?” and how categorising is a very normalising mode of value production.

1 Adam Linder, Libretto for “The WANT,” Co-production: HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Los Angeles, Kampnagel, Hamburg. Funded by: Hauptstadtkulturfonds, 2018.
2 Aram Moshayedi, “Shahryar Nashat and Adam Linder by Aram Moshayedi,” BOMB 145, 24 September 2018: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/shahryar-nashat-and-adam-linder/.
3 See Pierre Klossowski, Living Currency, Daniel W. Smith and Nicolae Morar, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
4 See Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Betsy Wing, trans. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
5 See Jacques Derrida and Lawrence Venuti, “What is a ‘Relevant’ Translation,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Winter 2001): 174–200.
6 For more information on Linder’s “service” conceptualization and choreography, see: Uri Aran, “‘I WANTED TO TEACH THE WHITE CUBE HOW TO TAKE THEATRICALITY: An Interview with Adam Linder,” Spike Magazine, 1 November 2017: https://www.spikeartmagazine.com/en/articles/i-wanted-teach-white-cube-how-take-theatricality; Emily Wilson, “A Choreographer Bills His Dances as ‘Services,’” Hyperallergic, 23 January 2019: https://hyperallergic.com/481094/adam-linder-choreographic-services/; and Ryan D. Tacata and Adam Linder, “In Conversation// In Repose, we can hold the room: Adam Linder with Ryan D. Tacata,” Performa Magazine: https://performa-arts.org/magazine/in-conversation-adam-linder-with-ryan-d-tacata.