‘Out There’ Experimental Performances: A Q&A with Philip Bither, performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center

Berlin: Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far—so close] is one of the performances in Out There 2019, which is themed on the transnational and transdisciplinary // Photo by Frederik Buyckx, via the Walker Art Center website

Berlin: Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far—so close] is one of the performances in Out There 2019, which is themed on the transnational and transdisciplinary // Photo by Frederik Buyckx, via the Walker Art Center website

Rising visa costs, international airfare and freight, scouting and booking artists from around the world: these are essential obstacles for Walker Art Center senior performing arts curator Philip Bither to overcome when piecing together the annual Out There festival. “There are so many shared ideas and energy these days that it feels like keeping [the Out There festival] having something of an international profile despite all the challenges is really important,” Bither says.

Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts // Photo courtesy Walker Art Center

The festival started 31 years ago and consists of four theater pieces spread over four weekends at the beginning of the year, with a special free lecture opening Out There 2019: Transnational/Transdisciplinary. Helmed by Bither for the last 21 years, the winter celebration is comprised of unique works by boundary-busting artists that tend to be nonlinear, experimental in form, and aimed at inciting critical discourse. According to Bither, “the mission historically and continuing to this day is to show alternative ideas and approaches to the art form that we think of as theater.”

This year’s performance lineup spans a wide spectrum of artistic discipline and tone. There’s a free lecture-performance on video from the Middle East; a new multi-media dramatic-comic theater piece; a stand-up routine turned sitcom comedy of errors; an immersive documentary film and theatrical hybrid set 30 years after Chernobyl; and a documentary theater piece featuring six Argentinian and British veterans from both sides of the 1982 Falklands War.

Bither took a break from preparations to discuss his job at the Walker, his take on performance art, and the state of the arts in America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you end up at the Walker?

I grew up in the Chicago area in a family with a lot of music happening. In college, I worked as a radio DJ and also wrote concert and record reviews for the University of Illinois newspaper. I moved to New York and worked in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s development office for a couple of years and talked my way into getting hired to do some music curating for the Next Wave Festival. After that, I was the artistic director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. It’s a multidisciplinary center. Then I came to the Walker.

How do you define the work that you produce?

The term ‘performance art’ is bandied about to the point where no one quite knows what it means. It tends to have a more visual art basis theoretically, but I think the work that we do probably falls more into experimental theater or hybrid multimedia theater. Each individual work fits in different categories.

What curatorial lens do you apply to your work?

When I got to the Walker, I felt I didn’t any longer have to compromise and that I could really zero in on the areas that held my greatest passions. I was allowed to continue a love of contemporary dance that I grew into in New York and a whole range of alternative music and theater. I tend to veer toward humanist work with a heart beating in it that feels like it’s grappling with a real issue while using experimental forms to get there. Commissioning also remains a very important part of what we do. This includes investing in [new pieces] and helping artists with development, residencies, and feedback.

Given that your series is all about bringing what is ‘new’ to the Twin Cities, how do you balance cultivating new and nurturing existing relationships with artists?

We do like the fact that we sustain relationships over time, but you can only do that with a handful of artists because you really want to keep the door wide open to new voices and to the next generation. We continue relationships sparingly with some of the masters like Meredith Monk. It’s based on whether they are continuing to innovate in their aesthetic and what their contribution is. But the bulk of the artists—I’d say more than half of every season—are brand new people to us.

You have access through the internet to art from around the entire world. How do you stay abreast of what’s happening, and select artists to come to the Walker?

That’s probably the hardest part of the job: information sorting. I do still strongly hold onto the importance of experiencing art live. There is just something that can’t transmit otherwise. Either the great failing for the future of live performing arts or its great sort of uniqueness that will maintain its authenticity is that people have to be there at a moment in time, together, experiencing something. There is a different electrical energy, however naive it sounds, witnessing particular, more abstract and movement-based work live. I’ve only got two or three months to travel in the year. It’s an educated crapshoot and I have come to the realization that I can only offer the best of what I know about. I’m constantly looking online, talking to colleagues that I trust, reading everything I can, and then putting together what’s really only 20 events in our seasons.

Your series is progressive and most artists don’t seem to concentrate on producing ‘popular’ or lucrative art. Do the artists you select have other income streams that enable them produce art without having to focus on its profitability?

The arts in America are so poorly funded, and there is a lack of any governmental support of subsequence. The bulk of the artists we work with have other jobs. They are often involving a heavy teaching load, teaching yoga, or sometimes restaurant jobs, too. People piece it together in this country. Whenever we bring artists from Europe or even other places in the world they are always sort of shocked and they find that a little disgraceful, and I tend to agree with them. Artists in America tend to carve together a living in a way that keeps people honest and hardworking, but I don’t believe in the thesis that you have to be ‘starving’ to be a great artist.

Ticket sales only cover about 20 to 25 percent of your budget, with the rest covered by the organization’s fundraising operations. How does this funding breakdown and resultant incentive framework play into what you program?

It would probably be incorrect to say it has no bearing, but I’m happy to say that we do things that make no economic sense from a box office standpoint. We’re lucky to have a very good reputation, and I personally have [a good reputation] with a number of leading foundations mostly based in New York that feel like the work that the Walker does is of national importance and have supported that with multi-year grants.

So financially you have the ability to be more avant-guard and take risks. Ticket revenue aside, do you think about producing work that is more mainstream to attract more people?

I really have internal battles with myself about that question, especially when I feel like I’m being drawn toward ‘we could sell that so easily.’ There are reasons why you might listen to those voices; maybe there is something that is tapping into a currency that feels of the moment or addresses an issue of equality or racial inequity that is a strong work and is hitting at something essential to our times. Mostly, I try to resist the sole consideration of commercial viability. We aren’t in the business to compete with First Ave or the Dakota necessarily. We have a tax break from the federal government and we are a nonprofit. 

How does one become a performing arts curator?

These days most people go to graduate school for arts administration or a curatorial track, both of which can provide important skills. A lot of it is about connections and getting one’s first job by all the work-study things that can happen, including fellowships and internships. More and more, however, there are working artists who are functioning really creatively as curators and sometimes as full producers.

Out There 2019: Transnational/Transdisciplinary opens on January 10 at 5pm and runs until February 2 at Walker Art Center. Visit walkerart.org for more details.