In Conversation: Chris Evans and Ernest Jolly Jr.
Chris Evans and Ernest Jolly, Jr. are a collaborative pair whose work brings together material, sound, history, and movement. Chris is a cellist and dancer with a background in comparative literature; Ernest is an installation-based artist with a background in couture. A friend set them up when Ernest needed a cellist for a show and their personal and professional partnership developed from there.
unexpected projects is a collaboration between Jenny Salomon and Jen Stager. In this series, they interview other collaborative teams in the Bay Area to find out what their projects and processes are all about.
In Conversation: Chris Evans and Ernest Jolly
Chris Evans and Ernest Jolly are a collaborative pair whose work brings together material, sound, history, and movement. Chris is a cellist and dancer with a background in comparative literature; Ernest is an installation-based artist with a background in couture. A friend set them up when Ernest needed a cellist for a show and their personal and professional partnership developed from there.
unexpected projects: Chris, you lived in France for a while. What brought you there?
Chris Evans: I was playing cello in the orchestra at UC Davis. We were going to tour in France and I thought, maybe I will stay in France or Spain for the summer. I got to Paris and I just fell in love with the city. It is so diverse, so beautiful. It was not well-planned — I had to scramble to figure out how I was going to pay my rent. But I thought: “I am creating my life from the ground up so how do I want to spend my time? I want to dance and I want to play music.” Those were my primary activities; figuring out how to pay the rent was what I scrambled to do to make music and dancing possible.
Living in Paris informed my interest in the first big collaboration that Ernest and I did together, called Community Property. Paris has so much art around the city and in the subways. You might walk around the corner and a string quartet is playing, a puppet show happening on the Metro. There’s something so magical about that and so humanizing. It was a different experience but I felt that same sense of community when we were working in the Tenderloin [during a residency at the Luggage Store in 2010].
UP: What was your experience collaborating during your residency at the Luggage Store?
CE: It was a residency of about three months. Darryl Smith and Laure Lazer are the directors at Luggage Store and Ernest had talked to Darryl about doing this Community Property project and we approached it as: “what are the gifts and what are the seeds of art that are already there in the community?”
And it is a really amazing [neighborhood] community. I was interested in what sounds and what movements were there. I brought in a lot of musicians to improvise in the outdoor space, called The Tenderloin National Forest. This had been an alley that was just needles and garbage. Darryl and Laurie converted it to this beautiful green space in an area of the city that doesn’t have much. It is surrounded on three sides by SROs. I created a lot of music in the outdoor space. I wanted the musicians I brought in to improvise in relation to the sound of the alley, and also for our music to be something for people in the community. People would go in and just sit; [they] talked about how much they appreciated the space.
Ernest Jolly: I remember one time our friend Marshall was playing drums and this guy that lived next door was like “hey, I play drums” and he wanted to play on Marshall’s set and Marshall goes “not right now.” So the guy went to his apartment and just started playing his drums with the windows open. Eventually he brought part of his kit down and played with Marshall.
CE: The residency was meant to be open. So people could wander in [to the gallery space] and ask what we were doing. And we met a lot of people in the [green] space. This mother and her two little girls came and one of them had a guitar and started playing the guitar and the other girl sang. I recorded them and I played with them. It was a really lovely experience.
UP: Was there a final event or opening at the end of your residency?
EJ: Yes! We showed objects and video that we’d created over the course of the residency along with a dance performance that started at the back of the room and then shifted over into the space with the visual art.
CE: We invited a bunch of dancers to respond to the space and the sculptures and the music. I played with David Boyce on saxophone and Marshall Trammell on percussion. We were improvising in the performance. I was really moved by how people in the community responded to the music and the visuals. It actually meant something to them.
This clip of the final performance of Community Property opens with the musicians playing in shadow and cuts to a shot of a white wheelbarrow with wooden handles. The body of the wheelbarrow has been converted into an empty planter, designed by Ernest as movable planters that extend the green space of the Tenderloin National Forest. Chris’s cello and David Boyce’s saxophone play in the background and the camera pans toward regularly cut slices of mirror, a projected image that turns the wall’s corner, and wooden sculptures that evoke the form of the moveable planters, before finally settling on the profile of a dancer. The camera pans again: a group of dancers now inhabit the installation space and the music picks up, bringing in a range of sounds and instruments. Initially musicians and dancers are separated by a half-wall, with the dancers primarily in the space with Ernest’s installations. As the piece progresses divisions begin to break down. Dancers and musicians and artworks riff off of each other — a composite of individuals, materials, and movements that join to create a vibrant whole.
UP: Tell us about your SF Arts Commission Grove Street Window, another great collaboration between you two in 2011.
EJ: I was invited to be an artist in residence. I created a site-specific installation called Natural Reaction and Chris created the sound. With Natural Reaction, I wondered “can I make an exhibition with a floor of water?” My focus is really [about] exploring materials. I try to have a topic interwoven with that exploration of materials. I was working on ideas of water, coasts, and flooding in the aftermath of all these natural disasters. Katrina and the tsunami off of the coast of Japan had just happened. What happens after these disasters? That was the question I presented to the dancers and choreographers when they put pieces together to perform in and activate the space I created.
UP: How do you think about drawing together these different practices into one performance?
EJ: All of my art education is formal Western education, and in that process I have been trying to figure out my center. In undergrad, a lot of the history classes start with the European tradition, but if I focus on European tradition then I lose my center. As I started to focus more on African and African American traditions, I found that there is music and movement involved. African masks for instance: in the context of Western culture, those masks are on a wall on display, but they were [meant to be] performed. As I am making my artwork in my studio, I am listening to music; there is all this other activity going on. Our collaborations, for me, are also about how I activate the work so it is not just this thing that is on the wall, but it is actually active, whether it be through visual art performance, music, or all of the above in unison. The activation of the space with people, for us, seems more in line with our art process — not removing the sculptural elements from the world in which they are created, not removing dance, but incorporating dance in the space.
CE: I have always had interdisciplinary interests. When I was in school for comparative literature, I was looking at the relationship between literature and music. That formed the basis for my interest in how movement and visuals and sound come together to create an experience. I think in so many traditional cultures, those elements aren’t separate.
UP: And in 2012 you created on Labor Party, which showed at Patricia Sweetow Gallery. Can you describe that piece for us?
Stitched leather speed bags, drawing on the history of heavyweight boxing, populate a space lit with half-covered disco ball that scatters a regular pattern of light around the floor and walls.
EJ: There are labor parties from the slave period, labor parties within prison gangs; we were also looking at different field recordings of guys on the train lines done by Alan Lomax and his son. They were called gandy dancers. They were responsible for laying track and removing track when it started to warp. It was a physically labor intensive process and needed ten guys working in unison, so they made these songs that kept you in time. We were also looking at recordings of fisherman in West Africa; they are doing the same thing. They are singing songs as they bring the net in. Everybody is working in unison to make this project happen.
So we incorporated that into the idea of a labor party. It was Obama’s second term, and we had shifted in this country from talking about the war on poverty and preventing poverty to talking about the middle class and how we are going to maintain the middle class. If we are starting to look at the middle class as the bottom, what is happening to the truly poor who are struggling? We need a labor party, we need a group of people specifically politicized around the politics and importance of and focus on general labor. So we played with that in the piece: the labor party and a literal a party where there’s a disco ball and workers represented by punching bags on the dance floor.
Most recently, Chris and Ernest collaborated on ArtComplex, a pop-up exhibition in a former medical building in Oakland in early 2014. Ownership of the building had recently changed hands. Chris, Ernest and Marianna Stark brought together 12 Oakland-based artists. They added sound and movement performances with a diverse group of musicians and dancers. They hope that this interim use model will encourage new owners to make art a permanent part of long-term building plans.
UP: Does your collaborative practice feed back into your individual practice?
CE: I am thinking about our next piece, which focuses on the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. I’ve been in the studio doing work around a story from Reconstruction. We know that the external landscape was devastated by the Civil War and that there was a need for actual reconstruction on lots of levels, but I am exploring ideas of the internal landscape. I was thinking: “what does this internal landscape look like?” The images that came to me were images of Ernest’s Aftermath installation. There is a quality to his installations that feel otherworldly and that could represent an internal dream state. It was a way for me to think about visually what I am exploring through sound.
UP: Can you tell us about your new community space in Oakland? Your plan is to incorporate members of the community in the space that you are building now?
EJ: Shattuck Avenue Project Space will become a community-based art center with a focus on engaging local community non-artists and connecting them with professional artists. There will be a gallery performance space.. We plan to have regular community dinners as well to bring people together through this space.
CE: This building was once a French laundry that was started in 1935 and the block was part of an amusement park called Idora Park. It has been in my family and my dad and brother are renovating it into a mixed-use space.
EJ: Art is my way of exploring my civic environment. For me, there is a need to have a space in which people can commune that doesn’t have to necessarily fall under a religious practice. Art can be that. Shattuck Avenue Project Space will create a central space for people to be in a community with one another, with art as the underlying focus.