Downtown dancer/choreographer Jack Ferver and visual artist Marc Swanson debuted their collaborative work Two Alike at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston in 2011. The performance, both dark and comic, explores the effects of abuse on queer youth. The piece — a solo danced by Ferver within Swanson’s unsettling sculpture of mirrors and black wood — has its New York premiere from May 17 to 19 at The Kitchen. I spoke with Ferver by phone about the origins of the work, his often surprising use of humor, and why the “It Gets Better” campaign doesn’t apply to adults.
How did your collaboration with Swanson come about?
Marc and I met in 2008 when he saw a piece I did called MEAT. After he saw another work of mine, Death is Certain, we really talked. I visited his studio, fell in love with his work, and said we should collaborate. We began talking about ourselves as artists and how we came to be artists, and it went back to our childhoods.
And how did you both arrive at Two Alike?
Originally, we thought the piece was going to be about how we grew up in small towns and moved to a city. I grew up next to the woods, and I would play in them, and Marc also grew up near some woods. I thought there would be a trajectory of traveling through the woods to the high-rises of the city, but then I began working on the solo, spending all of this time alone in a room. Deeper things came up, about where my art comes from, where my sense of play comes from. My sense of play comes from an incredibly lonely childhood.
You mentioned to me in December that Two Alike is different from your other works. What makes it unique?
The construction of it is different from my other works. It’s a solo. I’m not outside of it at any point, getting to watch it, and I don’t have a sparring partner. I’m my own sparring partner in this work. Memories or fantasies are my sparring partner. Working with Marc also has pushed me to make work in a more formal way.
Your work often pairs serious subjects — isolation, insecurity, even suicide — with humor. What compels you to take that approach?
Part of it is just who I am as a person and an artist: I have a sense of humor. I’ve always been analyzing people and life. Life is terribly sad, terribly tragic, but it’s also really funny. When people laugh while watching my work, it can be because they find it shocking or relatable. I make work so people don’t feel as lonely as I have felt. And with all of my works, I think, people laugh at the narcissism that they themselves are inflicted with.
What did you use from your childhood in making this piece?
I tried to pull from all of it, but I’m not just dealing with my childhood, and I’m not just dealing with what is it to be bullied and victimized as a child for being gay. When I premiered this piece in Houston, people came up to me afterwards and told me about how the work had touched or helped them. Some of them were gay, and some were not. I don’t think it’s just gay people who can have lonely and terrified childhoods.
The publicity materials for Two Alike say that you use repetition frequently in the piece. What purpose does it serve?
I had my first dance class when I was 6. It was all repetition: I repeated something over and over, looking to make it perfect. Repetition can be a metaphor for how people who have had pain in the past keep trying to get a different result. People do that in their adult lives as well. They keep seeking the job, the partner, the financial status, to try to resolve the crushing experiences from an earlier time.
Did all the recent headlines about bullying prompt you to make Two Alike, or influence the work in any way?
This issue was on my mind prior to the headlines. I didn’t intend for this piece to come out when bullying was such a hot topic. I grew up really tortured. There were many points in my childhood when suicide seemed like an option, and I feel very blessed that I somehow got through that. But it’s very boring for someone to make a work just about himself, so in all of my work I try to take the “micro” of my own experience and expand it to the “macro.” My personal story really isn’t that interesting. What’s interesting is what’s going on everywhere.
What do you think of the “It Gets Better” campaign?
It’s great for children, but I don’t think hope is good for adults. I never have hope in my work. I feel it’s a very corrosive thing. People can get sleepy and lazy in hope. “Oh, it’ll get better. Things will all work out.” Really? From where I stand, there’s a ton of work that still needs to happen about how destructive xenophobia is — and I want it to end. As adults, we’re all responsible for it ending.