I remember meeting MJ Harper, the protagonist of this issue’s opening story, a few years ago in the back room of a bar. It was one of those moments where you’re struck by a person’s charisma – long remembering it after. So it was a joy to discover that Harper is indeed a delight to be around when seeing him again for our shoot. Chance encounters aren’t about reaping rewards – but if a possibility does present itself, why not take it? I happened upon art director Michael Seibert a few weeks ago, whose contribution to this issue prompted me to delve into labor notes and the labor theory of value. Utopian ideas that seem worth revisiting given the current woes of lower-rung service industry workers. For encounters of a different kind, we look at Ghosts by artist duo FORT, a book full of uncanny photography of vintage dollhouses. Should you be in Berlin, you might want to consider joining the book’s launch this Tuesday. There’ll be a clairvoyant – so who knows who you’ll be meeting?
Thanks for reading,
MJ HARPER: “I ALWAYS TRY TO SHOOT FOR OTHER GALAXIES”
Have you ever asked yourself how it would look if Eartha Kitt and Pina Bausch were smartphone-toting 30-somethings collaborating on a piece that combined song and dance? MJ Harper has. The dancer, choreographer, poet and creative director has performed in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and Serpentine Galleries, MoMa in New York as well as the German capital’s Berliner Ensemble and Schinkel Pavillon. As a movement director he’s lent his vision to brands ranging from Grace Wales Bonner and Stefano Pilati’s Random Identities, to Adidas and Comme des Garçons.
Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in 1987, he and his mother migrated to the US when Harper was 7 years old. After receiving his B.F.A from New World School of The Arts in Miami and joining his first company – Alvin Ailey II in NYC – Harper toured the globe with Studio Wayne McGregor. Since 2015 he’s been based in Berlin, where he continues to make his mark in both fashion and culture with his unique blend of dance, song, performance, poetry, costume design and overall fabulousness.
EX LIBRIS met MJ Harper a few weeks after staging his Arias for A New World, a solo performance at the Berliner Ensemble that digs deep into our collective subconsciousness.
You’ve moved between many different places. How does that inform your work?
Every place gave me something that I needed. One of my biggest idols is German choreographer Pina Bausch – I’ve always respected her grace and how she was able to take her company to different countries, taking residence there while being immersed in the culture. They created this sort of romantic, anthropological – but also removed and observational – presentation of their work.
I always try to infuse my own creations with this sense of ‘being a stranger.’ My German is still not great, and I really enjoy not understanding conversations around me. It allows me to fully observe being human in a culture so far removed from my own. Being able to observe our physicality says a lot about human possibilities. So just try to remain an observer, wherever I go. That’s what I did back in Jamaica at 7 years old, that’s what I did when we arrived in Florida. My mum juggled several jobs, and I was by myself quite a lot.
And how did you end up in Berlin?
I was part of a dance company in London, and in my fifth year I experienced quite a bad hip injury. That became a transformational moment. It was a sign, telling me this isn’t for you anymore. One day I visited my best friend, who had moved here for love, and though the trip was meant to last three days, I kept extending it. His boyfriend said he had a feeling that I would do very well here. I then went back to London, but couldn’t stop thinking about Berlin – a couple weeks later I bought my one-way-ticket back. Everything happened quite quickly after that. I found a community of people that feels very much like family.
One of your family members is the fashion designer Stefano Pilati. You sometimes model for his brand, Random Identities, and he designs a lot of the costumes for your performances. Could you reveal more about your connection?
A friend introduced us at Berghain, and we basically fell in love with one another. I think we connected as we both suffered loss – and were in mourning – at same the time, while trying to fully understand what it means to achieve something in the artistic scene. He showed me another side of my creativity. It had always been there, but I’d never understood what it was.
In Arias for A New World there were quite a lot of references to Christian religious practice, like church music and the use of frankincense. Are those remnants of your experiences at a Catholic school?
I am so happy you picked up on that! My grandpa was an evangelical pastor who would speak in tongues during prayer circles. It’s an almost shamanistic approach to faith. And it would scare me. And yes, I went to a Catholic school, I sang in the choir, we had to wear a uniform and polish our shoes. I really enjoyed the strictness and formality of it. The performance was a kind of love letter to my grandpa.
Are you planning to expand the piece further?
My agency and I are currently creating a film version of it. In the show there was this world created in real time, but obviously you don’t get to see the people I’m talking about. So I’m thinking about including more characters. In my dream world the piece has a cast of 10 people – with fully fleshed out characters.
That sounds ambitious!
And sometimes my ambition gets the best of me. I always try to shoot for other galaxies. I ask myself what the work would look like if Eartha Kitt and Pina Bausch were alive, and my age. What if they had iPhones? I really like what I’m doing, and I see that it works. Opera houses, concert halls, and theaters have been my homes. Which is funny because as a Black man, they quite literally weren’t designed for me.
Besides choreographing and dancing in your own performances, you also work as a movement director for fashion brands. What does that entail?
As a movement director I’m an in-between. I help encourage the models step into themselves and really push who they are – without telling them what to do. Everyone comes with their unique signature, which I think is fantastic. On set I am just a really good hype man and an energetic bouncer. At the same time, I am the extra eye who sees if a limb looks a bit wonky: We’ve all seen ads where the body forms this gorgeous line, but the position of the foot completely breaks it – and it’s the size of a billboard!
One of your clients is the British designer Grace Wales Bonner. Could you tell me about your collaboration?
Grace and I have known each other for some time now and have grown alongside one another. We’ve built a beautiful creative partnership over the years. We recently met up at Pitti Uomo in Florence, where I movement directed her latest show. As well as choreographing, I helped the models understand which part of their body they should be walking from. You can walk from your head, you can walk from the heart – or from your pelvis. They are all valid walks, but they’re all very different. What I learned over the years is that you don’t really help models by barking at them. My favorite moments are when they come up to me afterwards, thanking me for being patient with them, for showing kindness. In that sense I’m more of an emotional director.
EBAY ECTOPLASM: A NEW BOOK GOES FOR THE GHOSTS
“I’ve got phantoms and ghosts waiting in line.” This epigraph sets the mood for Ghosts, a new book by FORT. Jenny Kropp and Alberta Niemann’s work walks the fine line between the familiar and the strange, solemnity and humor. Trawling through eBay Classifieds, the duo have amassed a collection of vintage dollhouses, photographing their interiors void of any inhabitants or movable furniture. What remains are makeshift furnishings that are very out of tune with the stylized representations of human habitats we’re used to. What renders them uncanny, apart from their often odd proportions, is the unpolished quality of this homebuilding en miniature: DIY wallpaper, yellowed lace curtains, tiny power sockets and paper plants that – after years of neglect – actually look like they could use some water, all combining to create a domesticity that is as outdated as it is desolate. Far from the candy-colored plastics of, say, Barbie’s Dreamhouse, the dollhouses in this book project an eeriness that feels as if haunted by the ghosts of childhood itself.
BRINGING SOCIALISM TO THE BLOCKCHAIN WITH LABOR NOTES
Things aren’t looking good money-wise: Our hard-earned cash is either decreasing in value in the high single digits or, when invested in cryptocurrencies, has taken the steepest of downfalls. FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) have spread far beyond the crypto realm. So why not abandon currency altogether? Socialist economists have long sought to introduce systems where labor of one kind can be exchanged for the labor of another. In these markets, so-called labor notes served as means of remuneration. First proposed in the 1820s by Josiah Warren and Robert Owen following their experiences in a self-sufficient community, the concept of labor notes was later advocated by Karl Marx for early-stage socialist societies.
In late capitalism, these utopian ideas suddenly look worth revisiting. So when art director Michael Seibert proposed designing a labor note for EX LIBRIS, we didn’t hesitate a bit – not even to call our accountant. Seibert’s voucher has the value of three hours of designer work – the time it took him to research and produce the note in .gif format. As its holders, we’re now offering the .gif as an NFT via OpenSea. BUT NOT FOR MONEY. Should you want to own Michael Seibert’s labor note, be ready to offer us three hours of your work, give or take (depending on how “disagreeable” it is) in exchange for the file. As Marx would have said: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
Editor: Hans Bussert (V.i.S.d.P.)
Art Director: Enver Hadzijaj
Designer: Katarina Stefanakos
Copy Editor: Redfern Jon Barrett
Sub Editor: Eliza Levinson
© 2022 EX LIBRIS Hans Bussert
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