In anticipation of Yara Travieso's Out of Line performance on June 21, we invited Ted Kerr, a Brooklyn based writer, organizer and teacher at the New School, to sit down and chat with Yara about her art, life, and the inspiration behind No More Shimmering Cowboys.
Theodore (Ted) Kerr: What's your earliest memory?
Yara Travieso: I've actually thought about this before. I remember two things, both just outside the house I grew up in. One is the trunk of this tree that was enormous. It looked like a giant Achilles tendon. The other is a little bell at our front gate that was painted and re-painted so many times. This impacted the sound it made. I still feel the drowning reverb of the iron.
Ted: Where was this?
Yara: Miami, Florida.
Ted: I ask the question because I think we can gleam a lot from each other's earliest memories. It's like a key to our imagination. Even as you were sharing I couldn't help but think of how it relates to your practice, which is rooted in spectacle, sound, and blurring lines between what is real and unreal.
Yara: I'm really interested in magical realism, how something can transform into something else.
Ted: With that in mind, I wonder then what people can expect from No More Shimmering Cowboys?
Yara: It's a science fiction tour of the High Line, given through an alien perspective. The guide sees it as though she's visiting this world. She's almost trying to explain what a body is, what land is, and—for example—what those green bodies we may call trees are.
Amid this alien perspective, the tour guide muses on the strangeness of everything, while being fixated on this myth of this land, the American Dream. It is that thing that is always just over there.
When it comes to communication the tour guide is not so much interested in science or math. Poetry is the only way to really explain things. During the tour, different performers will appear in the distance, portraying the narrative of promise breaking down. As a visitor, you will be guests on a land at the time of the apocalypse, which for me is a loose term that conjures up ideas around decay and collapse, but also resurfacing and rebuilding. This idea is, in part, informed by the High Line and the history of the space. It too was once in a state of decay, but now, no longer.
Ted: I can't help but think you're a hopeful person.
Yara: Oh my God. Yeah, I actually really am. I've had a lot of conversations about this with my collaborators, because it's difficult to talk about a country, let alone the genesis of the country, without having some hope. However, for many, the America we live in today is the apocalypse, and for them, the American hero is a dangerous and flawed myth.
For this work, I'm focused on the connection to the foundational stories of contemporary America and the related myth of the cowboy. I say myth because I'm not talking about the real farmhand somewhere on a ranch in rural Montana right now, working to make a living. I'm more interested in the cowboy of books, imagination and cinema, the anonymous figure.
Within the performance we have two cowboys. The first one symbolizes promise. His name is Figment, a self-made man who came from nothing and became something. He birthed, raised and killed himself with his own bare hands. He's this absurd idea of a man who doesn't need anyone, but everyone needs him. He's a commentary on the nature of a type of masculine figure that's become the nature of this country. I'm interested in the toxicity and seductiveness of it all. So here we have Figment, this sort of shimmering cowboy in the distance with a lasso that lights up the sky.
Ted: It's part of your magic surrealism.
Yara: Yeah, and so it just makes sense that Figment has a great, great, great, great, great grandson who is a cowboy named Decay, existing in the now. With Decay, you can smell the rotting promise, he is experiencing this kind of futility to his heroism. He doesn't understand why he can't fulfill the myth of Figment, and he's sort of unraveling right before our eyes. We begin to see a transition from this idea of the lone man, to that of the collective group.
Ted: Do you see No More Shimmering Cowboys as related to your previous filmmaking and performance work?
Yara: I usually make work about women. I'm interested in creating grand female protagonists and giving them an insane amount of space to exist. For this show, all our characters are women, including our cowboys. So, in that way, yes, I see the connection.
But also, since I have a history of incorporating big questions and gestures to match, this performance is very much in line with my previous work. For the ending of this performance, I'm exploring the pendulum swing of what comes after collapse. What comes after the myth of masculine interdependence? People may think that the show is about the end of the world, but to be more specific, it's about the apocalypse of a myth.
Ted: You're making me think of the idea that something has to break before it can be rebuilt.
Yara: Sure, that makes sense. I think, naturally, I'm drawn to bold gestures, and monumental objects. Along with the giant tree in my yard, and the bell, some of my earliest memories also include seeing a mountain and a waterfall for the first time. I remember seeing both as full things. But I also remember the excitement that came once I understood that both were made up of the tiniest of particles.
This kind of relationship to the material world comes out in my work. In my films and performances I want the women, like the mountains and waterfalls, to be seen as giant brushstrokes of gesture, but also understood as being comprised of almost endless particles of wonder and experience. In this, they're unapologetic about being seen, and they're always being reconstituted.
It's also how I'm thinking about the cowboy in this performance. I grew up with immigrant parents, but I'm an American, born and raised in this country, so I always felt like I was responsible for attaining the American Dream for my parents' hard work. And I can say that, in my family, the cowboy was a seductive figure, aspirational even, not a threat. But that's the thing about myths, right? They're alluring, until they aren't.
Ted: How do we tackle monumentally ingrained ideas within our culture? I know part of the answer is art, but what does that mean in practice?
Yara: A lot of my work in the past has been rebellious, pushing against patriarchal traditions, myth, literature, and cinema. For this one, I wanted to heal that tradition within myself, and for me that means sorting through the pain of these men. They are enmeshed in toxicity and a pride of not being able to ask for help, or be vulnerable, or exist within a real group dynamic. So they are limited, forced to be tough, not feel, or to experience, but really just keep their head down and work hard and believe that all they have is themselves. That's the problem. So I'm interested in having them hear what I am trying to say: "This myth you are chasing is sinking you and is sinking us all."
Ted: I am interested in what the power of myth is for you?
Yara: I'm excited about myth as a point of reference to human experience, and I love the storytelling aspect of myth. I grew up in a house with a dad that, when he spoke, he was very philosophical, thinking about the world in an optimistic way. My mother was a storyteller, I mean she would make up these crazy stories that were so gripping, and basically totally untrue. Thinking about it later, I see how I grew up in a household where myth was a genre, and I became obsessed, so it makes sense that now I want to re-contextualize myth, write new kinds of, what I call, neo-feminist myths, where I have my characters deconstruct what is traditionally put forth, while considering what elements to keep to help write the new world. It's a way of poetically dismantling things.
Ted: As we talk I'm thinking of the famous Cher lyric, "Do you believe in life after love?" Like, your work seems to be about how, if we can come to understand something foundational to our way of being, such as love, as a myth, then what is possible when we let go of myth? Can there be life after love? Can there be life after myth?
Yara: Yeah, it is something I do think about. Thank you for helping me with that. And it's funny that you mention myth and song together. I was on a road trip with friends when I was trying to make the script for this and they said, "What are you seeing?" And I told them, "I just keep seeing cowboys on buildings." And they were like, "Well we've got some inspiration for you." Next thing you know we are on the highway blasting Paula Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?"
Ted: OMG! That is awesome.
Yara: Yeah, and as I was listening to the song, on repeat, I should say, I became interested in what I think Paula Cole was singing about: we've been mourning the cowboy myth as long as the myth has been around. It's like we've never been able to bury it. It was always decaying and it was never real. It's a wonderfully absurd song: Where have all the cowboys gone? Well they were never here in the first place.
Ted: When you were talking earlier about the American dream, you mentioned that it was "over there," and I'm wondering if "over there" has a physical or spiritual location or something else?
Yara: I think the American Dream in the way I was raised into it, was just how we lived. I mean, you can say I'm a product of the American Dream for sure, I have great parents, who worked their butts off and inspired me to do the same. I went to Juilliard on a full scholarship, and now I'm living in New York City as an artist. I made it. So, you know, in a lot of ways, my family really loves this country. My parents always say how beautiful it is to have had these opportunities. And it's true, we all worked hard, but I also know that my family was quite privileged as immigrants. Their journey to this country was hard, but not nearly as hard as many other immigrants of color, much less fortunate families trying to come here in much more desperate situations only to find an American Nightmare. .. Which part of America is the dream? It seems to me it's the part that is always on the horizon.
We have a line in the tour, where the guide says, "See there, out there, please walk towards it, notice how it moves away."
Now in its third year, Out of Line presents a new set of arresting, intriguing, and playful performances by some of New York City's most exciting contemporary artists.
We encourage all persons with disabilities to attend. To request additional information regarding accessibility or accommodations at a program, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 646.774.2482. Program venues are accessible via wheelchair accessibility points, and ASL interpretation can be arranged two weeks in advance.
High Line Programs are supported, in part, with public funds from the New York City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Corey Johnson.