ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Robert Wilson: A Living Space

Acclaimed theater director Robert Wilson founded The Watermill Center's Laboratory for Performance, and each year, its summer program welcomes international students to Long Island to grow their multidisciplinary practice. This film follows one summer, and features Robert Wilson and invited artists Jim Jarmusch, Phil Klein, CocoRosie, Dimitris Papaioannou and Lucinda Childs.

AIRED: June 11, 2020 | 0:51:35


Wilson: It's okay to get lost.

If you read a good novel, you can get lost.

If you read "King Lear" one night, you can read it one way,

and the next night, you can read it another way.

It's full of meanings.

It's okay to get lost.



[ Trumpet playing ]

[ Engine rumbling ]




Man: I came to Watermill for the first time

in the summer of 2013,

and, for me, one of the biggest things

that I got out of being here was finally feeling like I was

part of a community of artists,

that, you know, growing up, I came from a small town,

and we didn't have access to a lot of arts.

And as I got a little bit older and I went to college,

I thought this would be this great opportunity to be working

with people of all different artistic backgrounds.

But the school system was so segregated.

The music students were in their own department,

dance students in another,

and visual-arts students in another department.

But here, you have people from all different backgrounds,

all different countries,

and they come together to produce work together

as a community and leave as a group of friends.

Kagame: If I had to give a color to what I mean,

I would say white because it's...

because of course, everything here,

it's, for me, so white, bright, and organized.

Yes, it's a piece of heaven, I think.

[ Birds chirping ]



To people who don't know, I often describe it as a bubble

because somehow, we're so disconnected

with what happens in the daily life while we're here,

and I think that forest surrounding the center

creates that environment, as well, physically.

It makes this space timeless.

[ Metal clanging ]




[ Radio clicks on ]

Wilson: And I said, "Chris, tonight, the Shabanu,

the queen, is coming to see us perform.

Maybe you want to do something special

for the end of the performance, for her.

And he said, "Oh, oh, oh, okay, okay, okay.

I'll do something special."

So he said, "How long should I do something

at the end of the performance?"

I said, "As long as you want."

So he said, "10 minutes."

So, Chris...

after we finished the performance,

he went to the center of the platform,

and he said the word "tape recorder" for 10 minutes.


[ Woodchipper rumbling ]


[ Branches cracking ]




Macián: What was it like when you first arrived to Watermill?

Rommen: Was very surprised.

It was this really rundown factory building or laboratory,

and then we started not with the workshop

and not with reading books

but with scraping paint off the ceiling,

trying to make a little space for ourselves to live in.


[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ Chainsaw engine starts ]

[ Chainsaw buzzing ]




[ Indistinct chatter ]



Gafny: I think of everything as material,

so just being able,

for a certain portion of time in my day, to touch material

makes my mind work in a way that helps in other stuff,

even if it's not particularly sculpture.

How is my hat? Gafny: Amazing.

It's very comfortable, eh?

Yes. [ Laughs ]

It looks very good on you.

[ Laughs ]

And, also, it's...

So, it's a kind of meditative state.

Man: This kind of manual work --

I would say it's meditation for me.




[ Water spraying ]



So, over the last four or five weeks,

we've worked on things outside of our artistic calling

or comfort zone.

We've worked in the garden.

We cleaned and cooked.

We've moved a house.

What exactly does this work,

for you, have to do with artistic creation?

I think it's all a part of one whole.


[ Crowd singing "Happy Birthday" ]



[ Waves crashing ]


[ Crickets chirping ]

[ Trumpet playing ]




[ Birds chirping ]


I think that everyone who comes here has to define the spirit,

the sense of the place, in their own way.

Each artist who comes is unique, from a different culture,

from a different background, with different skills

and different experiences.

One of the beautiful things that I notice is when a group

that is so diverse is able to come together and work together,

it's a wonderful thing to watch.

It's also wonderful to watch people

keep these connections as they leave Watermill.

So the spirit of community is something that I note a lot,

and it's quite important

because none of the work that we do here

can be done on one's own.

It's all shared.

Whether it's shared with the audience

or shared with each other, we're still working together.

Wilson: Good morning.


Wilson: When I look around at the place,

when I look at the lawns or the gravel,

the way everything is laid out,

even the way, maybe, chairs or tables are organized in a room,

I always feel a bit of pride because I know

that I was part of a group that helped make it like this.

This is one of the things I attempt to convey

to the new participants every year.

And ultimately, all of the things that we do this summer,

whether they remain in the ground,

remain on the wall, or not,

they are still part of this legacy.



[ Hammering ]





Watermill is a very special place, first of all,

because it's a place of the spirit.

And how few places are there in this world which have a soul

and are few places are in this world

which encourage young people to participate

in the arts and culture and discourse?

And how lucky to be in such a beautiful place,

beautifully designed,

generous in its spirit,

affirmative of art.

It's just a unique place in the world.

Woman: It's not enough to just appreciate the beauty of it

or something that breaks the rules,

but I've noticed that in the everyday,

there seems to be...


a crisis of language.

[ Hissing ]

To experience something is a way of thinking.

[ Windchimes tinkling ]


[ Indistinct whispering ]


[ Heartbeat ]





Papaioannou: I have no system.

I have no methodology.

And I don't really know to explain what I...

what exactly is the taste that I have developed,

but I am trying to discover a sense of simplicity

and non-performative attitude,

which I don't know if I will succeed to achieve,

but I am working towards that direction.

And being in this procedure of discovery,

I meet the people in Watermill here

and I share it with them.

The gentlest way possible, exhale energy.

[ Blows softly ]

And what's she trying to do, she's trying to accept that,

immediately translate it to her own movement,

but move only the exact direction.





[ Vocalizing ]


[ Thunder rumbles ]

Wilson: When I first came to New York, I lived --

after a few years, I acquired a loft at 147 Spring Street,

and I'd always lived in small spaces,

and suddenly I had a space

that was 100 feet long by 30 feet wide,

and it was totally empty, and it changed my life.

At that time, I was teaching in and around New York City.

I was working in Bedford-Stuyvesant

and depressed areas of Manhattan.

I've worked in Harlem with pre-school children.

I was working at Goldwater Memorial Hospital

with people who were in the iron lungs,

and I started having open houses

and bringing all these different people together.

I began to have workshops,

and I began to make my first works in the theater,

and that's how Watermill is done.

We do things collectively together.

Okay, take three minutes to walk one meter.

[ Slaps table ]

[ Slaps table ]

It's very curious to me,

in almost -- well, in all of our schools

in this country and in Europe,

No time is ever given to how you stand.


[ Chuckles ]

They don't think about it.

And it's especially curious with actors.

Smith: Sounds like Sia. That's why I say that.

Her voice.

[ Gravel crunching ]

[ Indistinct chatter ]

Smith: [ Vocalizes ]

Smith: There once was a little girl

who reached for a feather

and fell down.

But she caught the feather,

and that was all that mattered to her.

[ Horn honking in distance ]

That's actually a true story. [ Laughs ]

Do you want me to be honest with you?

Interviewer: Yes.

I'm here because I'm fascinated by the veneration of Bob Wilson.

I think that people idolize him,

but I want to kind of understand his world and his mind.

But now that I'm here, it's funny.

I don't know why, but I don't think he intimidates me,

and I think that's why I love being here,

because I see him as human just like you, just like me.

[ Humming breathily ]

Macián: You've had a very open-house policy here at Watermill,

inviting artists with completely different

artistic approaches than your own.

Why is it important to you to invite artists

with different aesthetics here

to work in a space that you've created?

Well, I think what was right for me and my life

and my work was...

something very personal.

It wouldn't necessarily be right for you or anyone else.


[ Tapping ]


[ Indistinct whispering ]





Papaioannou: I have learned a lot from Bob Wilson.

The first time I met him and I met his art,

his existence unlocked a universe of possibilities

for my future creations.





For me, working with Bob was the possibility

of being next to an artist

that explores all different disciplines at the same time.

It has no boundaries.

It has no prejudice against any art form.

Is always very open to work in every media.

Is always very open to take up challenges.

Hold it up, higher.

Di Mambro: Every day, he's curious to find something new.

Every day, he is stimulated by a new idea, new people,

and he never closes his mind.

You see it a lot, also, at Watermill.

For me, one of the most important things at Watermill

is that it is a space with no doors,

and that is not just an architectural feature.

Woman: Okay, so, she goes, takes up, goes down?


Walter turns around, so he is with the back to the audience.

Okay, let's try this because I don't like it.

Just take that.

[ Laughs ]

Facing the back, yeah. Yeah.

You know, I just -- like, because I want to make sure.

I cannot tell you when you're doing it.

I cannot make another suggestion

'cause then you're already performing.

So this is the purpose of this.

♪ Da, da, da, da, da ♪

You can move around a bit

'cause you're not, like, saying, "Hey, Dad, hey, Dad, hey, Dad.

Oh, I had such a wonderful day [Speaks indistinctly].

This girl has made me typewrite for three hours.

I thought it was fun, but, mm, I don't know."


Khoshbin: So, the summer program

is when Bob Wilson is the artist in residence.

The Watermill Center is a 12-month, year-round

residency program, primarily for the performing arts,

and Bob Wilson's time in residence

is in July and early August

and that normally coincides with the gala fundraiser.

Patel: The benefit is our main fundraising event

to allow us to grow throughout the year

and to support our artists for years to come

and for year-round residency program,

which is very important to the future of the foundation.

It's very remarkable how much it's grown

and how it has its own reputation

outside of the Watermill Center and what we do year-round,

and I think there's no other benefit like this.

And we beheld to be a city

with trees and birds and fruits,

as though it were a paradise

containing fruits of every kind.

[ Opera music plays on record player ]





I truly appreciate you writing me back

and opening yourself,

rather than just ignoring my miserable circumstances,

which I led myself into.

I'm usually very clever with love.



This is my body...

that gives itself to you.



[ Camera shutter clicks ]

[ Guitar feedback ]









[ Indistinct chatter, laughter ]




And we beheld it to be a city

with trees and birds and fruits.


At that moment, Bob was imagining this place.

[ Cheers and applause ]


Man: 27 nations!


Aha! We do have another bid of $50,000 now.


Fabulous lady down there at $50,000 against you, sir.

Anyone else, then $50,000,

now would be the moment to raise your hands.







[Woman exhales ]


[Woman exhales ]

Wilson: The spaces can be lived in,

you can have performance, you can have workshops,

you can have exhibitions.

You can move art objects in and out.

I don't have anything in glass boxes.

It's all open.

So you live with some awareness of the history of man

through these artifacts.


It's a living space.

[ Violin plays ]


Kuhn: When Bach was still quite young,

he composed six pieces for violin solo.

He might have composed these six pieces

to perform them himself.

So for me and, also, for Jennifer Coull,

who is supposed to perform these six solos,

it is ultimately a monologue of Bach

or a dialogue with God.


I can't remember how many years ago

when I first started to come out here.

I think it was in the 90s, in 1990,

and Isabelle Huppert was working on something

and the place was not finished,

and it was a wonderful community spirit,

and I think the idea to bring so many international students

and to consume themselves with what's going on in the art form,

not just here in the States but also internationally,

makes Watermill really, really special

and really unusual.



Woman: It's crazy.

When you come in here to the Watermill Center,

it's like another world.

Like, I wouldn't think that I was in New York still.

[Speaking in foreign language ]

Man: Music.

Clark: This place has so many images which flood your mind,

images that are thousands of years old,

images that are very contemporary

and combined with the sense of movement

which comes in with the acting,

with the dancers who are brought here,

with the visual artists.

So it's stimulating all the senses simultaneously,

and out of this kind of atmosphere

can come very great art.


Woman: We have a global collection

of about 8,000 objects

that are here, and we live amongst them.

In fact, we think of the Watermill Center presently

and in the future as living library.

Hearn: There's two different ways to approach world culture.

One is more systematic, and one is more free-form.

And I think in the world we live in,

we're accustomed now to living

with works of art from many cultures

and many time periods, so the spirit of Watermill,

I think, is very much a spirit of our times.

[ Alarm blaring ]

[ Indistinct whispering ]

Everything that Bob does,

he does like he does a theater production.

He starts with a form, and then he fills the form.

And to me, personally, I think

this is also what he has done with Watermill.

I sometimes hear people say, and I do think it's true,

that Watermill is one of his biggest productions,

biggest stage sets, whatever you want to call it.

To me, Watermill is a structure that he conceived

and that he designed and that he wants other people to fill.

[ Birds chirping ]

Mengin: I feel like Watermill Center is like...

a piece of art.

I don't know the word in English, but it's

something like that for me, and we are all participants

and we'll be part of this piece of art.

[ Laughs ]


I went out of the school,

a theater school in Lyon,

one year ago,

and I was like, "Okay, this is very hard work."

But continue to trust in people.

Continue to trust in art.

Continue to trust on your patience.

And it's like...

just to meet Bob is like...

is like...

I don't know.

I don't know how to explain it.



Petek: [ Speaking Slovene ]




Bob looks at me -- "Dorian, can you read

the text you have of the --"

"Wait, wait, wait, wait. Which one?"

"Yeah, the interview."

And I start explaining that it's in Slovene.

And he said, "Okay, then read it in Slovene."

And I was like, "Alright,

I know you guys don't understand anything,

so how is this any way helping you?"

And then it clicked to me -- "Oh, right. That's right.

They don't understand it

That's why it might be interesting,

because it fits into this general abstract theater

that is quite expressed with Wilson's work."

Jarmusch: Big-money guys or things to do --

you know, these famous guys -- Edison, Westinghouse, Morgan.

Not combine them, but have a sequence of them

in this period.

And we had one idea of, like, throughout each encounter

with each of them,

it's just raining, slowly, money,

more and more money, money.

'cause these are all about money.

He cheats him out of money.

He gives him money but then takes all his patents

for himself, basically.

He gives them a lot of money and then pulls the plug on them.

So they're all -- there's something about money that

Tesla was very upset by.

[ Clicks tongue ]

[ Man singing opera ] Stop, stop.

Do not move in front of me.

Sit down.


Rommen: When I met Bob, I was totally fascinated

that he could do so many things at the same time,

so manydifferent things at the same time

and still be completely concentrated on

the one thing that he sits with.

Actually, I think the set-up here

is really here to follow his mind

because his mind is built like --

he loves to work from this workshop

to this workshop to this and to this,

and he can switch and then when he's there,

sitting there, watching a rehearsal

or creating a pot of traviata,

he does that and only that.

And in his back, some other things happen,

and he can just switch and walk.

It's like walking through his own brain.

I have sometimes had the feeling this whole set-up is almost

[Laughs] like a large version of his brain,

you know, so you can walk through all of it.


Wilson: Do you understand what I'm saying?

Do you understand?

Do you understand what I'm saying?

Do you understand what I'm saying?

Levitin: When you're listening to a patient

and they seem to be saying

the same thing over and over again,

you can imagine, as a therapist, finding that troubling.

It's because you haven't understood it yet.

And once you've truly understood it

and conveyed to them that you've understood it,

then they change and say something different.

[ Applause ]

But it can be as much as 50 or 60 milliseconds

after the visual event.

Well, the obvious evolutionary explanation

is that in the world in which we all evolved,

light travels faster than sound by a considerable amount.

So the asymmetry is interesting,

and then the window itself is interesting.

It's about 20 to 40 milliseconds across the senses,

any possible pairing of the senses.

Wilson: I was in Europe, and she called me,

and she said, "Hi, Bob, this is Gaga."

And I said, "Hi, Gaga."

And she said, "Can you tell me something about theater?"

And she's 27 years old. [ Laughs ]

So I said, "Sure. What do you want to know?"

"Oh," she said, "Tell me anything.

I want to know something about theater."

So I said, "Well, you know, Gaga,

the most important second in theater is the last second.

The next most important is the first.

And sometimes, if you get the last second right,

they'll forgive you

for everything else you've done before."


[ Singing in foreign language ]

One of the things that we laugh about

the most often is...

the way that Bob suddenly commands the music to play.

And we had to kind of figure out

quite quickly what that means

because there isn't necessarily anything prepared,

or maybe there's no musicians, and sometimes it's just --

we just have ourselves or our voices.

So it's one of our favorite things about Bob,

is the way that he spontaneously demands

that the music just emerges out of nothing.

[ Static crackling ]


[ Vocalizing ]

You hold one note.

♪ La, da, la, la, la, la, la ♪

The second line, you change.

[ Vocalizing ]



[ Vocalizing ]


[ Vocalizing ]


Macián: Watermill has been very helpful in starting the careers

and supporting the work of many young artists.

People have come here and worked together and met new people.

They've met your way of working.

And what has Watermill done for you to change the way you work?

Wilson: First of all, it gives me a chance

to work in the United States.

All of my work is created out of the United States.

I've almost nothing that is produced here.

We import my works, but it's way of being at home,

and it's a way of opening up my home to people that I've met

or giving a chance for the younger generation

to express themselves.

So I think that's what's most important.

It's a kind of home for me.

I've been, for 47 years, on the road, you know,

living in hotels and apartments

that are rented for a month or six weeks or whatever.

This is something different.

It's home.


The open, open, open house.

The open, open, open house.

The open, open, open house.




Houses are for fun.

Houses are for fun.

Houses are for fun.

Fun is for houses.

♪ Though I've been gone ♪

♪ I've not been far away ♪

♪ I haven't ever really left ♪

♪ Your side ♪


♪ Coming home ♪

♪ Coming home ♪

♪ Nevermore ♪

♪ To roam ♪

♪ Open wide ♪

♪ My arms of love ♪

♪ Now I'm coming ♪

♪ Home ♪

♪ Coming home ♪


♪ Coming home ♪

♪ Coming home ♪

♪ Coming home ♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

What did I learn from Bob?

Well, I learned how to be still.

For you, what is the future of Watermill?

It should be a place where we're doing what no one else is doing.








I'm not that funny in front of the camera.

I'm funnier behind the camera.

So maybe I can stand behind the camera and be really funny.







[ Indistinct chatter ]

What should I say?

♪ Do, do, do, do, do, do ♪

♪ Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do ♪

I hear Watermill in every song.









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