An Interview with CounterPULSE’s Julie Phelps

CounterPULSE’s “May Day” is coming up May 3-5, celebrating CounterPULSE’s seven years of supporting experimental artists. The bill features a variety of local performers, ranging from Sara Shelton Mann to Marga Gomez. In order to learn more about CounterPULSE, I interviewed Program Director Julie Phelps.

Emmaly Wiederholt: How did you find yourself in the role of presenter? How does one follow that path?

Julie Phelps: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a path. I came to working in the arts through being an artist, which I think is a pretty usual story. I first started working as an administrator (I was the company manager for Jess Curtis/Gravity and assistant to the director with Keith Hennessy) and I came to CounterPULSE in a low-tier position involved with volunteer recruitment. Slowly I started being more interested in creating contexts for artists to have meaningful dialogue and to challenge each other’s ideas and practices, so I collaborated with Keith Hennessy to curate and produce an annual festival of queer performance. I don’t know if it’s standard but coming into curation through producing your own event is definitely the easiest way because no one can tell you what to do or how to do it. Through that festival I really started seeing part of my artistic practice as creating events. All of us operating in our own little individual pockets and doing our own individual thing is not nearly as interesting to me as finding big ways to come together. This really became core to how I envisioned my artistic mission in the world.

CounterPULSE is a hybrid. It really just started as a venue with four walls and a floor. You could rent it and do whatever you wanted. Over the last year and a half as I’ve moved into my role as program director I’ve been working with Jessica  [Jessica Robinson Love is the artistic director of CounterPULSE] to exercise more curatorial vision and priority on what we do. There was a worry that we were moving away from serving the artists on a democratic level and moving more into hierarchical prioritization, but I think what we’ve found is that by exercising some priority in curatorial vision we’ve actually been able to serve the artists that work with us better because we are more behind their projects and we understand more what their projects are about. We can actually hone our services and outreach to be more appropriate instead of assuming there’s a one size fits all that works.

CounterPULSE is technically only just getting into presenting; mostly what we’ve been is a rental house. We really only present our artists-in-residence, which is two shows a year. We provide developmental space, the entire marketing and production package, as well as the admin overhead. Really everything else that happens at CounterPULSE is some version of a co-production where CounterPULSE provides the facilities and outreach services while the artists produce their own work, garner their own audience and keep their ticket sales.

Now we’re beginning to expand into presenting beyond our artists-in-residence. We’re working with Faye Driscoll from New York to present in March of 2013 as well as Body Cartography Project from Minneapolis to present in February of 2013. These are presentation models where we pay the artists a fee, we keep the box office and do everything for them and they just come and present their work. We’re working on trying to fund a season and really move away from charging the artists to be at CounterPULSE, which is how our financial model has worked thus far.

EW: Who are you as an artist? How do you fulfill your own artistic needs versus the demands of being a curator? Do you feel a tug between the two?

JP: I’m a dancer and performing artist. I’ve danced with Jesse Hewit’s Strong Behavior. I’m also touring a piece with Keith Hennessy, “Turbulence”, set to premier in 2013 at Yerba Buena.

I’ve actually remarked that it’s easier to be a barista and a dancer than it is to be an arts manager and a dancer. There’s something about the proximity of the work that allows for a lot of overlap that can build connections but can also become mutually exclusive. If I’m talking to somebody about my art practices and I mention I’m a curator then suddenly that’s the only thing they’re interested in hearing about.

There’s also a saturation issue. Because this is my work and my life it starts to make the passion for seeing work have a hole in it. But more than anything I think it’s served me. We all have to do something for money and normally being a dancer is not it.

EW: I heard Rob Bailis [former theater director of ODC] once express that artists often approach him as though he has the keys to dance resources. Do you feel similarly? Given the large number of applicants to CounterPULSE’s residency program, how do you reconcile yourself as one who doles out resources?

JP: Most technically I guess I do hold the keys to resources. Hundreds of artists apply to our program and it’s based upon the discretionary discussions between Jessica and I which two artists receive residencies. It’s really nuanced and quite confusing. We develop what our curatorial priorities are, i.e. we want to support artists who are taking risks and pushing the boundaries of normal conventions. You can judge anybody’s work against those criteria. But then there’s also a more magical element of finding what artist is ready to be catapulted. I see CounterPULSE as taking artists who are ready to be launched into a new level of being taken seriously. Artists will go straight from our residency program to being produced by Yerba Buena. But it’s akin to trying to predict the weather. It’s very risky and oftentimes fails. Just as with any artistic practice, in curation you have to allow for failure. Sometimes failure is actually really interesting and valuable. You can learn more, if not as much, from failure as from success. For example, we might think two artists’ audiences can really cross pollinate and have an interesting conversation, but in the end sometimes they just don’t exchange ideas and the audiences don’t cross pollinate and it’s just a big flop. So you have to assess what happened and go from there.

A lot of it is intuitive and allowing myself to be open to work instead of critical of it. I think it’s a lot easier to understand what the value of art is from feeling it than trying to stand outside of it, look at it, judge it, and decide if it’s worth something or not. The only way to actually experience art is emotionally letting it have power over you.

EW: Looking back over your experience curating, can you pinpoint things you’ve learned?

I think I originally had a much more democratic, grass-roots, community-building stance on equal access. I have let myself shift into a more selective space that is not about everyone being able to have access. It’s sometimes just as valuable for an artist to be turned down as it is to be accepted. The first time I curated a festival I worked my ass off to find a way for everyone who submitted a proposal to be able to do something and then the next year when I turned down at least twenty people I discovered the value of not every shoe fitting every foot. Some artists are CounterPULSE artists and others aren’t and it isn’t an insult to them. It’s kind of like dating: just because I don’t love someone doesn’t mean they’re not lovable. There’s a definition of edges that can come from really knowing what you are and what you’re not. By knowing which artists aren’t CounterPULSE artists is actually more of a service to them instead of them not really fitting and not being completely on board with what CounterPULSE promotes. So I guess the biggest shift I’ve experienced lies in the beauty of “no”. I would hope artists do the same thing. They look at our website and our residency guidelines and they say to themselves, “No, actually, this residency isn’t my residency.” And I know that resources create a different power dynamic but I want to know that the artists applying to our programs aren’t just doing it out of scarcity, or shape-shifting to make themselves CounterPULSE artists. I want artists to look at us and say, “This is the place for me”, so that we can turn around and say, “You are the artist for us.”

EW: What exactly is May Day? Is it a fundraiser or an awareness campaign?

JP: It’s a little of both. May Day is another place where I cut my teeth curating, asking what functions it should serve our community and CounterPULSE. Because so much of what we do is artist centered – even our residency shows are branded on the artists- May Day is the one time when CounterPULSE is really what’s being celebrated. Artists donate their time to put CounterPULSE at the center of the conversation. Who supports us? Who is our family? What are we doing? It’s a way for CounterPULSE to build a reputation with artists we can’t support otherwise. We have a different caliber of artist in May Day than we do for our residency program. For example, Joe Goode is not going to be an artist-in-residence at CounterPULSE, but he will come and perform in May Day. It’s a way of being endorsed and broadening our audience base beyond our usual reach, a way for audiences to experience the large variety of artists that CounterPULSE supports.

“May Day” design courtesy of, Photo courtesy of Julie Phelps

For more information on “May Day” visit