A conversation with theatermaker Agnes Borinsky.

Agnes Borinsky, The Trees, 2023. Performance at Playwrights Horizons, New York City. Photo by Chelcie Parry.

032 — Optimal times to get lost. The performance of spiritual ethics. A season for lawsuits.

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In their first ARTIST, LEARNER column with DISPASSION, contributor Ajani Brannum invites writer and theatermaker Agnes Borinsky to discuss performative practice, disorientation, and the false promises of homeland.

After meeting in 2018 through Riting, an online platform for experimental performance criticism in Los Angeles where Borinsky remains an editor, the two artists had several conversations about their experiences being raised in religious contexts — Judaism for Borinsky and Christianity for Brannum — while queer and how it affected their work.  

“In our respective practices, we each seek to critique, redeem, and reimagine the spiritual legacies we’ve inherited,” Brannum says. “Having experienced the effects of Zionist indoctrination firsthand and studied its various and conflicting manifestations in scripture, theology, and statecraft, we hope to embody anti-genocidal forms of living and cultural production that go beyond anti-imperialist rhetoric.”

This conversation took place on May 31, 2024 and was conducted over Zoom where Borinsky tuned in from Upstate New York.

This transcript has been shortened and edited for clarity.



One of the things I wanted to talk about was your walks project. In the email invitation you sent, you note that the walks are long — between ten and twenty miles — and that they’re “inspired by religious pilgrimage, protest walks, and Jewish mystical practice.” Could you explain what the walks are, and then talk a little bit about where you got the idea from?


One of the first pilgrimages I got excited about was created by Phil Volker, a carpenter in Washington State. Volker wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but was diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t make the trip. Instead, he built a track in the forest behind his house that he could walk. He figured that if he circled his track a certain number of times, he’d have walked the length of the Camino. Eventually, other people started coming to walk his Camino, too. It became this beautiful imaginative superimposition of one place onto another.

That said, I’m mostly taking up pilgrimage through the lens of Judaism. 

Judaism was historically a temple-based religion, and before 70 CE there were multiple annual pilgrimages to temples in Jerusalem. Eventually prayer replaced sacrifice, and the whole post-temple rabbinic project is about centering worship in community and study, rather than in a particular physical place. But in the mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, there’s a unique distortion of the pilgrimage as the rabbis in the Zohar tend to wander aimlessly without a destination.

While many pilgrimages in the Abrahamic religions have turned toward liberatory purposes, many have had a nationalistic or a conservative bent. During a period when Judaism is being conflated with Zionism and that conflation is being used to justify an ongoing genocide, the walking project essentially asks what it might mean to use the practice of pilgrimage for spiritual orientation while separating that goal from the literal political state of Israel, and to say that that walk can happen in Los Angeles, Baltimore, or wherever else.


You’ve mentioned that these walks are setting the stage for a long-term performance idea you’d like to explore. What aspects of the walking experience excite you most? What do you want to keep investigating?


The walking project has me thinking about the vulnerability of what artists do and how certain framings of performance can invite vulnerability among audiences, too. Especially because in some performance contexts people just show up with parts of themselves closed off.

With these walks, I’m interested in how their duration enables us to let our guards down. By the end, after we’ve been walking four or five hours, we’re all kind of loopy and talking to each other in a different way. 

Disorienting as that state can be, I think these committed walks allow us to dwell inside a question that we might not otherwise have the language to describe. 


I spend so much time orienting and reorienting within my own practice. And not just within physical space. I’m always thinking about all the different contexts my work is situated in. I think we've discussed this before, but when I think about genre, and the fact that one of its meanings in French is “gender,” I think about all of these mediating obstacles that have clouded and kept me attached to certain understandings of artistic practice. 

It’s kind of laughable. People in concert dance realize there’s not much money to be made in the field, yet cling to these expectations about applying for grants, securing studio space, assembling certain kinds of collaborators, making evening-length pieces. Even the routine of entering a studio, warming up, finding the steps, then learning the steps. The work ends up fitting into a box. Like you said, people will come and sit with their hearts guarded. And over the years I’ve had so many questions about all these aspects of practice, which I imagine like nodes in a web of activity. Why are we doing these steps? Why do I have to go to this studio? Why do I have to apply for this grant? Why do I have to show this work in this space to these people?

I really appreciate how your walks point toward similar issues. More and more, I recognize the social, economic, and cultural imperatives of these questions. A lot of people and institutions have mastered the language, the symbolism of justice. But when it comes to the somatic aspects, how people embody justice and equity, I sense a disconnect. My work teaches me that, without the capacity to act intentionally, economic situations won’t change, social situations won’t change, cultural situations won’t change. I think we’re in a moment where people are really doubling down on their commitments in various ways.


I love this idea. There’s a possibility of change, of orienting toward change, on a more fundamental, somatic level.


I wouldn’t say it’s a fundamental change. Treating the body as fundamental is a trap. 

I think of it as a cyclical movement. We learn what our bodies are by learning how they’re represented, and we look to those representations to understand what’s possible for us to embody. When it comes to working in certain artistic spaces or cultural spaces generally, I feel the symbols get a lot of attention. What words are being used. Who’s being represented. But the more bodily part of the cycle often gets left out, or there’s not as much awareness of it, or there aren’t as many tools to work it.



Yes, yes, yes. Since you mentioned economic imperatives, I’m so aware of this increasing pressure artists face to professionalize themselves. We have to perform the fact that we take our work seriously. 

It’s easy to romanticize moments in history when it was cheaper to live in cities, when you could work relatively few hours and still pay your rent and survive. But in line with the question of genre, artists these days often work in ecosystems where the nature of what we do is shaped by the institutions that might potentially support us. In turn, those institutions, encourage us to see ourselves as part of a professional “field” or “sector” whose viability we endlessly fret over. As if the viability of our art is separable from the viability of our living or the viability of our societies as a whole.

I know not all artists live and work in cities. I also know that some institutions are huge and have nearly unmatched access to resources. But many of the smaller institutions are just trying to make things happen. The pressure to provide better pay actually limits their ability to program and forces them into positions of further dependence on the wealthy. 

This is where I come back to what you were saying about the symbolic realm, the realm of language and representation. Beyond what institutions are doing rhetorically or metaphorically, what is their relationship to the material realities of who is able to live in this world we claim to imagine, and how?


I want to know how you’ve sustained a career as a writer, in light of these circumstances. You’ve written and done so many different kinds of work. But I’m thinking specifically about your play The Trees, which you presented at Playwrights Horizons last year. I know there’s often a feeling that if you get work picked up by a certain venue in a certain way at a certain time, it may feel like you’ve made it. But we know it doesn’t actually work that way.

Do you feel your practice shifting in relation to these kinds of opportunities? I ask because so much of your work has been shown in impromptu spaces, so showing it at a conventional theater with a storied history and a reputation for supporting strong work must be a change. 


Thinking about The Trees reminds me of what you were saying about the information for David Hammons. I treated the particular context of the institution as a parameter for thinking about what kind of story I wanted to tell and, because I actually wanted to tell a story in that context, how I might approach shaping it. Ultimately, that project brought together an amazingly beautiful group of humans. It was one of the most joyful processes I’ve been a part of. I loved working on it. I’m also so glad to not be working in that kind of larger institutional context all the time. 


How did you end up working with Playwrights Horizons?


The theater workshopped an earlier play of mine in 2015. I got to know Adam Greenfield, the theater’s current artistic director, in the years that followed. He commissioned me to write something new around then, too, I think, and The Trees came out of that.

At this point, that theater feels like an artistic home. I know that place well, and now I have another commission from them, which I’m really grateful for. But who knows? You never really know if the work is going to be produced. Also, Playwrights Horizons is a big nonprofit theater with a building on 42nd Street and season subscriptions. Toward the end of a show’s run, tickets can cost around $80. It’s expensive to make plays, so I understand why a theater of that scale needs to charge a high ticket fee, but who are the audiences who are able afford to come as a result?

Agnes Borinsky, The Trees, 2023. Performance at Playwrights Horizons, New York City. Photo by Chelcie Parry.

Some of my thoughts about audience vulnerability stem from my experience learning what it’s like to make work in a room where people are coming in with an “impress-me” energy — partly because they’re paying eighty bucks a ticket. They want to sit back in their seats with their heart chakras armored and evaluate the work as a cultural artifact. I’m used to making in venues where you end up arriving with different expectations because of the feeling of the room. Or, the economic circumstances that make it possible for you to be there. You’re not there to scrutinize a cultural artifact. You’re there to encounter something, to participate in an experience. You’re showing up with different parts of yourself. I believe in rigor, of course, I get obsessive about every detail of the work itself, I want it to sing. But I also think I’m used to meeting audiences in a certain way.

So, yes, what a privilege to have the resources to make work at a larger scale, the way we did at Playwrights. I feel very lucky to have made a play there. I hope I get to do that again. There are a lot of things I learned this first time that I want to try and do better next time. Specifically, when it comes to inviting people into the work. Toward the end of my run, there were tickets that weren’t selling for each show, and I was like, “Can we please just make these tickets $25? Free?” I felt pushy asking for that, but to a large extent, they were open to it.

I’m also deeply attuned to the feeling of walking into that building, that setting. More and more, I feel like context is one of the most central parts of my thinking about playwriting. When you’re thinking about what a play is, there’s the literal or fictional setting. But there’s also the institutional setting, and the city the institution is in. You are always working within a field of possibility that binds the fictional and the real. When it’s being shown, a play acquires and is situated within a particular relationship to power.

I really want to think differently about setting. I say that for the next time I work with an institutional theater. But that question of what exactly the place, the setting where the work unfolds, is. That’s also got me working on prose, writing poems, and doing these walks.

The question you brought up earlier has also been on my mind. Truly, what do I do if I don’t have the money to adequately pay people? As an individual artist, I’m making work on a shoestring budget. And that restlessness, which I sense in the way you talk about your practice, can feel like a liability sometimes. I imagine it would be a relief to have a more streamlined capital-C career. I end up being very slow, kind of sliding from one way of trying things to another. But I wouldn’t trade the way I do things for the world. I get to follow my impulses, and figure out how to make it work.

Along these lines, I want to talk to you about legibility. I do think there’s something about the performances you’ve been doing where you openly talk about your practice that is pushing at the edge of what is legible or illegible, and to whom.


I think that practice began to cohere after a performance I did last year, They’re Not Corrections, They’re Changes, which was presented as part of an exhibition at REDCAT called Pulse Meridian Foliation.


I was there! I loved that piece.


I have a public and a private stance on how it went. I think that publicly, it was a failure, but privately it was a success. It felt so unorganized. I didn’t really know what the performance was, so it ended up being a huge struggle for mentally and emotionally because I felt like an imposter. 

But by the time I entered the space to perform, I’d accepted that I could be okay with whatever happened. I decided even if the performance was a flop, I would show up in whatever way I can, and I will somehow learn how to be okay with that.

But as a performer, I’ve seen so many people burn out. There are so many expectations in place. I’m 33, and at my age it’s expected that I should be consistently showing work in venues like REDCAT. 

For me, it’s becoming clear that I just am where I am. So rather than being strung along by this phantom practice that ought to be, I just want to do what I know I have the capacity to do. That feels like a piece of the legibility bit. People may not ever know any of that about my work by simply seeing it, so that’s why I think it’s important to talk about and write about it in the work. I do know that what the audience witnesses will be grounded in my reality and my everyday experience.


I love that. It feels like a different relationship to time, because it’s not about making the work apparent in a specific moment and scrambling manically to prepare a performance. There’s a durational aspect of making work that becomes clearer over the course of your life. Incorporating that encounter with yourself into the performance feels like getting on and off the bus with all your bags, in a way that doesn’t make you twist your ankle and fall. There’s a grace to it.


In some of my performance circles, people will make things with the sense that, even if people are there to watch, the work first and foremost exists in its own right. I get that, but most work I’ve shown has been by invitation. And when I get an invite, I always ask myself, Oh my gosh, can I even do this? 


With artistic practice, legibility often comes up when we talk about mediating or negotiating relationships with institutions. Same with imposter syndrome.


That feeling came up when I was working on my contribution to David Hammons, the outdoor exhibition organized by Suzy Halajian and David Horvitz and hosted in David’s garden in Arlington Heights. I knew I didn’t want to perform. Suzy and David kept saying over email, “You have to make something that’s waterproof because there’s a chance it will rain during the exhibition.” I ended up creating and exhibiting an aluminum sign that played with that phrase, which became a centerpiece for the show and is still in the garden. 

What I learned from that experience is that I have to proceed on my own terms, which usually means treating information about the show or opportunity as parameters for the project.

Ajani Brannum, I HEARD IT MIGHT RAIN TODAY, 2024. Installation view of David Hammons at the garden of David Horvitz. Photo by Matt Savitsky



Moments like this remind me that, more than insisting on a certain way of doing things, practice is often about following an impulse. 

There’s this exercise that I did once in a workshop with choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones. You pair up with someone, and one person holds the shoulders of another person. The person who’s being held closes their eyes and starts describing a room, and the other person is guiding them as they walk backwards, protecting their partner as they move without being able to see. After a certain period of time, you switch. Afterwards, the leader recounts what they heard back to the follower, and they do some writing about what they said and heard. The leader’s task is to keep the talker safe, and to listen to what their partner is saying. That exercise taught me that listening is, essentially, a clearing of space for something to emerge.

Some artists have practices where they go into their little room, come up with an idea, then move heaven and earth to make it happen in the way that they imagined it. Bless the people who work that way. But I want to understand practice as walking backwards, and being held, or holding someone whose eyes are closed, and clearing space. I want to deepen my ability to respond and listen. To take in more of what’s happening in the moment and respond accordingly.


Absolutely. Even though a lot of my history is in dance, my practice has branched in many directions for the very reasons you mention. I keep asking myself, if I don’t have things like studio space and money to pay people to be in this work, what do I have? And that internal dialogue has led me to making objects and writing this newsletter and doing divinations with people. Walking backwards through space, as it were.

Since I left the academy, I have been asking myself why I think spirituality and religion are useful sites for thinking about the same questions. Given what’s happening in Gaza right now, I have thought a lot about my upbringing in Evangelical Christian settings, where nearly everyone is Zionist by default. I do find myself going back to the Old Testament a lot, and considering its notions of place. As I see it, ancient Judaism is a nature religion being practiced by people in a desert. What the hell is that? That example helps me think through what place is, how we learn what place is, how we learn to practice and embody the places we identify with.


This year, my friend Ezra Furman and I decided to write about the weekly designated Torah reading for a year. This year’s cycle started, I think, in the second week of October, so it’s just been a Torah of Gaza. There’s been no way to read the Old Testament otherwise. At this point, we’re approaching the end of Leviticus, which is itself a doozy of a book. This week’s passage is the one where God says, “If you follow all my laws, the land will yield a plentiful harvest, and if you don’t there will be a long series of curses.” 

Some of the writing in that section is strange and beautiful. But I’ve been struggling with the idea of land this whole cycle through, partly because of Zionism and the nightmare in Gaza, but partly because, in this tradition, the relationship to land is not rooted in origin or indigeneity. It’s a future promise from the divine, and it is constantly framed as a future. Lots of “when you get into the land . . .” and “if you do this . . .” The promised land is a horizon. There’s something important about the distance from the imagined Zion. I think framing these texts as our past actually misses the point.

I want to hear how you tussle with the Old Testament. I want to be able to take this text seriously, accept that it is my text, and reckon with it. But within that challenge, is there room to just reject certain portions of the text? When to rehabilitate a text by reading against the grain, and when to say, sorry, that’s a no for me?


So many layers mediate my relationship to the Old Testament. First of all, there’s being raised in an Evangelical tradition. But there’s also this longer Black American Christian tradition, which itself is part of a larger Afro-diasporic spirituality complex where even Christianity isn’t always actually Christianity. Some of these religions and spiritual practices just use Christianity as a means to other ends.

I often think about the cultural relationship between Black and Jewish folks in the United States. One manifestation of that relationship is how seriously Black Christians have taken the idea of the promised land as a form of spiritual sustenance. What that has meant practically though is that there is no actual homeland for Black people. So, what good is the concept of a homeland when it can’t manifest physically? That question motivated projects that many people would say are impossible. There's this book called Silencing the Past by Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot . . .


I read that book this year, it’s amazing.


Trouillot notes that when Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, many people in the West believed it was literally impossible for enslaved people to govern themselves. But this continues to be the way many Black people survive in this world. There’s always a reckoning with what’s not possible. At least in terms of the language and ideas people use to describe and understand the world.

On some level, I don’t know what it’s like to feel entitled to a homeland. In the same way, I’m unlearning my entitlement to a capital-C career. I’m losing touch with those reference points. So I’ve been asking myself, is home somewhere else? In the New Testament, Jesus often addresses people who have no homes, who are disenfranchised in every way, and says to them, “You’ve found your kingdom already.” And also, Christianity has fueled colonization efforts all around the world. It’s a vexed tradition.


Entitlement is the right word. I think that’s the heart of Zionism. It just feels like bad, overly literal theology to me. What’s funny is that these traditions also ask us to tap into the brokenheartedness of not having a home. Like when scripture says, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” What does it mean to think about that remembering as oriented towards a future that exists just beyond the realm of the imaginable? As artists but also as spirit-workers from linked traditions, what does it mean to call up that level of vision, that level of possibility? The way Trouillot describes how unimaginable the Haitian Revolution was is helpful to name. I want to know how to create an intentional relationship with that sense of impossibility, to spend my life trying to imagine into it. Maybe I was born in X place, maybe my mother is in Y place, but I’m going to mourn the loss of that metaphysical Zion, even as its futurity is so distant that it feels cloudy.


We’re seeing now how much violence it takes to deny what you’re describing. Actually, we’ve been seeing it for decades. That denial isn’t just happening “elsewhere,” in Gaza for example. It feels like the glue that holds together capitalism, imperialism, and oppression more generally.

Livingness is something I talk about often. If you’re not alive, you can’t do much else! If you are consumed not just with work, but also with coming home, taking care of yourself, your home, and your family, finding the resources to wake up again and go back to the job, along with everything else we have to manage. If all of your energy goes in that direction, there probably won’t be anything left over for a creative practice. This is really where the rubber meets the road for me. The concept of livingness can get so abstract, but in many ways I think it's actually really practical.


Right. Having a practice, in the deep sense that you have so beautifully expressed, is not some rarefied thing. It’s the substance of being alive.


It’s like cooking, it’s like cleaning. It’s like washing a child. It’s like walking!

And that’s what I love about the walks. Earlier you asked how I’m thinking about homeland, religion, and spirituality. The walks are a great way to think about all of these things. They’re simple, so they can bear many different symbolic meanings. They can also bring up so much somatically. I think that’s what makes them so rich. The act of walking is so connected to the ground. It’s very practical, and because of that, it can yield so much.


Well, let’s take a walk next time we’re in the same place. Whether it’s up the block or twenty miles.


I would love to. You know, I used to be a walking fiend in LA. I haven’t done it as much recently because my knees are not on board like they used to be, but I still love walking in the city. So yes, I would love to walk with you sometime soon.



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— FIN —

AGNES BORISNKY is a writer, performer, and theater-maker based in Los Angeles. She is interested in the unintended transformations that become possible when the things we’ve planned fail. Her projects include many plays (The Trees, A Song of Songs, Of Government, Ding Dong It’s the Ocean), experiments in participation (Working Group for a New Spirit, Weird Classrooms), and fiction (Sasha Masha). She has made work in collaboration with theater institutions — Playwrights Horizons, The Bushwick Starr, Clubbed Thumb – and outside of them, in basements, backyards, circus tents, community centers, and online.


AJANI BRANNUM is an artist and culture worker living in Los Angeles. Drawing heavily on the knowledges they inherit as a Black queer maker with Southern roots, their work investigates the choreographies of life in the shadow of empire, honoring and extending the ancestral wisdoms that animate their craft.

Brannum has shown work and performed at venues including REDCAT, ODC, Human Resources Los Angeles, Materials & Applications, Highways Performance Space, and Los Angeles Performance Practice. Born in Anchorage, Alaska, they hold an AB in English and a Certificate in Dance from Princeton University, and a PhD in Culture and Performance from UCLA. They are also an alum of the Cecilia Weston Spiritual Academy, helmed by Jade T. Perry.

ARTIST, LEARNER is a column about the imperatives and mythologies of cultural written by Ajani Brannum. You can find their newsletter of the same name here.


NOR RESEARCH STUDIO is a design research studio that develops didactic media, exhibitions, publications, and other forms of intellectual property for artists, nonprofits, and creative businesses.