Gelatin at the Shore of Lake Pipi Kacka, Frieze Art Fair, London, UK, 2003
OPENING OF THE KATALYST FESTIVAL, NIGHTREVIEW
NO PICNIC by GERTJAN FRANCISCUS
by Nicole Strecker
The late 60s had the Theater artist to be ready at all times to: Feels the audience provoked, he might storm the stage. Claus Peymann had gladly served this together with Peter Handke and still pushed by hand at the legendary “Offending the Audience” the audience of his stage. In a subsequent “staging” of a piece entitled “The There’s only one”, he denied equal all the drama, leaving viewers simply a stage full of requisits- and they, betrayed in viewing a real performance, entered the stage and destroyed all props around. Also Marina Abramović documented once the violence of the audience and the vulnerability of the performer, as in 1974 with “Rhythm 0″ their viewers weapons ranges and delivers the flickering aggression. At the end she was half-naked, bloodied wounded, threatened with a gun.
On stage: A white sofa in the “crack” (and the word we may in this context quiet ambiguous understand) buckets of honey, or hopefully artificial honey, is tilted. Then wallow two naked Graces, one blond, the other brunette. Their skin drips already from the sweet mass, when a naked, thin man joined with a golden crown on his head to them. Gertjan Franciscus, choreographer with a penchant for prophetic figures and this evening: “The Honey Queen” – which obviously is but a Honey-King, however, the court can be unabashedly of his two “Honey Bees” in gold bath. The three of them slipping on the cramped space of the sofa for a while in the goo around, devouring the limbs.
But sensuality is turning into senslessness at the latest when the unboxed Honey King raises to speak. A thin voice of Franciscus whispers in English a nonsense series of words: “Hello, Guckguck, epileptic attack, Click Clock, Electric Shock” he says, and that’s almost been a highlight in the People’s speech, because here the king gets a little jitter accumulation. So Franciscus makes a bit the “Klaus Kinski” in a vulgar erotic setting that could have come from the Belgian state Mash expert Jan Fabre. He plays a megalomaniac-hazardous regent, the one divine epiphany believes close. This is moderately funny satire, on the institution ‘theater’ itself, which sees itself as a place for like revelations.
But then: appearance of colleague and improvisation teacher Katie Duck. She had earlier in the evening, together with eleven performers presented the naturally-baked result of their improvisation workshops “Dance and Music”: While the dancer’s body tumble and Krauch, also the instruments are maltreated and processed electric guitar as the instrument of handyman – from spatula until the monster screw everything scratches as a tool over the strings. Normal stage madness.
Whereas for her colleagues, Katie Duck wanted not to recognize the irony of the product but suspected the chauvinism of their production, thus: ‘male choreographer committed two nude model and staged himself as king.’ After verbal disturbances Katie Duck enters the stage and challenged Franciscus to fight for his crown. Not just playful, but aggressive and physically encroaching, so that the little power struggle, unfortunately, ends in the embarrassing debacle for both. The artist-life – no picnic.
And the work of art itself? The effect, to coat the body with honey and leave them as looking like Amber sculptures, may be great – beyond this Gertjan Franciscus offers only tough banality. The long-drawn-Flushed act on the couch followed by a much longer drawn techno dance scene, which reveals in particular that the performers are more danceprofessionals than nude models. Finally, the King shall, in the red-faced contractions, lay a golden egg. From Bee to ‘Chicken? ‘Gaga, gagack’ – one might account for itself in the language of the royal lyric effusions.
Body Parts , Claudia La Rocco
THE SUNLIGHT from the circular window high in the wall marks time in a shifting stretching oval on the floor. I am not quite sure what I am looking at, the various piles of construction and design-related materials, also maybe marking time on this long floor. I haven’t yet made the decision to look closely enough, always that decision when you walk into a gallery, like any conversation, whether or not to commit. I’m still getting my bearings at the echt Brooklyn arts-and-science compound that is Pioneer Works on a Sunday afternoon.
I guess I’m on a compare-and-contrast jag. Last month it was plays. This month it’s gallery shows—specifically collaborations between sculptors and choreographers, and specifically specifically between the sculptor Janine Antoni and the choreographer Stephen Petronio at Luhring Augustine and Bakst and Masnyj at Pioneer Works. Manhattan/Brooklyn, established/emerging, blue-chip/nonprofit… one could go to town on outmoded, accurate-ish binaries.
The unfinished finish of Pioneer Works is a (too?) fitting container for Masnyj’s tidily untidy construction stuffs, stacks and piles and arrangements of wood and tubing and freestanding walls, which are themselves a deconstructed container for a series of duets by Bakst and Emma Geisdorf. On paper I don’t love this setup, which smacks of performance “activating” the white cube, that entrenched art-world trend that lacks faith in both the live and static arts as standalone ventures. But I think that rant-encapsulation says more about my tired eyes than it does about Living Room Index and Pool, which feels quite happily old-fashioned as a conversation between two people in search of a third possibility. Another way to say that is that the question “Would I be interested in these two things in isolation?” ceases to seem like a reasonable thing to ask shortly after Bakst’s performance begins, and the disparate parts snap into an elusive whole.
Bakst and Geisdorf manipulate Masnyj’s quiet objects, moving things around to no discernible purpose like obdurate glitches in the system. They count. They make eye contact. They come just close enough before turning away and I notice that the moments of silence give me relief. There’s something compellingly unavailable about Bakst, as if she’s paying intense attention to something that isn’t in the room.
Bakst has inserted two messy videos of water, one tropical and one arctic, on Masnyj’s clean white walls, and she and Geisdorf record themselves moving and posing in front of these fuzzy backdrops, inscrutable and awkward and strangely intimate. At some point they read from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s novel Dictée. “Her portrait is seen though her things, that are hers.” Of course these aren’t their things, are they? So many people who have come to watch are taking pictures, this is how they know to watch. When Bakst and Geisdorf exit their captured performances silently ghost the space. Those who come after us won’t notice any disturbances.
It is raining and horrible when I visit Luhring Augustine. One thing Chelsea and Red Hook share: You have to mean it to trek over to them.
Antoni’s show is called “From the Vow Made,” and there is no confusion about authorship. There is no real confusion about anything. The front gallery is taken up by a spare assembly of her milagros, resin cast joinings of domestic objects and body parts that are at once fantastical and didactic; basket weavings interlock with bones, body parts that only metaphors typically join are physically molded together: a head positioned on a rib cage as if listening for what isn’t there, in to long, 2014, or a hand cupping a section of spine in to return, 2014. Her collaboration with Petronio takes the form of Honey Baby, 2013, a video in the back room featuring the dancer Nick Sciscione turning and turning in artistic utero. I keep thinking of it as a prequel to Noémie Lafrance’s Melt, 2010.
And also those lines from Dictée: “It is you who are entering to see her.”
Why don’t I want to stay in this room? It all feels so head on. (But why does it feel this way? Is it enough to say I like that show, and not this one?) The idealized male body. The heartbeat. The dry bones leading to the womb. Antoni’s oft-stated turn to somatic practices as a way to cultivate embodiment feels like a naïve appropriation, no matter how deep her investment. The thing she is showing us corresponds exactly to the thing she wants us to see, and the titles are there in case we still don’t see. Only embodiment isn’t about seeing.
Three scenes from Kein Applaus für Scheisse: by Lauren Bakst
American Realness at Abrons Arts Center
One. I remember Florentina Holzinger’s first costume. It was an oversize, orange-dyed dress, a muumuu really. She was sitting in a chair center stage. A minute or so earlier, a high fan kick had revealed her lack of underwear. Vincent Riebeek, in a similarly loose blue garment, kneeled to sneak his head between her legs—the image momentarily evoking a familiar sexual position. He inched away from Holzinger to display a red string exiting her vagina and entering his mouth. Turning his body to face the audience, he pulled and chewed and the string kept coming.
Two. I remember Riebeek directing his attention toward the audience in a “Look at me!” kind of way while enacting a series of movements. Mid-head-spiral-into-leg-extension, Holzinger hurled herself toward him while jumping. Without hesitation, they collided. We (the audience) laughed. This scene repeated itself: Holzinger or Riebeek would indulge in moments of solo dancing only to be interrupted by a crash from the other, inevitably provoking laughter from the audience. There was something about the full force with which they moved in and out of contact—never pausing to acknowledge the catastrophe of their two bodies meeting, they just kept going, pummeling each other through the space all the while maintaining the clarity of intentionally extended limbs.
Three. I remember the cerulean blue color of the liquid that Riebeek vomited onto Holzinger’s chest. They wore feather-adorned bikinis. Holzinger was lying on the floor and Riebeek was kneeling in between her legs. The violent effort with which he repeatedly rammed his fingers down his throat was more difficult to behold than Holzinger’s apathetic gaze. After a sequence of at least five repetitions—gag, vomit, gag, vomit—Holzinger looked back at Riebeek plainly and asked, “Can I hug you?”
If these scenes sound messy and irreverent, it’s because they are. Holzinger and Riebeek have a way of managing the clichés their work invokes. Their presences balance each other. While Riebeek performs excessively with camp, Holzinger shows no sign of emotion. She under-performs with effort so that we feel everything bubbling up just beneath the surface. This dynamic might be the most radical aspect of their work. It undermines our expectations of gendered power relations within a given image. Riebeek is working for the applause, while Holzinger just waits for it. Together, they succumb to the disasters of these spectacles without apology.
— Lauren Bakst is an artist and a dancer whose work takes the forms of choreography, writing, performance, and video.
Reading and Rumor: The Problem with Kenneth Goldsmith by Brian Droitcour
Last weekend I attended “Interrupt 3,” a conference on poetry and digital media at Brown University in Providence. I was in the audience Friday night when Kenneth Goldsmith read the autopsy of Michael Brown, the teenager who was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.
An image of Michael Brown—his graduation picture, which many used as Facebook profile pictures to honor his memory and counter the images spread by the media to portray him as a delinquent—was projected on the screen above the stage as Goldsmith read, rocking and pacing, delivering the autopsy as an incantation. The rhythms and inflections of his reading brought out the repetitions in the report, transforming their formality into ritual.
Word of what Goldsmith had done hit Twitter and the rumor of it rapidly spread. It was met with outrage: How dare he? How could he, a white man, use black suffering—the murder of a black teenager by a white cop—as raw material for his own work? Many revisited the critiques that have been leveled at Goldsmith for excluding poets of color from the history he writes to frame conceptual poetry—a poetry that repurposes non-literary texts as literary ones—as a contemporary avant-garde. Against this background, Goldsmith’s choice to read Michael Brown’s autopsy was especially galling. He was swiftly and viciously condemned.
Goldsmith has encouraged the spread of a work’s reputation through rumor for years as an approach to the conceptual poetry produced by him and his cohort. Conceptual poetry can be intimidating to the reader because the texts are long; they retain the tics that appear in straight transcription and the boredom of official documents. For these reasons they often go unread, and any fame the poet has depends on the circulation of his works as secondhand accounts: “Kenny retyped an entire issue of the New York Times,” “Kenny recorded all the movements his body made in 12 hours,” “Kenny transcribed the first media responses to deaths considered national tragedies.” It’s like the way paintings and sculptures become known through reproductions.
But just as standing before a painting is a very different experience than looking at a reproduction of it, so it is with conceptual poetry. When you learn about Goldsmith’s work through the circulation of summaries it sounds like an incredibly dull affair: the poet’s disappearance into the machine, an embrace of technological knowledge. But when you read the text, or see Goldsmith read it with his dynamic body and lively voice, what matters is the fissures between the embodied experience that was recorded and the recording technologies used. The poet comes back out of the machine to show what the machine can’t know.
And so, any one of Goldsmith’s works is really two works: the work itself and the concept of it, which travels easily as a story. While both invite judgment, by Goldsmith’s own design, I think critics should be responsible for at least acknowledging the differences between them.
Goldsmith avoids addressing the duality of his writing. He has said little of the experience of reading his books, but talks constantly about the mobility of his concepts by issuing trollish aphorisms on Twitter: “If it can’t be shared, it doesn’t exist.” I’ve come to see his public behavior as a tacit acknowledgment that some aspects of art are cheapened by attempts at articulating them, as well as an emulation of his hero, Andy Warhol. Goldsmith’s reluctance to sincerely reflect on his own work is Warholian. But unlike Warhol, he’s a professional academic, so he has to speak about it. And he chooses to mislead.
After Goldsmith read at Brown, members of the audience discussed the reading. Many criticized it for being too poetic, too aestheticized. While Goldsmith’s lilting inflections brought out the repetitions, they seemed somewhat out of place. At times they seemed to disguise his discomfort with the text and his mispronunciations of medical terms. The last lines Goldsmith read were a description of Michael Brown’s genitals; later fact-checking confirmed suspicions raised by the audience that the report had been altered to make it end there. It was a dramaturgical gesture to make for a “satisfying” ending, but the audience didn’t want that tawdry satisfaction. It wasn’t worth the violence done to the text and to the memory of Michael Brown. It was a grave misstep.
Style conventions would suggest I refer to the reading as “Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Body of Michael Brown (2015)”—giving the title Goldsmith announced at the start of his reading—but I’d rather write “Goldsmith’s reading of the autopsy report.” I’m not comfortable with the possessive, the transformation of a body into a title. This was another misstep.
I write “misstep” but the word is weak. Still, I prefer it to “mistake” because it’s shaded more strongly with intent and culpability. Goldsmith’s choices are not accidents. He made them from a position of underexamined privilege.
I’ve cringed when seeing white protestors lie motionless in public places, imitating Michael Brown’s corpse in the street in Ferguson, or chant “I can’t breathe” while miming the chokehold that Daniel Pantaleo used to murder Eric Garner. They are play-acting at being victims of violence that doesn’t threaten them.
I’ve felt disgusted by Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford project, in which he passes off his own paintings and sculptures as the work of a black woman, acting out a delusional fantasy that a “politically correct” art world would receive his white art more generously if his body were black and female.
I’ve seen comparisons of Goldsmith’s reading to Scanlan’s project, but I couldn’t have arrived at that conclusion on my own. Goldsmith didn’t pretend to feel what Michael Brown felt, or use his body as a proxy. Instead, he occupied the position of the medical examiner, giving his body to the autopsy’s anonymous, institutional words. Anyone who followed the news of Michael Brown’s death, of the ensuing protests, of the grand jury that failed to indict Darren Wilson, was looking—looking with horror, looking with fascination. The medical examiner’s report is an account of another kind of looking, with a physical proximity and emotional remove that inverts the looking of those who followed the news from Ferguson at a physical distance but with an emotional immediacy. In reading the autopsy, Goldsmith imagined switching those positions and collapsing the distances, intensifying the affect particular to his own position as a white onlooker.
Can white poets write about the deadly violence of white supremacy? Danez Smith has said yes, and I’d like to think so too-silence can be respect, but it can also be complicity. But how should it be done? The Paris Review published a poem by white poet Frederick Seidel, “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri,” which was roundly panned as maudlin embarrassment. Goldsmith ended on the crotch but Seidel begins there: “A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.” He identifies the black penis as a threat and a liability. It gets worse. He tells us he wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County and reasons with doggerel: “Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame for Ferguson, Missouri.”
Goldsmith’s way of writing has an advantage over Seidel’s. He doesn’t try to inscribe sentiment in the text, where it can come out wrong when read. Rather, in conceptual poetry sentiment comes out on its own when the text is activated by the reader and the listener. This is what gives Goldsmith’s performances their strength.
But conceptual poetry is at a disadvantage, too, because it results in two works. In one of them, sentiment is produced through a prolonged act of reading, while in the other it’s an immediate reaction to an idea. In the latter case there’s often little sentiment. Many of Goldsmith’s works are perceived as merely interesting. But the reaction to the story of the reading at Brown (“Kenny read Michael Brown’s autopsy report at a poetry conference”) was powerful, and because in this case, as before, Goldsmith took no responsibility for the affective content of the concept, it spun out of his control and worked against him.
“Interrupt 3,” the conference at which Goldsmith read Michael Brown’s autopsy report, was an overwhelmingly white conference. Most of the featured presenters were white men, myself included. Over the course of Friday’s presentations several old white men invoked Ferguson as a political justification for the poetics of embodiment that they favored, in a way that struck me as superficial and opportunistic. So when Goldsmith began his reading, I thought: Finally—someone is giving this topic more than lip service. And yet, one of the few women of color present at the reading raised her hand after it was over and called it a “cop out.”
Goldsmith is known for courting controversy, but it tends to be trivial. He “printed out the Internet” for an exhibition in Mexico, provoking hand-wringing about the waste of paper (never mind the carbon resources consumed by data centers) and taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” He relishes retweeting angry responses, and in those cases it is easy to laugh off people who made fools of themselves by responding to his silly provocations. Goldsmith is a clown and a troll, and so for some the very idea that a poet like him would touch material like this—the deadly violence of white supremacy—was unacceptable. But when so many artists of his stature just produce more of what they’ve already done, isn’t it a good thing for him to venture into new territory-to take a risk, to the extent that a man in his position can?
I’ve mentioned the missteps that Goldsmith made in conceiving the piece. After the reading was over he made more.
He did not field questions from the audience following the reading. The poets who had planned to perform after him felt that their readings would be inappropriate at that time, so instead they moderated the discussion of Goldsmith’s reading while he sat in the audience, listening silently.
Goldsmith, who eagerly uses the words of others in his work and has created a pirate archive of poetry, film, video, performance and sound art on Ubuweb, exerted authorial control over his own work by asking the conference organizers not to release the video of his reading.
On Sunday Goldsmith posted a statement on Facebook that addressed the response to the reading but did not specify the nature of the criticism or acknowledge its validity. Instead, he wrote that this is what he does, that he has done it before, that others in the past have been “uncomfortable with [his] uncreative writing.” But what outraged people was not so much his method as his choice of a text and the particular steps he took in order to, in his words, “massage a dry text into literature,” and he neither defended these actions nor apologized to the people who were hurt by them.
His choice to read Michael Brown’s autopsy at a conference that was overwhelmingly white might have been conceived as an intervention in that whiteness, but in retrospect I suspect he was taking advantage of it as a “safe space.”
I wanted to think that Goldsmith was brave in taking an artistic risk but he was full of fear.
Twitter fosters the formation of ad hoc communities, as users come together around an idea or a feeling. Grief, anger and righteous disgust are shared and become stronger in their unity, amplifying voices that would otherwise go unheard.
A work of art can form a community, too—an audience that can be as ephemeral and dispersed as the communities that take shape on Twitter. But an audience is rarely united in one feeling as a Twitter community is; instead, it shares a common experience refracted through the disunity of individual perspectives. Conflicted or complex reactions to a work from any one viewer proliferate in the collective, where consensus can form around ambivalence rather than a singular affect.
The concept of Goldsmith’s reading has been judged by a community united in outrage. Their voices have been heard; I don’t need to add mine to them. But so far the voices of the audience members—the people who had access to the performance of the work as well as the concept of it—have hardly traveled beyond Providence. I can only speak for myself, but having been present at many public and private conversations in Providence I know that my experience wasn’t unique, that it was shared by others.
“If it can’t be shared, it doesn’t exist,” Goldsmith has said. The experience of an audience is hard to share beyond its limits. But it does exist, and it’s also worthy of recognition. That’s why I wrote this.
Where Taboos and Healing Compete for Equal Billing
‘I-Cure’ Provokes at the Queer New York Arts Festival
By Gia Kourlas
When a choreographer like Ivo Dimchev proposes a performance work intended to promote healing, you can’t help feeling suspicion. It’s the good kind. This Bulgarian artist, based in Brussels, has a persuasive subversive streak.
In his playfully sinister “I-Cure,” performed Friday at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement as part of the 2014 Queer New York International Arts Festival, he ponders the difference between therapy and theater, or cure and culture. If healing is a choice, as he asks in a festival brochure, why not make the choice while sitting in the theater? Why waste another hour of trying to be cultural when it could be used to become healthier?
At the start, Mr. Dimchev, nearly naked and wrapped in a shawl, sits on a white chair and languidly strokes his blond wig. The sound of a cymbal awakens him from his reverie; brightly, he thanks us for coming to “the most healing performance of the year” and then explains that we need to fill out the “I-Cure” cards that were handed out upon entry. On each are four blank circles representing areas in our life that we wish to cure. By pressing the card, we create a healing intention
It’s absurd, of course, but in “I-Cure” — a reference to Apple devices that help you tune out the rest of the world — if you block out suffering, your own suffering will end. As Mr. Dimchev flows from one story to the next, scampering across the floor, singing about healing energy and engaging in sexual acts, a monitor behind him features scenes — a beach, a waterfall, a cheetah. A man from the audience performs fellatio on Mr. Dimchev — could this be the catharsis he’s after? — and then the image of feces appears on the screen. What if, as Mr. Dimchev asks, you were to examine it with a microscope? “It’s so intense,” he says. “It’s like ‘Star Wars’!”
Mr. Dimchev may push taboos in his work, but his timing, his hushed, whispery asides and the two-way conversations uttered under his breath are virtuosic — even reminiscent of Robin Williams. Animalistic one moment, delicate the next, he meshes darkness and lightness with verbal and physical dexterity. Early on, he notes, “Sometimes I feel like a dead mother with two dead children lying on the street in a very low resolution.”
Sex, defecation — what’s left in this quest for release? Mr. Dimchev’s rant switches from humor to horror as the sight of two bloody children and a mother appear on the screen. Contorting his body, he says: “It’s so disgusting! I can’t even look at it.” How can you cure an unfeeling world? His only escape is a blackout.
ANN LIV YOUNG with Jarrett Earnest
Performance artist Ann Liv Young emerged as one of the most provocative figures of the 2000s. She often uses fairytales to foreground interactions between audience and performer—producing highly publicized confrontations with everyone from Penny Arcade to Georgia Sagri. Her work evolves a complex mythology centered around a character named Sherry. After traveling extensively in Europe with her family of collaborators, chief among them her partner Michael A. Guerrero, Young is back in New York to perform all four parts of her Sleeping Beauty at MoMA PS1(March 2014).
Jarrett Earnest: I always felt that growing up in the South—in a very Southern family—that you have a heightened sense of social performance. Do you think that is true and does it influence your work?
Ann Liv Young: I had a hardcore Southern mother who was really into pleasing everyone but her own family. She was definitely all about, “You do not talk about what happens in this house. You do not speak about these particular things.” She had some major issues that are the crux of the Sherry character—Sherry is loosely based on my mother.
Earnest: When did you start making your own work? What were you making?
Young: I was making stuff when I was 8—I was pretty hardcore about it. Mostly videos with my friends that I would direct that were crazy, a lot of talk shows. I would do performances at my school—put people through watching us in unitards dancing to Enigma. Some of them are actually amazing: we did a cover of an En Vogue song “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” dressed as old women. We had canes, we rehearsed for months, and it won first place in the talent competition. I guess I started making work professionally before I graduated college—I made a show called American Crane Standards which was two women and two toilets, which was put in a show in New York. People loved it.
Earnest: When you are reviewed in the New York Times it is as a dancer, but I think that even though you are coming from a dance context it is really hard to talk about what you are doing as dance—or even as theater—it’s really performance art.
Young: I think one of the problems is that the Times doesn’t have a performance art critic and theater people don’t consider my work as theater. In Europe it’s never reviewed as dance—it’s always either performance art or live performance.
Earnest: One aspect of performance art is that it foregrounds the dynamic: “I’m a body and you are watching me. We’re both here together and this is a relationship,” which is something generally suppressed in most dance and theater. What I really like is how you are keying into the complex desires and expectations embedded in those interactions. How did that evolve for you?
Young: I think it comes from studying dance and being taught to ignore the audience. They tell you to pretend like you are in a forest, but you’re not in a forest, you are in a theater, and most of the time you don’t have very good lights, or very good sound, or very much money. Acknowledging what is really in the room was always a big part of what I was making when I was young. I was never making stuff where I was rolling on the floor frivolously. That thing “I’m here—you’re here” has just become a lot more assertive and blatant with Sherry.
When I was five or seven months pregnant with Lovey in Amsterdam, our set had been lost. I was exhausted from touring Snow White, which is a very physical show. They had given us this tiny little studio to rehearse in, which was hilarious because we couldn’t do anything in it. Suddenly I thought I wanted to make a new part to stick on the end of Snow White:a radio show and the star was Sherry. It was a 30-minute segment. I was really thinking, “I’m having a baby, this job is hard to do, and hard to sustain because we make our living touring.” There were so many problems at every venue that I wanted to make a character that was a superwoman who could bust through everything—who doesn’t need a set, doesn’t need good tech—so the show would be indestructible. I was thinking I could make it for Lovey, my child—that it would be a way to make the work more sustainable for her. It was the best idea I’ve ever had in my life.
Earnest: When you first thought of her, what were the physical or psychological gestures that signified Sherry?
Young: For the original costume we were all naked, but wearing different blazers, which were all khaki and spray-painted pink. We all had badges that showed how important we were so I had the really big badge. There was an importance of hierarchy from the very beginning, an acknowledged hierarchy. I think it’s funny because that is how my mother is: she is smart and funny and charming which enables her to maintain a hierarchy even as she makes fun of it. Her jewelry store was her stage and I grew up watching her perform on it.
Earnest: There is a very clear way that Sherry is in control. How did that dynamic change when people began coming to Sherry’s shows expecting a confrontation?
Young: I do all different things. I am quite gifted at reading people—not even reading them but sensing them, which is very much from studying dance, from kinesthetics, body language. I have done so many “Sherry” shows, I don’t prejudge. I let the audience come in, sometimes I have a very tight structure and sometimes a loose structure, and I just go with what feels right. It is great that people are so scared, because then I can make them unafraid. And they start to think, “Oh, this is great, she’s amazing, she’s nice,” so then in the next show I can terrify them again. What really matters for Sherry is paying close attention to my audiences. I think that a performance is effective if it challenges people and keeps them on their toes.
Earnest: Why are you against grants?
Young: I’m against the idea of a panel of people deciding among themselves what should be funded and what shouldn’t. A lot of the people sitting on panels think of themselves as failed artists—I don’t think about them that way, but that is how they think of themselves. I feel that they are looking for the thing most like what they would be making right now if they were still making and not teaching. I think it’s very dangerous to be sustained by grant funding; I don’t want to feel pressured to please people who are giving me money.
Earnest: You believe grants make the work beholden to someone else’s expectation?
Young: Yes, and I know it does because that is how we are raised in a capitalist society. If that is your financial structure you are setting yourself up to fail—to fail yourself. Ultimately, I don’t feel a lot of people have the courage and strength to make what they want to make, clearly, because look at what is being made in this city. And a lot of these people are getting quite a lot of grant money.
Earnest: You’ve talked about curators being shocked by your performances, even though they invited you. ThePS1 controversy was the first time I became aware of your work because I was living on the West Coast, and I think for many others too it was the introduction to your work. That performance began with you confronting the performer who went on before you and ended with PS1cutting the lights out. Now that you’ve had some distance from it, do you have any reflections on it?
Young: Basically, a woman named Sarvia [Jasso] and another guy [Andres Bedoya] invited me to do a session at PS1. Michael and I met with her and it’s funny because in the meeting I intuitively knew the breakdown of events. Sherry really studies people, so you can tell who has done their research and who hasn’t. I remember asking Sarvia if she had seen my work and she said, “Yes, I saw Snow White.” I asked what else she had seen and I could tell she hadn’t seen anything else, but she said, “some other things.” Then I knew it was going to be a great show.
For instance in Cinderella I do some pretty aggressive things: I poop on stage, I sell the poop, I get very close to people. It’s amazing to have a woman from the audience say, “I want to leave” and Sherry just says, “then leave,” but she doesn’t. Then she’ll sit there and say something like, “You must have paid them to let you perform here.” So Sherry talks about how much she got paid to do the show, and of course the woman doesn’t believe it. So then Sherry looks at the curator in the audience and asks, “Can you please tell this nice lady how much you paid to bring me here? Can you please tell this nice lady why you paid to bring me here, all the way from New York City.” To have that kind of situation—to be able to go straight to the source—is amazing. People don’t like to talk about money. Artists definitely don’t talk about money because they don’t have any, and curators are not often put on the spot to say why they booked something or how much they paid to book it. I was taught never to talk about money, and never to talk about domestic issues that happened in my house. I found a way to go beyond that and to force everyone to really discuss things that people feel are important, but have too much pride and ego to openly talk about.
So with the PS1 show we agreed to do it, and I knew the curator hadn’t done her research. I think I was very tired that night and I remember thinking, “I’ll go watch a little bit of the performance before mine to give myself a jumping-off point.” I knew I really wanted to work with the idea that we were at PS1. You could feel in the room that night that it was an “art crowd”—these “hip” people that wanted to see something very exciting happen and also wanted to protect their “art thing” and Sherry is very against protecting your thing. First of all, she says the thing is not worth protecting and second, she wants you to think about why you feel you need to protect it so much. That was really the initiation of me talking to Georgia Sagri who was the performer before me. Sherry looked into her eyes and said, “That was not good. You need to acknowledge that. What is this idea of ‘art’? What are you people even doing here?” For her performance Sagri just walked around in a circle saying, “Where is Jane?” and that is supposed to make her some amazing artist that can never be called out to answer the question, “Why are you making this?” That is totally crazy. She became a writhing monster. I really wish they would have let her attack me, but her friends were holding her back. Sherry took her clothes off and started masturbating to a Mariah Carey song just to say, “Come on, what are we doing here? This is ridiculous.” It was like 15 minutes, the whole thing. The curator just kept saying afterward “I didn’t expect it to be real.”
Earnest: Like what did she expect, it to be fake?
Young: Well, fake like Georgia, like all the stuff she normally books—safe. I don’t think I make things to make anyone uncomfortable. I pose questions that I want answered. I’m really curious. I think it’s interesting to look at a couple in your audience and ask, “Why do you love this person?” Not because I want to make them feel bad, but I feel as a human being that that person should be able to answer that question, in front of a crowd of people—on a human level. So I try to get him to do that—it’s not about humiliating him. But if you ask a technician to turn more lights on, he looks at you like you just told him his penis is too short. Of course that becomes part of the work because Sherry is not going to pretend he isn’t taking a hit to his ego when she tells him to turn more lights on.
Earnest: Have you ever had an experience as Sherry that you felt went too far?
Young: No. I never have. I think I am very sensitive to how my partner Michael reacts to what I do. I’ve had a few shows where Michael has been a little freaked out. I did a show at the Delancey Lounge and there were a lot of drag queens there and Sherry was saying that the way they were treating her is they way people have treated them in society, which is why they are there, in the Delancey Lounge, treating her badly, and what is wrong with that picture? Someone ripped my wig off and of course Sherry was like, “That only makes me stronger.” I took all my clothes off as I was leaving just to say, “I don’t need a costume. That is not what makes these things happen.” I took off this amazing necklace, it was my mother’s vintage ’70s huge porcelain shell and just threw it on stage when I was throwing my clothes. That photographer Gerry Visco stood up while my necklace was flying and it hit her in the head. She filed a police report about how I attacked her—which is amazing—but I was really sad because my necklace shattered. Michael was a little worried, but he knew I didn’t mean to hit her. He’s very anti-violence. I don’t feel I have ever done anything or had a show that I regretted. I feel very in control when I am performing, I actually have pretty high morals for myself.
Earnest: What are the things that cross that line for you, that you won’t do?
Young: My only rule as Sherry is no physical violence. I threw my necklace and I didn’t mean for it to hit her. I’ve never physically hurt someone in a show. But I’ve experienced a fair amount of violence, in The Mermaid Show for instance.
Earnest: Why is that?
Young: I think people don’t like a mermaid spitting fish onto them. It’s an amazing thing to be dressed as a mermaid and have the realization that someone is threatening me with a microphone stand. I had a guy kick me in my crotch when I was a pregnant dressed as a mermaid. You can have your picture taken with the mermaid and people will use that as a place to attack me, so if I get that feeling from someone during the show I give security the message that they can’t get their picture taken.
Earnest: A lot of your work is structured by fairy tales. What is it that draws you to those archetypes?
Young: The reason I like fairy tales is probably because I didn’t have a carefree childhood—I had a difficult childhood. My parents didn’t have a healthy relationship. It was very stressful. I love the original Grimm’s fairy tales the most, and actually hadn’t seen a lot of the Disney versions until I had Lovey. She and I watched every version of Cinderella we could get our hands on because I thought she would enjoy the process. Lovey was 3 and at the end of the Disney Cinderellashe said, “Mom, I don’t understand why in the movie she doesn’t eat any food.” She is always preparing food and you never see her eat. Also, Lovey pointed out that Cinderella never goes to the bathroom.
Earnest: Is that why you pooped on stage in your version of Cinderella?
Young: Yes, but it’s also because my mother has Crohn’s disease so I grew up with my female role model being 100 percent affiliated with poop—she had a poop bag that she had to wear. She wasn’t a very good mother. In many ways I was her mother. That is the reason the poop was very important for me. It’s funny because Mark Russell did the Under the Radar festival and we approached him about doing a show at the Public Theater and he said, “Just as long as you don’t poop on stage.” I had this moment where I wasn’t sure if I should go there. I thought it would really put him in his place if he knew that at that moment my mom is in the hospital having a colonoscopy on her deathbed. This idea that a man can look at me and say, “Oh, by the way, don’t shit on stage,” like I’m just doing it for the fun of it. Guess what: it’s not fun to poop on stage in front of an audience. It’s not the easiest thing to do. People just assume that it’s for shock value.
Earnest: That is how a lot of people talk about your work in general.
Young: Of course! Of course they do. But what is great is that my daughter knows why I poop on stage.
Earnest: Sleeping Beauty is not a Sherry show. How do you approach those performances differently without the character?
Young: I didn’t really want to make Sleeping Beauty but Lovey suggested I do it, she wanted to play sleeping beauty, it was important to her. This project has been about her inclination to be in the work. She hasn’t seen Sherry in action. Some of the stuff would scare Lovey so much. Sherry can be so scary; I would never want Lovey to see that. She is not mature enough to understand. So this for me was great because it’s been a process to see how I work with my child. How do I let her know that her choices are valid while also letting her know that ultimately I am the director of this project? It’s been really fun and she’s loved it. I think the show is really about Lovey’s involvement in the work.
Earnest: People just think that Sherry is you. How do you see the differences between Sherry as a character and you as a person?
Young: We are very different. I wish that I had some of Sherry’s qualities—that I could communicate in the ways she does. But like you I was brought up in a very Southern household, I was very polite, I am always trying to protect everyone else’s feelings all the time, making sure everyone is happy, and it’s really a curse because I can’t undo that. When I’m Sherry I can undo it, and that is the only way I can. I feel like I’m a good actress and part of that has to do with my upbringing—going through so many things, I learned to hide my emotions, to pretend that things are okay.
Earnest: How much of the violence toward you do you think is rooted in misogyny?
Young: A lot of it, and I think women are the most sexist, the most uninformed, the most evil toward Sherry. Men can also be crazy, but I think that is more of a sexual power dynamic. I do see that a lot of women are very threatened by Sherry.
Earnest: Why do you think that is?
Young: I think because she challenges the idea of what is attractive, what is not attractive. She is abrasive, she’s funny, she’s sexy, she’s disgusting: she’s these things that all women are but that they do not allow themselves to be. When they see that it takes a minute to adjust and figure out how to feel. And Sherry moves very fast and demands that the audience keep up, which can be difficult for people.
Earnest: Can you explain to me the history of the “Sherry Truck”?
Young: When I first moved to the city and was not making a living making work I was making clothes and was selling them on the street in SoHo. Then I went to the Union Square area and it was very difficult because it was raining and snowing and freezing but I did it a lot. I took it very seriously. Then I was hired by these two women: one to make princess dresses for her daughter, the other to make her clothes. That is how I made a living for maybe four years. Then I thought it would be so great if I had a truck that I could just pull up. I wanted to have this mobile boutique. After coming up with Sherry I realized it would be perfect for her because it’s a truck, which is very North Carolina, and that it could be like mobile therapy. One of Sherry’s complaints is that we go to these privileged areas and everyone is white, middle-to-upper-class, educated—these people often don’t have huge problems. Not to diminish the size of people’s problems, but there is a real lack of awareness that some people can’t eat, or some children are being hit right now. I would like Sherry to have access to people who don’t have access to theater or art. Because, I feel like it’s just not fair that only a certain group of people have access, so with a truck we can drive to more remote areas. To be honest, it’s terrifying.
Earnest: Are you actually going to drive into rural areas?
Young: We are. When it comes back from Europe. The idea is to do a North Carolina trailer park tour—we want to film it.
Earnest: When you do something atPS1, for example, I don’t think you or the audience are scared that something really bad will happen.
Young: Yeah, because everyone is privileged and you are in a protected institution. I was very afraid of public art for a very long time. It did not feel right to me. I think I’ve done enough stuff, that I have hand-tailored the work so much for audiences, that I am confident I can get my message across and access these people: that I could give them something and not get killed.
Earnest: I want to know more about your ideas on therapy—self-help rhetoric is a huge part of Sherry. What interests you about it?
Young: My mom did a lot of therapy when I was little and I used to wait in the lobby. That is something that stuck with me. My dad had severe substance abuse issues so I was in Al-Anon as a child; I was 5 years old going into a group and talking about how I felt that day. I had an amazing mentor who would drive me to those meetings two hours away. I had so much support as a child from people who were not my parents. I feel like it was a very meaningful part of my childhood and it gave me the tools to not end up like my parents. It’s important to know that sharing your feelings doesn’t make you a lesser person, but it makes you stronger and it makes you vulnerable and that is beautiful.
Earnest: Tell me about the Sherry Art Fair and what happened during the recent American Realness Festival.
Young: At Abrons we set up a Sherry show with Christmas trees and balloons and sculptures—it was very pretty. I had three long tables that were covered with jewelry and I was there as Sherry selling jewelry to people and Lovey had a make-up stand and she would give make-overs. It’s a different side of Sherry because people are so afraid of her it’s important to (I’m not going to say the word “trick”) but it’s important that the character is dynamic because most people are complicated. It was really interesting to see people going into and leaving shows day after day after day so complacent, apathetic, on their cell phones, not engaging with themselves in the space.
I didn’t see much of the festival but I did see Dana Michel’s show, which I thought was wonderful. People kept asking me if I had seen Rebecca Patek’s show because they wanted to see what I thought. I was in the Sherry shop and I got a ticket to go see it and I was dressed as Sherry so went in character, and was planning to go back to the Sherry store afterward. I sat down and near the front. I had never heard of her and I had no idea what to expect—I thought, “This is great, I’m getting to see a show, someone is manning the table and my kids are at home—I feel very lucky.” This guy in tight cut-off shorts, a plaid collared shirt, and no shoes was walking around the audience handing out a piece of paper that said: “We would appreciate your feedback.” Of course I knew immediately they wouldn’t really appreciate my feedback, that it was supposed to be ironic and funny and meaningless, but I was like, “Come on Ann Liv, just give it a chance.” So a video started that said: “It isn’t a rapist’s fault; he had a hard life; he’s suffering,” etc. But, she was kidding—it was a joke. I was still trying to go with it, but then she started coming down the stairs to the stage and I knew we were in trouble because of her performance: the way she spoke, the way she moved—it was really bad “modern” dance trying to deal with “controversial” material. There was a narrator and the two of them dancing kind of in sequence but kind of not, like they need more rehearsal, and she is making these facial expressions so that you aren’t sure if she’s in character or not. It was all very confusing. The narrator said: “I went to the doctor the next day and I realized I have H.I.V.,” and they spelled out H-I-V with their arms like it’s the YMCA. And then the guy did the same thing—he got H.I.V.from being raped too. I was just like, “is this the point where I leave?” There was a moment where she sits in the audience, pretends to be an audience member and it’s supposed to be an AIDS panel and she’s an audience person who asks, “What was it like when you were raped? Did you fight him?” But her acting was so bad you couldn’t tell if she was just a horrible performer or if it was a joke. I eventually stood up, walked across the stage to the doors where you would exit and said, “This is crazy. This show sucks. I have a question for you: Have you actually been raped?” She just looked at me and clearly didn’t know what to say, and finally said, “You clearly have rape issues.” I just said, “Yes I do. I hope everyone here has rape issues.” And then I said, “I just want to tell you,” and held up that piece of paper, “you don’t seem like you’ve been raped. I’m just giving you feedback. You seem like you are making fun of it and of getting H.I.V. so you might want to go take some acting classes.” Everyone was just silent. Then Sherry looked at the audience and said, “Look at you guys, you’re white, you’re young, you’re Williamsburg hipsters, you’re probably all her friends and you are perpetuating bad art—this is a waste of time. You don’t need to make this: you need Sherapy and I’ll be at my table all night,” and I left. Then I got my megaphone and they wouldn’t let me back in so I shoved the megaphone in the door and said: “Free Sherapy for you Rebecca, all night!” They couldn’t see me but they could hear my voice. Finally Ben Pryor, the curator of the festival, stood up and said, “Ann Liv what are you doing!?” Sherry just said, “What are you doing?” and we had this whole public dialogue—the audience heard the whole thing. He didn’t say anything, he was just white as a ghost—he was terrified. He had been sleeping because he was exhausted and had seen the show before. He was mortified and I could tell he was thinking, “I’ve supported Sherry and now she’s turning on me—this is not happening!” I was saying that I was ashamed to be in a festival that was booking things like this. He just said, “She’s young,” which I said was even more reason for me to stand up and say “What are you doing?” Finally he came out to the lobby and the show inside continued while we talked outside, but he was still really silent. When people were leaving I kept selling my stuff and this woman came up out of the show crying and said, “Thank you so much. I’m a rape victim and that was a horrible show for me.”
I believe in audiences reacting—it is a privilege and a responsibility to be an audience member and I will not be a complacent audience member. Many other people came up to me to say what I did was amazing and that the show sucked. Then Ben came up later and said, “I think it’s fine for you to stand up and leave but don’t come back!”
Deep in my heart I felt what she was doing was wrong, and when you feel that you have to speak up. I remember when I was in the fourth grade we had a very mean English teacher and one of my friends had trouble reading. The teacher humiliated my friend in front of the class, saying, “You can’t read,” making her feel terrible. I remember sitting there and thinking: “I’m so afraid of this teacher but what she is doing is wrong,” and I remember standing up and saying “You can’t treat someone like that. We’re in the fourth grade!” I got in so much trouble.
Earnest: And when you went back you directed the attention toward the curator and institution.
Young: Exactly. That was the best part. So basically he said there was no money, but that doesn’t matter. If you need to make something you make it, and there needs to be a voice and vision, and that nonsense had neither and it is my responsibility as an artist and as a human being to say something. And do not tell me that I broke the rules because they aren’t my rules. I asked him again why he booked it and he said “economic reasons.” “Can you be more specific?” “I don’t want to have an empty theater for three days. And the work excites me.” Rebecca told the curator that if I was in the building she was going to cancel her last performance and I said, “Good. She should cancel it because it’s horrible.” Michael wanted me to go home and rest, and reluctantly I did. I found out later she wanted me “expelled.”
Earnest: One thing that struck me is that the narrative that echoed across the Internet was that you assaulted this artist and that it is “wrong” that you were allowed to interrupt someone else’s performance. One commentator published an essay saying that everyone who aligns themselves with you or supports your work is “so deeply subsumed in hypocrisy and doublespeak so as to no longer recognize reality.” I think the shocking part is how no one defended her, or said, “shut the fuck up Ann Liv”—not even the curator who booked her; everyone just sat there. How do you see the difference between targeting the artist and the curator?
Young: Well I targeted both the artist and the curator as well as the audience, and it is important to me to address all three. People want others to feel that I have physically attacked people because they need a reason to exile me.
Earnest: Considering this sounds exactly like what Sherry always does, why do you think people keep inviting you around to keep doing things?
Young: I think Ben genuinely believes in the work. This is also very much the contemporary dance scene that I don’t really feel I’m a part of. American Realness is a contemporary dance festival, and contemporary dance is a dead art form. These people want to put a fence around their little festival and their little shows and say, “You can’t touch this.” And the reason they want to do that is because they know it’s dying. Maybe they don’t even know it consciously. How else can you take Rebecca Patek saying: “Bolt the doors!”? If you are making live performance it will be live. If you don’t want people to respond, make a movie. What about the people who used to throw tomatoes? Patek needs to be stronger. If she is going to make a show about rape then let’s talk about rape, but she wasn’t interested in that. She certainly wasn’t interested in feedback, which I knew from the moment I was handed that paper. Why do I keep being asked back? Because my work is challenging and you can’t deny that.
Earnest: It seems like your work incorporates the rumor mill aspects—where suddenly you have someone at N.Y.U. who has never seen your work talking about “that time you threw a brick at someone’s head.” Your reputation precedes you and that is part of your performances. However, there is the criticism that you could have responded at the end of the show.
Be my guest: come into my show and challenge me. In every single show I’ve done people have stood up, screamed at me, kicked me, attacked me with a fish, told me I should die. I understand that when you are working with difficult topics this is going to happen.
“I just didn’t expect it to be real.”
A throw-away line in David Velasco’s comments on Ann Liv Young’s recent actions struck me: “I admire transgression and provocation, but not for their own sakes.” Somehow this cuts to the heart of the matter: we “admire” transgression that suits us without wanting to accept the full scope of its consequences. His condemnation “for their own sakes” is precisely a rejection of the inherent unruliness of performance art that is being systematically removed by its canonization and museumification. (What argument can be made for the now iconic attacks of Vito Acconci, or the Catalysis of Adrian Piper, if not as transgressions and provocations for their own sakes, i.e. as art?)
The debate has largely become about whether or not Rebecca Patek was victimized by Ann Liv Young, but that question is misguided. From my understanding, Patek’s performance was supposed to provoke, and because her aesthetic choices confuse irony and authenticity, and blur the boundary between audience and performer (for instance, distributing a flyer soliciting feedback) she opened the door for Ann Liv Young, or anyone, to engage. The problem is that engagement didn’t come in the ways she or the institution would have liked, which signifies a failure on the part of Patek, and the festival, in framing the piece. This is not about the disruption being nice or mean, right or wrong, but is actually a question of form and intention at the foundation of performance art. By doing a live performance as such Patek implicitly extended an invitation, which is not the same as a gallery goer defacing a painting, as some have falsely equated. It seems to me that performance art—as distinct from dance or theater—is about engaging the dynamic between a group of bodies watching another, and that is always about power: if you are not navigating it, and assuming the potential reality of it, then it is best to not position your work in a performance art context. Arguing that this incident significantly differs from Ann Liv Young’s other interventions is disingenuous—Young’s power comes from the fact that her terror always arrives in response to an invitation.
I don’t want to live in a toxic environment where no one is given space free of violent confrontation. I also don’t want to live in a world where no one is held accountable for their own actions, ideas, or aesthetics. When critic Andy Horwitz says that “Every curator, institution and artist who aligns themselves with Ms. Young is complicit in her violence,” he isn’t wrong, but he misses the point. Young shows us exactly how we are all already complicit in a system of exploitation which is not easy to disentangle, where moralistic finger pointing becomes literally pointless. She is forcing a certain type of accountability, which I believe in, even though it is done through tactics I abhor. Let’s examine the desire many have expressed for her to be “punished” for what she did at American Realness, and their rage that Ben Pryor did not assume his position of institutional power as “curator,” bending her over his knee for a public spanking, or “expelling” her from the festival. What is shocking is that no one stood up to defend Patek; blaming Pryor is an empty accusation that only aims to dismiss the audience members’ individual obligations as human beings. It reveals a deeply internalized desire for the ultimate safety of an institution while purporting to “admire” transgression, or, rather, transgression at the proper remove, in photographs decades after the fact.
On Maria Hassabi’s PREMIERE presented by The Kitchen and Performa, NYC , 2013
A dance of a million première
The ephemeral nature of dance is one of its great pleasures. Every moment is special,
never to be repeated the same way, no matter how many times a dance is performed. It’s
impossible to see everything; one way to grasp dance is not to grasp at it, to be willing to
let it run its course. When dance is slowed down so that its forms and images linger,
though, viewers can immerse themselves in the continuity of the movement; there is time to
become part of the dance, to inhabit it.
When the big doors opened from the Kitchen’s lobby, we were confronted by the five
performers of “Premiere,” in glaring light, facing us. The risers had been moved to the
opposite side of the theatre, and we had to walk across the dance floor, around the
dancers, who were grouped more or less in the center, to get to our seats. The dancers
remained still, expressionless. It was as though we had interrupted their performance, and
now they were waiting for us to settle in order to continue. People moved purposefully past
them, caught in unfamiliar territory, onstage and among the performers.
Once we were seated, we were looking at the dancers’ backs—they still faced out toward
the lobby. Hassabi and Andros Zins-Browne reclined next to Biba Bell and Hristoula
Harakas, who stood; Robert Steijn lay next to them on the other side. Each wore a simple
costume of matching jeans and shirts in different colors, with black shoes. Vast banks of
lights of many shapes and sizes bordered the stage, illuminating the audience as well as
the dancers. And then we waited. It was minutes before anyone onstage moved.
Gradually, Bell and Harakas began making minute adjustments to their stances—turning
out a leg, allowing a foot to extend jerkily along the black floor—pausing just long enough
between movements that we wondered if there would be any more. Little by little, all of the
performers made incremental shifts in posture. It was quiet in the theatre. All we could hear
was the light scraping of a shoe now and then.
Ten minutes passed before we saw part of someone’s face, as Harakas, in her vivid
magenta outfit, turned slightly to the side. The effect of this was revelatory, and a relief.
Without faces to ground us in the human, the work up until that point, though mesmerizing,
was alienating; we wanted to connect. After twenty minutes, sound emerged from stage
right: a faint crackling. Taking in the group as a whole was difficult; the dancers often
moved at different times, and the eye naturally wanted to alight on just one, to indulge in
the painstaking progress. Focussing on one dancer—Harakas as she inched into a wide,
straight-legged fourth position; Hassabi reaching awkwardly behind her on the floor,
contorting her body—made everyone else onstage disappear, and when you looked back
at the others they’d somehow changed positions dramatically; their shifts had been
imperceptible in one’s peripheral vision.
When the attention eventually drifted to another dancer, it was like the beginning of an
entirely new piece; it was a dance made of a million premières, and every time someone
maneuvered from crouching to standing, or changed direction, it was presented with the
solemnity and the elegance of a major event. Hassabi and her collaborators augmented
this lean momentousness subtly. Alex Waterman’s sound design—the crackling, then a
metallic rustling with pings, and later a barely audible melody—came and went with large
gaps in between, so that even in its austerity it was a welcome enrichment of the
atmosphere. The lighting (by Zack Tinkelman and Hassabi) produced a lot of heat—it
wasn’t long before sweat stains bloomed on the performers’ shirts—and dimmed and
brightened sporadically, exaggeratedly, releasing the tension that had built up in the
“Premiere” was really five dances going on simultaneously. The performers never
appeared to look at one another, and they never touched. But merely the proximity of two
bodies, even when they are striking the most casual postures, can carry a thrill, or the
possibility of one: Hassabi, reclining, stretched out her arm, her hand squeaking along the
floor, and came within an inch or two of Zins-Browne’s foot. When any chance of contact
vanished, the moment had a tinge of sadness, even though the two performers occupied
different universes, and their near-encounter was, you felt, purely happenstance. Later,
she stood in his shadow—taking refuge, we’d like to think—until the two moved on once
again. In the absence of interaction, or emotion, we latched on to expressions: Hassabi’s
suspicious, almost pained; Steijn’s matter-of-fact; Bell’s intense, wide-eyed; Zins-
Browne’s open, kind; Harakas’s like a Vermeer girl, holding a secret.
(The audience brought its own character to the dance. In the stillness of the theatre, little
dramas stood out: the man and woman who suffered through a fit of the giggles, a middle-
aged couple in the third row who clearly wanted to be elsewhere. We were, of course,
trapped; leaving in the middle of the show would have involved crossing the performance
space while the dance was going on.)
As the dance became more protracted—its silences more ominous, the slowness more
agonizing—formal arrangements (a diagonal, a semicircle, a cross) coalesced as if by
magic, then melted away. In time, the dancers began to venture farther from the center—
Harakas got right up next to the back wall, Hassabi lay on her back far downstage—but
never moved beyond the gray wreath of footprints that we had left when we entered the
theatre. After seventy-five minutes, the performers were arranged in a line, some on the
ground, some standing, looking at us—the exact formation, in other words, that they’d
been in when we entered the theatre, but rotated a hundred and eighty degrees.
Minutes passed. The lights blazed. The crackling came and went. Then each dancer
shifted slightly, and the lights went out. When the lights came back up, the dancers hadn’t
moved. We filed past them as we’d done earlier in the evening, out through the big doors.
If you stopped and looked back, it seemed possible that the dance—the same one, but
always new—might begin again, with its different facing, and be repeated over and over,
BY ANDREW BOYNTON
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tonginic1 hour ago
This sounds all nice. But Is that piece for the audience not better placed within the white
cube or at least off the theater space? That one sees the show rather as a installation. Not
having the pressure to wait till the end. I mean i guess I would not have the patience.
I would like to compare it with watching the film “24h psycho” by douglas gordon. (slowed
down film streched to 24h)
Adam Linder, Cult to the Built on What, 2013
For you I put this dress on / for you I put the stress on / act like you know me / act act like you know me…
Adam Linder raps in a husky voice under the rhythm of immersive electronic music. I am fascinated, mesmerized , entertained. For this somewhat cryptically titled rapography Cult to the Built on What, the Berlin-based Australian choreographer reskills as a rapper, becoming the star of the night; the audience follows his script of staged and pre-recorded rap, timidly responding ‘oo -ooh ooh’ to his ‘ee-eeh eeh’.
Body in Linder’s performance submits to the knowledge of classical ballet, even if incorporating the gestures of popular dance. Formally trained at The Royal Ballet School in London, Linder experiments with meanings and connotations connected to house music, and borrows from New York ball culture of the 1980s. Re-skilling appears to become a method of bringing into dance the considerations of gender as well as elements of marginalized forms of dance. ‘Cult to the Built’ on What closely corresponds to the modes of expression currently prevalent in the mutant and cross-dressing hip-hop scene of New York, only to mention the names such as Le1f or Mykki Blanco. The latter sings in long hair wig and black leather-chain pants:
Get in line nigga <…> / Maybe she born with it, maybe it was Maybelline / All white Blanco give your heathen ass a christening / Niggas so greasy in the daylight, he glistening / “Oh this fag can rap” yeah they saying that they listening.
Associations like these make dance feel fresh and progressive; nevertheless, one wonders why dance needs to become take on a mask to feel this way. Adapting identities as well as the moves, Linder dresses in a uniform of today, wearing black Nike trainers with the surfaces in neon orange, black glossy sports t-shirt and black loose track pants (the outfit varied each scheduled performance, however, remained consistent in style).
This body follows the music, which breaks and repeats itself, employing cut-up techniques reminiscent of Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), which Linder references in his rap lyrics. Film incorporating found video footage from British nightclubs resonates with ‘Cult to the Built on What’ not only in its topics of interest but also its editing and, thus, its style. The dance is spliced together, responding to Linder’s rap tracks, repeated and slowed down, filtering in and out to create a uniform spectacle of today.
The dance of the hypnotically rotating lectern crowns and finishes the performance. In utter darkness, amongst red, yellow, blue and purple spotlights, a tall, untreated wood structure mechanically moves in accordance with the rap music. This is one of the most fascinating moments of the event, when an object becomes an animated character, an active agent of the performance. The scenography is no doubt a contribution by the visual artist Shahryar Nashat who has collaborated with Linder on the finishing of the piece. Nashat’s addition to ‘Cult to the Built on What’, a tall semi-oval light wood lectern based on six feet, grounds the performance within the discourse of the visual arts through questions of display and staging. The lectern becomes a framing structure for Linder’s performance, accommodating the lingering gaze of the viewer.
As much as the lectern is now a performer, during the other stages of the night this same lectern functions as a prop, an object drawing attention to, and emphasizing, the space. Linder moves the lectern throughout the space, redefining its existence and performer’s relationship to it. The shift from object to the actor reminds us of the bottles that become alive in Tamara Henderson’s 16 mm film Sloshed Ballot and Anonymous Loan, recently shown at dOCUMENTA (13). Here the bottle behaves as the lectern, landing into the shot, seemingly with no help of the human hand or will.
Language / medium
‘Cult to the Built on What’ further echoes Shahryar Nashat’s work in its play on translations and correspondences: be it those of medium, language or material. It does not seem to demand its own defined present, is deferential, signaling content elsewhere, or generating it but not possessing it. Linder´s piece in many ways transposes the mascot of the work Not the Stuff of Stone that Nashat produces in 2011. Not the Stuff of Stone is a grey plaster, pigment and steel bench constructed to look as if it was sculpted from marble, which draws our attention to the nuanced relationship between idea and its modes of expression.
This particular interest in transferal, or re-skilling, reflects Linder´s engagement in current critical debate on the developments within artistic practice. The word re-skilling that Linder employs in the description of ‘Cult to the Built on What’ was recently brought into much wider use by Claire Bishop who discusses political and economical implications of the term in her article Unhappy days in the art world?: De-skilling Theater, Re-skilling Performance . Here Bishop explains re-skilling as the bringing to bear of one set of competencies on those of the newly elected discipline. Linder’s attempts to master the elected discipline of a rapper and this precise use of words suggest his awareness of the text and the creative response towards it.
To end with
It all felt like observing a masquerade of contemporaneity – fascinating, spectacular and maybe rather naïve, infused by colour and enveloping sound. As Steven ten Thije tells us in his article Reading (through) the mask: Philosophical Reflections on the Masquerade, masquerade is something to ‘enter’, whether acquiring such attributes as masks or not, in Nike shoes or not, in order to unify the rational and irrational in life, to defend ourselves ‘from the tragic aspect of the tension between magical instinct and discursive logic.’ ‘Cult to the Built on What’ also combines these dichotomies, fusing ballet with street culture, high art with vernacular vocabulary, thus, proposing suggestions on what dance and performance can be. Linder demonstrates that apart from aesthetic issues dance can be a platform for discussing the state of art and everyday life of today.
Adam Linder’s ‘Cult to the Built on What’ took place on September 1, 2013 at Uferstudios (Berlin) as part of Ausufern festival
Concept & Performance: Adam Linder. Stage: Shahryar Nashat, Adam Linder. Music, Composition: Brendan Dougherty. Light: Dennis Döscher. Production: Andrea Niederbuchner.
Mårten Spångberg, the bad boy of contemporary dance
The Dane likes his audience to leave their phones on and has a troupe that’s the choreographic equivalent of Occupy. He explains why he’s aiming for ‘something neo-liberalism can’t cope with You’ve seen contemporary dance, even if you don’t think you have: it’s actually been infiltrating the pop world for years. Some recent examples:Beyoncé filched great chunks of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s
A bit further off the radar, when Swedish band Lune played in London recently, choreographer Mårten Spångberg could be seen looming over singer Linnea Martinsson in flowing robes and headdress, like an escapee from a particularly unscary Halloween party. A wild-haired, large-spectacled Swede, Spångberg has been creating enthusiastically academic and absurdly cool choreography for 20 years (he’s 45 now). He’s noticed the pop world’s interest in dance, and he’s got issues.
“Why is dance so fucking conservative as a response?” he wonders. “Dance should use pop to change what dance can be, not try to make something accessible. The problem is that dance tends to hook on to the wrong part of pop. Let’s climb to the top, go penthouse level and see what pop can make possible. Pop should not be about reaching the masses, it’s a matter of making the masses reach for you.”
Rest assured that contemporary dance, Spångberg-style, doesn’t look anything like Kylie. His current piece Epic, to be performed at this year’s Manchester international festival, is like being at an intimidatingly hip squat party, with guests in neon sportswear and facepaint who never go home. Across its four hours, you rarely see anything you would recognise as a conventional dance step. At one point, the troupe pick up instruments and play charmingly unaccomplished versions of songs by Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie And The Banshees.
Epic is totally unspectacular, and quietly revolutionary. No one will tell you to turn your phone off, for a start. “Of course not!” says Spångberg. “We also have phones onstage; we have notes on our smartphones. If you take a nap or go for a smoke or want to update your Facebook, that’s also totally d’accord. I’m not interested in keeping the audience busy. I’m interested in how differently we can think about audiences today, compared with, say, 20 years ago.”‘The dance to come is an altogether different one, that not even I can predict’
The thinking goes that if the modern audience watches TV on laptops, while Instagramming and checking emails at the same time, why would contemporary artists ignore that and insist on trapping them in a silent black box for an hour? Rather than rail against our diminishing attention spans, Spångberg looks at this as an opportunity to explore “other kinds of attention”. He’s more interested in philosophy and economics and commercial culture than what’s happening in other art forms. “I would say that eBay is much more of an influence to me than visual art,” he declares.In fact, Spångberg is so committed to being genuinely contemporary that he’s thrown away his records and CDs and only listens to new music. The same goes for books. “For me, it’s all a matter of the practising of contemporary life,” he says. And that means throwing out some other old stuff too: systems, structures, the roles of artist and audience. Spångberg’s shows are the dance equivalent of the Occupy movement, and not just because there are some long-haired youths sitting around on rugs with guitars. “We have to produce something that neo-liberalism doesn’t know how to cope with, at all,” he says. Spångberg refers to his work as choreography, not performance; there’s a difference. “It’s a tool for organising time and space,” he explains, whereas performance is about being an entertainer. “And you are not here to be entertained.”All this means Spångberg is unlikely to have his dance moves appropriated by a leading R&B star any time soon, although after his experiences with Lune, he quite likes the idea of being a rock star. “I’m quite excited about exploring the possibilities that a rock stage can offer. It is also quite fucking fab to play in front of 12,000 people.”There is actually already a choreographer who embraces the intoxicating energy of the rock gig and gets his audience moshing in the stalls: Hofesh Shechter’s full-throttle Political Mother show has a stage of drummers and electric guitars kerranging at seat-shaking volume. But this is not Spångberg’s thing. He puts it less tactfully: “Absolutely totally worthless choreography.” For him it’s old-world stuff, about representation and not form. Spångberg wants us to question what choreography can be, not give us what we already know. “The dance to come is an altogether different one, not even I can predict,” he says. Beyoncé, can you handle this?
By Lyndsey Winship
Open for comments.
As a professional choreographer I am disappointed with the trash that some people call art.
Art should represent the beautiful and what inspires us in life. The art itself should speak to us in such a way that it talks to us and can actually change our lives.
It should be well thought out and not some random ridiculous movement. There is a beauty to symmetry and pattern and design.
This type of work that lets an audience ignore it while it performs is stupid! Being on your phone or texting does not give you the opportunity to focus your mind.
You are just playing into the hyperactivity of society. It is too bad that anyone thinks this is art. It is – worthless – do it as a flash mob dance because the refined and well rounded artists and audience thinks this stuff has no purpose, does not inspire, and has nothing to say except some self lazy point..
Please just play out back and keep this junk off the stage.
How is it that the stupid get ahead while those of us that can actually choreograph can,t.
Is big brother messing with the arts!! Absolutely!
06 July 2013 5:40pm
I find the analogy to the Occupy movement misguided. Occupy was all about community decision-making. What you are writing about is a single Nihilist ego.
warlop 07 July 2013 10:06am Recommend
He’s not Danish.
Ellen Söderhult on AGON by Florentina Holzinger
Impulstanz offered a fabulous world premiere by Florentina Holzinger et al, an excellent piece that develops unpredictably and makes up for an interesting take on contemporary dance 2014. It is AGON, in farfetched but genius interpretations, an urgent exhaustion of the theme of struggle for recovery and the empowering and healing potential of intense physicality. Throughout the performance radically different ways of addressing this are proposed as drastically different activities, expressions and modes of performing are superimposed and transposed in and out of each other.
This piece makes me excited. It comes across as rigorously insistent on ignoring what is expected of it, without making that a purpose in itself. It seems not to care about what it looks or doesn’t look like and as such, it can fulfill dreams about things to stage in a fancy theatre in Vienna one did not know about. The displacement of the recognizable, the removing from context and expected meaning, functions as alienation. It opens for experiencing them as they are instead of through recognition. Where recognition is reaffirming the knowable, this kind of displacement makes things useless in relation to their original function, separates the purpose from the thing. In that sense, the ballet dancer warming up in the background and then doing a pas de deux in the boxing ring with Florentina Holzinger (in kick-boxing outfit and as herself), is taken out of the ballet tradition, the context of the opera, the ballet company, the narrative and the display of the good subbject. What is made visible is very different, and requires another way of perceiving it. It offers the spectator to create meaning on difference premises. When the audience is asked by the coach if anybody wants to challenge Holzinger in a fight, the audience is addressed as in a street performance, and when the very obviously planted accomplice begins the fight it is all of a sudden very clear that the fighting is in no way pretended. The kick-boxing match taking place within a dance performance, with strange layers of it being a part of a personal recuperation-narrative estranges not only the content but also the contract of the theatre. Through all this, it opens for newness that is not within what we already know and recognize.
A theater can feel like a strange place in 2014. From an audience perspective it can be considered as place for a break from screens, social media and as place for a state of being that is both passive – like a hostage or a prisoner staying put in ones seat quietly, upright and attentive and as always in Vienna policed so that we don’t take photos or behave inappropriate – and hopefully also active. Active in the sense of making sense, having an experience, ungrounding ones understanding of truths and reality. It is a creation of meaning that is to a certain extent an individual work, that is done collectively and through sharing an experience. A shared experience that is also singular in the sense of what it produces for each and everyone. What AGON offers is not a place for safe identification with ones pre-conceived understanding of things but rather an opportunity for good old alienation. Even so, it manages to be intuitive and inspiring.
Even though including some kind of narrative and quite a lot of speech, it detaches from dramatic theatre through activities like the fight that is obviously not fake and clearly includes actual pain and exhaustion. This fight makes me consider everything that is going on in front of me as what it is, and nothing necessarily representing anything else than that. It makes things exciting to look at Holzingers piece from such a perspective: to watch a dance as an object more than as a way to express something else (like f.ex heterosexual love). the physical exhaustion become a body state that is universal rather than exclusively a narrative component in a psychological drama designed to be understood in one way only. The subjects of exhaustion, healing, intensity is instead presented so that they become like objects for me to experience and reflect upon.
However objectified the activities might be, I appreciate Holzingers decision to appear as herself and be accompanied in her solo-project. It can be seen as an important acknowledgement of the fact that we are not authentic selves but become ourselves in interaction and exchange with others and the environment. Also, thanks to the five brilliant additional performers in very different roles or functions the performance manages major shifts from united and explosive chaos, through multiple activities and agendas activated simultaneously, to energetic and great group dancing in togetherness and not. In other words drastic shifts of both space, attention, temporality and atmosphere. Even when dancing together what is expressed is not in accord – the dancing is going on with different but other agendas than to express. Expression IS, but the manipulative impossibility of controlling the interpretation of expression seems forsaken. Instead, they carry on with their respective agendas while dancing and the expression produced is altered and manifold.
The two minute showers of violent physicality in the kick-boxing match is contrasted by the breaks in between and is a part of the unsettled overall dramaturgy – clouds of intensively vibrating energy and physical exhaustion in all its sweatiness and heavy breathing countered by confession-like attempts on an elegy, while the ballet dancer simultaneously is performing a sort of slow violence in the back of the room. The warming up and the private conversation interrupting the elegy-attempt is only a few of the many activities performed on the “off-stage-on-stage”. Other such activities are smoking water pipe and slamming side doors or changing clothes.
If we live in times of anxiety, in times where chock value and surprise, social media and pop culture is dominant, it is not impossible to think that much art is created in a try to go against or provide an alternative to this mode of oversaturation and avoidance of boredom. If pop culture is all about consensual acceptance and maximum profit through chock, spectacle and marketing the eccentric individual (basically all the opposites of what already Rainer considered the essence of dance), it is not completely unreasonable to feel a need to contemplate on something that would never get ones attention outside the theatre. That sort of binary antagonism could however be said to in some way reinforce what it opposes. It is generative to read the intensive and dense performance of Holzinger as an all together other proposal, not a negation of something, not a continuation of art history’s negation as creation but as a completely different proposal. It is as if Holzinger were assuming an utopian reality, without making a deal out of it and without letting this become the subject of the performance, or the performance become a comment upon something. It avoids becoming about anything else than itself. Agon is not like pop culture, it is just not the opposite of it either.
It is a dance performance, but a dance performance that changes what a dance performance is, through its lack of adaptation to what I recognize as trends in style and approach to contemporary dance. The not too perfect, but very specific dancing, talking and being on stage in some aspect challenges the idea of the theatre as a place for admiration, identification and being amazed over beauty, skillfulness or cleverness. For dance as a western art form, with its history of easily becoming about technical perfection and the display of the good subject (f.ex. delicate, well-behaved, rich, beautiful, 16-year old girls and princes), it is specifically interesting to push the expression in a way that is not about perfecting. Perfection could also mean cementation, reaffirmation of the aesthetic rules, trends or truths approaching essentialism. In the show other reasons and ways of pushing a body than to achieve perfection in a dance technique that is recognized by a patriarchal and racist culture is definitely bravely invested in. In the same way the superpositioning of the kick-boxing and the ballet training is interesting as two takes on violence (and pain) – one very direct and for some empowering, one as a kind of slow violence through a different kind of discipline and a constant relation to the ideal, though, of course, also possibly empowering for some. When Holzinger does the supporting in a part of a pas de deux that looks very much like what is available on youtube from Balanchines version of Agon, it removes enough context and meaning to alienate and trigger questions. The effortlessness displayed by the ballet dancer, and the exhausted kick boxer brings to my attention violence to ones own body, violence in history, structures and systems. The gap in-between what it is and what it looks like as well as what truths or taken for granteds an opinion is coming out of is highlighted.
If one consider feminism defined not only by women getting equal rights to men, but as a much bigger question concerning the invention of new ways of living together, it includes valuing traits that are traditionally seen as feminine higher. It is then nice that Holzinger doesn’t stay in any of the many states she passes through. There is respectful obedience, violent fighting, violent dancing, kicking and hitting. There is also display of emotional vulnerability, doubt, confusion and softness. When displayed in the same performance by the same person I feel optimistic about a feminism that bothers to try to change what is recognized and appraised, feminism that is not only about the oppressed taking space but also about the oppressors realizing their position, giving space and recognizing other values. Rather than trying to copy or embody a thinkable male stereotype Holzinger ignores what might be expected of a female body on stage. Expectations on female passivity are crushed and the “appropriate” from a normative perspective is let down.
There are important differences between a kick boxing fight that is essentially a game, an agreement with a very elaborate contract and violence outside those frames. Despite that, it is somehow difficult for me to deal with the fact that they are hitting each other just a couple of meters away from me. Even so, it brings my attention to the fact that I am passively part of an extremely violent world where oppressions and injustices doesn’t know any end. (There really seems to be no end to the physical violence instigated by the western world and economical interests). It is a somehow importantly irresponsible proposal, that doesn’t hide behind being correct or interesting in respect of trends and manners. It doesn’t tell me what to think about it, it doesn’t really make sense or finish what it started. It leaves me with fragments, echoes and empathies. It leaves me with work to do, in a state of energized confusion and excitement. It leaves me optimistic and with an interested “What just happened?”
Performance art goes legit
Experiential works are showing up at fairs more and more, and a small selection of institutions and niche collectors are snapping them up.
By Gareth Harris.
Performance art is no longer a fringe activity in the art world: the genre is gaining momentum at art fairs worldwide with more and more galleries showing works that would once have been considered unsellable in the marketplace. But this field is still very much a specialist, niche area with only a small selection of major museums and a handful of collectors prepared to invest both financially and intellectually in “live” works that must usually adhere to complex sets of instructions provided by the artists. Most collectors subsequently turn to tangible items: documentation of performance works in the form of films and photographs.
Visitors to Frieze New York encounter a work by Sehgal at Marian Goodman gallery first shown at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. The piece, the only work available on the stand, comprises a child actor posing as a manga character named Ann Lee, asking questions of visitors. The gallery declined to comment on the price or number of editions, but a trade source says that “Sehgal’s works now sell for at least $100,000”.
Meanwhile, Herald Street Gallery in London is showing Strangers, 2008-11, by the Argentinean artist Amalia Pica in the Art Unlimited section at Art Basel next month incorporating two actors who hold a string of bunting for hours on end (the price is undisclosed).
Visitors to last year’s Art Basel could acquire a limited edition video of Marina Abramovic’s 1977 performance of Imponderabilia for €180,000 from Sean Kelly gallery. The New York dealer restaged the work, where a nude man and woman make a doorway through which the public is forced to enter, at the Swiss fair. Kelly explains that the work is not sold as a “live” performance. “The video version was not available in the 1970s, but it was made available in the 1990s,” Kelly says, adding that both private and institutional collectors have acquired editions.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, artists including Bruce Nauman, Hermann Nitsch, Valie Export, Abramovic and Gina Pane made political, often shocking and, in many cases, deliberately anti-museum and anti-market performance pieces. RoseLee Goldberg, the curator and director of New York’s Performa Biennial, notes that museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney in New York, have found—as they have researched their collections—that they hold extensive quantities of historic material connected with performance, from drawings to photographs and writing (The Art Newspaper, November 2012). Collectors in the performance field have, similarly, tended to buy objects associated with the actions, such as videos and photographs, rather than restage the performance pieces.
At Frieze New York, Lorcan O’Neill Gallery from Rome is testing the market for work by the emerging, London-based performance artist Eddie Peake by showing his new spray painting pieces (£9,000-£15,000) and a recent neon work (£16,000), rather than any “live” works. Last July, Peake presented a performance work featuring nubile, sexed-up men and women in the Tanks, Tate’s new performance and video art spaces housed in former underground fuel containers.
Even the established White Cube gallery shies away from selling Peake’s live pieces. An exhibition of the artist’s works, which closed last month at the White Cube Bermondsey gallery in south London, included studio-based works alongside an evolving performance piece, that was not “for sale in its current incarnation”, says a gallery spokeswoman. “Works likeTouch, 2012, for which the artist staged a naked game of five-a-side football do, however, follow a set of instructions and are therefore more flexible to restage. Eddie is still exploring the commercial potential of his performance works, all of which are documented through photographs and film.”
Such documentation and material appeals to private collectors, many of which still consider conceptual live works, devoid of physical objects and items, too challenging. Sadie Coles gallery in London represents the UK artist Spartacus Chetwynd whose work comes in different formats: some pieces exist only as performances, others as films of a performance, and occasionally as sculptural installations which can include props or costumes from specific performances.
“Each work is unique in its definitions and is therefore treated differently. There are no hard-and-fast rules,” says Coles. “As with many large-scale works of art, or works of art that require a slightly more complicated commitment, the main clients are museums or private foundations.”
A few major European and US museums own live performance works including the Tate, which bought Roman Ondak’s work Good Feelings in Good Times, 2003, at London’s Frieze Art Fair in 2004. The work involves creating an “artificially-created queue” using no more than 12 volunteers and actors. The Centre Pompidou in Paris owns Sehgal’s This Situation, 2007. Meanwhile, Klaus Biesenbach, who organised the retrospective of Abramovic’s work at MoMA in 2010, “tipped the balance about how people view performance art”, says Sean Kelly.
“Performance art is geared towards institutional collectors as most works in this medium require time, space and preparation. Performance artists rarely create pieces with the intention of having them staged in a residential context,” says the New York art adviser Todd Levin, the director of the Levin Art Group. Offering performance works at fairs is risky as the market is limited and may not guarantee a commercial return.
“There’s pressure to keep things fresh at art fairs. One reason Marian Goodman can present this Sehgal work at Frieze New York is because she has a local gallery where works by all the other artists she represents can be on display for viewing and purchase,” Levin adds.
Sehgal makes it particularly taxing: he sells his performance art pieces by means of verbal transactions in the presence of a lawyer with no written contract. Instructions on how to re-enact his works are delivered literally by word-of-mouth, with collectors under strict orders never to photograph or video his “constructed situations”.
“Sehgal’s impact is still being felt. He is certainly the one who has pushed this idea the furthest, not only in terms of the initial economic transaction (how to buy his work)… but also in terms of how the spectator is addressed differently in a work that literally speaks to your individual subjectivity,” says Catherine Wood, the curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern in London.
This idea of selling “editioned live works”, as Wood calls them, has “become acceptable in the past five to ten years, where previously performance was seen as being anti-market and anti-institution”. The Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset have made, and acquired, works in this vein. In 2012 the city of Rotterdam paid an undisclosed fee for their piece It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, wherein a male participant hollers the eponymous title in a busy street of the Dutch city once a week. “This performance will go on forever,” Elmgreen says.
“Values in our society in general are less and less bound to physical materials,” says Elmgreen, adding that the duo recently boughtKreuzberger Pfütze (Kreuzberg Puddle), 2001, by the German artist Kirsten Pieroth. The piece, consisting of instructions and a certificate, allows Elmgreen and Dragset to draw water from a puddle in Berlin’s western Kreuzberg district and pour it out in another city.
Acquiring and showing concept-based works can prove problematic from both a curatorial and commercial point of view. “I think perhaps in the private realm of collecting such ‘purchases’ are more a form of patronage, rather than an investment-oriented decision, and so inevitably have a smaller pool of potential buyers,” says Wood. “Other artists don’t necessarily mind having the score or photographic document of the acquired performance shown, but Sehgal has made this impossible, which makes his position more radical but harder to sustain as a tradeable commodity perhaps.”
Documentation methods, copyright and re-enactment remain highly contentious topics. Abramovic believes that original work should be copyrighted and that artists’ permission must be sought for re-performance. Chris Burden, famous for being shot in the arm with a gun as part of his 1971 work Shoot, does not allow his works to be re-enacted. His performances are therefore not for sale as “concepts”, says his dealer, Gagosian gallery.
There are collectors, however, usually with their own large-scale foundation spaces, that are acquiring live art works. The German collector Julia Stoschek produced and presented kWh, 2002-09 by Sehgal at her 2,500 sq. m exhibition space in Düsseldorf in 2010 as part of her “Here and Now” performance art programme. The Greek shipping tycoon Dakis Joannou is also thought to own a work by Sehgal.
One couple who have taken up the challenge is the Washington, DC-based lawyer Aaron Levine and his wife Barbara who own key performance-based works, including Light/Dark, 1977, a film by Abramovic which shows the Serbian artist incessantly slapping her then lover, the German artist Ulay.
The Levines are swayed by the notion of acquiring a “concept” behind a work which, in theory, could be acted out in their living room, saying that performance art amounts to a “different kind of viewing experience for the collector; it’s not something that you hang over the couch”. But buyer beware: this market is so underdeveloped, art advisors are cautious. “This area is so cutting-edge, we do not yet have any first-hand experience in the area for our clients,” observes Jeff Rabin of the New York-based advisory firm Artvest Partners.
Christian Margol introducing Michael Clark
The incredible dancers of the Michael Clark Company from London present revolutionary contemporary dance in which the worlds of classical ballet, modern dance and explosive rock music meet and coexist in perfect harmony in their work “come, been and gone”.
The German newspaper FAZ said of his choreographies that “Dance is sexy again”, describing them as spatially perfect, flawlessly phrased and highly musical. Clark loves music: “Rock shaped me”, he says, and now rock shapes his style of dance. “come, been and gone” is therefore also a tribute to rock legends like David Bowie, whose song “Heroes” is included in the evening, as well as Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the Velvet Underground or Kraftwerk.
The Daily Express wrote: “During the pulsating climax of his new work, it really could be a night in a 1970s club with Bowie blaring through the sound system, a feeling of immortality running through your veins and a world full of possibilities.”
Choreography: Michael Clark
Dance: Harry Alexander, Kate Coyne, Julie Cunningham, Melissa Hetherington, Oxana Panchenko, Jonathan Ollivier, Benjamin Warbis, Simon Williams
Costumes: Stevie Stewart, Richard Torry, Michael Clark
Lighting design: Charles Atlas
Sound design: Andy Pink
Commissioned by barbicanbite09 and Dance Umbrella London, La Biennale di Venezia and Dansens Hus Stockholm as part of the European Network of Performing Arts (ENPARTS). A coproduction of barbicanbite09, Dance Umbrella, Michael Clark Company, Edinburgh International Festival, Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg and Maison des Arts de Créteil. The Michael Clark Company is supported by the Arts Council England.
Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on Ryan Trecartin
There is nothing else in today’s art world even remotely like Ryan Trecartin’s videos. Copying and pasting a crazy collage of dialects and accents, the protagonists—so many young, sexually ambiguous, wig-wearing and face-painted chatterboxes—deliver compu-pop poetry about their chronic over-existence. It’s a sci-fi theater of the absurd for our manically paced YouTube era, a singular vision created by Trecartin in collaboration with his creative partner, Lizzie Fitch.
Born in Webster, Tex., in 1981 and raised in rural Ohio, Trecartin was what he calls “a tech major” (film/animation/video) at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, where he lived with a group of art students who came to be the core of his collaborative team. He attracted the attention of the art world in 2004 with his senior thesis, a video called
A Family Finds Entertainment, which was posted online—as all his videos tend to be. Two years later he was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night,” and his first feature, I-Be Area, screened at New York’s Elizabeth Dee Gallery in 2007. By all critical accounts, Trecartin and Fitch’s immersive, setlike video installations (dubbed “sculptural theaters”) stole the show at the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” survey in 2009. And their tour-de-force seven-part suite, Any Ever (2009-10), which was presented at museums around the world, fixed Trecartin in the firmament.
Throughout all the hoopla of this meteoric rise, Trecartin and Fitch have kept a conspicuous distance from New York, opting instead to live and work in Providence, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami and now Los Angeles, where they have been based since 2010. In L.A., Fitch-Trecartin Studios—the essence of sprawl, low and vast—occupies a warehouse just off the freeway in Burbank. Shooting recently wrapped for a new group of multichannel videos (his first since Any Ever) that Trecartin is presenting inside five freestanding sculptural theaters in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni, at the 55th Venice Biennale. Retaining the awkward, blocky feel of its SketchUp origins, the L.A. set was one big room fragmented into themed zones replete with an enormous hot tub, a spinning bed, bleachers and at least a dozen disconnected toilets. But the set was deserted: party over. Trecartin and I spoke in April at his Los Feliz home and studio, where he had just resurfaced from his latest 30-hour-plus session editing these as-yet-untitled movies.
SARAH LEHRER-GRAIWER All of your videos are so layered and ambitious, I’m curious how you feel talking about a work when you’re still in the middle of it.
RYAN TRECARTIN Because I work so collaboratively, I never know what the works are fully going to be until they’re done. So I can’t really talk about them until then. It’s typical that the things I think they’re about end up being background linearities, or like a larger mesh across the movies. The most interesting concepts I’m working on at a particular time are not in the forefront of my brain; the script works as a vehicle to dig into deeper, non-frontal questions.
I structure the movies more to create opportunities or obstacles than as planned works. I definitely embrace the unintended, even in the editing. Often I discover plots or ideas that I didn’t know were there, and I then cut them into the work, altering the original script. I don’t title works until they’re finished.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Is this project for Venice a discrete work?
TRECARTIN It’s a first phase. I showed three movies in “Younger Than Jesus” and at the time I knew they were going to grow into a larger system of works, but I hadn’t conceived of Any Ever formally yet or its structure, which ended up being seven movies in total.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Are you at a comparable stage with this new work?
TRECARTIN Yeah, except that what I’m showing in Venice is complete in itself. I’ll continue to work with all the material we shot this spring and continue to shoot more, probably over the next couple of years. Instead of discovering its phase logic gradually through the process, Lizzie [Fitch] and I have planned the phases ahead of time, which changes the way we film and build sets. We’re deliberately challenging our process—the way we actually organize and make our ideas happen.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Do you mean logistically, as in the way you organize people?
TRECARTIN I mean everything. We now feel more of a responsibility to our work than we used to. Since 2011, we’ve had to think about continuing to exhibit our work and manage its installation so it shows the way we intend. (Our works are not easy to install.) I’m lucky to have a creative partnership where we believe in each other. You can do so much more with someone else than you can alone. One person’s ideas become less important, and it’s the exchange that matters. The nuance and particularity of how things are shared between people makes something special. I’m not interested in one-to-one ratios, but in what happens when many people’s associations merge in unexpected combinations.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Have you and Lizzie lived together since 2000, when you first began collaborating?
TRECARTIN Aside from gaps for logistical reasons, we pretty much have lived together the whole time. I’ve done everything with Lizzie. I have also lived near [artist] Rhett LaRue since 2000. The three of us have worked together, on and off, since 2005.
LEHRER-GRAIWER The movies are a focal point where your collaborative network converges.
TRECARTIN There’s this idea in these new scripts that an audience revolution takes place in which people are liberated. The movie supposes that if you ignore or abuse something long enough it’ll create an “I” and gain free will. The revolution generates multiple worlds that are interior, pioneering into consciousness rather than outward into space and matter. That begins an era of multiple, parallel worlds rather than one of leaders, audiences, crowds and mass.
LEHRER-GRAIWER The idea of making a sel—an “I”—out of ideas and nonhuman objects has been bubbling in your work for a while.
TRECARTIN That’s a very deep concept for me and shows up in all aspects of the work, even in the stand-alone sculptures that Lizzie and I make together, which I think of more as scripts, games, personalities or behaviors than sculptures.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Where did the “personality” for your new movie come from?
TRECARTIN I recently revisited some footage I shot back in 1999, basically right after The Blair Witch Project came out, when I was a senior in high school. It’s full of night vision. Watching my old footage now is so strange; people had a very different relationship to the camera. They didn’t want to be filmed. Then they either forgot the camera was there, which doesn’t happen now, or they narrated what they were doing. You can see how people’s relationship to the camera used to be really primitive.
These high school videos inspired a lot of this project’s content in a way that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. I’ve started thinking about the footage in relation to anthropology.
LEHRER-GRAIWER How so? As in going undercover in a subculture?
TRECARTIN Anthropology is one of those things that eludes me. The “study of humans” could mean anything. I’m interested in the way people simultaneously negotiate divergent presentations of themselves for a variety of contexts. American culture has always had people in occupations that have to do that—politicians, PR agents, narcs.
LEHRER-GRAIWER You play a character in the new movie who I’ve heard referred to by your collaborators as the “dick director.” What kind of director is that character and what kind of a director are you?
TRECARTIN My character was commenting on everyone’s delivery of their lines in a very linear and aggressive way, like that person just said this and here’s my response posted on a message board. He was very into stopping or blocking things from happening by narrating them in real time.
That’s the character’s agenda; as a director, I shoot from scripts very linearly. A script might be 15 pages and I just go straight through, line by line. Normally I don’t show anyone the script. Sometimes lines are assigned to people ahead of time and sometimes not. Sometimes I direct body language or encourage an accent. I used to break the script down into short lines five or six words long, and have someone say them over and over. They would say them so many times that they might forget what they were saying.
This time I fed people paragraph-long lines and told them to say what they thought I said back to the camera. That kind of distortion of the script has been important. It’s a very intense thing to put someone through. I’m asking for a lot of trust and I take that trust very seriously.
There were about a hundred people in this project, half I know well and half I’ve never worked with. The sets were built in a warehouse and are not domestic scale. I learned that the amount of physical space between you and a wall is significant. I was shocked by how much the space changed acting behaviors and me as a director.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Was the spaciousness freeing?
TRECARTIN No, the opposite! Free isn’t the right word. The architecture created a situation where people felt they should project, even though we miked them individually. It’s different than yelling. Someone trying to project their voice out is less subtle in their body. I try to avoid theater associations like projection. I like things that feel real, even if someone’s acting completely psycho, it should be convincing as a person being animated and bizarre. I only like put-ons when they are used to communicate an idea.
LEHRER-GRAIWER It seems like another important directorial decision was to shoot at night.
TRECARTIN But we always shoot all night long. That started years ago because I hated setting up lights; it ruins the flow. Night shoots are the easiest way to make sure no light comes in the windows.
I also realized that at night people are less likely to get phone calls and e-mails. The performances I’m looking for require being possessed and falling into a fragile zone that is easily ruined. On nighttime shoots, people are more in touch with edgier, perverse thoughts. Their associations are different than daytime associations. Unpredictable and repressed things come out when people get really tired.
LEHRER-GRAIWER That nocturnal quality feels timeless, the same way the sets are a no-place place. That unlocatable space is very specific to your videos.
TRECARTIN I don’t ever establish location when I’m shooting. Instead of a person saying something within a space, I want to think about the space being on top of or framing the words.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Does that pose a relationship between place and media? Or maybe place is just data located in a box or hard drive.
TRECARTIN I’m actually trying to think past technology at this point and more about creative desire. People want to feel situated and located, but they don’t want to feel like they’re a slave to anything. To deal with limitations of place, characters in the movie make “fourth-wall generators,” “fifth-wall randomizers,” “location situators” and “consciousness expanders,” forcing old forms of exchange into scenarios that allow something to be broken. I’m interested in establishing a structure of obedient behaviors so that obedience can trigger destructive impulses.
LEHRER-GRAIWER And give way to disobedience?
TRECARTIN Yeah. The first phase of this project is supposed to be like level one in a gaming system, where human ancestors are accessed as information. It’s a game and it’s also a university. In the first level of the game, no one has a name—or rather, everyone’s named Jenny at first.
LEHRER-GRAIWER How do you specifically address the idea of mainstream American youth culture? The world of this new movie seems to be overtly fratty, sorority, college, MTV, spring breaker-esque.
TRECARTIN And it’s accessed in a way that’s super-reduced and basic. The idea that “pop” and “mass” are more a constructed, marketing idea than a lived reality keeps coming up in the movie. Characters constantly say they don’t want to go Top 40 because they want to be niche and pick their own fans. They refuse to be filtered through a sense of “mass.”
LEHRER-GRAIWER Has this new body of work been influenced by the fact that you’ve been living in L.A.? You have a bigger budget and are using Hollywood professionals for the first time—like set builders and some professional actresses. Is your “dick director” character modeled on a Hollywood type?
TRECARTIN No. Directing happens in all fields, not just movie-making. I was thinking of my director character more as an animator. In this movie, humans evolve into animations. Then the animations generate their own free will. It’s suggested that, in the movies, no one is human after all, but just animated. However, basing the design of the set on different television conventions was in my mind because of being in Los Angeles. Sitcoms and game shows always shoot from the same angles where one wall, the fourth wall, is missing. We positioned several open sets around a central stage so it became a continuous 360-degree situation: no inside, no outside, no separate audience position, no clear delineation of roles, on or off stage.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Is that different from your previous movies?
TRECARTIN I’ve always done 360-degree sets, but this is the first time I took the idea outside of a domestic space. There were multiple cameras. If you were helping with the shoot you were in costume too. The crew, who appear in the shots, wear sweatshirts with the word “Witness” on them. They also wear green hats, because I associate green-screen color with production; there is a lot of green-screen color that I’m not keying out. My character also wears a Witness sweatshirt. He’s the most vocal Witness, though everyone in the sweatshirts is really part of the same conglomerate character. That character is the point of access for us viewers.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Your work has generally taken a positive, optimistic outlook on the prospect of subject formation today, despite the homogenizing force of global corporate culture. Does this movie take a darker turn?
TRECARTIN I do think I’ve taken a darker turn. I generally feel very positive, but pretty soon I think there are going to be basic freedoms and rights that we’re going to have to fight for.
All my movies have addressed that tipping point where one freedom replaces another. This has a lot to do with surveillance—not video camera surveillance, but the surveillance of people’s activities, and the creation of algorithms that allow programs, companies or governments to understand what you like, buy or own. I think this is exciting and scary. Rhett sent me an article about the automation of the court systems, suggesting computers could do a better job of judging a crime than humans. Now that sounds scary to me because, personally, I like feeling that if I had to I could talk my way out of something. Clearly we’re going to evolve into something beyond what we are now, so it doesn’t really matter.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Could you say more about that?
TRECARTIN Once technology makes it possible to alter our brains, we’re going to. Not everyone will. There will be more than one species of what are now humans. That split might follow class lines. Who knows? In the past couple of years I’ve felt like the outcome is not set. I feel more angst and anger than usual.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Does that angst correspond to your own trajectory of rapid success?
TRECARTIN I’m sure it does in some ways. But I try to only pay attention to expectations coming from my friends and peers, the people that I really care about. I don’t really have anything in particular to say about art-world success, because for the most part I feel extremely lucky and excited to have the resources to be able to focus on making art.
I felt a similar angst and anger during the making of I-Be Area . I think it’s a phase. When I made A Family Finds Entertainment , I was in a very positive state. With I-Be Area, I rebelled and made the process hard on myself. After beating myself up during I-Be Area, Any Ever [2009-10] came out in a very natural, inspired way. Any Ever has perversion and darkness but generally embraces the attitude that as long as you stay aware and utilize things that are happening to and around you, you’re still free.
This new project focuses more on basic human interactions, blending the lines between controlled experience and complete breakdown.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Breakdown as a way to get perspective?
TRECARTIN Yeah, to disassociate and fall apart. When a relationship stops being challenging and starts coasting, usually someone breaks the other person or themselves. Maybe humanity doesn’t actually like stability all that much.
LEHRER-GRAIWER You brought Parkour guys on set. Parkour stunts evolved out of military training on obstacle courses, right? And the whole spring-break vibe is very American. I’ve heard that a lot of props on your set were weaponized, like earmuffs stuffed with razor blades, as though any depiction of “mainstream America” would have a bellicose dimension.
TRECARTIN That’s a big part of it. People in the movie talk about funding wars as if that were a badge. Characters are always talking about how they’ve weaponized things, even family members. I weaponized the party gear, like big red Solo cups that shatter, to mirror the idea that something pleasant, communal and social can be used as a weapon.
LEHRER-GRAIWER You’re a fan of the TV show Killer Karaoke, which imposes risk-taking to exaggerate performance. Has that influenced this project?
TRECARTIN I love that show! It definitely inspired my directing style for this movie, now that I think about it. Movement didn’t happen like it used to in my work because shooting on one big open set actually produced a trapped feeling; so risk had to instigate movement.
A lot more happens in real time in this project. Normally I shoot to create material for the editing process, not for the live performances. This was different; the raw footage is really fun to watch.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Is that partly because you used some professional, celebrity actresses?
TRECARTIN We just used a few. I wanted to work with Molly Tarlov [from the MTV show Awkward], Aubrey Plaza [from Parks and Recreation] and Alia Shawkat [from Arrested Development]. Natalie Love and Jena Malone are in it, too. Jena was already a friend beforehand. I have always loved actresses in secondary roles who you wish were onscreen more.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Were they familiar with your practice?
TRECARTIN I don’t think so, except for Jena, but they watched it and said yes. It wasn’t that different from directing friends, which was great. They were good at saying something that sounds absurd and delivering it with a sense of decisiveness and confidence that’s controlled yet belligerent.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Do you think their age is part of why they were such a good fit?
TRECARTIN Yeah, they’re all generally my age or younger. I’m 32. People born in the ’80s, particularly ’86 and after, really do have a different way of accessing performance.
I’ve always been very unnostalgic about history, which is just as creative and malleable as the future. I don’t
think people need to be hung up on accuracy. A larger objective history is just not important. I think we’re moving into a world where, as everything gets captured and recorded, we’re gaining a new sense of time. Someday we’ll be able to time travel through information. The focus will then shift to intention and feelings.
I used to be fine with the idea that we supposedly make things to be maintained for history, but I don’t think that will matter in the future. If you’re making something for history or legacy or the ages, it’s in vain. The only thing that matters to me at this moment is making things for the present—and the future. It’s not about becoming a part of history. Timelessness is a romantic throwaway.
Currently on view Ryan Trecartin in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” at the 55th Venice Biennale, through Nov. 24.
Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer is a Los Angeles-based writer.
By Coco Fusco
The State of Detention: Performance, Politics, and the Cuban Public
The detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the Cuban government’s actions to prevent her performance from taking place in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza have made international news headlines in the past week. Public outrage about the censorship of the performance and concerns about Bruguera’s whereabouts have circulated in social media outside Cuba, but little in depth consideration of the context and implications of the performance has been available in English.
In the aftermath of the December 17 pronouncements by Barack Obama and Raul Castro about a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, Bruguera published a public letter to the two presidents and the Pope in which she proposed relocating her 2009 performance Tatlin’s Whisper #6 to the Plaza of the Revolution, thereby offering an open mic to the Cuban citizenry to express their views about their country’s future. According to Bruguera, she was encouraged by friends to carry out her proposal. Calling her project #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand), she used internet platforms to launch her performance from outside the island and was supported by a number of dissident groups and opposition blogs. Bruguera then travelled to Havana on December 26 and was immediately summoned to a meeting with the director of the National Council of the Fine Arts, Rubén Del Valle, who made it clear that she would not receive authorization or support from official cultural channels. His position was made public in an interview released after the December 27 meeting, as was the Cuban artist and writers’ union repudiation of Bruguera’s performance. On December 29, Bruguera tried to obtain authorization to use the plaza from the National Revolutionary Police. Her request was denied. She made public her intent to continue with the performance without any official support, and was detained on the morning of December 30. Several dissidents who had expressed solidarity with Bruguera’s project were either detained or placed under house arrest at the same time. Among them were Antonio Rodiles and Ailer González of Estado de SATS, blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband Reinaldo Escobar, activist Eliecer Avila, photographer Claudio Fuentes, and members of the activist group The Ladies in White. Performance artist and poet Amaury Pacheco was also detained near his home in Alamar, though he had not expressed any intention of attending the performance, and artist Luis Trápaga and filmmaker Boris González were arrested at the plaza. As of this writing, Pacheco and González remain in detention, together with a Cuban correspondent for the Madrid-based opposition blog Diario de Cuba and several opposition activists. Bruguera was released on December 31, but her passport was confiscated and, although she has not lived in Cuba for more than five years, she has been ordered to remain on the island for the next two to three months, while law enforcement determines whether or not to charge and try her for disrupting public order and resisting police. Since her first release, Bruguera has been detained two more times: first for calling a press conference and then for protesting the continued detention of some of her supporters (The most detailed and up-to-date reports on the detentions can be found in diariodecuba.com and 14ymedio.com).
Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version), 2009. HD video, 40:30 minutes. Documentation of the performance at the Tenth Havana Biennial, Central Patio of the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, Havana, Cuba. © Tania Bruguera. Blogger Yoani Sanchez (right) gives a one-minute speech within the performance.
The international outcry over of Bruguera’s detention does not associate it with the December 24 arrest of another artist, Danilo Maldonado Machadoaka El Sexto, who was apprehended when he was on his way to stage a performance in Havana’s Parque Central involving two pigs named Fidel and Raul. El Sexto has not been released and he was not granted an interview with state representatives prior to his arrest. This is probably due to the fact that he is not a member of the Cuban artist and writers’ union and does not command the international press attention that would lead to a rash of unfavorable articles such as those generated by the censorship of #Yo Tambien Exijo.
Media coverage of Bruguera’s performance in English, including a recent editorial in The New York Times, has expressed disappointment that freedom of expression was not respected and that opponents of the Cuban government continue to be subject to threats, harassment, and detention. For those who follow Cuban politics, this comes as no surprise. First of all, the Cuban government’s control over culture, media, and public discourse has been absolute for more than five decades, and vague promises of change are not tantamount to actual modifications in law or policing practices. Second, the recent agreement to swap political prisoners and reopen embassies is not in itself indicative of a political transformation in Cuba—negotiations leading to the release of political prisoners have taken place since 1962—in the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion—and talks leading to restored diplomatic relations have taken place on and off since the 1970s.
Fidel Castro reads a Spanish translation of Barack Obama’s autobiography.
Deeper consideration of Bruguera’s situation involves considering whether an artwork can effect political changes in the realm of civil rights and how an artwork might catalyze collective political action. The capacity for manifestations of “people power” to effect change depends on the participation of people in large numbers, and no artist or dissident group currently operating on the island has the capacity to marshal the Cuban citizenry. Cuba supporters contend that this is because of mass support for Cuba’s existing government, while Cuba’s critics argue that political will is suppressed by an authoritarian state. One of the main obstacles to the organizing collective political action outside state channels is technical, which is to say the weak communication infrastructure in Cuba. It is the country with the lowest level of connectivity in the hemisphere. Any attempt to convene a large-scale public gathering in Cuba is thwarted from the onset, not only by the country’s highly effective security apparatus, but also by the fact that the vast majority of Cubans lack access to the internet, cell phones, and home-based landlines.
Graffiti by Cuban artist El Sexto, who was arrested on December 24, 2014 on his way to a performance in Parque Central, Havana.
Bruguera’s reliance on the internet to convene the Cuban public has provoked a certain degree of skepticism from critics about her intentions. “The Cuban people” did not show up at the plaza and it is likely that most Cubans on the island have no idea of what #Yo Tambien Exijo is. Cuban dissidents supporting Bruguera have been quite vocal about their disappointment about Washington’s decision to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba. The dissidents see this as a capitulation to their government’s interests, and Bruguera’s performance has been interpreted by some of her critics as a means of interfering with the negotiations between the two governments. Although comparisons of Bruguera’s project to Occupy Wall Street have been made, there is no evidence of widespread organizing in Cuba that parallels the kind of mass mobilization that preceded the 2011 occupations of New York’s financial center or Tahrir Square. The only activist campaign that has been successful in drawing broad-based support for constitutional reform in Cuba was the Varela Project, spearheaded by Oswaldo Payá in 1998; the campaign was undermined by the arrests of numerous activists in 2003 and the death of Payá in 2012. State repression of protests in Cuba for the most part targets a small group of opposition activists, dissident musicians and artists, and the pattern of protest-repression-detention-release-protest has been repeating for several years without shifts in tactics on either side.
The state’s response to Bruguera’s performance combines usual and unusual elements for the Cuban context. No one in Cuba has the legal right according to Cuban law to use public spaces for demonstrations or cultural events without prior authorization—and it bears mentioning that similar restrictions exist in several other countries, including the United States. Such restrictions are strictly enforced with regard to actions in the Plaza of the Revolution, which is the Cuban equivalent of the White House lawn. The plaza is surrounded by key government offices and guarded round the clock and permissible activities are limited to tourists taking picture of Che’s giant silhouette and official ceremonies. In 2011, a group of Cuban dissidents received sentences ranging from three to five years for distributing anti-government leaflets in the same plaza. The Ladies in White, an activist group led by female relatives of political prisoners, were forcibly dragged out of the plaza by police in 2008.
This is the only known sketch of El Sexto’s performance planned for December 24, 2014. The performance did not take place but led to the artist’s detention.
The rhetorical attacks that were launched this week in government sponsored blogs against Bruguera deploy sadly familiar and paranoid nationalist rhetoric—she has been characterized as an agent provocateur supported by counterrevolutionary exile forces, functioning under the influence of foreign trends. Cuban artists in previous eras who dared to carry out unauthorized performances in the street or in state galleries were also censored and detained: Juan Sí Gonzalez was stripped of his artist union membership, made subject to public censure, and detained in the 1980s for conducting political performances on Havana streets. Angel Delgado was imprisoned for six months in 1990 for defecating on a Communist party newspaper in a Havana gallery. And in 1991, after poet María Elena Cruz Varela penned a public letter to Fidel Castro calling for democratic reforms that was signed by ten Cuban intellectuals, she was dragged out of her house by police and taunted by a crowd of government supporters while pages of her political writings were shoved down her throat. Cruz Varela received a two-year prison sentence, as did two filmmakers who attempted to document her arrest.
Protest image with the silhoette of Amaury Pacheco made in protest of his detention.
The relatively brief duration of this week’s detentions contrasts with Cuba’s treatment of dissenting voices in previous eras. As has been pointed out by Cuban human rights activists, Raul Castro employs a different strategy for managing dissent on the island—detentions are shorter but the rate of detention has increased since 2008. The amount of international media attention given to the machinery of Cuban state repression has also increased, particularly in relation to internationally known dissident figures. Thanks to the growth of independent journalism and blogging about Cuba in the past five years, it is much easier these days for people outside Cuba to obtain information about the processes and procedures that constitute the exercise of state control. The interplay between cultural bureaucracy and state security in Cuba is more transparent than ever, but this has not prevented the state from using force against its opponents. That said, the rhetoric used by Cuban cultural bureaucrats has become more nuanced in recent years. State supported bloggers may rail against Bruguera as a counterrevolutionary, but National Council of the Fine Arts president Rubén Del Valle took great pains to explain that she is a “child of the revolution” who has erred by engaging in a “reality show” that is more of a political provocation than an aesthetic gesture—in short he displays a capacity for and interest in cultural interpretation. Nonetheless, Del Valle insists on the prerogative of the state to authorize all cultural activity and to keep Cuban art free of politics, as well as the supreme power of the government to orchestrate the transformation of US-Cuba relations.
This poster alerts various official figures to Tania Bruguera’s recent detention by the Cuban police.
While art world cognoscenti around the world have been venting on Facebook and circulating petitions regarding Bruguera’s detention, and exiled Cuban intellectuals have been ruminating on the meaning of #Yo Tambien Exijo, little commentary has emerged from Cuban artists living on the island. After a deafening silence in the days prior to the performance, only a few artists have responded to press queries with terse expressions of regret about Bruguera’s detention. Cuban National Arts Prize winner Lázaro Saavedra issued the lengthiest public statement so far via his Galería I-mail on December 30, in which he critiqued Bruguera’s performance as a miscalculated attempt at “aRtivist action” that preaches to Cubans about something they already know too well, i.e. the limits on their freedom of expression, and allows the artist to advance herself professionally with minimal risk, since she resides abroad and enjoys a kind of media coverage that serves as a protective shield. Saavedra claims he would have preferred that Bruguera create a temporary autonomous zone in which the voices of Cubans who live in Cuba and are not well-known artists could actually have been heard. It seems that Saavedra presumes that Bruguera’s performance was supposed to reveal something unknown, or that placing the mechanism of repression under scrutiny in a performance is unnecessary if the Cuban people are already aware of how their government exerts control of them. There are too many examples of artworks that have called upon viewers to review the already known so as to see and understand it differently for such presumptions to be unquestionably sustainable.
While Saavedra rightfully draws a distinction between the meaning and effect of Bruguera’s performance in and outside Cuba, he dismisses the potential worth of staging a media intervention from Cuba for a foreign audience beyond its uses for professional advancement. Cuba may be an island but its culture does not exist solely for local consumption. Bruguera’s foreign audience is the only one at present that can easily consume the flow of information about her artistic proposals, political views, and serial detentions. The Cuban people remain outside the picture so to speak, but Cuba’s status as an art world superpower comes under scrutiny. Cuba draws thousands of foreigners to its cultural events each year and the smooth functioning of its promotional machinery depends on approval from and alliances with foreign institutions, benefactors, art world luminaries and tourists. Cuban artists living on the island rely heavily on income from sales to foreigners. In light of the fact that in the past year, artists and arts professionals invited to biennials in Sao Paulo and Sydney have exercised political will by expressing their opposition to financing from governments and corporate sponsors whose practices they consider unethical, it may well be time for art world cognoscenti who have for so long been charmed by Cuba’s eccentricities, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and relatively cheap art prices to consider what, beyond the convention of indignant public letters, might serve as a valid response to a state that imposes draconian measures to enforce its hegemonic control over public space and discourse.