The evening begins with Nora Stephens introducing herself and her onstage compatriots (Cecilie Beck, Eli Tamondong and Naomi Elena Ramirez) by read-singing from a sheet. Stephens credits a previous work for bringing the collaborators’ together, earnestly looking up from page to audience. “Welcome to our show,” the performers’ harmonize warmly, arms extended in greeting while colorful, glittery outfits sparkle as they move about. They come together in the center of the room and hold flower-like positions. Silently - slowly - the flowers wilt. Within minutes they are in a heap on the floor and begin to transform and undulate as the human bodies roll backwards into the space.
It was Friday night in the East Village and I decided to give Colby Cannon Welsh’s performance, "Millennials," a shot. I was not previously exposed to Welsh’s work but his flashy email invitation and direct invite caught my attention.
Upon arrival, I was herded into the brown brick lobby of the historic NYC Public Bath Building, now known as Bathhouse Studios. Two women holding iPads asked the crowd who wanted to give their phone numbers as a way to participate in the performance. They entered our anonymous digits into a Google form and later handed us a small piece of paper with instructions to leave our ringers on and place the call on speaker upon answering.
What will we do, and how will we survive doing it?
Arahmaiani and Ayana Evans in performance during 21st Century Suffragettes at Grace Exhibition Space.
The term “suffragette” was coined in 1903 by London journalist Charles Hands to mock and ridicule members of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the UK. Long since reified, curator Jill McDermid uses the term to conceptualize a contemporary “suffragette” in her Spring performance art series at Grace Exhibition Space and Rosekill Farm, 21st Century Suffragettes. The right to vote is analogized here by a right to perform, to speak, to present viewpoints and personal histories, to effect change regarding the positions and situations of women around the world.
Performing on Friday, April 29 at Grace’s famed second-floor loft on Broadway, neither Arahmaiani Feisal (who goes only by Arahmaiani) and Ayana Evans claim to represent all women, or put forward any specific changes to legislature. Instead, their feminist activism is personal, social, and rooted in the political contexts of their embodied lives.
Arahmaiani appears initially without costume, without need for a signifying white dress favored by late Edwardian-era European suffragettes and previous performance artists in this series alike. She wears jeans and clogs and walks into the center of the performance space carrying a white candle and meditation bells. Matter-of-factly, she describes her history of persecution and political censorship in and forced expatriation from her home country of Indonesia.
She begins by stating simply that she will ask audience members to perform. Because, she says, “in 1983 I was forced to leave my home after being arrested by the military…”
As a woman with mixed religious background and as a columnist, artist, and human rights activist, criticism and challenge to fundamentalist Islamist military regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia have left Arahmaiani under attack throughout most of her adult life. She has received death threats (to “drink her blood”) due to her art works "Ëtalase" and "Lingga-Yoni" and her columns and writing about LGBT issues and Buddhism in the newspapers Suara Merdeka ("Voice of Independence") and Kompas have endangered herself and other members of all-women artist groups. Arahmaini has escaped to Sydney, Perth, and Singapore, each time she is attacked refusing to stop criticizing the politicians and corporations that, Arahmaini writes, are usually supporting radical Islamists, using fear and terror to distract people attention from the “real serious problems politically and economically.”
Arahmaiani references “morality police” (shariah law enforcers) near the end of her speech and we are reminded of the 2013 proclamation in Lhokseumawe that women must sit side-saddle on motorbikes, since straddling is “sexually suggestive,” “unfeminine” and “un-Islamic.” In this light, Arahmaiani’s casual and “masculine” performance garb make sense and appears to be far more political than it may seem to Western women; instead of bloomers and short-brim round late Edwardian hat, Arahmaiani presents herself partially through her lack of a headscarf, her bare forearms, her powerful gaze coolly pouring into the eyes of the audience members sitting, crouching, and standing in a semi-circle around her.
Last month I attended Plays of Domesticity - an evening dedicated to the domestic stage and it's performability at Glasshouse in Brooklyn, NY. Run by artists, Lital Dotan & Eyal Perry, Glasshouse is a multi-purpose exhibition space with a history of promoting and challenging performance art amidst domestic archetypes.
Upon my arrival, Lital quietly guided me downstairs to a crowded nook where Zach Trebino presented “Story of the Eye.” Despite my elevated stairwell view, I could barely see the performance. I eventually saw a woman, skirt raised, stroking a cucumber positioned Lynda Benglis-style. Before I knew it, the audience was clapping and moving on to the next performance location. What did I just see? (Or rather, not see?) Time restrictions and space limitations quickly became a dominating element to the evening’s curation.
While getting a glass of wine, I discovered two alternating performance schedules. Each artist was given two, twenty-minute time slots so viewers could experience all the works but…. this is performance art, it never works out as planned.
I tiptoed upstairs and caught the final moments of Sara Debevec’s, Cockroach. Outfitted in a cockroach mask, Debevec spoke through a vocoder about the challenges of being, well, a cockroach. Debevec’s humor undoubtedly drew from her own apartment residency woes, resulting in a monologue befitting to the NYC audience. Her performance was entertaining but I do not (and likely will not ever) hold empathy for a cockroach. (Sorry Sara!)
The performance schedule led me to the downstairs living room where two actresses casually presented “Happy Returns” by Natalie Bates. The somber narrative explored a deceased character’s need for forgiveness in hopes of reaching the “Rainbow Room” of heaven.
Across the hall, Ivy Castellanos and 4 female performers clad in black attire entered the lower level gallery with tools, duct tape, nails, black trash bags, rectangular black boxes and red caution tape. Each performer remained focused on their own set of tools and tasks. Despite the insinuation of material, no objects were fabricated. Ivy wrapped shiny black tape around a steel phallus form while chaos struck all around her. 5 minutes into the performance, I found myself lost amidst the disjointed resonance of nails being pummeled, foam core being cut with a saw-tooth blade and the slick swish of black plastic bags gathering air. With eyes open, Castellanos’ performance imagery was a whirlwind of moving black shapes - With eyes closed - a complex composition.
Unfortunately, I missed roughly half of the performances presented throughout the evening including those by Jenni Messner, Mia Schachter and Tusia Dabrowska. But, like I said before, no matter the pre-planned structure, performance art always seems to create its own time/space/anti-structure which is precisely the magic that Glasshouse cultivates. You can check out upcoming exhibitions at Glasshouse here! - QUINN DUKES
Bushwick-based Wild Torus’ baccanale at The Pharmacy (one of Satellite Art Fair’s 2015 Miami art week locations and an actual former pharmacy) culminated in 5-7 naked performers writhing and wrestling (lube, paint and flour-covered) on a square dance floor covered in garbage bag-like plastic tarp. Viewer-participants (participation is encouraged at Wild Torus happenings) were offered black trash bags to cover their art-fair finery so that they could stand at close range without being completely dusted by flour or splattered with paint and lube, which was being doled out in plastic wine glasses by two young men with shaved heads. These attendants were encouraging in spite of what could be read as an intimidating appearance: tall, wiry, shirtless and vaguely punk, wearing jean cutoff shorts. They encouraged viewers to pour the fluids over the wrestling, contact-improvisational knot of bodies on the mat. Flour and fluids: poured on by turns, lubing up the orgiastic mass and then powdering it down.
On the wall behind, a video projection of the live action spanned nearly from floor to ceiling, offering the option to experience the scene at hand as a mediated spectacle. This was Miami art week after all, and many of us who were visiting art fairs had spent plenty of time in recent days looking at and snapping shots of artworks through the screens of our smartphones. For a performance collective that specializes in viewer participation, the video projection was an apt comment on touristic looking vs. bodily engagement. Both were available modes of interaction with the work, though most viewers seemed to be compelled by the live action.
One might rightly question the relevance of Wild Torus’ work more than 50 years after Carolee Schneemann's Meat Joy, Allan Kaprow’s happenings and countless other examples of live art with multiple bodies. But for those of us too young to have attended these now historic performances, the relevance is that we get to experience such a performance in real time and in the flesh. It is one thing to know that such events have taken place in the history of art, and entirely another to negotiate the the social situation generated by the live action.
And in spite of the orgiastic, chaotic character of Wild Torus’ performance, it is the subtle social negotiations that make it interesting. Within our culture of internet pornography, media spectacle, and a half-century of body art, the shock value of coed naked wrestling is negligible. What remains potent is the negotiation between Wild Torus members and audience members as they are invited to participate in the performance ritual. Does one feel coerced, uncomfortable, excited by the invitation to pour flour and paint on the performers? Does one put on the garbage bag poncho so that one can stand close to the action, or does one keep one’s distance so that one’s clothes and shoes stay clean? Does one, in fact, jump into the action on the mat? These options are all available for the viewer / participant. Even more than the content or choreography of the Wild Torus performance, it was the exposition of these choices that was of interest. The performance highlighted the fact that we are constantly negotiating our engagement with other bodies in space and that the boundaries of this engagement are up to us. - Alexandra Hammond, Miami Art Week Correspondent for Performance Is Alive
QUINN DUKES is a Brooklyn, NY based performance artist, activist and curator.