During my time visiting Martinique for the International Performance Art Festival (FIAP 2019), I was introduced to several new performance artists, performance curators and critics. It was refreshing to witness the niche discipline of performance art being supported by a week-long festival. I also had an opportunity to witness work from a few familiar artists including that of the well known Brooklyn-based performance artist, Miao Jiaxin.
Miao presented a durational performance entitled Border within the Fort de France's central Meat Market. Despite the age and heavy use of the location, Miao offered a very orderly installation composed of 2 cans of paint, 3 smoke alarms, 2 plastic basins, 2 traffic cones all sitting on top of a paper runway. Following the performance, I interviewed Miao to learn more about the material selections and conceptual intent.
My art is trying to be emotionlessly emotional. Because I am wordlessly anxious.
QUINN DUKES: When you received the invitation to perform, what was the first thing you researched?
MIAO JIAXIN: To be very honest, I looked up on the map to find where Martinique is located, and asked Wikipedia why the heck people are French in the Caribbean.
QD: What draws you to present durational performance?
MJX: I always have awareness and attempt to avoid drama in performance practices. This includes minimal stage setup, plain lighting, mono sound and non-narrative actions. Durational performances cannot avoid repetition and endurance. There are situations where audiences can come back and allows looking around at different durational pieces progressing in the same time during a festival event. But sometimes curators would also like to have audiences focus on a single durational performance with no distractions. In this case, repetition would slowly add on the weight and power to the piece, and leads audiences to go through the process of abstraction and meditation. Eventually art is a suggestive gesture, and you would tell your own feelings and stories. By understanding this and given the space, time and focus, instead of creating dramas, I decided to present the durational performance.
QD: Is the border a general border or referring specifically to China/USA?
MJX: The performance certainly carries concerns of the border issues between countries, cultural conflicts among ethnical groups, as well as the thought for the 30 year anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin wall, the negotiable and non negotiable issues between different regimes, different religious and political beliefs. As a Chinese immigrant to the US, my personal life experience certainly leads me to be part of the conflict as well as the melt. This also particularly applies to the situation in Martinique, as a Caribbean department of France in Europe.
People speak the same language because of colonialism, apart from that, there is too much difference on each side of the visible and invisible border of territories. Similarly, we have Hong Kong and Mainland China. There are even more complicated relationship and roots intertwined in history and modern history. Borders separate and borders protect at the same time, as we are living through globalization, universal values as well as diversity.
QD: Do you see your work as a form of protest?
MJX: I do not protest in art. And I don’t try. Because I believe good art essentially resists and rebels. My art is trying to be emotionlessly emotional. Because I am wordlessly anxious. If I do know what to protest, I choose not to do it with art.
QD: Did you select the meat market as a location?
MJX: I didn’t get to choose. But it turned out a perfect sized venue.
QD: How do you feel about your performance piece?
MJX: I experienced the piece like an audience while performing, because I didn’t know where it would go, how long it would last and what the result would turn out to be. I was performing a task or a score. I was as curious as the audience.
QD: This performance required a significant amount of balance, how did your physically prepare for the work?
MJX: Haha. Again, I didn’t know that it would become so difficult. I think that I was just physically prepared and very much focused at the moment. If I fell, it would add a bit of drama which I don’t mind too much, but the task would continue.
QD: Why fire alarms? The piercing pitch was a bit of a challenge! Is that what you wanted your viewers to experience?
MJX: When fire alarms/smoke detectors run out of battery or expired, they chirp with extremely high pitch every 30 seconds. My art inspirations usually come from urban life experience, and the major experience to me is anxiety triggered by elements of daily life. I often use materials such as the safety alarms, clocks, siren and strobe lights. They mean to protect but they also disturb you with levels of aggression, and keep us alert until it becomes a new norm. So the audiences would go through the concentrated moments of our daily life with me, and eventually to find out the rhythm and beauty out of it.
QD: Can you talk about the decision for a runway or the reference to it? Would you have done the piece directly on the stones if you had the option?
MJX: I am used to being given large spaces and freedom but still try to setup limitations. It slowly becomes my art methodology. I guess it was the same way I was brought up in China and in the populated urban environment, that we have a large territory but limited space for individuals, and further more we have a so called "people’s democracy" but we don’t have freedom of speech. Growing up in China teaches me to seek freedom and possibilities within limitation and repression. Setting up a runway was my natural thought with no other options. Thank you for asking me this question! This helps me to think.
QD: Any insight into the structure of the marching intervals?
MJX: The performance idea formed at the same time with the discovery of these expired smoke detectors. They one day started to disturb me every 30 seconds. Within one week, I had 4 that expired. When the 4th one started to beep, I basically went back to the trash bin to find the other 3 that I dumped. It was a perfect timer for task based performances. I believe I will use them again in the future.
QD: Your steps forward seemed militant. Have you served in the military?
MJX: I have never been in the military. But I was aware the steps were robotic and mechanic. There is no rehearsal for most of my performances. I didn’t know the floor could be that slippery with the fresh paint. Stepping in a military style helped me to keep the balance. I sort of hesitated and then asked myself what was the meaning of such steps in the performance. After several rounds, I figured that going across the border is more or less a kind of invasion with or without intentions, or it depends on how we understand it, what level of respect we carry, and what the consequences it might be.
QD: Why did you choose black and white paint?
MJX: Black and white is the visual consistency from my previous performances where you find the attempt of simplicity and abbreviation, and Minimalism is the influence. In this specific performance, I need these 2 contrasting colors to represent each side of the border set up in the performance installation, and it helps the audiences to enter the sort of game with me.
QD: I was surprised to see that the paint ultimately became gray, were you?
MJX: I was expecting that to end the performance. It’s my vision of America, as well as globalization and diversity. It’s not just black and white in many aspects. The melting pot allows the existence of layers shades of gray, in different forms, being freshly wet or already dry.
QD: Now that some time has passed, what did performing this piece in Martinique mean to you and the performance?
MJX: It means less to me now, it encourages me to move on with the experience I learned physically and emotionally. I hope it more so inspired the festival and audiences. I noticed many locals stayed until the last moment and some even came up with questions as well as the share of their own thoughts. And of course thank you for all these questions, it helped me to wrap up my thoughts concerning the make of this performance.
QD: You're very welcome! Thank you for taking time to offer further insight into your performance for FIAP and into your personal practice.