In Politics We Trust: Observing JUST SITUATIONS
Various Locations across Brooklyn, NYC | July 2017
By Polina Riabova
Sitting at Panoply Performance Lab (Brooklyn, NY) on Thursday, July 20th I am sweating buckets. “It’s so HOT in there!” I say to Esther Neff, organizer of JUST SITUATIONS (alongside Kaia Gilje and Leili Huzaibah) as I smoke in-between performances.
“It’s just because there’s so many people,” Esther tells me.
JUST SITUATIONS, a “hybrid-convention, festival and ‘political science fair’” with an intent to create alternative structures and “modes” of being under a capitalist, power-hungry system through performative methods, spanned a total of 10 days (July 13 - 23). For an intensive festival involving more than 60 performers (or ‘situators’), the crowd makes sense.
On Thursday, July 20th, Danielle Abrams hands out pink bouncy balls to audience members and tells us about the movie Pinky, then reads an account of their experiences as a biracial, light-skinned person of Jewish and Black descent. Later someone asks me what I think of the piece.
“It made me really uncomfortable because I know I’ve done similar things without knowing as a white person,” I say. “What did you think?”
“It was pertinent.”
Ayana Evans ties us together and leads us out of the venue to a newly opened coffee shop down the block. Under Ayana’s guidance, we dance. Then are led back. Crossing the street Ayana says, “Now we’re normal. As normal as we’re gonna be.” She ends her performance with “That’s it” and I feel personally affronted. But I always do. To quote Ayana -
Panoply’s neighbors take pictures of us tied together walking back. Someone escapes the rope and trips, laughing.
Nicole Goodwin’s performance is vulnerable and potent. Within the parameters of what feels like an undisclosed ritual to the viewer, Nicole undressed herself both literally and figuratively. Like an arrow on a compass she turns and pauses and speaks to the four corners of the room,
In places where I can’t relate, Nicole makes me understand.
At Panoply the week prior on Friday, July 14th Shawn Escarciga is in need of volunteers. “All right, Polina, come on up.” Shawn examines the things in his tote bag, sips on a beer, tells personal anecdotes regarding each item and asks me to write down one sentence by way of summary. “Showing my nephew dresses & wigs :D” or, “Bad dates with white men.”
He takes out a pack of gum and offers one to me. I think about romantic rejection and art under capitalism, I watch the audience watching Shawn, and when I return my chair and myself to original position I see Shawn arrange flowers in the empty beer bottle then dance to my least favorite Carly Rae Jepsen song (but a Carly song nonetheless).
yon Tande spits pink paint on a white sheet as part of a heartbreaking performance about AIDS, which I associate with police brutality until later recollection. I try not to cry throughout and almost succeed.
On the second week of the festival (Friday, July 21st) making my way to Grace Exhibition Space (Brooklyn, NY) from home blaring music, I cross the street and see artists I know standing by the entrance. Someone says, “I’m sorry but when there’s reading during a performance I just can’t pay attention.”
Someone else to me, “You’re wearing THAT dress? It’s smoldering.”
Upstairs there’s a group of people gathered around a table. Eshan Rafi is performing. Papers are scattered all over and everyone is taking turns reading, seemingly at random. I can’t hear anything and for the next 15 minutes as some leave the circle and others join, I spend my time wondering if I should make an attempt to be a part of it or not. The piece ends when Esther Neff informs the artist they are short on time and must wrap up.
Elaine Thap wears a white dress, knee-high white boots and asks for Cancer and Leo volunteers. She spends the performance instructing the audience what to do in quirky ways with the help of a collaborator/volunteer, creating a kind of meta-environment.
I’m tipsy from a beer and Elaine’s performance - there’s a video of Tsedaye Makonnon from ABC No Rio a few years ago dancing with a Trader Joe’s paper bag on her head. Makonnon leads us outside and hands out bags to willing participants. She instructs them how to move and everyone is chanting,
“Keep it right, keep it light.”
Making a salt circle around the dancers, throwing salt. I notice I’m sweating profusely through my thrift-store dress and it’s started to smell a way I never want to smell in public.
Back upstairs the video continues. In the bathroom I take off my dress and tie it around my middle, feeling cooler than I should. When I rejoin the group Tsedaye is handing out tequila shots and lime. I take mine giddily and wait to see if we’re supposed to take the shot together, but when Esther swallow hers on my right I promptly do the same.
I show up late in the afternoon on the last day of the festival (Sunday, July 23rd). The handful of people who are there are workshopping with Lorene Bouboushian. It looks intense and fun. I have terrible period cramps and later Lorene kindly gives me Advil for the pain. Brian McCorkle (of Panoply) makes me feel welcome and lets me know that once the workshop is over, everyone is invited to come to Raki Malhotra’s house for the final performance.
After Lorene’s workshop I help clean up, talk to IV Castellanos (whose performance at Panoply earlier in the week was characteristically simple and direct) and Kaia Gilje and get the address for Raki’s house.
“See you,” I tell the group and Leili asks, “Are you coming to Raki’s?”
She is sincere, and I find I’m so touched by her gratitude.
Getting off the subway on my way to Raki’s, I stop by a deli for tampons and unsalted almonds. Clinton Hill (and being alone) both inexplicably remind me of Russia.
At Raki’s there is a small furry dog who barks a lot and white walls. “Raki’s apartment is so nice,” I text. “I’m going to put my phone away and take part in the performance though so I’ll talk to you later.”
I plug my phone to charge.
Raki tells us to pick a room. She hands vegetables to two of the participants and instructs them to go into the kitchen. In-between the two rooms there’s a chair, and she sits me in it.
Raki moves throughout the apartment and says things like, “I have not changed my positioning. I’m with you, it’s us. I promise.” She creates a triangle using silver tape with the chair at its head.
“I’m here. I’m with you. Not everyone, not everyone. I promise.”
Raki’s work makes me feel like I’m in an alternate universe, it makes me create a character for her based on the ideas she projects. It’s easy to get lost within the themes she’s manifesting and I love to.
I end up in the second room where an artist is asking everyone about zodiac signs. Elizabeth Lamb reveals she is a Cancer/Gemini cusp.
“I LOVE Cancers, Geminis and Leos,” I say.
Adriana Disman asks about my chart and I explain that being born in Russia, I don’t know my exact time of birth. Going by the two different time estimates my parents have given me I’m either a Taurus or a Gemini moon, and since I hate most Taurus signs I know I choose to go with Gemini. Everyone laughs when I say I hate the Taurus sign but I’m being serious. One time I shoplifted a disposable camera at a Walgreens in Times Square in front of my Taurus friend and she judged me so much for it I never recovered. Later I see Adriana comment on an Instagram post by Esther Neff, “Pragmatic Taurus” and think, “Shit, I hope she’s not a Taurus.” [Editor’s note: I’m a Taurus.]
In the first room, to which I migrate over despite Raki’s instructions, the audience discusses the performance. “It’s like when people manipulate other people with gossip,” Esther says. She is referring to Raki going back and forth between the two groups insisting that she’s with US, not them, she promises.
Everyone’s drinking brown liquor except me, and when we find a box with instructions to utilize the items in it, I find myself on the fire escape holding a sparkle as Elaine Thap takes a group selfie. Lorene and I climb up to the roof and talk about biking in New York as we’re looking down on the neighborhood below.
“This reminds me of Queens,” I say.
We go back using the stairs and ring the doorbell, which startles the small fluffy dog and we enter the apartment to a series of barks. The table is being set with food prepared by Brian and IV and I can tell it’s time for me to go.
Raki says, “I hope you come again just to spend time here.”
On the train I listen to “Cranes In the Sky” by Solange as I wait to feel better, my sense of self to return and the anxiety to leave. When I get home I find the almonds from the deli spilled out everywhere.
JUST SITUATIONS as I experienced it, at times felt like any other performance event and at others like an intimate discourse between the artists involved. More than once the irony of witnessing inherent hierarchies within social dynamics during a festival with “JUST” in the title did not escape me. Yet the attempt to create honest work challenging our preconceived notions of power and status quo is one that should be made by artists of all disciplines, and it was gratifying to see it done explicitly here.
ABOUT PERFORMANCE IS ALIVE CORRESPONDENT, POLINA RIABOVA // Polina Riabova is a Russian-born bilingual poet and writer and co-founder of an independent cooperative record label based in Brooklyn, Borrowed Birds Records. In her performance work she explores the intersection between public and private life and the influence it exerts on our understanding of ourselves and others as well as the complexity of interpersonal relationships and themes of vulnerability using a mix of found objects, visuals and sound.
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Sarah G. Sharp