Performancy Forum: Civic Reflex / Reflejo Civico
by Luke Mannarino
Over the course of six evenings from April to November of 2018, Panoply Performance Laboratory will be programming artist’s who will be “sustaining and framing ‘civic’, ‘civil’, and ‘reflexive’ performance practices and performance theories.”
The first two installments of Civic Reflex / Reflejo Civico took place in April and May of this year. Some necessary time has passed since the two evenings have happened, and taking the time now to reflect upon them has been an important part of the process. I will be covering each of the performance evenings not only to generate written documentations of each performance but with the intention of placing them all into context with each other.
April 21, 2018
Rina Espiritu starts off the night by handing out double sided puzzle pieces to audience members for us to collaborate on assembling. Once the puzzle finally came together, it depicted on one side a statue of a man with a javelin entitled “white man with muscles” and the other with images, and quotes with facts about the Igorot people, an indigenous population native to the Philippines. After this puzzle was completed, the audience took a seat in front of Espiritu who hosted a conversation between herself and Nick Fracaro, co-Artistic Director of International Culture Lab and organizer of the Coney Island Ritual Cabaret, a performance festival that took place in March 2018. Espiritu tells the audience that this conversation is the first time she and Fracaro have interacted since removing herself from the festival because of what felt like a lot of pushback over email exchange.
Fracaro enters, embodying a tall Uncle Sam caricature on stilts, who saunters into the space and takes a seat on a tiny chair atop a taller bar chair. Espiritu gives context about the situation, where she was to perform in the festival with a proposal that would call attention to the history of the Igorot people on Coney Island, where they were taken from the Philippines and forced to perform rituals for audiences in the early 20th century. At first the conversation seems to start out with Fracaro explaining that both the organizers of the festival and the Coney Island foundation had strong concerns the piece would not fit the evening because they wanted “Ritual Cabaret” to be more entertainment than political. This however is contrary to how Fracaro refers to cabaret’s origins where anyone is invited on stage to make political statements. Through their discussion it becomes clearer that the organizers need to take accountability for their racist bias that left Espiritu no choice but to leave the festival. Espiritu recounts her experience and feelings around feeling pushed out, wondering how a Filipino immigrant growing up in New York as a teenager never learned about this history through school or any other source. Espiritu does the labor for Fracaro and the audience, trying to work out the holes to make sure there was no miscommunication.
For me, Espiritu’s inability to perform her proposed piece in this festival, is not only a continuation of the erasure of the dirty stains in Coney Island’s history, but also on a grander scale the erasure of the histories and stories of black and brown folxs in America. As she speaks, Uncle Sam rocks on a rickety tall throne, sweating, fidgeting and removing his hat, adjusting his stilt straps, at a loss to coherently reflect on his actions whether he was aware of them or not. This was like watching news correspondence with the Trump Administration, but it was worse because it was real, a reminder of systematic racism that exists in our backyard, in our community. The discussion ended with the possibilities and hope that Espiritu will continue this work, with our without the blessing, or even the understanding of CIUSA.
Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sanchez performs second. He begins with a projected picture of him as a child. He stands in front of the projection, mimicking the gestures closely, all the way down to the clothes and curling of the feet. Lundberg Torres-Sanchez’s performance addresses his identity as a Colombian artist who was adopted by an American family through a combination of actions and storytelling. He baptizes himself in a kiddy pool of water, puts white paint all over his face, and force feeds himself a mountain of starches like rice, potatoes, roll, and plantains, repeating over and over in English and Spanish: “I must finish. I must finish because I am a dutiful son. I don’t want to be another stubborn and insistent man in your life.” While eating he tells the audience about some of his first interactions and conversations with his birth mother, asking about their shared history. It seems he is not able to have her open up too much but he does eventually learn that his father is actually his mother’s rapist. Time passes and he even invites the audience to help him finish. As a viewer my stomach was in knots, and I was unable to tell if it was from imagining the artist’s full belly as my own or the guilt and nostalgia of missing my own mother.
Slowly the mound of food begins to reveal a massive cow tongue. The artist moves over to a tape recorder and begins to play a homemade “Learn Spanish” tape. Words begin with greetings like “hello” and “thank you”, and progress to words like “to choke” and “tongue”. The tape then plays for about 20 minutes, in which time the artist deep-throats and shoves the cow tongue down their throat, gagging, choking, and drooling before eventually chewing and swallowing a large bite.
The last live performance of the evening was by Diane Dwyer. A professor as well as an artist, Dwyer decides to give us a PowerPoint presentation. Dwyer shows images of her mother who is a school principal, dressed up in a turkey costume as an incentive to get the kids to donate for the food pantry. She talks about her mother as someone who played a role in her own desire to become a teacher.
Dwyer continues on about teaching freshman foundation classes at Parsons, critiquing the quotes on their website as the best design school and proceeds to then talk about sustainable design. She poses questions to the audience about the necessity of it, whether we need these kinds of objects that make life “easier” and the ridiculousness of “sustainable” inventions like pizza scissors. “Sustainable design is not trying to be good, but only less bad . Why do we want to just be less bad when we can actually be better?”. Dwyer trails from this point to then talk about these objects and how as humans we now begin to lose our relationship to them, we do not know how to fix these things anymore, our ability to understand these objects and the “mechanics” of replacing parts becomes lost, and everything becomes disposable. Dwyer ends the performance by telling the audience to stand, and convinces us to loudly sing the alphabet.
Dwyer also mentions to the audience many times how sometimes she selfishly likes to just make folks think like her, in a way that feels joking and light hearted, but not without some hint of seriousness. Dwyer’s work often takes this humorous perspective upon serious topics, making the audience laugh and chuckle but not without having us think about not only what ideas she wants us to believe, but how we take everything a teacher, an institution, or a leader with an influential role will say as truth, whether it is or isn’t.
May 26, 2018
Pei Ling Ho begins the second installment of “Civic Reflex”. Her performance starts with her talking about being named Cindy, a name she never felt suited her. She introduced herself as Cindy to each member of the audience, inviting us to respond by introducing ourselves back. She then tells the story of asking her father why he named her Cindy, and then what his name was. She reenacts his response, and draws a square around her on the ground using chalk. Ho takes little flashlights pointed at the square, clicking them on and off like Morse code. Ho then proceeds to whisper to each person in the room, which I then discover is her giving each of us instructions. One person began to draw more squares into a path that leads outside, my instruction was to move parts of my body in the squares that were not awake, and to use multiple squares if needed. It seemed this instruction was similar for others, and maybe slightly different as some folks participated somewhere in between moving or lying with a part of their body in a square.
Eventually the squares lead us outside, where there was a small red bucket with illuminated hard candy inside atop Ho’s lap. Participants continued to either walk the path to the outside or interact in the squares with their different instructions. When the audience fully made it outside, she walks with the bucket offering a piece of the candy to each audience member and ending the piece.
Nana Ama Bentsi-Enchill (Ama BE) continues with audience participation but instead the artist is using ritual and tradition to adorn and treat the audience. The performer was dressed in all white and has their face covered by what appears to be a white lace mask. She begins the performance by entering the room and standing in a ring of white branches and sorts through a metal bowl of flowers, adorning herself with large dry leaves. An audio track of the artist talking about important African traditions, manners, and basic etiquettes plays throughout.
As the recording plays, she carries the bowl of flowers around the room. For each type of flower the artist either breaks it in their hands, stroking them with just the petals or pressing the flowers against their cheeks. This action becomes even more intimate as we hear her talking about the incredible generosity and hospitality found in African tradition. In a room with intense heat, she sweats, balances, and bends over backwards to take care of every audience member. The audience receives her gifts and holds them in a respectful way.
The closing performance of the evening was Daniel Gonzalez with Animals Against Humans, a noise set. The room is lit with blue light from the projector, mirror shards hanging on strings over the audience. The projector streams mixtures of images from bodies to light and abstract shapes. Gonzales starts by lighting sage, handing it to audience members, eventually handing stones and bones to audience members from a small Crown Royal bag. The performer’s voice drones in and out from speech to screams, talking about connecting to the earth and how we as humans have lost touch with nature, an almost futurist perspective on ritual in an Information Age.
Panoply Performance Laboratory has proven their program is testing our reflexes as not just an audience but participants. In conjunction we see the artist testing their boundaries of existing “civic duties” and reshaping them when also taking into account personal identities and processes. Come the fall one can expect nothing less than challenging themselves alongside the work.
Performancy Forum: Civic Reflex / Reflejo Civico will continue on September 29th, October 20th and November 10th at Panoply Performance Laboratory in Brooklyn, NY.
For a schedule and more information please visit reflejocivico.civicreflex.us/.