Body As Omen – Witness

By Sheilah Wilson

Editor’s Note: The following text and images were originally printed in a catalog that was handed out during the Body As Omen performance event on June 28th, 2014 at Ortega y Gasset Projects.This content (text and images) has been republished with the permission of the show’s curator and the writer of this article, Sheilah Wilson.

I just happened to be in the room while Rachel Mason was putting on her makeup. I wasn’t watching per se, but I overheard the conversation with her partner. She was saying, “You know, this white face paint just isn’t so good. It tends to kind of fade over time; it just doesn’t stay. Frank has this white face paint that really stays. It’s more expensive, so sometimes I mix half of that stuff with half of this cheaper stuff.”

In retrospect, it seems like the perfect anecdote to begin — painting the face as tangible theatrical act highlights the desire for escape, and the ultimate inescapability, from the body. The paint only covers for so long. It is still the body ever-present, underneath.

This show proved both interesting and timely: partly for its embrace of performance when it is unfashionable to bring the discomfort of the body into view, partly because of the radical potential of ephemerality in an art world primarily driven by-product.

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Detail of Baker Overstreet performance artifacts, blue plastic circle, childs chair, pointer, stairs, lights, suitcase (JUNE) 2014.

The emphasis on ephemerality shifted when the gallery became a holder for artifacts from the performances. This show followed from, and was created by, the performances. The objects are of two worlds. They are imbued with an urgency and aura because of the effort exerted onto and into them. The performances used a composition of available and recognizable objects acting as signs from our familiar world. The performances collaged, added, subtracted and mutated the original intent of the object, leaving the original signifiers in tatters.1 The potential of objects to be fragmented, yet potent, is clear as you enter the gallery. They are recognizable both as object and remaining shed skin of attempted transformation.

Baker Overstreet’s suitcase sits in the room behind a child’s chair. Impossible to see it and not remember how each time something emerged from that suitcase, we moved forward – intrigued by the spectacle, eager to be entertained, fearful of the effort, unsure of the lasting quality of the transformation. Frederick Jameson uses schizophrenia to speak to the pleasure and terror of encountering the object of appropriation. He writes that, “…as temporal continuities break down, the experience of the present becomes powerfully, overwhelmingly vivid and ‘material’: the world comes before the schizophrenic with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious and oppressive charge of affect, glowing with a hallucinatory energy.”2 The objects ultimately become the shells of the invocation; they are the path that leads to the moments which “glow with a hallucinatory energy”.

The objects hold the intensity of an overt, sincere and lo-fi theatricality of exertion and mis/recognition. They are merely resting until needed again to bridge the actual and the represented real of each performance’s uncomfortable and beautiful becoming.

Maria Hupfield began the weekend with a performance, Ghost Trophy, that saw her warm up, then begin spinning, folding and knotting silver safety blankets while balancing on a rickety piano stool. A blond braid was around her neck, a handful of wooden nickels and candy deposited onto a circular cloth in the center of the room. The environment was the gallery space of Ortega y Gasset, but the projection was of the colonial opulence of an unnamed gentleman’s club in the New York area. The props functioned as overt First Nations references (the braid, the wooden nickels, the candy) and were part of the multiple layers of theater enacted. Props acted as constellations around the larger spaces of the colonial home video projected, while the gallery was container for re-activation and placement of objects and props. The silver blankets acted as a mirror or portal through both spaces, bound by the sound of shaking safety blankets intermixing real and past time.

A revelation occurred as I placed Hupfield’s objects back in the space. I realized how heavy and hot the felt vest was with the chandelier crystals sewn over it. I sweat trying to figure out how to pin the safety blankets back up to the wall. They trap heat. I was suddenly aware of how difficult it would have been to balance on a stool wearing this heavy vest while shaking, folding and knotting first one, then two safety blankets. The body balanced with objects attached. We are held by the sensation of heaviness, heat and the sound of rustling, silver effort.

Maria Hupfield performs 'Ghost Trophy' May 31, 2014

Maria Hupfield performs ‘Ghost Trophy’ May 31, 2014.

Ryder Cooley’s Owl Spell (with Alan Spartacus) started with a journey from the roof of the 1717 Troutman building (against the iconic New York backdrop of buildings and water towers) through long hallways leading to the gallery space of Ortega y Gasset. Ryder and Alan wore taxidermied goat heads to channel a hybrid human/animal spirit as they slowly brought the audience through the busy hallway spaces, moving by touch against the walls. When they reached the gallery space, Cooley climbed agilely onto the gallery half wall and perched, dropping ashes through her legs. Recorded saw music played, as she caressed the head of the goat and rhythmically beat the ash into the wall with her heels. The height of the marks makes them almost imperceptible to the unknowing eye. They are the remains of the strangely baroque apparition of the goat/human dyad.

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Ryder Cooley performing inside the gallery (top photo). Ryder Cooley and Alan Spartacus (above) perform ‘Owl Spell’ on May 31, 2014.

Baker Overstreet channeled the spirit of June Fagley as his vaudevillian alter ego. The performance was composed of songs, jokes and a prolonged and engrossing set up. The props were placed in particular order(s); the setup verged on fun house with mismatch of scale between body and carpeted mini steps, huge blue hoop, small silver circles, sparklers, tin can telephones, hand puppets, child’s chair . . . The objects became a universe and Overstreet moved between them as both authentic and copy. He began with a joke about a nun named Ken, followed by a rendition of ‘That old Black Magic’. We were both believing and bewildered, unsure of when the next round of smoke would be thrown up and who would emerge from it.

He finished with Judy Doo, a puppet who sang ‘C’mon get happy’, the stage in total darkness except for a yellow light pointed at Overstreet. His lips remained still while the puppet maniacally mouthed the words. It didn’t feel quite possible to ‘get happy’ although we couldn’t help but be nervously carried along by the jazzy beat — a metaphor for the way in which the audience was held between the fragments of identity, song, and props as recognition, mis-recognition and effort were held together in an uncomfortable, fascinating trinity.

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Baker Overstreet (Above and below with Judy Doo on Right) performs May 31, 2014.

body as omen 7 body as omen 6Geo Wyeth entered the room, rubbed gold paint on his hands and chin, and then retrieved a blue plastic chicken from inside his huge brown coat. He blew it up and used it in place of his own head. He asked the audience three questions concerning instances when he may have lied or told the truth. The audience was supposed to guess why he lied. We gave possibilities, but no answers were given. From there we were told we would hear a song that his mother used to sing to him. As he climbed onto a chair he sang, “If you call my name don’t forget that I can’t hear you. If you say my name don’t forget that I am not near you, at all.” The cries that followed were mediated by the synth, which held a rhythm, and the cries themselves, which moved in and out of rhythm.

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Geo Wyeth. June 1, 2014.

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Geo Wyeth, June 1, 2014.

It was a private world turned inside out, then disguised. When Wyeth killed the beat and became Kitchen Steve with wild hair and a golden knife, the audience was unprepared for the sheer beauty and delicacy of the voice that emerged. We couldn’t tell why he might be lying. It didn’t matter. We were passengers on the vision of a world where unlikely bodies produce unlikely sounds.

As the “White Oracle”, Rachel Mason wore a papier-mache sculptural object on her head that was both omniscient and awkwardly sculptural. She channeled the spirit of the wolf, politics, religion and song through a constant rotation of voices and identities. Invoking creation through interaction between her hands and photos on the walls, she sang ‘I’m not guilty enough to be a human being.’ Suddenly she was howling, suddenly it was benign elevator music, suddenly she was blowing bubbles out of an oversize wand while a recorded voice spoke of unseen worlds. After singing “To Love Somebody”, she dove under the gold spandex material that covered the room (she created this before starting her performance). The audience was left in limbo – waiting for the headpiece to emerge from the golden cloth, trying to orient themselves in relation to the performer disappeared, but still present as she crawled under the gold material.

body as omen 10Mason danced and the white cloth of her robes was animated; she moved outside the gallery and howled. Those who had gathered outside the door scattered. Things had gotten too close. The performance implicated them and made them aware of their own body and presence in relation to the unknown. It was too much. Herein lies the beautiful waver between that which we see as other and that which we know as coming from ourselves.

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Rachel Mason ‘White Oracle’, 2014.

Final performances for the series consisted of Michael Dudeck’s Messiah 1.0 and Blanko + Noiry’s collaboration with Baker Overstreet, both on June 28th. Dudeck’s mummification process of the human body is the beginning of a longer project exploring the idea of a malleable messianic, one which considers the creation of religion, and the possibility of creating literal object out of fictive prophet. In the first manifestation at Ortega y Gasset, the intent was for a wax cast of the body to be created during the performance. In the intimate space of the gallery, a naked, white painted and wigged Dudeck went through a long ritual of covering and then uncovering, with wax and plaster, another painted body laid out on the floor. I was struck by the slow emergence of form, shape and color as they were revealed/obscured/ then revealed. Orange paint on faces, white prevailing in gallery and on performers bodies, black wax melted and brushed onto feet, hands, and head created a composition of densities, color, and changing configurations of objects and materials around the body, like a slowly circulating planetary orbit. The sun was Dudeck; his presence acted as catalyst and meaning maker.

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Michael Dudeck, Messiah 1.0, 2014.

The cast of the body did not harden during the performance; it was removed in a reverse process of equal concentration. We were denied a lasting object to worship and this seemed fitting. The beauty is the excess of effort and energy into a hyper charged present tense. The event becomes a strange, perfect and disappeared painting, leaving only subjective memory.

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Michael Dudeck, Messiah 1.0, 2014.

Blanko + Noiry was venue for a meeting between Baker Overstreet and Chris Kachulis. There was uncanny chemistry between these generations; the show tune a vehicle to warp time and space. The literal black and white figures embodied a twisted yin and yang of industrial noise; synthesized with the voices of Baker and Chris they created an uneasy sort of logic. The body could as easily be commanded to be an ornate and twisted version of a Frank Sinatra song as it could be a monochromatic figure dancing to amplified noise of the microphone rubbed against the wall. As Baker and Chris sang “That Old Black Magic”, it became clear that the voice was the vehicle and the magic was as unstable as the theatrics of performing the body into new being.

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Chris Kachulis and Baker Overstreet, 2014.

We are shown a path to some kind of release. It is strewn with discarded bottles of face paint and scraps of identities. The path ends in a beautiful failure of objects to lead us out of the body we inhabit. Perhaps we thought that if we pulled enough of that which we know and used it for this sincere theatrics, we might escape. Objects and tropes are touched, activated as the performers grab a foothold out of the body. As the performer climbs higher and looks down, it becomes clear that the body discarded is still visible. The song turns to a howl, turns to a jazzy rendition of ‘get happy’. It is a puppet mouthing the words but we see the body behind. The identities and objects that are recognizable give way under the effort. It has become what Antonin Artaud called theatre after Beckett, “…the space produced from within itself and the equal of life.”3

The theatrical moment is the commitment to exertion with these objects, this voice, this body. Peggy Phelan states, “Performance’s being … becomes itself through disappearance”4 It is a commitment despite knowing that it will disappear. In fact, the commitment is because of that. One identity is quickly replaced by another, fragmentation is a way of becoming. Disappearance accumulated creates a wedge through which the light comes. There is no way the body can fit out the opening. We continue trying.

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Rachel Mason installation of artifacts from performance, 2014. Gold spandex, head-piece, 2 11×14” b/w prints, 8.5×11 collage.


1. Craig Owens,‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism in Wallis (ed.) Art After Modernism pp202-35. Reprint- ed from October, no 12 (Spring 1980), pp
67-86 and no. 13 (Summer 1980) pp. 59-80.
2. Frederic Jameson ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in Hal Foster (ed.) Post- modern Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1985), p. 118.
3. Sarah Jane Bailes. Performance Theater and the Poetics of Failure. Routledge: London, 2011. P. 27.
4. Peggy Phelan. Unmarked:The Politics of Performance. Routledge: New York, 1993. P. 146.