Becoming Constellation: An Interview with Benjamin Sebastian

Benjamin Sebastian, Becoming Constellation (2017).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

By Daniella LaGaccia

I was first introduced to the performance work of Benjamin Sebastian during their stay in New York back in September, 2012. Visiting from London, Sebastian performed along with Bean and Poppy Jackson at Grace Exhibition Space for the “Alien(s) In New York” three-day guest curator performance series and later at Panoply Performance Laboratory. Sebastien would later write about this experience as well as Jackson’s WIN performance for this magazine. Benjamin Sebastian and Bean currently run ]performance s p a c e [ in Folkestone’s Creative Quarter.

Becoming Constellation (2017) is Sebastian’s new continuing performance project that looks at expanding definitions of queerness, or as it was stated in the press release, “what it feels like to live through queerness and make new worlds.” The project has ten collaborators from many different backgrounds, and includes, Keijaun Thomas, Dani D’Emilia, Bean, Alicia Radage, JD Meilling, Andre Braga Verissimo, Jade Montserrat, Esther Neff, Ryan Burke, and Fabiola Paz. The project held an exhibition at Space 7 Gallery last March in Folkestone, Kent, and will be opening a new exhibition this Friday at Lubomirov/Angus-Hughes Gallery in London from from May 26th to June 18th.

Daniella LaGaccia: You stated in your press release that “Queerness is not and can never be an identity. It is a current, or imperative.” Why do you feel that way? Why do you feel that queerness can never be an identity?

Benjamin Sebastian: For me, I guess it’s coming through my relation to queerness, which has always been both a bodily and conceptual frame. I get uncomfortable when through language we conflate the concept of queerness with the concept of being a LGBTQI+ identity. I think queerness is a strategy or a methodology or a conceptual and theoretical framework that can never actually be plastic or cement, and I feel because of that, it is not an identity-based notion.

Concepts of gay and lesbian and transsexuality and all of these, I feel that these are all identities that people have written themselves and anchored themselves in, but I feel there’s a dissonance within language that conflates queerness with identity when actually I’m trying to separate that and actually explode the concept of identity.

D: When did you start playing with this idea of queerness?

B: I started to figure this out when I as maybe in my early teens. I had gay older brothers and sisters, step-siblings. I started to notice how friends and family and society related to them, and I think at that young age, I really understood that I had something in common with them. But I didn’t think about it in terms of sexuality or gender, I just didn’t think like that at that age.

It’s a retrospective knowledge for me. I very much wanted children when I was a little little child, and I actually thought that I could become pregnant and give birth, but it wasn’t until my mum talked me through that and it was heartbreaking, I remember how devastated I was. I started to understand concepts of gender. I think from a very very young age there was this position of queerness or maybe I was living through queerness, but it’s only retrospectively that I’ve come to understand those things.

D: I can say from the perspective as someone who identifies as transgender that I sometimes have misgivings of having the LGBT or queer label placed on me, because it implies that I’m different or that I’m not normal, when I feel my sexuality and gender feels completely normal to me.

B: Me too, I find most labels in relation to identity politics somewhat problematic. At best, I’ve always had a strategic approach. I don’t identify in terms of gender or sexuality. I identify in terms of sex now, but that’s a new thing. I didn’t identify as a man until recently. For the last ten plus years, it’s been very clear in my mind for me personally moving through the world that anything in relation to identity, particularly mine and the people I want to commune with, needs to be strategic.

In one particular setting, I will adamantly and radically identify as a gay man. In other settings, I will use that identity position entirely. At other points, I will identify through language as non-binary or gender fluid, and I will shift amidst those things because one, I personally need to, because that’s how I am in the world, and secondly, it’s very much a political stance as well, because I think as soon as we reduce something to a parameter box, we’re losing something’s potential. I’m trying to explode that so we have the ultimate potential.

D: Let’s talk about queerness in relation to your project Becoming Constellation. For this project, do you necessarily have to be “queer” to participate in this project, or are there a number of varied people of different backgrounds or identities participating?

B: Again, we come back to this notion of what queer is or isn’t, or can or cannot be, and for me the whole stance is one cannot be queer, one can only live through queerness or engage in queered acts or relations. The people I’m collaborating with initially come from really broad demographic and positions in life. I feel that some of the collaborators may be seen from the outside as not queered or living through queerness, because one of the elements of their position in life is that they do sleep with the opposite sex or opposite gender.

So, for me queerness is not rooted in sex, gender or sexuality. It’s rooted in so many other nodes of being and existence such as class and race and ability. I’ve been working with people who identify themselves as living through queerness and may not identify as queer and particularly may not identify as a position within the LGBTQ+ community.

D: How did you initially get in contact with these collaborators? Did you have specific people in mind that you wanted to work with?

B: It was a bit of a tough one to come up with the initial test group. As soon as I realized that I needed to be working with other people, I was working with people from various positions in life to me, kind of making it sort of bureaucratic tick box list of oppression oppression states or oppression positions. I looked at the people I had met in life, and I knew it was going to be an intimate collaboration so it had people in different positions in being so that I had enough of a relationship to say, “Hey, I’m embarking on this thing that’s going to be quite intimate, would you like to do it with me? I don’t know how it’s going to go, and it’s also going to be challenging.” So, it’s a bit of a long process actually.

A couple of the people on my initial long list, I didn’t contact because I felt it would have just been difficult to get to know each other at the same time of doing this really intense and intimate collaborative work. So, everyone in the Human Constellation Group, I have met before or have had some sort of interaction with beforehand in various levels of friendship or peer network.

Dani d’Emilia, uteArus (2017). Collaborators were asked to donate artworks as part of their participation with Becoming Constellation (2017).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: You said in our earlier talk that you wanted to make these connections and networks the work itself. You said, “nodes that make up the greater than the sum of its parts.” What do you mean by that?

B: I want to tell you this beautiful thing that has just happened. With all these collaborators we keep getting these really beautiful synchronicities and serendipitous overlaps and interlaps. So, one of the collaborators, Fabiola Paz, was born in Santiago, Chile. And, another one the collaborates, Alicia Radage, she has literally just turned up in Santiago, and Fabiola and I, eight hours away from having our sigil tattooed onto our bodies on the other side of the world. It’s a beautiful serendipitous thing. Little bits like this have happened throughout the project and I think that’s a poetic way of seeing this notion of it being nodes within a thing that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

But then also, there’s the very physical meaning to it. My body, my skin ends up holding space for all of the other collaborators, and so they extend beyond their bodily presence, but then, also, mine stands out into these other bodily spaces as well. Alicia and I were the first ones to come up with the sigil and have the first one done in the process. When I was being inked, it was overwhelming. I got tearful. In my mind, this concept was playing through, when one of cease to exist, we’re still being taken through life by the other with this mark on our body. This mark in time in us and of us.

Each collaborator was asked to design a sigil that was then tattooed on their body.
Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: It sounds like this project has the physical actions themselves, the sigils, the tattooing, but it also has these narratives that extend beyond these actions and are in consequence of it and become a part of the project as well.

B: Absolutely, the sigils, as they come into reality, I keep writing them down on a page next to each other every now and then, to take stock of them. It really is an alphabet, and it’s creating this alphabet that we have absolute ownership over. It’s bringing something into the world that wasn’t there prior. It is somehow a byproduct, this sort alphabet or new vernacular. It was always the idea to have these sigils to be a part of the collaborative work, but this whole sort of alphabet or document of these new languages is in its own right this thing that has spun off beside the whole project.

D: It’s creating this sort of human archive of this work.

B: Yes, absolutely.

D: You mentioned that when you first reached out to these participants you sent them questionnaires. Can you talk about some of the questions that were on these questionnaires?

B: For the idea of the questionnaire, I knew I always wanted to create new narratives, because this was about looking how narratives are produced. The questionnaire was like an ice breaker. One of the people in the project was the first person I met and had an enduring relationship with here in the UK. Some of us were very intimate. Others I’ve only met once before, or we’ve had some very interesting conversations at social events or we’ve collaborated in fleeting. There are varying degrees of intimacy. It was both an ice breaker, but at the same time all of the collaborators were aware that their answers from the questionnaire were going to be used to create a cut-up text-piece that will be somehow woven in the overall project.

The questions I was asking in the questionnaire alluded to identity, queerness, politics, and how people felt they were in the world. Some of the questions were as simple as, “Where are you local? What verbal language do you consider to be your primary mode of expression?,” and then, more sort of abstract questions like, “What does community mean to you?” The first question was, “How do you define queer?” or “What does queer mean to you?”

I wanted to have people give over some information of themselves, almost in the way of profiling. I wanted to have an element of the person of their identity in textual form. As well as their feelings and thinkings around of what queerness may or may not be.

Collaborators were asked to have nude portraits of themselves taken, that were then cut-up and reformed back together to create new portraits.
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: You said you were working with cut-up pictures as well?

B: Yes. The invitation to collaborate had four elements to it. It had the questionnaire; it had the invitation to collaborate on a photo montage portrait series, and then it was donating the three artworks, and then it was the production of the statement of intent which was the sigil and the tattoo.

So, the photo, it’s a very simple photograph. I asked the collaborators to take a full body frame against a background, it doesn’t really matter because it gets edited out. I just wanted to have us striped back to our flesh, and then the idea was that all of these photographs, rather than just be stark photographic portrait of each member, they then get grided up and interwoven into each other. You end up with all of these hybrid forms that look somehow post-human or post-gendered actually, because the way they’re sewn back to together, you lose a little bit from each grid. So, it’s sort of makes some of the forms where the body connect look amorphous.

D: It’s like it’s creating new ways of how the human body can look.

B: Yeah, in as much as the sigils have started to create this new symbolic vernacular or vocabulary, the body that the image montages are creating this other vocabulary or vernacular of what visual references of the human body look like. If you put two of the collaborators who have penises together, you get this amorphous penis; if you put two of the practitioners with vaginas together, you get this amorphous image of a vagina, and if you get half, you get this hermaphroditic form. It’s so interesting the way they actually form, because sometimes it looks like a hybrid, other times it actually looks like there’s nothing there at all, they’re asexual. The photos are similar to the sigils where it’s a vernacular, it’s a visual reference of what the body might potentially be.

The many sigils produced by collaborators for Becoming Constellation (2016).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: One of the main parts of this project is that you’re working with sigil magic. What role does magic play in Becoming Constellation?

B: I’ve always really believed in magic. I don’t believe in it in terms of this sort of otherworldly ethereal thing like you wish and hope for the best. I believe in magic in the physical manipulation of elements around you to bring about desired change. So, sigil craft in particular is very much a manifesting type of spell craft. You focus on a statement of intent, you cast that out into the universe, and then you can’t just leave it to hope that it does it work. You then have to put in steps to bring about that desired change. For me, it’s like anything else. I’ve always been very visual in my thinking and my feeling— I’ve always wanted to try to have a very clear image of that thing. Maybe, it’s that I want to live in the UK, or it’s that I want to unpack what it is this body is perceiving. I visualize these things and I see these as almost stepping stones in time and space to get towards those positions, goals, things. So sigil craft is very much about that for me.

We…the collaborators and I create these statements of intent. One of them is “I am patient”, another one is “bridges over walls,” another one is “I am intimate and I am resilient.” So, it’s very much about casting these intents, and then really bringing them into our bodies and make them of ourselves through the tattooing, and as we move through the world, the physical activation of those intents. So this is magic, it’s the physical activation of this more ethereal sort of spell craft. And so, I was sort of exploding histories of sigil craft, so it’s like chaos magic, taking a bit of this, taking a bit of that, and creating something that’s more potent and useful now in contemporary settings.

D: I’ve always felt like writing is kind of like a form of magic. I love the idea that someone can write down their ideas 500 years ago and 500 years later, another person can look at those same words and interact with the thoughts of a writer who has long since died.

B: And you can create worlds; this is the big thing for me. We can create worlds, we can create universes, and this is what all art is for me. Something that we want to exist we can make. Of course there is limitations, but with the advances of science, these limitations get crossed off the list. I’ve always considered all creative practices, but most particularly writing as magic, absolutely.

D: How large do you want to make this project? Do you want to make this an ongoing project? Do you want to have a definite end? Or, is this something you want to have in your life continuing on creating constellations?

B: I’ve now understood that it’s ongoing. When I initially conceived of it, I thought it was sort of a white-meated curatorial collaborative project. It would have a start, it would have an end, and then there would be this sort of performative archive that is a thing that might have other lives. But it’s not like that at all. I’ve understood the project now as a methodology which is ongoing. It is very much something I now live with and it lives with me, and we live with it together! I think that’s a really beautiful thing, because my engagement with queerness is that it is entirely multiple. So, to in order to be true to the project itself, I think it has to be ever evolving…because that’s what queerness is. If it were to stop, it wouldn’t be true to form. So there may be fallow periods of inactivity, but it’s open ended.

As it grows, the visual references of the body vocabulary grow; the symbolic vernacular of sigils continue to grow; the visual archive continues to grow, and we create this ever expanding visual textual created narrative of what it means to live through queerness in the world. I now understand that that’s what the whole thing has been about.

Becoming Constellation (2017) installation. Space 7 Gallery, Folkestone, England.
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: There are a lot of visual elements to this project, sigils, tattoos, the cut-up text, and the photos of the collaborators… Will there be a physical archive or exhibition that people can interact with and look at to see how this project has evolved?

B: Yes, first off you have the bodies themselves. So you’ve got that, and it will always be a very physical fluid element to the archive. Quite often I get asked what my tattoos mean, and the majority of the marks on my body are from Becoming Constellation. I’ve had a few tattoos before the process, but it has been overtaken by this human constellation.

So there’s that element to it. Other physical elements, there will actually be at some point a digital aspect to this whole thing. I’m actually enrolled in a course at the moment at Central State Martin’s where I’m learning to use Autodesk Maya, a 3D animation program, and it’s part of the project. What I was hoping to do was create these digital avatars that eventually the photos will cover. The idea was that the photographic cut-ups will become the skins of these 3D animated avatars, so you wouldn’t just have the 2D image of these potentials of what the body may be, but you would have them wrapped around the newly-created digital forms also. I was hoping to have at least one or two avatars created by the end of this R & D funded process.

In time there will be that digital presence, and so the visual archive itself, houses all the donated works and each sigil is printed out on a nylon flag, so it has all the sigils on the flags, all the photographic bodies, the donated objects, so yes there is quite a substantial physical archive in the objects and the bodies themselves.

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Memories of the Body, Tempting Failure Day 6

Day 6 of Tempting Failure featured 6 artists at the Hackney Showroom, a performance venue in Hackney, London. The performances were held in either the larger main room, or the smaller studio. Listed below is a recounting of the following exhibitions and performances in the order they occurred on July 26th.

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Zierle & Carter, Spilling Pearls (2016), Hackney Showroom, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Zierle & CarterSpilling Pearls – Cycles of Nurture and Deceit (2016)

By Lisa Stertz

When one moves on a knife’s edge, it is likely to fall. What is better: The imbalanced fall or the balancing cut? In Zierle & Carter’s 3-h-investigation on the measure of all things, a wooden broomstick with knives at each end stabs them in their backs and holds them apart from each other. Yet it binds them together. Only as the two of them will they balance for the stick may not fall. A white mirror and a silver fork bonded around and thus immobilizing their hands with skin-color bandages become their tools, their weapons. Standing on white plates on a white salt circle, their battle for harmony begins.

Two figures, one setting : Two people, one relationship

At moments immovable, they create an immense tension, not least through their formal dark grey clothing. At times it resembles their shadows so much that they can be seen as idealized shadow figures themselves. The highly theatrical and abstract meets the completely secret and personal. Circling around their circle, they continuously try to feed each other with bread, that both of them wear as bellies under their shirts. This feeding becomes a tough tightrope-act. Their literary nutritious vocabulary suggests an easy access to their conversational play, yet its exact use is of another kind. The movements within are either slow or abrupt. Sounds either swell with intention or pop through physical non-attention. – A multitude of binaries is set into this piece. Binaries that cannot be overcome. Binaries that have to be leveled to the ground in order to step beyond.

Tiebreak : Breakdown

From a clean and stylized setting, Zierle & Carter fall out of balance and into chaos when the knife-stick falls a third time. They fall, and take this to a different outcome. In the last 60 minutes a set of actions evolves as a reaction to their surrender. The dynamics shifted. The binaries got broken. Their reinstatement will not function. Chaos was born and therewith a true approach to harmony under new stars. Only when you are ready to break free, you will find a bracing way back. Two stars burnt as candles in the empty stomachs of Zierle & Carters breads, while they would sit across each other, face each other among a fading light and a door – opening.

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Helena Goldwater, embed (2016), Hackney Showroom, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Helena Goldwaterembed (2016)

By Natalie Ramus

Upon entering the vast industrial space that is the Hackney Showroom you are confronted by a huge mound of earth, which sits at it’s highest point around a metre high and then several metres wide. The vastness of scale in both the space and material make me feel very small in relation. Looking around for Goldwater, I soon see that she is stood on a mezzanine floor, wearing the red sequinned dress that is so often present in her work. She stands so still and so quiet that the absence of movement seems very much present in my mind. The audience mirror her stillness and silence, watching and waiting for movement. The scale of the mound of earth and the stillness creates a sense of anticipation; with a timescale of 4 hours, I wonder what lies ahead….and I wonder also if Goldwater is looking down on the mound with the same sense of anticipation.

When Goldwater makes her descent she paces around the periphery of the room, her eyes fixed on the mound. As she stands next to me I feel that I share her gaze, that momentarily the boundary between viewer and performer is blurred. The slow silent pace is disrupted when Goldwater rushes forward and launches her body at the earth, and then surrenders to gravity as the weight of her body drags her down to the ground. As she progresses she uses her body to interact with the mound of earth. At the beginning, small actions such as the sprinkling of earth around it’s base seem to have a huge affect on the space it occupies. The mound, after a few small actions, meets my feet and the space is filled with soil, even if it is only small fragments. The smell in the air becomes thicker with every intervention.

There seems to be a duality in the relationship with the earth. There are moments of physical resistance through the pushing away of the soil, but then this is balanced through actions that seem to be much more caring and nurturing through gentle touch and attention to detail. I begin to wonder where the control is; is it the mound of earth which is so big and heavy that Goldwater’s body begins to struggle? Or is it Goldwater who is continually the one to dictate, (or attempt to at least) where the edges of the mound lie. There is a clear dialogue in the relationship between Goldwater and the mound, and it is beautiful to witness in the stillness and the silence that is only ever perforated with the sound of the pacing of feet, the grunt of a struggle or of the soil making contact with the ground. These sounds are so subtle, but like the subtle tiny actions at the beginning that occupied large space, these subtle sounds have are hugely affective; they create the bond of empathy between artist and viewer through the sensory experience of her labour.

After 3 hours, Goldwater returns to the mezzanine and lowers 30 metres of hair to the ground. To see something that is seemingly ‘of’ the body, so big in contrast to the body seems so surreal. The weight of it becomes apparent as Goldwater struggles to resist gravity as she lowers it to the ground. This hair is later buried into a spiral that was ploughed through an almost perfect square made out of the mound. As the square is so flat but raised slightly in the centre, I can’t help but turn my thoughts to death. Was this a grave? As the hair is concealed by the earth I begin to wonder if this battle with the earth is a metaphor for the battle with the body as it ages and nears death. Goldwater seems to reach a point of resolution, as she stands back, observes, shakes off the dirt, places her gold shoes on her feet and raises the large electric shutter before walking out of the space. Her walk is not the slow pacing that she walked at the beginning of the performance; this was a walk that seemed to be full of conviction. It was as if she had reached the point where she was able to move on and let go. She didn’t look back. Her job was done.

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Nathanial Wyrick, Not an Egg in the Hayloft, (2016), Hackney Showroom, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Nathaniel WyrickNot an Egg in the Hayloft (2016)

By Lisa Stertz

Four stations: A plastic table with a white tablecloth and an aluminum milk can on it. Another white, patterned tablecloth next to it on the ground with fourteen water-filled jars. Wyrick on a white cushion. A dark brown wooden chair. White tape, scissors, a knife and wooden clothespins under the chair. Behind him a set of long, thin, pliable wood. This is a small seemingly intact set up, but not all things are in perfect, spatial correlation to each other. Something might be wrong here.

Set with objects of farming in a sterile room marks a first rupture in the calm atmosphere. A second happens through the urge of (having no) time, that is evoked here, and Wyrick’s time-intensive making of a basket with the wood straps. A third is marked through a simultaneous action of fabricated eggs dispersing in the jars. Wyrick pulls nineteen of them out of his black long johns, lines them up, and one by one lets them fall into the jars. The last five he just smashes onto the tablecloth. There is no use for them, and soon after variations of a milky-red liquid emerge in the jars.

Upon the finishing of the basket Wyrick puts his cushion under the milk can and the left over eggshells into the basket, pours the liquid into the milk can, aligns the by now wet and red tablecloth next to the cushion, lies down on his back with bent legs, holds the basket on his stomach, opens the milk can and lets all the liquid run into his mouth and face, drinking and choking. With the last milky red drop the performance ends.

The two unfolding activities were unified in a final gesture, but through the very acting of Wyrick and the augmenting of the color red in the scenery the question of the wrong, that in the beginning was only underlying the setting, rose into an obvious undeniable unspoken. Any unification fell apart in(to) the unknown locale that was left alone. What is wrong here?

Selina Bonelli honey-glassed (2016), Hackney Showroom, Tempting Failure.Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Selina Bonelli, honey-glassed (2016), Hackney Showroom, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Selina Bonellihoney-glassed (2016)

By Chelsea Coon

With a saw that spanned the length of her forearm, Selina Bonelli, dressed in white, began to wear away the securing threads of the buttons on her shirt off which fell to the floor. Placed in line with her navel, she pressed the saw down into her pants, and with exertion, tore through the fibers to open the crotch section. Her thighs to ankles remained covered. She sat on the floor, legs spaced apart to reveal her both exposed and partially covered body. Throughout the piece, she would meet the eyes of individual members of the audience that lasted a few moments but felt endless through the intensity of her gaze.

Bonelli picked up picture frames from a pile at her feet and removed the glass panel from the frame which were lined with charcoal dust that spilled out and accumulated on the floor. She then set aside the frame, held the panel of glass and with force broke them apart with her hands. The tension was palpable in the space. As blood slowly moved from her hands to her clothing, then the frames to the floor, it functioned as a thread that pulled all the elements together. She took the broken pieces of the glass and moved them into her inner thighs, and poured the excess charcoal dust on top. Three jars of honey were then emptied onto the accumulation pressed against her body. A mesmerizing work with its evocations of violence and vulnerability, loss and coping, remembering and possibly forgetting.

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Esther Neff, The Scraping Shape of the Socially Cyclomythic Womb (2016).
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Esther NeffThe Scraping Shape of the Socially Cyclomythic Womb (2016)

By David LaGaccia

Performance can make me anxious, because it can reveal another side of a person that often lays hidden in everyday conversation. Personal histories, attitudes, and beliefs become exposed for all to see, placing the artist in a naked—vulnerable position. Sometimes things are difficult to talk about that needs a space of understanding, and there is a point in any form of relationship with another person where you need to accept them for who they are and not who you want them to be.

Esther Neff’s performance, The Scraping Shape of the Socially Cyclomythic Womb was one of the first performances in the festival to consciously use her voice to acknowledge the crowd, breaking the wall between the audience and the formal performance. Talking, or using the voice in performance art seems like it is taboo, where a majority of the work in performances is done mute, but this is normal in Neff’s work, whether performing solo or in the group Panoply Lab, using the voice is a recurring aspect of her work.

She begins the performance wearing black clothes, and saying aloud “I have a body,” and “we have a body.” She says this repeatedly as if chanting or in song while walking around the space, defining the space as the crowd begins to enter. There is a large piece of plywood leaning against the wall, and on one side of the room is a sewing machine and on the other side is a power-saw.

Social constructions has placed gender signifiers on these objects giving them a cultural symbolic weight to them before they are even used: advertising and Western society presents the saw as masculine and the sewing machine as feminine, but a saw is just a saw and it is us who places the word masculine or feminine on the object. In her performance, Neff firmly destroys any gender signifiers these objects may have had.

Picking up the plywood, she asks for two strong volunteers to help her. Two women stand up and hold the wood. Neff gives them instruction of how to hold it so she can start using to the to carve it with the saw: when she is done, the plywood is in the form of a giant female genital tract. During the course of performance, Neff breaks out of her “performing persona” and casually acknowledges the crowd, thanking them for their help.

Neff then begins chanting “You’re just a model,” aloud, and hands a woman a spool of black thread; it is cut, and then she heads to the sewing machine, turning it on. She takes a piece of black fabric, rips it in half, and repeatedly puts it through the sewing machine; she holds it up each time showing that the fabric is not sewn together.

She begins handing out post-cards with tape on them to people in the room and asks them to place them anywhere in the room.”Does the object control the body?” she asks each person. The post-cards have a kitsch image of a “typical” man, standing in pajamas, smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. Neff has written phrases on the cards like “Our sense is our weakness,” or “Our unity is a wasted womb.” The card also shows a flow of blood coming from his boxer shorts.

Now completely undressed save for her shoes, Neff opens up a plain paper bag, and takes out black ink, sterile needles, and anti-septic wipes: it becomes clear that she’s going to tattoo herself. She asks for more volunteers to hold the plywood, and four women step up: because it is too heavy, more people join in.

Neff ties a needle the tip of the plywood and gives the volunteers instructions on what to do. She wants them to rock back and forth and have the needle prick her stomach, tattooing her in the process. She draws a mark to aim for on her chest; it is in the shape of a drop of blood. The whole room chants “I have a body…We have a body,” rocking back and forth, creating the tattoo. After several minutes she then goes alone repeatedly stabbing herself with a new needle, finishing the tattoo, and continuing the phrase, while now adding “we had a body.” Without saying it directly, Neff makes everyone aware exactly what she’s talking about; this type of accomplishment takes an incredible amount of skill and understanding of your materials and your body in a space.

Her repetition of words took on new meanings based on the context of her actions and the tone of her voice. When she repeated “I have a body”, in the beginning it sounded like a unifying fact we all share, that the identity of the body is of self, not societal-ownership, but—near the end of the performance when she started repeating the same words, I felt there was a wave of sadness to them, now creating a connotation of acceptance for the self—regardless of what difficult circumstances or trauma it has been through.  The tattoo (or scar) is a permanent reminder of the performance, but also a physical reminder of that history or memory.

Afterwards Neff dissolved the intensity of the performance, speaking in a calm voice stating she is done and thanking everyone; she wrapped a bandage around her stomach, began to clean up her materials, and asked if anyone wanted to keep a postcard. Neff discussed earlier in a talk at the Live Art Development Agency that she had experienced several miscarriages in her lifetime; this coolness after such an intense moment and vulnerable performance takes an incredible amount of control that can only be looked at with admiration.

PULSAR’S Trouble Performing Podcast Episode 2

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Photo: Courtesy of PULSAR

By David LaGaccia

We’re back with episode two of PULSAR‘s Trouble Performing podcast, a salon talk series focused on discussing issues is performance and live art, hosted by INCIDENT Magazine.

Recorded on Sunday April 17th, in this episode we have a larger group gathered in performance art supporter and patron extraordinaire Ming Lui’s loft to talk about recent performances by Madison Young at Grace Exhibition Space, entertainment and performance, nudity and its uses in performance, Máiréad Delaney and Rae Goodwin’s collaborative durational performance at Panoply Performance Laboratory, the idea of spectacle in performance and more! We battle passing trains and blaring sirens, but still our voices will be heard!

This episode features an all-star list of local and visiting artists from a variety of performance backgrounds including André Éric Létourneau (from Montreal), Hannes Paldrok and Danny Gonzalez (of Non Grata), Máiréad Delaney (from Vermont), Esther Neff and Kaia Gilje (of Panoply Performance Laboratory) Jill McDermid and Erik Hokanson (of Grace Exhibition Space), Ernest Goodmaw, Hilary Sand, Rae Goodwin, Ming Lui, Olivia Coffey, Mitchell Murdock, Ian Deleón and Tif Robinette (of PULSAR), Amy Mathis and Mike Berlant (of Wild Torus), Huisi He and yours truly.

For previous episodes, refer to here at INCIDENT, or visit our SoundCloud page where every episode is free to stream, download and take on the go.

Also, be sure to catch PULSAR’s next event, NO TIME FOR NOSTALGIA, April 22nd, at 987 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

Without further ado, PULSAR’s Trouble Performing podcast episode two.

Intro music: Jimmy Eat World – Sweetens from Bleed American (2001)

 

 

PERFORMANCY FORUM QUINQUENNIAL, Five Years Of Performative Action

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Performance artist Raki Malhorta, who will be performing Sunday October 17th.
Photo: Provided by Esther Neff

By David LaGaccia

Panoply Performance Laboratory is celebrating the five-year anniversary of its performance art series, PERFORMANCY FORUM with a month long conference called PERFORMANCY FORUM QUINQUENNIAL. The conference, which begins this Thursday at 6 P.M. with talks and performances, will take place from October 8th through October 25th, and will feature over sixty artists over three weekends worth of shows and talks held at two Brooklyn based galleries, Panoply Performance Laboratory and Grace Exhibition Space.

Individual events such as Tatyana Tennenbaum’s The Work and the Self (Oct. 25), Ian Deleon and AGROFEMME’s Incorruptible Flesh (Oct. 23), and Leili Huzaibah’s curation of Chaw Ei Thein, Shizu Homma, Helen Hawley, and Nooshin Rostami (Oct. 24), will occur as a part of the conference. According to the release, some of the goals of the conference will be to perform “discussion, auto-ethnography, debate, and diversion, constantly in flux, action, and presence, as driven by the artistic, theoretical, and ideological intentions of performance artists.”

The title of the conference takes its name from PERFORMANCY FORUM, a performance series that has for the past five years has been organized by Esther Neff at Panoply Performance Laboratory and other spaces throughout its history. The series has been a venue for critical discourse of performance art, featuring curated performances followed by discussions that allow both artists and viewers to share their insights on the discipline, talking about what they saw and what they experienced that evening.

Neff explains that the series began in 2009 while she lived at an art collective called Surreal Estate. “At Surreal Estate, Brian (McCorkle) and I helped build out and manage the massive ground-floor garage as a performance space,” wrote Neff in an email. “Hector Canonge was the first performer, in January 2009. Anya Liftig, Kikuko Tanaka, Alejandro Acierto, Chin Chih Yang, Mariana Valencia, Allison Ward, and Ivy Castellanos (a fellow SE resident) were initial participants. At that point it was a framed as monthly gathering for performance artists to share projects-in-process and to discuss practices but it was hard enough just to put the shows together.”

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Marcelline Mandeng who will be performing Sunday October 18th.
Photo: Provided by Esther Neff

Written in an abstract for the conference, she further states that since moving to 104 Meserole street in 2012, at her current space Panoply Performance Laboratory, the series then began to develop from being just a showcase for performance art, to more, “theoretical and dialogic territory as an alternative to both academic and artworld framings of performance art(s).”

“I’m truly curious about what will happen to performance artists now that ‘artworlds’ accept works as viable commodities,” she stated, “and hope that PERFORMANCY FORUM can always be a counter-option for those  artists who are intentionally and formally resistant to the capitalization of their bodies and voices.”

In performance, it’s the art, the action of the performer’s body that is the discourse. Performance, as an art form, is practiced by many different artists, performers—persons from different practices, disciplines and backgrounds (both cultural and artistic), yet all can say to create work in this undefined art form of performance art. Every performance is a contribution to the definition of performance, where the actions, not necessarily the words spoken afterwards that shape the art form. Events like PERFORMANCY FORUM provide the framework for these actions and ideas to be developed.

The framework of the conference can be seen as a larger version of the PERFORMANCY FORUM series. A majority of the artists featured have a connection with the series showcasing their work in previous installments. Many of these artists have a range of backgrounds such as music (Matthew Gantt, Butch Merigoni Valerie Kuehne), dance (Alex Romania, Kaia Gilje), and disciplines that blend between mediums (Ivy Castellanos, Jon Konkol, Hiroshi Shafer), will be present throughout the conference.

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David Ian Griess performing at Panoply Performance Laboratory in 2014.
Photo: Provided by Esther Neff

“There is a certain non-competitivity, mutualism, and respect for cultural differences and experiences,” wrote Neff in an email. “There is a sensitivity to situation, all pores open to the breathing of many bodies. I see PERFORMANCY FORUM and this conference as a way of practicing, demonstrating, and planning how we can intentionally come together, how we can create (or reject) experiences as ‘communications.’ I like to steal Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s word ‘undercommons’ as a ‘relation not a place’ to describe a more performative and ideologically-driven coming-together.”

“I hope participants in PERFORMANCY FORUM QUINQUENNIAL will find strength not as components within a homogenous, unified front, but within temporary, flexible moments of living, activating, and thinking ways of being and seeing within forms of social process. By organizing and performing (outside of institutional schemas and expectations for “community-building”) we train ourselves practically to build our own world(s).”

PERFORMANCY FORUM QUINQUENNIAL will being this Thursday, October 8th with an opening party with performances. The start time will be at 6 PM at Grace Exhibition Space. For a full listing of featured artists and events, please refer to the QUINQUENNIAL website.