TranSfering Performance: An Interview with Suka Off

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Suka Off performing in (2017), Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, NY.
Photo: Samuel Cox, Courtesy of Suka Off

By Daniella LaGaccia

Polite and welcoming, Suka Off is a collective of two Poland-based artists featuring Sylvia Lajbig and Piotr Wegrzynski that has existed since 1995. Their work is atmospheric with a emphasis on aesthetics, and contains with elements of performance, installation, video art, and music. Common themes found in their work include the blurring of gender codes, sexuality, and communication, all of which has a strong influence from Greek mythology and science fiction films.

This interview took place on September 13th 2017, two days before their performance at Grace Exhibition Space. The pair was busy preparing for the show as we talked about the history of the collective, a major scandal that broke out in the Polish tabloid Fakt in the early 2000’s that threatened the group’s opportunities to perform in Poland, their ongoing project “tranSfera”, their views on the use of the body in performance, and more.

Daniella LaGaccia: Talk a little bit about the origins of Suka Off. Piotr, you started in 1995, and Sylvia, you joined in 2003. What were your beginnings like?

Sylvia Lajbig: Piotr started in high school with his girlfriend. His first performances were more like traditional theatre, and also at that time he began working with an alternative theatre company in Katowice, which was a good place to learn the technical background to theatre, like putting up the lights and how to build a story and so on.

Piotr Wegrzynski: It was like the second-generation after [Jerzy] Grotowski. It was the same techniques, like physical theatre.

S: But also drama, they used words… So this was one part of Piotr’s background, and the other one was he was going to our school, so he has a background in visual arts, sculpture, painting, all the classical visual arts. He always wanted to do performance, but from a visual background.

P: At the beginning it was more connected to classical Happenings like [Tadeusz] Kantor; it was something between performance and theatre. I don’t like this type of classical performance art; for me it was too boring for my aesthetics. Too poor for my aesthetics.

S: And Piotr always wanted to use good lighting and interesting costumes and objects, and traditional performance art was like one guy with no props, simple lights and nothing. It was not enough. Piotr was always interested in more visual rich images. As I said, he started with more traditional performances based on words, and in time, he developed his own visual language. He stopped using words, and at the time he and his girlfriend were making costumes, it was like a whole new universe that they built on stage.

And at that time [late 1990’s] it was very unusual for the Polish scene to do something with a sexual context, and they used PVC costumes, which at that time were tied to fetish theatre.

P: It was tied to the aesthetics of like a cheap sex shop. The PVC for some people was like latex.

Suka Off, Red Dragon (2009). Photo: Agnieszka Akula, Courtesy of Suka Off

S: People didn’t understand the differences. He did use sexual imagery, but science fiction was also a big inspiration, so the costumes were related to sci-fi movies, but people didn’t really see that.

P: So, we started to make performances in this area, because we thought maybe the audience is more open-minded, like the punks…

S: Not like the academy or the theatre, but the punks or people in sub-cultures.

P: And for the punks it was like, “Wow, nice violence, but finally, when we made things more sexual it became a problem because the punks, especially the women…feminists, some people wanted to fight with us. It wasn’t reality, but for some people it was too much.

S: In 2003, Piotr and his girlfriend split, and so it was a very difficult time for Suka Off. He didn’t know if he could still continue, but then he found me! And, it started a new chapter, because he didn’t want to repeat the old performances. Of course the aesthetics stayed the same, but we didn’t want to go into the past.

So, we started to develop new performances, and at the same time, I started to contact some fetish clubs in London and other European countries. Because we felt that finally we could finally do what we want without being criticized for too much sexuality, S&M and so on.

Suka Off performing in (2017), Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, NY.
Photo: Samuel Cox, Courtesy of Suka Off

D: What was that response like?

S: At that time, Torture Garden was one of the most famous fetish clubs in the world, and it had a strong connection with the body modification and body arts scene. So, this club was never only about fetish or just a club you go to dance or go to fuck; it was always a place to see real art. That had Franco B, they had Ron Athey, the biggest names in body art history. For us it was a dream come true when we were invited, because for us it was a chance to be a part of this history.

The first two years were amazing, we could do anything we wanted, and the response from the audience was amazing; there were no limits in whatever we required. Whatever ideas we had, we could do everything.

Because we became quite popular and famous in the fetish scene in London, other clubs from other countries started to invite us. So, for a few years we were mainly touring fetish events. And of course we never stopped performing in galleries or theaters, and we understand that there are different audience expectations. We translated fetish performances into more theatrical performances by adding different elements. Like, at the fetish club, you have to do everything quick. It has to be dynamic, fast, narratives. In theatres or galleries you can go slower and add more details because people can have a look and focus on your actions. Like, a 15 minute fetish performance would become a 40 minute long theatre piece.

P: This was like 2005, but in 2006 in Poland, there was a big scandal about us. After that, we changed everything.

Suka Off, tranSfera (2010).
Photo: Manuel Vason, Courtesy of Suka Off

S: One guy, who ran a popular club in Poland invited us to perform at his place, but we didn’t know then that he wanted to use our performance as a way to raise a scandal against politicians, the mayor of Warsaw, the right wing party, it was supposed to be a big thing in the media.

P: The owner was really connected to LGBT, and he used us.

S: And he wanted to start a political career, and so he wanted some big events that would make his name more popular in the media, and that would be one of those events that would help his career.

We didn’t know about it, we just did our thing; it wasn’t very scandalous, but he invited some freelance photographers to take pictures, although no one was allowed to take pictures. And the freelance photographers sold the pictures to the shitiest tabloid [Fakt] magazine in Poland, and there was a huge article about our performance, like, we were pissing into each other’s’ mouth, and all the money comes from the government. But, the money that we got as very small, and the pissing never happened, they just manipulated the photo to have some yellow liquid in the pictures to look like piss.

After this, we were really afraid that we became a tool in somebody’s game, and suddenly all festivals and all galleries in Poland stopped inviting us. We couldn’t get grants or bookings, nothing. And, everyone was saying that we did this scandal on purpose to get famous, but why would we want to be famous like that? Everybody knows who you are, but nobody books you, nobody pays you money. Luckily we found opportunities abroad, and that helped us survive those difficult years.

Suka Off with Franco B, Black Dragon (2010).
Photo: Manuel Vason, Courtesy of Suka Off

D: I wanted to ask. I have a friend who is an artist from Poland, and I was kind of shocked to hear how conservative politically Poland is as a country. What does it mean to make the kind of work that you make in a politically conservative atmosphere?

S: First of all, people think that whenever you do something sexual, you do it to provoke people or to make some kind of scandal. For us, we never wanted to become famous as a scandalous group. We always wanted to make images that we find beautiful, because we don’t like the reality around us. We want to create an alternative reality which is beautiful. Some images may be violent or disturbing, but still there’s something very beautiful in the images.

P: It’s funny, in a country with a very strong Catholic culture, the violence is not the problem; the blood is not the problem. The problem is the sexuality. For me that’s wrong.

S: It was our decision, our choice to stay out of the theatrical and performance art society. We don’t apply for grants or anything like that. We have our home where we sit and create new work. We have the luck where we can find other places abroad and show our work, but although we live in Poland, we are completely outside of Poland.

Suka Off, tranSfera 4 (2010). Photo: Sylwester Galuszka, Courtesy of Suka Off

D: I saw that you have a project called “tranSfera” that began in 2007. What does this ongoing project entail?

S: It’s an ongoing project that talks about different things. One of the most important pieces in the cycle was inspired by the [Greek] tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. It’s about this woman who falls in love with this beautiful boy. But he’s completely not interested in love and sexuality. So she prays to the gods, ‘please make us one, I want to be with this boy forever.’ The gods answer these prayers, and when the boy enters the tree where she lives, they joined bodies forever. That’s the story of how the first hermaphrodite was created.

In this performance, it’s about a woman and a man who are in a relationship, and they love each other, but there are some elements they will never share or understand about each other.

P: Of course, we don’t want to make some sort of political manifesto of how to be a heterosexual man or woman.

S: No, it’s about people in general, women and men. It’s about two people trying to connect to be one, but there is always something that they cannot share, so they are never really one.

D: A lot of your projects deal with sexuality and gender. On your website you speak about redefining gender and blurring sexual codes. Where does this interest in this subject come from?

P: I think modern heterosexual art is really poor. It’s just about naked bodies and nothing more. It’s a simple image and for me it is empty. It’s repeating these same images like, ‘Oh, I’ll show you my body and it’s something.’ For me it is nothing, it’s just a naked body.

The story for me is, where is this body for me in this time. Why are you naked? I don’t want to read about the concept, I want to see this concept on stage. Modern artists think that they should just read something like a manifesto and that’s it. I don’t want to read this bullshit. I want to see something strong and powerful. A naked body for me is not powerful; it’s just a naked body, it’s ordinary like a tomato.

Suka Off, tranSfera 5 (2013).
Photo: Courtesy of Suka Off

S: We know people in the performance art scene, and we know people who are very intellectual, but when they see a naked woman on stage, it’s just like ‘Oh, she has nice tits and ass’.

P: It’s important to use the body in a conscious way.

S: On the other hand, it’s one of the best compliments we can receive. Like, ‘Oh, it’s Suka Off, it’s going to be very sexual.’ But, when they see the naked bodies, they’re not sexual objects. They’re bodies in a certain situation, and people can go beyond tits and asses. They see certain emotions, or a certain thought or idea. Sometimes I just want to be a human on the stage. I don’t want to accentuate my sexuality.

P: Of course, it is only a concept. It’s the people on the side who decide who you are.

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Fire And Prayer, Performance As Ritual in Miami

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Julio Tardaguila, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

By Steven Butz

Nearing the end of the ever-frenzied 2016 Miami Basel art fair week, performance artist Sarah H. Paulson, accompanied by two other performers, Samantha Gray and composer Travis Laplante, created a three and a half hour event which, in essence, begged us to just stop. Stop the spending. Stop the Ubering. Stop the partying. Please.

Employing minimal staging and props, the most abundant of which were two very generous mounds of red and pink rose petals, one idea which couldn’t help but leap out, was “Stop and smell the roses”. This message, along with the work’s intended themes, could only reach a few audience members at a time in the small hotel room Paulson had adapted into another of her spare performance environments. There, incorporating one of her signature motifs of repetitive actions or activities, we see what takes on the definite appearance of a ceremony or more precisely, a ritual. The viewer can’t be sure what cultures or civilizations her rituals might be drawn from because there are no identifiable clues. It feels unfamiliar. Could they be religious in origin or cultural or sociopolitical? These repeated actions are uncomplicated, and overall quite simple. What remains constant in her more recent work, as she continued to do here, is the sense that what we are watching is not newly wrought, but ancient. That the gestures and actions Paulson enacts are ones she has carefully managed to unearth and recreate. Perhaps the artist herself is not fully understanding of their original meaning, but convinced of their validity and significance, she gives them new life and lets her audience parse out their meanings.

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Julio Tardaguila, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

Paulson’s piece, titled “Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean” was created at the invitation of Performance Is Alive at the Satellite Art Show 2.0. Though its mysterious ritualistic aspects adhere to her overall performative style, here she has chosen, partly given the venue and location or perhaps at the request of the presenters, to provide detailed program notes. These actively direct and focus her audience (many of whom are asked to briefly and individually participate) on the specific themes of this work.  It seems, as I recall, to differ from previous program notes, as rather too literally descriptive of her ideas, intentions and goals. The notes do perhaps help those entirely uninitiated with her work to watch with greater ease and certainly aids those too quickly passing through yet another art fair event to get the idea and take something away. The risk, however can be that such detailed program notes, narrow and prescribe the encounter by telling its audience members what they should be thinking about as they experience the performance. Once read, it can set unintended parameters around an individual’s interpretive encounter with the material and might undermine more elusive personal engagements. Rather than summarizing these programs notes, I have appended the four short paragraphs* at the end of this account.

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

Numerous, intermittent high points come with the repeated, brief participation of individual audience members in the ritual. They are called into the performance space and sit facing forward on a chair center stage reserved only for them. With outstretched palms, cleansed by Paulson with ocean water, these volunteers take on the role of willing supplicants, which concludes, after a few ceremonial aspects, with each given a small treasure of rose petals, resting on the moxa singed balsa wood square and wrapped in a square of white silk. It reminded me of a very small elegant hobo’s knapsack, missing only the little stick from which it would hang. There is a card tied to the small knotted silk parcel that instructs it to be taken to the ocean and that the rose petals be tossed into the waves. In effect, these volunteers cum performers are each asked to stop, in the midst of the tumult of the art fair’s hurry-it’s-your-last-chance-to-see-everything-day, to stop and become sacred messengers.

Another major component of the work was the performance of composer and saxophonist Travis Laplante, who is a respected artist in his own right and founder of the avant-garde saxophone quartet, Battle Trance. Laplante provides an ongoing improvisational accompaniment during the entire duration of the piece. In the time I spent at the performance, which was the last two and a half hours, the music was comprised of a broad and varied range of sounds, including suggestions of the urban commotion of Collins Avenue, right outside the hotel, to more frequent and wonderful descents into a long, lovely, foggy echoing of music emanating from a conch shell. Closing our eyes, we can imagine Laplante momentarily took one up to play, giving his sax a rest. In those moments, the nearby ocean became a full-throated presence in this little second floor hotel room.

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Julio Tardaguila, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

When not interacting with an audience volunteer, which was Paulson’s major role, she, along with the other performer, were each kneeling in their respective mounds of rose petals and routinely scooping up armfuls and showering themselves with them. This action, one felt, could go on eternally, like the never-ending action of waves. Paulson and Gray were watery maidens in loving service, who never tired, never got distracted, and never doubted the significance of their task.

Sarah H. Paulson, The Reed Bed (2016). Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Rob Peyrebrune, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

As in all of Paulson’s works, those conceived alone, such as this one and those conceived with sometimes collaborator, Holly Faurot, the audience is given permission to come and go during the always lengthy performances. As compared to her twelve hour performance of “The Reed Bed” at Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn in June, 2016, “Fire in Fire” was held, as previously noted, at a modest three and a half hours. There is a concept of endurance which plays into these works, both for the performers, who must fulfill the required scope of the piece, and also for the audience members. There are many who opt for a more swift, fleeting encounter, while some choose to stay and stay. Rewards can be had either way, but I have found the greater the endurance, the greater the rewards.

That afternoon after the performance, I found myself on the beach, tossing my rose petals into the waves. There is no way knowing how many of the performance volunteers chose to fulfill this mission to the Atlantic, only two blocks from that small hotel room, and it will forever remain the actual unseen conclusion to the performance.

——————————-

*Program Notes from “Fire in Fire: Prayer for the Ocean” Dec. 4, 2016

Samantha Gray and Sarah H. Paulson bathe themselves in thousands of rose petals. Through their continuous immersion into piles of reds and pinks, accompanied by Travis Laplante’s masterful use of the saxophone to emit cascades of sound, each petal becomes a letter, a prayer, a love note, from the heart of the performer to the ocean.

Each year tons of people flock to Miami for Miami Art Week. It is a time of creativity, opulence, celebration, debauchery, activism, education, criticism, art, addiction, performance, traffic, waste, self-expression, business, music and more. It is a week that is full of both beauty and horror.

Fire in Fire” serves to remind viewers, the performers, and the artist alike, about the importance of place. The ocean is ceaseless, calling to us, singing, crashing, reaching, available, regardless of what stands on its shore, or is discarded into its waters. “Fire in Fire: Prayer for the Oceans” is but a breath, from the shore, in response to that constant call.

With the help of audience members, moxa (dried mugwort used in acupuncture) is burned through the center of silk handkerchiefs one after another. Rose petals are wrapped in the burnt handkerchiefs and given to individuals from the audience, with the agreement that they will release the petals into the ocean.

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.

The Sphinx Returns: 2015 Grace Exhibition Space Fall Preview

By David LaGaccia

henri-tauliaut-performance-art

Performance artist Henri Tauliaut (who will be collaborating with Annabel Guérédrat this Saturday September).
Photo provided by: Grace Exhibition Space

Lasting art provokes new questions; ephemeral art creates new mysteries. Taking a cue from Egyptian (and later Hellenic) myth, the 2015 fall season of Grace Exhibition Space will begin this Saturday the 19th in a curatorial series called The Sphinx Returns.

A half-human, half-lion creature of antiquity—the sphinx asks us the riddles that we consistently fail to answer. A monster of ancient mythology, the sphinx has gone from an idea passed down, to literature, to giant a stone statue guarding the pyramids of Giza.

“I imagined the experience of confronting the sphinx, and the idea of questioning in general,” said Whitney Hunter, curator of the season. “I’m looking at the art, the performance artists as myth makers; they are creating whole new worlds—ideas that are questioning our existence in the world. The phenomenon of living—it’s an object of mystery in itself. It can put you in a place of inquisition.”

Performance art is in an odd period of development with the identity of what  performance is—is becoming increasingly muddled. Questions linger in the art form, ranging from how to value performance and make it a profitable artistic practice (or even if that should be a goal), to questions on how to differentiate between performance art, contemporary performance, and even contemporary dance, to questions on how to write criticism on performance: self-inquiry by action, the medium is forming it’s identity. A glance at the list of artists confirmed to perform this fall looks to instigate such questions.

This Saturday’s artists include live performance from The Illustrious Blacks (two artists, Manchildblack and Monstah Black), Lion Ayodele, Hector Canonge, and Annabel Gueredrat with Henri Tauliaut. Video installation work will also be present with work by Andrew Braddock, David Ian Griess and Elizabeth Lamb. Hunter said he chose this season’s artists through a committee of three people, a process that he found “efficient and very enlightening because it allowed me to see new artists.” He said he wanted to show a range of work through the season.

”I’ve tried to keep a keen eye to artists who had not performed at Grace, and introducing these new artists to the Grace audience,” said Hunter, talking about his curatorial decisions.

Hunter has a significant background in dance, working in the Martha Graham Dance Company, while also creating work as an artist and a curator in performance art. He has curated work for the Invisible Dog Art Center, Work/Space in 2011, and for SITE Project at Long Island University. He performed a week long performance and installation, OPEN PRACTICE at chashama gallery last May as a part of his ongoing project, the 1st American Shapist House for the Practice of Performance/Ritual.

whitney-hunter-portrait-performance-art

Curator Whitney V. Hunter.
Photo:Louise Carrie Wales, provided by Whitney V. Hunter.

“I think Whitney is a very rare person,” said Jill McDermid, owner of Grace Exhibition Space. “He can instill in people a quality in doing something great. The way he will ask us [Erik Hokanson] a question, and is willing to listen to us answer— he respects what we’ve learned in the eight years of running Grace Space. He comes from a dance background, he comes from a performance background, and he comes from an academic background. I trust him completely.”

Programming for the gallery runs until December 19th. This Saturday’s show begins at 8 P.M. with a suggested donation at the door. For more information about this weekend’s artists and future artists refer to the Grace Exhibition Space website.

Valuing a Moment, Performance Art in Our Lives

By David LaGaccia

dlagaccia@gmail.com

Written over a period of months, the following story is simultaneously a look at the nature of performance art, my experiences performing with Non Grata, my experiences with trauma, and attempts to answer how we value performance art. It is meant to coincide with an ongoing program curated by Valerie Kuehne called Trauma Salon, that fosters a discussion on the nature of trauma through performance. The essay will appear in the latest Non Grata art book going in production this autumn.

What is the value of a moment, here, now, your next breath? Performance art asks you to value you something you cannot keep. It has created in it’s community  of artists, curators, and gallery owners many divergent ideas, ethics, and ideologies on both methods and concerns on how to monetize an artistic, yet ephemeral experience. Time, materials, labor, and rent, basic overhead for a business yet difficult obstacles for the practicing performance artist who at the end of the day, when the work is made, there is little expectation of a substantial payment.

Performance art is unlike other art forms where it is not consumed in a sense that it can be acquired to be appreciated. By its very nature, the production of the art is non-capitalist, or even non-economic for that matter. It cannot be distributed like a book or movie, and it cannot be captured to be hung in a museum or gallery space where say—a painting like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has sat smiling relatively unchanged since 1517. Painting, photography, film, music, writing, dance, theater, all require a viewer, a listener, a reader to take in (consume) the work through their senses to appreciate it, creating a necessity that each of these art forms have a product that ultimately can be consumed: a book, a film, a composition, a painting, a play.

It’s this product of art that also created this multi-billion dollar monster called the art market. Here commercial art is created to be sold at art fairs and auctions all over the world, with artists following the latest trends to (hopefully) make money. Here the art is pure product to be invested in, like real estate or a stock. For example a Picasso painting can sell for $175 million at a Sotheby’s auction because a person placed that amount of perceived monetary value on what is essentially paint and canvas; this is done by answering two questions: How much do they want or value it? and, Will it appreciate in value in the years to come?

Think of art this way:

Artist–>Artwork –> Viewer–> Experience/Appreciation/Interpretation/Meaning/Value

In this model, the artist has to create the artwork out of materials, and the viewer has to consume (through their senses) the artwork to gain an experience that creates its appreciation, interpretation, meaning or value. The consumer and the artwork are detached from one another, with the consumer placing meaning (or value) onto it. For example, if you watch a movie, and it makes you cry, it’s moving you as a viewer at an emotional level of sadness (or happiness) because you are applying the meaning of sadness to the images you are watching. Let’s say another viewer watches the same film and yawns. Here the film moves the viewer at an emotional level of boredom, because they applied the meaning of boredom to the images they are watching; in both cases the film (the artwork) itself hasn’t changed, just the meaning applied to it by the two different viewers. One viewer may value the film, see it again or buy it for personal viewing, or another viewer will never want to see the film again, wishing they never saw it in the first place. In any case, the film needed to be consumed by each viewer to have meaning applied to it. Now, what if music plays in the middle of a forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it art? This answer of course is yes, it’s called conceptual art.

Performance art, however, relies on contribution, not consumption for its creation and appreciation. You cannot take a performance home with you, unless you’re defining memory as a static physical object. Performance art ephemera can be physical objects, though it is just a memento or art object of a past performance. Documentation such as photography can attempt to capture the experience of performance art, and has captured iconic moments from artists like Christ Burden and Marina Abramović, but, ultimately you are looking at a photo that is a fraction of a second of a performance, not the performance itself.

Think of performance art this way:

Artist –> Artwork <– Viewer
\                             /
Experience/Appreciation/Interpretation/Meaning/Value

In this model, both the artist and the viewer actively contribute to the creation of the art. A famous example would be Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964). Here Ono sat still in her “best suit” and gave the audience one word for direction, “cut”; the audience was hesitant at first, but they then proceeded to cut her dress one swatch at a time to a point where she was nearly topless. The meaning of the work ranges, but it is cited most often as a feminist work. In performance art the intention of the work before its creation can deviate from its ultimate meaning with five variables in any given performance, which are performer, action, time, space, and audience participation (or non-participation), each one affecting the outcome of the work. So, if the participants of Ono’s piece were all female, or if no one decided to cut her dress, or if it had been a performer of a different sex, race, or gender, than the meaning of the work would be substantially different. Because Ono gave the audience a score to interpret and act on, her work was ultimately dependent on the contribution of the audience for its creation and meaning. Cut Piece has rightfully been cited as valuable and meaningful in the development of performance, where it is now being featured in a retrospective of Ono’s work at the Museum of Modern Art.

Yoko One, Cut Piece, 1964

Performance art has been called an ephemeral art because like any moment, it is destroyed as it is created; it becomes a memory to whoever witnesses it and a story to whoever misses it. Because of this, it’s hard to place value on something that is just an experience, something that is immaterial, and leaves you before you can consider how meaningful it was. Like any memory, it is an act you are still clawing at in the past trying to reconstruct and understand in the present; if you weren’t paying attention when it happened, than it is gone forever. This is the common idea, but it’s not true, because a performance can last so much longer.

Performance creates an identity. In an essay in their 2012 Normadic Diverse Universe New York book, gallerist and performance artist Joseph Ravens wrote “When you invite Non Grata to your space or festival, it is like ordering a heart attack or asking for an earthquake or begging for more torture or something… but afterwards you feel aesthetic, alive…” I’ve written about Non Grata before when I had the privilege of seeing their work for the first time in 2012 at Grace Exhibition Space in New York, and yes the violence is real. That is real fire being inflamed, those are real cuts being made, and those are real scars left on performers from brands heated by a blow torch. And, the performance space is usually left in a pile of demolished performance objects, destroyed beyond recognition. This more or less sums up the reputation of Non Grata that sounds like hyperbole, but is true to a degree.

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Non Grata performing at Grace Exhibition Space in 2012.
Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata.

Outside the performance space, however, Non Grata is best described as a group of friends that I get to see once or twice a year, each time spent with them as memorable as the last. The personalities that once had an extroverted fire during the previous night’s performance, tempers into a quieter, sometimes introverted nature, opening yourself up to a fellow performer, allowing a sense of acceptance to express who you are. There is a custom within Non Grata to give each other colorful pseudonyms like Devilgirl, Little Tom or Anonymous Boh to give a sense of anonymity to the outsider while performing, but around the dinner table, names like Al Paldrok, Tajea Tross, Amber Lee, Sindy Butz, John Hancock and so many more are shared, drinking, telling stories and talking about our lives as they have gone by. I could never have imagined for myself having friends like this. To go from a life where I’ve had very few friends, to within a couple of years meet people from Estonia, England, Japan, South Korea, Finland, and more, is beyond what I could ever believe my life was capable of, beyond what I believed I was capable of.

I remember we were lying on the beach in 2012 during Art Basel Miami when Al Paldrok first asked me to perform with Non Grata which was to take place that night at the Fountain Art Fair. In his thick Estonian accent, his request came off as a command—an expectation that gave me no other choice—start thinking of ideas now—. I was surprised and nervous to not only come up with a performance idea within only a few hours, but also to find an action that would be as visually interesting to stand out and stand with the other performers. With no ideas to develop, I became what is jokingly known as Non Grata meat, an extra body that can help with another artist’s performance; I had to duck several times just in case an errant flame gets close to my back, or I’ve nearly collided into another performer who was probably watching their back as well. It was here where I first became conscious how audiences can create the personality of the performer, even if fictional— that consequently places a sort of meaning, an identity on yourself, which in the course of your performance creates your art. Performance is not a state of acting, it’s a state of being; as much as the outsider defines the performer, we define ourselves by the actions we create.

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Non Grata members, including myself at 2012 Miami Beach Art Basel.
Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata.

2014 was an important year for me. Non Grata always tours through the States in the fall, allowing me another chance to perform with them. It was the first time I performed in over a year, so I wanted to be able to contribute in some way; I felt it was something I needed to do. After missing several workshops that had them performing at spots around New York City, including Grand Central Station, I was again offered to perform. The nervousness was still there, but now with an understanding of what to do. Non Grata has a darker aesthetic that is contrary to my own personality, but performing with them connects me to other performers on another emotional level allowing me to explore a part of myself I’ve never fully been able to express—where the invention and the expression of the self is pushed past danger and fear towards excitement and play, overtaking the bareness of being on your own. Seen casually, blowtorches and chainsaws may seem more like spectacle, random actions with little content. In truth, however each Non Grata performance is made up of individual performances used to create a greater image that often boarders on chaos, distracting you from the details of each performer’s actions. Like life, the spectacle of the performance can be seen as a deliberate distraction from the meaning. For me the message Non Grata brings is simple: it weakens inhibitions of what you feel you can do, what you can say, or what you believe you can become as a person both for the performer and the audience.

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Performing with Non Grata in 2014 at Grace Exhibition Space.
Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata.

But what happened in 2013? It was a hard year for me. Years of financial scarcity, combined with overwork, unresolved loneliness, mixed up with years of emotional hurt and an abusive relationship, exacerbated an already worsening and untreated depression. —Sometimes you just get tired—. Depression for me is when you are paralyzed by fears of the future and tormented by the pain of the past; it is not temporary sadness, it is chronic emotional pain. I did not know what it felt like to be “normal”, to go through life with its normal ups and downs; what I did have was at least ten years of almost daily feelings of physical pain, emotional pain, or despair. I had had suicidal thoughts for at least ten years, yet a mistake on my part, never reached out to tell anyone or seek professional help. Depression has a funny way of obscuring what is real and what is not real. An outsider may feel that there should be nothing wrong with your life, seeing little to no reason why you should feel that way, yet you can walk into a room shake hands and give hugs to people you care, you can have a great job, you can have a great life, you can have great relationships, but inside tense you can feel anxiety creep down your back and you say to yourself, I want to fucking kill myself— that’s depression. By summer 2013 during the Brooklyn Performance Art Festival, I was barely functioning, and by the time it was October, and Non Grata came through on their tour, I was day to day on a suicidal brink. I was invited again to go down to Art Basel Miami with them to perform, though, it wouldn’t happen this time. I woke up that Saturday morning after the show and had made a final decision. I had a suicide attempt.

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Non Grata performing at Grace Exhibition Space, 2013.
Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata.

I woke up numb. God I need to kill myself. God I need to fucking kill myself as a heron when she fishes , still prying on all sides, or as a cat does with a mouse, his eye is never off hers-she gloats to him, on her, accurately looking on whom she looks, who looks at her what she says I do something it’s my fault, she does something it’s my fault, she brought him to dinner, at supper that knife worked all right, breakfast was tasteless, the shower was numb, walking, away, for some reason I forgot to lock my door at home, he is the same, still inquiring, stealing, gazing, listening, afraid of every small thing-I need to kill myself, she said not to do anything rash, it takes no imagination to kill yourself, it’s not rash, I’ve been thinking about this for over ten years, I tried it last week, it should get the job done, why did she smile, why did she pity him, why did she touch him? why did she drink twice with that man? why did she offer to kiss, to dance? a whore, an outright whore— And there she was, she found me lying on the floor. I’m going to kill myself today. She pounded on my door threating to call the police. She lied beside me. Why does she have to see me like this? Did you eat anything she asked. She started talking about how she attempted to take her life several times, and talked about what she’s been through, and how she dealt with it. She hugged me and started to cry; I cried too. If my friend hadn’t come at that moment, I would probably be dead.

People who have survived a suicide attempt, or prevented someone from committing suicide, or have known someone who has committed suicide, all have understood the value of a moment. Trauma is part of our lives, it is the process of how we change, how we grow. I’ve dealt with it by understanding that yes, it was a moment that was painful, it was traumatic, and afterwards I felt alone and was afraid what other people would say, it was a moment of physical and emotional pain, but there will be a tomorrow whether I wanted it or not. Experiences good or bad don’t last a moment, they last lifetimes. My attempt was two years ago, and I still deal with that traumatic experience just if it were yesterday. It affects how I view myself, how I interact with others, the decisions I make, and the relationships I pursue. It is not easy telling someone you’ve attempted suicide, with the person stuck in-between needing and wanting to talk, while being apprehensive to find someone they feel they can trust; unfortunately it is a subject seldom discussed publicly, offering little help to people who need it the most. The lie we tell ourselves is that experience is ephemeral, and has little impact on our lives, yet we change with each new experience, that is, the lives we live daily. A loss of a parent, physical scars, sexual, emotional, physical abuse of many kinds, trauma is a memory that becomes biography. This was a moment that was now a part of my life, this was now a part of who I am as a person, and the worst thing I felt I could do was deny it.

How do you value something you cannot keep? Our lives are as ephemeral as the performances we create. Performance—like life— is an expression of the self that explores the limits of the space around you, your body, your mind, your self. As an art form, it forces you to contribute to the emotional experience of the moment or even to the content, giving a greater value to the observer and meaning to the art. What level of contribution you allow yourself to give to the experience will dictate the amount of value or meaning you place on the experience. There are many times I’ve stood watching uncomfortably as an act unfolded, wondering indecisively what can I do, or what should I do. Yet I have never regretted having seen it, witnessing an aspect of a person (sometimes a friend) that is seldom expressed socially, sometimes beautiful, sometimes absurd, sometimes frightening, but in the act—performed with an aesthetic dignity that is shared with a bare intimacy with me. Performance as an art can affect your life in how you see others, how you see yourself, and what you believe you can do or express. It is an art form that becomes biography. To value performance is to value your life, the experience you give and take from it. I’m happy that I’m alive despite the trauma I’ve lived through. Life doesn’t happen to you, you are alive, you are life, so why search for a meaning when you can create it yourself.

Reflections on ‘WIN’, A Performance By Poppy Jackson

A letter to Poppy (Miracle) Jackson from Benjamin Sebastian:

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Poppy Jackson holding eye contact with each audience member as they enter Grace Exhibition Space. Photo by Anna Martinou.

Art is never an end in itself. It is only an instrument for tracing lines of lives…” – Deleuze and Guattari

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
– Audre Lorde

Poppy,

As I write this I am overcome by a nervousness (fear) I am all too familiar with. It is that nervousness that Audre Lorde describes often and so eloquently with regard to speaking out, being heard/visible. This to me is important, specifically in relation to your work; being heard/visible, but a self-owned visibility. Not a visibility imposed from the outside.

It is now six months since we were in Brooklyn (NYC) together. Six months since we paced two blocks in Bushwick convincing each other that the only failure possible would be self-censorship. We were both scared of opening ourselves up (literally), becoming vulnerable and showing that which so many (still) do not want to see or have exist; the penetrated male and the self-owning woman. Although I would normally consider myself a non-binary identifying body, I find it productive at times to identify on the basis of sex and gender strategically, but we can talk more about that in person.

I want to share with you some of my memories of our time in New York and my experience of your install-action, WIN, which took place at Grace Exhibition Space.

Grin and Bare It.

I have been thinking about how much unwanted attention Bean received, apparently due to ‘looking different’ and when she was researching the legality of states of undress and found that (as in England) it was legal in the state of New York for women to be topless in public. I can’t remember why you were not with us but I want to recount when Bean and I went for that walk… Two bodies, both bare-chested, walking across the Williamsburg Bridge. Yes it was a provocative act, but does not research dictate a rigorous approach? Talk about a reality check. Reactions varied from humour to aggression and disgust. One man, on jogging past (topless) commented jovially “Now there’s something you don’t see everyday” and asked to take a picture. With a reply of no, the man proceeded to take the picture anyway. After being informed he was operating within the same power dynamics as rape, this enlightened creature replied: ‘If you want to dress like that, I am within my rights to respond how I like”. This was the first of many people (men) who felt it was there right to objectify and capture (digitally) Bean’s body for their own desires. I remember Bean and I recounting this experience to you and the myriad of discussions that ensued. What I remember the most is the absolute feeling of frustration and anger surrounding the inequality of it all.

Targeted.

On return from a trip to Coney Island, you and Bean had won a fish (which you later gifted to me, where was I that day?) from the Win Fish & Critterz fun stall. From the stall operator you had negotiated a sticker in the style of a target with the word WIN printed on it. You placed this on your solar plexus and left it there, documenting its disintegration across time (10 days?).

I remember feeling this was just as provocative as Bean walking topless through Brooklyn and Manhattan. The sticker drew attention to your cleavage, labeling your body/chest (your heart?) as a target. The word WIN insinuating domination already achieved. Was this an act of defiance, eroding the misogynistic ownership of your body? Or was this an act of resignation, accepting and becoming that target fully, enabling self-ownership? I perceived it to be both and something more still.

WIN_sticker_11_daysWIN.

Our time in New York was almost over, 6 weeks had past. It was the evening that you and I were programmed to make our install-actions. I had finished my install-action (after having almost suffocated in a full head bind of gaffer tape) and you helped me to calm down. It was time for you to begin. Prior, you had instructed me move the entire audience out of the exhibition space for the beginning of your work. The audience obliged and were instructed that in a moment they would re-enter the space, one by one. We began to re-enter the space.

As I entered, I was forced to move through a narrow passage, between wall and counter. I instantly felt controlled and manipulated. The layout of the room channeled me towards you – naked, cornered, inverted. Supporting your body weight through your neck and shoulders, your arms flowing out across the floor. You looked to have been thrown there. Your thighs where I expected to view your shoulders, feet in place of head. Legs splayed wide apart, a tatty homemade sign was inserted into your vagina (it read WIN – a digital copy taken from documentation of the target you had worn on your chest). In one hand you held a small blade and in the other, a handful of gold leaf, spilling, floating out with air currents in the room.

Silence.

Your position and my height facilitated an awkward, topical view of your vulva, penetrated lips separated by the shaft of the sign. Your body suggested the fallen, pornographic choreography and somehow, a misuse of the female body, particularly the vagina. Yet there was no misuse: you had orchestrated this scene, claiming the space, body, time and vagina as self-owned. I remember feeling as though I was in a temple and reverence was required, perhaps demanded. Even before I had made eye contact with you, I was uncomfortably aware that your eyes were upon me.

You were gazing at me.

As I traveled past your body into the open area of the space, you traced my movements, only your eyes moving. You controlled that interaction totally. Over and over again your defiant gaze silently ushered each audience member past your contorted body and into the space. Some shocked by your install-action, others laughed nervously. All were unsure of how to act and where to look.

You knew exactly where to look.

With everyone beyond your gaze, you slowly rolled your head to face us, momentarily, you lifted the blade to your left shoulder and began to cut a long, curving line. Shoulder – solar plexus – shoulder. Like the line of a bird’s wings in flight, a red mark followed your finger tips and blade. The blood began to trickle down over the tops of your shoulders, in sporadic little streams. You then began to gold leaf the curved, now bloodied lines.

This echoed in me of the Japanese pottery practice known as Kintsugi, whereby broken objects are repaired, not in an attempt to hide the damage but to highlight cracks, fault lines and breakages with gold. The belief is that the objects become more beautiful because of their history, because of such damage and re-assemblage.

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Jackson gold leafing the cut to her body during her performance, WIN. Photo by Anna Martinou.

Gilded, you paused. You withdrew the shaft of the sign from between your labia. Carefully, you lent the sign against the wall, upright, folded yourself down from the wall and stood before us. Staunchly, you searched our faces momentarily with your gaze before slowly starting to shake your hands. Your Head followed, hair flowing across your face and chest. Eventually your arms began to flail and your whole body violently convulsed until the action was no longer possible. You regained your balance, gold leaf fluttered and glistened around you in the air. As you shook, your body was freed of all rational, socially-required calmness and the gold leaf radiated from you. Sparkling, almost suspended in space and time. That moment felt like a new world where we could be and do anything. You slowly swept the hair from your face, paused, regarded us and walked through our mass, parting us as you left.

I often think of New York and WIN. In turn Poppy, I think about the opening quotes in this letter. I think about the ‘lines of lives’ you traced with WIN, the bodies (women, men and everyone in between) damaged by misogyny, sexism, heterosexism and cis-sexism. It seems the world becomes more multiple and complex with every passing moment. I wonder, if we can define ourselves and not be ‘eaten alive’, where might we end up and what lives might we live?

Remembering the final moments of your install-action one particular element blazes in my mind. In the golden, quite calm that followed your convulsions, I noticed the blood lines (the stream like tears that had trickled away from the lines that you had cut), that had aptly run with gravity over your shoulders towards the floor, were now inverted. Uncannily, they now ran up your chest, seemingly weightless, as though droplets of blood were about to lift from your shoulder tops and float up and away from your body. In this moment I felt light. Everything felt light. There was hope and the potential of something… New?

I wanted to reflect here Poppy, share some memories, write a personal letter to you rather than write an essay referencing theoretical approaches. There seems to be more than enough academic activity surrounding our field and sometimes I think this is to the detriment of the actual work.

My finale thought for you is this: Do you remember when we met Tehching (Sam) Hsieh? Do you remember how terrified we were to know he was in the audience, viewing our work? Why? Why were we so scared? Both you and I are exploring the world and everything that has come before us through our bodies in our time, in our space. No one can tell us how to do this or that we are doing it wrong. There are no benchmarks, no one has ever lived in our bodies, here and now. Watching you reclaim your body from the violent histories of misogyny and patriarchy was so inspiring and gave me courage to dream of other ways of being. I will hold onto this lightness Poppy, thank you.

With love and autonomy,

Benjamin. Xx

Poppy Jackson, "WIN" at Grace Exhibition Space

WIN by Poppy Jackson at Grace Exhibition Space, New York, 2012. Photo by Anna Martinou.

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WIN was curated by Bean and Benjamin Sebastian as part of the residency program/performance festival; Alien(s) in New York (Funded by Arts Council England and the British Council through the Artists’ International Development Fund awarded to the curators). Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn. NY. August and September – 2012