Brooklyn Burns as Non Grata Comes to Last Frontier

Courtesy of Non Grata

Non Grata makes its annual visit to New York City with a performance this weekend on December 22nd at the Last Frontier NYC in Greenpoint. The Estonian performance art group has trail blazed through the United States touring across the country from Houston, to Miami Art Basel, to Virginia, and finally making a stop here in Brooklyn.

This interview was originally conducted and published by Jeff Rouner in the Houston Chronicle.

Non Grata discussion, questions answered collectively by Anonymous Boh, Devilgirl, Vlady Voz Tokk, and Joey Sledge

You’re over here now at a very volatile time in American politics. Has the current environment changed the way you perform? What HASN’T changed at all?

If you’re talking politics, the current environment always effects some change, but for ourselves, as Europeans, being in America effects our point of view and way of working. You see now many artists putting on a Trump mask and walking through the streets, carrying a sign “ Trump is an asshole”, and they think that they are also reflecting politics, but the actual world politics run much deeper. Trump is just a marionette of this.  Our performances always go much deeper than the surface, very deep into the root of the problem.  When our mini-society is there on the stage, all the politics are there: America is there, Europe is there, Africa is there, Asia is there.  All the different geographical, historical, sexual backgrounds are already there inside, so it reflects politics as just another aspect of our life, but it is not the most important thing in it.

Human life is much more important to take care of, than everyday politics.  Nowadays the world is so complicated, because there’s more then 8 billion people, and the human mind cannot really control it: whatever government is put there, always a certain percentage of people will not be satisfied with it.  You cannot really create a kind of government that pleases everyone, the politicians do what they can think of as best, but their IQ doesn’t let them do any more. This is what human government is these days.

We as artists, if we would go into politics, what would happen?  Who knows, maybe we would not be any better.  We have played in our performance this kind of game: pointing out roles to audience, now you are president of Russia, you are president of Austria, America, France, we are here, with other intelligent people, in this place, sharing the moment, and we want a better world.  And if you get this power tomorrow, how are you going to use it?  Are you really sure you can make the world a better place?

It is such a complicated system already, with all of the world’s logistics and the amount of people, it may not be possible anymore to control with human brain. We do not think in the same ways as we used to about societies and borders.

And what hasn’t changed at all, is what we do. We create spaces with site-specific actions.  We do not have planned actions, we are living in the moment, we are generating new ideas in an experimental space, getting close to people, asking uncomfortable questions, from them, from all society.  We realize that politics and such things are just games that people play without thinking about it.  People create trappings of society, agree on the rules, and then play along to occupy themselves. We play the same sort of games superficially in the performance, but human nature doesn’t really change, and so our performance approach doesn’t much either.  It’s always a direct reaction to whatever is around us, inside and outside.

What never changes is that we are always here, in this moment, in this place, all together.  Everything else moves and changes through time and space. Our discussions on tour get very intense sometimes. Because we have to get to know each other, so we can work as one body.  A group working as one organ is very powerful.  It’s not just that we come together and make good performances, you have to be close to each other, combining minds, bodies, and spirits together, to create something so powerful, its complete magic.  1 +1 + 1 + 1 is not four, in this way it is much more.

Photo: Michael O’Dwyer , Courtesy of Non Grata

You said you just got back from the Tijuana border, and everyone here is reeling from the images of what happened there. Can you tell me what you saw, what you did there, and how your performances can help in such a situation?

It feels like we’ve been following the track of many refugees, from the fire in California to people displaced in Central America, people who are lost, and it is rather important how you work with this idea of refugees. Performing near the border wall in Tijuana, we were not trying to resolve this problem through art, by raising questions and bringing attention to the pain points in societies.  Of course art doesn’t do it by itself, it is a tool,  we’re creating situations and energies that help resolve the people’s issues in the places we go. Our actions signify intentionality, and people’s attention follows the actions.

We’re representing a mini-society of the present moment with different symbols and personifications. All these characters: the cheese grater, the holy mother, the punk military warrior, the plastic dolls, the winged man, they are very direct and obvious. People, whatever backgrounds they are, can relate to them in the same way. We are all in a human grinder, just like everyone else.  Some people think they can avoid it, but it has sucking power like a vacuum cleaner.  There are many of these people kinds of people who are like refugees.

The refugees are probably told they can get to America, but they don’t even know that it does not work that way.  They are just pushed there, by some other people through social brainwash. A lot of these people are simply mislead, lead towards something that they’re not expecting and coming upon resistance.  They’re pawns in the game, which is this representation.

These kinds of things, when they happen, they raise the question to society; how to resolve this problem…?  We are here not to say that this is right or wrong.  Some say it’s wrong that these refugees arrive at the US border, another side says its wrong that they shoot them with tear gas.   They’re all bad solutions… But all these people are living  in their bubbles, those in the military, they’re brainwashed like in that Kubrick movie (Full Metal Jacket). But these people just ended up in these situations, without any real choice.

This is a world crisis, a lot of this is about human and natural resources, and many people don’t know how to resist, they don’t even see it for what is happening.

People in the US and Mexico coming out equally protesting for it and against it, but there is not just an actual shortage of places for them to live or work in, it’s a politically manufactured focal point to divide society.  And people have to stop looking at it this way. This situation exists on many levels,  but 90% of the crisis in the Americas, exists because of imperialistic policies.  They support these oppressive governments to exercise economic and political control and to exploit the resources but not support the people of the country.  That doesn’t work, you don’t have to do much but you have to take care of the people, and they didn’t.

Its possible north America will take this challenge, because they want more land.  They’re an imperialist country like Russia, France, Germany, they could take over the continent to the South Pole. And this is one solution, to be globally borderless. The rich countries are going to expand their territories, get more citizens, but at the same time they have to save them.

And the Panda bear represents Chinese cultural imperialism. What they do is send gift pandas all around the world, like to the San Diego zoo, DC, Memphis or Russia.  But the real panda policy is: ‘we give you a panda and you owe us something now’ What is not widely known is that not every panda is worth something on that market, some of them are quite worthless pandas, they’re not conforming.

They are also refugees, renegade pandas, who don’t want to be sold into the zoo system, they want to be free, so nobody wants them, because they’re not willing to be enslaved and eat bamboo all day long.   They can’t get over the border, have to live in the desert where pandas don’t belong. The panda is such a high commodity, but a renegade panda is worthless to the market.

 What is it about fire that makes it such a significant part of the show?

Just week ago an artist of Estonian origin in Los Angeles answered this same question: “Estonians, they are all about fire, it’s an Estonian cultural tradition, to keep the fire alive.”

But in the performance, physically its used as a symbol. We talk about the inner fire, the passion, these are characteristics within human beings.  Fire is also bringing people together and lights them up with excitement.  And sometimes it gets a little bit dangerous, a little bit too hot.  So it’s often a good symbol to use.

Sometimes we have too much inner fire, and that can start the outer fire.  That’s what our performances in Sacramento and Oakland were about: how to cool down the passion of the human being – their inner fire caused this huge fire across the west coast. Too much passion can be suffocating,  you couldn’t breathe the air from so much passion.

So we made a complete opposite action there, we were cooling down together with the audience, using water, wind and ice in a very interactive performance.  And next day in California it started to rain, and the fires began to die down.  This really worked because rain rituals have been done by humans through millennia.  What we do is the modern incarnation of this ritual, bringing the wind to blow it away, bringing the water.

Courtesy of Non Grata

Do audiences ever resist you and what do you do if yes?

Of course we have been through all that, we have been attacked by audiences, technicians, police, ambulance, and fire personnel, but these reactions are already written inside the performance, anyway.

The performance is not a rigid structure, you are performing in moment, people are engaged, and we never know how the piece will end.  Interactions are already incorporated into the performance, and it doesn’t matter.  This kind of performance is not about the artist, the point is to initiate a reaction and an interactive experience with the audience.  There’s no wrong reaction, but there’s no way out of it either.  So you can’t escape or control the performance, no matter how you react to it.  Whether you want to or not, all your reactions are there as another catalyst of the energy of the space and people. It is that way inevitable.

But how good a performance artist you are, will show in how you handle these situations.  The performance practice is there for a human being to develop themselves, and overcome stress blockages, when you never stress, you dissolve the problem.

Do you have any specific plans for New York, or will you just see what happens? Is there any artists in the group you specifically want to call attention to?

Non Grata is a group, we work spontaneously, we go into a space and work into that time/space container. Today it was refugees at the US/Mexico border – 5000 troops against 5000 refugees.  Tomorrow, who knows? We didn’t know one or two weeks before, that this would happen.  Somehow we’ve ended up in these hot zones, reacting to things, and every time there happens to be a critical situation that precedes or follows us to a specific place.  We need to see what happens in the world now and Houston will give us the energy and ideas on how to use and release it along with the audience.

Photo: Michael O’Dwyer , Courtesy of Non Grata

What can artists do with an audience that they can’t do without?

Audiences produce energy change.  When Non Grata first started, we made performances for 3 years and never went to festivals.  We started with these ghetto marathons where we closed ourselves into a space for one or two weeks, and no audience was let in.   We wanted to show that art is not entertainment, that art exists as creative processing in everyone of us, but we don’t do it because of an audience.

Today, in many occasions art is used as entertainment, but also now there is a questioning of everything, as art always needs to have.  Raise new questions, and strategies to solve world problems, but bring the absurd into it as well.  Because some of these absurd ideas, after 100 years are not absurd at all anymore.  A lot of scientists, artists, and philosophers have been killed because of being too artistic for their era.

What you can do with audience, as opposed to without, is this huge energy change?

You get your energy from the audience: how interested are they? how excited do they get?  where is their fire?  It is a very important thing to us.  Art is not some picture on the wall, it is a living thing, and we are the trigger to start the creative process in people’s heads.  It’s something you really cannot do without performance.

We don’t even care so much exactly what will happen in the performance act itself, we mainly want this energy change to happen.  When the action brings this mental space into reality, everybody gets the click, it’s like watching a movie so good, that you forget reality around you exists, and you lose yourself in the film, feeling like it is real life. Except this is actually is real life, and not a movie.  It actually trains you, trains the audience, to exist in a different way.

And when it comes to the point where the audience is not just accepting but feeling so much of the energy we give out, that they will actually decide to interact within it on their own.  Because we do often go up to the audience, attempt to pull them in, to interact with them directly and physically. When they feel that energy to be part of the action, it shows their acceptance of a true natural energy: not just seeing but feeling and wanting more.

Often we don’t really give them a choice, some people might resist in taking part, but we say: “ We need you for this… Will you take part… ?”  You ask them, and most of the time they do it, because they are already there, and it’s an unwritten contract that they sign in their minds that anything can happen, and they need to do it, to receive this experience.  And that’s what its all about: generating shifts in peoples minds and bodies, and shifting all our energies toward building something greater then ourselves.



PULSAR’S Trouble Performing Podcast Episode 2


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)



UP⬆️NYC Performance Festival Preview


By David LaGaccia

UP⬆️NYC, a new annual performance festival based in New York will take place this Thursday, April 21st, at The Paper Box. The festival, which will feature a variety of experimental and interdisciplinary performance work, includes performance art, noise music, and video in its programming.

The festival comes out of a collaboration between Brooklyn artists Wild Torus and the Estonian performance collective Non Grata. The two groups have performed together extensively through 2015 in the Diverse Universe Performance Festival that culminated in a show at the Gowanus Ballroom in Brooklyn last December; they most recently performed together Friday, April 16th during the Anarchist Book Fair at Judson Church.

NG perf Hurricane Patricia best Oklahoma 2015

Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata

Non Grata is collaborating with New York based Wild Torus to organize a new annual performance festival in the Big Apple called NYC UP, or the New York Underground Performance Festival,” said Non Grata’s Al Paldrok in a statement. “We have been touring together all over Europe and North, Central, and South America, and now have put together a new creative melting pot in New York City.The aim is to bring experiments, non-conformism and creativity back to contemporary art. Festival activities promote cultural fluidity through exchange of ideas, concerns and cultural perspectives.


Non Grata and Wild Torus performing at the Gowanus Ballroom last December during the Diverse Universe Festival.
Photo: Courtesy of Wild Torus

Along with the two groups, the night will feature performances by Yolteotli, Jon Konkol, Uta Brauser, Kim Fatale, and Jen Kutler in live video performance curated by Eric Barry Drasin. The show will also have sound-based work by noise musicians Drums Like Machine Guns, Max Alper, Spreaders, Channel63, and I Say Fuck.

NG perf Brain Wash best New York medium

Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata

Prints, artwork, and other merchandise from participating artists will be on sale throughout the night. The show starts at 7:00 pm with an entry fee of $15, with ticket sales going to artists.The Paper Box is located at 17 Meadow st, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

MENTAL DISCHARGE, The Diaries of Anonymous Boh part 2


Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata

In anticipation of Non Grata’s visit to the United States, here is an excerpt from Al Paldrok’s newest book, MENTAL DISCHARGE, Diaries of Anonymous Boh II. Paldrok will be giving a reading of his book on April 14th at Torus__porta on 113 Stockholm Street Storefront 1A in Brooklyn, New York. Non Grata will also be attending the Anarchist Book Fair on April 16th, as well as performing at The Paper Box on April 21st with Wild Torus, Jon Konkol and more.

It is nighttime, we are somewhere near the Mexican borderline. Ten is driving under his medication and we are too tired to notice he had made it 16 hours already. In the dark I wearily can open my eyes hearing the howling of police cars – we have four flashing machines chasing after us. “What the fuck, I thought this is roadwork” – Ten has driven right through the border control, and keeps on racing. “Pull over, man, pull over noooowwww!” We get the windows open and four shotguns are pointed to our faces, together with blinding flashlights. Ten´s driving license is invalid, expired, the vehicle has got no insurance and our passports are in California.

In the border guard point we all are separated, the fingerprints are taken. After every 5 minutes we are asked, have you got any drugs in the car? No, there are not. The virtual communication has even reached US, our identities are recovered in a couple of hours and then we could see, through their bullet-proof window, a shouting and gesticulating policeman coming in, waving Tom´s tobacco bag. This is the end, I think. But the door is opened and we are told: “Everything fine, you can go now…”

We move back to our car. “Whose tobacco is this?”

“Mine,” Tom says. “What are you smoking man? It smells soooo good, our dogs got crazy on that stink!” I must hold my feelings back hard, not to tell those officers, I can share you this cigarette for each, for free, get home and try it…


Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata

All our things have been taken out on the street, unpacked, all the macadam in this tropical darkness under floodlights full of our soggy performance stuff, cameras, clothes. The uniforms stand around us, hands folded on chests and under their surveillance we start to pack again. Ten, who seems to be like in paradise because of our happy salvation, begins to explain them what we are doing here at all and so on and so on, we give lectures in Universities… “Do you have working licenses, guys?”

Haaaaaaa. “Shut the fuck up, man!” I hiss to him, in effort to get the last heavy bag in. As for the last move, I take silver paper from the roof, where the magic chocolates, all melted, are hidden. No documents, no insurance, no driving license, all that strange stuff – and we get away with this! Do not come to talk to me how rude is the American police, especially Texan. In Europe, one of these things would be enough to take the car, make thousands of euros fee, and be arrested after all that.



Taje Tross (Devil Girl) and Al Paldrok (Anonymous Boh)
Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata

Estonian Independence Day Feb 24th – THIS IS THE DAY” We join forces with Non Gratas residing in New York – Barbie, Mermaid, Hoke, Alice Wonderland, BJ Dealer and others. The performance would start with solemn speech about Estonia as the tiniest nation on mainland, which has its own government, national television and written language. Three ambassadors are there. During the speech the go-go girls rush onstage, who perform burlesque in the honor of the birthday. At the same time, the real essence of the speech emerges – why talk about Estonia – this is a perfect place for experiment – how to give birth to the new model of mankind, new race – Storm Generation.

For this, everything existing must be annihilated – already religion, real and fictional gods, the military are set in flames, the police machine park goes in puffs of fumes. The room is full of fume. The world of entertainment has reached its violent roots – The Simpson family gone crazy batters the floor with knives, this tandem of Homer-Bart-Maggie are crawling on all fours and make the audience peep around frightfully, sometimes all the mass must escape them. There are no audience and performers anymore, all in one mass, which must make way to birth of storm generation – development of fetus can be observed step-by-step in colorless world ball, that is filling with breath of ideal man Ten. All the old must go – a gang of robots go mad in euphoria, cacophonia.


Photo: Courtesy of Non Grata

Who is now set on fire? – White, yellow and black races, feminists and machos, poets and writers, eggheads and idiots. We are the open nerve of God! Techno-animal sounds get wilder and louder. Mother of Harlots – mother of all the whores and shit drives in on a chariot, the amazons, brutalized, twist in apocalyptic agony, sucking blood from veins of each other, blood of gods Dionysian, delivering it to the doomed. The preacher defends the puffing uterus, its dimensions are superhuman already, the little body is clearly seen. A little dwarf signs the roaming people with black circles, his father is counting days left, backwards, a gorilla wheels the globe like a toy. Umbilical cord won´t snap yet, the uterus does not open yet…

The Storm Generation

we tip our hats to the lost and the beat

we go our own way

we are the storm generation

we are the fucking storm

we are a new generation of artists

we are poets writers painters sculptors composers musicians singers dancers playwrights filmmakers

we are creative expression

we blow away lies and injustice

we are graphic

we are honest

we tell it like it is

we are fierce

we are brutal

we are compassionate

we are gentle

we are kind

we have soft hearts

we are free

we are spirit

we are sex

we dwell in the realms of the creative imagination

we are the creative imagination

we know that the shortest distance between two points is creative distance

we pay attention to the long forgotten wisdomed voices of the forest

we vanquish the overtly materialistic greedy who intentionally destroy mountains

we honor mountains and oceans and eagles and wolves

we cherish mother earth and all her terrible beauty

we are non-violent spiritual warriors

we are lightning

we are thunder

we are songed poems

we are fearless visionary poets

we have wolf eyes

we are more than the eye of the storm

we are the fucking storm

we refuse

we will not bow down

we will never give up

we are God’s open nerve

we are The Storm Generation

INCIDENT Magazine Spring Performance Preview


Cover of our first print edition featuring artist Heeran Lee.
Photo and design by David LaGaccia

By David LaGaccia

Like all things created, INCIDENT Magazine started as a concept that grew into a conversation and was shared as an idea between friends. Patience, however, is necessary when handling a project this ambitious, so the idea lay dormant for about a year after its conception. Time passed, events passed—the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival closed out the summer in 2013, and eventually schedules began to clear up in the winter…

As an aside, there are two principles worth considering when making any decision: 1. There is never going to be a perfect time to do anything, but finding the “right” time is crucial. 2. Thought without action is just as dangerous as action without thought.

…and so work on the project officially began in January 2014, and in four months’ time, the concept became a reality.


Interior of our first print edition featuring the essay SITE by Poppy Jackson.
Photo: David LaGaccia

It’s been two years since then. After two years of hard work, and several months of receiving feedback on test printings, INCIDENT Magazine is producing its first print edition for publication later this May.

A lot goes into planning a print edition. Everything from paper stock, color, design, font, length, photo caption placement and the simple demand for a print magazine has gone into consideration. We aim to give the kind of quality the art form deserves and the kind of quality readers desire. And there is a desire for a print edition; when the second printing was distributed at a local Brooklyn show, all copies were taken in a matter of hours.

We’re now accepting essay and documentation submissions to be considered for publication with a hard deadline of Sunday May 8th. Refer to our Facebook event for further details, and our submissions page for exact details on how to submit.


Interior of the second edition featuring the essay Even the palms, dem bow by Joiri Minaya and Ian Deleón. The issue was distributed publicly on February 12 during PULSAR’s first event, 7 Minutes in Heaven at Catland Books in Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: David LaGccia. Magazine design: Laura Blüer

Along with the print edition, in the following weeks you’ll read excerpts from Estonian artist Al Paldrok’s new book of the performance art collective, Non Grata; an interview with Martha Wilson, a legendary artist and supporter in the performance art community; social ethics and boundaries in performance; an artist who literately sold all of his belongings and traveled to find his cultural identity; monthly podcasts featuring conversations with a spectrum of performance art thinkers in the community; a personal essay of an a artist who left their home country to escape censorship and find expression in the United States; the female body, and how it relates to nature, myth, and performance; music, and expanding the idea of what is live performance, and more.

I hope you enjoy the stories as they are told, and I hope you share your stories with us in the near future…


Martha Wilson speaking at Pratt Institute in November 2015.
Photo: David LaGaccia

As a preview of what’s to come, the following is an excerpt of an interview conducted by performance artist Angeli with Martha Wilson, a performance art pioneer and founder of the Franklin Furnace arts foundation. The interview will be published in its entirety in the coming weeks.

Angeli Sion: Having encountered your work around various points in time in different contexts, I was most interested in talking to you about the transformation of the body, and what that could mean in your practice. I’m thinking of your most early embodied performative acts and photo/text works before moving to New York in 1974, if you could start there. How did it start?

Martha Wilson: How did this start? …  Art school environment. I was technically not in the art school. My boyfriend was in the art school. I was technically in the university across the street. But the art school environment was full of visiting artists who were conceptual artists of the day, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Beuys, and Vito Acconci. They were coming through and doing projects with students, so we not only got to see what the end results looked like, but how you got to the end results.

It was pretty cold stuff. Not related to what was going on in the real world. Except for Vito. Vito was using his own sexuality as his own art medium, and was, you know, masturbating under a platform, following people in the street, or waiting at the bottom of the stairs with a pipe to bash whoever came in.

These were works that took sexuality as a subject, so that opened the door to me to take my sexuality as a subject, and my body is female. So I was coming from the embodied female perspective, and he was coming from the embodied male perspective.

Now in those early days, I didn’t know the term ‘feminism.’ I didn’t know what that was. It was never used. The art school environment was male-dominated and hostile basically towards women. (Laughs)

I think I tell this story about my mentor, who taught painting in college and then went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and became a professor— he told my boyfriend, Richards, “You have to come up here. It’s the coolest art school in North America.’

So I said, ‘I wanted to be an artist too.’

And he said, ‘Women don’t make it in the art world.’ “

Valuing a Moment, Performance Art in Our Lives

By David LaGaccia

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
\                             /

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.