Watch Your F*!#ing Step: The NON GRATA Experience

by Sandrine Schaefer, 2013

Introduction

I first experienced the work of Estonian Performance Art Group, NON GRATA in 2005 at a performance festival in Muenster, Germany.  It was a spectacle that balanced organized chaos and creative impulse with critique of the art world.  Beautiful bodies filled spaces while engaging in thrilling actions.   Later that year I experienced a body of work that NON GRATA brought to the States. I was impressed with how well their work fit into the capitalist sprawl of my own country.

I have participated in, organized, curated, and archived performance art events/festivals for ten years.  In addition to my teaching practice, the volume of performance art that I experience and study has left me desensitized.  Visceral actions and sensational materials do not excite my senses like they used to.  I believe that this is a necessary skill in ensuring a long life in this medium, but there are times that I miss my “Honeymoon Period” with live art.  I felt this way when presented with the opportunity to revisit NON GRATA’s work in New York and Boston this past fall.  The Non Grata experience seems best witnessed with wide eyes and a rapid pulse.  I wondered how I would engage now that the novelty of the sensorial overload they often conjure has worn off.

In place of exhilaration, I was moved by the balance between the consistencies preserved from their older work with the introduction of new actions, materials, and people.  Many of the actions felt familiar, while simultaneously untried.

Anonymity and Explorations of the Self

Non Grata has been utilizing anonymity in their work for over 12 years, creating interchangeable roles that simultaneously erase the individual identities within the group.  This strategic use of anonymity has assisted Non Grata in cultivating a practice and reputation for collecting people as they travel the world creating live works.  These people commit to performing the most absurd, sometimes dangerous actions. Using such spectacular actions, it is nearly impossible to experience NON GRATA’s work without falling into a state of intoxication.  NON GRATA infiltrates the totality of the spaces they work in.  At every turn, the witness can expect to encounter bodies engaged in visceral actions that travel through varying degrees of intensity.   Your attention may be fixed on a pair of statuesque nude bodies being spray painted on one side of the room, while a masked figure creates sound by taking an angle grinder to a tower of gas tanks behind you.  A woman wearing a skull mask topped with a candle, hula-hoops out of the corner of your eye, another woman periodically spraying gas at the flame to create a stream of fire. The overwhelming nature of the experience and the use of shock actions induce an empathetic response from the witness, creating a bond between the artist and audience for the duration of the performance.  Afterwards, the witness is presented with gaping holes in their memory regarding details of the occurrence.  The action of forgetting is built into the work, allowing those participating, either as an artist or a witness, to shed their inhibitions.  The NON GRATA experience offers permission to be no one, hence creating an opportunity for participants to explore becoming anyone/anything.

The Act of Witnessing

A multitude of art institutions have done studies on how long the average spectator spends with pieces at museums.  The average lies somewhere between 5-17 seconds.  This is where experiential art practices differ.  Performance art demands time.  In October 2012, NON GRATA traveled to Boston to lead a workshop with students from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.  The workshop concluded with a performance art piece at Anthony Greaney in Boston.   Approaching the gallery, the audience was confronted by a two by four shoved into the doorway that had been spray painted with the phrase “Watch your Fucking Step”.  Anyone wishing to enter the space had to walk over this obstacle.  So often we enter and exit spaces without giving it much thought.  This artistic choice alerted the audience that upon entry, they would be required to engage.  This was not going to be your “common” art viewing experience.  5-17 seconds won’t cut it here.

Donning an uncanny resemblance to NON GRATA’s Anonymous Boh, my long time collaborator was gifted the role of “Mini Me” in 2005.  During performances, he simply follows Anonymous Boh, becoming his shorter and smiling shadow.    As I navigated Anthony Greaney’s fog filled white cube, I couldn’t choose where to give my attention.  Anonymous Boh and Mini Me wore black tights stuffed with balloons on their heads.  Anonymous Boh began with “a lecture” complete with an overhead projection.  In a voice mediated through a megaphone, he explained, “you have to make the energy of the performance.”  He drew a diagram of an energetic cycle: the mouth to the “bottom” to the eye to the brain, and explained that you feel it from your asshole.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the gallery, bodies dressed in androgynous and experimental drag writhed against the wall.   A woman cloaked in black traveled the room gingerly touching everyone as she walked by.  Someone wearing an inside-out rubber Halloween mask created drone-like sounds that deafened Anonymous Boh’s barking manifesto.  Surrounded by so much stimuli in such a small space, I took comfort in the consistency of repetition that Mini Me offered.  He served as Anonymous Boh’s mirror, making him feel a bit more human.  As his voice moves in and out of the sonic landscape, it was hard to make out what Anonymous Boh was saying through the dated technology.  I laughed when I think I heard him say, “Where’s your energy, Assholes?!” This is the Boston performance art scene that I know and love; so steeped in theory and the practice of patience that the audience interactions are often so slow moving they can easily be misunderstood as trying to communicate with a dead fish.

As I navigated the space, I kept catching myself from falling.  The floor was covered in plastic, perhaps a contextual compromise that coincidentally made the floor slippery.  My gaze was pulled down to a nude masked figure beneath the plastic tarp that caressed my foot.  The assumed decision to protect the gallery’s floor from the chaos expected to ensue was useless.  The body beneath the plastic is a reminder that the plastic didn’t protect the floor from infiltration, and we (the audience) are also subject to interjection.

From the moment they crossed the threshold, the viewer entered into an unspoken agreement to exercise their choice.  They agree to determine the duration of time they will invest with the piece. They decide how they will view the piece, if they will sit, stand, walk around the space, interact, or view it from a distance.  By populating the gallery with so many people performing actions, NON GRATA breaks the traditional performance space.  By using dangerous materials, the audience is forced to consistently confront their personal comfort zones.  The NON GRATA experience is more about the act of witnessing than the actions that are being performed by the artists.  As Anonymous Boh projected, we are indeed, creating the energy of the performance.

Closing

A lot has changed since my first interactions with NON GRATA.  Anonymity and voyeurism through the screen have become deeply integrated into our daily lives.  Online social networking has become a universal requirement.   The Smartphone was invented, arming a large population of the western world with cameras, instant information, and endless communication.   Email and texting is often more popular than face to face or phone conversations.  Technology has conditioned the masses to navigate identity in ways we have never seen before.  In a climate where every incantation of selfies contaminate the Internet, it is apparent that people are using burgeoning technology to explore “the self.”  Anonymity is merely a tool in getting closer to the self.  When we are given permission to be no one, we are given the opportunity to detach from the identities that we have constructed for ourselves.  Even if just for a moment, this invites a deeper understanding of the complexities of who we truly are or who we can be.  The extensions of identity explored through the NON GRATA experience are endless.  Operating as an ever-changing collective, seducing the audience to participate, and questioning what it means to engage with and create “art,” NON GRATA’s practice creates its own culture.  By taking away a name, an identity, a face, they offer a freedom that exposes a shared experience of deep seeded human desire for exploration.  Whether performing or witnessing, in a NON GRATA piece, you can be a follower, you can be a goddess, a rabbit, Paul McCarthy’s long lost cousin, an athlete, a scholar, a sex symbol, everyone, and no one all at once.


photos: courtesy of Non Grata / by Saskia Edens

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