by Esther Neff
Being a part of this “collective” snuck up on me. I’m not even sure it is a collective, or has ever been one. I think collectivity itself is often a problem defined by its negation of patriarchal, white-supremist hierarchies, and as such, is formally designed by such dominant paradigms rather than operating constructively/deliberately with regards to the individuals who are actually involved in collective action.
First, I went to Lindsey Drury’s meeting at Gibney Dance, something about making a bill of rights for female performers (read Lindsey’s statements and ideas here). I went because I’d been collaborating with Lindsey on her residency project Run Little Girl, which introduced me to dance as a discipline and formed my first collaboration with a team solely consisting of women. NWPTF could have continued along as the public service component of the Gibney residency, lead solely by Lindsey and directed by her frames, perhaps resulted in a written document. However, the women who attended this single meeting engaged forcefully, eventually physically migrating out of a polite circle in a studio into vehement personal discussions in the office kitchen and hall. Relationships between “Feminism” and “performance” struck a cord with me and a few other attendees (Chloe Bass, Ivy Castellanos especially?), vibrating through shared concerns with agency, performance of gender, race, institutionality, queerness, and the concrete processes of construction, interpretation, identification, and so on. For me, Feminism’s matrix of theoretical-ethical concerns appeared as a bag of tools that could be used to build modes that theorize AS and IN performance and de-objectify themselves as a matter of medium, for others, this “bag of tricks” appeared itself to be “white feminism,” an oppressive set of dialectical considerations. NWPTF women disagreed immediately about whether or not dialecticism itself is “Feminist.”
A few months later, Ivy Castellanos conceived and curated Transformations, translating the concept of a “No Wave Performance Task Force” into live forced tasks structured into a three-day exhibition at her gallery, IV Soldiers. She invited four women artists to participate, Elinor Thompson, Ivy Castellanos, Lindsey Drury, and myself. The first day of this exhibition was dedicated to the metaphorical action of collectively, improvisationally building a “conceptual treehouse,” followed by performances within the “conditions” of those constructions, and then human relational performances in the cleared space on the third and final day. We began to meet as individuals, welcoming Christen Clifford to perform with Ivy, Lindsey, and myself at Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics as part of their durational daytime series. This piece, Embody Explosion, simply combined sets of tasks and actions we each brought into the space, jumping off of Ivy’s original idea to cast Lindsey’s head in chocolate.
All performance work can be framed as theoretical action, operating in pursuit of constructing modes of social performance via performance itself. I am almost desperate to explain how crucial this collective called the No Wave Performance Task Force has become to my current understanding of this, and of life itself. I realize, of course, that the other NWPTF women have different ways of thinking, writing, making performance, etc than I do, and I have no intention of speaking for the group or declaring my framing of the NWPTF as an “official” or “representative.”
That being said, I participate in NWPTF to embody and practice Feminist theory. My position within Feminism, as an academic and literary canon, is one of indebtedness, confusion, disgust, and anger, placing my practice within particular structural conceptions of how epistemics operate in relationships with individuals. Functional usage or active application of Feminist theory resists this paradigm, reifying Feminist theories themselves and setting them within realms of daily experience, or the “personal” for a period of active testing and evaluation. At the very least, I seek to make these theories our own (to belong to actual women), instead of dry indices of debts we owe to other thinkers/artists/the art world’s metabolic, capitalist functionality. As we work, however, I also see us confronting the problematics of Feminist theory, and perhaps the cycles of debt (capitalist metabolisms across spheres) that prevent the concrete application of Feminism’s many formative tenets to the daily experiences of women.
Feminist practice engages all levels of social and intersubjective interaction. Writing this essay in a “first-person collective” voice mirrors Feminist conceptions of an “interrelated body” (cite), conceptions which in turn speak to both political dynamics and the “experiences of women” as a constructed category.
In November of 2012, four women artists met at IV Soldiers Gallery to exact an agreed-upon event. The vision of the curator and gallery director, also participating artist, Ivy Castellanos, was for us to collaboratively and completely improvisationally construct a “conceptual treehouse.” We agreed to bring materials from our own supply to the space at a certain time and had done press to invite a public audience. When we arrived at the space at 7:30pm, Ivy had covered a helmet in white dry erase paint and written what might be a secondary title for the performance: To Do: Build a Conceptual Treehouse in marker on it.
As we begin building, I remember thinking about how we are doing what we’re doing for different reasons, based on our own fascination with certain materials, our perspectives as artists and as identified individuals, and so on. However, we also remember finding ourselves working together yet separate, occasionally collaborating with/helping each other, even more occasionally speaking with one another, but working “forward and together” as if we shared a detailed blueprint. We each seemed to pursue an overall aesthetic, the need for spaces and objects with a high potential for different manipulations in subsequent actions, searching for ways of connecting space, and attempting to reach certain states of performative experience.
Men comment later that they observed our varying levels of “skill” with the power tools. Feminism is not about using power tools correctly, (though modes of intentional learning share is also No Wave Feminist and it never hurts to know how to drill) it’s about using what Feminism has known as a critical discipline, as a social justice movement, and as a canon of women’s work and actions. The form of this first 4-hour session of performative research rested (it seems to me, both from my experience within it and in retrospect as I view the video and start analyzing) on one of the primary ideas/cluster of ideas that postmodernist Feminism has insisted upon: that all persons are performing all of the time; our social and interpersonal performances are constructed in conflux between recognition of self (constant re-cognition) and the “constructions” of identity including gender, race, class, beauty, as agreed upon and disseminated by individuals and groups holding cultural and epistemic power. This core paradigm has its echoes postmodern critical theory across fields and deeply informs performance theory.
To Do: Build a Conceptual Treehouse performed realizations of the kinds of actions that might concretely compose “construction.” To do this, we avoided the definition and formalization (identification, reflection) of any “constructions” as object-ideas. We performed in relationship with construction not as an array of empiric and fundamental girders in the bridge between birth and death, but rather as a verb comprising actions as diverse as actions are possible.
Even when postmodern Feminism’s notions of “construction” are framed as performance, there is still another conceptual shift to address: whether or not the actions comprised by the verb “to construct” are automatic functions and/or apparent as structures. How are women performing use of power tools? Are these the actions of composite members of society and culture who can be identified as women, and to what extent are the various behavior(s) of this group governed by genetic and/or social structuring? How much power, we wonder now, does a woman (or anyone) have in performance of construction? This very line of questioning however is based in power struggle paradigms. It is emergent from capitalist, and yes, patriarchal assumptions about how social and cultural power is organized, how authority is given, and how individuals and social groups use knowledge and power (tools). Following this line of questioning forces the conclusion that constructive agencies, these performances as part of social construction, are mimetic and can, at best, merely form a separate (but possibly equal) empiric and fundamental girder. During To Do: A Conceptual Treehouse we intentionally-naïvely explored a bracketed-out space and time in which power was 1.) removed from the equasion as much as possible by removing any reward system for existing knowledges or social or functional detriment to the “possession” of any types of knowledges. 2.) made irrelevant by the lack of a desired outcome, a set but long period of time as a parameter for completion 3.) de-hierarchized between individuals but structured as a performance in a “social context” (performance art) towards emotional and psychological comfort of the artists and audience members in the situation.
Though there was some individual concern about “not planning” the performance at all ahead of time, we found improvisation to be the ideal performative mirror for resistance within power paradigms: often, performance of pre-existing structures as a mode, i.e. existing choreography, text, music, follow the above line of questioning when relating with Feminist ideology by posing technological or technique-based knowledge schemas to performance while improvisation emphasizes empathic, responsive, situationally-conscientious decision-making processes.
Elinor Thompson engaged in a process of wrapping a large frame in a web, using a picture frame she brought and a large cone of black twine. She worked at a faster pace, only once or twice unraveling a section to redo it. Often, improvisation in certain rhythms leads to trance states in which a pleasurable balance between conscious decision-making and sensate self-satisfaction is reached, in this case (my interpretations of what she was doing) constructing a sensate map of the situation as is was experienced/perceived by Elinor as she performed. I only guess this about her experience because it seemed similar to my own, as I cut and attached plastic, made a corner shelf with a piece of plywood and handsawed chunks of two-by-fours, whipped a little blue paint across a cluster of coin tubes, etc. This mode for performance evolved as we worked, creating a repetition of form throughout the space (columns, one of PVC pipe cut by Lindsey Drury to create a kind of hanging headsheath, one transparent black plastic hung in a human-sized circular curtain from a birdcage, and one subsequently erected in the middle of the twine web by Elinor, made out of a long, 8” diameter cardboard roll, repeating black plastic on the platform built by Ivy, strips, etc). Finally, we broke out collective trance and “polished up” the space together, arranging what we had built, setting up a plastic fence, making a little step stool, cleaning up the tools.
The following Thursday, we met again. This time, inexplicably and with no discussion in between the performances, three of us bring sugary items: sugar in a bag, clementines, hard candies, marshmallows. Lindsey takes off her pants and goes across the street to buy sugary cola and other drinks. We attempted to get into the trance state we experienced the first night, but the problems have changed, there are now extremely apparent existing conditions.
Existing conditions of the space, as we had built them, had replaced a sense of empiric social constructions. In this context, symbolisms and existing conceptions of women began to project from any action we undertook, regardless of its point on a spectrum between abstraction and identifiable function. My post-situational interpretation of what happened is that some of us leaned even harder towards abstract action, attempting to make interpretation impossible, or purely synthesthetic. Gradually, we began to experiment with audience engagement: candies were handed out, marshmallows were roasted and distributed, clementines eaten, the drinks mixed together were served to audience members, but these actions also became dramaturgical, symbolizing existing social interactions (get me a beer woman). The idea that this space was a “treehouse” also seemed to provide projections of meaning: four women in their own backyard, the childishness of women, the social play of women, four women trapped in a small gallery surrounded by sugar and increasing stickiness, women cooking and notions of women’s work, women in their abode gazed upon by voyeurs…Lindsey took hold of this layering of meaningful indications and had a male audience member read a love letter a boy had written her. It spoke of travel, the power of Lindsey as an artist and as a woman, a desire to collaborate, man’s love for woman, while Lindsey sat on the bench and reacted. She then read the letter using the names of the other artists, as if she was writing the love letter to them, changing the factual details in the letter to fit her real relationships with the other artists. The other three of us focused even more deeply on our homemaking projects, in spare yet increasingly noisy and absurd gestures (candy crushed with a hammer, a Gatorade bottle twisted in a vice, staring ahead perfectly still). Watching the video, I continue to interpret meaning, seeing the cognitive dissonance between interpersonal connections and the complexity of a single individual: Lindsey’s ex-lover uses her as a character in his own narrative, writing her with the details of his exciting experiences and plans while placing Lindsey on a vague, generalizing pedestal of Powerful Woman-ness, Woman Artist. We could not, or would not, deal with this problem in this performance, that we were turning ourselves into characters on a stage of life, that we were playing roles that we couldn’t relate with, that we were seeking ultimately to fulfill interpersonal expectations for us, that performance as such doesn’t necessary help us feel good as and with people. Lindsey put her head inside the head-sheath and went outside into the cold wearing it to do a tragically awkward blind dance with it on, Esther pasted dollops of melted candy to the sidewalk and threw chunks, Ivy and Elinor began to clean up. We were each frustrated after this performance, even though the beauty of the actions as objects was discussed by audience members, we seemed to have run into the wall of “Feminism” as a constructive prescription, the walls of total subjectivity AND those of existing constructions, as such.
While we still did not have time for a pre-performance meeting, we agreed that each of our performances should involve the other three artists. We wanted relationships with eachother, we wanted more control in our relationships with one another, to resist external interpretive schemas that associated our selves and actions with “feminist tropes.”
This third exhibition seems too complicated to discuss in the way I have been blathering on, as each of the four artists directing four individual pieces have such different perspectives on and frames for their own work; this final installment of Transformations returned us each to our own work: Lindsey and I had just begun collaborating again (with Brian McCorkle, my partner and composer to my textual tendencies) on the opera Any Size Mirror as a Dictator, and both of our performances examined an entire body of ideas related to that project as framed by the NWPTF’s performative Feminism. Ivy’s piece involved the other three women in her (at the time) obsession with black trash bags, she gave us the chance to “try on” her process and practice at that moment, to understand from inside. Elinor likewise shared her practical position as an artist, equally distributing the role of “fortune teller” amongst us and inviting the audience members to engage with us in the way that they would have with Elinor alone.
Where did Elinor go? I do not know. There was that one meeting…then I babysat Christen’s kids…then Ivy was asked to do a 6-hour performance at Fitness and she invited us…and next thing we knew, we were drinking wine, casting body parts in chocolate, plaster, and wax, pink paper, a live rat, watermelons and pine boughs, yellow plastic and sharpies…aptly named, this piece exaggerated “feminine aesthetics,” patterning, juxtaposing, and dealing with objects and processes-towards-objects.
Casting, in particular, is a similarity between Ivy’s practice and mine, we both use a lot of glue, plaster, while her performances and objects are almost entirely abstract and wearable, mine are models or components of diagrams. I have much more to write about why casting is interesting to me not only because I love to do it (tactilely, as play, as artmaking) but also as a way of dealing with “visual arts performance” as a discipline and its focus on objects (Brian said the other day: performance art could just as easily be defined as performance about humans and their objects vs. objects and their humans: the living body deals with a dead object, the body becomes a static object as it is pinned by the gaze/as performer, the object gains significance through interpretative of meaning and becomes alive, the relationship between living and dying, the body as decaying vs. the endlessness of life, etc etc, thus casting can deal with transference of life, the problematics and processes of creation, etc) and during this performance, I began to see NWPTF as a collective, I began to see it as a social group, and as a relational project. I saw how our practices were getting justified, how we were influencing each other, how we could emotionally and psychologically support each others’ choices and aesthetics. In a square, we might draw this performance like so (see above).
Of course there would be hundreds of ways to draw this diagram and identify relationships, that’s the non-linearity of selfhoods perceived as intersubjective patterns rather than as isolated selves.
During Embody Explosion we struggled with this. Christen mentioned that she had been planning one of the elements we combined in (the binding of watermelons to the belly to simulate pregnancy, the attack and mutilation of these bellies) for a long time and felt strongly protective of this idea. Collectivity and anonymity is always subversive to the art market, which values intellectual and aesthetic “property” as produced by a single artist (or long-term collaborative body), see writings on “practice” as a commodifying frame for artistic production. It required a huge leap of faith for Christen to translate her idea onto the bodies of other feminist performance artists, who could be seen as “competitors” through some lenses. Perhaps it will be impossible (and even undesirable) for us to erase our egos entirely.