I saw Sarah Michelson’s 4 on Saturday, February 1 at 2 PM. This is some of what happened to me, while sitting for one hundred minutes on half of a round, backless cushion on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s not so comfortable, to sit like that.
The audience arrives in tiers. Everyone walks across the raised and painted Masonite stage. There is no “offstage.” Barbara Bryan, Michelson’s manager, walks around in white jeans, converse, a sweatshirt tagged with SM’s familiar portrait, holding a walkie-talkie.
We face the elevators. There are the guards. The dancers’ silent escorts. And here come the dancers, hair plastered on top and fro’ed out behind, bare legs, big hoodies.
SM and her curator, Jay Sanders, read into mics: “This is the third and final Devotion. […] There was a fourth, at the Museum of Modern Art.”
The dancers stand in corridors built into the audience. One runs to the middle of the room, faces the guards, back to us. A diver’s beginning, preparation for a jump. Relevé, deep lunge. Again and again. Fantastic. Somersault. “Proust […] Milton […] Remembrances of Things Past,” they read. The expanse of floor. Olympics. American athleticism. Futility.
An elevator opens. The couple has to stay inside. The elevator closes.
The somersault makes its own rhythm.
1. Yeah yeah. You’ve seen a million somersaults, what’s so special about this one? Maybe nothing. Maybe you’re unmoved. But it seems to me that Sarah Michelson’s art, her idea of devotion, is predicated on the idea of effort being immovable itself, in the face of any disinterest. Any dissent. It’s a variant on modernism. “Your work and diligence and bravery are this work,” she says in the program to four of her dancers: Rachel Berman, Nicole Mannarino, Madeline Wilcox, and John Hoobyar. (A fifth—James Tyson, who has appeared in the prior three episodes of the “Devotion” series—is here, again, something of an outlier.) The immovability of an extreme effort to attain what can never be held. Either you find that compelling, or, well, there’s the elevator, right across the cavernous, raised, painted floor. And there are the guards, diligently waiting. And there, apparently, Michelson will be to raise her hand and say, “Hold,” and halt the performance for the length of time it takes you to get out of the way.
Crazy lunge in fourth position. Pop songs about love and loss. I remember a college professor talking about black pop music, how it began to make sense to him once he thought of it as black people singing not to lovers, but to America, addressing a history. What is black music? Ralph Lemon (who by chance, is sitting next to me) asked Michelson to think about this when making Devotion Study #3 at MoMA: It was his not-so-secret secret curatorial prompt.
Florence Griffith Joyner. Starting blocks. Hair both slicked and wild. Exalted.
A conversation with modernism. SM sits in paint-stained sweats, sneaks, hoodie. The author. Overkill. Or false note, along with the paint-splattered floor?
A second elevator opens. More people. A guard’s arm reaches out, a human gate. Onstage: Horrible pale blue leotard. High neck. Full sleeve. A dancer crucified, but there’s no cross. SM and JS conversation repeats and repeats and repeats.
You wait for something to snap. Gunshot. Hands as trigger. Something of, not about.
A conversation across disciplines. “It’s not always going to be about good behavior.” The severity and push of the poses onstage, the inane chatter of its maker and curator just offstage. Yoga, Cunningham, ballet, sport, street fight. White leg warmers, lights dim, turn off. Scale. Almost not audible song: “I feel so sad and lonely,” The guards are lit. Thinking of the poor guards having to wear sunglasses while enduring that Jenny Holzer show. Thinking of the guard who just died, who the Whitney memorialized. There are black orthopedic shoes tacked to the wall near the elevator; I thought they were guard’s shoes, my friend wondered if they were Merce’s. Work rendered visible. Class. Labor.
2. And, of course, reading the program after the show, I see that the performance is dedicated to the memory of that guard, Cecil Weekes, and to the artist Ellen Cantor. The shoes, I’m later told, belonged to Weekes. Everything is personal in Michelson’s work; there is that cherished art tradition, the long-cultivated cult of personality, the seams of which sometimes fray, never convincingly enough one way or the other. Again the script she and Sanders read lunges around, slamming into poetry, sort-of philosophy, sincerity, twaddle, moments of beauty, etc. It is often insanely irritating. Richard Maxwell is the author, or is he? Who’s in charge? What about this well-known (tired?) maneuver, the juxtaposition of disparate materials? Just whose side are you on, anyway? And who picked the teams
Dancer in a dark blue leotard. 360 degree turns. Quotations—phrasework, music—from the MoMA piece. That bent over, witchy pose, the dancer clasping the back of her thighs, as if refusing to take up space. As if intending to take it all. Sanders reads: “There aren’t many female choreographers and directors who can afford to be sentimental like you can.” Wait, what? “248. 186. 259,” SM reading numbers aloud. The arm out. The body tautly sinking. The girl dimly spotlit. James prancing around the perimeter: Year of the Horse. Dressage.
Her works are like novels or serial TV shows; should you invest in every new character?
Team America. George Balanchine. Immigrant kitsch. Gold, white, and blue unitards. The female form rendered at once heroic and sexual. As well absurd—comic book gestures. Next to me, growing louder, Ralph Lemon’s laughter; others take permission. SM rises to pick up hoodies strewn about the stage by the dancers. Tidying up. Her face like a run-down, put-upon housewife. And then that tattoo.
3. Michelson, like Balanchine, is in conversation with an adopted country. Certain American things are held up like found objects, given the wrinkled nose, or lit with delight. Both are pitched into this romantic idea of American athleticism, space, and freedom. And innocence? And of course Michelson is in conversation with Balanchine, and that tiny pantheon of twentieth century giants—Cunningham, Rainer, Tharp, oh my. In 2014, optimism is a tricky and elusive thing.
Punishing. Slo-mo somersaulting. “I don’t want to hear it, there’s nothing to say.” SM watches and sings along; the song plays from her iPhone’s tinny speakers, held up to the microphone.
Phillip Glass’s “Dance IX” plays, loud. From Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Devotion to history and to failure—the love in that.
Balanchine—you put a man and a girl on stage, there’s already a story; a man and two girls, a plot.
Such old-fashioned show biz manipulation. The marks on their backs, the imprint of past somersaults pressed redly into the flesh. Mortal Coil. Woman before man. A row of lights shining whitely.
The Glass cuts out. Low funk, and the slow somersault. The clocks are stopped. “You thought love would last forever, you were wrong.” Nicole out leaping. Think of Eleanor Hullihan from the previous Whitney show. Please tell me these dancers have workers’ comp.
The thoroughbreds get put out to pasture. Betty Wright on the speakers: “Girls, you can’t do what the guys do, no. And still be a lady.”
4. No good to compare dancers to horses, of course. There is this way in which the women, in particular, are made into things. They are themselves. (I missed Hullihan fiercely in this work, also Rebecca Warner—both are ghosts in it, along with many others.) But they are also laboring under such a yoke—and here the idea of the master, in all senses of the word, reins tightly tightly held. I think I agree with what SM says in the program about these individuals, and especially these women: “Your work and diligence and bravery are this work.” Is there daylight between their devotion and hers?
Form pushed past form.
And now the dancers bend, put palm to ground. Group hug. A figure wearing a horse head joins them.
SM: “I reserve the right not to connect the dots regarding her.”
SM has her muses, as did GB. It always ends. It always isn’t there anymore. “She isn’t real and she remains a dream to make.” Richard Maxwell. The woman’s voice, and the man’s. The body defiant in the face of time’s weight.
Horse out, lying down. Field of action. Will the green numbers on the scoreboard clear? SM: “This right here used to be the kind of place we could all gather and find peace.”
Yes. The numbers reach zero. The horse, reclining, does not acknowledge our applause. Which, in any case, is not for him.
Sarah Michelson’s 4 ran January 24–February 2, 2014, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Edgar Oliver, Helen & Edgar, 2013. Performance view, January 2014, Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival.
“We began to engage in a strange duel of asceticism,” Edgar Oliver explained, if that’s the word, during Helen & Edgar, his monologue about growing up in Savannah, Georgia, with his sister and mother. If only. This show, part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, was the single best hour I spent during the orgy of excess at APAP, the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ conference.
Twelve performances, five production meetings, three showings, two conferences, one studio visit, and various miscellaneous networking and social happenings, concentrated in Manhattan with forays into Brooklyn and Queens: This was my weeklong 2014 APAP experience. Mild, really. I mean, I did it all without any hangovers, and I only attended one real party—by some standards I didn’t even show up.*
*In fact, I did show up for one other party—my friend and I made it to the door of an overflowing theater, stared in blankly for a minute, looked at each other and backed away silently as if confronted with a dangerous animal.
I’m not sure what all there is still to say about this kudzu-like circus of festivals clustered around a weirdo outdated conference that no one I know even attends anymore, except maybe for one hideously early morning panel in a beige carpeted conference room on The State of the Field or some other illuminating theme you misguidedly agreed to speak on. More shows every year! Whole new festivals! Infinite pleas for spare change! Why not? So what if there’s already far too much to see? So what if much of what you do see is terrible, underfunded, and half-baked? So what if the artists—paid shameful, if any, wages, if they’re lucky enough not to pay themselves—subsidize the whole creepy shebang? Cheek kisses all around. #apapsmear.
It seems unproductive to be so cranky. It’s certainly tedious and predictable. No one, after all, is making anyone participate in this thing. (Well, maybe some of the interns are not here of their own accord.) The interesting thing, sociologically, is that pretty much everyone shares the above complaints. We’re all full of righteous (self-righteous?) zeal, while continuing to plunge into the fray. I mean, at least lemmings don’t buy tickets to jump over that cliff they’re forever rushing toward.
Heather Kravas, a quartet, 2013. Performance view, January 2014, The Kitchen, New York. Liz Santoro, Oren Barnoy, Jennifer Kjos, and Cecilia Eliceche. Photo: Paula Lobo.
A.) The pop song is of course still in, very much in, as an ironic, or at least knowing, structuring device. Why is that, contemporary performance world?
“I guess TV was really in our blood—and like any blood you have to live with it, spill it, transfuse it, clean it, test it,” Tim Etchells writes in “On Performance and Technology.” “You don’t have much choice about your blood, but it always needs dealing with. A theater that won’t do this isn’t worth having.”
It may be that this is what is happening in all this work I’m seeing, and I’m simply too thick to see it. Perhaps I am the audience member who isn’t worth having. But but but … I don’t see it.
B.) “Want want want…” Heather Kravas. Dance therapy. Cheerleading, ballet, blue-collar: America, etc. They strip, the inevitable next step, but only to their skivvies. That’s how we know it isn’t the 1980s anymore. Repetition, repetition, and severity. Go further, go faster. Do more. If you’re going to spell out society one letter at a time with your bodies, spell the entire score out. I can’t help thinking that Sarah Michelson owns this territory—she’s like the NYU of the dance world, you look up and she’s the landlord.
I don’t think Kravas’s a quartet worked as well as The Green Surround, the last piece of hers I saw. That one had so much muchness to it—it was overpacked in its individualness. I remember thinking it didn’t push hard enough, but still I was grateful for what was there. a quartet … I dunno. It is clearly part of the bigger conversation happening between contemporary dance and ballet. (This seems largely a one-way conversation, contemporary folks turning ballet this way and that, like a precious but irritating bauble they can’t make fit into any jewel setting). But I want these works to talk about not just ballet, but the world as well. (Jillian Peña I think is doing this.) To move out and up and in.
The tutu faces the firing squad. Again and again and again. The tutu wins.
Andrew Ondrejcak, FEAST, 2013. Performance view, January 2014, Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival.
“What would happen if I didn’t do APAP next year?” a dancer asked, after outlining the day’s pitiable remuneration. (The performers are the real collateral APAP damage.) The “to me” was implied.
A choreographer rolled his eyes while describing how several presenters had told him how sorry they were to have missed a show he did earlier this year, and asked whether he would be doing an APAP remount. He did; they all sent regrets.
Claudia La Rocco is a writer based in New York.
AS THE STORY GOES, performance artist Marina Abramović asked director Robert Wilson if he would stage her funeral as a theatrical event that would double as “a celebration of life and death combined.” Wilson agreed, with the proviso that she grant him permission to stage her life as well. The artist consented and supplied Wilson with personal anecdotes and biographical details; she also promised to participate as a performer. Wilson enlisted actor Willem Dafoe, composer/lyricist/performer Antony, singer Svetlana Spajić, composer William Basinski, as well as an impressive group of other musicians and artists to create The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a glowing machine of many moving parts, manufactured to convey the artist’s life story first as tragedy, then as art.
The production opens with Abramović’s funeral, set as a kind of moving still life on stage as the audience files into the theater. Three Marinas—masks allow for multiples throughout the play—all dressed in black, lie on casket-shaped pedestals while two Dobermans pace the floor, which is littered with bones. The play begins with the appearance of Dafoe, the magnetic narrator/ringleader of the show, dressed in a military uniform, standing downstage in a bunker riddled with boxes and stacks of paper. Red hair whipped atop his head, kabuki-cum-Cabaret makeup on his face, he looks equal parts emcee and The Joker. Dafoe, in a wild and electric performance, is the jittering live wire that transmits most of Abramović’s story in snippets fired off, machine gun–like. Behind him, Wilson’s stunning stagescapes take shape around the story—in moments, to illustrate, at other times, to elegize.
The plot points, though not presented in chronological order, will be familiar to those already acquainted with Abramović. Wilson’s production pays little attention to her work; it is lightly referenced throughout. Instead, the director paints an unconvincing portrait of the artist as martyr, one who has lived a life in which love and pain are twisted together so tightly that her path seemed predestined. Dafoe rattles off her numerous traumas. Some are of the innocuous, adolescent variety: She hated her nose; her mother dressed her in ugly clothes; she had flat feet. Other events are far more terrible: Her mother threw a heavy ashtray at her head when she heard that Abramović had performed naked (the artist ducked out of the way, but not before considering that her death might avenge the cruelty her mother doled out to her in life). Her mother also repeatedly warned her that sex was dirty, told her to only have it once to have a baby and then “never do it again.” We learn that Abramović’s happiest childhood memory is a yearlong hospital stay, during which people brought her presents and nobody punished her. Later in life, of course, Marina continued to suffer—at the hands of lovers, for her art, and one day, mortality.
Throughout the play, Abramović is not an actor so much as she is a stand in, at first for her abusive mother, and later for herself. She poses more than she performs, filling the spaces in which she would act. “I’m material, nothing more,” the artist clarified in the production notes, claiming that this theatrical vision, though in possession of her body, belongs wholly to Wilson. As The Life and Death of Marina Abramović unfolds, however, odd angles on its subject are revealed. The portrait warps to appear strangely arch; its edges at times bleed perilously close to farce. Wilson’s tone seems unusually off-balance, unable to rectify the emotional extremes of Abramović’s life story with his meticulous craft and dazzle. Perhaps meaning to puncture the unrelenting gravitas (the artist’s traumas never seem to end), Wilson injects comedic touches that often fall flat. His expressionistic performance style, in which the actors exaggerate gestures and emotions, appears in moments to mock the artist’s story, at other times to enact it as melodrama. Though one would never expect nuance from either the play’s subject or its director, its absence is regretted throughout.
At one point, Abramović faces the audience and sing/speaks in a Dietrich/Nico basso, “Salt, salt in my wounds / To dull more pedestrian pain […] Pain hangs onto me / As if in a dream / As if I had a choice.” Later, Dafoe crawls across the stage on all fours, rasping “Why must you cut yourself? […] Why must you suffer / Like Christ for his father?” In another context, it might be easier to appreciate the delicate beauty of certain other lyrics, which pit the lightness of language against feral emotional swells. Pinned to this production, however, gossamer lines like “When will I turn and cut the world?” turn to sap. It must be said that two of the show’s great triumphs are singers Antony and Svetlana Spajić, whose voices are powerful forces of polar opposite frequencies. Antony’s is otherworldly; both muscular and downy, it soars inside the space, while Spajić seems to channel and release singular sounds and spirits from the ground beneath her. From them and through them, as well as through the other members of Spajić’s group, we experience something that most closely parallels Abramović’s aesthetic: the body as medium and instrument.
The show ends as it begins, with three Marinas on stage. Now, however, they are all dressed in white, hovering above the others in angelic ascent. For the artist, death—of her mother, her father, of her previous days and pains—begets an afterlife, though exactly what that is isn’t specified. If Wilson here wishes to depict the artist as Christ figure, paying for the sins of others, hanging center stage for all to see and judge, it is a desperately unsuccessful analogy. Whatever one thinks about Abramović—a complicated, polarizing character in the art world—her artistic ambitions and will to survive have propelled an ascent of another kind: that of the art star. If that story is to be told someday, its production will certainly require a very different sense of gravity.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
IN A FOUR-WAY “conversation” with his collaborator Silas Riener, dance critic Claudia La Rocco, and lighting designer Davison Scandrett, posted on Bomblog on the eve of Way In’s premiere, choreographer and dancer Rashaun Mitchell said: “I’m always thinking about what’s the way into this and out of this.” What follows are four ways into the piece I went to see at Danspace Project during its brief run, offered up as my way of making sense of it (with a little help from my friends).
The Way of Taste
In a prior incarnation, a site-specific performance and installation at the BFI Gallery in Miami, Way In was titled Taste. La Rocco, writing for the Miami Rail, described that work as a conversation about taste, good and bad. The questions of what’s tasteful and what’s not, and who is the ultimate arbiter of taste remain live in Way In, though the newer work bears little outward resemblance to the previous piece. Way In takes place inside Saint Mark’s Church, its nave enfolded for the occasion within wide bolts of garish pink-laced nylon. The pink lace that bespeaks a camp aesthetic is of a piece with the fluorescent pink envelope containing the press notes, and the highbrow baroque music, from Lully to Rameau, alternating with cheesy Franz Waxman movie scores and Frank Ocean’s “Versace Gold.” The same fabric appears in costumes—including a ski mask worn by Scandrett—designed by Mitchell and Riener, who shun the neutral unitards prescribed by Cunningham, for whom they both danced, for practice clothes or less seemly items. (Eventually, booty shorts decorated with dollar signs.)
The Way of Conversation
Way In is framed as a conversation among “two trained dancers and two untrained ones”—to invoke the first recorded text, conceived as a sort of critical companion to the show, written and read aloud by La Rocco. Would it be more illuminating to view her and Scandrett as “performers” rather than “dancers”? Or is there something in the register of “dancer” that allows us to view their movements with a different vitality? The opening act, which features La Rocco holding up signs of diminishing sizes to the audience (the largest announced the show’s duration, the smallest was a fortune-cookie message) and Scandrett wheeling himself around on a dolly, felt more like a species of “performance art” than anything else in the show. Such comic/absurd interludes—heirs to Cunningham’s Antic Meet (1958) or the vaudevillian juxtapositions of Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind Is a Muscle (1966–68)?—were a counterpoint to the dancing, as well as a palate cleanser. Cast in the awkward/poignant role of participant-observers, La Rocco and Scandrett were also called on to assess and give cues to the dancers (“Cut,” “Stop,” and the like).
The Way of Intimacy
A second recording captures an argument between Mitchell and Riener. Their proxies here are La Rocco and Scandrett, who have known Mitchell and Riener for years, both professionally and personally. The tiff lays bare the ongoing process of negotiation, of give-and-take, involved in their collaborative work and personal life together, presumably. We’re allowed, briefly, a window into their shared intimacy, as collaborators but also partners in life. (One way of reading the title.) At its “core”—that is, in the duets that Mitchell and Riener dance together—Way In is a deeply personal portrait of a relationship, one long past courtship but not beyond yearning. What is held up to the spectator is love at its neediest, most pressing, at once sensuous and tender.
The Way of Quotation, or Inside Jokes
One of the more memorable moments in the duets, when the two dancers remain locked in a carefully composed embrace, may in fact allude to a piece by Sarah Michelson. Whereas the embrace between two men (in that case, Greg Zuccolo and Mike Iveson) who are friends, not lovers, is but a fleeting moment in Daylight, 2005, Mitchell and Riener hold each other for what, on stage, feels like an eternity. That work is also playfully invoked by way of a chorus of lights set up in the church’s chancel, reminiscent of a row of lights, designed by Joe Levasseur, placed in front of the audience in Daylight. Scandrett, who did the lighting for Way In, and whose collaboration with Michelson and Parker Lutz on the visual design for DOGS at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006 won him a Bessie award, is simply described as “Joe Levasseur’s roommate,” reflecting Michelson’s own purported fondness for inside jokes. “In order to get at something you go in through the side door,” La Rocco writes in a rehearsal diary included in the press notes. Side doors and inside jokes can be a way in or a way out, depending on your vantage, on your taste.
Way In ran November 14–16 at Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in New York.
WITH TEMPERATURES in the mid-twenties and a forecasted high of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, not to mention a “wind advisory” in effect until 6 PM, the last Sunday before Thanksgiving in New York City began as either the first real day of winter or the absolute last day of fall, depending on your personal calculus of late-November cold. It was on this morning, around 10 AM, that a dozen or so spandex-clad runners began to assemble in the foyer of an otherwise shuttered Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea. Their objective: to run, as a group, from the gallery, thirty miles north to Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, the burial place of Russian-born composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Additionally, each runner was to carry a bouquet of chamomiles—the national flower of the late composer’s home country—on his person (all the participating runners happened to be male), and present them at the gravesite upon arrival. The runners came via the open invitation from performance artist and filmmaker Guido van der Werve to participate in his annually reoccurring performance piece—now in its fourth iteration—the Running to Rachmaninoff Run, which took place this year as one of Performa 13’s final events.
Van der Werve first ran to Rachmaninoff in the fall of 2010, as part of one of his characteristically numbered art works, Nummer dertien, Effugio A: Chamomile, Russia’s National Flower or Running to Rachmaninoff, for that year’s “Greater New York” exhibition at MoMA PS1. Van der Werve initially performed the work alone, departing from the museum and documenting his journey with a 35-mm camera. As it happens with most performance art, the documentation now serves as a stand-in for the work itself—364 days a year that is. To fully experience Running to Rachmaninoff, one must, and can (once a year), participate as object. How many so-called “endurance” performance artworks can boast such an inclusive yet exacting proviso?
Chris Burden may still be the unforgettable epitome of the self-sacrificing artist, but he, and he alone, took a bullet. I took part in the run, and—though I have been a light-duty runner for fifteen years—by mile twenty my brain became so deprived of glycogen, and my thoughts subsequently so incoherent and irrational, the pain of a gunshot wound began to sound better than hobbling through the last ten miles. I was “hitting the wall,” and had already fallen far behind the pack of eight or nine remaining runners. Could Caspar David Friedrich have captured this pathos, a solitary figure in a (seemingly never-ending) landscape of Westchester strip-malls? Then, suddenly, I found myself running with Guido. The artist had dropped back from the bunch to shepherd me through the last remaining mile before our final pit stop, where I was able to find a packet of “energy gel” in the ride-along van that the gallery had graciously provided. The sugars brought my brain and body back online, and I rejoined the group as we wound through the final, wooded stretch of the run. The sun had set by the time we made it to Rachmaninoff. The flowers were laid and, like most organized runs, photos were taken and schwag distributed. And within a few minutes we all, finishers and non-finishers alike, were in the van heading home.
Nathaniel Lee is a writer/runner based in New York.
THERE WERE UNEXPECTED ZEITGEISTS that bubbled up through the curated themes of Performa 13, one of which was the rewriting of cosmologies both personal and shared. It certainly made sense. The artist, like any creator, makes the world, unmakes the world, and/or remakes the world each according to their own compass. In some cases, the self was very much at the center of the work; in others, the artist seemed to serve as a lens for what lies beyond our present knowledge.
“This idea of animal does not fit nicely into our typical ideas of city,” wrote Denise Hoffman-Brandt and Catherine Seavitt Nordenson in their introduction to We Live With Animals (Van Alen Institute, November 15–17), an installation/event designed to direct attention to the nonhuman wildlife that thrives throughout the five boroughs. On the walls of the back room at the Van Alen hung twelve plaques marking the urban homes of animals such as Sludgie, a Minke Whale who swam into the mouth of the Gowanus Canal in 2007; José, an American beaver who busied himself along Fordham Road in the Bronx that same year; and Ming, the Bengal tiger discovered by the NYPD in a building on 141st Street in 2003. Over the following weekend, three “commensal species” tour groups installed the plaques around town as playful yet pointed commemorations of New York’s other prestigious residents.
We Live With Animals also included an evening of presentations and performances featuring, among others, visual artist and performer Pat Oleszko, who topped herself with a turkey hat and talked about the times she dressed up like the bird with the hope of sneaking into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (spoiler: all pluck, no luck). The charming, disarming Adam Wade, eighteen-time winner of The Moth Story Slam, humbly recounted how his first great New York romance fizzled due to five pet cats and a poorly placed litter box. Performance artist Aki Sasamoto announced “I hate most animals including humans, so I was happy to be invited to this event,” and then launched into a swerving monologue, sideswiping subjects such as her hatred of mosquitoes, her admiration of Jean Genet, petty criminals versus noble crimes, coincidences, and just desserts. Perched on pillows around the Van Alen’s intimate space, the audience was enrapt by each presenter, quietly electrified by the act of storytelling.
The following afternoon, artist Joan Jonas and jazz pianist/composer Jason Moran presented Reanimation (Roulette, November 15–16), a brisk, breathtaking collaborative performance that drew inspiration from the novel Under the Glacier (1968) by Icelandic Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness. Jonas appeared on stage as an icy, ghostly figure dressed all in white to conjure images, both moving and still, of a frozen world. Cold gray flooded streets, bare trees, mountain roads, snowy landscapes and the various creatures that inhabit them: these and other apparitions appeared and disappeared from the screen at center stage while Jonas moved between paper and projection to conduct, create, and collapse what we were seeing.
At an easel, she drew in white chalk on black paper, copying an image taped above that we, the audience, couldn’t see for ourselves or decipher clearly from her representation. At a workbench, Jonas (with the assistance of Coral Turner) held photographs up to a video camera suspended over the tabletop, which projected these “close-ups” onto the screen. Via live video compositing, we simultaneously watched a photomontage drift by as the artist’s hands furiously, unsuccessfully, traced the images before they changed—producing drawings that Jonas subsequently tossed to the floor. (Was the attempt to represent never good enough or, perhaps, was what it produced not at all the point?) Masking herself, Jonas became the screen, standing in front of the projection, holding a large piece of paper in front of herself on which she traced her body over and over again. Responding to Moran’s piano—and he to her performance—Jonas shook bells and maracas, crumpled and waved vellum, creating rhythms as though calling forth unnamed spirits, and together they crafted a sonic structure inside the theater that both propelled and protected the pulse of the performance.
“Time is the one thing we can all agree to call supernatural,” Jonas read from Laxness’s book, and time was certainly the thing that Jonas and Moran transformed before our eyes into a remarkable and otherworldly fact. Jonas is a passionate, intelligent force of nature, knowing to the bone that to capture, imitate, or translate the world leaves only romantic traces, and proving that the truest artwork the hand can create is gesture after gesture after gesture.
After seeing Jonas and Moran, I wandered away from Performa for an hour to stop by the Next Time Symposium (Envoy Enterprises, November 14–17). Curated by Colin Self, Isaac Pool, and other forces also new to me, the four-day event included performances, screenings, lectures, workshops, and conferences on subjects such as “Subculture & Technology,” “The Body,” and “Image/Media.” “Epidemics loom. The ocean chokes. Hysteria mutates into blind fear,” wrote Self in his introduction to a collection of writings published for the occasion, “Perhaps it is from the depths of a highly mediated conception of doom that we can encourage a focus on a mindful presence, a radical future of resistance, and a reverent light on the past. It is from the two words ‘next time’ that we project a future consciousness, an anticipation and readiness to sustain awareness of that which is yet to come.”
I attended a conference titled “The Imminence of Experience,” which I chose because the title held the most mystery (and, to be truthful, it fit nicely into my schedule). A small group gathered in the basement of Envoy Enterprises for a talk led by Caroline Contillo on the subject of imminence, generally described as a state of present readiness, needing or seeking nothing outside ourselves. Part lecture and part group-awareness training, her presentation wove together personal experience and suggested practices, and focused much attention on the “to do list,” the means by which we organize our future and mark our daily achievements. Unfortunately, my actual to do list was too long, and I was unable to stay for what the rest of the symposium had to offer. With panelists like Kembra Pfahler, K8 Hardy, Johanna Fateman, Brian Droitcour, Travis Boyer, Hari Nef, and Sam McKinniss all presenting over the weekend, I should have made time to see more.
What I wished to see less of was The Humans (BAM Fisher, November 13–17), a theatrical production of grand ambition that unfortunately fell to overindulgence. The result was a billowing show that padded along for three-and-a-half hours despite the terrific energies of its gifted cast. Visual artist Alexandre Singh wrote and directed a story that reimagines the birth of the world in a mashup of historical, visual, and literary references and, woefully, imitations thereof. (Sample lines: “thine eyes become open,” “thou are now a human being,” and “ablute, I say!”) Invoking and appropriating Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Molière, Milton, and others, the play was a wiki-like whirlwind of pat cleverness that risked too little and included too much.
The Humans follows two spirits who conspire to subvert the will of the all-powerful but unseen Vox Dei (referred to as the “big ego in the sky”) by sabotaging earth’s creation. Pantalingua (Elizabeth Cadwallader) is a strident Dionysian force, the daughter of a wild rabbit called N (performed by choreographer, Flora Sans), while Tophole (Sam Crane) is a nervous Apollonian, as well as the son of a fastidious godlike figure named Charles Ray (Phillip Edgerly) who has been spending his days creating the human race. In the beginning, it seems humans were elegant but unfeeling beings, closer to stone than to flesh. As part of their plot to ruin the world, Pantalingua and Tophole teach the most perfect human specimen “31” (Ryan Kiggell) to shit, which leaves him with an eternal hunger that can only be sated by sex, money, power, and destruction; and soon, the whole human race devolves into cackling, grotesque beings who would pale Hieronymus Bosch. Death now looms over humanity, a fate that causes all to question the value of life, but the play’s end is happy: Tophole and Pantalingua take their places as the balancing forces of good and evil in the universe while all agree that it is better to be than not to be.
For all of its breadth, Singh’s play offered little depth. Naming the creator of humanity after sculptor Charles Ray is potentially interesting kink. The catalogue from the artist’s 1998 exhibition at LACMA recurred as a prop, and is quoted from, so one might have assumed that the play might, for a moment or two, double as a kind of essay on his work. Frustratingly, the invocation never evolved beyond an undigested reference, leaving potential matter to dissolve into pure manner. To imagine a new cosmology is a monumental undertaking to say the least, and Singh is nothing if not bold and serious in his efforts. To be fair, perhaps his vision of our creation isn’t to my liking because it reflects a terribly unflattering portrait of our time: one in which the mining of history is considered artistic practice, and deft referencing is taken as a sign of knowledge. “To be or not to be” and “I am he as you are he as you are me” are lines cheekily quoted by Singh but that rewrote culture in small but resonant ways when, once upon a time, words and ideas required writers to carve out just enough silence in the chaos so that they could hear through the din of what was already being said—though perhaps that’s just the way I would tell the story.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.