Hit or Myth

Jennifer Krasinski on the use of cosmologies around Performa 13

Joan Jonas, Reanimation. Performance view, Roulette, New York. Joan Jonas. Photo: © Paula Court.

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.

Alexandre Singh, The Humans, 2013. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, November 2013. Photo: © Kate Lacey and Alexandre Singh.

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.