Test and Trace

On the evanescent poetry of Performa 2021

Madeline Hollander, Review, 2021, Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. From left: Ashley Hill, Jodi Melnick, Frances Samson, Savannah Spratt, MeghanManning, Michael Greenberg, Megan LeCrone, Eloise Deluca, Olivia Boisson, Miriam Miller, Alexa De Barr (far back) Kevin Zambrano, Lauren Newman, Misha Culver. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk, courtesy of Performa.

STRANGE THAT IT'S BEEN years since I last saw live performance. But everyone was exclaiming this now-familiar platitude as they busily embraced on the sidewalk at the intersection of Rivington and Orchard the past October, during the collective reunion which took as its backdrop and pretext Kevin Beasley’s The Sound of Morning. The first of eight commissions realized for this year’s Performa Biennial, the performance began almost unnoticeably. One of Beasley’s collaborators flung a deflated basketball into the air; another began methodically disassembling a black metal barrier that had been provisionally erected on the sidewalk. (By the end of the hour-and-a-half event, the gate’s beams were piled up like flotsam in the middle of the street, a makeshift stage on which the performers assembled, posed, read, etc.). Another performer dragged a loose bike rack here and there. Ten in all were enfolded, at first unrecognizably, in the ambulating audience, their activities initially so fragmented and dispersed, so quotidian and unremarkable, as to warrant the question: Is anything going on?

“You could lose them,” Beasley said about the dancers in this work, which put pressure on some familiar but still productive questions—of presence and embodiment in the urban landscape, and what passes as noticeable—while inversely drawing attention to the perverse spectacularization of these dynamics. (Note how many iPhones were brandished throughout the proceedings, snapping photos and videos of the performers). At one corner of the intersection, Beasley and his team mixed sounds picked up from contact mics secured to a crushed plastic bottle, newspaper broadsides, collapsed cardboard boxes, or clasped in the performers’ hands. As the sun began to set, the energy began to feel anarchic, the sound rawer, the audience more diffuse and less immediately identifiable (after all, it was an early weekend evening in the LES). When the performers and spectators walked off into the night, I was left with a lingering ambivalence toward this work’s provisional offering: that a routine-puncturing event was no sooner recognized than it was returned to the ambient texture of the city; that bodies had appeared in all their singularity and collective assembly one moment only to disappear again the next; that what is palpable could just as quickly become untraceable, like that fleeting sound produced by steel scraping against concrete.

Kevin Beasley, The Sound of Morning, 2021, Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. From Left: Raymond Pinto, Amadi Washington, Ley Gambucci. Photo: Paula Court, courtesy of the artist and Performa.

Starkly different in style was the next piece on view: Sara Cwynar’s Down at the Arcade, which also took attention as its subject, though this time via an ever-growing cache of images, texts, objects, and artifacts that form the expanded imaginary of this kitsch encyclopedist’s maximalist archive. Produced in the former fast-fashion Topshop flagship on Fifth Avenue (one of the many vacated commercial buildings in Midtown), Down at the Arcade reimagined the photographer’s studio as a set for a three-act rumination on archival excess, digital economies, and the bewildering endeavor of locating desire, the real, and the self (if these categories even still apply) within an industry of simulacral perceptual experiences. A conveyor belt supplied a steady stream of objects selected to illustrate a lecture, delivered by Cwynar’s frequent collaborator Paul Cooper in a soothing voiceover with the artist regularly chiming in, while a performer manipulated the scattered elements on set. Multiple cameras framed and live-streamed the continuous deluge of content, instantly remediating what appeared on set into a packaged, prosumer montage.

Danielle Dean, Amazon (Proxy), 2021, Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. From left: Austin Davis, Manik Singh Anand, Emily Barkovic, Ava Rose Paul. Photo: Paula Court, courtesy of Performa.

Other commissions, Danielle Dean’s Amazon (Proxy) and Ericka Beckman’s STALK, took on allegorical dimensions. Dean’s production at the new Bushwick art complex, Amant, invoked Fordlandia—the Detroit automobile industrialist’s short-lived 1920s rubber plantation in the Brazilian rainforest—telescoping it through the contemporary lens of Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” (AMT) platform, through which companies can crowdsource remote human labor to harvest data for AI optimization. (“Instead of extracting rubber, we’re extracting human emotions,” the actors intoned.) Amid idyllic, pastoral decor, four performers (“Proxies”) reenacted conversations with “Turkers,” with whom Dean communicated over several months to collect testimonies about their experiences; these played on two monitors and informed part of the script, which details the kinds of surveys AMTs complete daily, probing their perceptual responses, emotional states, and moral orientations. Ford’s extractive capitalist utopia was a failure, collapsing in 1934 after workers rebelled—an ending echoed here as the jungle’s climate compromises the ill-adapted corporate settlement’s operations, and as the Proxies mount an uprising to protest working conditions. Dean’s conflation of these contexts in Amazon rehearses critiques of post-Fordism and its injunction to perform soft skills (read: be flexible, motivated, communicative, competitive, resourceful, and so forth), showing the pernicious effects of these qualities as they become compulsory—now more than ever—in decentralized, virtual, and alienating labor contexts. Beckman, for her part, presented STALK at Brooklyn Bridge Park, her first off-camera performance. Refashioning the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk as a critique of capitalism, financialization, and climate destruction, with a pun on stalks/stocks (and the lower Manhattan skyline as a backdrop to bring the point home), Beckman transposed her signature profilmic performance to a live setting, with slightly asynchronous visual and sonic tracks underscoring the farmers-cum-investors’ task-based, mechanized repetition of phrases and actions. The result was uneven, but the sight of an aerial gymnast climbing a taught rope as if she were scaling the skyscrapers in the distance was impressive.

Shikeith, notes towards becoming a spill, 2021, Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. From left: Raymond Pinto, Angel Glasby, Kehari Huthcinson, Maxi Hawkeye Canion. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk, courtesy of Performa.

The most arresting moments in this year’s biennial were also the most evanescent—the ones that interrupted performance’s recent, long disappearing act by transforming that absence into a capacious and expressive presence (call me sentimental). Take Shikeith’s notes toward becoming a spill, staged to overlook the Atlantic Ocean from Rockaway Beach. A gospel choir flanked an illuminated platform, giving breath to the ecstatic and vital choreography of four dancers, clad in diaphanous mesh costumes in various hues of blue that echoed the shifting luminosity of the sea and the sky. Shikeith’s moving work, which continues his ongoing study of blue spaces, boundlessness, and contemporary Black queer identity, metaphorized diasporic longing, ancestral histories, and the ocean as a site of loss and refuge. At the golden hour, the choir repeated “We won’t rest until we’re free.” When the performance closed, the cast walked down to the waterfront, turning its back on a rapt audience for a minute of silence. In another vein, Madeline Hollander’s Review paid homage to the many performances canceled, postponed, or curtailed by the pandemic, bringing together twenty-four dancers from several New York-based companies to embody everything we missed. On one of fall’s first crisp nights, with the audience seated on either side of the LES’s empty Hamilton Fish public pool, dancers “marked” their motions in the choreographic short-hand used in rehearsals to preserve energy. Dancers conjoined into solos, duos, and trios in this manifold collection of repertoires, producing a dialogue of echoes, affinities, and unlikely counterpoints. After each finished their sequence, they bowed, and returned to their stations behind a tall spotlight, which they promptly turned off, leaving the stage dark. They bowed over and over again in their own idiosyncratic styles, marking a continuous cycle of beginning and ending. After two years—amidst the pandemic, between biennials—that have felt like a rehearsal for a future perpetually delayed, this show of endurance in practice was welcome. As in Shikeith’s gripping closing act, the abundant applause that followed spilled out, evaporating into the air.

The 2021 Performa Biennial took place in New York City from October 16–30.