PRINT December 2016

The Year in Performance

The Year in Performance

Sondra Perry, Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One, 2015. Performance view, Serpentine Pavilion, London, June 10, 2016. Sondra Perry. Photo: Lewis Ronald.

“I AM GOING THROUGH HARD TIMES,” Sondra Perry intoned, introducing a live presentation of her 2015 video Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One this past June in London at the Serpentine Pavilion. Perry was reciting a statement Yvonne Rainer had famously written for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 exhibition “Information.” “In the shadow of real recent converging,” Perry continued with a faltering voice,“formalized choreographic gestures seem trivial.” Rainer’s declaration, penned forty-six years ago, presciently articulates the particular challenges that choreographers, performance artists, participants (willing and unwitting), and curators face in this moment. What can art offer when the most significant performances—political rallies stained by violence, Black Lives Matter protests—are occurring in the street? Yet given its inherent temporality and grounding in the present, performance is well suited to the task of finding gestures, lines of the body, lilts of the voice that can meet the acts of violence and vileness that define the present moment.

A number of memorable performances took place this past year in Los Angeles, a city where art galleries and nonprofits are under particular scrutiny, most notably by the groups protesting the influx of new galleries in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latinx and working-class neighborhood. In fact, many took cues from a realm that would seem totally removed from such battles: nightlife culture. But the pleasure and pulse of this arena staged their own kind of insurrection, as evidenced byJosh Johnson, who was cleaved by mirrors and reassembled under spinning laser lights in AFFECT: NETWORK: TERRITORY (a performance of syllogisms in motion) at Human Resources; and Meg Wolfe, who merged history and mystery in her New Faithful Disco, which debuted in January at REDCAT.

Meanwhile, and in contrast to these scene-y endeavors, Autumn Knight’s Documents was performed in the context of a small but ambitious suite of performances organized by Canadian curator and writer Nicole Burisch for Houston’s Flex Space. Documents comprised two complementary back-to-back performances; one invite-only and the second publicly announced. For the invited (almost entirely African American) audience, Knight served whiskey and then riffled through a variety of documents from a nearby filing cabinet, including a birth certificate, newspaper clippings, and film stills—each indicating the ways in which bodies are tracked and grafted onto the previous “vital statistic,” per Burisch’s citation of Martha Rosler’s phrase. Early birds to the advertised segment of Knight’s performance started to trickle in midrecitation, finding, to their discomfort, the artist and audience in media res. Almost no one who attended the first part of the performance stayed for the second act, in which Knight was replaced by an audience volunteer, a white man.

Knight’s performance was not the only one that carved out space for people of color: taisha paggett’s The School for the Movement of the Technicolor People, 2015/2016, at DiverseWorks (also in Houston) similarly mobilized (here quite literally) black, queer-identifying performers and their allies. Paggett worked with artists Ashley Hunt and Kim Zumpfe and an ever-changing cast of dancers and choreographers to assemble an informal dance curriculum composed, in part, of movement exercises that mirrored the language of social justice movements (“Step up, Step back”). Back in Los Angeles, Wu Tsang and collaborator boychild created generative time-based relationships for Moved by the Motion, 2016. But I found the best medicine for our collective ailment to be a night of performances curated by Jennifer Doyle for the Broad museum this past spring. The event, part of a series titled “Tip of Her Tongue,” featured Shirin Neshat’s 2001 video Possessed alongside live performances by Xandra Ibarra (aka La Chica Boom) and Cassils. These were sited in what is without question one of the most unabashed visual incarnations of wealth in recent memory. In this regard, Ibarra and Cassils had a monumental task laid out for them—to perform without being wholly subsumed by their context. Each not only met but exceeded this charge.

Ibarra’s Nude Laughing, 2014, began with the artist—naked except for an exaggerated prosthetic bosom—dragging a nylon body stocking filled with the trappings of a “lady who lunches”: wig, pearls, heels. As she ascended the stairs from the Broad’s lobby into its second-story galleries—her audience following in monastic silence—Ibarra ripped through the scrim of seriousness with peals of laughter, by turns caustic and comely. Featuring a naked brown body in close proximity to the museum’s blue-chip collection, Nude Laughing evidenced the manner in which Jeff Koons’s massive polychrome Tulips, 1995–2004, and Christopher Wool’s Untitled, 1990 (a series of spare black-and-white canvases reading RUN DOG RUN), proclaim their white male makers’ privilege to take up space: The works’ cool jocularity was rendered gloriously and grossly inarticulate by Ibarra’s bombastic presence. Midway through her performance, Ibarra abandoned any jovial pretenses and addressed the body stocking that had been her figurative ball and chain, spending an extended period of time first stuffing herself into, and then wriggling free of, this stifling second skin. In this, she was enacting her own powerful words, written to accompany her 2014–15 photo series “Spic Ecdysis”: “Aren’t Latinidad and spichood similarly fucked—the fuckedness of always already being the same or of resemblance in repetition? Even when I attempt to reassemble new skin, sick of my spic casings, I remain destined to be crucified through them.” Ibarra’s performances are both an extension of and a departure from José Esteban Muñoz’s widely heralded formulation of disidentification: The moment of her falling apart is precisely the moment she comes back into her racialized identity—her fucked life. That the artist appeared visibly exhausted by the performance’s end seemed fitting, for hers was the exhaustion of a person who has successfully undermined (albeit temporarily) the authority signaled by a display of wealth and power.

Cassils, whose work foregrounds the transgender body caught in an extended struggle, capped the night with their performance of The Powers That Be, 2015 (first performed at the ANTI Contemporary Art Festival in Kuopio, Finland, a few months earlier), here staged in the Broad’s parking garage. The audience was guided into the darkened structure in small groups by museum employees aggressively barking directions, and placed on and around five inward-facing pickup trucks. The vehicles’ headlights were then switched on to signal that the piece had begun. The nude performer spent the next fifteen minutes sparring viciously with an invisible opponent. Cassils meant for the performance to be documented via phone cameras, but I found it hard to work up the courage to raise mine.

While Ibarra’s and Cassils’s performances worked against the architectural and ideological contexts in which they appeared, Perry took a more intimate tack. narrating a video of her kin reenacting familial rituals, including posing for portraits and peeling sweet potatoes in the artist’s childhood kitchen. The artist discussed the crushing debt that comes with art schooling, eventually climbing a ladder to belt along with Soundgarden’s 1994 alterna-anthem “4th of July.” To end her performance, Perry played audio of her grandmother singing the Clash’s 1979 “The Guns of Brixton,” excerpted from the video. The elder Perry sings in fits and starts, giggling at the end of her task in the self-conscious way an octogenarian might if asked to sing a Clash song through a telephone receiver. Grandma Perry then tells her granddaughter that she can’t wait to hear the results and that, furthermore, forevermore, she loves her more.

I was reminded of the ambiguous suggestion at the coda of Yvonne Rainer’s statement: “Maybe fuck it.”

But here is where the artists I’ve just mentioned do one better. Instead of opting out of a knotty system, they dig into it, proposing vital new ways of forming and claiming space for themselves and their loved ones. With equal parts exhaustion and love, these performers greet the political present.

Andy Campbell is an Assistant Professor of critical studies at University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design.