PRINT December 2019


Jennifer Krasinski

Morgan Bassichis, Shabbat for Rosa Luxemburg (1891–1919) and Mary Oliver (1935–2019), 2019. Performance view, Artist’s Institute, New York, January 25, 2019.

A PERFORMANCE must be believed to be seen. I likely hang its appearance on an act of faith because I—raised Catholic in the Midwest—received my first exposure to theater by watching men in elaborately brocaded dresses conduct mass every Sunday. (As it turns out, church was also my primer on camp.) Applause was inappropriate, prayer was encouraged, and many years later the two otherwise adverse gestures still share a synapse in my head, one standing in for the other—sometimes.

Which brings me to the frigid Friday in January when I arrived at a Shabbat dinner hosted by comedic singer-songwriter Morgan Bassichis at the Artist’s Institute and immediately realized there would not in fact be a performance, as I’d thought (confession: hoped) there would be. After drinking and eating and conversing, we were asked to select and share lines from texts by Rosa Luxemburg and Mary Oliver—and then Bassichis, with Ethan Philbrick on cello, created a song right then and there out of the materials we’d offered up. I couldn’t hum it now to save my life, but I do remember vividly that it was a most beautiful melody—the sound of a now-detonation going off to mark the exquisiteness of the moment.

Ann Liv Young, Antigone, 2019. Performance view, Ann Liv Young’s apartment, Nicholas Avenue, Brooklyn, May 24, 2019. Antigone (Ann Liv Young). Photo: Nicholas Strini.

That intimate meal felt as potent as any live event, particularly in this strange, soft-focus year of performance in New York. In the past twenty months, we’ve seen one stalwart institution, Performance Space 122, renovated, rebranded, and relaunched, then offer dispiritingly little in the way of the rigorous and eclectic programming that for decades made it essential. Seasons thus far have been organized into thematic series—“No Series,” “Posthuman Series,” “East Village Series”—a stiff, museum-like move that hyperflexes the curatorial grip over what is in fact a rich and varied landscape of forms and aesthetics. (Note how little space has been given to the artists and elders who helped make the place. As in mainstream culture, here youth and beauty appear to be rewarded before all else.) Months later, in April, a brand-new behemoth, cutely dubbed the Shed, opened its maw on the Hudson River, promising audiences thrilling cultural wares. But the first year of programming was largely gutless: an incoherent bonanza of big-name, small-payoff “collaborations” that seemed put together simply by plugging A-listers into a game of Mad Libs. Real estate has no cultural import unless it’s being used, occupied, visited, and embraced by the communities it claims to serve, and artists are among the ones who have traditionally reassessed property—literally and figuratively (though not without complication).

Luckily, when a shiny venue isn’t on offer, great performers will call their audiences to wherever they are.

Sarah Michelson, june2019:I/\, 2019. Rehearsal view, 101 Greenwich Street, New York, June 23, 2019. Sarah Michelson. Photo: Paula Court.

Luckily, when a shiny venue isn’t on offer, great performers will call their audiences to wherever they are. “HERE COMES A CUNT!” sang-screamed (no, incanted) Sarah Michelson, lurching and lunging and waving her arms like a child of Medusa and the Marx Brothers. For june2019:/\, her contribution to LMCC’s summertime River to River Festival, the Mancunian repossessed part of an empty floor of an office building in Manhattan’s Financial District, painting the walls with pictures of “slags” and “fags” and calling on the power of working-class antiheroines. At one point, she stood at an open window, nude save for a pair of screaming-pink satin pants and nurse-white heels, and shouted her song to anyone who could hear, or would listen, down below on capitalism’s mean streets. About a month prior, Ann Liv Young performed a nervy, moving Antigone in her apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Hers was a bucking bronco of an adaptation, wildly tearing through her entire building: Warm-up exercises were conducted on her rooftop; the stairs and walls and hallways were decked out in all kinds of oogey decorations; artworks were for sale in the basement. Her modest bedroom, the main playing space, barely contained her splatterfest, which blitzed the classical tale by way of pop songs, a splayed waxed vagina, ketchup as blood, and other semiotically useful stuff. When at the end Young asked the audience how believable we thought the performers were, I wasn’t sure what to say, since I hadn’t seen American Realness like this in a while.

Tina Satter, Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, 2019. Rehearsal view, the Kitchen, New York, January 3, 2019. From left: Pete Simpson, Emily Davis, Becca Blackwell. Photo: Paula Court.

“ISN’T IT A PERFORMER’S moral responsibility to instill in us, directly or indirectly, a sense that we can all be bigger and freer than our individual narratives?” asked Hilton Als in one of this year’s essential pieces of cultural criticism, his review of comedian-monologuist Hannah Gadsby’s one-person show Douglas. In it, the New Yorker writer cancels the narrative flatness that serves political perfection. Life is filled with horrors, he argues, and trauma misused as armor against complexity—as a high horse from which to judge rather than survey or seek—only limits the many balms that comedy can offer. No laugh is one-note.

The yucks were at once buoyant and dark in Becca Blackwell and Amanda Duarte’s ingeniously conceived talk show, Snatch Adams and Tainty McCracken Presents: It’s That Time of the Month, in which the two star (respectively) as Snatch, a vagina clown, and Tainty, a hairy, prolapsed, recently #MeToo’d anus. (The show was performed for one night only at the Wild Project in the East Village.) With ovaries made of balloons and tape and fallopian tubes of rope dangling from their body like a ball and chain, Snatch bantered with Tainty (who provided all manner of lewd sound effects), interviewed a guest, and offered rebirthing services for anyone unfortunate enough to have been brought into this world via cesarean section. But in the show’s final segment, Blackwell, out of costume, delivered a stunner of a stand-up routine that took on transitioning, sexual abuse, and other not-funny subjects—“killing it” by bringing it all out into the open.

Becca Blackwell and Amanda Duarte, Snatch Adams and Tainty McCracken Presents: It’s That Time of the Month!, 2017. Performance view, Duplex, New York, November 21, 2017. Amanda Duarte and Becca Blackwell. Photo: David Clement.

If rage is the fuel of the predator, it is the burden of the survivor who is socially mandated to keep quiet, be polite, not point a finger—not go looking for revenge. Adrienne Truscott’s razor-sharp (Still) Asking for It (A Stand-Up Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!) at Joe’s Pub took aim at entertainers, politicians, and other public figures who engage in or normalize sexual violence—in other words: at men who prefer fucking people over to fucking them. Truscott and her cohort (Shamika Cotton and Mari Moriarty the night I attended) all performed pantsless, in a move both vulnerable and defiant. In one of the show’s most memorable moments, Truscott did a handstand, legs apart, and as Robert De Niro’s face was projected onto her stomach, her pubic landing strip doubled as Travis Bickle’s mohawk, she and her bare pussy playing vigilante, confounding the audience with a You talkin’ to me?

Call all of this re-righting the script, which is what Tina Satter’s Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription (the Kitchen) achieved with subtle mastery by staging the transcript of the FBI’s interrogation of Winner, which took place at the whistleblower’s home on June 3, 2017. Before Winner finally confesses that she leaked the documents that proved Russia interfered in the 2016 election (for which she is currently serving time under the Espionage Act), we watch as the officers circle her like prey, tenderizing her with friendly chitchat and the assurance that she’s a good person, until they get what they came for. Re-righting is also what playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s triumphant Marys Seacole (Lincoln Center Theater) did for its titular subject, and for the position of contemporary Jamaican caregivers, who remain largely invisible to those they help. So too did Leyya Tawil’s otherworldly Lime Rickey International: Future Faith (Abrons Art Center) re-right the delimited territories of the Arab diaspora, offering embodiment as a way home.

Stanley Love dancing in McCarren Park, Brooklyn, 2019.

EQUAL PARTS REVERENCE, tenderness, gratitude, and funk, Meshell Ndegeocello and Charlotte Braithwaite’s 2016 musical performance Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin was re-presented in February at David Zwirner Gallery as part of “God Made My Face,” a “collective portrait” of the genius Baldwin curated by Als. Inside the gorgeous harmonies of the singers, and among artworks by the likes of Diane Arbus, Alvin Baltrop, Glenn Ligon, and Kara Walker, the luminous Staceyann Chin gave an indelible, heart-stopping monologue delivered in as many emotional registers as a human can possibly hold. Bounding before the audience, she testified to a black woman’s experience here on earth: the invisibility, the less-than-ness, the grief, and the violence, all meted out to punish those who see the sicknesses of the world most clearly, who experience its bankrupt realities largely without intermediary or protector. What was so singularly extraordinary about that moment, about that liveness, was how she filled the room with a force so whole and human and real that the feeling it gave, strangely, could only be described as love.

Meshell Ndegeocello and Charlotte Braithwaite, Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin, 2016/2019. Performance view, David Zwirner, New York, February 16, 2019.

“What’s spirit is spirit,” declared the inimitable choreographer Stanley Love with the corny precision of a mystic. “We all have souls, we all have energy, freedom.” And with these words, he, for whom pop music was a means of divination, called out the only materials required for creating live art and for living an artful life, and although this is not all it takes, this is all it takes. No permission needed, no grand venues required. After he died in late August, I spent hours watching videos of his bliss-inducing pieces—at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, at Judson Church in 2013, at the Kitchen in 2017—along with footage taken by his dancers during their rehearsals in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park and by his fans during performances. In that headspace that Hélène Cixous stamped “yestoday,” where memory rushes to the fore to mitigate loss—to live within the here-and-gone-ness—I was reminded that, like performance, life is a time-based medium, and that it too must be believed to be seen.

Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor at Artforum.