Santa Barbara

Streb/Ringside

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara

The events that comprised “Action Occupation,” a series of performances by Elizabeth Streb’s decade-old group Streb/Ringside, were a cross between acrobatics and modern dance, fighting and flying, football and ballet. Bodies plummeted through space, slammed against walls, dangled precariously from harnesses, battered each other, or lay inert, waiting to be crushed. At their best, the “Action Occupation” events were exhilaratingly energetic; at their worst, they resembled an amateur game of rugby, in which chaotically hurtling bodies threatened to reduce each other to heaps of motionless flesh.

Streb cites the dancers Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Lucinda Childs as influences, but her work definitively strips dance of its elegance as well as its capacity to reference the outside world. That is, Streb orchestrates the aggressive movements of her dancers with seemingly no other goal than exploring what, in her view, is the transcendence of the body itself (in an accompanying CD-ROM interview, she intones, “I believe that the human body has no limits”).

In Wall, 1991, bodies slammed against, slithered behind, and mounted a taut vertical surface; in Rise, 1995, a man and a woman hanging from a pole twirled around a large circle drawn on the floor, casting dramatic shadows fully visible only to the members of the audience who were standing in an extended balcony (viewers moved around to different sites within the cavernous exhibition space for each piece). Here, unusually, Streb sketched a potential message, but one that was largely invisible to those viewers standing on the floor. The shadowy traces evoked nothing so much as the taut silhouetted contours of “Vitruvian Man” (the body traced and subdivided, the subject rationalized through the proportions of the corpus), except that here “man” was doubled into man/woman, and put into motion.

The most powerful pieces transgressed Streb’s stated desire to raise the body above the worldly, stressing the brutish and sweaty business of living—the sheer physical effort required to counteract the forces of gravity (both physical and emotional). In Little Ease, 1985, a solo piece in which Streb pushed frantically against the confines of a large box that seemed suspended in midair, she extended the body-art strategies of artists such as Joan Jonas and Vito Acconci to explore the ways in which space delimits corporeal movement and expression. In Lookup!, 1993, the only group piece to accentuate rather than downplay the intense exertion required of Streb’s exaggeratedly acrobatic choreography, four performers were suspended on harnesses from a huge wall; their “dance” horizontal, moving out over the audience members, who, as the bodies were lowered, instinctively moved back in order to avoid the ominously gyrating bodies and their drips of sweat.

Streb’s disappointing discussion of her own work in the CD-ROM project detracts from the explosive athletics of the performances and the exuberant eloquence of the performers. In contradiction to Streb’s verbal assertion of the body’s transcendence, the power of her choreography proves nothing more than the severe limits experienced by bodies in the world. The thud of flesh against flesh, against walls and floors, should have alerted Streb to the intractable materiality of the human body, and to the possibility of giving her work a political inflection.

Although Streb/Ringside was spectacularly successful in its commissioned goal of reigniting the long-dark space of the Temporary Contemporary (a goal realized in part as a result of Heather Carson’s powerful lighting designs), the group was less successful in marking the sociocultural implications of such spaces and the actions/occupations that take place in them. Here, audience members could retreat to avoid the impending threat of these multicolored, multigendered, and multisexed bodies flying through space. I would have made them taste the sweat.

Amelia Jones