WITH TEMPERATURES in the mid-twenties and a forecasted high of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, not to mention a “wind advisory” in effect until 6 PM, the last Sunday before Thanksgiving in New York City began as either the first real day of winter or the absolute last day of fall, depending on your personal calculus of late-November cold. It was on this morning, around 10 AM, that a dozen or so spandex-clad runners began to assemble in the foyer of an otherwise shuttered Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea. Their objective: to run, as a group, from the gallery, thirty miles north to Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, the burial place of Russian-born composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Additionally, each runner was to carry a bouquet of chamomiles—the national flower of the late composer’s home country—on his person (all the participating runners happened to be male), and present them at the gravesite upon arrival. The runners came via the open invitation from performance artist and filmmaker Guido van der Werve to participate in his annually reoccurring performance piece—now in its fourth iteration—the Running to Rachmaninoff Run, which took place this year as one of Performa 13’s final events.
Van der Werve first ran to Rachmaninoff in the fall of 2010, as part of one of his characteristically numbered art works, Nummer dertien, Effugio A: Chamomile, Russia’s National Flower or Running to Rachmaninoff, for that year’s “Greater New York” exhibition at MoMA PS1. Van der Werve initially performed the work alone, departing from the museum and documenting his journey with a 35-mm camera. As it happens with most performance art, the documentation now serves as a stand-in for the work itself—364 days a year that is. To fully experience Running to Rachmaninoff, one must, and can (once a year), participate as object. How many so-called “endurance” performance artworks can boast such an inclusive yet exacting proviso?
Chris Burden may still be the unforgettable epitome of the self-sacrificing artist, but he, and he alone, took a bullet. I took part in the run, and—though I have been a light-duty runner for fifteen years—by mile twenty my brain became so deprived of glycogen, and my thoughts subsequently so incoherent and irrational, the pain of a gunshot wound began to sound better than hobbling through the last ten miles. I was “hitting the wall,” and had already fallen far behind the pack of eight or nine remaining runners. Could Caspar David Friedrich have captured this pathos, a solitary figure in a (seemingly never-ending) landscape of Westchester strip-malls? Then, suddenly, I found myself running with Guido. The artist had dropped back from the bunch to shepherd me through the last remaining mile before our final pit stop, where I was able to find a packet of “energy gel” in the ride-along van that the gallery had graciously provided. The sugars brought my brain and body back online, and I rejoined the group as we wound through the final, wooded stretch of the run. The sun had set by the time we made it to Rachmaninoff. The flowers were laid and, like most organized runs, photos were taken and schwag distributed. And within a few minutes we all, finishers and non-finishers alike, were in the van heading home.
Nathaniel Lee is a writer/runner based in New York.
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.
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.
Cally Spooner, And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, 2013. Performance view, National Academy Museum, New York, November 2013. Photo: Paula Court.
PERFORMA, THE AMBITIOUS BIENNIAL FESTIVAL of theater and performance held here in New York, is now in its fifth iteration, hosting over one hundred events at more than forty venues throughout the first three weeks of November. As with all festivals, it’s a chance to exhaust oneself running from theater to gallery to museum, gorging on plays, performance pieces, and other, more hybrid genres. While the offerings I’ve seen so far have been of varying success, Performa is doing what it does best: providing a focused opportunity to witness the varied state(s) of the rambling field they call “visual art performance.”
My first venture was British artist Cally Spooner’s And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, an a capella musical performed November 8–10 by fifteen women at the National Academy Museum. Spooner, in collaboration with composer/arranger Peter Joslyn and choreographer Adam Weinert, explores the fates of the live voice when spun through contemporary media mills. The lines of the sung text were clipped and stitched together from news articles that sensationalized certain celebrity slipups and/or downfalls caused by dislocated tongues: Beyoncé’s admission that she lip-synced the National Anthem at Obama’s inauguration; the announcement that Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, would be leaving the White House to write Hollywood screenplays; Lance Armstrong’s apology on (or is it to?) Oprah for lying about his use of blood doping and performance-enhancing drugs.
Dressed in all gray garb, Spooner’s splendid singers moved through the museum with an affect much like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy—wooden, staring at odd angles into space, only their voices truly lifelike, charging the rooms with vibrant harmonies. The songs were punctuated by sketches during which performers imitated the particular timbres of newscasters, a voice of authority that always seems to double as a parody thereof, and celebrities whose prefabricated, preapproved responses invariably resound with scripted realness. (There’s a joke in here somewhere about the lives of public figures being sentenced to death.)
Spooner’s program notes explained that the piece articulates “a loss of live delivery, which has grown as a result of technical dependency, and a resultant ‘making technical’ and ‘grammatization’ (to use Bernard Stiegler’s term), of behavior and language; a ‘making technical of life.’ ” (Phew.) True as that may be, the piece possessed far more cheek than bite, and ultimately illuminated little new about the perils of our mediated culture. Does technology only make regurgitating dummies of us all? I wanted Spooner to dig more deeply into the complexities of the problem rather than cartoon its supposed effects. Then again, with members of the audience incessantly holding up their smartphones to record the living, breathing, fleeting moments happening right there in front of them, perhaps her point was duly made.
Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society – Live, 2013. Performance view, Anthology Film Archives, New York, November 2013. Photo: Paula Court.
Italian artist and filmmaker Rosa Barba also wrestled with questions of liveness in her screening/performance at Anthology Film Archives (Nov. 14–16), Subconscious Society – Live. I’ll admit to experiencing a geeky rush walking into the theater and seeing multiple projectors and screens, microphones strung over the seats, and sculptures installed front and center. Where Hollywood prides itself that the 3D blockbuster has restored moviegoing to an event, Barba seemed to be offering a rounder ambition for the ways in which a movie theater can expand and blur the lines between space and screen.
When the lights went down, so began a whirlwind of projected text, moving image (35 mm and 16 mm), live music, and voiceovers, all articulating ideas about memory, history, the subconscious, utopia, architecture, nature, nostalgia, and more. (Or at least, I think so.) The sculptures whirred, spun and lit up, punning the mechanics of cinema; images of unidentified structures, people, and lands flew by—literally, at one point, in the form of dazzling helicopter shots over a colorful terrain. Confusion soon set in, and what appeared at first to be a poem or incantation of sorts quickly became a ponderous jumble, overburdened by a desire to accomplish so much all at once. For all the complication, there were also oddly reductive gestures: a single strip of celluloid hung inside each of the three sculptures below the movie screen, one of which was printed with the word RED, another YELLOW, and the last BLUE—the RYB shtick that’s been used before by many film and video artists and never once to great effect. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the initial promise Barba’s theater held—for that of a “performed cinema”—and I walked out looking forward to a future piece, one that’s in sharper focus.
Jérôme Bel, Disabled Theater, 2013. Performance view, New York Live Arts, November 2013. Foreground: Remo Beuggert. Photo: Paula Court.
Few productions in Performa 13 have been the subject of as much attention as Jérôme Bel and Theater HORA’s Disabled Theater (New York Live Arts, Nov. 12–17), which features ten (formerly eleven) Swiss actors who are all learning or mentally disabled. Bel, who is described in the press release as an “acclaimed French conceptualist,” collaborated with the performers to create the “script” by giving them prompts to which they reacted and responded. During the show, the actors sat in chairs onstage facing the audience as a stage manager/translator (Simone Truong) repeated Bel’s directions, then called them forward one by one to perform. “Jérôme asked the actors to name their handicap,” Truong explains to the audience, and each actor approached a microphone at center stage to reply. “I have Down Syndrome, and I’m sorry,” said Julia Häusermann, who returned to her chair and hid her face. “I’m a fucking mongol,” declared Lorraine Meier, while Tiziana Pagliaro replied simply, “I don’t know.”
“Jérôme asked the actors to make a dance solo,” we’re told, and we then watch as seven of the actors perform a dance of their own design. (The other three were given their chance later in the show.) Of particular note: Remo Beuggert’s clever choreography with a chair, Miranda Hossle’s hip-hop moves to the rhythms her colleagues beat out on drums and tambourine, and Häusermann’s impassioned interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.” The actor’s performances range from compelling and poignant, to strident and funny. “I’m not happy with the solos,” Gianni Blumer tells us. “I was very angry not being able to dance. I’m the best dancer, and I want to make the audience laugh,” which he then does by blowing a loud raspberry into the microphone.
The terrible flaw of the show—and part of the reason it has polarized audiences—is that it relies to a great degree on the hollow economies of provacatourism. For all of the potent questions it raises about who and what is typically excluded from cultural production—from our narratives, both mainstream and avant-garde, and from our understanding of beauty and art—Bel’s conceptual framework proves to be a soft, sanitizing strategy, quarantining the performers in a way that preserves a theatrical status quo. Prompting audiences to examine their assumptions about these subjects also assumes that we are ignorant, inexperienced, or somehow limited in our abilities to play our part. It would have been a far stronger and more powerful choice for Performa to invite Theater HORA—a troupe who has been creating theatrical productions since 1993—without Bel’s mediation so that we, performers and audience alike, could deal with each other more directly.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
Performa 13, the fifth biennial of new visual art performance, runs through Sunday, November 24 in New York.
“HERE WE GO,” someone in the crowd, I’m almost positive it was The Unidentified Flying Dancer, said with an anticipatory sigh that seemed born of long experience, maybe? Batten down the hatches.
The UFD (aka Sheryl Sutton), issued her warning on a recent Wednesday night at Electronic Arts Intermix, as a conversation between two former members of the Hungarian-born collective Squat Theatre, long since disbanded, staggered to a halt:
Anna Koos: “It’s my opinion, let me have my opinion.”
Eva Buchmuller: “But I can argue.”
Koos, Buchmuller, and Sutton (a Squat collaborator) had gathered for a screening of the Squat film Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free (1981), one of several events tied to “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980.”
“I think it’s a kind of manifesto for Jay,” the Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo said at the press preview for “Rented Island,” Jay Sander’s first show as the museum’s first full-time curator devoted to performance and the performing arts. That may be so, but I think of it more as a kid-in-a-candy-store fantasy—maybe especially a kid who doesn’t quite believe management is letting him horde all this fantastically weird candy. (Almost my favorite single item in the show is a vintage—if such a thing can be said to be vintage—box of blueberry Pop-Tarts in the Michael Smith room. I choose to believe the Pop-Tarts are still inside—that’s how much I’m rooting for this exhibition.)
Perhaps all shows in New York are, on some level, about real estate—and if they’re historical shows, that inevitably means nostalgia. I think it’s to Sanders’s great credit that “Rented Island,” which gets its name in part from Jack Smith’s nickname for Manhattan and delves into a forgotten corner of recent performance history, doesn’t succumb entirely to a Vision of The Past; it gives you hope for the future of performance at the Whitney. And yet it’s a lot about the city that was, and won’t be again.
Left and right: Squat Theatre, Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1981, video, color, sound, 83 minutes. Left: Eszter Balint. Right: Sandi Fiddler.
“One of the most defining characters in the piece is New York City itself,” EAI’s executive director Lori Zippay said in introducing Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free. This comment made me think of the whole business of Manhattan being the fifth character in Sex and the City and… yeah. It’s just “such a different city now,” as Zippay, seemingly at a loss for words to describe the magnitude of the difference, said about contemporary Manhattan.
The Squat folks described the work as their most American project. Yes, through an intense, darkly scrambled Hungarian lens. (Here’s Sutton’s summation of the collective: “The Squat was less volatile than the Living Theatre and a lot more fun than Grotowski.”)
Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free features an early establishing shot: hundreds of bodies pouring over the Brooklyn Bridge—presumably taken during the eleven-day transit strike in 1980, back when Americans liked unions. Suddenly, here comes a gal jogging along in short shorts, a torch held aloft, like some unfortunate cross between our Lady of Liberty and an aerobics instructor. And we’re off!: car crashes and deadly police chases, storefront commandos, lines of cocaine, giant scary baby statues, intensely naked yoga, race and sex and sexism and Nico singing “New York, New York” in singularly disturbing sultry-junkie fashion.
And through it all, there’s a stroked-out sense of time. For all of its collage elements, things take a while to happen, the kind of “while” that’s so boring and draggy that it becomes transformative. There was a moment, after the lights came assaultively up, and the post-screening conversation assembled, when Sanders, who frankly looked a little slumped over, managed to say, “It’s such an astounding document.” And it seemed for a terrifically uncomfortable time that neither Buchmuller nor Koos were going to muster any commentary at all. My notes from here only read: “Is there a way to talk about it that seems productive? I want a cigarette.”
But of course I don’t smoke. I’m a responsible twenty-first-century citizen of the world. Time is money.
“That was a particular time and a particular slot in history,” Buchmuller said of the Squat’s Manhattan tenure. “We were in a situation that I would call grace. I’m not religious at all—but it was allowed.”
And then, she added, the time was gone, the city was changed, the group dissolved. And now The Squat is occupying the Whitney for a couple of months, in a little space near to Jack Smith’s gigantic sparkly alien bras and John Zorn’s tiny ritualistic objects and Theodora Skipitares’s disturbing talking goat.
Apparently, when the Squat’s Stephan Balint first tried to get Nico to sing “New York, New York,” she said something along the lines of, “I’m never gonna sing that shit.” Boy, was she ever wrong.
“Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” runs through February 2, 2014 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.