Gimme Shelter: Performance Now

Gimme Shelter | Annual Report

July marks the one year anniversary of “Gimme Shelter: Performance Now.” When I started writing it, I was preparing to move from Chicago to New York, thinking about performance as a genre at the intersection of studio art and “the performing arts.” I arrived at  my particular perspective as an artist working somewhere between dance, theater, fine art, video, and literature, whatever a post-studio discipline might look like. I sought to discuss and critique current work that goes beyond easy categorization, but where the central experience of the work is live, real time, and relies on the presence of the performer and audience.

The Untitled Feminist Show. Directed by Young Jean Lee. Performers (clockwise from top) World Famous *BOB*, Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle, Regina Rocke, and Amanda Zirin-Brown. Image credit: Blaine Davis.

Once in  New York, I hit the ground running with both Prelude 11, CUNY’s performance festival, and Performa 11, that beast of a performance biennial. As if these marathon events weren’t consuming enough, I then attended P.S. 122’s COIL Festival, the American Realness Festival, The Whitney Biennial, and proceeded to co-curate the Movement Research Festival Spring 2012. Throw in performances at P.S.1, The Kitchen, BAM, Danspace Project, and The Chocolate Factory, and I can safely say that it has been an eye-opening year of performance, especially here on “Gimme Shelter.”

Empress Asia in "Seven" by Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler, at Performa, Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. Image credit:

I would be lying if I said that my adventures were necessarily unique in the scope of being a New Yorker. It’s not strange to see five shows a week, ten openings, after-parties, etc. So, I’m not reporting on the basis of what’s hot, exclusive, or necessarily beyond the average art-going experience. As an artist, I can say I’m a “public intellectual,” a term coined by Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. As a columnist, I can say I’m a researcher, or a totally serious dilettante.

Wicked Clown Love by Neal Medlyn and performers at The Kitchen. Image credit: Paula Court.

Using this critical perspective to reflect on the past year, I can say that I have seen an enormous degree of risk-taking, as artists have crossed contexts from the gallery to the stage, or from the stage to the museum. Objecthood, subjectivity, representation, virtuosity, and ephemerality, have all come under interrogation.  Possibilities for the placement and execution of performance were stretched to their limits in Performa and the Whitney Biennial. I had some “aha! moments” and many challenging/aggravating/depressing ones throughout those big-name events. I was struck when, in  a conversation with writer, New York Times journalist, and P-Club founder Claudia LaRocco about Performa, she asked, “Why were all the commissioned artists visual artists? What would happen if a choreographer or an actual director was commissioned to create a large-scale visual artwork or hybrid work?”  Around the same time, Andy Horwitz wrote “Visual Art Performance v. Contemporary Performance,” followed by a discussion that Horwitz facilitated with Performa curator RoseLee Goldberg. But only a few months later, choreographer Sarah Michelson won the prestigious Bucksbaum Award from the Whitney for her performance and installation at the Whitney Biennial.

Climate change (the art world): polar ice-caps melting. Image credit:

Climate change has been occurring throughout the art world, but unlike its effects on the environment, it has the potential to generate positive change.  Like the melting of the polar ice-caps, the commodity-based system of appraisal has been melting into a desire for multivalent experiences. But what is the function of such melting? Science Daily explains, “according to Archimedes’ principle, any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid. For example, an ice cube in a glass of water does not cause the glass to overflow as it melts.” I take this to mean that though performance is becoming further assimilated into established contexts, it remains to be seen if it can change them. Within the fold, it might become watered down (pun intended), without a structure to work against or upon.

Clifford Owens. "Anthology (Lorraine O'Grady)." Video still. Image credit: On Stellar Rays.

Indeed, I found myself turning from art contexts that featured performance, to performance venues (The Kitchen, Danspace Project, Abrons Art Center, etc. ), where I found, more than once, influences of many disciplines informing the work. I don’t see this as a reactionary move, but a return to origins. Performance is hard. It doesn’t make a piece of visual art any more contemporary if there is a performance in it, especially if that performance is bad (in quality or content). Likewise, dance and performance art, whose currency has previously not been understood by the art world, is not new just because it has been recontextualized by it.

Dancers (from back) Moriah Evans, Eleanor Hullihan, Nicole Mannarino and James Kidd in their public green room/installation at the Whitney Biennial for "Devotion Study #1" by Sarah Michelson. Image credit:

I am speaking out of a real desire for experience, and this elusive thing called presence, as both a quality and a practice. I recently had the honor of interviewing performance and film icon Carolee Schneemann on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the first Judson Dance Theater Concert. I had asked her about her practice as both a studio artist and large-scale performance creator, and she said, “oh, that word again, ‘practice.’ I hate that word. I’d prefer to use the word process. It’s all my work. I don’t go into the studio and do the same thing every time. I also hate the word ‘unpacking.’ If you’re an artist, it’s a given that you are working on multiple levels, what is there to unpack?” Word to the wise! I am searching for presence, if not as a practice, then as a skill, however it is pursued.

Carolee Schneemann. "Up To and Including Her Limits." From a 1976 performance in Berlin. Image Credit: Henrik Gaad.

In saying this, I don’t simply mean, “however.” I am invested in the means and forms that presence takes across disciplines. I looking forward to further investigating this interest through more interviews and review-based writing, and I hope to include more creative forms of reflecting, archiving, working through, and talking about performance, including the introduction of collaborative projects and discussions to this column.

2011-2012 Gimme Shelter artists and performers:

Miranda July, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Roberto Sifuentes, Elijah Burgher, Maria Petschnig, Jeremy Wade, Young Jean Lee (and performers Katy Pyle, Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, Becca Blackwell, World Famous *BOB*, Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo), Donelle Woolford, Eleanor Bauer, Simon Fujiwara, Mika Rottenberg & Jon Kessler (and their performers), Bibe Hansen, Liz Magic Lazer (and her actors), Zefrey Throwell (and his collaborators), Ragnar Kjartansson (and his opera singers), Chase Granoff, Gerard and Kelly (and dancers Yve Laris Cohen, niv Acosta, devynn emory, Roger Prince), robbinschilds, John Jasperse (and dancers Burr Johnson, Kennis Hawkins, James McGinn, Erin Cornell, Lindsay Clark), Clifford Owens, Heather Kravas (and dancers Laurie Berg, Milka Djordjevich, Cecilia E., Carolyn Hall, Lyndsey Karr, Sarah Beth Percival, Liz Santoro, Antonietta Vicario), Daniel Linehan, Jennifer Lacey, Keith Hennessy, Neal Medlyn, Levi Gonzalez (and dancer Natalie Green) Sarah Michelson (and dancers Nicole Mannarino, Eleanor Hullihan, James Kidd, Charlotte Cullinan), Dawn Kasper, Bridget Everett, CA Conrad, Yvonne Meier (and performers Aki Sasamoto, Arturo Vidich), Dynasty Handbag.