“Ephemeral Evidence” Profiles: Rebecca Davis

Photo by Tasja Keetman

In a Culturebot manifesto laying out the fundamental differences between visual art performance and contemporary performance, Andy Horwitz suggests that visual art performance is essentially predicated on object making (or the rejection thereof), while contemporary performance is based in time and the notion of creating experience.  He argues that visual art performance is more often than not created in isolation, where concept and execution are easily separated (the artist’s intellect and the assistant’s labor), while the contemporary performance experience is most likely collaborative (lighting, sound, decors, music, digital media – each represented by their own designers).  Applying this model, Rebecca Davis is perfectly placed in the center of its Venn diagram.  Her hashtag might well read:  #contemporaryvisualperformanceartchoreographer.

Rebecca is a conceptual artist whose object-as-subject orientation predates the messy blur of the experimental performance/performance art/durational art/visual art performance rhetoric.  That an object or group of objects is always near the center of her work is primary, but of equal importance is the body as it relates to and experiences these objects.  From a recent artist statement, Davis explains, “Alternating between the material and the immaterial, between working with my hands and my whole body, allows me to access different modes of thinking and generates a dynamic relationship of ideas and methods.  What can I do with movement that I cannot do with objects?”   But it’s more than just her use of the objects.  The act of collection, the practice of object acquisition, is as much a part of the process as the choreographic structures.

Photo by Tasja Keetman

For Davis, the emphasis is placed not just on the object in and of itself, but how the object is gathered (or, if not how, then simply that it IS gathered).  She doesn’t just amass 100 purchased umbrellas to make a work.  She spends months, sometimes years, going around with plastic bags after heavy rains and picking up thrown away broken umbrellas.  And, if you know her, she might tell you she’s doing this, as she did with me several years ago.  And without realizing it, I became part of her work.  I started noticing, after heavy rains, that there were always broken, blown out umbrellas lying around.  And I started thinking about her every time I saw them.  Pavlovian, in a fun way – it rains…then it stops raining…then I see a discarded umbrella…then I think of Rebecca. And I grabbed a few, here and there, and saved them for her, and when I saw her, I brought her the objects like some sort of art offering.  She made weather patterns relate her and me, forged a connection out of chaos, between us and who knows how many people that she had canvassing the streets as I was.  I’ve done this with ribbons too.

Seen within the context of the visual arts world, this notion of collecting seems more than apropos.  Museums are nothing if not collections.  And, in this way, Rebecca’s collection-based works could each be seen as self-contained museums of a sort.  She ritualizes our everyday experience into collectible notions – almost fetishizing the by-products of our existence: the coins in our pockets, the pages of our newspapers, the receipts from our daily purchases, threads from our clothes.  If it passes through our hands or touches our body, and chances are you don’t even think about it, somewhere else in the world Rebecca Davis and her cast, and other willing and unknowing participants, may be keeping watch, suddenly drawn to something they hadn’t ever paid attention to before, and that’s just the beginning.  The performance, such as it is, therefore begins long before the actual performative event, and in a way encompasses it.

The process is cyclical, or self-referential, in that Davis begins with the discarded fragments, the ephemera, of our existence: detritus, or unwanted materials, or broken things – in other words, that which is already in a certain state of post-use – and assigns new function to the object, initiates a practice for the collection of the object and experiments with choreographic devices independent of and dependent on these very things, to create a new encounter, a re-purposing.  In the end, there is a new ephemera – an achieved state of re-use.

Photo by Tasja Keetman

For Rebecca’s exhibit/performance as part of Exit Art’s Collective/Performative show, she both generates ephemera and destroys it: one object’s disintegration allows for another’s manifestation.  A loss and a gain.

News (working title) is a durational performance that yields a large-scale drawing.  Wearing shoes constructed from newspaper, performers walk continuously in a circle on a large sheet of white paper throughout the day until the gallery closes.  Over time, the newspaper ink rubs into the white paper, leaving a visual presence of the path walked by the performers.

The work creates a simultaneous physical construction and deconstruction (walking destroys the shoes but creates the drawing) and also a symbolic one — as the drawing underfoot becomes increasingly dark, the headlines from which it was created fade in our collective memories.

With Ephemeral Evidence, Culturebot’s curatorial interest lies in how the act of writing can be integral to and integrated into performance practices.  I will attempt such an endeavor by addressing the following questions through participation, interaction and encounter with artist, objects, performers and observers.  Do the objects acquire an inherent value through the process of creation, or are they simply evidence that an event occurred?  Are they cultural artifact worthy of collection or the effect of an experience that can only be remembered?  If they gained value, how much is value as meaning and how much is value as commodity?  How is the work influenced by the presence and labor of the body?  And how does it speak to cultural memory or, rather, amnesia?  How does the memory of experience differ from the remembering of facts?  What we read and understand today is constantly being updated and replaced tomorrow – what we feel and experience is, in a similar way, being processed by the body and catalogued or forgotten.  When all knowledge, indeed our very existence, is ephemeral – what does it mean to create, and to leave behind?

Rebecca Davis and Aaron Mattocks will be at Exit Art on Wednesday, April 18 from 10:30am-6pm.

Observation is open to the public at all times, and participation is encouraged.

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