Arturo Vidich’s “Body Island” at Abrons Art Center

On Thursday night, I concluded a very Vidich month at Arturo’s performance-installation-video shoot Body Island, a co-presentation by the Chocolate Factory and Abrons Art Center, after a ringside (seat side, really) view of his Gia-kissing moment in Yvonne Meier’s Brother of Gogolorez 4 weeks ago and his own latex wrapped Shitopia performance 2 weeks ago (both part of Danspace Project’s “Body Madness” platform).  Meanwhile, he’s also been diligently preparing for this one-night-only collaboration with Madeline Best (video), Ashley Rawlings (dramaturgy) and Maximillian Balduzzi (performance) and his company of rats. Yes, if you haven’t heard about this event yet (or read that most of Culturebot was present for this in our weekend plans), he had a company of performing R-A-T-S.

Over the past month, in the midst of his other shows, he’s been training a company of Petco procured rats for this show, as well as building the wooden and tiled structure that houses Balduzzi and his little pals during the performance. As part of his master’s work at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, he’s been maintaining a blog and with many interesting entries related to his lengthy design, development, and building of the installation as well as his month-long training intensive with the animals. It’s a fascinating process and speaks to the potential depths of artistic and social investigations. An early entry from May of last year:

What is it about rats that makes people hate them?

I’m asking you. Most people say it’s the tail, or disease, or that they’re greedy and quickly outnumber us, or some combination. I am interested in understanding rats as more than these fear-based surface attributes. I’m also interested in understanding rats as a threat to our way of life, and why efforts to eradicate them have been so wide-spread, long-standing, and unsuccessful. I don’t have any answers, even after all the research and work I’ve done in the last few months. If nothing else, I have more questions.

Rats, specifically Rattus Norvegicus (AKA the brown rat AKA sewer rat AKA wharf rat AKA the Norway Rat) live because we support them. They are our pets, our laboratory heroes, our dark half scuttling through our garbage. I have to ask myself, where does my interest in rats come from? Being our more uncivilized neighbors marks rats as a reflection of our ways and attitudes. Being a close genetic relative proves useful to our scientific quests. Rat bodies are boundary breaking. They fit neatly into the physical and analogous boxes we describe for them in some contexts, and yet we cannot control them in others. They have a dark vitality we cannot overcome. Simply put: they are awesome. I am in awe of them.

In addition to my geek-filled appreciation of Best’s management of three separate live video camera operators in her creation of the projected video that most of the audience saw and my geek-gadget-envy and general layman’s awe at the entire set up, I carried away a consideration of species-ism. The work provided me with enough time to consider why I giggled, squirmed and even cackled when the rats joined Balduzzi in the enclosed room where he had been delivering text and moving for the previous 20 minutes. When they climbed all over him, some even licking at his closed eyes, I was aware of how I negotiated my gleeful repulsion. The imagery is so closely tied to disease and death that I was physically twitchy (and responded with laughter).  However, a mental shift settled in when the Chocolate Factory’s Brian Rogers told me they were from a pet store and had been trained. Suddenly, that level of consumerism and domestication allowed me to view them like the loveable protagonist of Ratatouille (for those of you without small children, this is an animated Pixar film about a gourmet chef in Paris who happens to be a rat…and who also washes his paws a lot).  When the room began to fill with water and the rats climbed aboard Balduzzi’s island, a commentary about cooperation and survival revealed itself alongside the humorous image. I began thinking about other flooded spaces and bodies and appreciated how the bizarre event included a kind of social consciousness that I hadn’t anticipated.

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