Smoke and Mirrors
As I was leaving Carlos Maria Romero and Juan Betancurth’s performance as part of the Emergency Glitter Festival on Friday I couldn’t help but think to myself – was that all there is? Their performance included smoke and mirrors, both literally and metaphorically. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that even though I had been played, it had not been in jest.
While Romero and Betancurth wrote in the program notes that their central focus was on paraphilia—the sexual arousal to objects, situations, and individuals—I found myself preoccupied with their navigation of the relationship between audience and performer. Sure, sexual arousal was present: both men first appeared bound in leather, fetishistic objects were passed around the circle of seated audience members, and Carlos later danced a solo composed of rolling through various suggestive poses. I understood these overt references to sexuality as a way to confront the perhaps more tantalizing subjects of voyeurism, performativity, and spectatorship.
This piece was one in a series of collaborations Romero has set with performance and visual artists throughout 2013. At Emergency Glitter he worked with Betancurth who described himself as a mixed media artist interested in the themes of power and submission. The connection between dance and visual art has been of particular interest in recent years, in both the art world (see museum exhibitions such as the 2012 Whitney Biennial and MoMA’s 2012 fall series Some Sweet Day) and the dance world (see pieces including William Forsythe’s video installation City of Abstracts, Stephen Petronio’s recent collaboration with artist Janine Antoni in Like Lazarus Did). Though this intersection between the visual and performing arts seems especially timely, artists, performers, and thinkers alike have been pondering this tenuous and at times charged relationship for generations.
This intersection is brought out within the context of what Romero and Betancurth curiously termed “the notion of sculpture.” Here it seems that instead of sculpture itself the artistic team was interested in the ideas behind it, its particular qualities, and the theories of its enactment. Romero and Betancurth’s specific mention to sculpture combined with their power-play relationships with the audience initially reminded me of Michael Fried’s theory of theatricality. Fried proposed this idea in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” a response to the work of minimalist artists Robert Morris and Donald Judd. Taking a derisive tone, he called their work “theatrical” because it required the participation of the viewer to be fully enacted and made complete. Although Fried criticized this seductive “stage presence” of the object as proof of its incomplete nature, I kept thinking of his idea of an unspoken contract between sculpture and viewer when watching—or perhaps it is more fitting characterized as participating in—Romero and Betancurth’s piece. In Fried’s analysis the sculpture’s static, silent presence gives it increased power, while Romero and Betancurth used movement, speech, and stage effects to manipulate their relationship with the audience. My reaction may have begun with Fried, but Romero and Betancurth’s performance pushed past him to ask: what happens when the theatrical talks back?
The piece began with a seemingly innocent introduction from intern Nicole Oranges who after giving us the usual spiel about turning off our phones directed us to the theater. This transition quickly became a journey itself as we wound through the depths of the Abrons Arts Center only to finally arrive in the same lobby in which we began. Even before we entered the theatrical space we were engaged in a power play that highlighted our initial blithe acceptance of instructions. Inside the theater the directives continued as Romero showed us where to stack our chairs, told us to write our names on a piece of paper taped to the wall, and demonstrated where we should sit. Next, Romero asked for some “strong volunteers” to help him and Betancurth roll out marley across the stage. After some initial hesitation two men assisted the performers and followed their every direction, even when asked to roll the marley up as soon as it was placed on the floor. When Romero again asked for two volunteers to help with the same task a sense of frustration tinged with humor was palpable throughout the audience that stared on in silence, empty of willing volunteers.
I was surprised by this staunch refusal—was it tired apathy or quiet revolt? After some fervent, and even angry, pleading some volunteers begrudgingly acquiesced and the piece continued. I wondered what would have happened if we had stood our ground—would the piece have stalled and sputtered to a stop despite the pulsating music behind it? And what did our reluctant acquiescence mean? Did we feel bad for the performers and aid them in sympathy, or were we compelled by their theatricality, a nagging sense that the piece needed our participation?
As the piece continued Romero and Betancurth continued to exert their control over the audience, but with less direct commands and instructions. In the second half of the performance the curtain was lowered just a foot off the floor while Betancurth sat in the audience, his face illuminated by the glow from his laptop balanced in his lap. Intrigued by what could be seen underneath the curtain viewers eagerly lay down on their stomachs to peer under the fabric. Even when watching the performance required physically lying prone on the floor, a task not easily managed in a dress, my desire to see was greater than any thought of momentary impropriety. If Romero had asked me to lie down on my stomach I likely would have felt annoyed, and even uncomfortable in what can be a vulnerable position, but without specific instructions I immediately followed.
Looking at Betancurth from underneath the curtain I saw that he remained entranced by his computer, watching what I assumed was porn (my own attempt to continue the paraphilia theme). Staring at him from a darkened space, I felt like a peeping Tom. Here though, instead of watching someone undress from a shrouded outlook I watched a man whom I assumed to be having a similarly voyeuristic experience. Watching someone watch someone magnified the entire experience of viewing itself and reflected back to me the perennial question: who was watching whom? As audience member was I watching an artist perform? Or as audience member was I watching the artist to know how to perform? Or more clearly – through the act of watching was I myself performing? Like Fried suggested, is the act of viewing (whether sculpture or performance) no less than a theatrical confrontation – a squaring off between two engaged actors?
This confrontation was made paramount when Carlos sat in front of a large, angled mirror, the audience clustered behind him and watching intently. His eyes stared with a hard, unerring glare that was magnified and made all the more eerie by his white contact lenses. Instead of appearing like an egotistical Adonis he seemed like a fervent, even unhinged man pleading with our locked gazes. Watching him our eyes met in a strange third dimension created within the mirror’s reflection. This virtual connection in the mirror reminded me of social media profiles on the internet—you are never quite sure who is watching you and if others are aware you are looking at them. In that vast virtual reality we use carefully calibrated reflections of ourselves to deflect the greater intensity and consummate anxiety of ever looking directly at each other.
Romero and Betancurth drew attention to the theatrical setting, most notably by having the audience share the stage with the performers. Throughout the performance the audience members were treated like other subsidiary performers: seated on stage like performers receiving notes, watching for the fly line to drop as the stage-hand called heads, being surrounded by the smoke of a fog machine. Although these tropes easily slipped into clichés, they did made the audience conscious of the performance context. It was the acrid, yet familiar smell of the fog that immediately brought me back to the performances of my childhood—of ballets doused in the mystery and majesty of that expensive fog machine. Still, sitting in the swirl of the fog, watching the lights shift around me, I felt as if I was in a performance I had not rehearsed.
Romero and Betancurth’s performance manipulated the relationship with the audience in multiple ways and at such frequency that it ultimately became a less effective means of engaging viewers. Instead of following their directives intently I began to lose interest in what seemed a constant stream of changing strategies and scene changes. While this structure demonstrated interesting shifts in power dynamics, it left me feeling that Romero and Betancurth were constantly grasping to hold our attention in new ways instead of trusting the rich source material they already had to engage us. Culling their performance to a few of these scenarios would have likely pushed the limits of the audience more and made for a more challenging, and ultimately more interesting, piece. What would have happened if they had asked for a third set of volunteers to help roll out the marley and we sat immovable in resolute opposition? In that kind of uncomfortable, difficult moment of waiting the smoke would have had time to clear.