Relational March: Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Three Rivers, Detroit, Ohio State
Relational March Day 17-20
In Minneapolis, Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney (who work together as Fire Drill) have braved the cold long enough to curate an incredible show at The White Page of primarily “post-dance” works, including a piece by Samantha Johns (involving chocolate milk, dominoes and a question-an-answer session with Justin Spooner and Daniel Luka Rovinsky (the former a very nervous man, the latter a child trying not to laugh), a butoh-influenced durational performance with beets by Dustin Maxwell, and an athletic and tightly rehearsed synchronous duet by the newly-formed feminist/queer duo Hiponymous (Renée Copeland and Evy Muench) to name a few. There is also a short piece by Cock E.S.P, a performance art noise group which has influenced all of us (PPL and Future Death Toll) on a fairly deep level. Emil Hagstrom founded the band/group/collective in 1993, they have received quite a bit of recognition within noise music spheres and will hopefully be invited into visual arts performance and dance shows more often.
In this video, one can get an idea of Cock E.S.P’s performance, but perhaps not audience reactions: the interesting thing here is at about 0:56, when the audience stops cringing and scowling and the first “woo!” is heard. This entire performance was only about 3 minutes long, but illustrates an interesting shift in live framing of “what is happening” and a sudden trust placed in the performers during a performance which is fairly obviously improvised, or a moment of recognition of the act as a whole image. During Samantha Johns’ piece, similarly improvised within a structure for actions/tasks to be completed, a turnover occurred partway through the work, a point where I cried, and looked around to see many other fellow spectators also wiping their eyes and noses. The instability of the performers’ emotions contributed to this, a deep vulnerability that comes with improvisation. Dear Andy: when writing about live art, is there an acceptably critical way to describe the moment when the structures, or systems, which are being used conceptually to construct a series of tasks or actions, become visible? This moment seems to be the one that produces the strongest reaction, the “hitting” that BAM expects to occur long after the performance is over happening instead in a moment that will never, ever happen again?
Every live performance discipline has formal and informal relationships with improvisation and the BAM! moment. Because of this, attitudes towards, usage of, and historic relationships with improvisation are perhaps an interesting way to discuss the radically interdisciplinary practices of artists working in live mediums. Cock E.S.P claims that they care less about the “music” produced by their banging around than they do about the action, the image, the conceptual metaphor, and the energy-shift in the room that their frenetic antics cause, which is ironic because of their success as a “band.” Their bodies are clearly moving without choreography, the sounds they make are clearly not strictly composed. However, their costumes, behaviors, and energies are rehearsed by two decades of performances. C.A.S.H.E.D (Timothy Amundson & Drew Roth) in Kansas City has a similar practice, and is differently but equally moving and intense. This type of “practice-based” relationship with improvisation is shared by certain styles of music (jazz, noise, free improvisational avant-classical) and by a great deal of contemporary dance since the Judson Dance Theater and before. In music and dance, pure improvisation can be and often is considered a legitimate mode of live performance when wielded by virtuosic improvisers. Further, structured and systemic forms of improvisation are dominant in contemporary “avant-garde” and “downtown” choreography (see Keith Hennessey, Lindsey Drury, Miguel Gutierrez, Simone Forti, Yvonne Meier, culturebot readers can comment more videos below).
Performance artists from music and/or dance backgrounds tend to work within combinations of composed and improvisational modes but also explore mimetic/highly repeatable forms and forms of pure improvisation. In between the extremes, we find scripted, notated, scored, conceptually framed, image-based, task-based, actuated, interactive/participatory, aleatoric, chance-operated, and other modes. Different ways of using modes and combinations of modes are expertly conducted in Chicago by Adam Rose (who, with the rest of Antibody Corporation, always blows our minds) and Alejandro Acierto, who perform with us at High Concept Laboratories, curated by Rachel Ellison. Rose performs in character within a certain interactive structure. He speaks (memorized?) text, then asks for a dollar and the answer to the question “what does ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ mean?” in exchange for each of his characteristically creepy-awkward stints of movement/dance, which seem improvised within a very specific vocabulary of gestures and ways of moving. His work is always magnetic, pulling the implicated spectator into another world. There is also a loose narrative regarding a former relationship between his character (or “himself” “in reality”?) and a cop. Alejandro Acierto’s vocal performance—coughs, wheezes, and guttural utterances processed through software—is also combination of through-composition and improvisation; he says he knew what he would perform, just not in what order or for how long. For both of these artists, improvisation allows for increased craft, in Rose’s case for audience participation/implication, and in Acierto’s case, for consideration of the music pieces as they flow impulsively out of his body.
In between Milwaukee (where we are hosted at Center Street Free Space, an anarchist collective, library, and community space) and Chicago, language about our Kansas City group performance appears in the Kansas City Star as part of a review of the overarching exhibition by art critic Neil Thrun. Calling our relational actions “improvisational nonsense,” he notes that our work “generally lacked coherent melody, plot or drama.” (no surprise there). In Thrun’s article, improvisation is seen as a “defiant” practice, posed in resistance to “more traditional ‘tasteful’ lifestyles,” which we will have to seriously consider (we like this idea and could potentially make a more complex case for it, along the lines of the semi container spray-painted “LIVE FREE OR DIE”?). Relationships between intuitive sculpture and task-based performance are not discussed, and it does seem that “improvisational” is being used as a dismissive term; what we do consistently notice is a curious expectation for performance art, that it should be not improvisational, or that its already-marginal status is somehow further reduced by admittance to improvisation (which we did, in fact, admit to Mr. Thrun after our performance when he asked). It is difficult to insist on the complication of task-based or structured improvisation, i.e. intentional acts with scored directives such as “describe everything in the room” or “shadow individuals in the audience until they notice” or “staple David to a piece of plywood and try to stand him up against a wall.” These kinds of actions are rarely thought-of in the very second in which they are performed, they are considered beforehand and intentionally approached. Yet, since the bodies and voices performing the acts themselves are informed by durational, lifestyle practice (i.e. dancing in the studio) rather than by precise choreography or memorized music notation, the acts can be considered “improvisational.”
Day 19 finds us at the Three Rivers Public Library, a small town branch with a thriving young adult community. The event is curated by this post’s author’s mother Beth Neff (who is a novelist, and activist, and much more). We adapt to certain contraints: no nudity, no profanity, no violence, but are otherwise given free reign, and systematically improvise. After the performances, we have an excellent discussion about meaning, reasons to make performance art, improvisation, and relationality with an engaged, articulate, and highly receptive audience. When a local newspaper journalist asks Edward if his movement is choreographed or improvised, he says “both.”
In Detroit, Thomas Bell and Christina DeRoos (whose organization Spread Art formerly occupied PPL’s current performance space/gallery at 104 Meserole Street in Brooklyn) host us at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (C.A.I.D) where we perform with Tess Tennessee Miller, and Thomas Bell himself, who smashes a piano.
Materials are part of the matrix of improvisation and intention (which are certainly not opposites). At each venue, PPL and Future Death Toll go into the space. We look around, we kick the walls and find the windows and doors. Then we unpack our “gear” from the car. We chose to bring some particular objects, items, and tools with us. Some of our materials are sculptures which we made for the tour, others have a wide range of semiotic potentiality and so seemed useful (i.e. potent) for use in tasks and actions to be invented. In Detroit, PPL destroy our cones, two sculptural objects (plaster, mesh armature, paint, human hair, copper enamel, red rubber) made in Brooklyn before the tour began, with removable analog electronic devices. We also drag a number of car grills into the space, lick them, and write “traitor” on the wall in dirty water (Brian is from Detroit). This performance is emotionally driven, almost entirely improvisational, yet uses pre-fabricated objects (the cones) and objects found in the second (I went outside during the performance, saw the grills, started carrying them in) equally. Other gear is equipment, i.e. Edward’s Rasberry PI and projector, our samplers, loop pedals, microphones, cables, which enable a wide range of images, sounds, and actions. To a large extent, materials for performance art are pre-selected to incite improvisation; the best found and made objects alike are multi-function, possessing a unique set of characteristics and potentialities that can be discovered through practice/play/rehearsal. For Future Death Toll, objects and materials have higher status if they are orange. For PPL, objects and materials must have rarely appeared in performance art that we’ve seen (i.e. they must be obscure). All materials should allow for re-purposed multi-significance, see Duchamp’s “fountain” and other readymade objects), including electronics and cables. Dear Andy: the aesthetics of the cables must be considered.
After the performances in Detroit, we crash with a friend on the way to Ohio State University, where we arrive at 11am for a day of public performances in the Oval, the public lawn in the center of campus between the Wexner center and the Thompson Library. These performances are organized by Robert Derr, who writes:
“I am still contemplating the unique sequence of performances and how each flowed from one to the other. Starting with Chris Harvey’s boisterous theoretical “kick off,” which really got the people on the Oval, and beyond, energized, and had them consider the game of art. Then the poetic movements and actions of the color-coded performance by Future Death Toll stopped passersby in their tracks to consider media and our reliance on those scripted narratives. Next Nayeon Yang’s interactive performance actually asked the viewers to consider what they were witnessing, as well as filled the air with a unique aroma, as the liquid dripped down her head and body. My performance was a whisper in public space, without any spoken indicators, to prompt viewer interaction. Sarah Schultz burned her diary pages and covered her face with the charred remnants that enabled an afternoon time of reflection on ritual within the solitude shadows of Hopkins Hall. Moving from quiet ritual, we experience the physical work of artist Blake Turner punching grommets into a jean shirt, fastening the front and back together, and rendering the utilitarian shirt into an adorned object of labor. The final performance by Panoply Performance Laboratory moved the spectacle back to the center of the Oval, where there was plenty of pedestrian activity and interest in the duo’s public chanting and various actions, from finding and dragging tree branches, to the organization of an alter of the cognizing self.”
It’s the first beautiful, sunny day, almost 60 degrees. The Oval is packed, sororities are selling cupcakes and the Marines recruiting trailer has an inflatable muscle man floating in between melting dirty snow piles. Future Death Toll commandeers the very center of the public lawn, re-ordering their semi-consistent tasks and actions improvisationally: tip-toes backwards, trash bag on head, trash bag on body, orange cord on head, read from blacked-out newspaper, left hand rapid shake. Their way of working is also framed by their palm-sized orange zine 120#TODO, which lists many of their interchangeable directives, single-action scores a la Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit or other Fluxus conceptual texts.
After all of the performances, PPL are standing behind a dumpster, smoking on the tobacco-free campus and are joined by Molly, a freshman in zoology. Molly begins to cry, she is smiling but says she has been disturbed by the public nature of the performances. “I could never just express myself in public like that,” she says, “but I am a disturbed person, generally.”
Dear Andy: I guess my point is that improvisation feels like vulnerability, and that vulnerability has its own political and social connotations. Sometimes exposure of emotion, exposure to context, exposure of the skin, the idea, the desire, opens up an artist to attack, and/or to emotional connections, and/or operates as a political idea, and/or destabilizes or stabilizes any given performance’s “meaningfulness,” and/or formalizes itself into ways of being in and out of “framed-as-performance” situations. And, as an opening up, a letting go, a struggle to contain/conceptualize, a labor to locate, it is difficult to practice total improvisation day after day: processing and planning must be performed constantly, rigorously, across a improvisational/relational/compositional spectrum.