IN>TIME Performance Festival, Taking Up Residence in Chicago

The IN>TIME Performance Festival, a triennial celebration that takes place throughout Chicago and focuses on performance art both locally and internationally, began on January 27th this year. As described by festival organizers, “It’s IN>TIME because it comes just in the dead of winter, when things seem bleakest; because it provides a snapshot of what is happening in contemporary performance right now; because performance is a time-based medium that requires that we all be present with one another.”

And lying somewhere within the heart of this year’s festival are the ongoing residencies hosting local Chicago artists and visitors from abroad. Nine artists are represented through five Chicago arts organizations to present the culmination of their residency work as part of the IN>TIME 2016 Festival. The residencies take place in various Chicago neighborhoods, from Defibrillator Gallery in Ukrainian Village and the School of the Art Institute’s Sullivan Galleries in the Loop to the Hyde Park Arts Center, The Bridge in Bridgeport, and High Concept Laboratories in Pilsen on the city’s south side.

New Zealand artist Sally J. Morgan, who was in residence at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and Defibrillator Gallery over the course of the festival, states: “The city is generous in the spaces it’s allowed [IN>TIME] to go on in. For me, this is an opportunity to do the kind of work I like doing best—I work on pieces for years, but the final bit is always in relationship to a context. For me, the residency part was quite crucial because I like to actually be in the space, feel the space, feel the context of where work will happen.“

I saw Morgan’s piece from her “Songs of the Bomb Aimer’s Daughter” series co-performed with the writer Jess Richards at the closing of her residency at Defibrillator Gallery. I was struck by the starkness of the layout—red and white bowls as props, red and white scrubs as costumes—and its match to the starkness of the Defibrillator space, a gray and white box with adjustable walls. From our discussion, I was able to witness the symbols of Morgan’s work, but I found myself even more drawn to the gesture and affective qualities in the piece, how the simplicity of the space offered particular intimacy. Small toy planes are hoisted on strings and thrown by the artist into fragmentation, and than gathered together on a hook she has embedded in her arm.

I interviewed Morgan prior to this performance, and she described the piece as “explor[ing] grief and guilt and war, basically. It’s gone beyond catharsis or grief a long time ago. It’s much more of the relationship of women to war through the fact that those who go to war are our sons, fathers, and brothers. We have residual guilt: these people go to protect us, and people give them white feathers if they don’t go, so it’s been a long-term exploration of that. In these performances, it’s a bit more anarchic because I’m not 100% sure exactly what will happen. I have a framework, which I’ve worked out very carefully, and there’s usually within it some point where I don’t treat myself very well.”

Stephanie Acosta "I Am A Potted Palm". Photo credit: Stephanie Acosta

Stephanie Acosta “I Am A Potted Palm”. Photo credit: Stephanie Acosta

Two days following Morgan’s performance, I returned to Defibrillator for Stephanie Acosta’s “I Am a Potted Palm” to witness a transformation of the gallery space. Using slide projection, theatrical lighting gels, Bustelo coffee, kettles on a hot plate, and the titular potted palm trees, Acosta’s performance moved the audience around in the space. We listened as a soundscape built and slowly implanted itself as the aura of the space. The open structure of the work made for a less presentational mode than Morgan’s performance. Acosta’s work moved the audience into a slower time frame, one that asked for an accumulation of sensory information, rather than the culminating effect of Morgan and Richards’ performance. But both reinterpreted the same gallery space, influencing it and pushing the audience to interact with it differently in both instances. This held the integrity of a space’s role on performance, while allowing a transformative effect to take place based on the artists’ intention.

Housed in the Mana Contemporary Galleries building, High Concept Laboratories presented work by former Sponsored Artists Anna Martine Whitehead and Nicole Mauser in a double-bill installation (by Mauser) and performance work (by Whitehead). Whitehead describes her experience with High Concept Labs as different from another piece she worked on during 2015: “The work was so different because of renting space. Having a stage largely covered, it was available to make a strongly movement-based piece of work. And it doesn’t look like the piece I made when I rented space. There were more options. The amount of space it takes up is different.”

Anna Martine Whitehead "Treasure". Photo credit: Yenyen Chou

Anna Martine Whitehead “Treasure”. Photo credit: Yenyen Chou

The attention to that space is made clear in the presentation of Whitehead’s performance “Treasure.” The performance description states: “‘Treasure uses dance, projections, sound collage, and wearable sculpture to meditate on the nature of the Black body in our current moment of overwrought Black death. The work is an urgent response to the overwhelming accumulation of online videos, social media feeds, and public acts projecting Black death as the defining characteristic of Black life.” Two large white pillars obstruct the dance floor in Whitehead’s studio space at HCL. Black plastic covers the walls surrounding the dance space. The temporary materials in black are cast in opposition to the built-in whiteness of the space, surrounding a gray dance floor. The original construction of the space is made transparent within the piece, and the transformation it undergoes is by context of Whitehead’s set design and choreography, and projections by Marie Alarcón.

In the opening night performance, co-performer Mlondolozi ‘Mlondi’ Zondi warms up in the middle of the space while Whitehead enters leaping from downstage. Whitehead’s movement is controlled, but reads as a compulsion that extends beyond the performer’s body, pulling her through the space, zooming between the pillars. Eventually, she is joined by Zondi with more focused, staccato movements, becoming a close duet. Whitehead takes a moment to speak into a microphone while Zondi moves to a far corner to be obscured by a white fog that soon takes over the space, casting a haze over the continuation of the performance. The close of the dance sees Whitehead climb Zondi’s back to build a two-person tower that nearly matches the height of the pillars, scored to Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love.” The attention of the performers turns from within the dance space to directed at the audience, changing the relationship from within the space to taking on the gaze that lies outside of it.

Whitehead also described in interview how the performance work extends outside the piece itself and its correlation to the discourse event “Speculative Black Bodies” she presented in discussion with Rashayla Marie Brown, Kai M. Green, and Ross Jordan for the IN>TIME HUB at the Chicago Cultural Center: “There are a lot of people who are thinking right now about Afrofuturism or speculative fiction, and they’re putting that into their work. In the piece ‘Treasure,’ there’s definitely a complex hopefulness that is related to that Afrofuturist train of thought. I like being present with the reality of Black life and being present to all the possibilities related to the negation of Black life. One of the intrinsic things to this moment—this is something different in Afrofuturism than what I’m interested in with ‘Treasure,’—but also something I’m interested in in general.”

Not only do these residencies provide a focused attention to Chicago’s artistic zones of performance work, many other artists presenting at IN>TIME are using site-specificity to frame their work and engage an audience. Michal Samama, whose piece “On-Holding” was presented multiple weekends at Aspect/Ratio Gallery, spoke at the IN>TIME HUB conversation “Choreography and Dance in Performance Art” about this aspect of her own work: “I try to not just bring myself to the space, but to come to the space and see how can I explore the space with a piece. I always have an idea of materials that I bring with me, but then I want to take things from the environment, from the energy, from the dynamic of the space.”

Samama’s manipulation of objects in the defined space of Aspect/Ratio Gallery is titled “On-holding” and captures within it concepts of motherhood, home life, caretaking, and domestic labors that are not necessarily the domain of the space in which they are being performed. At the same time, the particularity of each object transforms and each multiplies in its meanings throughout the performance—the legs and top of a garden table are just that, but they are also a periscope, a sword and shield, and other associations at various times. Samama serves the de rigeur after-show reception wine, cheese, and vegetables in the middle of her performance, requesting the audience to partake before continuing with her solo movements. The holding of space extends from being both captivating performer and hostess for the audience-guests to being a mother indicating the holding of her child, and a woman holding herself up. In the performance pamphlet given to audience at the start of the performance, Samama writes, “Last winter I had a dream. A refrigerator was cut in half. The two halves of the refrigerator with their interiors exposed were facing each other.” In the continuation of this text and in the Aspect/Ratio space, this cracked mini-fridge makes an appearance. It has a houseplant precariously placed across its crease; the tenuousness of holding is a peripheral presence.

This is perhaps where I want to pause in this discussion of the festival. The temporary nature of artist residencies holds concentrated but simultaneously ephemeral space, a lens to focus one’s ideas, to possibly even shape to a wider context of peers and arts industry, but also a periscope that attends to the immediate without being able to fully hold afterward. Though extending more than one month, the IN>TIME Festival is only a snapshot of this moment in performance, one that slowly shakes off its fade in anticipation of upcoming seasons of performance.

Anna Martine Whitehead "Treasure". Photo credit: Yenyen Chou

Anna Martine Whitehead “Treasure”. Photo credit: Yenyen Chou

The IN>TIME Performance Festival continues through March 2nd at various venues throughout Chicago, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Links Hall, 6018 North, and Sector 2337. Full details can be found here.

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