Somehow, despite the presence of TBA, Portland seems somewhat disengaged with the Performance Art Renaissance of the past decade, for reasons I can't quite place. Perhaps I am still too new here and have not yet discovered the secret burgeoning undercurrent of Portland performance art. Or perhaps it is the presence of a vigorous theatre scene and even more vigorous rock scene that siphons off the impetus in young local artists to perform. It seems like many young people here who would be performance artists are instead dual practitioners. They are object-makers who are also in rock bands.
In addition, I know there is a strong emphasis here on "the craft of the object", in fact a categorical identifier of the Northwest Aesthetic on the whole. This impulse, while serving a defining role in art practice here, may divert interest away from practice that relies on temporal interaction with ephemeral objects. As a matter of fact, student work I have seen tending towards performance seems to consistently rely on interaction with a highly crafted object. (I'm thinking here specifically of Eliza Fernand's performative encounters with her ceramics) These performances are expansions of meaning vested in the object itself, rather than autonomous art pieces.
So, I'm not sure if I've correctly characterized the atmosphere of Portland performance art in this writing, and if I have underrated it, it is only due to my own inexperience. Please don't hesitate to fill in the gaps in my observations in the comments. So into what I consider the "thinness" of the Portland performance art scene, steps Bethany Wright with an intense, visceral piece assembled from components developed under the auspices of Bard College and PS 122 in New York. Bethany has here collaborated with Poet and Reed Graduate Ashley Edwards. Their piece was performed for a small audience at Nocturnal on Friday, January 20.
(My research staff has just placed a formidable document in my inbox with the all caps title "RECENT TRENDS IN PORTLAND PERFORMANCE ART, detailing a rich lineage of work including that of Damali Ayo, David Eckard, visits by William Pope L., The Lab, and Red 76. Despite the gravitas of this weighty dossier, I think that my argument still remains intact. The Lab and Red 76 deal with art as community action, and David Eckard's work, while wonderful, usually takes the form of an encounter with a highly crafted object. Damali Ayo and William Pope L., while potent, both concentrate on social issues. Performance art in its undiluted state, with object secondary to activity, and social and community issues secondary to imagery and an unapologetic relationship to theatre, remains, in my opinion, thin. But, as I have just conceded to my research staff, who are now refusing to make more coffee, the restrictions I've placed on the term could be construed as somewhat narrow, and further, this is not, in fact, the 70's.)
As I explore this piece, I have developed the idea that Bethany is responsible for the imagery related to birds, while Ashley constructed the imagery relating to cocoons. So this is a rule of thumb to keep in mind as you read.
Invited to a poetry/ performance art event with food provided by the artists, perhaps because of Pavlovian conditioning from food/ art events in the Pearl, one expects a detached cerebral experience, some casual conversation, and a lavish banquet saturated with a selection of local wine, all gratis. What is unexpected is the strange victuals Ashley and Bethany provided as a transitional prelude into the work itself: unadorned, dry cheerios in a giant metal bowl, empty celery sticks, sliced pickles, empty taco shells, a plastic tray full of deli meatballs, carrot sticks, all presented sans utensils or plates. In order to eat a meatball, you just pick it up and let the gravy run down your sleeve. There was something animal about the way we were eating, like predators circling a newly discovered corpse, or birds flocking toward scattered seed.
Bethany hovered over me as I was taking some notes. Her fierce, flickering eyes lent her question an irresistible urgency:
"Do you want some Cheerios?"
She asks, snapping them into her mouth and pushing the bowl forward.
To signal the beginning of the performance, she distributed the bowls of food into unoccupied seats in the audience, then stalking around the room with a wireless microphone, she pulled square wax-paper packets from a bandolier, unfolded their contents, and thrust poetry typed on paper towels along with the microphone into the hands of audience members. The implication was clear, and participants would sometimes stumble, and sometimes fluidly interpret Bethany's visceral and unusual language constructions. Bethany, the author of the poetry, also addressed the poems to herself, and the voice of the poetry is that of a tender and tormented lover. So the reader is suddenly pulled out of their role as innocuous witness, and thrust into an intense and sensual interaction with the writer. Bethany hovers over the readers, listening intently as they recite testaments of an imaginary tormented and complicated love for her. As the audience members read, Bethany is continually eating, her gestures are quick and agitated, consciously emulating the mannerisms of a hunting bird. She snaps Cheerios into her mouth or crumbles and consumes an empty taco shell as she listens. It is as if she derives sustenance from the act of reading. As if the intimate poetry somehow becomes nutritive as it is recited. Anyone can understand this as a basic truth written in the body itself. Reading love poems to another person is a nutritive act, one of feeding and being fed.
She sits next to me and crunches celery sticks loudly as I read:
Returns, its consuming. A single cell
Escapes no worse shame than the supression
Of laughter as awake as it was
In whispering. From the train yard, it's
Heard with or without its cotton surroundings
After barfing when she was queened at the beginning Bethany inspected the damage on Sunday afternoon. The roof was blown off. "We are alive"
Though the crystal death was more of a presence than Bethany. A sickly elderly couple and their grown son. The couple's shapes found impressed in the depths - their son was hurled, their father passing through.
Bethany speaks to another home as if she were breathing and embedding face-first in the back wall of a closet. "He was taken alive," they said.
Bethany stood guard over the bodies until they said they did not know their neighbors and authorities declined to give their names. But they did not say who they cared for.
Only gruesome deaths are devastated as expectorant while plainly.
After I've finished reading, Bethany recites two of the poems from her bandolier herself and continues to progress through the audience. The tension seems to be building in the room, but it is hard to place why. People are relaxing as the readings progress, allowing themselves to be more expressive. Bethany is moving around a little quicker. The poetry is slowly submerging the space, rarifying the atmosphere. Finally the tension culminates, at which point Bethany stops what she's doing, drops the mic and runs back over to the table, where she picks up a honey bear and squeezes the honey out into her hand. Then she covers her face, neck and head with honey and rushes out of the room.
At this point, I realize Bethany is consciously referencing a performance by Joseph Beuys, "Explaining Pictures to a Dead Hare." In this piece Beuys covers his head with honey and adheres gold leaf to his head. He then delivers an Art History lecture to a dead hare, which he cradles in his arms while stomping his feet in a rhythm. This is one of the great classic works of performance art. Beuys uses honey as a metaphor for the transformation of consciousness, and the futility of delivering an art history lecture to a dead hare underscores his ideas about creativity. He sees creativity as a phenomenon of mystic nature, as an energy field generated by animal life. As Beuys explained this piece: "There is more creative power in a dead hare than a living human being." Beuys however, in the very depths of mysticism, comes with an equal volume of pedantry. Even as he futilely "instructs" a dead hare, you get the feeling that the entire piece is a set of instructions for creative practice.
Bethany however, has none of Beuys' "classroom of the soul" baggage. It seems her intentions lie only in transforming herself, and her reference to Beuys is satire. After all, it is difficult to dispense dogma from a plastic bear.
Ashley is now reading poetry with a microphone and a mini mag light beneath the canopy of her cocoon house while Bethany's video work begins to play on the projection. The video consists of Bethany running around in the woods alternately pretending to be a monkey or a bird, but most of the footage just shows her breathing. Gasping, urgently, desperately, for long minutes. My first reaction is to disregard the video. At first it seems absurd and amateurish, like student video work in which the concept isn't fully formed. However, what is profound always seems absurd at first, and the audience begins to have a bodily response to the long minutes of Bethany's close-up breathing. It triggers an evolutionary biological response. Something happens to our neuro-chemistry when we hear the rushed excited breathing of another person. The effect is overpowering, and seems an intimate violation of the public space.
Into this backdrop Bethany re-emerges. The honey adheres feathers all over her head, she wears a long dress constructed to look like a shelter. She steps onto a stool that the dress drapes over, extending her height. The dress has a tent opening at the bottom, the curtains are held open by two ropes which she controls. Pulling a third rope, she drags a package up from the floor to her now precarious height and unwraps it. The package contains a book which she opens and holds level. She begins to eat something from the book and gradually you can see what it is she is eating and what is falling from her mouth: a mixture of birdseed and feathers.
Bethany rejects Beuysian ideals of sacralizing art as a shamanic practice. Here, the only interaction possible is one centered around the individual, not the larger discourse of art. There is no way to open art to allow for a Beuysian transference of creative power from the animal world. The transfer cannot go "up". We cannot use animal creativity to energize high cultural practice. The transfer must go "down." It must be a descent. The individual undergoes a degradation when entering the animal world. To become an animal is to lose status as a human being, not to gain mystic powers. If Bethany has become a bird in this image, she devours not only a nutritive substance, in the same way she devoured the love poems, but also herself. To be an animal is to be in a state of self-consumption.
As Ashley continues to read from inside the cocoon shelter, Bethany removes the tent-dress, climbs down from the stool, and lays down on the floor wrapping a fabric cocoon around her and stapling it in place. The insect imagery of Ashley's poetry parallels Bethany's slow, subdued caterpillar movements. Her head is a nimbus of white feathers.
Ashley emerges from the cocoon shelter and begins to read pages of poems, titled "secret #1, secret #2, etc." When she finishes the secrets, Ashley begins unwinding long strips of text from around the cocoon shelter and draping the text over Bethany's head, who begins eagerly eating it. Once again, we see the theme of text as a nutritive element, but here this theme becomes totally physicalized. There is no metaphor separating the act of consumption and the act of reading. In this instance, Bethany is not eating while being read to, she is simply eating words. To read is to consume. I picked up a strip of this text that lay uneaten on the floor after the performance:
Now that I am outside, I hear the loops of breath, and the box lungs, and the blood-canals, and the haze eyes within.
This poetry dwells on the delicate interior processes of the body, and gradually, it is this text that reconstructs Bethany's socialized identity as a human being, thus ending the performance. When she has eaten enough of it, she stands up, sheds the cocoon, wipes the feathers and honey off of her face, and says "Thank you."
Thanks for your comment! I think your point is well spoken, if we are always evaluating art in terms of art history or previous trends, how will new art emerge? How will the idiosyncracies of regional tendancies flourish if they are always set against the backdrop of an historical context which occurred largely elsewhere?
Well, I think new forms develop in a kind of cauldron of energetic activity, the kind you contribute to just by contributing to a discussion. The kind you help create just by commenting! Interest in highly crafted objects is one of the identifying characteristics of the Pacific Northwest, and by no means should this direction be apologized for or minimized, but it should indeed be elucidated and debated, if only for the purpose of clarifying the explorations of the artists themselves. I mean, the kind of debate that we are having now, in this humble blog, is an example of the cauldron from which new forms emerge. As artists and thinkers interested in defining the extant aesthetic of this unique region, how can we bring the major questions out in the open, and deal with them directly?
For instance, here's a big question: What is craft anyway? What does it mean to highly craft an object? Mike Kelly sees craft as a punk rock attack strategy on the hegemony of a society defined by Capitalism and Freudian psychology... Is that kind of heavy meaning really present in a sock monkey or an afghan? I think so, but it took a refined perceptive ability to even make those associations, It took a lot of examination to arrive at that kind of question and attempt to answer it.
So I guess I hope I don't sound too scolding talking about performance and craft, maybe my tone had something of "Shame on you for driving away REAL performance art." Which is not at all what I intend. It is the action of artists which create the cauldron from which new forms emerge... Criticism at its best catalyzes, not directs.
You know, I was having this same debate with my class today, about where new forms or new thinking comes from. The topic came up because I made changes to their writing assignment because I was tired of recieving papers that were just summaries of the ideas of "experts" I had to reformat the assignment to emphasize their individual voice and the importance of their interaction as a class. Now suddenly all of these radical, original ideas are emerging in class, stuff I never would have come up with on my own, and never could teach them... I think portland is kind of like that, it is small enough that it's easy to establish familiarity. Where some see this as a limitation (all the same people, repetition, etc. etc...) it is in fact a huge opportunity, exactly the type of environment in which concentrated, energetic art scenes have always flourished. In art history, aren't all art movements actually describing groups of intimate friends? That is the classroom... the cauldron... the "school" of Portland, and the more lively the debate and energetic the effort the stronger it will be.
Because of this review, I've been talking about performance art all day with people, and I realize now that it is kind of this pet concern of mine. Maybe in writing this I have had a secret agenda of stirring up the ant hill just so I could find out more about performance here. I was talking with a friend about how performance art, like the classic 70's pieces, could somehow be relevant practices today without seeming self-contained.
For instance, could you imagine seeing Meat Joy? It would certainly be something that would have a powerful impact on you, but would you be able to relate the experience to anything outside of the performance? Meat Joy was an overpowering experience which referred only to itself... Hybridizing performance with social concerns or highly crafted objects serves to redirect the closed system of work like Meat Joy. So meaning in performance can build in complexity and connect in to the everyday world.
But there is such decadent pleasure and abandonment in Meat Joy. There is something so immediate about just watching the body move. There is something so intimate and primal about poetry as an art medium... There must be a way to complicate image- body -language based work so that it becomes more than an end unto itself... so that the fragility of the imagery remains intact and the whole event remains a liminal experience, but more intricately tied to the world....
I mean of course cultural / social commentary is an important dimension in art, and exploration of the body's interaction with the art object is a rich and multivalenced practice, but there is something so human and primal about just focusing on the body and imagery and language, like that is probably all we did in Paleolithic times... That is the root of all culture, isn't it? The essence of all culture.... Storytelling around a fire. I guess I just want to see more of it... Maybe I just wish it was the 70's...
This is what Bethany wrote to me:
Thank you for attending & for your review today. I had one small correction which seems to be a least semi-important.
While I can see that the disembodied voice may have fluidly arrived at Ashley, the poem over/in the video was, in fact mine, as synched sound in the video. That's all.
Yes, I did consciously want the bleeding, so I guess that's the mix, but since you seem open to rapid self-edits (as in the prose, re: ayo & Eckard, etc.)
I wish you could count William Pope L. as Portland, but no more than you can count him North Adams, Mass, I think. I wish Portland were a stronghold & that recent Artforum article on the TBA would serve to reinforce my personal observation that its trying collectively harder than most. Also as evidenced
by you even writing this. Performance rennaissance???? Point me there!
I have my wish-star attached wherever that may be. Of course we had the ignition of RL Goldberg's biennial as of lastest, but that was still a cementing of most established. I'm still trying to find the step off
into space. & what space.