The following is a collection of texts written by Sandrine Schaefer to archive the 2nd Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival in Chicago, IL. Originally published on RapidPulse.org.
The day has a chill in the air, unusual for the month of June in Chicago. With the sky’s threat to rain, Miller and Shellabarger set up in the windows of Rapid Pulse's Hub space. The 2 bearded men place 2 wooden chairs at opposite ends of the raised storefront window where they will engage in 4 hours of collaborative crocheting.
They reveal a pink tube that they have been crocheting together since 2003. The variances of the color pink woven into the tube over the past 10 years show the object’s age, simultaneously referencing the phases that relationships endure. The men sit, wearing clothing I imagine they wear every day, the pink tube gathered between them. They nonchalantly begin to crochet at the same time. It is a mundane image, requiring little analysis on behalf of the audience. The sincerity of their demeanor and commitment to this action is easily understood and profoundly moving. So much in fact, I find myself backing away from the piece within the first 15 minutes of the performance because of my emotional response. 1 day after a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage failed to come to a vote in Illinois, I find myself witnessing a ceremonial union unfolding through this durational symbolic action.
Within the first hour, something strange happens. Miller begins to speak to me. He begins engaging me in small talk, asking where I ate dinner the previous evening and how my day is going. The action between Miller and Shellabarger felt so intimate that I was surprised by this casual audience interaction, yet relieved that I was invited to participate in the ease and calm that the artists were projecting. On a practical level, this offered the opportunity to ask questions. I discover that the piece is always activated in public spaces. I am told that they learned to crochet from a friend and that this learning process also happened in public spaces such as parks and coffee shops. Crochet is a single instrumented process that consists of pulling loops through other loops. Only one stitch is active at a time. Miller and Shellabarger had to take turns crocheting the first line of the tube. The last time they measured the tube, it was about 70 feet in length. The strangest place (to date) they have crocheted the tube was in a water taxi. I learn that the piece will continue until one of the men can no longer crochet. Most likely, this will occur at death. When this happens, the other has agreed to unravel the tube.
“What if you both die at the same time?” another audience member asks. Shellabarger lifts his fist to the air and exclaims “Alright!” This is an ideal situation that I myself have hoped for when contemplating the inevitable earthly separation from my own partner. Everyone in the room laughs a bit before we collectively acknowledge the unlikelihood of this scenario. “I guess it will remain as it is” Miller answers matter-of-factly.
This straightforwardness around mortality is present in Miller and Shellabarger’s other collaborative work. They have dug their own graves in various landscapes, creating a tunnel in between so that they can hold hands. They hugged in a space filled with UV lights, the imprints of their embrace burned into one another’s skin. They have embroidered pillows with their initials (S and M) using their beard hair. The notion of the physical traces that the corporeal body leaves is also explored through the direct action of tracing. The couple has created a prolific body of work of silhouettes that capture various amalgamations of their shared form. The work oscillates between tenderness and addressing the impossibility of “forever.”
Like much of their work, the pink tube creates a visualization of Miller and Shellabarger’s personal relationship. The color and form also evokes a visceral sense of intimacy, referencing an umbilical cord or intestines. As they crochet, the internal/private becomes external/public. Throughout the performance, strangers and friends of the artists come in and out of the space. The artists engage us in conversations about the day’s events and updates on family and mutual friends. I appreciate Miller and Shellabarger’s relaxed candor. In a culture that sensationalizes, sanitizes, and excessively fears death, their choice to present work that accepts and embraces death and the loss of a partner with such openness, is refreshing.
-Sandrine Schaefer 2013
A shiny black leaf blower sits on the floor of Defibrillator Gallery, awaiting activation. 3 moveable white walls have been placed behind the leaf blower. The artist enters the space, wearing black pants and a white buttoned up shirt. This black and white motif is a foreshadowing of the shades of grey that Polish artist, Arti Grabowski will explore throughout this piece.
Grabowski asks the audience to gather around and ensures the safety of the people standing directly in front of him. The next action is subtle. He moves his neck around suggesting discomfort caused by the tightly buttoned collar of his shirt. Using an index finger, he pulls the collar away from his neck and begins to cough. He then spray-paints the finger bright pink and proceeds to repeat the action, transferring the color onto his skin. His coughing grows more aggressive as he mists his mouth with breath spray. This action of pulling at the neck and coughing with varying intensities continues throughout the piece. It becomes something that we can rely on.
In the action that follows, Grabowski uses a lighter to blacken the buttons on his shirt. The threads that attach the buttons to the fabric catch fire, small flames dancing up his torso. He continues to cough and fill his mouth with breath spray. He moves closer to the audience coughing onto us. The smell of burning thread mixes with the artificial smell of the spray that’s purpose is to mask an underlying odor. Grabowski intensifies this masking by spraying air freshener into the leaf blower, pointing it at the audience. The absurdity of this action causes the audience to erupt in laughter. The laughter quickly transforms into fits of coughing as the room fills with the oppressive artificial fragrance. It is so strong that we can taste it. Grabowski pulls at his collar, we are now engaged in a collective act of, choking and coughing together. We find ourselves united in the harsh environment that Grabowski has constructed.
The artist points and looks up at the ceiling where a large fan rotates above his body. For the rest of the performance this pointing action will follow each time he pulls at his collar and coughs. From this point forward, Grabowski needs only to place his finger on his collar, an unspoken directive for the audience to cough on command, a collaborative and visceral sonic experience.
With the same bright pink paint, he sprays 3 2 1 on the movable walls behind him before he drinks out of a flask. He stands behind a wooden plank that is leaning against the wall underneath of the number 3. After hiding behind the plank for several moments, he flips it around, revealing an arrow pointing upward. At first glance the arrow appears to be drawn onto the surface of the plank. When Grabowski pulls out a lighter and lights the arrow on fire, we discover that the arrow is actually a fuse. Grabowski stands behind the plank and shakes it aggressively, moving from the position 3 to the position 2. Smoke travels around his legs as his gestures humorously turns this seemingly mundane piece of wood into a stick of dynamite. When Grabowski reaches position 1, his movements become more chaotic. He is a rocket about to take off! This stops rather abruptly, Grabowski holding the plank in front of him for a moment before letting it fall to the ground. He stands on top of the wood, smoke rising beneath his feet. He returns to the action of pulling his collar, coughing, and pointing to the sky. The familiarity of this action cycle and the memory of the artist guaranteeing our safety from the beginning somehow make the presence of the smoking fuse feel less dangerous.
He points the leaf blower back at the audience. The residual air freshener mixes with the smell from the smoke. All senses are engaged. He takes another swing from his flask and crouches down, points up at the fan, a reminder that the air is circulating, and an acknowledgment of the often-underappreciated space above our gaze. He then straddles the wooden plank and nails his feet to it with the back end of an ax. The audience reacts immediately. The room fills with gasps that turn to laughter once Grabowski has shown us through body language that the action is under control. Throughout the performance, Grabowski utilizes actions and materials that are perceived as dangerous, yet he never allows it to get ‘out of hand’. It almost feels like watching a cartoon, where sticks of dynamite and falling anvils are merely inconveniences.
Once Grabowski is successfully nailed to the plank, he chops the wood down the middle. He touches the collar. Collective coughing fills the space. He points up. Then he crouches down and begins to ski. He catapults his body to an erect posture, stretching his arms as wide as he can manage. We laugh at the absurdity. Although he is “pretending” to ski, this is enacted with such authenticity that it does not matter that were in a room with no snow or hills. For those moments, we watch him soar through the air in some other place, in some other time, perhaps even in some other body. After the piece, I learn that this action was a reference to Polish national hero and Olympian, Adam Małysz, known for his ski-jumping career.
With exaggerated facial expressions and arm movements, Grabowski transforms from an athletic champion into a bird. This representation of human flight appears to send the artist into a state of ecstasy. This action shifts when Grabowski begins jumping up and down, the planks making a jarring noise that evoke frustration. As Grabowski stamps his feet, we are reminded that he can’t really fly. We can’t fly. We are confronted by the restrictions of the human body. He releases his bare feet from the shoes and collects his skis like trophies. At this point, he addresses the incessant documentation of the piece. He poses in a statuesque posture for one camera in the audience. He smiles for another. He holds a peace sign and smiles goofily. This action takes us back to reality. We are back in a gallery, at a performance art festival, trying to document the un-documentable.
He pulls his collar, coughs, and points before slapping himself across the face 4 times. With the leaf blower positioned below him, Grabowski begins to embody another cultural hero. The song “Beat it” begins to play while Grabowski unbuttons his shirt. As the fabric and his hair catch in the artificial wind, his heroic and dramatic gestures evoke the late Michael Jackson. As the artist undresses, a second white button-down shirt is revealed and then a third. Once the 3 shirts have been shed to reveal his bare chest, Grabowski holds the leaf blower to his face, the force of the air distorting his mouth and folding his eyelids backwards. This image is reminiscent of photographs taken of skydivers in their moment of free fall, yet another reference to the human desire to fly.
The audience laughs and sings along to Jackson’s lyrics. It is impossible not to deconstruct the perceptions of maleness within the piece, but when I find myself getting lost in reading the actions and symbols in this way, Grabowski brings the performance back to the collective body. He picks up the shirts and implicates the audience in a game of catch. Using the leaf blower, he throws the shirts into the audience. We obediently throw them back as he tries to catch them with the forced air, making them soar like birds through the space.
After the game is over, Grabowski gestures to his bare neck as if he is still wearing the collar. He begins to pull the skin on the front of his neck before pulling a bucket of grey paint into the space. He dunks one shirt into the paint and rings it out onto the second shirt. He rings the second shirt out onto the third, each shirt catching the drips of its predecessor. He then takes the ax to the wall, creating a hole below the pink 3. He stuffs the shirt he had immersed in the bucket into the hole; it hangs as a small puddle of grey accumulates below. He hangs the other 2 shirts in this fashion, apologizing publicly to Joseph Ravens, Defibrillator’s Director in the act. Like Grabowski’s acknowledgement of the documenters in the audience, this public apology brings us back to the reality of the situation. This primes us for the next action.
He finishes his flask of vodka before bringing out a small circular mirror attached to a microphone stand. He marks the floor with pink paints, points to the sky, and sticks his finger on the floor to retrieve one of the buttons that popped off of his shirt. He presents the pink button to the audience, pinching it between his index finger and thumb. He approaches the mirror and proceeds to use a needle and filament to sew the button onto the place on his throat that he had previously pulled. He is without a shirt but the button serves as a reminder. The shirts still have influence. They are still choking him so to speak. He gives the needle to someone in the audience.
Standing beneath the number 3, he engages in aggressive jumping, his breath indicating the level of his physical exertion. For all of the theatrical strategies we experienced until this point, this is very real. Under the number 2, he repeats the action but it is scaled-down. Although he goes up on his tiptoes, his feet never leave the ground. Under the number 1, he simply stands, his eyelids are heavy and he looks tired. In this final action of the performance we watch the artist let go of his dreams of human flight. We witness him surrender to his body.
The piece was dynamic. Each action was created with precision and can be read in infinite ways. Political overtones in the work left me contemplating the potential innate in the medium of performance art to inspire social change. Grabowski activated a sense of urgency, invigorated a sense of empathy, and using a corporeal dialogue, found authenticity in the artificiality of his materials.
-Sandrine Schaefer 2013
Performance art utilizes real time, real space, and often times, real bodies. These are materials that everyone can understand, making the medium accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Performance art, however, has roots in conceptual art, which utilizes a language all it’s own. I am always enticed by performance that makes use of the tension between common language and art speak. Allison Halter's "R.Kelly: A Critical Lecture" examined the interstices between these two languages, simultaneously exploring the impact of context, conceptual framing, and parody.
The artist stood behind a podium, donning fashionable and professional attire. Projected on the wall next to her, R. Kelly’s image greeted the audience, his eyes shaded by a pair of dark sunglasses. The absurdity of seeing R. Kelly’s face projected in the context of both an art gallery and a lecture space felt bizarre. Over the duration of 2 hours, Halter shared her ongoing scholarly research on the Chicago-native, convincing me that there is more to the R. Kelly’s artistic intent than I ever could have imagined. I found myself asking, ‘Why can’t R. Kelly share a space with Andy Warhol, Ryan Trecartin, or Cindy Sherman?’ I considered my own pop-culture guilty pleasures and how they would look within an art designated space. Halter describes herself as a “performance artist’s performance artist.” “R. Kelly: A Critical Lecture” was clearly created for the other artists in the room. As we travel through life, we each create our own languages to navigate, document and communicate our experiences. Halter reframed R. Kelly’s work in language that we could understand. She simultaneously illuminated the absurdity of art speak; offering an experience to laugh at ourselves and reconsider the boundaries that language often creates.
Halter humorously delivered a critical analysis of R. Kelly’s work that included ideas around the feminine, the serial form, and camp. She unpacked the soap-operatic structure of Kelly’s videos. This created an opportunity to discuss Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch’s 80’s soap opera, a widely popular and acceptable indulgence amongst art communities. She quoted proclaimed performance art enthusiast, James Franco, mentioning high and low art. Halter juxtaposed Kelly’s videos alongside Kalup Linzy’s video work and talked about the use of phone as site. When tackling “Trapped in the Closet,” Halter stated that the most frequent question she hears about Kelly’s 33- chaptered episodic song series is, “Is it serious?” (a familiar reaction to performance art). She answered this question by showing footage from R. Kelly’s performance at the 2005 MTV Video Music awards where he performed all of the parts in a montage of ”Trapped in the Closet.” She argued that Kelly’s performance was transcendent although it was seen as disastrous at the time it was performed. As I watched Kelly move between performing himself, and characters of different ages and genders, I couldn’t disagree with Halter’s statement. Kelly’s performance did explore the many extensions of self.
During a panel talk Halter gave as part of Jess Dobkin’s piece, “Free Childcare Provided,” the artist claimed her attraction to performance art comes from her desire to engage in momentary intimate connections with her audiences. She admitted that she hopes that her audience will fall in love with her. She described her performance “I Will Always Love You” aka “69 Love Songs”. In this piece, Halter sings requested love songs to strangers. She gave us a glimpse of this experience, ending her artist talk with a love song sung for a volunteer from the audience. Although I wasn’t the individual being serenaded, I must admit, I did fall in love with her in that moment. As she unapologetically belted out Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” we watched her searching. The object of her affection was also searching. Both were hoping that they would find a common ground. This candid display felt a bit silly at first, but quickly revealed the complexities of the human condition. Days later, as I watched Halter mouth the words to “Contagious” and “Busted” in her lecture performance, it occurred to me that we were witnessing Halter’s love affair with R. Kelly. In an age when our interactions with one another are increasingly occurring through the mediation of interfaces, I wonder how future generations will learn to communicate and connect. There is no doubt in my mind that R. Kelly has touched Halter through the screen and that this affection is genuine. By sharing this connection, unique to the 21st century, Halter offers an opportunity to contemplate how technology has and continues to expand the human reach.
The body is an archive of experience. The skin holds scars and muscles remember movement. Performance artists have been exploring the potential of the body as material for decades. Naturally, acts of body modification and rituals around tattooing have developed extensive histories through body-based performance art. Tattooing was addressed early on at Rapid Pulse during the festival’s Vernissage. Waffa Bilal gave an artist talk and shared his piece, “and Counting…”. In this 24-hour piece, the artist’s back was tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq, one dot representing each Iraqi and American casualty near the cities where they were killed. The American soldiers were inked in red and the Iraqi casualties inked in UV, invisible unless viewed under black light. Days later, Rapid Pulse audiences revisited rituals around intentional permanent marking on the body in Emilio Rojas’ performance, “Aesthetic Wounds, Heridas Esteticas”
After entering Defibrillator Gallery, the audience was greeted by Rojas sitting on a throne constructed from shipping pallets and cinderblocks. A tattoo artist sat beside him with his back facing the audience while a woman dressed in white circled the space with burning sage. The woman traveled the space throughout the performance, making gestures that were intended to “create and hold a sacred space”. Much of the performance included actions and materials that are widely recognized for their association with spiritual ritual (hand gestures, sticking out the tongue, placing stones/coins in 3’s, yogic practices, pranayama breathing, etc.) While Rojas sat upon his throne, he held a flesh colored CPR mask up to his face as a hairstylist cut the hair on one side of his head. Rojas projected an image onto the mask while two other projections lit the room. One projection on the back wall revealed an alternative angle of the installation, the other included pre-recorded video actions. As the woman in white protected the space with a candle and focused intent, the sound from the hairstylist’s buzzer mixed with the gentle hum and heat generating from the technology that filled the gallery.
After reading a quote from Guillermo Gomez Peña, a recording of the artist’s voice explained that we would be choosing a tattoo that he will carry on his body for the rest of his life. The voice asked everyone in the audience that had a tattoo to raise their hand. He then asked everyone in the room who had a scar to raise their hand. Almost everyone in the room had an arm in the air. We were told that if our hand was up, we were given the right to vote. “If your hand is not up, I don’t believe you” the voice said. The voice soothed the audience, ensuring us that we would not be asked to show our scars. This acknowledgement that scars and tattoos are sometimes kept “secret” was also an acknowledgement of the relationship between spectacle and ritual; public and private. In contemporary Western culture tattooing, is often times, a relatively private act. To be tattooed in public or amongst strangers raises questions around how ritual is consumed, commodified, and defined by the evolution of culture. How can he act of being watched shift the intention behind the initial action?
As the performance continued, the voice told us that he asked 30 tattoo artists from Mexico, Canada, and USA to write “Aesthetic Wounds, Heridas Esteticas” in the font that they found most appealing. 10 of these designs were preselected and we were asked to collectively choose one to be tattooed on Rojas’ arm. The voice gave us 10 minutes and told us we were responsible for establishing our own decision-making process. He said that he hoped for a democratic decision, but that “in a country where only 57.5% of people voted in the last Presidential election, I don’t know what to expect.” The voice went on to identify the Festival’s Director/Curator as a possible dictator, suggesting that we might feel comfortable with him choosing for us. As we listened to directions, 10 people circled the room holding pieces of paper that read “Aesthetic Wounds”.
While we established a system for voting, the voice read the preamble from the North American Free Trade Agreement while existing tattoos located on his feet were retouched. The voice described the retouching process as his “wounds being reopened” claiming that they would “bleed once more, an offering for our participation.” This romanticized language made me consider the language that we use in rituals around the body and the function of these semantics. Language can be used to dismember the body, differentiate the body from soul, mind, intellect, and ego. It also can establish empathy with others.
Some designs that circled the room included the phrase in both Spanish and English. Early in the process the group agreed on a design with both languages. The artist told us that he would only be tattooed with the English phrase. This was one indication that we were not really being trusted with the fate of the artist’s skin. The audience organized rather quickly, the natural leaders in the group offering themselves to oversee the voting process. Ultimately, we found ourselves arguing between two candidates. When the voting became heated, the audience called to our suggested dictator, the Festival’s Director/Curator to help break the tie between the two designs. During this process, Rojas donning a silver Luche Libre mask, grabbed one of the designs from an assistant and tore it apart. This demonstrated that the choice was never really ours. This broke the audience’s attention and sparked questions around our role. Why was the artist controlling our participation after asking us to engage? Was the artist intentionally manipulating us? If so, how did this choice relate to the content of the work?
The performance continued with Rojas ceremoniously showing us his arm. A video of collections of images and stories of people talking about their own tattoos was projected on a wall. While the tattoo artist tattooed Rojas’ arm, the projection stopped working. Rojas stopped the tattooing to collect his laptop. He shifted his position to accommodate both the tattooing and the improvised action of holding the laptop on his head like a crown. This technical malfunction was an important moment in the piece because it illuminated Rojas’ intent. When presented with the choice between the tattoo or the technology, Rojas refused to let go of either. The piece was less about the ritual of intentionally wounding the body, and more about creating and engaging in spectacle. This was apparent when Rojas pulled down the flesh colored pants had been wearing to reveal sparkly pants that match the Mexican wrestling mask on his head. This is how the artist is dressed for the final action of the piece. Two people from the audience lift one of the pallets and Rojas from his throne and carry him out of the gallery, as if carrying royalty.
-Sandrine Schaefer 2013
The following is a feature on the 2nd Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival originally published in Big Red & Shiny.
Experiencing Rapid Pulse 2013
The format of the performance art festival, which has been widely developed in other parts of the word for decades, is seeping into the United States. In the past month alone, three large-scale international performance art festivals have taken place in Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida; and Rosslyn, Virginia. This month, Brooklyn International Performance Festival, (BIPAF) will occur throughout various venues in Brooklyn, NY. Each festival varies depending on the organizer, context, and alchemy between the participating artists. However, no matter how varied, there is an unspoken etiquette that has allowed this format to evolve the medium of performance art without the support of art institutions or significant financial backing. The Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival that activated Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood from June 1-10 stood out as a festival that held true to the medium’s history while creating opportunities to engage unfamiliar audiences.
In its second year, Rapid Pulse aimed to represent multiple styles and forms of performance art as a way to provoke thought and stimulate discourse. Throughout the ten-day festival, Rapid Pulse offered artist talks and panel discussions in the early afternoons, durational works in the late afternoons, featured one to three pieces each evening, and a video program compiled of documentation of performance works and performances made for the screen. Each video program was curated around a theme including "Erotic/Autoerotic," "Facing the Lens," "Corporeal Discomforts," "Public Infringements," and "Spatial Body." Panel discussions tackled performance related topics such as "SKIN: Liminal Boundaries," "Performance and Pedagogy," ‘Transformations," and more. These discussions illuminated different artistic processes, relationships to duration, ritual, collaboration, and unpredictability. Throughout the festival, Rapid Pulse expanded its audience through the inclusion of a Festival Blog and a Livestream of select performances. The festival activated several spaces around Wicker Park including Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, The Electrodes (Defibrillator’s Store Front Windows), a temporary space labeled the Hub, outdoor spaces in the neighborhood, and the Nightingale Theatre. The festival kicked off with a vernissage that featured a talk from participating artist, Wafaa Bilal.
Experiences Unique to the Twenty-First Century
Well-known for implanting a camera into his head, and the interactive 31 day performance titled Domestic Tension, aka "Shoot an Iraqi," Bilal serves an excellent example of an artist working with the post-human body. Living as an Iraqi in America, Bilal learned that his brother was killed by a missile in their hometown of Kufa in 2004. Deeply impacted by this experience, Bilal began creating work that employs interactive internet-based technologies to teach empathy and inspire a deeper level of awareness of one’s actions. Days after Bilal delivered his artist talk, his piece, #TECHNOVIKING filled (literally) Rapid Pulse’s Hub. The piece addressed the life and death of internet memes, using the once viral Technoviking as inspiration. This captioned video features a man dancing through the streets, shirtless and donning a Viking-esque hairstyle and beard. Contemplating where memes disappear to and the pace of their obsolescence, Bilal piece consisted of a large inflatable of the Technoviking’s head was re-inflated in public space. When people tweeted #Technoviking the sculpture was given a 20 second burst of air. Over the duration of several hours, the Technoviking went through various stages of re-inflation, relying on the platform of the internet for its reinvention. The piece illuminated how technology has expanded the human reach and the potential of collective action.
This notion of collective action was continued through Brooklyn-artist, Kambui Olujimi’s, A Life in Pictures. For two days, people were invited to bring pictures from their lives to exchange with pictures from Olujimi’s life. The images, consequently mixing together, became a document not of one individual’s life, but of collective existence. Current technology has resulted in an excessive level of documentation. With cameras and social media at our fingertips, we are constantly armed with devices that capture and share experiences in an instant. The piece brought the sensation of touch back into the equation, Olujimi insisting that the photographs be physical. The installation included an area where participants could email photos and have them instantly printed. For many (myself included), this provided the opportunity to see important images printed and experienced away from the interface for the first time.
Berlin-based artist, Allison Halter also explored the Internet as a research tool unique to the twenty-first century. In her lecture style performance R. KELLY: A Critical Appreciation, Halter delivered a critical analysis of R. Kelly’s work, reframing his music and videos through the language of ‘art-speak.’ Her piece illuminated the absurdity of this language and offered an opportunity for the audience to consider the boundaries and potential created by language and context. For those who did not experience the piece live, R. KELLY: A Critical Appreciation could easily be dismissed as pure parody, however, Halter expressed genuine affection for this R&B star. By sharing her love of this celebrity in her own language, Halter offered an opportunity to contemplate how technology has evolved to build seemingly unlikely, yet significant connections.
Performance and Nationalism
International performance art festivals sometimes remind me of the Olympics. Artists often work from an impulse to show pride in the places they come from, simultaneously using the context of these festivals to critique the histories and current social climates of their homelands. Arguably, all of the participating artists explored place in this way to some extent, but Italian artist Francessca Fini and Polish artist Arti Grabowski were most notable. Both artists created pieces steeped in references to their countries, yet their actions had a deep connection to the basic human experience, making the work accessible to a wider audience. In her piece titled Fair & Lost, Fini attached an EMS machine to her upper arm as she spoke about and demonstrated actions that are connected to her experience being Italian and female. The electrodes caused reflexes in her arms that distorted her movements in ways that were both disturbing and humorous. As Fini covered her face in makeup, eyeliner scrawling across her face, every person in the room who had ever accidently poked themselves in the eye with a mascara wand empathized with her. Because we were united, this gave an entry point into the piece that allowed the audience to deconstruct the work with a deeper level of critical thinking. Grabowski used actions that were rooted in images that alluded to histories of Polish conflict and cultural iconography. Using references to Polish Olympian, Adam Małysz, known for his ski-jumping career, Grabowski’s piece explored themes of heroism mixed with the shared desire for human flight. Grabowski used humor and created actions that produced strong smells that resulted in the audience oscillating between induced coughing and laughter. This collective physical response created a visceral and shared experience for those who witnessed the piece.
Days before Rapid Pulse began, protests erupted in Turkey after a peaceful demonstration to protect the last green space in Istanbul’s main commercial district turned violent. Turkish artist, Sükran Moral created a performance that began with a letter read by the Festival’s Director, Joseph Raven. The letter explains that the piece entitled, The Lynching of an Artist was conceived before the civil unrest broke out in her homeland, but that the reasons behind creating the piece were also in response to the government’s position against secular democracy and its insistence on oppressive policies. The letter dedicated the performance to those putting their lives at risk in public protest and asked for participation from the Rapid Pulse audience. In the letter, Moral identified a cue within the piece, after which she wanted the audience to spit on her. This created tension in the room, those wishing to respect the artist’s wishes, others refusing to engage in an action of disrespect. This request was rooted in representation alone. By regurgitating the same behavior of the very thing that she was critiquing felt unproductive. Being asked to comply at the beginning of the piece through the emotion and sincerity of the letter, made the interaction feel like more of an obligation rather than a choice. At the end of the evening it left the audience split between those who had spit and those who hadn’t. Those who chose to spit, explaining that they only did so because they (in most cases artists themselves) wanted to respect the artist’s wishes.
In contrast, Andrew Barco’s Pale Blue Eyes ignited audience interaction in an unexpected way. Upon entering Defibrillator Gallery, each spectator was given a pink dust mask and directed to their "seat." In most cases this meant a spot to stand, sometimes on top of a bench. The space had been arranged in such a way that divided the audience. Some people were positioned to focus on the Chicago-based artist diligently picking at a translucent cube with surgical tools on top of a light table. On the other side of the room, the audience was focused on a small radio that gave directives to the audience based on probability. Splitting the audience physically and utilizing so many objects made the performance feel both absurd and confusing. I struggled to find connections between all of the materials that were simultaneously being activated. In the final actions of the piece, Barco introduced a series of objects, holding each one up as he asked the question, "Why are we still doing this?" He circled the space so that everyone could see his collection of objects. He described each object:
A "wee can" of Vienna sausage,
a bottle of pills for a "liver" cleanse,
an empty film "reel,"
a beaker containing blue liquid "solution,"
a clock set to the "hour four",
and a piece of bread, called "pain" in French.
Barco begins to repeat, cycling through his collection of objects, each time dropping some words. This continues until he begins to recite "We can deliver real solutions for our pain." These last moments of the performance, illuminated that the initial confusion was intentional choice to support the piece’s content. The confusion also created a myth around the piece that continued to evolve throughout the remainder of the festival. Witnesses had to talk about the ambiguity of the performance with one another to make sense of it. Although the piece did not seem to be making an overt political statement in the moment, it made use of the context of an international event to inspire dialogues around the current political climate of the United States and alternative navigations within a capitalist society.
The Power of Two
Rapid Pulse included a large number of collaborative duos, something that Chicago’s performance art scene is increasingly becoming known for. As an artist who has been working with the same collaborator for nine years, I am always interested in experiencing different approaches to collaboration. Interestingly, all of the collaborative duos in the festival created durational pieces. Perhaps, allowing a piece to unfold over an extended period of time lends itself well to balancing the goals and processes of two artists.
Chicago-based artist couple, Miller and Shellabarger created a piece that has been active for ten years. The two bearded men sat at opposite ends of the storefront window of Rapid Pulse’s Hub where they spent four hours collaboratively crocheting a pink tube that they have been creating together since 2003. The performance created a mundane image, requiring little analysis on behalf of the audience, however, the sincerity of their demeanor and commitment to this action was easily understood and profoundly moving. Miller and Shellabarger engaged the audience in casual conversation as they crocheted. The audience discovers that they learned to crochet from a friend, the action is always made in public space, and the last time they measured the tube it was about 70 feet in length. We learned that the piece will continue until one of the men can no longer crochet. Most likely, this will occur at death. When this happens, the other has agreed to unravel the tube. The piece oscillated between tenderness and straightforwardness around the impossibility of forever. In a culture that sensationalizes, sanitizes, and excessively fears death, Miller and Shellabarger’s acceptance of mortality was refreshing.
Chicago’s Mothergirl (Sophia Hamilton and Katy Albert) also used a public context and repeated act in their piece, Don't Sleep There's a War Going On. Positioned on a patch of grass next to the I-90/I-94 on ramp, the two artists repeatedly hit themselves in the face with a pillow. They engaged in this solo pillow fight for nearly two hours. Both artists wore identical blue dresses, boots, and focused gazes as commuters passed by. Albert methodically used one arm to hit herself, while Hamilton used two hands, subsequently marking her face with large red patches. Hamilton was positioned closer to the ramp, making her subject to more catcalls. One driver yelled from their car window "Do you need some medication?!" The piece addressed how culture influences how actions are read on certain bodies. If Miller and Shellabarger and Mothergirl had switched places would the driver had made the assumption that Hamilton was suffering from some mental illness? The piece also led me to imagine what kinds of reactions that Miller and Shellabarger have received over the past decade, engaging in an action widely perceived as "feminine."
Another art couple, UK-based Zierle and Carter activated The Electrodes and Defibrillator Gallery over the duration of several hours on two consecutive days. On the first day of AT the EDGE of LONGING: Charred Territories, they performed exclusively in the windows. They created a dream like experience in which they wrote messages to one another. Their heads were covered in black toast that was attached with precariously wrapped filament. This resulted in the artists creating each action with a careful and slow pace, making the piece meditative to watch. Using the flame of a candle, they blackened the surface of plates and wrote messages into the soot. While Carter blackened the silver on a butter knife, Zierle scraped a hole into a piece of toast that had fallen from her head, creating a portal, perhaps for communication. As the performance unfolded, reflections from the sun and nearby buildings imposed themselves on the windows. At certain points this made the two figures disappear, an unplanned yet powerful addition to the work.
Time as Material
Performance art makes use of real time and space as material. This creates a potential for the work to create alternate perceptions of reality as it constructs and deconstructs time. In addition to many of the durational works described previously, several other artists presented different strategies for utilizing extended durations. Some relied on the thresholds of the body like Italian artist Arianna Ferrari in her piece, H-Transmitter. Other artists used chemicals to control their body’s own conception of time. Berlin-based artist Elana Katz used sleeping pills to ensure that her body could withstand 8 hours of sleep while being misted with water in her piece, They Said it Was Dry. Over the duration of 4 hours, Carlos Salazar Lermont also engaged in a chemical induced sleep in his piece Ecce Homo. His body was vulnerably positioned next to an open can of Gasoline and a box of matches. The Venezuelan artist not only controlled the duration that his body would endure, but also controlled the duration in which the piece would be witnessed. The gasoline provided too strong of a smell for most individuals to bear for more than a few minutes. Other artists used materials to lead them through real-time in their work like Anna Berndston(Sweden Germany) who churned cream into butter using her body for more than 4 hours. Yet another Chicago-based artist couple, Rooms, created a structure reliant on chance to challenge perceptions of time in their delegated performance, Meaning Machines. Seven actors/actresses dressed in white and wearing white-eye masks contoured to their faces, were plugged into earphones that randomly shuffled through a series of cues. Through sensory deprivation and the repetitive actions, the performers appeared to transcend time and space, taking the audience with them.
Rapid Pulse was successful in achieving its goal to produce a diverse and thought-provoking festival. The work was well curated and each day was carefully programmed to prevent festival fatigue, a common result of performance art festivals that show 10-20 live pieces per day. This choice along with the presence of the livestream and writing on the festival’s blog provided participating artists and the audience time and space for deeper contemplation of the work that was presented. The blog and livestream, however, are not stand-ins for witnessing work live. One of the most important pieces of knowledge that I was taught by my instructors that I now pass down to my own students is that, "you miss it if you don’t show up." Live art cannot be experienced through a photograph, through a video, or through the written word. One must be present with the work to truly understand the totality and complexities of the piece. The format of the performance art festival may not be the most ideal context for all work, but it does offer a concentrated experience to witness performance-based works. As demonstrated by Rapid Pulse, if produced with a sensitive approach, it can offer a fruitful environment for artists and spectators to further develop ideas and dialogues around the past, present, and future of experiential art.
- Sandrine Schaefer, 2013