It’s a difficult position to navigate, acting as both a curator and an artist within the same project. Specialization is becoming the norm as artists and curators both are increasingly professionalized, and the artist-cum-curator position is often approached with skepticism. Yet it also yields some of the most rewarding experimentation. And in a city like Boston, where opportunities, spaces, and projects need to be carved out by hand and hard work, it only makes sense for artists to create their own opportunities for themselves as well as their peers.
Sandrine Schaefer was invited by Lynne Cooney, exhibitions director for BU’s School of Visual Arts and curator of 808 Gallery, to participate in the exhibition The Lightning Speed of the Present, a group show that looks at how the personal archive functions in contemporary practice. Sandrine used this opportunity to create Accumulation, an eight-week performance series that expanded the conceptual breadth of the show to include how this archiving impulse functions in performance practice, and doubled the number of artists on view.
Sandrine’s performance, the first in the series, lasted eight hours, between noon and 8 pm. While much of the performance felt private and embedded (the artist quite literally cocooned in an oversized sweater, locked into the repetitive action of pacing the gallery and engaging in personally contained gestures, only addressing the audience directly in the last hour), its basic structure alluded to the eight performances taking place over the weeks of the project, with each hour marking a shift in or addition to Sandrine’s actions. The eight-part structure was later revealed to be a direct response to the artists of Accumulation, a division of hours “for” each performer, beginning with Sandrine herself in the first hour and moving through the Accumulation roster over the course of the day. For myself, as a viewer in the space and an observer of documentation after the fact, there was and is a palpable sense of the private co-mingling with the shared on all levels of the performance, from its smallest details to its overarching construct.
I personally witnessed the first two hours and last two hours. In that time the routine changed only slightly, with a quiet build-up of materials and actions that alluded to a gradual marking of time and a transition of elements at each hour.
Two basic actions dominated the performance: singing and pacing. In a brown turtleneck, half-sewn up and drawn over her face, black pants and beige saddle shoes, Sandrine walked around the perimeter of the exhibition, cutting a wide circle through the gallery – along the gallery’s large windows facing Commonwealth avenue, receding into the back of the gallery, and back around again – with her movement intermittently broken by pausing, lying down, or other small gestures, at a pace neither hurried nor deliberately slow: the pace of someone physically passing time rather than performing in the ritualistic sense.
While walking, she sang to herself, audible but muffled within the sweater, starting and stopping in a pattern that seems to reflect the pace of her circling; in each rotation she was likely to sing and pause once, for roughly equal amounts of time. This is not to say that there was a set choreography dictating the movement around the space, but perhaps that the movement through the space and the duration of the singing and pausing consciously or unconsciously shared an internal rhythm private to the performer.
The songs themselves – or rather song fragments – appeared to change every hour, moving through a roster of more or less recognizable pop music: Ani DiFranco, Nirvana, Radiohead, Fleetwood Mac. With two microcassette recorders on her person, Sandrine would record herself on one tape while playing back the last hour’s on the other, creating a feedback loop in which the previous hour was still present in the current. Inactive tapes (as there were eight – one for each hour) sat on the floor toward the back of the gallery, each resting on a small paper hand. Every hour would signal a break in the pacing, at which time the tapes were rewound and changed.
Other materials stowed in the back of the gallery included a flesh-colored egg timer, reset each hour; a pitcher and glass of water, from which the artist drank as needed; a lightbulb; and a hammer, which, in the context of performance art, inevitably leads me to remember the old adage by Chekhov about the gun that appears in the first act which must inevitably be fired by the third. One of my earliest experiences of performance art in Boston, now several years ago, was cut short when I and several others were nearly struck by a large sledgehammer, so of course I’m all too conscious of this prop’s lingering presence in the project and its various potentials in the hands of artists to come. And lastly a glass eyeball tied to a line of red-brown thread lay unobtrusively on the floor of the gallery, functioning as a surrogate for Sandrine’s partially obscured vision and her blocked eye contact, going more or less unnoticed throughout the performance. At one point a viewer accidentally kicked it across the floor. The ‘roving eye’ made its way into the action again only at its conclusion, when Sandrine placed it into the somewhat depleted pitcher of water.
The small collection of objects and materials utilized in GIVE|LEAVE seemed to relate directly to the artist’s person. Clothing, which could easily be dismissed as incidental, took on particular significance here. Sandrine’s use of materials continues to be carefully controlled towards understatement, producing a sense of tightly edited neutrality that is most readily evident in the neutral colors of her chosen objects and props. Some only became perceptible as they entered into dialogue with the performer’s actions: a spool of red-brown thread and a small pair of scissors only appeared for the viewer when Sandrine stopped her pacing to make her way to the corner of the gallery, where they sat on a low sill of the long front windows, waiting to be utilized to move the performance into its next stage.
Early in the performance, brown leather belts were periodically shed from the artist’s body, drawn slowly out of the long, loose sleeves of her sweater as she walked around the gallery; gently lowered, then dragged, then dropped to the floor, scattered in concert with the stopping and starting of Sandrine’s voice and pacing. These cast-offs trace her movement through the space, marking a kind of unwinding of the performance over time. There is an almost scatological quality to them now that the performance is over, as all objects in Accumulation remain in the gallery after the performance ends. In their incidental placement throughout the space they leave a sort of forensic mystery to those viewing the exhibition after the performance.
Of all her materials, perhaps the most loaded with meaning was work’s titular element, revealed at the end of the performance when Sandrine slipped off her shoes (eight hours walking, without socks, her feet were just slightly red and raw: a bit of minor suffering which felt attuned to the subtleties of material and action) and hammered them to the wall, revealing on the inside soles the words “GIVE” and “LEAVE” in the left and right, respectively. This felt at once like an instruction to the performers who will come after, and also a sort of holistic charm on the space – walking in wide circles around the gallery, charging it with these simple commands, Sandrine developed a sensitive yet surprisingly full preface to the series.
Which leads me to what I found most interesting in the work: how GIVE | LEAVE functioned as a sort of meta-commentary on or invitation into the Accumulation project as a whole. The ways in which certain actions were adjusted in each hour alluded to a collaborative authorship with the other artists – perhaps through suggested adjustments to the initial hour’s routine by each artist – as certain shifts in action felt like responses to the structure set in motion in the first hour. From my perspective, the performance became a sort of conversation between Sandrine and the other artists of Accumulation about her role in things and about the project ethos as a whole.
Documentation seems already to be an important theme in Accumulation, and GIVE | LEAVE functions as a comment on that. The materials left in the space present themselves not just as evidence or refuse, but as an invitation to the coming performers, much in the same vein as Sandrine’s original invitation as curator.