It makes me sad knowing these events are the result of museums trying desperately to stay a float. Alcohol is at the heart such effort: the one consistent factor and maybe only guarantee that folks will show up. With a cocktail in hand the rest is so much background entertainment.
On the other hand, it is nice to see institutions paying attention to live art again. Maybe the presence of live art, and especially the feedback of the artists and their audience, will generate both new interest in live work as well as decent venue for it. Right now the venues feel like side stages, and the attitude towards the medium is locked in the past, which makes it hard for new work to be given an honest chance.
A friend I know from Berlin, Marc Adelman, was my date for the SFMoMA event. I was patting myself on the back for getting out one night with someone besides Jennifer. I love Jennifer, but we spend so much time together I worry it will be overkill. Ironically, while waiting for Marc in front of the museum, Jennifer and Jason pulled up.
Having cake and eating cake, too.
The screening at SFMoMA was great, concluding with a very nice new work by Kota Ezawa. He animated the Beatles singing "California Über Alles." Simple smart ideas rule. The head-on collisions of histories evoked the Beatles effect on America's maverick state. I thought of Brian Wilson locking himself in his room in years-long depression over the tsunami of Beatles music that devastated The Beach Boys. I thought too of Charley Manson launching bloody murders inspired by secret messages sent to him via the White Album. Helter Skelter!
The live-act there was mediocre. To the museum's credit however, they had good working equipment for it as well as for the screening. Between the projected art and the guest stars there was an hour break with expensive cocktails and overly flashy free snacks.
Read: SCHMOOZE, in the font of the moment, gilded and italicized.
BAM (the Berkeley Art Museum) had a no nonsense bar at their event the next night. They also had great material to screen, and at least one (I couldn't hear the other), amazing live performance. Unfortunately the technology dampened both the screenings and the live works to events that were muddied, at best, to lost entirely.
This was the third BAM mixer and, for me, the last. They haven't learned from their mistakes. At each event there were people speaking with a microphone with unintelligible results. WHY? Once, maybe, but when you are still doing such things on the third time around it just looks like no one cares.
Everyone says, "It's the architecture."
That's true. The building is huge and made of concrete. It wasn't designed for musical, let alone spoken word, events ... at least not for a spread out audience.
The solutions seem obvious. The audience, which isn't huge, could easily gather in one small area of the museum and the speaker could work without the mike. These mikes only echo voices into a technological mumble. Another solution would be to host events that aren't reliant on sound.
The performance that was outstanding was Jennifer Locke. Yes, yes, I know, I'm prejudiced. She's my best friend. But she is a friend in part because her work is so brilliant; we met through one of her performances in the early nineties.
To be fair her work is not technically performance. Jennifer sees her work leaning more towards sculpture, though not fitting that category entirely either. Her concerns are about space and how it is used. In these works there are often video or live components, or both.
This one did have a sound element, but the sound wasn't crucial to the work, nor did you have to make out words. It was the sound of two women wrestlers breathing hard as they fought one-on-one for two hours solid.
The wrestling match itself was outside of the exhibition space. They were in building's loading dock, on what started as a pristine white mat. They were clothed in all white as well, and the battle was projected on one of the museum's concrete walls.
In the projection they spread what looked like black paint on the mat and then proceeded to make a Jackson Pollack painting using sport as a brush.
This wasn't exactly according to plan. That is, the performance went perfectly, but the wrestling match was not in black paint, rather in theatrical blood. The problem wasn't noticed until the last minute. Literally, people were already arriving when someone pointed out that the projection wasn't just "very pale," but actually in black and white. They hadn't time to fix it, and Jennifer was forced into making a spur of the moment decision: either she could stand by her aesthetic intentions and not do the work, or she could go ahead and do what would essentially be a different piece than the one she'd spent months on. This decision had to be made and given, not in minutes or even one minute, but in seconds, to a curator who was freaking out and who had arbitrarily set this sudden deadline.
Her performance was about many things, but one of them was indeed informed by the audience being able to recognize the material being used: fake blood. The blood, bought online and poured out of the plastic quart bottles it was packaged in, brings with it an inherent camp value, bordering on the overly dramatic. It's artificiality plays with the implied sincerity of performances that spill real blood--the blood of the performer or, in some cases, animal blood.
This prop blood was added to a scene demanding physical endurance, creating a tension that placed the work at risk of being taken in many contradictory directions, some embarrassing to the artist.
Two women wrestling in blood ... it harkens to the type of early feminist works that feels overly sentimental. I think for Jennifer the thrill of doing this piece was in part that, like the early films of her favorite director, Polanski, the work rides thin lines and could be read through schools-of-thought that she would never align herself with.
Why do a work that teeters so much? For an artist who thinks as much about her practice as Jennifer does, there's no point to do anything safe and obvious. The work has to have some danger to it, some blood shed if you will. It is most interesting when it it most available to misinterpretation without actually sending false clues.
Polanski's Rosemary's Baby for example is suspenseful, comical, scary, and campy, all at once. It's in part because the Satanists are such regular people. There are scenes in the film, many of them, where you are laughing and cringing at the same moment. You might even ask, did he mean that to be funny? And I think that is the risk Polanski felt driven to make. He wanted to put the scenes in that uncomfortable gray area, where you aren't sure if what you are seeing is an act of genius or a weird accident.
This is what Jennifer does in her work. For example, she was aware, back in the planning stages of this installation at Berkeley, that most people if asked would say, "I saw a performance tonight," or, "I saw some video art." The details, because she does not hit people over the head with them, are easy to overlook in spite of how present they are. "The performance," after all, is not seen directly, but recorded in one part of the museum, a part the public does not have ready access to, and projected in another part. The live view, would have been there for the select few who found the clues: at the end of a down-sloping corridor there would be a large pair of double doors with a bright light shining through the crack between them. The speakers broadcasting the sound of breathing (both wrestlers wore body mikes) were down near these doors. In following the sound you could then peek through the crack and see a mostly-blocked view of the two women's struggling limbs, slippery with glycerin, the white fabric of their body suits soaking up red dyes.
Had Jennifer decided that the work could only to be watched as she originally designed it, and packed her bags that night, the cost would have been alienating herself from that particular curator and earning a reputation as someone difficult to work with. "Stubborn and unreasonable." Such words are quickly tagged on artists who do live work if they are not willing to jump through hoops and compromise their work in any and every direction. On the other hand, no one would fault a painter who protested if the museum wanted to cut off the top 12 inches of his canvas to fit it into a smaller show space, or if they painted over a bright yellow canvas with a paler shade to mute the tone. The fact that live work as a malleable quality, more so than most static work, makes people (institutional employees, curators, audiences) feel they can be part of what changes it.
Jennifer's decision was a mark of someone able to think on their toes. She resided to having the wrestling match shown in black and white in the projection and fixed the door so that instead of peering through the thin crack, it was slightly ajar. This meant that the audience view of the fight was still partially blocked, but that you got to see more of the live fight than how it had been planned. It also made the live part of the act less secretive, though still there would be many audience members there that never discovered it.
A few people in the know (museum workers and friends of Jennifer) consoled her after by saying they thought the revised version was better, because of the shock of going from the black and white painterly video, to the gore fight that was actually happening at the foot of the ramp.
"Better?" Perhaps it was. Or was it not as good? It's all a matter of opinion after all, and one based on the imaged installation versus the one we saw. The one thing everyone could agree on though was that the two versions were not the same. The installation was changed and not subtly.
It didn't help either seeing that in the same evening there were two other projectors with working color, one used to show a back and white film and the other used to project a five second loop over and over. In other words, the capacity to fix the problem was present, all that was missing was the time. If there had been a proper tech check before, the evening would have gone without compromise. Then again, if there had been tech checks on any of the performances at Berkeley, they would have also known to avoid spoken word with a microphone in an echo chamber.
Live work gets the short end too often these days. Like the museums, galleries invite "live artists" to perform at openings to spice up their programing and seem hip. The live work is bait to get a wider audience into a space full of static art, once the audience is there you can watch a performer and paintings battle it out in what is a disservice to both.
If a performance today doesn't take on the role of a clown at a birthday party--which is to say, be entertaining but not too deep--it is called dated. Thoughtful performance reminds the art world of the age when they sat and appreciated live work for itself. I think this switch started when performance artists were finding ways to market their previously un-sellable work. When folks like Paul McCarthy started turning live works into a combination of performance residue and video, it meant the viewer could watch it on his or her own terms, which were mostly impatient terms.
So people think of performance as something that can be recorded on an I-Phone and then watched later for a minute or two on You Tube. It's a thinking which closes off the possibility of new forms, like that of Jennifer's, which is not a performance, but work that is designed with many elements in mind, including: the audience, the architecture, the time and time delays, and live actions. That she is both acting out a sort of control over all these elements, and surrendering control of how they will be perceived, is key to the work which, so far, is too often pigeon holed into programs as a type of exotic edge or sparkle.
Last night Jennifer opened a show at Queen's Nails. And for once she was given proper focus. In it she features all video works, some of which evolved from earlier performance/installations. It's a great chance to get an overview of her stuff, a sort of mini-retrospective, though in some ways the original power of many of these works is watered down a bit by the fact that there is so much to take in. Then again, that's my opinion of most retrospectives, that the joy of them is like looking through a family photo album. You relive many memories in quick succession. In spite of this, the show manages to impress. I credit two things:
First, Jennifer's choices. She limits her overview to five moments.
One of these five is from the Berkeley installation. We can see the wrestling match in color (it recorded in color; it was only the projection that translated it into black and white). Because it happened only a couple of weeks before, the "live" element still hangs fresh in memory, as if this were a another part of the installation being transmitted from across the Bay.
Another of the five is a new work designed specifically for this show. In it Jennifer herself takes the seat of the voyeur while a strip tease, by a profession stripper (the adult version of the clown at the birthday party), is performed for "her." The quotes aren't to suggest that it is anyone besides Jennifer in the chair, but that in this case she is playing the part of a he. Before his strip, the dancer shaves a circle into the back of Jennifer's head--which is positioned center screen--giving her male-patterned balding. Her voyeurism is performed as is the dancer's seduction, which is sexy without ever feeling sincere or erotic in any tactile way. This new work nicely sums up an awareness on the part of the artist on the contemporary role of performance.
The second reason the show succeeds is because of the pairing of Jennifer's works with the exciting photographs of Calvin Trezise. It is a good match because, again, we cannot take the medium at face value. Jennifer is not a performance artist, and Calvin is not a photographer (or at least not THE photographer of these works). What we see instead are pictures OF Calvin, taken by someone else, in the midst of a still as performance. His body, seen or off-camera, is a directed and somewhat foreign object in each of the environments he casts them in. Places where he should be harmonic--his mother's lap, a mountain side, climbing a tree--are instead awkward and comical in ways that transform him from a person to a thing. He is, in a way, "performing" a still life.
This becomes most evident in the photo that is the most classic still life: flowers in a vase. But notice the water's yellowish tint. It is not, as you might first assume, the color of old water. In the context of the work surrounding it, it can only be another by-product of an action by Calvin, and only from his body.
Like the blood in Jennifer's wrestling match, there is a wonderful tension here of an intimacy that feels at once raw and faked. It is like a person who pretends to cry to let people know they really are sad. If we can't trust the medium, can we trust the artist? And yet, how can you doubt the sincerity of someone willing to strip nude and fuck a mountain (in Calvin's case) or dress up in the skinned plastic flesh of a fuck doll that offers itself to the world indiscriminately (Jennifer)? I see a photo of Calvin on all fours with a sword up his ass and I want, for comfort's sake, to believe it's a prop with a blunted end. It could be, but probably it isn't. That's the line these two artists tightrope walk on. You never know when they are kidding.