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Friday, Sept. 11, 2009

Performance Art Showcase: 9/9/09

Performance Review

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The newest edition of the Performance Art Showcase, titled 9/9/09, a one-time-only performance on that date, was a postmodern Happening, a carefully planned performance collaboration THAT mixed art disciplines and allowed the audience to participate in shaping the experience.

The number 9 guided the presentation format.  Nine separate 9-minute performances were given 9 times in 9 discreet spaces in a warehouse-like art gallery at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Each audience member chose a sequence and route through the two-hour show.  We had four minutes between performances to decide where to go next, with a brass bell and M.C. Joe Riepenhoff to keep us on schedule.  If, like me, you look to structure for meaning, this was about overstimulation, multi-tasking, social networking, too many responsibilities, short attention spans; or it was merely whimsical.

It was also exhilarating, adrenaline-producing, heady fun I worried I would miss something, and of course it was impossible not to. With no second chance, I had to think fast.  Should I save Marc Tasman till last when all 10 years of his Polaroid self-portraits have been mounted on the wall?  Can I get past the crowd in Heather Warren-Crow’s area without stepping on her as she crawls on the floor in a blindfold? Should I go back to Marie Mellott and Yahuda Yannay’s occult-like mathematical room, now that I realize they’re giving 9 completely different performances?  

Or see why A. Bill Miller’s projected chalkboard drawings are suddenly animating at top speed? Or what the nude models are talking about this time while a new group of audience tries to draw them? Or watch the beautiful dancers again to see if the paper towels make more sense to me this time? Or view the Chilean couple’s ritual again, but this time wearing a beaten silver Protector mask, a possibility I only discovered as I left their performance? Or wait, there’s a great spot to sit on the floor in Kim Miller’s mysterious “Stand Up” area and my legs are tired now.

The crowd was big (240 people) and smiling. We were free to interact as situations warranted. I talked with old friends and enjoyed the reactions of strangers of all ages and styles. There was a real sense of occasion.

Each performance was supposed to reference the number 9 in some way, and these artists had no trouble obliging while still making careful, serious art. I saw new work by old friends, and was introduced to artists I’d never encountered. I wish I’d had more time with all of it.  Here, following the route I chose, are a few impressions.

 1)  Artist models Pegi Christiansen, Alice Moore and Sarah Wilson: I surprised myself by trying draw them, but that was clearly how we were meant to respond to the three naked Graces or Fates changing poses thrice before our eyes. They spoke quietly of time speeding up and slowing down.  Their bodies spoke of that, as well. Later, these walls were filled with the drawings of audience members.

 2) Dancers Monica Rodero and Dan Schuchart: 9 lighted candles; a tidy line of 9’s on one wall, a chaos of 9’s on another.  She poured a line of white sand on the floor. He brought a roll of floppy paper towels, which made another line on the floor. She walked on that and began to separate the towels with her feet. He placed 9 sheets of towel around the floor and partnered her in splendid lifts as she picked them up without setting foot on the floor herself. This led to wonderful dancing which showed them to be perfect partners, touching and responding to one another almost magically. They tried to clean the sand with the towels and things went wrong. The idea of separation was introduced.

3)  Visual artist A. Bill Miller: I watched the projected image on the wall as he repeatedly drew the number 9 in different colored chalk on black paper. I noticed the chalk drawings from his first two performances on the wall behind him, very different from the one he was doing. This one was big and straight-backed. Then I watched him. His rhythm was ferocious. When a chalk stick broke, he’d leave it lying on the drawing rather than break rhythm and speed. The performance was dreamily obsessive. I didn’t know that he was making a time-lapse animation until he showed it in the final segment.

4) Visual artist Marie Mellott and composer-conductor-media artist Yahuda Yannay: The walls were covered with numbers, geometry, charts and information about the Sigma Code: “Every number has a secret number hidden within it, buried beneath the surface.”  The floor was divided into numbered squares. A metronome kept time (I learned that it was set faster for each of the 9 performances) and the performers followed its beat.  They gave one another multiplication problems to solve involving 9. Correct answers allowed them to change squares.  Wrong answers brought instructions to “recalculate,” requests to speak louder or softer, even to turn in circles. There was choreography to it. Yahuda was both counting with his fingers and playing the piano on his arms, marking the relationship between music and math. There was humor and tenderness. Maybe it was just about the magic and mystery of numbers, but for me it was about endless love and the fragility of the body and mind.

5) Marc Tasman does many things; in this case, photographer and performance artist: For 10 years, he took at least one Polaroid photograph of himself every day. As if that weren’t enough, for this performance he placed on the wall, one by one, the photos (mostly close-ups in many, many poses, settings and costumes) taken every day during every September from 1999 through 2008.  He and an assistant wore a white glove on the hand that touched the photos. The action was ceremonial. Marc carried his camera.  The assistant wore black glitter 9’s along one eye. The date of the photo was announced, and Marc added it to the horizontal line of photos of himself that traced the walls of the room. I started from the beginning and studied the photos to the 2005 date he was installing and to the man himself at work. The mind reels.  

6)  Performance artist Heather Warren-Crow: Blindfolded, wearing black high heels, white fish nets, pink men’s briefs with a knotted cloth sticking through the fly (a hermaphrodite?), and a loose gray t-shirt, crawling on hands and knees down a crowed aisle and across a small room following lines of bright pink tape on the floor, she carried a wireless microphone. To the accompaniment of a taped beat, in an almost embarrassingly emotional and childish voice, she stood up and delivered a half-spoken, fractured rendition of the great Arlen-Mercer standard Come Rain or Come Shine.  (Hearing it from a distance earlier, I had thought it was a recording by Bjork.)  Her song gradually changed into a fractured version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” interspersed with thumb-sucking, salutes and marching. Finally, she announced, as to the world, that she was a pantywaist, that she was “just pretty enough to be true,” and that she was “true.” After canned applause, she thanked Milwaukee. “Pain is weakness and I have weakness for you!” she cried. Then she crawled out on her knees. I will remember this performance for a long time.

7)  Performance and video artist Kim Miller: this was equally unforgettable and more mysterious. Beside a video camera, using elements from a Richard Pryor routine, looking glamorous and vaguely lost, she began a eulogy for someone who’d committed suicide. Before finishing a sentence, she interrupted herself for a drink of water.  She needed to relax, she said.  She was an actress hired to do this and had no feeling for the dead man. She dryly explained that “My greed doesn’t exceed my self-respect, but it’s a close second.”  Soon, she climbed onto a tall pedestal, tied an orange extension cord around her neck, and presented the image of a suicide by hanging. After awhile, she came back down and continued to speak until  exactly 9 minutes had passed. It was very fine acting.

8)  Visual and ritual artists Cristian Munoz and Ximena Soza: the Mapuche people live on both sides of the border of Chile and Argentina. These Chilean artists created a ritual inspired by their cosmology. In a mix of English and Spanish, Soza half-sang out the names and meanings of 9 stages of a spiritual journey to “the highest sky,” while Munoz presented created “offerings” on white woven mats which seemed to symbolize the stages in highly poetic ways, made from shoes, flower petals, red string, a bowl, a small painted drum, sticks of wood, a yarn doll, paper…  The Mapuche have only sesven stages but these artists added Time and Purpose, to Heart, Soil, Pain, War, Light, Moon, and Sky. I felt blessed.

9)  DJ Joe Riepenhoff’s performance took place during the 4 minute cross-over segments. He played music, and spoke a bit about the various performances. Since I was always trying to find my way to the next event, I didn’t get much of it. I thought of a carnival barker (“Behind this wall, ladies and gentlemen…”), or Tim Gunn on Project Runway (“Performers!  You have 9 seconds to get ready!”) The songs he chose were surprisingly varied:  Love Potion #9 and Beethoven’s 9th, of course; but also Jay Z’s 99 Problems, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, Sun Ra’s Rocket Number Nine, 99 Luftballoons, 96 Tears, 1999, Pista 9 by Bersuit, and tunes involving 9 from Sesame Street. The inevitable Revolution Number 9 became a warning signal that the next performance was about to start.

In the talk-back that followed, Marc Tasman described performance art as a form of resistance.  If the world were structured differently, he said, he would grow food and eat it.  As it is, he makes art.