Thursday: LIVE International Performance Art Biennale 2013
By: Jacquelyn Ross Written On: September 30, 2013
LIVE Biennale @ VIVO Media Arts Centre, Thursday September 19, 2013.
Snežana Golubović, Márcio Carvalho, Steve Hubert
This article is published in collaboration with Decoy Magazine.
Memoirs of a Lasting Sting
I cannot deny that I generally approach performance art with some hesitation. Whether it is a hesitation to engage with the theatricality of a performance’s proposition, its relentless duration, or the expectations and obligations placed on the viewer to perform alongside it, for me, the hesitation that haunts the discipline is, at its core, rooted in a deep skepticism of authenticity. Without doubt, I am a product of my times. I was born almost thirty years after the revelations of The Gutenberg Galaxy, in the year that CDs out-sold vinyl records for the first time. I don’t need a performance to give me ‘the real thing’, or trigger nostalgia about a past that isn’t mine. Instead, I am captivated by the materials of the present, and the urgent and exhilarating project of creating with the cards at hand. Like beachcombing for engagement rings lost in the sand, or for Japanese debris on the west coast (which continue to prove that the world is both vast and communal), I want to know what transcendent act might deliver us into our own times. In the spirit of the Tupac hologram and the technological ghost of a lost rapper, what I really want, in my own way, is to be transported.
What I have learned at LIVE is that performance art doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, the evening presented a wide spectrum of works that showcased exactly the type of sea change that I may have been waiting for. With the exception of the lacklustre opening performance by Serbian based Snežana Golubović—in which the artist apathetically unraveled a long, knitted, cerise tube top to the impatient tapping of a metronome—the evening ensued with pronounced distance from the kind of Abramović-school ‘Performance Art’ that I had been dreading. Instead, a younger generation of artists presented works that could be defined as performance art because something was being performed, albeit irreverently, informally, and ironically. Here, performance was reframed as a proposition, where spectacular events unfolded somewhere between a university lecture, a cold reading, a cooking demo and an indie music show. When asked by a friend what I thought of the event, I could only describe it as “spectacularly provisional”. Props, clunky multi-media tricks, schizophrenic characters, esoteric scripts and obtuse narratives combined to recreate what I consider to be the spectacle of contemporary life, colliding with the irony of its makeshift construction. In contrast to the kind of sincerely provisional and essentialist body politics of Yoko Ono or Chris Burden, performance art today can be excessive, intemperate and unapologetically entertaining. The shift is palpable.
Sporting a water gun, blue jeans and tight Hawaiian shirt, the trim beach-bod of Portuguese artist Márcio Carvalho is an able subject for the physical exercises enacted in his exploration of memory and the body. Hailing from the sunny scenic fishing town of Lagos, in Portugal’s southern Algarve region, he provoked a memory which was already at play for me even before the performance began, remembering Lagos from the happy accident of its discovery during my travels in 2007. Impossibly photogenic, the town’s sleepy charm is coupled by its breathtaking beaches: geological marvels with staggering tawny cliffs of layered sediment, and reclusive caves that fold into the rock faces like coat pockets. It is through the metaphor of those Lagosian cliffs that I enjoyed Carvalho’s audacious and even cheeky performances, which mine the absurd strata of the brain and its capacity for memory, emotion, and logic. The innocence of his encounter was boyishly profound. In the style of a live instructional video, Power Over Memory—A Case Study compared the fictional hero John Rambo with the amnesiac Clive Wearing, as two seemingly disparate examples of characters unable to retain and consolidate memory. Crude diagrams, Wikipedia facts and footnotes supported a series of experiments investigating this problem, as the artist embodied Rambo and Wearing’s polarized archetypes to stage false threats and heroic rescues, create surprising ruptures in time and space, and displace self-assured notions of identity and self-control.
Onwards down the rabbit hole, Vancouver based artist Steve Hubert’s performance offered simulacra everywhere, appearing more real than the real. In The Scorpion’s Poem, the recurring motif of the scorpion acted out over and over again as both threat and promise: with its palm-sized body and poison sting, it is the phallic lobster, desert arachnid, king of the subterrain. A childish plot followed the story of a naïve girl in search of a companion as she roamed the tired aisles of a pet store, only to be persuaded that the scorpion would be the best fit for her needs and budget. Chaos ensued as a series of semi-coherent jump cuts, flashbacks and songs propelled the narrative forwards and backwards, extending the vocabulary of film to the arena of live theatre, installation, video and performance. Meanwhile, Hubert was masterminding the production’s multi-media operation from his inverse lounge chair: a makeshift scorpion-shaped structure salvaged out of scrap wood and screws that reaffirmed the artist to be the omnipresent narrator and meta-creator of the work. In a galaxy as flat as a Google image search and as deep as its improvised projection screen, stage cues were read aloud, while a glowing green terrarium remained suspended, in waiting. These were some of the magic ingredients that made up the micro- and macro-narratives of Hubert’s elaborate world. The audience watched in anticipation while the actors attended to each detail of their intricate environment—whether it was the props, cues, lighting, or sound—creating a hyper-real stage, sustained by the collective faith and confidence of its singular inhabitants, and buffered from the cynical effects of the outside world.
I wonder whether this, too, is a mark of the times: where the performance of both the everyday and the spectacle involve a kind of ‘pillowing’ of the real world, as the only remaining method of validating one’s right to dream, to build things, to perform. Artists erect shelters for their ideas in order to present them, making their own context for work where none is to be found elsewhere. Improvised frameworks for ideas of ideas of ideas. Necessary abstractions. This is what I must have meant by “spectacularly provisional”.
What these performances have in common is a justifiable suspicion about the culture we live in, and a championing of the idiosyncratic qualities of shared experience, including its shared irony. Is irony the new form of criticality, synonymous with self-reflexivity? Call it cynicism or realism or pure fantasy, these events are better experienced than talked about. If just ‘being there’ describes the essence of what authenticity means in this realm, I am happy to witness it. Friends gather around, with laughter and sincerity.