Arriving in New York for a work-related trip always causes my nerves to stand at full attention. I typically overcomplicate my schedule with back-to-back caffeine dates in different neighborhoods, or try and sneak in one more performance than would be wise. At the same time, I know when I'm back here that I'm going to be seeing some of the most forward-thinking live art happening in the world today, and the energy and inspiration I pull from the shows I see and the people I meet will influence my programming for seasons to come.
One layover, a two-hour delay and an annoying navigation out of Newark Airport later, I'm in the city and frantically sprinting to my first pow wow of the week with artist Hisham Bharoocha. Hisham is highly regarded for his music, visual art and photography, though I'm talking with him mainly in regard to the former. A founding member of the group Black Dice, his recent experiences have seen him organize the now legendary BOADRUM experiences in which 77 and, later, 88 drummers played the same number of kits on the dates 07/07/07 and 08/08/08, respectively, as well as other projects utilizing the two main parts of his live creative output — voice and percussion. Hisham owns a unique ability to take a live concept and build it into something visceral yet magical, and I was glad to find that I enjoyed him as a human being as well. I hate bad coffee dates.
However, the main reason for being in New York this time of year is Performa 13, the performance art biennial hosted at various venues around the city that runs for 24 days in November. Started in 2005 by art historian RoseLee Goldberg (she has written a book on performance art and is now revered as a key figure in that world), Performa presents some of today's most compelling performance art works and, more famously, commissions new work from reputable artists who work across various mediums — artists ranging from Carlos Amorales to Japanther to Ragnar Kjartansson. Earlier performances this month have featured Dean Spunt of No Age, a Contemporary Arts Center performer this past September, and C. Spencer Yeh, the longtime Cincinnati resident and noise art maestro whose visual art exhibition Standard Definition opened at the CAC in October 2009. My experience two years ago at Performa 11 introduced me to a rough working of Jace Clayton's Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, and that serendipitous event lead to the project being further developed and realized before its world premiere as a production-in-full in our performance program this past April.
The first experience I had with Performa 13 will be hard to beat, I imagine. Arriving at the quaint Connelly Theater Ryan McNamara's MEƎM: A Story Ballet About The Internet, the attendants were instructed to check all coats and bags at the entrance before entering what served as a sort of waiting room of art school students, seasoned performance art patrons and those seeking something out of the ordinary. The room resembled a high school cafeteria in look and ambiance, filled with social chatter between friends and colleagues. As I paid little attention to the conversations, I went into the performance completely unaware of what would happen.
After being lead into an auditorium with standard seating facing an elevated stage, the program began with three male dancers contorting their bodies slowly and precisely to a modern dance Pop soundtrack. Not long into the routine it became clear that “something” was happening directly behind the audience. Too unbothered to turn around and take my attention from the stage, I heard small laughs and continued to feel like the program was turning into something entirely new. As the energy picked up around me, I finally glanced back and for the first time noticed that nearly all of the rows behind me were no longer there, and that two other dancers had set up shop in the back corners of the room and portions of the audience were now seated, in the same chairs, facing those performances. At the same time, two audience members appeared in their chairs moving up the ramps at the sides of the stage, being pulled by two production team members. Before too long, my own chair was lifted up and I was swiftly carted, passing through one room with three leotard-adorned dancers moving to strobe-affected disco before being delivered to a room where two women in matching outfits performed a laconic dance to a playlist of suspenseful film score pieces. This routine continued for an hour, with roughly 10 minutes spent at each location. At the end, after we were all put back in what we thought were our resting positions, there was still time for one final, beautiful, balletic piece. Then our chairs were forcefully reconfigured, and our expectations were once again turned upside down.
The music was mostly modern, referencing pop culture, and the dance routines were pulled (stolen) from popular internet videos. The anxiety over being completely unable to control your own attention, while still desperately attempting to, was incredibly effective in highlighting the performance's entire concept of questioning the very possibility of a singular “experience” today. There were roughly 10-12 possible positions, and each person probably experienced no more than six of those. We all wanted to catch more of what was happening all around, but often ignored what was right in front us. In the end, nobody seemed to leave feeling like they didn't get to experience it all.
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