The second night of the 2014 Lone Star Performance Explosion was chaotic. Performances staged in the Art League Houston’s two galleries and two classrooms overlapped. Without an MC, or a reliable timetable (the printed lineup quickly lost all relation to what was happening in the gallery), it was difficult to know who was performing where. Attendees rushed en masse from one space to another as rumor passed that something was happening or was about to happen; performers made abortive starts, only to have their audience desert suddenly to witness something else. These are just the parts I saw. I didn’t see it all, and this was but one of three evenings of events!
It began with a ritualistic wake by Houston veteran Elia Arce. A limp figure bundled in a black brocade duvet was carried into the Art League’s main gallery on the shoulders of three pallbearers. Laid in the center of the floor, the bundle was strewn with cut flowers and surrounded by votive candles distributed to spectators by helpers, as the PA system boomed a fuzzy recording of a telephone conversation between a tearful woman and a calming, professional-voiced mediator. Echoes in the concrete gallery defeated attempts to catch more than snippets of the dialog: was it a suicide hotline, or a 911 operator? But the sense of emotional crisis was loud and clear. The prone figure was the anonymous, venerated victim, an appropriate beginning for a night largely concerned with evoking, celebrating, and perpetrating victimization in various forms.
Courtney Brown and Alison Starr, as Performance SW, mimed a theatrical duet on female roles. Similarly sized and shaped women in fleshtone catsuits, one young, one older, they acted out symmetrical parts: the younger woman was the active figure, gently ushering, prodding and finally dragging the limp, passive older woman through her performance, as if she were caregiver to a docile, slightly petulant invalid. The most poignant moment in the piece was when the younger woman, looking into the older woman’s face as if into a mirror, applied eyeliner to her own face in imitation of wrinkles. Much of the piece was a grotesque parody of primping: the younger woman smeared the elder with lipstick, adhered wads of hair to her neck with lardlike goop, and stuffed her into a stiff white dress like a wedding gown and then dragged her offstage by its hem, like a sack of potatoes.
Daniel Bertalot‘s Earworm annoyed even this tolerant crowd. Though willing to submit to blindfolded communal dancing, or to having mild electrical shocks run through their temples, the earsplitting feedback caused by Bertalot’s belly pressing against a microphone set at waist height succeeded in driving people out of the gallery and into the courtyard.
J. Morrison‘s Escape from Houston offered a control experience, like an initiation ritual into a mild-mannered fraternity. Entering through a child’s play-tunnel, three participants at a time were asked to surrender themselves to progressively more invasive demands by a decorous maitre d’ in a leather bondage mask. Instructed via printed signs and formal gestures, we first removed our shoes and socks, (OK, I did that at the airport last weekend) then relinquished our cell phones, wallets and keys (hmm . . . safe enough, no one around to steal them), and were rewarded with a shot of bourbon (or Perrier), and a mini-striptease stage show. That level of trust established, we allowed the ringmaster to buckle us into masks of our own and lead us out into a courtyard, where we were blindfolded. (Uncomfortable yet?) We joined hands in a tight circle to sway slowly to trancey music.
The catharsis came at the end. Released from our blindfolds, we were ushered into a room where a ring of ridiculous inflatable dinosaurs prayed to a lighted disco ball. Each of us seized one of the oversized toys and expelled the tensions built up by the piece by romping them with a wholehearted joy that would have been impossible twenty minutes earlier. Silly? Yes. Transformative? Yes. I didn’t feel as though I’d escaped, but the piece was an interesting demonstration of the elastic nature of willingness.
Abel Azcona’s Utero was far and away the most powerful piece I saw (I missed the reportedy tense ice-chest immersion piece while I was romping the dinosaurs), but parts of it should not have happened. In the beginning of the piece, Azcona entered, nude, and began struggling with the coils of a thirty-foot length of coarse rope tied to an overhead beam. After writhing, biting, sucking and twisting with fury and abandon, Azcona tied the rope around his neck and ran through the crowd, to be jerked backwards with a horrible gargling cry, like a mad dog at the end of a short chain.
This is too dangerous. I appreciate that its danger was its power. I appreciate that Azcona was using this technique to force his audience into his piece, confronting each of us with an unwitnessable act, compelling us to intervene, or leave. I appreciate that it worked. But it’s still too dangerous.
There are many contexts in which young people, particularly young men, express themselves through personal endangerment: from suicide bombing to skateboarding. Where do you draw the line? Unlike many endurance actions, in which the level of danger builds slowly, allowing plenty of time for intervention, the potential of this particular action to turn suddenly, unintendedly fatal was too great. Before the crowd knew what Azcona was about to do, he could have been seriously hurt. If this was the WWF, or conventional theater, I’d assume the performer knew the risks, but in the joyfully amateur, improvisational world of performance art this is not a given.
This time, he survived. After three harrowing runs, members of the crowd, feeling as I did, blocked his way, wrestling him to the ground and untying him, allowing him to crawl to a washtub of dirty water in the main gallery, where his wallowing, vomiting, and slithering came as a relief.
For a view of Night 3 of the Lone Star Explosion, held at notsuoH, read Robert Boyd’s post on The Great God Pan is Dead.
also by Bill Davenport
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- Don't Find Us, We'll Find You. New Invitation-Only Artist Residency Opens in Marfa - January 17th, 2015