Recapping Performa 2021: Art and Oil and Gas

by Jeanette Joy Harris, Melissa Noble, and Julia Wallace January 5, 2022

Ed. Note: This is part two of a series in which Jeanette Joy Harris, Melissa Noble, and Julia Wallace recap their visit to the 2021 edition of Performa, a performance art biennial in New York City. Read Part 1 here

Jeanette Joy Harris (JH): I’d like to start this installment discussing Andrés Jaque’s Being Silica, which I think was the most interesting performance that I saw at Performa.

Melissa Noble (MN): I agree, it was in line with the type of work I was expecting to see at Performa.

JH: On Friday, October 29th, at 5:30 AM, Melissa and I ventured to Rockefeller Center to see Being Silica. And did I mention that our hotel had run out of coffee and there were no open coffee shops in the vicinity? Sure – “the city never sleeps.” Anyway, I was intrigued by Being Silica. It was promoted as a “sound piece,” which I thought was odd because it took place on the top of the Rockefeller Center Observation Deck, some 70 stories high. I wondered what in the world we were going to be able to hear? Melissa, what was your expectation of Being Silica?

MN: It’s not often that the curiosity piqued by a performance description delivers. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was such a mysterious experience, like entering a maze and discovering its twists and turns. I had never been to Rockefeller Center and it was eerie being there while it was closed, as I imagine it is usually quite busy.

JH: Well, with no coffee in hand, we hit another obstacle when we got to the performance site: it was about 40 degrees and a wind advisory was in effect. It was quite a departure from the weather we had been experiencing in Houston. I was freezing, but the project was definitely worth the adventure.

MN: Even though I was pretty miserable from the cold, it was like a rite of initiation and fit the topic of the piece. We as the audience went through a physical difficulty and it was somehow satisfying.

JH: A little bit about the artist, before we jump into the piece: Andrés Jaque founded the Office of Political Innovation in 2003, and he also serves as the Director of the Advanced Architectural Design Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Not who immediately comes to mind as a performance artist. To be honest, I was rather puzzled by the name of his studio when I first read about the commission on the Performa website. What does an “office of political innovation” do exactly? I found out that the studio is involved in design projects, theoretical writing, and Jaque is even serving as the chief curator of Shanghai’s Biennale. All of these are related in some way to architecture’s political possibilities, so the name seems pretty apt. He claims to use a “transectional” approach. I am not entirely sure what that means.

MN: All these terms are quite confusing and used in very different ways both by artists about their own work, and art historians when speaking about art. His use of a “transectional” approach makes sense to some extent: it does present as a cross section of multiple aspects of whatever he’s addressing. However, I would categorize his Performa piece as cross-disciplinary — looking at a specific topic from another discipline — and in this case, several disciplines (architecture, sound, video). And it was absolutely interdisciplinary in the way it integrated the techniques of sound, architectural models, video and utilized technical aspects of theater to create a very cohesive audience experience. 

JH: The premise of Being Silica is pretty straightforward: the project investigates New York’s relationship with hydraulic fracturing. That said, it seemed a perfect project to consider in light of Houston’s relationship with energy, fracking in particular. I wrote a short editorial on this topic for TribTalk a few years ago. Anyway, Houston’s cultural centers have been formed in large part by contributions made by energy companies. You can see large oil and gas company names on donor walls throughout the city, and many artists receive grants from Houston Arts Alliance, which draws from hotel occupancy tax (HOT) funds. Every time someone comes to an energy conference in Houston, a little bit of that money goes to support local art. Julia, you have been awarded HAA grants drawn from hotel occupancy tax dollars, haven’t you? I was issued one of these grants myself in 2019.

Julia Wallace (JW): I do think that oil and gas has funded the arts in Houston and is a huge source of wealth in the city. The Menil Collection is a great example of the way oil and gas fortunes have made incredible art and beauty happen in Houston. I think it might be a stretch to look at HOT taxes as “oil and gas money.” HOT taxes use hotel-generated tax money to fund art that makes this city a more attractive location for visitors. I can’t think of any ways I have benefited directly as a local artist from oil and gas money, except that I may have had an educational internship at an arts organization or two that was funded by oil and gas money, and for that I say thank you and also, you’re welcome. (Laughs.)

JH: Jaque opens up Being Silica with a monologue about his first trip to New York City, during which he arrived on a bus at dawn and was surrounded by a yellow pollution haze that floated over the city. With that cue, a yellow light glared onto the audience. That initial light was followed by a variety of others throughout his monologue. There was also a rail system constructed along one of the rooftop perimeter walls; all of these elements let us know that this was going to be more than simple sound performance.

Jaque went on to describe the political circumstances of hydraulic fracturing, particularly Governor Cuomo’s banning of fracking in 2020 and the drilling’s eventual displacement to rural areas in Pennsylvania. He then elaborated on more technical aspects of drilling, like the fact that silica is used during the process and that the dust from the silica is very dangerous for the site workers. Interestingly, the same silica used to frack is also used to create Ultraclear glass, the glass used in the 85-story residence towers on “Billionaire’s Row” in Midtown Manhattan. This low-iron glass is up to 91% transparent and it allows the residents in these buildings to “live” in the clouds. Basically, Pennsylvania’s environmental impact problem becomes a symbol of extreme wealth in New York City. And so being at Rockefeller Center became even more poignant, because during Jaque’s monologue we stared at these Ultraclear glass-clad buildings while on the roof of one of the most iconic and historical architectural symbols of wealth in NYC. The irony was rich. I loved it!

JW: I love that the piece pushed the audience to get up before 6 AM, too. This gave them an experience that was only possible because of this festival. Bravo! Often art either asks the audience to ignore their surroundings or references the site as an afterthought — it really thrills me when a site-specific work utilizes the nature of a site to successfully drive a concept home.

MN: This project was so multi-layered. The depth of research was obvious from Jaque’s deft use of multiple disciplines in such a cohesive way. The way in which video images of interviews with people about their experiences with fracking were projected into the models of their own homes was simply brilliant. This piece encapsulated the experimental nature and technical craft I expected at Performa.

A performance of Andrés Jaque's performance piece Being Silica. The performance is happening on the top of Rockefeller Center, meaning that you can see the New York skyline in the background. In the foreground there is a small house maquette that was used as a set piece in the performance.

Andrés Jaque’s performance work, “Being Silica.” Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk, Courtesy Performa

JH: Yes – The interviews! Part of Jaque’s installation was an architectural model home that moved back and forth across the front of the audience via some type of track system. When the model moved in front of you, you could see that there was a video playing inside the model; the video was an interview with someone who had been impacted by hydraulic fracturing. For example, in one iteration, a woman was standing in the doorway on her front porch and telling stories about her health issues that had arisen since hydraulic fracturing started on her property. The models were a little quirky. Given the sheer size of the space we were in, the models were a bit small and difficult to access. I wish they could have been larger or integrated in a more effective way.

MN: I especially loved the way Jaque bookends the work, starting with personal narration and ending with audience “participation.” As you’ve said, he describes watching the sunrise on his first morning in NYC, and through the duration of the work, we see the sky lightening until finally the morning’s sun rise is timed perfectly with the end of the piece, fully illuminating the “silica” glass of the city. The precision required for that moment was a testament to Jaque’s mastery of interdisciplinary concepts and technical skills.

JH: I really loved the ending, and this is where the sound piece came in. As the sun was rising, an intense, bass-driven sound vibrated the entire observation deck. It made us feel like we were sitting on a drilling site. The elevator operators two floors below said that they could even feel the rumbling themselves. It was fantastic! I really, really, loved this piece. It was smart. It was engaging. It was radical and confident. I mean, who critiques real estate development from a prime real estate development site? Andrés Jaque. That’s who.

A performance of Andrés Jaque's performance piece Being Silica. The performance is happening on the top of Rockefeller Center, meaning that you can see the New York skyline in the background.

Andrés Jaque’s performance work, “Being Silica.” Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk, Courtesy Performa

JW: After diving into the things that I thought were impressive about Being Silica, it delights me greatly to say that I can easily rattle off a list of Houston-based, site-specific work that is comparable in skill and success. Elia Arce’s performance at TransArt during CounterCurrent 2018, in which she auctioned off the services of immigrant workers and artists to the audience, created one of the most visceral and revealing experiences of tension that I have experienced in an art piece. Also, Laura Gutierrez’s dance performance at the (now-closed) Midtown Fiesta grocery store during that same festival was an excellent example of a piece conceptually strengthened by its creative use of site. Dinolion and their now-defunct, secret pop-up show CAROL did an incredible job of creating adventurous, site-specific work with shows in mansions, warehouses, historic buildings, and on the metro line — the show they held at Sugar Hill Studios was especially remarkable. They really challenged their audience and rewarded them with magical views and experiences only made possible by their events. I could go on and on, which is a wonderful thing to realize when contemplating the art in my own city.

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Jeanette Joy Harris is a Houston-based artist and artistic researcher focused on performance and politics. She works in a variety of media including performance, video, photography, installation, and public engagement. She has shown work in London, the Netherlands, Venice (IT), Brindisi (IT), Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco, Portland, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston, including a solo show at Lawndale Art Center (2016) and a residency with International Performance Association in conjunction with International Performance Art Week in Venice (IT) facilitated by Vest+Page. Joy regularly speaks about performance at universities and community organizations including Texas Woman’s University, University of Houston, American Society for Aesthetics, New Mexico Texas Philosophical Society, and the Jung Center Houston. Joy is on the management committee of Experimental Action and was elected to the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy (2021-2023). She completed her MscR in history of art at University of Edinburgh College of Art and is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought from European Graduate School. Joy was scholar in residence at the Hannah Arendt Center at. Bard College.

Melissa Noble is Managing Director of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Initiatives and Lecturer at University of Houston’s Catherine G. McGovern College of the Arts and facilitator of the Blaffer Art Museum’s Convergence Research program. She has previously taught at the University of Washington, Juniata College, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the Houston Grand Opera Studio. Her professional career as a movement consultant and choreographer of 25 years in the areas of theatre, dance, and opera spans across the United States. Her work has been seen with the Pacific Performance Project, Stages Repertory Theatre, Robert Davidson Dance Company, Aero/Betty Aerial Dance Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Meany Hall of the Performing Arts in Seattle, On the Boards in Seattle, and the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center in New York. Melissa has a BA in Art/Art History from University of Northern Iowa and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Practice and Emerging Forms from University of Houston.

Julia Claire Wallace is a Houston-based artist, curator, community facilitator, and director of Experimental Action, Houston’s performance art biennial. She works in a variety of media including performance, video, social practice, spoken word, painting, and writing. She has performed in Houston, Austin, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City, New Orleans, and Leipzig (GR). Julia served as a facilitator to Performance Art Lab and was one of the founding members of their guerilla flash dance project sexyATTACK. She is the creator and curator of Houston’s Performance Art Night and a founder and former facilitator of the social sculpture Continuum. She was a co-director of Lone Star Explosion 2014 and Experimental Action 2017. She was the director of Experimental Action 2019. She received her BFA in painting from the University of Houston in 2009 and her MA in Arts Leadership at the University of Houston in 2018.

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