Chicago Curators’ “Performance Anxiety” on Souvenirs from the Earth TV

December 2, 2009 · Print This Article

James Murray, "Electrical Performances: Push It."

James Murray, "Electrical Performances: Push It."

Wanna talk about new modes of global curation? Chicago-based arts writer Alicia Eler and video collector Jefferson Godard have teamed up to curate Performance Anxiety, a program of seven short videos by  Chicago and New York City-based artists which can only be seen in Europe via Souvenirs from the Earth, a cable television station broadcast in France on the freebox 129 station and in Germany on Unitymedia/Kabel BW. (Eler and Godard are currently in discussions about screening the program in Chicago sometime in January).

Eler is the Arts and Culture Community Manager for the Tribune-sponsored Chicago Now blog network, and Godard is a video art collector,  architecture professor and a founding member of EMERGE, the MCA Chicago’s Collector’s Forum. They met during Video as Video: Rewind to Form, a video art show that Eler curated with Peregrine Honig at Swimming Pool Project Space last Fall, and bonded over their mutual love of video art. When Godard invited Eler to his home for a tour of his collection, she was struck by the fact that so many works of video art were actually on display. “There’s always video art on in Jefferson’s home–he’s admittedly obsessed with the medium. A video might play on two flatscreen televisions while a video projection screens in another room; or a video might play on an actual television while Jefferson views new video art online.” Most of the videos in Performance Anxiety have been drawn from Godard’s superb collection (for more on Godard’s collecting habits, read Jason Foumberg’s 2007 article in New City here).

Performance Anxiety focuses on “the idea of an individual’s continued struggle to understand, deconstruct and contextualize cultural norms,” Eler and Godard explain in the press release. After viewing a screener of the program, I’d say the show is also about the ways in which we perform our differences to others, often in ritualistic fashion. Sometimes we perform for an audience, sometimes we play our proscribed role as a member of a culturally-identified group, and other times we perform exclusively for ourselves and for our own private pleasure.

Kate Gilmore, whose video Star Bright, Star Might was featured in Creative Time’s Chewing Color video program broadcast in Times Square last Spring, is represented in Performance Anxiety by her 2004 video My Love is an Anchor. (WATCH VIDEO CLIP HERE).

Kate Gilmore, My Love is an Anchor.

Kate Gilmore, My Love is an Anchor.

It’s a performance-based endurance piece, one of Gilmore’s best-known, that features a woman wearing a snazzy black cocktail dress struggling to hammer, dig, tear, or otherwise violently extricate her foot from a bucket of hardened plaster. Though her efforts never quite reach a Saw-like intensity of purpose, she never successfully gets herself out of the trap either, a fact which frustrates a traditional narrative’s drive towards resolution and closure while also hinting at the inescapability of certain socially inscribed roles–mother, wife, arm candy–that women in particular have found difficult to escape. Apparently, Gilmore was alone while filming this piece, which adds a layer of authentic fear and panic, along with a sense of helpless voyeurism on the viewer’s part.

James Murray’s series of “Electrical Performances” depict a protagonist in a similarly sweaty state of exertion, but whether it’s the result of pain, pleasure, or something that transcends both remains intentionally unclear. In Push It, the artist stands before a white screen with only his upper body visible. His clenched visage and audible groans suggest that viewers are witnessing a private session of auto-arousal (the words to Salt and Peppa’s “Push It” appearing on the bottom of the screen further fuel this assumption). In fact, the artist’s physical “performance” is being electronically generated (or perhaps, more accurately, stimulated?) through a series of shocks delivered through an electric buttplug and cockring every time a bass note occurs in the song. Murray links the culture of queer bondage/SM  to that of club music, seeing in both ideologies that have the potential to liberate the body and the mind through physical exertion and transcendent states of endurance. What I find just as interesting is the notion of the body as meat puppet, at once captor and captive to its own desires–desires which are an integral part of who we are and yet mysteriously other to us, too.

Stacia Yeapanis gives us another form of human/electronic puppetry:  the thrilling dullness that is Will Wright’s mega-popular and perversely addictive video game series The Sims. (WATCH AN EXCERPT FROM YEAPANIS’ VIDEO HERE).

Stacia Yeapanis, "Life Isn't Bliss. Life is Just This. It's Living."

Stacia Yeapanis, "Life Isn't Bliss. Life is Just This. It's Living."

Using a Sim-generated avatar as a stand-in for herself, Yeapanis gets at the underlying truth of Sim life (and, if we’re honest enough to admit it, our own): a lot of the time it’s incredibly boring. The piece is titled “Life Isn’t Bliss. Life is Just This. It’s Living,” which sounds like a quote from a movie (is it?). Yeapanis’ Sim alter-ego engages in various mundane tasks, all at the command of her human alter-ego at the keyboard (they don’t call these “God Games” for nothing). Many of these chores involve the care and maintenance of the body and/or the home: eating, exercising, cleaning the kitchen and the toilet. Sim-Stacia spends a fair amount of time staring into space (or is it the t.v.?). The Sim weeps, then goes on with her day. At one point, she crushes a child’s dollhouse with a spiked-heeled boot. Occasionally, the phone rings. Yeapanis’ Sim is an Avatar, a fictional stand-in for the artist herself and, to some degree, for those of us watching.  And like Gilmore’s concrete-booted “heroine,” Yeapanis’ Sim is given no climactic finale to liberate her from the starring role she plays in her own life’s drama.

Greg Stimac‘s “Peeling Out” involves performances elicited from Midwestern men who drive fast cars. Stimac visited various rural locations and asked local men with trucks, muscle cars and motorcycles to rev up their engines and “peel out” as fast as they could. Like peacocks spilling feathers in their wake, these gas guzzlers leave plumes of smoke and tire tracks of various lengths and thicknesses behind them.

Greg Stimac, Peeling Out.

Greg Stimac, Peeling Out.

In such overt displays of masculinity, one can only assume that size definitely matters; therefore it’s amusing to watch one car peel out after another, tires screeching like mythical Harpies, some proudly belching out great clouds of exhaust, others a relatively modest stream of smoke.

All of the works in Performance Anxiety (the program also includes “Ball and Chain” by Rochelle Feinstein [WATCH CLIP HERE] and Carlos Rigau’s “Black Face Beyonce”) are fairly short and relatively straightforward, in terms of the onscreen “action”, at least. This makes sense, given that the program will be broadcast on television screens and “received” in the domestic space of the home, where interruptions may be frequent and attention divided. This domestic context is especially compelling to both Eler and Godard.  “I was particularly interested in [showing the program on] Souvenirs from the Earth TV (SFTE.tv) because they had the same premise that Peregrine and I used in the Video as Video show,” Eler told me via email. “One day, videos (the moving image) may replace paintings. SFTE.tv’s entire programming is based off of Nam June Paik’s idea that video art should be broadcast on television, available to more than just the elite art world. I thought that broadcasting our program on French and German cable television channels through SFTE.tv would give us an avenue to experiment with how one views and experiences video art.  How does one’s experience of a piece differ when viewing it online, on a television–flatscreen or otherwise? As a projection? These are some of the questions I thought about when deciding to host Performance Anxiety on SFTE.tv instead of in a traditional white cube space, an artist-run space, or a Chicago apartment gallery,” Eler noted.

I’ll make sure and keep you posted about any future screening dates for Performance Anxiety in Chicago and elsewhere. In the meantime, click on the links provided above to view excerpts from Gilmore’s, Yeapanis’, and Feinstein’s videos. And for those readers living in France or Germany with the appropriate cable spread, you’re in luck: the program will be broadcast every Wednesday at 6pm through December 22nd.

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