Performing Ecology, Pt.1 (Introduction)

February 26, 2013 · Print This Article

SCENE 1. 1978, Wuppertal Opernhaus, Germany. A young dancer, her eyes closed, struggles to move freely in a darkened German kaffehaus, her movements made difficult by the walls that enclose her. Again and again, she hits the tables, she falls, she stumbles on the empty chairs that oscillate between being signs of an absence and being a very real presence as objects in space. Again and again the audience hears the sound walls make when hit violently by a tiny ballerina frame. This is Pina Bausch’s Café Müller.

Pina Bausch, Café Müller.

SCENE 2. 1986, Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR. As a result of a complex set of causes including various design flaws, one of four reactors at the local nuclear power plant exploded in the early hours of the 26th of April. What followed was a release of radiation amounting to at least 100 times the radiation of the infamous bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, leading the accident to be widely recognised as the biggest nuclear disaster in History and campaign groups such as Greenpeace to predict up to 93,000 extra cancer deaths as a direct result of it. This is the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.

Scene 3. 1992. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Representatives of the governments of 172 nations meet for the first ever United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). In an attempt to recognise the impact the continuing deterioration of ecosystems is having on the well-being of humankind and to to tackle its progression, the conference culminates with the publication of, amongst others, Agenda 21, a non-biding action plan for the implementation of sustainable development policies at local, national, and global levels. The document will then be reaffirmed and modified at subsequent conferences. This is the first ever Earth Summit.

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Scene 4. 1993, Venice, Italy. A British filmmaker presents his very small audience at the 50th Venice International Film Festival with seventy-six minutes of flickering International Klein Blue projected onto one of the screens at the Pallazo del Cinema, and accompanied by ambient sounds and disembodied voices who, hopelessly, narrate different fragments of the artist’s daily battle with HIV and of his struggle with AIDS-related blindness. This is Derek Jarman’s Blue.

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Scene 5. 1997, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For its first solo exhibition to be held at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, a famous fashion house collaborates with a Dutch microbiologist to create a series of eighteen dresses treated with different strains of bacteria and mould that, as the exhibition progresses, will be responsible for changing the colour and aspect of the garments worn by dummies displayed behind a glass wall. This is Maison Martin Margiela’s (9/4/1615).

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Scene 6. Johannesburg, South Africa. A white man in drag wears an old chandelier as if it was a tutu and struggles to balance himself on his disproportionately high high-heel shoes while walking on debris, stones, and dirt in one of South Africa’s shanty towns. Around him, workers hired by the local authority, armed with crowbars and wearing orange overalls, demolish the locals’ dwellings to allow for the construction of the future Nelson Mandela bridge. This is Steven Cohen’s Chandelier.

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Scene 7. 2002, Nature, Vol. 415. Nobel Prize winner chemist Paul Crutzen identifies a new epoch in geological time which, for the first time, coincides in  time with the scientist’s writing. That new epoch is said to have started with the industrial revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century, when humans finally became one of the most powerful forces of geological history, able to replace woodlands and forests with landscapes of steel, concrete, and smoke. This is the “Anthropocene.”

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Scene 8. 2008, London, England. After announcing his true identity out loud to a packed theatre—”My name is Romeo Castellucci”, he says—the controversial Italian theatre director puts on a protection suit while a pack of German shepherds are led onto the stage by their trainers. After that, some of the animals attack the artist, bitting him while he lies defenceless on the floor. This is the Prologue of Socìetas Raffaelo Sanzio’s Inferno, the first of a trilogy inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

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Scene 9. 2010, Ljubljana, Slovenia. A naked female body falls backwards in slow motion down the red-carpeted eighteen-century oval staircase of the Gruberjeva Palace. In its long fall, the body exists at the intersection of mastery and powerlessness, forced to permanently negotiate the unfolding of the event with the gravity that pulls it down and the late Baroque staircase that guides its movement. This is Kira O’Reilly’s Stair Falling, a rather alluring pas de deux between artist and architecture.

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Scene 10. 2011, World Wide Web. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, a video appears on YouTube in which an anonymous worker wearing protection clothing approaches one of the CCTV cameras of the nuclear site, points at his contaminated surroundings and then at the centre of the camera, in what looks like a reenactment of Centers, the 1971 performance for camera by Vito Acconci. After twenty minutes—the exact same duration of Acconci’s original work—the worker walks away. The video goes viral. This is the ecological age.

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The scenes just described highlight the tight interconnectedness of humans and nonhumans and, as a consequence, pose serious questions to the dreams of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” that humans have been pursuing more or less intensely since the dawn of Modernity with its ideology of Enlightenment. As a result of the present ecological age and the apparent fall of the wall that used to separate “Nature” from “Culture”, the Arts and Humanities are being forced to reconsider their own ambit of study: how can its disciplines adapt to the rediscovered reality of a flat world in which humans and nonhumans seem to be permanently enmeshed in one another, in which human actions seem to often have nonhuman consequences and vice-versa?

Departing from that premise and those problems, the series of monthly posts which I start today will try to think the consequences that the ecological age will have for contemporary theories and practices of theatre and performance. In those coming posts, I will be presenting an overview of the anthropocentric role theatre and performance have played throughout History, some of the ways in which they have been criticised and reinvented, and, ultimately, the ways in which they ought to be thought differently as a consequence of their unfolding on the broad Anthropocenic stage.

Watch this space.

 

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The Public is the Teacher: An interview with Justin Cabrillos

April 28, 2011 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY MARISSA PEREL

In this guest post, Marissa Perel talks with artist Justin Cabrillos about his studio practice and his recent performance of Following Dance at the MCA Chicago. Cabrillos will also be performing at: remixed/reimagined 2011 at the MCA Chicago Performance Benefit on Thursday, June 23, 2011, at 6 pm.

Cabrillos performing Following Dance on Bridge Chairs for Sex and Gender by Vito Acconci, photo by Gwyneth Anderson

Marissa Perel: Tell me about your process for the Following Dance performance you did at the MCA as part of the Without You I’m Nothing: Interactions at the MCA.

Justin Cabrillos: I wanted to make a response to Vito Acconci because my work is largely inspired by his endurance pieces in the 1960-70’s. For this performance, I studied his Following Piece, where he followed around strangers in the city for minutes or days until they disappeared from his view. I combined techniques for following museum visitors by imitating their movements while I performed on his sculpture, Bridge Chairs for Sex and Gender.

I considered Acconci’s movements retroactively as a form of dance in Following Dance. It’s a triangulation of his voyeurism, how he moves his body motivated by that voyeurism, and the bodies of the people who lead him through space. I became interested in a public choreography.

MP: How did you take this public performance art piece and make into a dance?

JC: I started observing people in the museum in October before my performance in January. I’d go into the MCA and watch the public in museum mode. I studied how people hold themselves when they go to see art down to how they hold their weight or shift their gaze. It was a kind of movement analysis that informed how I would build the dance. I sought to embody how people interacted with the art. Or more to embody the relationship between the viewer, the objects and the space between them.

Because of the nature of the work in the Without You I’m Nothing Exhibition, viewers are moving more than they normally would, and I saw that as an opportunity for movement analysis. I also paid attention to people who didn’t choose to interact with the work, their stillness became a source of choreography for me.

Cabrillos performing a “public choreography” in Following Dance, photo by Gwyneth Anderson

Once I was performing, the ladders of the Bridge Chair enabled me to have a bird’s-eye-view of what people were doing. I could look through the Andrea Zittel piece, A-Z Cellular Compartment Units and see kids taking off their shoes and crawling around, so I’d take off my shoes and crawl around. The ladder really facilitated the voyeurism for the piece.

MP: Vito would love that!

JC: I know! I developed a system to call attention more to the viewers than to myself. If someone was directly looking at me, I wouldn’t follow that person, but the person could see who I was following. It’s like when you’re in a dance class, watching the teacher’s movements and trying to follow as best you can. In this case, the public is the teacher. The goal is not so much to parody to make fun of the viewer, but to reveal something about the viewers to one another, and to create a consciousness of the relationship between the viewer and the space of the museum.

Cabrillos following viewers of an Andrea Zittel sculpture, photo by Gwyneth Anderson

MP: How is this experience different than your experience of stage-based performance?

JC: I had to think of a different way to structure the performance. Because it wasn’t about everyone being part of my time, but about the time people were spending in the exhibition. It was like a game where I had to be hyper observant of the audience. On stage you’re rarely aware of audience members as individuals. In this piece, I had to anticipate how people would respond to my actions. It required me to simultaneously observe and perform the audience. That was a lot of information for me to contain in my body! I felt like I was possessed, inhabited by the other bodies in the room.

MP: I find that to be a compelling aspect of your work in general, how you embody your research, whether it’s historical data, responses to sites or in this case, how you are embodying a relationship between art and the audience. It seems like you have to empty yourself of your own contents in order to become a vessel for the subjects of your performances. How do you make space for this, literally in your body and conceptually?

JC: When I was on a residency with Every House Has A Door, I had the opportunity to meet Netherlands-based choreographer, Meg Stuart. Once in a critique she said, “The body is not yours.” I think it’s important to let go of your body and see what happens. This can be liberating because you can see what your body is capable of.

By the end of my performances at the MCA, I could pan across the audience and string 6 different movement combinations together from the people I observed because I was totally invested in their vocabulary. My interests are now much more activated around the space of what I’m seeing in relationship to where I am in the moment.

MP: How long were you performing Following Dance?

JC: For two hours a day over the course of 6 days. I also performed for First Friday, artsmart [an event sponsored by the MCA’s Women’s Board], and I will be performing it again for the MCA benefit.

MP: This is definitely enough experience for you to perfect the art of “observational vocabulary,” how do you keep it fresh?

JC: A lot of people talk about the conceptualism behind performance art of the 1970’s, but what I appreciate is the childlike wonder about it. One thing that’s different about this piece from my other work is that it’s light. There’s an almost childlike sense of humor about it.

During the First Friday show, I noticed a man texting on his cell phone, so I started to act like I was texting . Everyone that was watching us noticed what I did and started laughing. Another day, I noticed a woman lying inside the Convertible Clam sculpture [also made by Acconci]. I laid down in the other half of the shell and slowly copied her movements. It took her a long time to figure out what I was doing.

People seem to be of two minds when they figure me out, they either revel in the attention and play with it, or they run away. Kids are endlessly stimulating because they are always moving and they are also willing to play the game.

MP: What is it like for you to leave that way of performing and return to your studio?

JC: Even when I have physically left the space of the MCA, I’m not sure if my experience leaves me -it’s never completely over. As artists, we’re constantly living with the material of our work. I sleep and eat my material, and I try to pay attention to how my daily life is affected by the focus of my work, how my intention is shaped or directed by my interests. I work very hard to make ephemeral art, and I often ask why I am doing this. I don’t have an answer,but I think the intimacy that I get to share with the audience, based on my intimacy with the material is one of the reasons I make ephemeral art. So, it’s about sharing and extending that intimacy with the audience.

For more information on Justin Cabrillos, visit his website here.

Marissa Perel is a performance artist, writer and independent curator currently working in Chicago, IL.