Exist Stronger

Though the integration of theatre and performance work in journals like PAJ and TDR has ostensibly addressed the rift between these practices, we are still reluctant to regard performance art as a branch of theater practice. This is, in part, because of the insistence of practitioners that performance belongs to the visual arts, which is just. Performance has something to say to theater, however, the way certain poems might have something to say to certain novels: there is a kernel of an idea, an aesthetic, a mood.

Boston, though a small city sometimes tortured by proximity to New York, maintains a rich community of performance artists with a quantity of international recognition. The work is underground, anti-commercial, and entirely separate (socially speaking) from the theatre community. What happens there is worth attention, and a cross-section of the performing arts in Boston is incomplete without it. It is a little scene to itself, and lives.

On April 21, Vela Phelan brought together a group of local and international artists at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama for an eight-hour “performance art experience” called Near Death. It is worth talking about the work that happened, and in an effort to give body to ephemera, my report will be mostly description. “To be near death is revitalizing. That’s the irony,” Phelan told the Boston Globe. “It makes you exist stronger.”

a huge open spave
Marilyn Arsem. Edge. 2013 Ndpae. Photo by Allison Vanouse. 

4 PM
The Cyclorama is striking in the daytime: a vaulted glass ceiling over a web of lighting instruments. There is a tensity of anticipation here. People mill about. Materials are laid, full of energy, around the perimeter of the room: lumber, balloons, cement, furniture, ice. Andrea Pagnes appears every few minutes to mop around the latter as it melts. Sound by Jesse Kaminsky and Isabella Koen seems to grind time out of great cosmic machines. In an enclave off of the main space, an experience designed by Faith Johnson: audience members are crouched in bright silver insulated blankets, thinking of their dreams. A boy is tying crystal to the wall.

actors in aluminum blankets
Faith Johnson. We Are Not What We Dream. 2013 Ndpeae. Photo by Allison Vanouse. 

In the exact center, Marilyn Arsem sits at a table in black, two glasses of water on the surface before her, holding focus with enormous intensity. Her piece is scheduled to last until 11 PM.  She slowly pushes the glasses. She reminds me of Hecuba.

6 PM
It seems already to have begun, and Vela is announcing on a microphone almost functionless with reverb that we ought to get as close as possible. Travis McCoy Fuller has a wild, peripatetic focus that is childlike in his satisfaction with what he gets; he appears to be taking in a great deal of information from the crowd as we move toward him, but there is no derisive glitter about this. He needs people to do things for him, needs these two women to move stones from a long table, pile them in stacks of three. He is busy—slicing cotton jumpsuits in halves, dragging a bag of dry cement around his audience—but we are also watching the volunteers encounter what might be meaning in their task. This is a function of the artist’s generosity. Fuller is constantly breathless, and the excellent pacing of his piece yields results: there are always several foci active at the same time. Communication with his volunteers is remarkably fluid and produces gorgeous moments of suspension. “Would anyone like to sit on the table?” Someone would. “Would any one like to sit in this chair, next to the table?” The image is gorgeous, a woman at one end, a man on the table before her. Fuller himself, breathless at the opposite chair. They are holding potted basil, biting off the stems and leaves. The woman feeds the man. Fuller feeds himself. The silent comfort of this scene is powerful; one has the sensation of being strangely home.

Performance has something to say to theater, however, the way certain poems might have something to say to certain novels: there is a kernel of an idea, an aesthetic, a mood.

From here it goes on. There is a bowl of vodka, a razor blade, a bag of spice. Fuller slices each of his arms. He hands around ice cubes and asks us to squeeze them into water, "if you can.” Another jumpsuit, taped shut at ankles and wrists, he fills with dry cement. He tears apart the table, and he pounds holes in its surfaces, stacks them one on the other. The music changes, a loop: “but when we don’t measure time,” we hear, over and over, hypnotic. We watch Fuller struggle to lift a cement body onto the stack of table, but he cannot lift it “Can I get some help?” he can, and produces another gorgeous image as he slices into one body and cement pours out, down, into another jumpsuit taped open below. “But when we don’t measure time. . .” The image is a kind of hourglass. By hour’s end, Fuller has stapled his jacket to the wall and, zipping himself into it, for a moment is half-suspended. Not quite Christ, his body pulls the jacket from the wall (he is avoiding pathos). It’s growing dark, and all this is in stage-light. It ends because it’s over.

an actor bending over
Travis McCoy Fuller. 2013 Ndpae. Photo by Velan Phelan. 

7 PM
There is little that is charming about Jamie McMurry’s persona, acting on and around a sleazy-looking piece of wood siding with a La-Z-Boy, an overhead projector, and a series of buckets that suggest water sports. We get them, and more (there is paint, soil mixed into mud, mason jars smashed into the walls with elastic cords, bird houses crushed with the body). McMurry is a performer people feel obliged to shrink from as he careens around his space blasting pop-music, pulling his body into strange and incomprehensible extensions, ripping off a series of printed t-shirts, coating himself in mud and gargling paint. As he does all this, he always seems to be swearing under his breath, going at his behavior like someone possessed by absent or meaningless gods. He reminds us of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, but deranged before old, and the one-note destructiveness of his tempo almost disguises his genius for idiom: unsettled demeanor, it’s easy to forget the perfect repetition of images that marches through the piece, which lends a strange richness to the recognition. The little pictures on McMurry’s t-shirts at first seem flat, clip-artish, even accidental (he enters in a t-shirt with a silhouetted palm tree; he rips it away to a photo of a horse, and so on). Later, when he projects the palm tree and horse head on the wall, he gets a laugh from the audience. When he paints over the projections, and we see these images marked with human contact, he gets a laugh again. As the piece goes on, the recurrence and interplay of these images—painted or stapled to the wall, echoed the shapes he takes with his body—give a glimpse of the smooth intelligence behind his destructiveness. This reminds us of Krapp, but all surface: dressing, undressing, pulling pantyhose over his head, spitting paint through cloth.

At the end of his piece, McMurry does not ask for a volunteer, but demands that a girl in the audience (who has been sitting with a friend) get up and put on a set of headphones. Then he picks her up and carries her out of the building. It is hard to describe how much pleasure there is in watching this, or in the sight of McMurry marching barefoot and covered in paint and mud down Tremont Street with a woman in his arms and a bunch of black balloons, like a bizarre wedding party. When he releases the balloons into the sky, they suggest the black silhouette of a palm tree.

We all come back inside as McMurry finishes. Hecuba in the person of Marilyn Arsem is still sitting at center, still slowly pushing the glasses of water. They are halfway across her table.

8 PM
Pina Bausch might have been proud to lay dimension on the tributary of romantic unreason that VestAndPage touches in their performance, “Thou Twin of Slumber.” It starts in the dark, with fire glimpsed through a hole in the wall and reflected in wine glasses suspended from the ceiling, a pile of shards of plate glass, blocks of ice. Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes, the artists who make up the duo, are far from one another at the opening, and between them space is tensile and electric as a light. Stenke is moving with a blue mattress, taking it in graceful, waltzlike turns, punctuated with a noise like exhalation as she throws herself onto it, over and over. Pagnes is delicate; crossing the space by inches, each time setting down a brick as if the floor were lava, dropping pebbles or gemstones into wine glasses as he goes. The piece has this quality of breath and gentle tension even as Pagnes crawls through, rolls over, broken glass toward his partner. She cradles a jar of light. The silence of the piece is extreme, without electronic sound, and with a great emphasis on the tiny noise of measured movement.

They finish together, Pagnes wrapped in raw wool, arms coated in sand. Trying to stand together, closing distance, they struggle to resist sliding from the blocks of ice. A puddle forms beneath them and as Pagnes collapses breathless, Stenke leads members of the audience to lay their palms on his back. He crouches on the melting ice, and we can hear his breathing. Though hinting glancingly at a theme of romantic love and death, “Thou Twin of Sleep” defies the thrust of any ungentle description.

an actor holding a lantern
VestAndPage: Thou Twin of Slumber. 2013 Ndpae. Photo by Alexis Avedisian. 

9 PM
The last setup reminds us of a construction site or an elementary school or a circus: piles of lumber, brightly colored paints, balloons. This matter is haunted: Jeff Huckleberry’s father was a carpenter. The artist himself is “the child of far more practical people,” vis. his biographical note, and for much of his performance wears a rubber clown nose strapped around his neck.

an actor with an oxygen mask on looking at a pile of wood
Jeff Huckleberry. 2013 Ndpae. Photo by Vela Phelan. 

What is striking in Huckleberry’s performance is his complete absorption in task; silence running over an interiority deeply integrated with his materials. There is something about this that is related to ideas about masculinity: a disregard for the observer, or a wish to put the observer’s focus onto the product of his activity. He has a pump, tubing, lumber, and paint; he is making something with it. But his disregard is somehow performative, like nudity, and even has its attendant poignancy. Huckleberry builds fountains, makes rainbows of his body and, without ever producing performative comedy, casts himself as a silent clown. By the end of his performance (bright liquids pumping, a deep throbbing sound from the pump), it has become a description of grief with none of the trappings of grief: we are reminded that Near Death is being held in memory of Bob Raymond, Marilyn Arsem’s husband, a photographer of performance events who was beloved in the community. Huckleberry—naked, paint-covered, clown-nosed—charges to a wall where a photograph of Raymond hangs, and smacks two pieces of wood together: benediction.

As the performance ends, Huckleberry strides from the space. Marilyn Arsem, seated, pushes two glasses over the edge. They crash to the floor in broken light. Music blasts.

an actor in a ray of light
Marilyn Arsem. Edge. 2013 Ndpae. Photo by Kim Napoli. 

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