Four performances about objects that become sites for exchanges between ideologies and people.
Since the fall of 2017 I have been developing a quartet of performances titled “Effigy Live” that animate set pieces and sculptural props referencing white supremacy, fascist figureheads, and the nuclear family. In American political “discourse” the label fascist is tossed back and forth, from left to right on a bourgeois tennis court. Ideologues on both ends of the American conservative / liberal political divide need this word to demarcate the outlines of themselves and the other. Effigy Live as a praxis is one of holding the material signifiers of the “antagonistic other” and breaking open their meaning through performance.
The confederate monument pulled down in Durham North Carolina in 2017, in its crumbling, became, in that 2 second descent to earth the puppet of collective anger. Its collapsed body became the arena for a collective to converge and replace the horse and soldier as the primary performing subjects.
I began thinking about the 2 poles of a spectrum of the object in performance. On one end is the figurative Monument: untouchable, unchanging, elevated, and overlooking the public, delivering a soliloquy to everyone and no one. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Effigy, an object that is made of things close at hand, that acts on power through its transformation; needles in a wax doll, mussolini’s body hanging upside down, the ever popular Trump Pinata, the unfortunate bystander who, through the machinations of language and /or violence can be made to represent the “antagonistic other”.
I’ve been thinking about the aspect of art making that slows down the movement, you could say the energy gathering, of ideology and how artists look at, work on and speak about the metaphors in political and theoretical rhetoric. Alongside making sculptural facilimiles of these metaphors, I’ve been thinking that performance has a strange effect on their usefulness to power. How inconvenient performance can be in regards to power: its meanings, refracted between evocation and a multisensorial reception, can slow down the construction of a binary logic. While I don’t use performance in a prescriptive or therapeutic way, I do wonder if the momentary break from interpretation and “aboutness” can, in that respite, be a way to stay together within a conflict.
Below is documentation of 4 shows that comprise Effigy Live. The first 2, “Punishment’s Place” and “Secret Joy” are written and have premiered in Los Angeles. The 3rd, “AFTERMATH” was interrupted mid process by the pandemic so I will show you the apocalypse triptych, (a two sided scenic backdrop that is folded and unfolded during the performance) and rehearsal footage of the performers. For the last piece, “Prime Time”, I will show you a brief clip of some performance research I conducted with artist Bully Fae Collins responding to my directives to sculpt a performative state I’m calling the cartoon body.
...This is a cold pastime. This is a calculated whim. Coldness, Calculation, suffering for profit and fun. This is before loss makes you good...
Since the election of 2016, I have been thinking about the ways in which people make each other into effigies of the structural forces they are unable to affect. We can’t punish the government and even if we could, a dead tyrant always escapes too soon. The urge to punish has to go somewhere we can see it hurt. We want satisfaction.
Punishment’s Place uses the myth Prometheus Bound as a point of departure. Prometheus, a demigod, brings the tool of fire to hungry humans shivering in their stinking caves. Consequently he is chained to a mountain, where his liver is pecked everyday by an eagle. Reading Robert Lowell’s translation of Aeschylus's text, I was struck by the irony of this god declaring his loneliness to the sea birds, the sea foam, Hercules, Hercules’s Mother—just about everyone and everything that can listen. It is through his status as a victim that he stays at the center of the story and at the center of the reader’s attention. As an unchanging representation of self pity and survival, he stays a god.
The centerpiece of Punishment’s Place is a sculptural tableaux of Prometheus Bound consisting of an eagle, snake, and Prometheus statue. These were fabricated, broken, repaired, and reengineered over the course of a year while working with performance artists Peter Tomka, Kathleen Keough, and Oscar Alvarez in order to accommodate new ideas imported through our improvisations and discussions. Importantly, the Prometheus myth was a starting place for our exchanges about our personal experiences with retribution, times when we played the part of the predator and times when we were someone else’s prey.
Sculptural Tableaux from Punishment’s Place, resin coated fabric, wood, epoxy and sewn fabric. (Oscar Alvarez on floor) Photo by Peter Tomka
Gregory Barnett with Dani O’Terry in “Secret Joy”
...A creature worthy of my trap...Masks of the torturers...And if they cry…Stay a torturer stay!
Performed by Dani O’Terry and Gregory Barnett, Secret Joy is a 40 minute performance within a sculptural installation inspired by an experience in the summer of 2019 in Belarus. At the end of a research fellowship to Eastern Europe, we visited the site of a soviet era monument to partisan resistance to Nazi occupation. There a collegue read the testimony of a Jewish woman who described the capture of a Nazi officer and his subsequent torture by her hands. I thought then about the delicious fantasy of having the torturer right where you want him, trapped and helpless. How often do we imagine these authoritarians subjected to their own brutality? The jailer jailed, the killer killed, the torturer tortured. Secret joy investigates the desire to perform the role of victim / survivor in order to stabilize the signifiers of power and oppression. During the performance the Blue Soldier’s head transformed from a bogeyman exploding through a closet door, a monument, and finally into a lobotomized head, confessions vomited into its cranium.
Above: Paradise Triptych (A side) Below: Paradise Triptych (B side) acrylic paint and aluminum tape on tyvek, 8 x 13’
Left to Right, Bully Fae Collins, Gregory Barnett and Dani O’Terry
Mother: I am driven towards his voice
His words fill me with
a desire to jump and cry
He shouts and I shout
Father: His eyes are two grey stars
He looks into my eyes only
He sees only me
Son: Dad is a nipple
In AFTERMATH, a performance work in progress postponed by COVID 19, three performers move through complex choreographic structures as an imploding nuclear family. Lurking beneath the dredged up familial traumas they foist upon each other is a heat force energy ripe for detonation. Inspired by a visit to the Hiroshima Peace memorial museum, Hiroshima Japan, Aftermath is about the ordinary terrors of familial emotional violence masked by a shared fantasy of the end of the anthropocene, a fantasy that projects anti-social groundlessness in the wake of disaster. With performers Dani O’Terry, Gregory Barnett and Bully Fae Collins.
1 “The Grey Man Dances”, Grosz,1949. 2 Bully Fae Collins working on Prime Time 2020
Throughout my performance work I have gravitated towards the cartoon body for inspiration. From the early 20th century animations that carried vaudville’s slapstick to impossible heights of violence and instantaneous resurrection, to the ham-fisted populism of a political cartoon’s reckoning with conflict and power. Prime Time, the last work in the Effigy live series, takes as its primary source material philosopher Fredrico Campagna’s theory of normative abstractions and two late works by German expressionist painter George Grosz. In Campagna’s 2013 book “The Last Night: Anti Work, Atheism, Adventure”, normative abstractions are inventions that are designed to keep the ceiling low on the human imagination. Chief among them is “hope”, the promissory note of immortality for spending one's lifetime in debt to capitalist dreams. The book is somewhat prescriptive in how to sneak around these things but the overall feeling is one of creeping doom and petrifying futility.
I am also looking at artists from the interwar years whose work reflects a transition point between satirical representation and abstraction. Two paintings by George Grosz; departures from his better known searing pen and ink drawings of Nazi officers are “The Grey Man Dances” whose pain-signifying elements, (the body, the brain, the burning factories) are so intensely worked that the terms satire, and political cartoon seem inadequate to describe its expressionistic qualities. In this sense it’s self-indicting. The sewn-up mouth and the nailed-shut ears express the limitations to receive and speak about horror. Still, his eyes are wide open, they see the viewer. The Grey Man seems to know that we want him to dance.
Approaching my work with performer and artist Bully Fae were the following questions: Can performance be a method of identifying where in the body normative abstractions show up? If taking a step is an impossibility can a sense of journeying through space be constructed through bodily movement? If hopelessness can’t be cured can performance at least get it to circulate and be released?
Current thoughts on the performance’s staging are that the performer’s movements are contained to a 4 x 4 foot platform in the deadcenter of a stage. Within these confines, isolated vibrational, throbbing, movement’s overtake different parts of his body. While the figure is trapped on his platform he is not petrified: he unfurls whole kinesthetic landscapes.