Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Surviving Performa 13

Maria Hassabi's Premiere pic by Paula Court

The East Village isn’t a bad place to kill time. This Manhattan suburb isn’t very stimulating during the day, but at night the restaurants that line the streets are buzzing with patrons. We’re sitting in an establishment that specialises in vegan raw food, not because it’s our cuisine of choice but because of its location – across the road from the Russian and Turkish Bath House, where Rashid Johnson’s Dutchman will be performed that evening.  Johnson may well be a star of the art world but we would rather not attend his performance. We are busy talking ourselves out of doing so.
“It’s too cold and I’m not willing to get wet,” I argue. These are valid points; it is around 4ºC outside and I don’t have the prerequisite swimming costume and flip-flops outlined as the dress code for this performance in the press invitation. Why do we need a swimming cossie? Will we be swimming? The idea of appearing in a costume at a performance is making me feel like running a mile. But I don’t. I’m too curious and tend to suffer from an acute form of fomo (fear of missing out).

It’s some comfort that the handful of journalists outside the bathhouse look as apprehensive as we are. It’s a strange reversal; being an audience member is supposed to be a carefree experience – even for critics, who get to observe from a detached position. Yet this reversal shouldn’t come as a surprise; most of the performances at Performa 13, a New York-based performance art biennial, have left us feeling that performance art demands a lot from its audience – and is in fact all about reversing performance conventions. Conclusions are beginnings. Beginnings endings. The notion that a performance should or can be entertaining is annihilated too. And in most cases the “performance artist” isn’t present. In one case, Ryan McNamara’s Meme: A story ballet about the internet, he is hiding under the stage. Vishal Judgeo and his partner/co-performer spend their entire performance concealed behind a screen on the stage. It’s as if no one wants to perform.

In Premiere by Maria Hassabi there seems an obvious reluctance: the performers have their backs to us for most of the performance. Our entry into the theatre at The Kitchen in Chelsea is unconventional, too; we arrive at our seats after crossing the stage, where Hassabi and a group of performers are positioned.
Most audience members rush across this space; it’s brightly lit by stage lights attached to rigs on either side of the “stage” – a place where we don’t belong and tread gently. When the excitement of this unusual start has worn off, it becomes clear that the performers, who have their backs to us, are slowly moving to face us. This is all they will do.

Premiere is centred on prolonging what is usually a split second action when the performers confront their audience. Once you realise this is the motivation for the “action”, if you could call it that (it is defined by painfully slow gestures), you start to wish the whole thing would end.
This impatience is tied to our demand as an audience to be entertained and stimulated, rather than being trapped viewing an action you take for granted and which carries little weight – performers are usually burdened with negotiating the significance of “facing” an audience, not us. It’s an interesting reversal, which builds tension between us and them, but it can’t be sustained because it quickly becomes banal. Or, dare I say, boring? In an era of overstimulation via different online media, perhaps being boring has become provocative.

Hassabi, a New York choreographer and performer, seems intent on deconstructing and isolating each aspect of performance – at Performa 11, she presented Show, a work in which she analysed and organically established a “stage”. In this way her work could be described as metaperformance – performance art about the mechanics of performance. But then, perhaps all performance art is concerned with performance, from the theatrical to the everyday, commenting, analysing and distorting it.

Sweating it out during Rashid Johnson's Dutchman
pic by Paula Court
Performance art is parasitic in this way and perhaps is a form that can’t claim its own vocabulary – everything is derived from something else. In this context, performance art could be a field that doesn’t exist, which is what makes it so intriguing and enigmatic – but also so marginalised within the broader visual arts.
Hassabi’s work sounds better on paper. The idea driving it is more interesting than enacting it, though of course, it has no value or meaning unless it is performed because you can’t know what it might be like to prolong the action of facing an audience without doing it. But it is so tedious to sit through that by the time the performers face us, we have lost interest in this moment, which is positioned not as the beginning of a performance but the end, the grand finale.