An Image is a Puzzle: ‘Fixing’ Performance Art in “Body as Omen”
Ortega y Gasset Projects presented Body as Omen in June of 2014, an exhibition organized by Sheilah Wilson, featuring new performances by Ryder Cooley, Michael Dudeck, Blanko + Noiry, Maria Hupfield, Rachel Mason, Baker Overstreet, Geo Wyeth and the Institute for New Feeling. As the curator writes, “Body as Omen explores the possibility of body as portal between environments and altered states of being.” In this interview with curator/artist Sheilah Wilson, artists Rachel Mason and Michael Dudeck and artist Lauren Adams queries the state of the artists’ individual practices and their perspectives on how the ephemeral nature of performance is ‘fixed’ through remnant objects as sculpture and photography and video as documentation.
Lauren Adams: Can you describe the performance series Body as Omen at Ortega y Gasset Projects (OyG) that define the hopes you had for the realization of your curatorial platform and would you also address your intentions behind the title?
Sheilah Wilson: I treated the opportunity to have a show at OyG as a chance for experimentation. I have long been interested in performance and it plays a big part in my own work. I have been curious about the ways in which performance makes us uncomfortable, heightens experience and does such an effective job of implicating the body – both that of the spectator and the performer.
The title, Body as Omen, has this vaguely religious overtone, I suppose. One of the things I have always admired about religion is the ability for belief. I think watching performers who have spun together another identity, out of what is available plus pure desire for manifestation (in this most tenuous and unstable manner), is effective precisely because of their belief. There were some absolutely transcendent moments where the balance between the recognizable and the unrecognizable, in this performer in front of you, was enough to make you feel. At its core, religion, omens and the body are all about channeling emotional response.
LA: Michael And Rachel, describe your artistic process, particularly how you responded to Sheilah’s invitation to make a performance at OyG?
Michael Dudeck: I was and continue to be enticed by the space the title of the show erupts in me: the possibility of the Body As Omen. As an artist who has invented an entire fictitious religion and studied a great deal of religious thought, I am keenly aware of the relationship between performance, art and prophecy – the way the body can act as a vehicle for multiple modes of communication and how its actions produce a sort of script: in gesture, voice, in the making of marks or the burning of idols – the role of the body in ritual, particularly in contemporary performance and in the utterance of prophecy, or Omen – this is for me the most important place that I can occupy as an artist. As I am currently exploring the gulf between objective and subjective bodies (in metaphor and also in raw physicality, between performance and sculpture), I felt it was a perfect opportunity to explore the tension between embalming and creating a figurative object out of a fictive prophet. I was and continue to be interested in how the flexibility of being a subject hardens when the mould of the format is being set. This is at the core of my new investigation surrounding the messianic.
Rachel Mason: My process depends on the project. It ranges from gluing together a thousand broken mirror shards, rehearsing all the lyrics to songs by falling asleep with them, to looking up microfiche articles from old newspaper databases to find the details of a murder. When Sheilah invited me to perform, I tried to think of a piece which would tie in nicely to her concept. I really loved the strange title right off the bat and I loved how it evoked religion, mysticism, and also danger – or a sense of something “ominous”, with the word, “omen.”
LA: I’m interested in discussing the role the objects play in the performances. Sheilah, can you classify or typify the ways in which objects were used by the performers (perhaps creating a taxonomy?) For instance, we have discussed before about objects being ‘acted upon,’ which makes me think of casting magic spells. Another way to think of performance objects is as if they’re like props – which brings up the question of how they might align with theatrical display.
SW: When I researched the word ‘performance’, I found it originally meant “to furnish or complete,” but by the end of the sixteenth century it meant, “to decorate, to embellish and to ornament.” I love the fact that the idea of embellishment meant ‘to put the finishing touches on’ while simultaneously signifying deception, disguise and dissimulation. Objects are both completing and acting as disguise. Although we think of objects as being static, I realized more with each performance how much an object is actually not static. How much the touch of a human, or the way use is designated, can change our conception of what an object is.
You ask about objects being activated. To continue with the earlier thought of word origin, in Middle English ‘performance’ means both ‘to make whole’ but also ‘to consecrate.’ I see the objects as props, and very recognizable ones at that. They’re all quite lo-fi and many of them tapped directly from our contemporary culture. However, they have been acted upon or activated by the body in such a way that they have been made or declared to be, or indeed are, consecrated, as Other. Of course, in the end the object is still just an object. We can only know its changed meaning through the experience of the performance.
LA: Michael and Rachel, how would you describe your relationship to objects as a performer? What methods or systems do you use to ‘place’ or use objects within your performance?
MD: My performance was a stylistic mummification ritual, wherein I utilized a series of primary sculptural tools, techniques and devices to ‘perform’ a symbolic death ritual. So all of the objects had a function. As in most of my work, the codes these objects belong to were ambiguous. I was using plaster bandages, surgical gloves and an exacto knife, which in some ways made reference to the aesthetic dimension of ‘medicine.’ Then, I used black moulding wax heated in a white slow-cooker which bridged the dimension of the domestic and the artistic, and I used a synthetic wig and white and neon orange body paint which belongs in some ways to a queer performative discourse. I organized the objects or tools around the body in a system, both sculpturally and in a way that would permit ease of use of materials, but also throughout the ritual I kept creating and re-creating sacred spaces around the subject/object where tools were no longer purposely placed.
RM: I specifically worked with a number of ritual objects for this performance, which tie directly into the character I perform. The White Oracle comes directly out of my own interpretation of the cantor’s ritual self-sacrifice using his voice as medium to another dimension – this is a ceremonial song which occurs during the Jewish high-holiday services.
The object that I use is a shofar, which is the ritual ram’s horn which is blown during the Yom Kippur service and also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The shofar sound is supposed to resemble the “sigh sob” which reflects mankind’s painfully frail existence. I blow the horn at a few distinct moments in the performance, and it ties in with audio from a Youtube clip of a girl describing how she feels the need to howl like a wolf because she has the soul of a wolf. There are a class of people in the world who feel the same way, and they are called “otherkin.”
The White Oracle is a kind of internet-age oracle who attempts to reconcile the sense of having an alien soul while being tied to traditions, such as those of ancient Jewish culture, and also attempts to be a medium through which the past and the future are linked.
The Oracle is somewhat like my character FutureClown who is an entity created specifically for the internet – and who plays with the real and virtual space – appearing in the “real world” only as a kind of ghost version. FutureClown’s Filibuster is one of the more known pieces, in which all of Rand Paul’s 13 hour Filibuster is lip-synched and put back online in a single youtube channel.
Objects as Performance Artifacts
LA: As the curator, Sheilah, you chose to reserve certain objects from the first set of performances for display in the gallery throughout June 2014. How did you go about making the decisions to transform the performative objects into sculptural residue? I’m particularly interested in the condition of performance being ephemeral but then celebrating the residual objects through long-term display.
SW: The idea of how to document performance has long been around and no perfect answers have been found yet. Performance art as a genre in contemporary art is relatively new, but I was interested in what Punc Arkaeology/Michael Dudeck wrote in the catalogue essay “The Omen as Body or the Place of the Skull” when he talks about objects such as the shroud of Turin (famed for holding the imprint of Christ’s body) or a splinter from the wood of the cross which bore him. These objects are celebrated for their association with the performance, one could say, of the person named Jesus Christ. Even in the past there has been this fetishization and worship of the tangible object from the performance.
The objects I selected were a mixture of the way things were left by the artists, my own attachment to certain objects after performances, and decisions based on gallery space itself. For instance, when placing Rachel’s objects within the space I was really influenced by the way in which she had transformed the gallery with golden spandex cloth during her performance. At first, I wanted to recreate that but It was impossible. I ended up having the cloth come cascading from her papier mache head piece, as this seemed a good point of origin and had some of the energy from the performance, but emanating differently. It was impossible to actually re-create the exact feel of the performance environment; another kind of transformation occurred. This seems appropriate. The show ends up being a way of stopping at the station of the object left behind.
Objects as Performance Artifacts/How Artists Negotiate Performance Through Objects
LA: You’ve certainly encountered this conundrum in your work, Michael and Rachel. How do you go about delineating the meaning of the performative act and the static object (either during the performance, or after)?
MD: I wrote about this and addressed it in a macro sense in my essay “The Omen as Body or the Place of the Skull,” but I can expand on a more personal front here. Shoshana Feldman writes that “the scandal consists in the fact that the act cannot know what it is doing,” and it is from this principle that I attempt as far as possible, with the remnants of the action or event, to leave the objects undisturbed in the manner in which they were used and/or discarded. Because my performance work is often ‘messy’ – involving paint, fluids, hair, tools, bodies, sweat, wax and oils – there is almost always a sort of painterly residue that illustrates the set of movements. The objects themselves also become dirty, messy, used and I find as much as possible allowing the objects to perform themselves in their natural placement is ideal. And while I understand that the objects themselves may spiritually contain some aspect of the energy of their performance, in the same way a skull is said to contain spiritually some energy from its original bearer, I do understand the importance of objects as artifacts. I think it is fitting that my performance did not allow for any artifacts because the performance itself defied objective permanence. I had originally intended to have an object/mold constructed out of the casted prophet, but it was not holding firm. The performance resisted objectivity, allowing the messiah to be hardened into an objective form for only a brief amount of time before his materiality was rendered fluid again. I believe the absence of residue has the potential to maintain the subject as active and fluid in the imagination of the audience.
RM: The objects that I “left at the gallery” are things which I love to look at and felt would be beautiful and evocative as artwork worthy of examination outside of a performance. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have left them there. I also feel that a part of the installation I honestly cannot take credit for, because Sheilah created a display that was really surprising to me and, in a great way, I do think that part of the equation, for me, was allowing the objects’ placement to be determined by the curator. I did feel that this exhibition was very much ‘curated’ and I felt very happy to be a part of the various elements that were put together by the organizer.
LA: From the curator’s standpoint, when does the performance end if the objects are on display after the performer has left?
SW: It ends when the performance ends. The object can be a relic or artifact of something that occurred. I saw them as being charged differently because of the performance, but still they are only what is left after the performance has occurred.
LA: As a photographer, Sheilah, I’m curious about how your practice influences your desires to engage the theme of performance. In a previous conversation, we discussed the presence and absence of the body in the work of art. This obviously connects to performance, as does the artistic act of manipulating ‘reality’ within photographic imagery (which historically has been the ‘truthtelling’ medium) by adding or removing the figure, or interrupting the image/film.
SW: I think this was an interesting comment: the body present and absent, how that plays in my own work, how that ended up also being a sub text in the show. Certainly I am always interested in the possibility of performance to embody a new vocabulary and positioning of the body in relation to the world. Images or objects become proof that this event has happened. They act as a way of holding something and saying ‘this has been,’ but they also act even more strongly to highlight the distance between the act and the present moment. We know something has happened, we know the objects have been used, yet they defy our true understanding of how they were used or what they became. I like the discomfort and inaccuracies that happen between these tenses (past / present / future). The space that is opened up is a broadening and generative space.
LA: I’d like for you all to address the opportunities and difficulties of documenting performance work. At OyG, we use various social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) to share documentation with our audience. How has the always already insufficient documentation of a live act of performance developed your perspective on what performance can be to the audience that cannot be there in person? Do you think there has been a historical shift in this meaning with the advent of the internet/social media? I’m thinking in particular of an artist like Ana Mendieta, who would perform for the camera, in Mexico for instance, with the idea that the documentation was the art object that would populate the world after the performance itself was over.
SW: There are so many ways for performance to manifest. Myself, I act for the camera and am aware that the photograph is the document of that which has been. This is a particular approach to the performative. As I was saying earlier, I chose performers for Body as Omen who were much more engaged with a theatrics of how they present themselves to an audience in real time, and there is something entirely unique about being physically present and implicated. I have watched the videos of the performances and although they are good, they lack the pure and electrifying energy of watching something occur in real time. I should also say that being present intensifies the moments of waiting, of failure for something to work correctly, of spaces in between. It is a heightened state of vulnerability on all sides and I like the way we teeter between transcendence and unbearable humanity. I could say that it is sad that no medium captures performance truly effectively, even with all our connectedness and technology. Actually, I think that is kind of celebratory. There is something which evades and eludes. We are not able to pin it down and re-create it through either object or image. This said, I am deeply grateful for the images and video that exist around this performance series. We can put them together and get an image of something that has been, but we see only an outline.
MD: An image is a puzzle. Because it is still, and mediated, and unflinching, it allows for the viewer/reader of the image to take time to assemble its meaning, or to project upon it or create a transcription of what it means. A performance is also a puzzle, but because it is happening before you, your ability to construct its meaning can only come after the fact. I find often that still images of performance become very important for audience/critics/curators to explore because it mediates, and pauses the immense viscerality and presence of the performative gesture enough to be able to introduce critical inquiry, something that the sweaty presence of the ancient performative body does not permit.
However, as a method of documentation, I find it problematic. I have long been suggesting that we explore other means of performance documentation that involve ideas surrounding oral histories: interviews with people who attended, particularly if there is/was a transcendental or complex bodily, viscerally, or if (as often occurs) the performance responds to a collective energy that is specific to the time and place of its enunciation. These details can be experienced and felt in the descriptions that audience give. Because we are able to hire good photographers and camera people we are able to create compelling, quality images that perform the performance. But they are little more than a mascot, I believe. I am also very interested in taking performance documentation, projecting it onto paper, then drawing it, and then stylizing it to illustrate perhaps the energetic quality of the performance…a subjective form of performance documentation. I am hunting for the right space to undergo this exploration.
RM: I make very distinct separation in my own work between what is a performance and what is a video. I have no problem with people documenting my performances, and I just hope that the documentation turns out well, as documentation. But as a performance, it’s designed to be experienced live. I have seen some photographs of some performance works which do a fantastic job of conveying what “it was like” to be there. I think thats what good documentation does. I have also seen documentation which is better than the actual performance.
And separate from performance works I make videos. I may at times perform within the videos, but, if they are videos, then they were designed as such and intended only to be presented as a video. I do however have some video works which are meant to be presented with a live performance – my recent film for instance, The Lives of Hamilton Fish. It is a musical feature film in which I perform the soundtrack live.
I really appreciate when performance art is carried out with genuine passion. I don’t believe that one needs to be highly educated in order to appreciate it. I believe it may be one of the most democratic of art forms because it can happen anywhere. It does not need any particular institution in order for it to exist and be powerful. I do also love that it can be widely disseminated very easily due to our ease of documentation. I think that’s a good thing.
Body as Omen was on view with performances at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Ridgewood, NY from May 31 – June 28, 2014.
Images courtesy of Ortega y Gasset Projects. Photo: Sheilah Wilson