Awaiting the Wave: Local Performance Artists Discuss Kansas City Art Scene and Upcoming Symposium
On a cold evening in December, the brightest lights on Genessee Street belonged to the front gallery of Plug Projects and their portrait show “Hey Stranger” gazing out at the empty stockyards district road. I asked three of KC’s most prominent performance artists—Jessica Borusky, Megan Mantia, and Leone Reeves—to join me here for a discussion about the challenges and successes they have had in Kansas City and the future they envision for performance within the local art community.
Leone Reeves: People always want to do dance routines.
Megan Mantia: Always.
LR: When I was a senior at KCAI, we went from doing Britney Spears dance routines in our dirty ceramics clothes to starting a cheerleading squad called Rah! Booty. Then we recruited Megan, and we made cheers that were all over the place. They were political, they were feminist. I feel like our Rah! Booty days were about that want to show yourself as a grown woman but that you can be gross and sexy. Smart and stupid. Politically inclined but with a certain “I don’t give a fuck” at the same time.
Max Adrian: Did you consider Rah! Booty part of your studio practice?
LR: Absolutely, but I was told that it was not and that I would fail. So I had to maintain a really awful ceramics practice.
MM: I chose printmaking because it seemed the most open. People like Cody [Critcheloe] and Jaimie [Warren] had come up through there, and I felt like that was where I was witnessing more experimental work happening. I did some traditional stuff at first, but I started to spin off into doing Rah! Booty all the time. Networking, coordinating events, rehearsing—all of that, and in addition to my school load. I think Hugh Merrill was the chair of printmaking then, and he was the only teacher to defend Rah! Booty in front of me. For one critique he told us to forget the assignments and put up whatever we were actually doing in our real lives. I showed our costumes and talked about the performances, and everyone had this attitude about it. But Hugh said, “This is awesome. You’re out in the community. You’re actually doing something.” There were moments when people really hated it, but it’s still talked about today. Actually, the school still travels around the country and shows images of us performing for the admissions presentations. Molly Ryan told me that was the reason she came to Kansas City, and now look at her.
LR: They used it to promote the school, but they refused at all points to give us any help.
MM: In the beginning they did give us some funding, but they cut us off before long. They were worried about how it would reflect on the school, and they didn’t want to risk that. It went so far that we performed at this MTV cheerleading competition that promoted that horrible cheerleader sex comedy spoof movie “Fired Up!” We were raunchy, we were funny, we were weird—we were perfect for it. But we had to have a chaperone, and we had to have a not-for-profit backing us up or we couldn’t enter. The school wouldn’t do it. We called every other non-profit we could think of, and finally the person who said yes was was Patrick Alexander, who now is at Charlotte Street, but he was at YWCA back then. So someone who had never met me before, who I now know very well, took a chance on Rah! Booty and gave us a huge organization’s EIN number. We obviously didn’t win, but we were so glad we did it. It was such an ordeal, though, because the art institute, even in the moment when it hardly mattered, wouldn’t extend a hand. But it totally gave me my love for collaboration, and I’ve met a lot of amazing people through that.
MA: What were your initial experiences with performance like, Jessica?
Jessica Borusky: I have a very different background in that I didn’t go to art school as an undergrad. I was taking an art history class, and all of a sudden that connecting point happened for me where I realized that I could talk about a painting by things like who commissioned it and what wasn’t being done because it was commissioned in this way. And, as we know with the history of western performative practice, these things were happening in conversation with one another. So I thought it wasn’t so weird for Picasso to do a set design for a series of theatre practitioners or dancers. These kinds of historical conversations had this intersection, and that’s where I became extremely interested in performative practice and theory. My mentor was in sculpture, and sculpture made sense for me, but I kept thinking that I wanted to activate the objects I was making with my body. I kept thinking about how to use my body to inform and defend the choices I was making in my artistic practice.
There was a group of us there who were queer or poly identified, and we started wanting to pursue this history of performative practice together. We designed our own course where we were making these public performances informed by some kind of literature or theoretical content we were reading. That’s where I first thought “What’s my personal voice? Where do I best express myself?”
I went into my masters wanting to further hone the practice of performance art—what that meant, and what history I was speaking to when generating that aesthetic, and what visuals and experiential components my body was generating. Then I moved out to Kansas City because I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could move to a new place where I knew one person and figure it out. And because of the whole Western myth, which was all about what I was working with.
MA: Speaking of myths, it seems that performance artists seem to work with that quite a bit, especially with the creation of a persona—what the viewers see during a performance versus the actual person behind the scenes.
MM: I actually curated a show for Charlotte Street in 2009 called Mythmakers, and it was about people who do auto-biographical myth-based work. Things kind of based on themselves and kind of based on reality, but really off the deep end. Leone did a performance—a fake 30th birthday party that wasn’t on her birthday, and she made something like nine cakes, and everyone had a cafe fight in the gallery at Paragraph. That was after my friend Kyle Chaplin laid on a table dressed as a blood-eating lion all night.
LR: That was a successful show!
MM: There are a lot of people doing really interesting versions of themselves, not just straight up self portraiture. They create a world, and it’s really interesting. [Leone and I] talk a lot about fantasy in our work, and we try to talk about the state of mind in which we exist, that maybe only other females understand. And maybe that’s not true, but we’ve definitely thought before that nobody understands us but us, or like-minded individuals, so we’ve made work before that’s specifically for those people who can relate to it, those like-minded female brains.
JB: Just speaking of your collaborative process, I thought y’all were gay. There is this very interesting erotic sisterhood that you both share.
LR: We’re so into that!
MM: We talked about it a lot when we first started. We worked with a team only of women to make a series of photos based on what fantasy meant to us—our most pure, forbidden fantasy that didn’t need to make sense to anyone else necessarily. A lot of people thought they were seeing remnants of a performance, something that they missed. We wrote a big statement about female fantasy and why it’s interesting that as mostly hetero females working closely this way and exploring fantasy together, people will perceive it a certain way.
JB: I talk about that kind of thing as circles or spheres of audience. We know that we are always our first audience, and then there are those who are right around us, and they continue to build out further and further. But what’s really interesting to me is that if there is even a kernel of that original interiority that somehow gets translated to the most external sphere of audience, then in my opinion, something really wonderful has happened. With some of my early performance work, middle aged women would thank me afterward and start telling me about when they were raped. At the time, I wasn’t ready for or expecting those responses, but there was something coming through to those women. In film you call it emotional recall, where a character might be saying one thing but thinking another, and with the camera the viewer is able to see that interiority.
MM: When you’re viewing something, or just interacting with the world, you will see what you’re looking for sometimes. So for those women, that’s what they were looking for and what they needed to get out of them.
JB: I always want to be more aware of the storm that I’m trying to produce, but you can’t control everything—we all know this. You just can’t.
MM: And with performance, you especially can’t control your audience. That makes it very hard to document because there’s no true re-creation of what it’s like to be in that moment, what it’s like to stand there. Which is why it’s different than any other art form.
MA: And what makes it more readily empathetic for the viewer, too.
MM: Yeah, and it’s also scarier for a lot of people because it’s so direct and it can be really confrontational. It can be hard to understand, and there’s a real risk of alienation.
JB: Sometimes it’s just taking time. And I have to do that, too, because I hate so many things. I think a lot of art is horrible and bad and shitty and awful.
LR: Oh my god, me too! I feel so bad admitting that.
MM: There’s a really great quote by David Ford that’s something like, “There’s more art out there than we know how to like.” When I talk to non-art people who feel like they can’t approach the area of art because it’s intimidating, I say that quote to them it makes them feel better. Then they have this moment where they realize, “Ok, I don’t have to like everything. I don’t have to understand everything” and it gives them the freedom to not feel stupid, which I think is the first step into being inclusive.
JB: Even within the genre of performance practice, there are some performances I don’t get behind. And personally, I’m always under the impression that my art is total shit and that what I’m doing won’t affect everyone, and I think if I ever have the feeling where I can pat myself on the back and say “Good job!” then I’m finished. The drive to keep reworking and making and improving is a powerful thing.
LR: And of not being satisfied.
JB: Yeah, I’m never satisfied.
MM: It has to be for ourselves and our own question-answering.
JB: I can’t help but go back to understanding choices we make. I’m talking about art practice as compared to positive methodology—the scientific method, you know. You hear about the historical scientific discoveries that started with a gut feeling about why or how something happened and then the series of tests based on that. The same is true with art, both of them come from a place of intuition. You have an intuitive feeling, you test it out, you see whether or not it works. And then you adjust based on those tests, but it comes from that same sort of force and drive. There’s a whole defense that artistic practice is the same as academic research-based practice, and that the methods that are used to produce aesthetic work are not so different from the methods that are used to produce intellectual work. And then ultimately it’s all creative work.
MM: One of the things I love about the way Leone works, and something that inspires me, is doing multiple versions of the same project. I’m way too impatient about things to think that way sometimes, but we always talk about doing a baby version, a teen version, and an adult version, or whatever those incarnations may be. I’m really drawn to the infancy stage of a lot of things because I love immaturity and teen drama and that question-mark part, so it’s really interesting when I’m forced out of that stage because I don’t usually think that way.
MA: On that note, can you talk about the piece you two have in the Kemper show?
LR: So at the point a while ago when we decided that we were going to do whatever we wanted, we started writing press releases as if we’re big deals. About everything we were doing, but extremely exaggerated, totally misquoted, lie lie lie lie. Our first major one was that we were in a show in New Orleans that was going to be the set for an episode of HBO’s “Treme.”
MM: Which wasn’t even going on at the time! I think it was canceled at that point. If anybody googled it for one second, they would’ve known immediately.
LR: But everyone took it so seriously. Even my grad school alumni magazine, which always ignores me, posted it huge on the cover: “SAIC Alumni in ‘Treme’ HBO Episode!”
MM: Which we screen capped and throw in applications and say, “See? The newsletter talked about us.” So we’ve got four of those press releases at the Kemper now. One of them is about Burning Man, and it says we got $3,000 from the Burning Man High Council, which doesn’t exist. We said that they give away $100,000 every year and only a certain number of people get it, but if you do the math it means that every single person who even applies would get $1,000. So it’s not special at all.
MA: What do you think are the main challenges to performing a persona?
MM: Getting trapped there.
LR: PR has taught us how to play up certain things and make certain things seem more successful. We all know this weird trick of wording things a certain way to make past failures seem like successes
MM: And how much fun it looks like you’re having when you’re doing it.
LR: Everything is easily edited.
JB: This isn’t just a performative practice thing, too. Everyone is their own personal litigator, and I’m talking beyond the art world. We’re in an economy that is horrendous, and everyone has to argue their stake because no one is making anything. It is everywhere these days and especially online, but I think it’s a reflection of the shit storm we’re in.
LR: That’s true. Everyone feels like they have to pretend that it’s still working.
JB: One of the best, most transparent artist talks I got to witness was by Emily Roysdon, who actually did work with Grand Arts. Emily had said very frankly that, yes, she was in the Whitney Biennial, but that she had to ask her friends and family for a loan in order to print and to hang her work. And she didn’t make any money from it, of course. You see someone you think has really made it for themselves, that they’ve passed some kind of litmus test of success, and here they are explaining what really happens. Those kinds of moments are very grounding.
MM: It’s an interesting thing to think about—all of those things that aren’t revealed—when you’re feeling doubtful or you can’t go somewhere or do a particular project. And I try to tell young artists that too because it’s very hard. We call it “playing the game” and it’s something that sickens us so much, even just the way of which you have to apply for things sometimes.
MA: Do you absolutely have to play the game? Is there just no question?
MM: There are definite moments where we depart a little bit.
LR: We’ve come to learn how to stand certain things that we’re more familiar with now. With applications, a lot of the time people don’t even read things thoroughly or pay too much attention.
MM: But the really weird stuff rarely gets chosen. Which is why we’re excited about the young artists coming up and curating, planning things, and being interested in weirder things, because back in the day when more people were interested in weirder shit, more weird shit was happening. Nothing very different has been happening for a while, and it needs to. The most harmful thing is for the younger artists to think they need to imitate something that already exists.
LR: It’s so true.
JB: I really think this city does need something different, something experimental with a distinct voice.
MA: Do you think that the current art landscape in Kansas City is productive for performance artists?
JB: I don’t think entirely, to be very frank.
MM: I think a lot of work is made here because it’s cheap to live here, but I think people have to make choices to prioritize that. And there’s a lot of favors to be asked here, a lot of spaces willing to help. But patronage? Classical patronage is definitely a problem here.
LR: We are a small place, so only a few people get patronage. However, if people leave you alone then there’s no expectations. I feel like we at least have been thriving in that.
MM: It doesn’t always seem like someone is paying attention, but at least you know you’re doing what is pure to you. We struggle to remember that sometimes. [Leone and I] have a collaboration that really drives us, and we bounce off each other at our bleakest moments. Some people are very independent artists, and that’s fine too, but performance is naturally collaborative. I do think there’s a lot of group work happening in this city that can continue to do so, unrestricted and unpretentious.
LR: We’ve experienced a lot of other art communities, and I am never as impressed by collaborative efforts as the ones I see from here. The community spirit is way more inviting and easier to be involved in.
MM: People don’t do something to see what they can get out of it here.
LR: Everyone’s got this mindset of “Sure, join in!”
JB: I would say that, and I’d say that since moving here, there is a rippling effect where that invitation is extended among all kinds of artists. But the story you said earlier executes the very issue I have with Kansas City. If your main artistic institution is not willing to take a risk and be compassionate with budding 18 year-old artists, then there’s a problem. And I’m talking about compassion here, not letting all the bullshit fly.
MM: I think we are on a come down of a wave. We’re in the valley, but I feel the rumblings of really exciting young artists coming up who are inspiring us. We’re trying to keep working because a lot of them want to be involved with us. And it’s exciting to connect with so many artists across ages, which I do think happens here a lot, and it’s always right for collaboration. It’s definitely something that keeps me working here.
JB: A common language has to be developed and exchanged. When I’ve heard these stories and seen artifacts from these events in the past, there was something unified happening. The artifacts of those performances were all informing each other and generating this KC aesthetic.
LR: This is just KC. I don’t think it’s a thing that has been brought or made by one person. This place has weird history. We were the stop on the way from Chicago to Las Vegas for the mob. And then we were one of the first stops on the Oregon trail. We were also this lawless, strange place during Prohibition and to this day our jurisdiction is only filtered through the capital because nobody is trusted. It’s just a weird place! All kinds of weird collaborations start here that lead on to new groups, and a lot of those artists who leave Kansas City develop whole other communities of friends and mesh them together, so then we know people all over the place.
MM: I have some friends in New York, for example, who are running businesses or getting high up in swanky crazy places, and they say that if they’re interviewing someone from Kansas City, they always give them the job. They look out for that because they know they’re hard workers and trustworthy, which I know is a generalization, but there’s definitely a unity in that here. People who leave KC, even the ones who don’t come back, constantly say they miss the people and the feeling here. There’s definitely a Midwestern charm that’s part of the package, which I think is worth something. And the coasts aren’t the only places on earth.
MA: It sounds like the performance symposium you’re organizing, Jessica, couldn’t be coming to a better place at a better time. What will that entail?
JB: The performance symposium, which is called Yeah, No I Mean It: Time, Situation, Dexterity, is from April 16-19 at La Esquina, and the idea is to combine practitioners, students, and educators within Kansas City who have performative based practices alongside national artists. There will be three evenings of performance, and I’ve also invited two curators—Eames Armstrong from DC as well as Joseph Ravens from Chicago—and they’ll also be on a panel discussion about curating performance. Following that will be a workshop, and anyone is welcome. Even if you can’t make the performances, you can still meet with the artists for the workshop. The curators will also be doing studio visits for Charlotte Street, so this is an opportunity for some of that cross-communication to happen, where people are making work alongside one another. I want to start doing something like what Eames did for DC, and now she’s really developed. She got funding for a huge performance art symposium—Supernova—which was unbelievable. When we start to do that, start to build all sorts of partnerships around something that is different, it becomes more conversational. So that’s what I’m hoping for with the symposium—to start building that conversation and bringing more people into Kansas City.
LR: I think it’s very important for more people to come here and see what we’re about.
JB: As you guys know, it really doesn’t take much. I bring people in from out of town and all it takes is a drink or two, maybe some barbeque, and to meet the people here, and all of a sudden they see the appeal of living and making work in Kansas City.
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Jessica Borusky is a current Artist in Residence at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s Urban Culture Project as well as a performance art educator at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She has a BA in performance theory/ visual art/ gender studies from the New College of Florida and an MFA from Tufts University/ School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Dynamic creative duo Leone Reeves and Megan Mantia have shared a collaborative performance practice since their days of forming the radical cheerleading squad Rah! Booty at the Kansas City Art Institute. Their current on-going project “The Year of Dreams” follows their immersions into social microcosms throughout the United States such as The Mermaid Parade and The Gathering of the Juggalos.