Self Expression Night: Complicity, Resistance, and the Touchy-Feely in Bay Area Performance Art

Frankie America and Me. Future Sausage, 2010; performance;
November 26, 2010 at the Shelf Gallery, Columbus, OH. Courtesy of the Artists.

Each performance executed during last month’s Self Expression Night: Bios_Fear took up the form of performance art as fragmentary, fractured, durational, tactile, and, at times, multimedia. The special touring installment occupied Los Angeles’ Hi-Lite project space on March 17 and San Francisco’s Bay Area 51 the following night. Harkening back to counterculture of the 1960s, these artists experimented in redefining the relationship between the self and society. At its core, Self Expression Night grappled with the legacy of expressive excess specific to those radical movements, but activated viewers by implicating them obtusely into the production of a work of art. Both jarring viewers into experiencing a set of emotions or sensations and imparting an ideological or ontological framework, they used strategies that played with the liveness and physical presence of their bodies. Concurrently engaging with theatricality, props, and scripting, Self Expression Night artists explored the filters that make locating the self, not only in society, but even in one’s own body, tricky territory.

Adeptly steering a course through a sea of cultural debris, Dutch artist Renée van Trier addressed archetypes and projected identity, considering the specific perception of constructed American identity: that of the westward bound. As she made rounds in a series of circuit stations, she repeatedly changed costumes, stripped down, layered up, and fiddled around with dollar-store trinkets. She began as a creepy-doll version of a power suit–clad corporate-America-church-lady whose atonal theme song, “I choose to love life, I choose to love me,” reverberated through the space like a prolonged Twin Peaks theme. Van Trier later transformed into a possessed and wriggling cowgirl as she yelped “Howdy! Howdy!” and straddled a sawhorse. Her final change found the artist as a landscape-print-swimsuit-and-wind-chime-adorned-folksy-new-age-kook singing about wind ornaments and spraying aerosol room freshener. Her performance brought to the fore the unfeasibility of a true, interior self in the face of prescribed character models. Her unabashed, confident—and yet awkward—use of her own body blurred the line between spontaneous action and predetermined gesture, nodding to the complex relationship between cultural resistance and complicity. This demonstration of a mistrust of the notion of “true” experience, by performing superficial facets of contemporary American identities, lamented the ungraspable condition of an unmediated experience.

Renée van Trier. SANDY MEETS SOUTHPOLE, 2011; performance, part 1 of 2;
March 17, 2011 at Hi-Lite, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Artist.

This limited sort of question focuses on the relationship between individual and cultural experience, and many of the other works in Self Expression Night also attempted to unhinge these two from one another. Locating a confusion at the transformation of the act of eating from a vital human behavior into one of hyper-mediation, Frankie America and Me (Harry Crofton and Sarah Bernat) rerouted commonplace supermarket commodities. Compelled by food packaging that doesn’t describe its simple use but rather an abstract experience that a consumer will have when using the product, Crofton concocted a recipe from these arbitrary ingestion-experience vessels. Altogether audibly aggressive and confrontational in tone, Bernat provided an earsplitting, disjointed, and cacophonous soundtrack as Crofton spilled processed food products onto the floor, mixed them around, and jammed the resulting gloop into a condom with a willing participant’s cell phone.

Chaotic and seemingly unrehearsed, Crofton spouted both aspirations of togetherness in one instance, and in the next read from a script of slammed together words and phrases. This herky-jerky spoken word mirrored the way in which the piece’s disparate ideas and products were also literally jammed together in a yearning to create something—anything—new. In opposition to the dumb, mute quality of the final object—a cell phone stuffed into a condom with processed food sludge—the duo charged and abjectly sexualized their own bodies, donning fishnet body stockings, bikini tops, and American flag–themed apparel. Inverting a common body-positive strategy of ”self expression” that takes for granted the nude human form as a purer form, Frankie America and Me presented the body as a never-neutral site for conveying meaning but an always necessarily politicized site onto which meaning is inscribed.

Frankie America and Me. Future Sausage, 2010; performance;
November 26, 2010 at the Shelf Gallery, Columbus, OH. Courtesy of the Artists.

The works that manifest in this necessarily autonomous zone—a space in which art can be created for the purpose of contemplation—offer to the viewer neither a utopian promise for tomorrow’s tomorrow nor a new model for better living. Instead, they open up a space for the viewer to reflect upon the stupid, paralyzing puzzle of contemporary American existence and the role of art in our day-to-day Facebook-addled realities. Frankie Martin’s pseudo-live Skyped-inTrapped in the Web (2011) is part of a series in which Martin’s body is the subject that inhabits a material representation of non-spaces that take their cues from the works of artists in major art movements. Relying on puns, color coordination, and the limitations of digital media’s visual language, Martin used her own body to flatten out and transpose the physical into, onto, and around the nonmaterial, digital space of the Internet.

As a counterpart, Jonah Susskind’s Vortex (2011) used live-action video mixing to erase his physical presence. As the performance began, the artist’s prerecorded voice recited a set of instructions for the execution and completion of this artwork. As the voice described props that should have populated the visual field, another audio loop began: a woman’s voice, almost hysterical with conviction, described the many ways one can feel in the Vortex, repeating, “When I’m in the Vortex, I feel… when I’m in the Vortex…” Meanwhile, a monitor displayed a live feed of the artist with his props. Chroma-keyed-out against the green backdrop, Susskind was rendered invisible by his green bodysuit.

On the monitor, YouTube videos of tornadoes swirling around in the world were keyed in behind the holographic trophies, picture frames, iridescent junk, tinsel, and a landscape centerfold that emerged sometimes in correspondence with the instructions and other times not. After the detritus piled up, the artist was instructed to bind the objects, and they swirled around on-screen, mimicking the motion of the tornadoes in the background. Both through temporal incongruence with the recorded instructions and through the imposition of digital immateriality upon his body, Susskind was able to achieve a nuanced, complexly layered uncertainty about the invisibility of artistic labor, while also leaving room for viewers to recognize the art object as an utterly arbitrary prop. Both art object and artist occupied a world between embodiment and disembodiment, physical and digital, at once themselves and the image of themselves.

Though critical and confrontational in tone, the set of performances wasn’t quite transgressive. Rather it embraced the trap of resistant gestures—the flip side of counterculture in which these gestures simply produce new forms of consumerism and actually do little to topple political and economic institutions. The individual performances simultaneously scrutinized and celebrated feel-good, mushy-love aspects of open-ended, uncritical modes of “self-expression” that can come hand in hand with self-proclaimed counterculture identity groups.

By the same token, Eric Svedas‘ flustered and purposefully mediocre characters continually flirted with failure—he willfully left viewers perplexed as he balanced on a tightrope between performance art and stand-up comedy. Outfitted in a grim reaper’s cloak and full corpse paint, his humorous, frustrated rant about airport body scans and suspicions of being monitored by the CIA spoke to a despondent affect at one’s complicity in the disenfranchisement of the right to one’s own person. Strategically making viewers acutely aware of themselves, the prevalence of a theatrical dynamic between performer and spectator reinforced a traditional relationship in which producer transmits meaning to receiver.

Sifting through the potentials and limitations of these ideals, performers were encouraged to “engage in a dialogue about the ‘current state’ of the world and how it relates to personal exploration of inner and outer realities.”1 The original formulation of this quasi-regular event welcomes performers of all types, though limited, to perform the works they’ve been developing for an audience. The event’s anything-goes attitude refuses professionalism in the realm of art, opting instead for the most sincere yet sardonic embrace of “aesthetic sense, love of nature, passion for music, desire for reflection, and strongly marked independence.”2

Self Expression Night shares with “counterculture” the perception of fundamentally fucked-up structures that limit how we can conceive of individual and collective potential, normalize disenfranchisement, and suppress whatever we might regard as “real” freedom. However, unlike 1960s and ’70s formulations of the Age of Aquarius, in which world strife is a symptom of the inevitable dismantling of those damaging sociopolitical values and institutions, the artists involved in Self Expression Night are just about maxed out. There probably isn’t any revolution that will give way to an evolution in our consciousness or our understanding of our place here on planet Earth.

Rejecting art institutions, these artists playfully tried to understand the role of art practice and production focused on a very specific time and place. Despite a sort of sense of disillusionment that was fostered, it is important to note these artists’ genuine desire for collaboration to make a rule-less space, “to create a conceptual and physical space that had no boundaries other than our imaginations” in which to rethink these complex and contradictory structures.3

What is more, this framework’s strength lies in the fact that the works happen and happen again. Like iterations of counterculture that spring up through the decades, these performances transform over time in response to the feedback received from audience members. Last month’s installments demonstrated this unfixed temperament succinctly. The one-day timespan between the performances in Los Angeles and San Francisco cultivated unrehearsed collaboration between performers, translation of performances into stand-alone videos, and continuations of serial episodes, as well as reiterations of slightly altered performances. By preserving a social atmosphere and experimental attitude, the tongue-in-cheek tone both endorsed the types of freedoms we know we ought to have and, at the same time, reacted to the fact that these types of freedoms are absolutely unknowable.

Without taking recourse to a more obviously democratic model that would sublate the art object or gesture into the praxis of everyday life, this rubric, in a sort of contradictory way, engaged with those everyday experiences thematically, sidestepping an escalation to primacy. Unlike more relational models’ claims to social action, political engagement, and audience participation liaising between art and daily praxis,Self Expression Night’s ambivalent rubric declined to offer alternative or new models for living. Topically politicized, the individual works didn’t energize the audience directly as collaborators in production of the works. Instead, the platform itself implicated viewers in this way. As a catalyst for the conversations and interactions to take place in and around the art and over the duration of the event, it was hardly the touchy-feely, uncritical, narcissistic, and depoliticized event that the title Self Expression Night would imply. The artists’ commitment to eliminating hierarchy in experience worked for better or worse to limit and abstract the trauma and suffering that actual bodies experience, opting instead to use fragments humorously to loosely point to larger troubles at hand.

In this spectrum, Self Expression Night is tied more closely to the genre of institutional critique, aiming to lay bare normalizing structures that govern our routine existence. Offering up these systems for consideration, the endpoint is the same as their countercultural and relational counterparts: intention and context matter. Perhaps, as Marvin Carlson wrote about the development of performance art in relation to both theatre and the art historical narrative, Self Expression Night’s negotiation of the terrain between complicity and critique here is not solely in the service of “foster[ing] the growth of knowledge, but to restructure experience… and demonstrate how interpretive strategies and practices are themselves called into being.”4 As a balancing act between autonomous and relational practices—two contradictory sets of values—the transgressive temperament of each performance framed under the rubric of Self Expression Night: Bios_Fear refused depoliticization and willfully stood at odds with itself.

This essay was originally posted on Art Practical.


1. Self Expression Night: Bios_Fear press release.
2. Jentri Anders, Beyond Counterculture (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 1990).
3. Eric Svedas, E-mail message to author, April 7, 2011.
4. Marvin Carlson, Performance Art: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2003), 208.

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