An atom, as Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary states, is the smallest particle of an element that can exist either alone or in combination.
An atom is an impetus of unrequited potential that can direct invariable variables. There is an innate sense of isolation or perhaps remoteness in the noun, for the sheer being has nothing synonymous to its “being”; one sees present a huge one-ness to its existence. “The Atom”, or “An Atom”: a one of a kind of indivisible entity at the bottom of the biological cycle. Before you start wondering why you are reading a prelude to a “Introduction to Science 101” by an artist who might think she has had a scientific epitome, I would like to take this (coincidental) moment to relate why I thought of writing about the atom (all of a sudden) today. Perhaps one wonders how far science can affect the ways we perceive the world. I find myself seeing similar patterns to a lot of early 20th century modern art, in which the artist would create a post-cathartic expression, would express a sense of self or perhaps interpretation of life. In all totality, we do observe that this expression began from an end to itself. The artist was “an individual”, isolated from the strata of society, someone who perhaps looked at the world from a way that can only be observed and not shared. The society was outside of him and of what he created. This invisible wall that the artist created (pun intended), seemed to be further layered by critics and gallerists with a sense of isolationism to what was being created. Holiness was sprinkled on to objects, preserving them as artifacts.
For a long time the debate of postmodernity has revolved around the relationship and effect of one object, event or act on another. How individualistic are we in our being? How removed is one act to another in life? Postmodern artists contest within the pluralism of society and in the relationship that can be created between art and life. Are there any parallels that run between art and life manifesting and complementing each other? Quite directly, one sees this in “relational aesthetics”, a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a sense of community and communal activity in art, and the way the artist pragmatically involves the viewer in the work. The body and presence of the viewers and the work becomes synonymous and there remains no sense of awkward isolationism or division in their space.
Contemporary performance lends heavily from life. Ranging from theatre to action art, to ritual or shamanistic performances, to durational works, one sees a sense of collectivity and a direct influence from the society. Artists reflect quite boldly on events that have affected them and their bodies directly or indirectly, representing their culture through a universal language that can cut across cultures. This sense of holistic collectivity can be observed in performance art festivals that have recently started to be hosted by non-profit galleries and theatres around the world.
Rapid Pulse held their fourth International Performance Art Festival at Defibrillator Gallery, hosted by Joseph Raven, gallery director, and Giana Gambino, assistant director, earlier this summer in Chicago. They invited international artists to perform and present their work and participate in various discussions, talks and workshops. As one of the participating artist and also a viewer, this one-week of intense participation got me thinking about the relationship of art and society and the potential of contemporary art to have an impact larger any cultural construct of the body. Contemporary performance moves beyond the body and enters the strata of social impact and its relation to those events and actions that frame the body.
The festival was divided into two weeks; the gallery hosted various performances starting from noon until 11 pm at numerous venues. There was a range of works one could attend, with site-specific performances, durational works, participatory performances and short intimate live works as well. The presence and proximity of the viewer was crucial to all the works. One could find moments where the artists were repeating an action through the entire performance slowly creating a sense of transitive aura around themselves that the viewers could share. In most of the works the audience could choose to go as close to the performer as possible; there was no sense of boundary or bifurcation inherent in the works. Where one found the participation of the viewer latent in some of the works, there were other performances where their presence was overtly demanded. The viewers could physically participate in the works and the performance actively.
American artist Sara Morawetz, performed Action/Reaction for two days, six hours on the first and eight on the second. The performance happened inside the storefront of the gallery where the artist performed, facing the people on the street. The glass window provided a division and a non-division between the artist and the viewer. One could observe that the performer had gathered a collection of everyday objects ranging from stationery, to eatables, to some furniture. In the corner of the window she carefully placed a set of instructions for viewers and a stack of post-its and pens. The viewers could write a set of instructions, acts or actions for the performer to enact, interpret or subvert during the duration of the performance. The performance carefully orchestrated the sense of space and communication between people. The audacity and spontaneity that the performance invoked in the viewer was heightened with a sense of self-reflection of what act one would opt for another. There seemed to be a sense of inherent power that the performance infiltrated into the conversation with the viewer. To some. it might have seemed transgressive and fearsome, whereas for others it opened a door of catharsis. There was a thrill and suspense that remained throughout the performance; the element of surprise was quite actively blending with dread for some unexpected action that might be demanded or occur.
Bernardo Stumph, from Brazil, trained as a dance, performed an intense work. Stumph’s piece seemed extremely physically exhaustive. With the audience seated by the walls inside the gallery, Stumph used the entire floor to perform a set of actions. Starting from slow stretches to fast paced jumps and glides, the movements built in pace and energy as time progressed. Stumph covered his face with the red shirt he was wearing prior to starting the performance. The minimal aesthetics of using nothing but the shirt to tie his face and head as a turban/mask were transitioned smoothly into the performance. People usually utilizes eye contact to connect with another person, and in the absence of that, one finds oneself bewildered, apprehensive or disengaged. This apparent resistance was something heightened in Stumph’s performance, and the fact that his face was covered allowed one to pay attention to the weight and movement of his body. Slowly the performance entered to an aggressive mode, with him throwing and tossing his body over his knees, ankles and shoulders. His acts unraveled the obstructions and limits of external pressures that exacerbate the body, forcing it to scream and cry out loud. The performance was a critique on the way the dichotomy of the “internal” and “external” forces people face can leave them handicapped and physically confined, while simultaneously infiltrating similar anxieties into the viewer. The performance endswhere the performer gets rid of all the bondages and slowly glides towards the wall, standing and facing the corner of the gallery. He frees himself.
Other artists that participated in festival were Yolanda Benalba, who performed a short, powerful piece commenting on the injustices done to women in Spain. Sarah Berkely performed a long durational piece where she dug a hole in the ground and stuck her head into it from 9 am to 5 pm. Other performers included Larissa Kopp, Marilyn Arsem, Paris Lagekis, Mitsu Salmon, Miao Jiaxin, John G Boehme, Lechedevirgen Trimegisto, Amitis, Motevalli, Atom-r and Adam Gruba.
Avant-gardists have time and again negated the sense of individual production and individual reception. Whether the reaction is provocative or applause, it provides an antithesis between producer and recipient. Works at Rapid Pulse 2015 were in conversation and contact with society directly and indirectly, with the active attendance and participation of local art appreciators and visitors in the city; the festival also attracted artists and critics from Europe. It is a sense of collective activity and participation that lends ways for the work to impact and question the praxis of life and its relationship to one’s own body and being.
Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival took place in June 2015 in Chicago.
Natasha Jozi is a performance artist, poet and writer. With a Masters in Studio Arts majoring in Performance art from Montclair University, she currently resides and works in Islamabad.