Labbodies Baltimore Borders: A Performance Art Review
By Angela N. Carroll
Part 2: July 27, 29, & 30
Labbodies Baltimore Borders: A Performance Art Review was an emotionally stimulating and triggering smorgasbord of critical creative explorations.
For four nights at Station North’s SpaceCamp Gallery, twenty-five dynamic Baltimore based artists performed works that spanned the grotesque and divine. Performances included work by Jacob Budenz, Christina Joseph, Matthew Williams, Alex D’agostino, Sarah Eargle, Christine Ferrera, Carly J. Bales, Laure Drogul, Chanan Delivuk, Yuqi Wang & Selina Doroshenko, Nicoletta de la Brown, Waquia Abdul-Kareem, Kariz Marcel, Tsedaye Makonnen, Kristin McWharter, Laura Weiner & Christianna Clark, Esther Baker-Tarpaga, and Sophia Mak.
I witnessed surreal repetition, freaky sexy hurt, and transformative meditations on migration and loss. I watched the consumption of indigestible whiteness. I pinned wings to the body of a bloody swan. Every night required audience participation; an interactive engagement and conscious observation with performances that contextualized the rally cries of our generation, and the stories that stretch beyond the borders of the charm. What follows are quick thoughts and rambles. Fleeting points of inspiration or images that stuck with me from the performances I was able to witness.
Sarah Eargle, “Slicing Onions”, 2014
Sarah Eargle places two large baskets of onions beside a table and podium settled in a corner of the gallery. She pulls one out and peels it. The peels are thrown onto the table. She chops the onion, pushes the dicings to the side and bends to grab another onion from the basket. This action is repeated for hours.
The only time she broke the rhythm was to wipe tears from her face or remove an article of clothing. It was not long before she had stripped down to her underwear and the table was buried beneath piles of diced onion and discarded skin. The onions overflowed onto the floor. The smell stung the eyes of everyone standing within twenty feet of the table. Most patrons relocated to the other side of the gallery to protect their eyes.
The brave ones stood at a podium five feet from the chopping to listen to a recording of a woman discussing a relationship that did not end well. An intimate and painful exchange. You never adjust to the onions. We all cried together.
“Slicing Onions” was invasive; a painfully immersive endurance meditation. My eyes stung long after I left the show. I can only imagine how Eargle’s felt. In many ways Slicing Onions was wasteful, and perhaps performing wastefulness is in and of itself a critique on waste, wasted potential, or wasted time in a dead end relationship.
Alex D’agostino, The Swan: A Serial Killer Ballet Pt. II
A bloody swan stumbles on pointe towards a soap box. Twirls. Contorts its body into beautiful poses. Vougues. Blood drips from the swan’s head down across his chest and stains his white tutu and speedo red. The swan twitches and postures. Each jerking motion releases a flutter of the swans feathers onto the gallery floor.
“There’s a lot of dead queer people right now.”
D’agnostino dances around the gallery. Stopping abruptly in front of an onlooker, he explains, “I need more feathers. I’m trying to fly, but need more feathers.”
He points, directing a patron towards feathered clothing pins scattered around the space. “I need more feathers,” he repeats. The patron walks to grab a feather and pins it to D’agnostino’s skin. “I need more feathers,” he repeats. No one moves.
“Give me some fucking wings!”
A few viewers startle to attention and hustle to find a feather. Slowly more join the ritual that will launch D’agnostino into flight.
You have to pinch and pull at the skin of the swan for the clothing pin feather to attach. Each attempt stains fingers with sweat and blood. Some people pinned the feather to sensitive areas. Most pierced feathers to excess flesh or lace on the swans’ tutu.
The swan flaps and floats around the gallery and perches atop a soapbox near a crumpled rainbow flag. The swan texts and rambles about social media, nihilism, cats, vegan cashew cheese; all of the mundane pastimes that keep our attention. All the distractions that retard empathetic response, desensitize us to tune out the world. If only folks cared about mass murder the way they do viral videos and selfies. Daily death as hashtag, soundbite, meme. Visceral realities machete into consumable chunks. The bloody swan is informed by an increased global violence. The bludgeoning of othered, marginalized bodies around the world, shedding their wings. The battered swans lay bleeding out on nightclub floors, unarmed in city streets, or their homes.
“There’s a lot of dead queer people right now. There’s a lot of dead queer people.” The soap box and the gallery became a confessional. The bloody swan invoked the spirits of those nonsensically slaughtered.
“You can forget about it because you can go to yoga. You can watch cat videos or make cashew cheese.”
The Swan: A Serial Killer Ballet Pt. II, was a beautiful and disturbing rumination on normalized in-difference to the violences that happen to marginalized bodies, and LGBTQ bodies and psyches in particular.
Nicoletta de la Brown – Negrita Doctress
Doctresses bear many names: Negress, bruja, light worker, negrita, medusa, healer. It is believed that the intentioned actions of a doctress can transmute and transform energy, people, and circumstances. Brown’s performance intimately channeled these women and the divine indigenous sciences they practice.
The Negrita Doctress sits fanning herself on a bench in front of a small altar of sacred objects. She gets up swaying her hips and fan in sync with Afro-Latin rhythms. With the flick of her fan, Negrita stretches out a hand to invite passersby to dance with her. Most allow themselves to be led by the rhythms around the altar to a bench. Negrita kneels on the floor before the seated patient, smoothes Florida water into the palms lifeline. A small jewel is pushed into the center. Negrita closes her eyes. Whispers silently. I closed my eyes too, intrigued by the thin line between imagination and reality. Time escapes me. A fleeting exchange. I opened my eyes to find Negrita beaming back. The ritual had concluded. The blessing was sealed.
The patrons who sat as patients smiled as they left the altar. Nicoletta de la Brown, Negrita Doctress conjures a universal divine feminine magic, a love song to matrilineal memory and the power of indigenous practices.
Waquia Abdul-Kareem – Ash
Ash is a video projection. A woman squats down inside of a small square to pump lotion into her hand. She spreads the lotion onto her body. She repeats the action until a thick layer of lotion covers the entirety of her brown skin. She is white. She stoops down to remove the top from an urn. She reaches into it and pulls out a handful of ash. Waquia spreads the ash onto her white lotion-laden skin. She is blackening herself. The white transforms to an unnatural ashy black. She repeats the action until all of the thick white is covered by ash. Adbul-Kareem transforms into a monument. The concrete base that supports her bares a plaque:
In Memory of
All the black bodies
That have fallen before me
So that I might stand
Before all of you
Waquia Abdul Kareem- For the Love of Whiteness, 2015
Live performance: A montage of white smiling faces flash across the backdrop. A white feast is spread onto the table. Waquia Abdul Kareem wears all black.
How to make a white sandwich: Place handfuls of marshmallow onto a slice of white bread. Spread several knife loads of mayo onto the marshmallows. Pour on mounds of white sugar and add a glass of milk to wash it all down. Use only bleached foods; foods synthetically rendered white.
The juxtaposition of the smiling white faces montage set against Abdul Kareems struggle to eat the “sandwich” creates a complicated conflation between the white food and “white” people.
What is “whiteness” anyway? George Lipsitz offers a critical contemplation from his seminal work The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the “White” Problem in American Studies, 1995:
“As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”
“For the Love of Whiteness” interrogates the notion that assimilation will secure a position of privilege for non-white bodies. When I say privilege, I refer to the full constitutionally mandated access to freedoms supposedly inherent with one’s American citizenship status, but historically proven to be dismantled and exquisitely lax in relation to non-white bodied citizens. A pronounced misnomer in social inclusion rhetoric believes that the American dream is attainable through assimilation. Moving as if one were privileged affords one equal privileges despite your race, gender, or creed. The recorded violences of the last few years that have occurred to non-white bodies have proven those theories false.
Abdul-Kareem attempts to consume whiteness are violently uncomfortable to watch, and equally difficult to turn away from. She shoves forkfuls of the white meal down her throat. Chokes. Calms the gagging by taking a gulp of milk. Gags. All of the whiteness comes up. She swallows another forkful. Adds more sugar. More mayo. Forces more forkfuls until she vomits again. Assimilation is violent and uncomfortable.
Esther Baker-Tarpaga’s “Whitemilk#fucktrump”
Esther Baker-Tarpaga is an All-American. Her American flag themed bikini and cape presumes her patriotism. She hyper-gleefully dances around the gallery handing out cans of Coca-Cola. Politics has become as theatrical and disappointing as the caricatured figure Baker-Tarpaga portrays. Citizens have become gullible consumers.
A mass of orange fabric sits against the wall. The All American renders her flag cape into a mask. She tugs at the orange mass and drags it out into the center of the gallery. Several ends are handed to other observers in the audience. The orange mass becomes a web that hovers above the ground. The All American tangles a random viewer in the web with gold cloth. The All American tugs and the gold mass follows.
The orange mass could symbolize anything. Old world philosophy. Capital. The burden of consumption. The convergence of real and hyper-real; televised performance and political theatre. Empire. Trump’s fading hair and spray tan.
The All-American pulls the mass through the gallery and outside into the rain. Others from the audience connect themselves to the web. Walk aimlessly connected to the web into the rain. Follow the performance until they are drenched.
The Trump effect. The bells and whistles, slurs and actions that trigger mass passive subconscious acceptance and agreement. Groupthink. Scary shit.
Trump is as over-the-top as the All-American Baker-Tarpaga performs. Just as empty. Her performance reminds us that blindly following shiny distraction is unwise. That Trump’s supporters will follow him blindly into the acid rain of nuclear war. They will cheer him as he invites other nations to hack the identities of American citizens. They will celebrate him and his insane mediocrity for as long as they are entertained by it. Cue the “Proud to be American” soundtrack.
Trump is a sticky orange mass, a tricky slippery distraction tool, pulling all of us outside of ourselves. The world does not function like a reality television show. Lives are being lost. Murderers are not being prosecuted. A corrupt celebrity is running for one of the highest positions in the land. Shit is real. I appreciate when artists can clearly reiterate those realities, in the hopes that we will see and act. Learn that buying into illusions will not secure your future, the future of your families, the planet.
Labbodies: Baltimore Borders A Performance Art Review was inspiring, but no amount of eloquence can fully capture the energy of a live performance. When fourth walls shatter, you are forced to tune in, to take in the actions happening before you. It is in those moments of observation and interaction that a performance breathes. When it’s really good, it feeds you. It could have been horrible cramming that many performers into four nights. Labbodies managed to curate an exceptional show.
By the fourth night I felt a satisfying exhaustion from observing the enormity of it all. I wished that I was able to attend Thursday’s performances and I’m still processing much of what I saw: the beauty of it, the way the disturbing stayed with me. I had no words for much of what I witnessed, so I sat in silent awe. Great performances will leave you stuck.
Author Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of contemporary culture.
Labbodies: Performance Review 2016 happened Wednesday, July 27th – Saturday July 30 in Baltimore’s Spacecamp.
Photos by Hoesy Corona and Ada Pinkston
Header photo by Tsedaye Makonnen of “Lost and Loss”