Envisioning and Embodying Freedom

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LabBodies’ Freedom Free-Done Performance Art Review Explores the Timeless Theme of Freedom by Angela N. Carroll

With every brave #METOO declaration, every future reduced to a tally of Baltimore’s rising death toll, every lie told in defense of white supremacy, I am reminded how fragile freedom has always been for so many. We, the ones who are sexualized, silenced and shamed, surveilled and arrested, murdered and brutalized, humiliated, appropriated and blacklisted walk with the weight and residue of institutionalized inequity, patriarchy, racism, classism, and incomprehensible ignorance.

In the face of an overwhelming persistence of local, national, and international disparities, corruptions and assaults on basic civil liberties, it is telling and timely that Dr. H Corona and Dr. A. Pinkston chose freedom as an explorative prompt for participants in LabBodies‘ annual Performance Art Review at SpaceCamp this month, where a collection of immersive installations and live performances have transformed the gallery into a site for critical discourse on freedom. Freedom Free-Done examines all of this and more, but also offers reflective affirmations visualizing freedom’s potential, and how collective and individual imaginings about freedom can dismantle the decrepit and exclusive systems that threaten to destroy the world.

The beauty of LabBodies Performance Art Review is that you never know what to expect until you are sharing observant, participatory space with the artists as they perform. Each performance and installation is a disruptive and engaging encounter that problematizes, critiques, and demands attention while the installation work enhances and expounds on the ideas performed.

I attended opening night on Friday November 10, and witnessed dynamic performances by Carrie Fucile, Megan Livingston, Park Hyun Gi, and Erick Antonio Benitez with Domineka Reeves.

In “Occupational Enterprises,” Carrie Fucile used her body and the route act of constructing and deconstructing brick formations to critique cultural production and labor force within art museums and galleries. Her sixty-minute performance was a meditative and laborious expose; Fucile had to pause to catch her breath or wipe sweat from her brow as she arranged white bricks into unstable constructions and then mindlessly destroyed them. The audible process of the performance, the stacking and collapse of bricks, was transmitted by small microphones and broadcast back into the gallery as a cacophonous reverberating soundscape intermittently distorted by the artists manipulation of a series of effects pedals. The droning sounds coupled with Fucile’s monotonous movements was both hypnotizing and robotic.

As Fucile toppled her frail structures and backed away to avoid the projectile scatter of brick fragments against the gallery floor, I wondered what kind of reformative processes ‘white cube’ arts institutions would have to engage to become less exclusive, less elite, and more reflective of their surrounding communities. What needs to be shattered and what will be resurrected in place of what was lost? “Can we free ourselves from these tangled structures?” Fucile asked in the accompanying wall text, stating that “Occupational Enterprises” demonstrates the ongoing effort to do so.

Megan Livingston’s participatory choose-your-own-adventure style performance “Freeing Us Is Easy” offered observers the chance to “Take a walk in a Black Megan’s shoes. See if it makes you want to sing, too.”

As Livingston sang and read from a series of self-reflective poems, audience members were invited to click through prompts on a laptop, projected onto the gallery wall, that revealed narrative prose and intimacies about the character, Black Megan. The work iterates the black body and black consciousness as a virtual landscape, that through exploration uncovers the artist’s thoughts about freedom, what it has been in the life of Black Megan, and what it could be for others. The subtle tongue-in-cheek irony of the performance and accompanying non-linear visual narration explore the raced and classed assumptions one may make about a girl named Megan.

Like Becky, Megan is a name presumed to be given to white, privileged women. Livingston, who describes herself as “brown-skinned and nappy-headed,” tugs at these presumptions, and communicates truths about the life and experiences of Black Megan. By clicking on different prompts, like “at the family reunion,” “black church,” “hair stories,” “the revolution,” or “the suburbs,” users glean memories from Black Megan’s girlhood. At the end of each new window there is an affirming proclamation: “No one can take it from you.” Clicking on the affirmation takes you home, back the start of your journey as Black Megan, but it allows you to explore a new pathway. In “Freeing Us is Easy,” freedom comes from empathy, and allowing oneself to temporarily exist in segments of Black Megan’s pursuit towards self-discovery and meaning.

“Untitled (ritual)” from Park Hyun Gi considers identity and Korean shamanism as a site from which to assess and engage freedom. “The performance is a healing ceremony to the repressed traumas of my sexual assault, my parent’s rejection, and society’s rejection of women of color,” Hyun Gi noted in her wall statement. A large white scroll segmented a portion of the gallery into a ritualized space. Red candles, altar pieces, and bowls filled with oranges were arranged on top. Hyun Gi wore a red jumpsuit and black knee-high platform boots, while her assistant wore a white beekeepers helmet and suit. Neither spoke as the assistant cautiously placed short incense sticks between Hyun Gi’s fingers and lit them.

The scene felt like an excerpt from Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, a mundane action heightened by alchemical process, and conscious ritualization. Park Hyun Gi walked through the gallery, smudging, clearing, filling the space with the scent of the handmade incense, many of the materials sourced from her own bodily fluids and hair. Within minutes, you could see the pained expression on her face as the incense shortened to burning nubs that singed her skin. After a significant period of time, long enough to notice the burning, long enough to see the reddening of her fingers and the watering of her eyes, Hyun Gi removed the sticks, laid down onto the scroll and carved the characters of an inherited talisman into the flesh of oranges softened by rolling them on her back. The collection of oranges inscribed with the protection and power of her bloodline, lineages, belief systems, inherited powers, are placed in bags and smashed to pulp. Hyun Gi poured the charged juice into a cup, drank it and walked away.

There is a lot to unpack and access with the ritual Hyun Gi creates. “These performances inherently embody the idea of borders, as mental or physical limits of exhaustion, or expectations of an audience or myself,” the artist shared. We, the audience, winced when she did, breathed in her scent, sat silently as she exorcised the traumas and was reborn. For Park Hyun Gi, freedom and healing are synonymous, interchangeable, and accessible tools.

The last performance, “Eroica,” a collaborative effort from Erik Antonio Benitez and Domineka Reeves, combined a multimedia installation comprised of video and sound projections with modern dance. The core of the performance is an examination of origins, roots, and the impact that knowing (or one’s inability to know) has on the identities of African American women.

A mound of sand and dead leaves establish the stage. A small bowl filled with black charcoal powder sat on top of the sand mound. Reeves’ soft, playful movements quickly shifted to erratic, distressed chopping motions, when the black substance in the jar that she rubbed onto her skin could not easily be removed. Her brown was stained charcoal black. The performance triggers long histories of Black women’s struggles to embrace and revere black aesthetics. “To create freedom where it was not given, to find freedom where it was lost, to manifest freedom where it was forgotten are all questions that “Eroica” invites the viewer to reflect upon,” Benitez and Reeves noted.

LabBodies’ Freedom Free-Done Performance Art Review not just an accomplished performance art and installation series, worthy of consideration because of the quality of participating artists and topical relevance in troubling times. Larger than that, the series exemplifies the potential for freedom that art and artists can offer one another and to an engaged audience. This is a tangible and empowering opportunity to query freedom, encounter freedom, and trouble freedom.

LabBodies annual Performance Art Review, Freedom Free-Done, a marathon showcase of emerging and established, local and visiting performance artists at SpaceCamp will run from November 10 – November 30, 2017. Check out the next set of live performances this Friday November 17

Featured artists include: Tanya Garcia, Najee Haynes-Follins, Julia Kim-Smith, Sarah Stefana, Helina Metafareria, Carrie Fucile, Park Hyun Gi, Neka Reeves and Erick Antonio Benitez, Megan Livingston, Lynn Hunter, Alex D’Agostino, and legendary poet/educator/activist Olufunmike Butterfly Woods.

Photos by Alexandro Orengo, courtesy LabBodies

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