One of my first encounters with Labbodies was by happenstance. I stumbled upon a performance by Bobby English, just walking down a dusty hallway in the Copycat Building. He was wearing a loin cloth, his torso was encased inside a cage-like iron construction. The weight of the cage labored his stride. Its jagged edges scratched and bloodied his back and forearms. He sang as he paced and only stopped occasionally to smash concrete slabs scattered along the floor with an iron rod. The sound of iron against concrete was high-pitched and resonant, a bright ping that vibrated in the inner ear and rippled through the narrow hall. His durational performance went on for hours. I learned that disruption always requires a witness and any site can be a stage.
Performance artists are architects of uncomfortable and invasive engagements. Labbodies, a Baltimore-based performance collective creating platforms for emerging artists working in time-based media, works with this tradition, challenging perceptions about what art is and how it should be experienced.
Hoesy Corona and Ada Pinkston were inspired to create Labbodies after witnessing a presentation from critic and performance artist Coco Fusco in which she reenacted excerpts from her 2013 performance, Observations of Predations in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. The intervention is a satirical exploration about the intrinsic destructive nature of human behavior. The work requires Fusco to embody an alter ego, Dr. Zira, a highly evolved chimp that she adapted from the cult film Planet of the Apes (1968).
The audience had no idea how to respond to what they had observed. Was it a lecture or art? A performance or a scholarly presentation? Corona and Pinkston were aware of the tension Fusco’s performance evoked, but they were surprised by the audience’s reaction. Immediately after, they “went to a friend’s house and literally planned out six months of programming,” Corona says. “We committed to creating a platform. We selected a couple of performance artists in the community and left it open-ended so that anyone could perform. We had noticed a huge spike in performance artists developing work in thesis shows at MICA and we knew then that Open Labs was creating a space to engage with the work and talk about it critically.” The pair created alternate personas for themselves, Dr. A. Pinkston and Dr. H. Corona, and dedicated themselves to sustaining the initiative for five years.
From 2014 through 2019, Labbodies approached the presentation and curation of performance art like an experiment. Unused spaces in Baltimore City were transformed into nomadic laboratories, intentional sites dedicated to radical performativity. What began as an open call to all artists evolved into a critical platform to champion the works of marginalized performance artists, people of color, LGBTQ+, and othered bodies, who often felt disconnected from predominantly white performance spaces. In that time, Pinkston and Corona curated and performed more than 50 disruptions and featured the works of more than 100 artists.
“We started Labbodies to create an institution,” Pinkston says. “We are the authors, but we are both [people of color] who went to private schools. We are both insiders and outsiders. The Open Labs are a way of creating validation within the structure and for our curatorial voice.”
Open Labs (2014) was their first intervention. Since then, the collective has curated performances at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Peale Center, Artscape’s Artist Run Art Fair, and the Transmodern Festival, among others. They also organized five ambitious annual Performance Art Reviews that featured the works of national and regional emerging artists. Each performance was supported by individual city and state grants as well as funds culled from Pinkston and Corona’s personal limited resources.
Corona notes fundraising was difficult because people didn’t quite understand what Labbodies was. “We explained that it was a performance and a curatorial project,” he says with a laugh, adding “that it complicates the ways you think about organizations and delineating roles.”
They agreed that the work deserved institutional support and recognition, and they vowed to never organize any project without having the means to pay participating artists a stipend. And every year, Pinkston says, “The way we presented the platform and gained funding changed.” Corona says that involvement with museums and institutions has given Labbodies credibility, but he questions the entrenched systems of power and his role as a creator and curator within such systems, and he is frustrated by a lack of consistent support for longstanding initiatives. “Who has the power? How do you get power?” he asks. “And how do you use it for change?”
January 2019 marked the fifth and final year that the collective committed themselves to working within the current structure. This moment challenges the duo to devise a more sustainable funding structure that can provide long-term support. The conundrum is a kind of disruption in itself that prompts burdened questions about how to sustainably conserve and support disruptors. Do you become a nonprofit? Do you continue to compete for the same limited local funding streams as one-off projects? Do you found a for-profit? This is a complex dilemma for Labbodies, an initiative that prides itself on dismantling inequitable power dynamics and surmounting the hierarchical structures of traditional organizational models. The collective has vowed to never compromise their curatorial vision or the artistic integrity of their collaborators.
“One thing that is really important to note is that we are creating, as a Black and Brown body,” Pinkston adds. “We are creating structures for people to view us artists as credible. People don’t expect artists to know what the negotiation process is. We are shape-shifting as organizers, but we are also problematizing what it means to be a curator, a doctor, an art institution, and how we sustain that.”
The paradox that Labbodies faces is not a rare impediment; many other independent arts organizations have had to tackle similar concerns. Some have survived, but many more have succumbed to their financial burdens. What this tale offers us, the witnesses who can observe the downside of traditional arts funding models, is an opportunity for reflection, and a chance for funders to consider new and innovative approaches. Our communities deserve sustained access to a wide range of art experiences. The obligation to ensure that those art experiences remain accessible and dynamic should not rest solely on the shoulders of artists.
“It was essential that we had each other,” Corona notes about his work relationship with Pinkston. “If one was feeling weak, we pulled the other up. Partnership keeps it afloat, but a new iteration needs to come about.”
While Pinkston and Corona decide whether to restructure or retire Labbodies, the pair are taking time to develop their own art careers. Corona is a 2019 fellow at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, a residency for artists in Oklahoma. During his tenure he will create a body of work that centers the experiences of climate immigrants, populations who have been displaced by climate change. Pinkston is a 2019 Halcyon Arts Lab fellow, a residency for performance artists in Washington, DC. Her work will involve a series of performances and installations that memorialize 278 people who were sold into slavery by Jesuit priests.
“Our work is about creating agency for the art that we are presenting,” Pinkston offers. “And agency for others who have similar experiences to us.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Issue 07 of the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas
Photos by Theresa Keil