Saturday, November 03, 2007

Marie Cool and Fabio Balducci @ PERFORMA 07, Clocktower Gallery, NYC

Marie Cool and Fabio Balducci presented “Untitled (Prayers) – 1996-2007” at the Clocktower Building in Manhattan last night as a part of the PERFORMA07 Biennial of New Visual Art Performance.

This two-hour performance consisted of minimalist gestures using common objects (like tape, a pencil, or a CD in a CD sleeve) presented in progression by Marie Cool in a white walled space. That is to say the performance was a display of lovely physical/mental presence, elegant conceptual gestures, and gentle audience communion.

The audience was encouraged to stay in the center of the room on a grey, carpeted platform while the gestures were performed along the walls. The audience had to shift positions continuously to keep the actions in view.

When Marie Cool took a moment to stand still and reset between gestures it would subtly indicate a space for her next activity and allow the audience time to shift. At first the audience was a packed, hungry mass but as the performance went on and the gestures began to recycle, the crowd thinned, the New York Times photographer left and the audience spent more time quietly sitting and musing rather than just watching.

Marie Cool, a “French choreographer”, brought a quiet, mindful and trained physical presence to the gestures of the performance. Her presence sold many of the gestures and maintained the overall atmosphere of serious matter-of-factness. She was a slight, middle-aged woman that stood shorter than most of the audience.

Fabio Balducci, an “Italian Artist”, stepped in at the end of the piece to declare it finished but his role beyond that was unclear. I assume he help devise the gestures, provided an outside eye and helped decide which of the seventy-action their collaboration has produced would be presented on this evening.

In retrospect, the title is a good one. “Untitled”…perhaps non-rational, unnamed, unpossessed certainly indicated the orientation of a spiritual practice as one of feeling more than knowing as displayed in the work. The bracketed “(Prayers)” could suggest a concession that despite the best intentions we still know the names, or perhaps there is a boundary between the named and the unnamed and that is the space this performance dwells. The clue that this is the product of more than a decade of work “1996-2007” foreshadows a set of values that cherishes the integrity and depth that emerges from persistent effort.

The Clocktower Gallery was one of the original spaces of PS1, or so I was told by a volunteer at the show, and has been closed to the public since 9/11. The floor we were on seemed to house a number of internal PS1 programs including the online radio station. I mention this because the space was more or less indifferent to the performance in my mind. The room we were in was white, neither pristine nor grungy, and big enough to receive the 40 or so people that were there. It was a reasonably neutral space perhaps available on the cheap to the organizers.

I didn’t get a huge iconographic read from the piece. There was defiantly opposing forces at play in most of the gestures. One contrasted of the rubbing of the performer’s feet in some fresh branched and the drawing a straight line in pencil, kind of a nature vs. the mind kind of thing. There was also a moment when she was surrounded in a plastic bubble that was somewhat embryonic. But in the end I didn’t come away with much of this kind of content.

Good performance is novel, inclusive, relevant, and present. The strength of this piece lied with the presence and integrity of the performance. The novelty was located more with the surprises of particular gestures than with any overarching concept or form that I could identify. The gentleness of the piece was inviting and the audience placement was inclusive in a sufficiently satisfying way. Whether this piece especially relevant is a question that I am the most ambivalent about as I write.

There were a number of clever gestures performed using simple objects of neutral and translucent qualities. I felt directed by the actions towards subtle points of contact, barriers and sensations. The repetition of these gestures eventually deadened the novelty and seemed to either drive the audience away or turn the remaining viewers into a calmer, more internal space. It sort of purified the crowd of gawkers and left a bunch of viewers who were willing to do the work of being patient with the artist.

A few of my favorites gestures…

*An almost stage-magic sort of trick was performed several time where she held a length of floss/thread (which was invisible to us in the audience) vertically, lit one end near the floor and lowered the other end at the same rate the fire burned to create the illusion of a flame that just hovered above the ground.

*A length of transparent tape was stretched tautly across the room at a height which made the artist had to reach up for contact. The artist would traverse this part of the room by running her fingers along the sticky side of the tape, the adhesive caused her fingers to stutter as they were dragged across the tape creating a particular sound and making me very aware of the point of contact and the tackiness of the surface.

*A row of folded paper was laid across one side of the floor with half the paper standing up. As she walked by, the papers would gently flutter in the wake of the air she displaced.

*She applied some mild adhesive or bit of moisture to the palms of her hands, enough to allow some rice (or something, I couldn’t see it) to adhere to he palms. She held her arms out to her sides, palms down, and used gentle hand movements free the bits. They fell onto two sheets of paper laid on the floor. It made a sound like rain; she was raining out of her palms.

When I think about the relevance of a piece of performance, I think of how well it speaks to some issue or is installed (whether physically, emotionally, conceptually or spiritually) within some contextual framework. I took this piece within the context of the festival more than the space it was presented within (though the shape of the room was used well, particularly the space the objects were given and how the audience was placed, moved and massaged). This festival, being basically themeless beyond the common medium, becomes more of a showcase of work and this piece a representative offering of a certain mindfulness tract within performance that has lingered since the early days of performance art.

This kind of display of presence is a timeless experience though and still central to the kinds of work produced in many dance and theater communities so I liked seeing it placed in this context of “visual art performance”. The minimalist conceptualism of this piece seemed a like a thread from the Seventies, which I still get excited about but I wonder how relevant it is to most folks now-a-days.

In the context of a “prayer” theme, I could see a need in people to find relief from the tensions of our time but it seem like a cyclical rather than striking issue.

I also should mention while considering the context of the piece that the folks managing the room were a bit of an annoyance at times, they were unclear and inconsistent in communicating the boundaries they were enforcing in the space…originally telling people to stay in the center and then when that obviously wasn’t working retreating to randomly telling people not to go to the certain areas near the objects and walls. Certainly they want to protect the delicate and often nearly invisible objects in the room but it seems like the circumstances put them into a position were they became insensitive to the growing dynamic between the audience and the artist.

The person I attended the show with was a part of a moment when the crowd naturally parted to create an aisle for the artist to walk across the room but this placed several people in a spot that caused them to be awkwardly shooed.

It is also perhaps a mistake to not to tell the staff to dress in a way that supports the presentation of the performance. Loud, clunky boots are not so appropriate on the feet of support staff if they are going to be moving around a space that is supposed to be quiet while they carry out their duties.

Managing a quiet and flowing piece like this isn’t easy, but, by being inconsistent and unprepared, the management were not able to support this particular performance by matching the integrity of preparation. This is important.

The work and effort of mindfulness that is presented gives us, as audience, support staff, institution, press, etc., the chance to meet the performance with are own integrity and effort, which is a rare opportunity. Certainly some people will choose to leave, and that is a relevant choice because it is the freedom to choose to stay or go that give the choice its power. What is disappointing is to fail take advantage of the chance to match the effort and integrity of a performance like this by not striving to be as prepared as possible.

I think the length of the piece is the last thing that I should mention. The choice to recycle a small set of gestures throughout the two hours seems significant, when the program clearly indicates that they have plenty of material to fill the time with novel stuff if they preferred. As I mentioned above, this repetition scraped the novelty off the gestures, thinned the crowd, and took the spectacle out of the piece by the second hour.

My guess is this points to the moment as you experienced it, both entertaining and not, both pleasant and not. This is typical of meditative practices of many sorts that you could compare to the evening’s effort.

Despite the bad reputation of ugly, annoying performance art that goes too long, it is the length of this piece in this case that transformed the experience and made it less a spectacle and more like a reveal of the experience of life. A subtle magic trick and one that is perhaps a point of relevancy that makes this piece endlessly appropriate.


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