Why I Almost Peed My Pants and Wrestled for Money at an Art Show This Weekend
Maybe not a fair fight...
It's the end of our night. I've had about as much performance art as I could stomach and now I'm in a little tiny room with a very large man, attempting to wrestle him for a chance at a handful of what I am promised is $500. Dollar bills are piled on top of the red safe behind him, the artist, a shirtless, musclebound man in sumo wrestler stance.
I stand around 5-foot-3 in tiny brown flats and suddenly I feel even smaller and more helpless. Just outside, I'd signed a waiver without reading it, which of course now seems foolish because I don't know if the man in front of me is allowed to touch me, tackle me, or -- I don't know -- kill me. And he's grunting like an animal, glaring at me, and looks ready to pounce. I stand in front of him on tiptoe, giggling like a small child and toying with the idea of lunging at the money. I take one step over the boundary and he lunges at me. I squeal, slip backwards, and just like that my chance at the money is over.
Performance Art is not life; waking up and disembarking from bed every morning is not a performative act. Not unless you do it with the intention of "performing." Then, it might fall under the auspices of one of the Arts' most expansive genres. It's not that simple of course, but if you spent Saturday evening touring PerformanceSW and (wo)manorial's "Inside)(Outside: A Live Performance Showcase," there was a thoughtful, albeit occasionally unoriginal, demonstration of the multifaceted output known as performance art.
The mini festival took place throughout Oak Cliff, starting at Oil & Cotton, then migrating to the Ant Colony, then SPOTPLUS, before ending at The Safe Room at the Texas Theatre --where I faced a latent fear of being tackled. With 15 performances spread out over the course of six hours, seeing all of them was unlikely and not necessarily part of the viewer-artist contract. By its very nature, this type of art doesn't demand attention, it catches it. There is no official start time, no assigned seats, no curtain call; in fact, early performance art was just called "happenings.'" Saturday night there were about 15 'happenings,' which gave my friends an opportunity to happen upon them as we pleased.
Male/Female? Treble/Bass? Melody/Improvisation? Kids/Adults?
The event starts at 6 p.m. with a piano duet. When we walk into Oil & Cotton, I shut my eyes to cover an instinctive eye roll. Honestly, I feel guilty that I've brought along two friends to spend their Saturday night here if this is going to be as deep as it gets. I pause, collect my thoughts and give it a chance. I look again. There's a jar of honey under the bench, does that mean something? The performers plinking on the ivories are like two little kids, the woman in the orange dress playing a melody, the boy in the blue shirt playing a harmony -- at moments beautiful, at others dissonant. Wait, is that a boy? I can't tell and I remember the theme of tonight's events has something to do with the definitions of femininity. So, is that about building your identity through acts like piano lessons and clothing and sibling relativity? Are they brother and sister? Sister and sister? I step outside into the sprinkles of rain. Is that Tecate in the cooler? Is it too early for Tecate?
My sister decides she'd like to skip the Tecate for a glass of wine, so we drive over to the Bishop Arts District. We pop in at Wild Detectives and strike up conversations. What are you guys up to tonight? Performance art. Where is that happening? Just down the street. When? Right now. Until when? Midnight. How would we know about it? Good question ... my blog, I guess. Want to go to Blind Butcher? No, no, we're going back to watch more. OK, good luck with that. It would be so much cooler if we just called them happenings. What are we doing tonight? Oh, just some happenings.
We snagged a good parking spot in Bishop Arts District and plan to eat there later, so we walk down to the Ant Colony. This, in itself is its own art form, as the cantilevered sidewalks are difficult to navigate. We opt for the streets. It's muggy, the sun is setting directly in our eyes, and one glass of wine is not enough to sustain us.
We arrive at the end of the first performance, who has left a powdery mess of perishable food with a sign that reads "Never Let Anything Spoil." In the corner of the back gallery, there's a girl in a black dress with powder covering her feet. What have we missed? From the front gallery I hear a staple gun.
Yep, that's a staple gun and her hair.
A woman is standing on pointe, attaching her hair to the wall behind her. Her hands are shaking, like any sane person's would with sharp objects so close to her skull. Then again, she's doing this to herself. Between her lips, she's clasping metal scissors. She throws the staple gun to the side and stands, attempting to find some peace. Mostly it just reads as pain. After five minutes, her calves begin to shake from fatigue.
There are moments where she seems to forget and lean forward as if to walk away -- has she really forgotten? Is this "performance"? She's quickly reminded that she's stuck. She did this to herself and we are here to watch her cut her hair off, if that is what she will ultimately do; The climax predetermined by the initial action. Unless, of course, she passes out. She very well might pass out. God, what will happen if she passes out? But she's given herself the tools to get down, so certainly she'll use them. In life we aren't always set up with the tools to get ourselves down, but this isn't life; this is performance. Her face in pain is not pretty; is this meant to be beauty? She cuts her hair, leaves it on the wall, and dodges around the corner. We clap; we leave. We walk back to Boulevardier to eat a burger.
On the walk back we talk about the scene: gut-wrenching, stressful but predictable. Hair is commonly associated with femininity and a woman's prettiness. We torture ourselves with chemicals and heat in pursuit of attractiveness. A narrative worth repeating? Yes. Groundbreaking? No. Besides, Jill Orr did a similar thing decades ago. But the difference is place -- this is happening here, it's happening now.
Critics are quick to bemoan a proliferation of performance art in Dallas, as if that's something worthy of complaint. Never would the same protests be made of too much theater, or too many paintings. When numerous happenings take place in a given night, it gives the spectator an opportunity to rummage through the stacks and see one, two or all 15. The only complaint I'll file is the lack of happenstance. No one just came across the art Saturday night. Even our final stop of the night at the Texas Theatre is tucked away up a tiny staircase. To have these experiences, you had to seek them out. Proliferation? Hardly.
But maybe I'm glad the world wasn't there to see me almost pee my pants in the pursuit of a few dollars. When I head home afterward, I can be assured my little performance has been shared with only a couple people, which is just fine with me.
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