OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Barrett

Memories for the Future, 2014. A 320 hour performance.

MICHAEL BARRETT explores the construct of American Masculinity in performances informed by his personal experiences as an athlete, Marine and cancer survivor. Early comically poignant videos highlight both a cultural obsession with protecting male genitalia and his own lost testical. His live performances range from rowdy training exercises simultaneously filmed with a Go-Pro camera to thoughtful, repetitive actions that memorialize the loss of both civilians and soldiers to war. Michael exhibits and performs internationally. He has had solo shows at the former Trifecta Gallery (Las Vegas, Nevada) and Perfex Gallery (Poznan, Poland) and his recent group exhibitions include shows at Hole of Fame Gallery (Dresden, Germany), Galerie Michaela Stock (Vienna, Austria) and Berkeley Art Center (California). Michael will perform at Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn on May 19th as part of Itinerant 2017. In 2017, he will attend the Performance-Kunst Workshop at Kunstpavillon Burgrohl and WORK.ACT.PERFORM, a performance art symposium in Dresden, Germany. He will be an Artist-in-Residence at Galeria Racjez (Poznan, Poland) for six weeks, followed by a Performance Art Studies workshop in the Czech Republic. Michael is based in Las Vegas, Nevada.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What does the endurance mean to you, both in your work and in your life?


Michael Barrett: During the first years of elementary school, it was suggested that I attend speech therapy twice a week. Exactly, who made the suggestion is beyond me and I carry no recollection of discussing the matter with my parents. It occurred so early in my life, I only recall bits and pieces, such as leaving the classroom during ‘art time’ to practice the letter ‘s’ within the small, closet-like office, of the speech therapist, with a boy named, Skip.

Up until this time, I didn’t realize people could suffer from a speech impediment. To learn that there might be something ‘wrong’ with the way in which I communicated, had a negative affect on my identity and the fear of language and sharing thoughts out loud, drastically altered my behavior as a young person.

Rather than relying on the spoken word, I navigated toward gesture, action, and the body as alternative methods of meaning making, challenging learning environments, and understanding multiple entry and exit points of interpretation. From an early age, endurance has meant sustaining an ability to communicate within a world that demand one to be present, to show up, to produce, and to speak your mind.

Once upon a time, I believed endurance made up a large part of who I was and where I had been as a person and artist, but as I mature and grow, I am constantly reminded that endurance is so much larger than just myself. Endurance transcends borders and extends beyond my fingertips, bridging gaps capable of connecting others to new points of discovery.

Rubber Room: Push and Pull. Go-pro video still from endurance performance.

OPP: I’ve been thinking about your performances, which deconstruct western masculinity and its connection to violence and athleticism, as growing from the lineage of avant-garde Feminist art. In the same way, women’s studies requires an exploration of individual women’s experience of their conditioned gender, we need to hear about actual men’s experience of conditioned masculinity. Do you see your work in relation to Feminist art?

MB: Much of what I do challenges American Masculinity as a historical construct that greatly influences many aspects of life. After a battle with testicular cancer, in 2001, I began to specifically focus on Masculinity through a feminist lens. Slowly and carefully, developing a masculine narrative to challenge and question five key areas of masculinity with the hope of urging a discussion on how masculinity empowers and disempowers.

Writers and artists such as Susan Sontag (feminine as masculine/masculine as feminine), Stephanie Springgay (the skin and cloth), and Donna Harraway (The Cyborg Manifesto) have certainly played a part in directing my concepts and methodologies as an artist, researcher, and teacher. I have identified five areas of exploration—physical force and control, work and occupational achievement, patriarchy, outdoorsman, heterosexuality—based on scholars who offer new perspectives on how we can broaden what it means to be masculine and what function masculinity serves.

Incentive Training: Session Three. Performance still.

OPP: I’m very interested in Dear Dresden (2016), Memories for the Future (2014) and 723 (2014). In both of these performances, you perform repentant gestures, memorializing victims of war with the numbers of actions mirroring the numbers of victims of the violence of war. Can you talk about the relationship of endurance, repetition and healing in these works? 



MB: History tells a story about the spiraling struggle over masculine representations. One might interpret these narratives as an enduring battle, not as an objective reality, but a construct that inadequately bridges issues concerning leadership, ethics, knowledge and power. Stories of these bridges offer numerous examples of how inadequate power structures are utilized to decide what wars are fought, how votes are cast, who does and doesn’t receive.

As the U.S. enters into the longest war of its brief history, Germany enters into its 72nd year since the end of World War II. Both events offer opportunities to reflect upon and question how history repeats itself. I refer to our past and current situations as “spiraling out of control while building tension as we rotate through time.”

I am always questioning and analyzing how we as citizens, or better yet, generations of war, carry on? How will the human spirit endure such tragedy again and again? In what ways will following generations repeat the same horrific cycles we currently inhabit? What happens when the tension bursts?

In time, we may find ourselves in a predicament beyond our imagination. With time, we could possibly discover/know harmony, mutualism and level means of communication. Through time, we might find ourselves as humans and social-beings, capable of cooperating and moving forward together and with one another.

For this to occur, we must endure time. As physical forms, as mental thought processors, as emotional nests, we must endure through and beyond our current time and the habits of previous generations.

723, 2014. Go-pro video still from live performance.

OPP: For me, your identity as an ex-Marine is key to the poignancy of these performances. Dear Dresden and Memories for the Future made me think about the veterans who apologized to the Sioux Elders in a ceremony at Standing Rock in December 2016 for the U.S. treatment of Native Americans. How important are the various aspects of your identity—as artist, as white male, as ex-Marine, as cancer survivor—to understanding your body of performances? Is this less or more important when watching individual performances?

MB: Years ago, I considered it important for the audience to know I was a cancer survivor and to know the work commented on my experience with cancer. I used to believe my background information added a certain element of validity or better yet, it offered a slice of life for the audience. Now, I am not so sure. I can laugh about it now, but roughly 10 years ago, a mentor abruptly made the comment during critique: “nobody gives a fuck about Michael Barrett.” Yes, a little harsh, and it did sting. Yet as I've had some time to lick my wounds and ponder the critique, I’ve found there's something to be had in the statement. Something that might be holding back, preventing and disrupting access to my work. While, I do believe there might have been a more tactful way of stating that I was getting in the way, it motivated me to research aspects of cancer, military and athletics that were of interest to me, yet less about ‘me’ specifically. This helped with building bridges for others to access my work. Reinterpreting the five elements of masculinity are examples of common links between the three areas.

Rather than specifically commenting on my personal experiences, I attempt to remain mindful of a more humanistic approach and focus on creating keyholes for the audience to access, comment and question their own perspectives. I am aware my background will always be present. I cannot remove myself from the history. As an artist, I aim to use my background as platform for communicating and challenging topics of importance rather than the background serving as the topic itself.

Incentive Training: Session Four, 2010. Still of live performance.

OPP: Can you talk about your recurring costumes—the jock strap and the hood—in performances like Lombard Street Hustle (2011), Incentive Training: Session Four (2010) and Standing Room Only: Episode One (2012)?

MB: I’m aware there is space for interpreting my work during this period as bondage, S&M, or the underground dungeon scene, but I hope I have left adequate space for elements of loss, recovery, and function, when viewed through a humanistic and/or medical lens. I refer to this ’lens’ as delving deeper and beyond the medical gaze—a single, all knowing perspective which only scans the surface for immediate information. The idea of medical lens penetrates the surface/skin in multiple areas in search of unexplored spaces, concepts and access points, therefore rupturing previous power structures while simultaneously gathering, analyzing and presenting qualitative information regarding lived experience, personal narrative and autoethnography.

The intention of the work is not necessarily presenting a didactic tracing of lived experiences, yet I carefully select, and most of the time, make each piece of attire by hand, so that it references a certain event, space, time, etc. For example, a black jockstrap was part of my attire while recovering from a battle with testicular cancer. The hood is a way of separating Michael Barrett from Artist Michael Barrett. It’s a psychological tool that helps remind both me and the audience that the performer and the person under the mask are two separate beings.

Performing is really really difficult for me. I don’t perform for fun, nor do I spend much time thinking about what to perform. The concepts/issues/problems usually reveal themselves and won’t leave me alone until I tend to them in some manner. Once in a while, my responses resemble art. Other times, they resemble everyday life. Regardless, when performing I find the need to separate myself from the performer. The transcendence that occurs is very similar to experiences I had as a Marine and athlete and require separation through subtle mental shifts. The hood helps.

Corporal Punishment, 2011. Performance still.

OPP: You are currently pursuing your PhD. in Art and Visual Culture Education at University of Arizona. Will you tell us about this program and why you chose to pursue another degree beyond your MFA?

MB: Applying to the Art and Visual Culture Education doctoral program at the University of Arizona has been extremely beneficial to my practice as a performance artist and has opened up a plethora of new opportunities as a researcher and teacher. Since enrolling, I have had the pleasure of teaching and performing in Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic. The experience has instilled an awareness that my identity, is in constant flux, rather than situated in a singular fixed position. One constantly meshing, bridging, overlapping, and sharing, attributes of art, research, and teaching (A/R/Tography).

While teaching with Performance Art Studies at the Michaela Stock Galleria in Vienna, Austria, I was first introduced to the Performance Art Context diagram, created by Boris Nieslony and Gerhard Dirmoser. Using the lens of an A/R/Tographer, I narrowed my focus down to understanding the Performance Art Context diagram in a framework that employs Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of the rhizome and Nomadology: The War Machine, as well as Donna Haraway's The Cyborg Manifesto.

I place this inquiry in context of contemporary trends in performance art pedagogy and political climates in higher education. I suggest that research on understanding performance art education practices in emerging technologies be conducted with a view to gain a cohesive social understanding, rather that isolated views on curriculum and pedagogy, with pre-determined understandings of what art education is and what it could be.

By problematizing current access to the diagram as an educational tool, I argue for a contemporary post-classroom interpretation of the information within a virtual reality platform, which could potentially benefit/better serve educators while simultaneously increasing access to knowledge and meaning-making within the field of Performance Art.

I am currently entertaining questions like How does re-interpreting the Performance Art Context diagram redefine the body as a educational tool for meaning making and acquiring knowledge? How might the acquired information function in virtual reality as a way for resisting hierarchies, challenging oppressive methods and past institutional stereotypes regarding how, when, and where learning takes place? How might the application and utilization of a critical lens encourage a post-humanistic approach that helps us uncover marginalized bodies and silenced voices?

To see more of Michael's work, please visit artistmichaelbarrett.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her upcoming solo show Sacred Secular will open in August 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Kris Grey/Justin Credible

Homage
Performance Still (Clifford Owens Seminar at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY)
2013
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Fivel Rothberg

Gender queer artist KRIS GREY/JUSTIN CREDIBLE’s interdisciplinary practice includes video and ceramics, as well as a variety of performance modes: storytelling, drag, educational lectures, social interaction in public space and endurance. They explore the intersection of gendered embodiment, authority, intimacy and social justice. Kris received their BFA in Ceramics from Maryland Institute College of Art (2003) and their MFA in Fine Arts from Ohio University (2012). They perform and lecture internationally, most recently at Performatorium: Making It, Difficult at Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada and Performing Franklin Furnace, curated by Clifford Owens at Participant Inc. in New York. Gender/Power, a collaboration with Maya Ciarrocchi, will begin a series of 2015 residencies at Baryshnikov Arts Center in March, Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn in the summer and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Process Space in the fall. From March 25 - 28, 2015, you can see Gender/Power performances at Gibney Dance Center in New York City. Kris will be the 2015 Perry Lecturer at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kris’s home base is Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Both your BFA and MFA are in Ceramics, but it seems that you are now focused on performance, video and social activism. What led to the shift from object-making to performance? Do you still find time for the studio? Do you ever miss object-making as a practice?



Kris Grey: I’ve been making objects and performances in parallel for as long as I can remember. I developed a performance persona named Justin Credible as a parallel to my studio practice in the early 2000s. That character allowed me to perform an array of alternative masculinities through drag performance. As Justin, I organized and performed with the Charm City Kitty Club from 2005-2009. I also performed in bars and on stages all over Baltimore and the Washington DC metro area. It wasn’t until grad school that I started producing performance and live art under the banner of visual art—in essence combining my creative identities.

I come to my work through craft. The way I use my body is closely tied to the way I use clay or other sculptural materials. With clay I work through form and build objects that exhibit, subvert or superseded gendered expectations. Ceramics is magical alchemy! You combine materials, manipulate forms and then place them under extreme duress to produce beauty. The material qualities of the body are similar. Bodies are always marked by socialization. Much in the way that clay records its own history, the body reveals its own stories. Flesh is pliable and plastic. It can be formed and reformed just like clay. 

I have taken that methodology on as a life project. My body is my main raw material. I use hormones and surgeries as a way to craft a queer form outside the binary of male and female. The material may change, but the core interests are constant—namely gender, authority and social justice.

Bottoms Up
2009
Porcelain, glaze, decal
6"x 6"x 3"
Butt Plug service, microwave and dishwasher safe.

OPP:Ask A Tranny is an ongoing, interactive, public performance, social action and online project" which has been performed in Newark, London, Baltimore and Kuopio, Finland. How do you pick where to perform this piece? Has one place been more challenging than another? Where did you receive the most welcoming, enthusiastic response?



KG: The first time I performed Ask A Tranny (AAT) I was in London on a study abroad trip. I didn’t even have a passport before that summer. I was 30 years old, and travel was something I thought to be beyond my class status. Getting a passport probably seems simple to most people, although costly. However, for me there was a major consideration about what “sex” I should list myself as. I am gender-queer identified with a transgender history. I don’t self-identify as either male or female exclusively. When I applied for my passport, I had begun to take testosterone and my appearance was somewhere on the masculine spectrum though I didn’t have facial hair. I’ve never had the intention of changing my ID sex markers since I feel the M/F binary is arbitrary and insufficient. I am listed as “F” on all of my IDs including my license and my passport. I like to think of that F as standing for feminism. I saw my new passport as a conversation piece that made passing through security checkpoints particularly contentious. Whether I’m holding a passport or a sign, I’m enacting the same “performance”—performing myself as gender-queer for an audience of strangers and with differing stakes. At a border I risk detainment. In the public there are different risks. The passport and the cardboard sign both function as prompts for conversations around gender, embodiment and self-actualization. 

Since travel provoked this work, it seemed appropriate to perform it in many different geographical locations. I made a sign that fits into my suitcase and I take it along wherever I go. I usually perform in places of public gathering. Some sites have a particular resonance their history, for example Speakers Corner. I’ve run AAT in public parks, shopping centers and on college campuses. Sometimes there is resistance from police or authority figures who think, at first, that I am soliciting money. It helps to know and understand local laws for public use, which can vary greatly across cultures. In general, it is not illegal to hold a sign and conduct conversations in public spaces. That is what happens in AAT. The result, when I appear in public and make myself vulnerable, is that strangers meet me there with their own care and vulnerability. We exchange stories and create empathetic connections. Gender and my transness is the place we start but the conversations are as varied as the participants. Every single time I’ve performed AAT, I have had genuine, interesting and transcendent experiences with people I’ve never met before and will likely never see again.

How To Perform Trans Visibility in Three Easy Steps
2012
A quick "how to" for those interested in performing trans visibility in the public.

OPP: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it is my understanding that tranny is generally considered a derogatory term these days. I can definitely see that you are reclaiming the term and therefore controlling it's perception with your performance, but I wonder if you ever get push back within the trans community for using the term tranny?

KG: I use the term tranny to identify myself. It’s personal to me. You are correct. Tranny is a trigger word that makes some folks feel unsafe. Though I’m very intentional in my use, I know that this particular word can be difficult and potentially harmful for those people. I would never say I’m “reclaiming” the word tranny. As someone on the trans masculine spectrum, it is not mine to reclaim. There is a great wide debate about who may use the term and who should not. I am certainly not advocating any position by my use of the word to identify myself.

I make my work with sincerity and I am always open to being challenged or critiqued. When people attend the public performances or see video footage I think that sincerity is communicated.

(Sub)merge
Performance Still (The Ice Palace at Cherry Grove, NY)
2012
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Gordon Hall

OPP: While looking at all your work online, I was reminded of Bob Flanagan nailing his penis to a board, Stelarc's suspension and body modification and Marina Abramovic's 1974 performance Rhythm 0. Suspicious Packages (2010 and 2012) also reminds me at times of Martha Rossler's seminal feminist video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). How does your work relate to the art historical trajectory of endurance work?

KG: I’ve certainly been influenced by all the artists you list. I hope that my work continues in a legacy built of live art/body work, AIDS activism and feminism. I could make a list a mile long of writers, artists and activists I admire and seek to emulate. Trans* and gender queer artists like Kate Bornstein, Del LaGrace Volcano, Vaginal Davis, Leon Mostovoy, Heather Cassils and Tobaron Waxman come to mind. Body/live art artists including Linda Montano, Annie Sprinkle, Elizabeth Stephens, Barbara Hammer, Martha Wilson, Julie Tolentino, Rocio Boliver, Franko B, Dominic Johnson and Ron Athey, inspire me. I owe a great deal to the leadership and guidance of my teachers and mentors from high school to the present. While I look to other artists for inspiration, I am also indebted to the body workers and healers, trans* people, queers, crafters, sex workers and outcasts who have made their lives and work outside the frame of visual art.

Intergenerational dialog has been the key to my development in performance. I’ve had the great pleasure of performing for and working with amazing artists. Ron Athey’s work and writing have deeply influenced me and I’m so humbled to have built a relationship with him over the past two years. The first time I performed Homage, in 2013, Ron installed my chest piercings. In January 2015, we both performed in Regina, Saskatchewan, at Performatorium. We had the chance to participate in each other’s work again. This time, Ron worked together with another artist, Jon John, to help prepare my body for my performance. It’s an incredibly intimate thing to bring other people into your work through your body. And it’s such a gift when the people you admire invite you to perform in their work, as Ron did at Performatorium. That’s the best kind of mentorship for a live artist! 

Suspicious Packages (Finland)
Single Chanel Video
2012
10:07

OPP: Whether in casual conversations in public spaces, in videos like How To Perform Trans Visibility in Three Easy Steps (2012) or in storytelling performances like Body Dialectic (2012), you project a warm, down-to-earth presence. You put people at ease and make it comfortable for them to ask questions. Is this just your personality or something you to cultivate and maintain?

KG: It may just be my personality. I was always coming home with report cards from school with teacher comments that read “too social in class.” I’ve always been interested in people; I just want to tell stories and hear stories. In a way I’ve built my practice around that desire. But being welcoming is a practice I’ve cultivated over time. I grew up in hospitality. My parents owned a small, seasonal motel in Upstate New York. I worked there from the time that I was in diapers until I left for college in Baltimore. While other kids were on summer vacations with their family, I was working. The motel was very formative. It brought strangers from all over into my life. I learned how to entertain.

OPP: Do you generally feel drained or jazzed after a public performance?

KG: Some of the content of my work is challenging. The core of my identity is an agitation to the very structure of binary socialization. I work through the lens of gender, but I’m ultimately interested in disrupting systems of power and dominance. I find it most effective to lead with vulnerability. I get nervous before I perform, sometimes for weeks before I appear on stage or in public. I’m an extrovert and something of an exhibitionist, but when the content of the work is so raw and personal I find it necessary to recharge after. During and immediately following a performance I feel elated. Some works, like Homage and (sub)Merge, take me through my body and out. Homage is really a meditative transcendence. Afterwards, I feel very vulnerable and fragile. I try to treat myself tenderly and with extra care. Sometimes that means that I need to be alone in a space that feels safe.

Intimate Gestures
Performance Still (Athens, OH)
2011
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Paige Wright

OPP: I love what you say about leading with vulnerability. Personally, I believe that social and political change can be best brought about through activism based in storytelling, as opposed to protest, although they can certainly work in tandem. I’m thinking specifically about the changes in representations of LGBTQ characters in TV and movies over the last decade.

KG: I agree. Storytelling is an incredibly effective tool for social change. I cannot say if it's more or less effective than protest or if there is a clear delineation between the two. ACT UP and Gran Fury created an incredible amount of social change through protest. There is a vast difference between mainstream media storytelling and street-level activism, but it's hard to totally dismiss television programs because they have an incredibly wide reach. I think it's dangerous to judge work based on political efficacy alone.

We may also be thinking about storytelling in different ways. In my practice, direct community engagement through storytelling—and by storytelling, I mean people saying their truths of their lives in their words out loud to others for witness—can create revolution.

Body Dialectic
Performance Still (Athens, OH)
2012
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Louise O'Rourke

OPP: What are your thoughts on recent media representations of trans characters, specifically Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black and Maura Pfefferman from Transparent?

KG: The radical potential of trans* narratives is that they could disrupt a central power structure which touches every part of our lives: binary gender. I will say that we’ve never had a champion like Lavern Cox. She is such an incredible force, and I’m proud of the conversations she’s creating off screen. I admire her tremendously.

I am wary of mainstream media. Some of my earliest memories of trans* people come from daytime talk shows I saw as a kid. Someone would come out and be introduced to the audience who would be waiting with placards to guess if the guest was a man or a woman. From that kind of sensationalism, which still happens today, we have newer exploitations where after a lengthy introduction, the trans* guests break down and thank the host for letting them tell their story. . . except they hadn't just told their story! The host had interpreted and mediated it for the audience.

Consistently, in movies, on television and in the news, trans* people are portrayed as pathological. The dominant narrative produced is of being trapped in the wrong body. The wrong body narrative, so closely tied to the definition of transexualism from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, centers heteronormativity and distracts from any variation on the male/female binary. This dominant narrative reaffirms trans* folks as a strange apparition in need of medical and psychological intervention rather than a part of human diversity and who need access to life chances in health, housing, education and employment. Further, it skirts the real societal ills— sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and racism—that produce violence.

I suppose what I want to say here is that it depends on who's doing the telling. Trans* characters are increasingly complex; this is a good thing. The media machines that produce them are starting to cast actual trans* people, though not all the time and certainly not enough. I think trans* roles can be played by trans* people but I also think trans* actors can play non-trans roles. We often hear backlash when a cisgender person gets cast as a trans* character, but I'd like to see more diverse casting across all media, on TV, on stage, in movies, etc. Instead of casting for the lead “female” role, why not just cast for the role? Don’t immediately limit the possibilities of who could play that person. I want to see new representations of gender-queer and non-binary folks. It’s totally fine for people to feel like they’ve been “trapped in the wrong body,” but I don’t feel that way. I’d like to see more visibility for other non-binary people who feel differently.

To see more of Kris's work, please visit kristingrey.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.



OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sandrine Schaefer

Stairs to Nowhere
2009
Duration: untimed
Location: Boston, MA USA
photo by Philip Fryer

Performance artist, writer and independent curator SANDRINE SCHAEFER literally and figuratively explores the concept and experience of fitting in. Her site-sensitive live actions in public space offer the opportunity to contemplate the relationship of our bodies to time and space. In 2004, Sandrine co-founded The Present Tense, dedicated to the presentation and preservation of live action art in transient spaces. In 2012, she was a recipient of The Tanne Foundation Award for artistic excellence. Her curatorial project ACCUMULATION is on view through March 26, 2014 at Boston University’s 808 Gallery in conjunction with the group exhibition The Lightning Speed of The Present. Sandrine lives and works in Boston.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You use the term "site-sensitive" instead of the more prevalent "site-specific" when referring to your performances. Could you clarify the difference?

Sandrine Schaefer: Working site-sensitively requires an artist to surrender to the present moment and accept all of the chance encounters that come along with making work for a specific environment in real time. Site-specific work can do this too, but this it isn’t a requirement.

Organico
2012
An infiltration into a trash can in Mexico City
Duration: 57 minutes

OPP: In 2012, you spent time in Mexico and did a series of durational live actions in public space—including Ascensions, Fusions and Illusions—that grew out of your 2009 project Adventures in Being (small), which was a literal and figurative exploration of the theme of fitting in. How were the performances in Mexico an extension of that earlier project? What was different? How did time factor into these projects?

SS: When I began working on Being (small), I was measuring my body by infiltrating a wide array spaces and was not too discriminating about what those spaces were. If I thought I could fit some part of my body into a space, I would try. In the early work, I was interested in the accumulation of the project. There are two rules for Being (small): I enter the space the way that I find it, and I stay (often in sustained stillness) for as long as my body or the space allows. My intention was to work similarly in Mexico, but there were many historical and environmental elements that insisted on becoming part of the work. 

My first destination was Puebla, a place that is known for its cathedrals. Locals kept telling me that these cathedrals were “built on the backs” of the indigenous communities. It is said that the indigenous people built idols of their own deities into the churches in Puebla. When forced to pray to the saints, they were actually praying to something they believed in. I appreciated the rebellion of this story, and I found the notion of a hidden history kept alive through memory inspiring. It made me reconsider the notion of “smallness” and “being.”

A Nicho for Coatlicue
2012
Site-sensitive action with sun-burned image of Coatlicue on back, infiltration into domestic space in Puebla, Mexico
Duration: 50 minutes
Photo by Daniel S. DeLuca

OPP: What other unexpected factors changed the work?

SS: The sun has a presence throughout Mexico that I had never experienced before. It’s no wonder why early civilizations were influenced by the cycles of the sun! It had a profound effect on my body and impacted my internal clock. The work became shorter because I had to be very specific about what times of the day I was outside. I had to move at a different pace while in the sun. I wanted to actively incorporate these limitations into the work, rather than allowing them to be passive byproducts, so I started researching. 

I found that before Puebla was called Puebla, the Aztecs named it Cuetlaxcoapan, which means "where the serpents shed their skin.” I began engaging in sun rituals where I sunburned the image of Coatlicue, an Aztec serpent goddess, onto my back. I then sought out places of tension throughout Puebla: places where ruins had been built over or where buildings with different architectural styles touched. As I fit my body into these spaces, I simultaneously placed this (literally) fading historic icon into contemporary situations.

As I continued my travels, I chose images relevant to the history of other locations throughout Mexico. In Oaxaca, I burned a Zapotec huipil onto my chest. In Mexico City, I burned an image designed from ruins I studied at Monte Alban onto my stomach. There was something powerful about wearing the traces of one place and bringing them into another. Histories travel through us.

Half Sadhu
2013

OPP: How does the presence of a camera, used to document your performances, affect the performances themselves?

SS: While working on Being (small), I started to view the camera as a collaborator. Although the actions I performed were rather benign, being still in public spaces can cause concern. This is intensified because of my perceived gender. The goal in all of my work is to create a pause for my audience. . . a chance encounter that inspires a shift in their perceptions about how we interact with our environment. The presence of a camera gives people permission to look. I’ve found that the more professional the camera looks, the less anxiety the encounter induces. The audience is usually more willing to engage. Being (small) intentionally has two different audiences: those who encounter the work in the present moment and those who encounter it through its documentation. But is the “art” in the live act, the photograph or video or both? This is slippery territory that performance artists of our time are navigating in different ways. For me, the art is the live act, but I also see the artistic value of the documents themselves.

For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching (1)
2013
Photo by Daniel S. DeLuca

OPP: That brings to mind recent pieces like Mirror Stage (2013) and For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching (2013), that include video-sharing technologies like the iPhone and live-cam on the Internet as integral ways for viewers to experience live actions. How have these technologies changed your work? Do you think they are changing the nature of performance art in general?

SS: Living in an increasingly documented society, it is impossible not to consider the potential and the limitations of these technologies. I certainly think that technology is changing spectatorship of performance art. These technologies are amazing in the sense that we can connect easily—almost instantly—and see documentation from pieces that might be impossible to witness live. However, no matter how thorough, documentation is not a substitute for the live piece. In Mirror Stage and For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching, I use contemporary technologies to intentionally fragment the experience of the performance in order to inspire an active dialogue about the tensions around the act of witnessing in the 21st century. 

I often work with the idea of breaking the traditional performance space by rewarding the curious viewer. This is expressed through small details that can only be experienced at a close proximately. In both Mirror Stage and For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching, I found that viewers are willing to engage a bit more intimately than in some of my other work. Perhaps the mediation of an interface reads as an invitation to interact.

Mirror Stage
2013

OPP: For you, is documentation of live performance a problem to be solved or a creative opportunity?

SS: Both. As an independent curator and archivist of performance art, I am always thinking about this. False Summit (phase 2), my collaborative project with Phil Fryer, revolved around the idea of archiving through the body and memory. There are many artists that are doing interesting work with archiving and alternative strategies for documentation. Jamie McMurry, Boris Nieslony, Márcio Carvalho and Shannon Cochrane are just a few.

My curatorial project ACCUMULATION explores documentation of art action through objects. Over the duration of this exhibition, participating artists are given one day to create a live-art piece. All evidence from their actions is left behind, challenging the following artists to incorporate these remnants into their own work. Any materials that come into the space must remain until the exhibition closes. ACCUMULATION challenges ideas about artist collaboration and simultaneously creates an innovative exhibition of experiential art documentation. This has been generative for me. 

OPP: What is The Present Tense?

SS: In 2003, action art experienced a resurgence in Boston. Inspired by the explosive movement happening around us, Phil Fryer and I created The Present Tense in 2004. It started out as an initiative that organized and produced live art events and exchanges, but quickly grew into much more. We believe that art is an access point for growth. To date, we have organized and curated dozens of art events, festivals (including the Contaminate Festival), artist exchanges and exhibitions. In 2009, we co-founded the late MEME Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have shown over 300 artists from across the globe, accumulating footage and relics from performances. We wanted to share this further, so The Present Tense launched an online archive in 2009. The goal of this living archive is to provide a permanent presence for ephemeral art that has difficulty finding space to be seen. The Present Tense challenges cultural perceptions of what art can be through its commitment to curating this often misunderstood art form.

We are celebrating our tenth birthday later this year, so Phil and I are also using this time to reflect and explore what the future of The Present Tense might look like. In 2014, the archive will include never-before-seen footage, posts by guest writers, a series of posts with the theme "Family" and artist accounts of performances that have had no witnesses.

To see more of Sandrine's work, please visit sandrineschaefer.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago.