ARTICLE JOSEPH TEELING
AT NEW YORK CITY'S AMERICAN REALNESS FESTIVAL, PERFORMANCE ART TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT—AND STRAINS TO KEEP ITS FOCUS
Realness is slippery. Whether ones performance is purely ludic, aspirational, or even sardonic it remains possible to slide through the glamor and into the real. In playfully mimicking hegemony, one might bring back some of its tools upon return to the margins. American Realness 2014 may have stepped over that threshold. But was this inevitable? Producer and curator Ben Pryor arranged another bouquet of luminaries and familiar faces, though after this week those flowers once at the center, may be displaced to periphery. The response to the festival, now in its fifth year, has been rather daunting. American Realness began in the Abrons Arts Center’s many theaters on January 9th and has run its course as of last Sunday. It proved to be a choppy course, though not so much for the content of its myriad shows than for the alarming exchanges between the artists presented and the presenters. The self-described bastion of the risky and experimental offered more than a few wrong turns this year. If you’d arrived at a performance, say Emily Wexler’s and Ishmael Houston Jones’ 13 Love Songs:DOT DOT DOT seeking the promised “forward thinking” or “category-defying,” you’d have instead been met with the dear and ultimately forgettable, as noted by New York Times critic Alistair Macaulay in his review of the festival. While Macaulay’s specious assessment of the work on view may arouse indignation, it did accurately point to a glaring issue within the festival itself: the pitfalls of generating an inside (shorthand for becoming an institution). It’s an organization and like many others in need of funding, PR, and all the attendant necessities for 2014’s renovated downtown Manhattan. So what is American Realness’s Realness? APAP Realness or Downtown Realness? Is it a community (which one?)-oriented platform for disenfranchised artists dressed up as a hierarchical tool, or vice versa? The answer is being decided in comment columns everywhere. Andy Horwitz launched a crisp appraisal of the dilemma, leading me to considering realness as an aperture through which things pass both ways.
At the center of this consideration is Sherry, Ann Liv Young’s charismatic and tyrannical character whose boundaries within its creator are ingeniously vague. Made up as the blonde debutant of shame, Sherry gets to go as far she wants, performing despotic realness upon her audience, occasionally foregrounding the power dynamics at play. In American Realness 2014 Sherry was ever present, performing throughout the festival at the lackluster “Sherry Art Fair,” while never having a distinct show. Sherry is nothing if not aggressive, and colonizing other performances was clearly de facto. Arriving at Adrienne Truscott’s ...Too Freedom…, one could hear Sherry on her megaphone over the thoughtful piece ...Too Freedom... is a work made originally at The Kitchen, very much for and about The Kitchen. Truscott and some of her performers are actually employed by theater, she as house manager and they as ushers, box officers, and crew. This conditions the piece, which plays heavily on these roles as modes of performance, as a witty and incisive exploration of the division of labor, the choreography of work, within that institution. However, when translated into a different venue, such as Abrons cinder block Experimental Theater, this relational quality dilutes and much of what seems to have landed so well in its initial run gets lost.
I later saw Adam Linder’s piece in that same theater. Sherry and her associate performer fully interacted with the audience during the video portion of the performance outside of the theater. It was then, again, only a novelty or mild annoyance. Even after we entered the theater, Sherry continued to address us over her mega phone, renaming Adam Linder as Adam Levine and asking why he isn’t a rock star. And while this was distracting, it’s not inaccurate. It sounds miraculous to make a skill effective as an explicit performer distinct from the very performer from which that skill emerges. This is however what Adam Linder set out to achieve in Cult to the Built on What, languidly dancing and rapping through the experimental theater with a wooden lectern. In this piece the performer’s talent as rapper and lectern exchanged objecthood and potency. The lectern even had a solo. Whether or not this exchange was intentional seems beside the point, as the effect was flattening for both.
Following Linder’s performance my friends and I had a few drinks at the festival’s itinerant bar. While we were working up to a good drunk, Sherry approached us, asking if we would watch her booth so that she could join the audience for Rebecca Pateks’ Ineter(a)nal f/ear in the underground theater. We declined but she found her coverage anyhow and left only to re-appear shortly, profaning the show as horrifying. We then saw her return to theater with her megaphone. I saw Inetern(a)nal f/ear the following night sans interruption. In the piece Patek reproduces two rape and trauma narratives through video and choreography. It opens with Patek on screen recounting an experience of rape which led her to found WPP (When Past is Present), a support group for trauma victims. Sam Roeck follows this by describing a first sexual encounter that results in an HIV positive status. Both performers dovetailed candor and evasion flawlessly, leaving the audience to negotiate the veracity and authenticity of these experiences. The two began questioning the others claims re-working their trauma through Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, a well known method for analyzing dance. Patek appears again on screen engaging in sex acts with a faceless man. She talked about her work, about wanting to investigate sex and shame as she fondles an erect penis. Everything was packaged in this eviscerating humor it was met by furtive laughter and some departures from the audience. The climax was a sexual encounter between Patek and Roeck, a reproduction of the rape described in the beginning while the two performers and the audience repeated “Thank you for your feedback. I will take this into consideration in my future work.” Ineter(a)nal f/ear points to compliance with rape culture folded into a complex joke about therapy and healing. It’s highly choreographed, not an easy piece either to perform or to watch. The question of good or bad doesn’t seem to apply. It’s complicated. It’s difficult. Following the Wednesday night performance Sam Roeck, Patek’s collaborator, recounted that Young/Sherry went on stage interrupted the performance not once, but twice. Recovery for the performers was not easy, and the performance suffered.
Why Sherry was allowed to do this is a question that remains unanswered by the festival’s administrators, even for Rebecca Patek. Would anyone interjecting as such during a performance be permissible? Would they be allowed to return with a megaphone and do it again? I’d heard Patek’s work likened to Young’s own brand of shock treatment. After seeing her work myself I find such a parallel to be parochial. One friend described Young’s/Sherry’s reaction as tone-deaf. I did escape Sherry for some performances. In fact, I left Abrons entirely for Marten Spangberg’s La Substance which began at 4pm last Sunday at the MoMa Ps1 VW Dome. I arrived around 5:30, and the piece undid itself for another three hours. I entered the dome to see a Chanel insignia floating in a gold patchwork curtain over eight bodies seated side by side, legs folded, with arms crossed over each others’ knees. The habitues of the dome sat in a likewise state, on the ground, facing the performers in a loose crescent. What art and dance have to say to each other has a lot to do with money. The visual trappings of Spangberg's “choreography as medium” complicate the branding and consumption of said mediums. It was a familiar scene. And it was of a scene. It was a condensed soup of the visual pidgen of certain online presences, social (media) practices and IRL parties (just add time, lots of time, and an audience you can fully distinguish). The dancers intermittent affected torpor and ecstasy, over a four hour stretch thoroughly represented a lifestyle brand emerging from the event horizon of irony, literally a vacuum for any substance. It was an affective dramatization of psychic excess and ennui. After that twinning, there was so much feeling left over, there was even some beauty.
I returned to Abrons to close the festival with Jillian Peña’s eerie Polly Pocket in the Experimental Theater, again near Sherry’s art fair. Sherry was absent, though her partner and progeny were managing her fair. Following her outburst at Patek’s show a few days earlier, she had purportedly pulled out of the festival in protest of Patek’s inclusion. Curiously, her ephemera lingered in her absence. Peña’s show consisted of a the precise and tireless Alexandra Albrecht and Andrew Champlin performing an exacting mirror duet in a white room whose only features were a chandelier and water cooler. The audience’s view was prescribed by a white curtain hanging just above the chandelier and a low white barrier before the front row, effecting a window into what we were seeing. As the duet progressed, Alex and Andy began to distinguish themselves from one another through movement and language, eventually seeking dominance over the other. They presented each other with gifts. First went Alex for Andy, revealing to him a video projection of himself in multiple. He expressed delight and revealed his gift for Alex: Kyli (Kyli Kleven), who appears to be Alex’s double and who Alex initially mistakes for herself. Andy and Alex both love their gifts, but grow bored or frustrated from dancing with what is ostensibly their selves. They give Kyli her own name and return to their duet, leaving Kyli is alone in a corner. She individuates herself by shedding her costume—a replica of Alex’s—to reveal her own. These dancers move in and out of defining themselves through and against each other, no one ever permanently taking the lead. It’s an uncanny movement on the conception of self as a relational tool... a tool Sherry could learn to use more delicately, as she seems to swiftly change according to who surrounds her.
By the close of American Realness 2014, Sherry had again agitated a public, but in this instance there was no echo of superstructural critique. There was no resonance at all, just the tone-deaf antics of an actress. Sherry was fully deploying the tactics of abuse and usurpation she has only appeared to recuperate. Ann Liv Young and Sherry passed through the glamor of reflexive haterdom and are simply hating. In allowing to act as such during Rebecca Patek’s Inetern(a)l f/ear, offering no care for Patek or any explanation, the heads and staff of American Realness have supplied their own indictment. There were several successes throughout the festival, and one hopes the platform continues to offer airtime to similar perspectives. However, what remains for this clearly engaged community is to tease out the status of all this realness and to make sure the tool box we occasionally rob doesn’t consume us.
photography Ian Douglas courtesy of american realness