The performative aspects of the Time Map table created for mid-terms by Igal Nassima, Sooyun Yun and myself partially originated in the transformative experiences I have had working as a performer in the last twelve years. As I continue to grow, accruing new information in my body and revisiting old information, I am struck by the shrinking boundary between art and life. It might be inherent to the specific choices I make as an artist, or it might be the choices I make in life that open me up to transformation. Either way, both ways, I love it.
The Time Map table asked people to hammer a nail into a box that represented the exact minute in which they exist, within a grid layout of minutes contained in a week (10,080 little boxes). We wanted this marking of time, a violent act, to focus concentration on a task in a particular meaning-laden place (the ITP floor), the physical operations of the body in space and time, as well as the existential questions of what it means to be participating in, or be locked into, the space/time continuum. The hammering person could attach some representation of their identity to the nail (one among many, identical) using a marker, thus rendering each nail unique yet somewhat anonymous, for the head of a nail cannot contain much more than a set of initials or a reductive icon. Each nail is like a tiny person, occupying a modicum of space in a crowded plane, vying for real-estate. The pattern created by the nails on the tabletop shows the accumulation of participation in the project at that location, but more blatantly, it points to itself.
For me, the intersection (or overlap, depending on the subject at hand) of art and life is a very deep and personal inquiry. The questions that keep coming up are, “why do I choose to occupy my limited space/time with art process and production?” and, “how does the work that I do impact the space/time I occupy?” and, “what is it that makes me do what I do?” It was only very recently that I found some form of direction in those questions. Certainly there are no answers, but proceeding with direction comes close. And for me, performance comes the closest to reifying that direction.
Recently, I engaged in a performance at Performance Space 122 that blew the top off my up-until-now intellectual pursuit of finding the intersection between art and life. The performance was a revival of a work called THEM, created between 1984 and 1986, by Ishmael Houston-Jones (dance), Dennis Cooper (words) and Chris Cochrane (music), in collaboration with the dancers. Originally generated during the rise of the AIDS epidemic (aka “the gay cancer”), THEM gets to the heart of what it means to create art in a time when one’s existence is on the verge of being extinguished. The work is dark and raw. It is physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging for the performers and vicariously for the audience. Like the original 1986 version, most of the dance exists as improvisations within movement scores—embodying unique and original behavior within a structured yet open series of tasks. For me, this is the ultimate analog to daily life.
My role in THEM was brief, but intense. I had a couple of small duets in the beginning of the piece to set up the part I did at the end. When asked, the way I described that part to friends and family was, “I have a blindfolded duet with a dead goat.” This short statement, minimally descriptive, says nothing of the extreme emotions and psychological upheaval this act caused within me and the other cast members. It is hard to write about it. The goats (three of them, because it was a two-week run) were purchased from a Halal butcher; it came gutted and drained, but complete with hooves, head and fur. The throat was brutally slashed, the insides humiliatingly naked. The first goat arrived twenty minutes before the dress rehearsal, completely limp and caked in blood and shit, and still warm. Before that night I had only practiced the two-minute duet with blankets or a cast member as a stand-in. I had no time to prepare myself for the reality of the dead flesh, once alive, now an object—the liminal state of a fresh corpse. The encounter will stand out in my memory for the rest of my life. When I finished the improvised duet, which is scored as a frantic oscillation between wrestling, fucking, tender love-making, mourning, refusal, fear, and loathing, I was covered in blood, as was the mattress where the duet took place. I was shaking. The meaning of the work as a whole had come sickly into focus.
Quoted below is an extract of an email I sent to the cast after the dress-rehearsal, in response to an email Ishmael sent. He said that naming the goat would help, to which I replied:
I haven’t named it. I think goats don’t name themselves or each other, and naming the goat would make it more impersonal to me, oddly enough. A distancing. This work is extremely personal to me.
I had a really hard time with it last night. …I know tonight won’t be the same as last night, less blood will help. The arrival of the goat right before dress, and actually having to face it, totally changed the work for me.
I just had a conversation with Dennis [cooper] about the goat, and how neither of us are okay with it. But we’ll do it anyway. We’re both a little worried what our friends will think of us. And that’s okay because it means the work is effective and people should question the validity of what we’re doing. Because it’s both valid and immoral, people who see it will be changed somehow, which is the root of art for me.
[The work] is not just a reminder of mortality for us. It’s really complicated. Problematic. I have multiple perspectives on the same exact thing (the presence and use of the goat), and those perspectives conflict. On the one hand I eat meat and on the other hand I love animals and have never killed one myself beyond insects. I’ve participated in euthanasias [I worked as a veterinary technician for two years]. I still don’t know the ramifications of those either, but they play into how I inhabit the world, how I interact with other beings on this planet in this life. How and why I am an artist is impacted by what I do in life and what I acknowledge as valid source material. That makes the remorse a useful thing instead of stultifying. Anxiety = future, remorse = past, ??? = present. Real life and art have collapsed in this piece for me. It could not have happened without the goat.
The goat had a hard day yesterday. I take that knowledge into me and ask my deepest self what that means, how it felt, why I am drawn to those things. I am going to die someday, and so will the people I care about. Memories vanish. At that point names don’t matter. So I don’t name the goat. I touch the goat and think about what it means to be just like him.
The two weeks following that initial encounter contained more emotional turbulence for me than the two preceding years. I felt simultaneously enriched and drained. I had asked for the part with the goat, nearly begged, because it was a personal challenge, and because I had already known about it for a long time.
Ishmael Houston-Jones has been one of my mentors for some years now. I met him in 2003 when he taught a class at my university. He showed us videos of his old work, including THEM. I was pretty green and had no idea that performance could be made in such a loose way, or be so visceral. Revisiting the work at this age, and being given the role I was given, is an honor. Hearing Ishmael and the other original creators of the work talk about what it meant to be living and making art in that time gave weight to the fact that we were choosing to spend our space/time as artists. Ishmael writes:
I think my […] point here is that we all just wanted to be doing then what you all are doing now – making our art and our mistakes; having sex, having love, getting wasted, loving NYC, leaving NYC, dancing, loving our friends. But there was this pall over everything we did (in addition to the usual, wars, ecological disasters, right winger homophobe/racist/misogynists,) We couldn’t French kiss without thinking we might get sick and die. Sharing a swig from a friend’s beer was suspect. And friends and lovers were dying. It led to some pretty insane reactions. Wrestling with a dead goat on a mattress is just one of them.
Dennis Cooper also had strong reactions to the presence of the goat after the dress rehearsal:
It’s simultaneously like a violent battle, like sex, like an outpouring of uncontrollable grief … it’s very much supposed to reference what it felt like in the early 80s to have friends dying around you constantly and to have to think of sex as a terrifying, possibly fatal act, and so on.
As artists we are remiss if we do not scrutinize the world (including our own actions) and feed it back into the work. Part of art is creating or recreating the world around you. Because after all is said and done, there is only one form of closure for everyone.
Participating in THEM was a wake-up call. It was the first time art and life were joined for me in a matrimony of emotion and function. The work conjured long-dormant memories, and reconstituted personality traits and immature behavior patterns I thought I had put behind me. Being in this show was one of those turning points in life, where the past, present and future collapse into a heap of dust. It was not unlike gestalt therapy, but self-directed. Even though I have had a life-long obsession with death, up until this show I had only vaguely gestured at mortality as an artist, like hammering a nail into a piece of wood. The pre-occupation with death as an inescapable fact of life was revived in me. It made me live harder, love harder and appreciate how I spend my time/space. The rupture will no doubt change how I make work. For a brief span of time, life and art were on a feedback loop, inextricably linked. Now the question is, how the hell do I find that again?
Reviews of the show: