Category Archives: Performance

Anything Goes: The State of Performance Art

The two-dozen or so artists and members of the audience that gathered one night last weekend at 455 10th Street, a performance gallery south of Market, were young and very hip. They were all pretty much insiders in the avant-garde art scene in San Francisco, and though they were expecting to be entertained and entertaining, they were not expecting the evening’s events to be either polished or particularly innovative. The fact that there were glimmers of outstanding artistic achievement was probably more than anyone had hoped for.

Michael_Brown_Performance_Art

When I entered the gallery, a shabby, converted warehouse, I immediately saw that the far end of the space was bathed in projections of typewritten words — big, bold, black-and-white lettering cast onto three walls, the floor, the ceiling, and all the stage props.

Interesting, I thought; it had the same dramatic impact as enlarged headlines in scandal sheets. The words leaped out, unintelligible but insistent. The projection spoke plainly: it was “art” large enough to fill an entire space with a minimum of investment in materials, time or imagination. It was functional and put me in the appropriate frame of mind: weirdness.

I seated myself in one of the plastic chairs angled toward the back corner of the gallery and waited to see what would take place. A quartet of musicians in another corner, arranged in a circle so that the backs of some of them were toward the audience, separating us from them, was playing a crudely enchanting music, seemingly spontaneous.  They played recorder, violin, mandolin and drum. It was an oddly primitive music, contributing to the atmosphere of ritual that filled the gallery, as if some ancient rite were taking place.

At center stage a sheet was draped over a square metal frame, perhaps a clothes rack. The projections cast over the walls also partially obscured the sheet, making it blend in with its background, camouflaged. At an apparently predetermined point in the playing of the music, a hand from under the sheet reached out and pulled the sheet down.

Ropes inside the frame suspended a man’s slender, naked body. The ropes looped around his side so that he faced the audience frontally, his feet pointing to the bottom angle of the frame, his head pointed diagonally to the top. His nakedness was obscured by projections onto his white-powdered body.

The projections were of clothes and abstract images. So perfectly placed was his body in relation to the projector that the images of clothes, ever changing, perfectly matched his form, neatly dressing him. Then there were bizarre projections, full of wild colors and unidentifiable images that sometimes made his body look ghastly, as though it were a corpse brought out of a terrible battle in the midst of war.

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The gallery presented a potpourri of individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

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The people responsible for this captivating scene — m.c. schmidt, Wayne Niethold, and Michael Brown — originally devised the concept in New York for the Palladium. It was created, they said, to honor an acquaintance’s death.

“Performance art is just about anything you want it to be,” says Michael Brown, organizer of the events at 455 10th St.  Better known in the city as one of the infectiously good-humored workers at Café Flore, Mike is an installation artist whose vision and energy regularly brings together the works of various artists at the gallery, many of them, like him, recent graduates of Humboldt State College in Arcata, California.

The artists assembled a potpourri of installation, video, film, live music and performance art, individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

One piece followed another in the course of the evening. The live music ended, and recorded, synthesized music took over, vibrating in deep, eerie, quadraphonic sound, a collection of found sounds and instrumental music with an overall ominous feel.

This was particularly true when the suspended nude climbed down out of his ropes, to be replaced on stage by four video screens pulsing eerily in the darkness with a taped segment entitled “Mechanical Spectacle.”

Created by Bill Smartt, Mykill Misrok, and Mark Misrok, it consisted of a mechanical farm, with mechanical chickens, ducks, farmers, cows, tractors and other such things, all in their proper settings of farmhouses, barns, and corrals, As the camera panned around and through the set, the pieces moved mechanically, as though they were magnetic and a magnet were being run underneath them. This movement was accompanied by strange electronic sounds, including echoes, claps, sticks clacking, and a farmer’s voice singing, in Hillbilly accent, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bail of hay.” It was a freakish and unsettling combination of sight and sound, nightmarish in effect.

This was followed, in startling contrast, by an outrageously funny act performed by Bill Smartt sitting at a desk, his face the center of a giant sunflower. In a Southern woman’s accent, he portrayed Kimberly, the receptionist for Temp Force, the temporary personnel agency.

“Thank you for calling,” she’d answer the telephone, her voice singsong, and then proceed to humiliate, degrade, and condescend to caller after caller seeking employment. The skit was done with great wit and devastating accuracy, even if the sunflower bonnet was something of a funny flop.

The most powerful piece of the evening, however, was Michael Brown’s own video presentation documenting the destruction of the old Falstaff brewery. It began with Mike engaging in a physical demonstration, a sort of rite in which he slowly and painstakingly moved a giant I-beam from the back of the warehouse onto center stage by rolling it on sticks.

At the same time, images of a crumbled building were projected onto one wall, first in black-and-white, then in color. My first thought was that it was the bombed-out embassy in Beirut, but then other images started appearing on video screens on other walls and I recognized the brewery.

The quadraphonic sound system was emitting magnified noises of traffic and jackhammers and the deep, echoing voice of a woman speaking in German. What was being said was never made clear, but the voice gave a documentary-like quality to the images, as though a member of the underground in World War II Germany was narrating an account of the atrocities she had witnessed.

Michael Brown and his colleagues at 455 10th St. did a remarkable job of providing fresh and interesting entertainment to a sophisticated, if not too critical, audience. Their ideas are as representative of the trends in performance art as anything else. Which is to say, in performance art, anything goes.

 

This article appeared in print in the San Francisco Sentinel, April 3, 1987.

Circo Zero’s astonishing ‘Sol Niger’

CircoZeroIt was a total eclipse of the heart, just as choreographer/circus master Keith Hennessy sang during a raucous number on opening night in San Francisco of Circo Zero’s “Sol Niger”.

A seemingly moonlit stage at the venerable alternative art space Theatre Artaud served well to showcase a troupe of five performers and the lighting designs of Max, a true master of projections, illuminating a combination of dazzling aerial acrobatics and sophisticated modern dance played out to a wild, original, funky piano/percussion/electronic loop symphony created by a lone, lean, muscular, long-haired musician with a dynamic flair.

Circus master Keith Hennessy has created a masterpiece with “Sol Negro,” his latest in a long line of increasingly sophisticated circus productions. This time he pulled off a total winner, a blend of physical daring on the ropes, modern dance, balancing on a ball, mime, visual projections, and manic piano playing.

Sean Feit, the dazzing pianist, took the keyboard to a whole new level of brilliant if seemingly demented playing, the instruments hammers exposed for extra effect. His playing was muscular, and with his shirt off, it was his rippling back that as much as anything grabbed our attention as he pounded the keys, seemingly intent on destroying the instrument. I half expcted it to fall apart under the onslaught, but all that intense energy, and Feit’s more subtle sound effects tricks, transferred to the other artists, who responded with astonishing artistry.

Aerialists Emily Leap and Brett Womack, dangling from ropes, captured our hearts and made us catch our breaths with their high-level risk taking. Leap, in her most breathtaking segment, dropped precipitously and flailed around on the ropes like a demented rag doll. We watched her fling herself about above the floor as Hennessy belayed her, and it seemed impossible she didn’t fall but in fact she was precise in every move, a masterful aerialist.

Brett Womack captured our hearts with his breathtaking beauty and imposibly perfect, seemingly effortless athleticism and grace. Of all the aerial artists I’ve seen, from Ringling Brothers to Cirque du Soleil, he is absolutely the finest, most flawless. He perched on the ropes like a cheetah stretching out on a branch, pouncing abruptly to startle us. He climbed up the ropes with the effortlessness of a monkey, then would fly down them and swing around with the surety and strength of a mountaineer.

Meanwhile Seth Eisen played the clown, a mime in bizarre drag, always lurking about in the background, ironing dolls, making faces, his white-face a Marcel Marceau mask, his arms akimbo, his expressions a commentary on the politics of the piece. And politics is precisely what pulled the whole production together and made it cohere. As always Hennessy had a point to make, and he made it well with monologues and singing, referring to the insanity of our war-for-profit, oil-drenched world, the insanity of it all. The beauty of the aerialists, the complexity and intrigue of the music soundscape, the dour antics of the disturbed clown, and the circus master control and command of Hennessy all combined to make a statement of what it means to be living in a world gone awry. Amidst the insanity, there is humanity, a realm of wonder worth inhabiting.

Circo Zero’s “Sol Nigher” plays through September 29 at Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida St. @ 17th St. in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 (and well worth it!). Shows are at 8pm. Tix: www.brownpapertickets.com, or 800-838-3006. Info: 415-255-2500.

 

This article appeared on Tribe.com, September 23, 2007.