Surviving Durational Performance: Yellow Fish Softens a Tough Medium

Posted on August 22, 2014, 6:20 pm
25 mins


In a culture where performance art is most often used as a cliché of willful, unwatchable obscurity by “arteests,” durational performance is the stuff of nightmares, conjures an image of hours of visual torture. It’s a tough medium, and as with all mediums, it is toughest for the artists, not the audience (unless it is a particularly sadistic “arteest” who hates the audience, in which case I am loath to call it art). However, every challenge comes with unique opportunities, and the variety of durational performance is not soon to be exhausted, even as the artists exhausts themselves in the attempt.

Some emphasize such exhaustion in durational performance, make it the subject matter. This thematic approach is not a requirement of the medium, though repertoires and bodies both are inevitably drained as hours pass. Even the most codified mediums invite new approaches, and durational performance is relatively new and not clearly defined as a medium. One might at first think that more time and space to fill presents more opportunities off the bat, but the extension of the performance in fact limits what artists can do. Some acts beat that by including stretches where nothing happens, punctuated by bursts of activity. The effect is at turns bewildering and suspenseful, and it attunes one to details that might otherwise be overlooked.

What is most consistent and immediate to the medium is a reckoning of time—and that ontological content necessarily makes things a little obscure to some who have not paused to consider it before. Time perception in humans is imperfect and becomes increasingly elastic in intense emotional states. Feelings that might otherwise be fleeting, ineffable and too complex to fully grasp in their passing are embodied in visual arts and music, perhaps most saliently in arias. Like water thinning an unpalatable concentrate, time is poured into these moments to allow us to savor the bitter and the sweet in otherwise impossible ways, to fix them in a still image (to contemplate over time), or to repeat them through ritual.

Long, one-time-only performances do not demand virtuosity or choreography so much as a conviction that an idea is worth pursuing. That idea may not be fully articulated and there may be no expectation, no bias as to how things will end. This is the germ of arts and sciences, but one rarely sees it so nakedly expressed, rather than in a finished product. Doubt is natural during a creative process, and being exposed to an audience during a performance that is also generative is all the more unsettling. In many ways, durational performance is a crucible, as the exhaustion of repertoire forces spontaneity, the exhaustion of the body induces meditation, and the exhaustion of the audience can lead to profound encounters with self and other.

The Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival

Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University in the heart of Capitol Hill is surrounded by rapid change and growth, largely driven by the influx of tech sector workers. Just a few blocks away, one of the many new, tasteless, shoddy and overpriced condominiums overrunning the neighborhood is inexplicably named EPIC. If you are going to cash in on an ephemeral real estate bubble, I suppose it is only natural to cash in on fleeting slang that—since I have started hearing baby boomers use it—is quickly to fall out of fashion. (I hope.)

But at the Hedreen Gallery, the Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival actually does live up to that four-letter word. The performances are long—between 1 and 48 hours, most being around the 4-hour mar this year—and as with a true epic work, audiences enter in medias res. At least the majority will, as the timing of the performances mid-week limits who can attend. (Some performers worked overnight at the gallery last year.)

Matt Drews performs in a piece by Carl Lawrence at Hedreen Gallery

Matt Drews performs in a piece by Carl Lawrence at Hedreen Gallery. Photo by Marina Sossi.

This was the second year of the Festival, curated and founded by choreographer Alice Gosti. Aside from the allotment of time and the stipulation that some artifact of the performance would remain in the gallery, Gosti gave artists complete freedom to interpret the very idea of what durational performance is. In some cases, she herself did not know what the content would be before the day of the performance. One had to come and see (and hear and smell) for oneself. Some performances were more introverted and indifferent to audience reactions, while others encouraged audience participation.

On one of the last nights of the festival, artists from both years gathered to discuss their ideas and motivations, and it became clear that one mode of time (modern western) prevailed among the participants and was guiding the discussion. Modern western time is quantified and linear, but for many people, time is more relational and cyclical (as it has been through most of history). Lunar calendars vary in length year-by-year, and many cultures still respond more closely to seasonal changes and related feasts and festivals. Even the move from the cyclical representation of time in analog clocks to a mostly digital world (a procession of numbers, discrete quantities of time) has a profound effect on how we understand time. Add this to modern utilitarian ideology, which seeks to maximize production and consumption, and time itself becomes a commodity—the ultimate commodity—and durational performance seems almost a reaction to it, a defiance of it, something that many will label a willful, unpardonable waste of time.

This, of course, neglects that theatrical/performative time is another state of time entirely. Ritual performances (from great masses to gamelans) may last for hours or even days, without a definite expiration; they go for as long as they can or must. Theatrical time is a way of placing quotidian experience of time in the context of eternity. In some religions this is expressed literally, but in art (in drama in general) the discrete performance reflects the individual in the context of all being and the universe in the context of non-being. Some theorists sum it up with a general morbidity: theatre = ephemeral = death. I think it is all more nuanced than that, but there is no denying that death and theatre (and film, which seems to arrest time) have always had a close relationship.

From this, it is worth reflecting on several of the performances—ones that I can speak to with some confidence—and their approaches to the medium and the play with time itself—and yes, also death.

The House of ia

The artist duo The House of ia spent two days in the gallery and the performances could not have been more different. On the first day, the two were submerged in an inflatable pool for four hours. They each wore a zentai (one yellow, one blue) and drew in air through a snorkel. Incense burned and a droning mixture of soundscapes and effects filled the room. Over the pool, a coyote skin held a bag that very gradually dripped pig’s blood into the pool, reddening it with time. Audience members could add salt, herbs and hot water. (I did not know this was an option, and the artists would have appreciated it as the pool grew cold over time.)

This is durational performance as endurance, but not solely. There was a harmony among the symbols, which included three cards from the tarot (Crowley’s Thoth deck) that referenced the union of opposites. (As it happens, the cards were chosen at random while preparing for the performance, and the artists themselves admitted to be tarot novices. I take them at their word, but as someone who is familiar with the cards, the three drawn were about as perfect as could be for the occasion: Two of Cups, Six of Discs and Art for those interested

Among the assemblage surrounding the pool where the two floated, there was no blatant point of reference, but the mixture of esoteric and natural objects created a peculiar space where the open-minded could encounter something primal, or otherworldly, or both. From the outside, looking through the windows of the Hedreen, it was probably just bewildering. You had to step in and give it time to let it work its magic, and that is in itself a big leap to make for audiences accustomed to predictability and the sense that public art spaces are exclusive. (They are not.)

The second day was less challenging in that regard. For the video piece matryoshka, the duo spent the day improvising dramatic movements in front of a camera in 18 minute intervals. A recording was then projected onto the wall during the next interval, and so forth, creating layers of movement over time, with the oldest versions increasingly pale and faded. In addition to the novel visual effects happening in real time, the performative palimpsest could be interpreted many ways—as a commentary on physical and mental records, on performance itself, on surfeits of flattened images in culture, and of course on time, which was piled up and flattened before one’s eyes. One can see the video on one’s screen, but only in that moment was one made inescapably aware of the living form behind it, slipping into a white void.

Ethan Folk

Audiovisual artist and photographer Ethan Folk also used the flattened record of film, then exploded it in space as a concrete representation of his time hitchhiking throughout Europe and Western Asia. Along the gallery windows, portraits of those who picked him up were suspended on wires at intervals depicting the amount of time that he spent with them over his 14000+ mile trip. The performance was a recitation that symbolically compressed his year-long odyssey (exactly) into two sessions (exactly 9 hours total) over two days, during which Folk repeated the names of the drivers for representative measures of time.

Hours of movement and getting to know a stranger (including why they deigned to pick him up in the first place) were compressed into a few stationary minutes. The details he learned and experiences he shared are not presented in some slim, fractured biography; those memories remain unique to Folk and (on their end) to the drivers. Instead, we receive only a name, the slightest glimpse into the personhood of the nearly 300 faces on display who were part of Folk’s journey. The act is a tribute to others, to the journey we all take and those who influence it, but it also reinforces the relative and individual experience of time, as what binds these names and faces is the artist’s own timeline (his own life), made manifest in wire, photos and voice.

Lucy Thane

Artist Lucy Thane did not perform but rather played with time zones by staging a live feed of parties from around the globe through computers. Strangers could communicate with one another while eating and drinking. It was daylight in the gallery, but the dead of night in Turkey. It was an act of endurance for those revelers to carry that party into the wee hours, and a gentle reminder of the roundness of the planet to which we belong—that roundness that makes days and seasons relative to one’s physical location. It also demanded engagement and personal curiosity unlike anything else during the festival.

Does it qualify as durational performance? It certainly stretches the definition, if one is concerned with choreography and theatricality…but it is not singular in contemporary work that places participants in the role of performer, and certainly in the context of past feasts (which were central to the calendar, dictated by the sun around which we revolved and the moon orbiting us) entire communities participated, entering into theatrical time as a whole. The virtuality of Thane’s piece does not allow for such a physical sense of community, and the parties were more like residential dinner parties (verging on benders) rather than pageants that spill through streets and fields and around bonfires. This was the new world, that made visible what was beyond the horizon in real time, atomized yet connected virtually by networks that make us all want to perform for each other, to look our best…but I personally couldn’t help but dwell on the past a bit.

I’ve Seen Half of God’s Face Here, The Other Half is Yours sample 1 from Carl Lawrence on Vimeo.

Carl Lawrence

Among the more choreographed works was that of Carl Lawrence, whose performance “I’ve Seen Half of God’s Face Here, The Other Half is Yours.” was also among the more technically involved, with large sliding panels to divide the space, a full sound system, and an increasing number of dancers over the course of the afternoon. Faces were smeared with black substance, and—to apply my own terminology to the appearance of things—the participants were divided into a priestly and worker class, respectively organizing the action in white robes and enacting a somber reaching dance in black uniforms.

An event was created with its own interior logic—and to witness it might have been what it was like to see the rites of a mystery religion in times past. (Indeed, the absurdity of performance is the absurdity of religion itself, of life itself.) Interpretation is open. Those who wish for answers to be dictated to them will find the questioning, ambiguous nature of performance art to be antagonistic to them. In most cases, the antagonism is not personal but rather against authoritarianism, which is why performance art flourished in the twentieth century, and why those—unwittingly or openly—sympathetic to authoritarianism treat it with hostility.

Being left with questions takes time to process, and too much at once can be overwhelming. The duration becomes part of that message in itself; this was theatre stretched into durational performance length, and audiences could step in and out at will, without a clear idea of whence things are coming and whither they are going. There was time enough to choose one’s own pace for observing and questioning. There was substance enough to be questioned, grotesque but not excessively macabre. During the artist panel, Lawrence acknowledged aforementioned theories that tie the ephemerality of performance to that of life, to death. I like that this was evident in the work without resorting to abject morbidity.

Marina Sossi

A completely different approach to death and performance, more direct and yet cheerful, was that of Marina Sossi. Sossi’s performance in Cal Anderson Park was a white, dreamy practice for her own death—a deathbed experience in public, in a reclaimed space that combines greenery and water. The memento mori is common in art, but a direct confrontation of time as the medium of all our experiences—that remains in itself fleeting and ambiguous—is less common. Furthermore, the experience of death in the modern age has become increasingly private. It was at one time a far more communal event, with the ailing receiving people on the deathbed in their final days and hours. It has in recent years become a sanitary, isolated experience, often in hospital beds occupied for only a few hours. Violent death is frequently depicted or referenced, but natural death is swept aside—a fearsome inconvenience. Sossi’s performance did not (seek to) capture that old world experience, but it did bring a contemplation of death into the public sphere and beautify it at the languid pace befitting it.

The Contemporary Dance

A few performances used the durational length and unique layout of the gallery to create long stretches of contemporary dance that could otherwise not be staged. Maryanna Lachman and Mara Poliak were one such duo, who traversed the main gallery space in movements that were at times a glacial crawl and at other times a flurry of full-body movements. Those who have not attempted an extremely slow dance may not realize just how difficult it is; an audience may feel agonized or may be entranced by the subtlety of gesture, but certainly the dancer is tasked to maintain control, to not surge forward. I previously mentioned how art can help unpack and elongate the experience of ineffable emotions, but it also gives movement itself the space and time to breathe, to recall Achilles and the tortoise.

Kayleigh Nelson spent hours writing a document of her childhood on vellum. As the ink ran dry, the pages themselves created a fading gradient when hung together on the gallery walls, beautiful in that alone. She then performed a solo dance in the gallery.

On one of the final days (just before the panel discussion), in the red, velvet antechamber to the theatre adjoining the gallery, Molly Sides inflated dozens upon dozens of white balloons and danced with Markeith Wiley to a mixture of dance music and R&B. The inflation process was the most exhausting, it seemed, and the dancing was playful and loose, but by no means sloppy. Dancers with significant training and a mind to perform can make even the most basic steps look powerful and full of intention, and Sides and Wiley did just that, between moments when they laid around, bopping the balloons into the air. The duo in white surrounded by white bubbles in the dark red recess certainly created a striking image. Call it erotic, call it alchemical, call it what you like, it was certainly novel (personally, a nice bookend to the womb-like performance of House of ia on the first day) and had a voyeuristic quality for visitors within the gallery.

The Hedreen’s large windows allow for passersby to become voyeurs to many of the performances. (Acts that used projection had the blinds down.) Even if people don’t have the interest—or courage—to walk into a gallery, pedestrians on 12th Avenue will potentially have the continuity of their day interrupted for a few weeks in the summer by something unaccountable glimpsed through those windows. Some will laugh it off and mutter “artists…” and others will be led to question, perhaps to come in and learn more. This is more than passive advocacy for a medium or for the arts in general; it is precisely the point of the creative process. I wish that the festival could be extended and that the timing of performances might capture more accidental viewers, but there are only so many hours in a day and only so many resources to support these performances. I am, however, pleased that we have at least this much and I look forward to the next festival, when we’ll all be a year older and perhaps more preoccupied by the passing of time than before.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

6 Responses to: Surviving Durational Performance: Yellow Fish Softens a Tough Medium

  1. sandi k

    August 23rd, 2014

    For those of us who could only get to a couple of the myriad events in the festival, many thanks for the lengthy overview here.

    Although I think I understand the point you’re trying to make with this statement (“Long, one-time-only performances do not demand virtuosity or
    choreography so much as a conviction that an idea is worth pursuing.”), I have to disagree — there are multiple kinds of virtuosity, many of which were on display during the month. The same goes for choreography.

    • TsFlock

      August 23rd, 2014

      Thanks for chiming in. There was indeed a great deal of virtuosity on display, and I don’t think our definitions differ much. The dancers I saw were very skilled; The House of ia and Carl Lawrence (and company) created a uniquely immersive space; Folk’s display of his photos was very precise and well crafted. The question is: Are such skills always REQUIRED of durational performance? Not always. I didn’t see every performance this year (not nearly) and nothing in its entirety, so what I chose to cover here is not a willful exclusion of other participants. But I will say again that this year was more theatrical (I think others noted that, too, during the talk back panel) and so taken from this pool my statement may not seem pertinent, but for the medium as a whole, I think conviction of an idea and the investment of time is the key, and virtuosity (as with all art) may aid one in more precisely conveying the idea (and give one stamina) but this is not a guarantee.