“Naked” performance art—What is it?

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What exactly is performance art? To find out, head to Intermedia Arts for their Naked Stages festival, which happens this weekend and November 6-8. I asked this year’s Naked Stages artists to explain what performance art means to them.

May Lee-Yang has a playwriting background. She says that her piece actually became simpler over its year-long development process. The title of her piece, The Child’s House, comes from the Hmong word for uterus. She uses storytelling to explore her relationship with ghosts and her experiences with the supernatural. Her performance is mostly scripted, but she says that part of what makes it “performance art” is that not everything is scripted. “If I were in a play,” she says, “it would have to be more true to the words. Performance is more mobile.”

Beverly Cottman’s piece, Layer(s), is about her journey to become an artist through the inspiration of her ancestors. Her work is an interdisciplinary performance that incorporates storytelling, movement, and visual art. In the performance she will be creating a piece of visual art using materials such as shells, fabric, yarn, and ribbon, but she won’t know what the sculpture will look like until the performance, and each night of the performance she will build on the previous night’s work. She says performance art is an aesthetic experience that appeals to a level within people that helps inform their response to creativity.

In Juma B. Essie’s Too Real 2B Free, Essie dramatizes the struggle to maintain humanity as a black man in the contemporary world. He says that performance art is about process. “The difference is that the creator is also the art.” He says there’s a vulnerability to it. Essie’s piece makes use of video, movement, and a looper (for vocal loops) to show how in the world we live, people are put into a box. “Anytime you step outside [the box],” he says, “you either [cause] fear or you are [seen as] special.” Ultimately his work underlines the idea that people are complex.

Byrd Shuler says her piece, This Here Now, is about two parts of herself in conflict. On the one hand she has “all the performative tactics and tools galore” that one learns with performing experience, and on the other hand, there’s her younger side that simply wants to bring beautiful things to life on the stage. She says for a long time the two parts were in conflict, and that the piece portrays that conflict via a character running ragged. Shuler uses collage, gymnastics, musical theater, characters, photographs, and video in her piece, along with “a ton of props.” On the question of the definition of performance art, Shuler says “I’m really not into defining that.” She says performance art is deciding that you don’t have to decide what performance art is. So there you have it.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.