One of the benefits of starting off all this critical writing I do these days in the crucible of the Minnesota Fringe Festival is that I got (and continue to get) introduced to all manner of artists with which I might otherwise have never crossed paths. And they in turn introduce me to still other randomness. As a consequence, I can get invited sometimes to some pretty odd stuff. It might not always be my thing, but if I have no idea what’s coming next, I certainly don’t get bored.
The latest helping of strangeness to come my way is courtesy of a showcase curated by the local performance duo Fire Drill (individually known as Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney). When they were out touring some physical performance pieces of their own last year, they kept bumping into kindred spirits who wanted to find a way of sharing their work both with each other and a wider array of audiences. So Emily and Billy invited some new friends they met in New York to bring their stuff out to Minnesota, and gathered an equally eclectic bunch of local artists to share the stage and help draw a crowd.
The notion of stage here is more symbolic than literal. The one night showcase, Bring In The Indigo, took place at a relatively new little gallery space called The White Page. Intimate but not cramped, the first half of the showcase allowed for folks to sit in folding chairs on three sides of the action. Then on the intermission break the chairs were removed and the art wandered through the people—or the people wandered through the art, sometimes it was hard to tell. The chairs in the first half were full and there were people standing on all three sides as well besides, so it was a cozy and well-attended launch of a new idea. (Since it’s located just off the light rail line a couple of blocks from Hiawatha in a friendly residential neighborhood right next to a restaurant, I’d be very surprised if The White Page isn’t a quite busy little venue in the near future.)
So how’d this Minneapolis/New York collaboration work out? Pretty well, actually.
Bring In The Indigo led off with one of the strongest acts of the night, a Minneapolis dance duo called Hiponymous. Hiponymous is the dancers Renee Copeland and Evy Muench. [One of the added bonuses of this particular group of artists is that they’ve applied a lot of thought to specifically worded mission statements. These are especially handy if you’re trying to figure out how to put their art in some kind of context, or figure out for yourself if they’ve hit the target they’re aiming at, or perhaps missed the mark.]
“Hiponymous strives to make art that promotes social justice, community, and queer/feminist representations.”
So how does that manifest itself? Copeland and Muench for their offering “a rolling thought my sister flung a century ago” were both decked out in half tucked plaid shirts, jeans and sneakers, each of different hues so they were similar but not identical. Both had their hair pulled back into a single long ponytail, one with a streak of blue in her hair. They managed to use every inch of the playing space, as well as the crowded entryways, without ever causing the audience to worry they might get kicked in the head. The piece was a thrilling example of two people absolutely in synch with one another. Whether the moves were identical, one following or working in opposition to the other, the dance was precise and full of real joy. No music, just the sound of their feet and their breath, loud or soft, as they worked through their moves. An interlude in the middle with the two dancers hanging out, often twined together in some way on the floor, whispering things to each other that only they could truly hear, was beguiling in its intimacy and innocent quality. A class act from start to finish. I look forward to seeing more from them.
No surprise that another prolific local artist also charmed me. Samantha Johns was joined by Justin Spooner and Daniel Luka Rovinsky to present “Fer Fuck Sake.” Despite the explicit title, Johns presented another of her signature explorations of the human heart.
“She comes from theatre and marching band and love. With other humans, she builds work that is often in response to theatre and marching band and love.”
Young Mr. Rovinsky would seem to be the ringer here. After all, how can you resist the notion of a young boy onstage periodically declaring “I want to be a cat!” and then, at the end, getting his wish—being allowed to drink a saucer of chocolate milk, play with a ball of twine, and just generally be willfully mischievous as cats will be? But Johns isn’t bringing in an adorable precocious moppet for cheap sentimental purposes. Rovinsky is not only very self-possessed onstage, he can run with whatever random events take place in an unpredictable live theater situation. If while he’s getting a piggyback ride from Justin Spooner as Spooner is chugging chocolate milk and a little of that milk comes back up, later in their question and answer session, he will acknowledge it rather than pointedly ignore it—“Why is there milk on the floor?”
Rovinsky may be chronologically the youngest, but the openness with which Johns and Spooner speak to both Rovinsky and each other, particularly in the question and answer sessions of the piece, is kind of breathtaking. They look right at one another and they don’t turn away, even if the question or answer is discomfiting for them. Even the silence of no answer is an answer in this context. After asking a question like, “Do you love me?” or “Will we grow old together?” even if no words are forthcoming, the way they look at each other in the silence seems to provide an answer. The questioner replies to the silence with “Thank you” and they move on.
“Sam, have you given up?”
“Justin, have you ever been in love?”
“Daniel, do you believe in God?”
“Justin, why is there such a thing as monkeys?”
The piece begins and ends with a litany of advice and admonitions directed first from Johns and later from Spooner toward Rovinsky. Basically, they want to say the things they want to be sure aren’t left unsaid, or taken for granted, or to impart things they know now that they wish they’d known before so maybe the next generation can benefit.
“We get through the day by choosing what not to think about.”
“You can burn an American flag – “
“You can fall in love with whoever you want to.”
“Give up on recycling, the earth is fucked.”
“In Washington DC there are men who stand and speak on your behalf.”
“You are absolutely necessary to me.”
Like so much Samantha Johns does, it sounds almost hopelessly pretentious when you try to describe it, yet in the moment it’s so uncynical and honest that it never fails to get me right where I live. I think I have a little artist crush on Johns and Spooner after this one.
One of the most successful of the visiting New York groups for me was Future Death Toll, known offstage as David Ian Griess and Edward Sharp.
“Forged from the figurative beauty that dance and movement provides, Future Death Toll aims to introduce work that uses light, sound, and movement as a metaphorical stand-in for issues like mortality, death, diseases, prison as a corporation, intellectual property rights, bdsm, and subjective destitution. Poems, trash bags, heavy breathing, sweat, hair clippers, and orange provide transcendent beauty in an otherwise somber landscape.”
Believe it or not, that description above pretty much sums it up. You know you’re in for it when they’re setting up the sound equipment, a horrible feedback/static burst kicks in, and one of the performers turns to the sound guy and says, “Can you turn it up?” OK, gonna be one of those experiments in noise. Got it. So this bottle-cap-sized mic which serves as the source of the feedback that will be our soundtrack gets whipped around and abused, and in one memorable sequence taped to a bright orange dildo and smacked around any available surface. Though the mic is spoken into at one point, clarity of voice is not the point. It’s just another ripple and variation in the wall of feedback. In addition to the sound assault, David and Edward also rip off one another’s clothes almost immediately and spend the bulk of the performance moving around naked. They crawl into a couple of orange jumpsuits later in the action but are never completely covered up again. One vivid visual is when an off-kilter geometric pattern is affixed to the wall created out of orange tape. Then individual dollar bills are taped into the design. Then they each get lit on fire. After letting them burn for a while, a performer extinguishes then with a slap of his hand, then pursues the embers until they too are put out. One performer puts on lipstick, eyeliner and a generous helping of glitter. Heads are shoved into plastic bags, sometimes solo, sometimes both together as they strain against the bonds of any connection or confinement.
In situations like Future Death Toll’s piece “talk of the town,” part of me wants to approach the performer and say, “Good work” or “Nice job” or “I enjoyed that.” But then I stop and think, maybe that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Are they aiming for the exact opposite of nice, good, and enjoyment? “Boy I really hated that” or “that made me extremely uncomfortable” doesn’t necessarily seem like much of a compliment either, even if that’s what they were shooting for. Someone I was conversely with at the event wisely told me, “In situations like that, I just say Thank you.” So, Future Death Toll, thank you. Please come back and assault my ears in the future. As strange and anarchic as the piece was, they always seemed in complete control of what they were doing and where they were headed (even if I had no idea). Not everyone pulls that off, and the showcase Bring In The Indigo offered examples of that as well.
Continuing in the successful side of the evening, however, there’s Minneapolis movement and visual artist Dustin Maxwell, performing a piece called “Untitled (white on white with red).”
“He has performed portraits between two gigantic testicles and under dripping udders; partnered with baby papoose gardens and phantasmagoric deer; he has chewed meat but never swallowed. He has done these things in various queer and cabaret venues.”
Here, he just has three big red juicy beets—two wrapped in gauze, one in his hand. Maxwell was clad all in white from head to foot (save for his big black boots). Maxwell was stationed up in the front window box, just silently moving VERY slowly with his eyes closed. I felt a little bad because at first I’d mistakenly taken him for another part of a different act that was moving through the crowd—that he started in the window and then would come over later. I soon realized he was his own entity and he wasn’t going anywhere. I would need to go to him. Maxwell was stationed in that window box for the entire second half of the evening (even when the hip-hop band kicked in at the end—and he was still there when I left). There were several iPods set up, each with their own soundscape. You’d put in the earbuds and just watch Maxwell move—the sound informing the way you took in what he was doing. The sign said:
“Pick an iPod (they’re all different)
Listen and watch (until done)
Enjoy (or not)”
A moment of piece in an otherwise chaotic evening? What’s not to enjoy?
Another moment (or rather moments) of enjoyment came in the form of how Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney decided to emcee the evening. Since the performers’ bio/artistic statements were all in the program, rather than formal introductions between pieces, Emily and Billy just acted as interstitial performances while the next act would set up. Emily would perch on top of a folding chair and rip pages off a pad of paper and let them drift to the floor, or she’d place a roll of tin foil under the chair and take the end up with her, slowing rolling the tinfoil up into an enormous unwieldy ball of foil in her hands. Or Billy would stand on the chair and slowly swing a roll of blue tape like a pendulum, with the tail of the swinging tape getting longer and longer, threatening to reach the audience on either side. While one of them would stand like this on the chair, the other would move through the crowd with spoons and lemon sorbet and offer “Palate cleanser?” No disrespect to the other performers, but these ended up being some of my favorite parts of the evening.
Emily and Billy also served up something from Fire Drill.
“They work along the disciplinary boundaries of dance, theater, and performance art, conducting experiments around the notion of contemporary and how art is meant to be watched.”
The piece, “Ah You Know It’s For Well It’s For Our Clement,” was performed not by them but by Emily Ban, Ryan Colbert, McKenna Kelly-Eiding, Peter Rusk, with text by Rachel Jendrzejewski. The four bare-chested performers in open winter coats and underwear filled the space below a white projection with scrolling text. None of the performers ever said anything. They looked at things we could never see and would stare, gasp or grimace. They would almost say a word but it would get stuck and strangled off in their throats before it could form. They all had tremendous control over their bodies and frequently froze into what looked like uncomfortable poses. Meanwhile, the text on the screen had a couple of different narratives moving by at different, sometimes lightning fast, speeds. One thread was a set of driving directions. Another had to do with an unfortunate adventure in orthodontics, which got distracted by another random story, and the study of the roots of the word “regret.” The piece challenged the idea of where you’re supposed to look at any given moment. What’s important and what are you missing and do either of those things matter? Because it was more concerned with my surface cerebral self and deliberately held me at a distance, it wasn’t a piece I could genuinely like, but I was nonetheless intrigued by it as an experiment.
Another piece I found more perplexing than engaging was the New York group Panoply Performance Lab (aka, Brian McCorkle and Esther Neff).
“Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL) is unbounded by discipline or field, we collect ourselves around processes, theorizing social systems, ideological structures, modes of production, and epistemic geneologies via actions, relational constructs, images, noise, text, interactions, and objects. PPL also devises site-and-context-specific work outside of their home city of Brooklyn a couple of times each year.
This may be one of the dangers of site specific work in a new town, finding something that engages and encapsulates the new environment and people you’re still getting to know. After carrying and pushing a red overnight case through the audience, the performers set up shop and unpacked the case’s contents. This led to some interesting moments and images. Nine audience members were asked to take small glass jars outside, fill them with snow and bring them back in, at which point they were poured over McCorkle’s head. Neff took off her shirt and got a small motor in a plastic container and taped it to her exposed breasts. A remote control from the motor revved it into higher or lower gear and the two performers mimicked the sound, often turning the noises into a dialogue between them. A bowling ball was duct-taped to Neff’s foot and she dragged it through the space, down and then back up a set of stairs, clunking as she went. They opened a package they had mailed to themselves here in Minneapolis which contained a costume which they both tried to squeeze themselves into together and then walk around. It was all good-natured enough, but the piece “Marooning: for Minneapolis” didn’t seem to have any central driving force or idea behind it when all was said and done.
There were also two music acts, both from Minneapolis. Glow Mechanics closed out the evening and even got some folks dancing.
“Glow Mechanics is a three-piece hip hop group from Minneapolis. Things they’ve received positive feedback for include: intricate emcee teamwork; colorful, interesting, literary lyrics; old school, melodic, sample-driven beats; short, to-the-point songs; and high-energy live shows.”
Not being familiar with the group or their music before, I wasn’t as adept at following the songs (I could see some folks who clearly knew the lyrics mouthing along, though). It was enjoyable white boy hip-hop, enjoyable for me mostly because in watching them they all seemed to be having such a good time, smiling and bopping around. Couldn’t tell you which one’s Ghostmeat, which one’s BEV, or which one’s Es El, but I don’t imagine those are the names they were born with so I’m sure they don’t worry much when people mix them up.
Earlier in the evening was the very different Cock E.S.P.
“The experimental music and performance art ensemble draws on the most transgressive and absurdist elements of both popular and experimental Twentieth and Twenty-First Century music and performance art, realizing a diverse and energetic palette of abstract electronic music influenced by such styles as Japanese Noise, free jazz, punk rock, death metal and hardcore industrial.”
So, there’s that. What that manifested as in their segment of this showcase was:
More audio feedback, naturally. A tattooed guy in his underwear abusing a tiny drum set. A person in a black cape facing away from the crowd and screaming into a microphone. A woman in white kabuki-style face makeup and a skirt made out of a sheet of clear industrial plastic stained with red paint twirling like a dervish while waving a metal thunder sheet violently in the air.
There are some things for which, try as I might, I am just not the audience. Cock E.S.P. is one of those things. To me they just seemed dangerously out of control, like they either weren’t aware or didn’t care where each other were on the stage, or where they were in danger of injuring audience members. Might have been an off night. Hard to tell.
Overall, though, I thought Fire Drill’s goal of putting together an interesting and eclectic showcase of artists came off very well. I like having my boundaries pushed and seeing work from new artists I haven’t seen before, mixed in with ones I already like. I’d trust Emily and Billy to broker another one of these “getting to know you” showcases any day. Keep an eye on Fire Drill for what’s next.