This month, Contemporary Lynx crossed the Atlantic Ocean to participate in Peforma13 biennial – a must-see New York festival entirely dedicated to performance art.
The trip began with a mind-twisting performance by Smolenski & Szlaga at Fridman Gallery. We watched an intriguing action/performance by Akademia Ruchu (Academy of Movement) at Times Square. Next stop was the post office at Madison Square, where we listened to an eerie sound piece by Katarzyna Krakowiak. Finally, we saw a thought-provoking exhibition by Agnieszka Kurant at Sculpture Centre in Queens. Unfortunately, we missed out launch of a new sculpture prepared by Pawel Althamer in hip Williamsburg.
What is Performa?
Performa run between 1-24 November. It presented performance across a range of disciplines: visual arts, music, dance, theatre, poetry, fashion, architecture and graphic design. More than one 100 events were presented at over forty different venues. The biennial was directed by RoseLee Goldberg – a curator, author of an iconic book “Performance Art. From Futurism to the Present”, and a real guru of performance art.
As exemplified by the wide range of disciplines at this performance art festival, performance art is a catch-all. It can be theatre, lighting, new media, or recorded sounds. It can be video, music, written text, but also dance or poetry. Performance can be anything. It can be random or choreographed, can happen in any venue, any place, for any length of time, with or without audience participation. Artists use performance to challenge orthodox art forms and cultural norms. Performance is a great “tool” for artists to demonstrate changes in society – political, cultural or universal. The common denominator of performance practice its direct link to the public. The emphasis on the audience was certainly palpable at the events we took part in as part of Performa.
For three weeks Performa13 transformed New York into the performance capital of the world. This year the concept of Pavilion Without Walls had its debut. This year it focused on Poland and Norway. Performa’s Pavilion Without Walls is a new initiative modelled on the idea of the Venice Biennial’s pavilions. It’s created to forge strong partnerships between New York and countries around the world, allowing Performa to foster deeper levels of cultural and artistic exchange.
Why did Performa focus on Poland? In the words of RoseLee “Poland has an extraordinary history of performance that straddles both art and theatre, and the politics of the past half century. […] The artists and events within the Polish Pavilion illustrate and embody the artistic practices that Performa found following months of research, including visits to Warsaw and Kraków with leaders of the art and culture field.
Polish Pavilion was jointly organised by Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Polish Cultural Institute in New York and CCA Zamek Ujazdowski from Warsaw. In addition to national focus, Performa also had a thematic leitmotif of “Citizenship” and “Voice”. The themes were clearly visible in projects prepared by Polish artists. In various ways they reflected upon the subject of citizenship questioning our sense of community and asking what it means to be a citizen in XXI-century world of immigrant nations. The theme of “voice” was understood as an instrument and platform for desire, persuasion and coercion, says Goldberg, the historical link that ties the programme together was the art movement of Surrealism and its legacy.
Performa – Polish performances
Radoslaw Szlaga and Konrad Smolenski presented Tribute to Errors and Leftovers at Fridman Gallery in Manhattan.
Gallery space was turned into a stage with Szlaga’s patchwork flags hanging loosely from the ceiling. Images on the flags depicted animals and human faces – often with open mouths, shouting. There was a disturbing dog threesome. The iconography was kept in the aesthetic of rubbish and leftovers – typical for Szlaga’s oeuvre. The title of the project – Tribute to Errors and Leftovers – perversely reflected upon the contemporary culture and material lifestyle.
In such scenery, Konrad Smolenski together with Dean Spunt and colleague from the BNNT Daniel Szwed produced ear-blasting music to mute all other senses. Disturbing and in equal measure hypnotic performance, with unpredictable and surprising twists, was the most crucial part of the whole piece. The viewer, with obligatory earplugs, was thrown into the middle of chaos morphing into reflection and back into chaos.
Smolenski and Szlaga were inspired by the story of aliens coming to Earth to get rid of leftovers. The link to the theme of citizenship and voice could be a tale of an immigrant or outsider reaching their new destination – in Smolenski’s case with a space-age rocket-shaped guitar. Does the outsider bring trash or seed of new civilisation? Is it noise or a new voice? Does the new element introduce chaos or does it merely confront it? From the participant’s perspective, the performance resembled the experience of an immigrant overwhelmed by the melting pot of city chaos felt with all senses; foreign sounds, smells and forms. On the other hand, it’s the intruder who disrupts the rhythm. The boundary between useless rubbish and new value seems vague and fluid.
Katarzyna Krakowiak presented a sound installation The Great and Secret Show/ The Look Out Gallery, created inside James A. Farley Post Office.
Similarly to Smolenski’s and Szlaga’s gesamtkunstwerk, Krakowiak’s work was built around sounds. The work also referenced the location’s architecture and history.
James A. Farley Post Office is an enormous neoclassical building in the heart of Manhattan. Unusually, for the size and location, the building is almost empty. In the mid-twentieth century more than 16,000 people worked in the building. Today, in busy periods, fewer than 200 workers use the space. Numerous rooms, corridors, vaults, chambers and storage spaces are vacant. Krakowiak created her intervention along one such disused corridor.
Krakowiak used pre-recorded collection of sounds of closing doors, sorting of letters or stamps being used. Hidden speakers emit sounds of post office daily routine. It’s not obvious that this is indeed the sound of the past. Moving along the corridor, we hear loud sounds of machines and work being done but no human voices. The post office functions like a perfectly oiled machine devoid of human presence. These sounds echo in the long empty corridor. Originally, the long walkway dubbed by the workers as the “lookout gallery” was an extensive system of secret corridors that connected thousands of rooms in the old post office. Doors had small peep-holes for postal policemen to control the working environment through an analog CCTV. The system allowed effective surveillance of employees and enforced discipline. Krakowiak’s installation brings to mind Michele Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison where he argues that, discipline created a whole new form of individuality for bodies, which enabled them to perform their duty within the new forms of economic, political, and military organizations emerging in the modern age and continuing to today. Lack of sounds of human activity in the post office may be seen as an example of the ultimate discipline of workers’ bodies – where they are silently subdued to the sounds of work and the machines.
James A. Farley Post Office is famous for the inscription: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – a slogan of effectiveness and reliability associated with perfectly oiled machines. Krakowiak’s installation is devoid of human element despite being located in a monumental building, in the heart of the most powerful economy in the world. As if human voice meant nothing confronted with the power of economic forces.
The installation located in the “lookout gallery” naturally poses question about surveillance and control. These are particularly salient in light of ongoing outrage over mass spying of citizens by governments and corporations. The installation begs the question whether human voice ought to be silenced in service of maintaining a well-oiled, reliable machinery.
Like in Smolenski’s and Szlaga’s work, the meaning of noise in Krakowiak’s piece is ambiguous and multi-layered. So is the focus on forms of leftovers – she combines a mostly disused building with old recordings to create new meanings for the participant to discover.
TO BE CONTINUED…