Jeff Huckleberry’s performance on Saturday night, Attempt at not being a walking fucking joke, was a meditation on the performance artist as a fragile or failing tour de force. Not only because Huckleberry was uncomfortably vulnerable and self-reflexive, but also because the relationship between his massive body, his even bigger wooden planks, his “tiny, shrinking” penis, and his dopey haplessness produced an engaging and challenging dialogic. Where the deconstruction of masculine tropes may be overly represented in contemporary performance art, I found Huckleberry’s work to be so immediate and compelling that it superseded the clichés he was self-consciously pointing out. He often took uncomfortable pauses between actions, muttering about not knowing how to proceed. We, the audience, got to decide if we wanted him to work with an oversize “Big Gulp” mug, or simply with his hand. We opted for the mug, not knowing it was full of rubbing alcohol. Huckleberry doused himself with it, allowing us to witness his experience of the liquid burning his skin and eyes, and creating a pungent, overwhelming smell in the gallery space. Huckleberry said later in conversation that dousing the rubbing alcohol was an easy way for him to get into an extreme performance “zone”.
Next, Huckleberry was painting twelve foot planks of wood in rainbow colours, placing them together on the floor and enveloping his entire body around them to form a kind of human rolling-pin. As a man/plank hybrid he was painfully awkward – and in this strange position, he began to roll slowly across the performance space, back and forth, trying to hold the bundle of planks together. The planks eventually sent a bucket of paint across the floor, and the potential for more serious disturbances loomed large. Then there was an attempt to place the planks upright against the wall, some of which fell dangerously close to audience members. Huckleberry’s inability to “manhandle” the planks was both terrifying and precisely the point. I got my primordial groove on and scurried as far from him and the planks as possible, trying to avoid harm (I distrust the even the most deconstructing and clownish performance artists, as a rule).
Huckleberry had been building-up to an ironic display of masculine bravado in his performance. His final “move” was to pick up all the planks simultaneously and hold them above his head in a precarious balancing act. At the point of success we, the audience, released the balloons he had handed out and cheered. But what were we feting exactly? Huckleberry’s feat, or the painful belabouring prior to it? My conscience nagged. It almost felt like we were endorsing the enforcer of a hockey team – someone who follows their body “type” to its logical conclusion, but suffers as a consequence (as body, persona and self are such disparate, irreconcilable entities). The coexistence of precariousness and strength came to the fore, as well as the engaging humour of Huckleberry’s re-inscribing of performance art tropes.
Patrycja German’s durational performance More Lust / Less Suffering was set up in an adjacent room, almost like an observatory – a space for the investigation of natural phenomena. The artist was sitting by herself against the gallery wall with two chairs beside her. On the opposite wall was an explanation of the performance and beside that, a tiny vial of pheromones. According to the explanation, her short, tight checkered dress was coated with sex pheromones that can interfere with the mood and behaviour of the spectators. Strange things happen when the female releases a higher concentration of pheromones (i.e. female pits herself against other female; men are overwhelmed with lust, etc.). This is the situation German reproduces in the gallery space, with herself in the centre as a hyper-pheromoning female. As part of the performance, two people were sitting at desks in corners and documenting the atmosphere with clinical detachment. We spectators were overwhelmed by a strange odour that made me, for example, feel very relaxed and light-headed.
German highlights the often obscured relationship between smell and sex as it permeates social encounters and spaces. Here, the pheromones that precede sex acts saturate the everyday: the institutional, the sanitized, the banal. Taking this one step further, German compels us to ask how this potent force impacts everyday power dynamics, emotions and behaviour. Furthermore, how does such phenomena cause or relate to suffering? The spectators’ engagement with the artist reveals a melancholic, isolating component to her hyper-pheromone production. Some spectators wanted to be close to German, rubbing against her, but others kept a cool distance. She was often alone in the space. In exploring the strange atmosphere of lust creation, the artist put herself in a vulnerable position, impacting those around her in ways she could not predict. Nor could we predict our own reactions, hence the desire to read about our own “strange behaviour” in the writings of the two clinical observers.
Incidentally, a colleague of mine was certain that the pheromones from German’s piece contributed to Huckleberry’s “emasculated” performance. Apparently, Huckleberry is normally much more aggressive and confident with his materials during his performances. This leads me to ask what other changes in mood or atmosphere might the pheromones have elicited? Perhaps because of this charged atmosphere of lust, many of the evening’s most salacious and unspeakable events could be explained.
In Sunday’s PERFORMANCE ART DAILY, Reflections on Praxis, moderated by Johanna Householder (with Jeff Huckleberry, Patrycja German, Rachel Echenberg and Agnes Yit as panelists) an interesting question emerged about audience/performer negotiation around safety during performance. Here we return to a persistent theme of this year’s festival: the ethics of performance praxis. What kind of unspoken contract are audience and performer in exactly? And in which ways is this contract negotiated? What does an audience member need to know prior to a performance? As one interlocutor suggested, performance art has gotten “safe” and today’s audiences tend to be more like passive theatre spectators. They expect a degree of comfort. Another audience member put forth the idea that tacit negotiation between performer and audience is a key tenet of the art form. You are called, as an audience member, to follow the artist’s gesture to its logical conclusion so that you can make a decision about how you personally wish to proceed (bringing us back to degrees of audience agency).
There are those who believe that a high degree of “risk”, tacitly negotiated, is native to performance art, and others who believe that an ongoing negotiation of trust and safety must be clearly spelled out and communicated. It seems to me that political training often lies in learning to project where a situation will go next. But can one always respond adequately when the variables of performance are unknown? Does every performance allow for an environment where interventions and self-protection are possible, or is that precisely where our agency and responsibility lies: in creating that space?