At the Friday night opening for LabBodies’ third annual performance art survey, I smell at different moments burning incense and the strange, hot aroma of bricks colliding and shattering—the latter I haven’t recognized before but likely encountered passing demolition sites. In each case, the sources of these scents are threatening bodily harm to the artists who wield them. But there is purpose in that pain, and its intensity activates the audience.
Carrie Fucile, whose performance “Occupational Enterprises” kicked off the event, tossed and toppled white bricks as she built up and dismantled various structures around her own body. Contact microphones picked up and distorted the clamor of bricks smashing to the floor, delivering a thunder that rose and sank as each haphazard edifice grew and collapsed. Wearing a red worker’s jumpsuit and no protection aside from a pair of gloves and goggles, the artist handled the visibly heavy bricks as if they were toy blocks. She disappeared inside the final structure completely before pushing against each of its four teetering sides, as if breaking out of an egg. Bricks rained down, splitting into shards; what sounded like fireworks burst from the speakers. That faintly chemical smell charged forward from the debris.
I soon after noticed Fucile holding an ice pack to her head as she sat observing a performance by Park Hyun Gi—the source of the incense. Specifically, Park’s knuckles, about to be singed by the near-depleted incense sticks she held between each finger. She waved her smoking hands in circular motions as she strode around the long white scroll rolled out onto the floor and topped with an assortment of apparent offerings or talismans—burning candlesticks, oranges, altoids, a mini trophy inscribed with “World’s Best Daughter Lisa Park 2014”—while another performer in beekeeping gear sat in lotus pose and rolled two chiming silver balls in his hand. Park stopped to stare at a member of the audience as the sticks burned out, their faces inches apart.
The artist’s eyes watered.
Though far from a defining factor, physical pain is commonly associated with performance art, thanks in part to art world stars like Chris Burden (who had himself shot himself in the arm, among other things) and Marina Abramovic (spent 12 days in a museum exhibit without food, among other things). Early in the tradition’s history, the Viennese Actionists attempted to shock the Austrian bourgeoisie out of their conservatism through ritualistic aktions that often employed self-mutilation, a movement that climaxed when artist Günter Brus cut into his own skull in 1970. In 2014, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carried a dorm room mattress everywhere she went on campus for nine months, refusing to quit until the school expelled her rapist (he wasn’t; “Untitled [Carry That Weight]” instead concluded with her graduation—the mattress joined her onstage as she received her diploma).
Protest is often a thread here.
And so it is not unusual that pain, endurance, and dissent are present here at the third iteration of LabBodies’ “Borders, Boundaries, and Barricades (BBB) Performance Art Review.” After all, it was no coincidence that the first “BBB” arrived on the heels of the Baltimore Uprising. Further, this year’s curatorial focus is “freedom,” which LabBodies co-founder and co-director Ada Pinkston says has become a matter of urgency.
“Mind you, freedom is important all the time, but I think that considering the current political circumstance, freedom is on people’s minds and on the agenda,” Pinkston told me two nights before the opening as she, fellow co-founder/director Hoesy Corona, and program manager Ashley Dehoyos worked on installing the exhibition at SpaceCamp on North Avenue. “It’s more at the forefront.”
Fucile’s and Park’s performances both draw from direct narratives dealing with freedom: In her statement, Fucile condemns the exploitation of artistic labor (the white bricks are a nod to the historically exclusive and viciously capitalistic white cube art galleries) that constrains and punishes cultural producers. Park describes her multi-step performance—in which she also hand-pokes tattoos onto orange rinds, doused herself with a self-made elixir, and more—as “a healing ceremony to the repressed traumas of my sexual assault, my parents’ rejection, and society’s rejection of women of color.” Whether or not these messages make themselves clear, ultimately, is secondary to the experience of the work; the performers’ struggle against containment is felt, even smelled. The arc of the performances could be compared to a long inhale, held almost too long, then finally released all at once as the artists concluded their work.
Nearly all artists represented in “BBB” this year are female-identifying, and most are people of color. Not all artists, however, offer performances; stand-alone installations and objects from five artists take over the front room. In the center, a sculpture by Julia Kim Smith reflects the viewer’s face behind the words “In Trump’s America, I am worth nothing” etched into the surface of a small round mirror. On the back, “I am secretly going to burn this thing down from the inside.” A noose hangs from the stand holding up the mirror.
Nearby, pieces from the same artist’s series titled “What To Wear To A Protest”—a leather handbag spray-painted with the words “DEFY HATE” and a sweater vest donning the logo “RESIST.” The kicker: Both the purse and the top are repurposed items from the Ivanka Trump line. The tags are still attached, though the T-word is crossed out and replaced with “resist.” By the way, both pieces are for sale with all proceeds going to the ALCU.
Also on view here are re-embellished boxing paraphernalia and a documentary short championing Latina women by Tanya Garcia, an installation connecting land and the black body by Najee Haynes-Follins, a ghostly floor-to-ceiling sculpture by Sarah Stefana Smith, and a video drawing by Helina Metaferia (who will also present a performance at the second night of programming). Though LabBodies—and performance art in general—are typically rooted in ephemeral work that directly incorporates the body as a medium, the bigger through line is in disciplinary intersections and finding alternative ways to engage with an audience.
“Because LabBodies is a performance art presenter,” Pinkston said, “the concept of freedom is that much more important and relevant because we’re all about pushing boundaries and considering the freedom of what it is for artists to express themselves outside of traditional forms and also outside of traditional institutions.”
That push naturally extends to artists whose identities are excluded from the traditions championed by the art world and art history.
“To some marginalized folks—I’m thinking queer folks, people of color—it’s always been important to push and create these dialogues that are not within the mainstream or are even themselves marginalized in conversation,” said Corona.
In Megan Livingston’s participatory performance “Freeing Us Is Easy,” people in the audience are asked to click through a text-based computer game that muses over the artist’s search for freedom in her identity: “Love is a political act. Black Love is a political act. An economic act. We ain’t free but we act free. We free what we can get.” Standing nearby as a kind of IRL avatar (dubbed by the game as “the real Black Megan”), the artist returns the clicks with song and spoken word, which she records and replays in loops. With each cycle of the game, participants are directed to remove a sheet of black plastic tarp where Livingston stands, revealing a maze that stretches across the floor. With all the tarps finally gone, Livingston slowly navigates her way through the labyrinth and out to the audience, singing her way around each corner. The repetition in process here feels like the unabating pattern of questioning and reevaluating one’s place in the world, how for black women in particular that place is determined by other players in the game.
At the end of the night, I think about how pain—whether felt by the body or being or both—winds itself around resistance as both a tool and impetus while dancer Domineka Reeves kicks up dirt and charcoal and dry leaves, swaying and leaping in response to a live sound performance by Erick Antonio Benitez in a collaboration dedicated to the empowerment of black women. Reeves’ limbs slam into the floor, and at the end, the dust settles, but the air still smells like earth and sweat.
LabBodies will hold a second night of performances featuring Lynn Hunter, Olu Butterfly, Helina Metaferia, and Nicoletta de la Brown at SpaceCamp on Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. The exhibition runs through Nov. 30.