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Friday, October 10, 2014

Fireside Chat with the Artists of Brooklyn Bred 2

L to R: Jibz Cameron (Dynasty Handbag), Martha Wilson, Clifford Owens, Pablo Helguera, and Morgan Green

by Morgan Green

BAM’s Executive Producer Joseph Melillo asked Martha Wilson, founding director of Franklin Furnace, to curate three artists for Brooklyn Bred 2 (BAM’s Next Wave platform for visual and performance artists). To fill the BAM Fisher from October 16 to 18, Wilson selected a trio she lovingly calls “the weirdest of the weird”—Clifford Owens, Dynasty Handbag, and Pablo Helguera.

Martha Wilson is a fixture in the art world, as well as in the Fort Greene neighborhood where she lives and works, just a stone’s throw from BAM. On a late summer evening, I find myself in a beautiful antique rocking chair in her living room with the three Brooklyn Bred artists. We sip wine or sparkling water and admire our surroundings before homing in on the topic at hand: what is performance art? And what does it mean to have performance art at BAM?

As the conversation unfolds, Martha’s careful selection of artists who represent the various extremes of performance art becomes clear. Jibz (Dynasty Handbag), with her exuberant personality and imponderable comedic timing, connects with theater, the hero’s journey, and lives for an audience. Clifford Owens, the self proclaimed “bad boy of the art world,” is fearless and strives to “unhouse” his audience. Pablo Helguera, the academic of the bunch, refuses to commit to a genre and requires a curious and patient audience to play along and see what happens.

We began by asking Martha how she met these three "weirdos" in the first place...

Dynasty Handbag, aka Jibz Cameron

Martha: I think we met in a bar! You [Jibz] were doing this show and I got a comp card from you. You were at Galapagos when it was in Williamsburg.

Jibz: I remember seeing you in the audience and thinking, that’s Martha Wilson! And I remember applying to Franklin Furnace, and not getting the grant, then thinking, why does that woman keep coming to see my shows? Then you were like, “I have a foundation, you should apply,” and I was like, “I did.” And you went, “Do it again.”

Martha: Then I asked Jibz to present a piece—we were doing an event in conjunction with Performa—the bags thing.

Jibz: Oh yeah... It’s a piece I made called Bags. And it’s about these bags—about five bags, various grocery-ish, shitty bags, plastic, paper, and they were all just sort of like demanding psychologically one way or another—they have voices and I would interact with them.

My Brooklyn Bred piece is about the idea of the hero’s journey and the story of the Odysseus myth. I’m approaching this project as [something that is] really fighting against this system in our culture—a monomyth that really represses a lot of shit. There is part of me that feels really attracted to the [Odysseus] storyline and part of it that feels totally toxic. The idea of being a crusader is really attractive to me—part of me just wants my politics to run over everyone, and just punch a hole in the system. But I am [making art] within the system, and there is no way I can escape it…at all. Because every reaction I have is a reaction to the structure that I am bred in.

Jibz and Martha

 Clifford Owens

Martha: I would put Clifford in opposition to what Jibz does because his work is very tactile, about the confrontation of bodies in space, and the confrontation of ideas.

Clifford: It’s very different for me to work on the BAM project because I mostly work in galleries. I’m not a theater-based person. I went to art school—I make objects and images. My performances are about the creation of images. So, the BAM project is really a challenge for me because I don’t rehearse. I don’t script. I’m very present, very in the moment—but Brooklyn Bred makes sense in the way Martha’s putting it together, because it considers the pedagogy of performance art—how we understand the history of performance art. It’s a very ambitious project.

My biggest project [has been] Anthology, which I did at PS 1, which is about the invisibility of black artists in the canon of performance art. I make work first in my head, and right now I am very much in my head. Then through my heart, then through my body. [My Brooklyn Bred piece is] trying to unpack performance art from roughly 1947 to the’s really an obnoxious thing to do. I am so concerned about the history of the medium.

I care very much about what we do. And I am also doing this project because somehow people won’t hire me to teach.

Martha: So you’ll teach anyway!

Clifford: The piece is called A Forum for Performance Art, and it’s going to be in four connected parts about feminism, the body, the psyche, and race. That’s how I’m thinking about it; that’s how it’s in my head right now.

It’s a huge honor for me and a huge challenge for me. I expect to fail, but I am fearless of failure. I embrace it.

Cliff and Pablo

Pablo Helguera

Pablo: When I hear Jibz and Cliff talk about their work, I hear how connected they are to their mediums. I have this inability to commit to a discipline. I thought I was a painter first. And I hated it, I thought I was terrible at it. Then I took a performance class and they thought my paintings were great props. And I thought, "Fantastic! That’s where I belong."

What I realized is that what I am really interested in is the score itself. The score could be a musical, could be written, could be a conceptual score, or like a play. To me the more important thing is the idea. I am a big believer that form should follow content, and not the other way around. When I embark on a project, the most important thing is "what is the detonating idea that will propel everything forward?" When I start, I usually don’t know what it’s going to be.

In my Brooklyn Bred piece, I am reviving the old fashioned format of the letter. It’s recreating this old fashioned experience. There is kind of a narrative that evolves and people are just walking into it at different times. Some people are walking into it on the day of the performance, but the fact is they are walking into it in the middle. The point is to try to follow the idea and create the format around it.

On Performance Art

Clifford: Performance art is about being there. To be present in the moment has a resonance and power both for the audience and for me as a performer. But I want the audience to be aware of absence as well.

Pablo: It always bothers me when people say, “Oh, I couldn’t make it to the performance, did you make a video?” We didn’t make performance for it to be understood on that video. We made a performance to emphasize the importance of that moment and to make something that is completely impossible to replace. Even if you recreate it exactly, you are recreating it in a different time or place. And that can never be exactly the same.

Jibz: Being between theater and performance art, with my work, the genre does not matter to me personally. If the idea and form and content is sitting right, then it’s right. I am interested in the crossover between theater and performance art—in education, it’s like, nary the twain shall meet. If you want to talk about a performance being a moment in time, it all is. All of our personas are performance. The theater has such a nasty gloss on it now because it can go into a commercialized way… but performance art could too, we don’t know.

Pablo Helguera

Performance Art at BAM

Pablo: It’s a big honor to do this in a place that has such a critical contribution to the performing arts. But you know, we’re coming from a discipline that looks very similar to the other disciplines, but it really came from a very different place—historically, conceptually. Performance art clashes with the structure that contains it.

Martha: Joe asked these three performance artists to do their pieces twice on the same night, which performance artists generally do not do.

Jibz: There is a lot in my show at BAM about my show at BAM. There is a lot of that. There is a lot about artist residencies—it’s turning into the hero’s journey. I’ve come out alive from a privileged artist residency!

Pablo: BAM is intimidating. I mean, we are up against incredible performance groups with huge budgets. We have to think of ways in which we can turn things around.

Clifford: That’s what I liked about the last Brooklyn Bred—it was raw. And I found that to be really appealing. It feels like it’s a part of BAM programming and counter to everything that BAM does.

Pablo: A lot of it is relating to and upsetting expectations and upsetting space. I am capitalizing on the fact that when you come to BAM, to the Fisher, you are expecting to sit in regular seats in a theater space. I am very interested in sociology, Irving Kaufman and Clifford Gertz, who argue that we are essentially all actors in a play. And we play many roles. I’m a husband, and a son and father, and a Mexican guy—a million things. I’m a New Yorker. And so, we perform those roles whether we want them or not. I’m interested to see people suddenly have to be part of the performance, not as a performer, but not in a passive way, but have to socialize.

Martha and Cliff

On Audience

Clifford: Theater to me seems to be more of a passive engagement in terms of the audience. And performance art makes the audience active agents.

Intention is such a tricky word... “What is the artist’s intention?” But I do think it is about the intention for the audience. I intend to un-house them at BAM. I want to wholly annihilate their expectations of what I am supposed to do and what is expected of the audience.

My audience is people who have a sense of the history I am responding to. People who are interested in ideas. People who think critically. People who are fearless. In other words, I think my audience is myself. People who share my interests. I don’t presume my work can transcend and turn a far right-wing republican to the left. But I want my work to be in conversation with like-minded people.

Jibz: My work relies so much on audience. It’s what I live for. What I was born for. One thing I try to keep very alive in my work is the sense of the 35% I don’t know is going to happen. So, I think in talking about performance art, one thing I am really attracted to is failure and the unknown. I really enjoy the question, "What is happening?" That’s a really interesting place for me to make work from. Here I am trying to orchestrate this event, orchestrate peoples' emotions and feedback. Then there is also just the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen. "Is this really happening? Is this part of the show?" I really like that. That leads to a larger question about control in general. Where do we feel safe? Our experience can be dictated by knowing we are safe in the environment. "Am I okay?" Okay, yes I know I am okay because I am in a structured environment that is telling me how to behave. I really enjoy playing with that place.

Pablo: The response of the audience is really important. You feel it if they are reacting to you. I usually consider myself only as good as how I adapt to the audience in front of me. Because I am an educator, I usually have to accept whoever is in front of me and how to communicate with them. That’s what makes me a better educator as well as artist.

I guess my default audience is 1) Someone willing to submit themselves to a form of ambiguity and tolerance, and 2) an audience of readers. People interested in reading or in hearing stories. My stuff is very narrative, and it usually deals with history. For this piece at BAM, I am writing these letters that start out with a question, “Should art be preserved forever?” and then I tell a story about someone. So, it has to be an audience who is willing to go the lengths to pay attention. It is demanding in the sense that it does require a lot from the audience member. Someone who wants to continue tagging along on the journey, and I understand that is not the kind of thing that people—people in the art world—are interested in doing. That’s one of my problems with people in the art world, they have zero attention span. They are like, “So, tell me what it is! In two seconds.” No no. Goodbye.

There are stereotypes that exist around performance art. And some of them are well-deserved because there is plenty of terrible performance art out there. But I think we can work to change the public idea of what performance art is.

Morgan Green is a Brooklyn based theater director and co-founder of New Saloon. 

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