Empathy, Rapture & In/Visible Layers: FRESH Performance Round-Up, Week Two

Francesca Lisette takes a whistle-stop tour through the offerings in FRESH Festival’s second week of dance and performance art.

FRESH Festival 2017 offers a dazzling showcase of appetising new works featuring talents from the Bay Area, in a variety of states. Some pieces are works in progress, some are site-specific and specially commissioned, and others are highly finished pieces. Monday night’s Happy Hours: Milkbar Mirror Magic Week One featured site-specific collaborative work by Mary Armentrout and Chris Evans.

The unique opportunities and challenges for performance offered by F8 nightclub’s spectacular mirror room present an innovative, dizzying, even mind-bending template which Armentrout and Evans maximised to its full potential. Fitted with more than 50 slender layers of glass, one’s reflection appears 180 degrees opposite rather than viewable from any angle. Instead, whilst searching for your own double, you catch twelve versions of your neighbours’ silhouette. This disorienting and dazzling room is thus a small yet kaleidoscopic space, with a private and slightly otherworldly atmosphere.

Armentrout and Evans’ performance, entitled We Can Reimagine the City, But Can We Reimagine Ourselves? accentuated the mirror room’s dizzying possibilities. Working with a video installation by Ian Winters projected at the rear end of the booth, both performers frequently switched costumes – from black dresses to white construction outfits in less than 60 seconds flat each time. The theme of the performance seemed to be the potential for distortion in transmission: what gets lost in the attempt to communicate one’s perceptions and relate to another person, and how this might create personal sorrow and political confusion. Costumed in black, each woman engages in slow, hesitant movements, one performer caressing the other’s back; one of these scenes culminated with one performer becoming distressed about something beyond our comprehension, the other escorting her companion out of the room. As construction workers, the performers were constantly in search of pillows and cups which they then built into a pile or tossed aside, before dashing out of the room, rendering the apparent urgency of their need for this useful trash puzzlingly absurd. A scaffold was hastily created to highlight the video, and just as swiftly torn down.

Towards the end of the piece, Evans tries to get Armentrout to see something she finds glaringly obvious in the video installation. “I can’t see it!” “It’s right there – you can’t see it?” “I can’t see it!” This repeated emphasis on obscuration and hiding in plain sight ties in neatly with one’s perceptions of the mirror room, as well as developing the nascent theme of social and political urban terrain implicit in the piece’s title. Ian Winters’ installation comprises a series of views of city streets, including street crossings and municipal buildings with fountains. The suggestion of hiding in plain sight cannot help but bring to mind the ways the city constructs a form of consciousness in its citizens that elides what it must in order to get from a to b, looking past, for instance, how various kinds of social inequality manifest themselves in an avowedly ‘common’ urban environment. Yet such political themes bubble below the surface, and the performance is just as much about mis-interaction, mis-direction and the potential for missed or multiple interpretations in intimate exchanges. As such, it was highly suited to F8’s Mirror Room space and responded to this year’s festival-wide theme of ‘empathy / disruption’ in strikingly embodied work, which managed to be both serious and comical.

Friday night’s showcase of new work by longstanding FRESH affiliates featured Albert Mathias, whose band Live Human were also playing the F8 nightclub on both Mondays. His new band with McKay Garner and Shree Shyam Das played a selection of semi-improvisational grooves that spanned beat-heavy electronics and deep, dreamy cello-driven melodics. The audience was in rapturous, and as if to emphasize the collaborative nature of the evening, were invited to contribute potential names for the band, so watch this space!

Sara Shelton Mann’s piece ‘frame/ windows’ was subtitled ‘an experiment in layers’ and featured several collaborators, including participants from last week’s workshop who tumbled and play-danced with one another as if in a game of freeze-tag, creating stark angles, whilst wearing a variety of beautiful dresses and raincoats. The layering functioned on the level of clothing, but also sonically and visually, as Robbie Baehr created a soundscape and sang to accompany impressively dynamic and warrior-like dance by Abby Crain. In other cases Baehr’s soundscape provided a foundation for Sara’s voice as she read her revised version of the alphabet and a series of ‘blessings’ which accumulated increasing political irony. My recollection of Shelton Mann’s piece is disorganized and jagged, and this effect was apparently sought by the artist, who announced that part one had been cut. The effect was to simultaneously amplify the singularity of each element and to suggest their possible interconnections. The layering also implied the difficulty of focusing on the signal amidst the noise in a culture systematically set to overload; how viable is it to grasp a thread of truth or personal meaning in such a labyrinthine environment? Shelton Mann seemed to suggest that adopting an attitude of play, ir/reverence and relentless defiance – welcoming the layers and refusing to stop talking or moving regardless of whether it can be heard or interpreted – could be one answer.

The theme of political disenfranchisement was honed in the subsequent piece by Violeta Luna, which took a contrasting approach by focusing on one specific personal narrative in her visually stark and emotionally wrenching piece sanct·u·are. One woman’s disembodied voice recollects her experiences of crossing the US American border and living as an illegal immigrant; her words are subtitled in English on the video displaying the rushing scenery of a train journey and family photographs being pasted into a passport. Luna begins by playing hopscotch in a tracksuit, before transforming physically and engaging in a series of actions designed to highlight the vulnerability and sacrifice of those marginalized as immigrants, the exclusion caused by needing to adopt a role in order to survive. She shares bread with the audience – a gesture pregnant with multiple possible meanings – as the woman’s words repeat and distort, are intercut with the hate speech of Trump supporters, and the narrative speeds towards an emotive, gripping and deeply powerful conclusion. In sharing a story suffused with danger and risk, which also shows how it feels to have your aspirational desires and wish to care for your family – which those in the West take for granted – labelled ‘illegal ’, Luna exposes the cruelty and irrationality of this notion. It is without a doubt the most moving work of art I have seen in an extremely long time, both timely and essential, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tonight is the final instalment of Tuesday night’s performance strand, ‘Inside Experimental Structures’ at the Red Poppy Art House from 7.30pm. I plan to explore this laboratory for new work by emerging artists in a separate post; if you can, please join us for excerpts from projects by Amelia Uzategui Bonilla and Hana Erdman!