Site-specific performances moved us beyond the black boxBrandon Swardon May 19, 2020 at 9:15 pm

The truth about theaters is that they’re boring. This is not, however, to say that what happens within them is boring; merely that they’re rather blank, expectant, waiting. This waiting assumes added significance at the present moment, as no one can predict when lights will return to Steppenwolf, the Goodman, the Lyric. Like us, some will die. Less than two weeks after temporarily closing on March 14, the venerable Hubbard Street Dance Chicago announced the nearly half-century-old Lou Conte Dance Studio would remain shuttered indefinitely. And this is surely just a canary in the proverbial coal mine. If you’re worried about how–or even whether–the live arts will survive, your fear is well-founded. In the absence of some wealthy benefactor touching the city with a golden finger, many of our cultural institutions may already be gone. At least in their present form.

Over the past several years, however, Chicagoans have increasingly moved beyond the black box to present their work in locations not specifically designed for this purpose. Many of these “site-specific” performances have occurred in museums, especially at the Art Institute under the tutelage of Hendrik Folkerts, who was hired in 2017 after a stint curating performance at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A monthly series, “Artists Connect,” brings artists, poets, dancers, and musicians into the galleries to engage the museum’s collection and draw connections to their own practices. These responses have run the gamut from video games to a solo harp recital of traditional Mexican folk music to a puppet show and more.

Museums have long used these cultural intermediaries to bridge the imagined gap between art and audience. From the docent to the audio guide and now the QR code, there seems to be an anxiety about leaving the act of interpretation solely to the viewer. Performances like those of “Artists Connect,” however, seem to explode interpretation, or at least a certain limited conception of it. The art world is often criticized, and rightly so, for its elitism, as though the only way of understanding art is through deep historical knowledge and, increasingly, a fluency in “theory.” These and other performances invite–or challenge–viewers to accept the possibility that a song might be as much of an interpretation as a monograph.

But this knife also cuts both ways. The living bodies of performers can also draw out aspects of works of art incapable of speaking for themselves. Consider the Court Theatre staging of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s one-man adaptation of Homer’s Iliad in the Persian Gallery of the Oriental Institute, which highlights how that fountainhead of “western” civilization took place not in Greece but in what is now Turkey. By bringing text and images together in this way, the cold stone of ancient statues begins to warm with the heat of those emotions that produced both huge monoliths and epic poetry.

Far from being a mere museum phenomenon, site-specific performance has also “activated” the public art one can walk by every day without really seeing, such as Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy, a bronze sculpture at the site of Chicago Pile-1, the first artificial nuclear reactor. For the 75th anniversary of the event, the University of Chicago commissioned artist Cai Guo-Qiang to shoot his “Color Mushroom Cloud” into the sky above its metallic counterpart. While the skull-like Moore has a sense of foreboding, the bright Guo-Qiang feels celebratory, perhaps expressing a hope for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Notably, a student-organized die-in protested the university’s cheery framing, corporeally highlighting the human costs of the Atomic Age.

Beyond art, multiple choreographers in Chicago have brought attention to the powerful influence architecture exerts upon how we move. Commissioned by the Graham Foundation, Brendan Fernandes made visible the perhaps unexpected resonances between ballet and architecture in his The Master and Form. Through a series of BDSM-like installations in the Graham’s galleries, pupils from the Joffrey Academy of Dance perform a series of stretches and exercises, opening a small window into the intense discipline that characterizes the professional dance world. The linearity of their technique echoes that of the building around them and gives us a sense of that curious mix of pain and pleasure which results from gently yet persistently coaxing a body to move in ways nature never intended.

While Fernandes’s The Master and Form went on to become part of the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York, other architecturally responsive dance pieces are altogether impossible to imagine in another venue. Take, for example, moving installations a stairway and a corridor, a presentation by HSPro, the preprofessional division of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, during a recent residency at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at UChicago. As the title suggests, dancers lead audience members down the Center’s ten flights of stairs, slowly bringing them into the bowels of an unnerving dystopia wherein coins seem to signify money and/or drugs. The eponymous “corridor” is on the second floor, from the windows of which one can see strange geometries come together and fall apart, like tai chi seen through a Black Mirror lens, until the performers appear crowded in the hallway, a dense amoeba of reaching arms, legs, and faces. After the intervention, the space feels different; the Logan’s clean modernist lines have begun to feel like those of a prison or asylum.

Having thus noted some of the similarities and differences between these practices, the question of what is fueling this increasing attention to site within contemporary performance remains. The impulse is rather counterintuitive. There has been much hand-wringing about how to handle the “you had to be there” quality of performance, and site specificity seems to only exacerbate these problems. What the theater loses in its “boringness,” it makes up in its versatility, which is precisely what allows productions to tour from one place to the next. To be sure, the theater that could only host one type of performance would be a bankrupt one (or else a sort of shrine, such as the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is for Richard Wagner).

We might, then, describe site-specific performance as “doubly ephemeral.” First, there’s the ephemerality of all performance, the bodies that disappear after the fact, leaving a residue in documentation, in the minds of the audience. But in addition, the site-specific performance can only be performed in one place. We might see another production of Peterson and O’Hare’s Iliad, but not one that plays alongside Persian artifacts. This is even more extreme in works specifically and self-consciously made for a certain space, such as moving installations a stairway and a corridor. There may be another stairway, and even a stairway of ten floors, but no stairway is quite like this one, with its polished floors and metal handrails, its heavy doors, the gaps between window and wall through which dancers thrust fingers or coins, to say nothing of the echoey shrieks and cries that bounce off the smooth concrete, growing more distorted each time.

What are we to make of this explosion of site-specific performance, particularly within Chicago? Long a “city of neighborhoods,” we might less optimistically point out that Chicago is one of the most segregated areas in the U.S. As someone who came of age in the placeless sprawl of the mountain west, moving to Chicago has attuned me to space and my relationship to it in an entirely new way. I tried to explain to my little sister when she moved to Chicago but couldn’t find the words. A petite, attractive woman, she’s gone on to develop a whole other sensitivity to its streets and trains that I, as a relatively gender-normative man, haven’t had to acquire. It’s at once tempting and irresponsible to draw a parallel to this kind of “urban awareness” and the deluge of site-specific performance we’ve witnessed recently in Chicago.

As we continue to weather these days of quarantine, many of us have newly recognized our real hunger for human proximity, as scenarios that were commonplace a few short months ago are now nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, theaters will likely be some of the last spaces to reopen. Or at least this author finds it hard to imagine gathering together with hundreds of your closest friends for hours in darkness at any point in the near future. Unfortunate given the shoestring budgets with which most cultural institutions operate. Even performances in public spaces feel impossibly distant at present.

Before lockdown, I was looking forward to seeing Tanztheater Wuppertal perform Palermo Palermo at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. In response to the cancellation, the Pina Bausch Foundation made digitally restored video footage of the piece’s 1989 premiere available via their Vimeo, a poor but welcome substitute. After about 15 minutes of watching out of the corner of my eye, I was startled to attention by a character in blackface, which sent me into a Google frenzy. I learned that Bausch cut the controversial makeup early on in the run. Apparently, performance can not only be specific to a place, but also to a time, a culture, a country, a mentality.

Though many organizations have followed suit and opened their archives to the public, performers are nothing if not inventive, and have found ever more creative ways of sharing their work. Dancer and Reader critic Irene Hsiao, known about town for her museum interventions, has shared her “Score for an unfinished dance” through the “Allure of Matter” website, a joint exhibition of contemporary Chinese art between the Smart Museum and Wrightwood 659. The score begins with Hsiao’s e-mail to the curators, expressing with a delicate longing the feelings of so many of us whose lives and plans have been upended by a virus we cannot see but which has brought the globe to its knees.

Other companies have “simply” moved their performances online. For example, NKAME, the first U.S. retrospective of the late Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayon (1967-99), on display at the Chicago Cultural Center before COVID-19 shut it down, included a virtual presentation by Lucky Plush Productions, a maker of performances that blend contemporary dance and devised theater led by Julia Rhoads and Leslie Danzig. Lucky Plush offered Rooming House, a meditation on change that slips between English and Spanish and draws upon the experiences of Cuban expat ensemble members Michel Rodriguez Cintra and Rodolfo Sanchez Sarracino. Another NKAME participant is Honey Pot Performance, an Afro-diasporic feminist collaborative cofounded by Felicia Holman, Aisha Jean-Baptiste, and Abra Johnson. Honey Pot’s If/Then incorporates online performances and a series of scores worked through with monthly guest artists, culminating with a New Works Festival featuring all of the artists in a weekend-long performance.

These experiments show us a medium at a crossroads. While all artists have been hit hard by the pandemic, performers (site-specific or otherwise) are the only ones who explicitly rely upon that which is presently most dangerous: sustained, direct, personal contact in physical space. One road, here represented by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, attempts to reapproximate what we’ve lost, with the hope that we’ll get back to it as soon as possible. Another approach, represented by Honey Pot, is to imagine what “digitally native” performance might look like. A child of the 90s, I know firsthand how the Internet can provide community in times of profound isolation. But I also know how it can bring us face-to-face with the ugliest parts of ourselves. And so, you might ask: Where will we perform once we arrive at our new normal? This I cannot answer. But I can promise you’ll want a front-row seat. v

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