Second Issue 'Gestures'

Arthur Lewis Thompson Critical Review of Performances

  1. Introduction

I came to the Old Fire Station as an outsider, an observer with no connections to this performance and few expectations. I am only a writer, or, perhaps more accurately, someone who attempts to organize, process, and make sense of their own experience through the medium of words. I sit down here to compose this article as an entry in my journal, a piece of original documentation dedicated to this event, to share my experience and thoughts invoked through the performances of the six artists. I am not a performing or live artist. I therefore have neither a heuristic nor a framework with which to evaluate, gauge, or judge the quality of these six artists’ work. I can only go with what intuitions I already possess as a dedicated observer and infer-er.

  1. Purpose

I will first discuss the importance of context as a tool for interpreting artists’ work. This discussion, and what follows from it, is composed to answer questions regarding the public’s suspicion ‘about what is art’ mentioned in this showcase’s programme. Next, I will present several ways to qualify or define different techniques for providing context. Finally, using these techniques for qualifying context, I will focus on several observations I made during the two hour show. Even though the evening was presented as a coming-together of an ‘eclectic’ group of artists, and indeed the styles of presentation were varied, I would like to compare and contrast their performances. I do this in the hope of providing the artists with feedback – ideas of what the audience (or at least one member thereof) may ‘come away with,’ ‘get out of,’ or ‘glean from’ the actions of their work.

  1. The Importance of Context

Is context necessary[1]? Barring the explicit or implicit knowledge of something as art[2], I argue that it is, in fact, not necessary, in neither presentation nor production of art, to have context. Arguably, this sort of art is predominantly non-communicative since it would only function as appealing to the viewer’s tastes. The art I would like to discuss is that which exists to communicate or convey something to its audience. Context is critical for the artist’s message to fit or appeal to the audience’s tools of interpretation. Without context, the audience may walk away frustrated by a piece which seems to lack a purpose other than to baffle. This, in a sense, is a miscommunication between the parties involved.

Artists cannot dismiss this miscommunication as merely a fault of the audience. When an artist takes up this line of thinking, art, as an entity and a practice, essentially loses its greater purpose. It becomes a conversation with a wall. Any message or communication falls on deaf ears. The only interpretations drawn by the audience are those of aesthetic and decorative nature. Therefore, artists must be aware of this miscommunication and take steps to prevent it[3]. This very point was raised in the programme handed out at the Old Fire Station. ‘How does the artist then manage to develop their language [to adhere to academics’ interpretations and the public’s expectations][4]?

  1. Three Ways to Categorize Interpretation

I now propose three fundamental categories that the artist can draw upon to qualify the various layers of context within the presentation and content of their work: the Sign, the Narration, and the Situation. These tools are for focused and direct reflection on the artist’s work. The artist can use them to interpret their own work in order to visualize how the audience might see it. Using these tools, the artist can tease apart the connotations of their work and identify where their message diverges from their audience’s interpretation. The general nature of these three fundamental categories enables the artist to execute them with different audiences in mind. Conversely, the audience can also use these categories as techniques to better understand the artist’s work.

4.1 the Situation

This is a scene-based context, in which the interpretation of a work is highly dependent on the setting in which it is presented or takes place. For example, the interpretation of a message conveyed by a mural painted on the Israeli West Bank Barrier hinges greatly on the Situation. Without the Situation (e.g. being on the Israeli West Bank Barrier) how would the audience’s interpretation differ?

Since all six artists performed in the same setting, I will not discuss this category beyond its definition here. I assume that the Old Fire Station was chosen as a location of some sympathy or convenience and, as a scene or setting in itself, was not vital to the viewing or interpretation of the works.

4.2. the Sign

Sign can take at least two forms. The two forms I will discuss here are both iconic and symbolic, which means that they are the direct representation, or gesture, of an object or message in and of itself. The first form is visual (e.g. the Star of David). The second form is auditory, either spoken or heard (e.g. a birdcall, a name, the sound of rain et cetera).

4.3. the Narration

Narration, likewise, can take at least two forms: visual (e.g. written text, a video clip) and auditory (e.g. a recording, a speech). However, contrary to the Sign, forms of Narration are not grounded in their iconicity or symbolism. Narration is for guiding the observer to a much more abstract destination than the Sign. In turn, Narration itself can encompass or carry much more weight than the Sign. That is to say, it allows for more variation, for a more detailed message to be conveyed. For example, two people might tell the same story (e.g. pouring a glass of water), which encompasses the same goals (e.g. water goes into a glass), but they may use different gestures, voices, accents, or intonations to accentuate the pathway to these goals. If the Narration is visual in form, then choice of text or camera angle, similarly provide accentuation to the pathway.

4.4. the Sign vs. the Narration

The Narration tells. The Sign depicts or represents.

What happens if an audience is presented with a Sign? Take the Star of David, for example. Upon seeing this, observers may be led in a general direction but might arrive at very different conclusions (e.g. Judaism, the Holocaust, Israel, King David et cetera). Whereas the Narration employs a far less ambiguous effect: ‘Today, I will talk about two triangles.’

On the other hand, the Narration does not necessarily evoke an instantaneous sensory or emotional response like the Sign can. The Narration requires time and build-up. Compare the Narration, ‘There was a car accident,’ vs. the Sign equivalent (e.g. a photograph of a car accident). In short, the Narration can act explicitly as a guide, where the narrator (artist) is very much in control of the viewer’s general interpretations. The Sign can act as a representation, with the potential for quick and deep impact. Both frames for presentation have their pros and cons.

  1. A Review of the Six Performances

A general trend over the course of the performances was that the six artists relied on a combination of the Sign and the Narration to present their work. Some relied more heavily on one category than the other. I will present a review of the performances using the Sign and the Narration as my baseline for interpreting their work.

5.1 Bruno Guastalla: Joys and Sorrows of Permutation

Throughout his performance, Guastalla used a row of chairs on stage to represent different perspectives in his one-man conversation, moving from chair to chair as the exchange between perspectives progressed. In hindsight, I suppose this row of chairs is linked to the title: permutation, as their order (first, second, third, etc.) was directly correlated to the perspectives (1, 2, 3, and so on).

These chairs acted as the Sign in this performance. They set the scene. As the Sign, these chairs represented the views of his speakers, unmoving, grounded in a seemingly academic discussion. Together, the chairs worked with Guastalla’s Narration, in the form of a discussion, which was, as I see it, the focus of his piece. As the Narration, Guastalla’s discussion was his main tool for conveying his message to the audience. His discussion brought the audience to various concepts, which one could argue acted also as verbal Signs (e.g. the Tao Te Ching and various French quotations used throughout).

I found his performance very convincing –I could tell that Guastalla has a passion for the philosophy behind his discussion –as he made good use of pauses and intonation to engage the audience in a rather highfalutin dialogue. I felt that Guastalla had made this piece as an outlet for himself, to share his musings and his interests with the audience. (Though, I admit that some may have seen it as flaunting, or perhaps flouting, intellect – and therefore ‘frustrating’ to understand as a piece). As a result, I think his questioning of systems, such as language or numbers, and the ideas these systems can impose on us, was not lost on the audience. (Interestingly enough, the very basis of Guastalla’s performance relies on a system of relationships: the chairs correspond to the number of speakers in his discussion). I do wonder, at the very end of his performance, whether his playing of a violin bow against the rim of a cardboard box was a way to ask the audience: ‘What does your system of sound and language interpretation tell you about this?’

5.2 Jo Thomas: Sharing Collected Works from Her Notebook

In Thomas’ performance, the journal acted simultaneously the Sign and the Narration. The image or idea of a journal evokes personal matters, the passage of time, as well as the acts of collecting and documenting through writing. Just seeing Thomas holding her black moleskines was a performance in and of itself. The breath between sharing and not sharing, was a silent and brief Narration. The anecdotes in Thomas’ readings revealed a world of careful observation. As a member of the audience, I found myself reflecting on my thoughts conjured by Thomas’ entries. Her Narration, both what was said and what was not, gently guided us through her own reflections and processes of observation. Unlike Guastalla, Thomas was not performing to convey a specific message or call into question certain principles. She also did not make any assumptions as to the audience’s prior knowledge (e.g. permutation, Tao Te Ching). Despite this apparent absence of concrete dogma, her performance was full of communication and interaction (sharing). For me, her journal entries emphasized the value of silence and losing oneself in thought.

5.3 Peta Lloyd: It just is (2)

I found Lloyd’s performance to be the most concise. There was a clear beginning and tidy ending, with equal parts the Sign and Narration. So, in this way, it was fairly straightforward.

The Sign in her work was inevitably the bright orange lipstick that eventually engulfed her mouth before being vehemently ejected therefrom (as if to punctuate the air with a full stop). I identify the lipstick as the Sign here simply because Lloyd used it to compose her Narration (more on the Sign later). The Narration was scrawled, lipstick-held-in-mouth, on a framed rectangle of transparent plastic: This is not feminist political multi-media ecological symbolic collaborative good IT JUST IS!

As I understand it, this Narration can be taken in at least two ways:

  • Even when a work is intended to portray one aspect of a binary concept (ecological vs. not ecological), it by default encompasses the whole binarity (e.g. both ecological and not ecological) regardless of the creator’s intent. Following this line of thinking, I am reminded of René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (1929), i.e. ‘This is not a pipe.’
  • The communicative intent of the work is not as it seems, and is therefore deceptive.

On the surface, 1 and 2 share a degree of similarity, but, in fact, they are fundamentally different. 1 must involve a failure of intent. 2 does not necessarily involve this failure as the creator may have intended deception and ambiguity from the start. In 1, the work rebels against the original intentions for interpretation, and thus exhibits both aspects of the binarity (instead of a singularity desired by the creator).

My initial reaction to Lloyd’s piece was that of 1. This knee-jerk on my part boils down to her choice of adjectives negated in her qualification of the Narration. Why these words? Why not feline, obese, verdant, excitable et cetera? Her choice of words – written words being Signs in and of themselves – is the message. Lloyd’s words vary from politically-charged (ecological, feminist) to qualitative (multi-media, collaborative) to purely subjective (symbolic, good). In this way, the performance was both a Narration and Sign at once.

Despite the message ‘this work is not X, Y, and Z,’ the mere mention of these adjectives is enough to evoke their associative properties, regardless of the intended negation.

2 eventually came to mind after digesting the performance. 2 recognizes deception. Whereas 1 takes Lloyd’s word for it. 1 assumes that the artist is telling the truth or that the artist believes their message(s) to be true. So what if Lloyd is lying? What if she knew her message to be false? In America, we’d say Lloyd was throwing the audience ‘a curveball.’ Now the audience must call into question its own gullibility and definitions for the belief systems behind the qualifying statements scrawled by Lloyd in orange lipstick. 2 also opens up bigger questions: Why assume the artist is on the side of honesty? Following on from that, does honesty actually facilitate interpretation?

With 2, the lipstick fulfils its role as the Sign. As her writing utensil, the lipstick simultaneously facilitates Lloyd’s communicative intent (i.e. allowing her to write her message) and hinders it (i.e. preventing her from speaking). I cannot help but wonder if the mention of feminism may have something to do with this. As for that, the viewer must rely on their own intuitions.

5.4 ­­Veronica Cordova: If flowers could talk

Cordova began by reading aloud slips of paper and passing them out to the audience. These slips of paper comprised a network of audial Signs. Each evoked imagery which did not directly contribute much to the overall interpretation as it did to setting the tone of her performance.

Out of the 6 performances, Cordova’s threw me most. It churned up a mixture of difficult emotions. None of which were ‘confusion’ or ‘frustration’ regarding the interpretation of the piece. The subject matter naturally warrants an (internalized) emotional outcry from the audience as Cordova draws our attention to various disappearances of Mexican women. I found it the boldest and most provocative performance of the showcase. However there were points when I wanted her to stop. I think this reaction is exactly what she intended.

Many of the props Cordova used reverberated connotations of childhood and naivety: the hand-held school bell, the petals sprinkled in a circle around the child-sized wooden chair, even Cordova’s outfit (a play dress and magenta stockings) evoked a child-like sense of innocence. Which is why, of the moments I found most challenging there were two.

First, Cordova clenching the ringer of the school bell between her teeth and jerking her head in all directions. For me, this represented the violent acts of sexual assault committed against the missing women. The pathetic clanking of metal in her mouth, instead of the sound a bell should make, only underlined the women’s helplessness in their efforts to be heard or rescued. Such an intense, prolonged, and up-close demonstration of this was precisely what made me squirm. It was clear that Cordova was trying to convey the torture that these women have endured.

Second was Cordova wrestling the little wooden chair. Following on from my previous judgement, I take this second act to be a representation of some struggle: the physical (struggle of these women) or the metaphoric (society struggling to grasp the events). Indeed, Cordova fought the chair with her life. It was a spectacle. Not only did the chair have a will of its own, but there seemed to be an invisible force, perhaps one of the perpetrators, also contributing to this struggle. The wrestling was punctuated by Cordova sweeping up the ring of dried petals which she earlier poured around the chair. She did this on hand and foot, painstakingly, until the mess was cleared. The women’s innocence had been obliterated. Now their remains were quietly consolidated and swept away.

The end of her piece was equally surreal. Cordova sat on the floor, her back to the audience, and opened her laptop to a Youtube video—a Mexican crowd singing in, what I can assume to be, sombre solidarity at a vigil. She joined them, quietly at first. Distance immediately sprung to mind. After all, Cordova has probably witnessed such events only through her computer screen, far away from where these atrocities occurred. From her vantage point, participation is confined to the internet. There is little else she can do but sing behind her screen in support.

Stepping back from these observations, it is not hard to see that Cordova’s piece revolves predominantly around the Sign. Her usage of objects makes up the bulk of this work. Both individually and cumulatively, the Signs comprise a message that Cordova weaves through her interactions with them. One of the Signs I’d like to close with is the computer screen. Cordova turned the object on its head. What is normally regarded as a symbol of information and communication, was instead one of distance and isolation.

5.5 Dianne Regisford: Evoking Belonging (Words & Beat)

Regisford’s piece was, in the most traditional sense of the word, a performance. Her presentation of Signs and Narration felt most familiar to me. Perhaps this is because Regisford used the space, her voice, and her appearance to their fullest potential. The stairs at the back of the room served as her gateway to the audience. From the top of the landing she made herself known. With rising and falling inflection, she began her narration descending the stairs to grace us with an otherworldly presence.

Her Narration was clear, if not explicit. She was to tell us of her experience as an individual on ‘the precipice’ of identity. This would be an expression of what it means to identify with (a) group(s) (ethnic, cultural or otherwise). And she did so with ease and great command of the audience’s attention. I have to admit I was captured.

The Signs were so closely intertwined with Regisford’s Narration that I have had some difficulty teasing them apart. In a way, her blend of Sign and Narration resembles that of Guastalla. Both are discussions and personal excavations posed in a performance format of some sort. We can identify the Sign(s) and Narration(s) but they are not independent of each other[5]. Here, Sign and Narration fuse together to convey the artist’s message to its fullest extent[6].

I begin with Regisford’s most obscure Sign: her costume. A small fragment of the obscurity lies in my presumption that Regisford’s outfit was, in fact, a costume. Whether it was or not is of little consequence. However, the outfit did contribute to my understanding of Regisford’s persona, in her own words, as the ‘urban indigene’. She wore an ankle-length dress in a lime green and blue pattern print. Around her neck she wore colourful hoops. On her forehead hung something like a talisman. For me, her outfit was a statement of her identity, an amalgamation of cultures rolled into one look. As a Sign, this was its role.

I wonder what I would have come away with if Regisford wore, say, head-to-toe black instead. Would I have the same impression of an artist at a (cultural) crossroads? Or would my attention have focused elsewhere? If elsewhere, then where? Regardless of clothing, coming to grips with identity is still the heart of Regisford’s piece. Would the audience take ‘identity’ to mean something different were it not for her outfit? In any case, I am here only to play the devil’s advocate. Whether or not this is her daily garb, performing in it seemed a conscious decision on Regisford’s part.

The remainder of Regisford’s Signs are purely auditory. Her performance was a poetry reading. And what is poetry if not a series of Signs –words or phrases which evoke a sensory response[7]? She coupled her choice of words with intervals of casual explanation between readings. But, it was the emotions behind those words, and the power in her voice, which transformed Regisford into a formidable performance artist. She was a force to be reckoned with.

I now turn to the Narration, the concept of urban indigene. This self-proclaimed title is a celebration of coming to terms with belonging and feeling out-of-place. Regisford shows us that she is part of another world (her costume) but that, at the same time, through her performance, she is also ‘urban’— or a global citizen. Identity-wise, I cannot actually speak for Regisford. These are only my impressions as an audience member. But her performance was personal and I sensed conflict yet confidence, something like standing with both feet on either side of a precipice.

Precipice. This word keeps creeping up. It is a theme in one of her readings that stuck with me most. Walk blindly and it means a steep drop followed by certain death. However, tread with caution and it becomes an exhilarating adventure. By associating precipice with the concept of identity, Regisford poses important questions for the audience: Are identities dangerous? Should we tread with caution or blindly embrace our identities? Is it the identity itself which is dangerous or just the journey to accepting it? Since I see Regisford’s piece as a celebration of accepting one’s identity, I take her invoking of precipice as something we must overcome in order to saddle ourselves into an identity.

5.6 Malcom Atkins: Why Morton Feldman is Good for Nothing

The showcase was brought to a calming close with Atkins’ keyboard. He played for us, what I understand to be, a piano piece designed as an homage to Feldman’s minimalist composition style. Atkins juxtaposed this with a PowerPoint presentation of quotes on Feldman and from Feldman regarding his life and career. This performance was clearly meant to share Feldman’s contributions to modern music with the audience. As the title says, Feldman was literally good for nothing. His music is renowned for incorporating well-timed and tasteful pauses. Indeed, silence was the key to Atkins’ performance. He said nothing for the duration of his PowerPoint so as not to interrupt his own playing and the bouts of silence scattered throughout.

This piece was an exercise of pure Narration. Both the music and the PowerPoint were a means to guide the audience to a place, an appreciation perhaps, in Morton Feldman’s compositions (namely the silence). Nothing stood out as a Sign. Nothing was there to bring us to a uniform sensory conclusion (apart from a slide with a photograph of Feldman).

On a broader note, Atkins’ piece was not, what I would call, emotionally demanding. It required some degree of prior knowledge and interest in a vein of music. Like Guastalla’s, I felt this piece was rather academic, in that intuition and / or emotions alone were not enough to meet the artist’s communicative intent. Moreover, this desire to display intellectuality and depth of knowledge (with little emotional input) strikes me as a particularly masculine trait. This observation is only strengthened when I reflect on the rest of the showcase. Apart from Guastalla and Atkins, none of the other pieces were a display of the artist’s intellect. Furthermore, if any background knowledge was especially relevant to understanding one such piece, the other artists’ Narration allowed the audience to meet them halfway with their own intuitions. That being said, I do not think there is anything wrong with requiring prior knowledge to digest a work of art[8]. I realize that, in some circles, the interpretation of Atkins’ (or Guastalla’s) work would not be seen this way. However, since the showcase’s programme specifically mentions the public’s frustration when trying to understand (some) art, I wanted to identify this trait as potentially isolating.

[1] By “context”, I mean a frame of mind, understanding, or method of interpretation in which both the artist presents their work and the audience views it.

[2] For example, the ability and information needed to discern a painting from a ‘NO PARKING’ sign

[3] This is obviously a two way street. There is much the audience can do. But this will not be discussed here.

[4] From ‘An eclectic showcase of performances by artists features in Gestures edition II of Vibrations art journal for creative writing’ (3 Dec 2015).

[5] Cordova’s piece also showed interdependency of the Sign and Narration, though it was decidedly less vocal and more about the action of performance.

[6] Interdependency: Take away either Sign or Narration and the performance loses a key to interpretation. Here, a juxtaposition of Signs (outfit, poetic imagery) and Narration (explanations, the format of her piece) makes the performance. If Regisford had instead worn head-to-toe black or recited prose, the intensity and underlying emotions of cultural clash would have been severely diluted (if not lost). I admit that the level of interdependency between Sign and Narration is rather subjective. But imagine if Guastalla opted for standing rather than moving from chair to chair during his discussion? Would his communicative intent then be changed beyond recognition? Likewise, if Lloyd had used marker instead of lipstick to write her message, would I have interpreted her work differently? I doubt it.

[7] But does not necessarily form a syntactically coherent or clear-cut Narration.

[8] The artist is relying (more) on the audience to bring their own context for interpretation to the viewing rather than providing a more complete explanation alongside the piece. It’s like inviting the audience to a dinner, but asking them to bring their own cutlery. If the audience didn’t get the memo, they wouldn’t have anything to eat with.


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