A woman is lying on the floor of an 8th St loft space in Oak Cliff. She is laid out like a sacrifice and seemingly possessed. Streams of thick white light shine from a lamp straight down into her open throat and then refract out the other end in strings of color. Her eyelids are still, wrists limp against the floor. Her knees are bent, spread just enough to allow a rainbow to escape from between her legs and spiderweb into the room. Not touching her is impossible—the room can barely be entered without climbing over or under the colored strings attached to the walls. Curious figures tip-toe by this quiet sensuality, some trying not to touch anything, others unaffected by the fact that the strings are literally connected to her most private region. Once, at another show, a guy tried to pull the copper piece tied to the strings from inside her as she performed. She wasn’t sure if it was ultimate art or ultimate trauma. Her boyfriend was furious.
“People get very offended with being confronted with nudity, with the human body. They don’t like being exposed to it or forced to confront it. They consider it exhibitionism,” Houston artist Julia Claire says. “For me it’s a way of dealing with relationships with people; with having to be close to them.”
Claire’s installation in the upstairs Spotplus gallery was the climax of a night of performance art, and like many of the other acts, hers left a bunch of curious onlookers trying to figure out what they were “supposed” to feel. Those who drew conclusions spent the rest of the night discussing life and art. Those who didn’t left perplexed, but likely entertained.
“There’s something about a critical mass of performance on top of performance that allows the audience to fatigue a little bit,” says curator Courtney Brown. “And I think when the audience becomes tired like the performers, they’re able to tap into the work a little more.”
Inside)(Outside was a six-hour performance art festival produced by (Wo)manorial, a Dallas-based collective that hosts a digital gallery for experimental artwork. As a showcase of what they offer in the flesh, (Wo)manorialists Alison Starr and Courtney Brown transferred the online exhibition into the physical world, at four different venues in Oak Cliff—Oil & Cotton, The Ant Colony, Spotplus and the Safe Room, which is nestled into the top floor of the Texas Theater.
As I wander outside Oil and Cotton my ears are pierced with the sound of a girl screaming for help. “Help! My leg. My leg!” she screams as she sat on the floor holding a cast of a large bone over her head. She slams the bone on the floor, and breaks her fingernail as she smashes it.
Caitlin Scott was hit in downtown Houston while riding her scooter home from work in March. The hit-and-run left her lying in the middle of the street with her femur broken in two places and the flesh around her knee shredded and falling out. She went through four surgeries to install a metal rod in her leg and take part of her calf and put in the hole near her knee and two months of recovery. She knew then that she wanted a performance that represented the incident.
Inside)(Outside performers wanted to capture the moment of creation with the right combination of music, light, visual and visceral performance art (although the night would have benefitted from a lot more music.) Performances were about climbing inside the process of making art. Not a studio tour, but getting inside the head of how the artist thinks about the work as they’re creating it, using the body to mediate a physical iteration of that creative mental torture that can lead to more meaningful work.
“The body,” says curator Alison Starr, “is one of the most controversial and confrontational objects you can use. There is no veil separating the artist and audience.”
By midnight, after 16 performances by Dallas, Austin, Oklahoma, and Houston artists, “the medium is the message” echoes in your head. Roland Barthes’ philosophy that 2D representations dissociate humans from their souls does as well. A picture or painting of the scene wouldn’t be the same. Here, now, the experience is fleeting, desperate; it will not exist one hour from now. You can’t hear the breathing or smell the sweat in a photograph later.
“It’s about interactions, it’s raw, it’s live. In a digital age, people start to prefer re-attachment,” Houston’s Emmanual Nuno Arambula says.
Toward the end of the night I find myself upstairs listening to the somewhat erotic sound of wet clay, mesmerized by the shiny growth extending from a man while he laboriously forms and shapes it. He smooths and rubs the material, which is hard to differentiate from his actual flesh. He adds water as the piece becomes long and sprouts wings. At one point the clay creation becomes an easy chair, the Sticky Fingers lips, an oyster. He crafts a pearl to go inside. Arambula is creating his own genitals, forming them on a stool as he stands connected to his creation. He is working quickly, sweating to keep the mass smoothed into the clay on his body in a ceremonial ritual decorated with the satchel of carving tools he wears and the clay-cutting wire dangling around his neck.
Outside The Ant Colony venue, a performance artist with an alternate personality—a Victorian woman who came out of the closet to engage with Texas masculinity—talks about the roots of performance art in civil rights, Dadaism, and its international growth in the wake of the great wars. She is actually not performing this evening. Her name is Colette Copeland. She also writes for Glasstire.
“Performance art began with a way for marginalized groups to break away from white patriarchal art history,” says Copeland.
“It’s outside the mainstream. Then you have feminism, now considered a dirty word that no one really wants to associate with. And then you attach the label of gender, and it’s like triple marginalizing, and that’s problematic,” Copeland says. “How do you as a contemporary artist draw from history but move forward with a fresh voice?”
Kate Helms is holding a large pair of silver sewing scissors in her teeth: an odd ballerina standing on her toes with her hair stapled to the wall above her. She’s shaking, and I’m watching, and everyone is quiet. I stare at her flushed feet as they turn a pinched white at the tips. Her toes quiver.
Helms at this moment is an object of art framed on a white wall, so I can choose whether I relate to her or not, but I can’t stop looking at her. My feet start to cramp from squatting on them until they are folded in half. As I start to wonder why, the thought is interrupted by her gasps. She is smashing her eyes shut, and her mouth is downturned, the tendrils around her temples are moist. My legs ache as I lean to take another picture and catch myself on three fingertips. I can take no more, and I shift my position to my knees. Helms continues to wince on her toes. Eventually she gets fed up and violently cuts her hair off in order to free herself from the pain.
Helms was a student of Oak Cliff activist, resident artist and professor Kenda North, who says guests at the event are witnessing the heart of the area’s issues. “The area’s never been able to support some really strong galleries, but a lot of artists live here because I think it’s an environment they enjoy,” North says. “There’s so much potential.”
The Inside)(Outside format was inspired by the Lonestar Explosion Performance Art Biennial in Houston, where the Dallas curators Starr and Brown performed in March. The connection between Dallas and Houston experiments was forged, a plus for the Dallas scene.
“Performance art like the stuff you saw in Dallas is not largely supported monetarily by non-profits or fundraising, it is mostly driven by youthful persistence, blood, sweat, tears and DIY spirit,” Julia Claire says.
While performance art in Dallas has become more popular, it’s often just a single act, or the icing on the cake at an art opening. Rarely is it done in extended festival form where performances can build on each other. This was an exception.
All photos by Andi Harman.