The first full day of 2nd Floor Rear: A DIY Festival of Art in Alternative Spaces, in its sixth year of annual programming, seemed in earnest to address the inclusiveness and ambiguity of contemporary performance art; meaning, it can be just about anything, especially within the 2017 curatorial theme of “Ritual.” The events of Saturday, February 4th’s 2nd Floor Rear programming took place in neighborhoods along on the Blue Line. Although, what the programming made up for in everything-ism, it seemed to lack in cultivating a genuine audience experience.
As the murkiness of what makes performance art, a performance, or art, became slowly more apparent throughout the day’s events, still larger and more paradoxical questions arose. How does this kind of art festival intersect with gentrification and the reverberating political conditions of migration while roaming throughout West side neighborhoods? What is the proper role of documentation of performance art? The day seemed divided into performances that required either audience participation or spectatorship, rarely blending the two successfully.
The day began beautifully, with a mid-morning event conceived of by interdisciplinary artist Fontaine Capel at Hume, the artist’s run space designated as south Logan Square/North Humboldt Park. Por la Mañana: A Community Cafe was a four-hour performance with Capel making cafecitos for all those who arrived. The social performance directly referenced both the maker’s Cuban heritage and the loss of their family residence to developers. The vibe was welcoming and loving, which is where its radicality resided; exactly what Capel set out to establish while serving as a preview for the issues that would permeate the rest of the day.
Visitors to the festival conversed on the unavoidable topics of gentrification and politics in a city obsessed with negotiable borders, nostalgia, and its ethnic diversity. “Remember when Wicker Park wasn’t overrun by developers?” Not really. “Remember when Logan Square was vaguely affordable?” Sorta. All that within the context of the week of 45’s abrupt Executive Order and the resistance and grief that came out of it. This proved to be the undercurrent of the day. The allure of Capel’s work was also its tension. If ritual can be loosely defined as a performative sense of order, what is more ritualized than artists and their audience moving around the city after being forced out, after having forced others out? How do we deal with the reality that artists are frequently the first stage of gentrification? Or, more acutely, once a region has been gentrified, how do artists and artists-run spaces remain an authentic and spirited part of the area amongst the development that it helped to bring on?
The documentation throughout the day felt invasive in the more intimate performances, jeopardizing the sensorial experience that makes performance art such a unique genre. This is an enduring issue for ephemeral, performance-based work because of the demands for documentation from grant-making institutions. Still, more troublingly some of the performers played directly to the camera, seemingly valuing the photography or filmmaking over the live audience. Having “good” documentation is par for the course in work based in time and space. But, does that “good” documentation have to happen concurrently with a present audience? Why risk bad sight-lines and audible interruptions, much less stifling the air with lens-based confrontation in safe spaces? The pressure to have evidence of a sizable crowd seemed apparent, possibly as necessary validation for funders. But, that doesn’t make it any less intrusive.
In two performances, Ritual Through Diaspora by JCSpaceRadio and The Trickster Quartet’s Les Chanteuses Du Rien, it was difficult to access the conceptual framework as each unfolded. Both performances had a heavy camera presence, though it seemed that the confrontational documentation during JCSpaceRadio was not intentional. Les Chanteuses Du Rien was especially baffling for having an array of aesthetic associations. There was initially a resonate Victorian feel to the domestic environment with its picnic stations. But different dystopian elements, feigned Dada-esque costuming, and an unhinged, indulgent narrative within the movement created an unproductive dissonance for the viewer. Neither performance by The Trickster Quartet or JCSpaceRadio were in their ideal setting and could have been better executed in different spaces. Ritual Through Diaspora was compromised by the backroom at Hume’s lack of controlled lighting, and Les Chanteuses Du Rien, a lengthier production, took place in a cramped living room.
The night ended at Tritriangle on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park; an area that is more known for what it looked like ten years ago than anything else. Amongst the chain retail stores, restaurants, and ubiquitous furniture outlets, the third-floor Tritriangle is a space that mystifies with its continuing existence (and presumably astronomical rent). The loft-like atmosphere held an evening of various performances, including an interview on “any subject(s) of [the artists] choice” and a lecture that included a tuba. It was what it was. After some time passed, performer Annie Kielman, in collaboration with Josh Patterson, transformed the space for the re-occurring Trial Experience of The MorphoTransverse Method®. The performance cleverly riffed off of group exercising and the cult-like slippage of self-help trends. With three words, all capitalized, the summary was:
DECIDE. COMMIT. THRIVE.
As a group of people in hazmat suits followed Kielman’s instructions—who was clearly familiar with leading in these situations—through her wireless headset microphone. Patterson, the ever-present watcher in the clouds and always encouraging projection, let out a cliche, “You’re doing great” line every so often. Ultimately, in what was essentially a group exercise class, a more sinister look on the capitalism of health became apparent. Every detail was considered, right down to the well-branded dossier you too can purchase for more information.
Leaving Tritriangle and heading back out onto the Saturday night version of Milwaukee Avenue was jarring. In the morning, the streets would be comprised of Lululemon joggers, tote bags with yoga mats, and the inevitable brunch crowd. What is performance art in this new age of political resistance? How do performance artists create authentic experiences within a city that shifts boundaries and personas so easily? Maybe the answer is to just not address the issues at all. A lot of the performances couldn’t make up for their inadequate spaces, and the accessible locations couldn’t make up for the background of gentrification they were either imposing or fighting.