Joseph Ravens, the curator and founder of DFBRL8R, has been collecting performance art relics since he opened the gallery in 2010. Sometimes, it would be a spontaneous decision to keep the dust he swept off the gallery floor, and other times he asked artists to donate specific materials to the collection. Since a performance is not entirely descriptive through a photograph, or even a video, the relic outlives the event and becomes an archivable material of the ephemeral.
In February of this year, Ravens collaborated with artist/curator Ieke Trinks to install What Remains: On The Sacred, The Lost, and The Forgotten Relics of Live Art. Forty artists, selected from an open call, were tasked to create performance art pieces as responses to relics chosen from Ravens’ archive. My mother and I were among the performers. The month-long event was hosted in the former DFBRL8R location, now Arc Gallery, on Chicago Avenue, so the gallery was also itself a relic. During the opening night, Trinks asked the audience to notice the shoes that had been hanging outside for the last five years, since they were originally thrown by artist Miao Jiaxin. Ravens announced that hosting What Remains in the former space of DFBRL8R was a way to “bring the relics back to their home.”
Artist and curator Daniela Beltrani hosted a similar exhibit in 2012, in Singapore. I found the catalogue recently in my mother’s library, a small booklet with text in a typewriter font. Her exhibit was titled Reliqvarivm: a selection of performance art relics from Singapore. Beltrani also indicated in her catalogue that this word relic “seems to convey the character of sacredness with which most collectors consider these objects.” I let the word sacredness sink in. I thought about how performing could be seen as a sacred act. What Remains allowed artists to value the sacredness of relics, but also have the ability to manipulate and interact with the past. To not hold the objects on a pedestal. When I spoke to Trinks, she noted that revisiting relics was a way to “reactivate and reenact them,” since they had been sitting in boxes until recently.
If I could, I would write for each performance, honoring each act of re-activating an object. Each performance stands as an ode to the past, a nod to the artist who first used the object in a performance. I could describe what each night felt, smelled like, what the new performance had created in the room. How each week, the remains of the previous week lingered on the walls: red food coloring splashed on one wall, a puddle of ink, a tray of hair cuttings, polaroids on a wall. As both a performer and a part of the audience, I was able to experience many sides of What Remains. There was sacredness felt in many performances, such as Sungjae Lee whispering in my ears through headphones, using Heeran Lee’s relic; Doro Seror letting herself be untied by audience members silently, after slipping them papers on which she had written “free the woman without embarrassing her,” using Joshua McGarvey’s sweatpants as the relic; or Ashley Hollingshead reciting each object’s history, becoming the speaker for each relic in the basement where most of the relics sat on shelves.
During the third week, artist Frans Van Lent monologued his performance. Seated cross-legged, reading from his iPad, and with a microphone to his long-bearded face, he observed that “these performances start where they usually end.” This so-called end was the finale of the initial performance that had activated the object and turned it into a relic. For his performance, Van Lent had discarded the iconic red chair, left it somewhere in Chicago, and then asked for it to be removed from all publicity. Joseph recalled this fondly during our conversation, “Frans yielded this wonderful moment of announcing the removal of the red chair and throughout the night, people were cutting it out of posters and stuff – it was this other micro-performance.” We all became performers. There were spontaneous sacred moments happening in the audience as well, such as all storytelling and sharing, and sometimes, the artist and original user of the relic was there to witness their own relic in action again.
As Van Lent remarked, remains are normally the end of one performance, but in What Remains they acted as beginnings. The relics had been reactivated for new purposes. In the book Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida notes that the archive “produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future.” Joseph Ravens is currently deciding, while going through his archive of relics, how to value these objects. If he pays for storage, for example, then there is a value or a price. “And to what end?” he asks. “Museum collections often do not want to take on an archive, because the labor of going through it is intense, and space is an issue. It is a point of privilege, having storage space. It takes labor, dedication, and resources. There are so few permanent spaces dedicated to performance art.” ieke adds that “Museums who do have things in their collection, are very conservative with it because they don’t know how to work with it. They will probably not let it be used any more. They will display it.”
The performance of archives and the archiving of performance art will continue to be in conversation. What Remains invites us to re-define, manipulate, and to honor the sacredness of relics, but also to move into a new realm of beginnings and possibilities in performance art.