Native Strategies 3: Rituals and Congregations, Part 1: Invocations, Human Resources, Chinatown, February 1, 2013
Amidst the substantial art fanfare of this past weekend, Native Strategies somewhat quietly released the third issue of its LA-centric performance art journal with a two-day series of performances at Human Resources. Unlike previous issues of the journal, which were created and published as documents long after their accompanying performances took place, issue 3 was created first and served as a sort of incubator or idea manual for the subsequent performances. The dynamic that results between publication and event is an entirely different one, perhaps less unified than the previous editions, but no less substantive.
The artists included in the journal’s essays and interviews include David Wojnarowicz via an interview with biographer Cynthia Carr, Samara Golden, Liz Glynn, Samuel White, Amanda Yates, Rafa Esparza, Alexa Weir, Jane Brucker, Tanya Rubbak (who is also co-director and designer for Native Strategies), and the collective Signify Sanctify Believe. It’s an interesting mélange of people who all, in the eyes of chief NS visionary Brian Getnick, speak to the artist’s “hope to communicate to audiences who will survive them.” Death, history, ritual, and magic are all part of this dialogue. The artists who gave performances over the weekend included White, Yates, Brucker, Weir, Esparza, and Guru Rugu (who is a freelance member of SSB).
I only made it to the second half of the first evening of performances. I was especially excited to see new work from Samuel White, whose nascent career I’ve been following for a while, and whom I interviewed for the journal. White has launched a new body of work in which he conducts month-long “residencies” with individual artists in order to explore the meanings and development of intimacy, his ongoing central theme. The performance on Friday night was titled Johanna and represented the culmination of his residency with artist Johanna Kozma. In it, White enlisted Clay Gibson to tattoo the outline of Kozma’s body on his back. His hope was that this act would represent a “spiritual marriage” between the two artists.
White had already begun to use his body as a raw canvas on which to explore vulnerability and intimacy. Tattooed on his right shoulder were several phrases written in Lebanese script; these were the fruits of another project in which the artist travels to different cities and allows his audience members to dictate words to be tattooed on his back in their native tongue. The first phase of this project was done in Beirut, and White hopes to continue it in other cities, eventually amassing a multilingual skin tableau. Visually, the new tattoo seems to act as a sort of shadow or border around the present and future texts.
The tattooing took place over the space of a few hours, inside of an alcove at Human Resources. The two artists lay quietly on a table side-by-side while Gibson worked on White. What was most striking to me was how close and intimate the two were with each other, sometimes embracing or kissing one another, without the vibe between them being at all sexual. The act was a fairly extreme one, and yet it felt quiet and almost chaste. White later told me that he was not satisfied with the performance, that he felt it was too overwrought and perhaps needed to be mediated with some textual readings, as he’s done in past performances. I could see what he meant, as the performance seemed to represent something of a detour for him, both visually and didactically.
While White was getting tattooed, Amanda Yates was conducting Happening Magic: The City Speaks inside of a cardboard replica of LA’s City Hall. The idea was that Yates would channel the spirit of Los Angeles, whose energy was composed of everyone who is now or has ever been in this city, to answer people’s questions. I waited my turn in line to sit across from the artist and ask a question, fully expecting to be answered by some kind of conceptual flippancy, like the time I texted the Lady Gaga oracle and received a TMZ-flavored answer. To my surprise however, Yates held my hands, closed her eyes, and gave an answer that I could feel was sincere and indeed, channeled from somewhere. The cardboard City Hall, which had plenty of windows cut out of it, seemed to act like a pyramid, drawing and focusing psychic energy. I wrote down the answer she gave me in my journal that night. Its usefulness was a pretty amazing takeaway.
The most breathtaking performance of the night (that I saw—I unfortunately missed Jane Brucker’s UNRAVEL 2009–present) was Guru Rugu’s A Brief Invocation, an unexpectedly moving experience that is probably more accurately described as a convocation. It began humorously, with a microphone mysteriously levitating into the air like that old Indian snake dance trick. With the help of a near-invisible string, it levitated all the way up the back wall until Guru Rugu’s hand came out of one of the projector windows to grab it. From inside the upstairs gallery, Guru delivered his words via PA system to the audience, who stood around in the darkened lower gallery. His invocation consisted of a long series of questions that he had sourced from his community of fellow artists. The questions, phrased like the questions used in SSB’s cult recruitment video, spoke to our common experiences as artists, writers, and art world laborers. Here are some highlights:
do you ever feel overwhelmed and anxious?
do you ever spend an entire day feeling detached, but then realize at the end of the day that it was just the medication?
after your last show, have you noticed yourself binging on alcohol?
do you ever feel like you’ve run out of people to talk to about your art?
do you ever feel like your work will never be taken seriously unless you get out there and socialize a little more?
do you ever feel like it’s all a little too much about who you know?
do you ever get tired of seeing so many people you haven’t seen in awhile when going to an opening?
do you ever feel disappointed when you can’t hear or see an artwork at an opening because old friends keep walking up to talk to you?
do you ever feel like you know too many people?
have you ever hopped from one event to the next, and then wished you’d never left the first one?
do you ever wish you’d taken your own car instead of carpooled?
do you often feel tired as you walk out to drive to the first event of the evening?
do you often genuinely pray for a 2nd or 3rd wind?
do you ever feel guilty for staying in and missing your friends’ events?
do you ever feel like you’re missing out at your own show?
do you ever feel sorry for those who decided to come out to see your show?
do you ever go out and feel like you got pretty much what you expected?
after returning from a trip, do you ever feel detached from your community?
after returning from a trip, do you ever feel like nobody noticed that you were gone?
do you ever worry that by asking an institution for what you need that you’re acting like a prima donna?
have you ever said “yes” to showing your work in a space run by someone you dislike?
do you feel like your work is often misunderstood?
do you feel like your work is often mischaracterized?
are you ever referred to as a “social practice artist”?
are you ever referred to as a “queer artist”?
is your work ever referred to as “kinda like fluxus”?
is your work ever referred to as “very los angeles”?
do you ever worry that a curator somewhere will someday state in vinyl that your work is “visionary”?
do you ever worry that no one will ever consider your work visionary?
(Above text courtesy of Guru Rugu.)
The questions, many of which were an uncannily accurate reflection of my own day-to-day life, snaked into my consciousness and down into my spine, where they seemed to live like a dark animus. As I listened I walked around the room, around the various bodies that were positioned throughout, some of whom I knew and some I didn’t, but all of whom were members of this community that shared the same questions, the same experiences. The same animus lived inside of each of us, usually unspoken, but here it was given palpable life by a disembodied, god-like voice. It was like being taken on a communal visit to the near reaches of our collective consciousness.
After about half an hour of these almost chant-like questions, Guru led the room in a brief ceremony of communal release, in which we were asked to lay hands on one another and “breathe in all our quandaries… breathe out all that is light… converting all sorrow into strength for tomorrow.” It was a nice enough finishing touch, but for me, the strength of the performance lay in the simple, stark examination of our shared lives together.