Feel NRG, Nathan Bockelman and Eric Svedas, Highways Performance Space, November 13 and 14, 2009
Without an object or installation to fix attention, performance art hinges on the successful transformation of a space and a span of time into something like the experience of art. Using perhaps some props and costumes, but primarily relying on his or her own body, the performer must create a compelling experience distinct from the before, the after, and the outside.
Endurable Goods, an evening of curated performance art at Highways Performance Space, saw several artists attempting, earnestly and laboriously, to achieve such a transformation, but with mostly piteous results. Many of the artists seemed to have a theatrical background, or received some tutelage in that arena, as their pieces utilized elaborate props and costumes along with cringe-inducing monologues or dialogues recited in dead-serious, shabby-Shakespearean tones of voice. This misguided attempt at high theater, necessarily falling short in the DIY context of performance, only spotlighted the hollowness of the work, which lacked rigor and a working critical engagement with contemporary performance.
This unfortunate evening was miraculously saved, however, by one team of performers who, while following the pushy curatorial premise of “Ir/reverence! Abjection! Crucifixion! Oh My!,” managed to also transcend it and kick its ass into the gutter where it belonged. Feel NRG was concocted by Nathan Bockelman and Eric Svedas, both of whom wore unremarkable street clothes and used only a scrappy collection of ordinary objects as props. With infectious energy, the two performers focused on concept, sharp cultural references, and a sense of serious fun to achieve their goal of tongue-in-cheek performative transgression.
Feel NRG was filled with too many great details to fully capture without venturing into tedium. Let’s just say that things began with two boys, two balls, two boxes, and a boxcutter. After unloading their gear into the performance area, each performer bounced a small ball around for a minute before Bockelman called for the house music to cue. Then while Bockelman crouched on the floor and opened the flaps of one empty cardboard box, Svedas taped the boxcutter to a microphone stand and, climbing up on a stool, went to work slicing open another box that had been affixed to the high ceiling above them. After a few tries using the precariously long mike stand, the box above finally opened, unloading dozens of small bouncing balls, which landed in the box below and scattered throughout the performance area.
Svedas donned a long-haired black wig and baby-blue footie pajamas decorated with white clouds, while Bockelman stripped down to his underwear and socks. Svedas spoke into the microphone, which still had the boxcutter protruding dangerously from it, and addressed the evening’s call for transgression. “What’s more transgressive than the smog and pollution in LA? There’s a lot to complain about in LA… what do you do with all those bad vibes? What do you do with all that NRG?!?” He declared that it was time to channel all the negative energy in Los Angeles through Bockelman’s naked chest and into the ground, which they proceeded to do. “That’s a righteous transfer of energy!” they declared, high-fiving each other when it was done.
Next, it was time to find out “what happens when potential meets its limit… you know, what is NRG??” Bockelman plugged in a hot plate and lay down on the floor with the back of his head on top of it. When it became hot enough to “transgress his scalp,” Bockelman got up and Svedas threw an egg—the embodiment of raw potential—on it. The egg proceeded to cook and its burning smell permeated the building for the rest of the evening. “Another righteous transfer!” Bockelman cried, as he high-fived Svedas again.
Wondering aloud if they could deliver enough transgression to make the $20 entrance fee charged by Highways worthwhile, the duo then attempted to channel the NRG of Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, which they played on a ghettoblaster and convincingly sang and danced to. “Are you feeling it??” they cajoled the audience. And everyone was, zipped along into a delightful trance state by these two energetic performers. Bockelman taped two styrofoam blocks to his face and sang into the mike so that the boxcutter plunged into the blocks. Svedas thrashed around in his pajamas. Balls were gathered and thrown around. And after a total of about 15 minutes, this utterly transfixing performance was done.
Any work of art that can casually and interestingly reference terrorists, self-help infomercials, dime-store mystics, college dormitories, and grindcore in one melodious flow is a work of genius in my book. But the most awesome thing about Feel NRG was that it used the trash and comedy of pop culture to poke the hot air out of the transgressive pretensions of this evening, while at the same time paradoxically achieving that same transgression with its own joyous balls, so to speak. The audience felt the real NRG in this performance, and was willing to follow it wherever it was going to go.
All photos courtesy of Nathan Bockelman and Eric Svedas. To watch a video of this performance, go here.