Embodied Rituals: An Interview with Barbara T. Smith and Christen Sperry-Garcia

On Saturday, August 14 at 7:30pm, Barbara T. Smith and Christen Sperry-Garcia will present Chaos Confounded, a performance, feast, and benefit in honor of Highways Performance Space’s 21st anniversary. The event will combine Sperry-Garcia’s Maps, Nodes, and Networks, an interactive work based on the artist’s study of traffic patterns, with a multi-course, sit-down meal that will be presided over by both artists. The dinner, which will be a performance in itself, is the latest in a long line of work by Smith exploring food and ritual. Additional performances will also take place throughout the course of the evening.

This event is a great chance to experience signature works by a legend of performance art and an emerging Los Angeles artist, and support Highways, a seminal West Coast performance space, at the same time. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased here.

This past week, I sat down with Smith and Sperry-Garcia to talk about Chaos Confounded, and about their individual practices.

How did this collaboration between the two of you come about?

BTS: That was really fortuitous. I had been on the board of Highways, which, like all nonprofits, is very financially strapped. I was on the board for two years and decided that it was time for me to move on. At the same time, we were talking about how 18th Street Arts Center had just had a benefit dinner, which they charged $250 for, and it was very high-end, very gourmet, with an Artforum critic as a featured speaker, and it was quite successful. And so Leo [Garcia, Artistic Director of Highways] said, why can’t we do that? But we recognize that we don’t have the same donor base; the people who follow Highways are not, generally speaking, as affluent. So I said, what you could do is have some kind of affordable, not-so-fancy dinner, but at the same time bring in a decent amount of money, and have it be much more peasant-like, more fun, more in the body, you know? So this project became my last fling for them.

In the meantime, Christen had come to Leo and made a proposal for a performance at Highways, so he called me and said, there’s this young woman artist who wants to do a performance, and I think you two could work together on this thing. It turns out I already knew Christen because her husband, Brian Dick, was one of my students at UCSD. In fact, we had all gone to an art festival together in Jefferson City, Missouri in 2007, and so we had already established a camaraderie. So I learned what she had in mind, and we began to think about it, and it seemed like it would work, and it’s been way better to have two of us doing it.

It’s interesting, the idea of the feast, which is very convivial, together with relational traffic studies, which is a different kind of social gathering and interaction. Maybe you guys can talk about how you feel these two pieces connect within the project, how they fit together?

CSG: First, I have to stay that it has been a great honor working with Barbara. The two pieces really connect themselves. The evening begins with guests entering the space and getting drinks. The gallery and reception areas will become an active social space for a mix of guests and performers who will map their movements using balls of string as they navigate through, across, and up ladders, scaffolding, and other furniture in the space. The audience is included in this activity, and can become part of it or become observers, depending on what they’re willing to do. The transition will occur when the performers guide the participants/guests into the banquet space, and the network of string becomes part of the space as a whole. People are then brought into the feast to have another social or communal experience.

BTS: She’s done this piece before but I had never seen it, so I actually only know it verbally. But in terms of the meal, it was to me at first, just some kind of peasant meal, like they have in the south of France or Italy. Then I began to think of the fact that I’ve done meal or food pieces for 40 years, and they have had this trajectory, as I look at it now, of embodiment. The first food piece was a very shattering experience for me, and a difficult piece for people to attend…

Barbara Smith, Ritual Meal, 1969,
image courtesy of the artist

Are you talking about Ritual Meal?

BTS: Yes, and by now, at this time of my life, it’s just happening that this food work is coming to an end for me. This is probably the last performance that I’ll do of any kind of uniqueness, is my guess. I don’t personally want to do anymore. I mean, there always could be a reason to do it, because someone could say, we need you to do this, and I see that I need to do it. But I don’t have any more agenda, really.

Wait, this is going to be your last performance, period?

BTS: Period! Yes! Ya-ho!

That’s a big deal, Barbara…!

BTS: Well like the knitting piece, these are ending pieces, they come to an end. And this is the end of the food pieces. And it’s completely embodied. People come together for Christen’s piece, then they sit down together at a meal which is very material. And they can’t get up! At first, they have choices, but once they’re at the table, they’re there, and this piece happens around them. I’ve named it Chaos Confounded and for me, it’s a very spiritual event.

I experience our time now, our life, as being really impacted by the traumas, conflicts, and corruption of the whole world—we experience it all the time. And there are various ways you can handle it; you can give money, go participate in various charitable things. But basically, how do you keep yourself centered? In almost every spiritual path, there’s the individual, there’s the community, and then there’s the teaching. And by being together in a community of people who cannot escape what’s going on, we’re impacted continuously. So it’s become way more profound and meaningful for me to do this piece. It’s a real performance to me. It used to be just a dinner, now it’s a performance.

When you say “embodied,” are you making reference for example, to how a lot of our relationships now happen over the internet, how we keep in touch via Facebook, and maybe embodiment is an antidote to that?

BTS: Yes, it’s you sitting opposite, and you have to talk to people right around you. And you don’t get to choose very much. I mean, a choice is made because these are people coming to an art event, and so there will be people who are quasi-knowledgeable and friends of each other, probably. But in concept, it could be that you come to something and you’re stuck. It’s like, if you come into the world and these are your neighbors, and you’re stuck. This is who they are. So now what are you going to do? Where is your safety and where is your love? Everything is right there around you. The piece is going to be confounding and chaotic.

There will be a thread of meaning that goes through. There will be projections of artworks that have been made about food and with food, from prehistoric times until now. There are 237 slides that will be on a loop, constantly playing. We just finished that today and it’s about 12 minutes long, it’ll cycle about 10 times. It’s really amazing—it’s a backdrop, people making art about and with food.

There will also be constant audio streams. One is a CD we’ve been making of city sounds. This is the other thing that we’re impacted with—we live in a city that’s just constantly making sound, and this is not necessarily very supportive or spiritual, it’s something we have to contend with. And then, I have a housemate who plays guitar in a spiritual context, and so these two sounds are going to be opposite each other; he’s going to be sitting on one side, constantly playing this spiritual music, while this background of technological sound is going on.

Kind of like a struggle…?

BTS: Well it can be. It’s the truth of LA—there’s all this spiritual stuff going on everywhere, it’s a hotbed of new age practices.

CSG: There’s something I’d like to add, in speaking about food and your history of working with food. Food plays a significant role in the culture of my family (I’m Mexican and Polish) and has also inserted itself into my work. But something that I find to be a very valuable part of this process, with Barbara and with the group as a whole, is that whenever we have a meeting, Barbara is very proactive about having food. For example, we had a rehearsal with performers the other day at her home, and she said, we should have lunch, people need to be fed, and a spread of food appeared! Food has a way of making people feel more comfortable, bringing people together and creating a comfortable social space and social time.

It’s a bonding agent.

CSG: It has been an important part of this process and of bonding with each other.

It’s cross-cultural too; I mean, every culture loves food.

BTS: It’s also the most profound feminist/feminine thing. We wouldn’t survive a minute without the fact that our mothers’ bodies can feed us from the time we’re born. For me, it’s very much about feminine spirituality and immanence. The essence of female spirituality is within; it’s not something that you have to attain, transcend, get out of the world. It’s already within. So that to me is much more what female spirituality is about, if I want to characterize a difference.

Men are trying to hunt the woolly mammoth, while women are already bearing fruit?

BTS: Yes, I mean it’s very simplistic, and a lot of feminist theory would be upset about it…

They would say it’s essentialist.

BTS: But that’s still the way I think.

When you were talking about the idea of confinement… that brings up another quality of LA life I think, where people have so many options that they’re always hesitant to commit to one. For example, people always like to sit at the edge of a performance so they can easily leave if they want to. But at Chaos Confounded, they’ll be committed for the evening.

BTS: Well of course they can leave if they get sick or have to pee or something. But basically the structure is that they are there. There have been many anniversary parties at Highways over the years, and always it’s a performance, and then afterwards they bring in a cake and everyone’s milling around and talking. But in this case, you’ll sit there, your plates will be cleared away, and then this cake will come in accompanied by the people who made it. A company called Cake Divas—which is run by two performance artists, Joan Spitler and Leigh Grode—is donating the cake, and I’m asking them to come and present it. We’ll all sing happy birthday, and then we’ll have ice cream and cake and coffee, and we’ll have toasts. And you know, really make it a celebration for Highways and for all the people that put this together. There are an awful lot of people involved in this event, it’s terrific, it really is.

Do you feel that your individual practices connect with each other in certain ways? Christen, was Barbara ever an influence on your work?

CSG: Yes. For me, the connection is the importance placed on the body and on these kinds of social/communal situations. Barbara, would you also say that in some ways, your work has been theatrical, and at the same time, not at all? Because I feel that way about my work.

BTS: Well the works are unique. They’re not repeated, and they don’t have that repeatable aspect of beginning, middle, and end. They’re more transformational, they’re rituals, and that entails theatrical elements for sure—symbolic elements, sometimes storytelling, but not very often.

CSG: Ritual is also a recurring theme in my work. For example, the ritual of being tucked into bed. When I tucked people into bed and also interviewed people about their memories of bedtime as a child, Barbara was one of my interviewees. I loved the interaction with people in that project—having people I hardly know tell me about private memories and things that they hadn’t thought about in a while, or have never told anyone.

Christen, let’s talk some more about your portion of the evening.

CSG: Well it’s interesting that traffic noises will be included in the background audio for the feast, because the study of traffic is a driving force behind this series of work that I’ve been doing called Relational Traffic Studies. This particular piece is titled Maps, Nodes, and Networks, so again it is a physical embodiment of networks and nodes, something that we don’t really see in the flesh in terms of social networking, but that does exist.

BTS: You’re making it concrete.

CSG: Right. A couple of years ago, I spent some time in Southeast Asia, and I was fascinated with the dynamics of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. In larger cities, cars, motorcycles, trucks, bikes, and pedestrians are intermixed on crowded streets. Here, we honk if someone is in the way—it means “get out of my way” or “you wronged me.” Whereas my experience in Southeast Asia was that people will honk to just say, “I’m coming through, I need to get through, notice my presence…”

It’s not rude, it’s just a way of communicating.

CSG: Yes, and people are much more exposed as many of them are not inside these large bubbles of cars but instead are on motorbikes. I saw entire families on motorbikes with chickens, dried fish, household goods…whatever would fit. It was a very intense and physical experience for me to drive on a motorbike myself, constantly brushing and touching others at intersections and while in transit.

Yeah, because here we’re all encased in these bubbles, even motorcyclists with their big helmets, which I understand they often don’t wear in Southeast Asia. It contributes to road rage here, because everyone else is dehumanized when you’re inside your own metal or glass bubble.

CSG: Yes, that is what personal space can do. Even in terms of outward navigation, here we have designated crosswalks and of course, traffic lights that we obey. But my experience in larger cities in Southeast Asia is that obeying them is a choice. There are often no bona fide crosswalks, so instead you really have to think and premeditate, like, okay this car is coming right here, so I’m going to go around this truck, but then there’s another car coming so I’m actually going to go behind the other car. You are zigzagging to get to the other side of the street. And that’s also something that the performers will negotiate in the space, around people and around these obstructions, risers and ladders and scaffolding…

Christen Sperry-Garcia, Relational Traffic Studies, Performance Version 3, Gatov Galleries, California State University, Long Beach, 2009

Well again, the people are forced to confront each other in order to negotiate this traffic, kind of like what you were saying about the feast, Barbara.

BTS: This is great, because we’ve been so absorbed in planning the details of this event, that we haven’t had as much of a chance to talk about our ideas with each other! Yes, they’re brought in, they come to this table, they take a seat, and they will be served a meal. Waiters are going to bring them the food. During the entire meal, not only will these projections be going on, and the sound will be a constant, but there will be intermittent performances, five-minute pieces of various sorts. They’re very idiosyncratic; each one is quite different, and some of them function to help the meal along. Then when the meal is cleared, the birthday celebration will happen. Highways will be 21—it’s their coming of age!

They’re legal, finally.

BTS: It’ll be worth $100, easy. A Highways performance is usually $20 a person or something? Well for a hundred, you get numerous performances and a good meal.

CSG: And you get to witness Barbara’s last performance!

That alone…

BTS: It just feels like it’s the end of something. And I have a whole bunch of other things I want to do in the future to finish pieces. I started a religion of the Holy Squash, right? So I have a bible to write!

CSG: Have you started it?

BTS: Yeah! It’s been waiting for a long time. And the knitting—there’s some work we have to do there in terms of tagging it. And there are other things that I’ve wanted to make for a long time. The bible will take months to do—it’s started, but it really has to be fleshed out.

CSG: You’re also working on your book for High Performance.

BTS: Yes, I’ve been writing a book for many years now that I have to finish. It’s about my personal journey as a performance artist; it was commissioned by High Performance magazine in 1978. Chris Burden had just made his little books, have you ever seen them? They’re terrific. His pieces are always very concise, so there’s a photograph and a text and that’s it. And of course he never explains his pieces, and High Performance imagined that I would do something like that. But my pieces are very layered—they’re not concise, they’re complex. And furthermore it annoyed me, I mean I love Chris and we’re friends, but I got so mad when people would say, well what’s that about? How did you come to that? And he never, ever talked about his work. It pissed me off because that’s part of it, his interest and how people come to do things. So I decided that in my writing I would write about how I came to do a piece.

So there are all these things that I would rather, at least for a time, do instead of making more performances. I’m a body artist, and my body is finished, you know? I’m gonna do what the guys do and go off into the sunlight and just do pieces about light. I’m finally becoming a light and space artist! (everybody laughs) You know, I’ve earned it.

What do you hope participants will get out of their experience at Chaos Confounded?

BTS: I hope they’ll get the experience of really being there and being surrounded by stuff that they don’t necessarily have control over. In other words, how do you be present and learn to enjoy the people you’re with. The empowerment of just being there.

CSG: I hope people will take a risk and commit to the full experience, become a part of the space, and then leave it feeling rewarded in some way, and/or feel that it was a fruitful time of being together. Rewarded risk-taking? Maybe that’s too idealistic, but one can hope!

For more information, please visit Highways Performance Space.

One Response to “Embodied Rituals: An Interview with Barbara T. Smith and Christen Sperry-Garcia”

  1. Megan Hoetger Says:

    I don’t think we can quickly brush over the fact that this event is $100 per ticket – I would think that that is still assuming a certain affluence on the part of the spectators. I think it is a tragedy that the only people able to see Barbara T. Smith’s LAST performance will have to pay that much – and, moreover, it is a tragedy that both Smith and Sperry-Garcia are willing to play to such privilege!!

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