Sarah Petersen, Washout, Honor Fraser Gallery, April 9, 2014, as experienced by Nate Page
Something seemed wrong as I entered the shiny black lobby of Honor Fraser Gallery to see Sarah Petersen‘s performance, Washout. It was silent and empty except for a large group of shoes that surrounded three wooden benches on the lobby floor. The shoes had a messy-yet-organic order roughly resembling the pattern of a sliced kiwi. Oddly, most pairs pointed inward towards the benches, as if removed by people whose attention was directed at the benches. I removed my shoes and pointed them at the benches too.
There was nobody around. The performance must have already started and I must have been late. I realized I was a half hour late as I walked barefoot down the corridor to an adjacent gallery. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps the shoe bench thing had been part of the performance or even a sculptural prop designed for latecomers.
At the end of the hallway, I saw the silhouettes of a few people blocking a large gallery doorway designed to easily accommodate big crates and paintings. As I got closer, a woman, aware of my presence, stepped aside and motioned for me to get a better view. I accepted and crossed the threshold into the bright gallery and quickly identified who was performer and who was audience.
The performers made it easy—they were in the center of the room moving their bodies and wearing white t-shirts. The gallery audience wore dark outerwear and were up against the white walls, bodies not moving. The two groups left an empty path on the concrete ground between them like a moat—a common formation that most people are familiar with if they’ve ever visited a gallery or museum for a performance.
The segregation made me curious. Knowing a little about Sarah’s work, I expected this performance to be participatory and socially engaging. Looked at from an aerial view, the rectangular room reiterated itself in the group’s formation, resembling a framed and matted picture. The audience stood in as the dark frame, the four-foot gray concrete gap between viewer and performer was the neutral matting, and the central rectangular shape of the performers was the picture.
As a newcomer, I became super-aware of that in-between gray zone. It was a boundary, but what kind? Perhaps I identified with it because I didn’t feel a part of either group yet. Or maybe I recognized I would have to walk through it in order to find a wall spot to lean on. I chose to stay standing in the doorway, my back to the same hallway that led to the cluster of empty shoes with toes pointed at benches.
Although I knew the gray gap between performer and audience was like a stage that I did not want to appear on, I still wanted to make myself visible to others I recognized. After all, this was a social gallery event and attendance constitutes industry cachet. I scanned the audience for people I knew, noting how easy this was given the formation of bodies. All gazes passed through the performance and connected back into the audience; half the audience was right across from me and we were able to look each other in the eye quite easily. It reminded me of old jokes about military firing squads that circle around the victim and end up shooting themselves.
Once I was done surveying the scene, I began to pay more attention to the performance. Based on the props (packaged vegetables, potted plant soil and t-shirts worn by the performers) I presumed a theme of community-organized events for the common good. Yet there was underlying dramatic tension, in the spirit of a radical community co-op gone Fresh & Easy neighborhood grocery parking lot promo.
There were about twelve people, both male and female, each seeming to have a vegetable or two, some still in plastic packaging. There was also a pleasant and balanced distribution of black soil, terra-cotta pots and an occasional red book. Some kind of economy was operating as the actors swarmed busily within the performative rectangle. They sometimes collaborated or traded a pot for dirt or a vegetable for assistance, but mostly they looked like individuals with their own agendas. Their movements looped in and out and they often appeared to leave the company and return to a piece of floor they claimed as their own. They would kneel/sit and busy themselves with work.
I’m pretty sure I saw more than one person trying to plant a full grown vegetable in a pot. A few spoken words read aloud from books felt curated to give glimpses into individual emotional experiences, like the hesitation or motivation when deciding to engage in a communal activity. You could hear echoes of these statements throughout the group almost like a rippling mantra. Each member repeated the words in their own way, seemingly absorbed in thought, processing the meaning for themselves.
It wasn’t clear how long they had been at this. As distinct as this prop/exchange/labor activity was, there was a parallel motif of collective emotional flow being exchanged as well. The emotional economy of how one’s expression affects another seemed to be the overarching script they all shared.
At one point, someone began giggling, leading to more and more gigglers. Soon they all began laughing and rejoicing in agreement at how good something felt. Maybe it was the act of helping each other or reaping the fruits of their labors or even just touching dirt; it didn’t seem necessary to know for sure. They continued to incite each other to laugh louder and louder as if to illustrate the contagion of behavior and feelings. This made me uncomfortable and I reactively wondered if any of it was genuine laughter. It built into a prolonged roar, the kind of laugh that I’ve only seen in movies or on TV, where an audience is laughing someone off the stage. It felt like they were trying to twist my metaphoric arm and pull me onstage to perform with them. It was interesting because it confused me. I thought I knew my role in the situation, but they had suddenly hijacked a major voice that declares and defines the identity of audience: group laughter.
What made my experience more contorted was the fact that I was already engaged in a performance of my own. I couldn’t help but be conscious of who let themselves laugh and who tried to hold it back. It seemed that to laugh aloud would be akin to stepping off the gallery wall into the gray no-man zone for all to see. Some did laugh, many grimaced or looked around with wide eyes and tight faces perhaps restraining their laughter or expressing discomfort. The tension at this point was palpable.
In the press release for Have At It, the series of which this performance was a part, curator Laura Watts writes about her interest in the tensions of viewership when performance happens in the context of an art gallery. I thought about this tension in comparison to the familiar performance format of a black box theater. Those theaters are nice because viewers sit in them and disappear into the uniform darkness, gazes all directed to a common point, never crossing.
In the white-cube gallery space for Sarah’s Washout performance, it seemed we tried to politely downplay our awareness/paranoia/excitement at seeing/being seen by other audience members. The fluorescent gallery lights were bright and evenly filled the entire room with presentation-quality light. This became the equivalent of stage lighting directed at the audience. In addition to the rectangular shapes molded by the gallery’s architecture, the gallery’s lighting challenged the viewers to create their own boundaries between what they paid attention to and what they didn’t, in effect asking them to determine what constituted performance and what did not.
The next time the fourth wall was challenged, it felt more scripted. The performers literally walked past the gap into the audience. Humming with arms open, they began corralling us toward what at first seemed to be the center of the room. Encouraged to hum and move, we were actually herded into the uncharted territory of a dimly lit smaller gallery for a hum-along. It seemed to get easier to participate once inside the intimate darker space. The movement also gave us the opportunity to quickly speak, chuckle and shake a hand or two of people we knew.
More people began humming. It was dark and the previous order of bright lights and rectangular territories had lost authority. We couldn’t see who was or wasn’t a performer anymore. Specifically, we couldn’t tell who was or wasn’t humming and for me this was the deciding factor that finally got me to hum. Now, as an audience/performer salad we occupied the space like it was an elevator. Those first to arrive occupied the peripheral against the wall; everyone then spread into the center of the room. This allowed the 10 or so performers to evenly distribute their bodies among us, confusing the distinction between performer and audience in a very deliberate way.
As the humming intensified, it didn’t seem like everyone was humming, but those who did made up for it with bravado. I noticed we were all facing the large gallery doorway we had just passed through. There were three performers remaining in front of us with arms stretched open, chins up and silhouetted against the bright gallery behind them. I thought back to my late entrance, leaving my empty shoes pointed towards the benches in the lobby and I realized how odd it was that my feet were not cold from standing on the concrete floor.