It’s an unused storefront on Central Avenue.* Another in what’s becoming the de facto performance/gallery/studio space for mid-career artists in the new creative placemaking economy: the storefront pop-up. Inside the door there are folding chairs in rows, and Audrey, Jennifer Arave’s pit bull terrier, is given a chance to sniff us. Kristin Van Loon is not given the chance, or else she just doesn’t take the opportunity. Jennifer is chatty and greets us, too, but her nose also remains a polite distance from us as well.
The rest of the space stretches back to a white wall with a closed white door. On each side, floor-to-ceiling walls of wide brown paper make theatrical-winged offstage areas. Diagonally across the floor from back to front, from house left to right, another sheet of the same paper makes a path on the gray floor, then cuts abruptly left just in front of the audience seats. Six paper globe lights line both sides of the performance space and provide most of the illumination. The paper and lights have been in an earlier Pardon Me, Do You Speak Dog? as of course were Jennifer and Audrey. The renowned Kristin Van Loon is the unknown element this time. This is a series of work about dogs and people, an investigation of what’s human, what’s animal, the space-leaping spark between the two, and the systems by which we make these distinctions.
I’m guessing in most other parts of my life, the idea of someone making a performance/dance with a dog would be met with either expressions of gentle bewilderment or less gentle scoffing. This is not new. I realize the part of my life related to the arts is marginal to most everyone. If it’s not a movie, I’m not acting. If it’s not ballet in tights, I’m not dancing. If it’s not in a box, it’s in a mess. And Jennifer Arave’s foray is a sweet out of the box.
I used to find this incomprehension frustrating when it was me. Well, more frustrating than I do now. For my work, I wanted — if not recognition — then at least acceptance. If not fame and fortune, then at least less derision and occasional cash. Now it’s just a part of the job description: make something, be part of something (or at least bear witness to something) whose existence is not too intimately connected with the more repulsive or vacant aspects of contemporary existence. That’s not only what’s it’s about, it’s what it is for. Attention and compensation are relegated to fringe benefits.
Early in Pack Mentality Jennifer and Kristin each cross the performance space carrying Audrey. It is notable how calmly the dog takes being manipulated by the two of them, especially as the soundtrack here is made up of barking dogs. Back and forth across with Audrey, alone or passing the dog between them, Kristin and Jennifer are carrying Audrey the way I used to carry my children sometimes, making them pose or perform before their little limbs or consciousnesses could do it on their own.
Later there’s interaction, imitation, throwing treats, pointing. The paper walls are torn down. In the performance, Audrey does what dogs do: either responds or not, at various speeds, with varying accuracy, always riding the edge of complacency and independence. Sometimes when I give my dog a treat it bounces off his head and under the couch. He can’t be bothered to look for it. My kids, on the other hand, at a certain age would practically lick the floor for fallen crumbs. You’d think I overfed my dog and underfed my children. Let me assure you (and child protection services) that neither is the case. But one of my kids dances as the spirit moves him, just not on command. The other takes direction admirably, but rarely dances.
Finally all three performers are bound together with leashes and harnesses, and wear sleep masks to cover their eyes. Orchestral music plays. Audrey rids herself of the mask within moments. It draws a laugh because, of course, we read this behavior as humans: as if it were a human ripping off the mask out of frustration, despair, or cleverness: the dog has had enough! While the difference between people and dogs is an underlying thematic of this series, the question itself is really just a distraction. Or maybe better, only an interstitial gap.
What is more important is the abrupt juxtaposition of these categories and what the abrasion between them can do to our sense of balance, of discrimination, of empathy, and with a little luck of our awareness of what the world is made of. If Kristin Van Loon in her everyday life, and not just as a hypothetical entry point to an experimental performance, sniffed hands and crotches to identify newcomers, at a certain point it would be aberrant. If I had trouble telling the difference between my dog and my children, I hope my partner would take the kids away from me (or get rid of the dog). If we took Audrey’s removal of her sleep mask as a conscious and ingenuous attempt to make us laugh, the foundations of our social life would radically alter at the very least.
What happens when we pose babies for our own amusement? And when we pose dogs? There’s clearly a lot in common in this behavior on our part, in both our motivations and our expectations. But there is a branching, a point of divergence, where it becomes less okay to behave in this way to one of these parties while it remains perfectly acceptable to the other. It is banging your head against a closed door, or at least it is a bean-counters game, to divine the precise borderline between them. But these types of questions — and this performance — make possible a kind of disruption to our way of thinking (and behavior is thought, too) about the different circumstances, environments, and contexts these questions emerge from. We become aware, even of only slightly and momentarily, of the limits of our world: of our deep complicity in establishing reality through how we see and think about the world. A door opens, inviting us to go through.
The dog does not know you are joking. The child does not know you are joking. The competent adult, on the other hand… Because if you were really serious…well, that would mean we’d have to rethink so many things.
Yes: if it is not in a box it is in a mess. But it is part of the artist’s ability to establish the possibility of a mess actually being just a different — and often more useful, equitable, interesting, or poignant — way of arranging the world: an open door to Someplace Else.
I myself at first left this performance a little unsure about what it did. I wasn’t entertained much of the time. At times my attention drifted. I laughed, I watched, I wondered. I wasn’t left feeling a visceral or emotional or intellectual impact. And I know you know I know that’s fine, that good work doesn’t have to make you happy to have seen it. I won’t bore you with another artist’s rant about looking at an art work as an object of potential knowledge instead of as only an object of pleasure (in part because I believe it’s more complicated than that). But when the dog removes its blinders and looks out at you while the humans have covered their eyes, I’m pretty sure that’s a door that’s wide enough for anyone to walk through. Straight into a new mess.
by Charles Campbell
Pardon Me, Do You Speak Dog? is presented by Skewed Visions. Charles Campbell is intimately connected with Skewed Visions as co-founder and co-artistic/managing director. But you could fit his foreknowledge of this piece on the head of a pin full of angels, because the artist should be in charge.
2522 Central Ave NE
December 10, 2014