Emma Barber on “The Map Is The Territory”

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The Map Is The Territory is the first public performance to be held in Fire Drill’s (Emily Gastineau & Billy Mullaney) new space, Fresh Oysters Performance Research. Consisting of six different performances created by mostly Twin Cities-based artists and one from Seattle, the evening was full of innovative works – made independently but linked together by their ability to present the contradictions, discrepancies, and vulnerabilities that we live with in the world everyday.

Tim Smith-Stewart (Seattle) presented Awaiting Oblivion or How to be ok when everything is not ok – Temporary Solutions for surviving the dystopian future we find ourselves in at present. After receiving packages in the mail from an anonymous sender (AO) and being tasked to present AO’s messages via performance, Tim accepted and has since presented various Temporary Solutions multiple times. Tim casually explains the context for this performance to us, explains briefly what’s going to happen, and asks for our cooperation when they move to another part of the space. Normally, I am hesitant to read program notes and listen to artist ‘disclaimers’ pre-performance, but the transparency and information offered before Awaiting Oblivion allowed me to focus on the content of the piece, which was dense with text and visuals. Tim and his collaborator Mad took turns donning headphones and speaking text from AO’s letters while executing simple gestures and flipping through pictures on the projector.

Fascinated by the language and the sentiment of steadfast inquiry, I became captivated by AO and their relationship to this performance. Sending long letters, doing extensive research into Tim’s life & associations with the arts, military, and prison industrial complexes, and creating crafty boxes glued with Freud’s essays are things that anyone without immense free time and creativity would probably never do. Yet AO has continuously been an invisible mentor and instigator that has been gaining recognition via Tim’s performances for three years without directly receiving anything in return, besides the knowledge that Tim is still performing AO’s messages. It didn’t occur to me until after the performance that AO might be Tim’s construction, a way for Tim to analyze his life, artistic career, and placement in the world while distributing his authorship. If so, I don’t believe it’s a ploy to evade responsibility – in fact I think it’s the opposite, a way to undermine the need for praise and recognition. AO is able to critique and unpack Tim’s actions as an artist in a way that relates them to larger things in the world – the various ‘industrial complexes,’ economics, and the state of humanity. Regardless of who AO really is, the dedication to trying to figure out “how to be ok when everything is not ok” is remarkable. The performance itself offers us an invitation that creativity, imagination, and reflection are valid – perhaps the most valid – ways to remember why we live. And we can choose to “live, or die, but don’t poison everything.” (Anne Sexton.)

I find that Lisa Channer’s newest exploratory creation, RANT, has many corresponding themes with Tim Smith-Stewart’s piece. Both performances source content from an individual who is not present for the performance – in RANT it is Lisa’s father who lives in Manhattan. Both use poetic language and sensorial descriptions of how to navigate space. Both are trying to uncover some answers or produce more questions about what responsibilities we have as people in the world and what we choose to do with them. Inspired by a recent visit to see her father, Lisa created this new material as a way to try to understand her father and her relationship to him. To make things all more relevant, Daniel Rovinsky (Lisa’s youngest son) is a performer in the piece. RANT highlights the differences in preferences, habits, and beliefs between three generations of a family, asking what is important to know and to pass on and what does it mean when your child disagrees?

Ali O’Reilly’s excerpts of Men Tell You About A Time They Rescued An Injured Bird From A Storm Drain are sprinkled throughout the evening, acting as transitions between the other performances. The title tells all – and we listen to three different accounts. The stories themselves are fairly mundane, but the language offers more insight as to why Ali might be compelled to present them. We hear men give a first person account of their emotional response to coming across small tragedies and their impulse to save a little creature. These pieces keep the conversation going on men’s learned and actual ways of dealing with tender emotions and taking credit (or not) for saving the day.

The image of a puddle of water in a patch of gravel with fall leaves strewn across the ground appears on the wall. We see the head of a man laying on a board get slowly lowered into the water until he is halfway submerged, and then is raised up out of the frame, a trickle of water emptying from his hair and clothes falls back into the puddle. The board is lowered again – this time with a new person. We hear the mechanical sound of the equipment as it raises and lowers the board, otherwise silence. The sequence repeats for five individuals. Some have smiles on their face as they anticipate the feeling of the water coming up to their ears, and there is a visceral and contagious reaction in the audience as we imagine the experience ourselves. In NATURALIZED, Moheb Soliman contemplates the political meaning of “naturalization” in regards to citizenship and brings the geography and physical landscape back into the discussion. In this noncomplex video, complexity arises. I think of baptisms and religion, dirt and our fear of dirty, political borders and their increasingly rare correspondence with geographical borders, the rituals of belonging, what makes a common experience special to an individual?

The tone of the evening shifts significantly with Magnolia Yang Sao Yia’s piece Shhh…silence. Magnolia and six other Hmong women face away from the audience and begin whispering inaudible phrases. Gradually, their collective volume increases and we hear harsh criticisms and insults until each performer is yelling and shouting. They are silenced by a shhh… One performer speaks of the shaming and abuse that happens to Hmong women – from both inside their community and outside. One performer carries another on her back. The others take turns placing another’s hands over their mouths, ears, eyes, and body parts and whisper variations of “you deserve this, you don’t deserve this, I deserve this.” This internal disrespect void of emotion shows us how “normal” this is – but in an abnormal context that makes the pain evident. Another swell of text occurs and ends in ear-splitting screaming. It is clear that these women have had enough of this misogynistic agenda to silence and shame them. This performance shows us the power of being together – solidarity is the first step.

It was difficult after watching Shhh…silence to engage in extroversion – I felt a sort of sadness that I wanted to be in longer. But Paige Collette thoroughly switched the tone back with her performance as Patricia Lake in FOOD BLOG. Donning a blonde wig and high heels, “Patricia” is an emotionally wounded women on her next ‘career’ as a food blogger. Eating Arby’s, drinking Jagermeister out of a measuring cup, and sometimes dunking the Arby’s in the Jagermeister before eating it, Patricia is a complete mess. The extremes that Paige nonchalantly takes in her performances make us squirm – either with disgust or excitement, like we really can’t believe she just did that. Calling out a dozen pop culture references, Paige’s humor in FOOD BLOG is another insight into the normalized activities of our world that when analyzed are downright bizarre. Giving credit to air conditioning as a reason why domestic abuse has gone down, wondering what it feels like when worm’s grow new faces, and analyzing the lyrics of the new hit song “Can’t Feel My Face” are a few of the hilarious tangents Patricia goes on. The evening ends with a striptease full of flying heels, split rolls on the floor, and ketchup everywhere.

What I loved about this entire evening is that almost all of the material presented was developed for that specific piece. Each maker utilized their own creative process to present their content in ways that would benefit that content. In other words, there was little to no visible reliance on a set vocabulary or codified technique. Because of that, I felt it was easier to access each piece in it’s own way and they didn’t ask me to bring my knowledge of performance history to the table – they asked me to bring my knowledge of contemporary world issues and to carry it forward. Performance is the map and performance is the territory. It is the way we draw our own understanding of life and share it with others. Performance is what it is and it is also more. Much, much more.

The Map Is The Territory

Curated by Fire Drill

Performances by Tim Smith-Stewart, Ali O’Reilly, Lisa Channer, Moheb Soliman, Magnolia Yang Sao Yia, Paige Collette

Fresh Oysters Performance Research, Minneapolis, MN

August 28 & 29, 2015

Emma Barber

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