On Performative Sites: Art, Technology and the Body
Ricardo Miranda Zu–iga, 29 October 2000

Late, last night, I returned from one of the most stimulating and inspiring experiences I've had in at least the past year and a half. Over the last four days I attended the Performative Sites Symposium 2000: Intersecting Art, Technology and the Body.1 This is a conference held at State College, Pennsylvania -- first established four years ago -- this past week is the second time the conference has been held. It is an opportunity for artists, scholars, and institutions involved with performance art to gather, discuss and pay witness to currents of cultural production within the genre. At a time when I'm very nearly convinced that human experience has been lulled to mouse and keyboard interaction to receive a constant stream of mediated visual inertia, yes inertia progressively downloading from a server through a series of routers to your browser to assure that you are gleefully informed of the latest claims and accusations by presidential candidates or the ups and downs of the market or of the latest death toll at the West Bank and Gaza, my disembodied self was suddenly jolted back into the corporeal with the realization that there is interesting shit to be done and it isn't on the world wide web nor is it information based or even necessarily digital.

The four-day conference was composed of theory, history and personal practice lectures/presentations during the day and performances at night. Usually, when I attend arts conferences, I carefully choose the lectures that I will sit through and leave myself ample time to wander about, mingle, and see the sights. Otherwise I will find myself enduring endless lectures from art historians standing at a podium reading word for word from some dull, scholarly paper. Well, besides the fact that I was stranded in State College, where there is little other than the usual array of college shops for the short-term visitor, I was happy, even eager to attend the long list of lectures as I discovered that the overwhelming majority actually presented interesting material. Material that needed to be chewed upon, digested, and excreted as glowing cultural by products of the status quo -- carefully produced work with real applications and even more real repercussions. I'm talking about work that did not merely entertain, decorate or inform, but work that stirred reflection and inspiration. The injection of desire to create for the sake of creating in a time when it is easiest to make money for the sake of making money is a sensation that must be cherished. The daily lectures were accentuated by the evening performances, and of particular note were the biggies, variations of theater, the sublime and spectacle: Goat Island,2 Osseus Labyrint - Hannah Sim and Mark, Steger3 and the Mexterminator performance - the latest from our favorite cybervatos, Guillermo Gomez Pena,4 Roberto Sifuentes and Juan Iberra.

The performances began each evening at 8pm, and all, with the exception of Mexterminator, were held in the same conference room as the lectures, in the university's Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. Mexterminator, was a live dioramic performance in the gallery of the visual arts building.

Wednesday evening Goat Island, an experimental performance troupe from Chicago, created a stage of endurance, oddity, humor and reflection. They enacted Beckettian non-narrative with elements of Robert Wilson's staged endurance. A beloved frog, a dancing bear, a World War II soldier's dance, a death to pestilence were just a few elements that enacted an odd universe paralleling our own world and daily existence. Paying witness to the work of Goat Island assured me that experimental theater remains strong and kicking, and we needn't revisit "Waiting for Godot" or "Endgame" for a fill of theatrical Dadaism. Perhaps more improtantly, this is experimental theater with a strong, relevant social consciousness.

Perhaps, the most innovative Modern Dance that I've witnessed since first seeing the Sankaijuku Butoh group, nearly ten years ago, is last Friday's performance by the Los Angeles based male/female duo called Osseus Labyrint (the medical term for the inner ear, which regulates balance). Sitting in the Penn Stater conference room, engulfed by haunting electronic music, watching two beautiful, thin, human-like shapes do the caterpillar across stage, I was suddenly thrown back to San Francisco in the late eighties/early nineties when a plethora of performance artists began enacting their own versions of Butoh. Of course, the vast majority of those people quit as quickly as they took it up, but before me were a duo, that stuck it out, trained and established their own art form. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Osseus Labyrint and they are brilliant as their finely sculpted, naked bodies' transform into odd new mutations.

The conference was capped off by Guillermo Gomez Pena, Roberto Sifuentes and Juan Iberra's Mexterminator performance. In a hot, crowded gallery space, four staged dioramas were brought to life by the three exhibited creatures: the 40 ounce guzzling, cybervato; the boom-box thrashing, green legal alien and well, Guillermo, whom I'm not sure how to categorize, perhaps a post-apocalyptic Norteno in gringolandia underwear. It was hyper borderland spectacle that may only be found in the basement of a 1970's Tijuana whore house. As I made my way through the gallery crowd, I wondered to myself: how much longer are these guys going to keep enacting these provocative dioramas? But as I watched the interaction between audience and performer, an audience largely Caucasian, I witnessed the audience members' inability to face the exhibited creature's threatening gaze. I then realized, these guys could continue doing this very performance an entire life-time and there would still be an audience in need. (Fanon, you're as legite today as fifty years ago.)

Rather than attempt to represent (more likely misrepresent) the contributors to the symposium, I would like to use this column as a portal to links that discuss the work of at least a handful of the participants of Performative Sites. Please refer to the links below to learn more about some of the most interesting cultural production executed by contemporary artists.

The next two articles of this column will be based on separate conversations with two of the participants from the conference, Mexican performance artist Juan Iberra and Australian robotic artist Simon Penny.

F o o t n o t e s

1." The symposium program will include nationally and internationally renowned and emerging performance artists, theorists, educators, and scholars such... participants have been invited to address technological culture and its impact on the human body and identity. The symposium is a comprehensive four-part program with no concurrent sessions that includes a performance series, lectures, panel discussions, and workshops".
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2. "Lin Hixson, director of the performance group Goat Island in the summer of 1984, met Matthew Goulish, who received his undergraduate degree in theater arts from Kalamazoo College, and whose Chicago theater company, Scan, included the brothers Timothy and Greg McCain. In 1986, Hixson came to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to do a residency and worked with both students and Scan. Within a year, the group Goat Island had been formed.
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3. Los Angeles based performance duo, amongst numerous performances over the last ten years, the group performed earlier this year hanging upside down from the First Street Bridge in downtown L.A. in front of a crowd of 300.
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4."We cannot deny the processes of interdependence that define our contemporary experience as North Americans. For better or for worse, our destinies and aspirations are in one another's hands. The real tasks ahead of us are to embrace more fluid and tolerant notions of personal and national identity, and to develop models of peaceful coexistence across nationality, race, gender, and religion. Culture and education are at the core of the solution [to prepare us for] the complexities of living in [the] multiracial borderless society of the next century." Guillermo Gomez-Pena, New World Border
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