Coco Fusco, Bare Life Study #1 (2005), performance
The body as medium: performances on display
Fleeting and unpredictable. Since its early days of experimentation in the 1960s, performance has been an art genre that entails direct conflict and risk. Committed to the myriad existing contemporary artistic expressions since its inception in 1983, Videobrasil has kept track of the development and the alliance of performance and video, in a relationship that opened up new vistas for both languages.
The very nature of performance has led it to mingle with mediums that are able to perpetuate presential, temporary action. The video recording is one of the main allies in preserving the history of performance, and often the only source of access to events that will not repeat themselves. Although they can at best provide a rough idea of what the original presentations were like, recorded performances become valued documents in that they allow us to perpetuate, disseminate and gain access to the artworks. Apart from the actual recording, video offers artists an added range of possibilities by endowing their artworks with a new dimension of time and space.
Until November 30, at São Paulo’s Sesc Pompeia, spectators can watch a few important performance recordings from the Videobrasil Collection, selected by the curator Agustín Pérez Rubio for the Unerasable Memories – A Historic Look at the Videobrasil Collection exhibition. Among the 18 artworks on display at Sesc Pompeia’s Galpão that were part of the history of the Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil there are four recorded performances: Bare Life Study #1 (2005), by the American artist of Cuban descent Coco Fusco; My Possession (2005), by the German-Kenyan duo Mwangi Hutter; The Loudest Muttering Is Over: Documents From The Atlas Group Archive (2003), by Lebanon’s Walid Raad; and O Samba do Crioulo Doido (2013), by Brazil’s Luiz de Abreu, the first performance ever to win the Grand Prize at the Festival. These pieces were selected by Agustín Pérez Rubio on grounds of the fact that they set out to build historical awareness. As the curator places it, they “put their finger on such issues, (...) they point at what seems to have been forgotten or faded, either to join in the response, the fight, or repulse for it, or to give us back the memory of it..”
New videos are up on VB Channel containing statements from Coco Fusco, Luiz de Abreu, Ingrid Mwangi and Ayrson Heráclito, featured in the exhibit with his Barrueco (2004) video, made in partnership with Danillo Barata. Heráclito will enact his Batendo Amalá (2011) performance at the exhibit’s final Public Programs meeting, themed “Renegade Histories: Memories of Indigenous and African Descent,” on November 29, beginning at 4pm.
Coco Fusco reacted to the videos and photographs denouncing the abuse and torture inflicted by the United States military upon its political prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo by creating Bare Life Study #1, a performance presented during the Festival’s 15th edition (2005), specially dedicated to performance. Fusco wore a military uniform and yelled out orders on a megaphone for forty performers – clad in orange uniforms, the color of Guantanamo prisoners’ clothing – to clean the streets in front of the US consulate, in São Paulo, using toothbrushes. Fusco’s performance features well-defined roles, laid out by the uniforms and the power relationships they imply. In a statement originally given for the Coco Fusco: I Like Girls in Uniforms film, available on VB Channel, the artist discussed a few notions on which her action was based: “I am looking at socially constructed roles. An uniform identifies you with the role,” the artist said. On that occasion, the Consulate called the Military Police and, albeit peacefully, terminated the performance early. "A silent street action with a lot of people is a kind of very strong visual statement," Fusco remarked.
Artist duo Mwangi Hutter’s My Possession was featured in that same Festival. The piece’s ambiguous title carries the oscillations in the actions of Kenya’s Ingrid Mwangi, who first presents herself in full command and then loses control of her body. Is her mestizo body truly hers? Which external factors – such as history, politics, geography and culture – regulate this body? In a debate during that edition, Mwangi said her understanding of performance involves mirroring and otherness: “The nature of performance has a mirroring aspect that has to do with a kind of a fundamental human ability to identify with the Other. From the viewer’s perspective, it’s like looking in a mirror: he is the active part, and the performer is the mirror image.” The artist made positive remarks about the experience of having her image recorded and broadcast live outside the venue: although the atmosphere created by the audience’s presence gets lost, new values are added, such as the abstractions of framing, focus, close-ups, and different vantage points provided by the cameras. A video featuring excerpts from her speech and the recorded performance is available on VB Channel.
In 2013, during the 18th Festival, Luiz de Abreu presented his autobiographical piece O Samba do Crioulo Doido, the first performance ever to win the grand prize at the Festival since its opening to all artistic languages. Black people were never fully incorporated into Brazilian culture, since racism, veiled or explicit, manifests itself on a daily basis. As Abreu put it in a statement available in full on PLATFORM:VB: “There was not a single situation that led me to want to create this piece, it is part of a process that took several years. Being stopped at the door to the bank, being followed by security guards at drugstores. I felt uncomfortable in the world. I wanted to understand: what is it about this body that bothers so?”. Borrowing its title from a song by Stanislaw Ponte Preta (which ended up becoming synonymous with things that make no sense), O Samba do Crioulo Doido seems to have comical overtones, but employs racial stereotypes in an attempt to destroy them. “It is a very serious issue, and perhaps its seriousness makes it funny. But I’m not worried about being stern either,” Abreu told VB Channel.
The Batendo Amalá performance, created by Ayrson Heráclito in 2011, will be enacted for the first time in São Paulo on the next-to-last day of the exhibit, at Sesc Pompeia’s Galpão, in the Knowledge Zone space. The action has the artist preparing the “ajebó,” a votive ritual food for Xangô, the divinity of Justice in the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé, as he evokes his personal requests. “I hope the ritual will arouse a feeling that can provide some sort of cure to these ills that befell us, especially the African diaspora resulting from slavery. It’s like a request for Xangô to cast his sense of justice upon the facts that took place,” Heráclito declares. “It makes me really happy to see an exhibition like this, which is essentially saying ‘don’t forget your pain, turn this hassle into something productive,” says the artist in a statement available on VB Channel.
Ayrson Heráclito has donated a recording of a special studio staging of Batendo Amalá (2013) to the Videobrasil Collection. “It’s not about having a video show what the performance was; it’s about re-signifying my action. In this video installation, I intended to bring a bit of the universe and the feeling of being present,” the artist ponders.
Learn more about the enactment of Heráclito’s performance at the final Public Programs meeting of the Unerasable Memories – A Historic Look at the Videobrasil Collection exhibit.