Friday, January 30, 2009

Team Pony

Team Pony at Hubertus Lounge, Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixHubertus Lounge
30 January

Smoky rooms, dogs sleeping on threadbare chairs, a disco ball. Such was the setting for a late night gig by the post-modern Wohnzimmer (trademark pending) performance trio Team Pony.

Two singers and a pianist make up the threesome, who de-construct misogynist pop culture via an array of 20th (plus a smidgen of 21st) century songs mostly on the theme of love, from Billie (no, not Piper--Holiday) to Britney. That's a lot of de-constructing in 30 minutes but the topic's ripe for it, and in their own inimitable way, they do a remarkable job, given the limits of time and space. Giving one's all to a torchy ballad is difficult when the bar staff are dropping glasses and chatting away in the background.

The two women, who also perform as Julia + Julia, take turns at the mic, delivering straight-faced lyrics of betrayal, desertion and obsession while subtly undermining the song's intent. "Toxic" was brilliantly staged, with the two twirling like marionette ballerinas before shuddering to a halt.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

re.act: it's a wrap

Cafe at ADK, Berlin; photo by Val Phoenix

So, all done then. The final speakers discussed the importance of archiving and different underlying philosophies. Chris Regn spoke about Hamburg's Bildwechsel, running for 30 years now and documenting work by women + (this includes queer work). She also conducts interviews for the Performance Saga series of DVDs on women performance artists. I missed speaking to them, through an odd series of crossed wires, but they are presenting live events in Switzerland in February.

Martha Wilson, featured in the exhibit and archive, spoke about the strange journey of her New York performance art archive Franklin Furnace, starting as a space for live art in 1976, pilloried by the culture wars of the 1980s and now in its online incarnation, digitising work produced at the venue. She commented acidly that it's easier to get grants to preserve work by Karen Finley than to present work by said artist, such is the shifting political climate.

I had an interesting chat with Wilson, curious about a comment she made in one of her pieces on show. In the early '70s she had explored various identities, including male and female archetypes, which she photographed and then wrote comments on the frames. Trying on Lesbian for size, she wrote: "her sexuality is so misplaced that the rest of society ignores her". To which my response was: Eh? Not very sisterly, Martha.

So, I asked her about it, and, blushing, she acknowledged that it was a negative comment and then explained that it was her view in 1974, that the photos hadn't been shown in 30 years and she knew she would take some flak for it. But, she is obviously made of stern stuff since she left it intact, despite identifying as a part-time lesbian. (Were the full-time vacancies not available? Damn this recession!)

Anyway, conference goers seemed buoyed by the proceedings and by the resurgence of interest in feminism and feminist art.

re.act conference: it's a stitch-up

Paraphernalia used to clean wounds of performance artist Boryana Rossa; photo by Val PhoenixSo far, my focus has been art and not performance, so last night I put that right by attending live events scheduled as part of the re.act conference. These might be summed up as blood, clothes and laughter. Quite the gamut of emotions and responses and, indeed, intent, though I can't be sure of the latter.

Boryana Rossa's performance The Vitruvian Body was conducted with the Bulgarian artist wired up with a headset a la Janet Jackson ca. 1990 or, indeed, presenters on the Home Shopping Network. But rather than try and sell an unseen audience a range of rather shoddy consumer goods, she had more pressing concerns. The contrast between her rather matter-of-fact commentary on her ideas about the idealised body and what was actually happening was disquieting. As she spoke, she undressed, positioned herself inside a circular apparatus and then had her arms and legs sewn into it by her colleague Oleg Mavromatti. Much has been spoken about body art and feminist theory in relation to it. But this was the first time I had actually seen a live performance of it.

Rossa created a very striking relationship to the audience. Before she started the performance, she invited people to come as close as they wanted and to take pictures in any form they wanted: mobile phones, cameras, video cameras, etc. She wanted the audience to document and participate in the performance. For that reason, I think the experience was less uncomfortable for me than I might have anticipated. I went up close, I had a good look at the stitching. I saw the blood run down her leg.

I wasn't shocked, but I felt a lot of empathy, as did many other audience members. Once the artist escalated the performance to have her lips sewn shut, as a protest against censorship in the Czech Republic, many flinched, as she was clearly in pain and a lot of blood ran down her chin. But, she had also invited an audience member to cut her free, and that allowed a certain amount of relief: we observed and were complicit in her pain but we could also participate in her liberation. Body art and manipulation are not really my areas of interest but it was certainly an intense experience. I also found it rather endearing that several older artists approached Rossa afterward and hugged her, as if offering comfort as well as congratulations for her performance/ordeal.

The other two performances also involved a certain amount of discomfort, both for the artist and audience, though not in the visceral manner of Rossa's. Tanja Ostojic re-enacted Juniper Perlis's Clothes I, which involved the artist attempting to put on all the clothes she owned during the duration of the performance. This was a curious exercise: firstly, Ostojic was re-enacting quite a modern performance, originally done in 2003; secondly, Perlis apparently spent several hours getting to the venue with her clothing (she said she had to carry her own baggage) and then putting them on, while Ostojic's performance was less than an hour; thirdly, Ostojic came nowhere near to putting on all of the clothing she had arrayed on the stage, as she must have known.

As she put on an item of clothing, Ostojic displayed quite a large grin, as if she were a small child doing something a bit naughty and was testing out the limits of parental patience. Then she would step up to the mic in her bulky clothing and read a bit of text about her own mother's experience in Yugoslavia or about Perlis's experience of homelessness. Again, one sensed quite a bit of audience empathy for the artist, with calls of "Tanja! Don't rip it!", as she attempted to pull on a delicate item. And once she had everything on she could manage, several women, including Rossa, got on-stage to help her extricate herself.

By contrast, the final performance, Antonia Baehr's Lachen, was conducted in a more formal setting, a proscenium theatre, with Baehr reading from a score, taking bows in between scenes, and the audience very much kept at a distance. However, given that the content of Baehr's performance was laughter, this allowed the audience to share in it, in a strange way. Baehr had invited friends and family to compose laughter pieces for her to perform. This was a testing experience and I felt more uncomfortable at certain places than I did in Rossa's performance. Who wants to spend an hour watching someone laugh? But, there was variation and some clever staging, with Baehr dropping balls and laughing in time to them. And the final piece had her performing a duet with herself on a TV monitor, with the TV self giving the live self orders. At the end the artist switched off the TV.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

re.act conference: yes, we have no bananas

Bojana Pejic presents to the re.act.feminism conference; photo by Val PhoenixWell, after an enlightening afternoon and evening spent at the re.act conference, I emerged with some delightful quotes and thoughts. The talks I attended on "Performative Tendencies in the DDR" and "When Personal Was Not Political" were intended to fill in some gaps in the historical record, documenting performance culture in the DDR and Yugoslavia, states that no longer exist and whose conditions produced a particular kind of performance that was done in secret.

Nonetheless, as Bojana Pejic pointed out in her witty presentation, commenting on the "comradesses" of her country, much subversive art was produced, even if it didn't use the name feminist, which was considered a western concept. Artists such as Sanja Ivekovic found a way to stage performances by utilising the state surveillance and incorporating it into her scenarios, making the agents of state control complicit in her actions.

Pejic also pointed out that Yugoslavia had a bit of a consumerist culture, i.e., they had bananas. Bananas seem to be some kind of marker for the eastern bloc: to have them was to have some connection with the west, a tiny bit of capitalism in the form of the forbidden fruit. An audience member questioned whether this focus on bananas weren't some kind of phallic-patriarchal-capitalist symbolism, which added a bit of levity to the proceedings.

The DDR, Angelika Richter informed us, did not have bananas, only green oranges from Cuba. State controls on expression were much tighter, producing a hermetically sealed border state. Consequently, there was no public audience for the art produced by women such as Cornelia Schleime and Gabriele Stötzer. Instead, they made photographs and Super 8 films to be shared amongst themselves.

I was able to speak with Gabriele Stötzer, who explained a bit about the artistic Frauengruppe that she founded in Erfurt in the early 80s. More on that another time, but she confirmed that the group was not aware of any of the western feminist performance art going on at the time, and she followed her own drives in making photos focussing on the female body, wanting to externalise the pain she felt after being imprisoned for being a "class enemy". Her story shows the incredible threat these women posed to the state.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Night-time view of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixAkademie der Künste, Berlin
Through 8 February

This exhibit looks at the development of feminist performance art in the 1960s and 1970s, while an accompanying conference running 22-25 January looks at the resonance of the form today, with a series of talks and performances.

Visiting the exhibit last week, I spent about three hours there and could have stayed longer. The displays are not that elaborate but there is an impressive video archive of performances and some interviews, which bears careful perusal.

The film Not for Sale, by Laura Cottingham, gives a bit of context to the exhibit, offering a history of how performance art developed from the feminist movement and other social conditions in the United States. With protest in the air, it was only a matter of time before women put themselves at the centre of expression, using their bodies as inspiration and sometimes sites for creativity.

Of the many works in the archive, I was quite taken with DISBAND, a New York group of misfits, including Martha Wilson, Barbara Kruger and Diane Torr, who performed as a mock band in the early '80s, skewering machismo and US foreign policy with their songs and raps. Interesting that the members went off in such interesting directions afterward. Wilson will be speaking at the conference on moving from performer to archivist, as she now runs Franklin Furnace.

If the archival material is heavily informed by US performance art, the exhibit has a much more Germanic flavour. I was quite intrigued by the work of Gabriele Stötzer, who, moving from the punk scene to the art scene, formed the women's art group Exterra XX in the DDR in the '80s and fell foul of the authorities for her support of Wolf Biermann. Her video work and photos present alternative visions of female groups. Ewa Partum, originally from Poland but working in Germany, used her nude body as a way to protest against restrictions in society.

One theme of the exhibit is connecting past and present artists, and Stefanie Seibold's installation, A Reader-Wallpaper, offers a kind of summary in performance practice past and present. Her series of booklets, A Reader, presents an assemblage of influences from feminist theory to pop culture references, while monitors play performances by such artists as VALIE EXPORT from the De Appel archive.

Archiving and re-staging performances are two themes of the conference and Cornelia Sollfrank is currently staging several artists' works, including one of EXPORT's in which she takes a man on a dog lead for a walk through a shopping mall. This features in the video archive, while photos of re-stagings are showing in the exhibit. Her newest work re-imagines Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto, which rather boggles the mind.

What relevance does the work of the '60s and '70s have today? Why re-stage? Where does feminist performance art go from here? All questions to be discussed at the conference.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kuchen mit Rock

Merchandise table at Kuchen mit Rock; photo by Val PhoenixK9
18 January 2009

Kaffee, Kuchen, Kunst. Always a good combination, in my book. So, back to sunny Friedrichshain for an afternoon in support of the Ruby Tuesday Rock Camp, planned for the summer. This is a local version of the Girls Rock camps that have sprung up in North America, which offer girls the opportunity to pick up instruments and so increase their self esteem--stealth feminism, if you will.

And any doubts about the need for such an undertaking would be quickly dispelled by viewing the Girls Rock film which was screened (in part, more on that later). Filmed at a camp in Portland, Oregon, I believe, it focussed on a handful of participants taking part, as well as counsellors and tutors, who included rock luminaries Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto and sts.

The girls came loaded with baggage of problems at home, identity issues, body issues, and the general burden of living in a misogynist society. Quite a lot to get through in five days, but they threw themselves into forming bands, writing songs and getting to grips with playing instruments, while also exercising their communication and bonding muscles.

Sadly, we didn't get to see how it all turned out because the DVD froze 75 minutes in, but what was seen was gripping.

Also, on the bill was music from last-minute booking The Dropout Patrol, a duo with acoustic guitar and only one mic. This was an interesting exercise in working in less than ideal conditions but the songs came through strongly, an odd combination of amusing lyrics and earnest, understated delivery. Charming.

Equally beguiling was the performance art duo Julia + Julia, whose performance I only caught part-way through. Two women in red dresses reclining in their living room staging scenarios involving hysteria, science and smoking cigars as a way of debunking gender cliches. Hard to describe but I found it very funny.

sleazy, inc. operated

Red-socked bassist of Berlin band sleazy, inc. operated; photo by Val PhoenixK9
17 January 2009

It's hard maintaining cool while wearing red socks, but the bassist from the artfully named sleazy, inc. operated managed it. The trio from Leipzig headlined Winterfest, LaDIYfest Berlin's cold-weather offshoot, with a sparky set that woke me from my torpor.

With a singer/guitarist whose voice recalls Lesley Woods, a lanky bassist who loves to pose, and a powerhouse of a drummer, they are somewhere between post-punk and power pop, filling the small stage with a riot of galloping rhythms, stop-start songs and a clear enjoyment in doing what they do.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Young Marble Giants

Exterior of HAU2 in Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixHAU2
16 January 2009

What this gig had to do with "music, money and society after digitalisation" I don't know but the opening night of the Dancing With Myself conference featured a gig by post-punk minimalist legends Young Marble Giants, a welcome return after their decades-long exile. "Was anyone at our last gig here?" Stuart Moxham asked. That would be the lone Berlin gig in 1980. "No? You're all too young."

And it was a surprisingly fresh-faced crowd for such a grizzled band, if one can call the unassuming YMG that. Certainly, bassist Philip Moxham is becoming a dead ringer for Samuel Beckett, with his spiky greying locks and chiselled features. Alison Statton, though, still looks like the shy teenager she was when the band started in 1978. They make an amusing contrast on-stage, the rangy bassist stalking the stage while the diminutive singer stands at the mic, poised for action that never comes and fixing the audience with an unwavering gaze. When not singing, she looked possessed.

By contrast Stuart Moxham, the primary songwriter and historically frustrated vocalist, kept a low-key presence, concentrating on his guitar-playing with a series of agonised faces, and on the lovely, spiralling organ that marked the band out from their metal and punk peers back in Cardiff. At the back, younger brother Andrew performed the difficult function of human drum machine, playing sampled sounds from the original recordings.

The audience was rapt, adoring, demanding more from a tiny songbook that only numbered one album and one single, plus the odds and sods that turned up on last year's compilation. In fact, so pressed were the band for material that they performed a second encore of songs they'd messed up earlier. And these were the gems of the evening: a transcendant "Choci Loni" complete with the guitar lines missed out earlier and a "Wurlitzer Jukebox!" that turned into a singalong.

In truth, the gig was a bit ropey, with Alison forgetting the words to "Eating Noddemix" (which she co-wrote), and Philip and Stuart flubbing a few notes. But YMG were never about technical perfection and stagecraft. The songs, lovely, delicate, full of open spaces, are still wondrous. And it was wonderful to experience it live.

I can't imagine when they started in Cardiff that YMG ever thought they would be playing at a festival named after a Billy Idol song. In fact, the HAU space is hosting two conferences in the immediate future: Dancing With Myself explores the music industry in the current climate of uncertain economics and relentless digitalisation, while the upcoming The Politics of Ecstasy looks at altered states of presence.

I keep conflating the two into one imaginary one called The Politics of Dancing. I guess these shebangs will just keep going until the supply of '80s song titles is exhausted.

Dancing With Myself runs thru 18 January at HAU.
The Politics of Ecstasy runs 23-31 January at HAU.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

dir Ari Folman

The experience of seeing this film certainly affected my impression of it. This was my first foray into German subtitles, the film's original language being Hebrew. I am bound to have missed a few things, but was surprisingly successful with the Untertiteln.

It is always a difficult proposition to make something beautiful about something ugly and Ari Folman's film is quite astonishing in its use of magical images contrasted with the grim subject matter: his own complicity in the massacre of civilians during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982.

A talking-head documentary on the subject would have a limited audience but Folman has made a number of bold decisions in making his film: the animation allows for all kinds of surreal and dreamy experiences to come to life, while the use of real ex-soldiers recounting their experiences gives the power of truth to the film.

Folman's search to recapture his memory becomes an extended inquiry into Israel's conduct in the country and his own participation, which he had "forgotten" since that time. Its recent Golden Globe win should give the film extra exposure, which is well merited as its anti-war message is timely.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Berlin: Fake or Feint + Transgression

Promotional literature for Transgression exhibit at Neurotitan Gallery in Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixNew year, new country. Yes, it's all about change here at Kunstblog HQ, which is for the next month or so, snowy, icy, frosty Berlin. No need to explain why one would decamp to the capital of cool, except to say things were a bit glum in Blighty and one needs a change sometimes, even if it does mean arriving in -17 temperatures.

So, it was I found myself tonight at the opening of Fake or Feint, the first in a series of scenarios on the subject of deceptive appearances. Well, here's a topic ripe for exploration and thoroughly modern and all that. But, what is one's response when faced with a brown scrim in a glass-fronted room in the middle of the Berlin Carre shopping centre? The great and good were out in force, sipping from their drinks and making animated conversation, enclosed by the scrim, while another group dotted the edges, where hung three photos by Claude Cahun.

Quite the interesting character, Cahun, who only came to my attention recently but led an eventful life in the Channel Islands and continually photographed herself in various guises, pre-dating Cindy Sherman by decades. The relation of Cahun to the brown scrim (the work of Eran Schaerf)? Both are examples of the tactics of marking, with Schaerf's diaphanous curtain marking a space between public and private.

And speaking of crossing boundaries, I just about caught the closing of Transgression at Neurotitan. A collection of work by seven women working in multi-disciplinary fields, this exhibit included strange knitted portraits by Francoise Cactus, other-worldly drawings by Danielle de Picciotto and distorted photos by Lydia Lunch, all better known from the world of music than from visual art.

It also included work by Gudrun Gut and Myra Davies, who have been collaborating for almost 20 years in music and spoken word, and whom I spoke to just before Davies returned to her homeland of Canada. More on this conversation another time, but it sounds like the opening of the exhbit was the place to be, with a girl group backing of Gut, Beate Bartel, and de Picciotto for Davies' performance of tracks from Cities and Girls. Now there's a band in the making.

The two also shared some amusing anecdotes about living in freezing conditions in the Berlin of the past, making me very glad I invested in a hat with Elmer Fudd flaps. Not at all cool, but very, very warm.

Fake or Feint is at Berlin Carre through 7 February.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]