Myths are plural stories, made up of various texts and versions. In my performance I combine archetypal stories with private and personal histories. Myth gives me a structure to actively dismantle, reassemble, ignore, or act out. I work frequently with Classics though I don’t limit myself to antiquity as I constantly mine the world around me.
With the appropriation and consumption of texts I follow the writer Kathy Acker, who followed William S. Boroughs before her. Acker took texts such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a point from which to write her own Don Quixote. She does not simply retell the story, but renders the original’s protagonist into an explosion of unstable personas and anti-narratives to complicate gender binaries and scathingly critique cultural violence imposed on women’s bodies. We both take and burn through existing texts, inserting the body as an agent of disruption, simultaneously a symbol of and against oppression.
From mythologies I borrow old archetypes; the maiden, mother, crone. From culture I borrow contemporary archetypes- the teenager, the drag queen, the disavowed. I embody and cycle through personas. Multiple possible narratives move us through different times at different rates. The passage of time comes under control of the artist in performance, which sometimes means purposefully letting go of that control. In The Spiral Dance, Starhawk wrote, “[W]e define a new space and a new time whenever we cast a circle to begin a ritual. The circle exists on the boundaries of ordinary space and time; it is "between the worlds" of the seen and unseen ... a space in which alternate realities meet, in which the past and future are open to us. Time is no longer measured out; it becomes elastic, fluid, a swirling pool in which we dive and swim.”[i] Performance Art, like ritual, opens time and space by marking it and rendering it visible.
A narrative is a way to move through time. Linear stories move viewers along neatly. I prefer chaotic and contradictory stories, where meaning is actively produced and destroyed, and interpretation takes precedence over representation. It is not my intent to speed up time and create an escapist kind of entertainment, but to charge the audience to become active witnesses, conscious of themselves, of time, of bodies, of presence, and of life.
Trans means across, beyond, and through. Light passes through translucent materials, and with light comes visibility. In my performance works I use translucent materials and light to address systems of exposure and concealment. A gesture which is covered but still visible lives a double life. Covering can be an action of protection or a violent form of censorship. Translucency allows for plural, contradictory interpretations.
I perform actions that reflect and complicate everyday life. While sometimes surreal in their construction, the actions are very real in their execution. Like ritual, transient and unrepeatable performance is a site of potential transformation. When I wrap my torso in clear packing tape my breasts become disfigured, obscured, and emphasized. The action suggests plastic surgery and constructed bodies in pornography, self-harm associated with body dysmorphia, as well as the practice of breast binding within the transgender community. I present my body as it is, as it is not, and as it could be.
In dark performances I cover and uncover myself in clear plastic sheeting, and light actions with small flashlights to guide and control vision. I develop a symbolic relationship with lights that I can manipulate within the work. The theatricality of stage lighting is exposed to break down the perceived barrier between audience and performer. Transgressing conventions of performance is as critical as questioning socially imposed boundaries through performance. When we perceive work to be transgressive, we are confronted with our personal limits of cultural normativity. It is necessary to illuminate these limits to dismantle them. I ask, where does (does?) the body end, where does (does?) art fail?
Translucency gives me agency to withhold information, and freedom to share what I choose. I challenge preconceptions of performance, destabilizing visibility and invisibility. As a spectrum, translucency is never static, but shifting, overlapping, and multiple.
I work with other artists to articulate the space between us, to locate common ground and define ourselves, our subjectivities, with and against one another. I use myth as a starting point for making actions, a place from which to move.
In 2014 I began a project on the myth of Persephone. Often told as a story of rape and abduction, I sought to find alternative versions which subvert the repetition of misogyny and patriarchy. I explored this myth in a series of performances in summer 2014, developed collaboratively with a contemporary dance choreographer, an anarchist activist, a ballet dancer, a painter, a new media artist, and a performance artist who concentrates on ritual. The performances varied greatly, though some materials and actions repeated frequently such as clear tarp and falling limp. Each hour-long performance was made up of multiple actions. Carolyn and I brought the audience outside for a picnic following the piece. Jane Claire and I blew up a huge, luminous plastic bubble as a space of transit. Hayley buried me in dirt and plants and then she fell over and over from a ladder to a pile of pillows. Sebastian and I argued in coded speech, and crashed into a chair and vase of flowers, lashed together with a belt. It was my intention to foreground difference in performance, from performance to performance, by engaging with a different artist for every iteration of the piece. I chose the six artists because of their divergent perspectives, and for their individual capacity to challenge me. The work was presented at the Capitol Fringe Festival where repetition of work is rarely questioned. We moved outward in six directions from the Persephone myth, considering topics such as worship, sex, autonomy, violation, cycle, loss, and return.
The world is made up of relationships between people, objects, space, sound, time. I work through those existing ties and construct situations to produce new connections. In collaboration with other artists I can make performance out of relationships, and meaning moves away from the individual and into dialogue. I move always away from the singular and into the plural.
The live act is critical in performance, but the work need not stop at the end of the event. We reproduce memories in our imaginations, and performance can be reenacted through the process of being remembered. Documentation allows for a reflective and reproductive space, something new can be made but the meaning is always predicated on the loss of the live act. I approach documenting performance from various media, but I lean always towards writing as an intentionally mediated mode of representation. Writing is a bodily action, and writing the body is highly performative.
Wilmer Wilson IV talks about the “aftermath” of performance. Aftermath is not just the physical stuff left behind, the ephemera, but also the psychological reverberations of the work. Because performance comes from the body, it stays with the body. I have a thick diagonal scar on my right thigh from a slipped razor in a performance. When I see and touch the scar I think of the artists from Texas who rushed over after the performance to care for me. Aftermath is not always as visible as a scar. We carry with us the aftermath (or weight, or buoyancy) of our performances and the ones that affect us as well- whether we witnessed the work live or not. I can be moved by work I have encountered through documentation precisely because of my experience with live art.
In summer 2013 I had the opportunity to see Ron Athey perform at Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn. Athey overturns the walking-corpse conception of an HIV body, collapsing strength, vulnerability, queer sexuality, and religious worship in a poignant offering of his body. My experience in life is very different from Athey’s, and my work may not look like his, but I carry him with me.
I use lights, little lights in the darkness to guide vision, to control and limit what can be seen. In the dark, a single gesture is visible by the pointed light of a small flashlight. I attach flashlights to my wrists with clear tape and my moving hands light what I touch. Like I do with light, I incorporate noise and music structurally, and physically. I make sounds with synthesizers and objects, showing the beautiful coils of cables. I expose what is usually the architecture of theatre to illuminate the hierarchy of space, conscious of my position as the performer.
Performance Art and theatre are not opposites, but it is useful to consider difference. To foreground divergent interpretation, I don’t attempt to repeat performances. An obvious reason for repetition of performances in theatre is for commercial gain, but I am not an entertainer. Artists should be compensated for their work, but entrance fees should not limit access. Through repetition in rehearsal the performance becomes locked and consistent. I do not rehearse my performance to free myself from the constraints of a routine to make decisions as I need in the moment.
Jean Genet wrote, “Even if time...does not completely disappear from the consciousness of the spectators, another time, which each spectator lives fully, unfolds too, and having neither beginning nor end, it overturns the historical conventions necessitated by social life; suddenly, it also overturns social conventions, and not just for any random chaos, but for that of liberation.”[ii] Genet’s liberation through performance sounds more like contemporary performance art than traditional theatre. Disruption as a strategy for change is a constant theme in Genet’s work. Time has form which can be shaped in performance, opening space for new consciousness. Performance acts out new possibilities, new states and new ideas move from the unconscious into the physical world.
The conventions of art making were overturned through the development of performance art by replacing a detached object with the living body. Performance today runs the risk of becoming a rehearsed process of repeating those anarchic roots as a style rather than an attitude. There is no formula for making or evaluating performance, and meaning can’t be fixed. Furthermore, in performance, value is not attached to commercial worth but an evolving currency of interaction and experience.
Performance art is at the forefront of my practice because it puts the individual and the body at the forefront, valuing presence while honoring absence. Performance is a way to encounter the world through the body, to recognize subjective sensorial experience and produce an exchange with the experience of others. Peggy Phelan wrote, “Without a copy, live performance plunges into invisibility - in a maniacally charged present - and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control.”[iii] It is from the unconscious that performance arises and will return again, to that murky space of symbols.
To come to know about performance it is critical to witness and participate in it. I accumulate the personal and political perspectives of other artists’ performances and refract them in layers of meaning in my own performance. In order to grow and change, it is critical to feel and understand experiences that are not your own, to take part in someone else’s time.
[i] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess, San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1979. Print.
[ii] Genet, Jean, and Charlotte Mandell. Fragments of the Artwork. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.
[iii] Peggy Phelan. Unmarked: Performance and the Politics of Specatorship. Routledge. 1993. Print.
Eames Armstrong is an interdisciplinary artist and curator. She is the founder and director of Aether Art Projects, an organization which emphasizes experimentation, performance, and collaboration through exhibitions and events. Eames received her BFA from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2010 where she studied studio art, with emphasis on painting, writing, and performance. She is currently pursuing her MFA at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Soft Lab is a research and exhibition space for softness. On view at Gallery 102 from January 12-30, Soft Lab will be comprised of works engaging with softness in a wide range of media by student and local artists, and instruction works by artists from around the country. Soft Lab will probe the role of the student-run gallery, reinventing the space as an active open studio to study the conceptual implications of softness, and encounter the material conditions of softness. The instruction pieces will operate as works in themselves as well as serve as catalysts for new work to be made or carried out within the gallery. Over the course of the exhibition, work will accumulate and change, and performance events will be announced as they are developed. There will be an opening reception on Monday, January 12, and a closing reception on Friday, January 30.
Gallery 102, George Washington University
Gallery 102, George Washington University
© 2014 Eames Armstrong