at N.A.M.E., February 5 and 6

What does it mean that for a 20th-anniversary celebration of performance art at N.A.M.E. only two out of seven acts actually performed? In this two-night program, only Fluid Measure Performance Company and Phil Berkman appeared live and in person and delivered actual performance art.

Sure, Sharon Evans and James Grigsby were there in the flesh, but both read from scripts in a literary vein. And Nicholas Sistler did offer a terrific sound piece–performance by any definition–but it was not conceived as a separate piece in itself: this was the sound track from a 1985 live performance, underscoring the evening’s lack of exigency. When an audience member asked Sistler to describe the work the sound had accompanied, he did so in an impromptu and affable fashion–in itself a performance of sorts, offering the kind of wit and elaboration we were hungry for.

Organizer Lynn Book’s concept for “Purple Heart” probably seemed like a good idea: invite back some of the artists who helped make N.A.M.E. a force in local performance. And a lot of these artists–like Evans, the members of Fluid Measure, Carmela Rago, and Grigsby–have fascinating interlocking histories. Perhaps not taken into account was the fact that many of these folks are no longer active participants in the performance scene. Jean Sousa makes experimental films. Evans is the artistic director of Live Bait Theater, where she also is a writer and director. Sistler has dedicated himself to painting.

Although they didn’t deliver performance they way they used to, these artists nonetheless came through with thoughtful contributions. Sousa’s short film The Circus took a hallucinatory look at the magic of performance, while the other two films in the program were more conceptual and experimental but still remarkably accessible. Evans read from two new works and a third from the early 1980s. Her readings were personable and energetic, and the story about the girl who bled from the eyes was both funny and sad. (Credit Evans with giving the Saturday-night program a sense of immediacy.) Sistler’s sound piece involved eerie noises, voices yodeling, and an escalating, forbidding beat.

On Friday night, Fluid Measure provided the evening’s best moments with Escape Velocity, a piece using movement and text to question the need for categorization, ambition, and proper expectations. Smart, warmly humorous, and a visual treat, Fluid Measure was the absolute highlight of the program.

Saturday night Berkman opened the show with a conceptual piece called Menage a Trois. Ed Maldonado (a curator), Irene Tsatsos (N.A.M.E.’s executive director), and Larry Muse (a Chicago Fire Department captain) placed two fire extinguishers in the N.A.M.E. space in accordance with Fire Department regulations. But because Maldonado, Tsatsos, and Muse did most of their work outside the performance area, and because most of the audience remained in that area with Berkman, who listened to the goings-on by means of a wineglass placed up against the wall, most of us probably didn’t get much out of this piece.

More problematic were the contributions by Grigsby and Rago, two veterans who remain engaged in the performance scene. For his Friday-night entry, Grigsby chose to read from two relatively recent scripts. In One Year and Out the Other (written for a piece he did with Shirley Mordine nearly two years ago) is a loopy tale of love, sex, abandonment, reconciliation, fear, and hope, all told in the breathless style of a soap-opera summary; Here and There (also written for performance with Mordine) was undeveloped and ineffective. Unlike Evans, who sought to engage the audience in her reading, Grigsby was cool and aloof–as he is in many of his performances, but here it was off-putting. Grigsby barely lifted his eyes from the page.

Rago offered up Real Life–Stories From the Real World, a piece she also performed in the last year at Club Lower Links, Gallery 2, and the WAC-A-Go-Go benefit. It’s in serious danger of being overexposed. This time, however, the work came in pieces: a ten-minute video of excerpts and a series of slides with text taken randomly from the work. Unfortunately the video, lacking the pacing of live performance, made this usually honest, serious work seem fragmented and shallow. The slides sometimes anticipated the video, robbing Rago of her best lines; other times the slides repeated material unnecessarily. In the end this version of Real Life seemed disorganized and rushed.

So what did it mean that so few live performances and so little new work was actually presented at “Purple Heart”? The answer probably will be found not in a big philosophical discussion about the current state of performance art but in something much more mundane: administrative and curatorial distraction. Overseen by Tsatsos and Book, ordinarily two of N.A.M.E.’s most imaginative and involved members, “Purple Heart” may be the victim of transition. Tsatsos is currently packing up to work at the Arts Club, and Book stepped down as cochair of N.A.M.E.’s performance committee last month to pursue other projects. Given how meticulous their previous work has been, it’s hard to believe they genuinely thought this one out: I mean, three nonlive performances? Two literary readings? While the idea for “Purple Heart” might have looked good on the page (Grigsby, Rago, Sistler, et al), it simply didn’t translate to the stage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eileen Ryan.