The performance department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago began as a place where disciplines met. Founded in the early 1970s by Thomas A. Jaremba, who taught dance and movement at the Goodman Theatre, performance as theorized and practiced at the SAIC was always understood to be a hybrid form.
“It was born from dissatisfied artists—dissatisfied with the confines of their own traditional format,” says department chair Roberto Sifuentes in a 2018 video. For the past year, as the pandemic has disrupted traditional modes of encountering live performance, the SAIC performance department, which brings together students and faculty from visual communications, graphic design, architecture, dance, theater, music, and more, has operated as a community developing practices and incubating concepts for contemporary performance. From February 19 to 21, the department will present its findings in Old Ways New Tools, a three-day virtual festival that showcases live performance, performance for the camera, and presentations of performances “beyond the rectangle.”
In addition to charting the evolution of a form in constant flux, the festival serves as a testimony to the ongoing urgency of performance in our time. “With the current racial unrest in this country, so many artists are using performative techniques, tactics, strategies to think about how to confront power,” says Sifuentes. “Performance allows us to be chameleons, to use the work to shapeshift, to change, to be new media artists and dancers, visual artists, all at the same time in radically different ways. People gravitate to performance and ephemerality in times of great economic crisis. We in performance are trying to combat the notion of the independent auteur, the person making that masterpiece. We focus on who are you working with? What are you thinking about? Why is it necessary that you’re making this kind of work?”
“There are many fundamental things about performance and performance-making that are ever evolving yet constant,” says Joshua Hoglund, technology manager for (and alumnus of) the department. “Students still want the contact and collaboration and conversation that’s the lifeblood of performance-making. These fundamentals haven’t changed. There are innovative online modes [including Zoom, OBS, or Open Broadcaster Software, and Isadora] that house our practices and techniques. One of the primary tasks in my job has been to help realize the visions of these diverse students. It provides the opportunity for a lot of listening and a lot of responding to students’ individual practices. When we model that listening and responding, we’re at the center of what collaboration and performance-making is about.”
At SAIC, these modes of collaborating have been developed in parallel with the process of teaching. “In my classes, I’ve had students from China, Tel Aviv, Michigan, Tennessee, Seattle, Chicago,” says graduate coordinator and associate professor Mark Jeffery. “The student in China collaborating with the student in Seattle, a 16- or 17-hour time difference, synchronously, was such an extraordinary experience. Somehow I’m teaching a class with 13 people or 11 people or 18 people, and I forget I’m talking to myself alone in my house. Here I am in my house, and I ask a student to do an activity, and they do it. Somehow connectivity is still being made. I keep thinking of Tehching Hsieh and his year-long pieces“—a series of austere durational performances exploring confinement, deprivation, and time—”We’re all doing it,” notes Jeffery.
Performers in the festival demonstrate a range of approaches and responses to the problems and opportunities of the pandemic. “I’m still addicted to the theater, to showing up to a show and committing to something. The digital space is so difficult. It’s so easy to float in and out,” says Corey Smith, whose background combines experimental theater, postmodern dance, and music. “How can it feel alive? How can I set up situations with genuine communication between me and someone else? It’s strangely easier because of the intimacy of the platform: you’re in my kitchen right now, and you get to see all the trash on the floor. It’s strangely vulnerable.” In Etude, Smith performs an eight-second dance that he edits in real time to last two minutes, a crossover from live to digital performance and a reflection on the perception of time during the pandemic (“the last two days have felt like three months and the last three months have felt like two days”).
In contrast, Maria Plotnikova reiterated a commitment to live performance experienced in person by creating a street performance with a sofa sawed in half and arranged on two sides of a street-level glass window. For three hours, Plotnikova sat indoors by the window, inviting others to sit on the sofa half outside and interact with her from an intimate social distance. “The glass was like a screen,” she recalls. “One person said it was like pressing on a bruise: we do this every day, and it was a bit painful and pleasant at the same time. I was the only stranger who could be closer than six feet to them—through the window.” During the festival, Plotnikova will present a short film titled The discipline of being a weapon created from the documentation footage. “My respect to this document that remains after the performance has increased,” she says.
“The kind of work we’re making right now inevitably centers location,” notes Ále Campos, a first-year MFA candidate who has attended the SAIC entirely remotely from their home in Hudson, New York. “Maria’s [work is] site-specific, two bodies meeting but separated. Corey’s bringing us together to experience time that’s unfamiliar/familiar. In Zoom, we’re hyper aware—people are always like, where are we?” Campos, who works in drag and video-based work, focuses with precision on a cruising spot in upstate New York. “I have a weekly practice of going there and walking around, but it’s empty, completely deserted,” they said. “I found that to be very sad and very rich. It’s a piece about where the queer intersects with my particular rural environment, especially when we can’t be together.” 42.26278, -73.61265 (a title that derives from the GPS coordinates of the cruising spot) incorporates the use of green screen technology that hybridizes body and landscape, place, and simulated space. (“There’s a video of the road from my house to the cruising spot playing on my ass while there’s audio playing throughout the video—text I’ve written mixed with text from a hookup website called squirt.org. There’s a techno beat, the culture of a nightclub, being surrounded by other bodies. But I’m obviously alone in the studio.”)
“It strikes me that we can’t go into the white-walled spaces: we can’t be in the museum, the gallery, the theater, so the artificial perfect environment has completely collapsed, and we’re left with where we are,” says Smith. “There are some real important political lessons in that: the local is all you have. You have the community around you. This has been the thing that every couple of days I have to relearn since the pandemic and the uprising over the summer. The mutual aid groups, the people next door, are the folks I actually have and who actually support me and hold me up. That’s a huge lesson from the pandemic.”
“We [have been] asking ourselves ‘what is performance?’ even before the pandemic,” says Plotnikova. “We keep asking. We keep answering. It’s a process of exploring. Someone is doing. Someone is watching that someone else is doing. Same questions. It’s not a new question. We’re just exploring it in the Zoom now.”
“Drag is always an exchange,” says Campos. “The audience signs up to be somewhere and see something. I think it’s plausible and possible for people to come to a virtual space and feel an experience you’re generating. That might be where liveness sits right now: you’re still having an internal conversation with the viewer.”
Thinking to the future, Smith says, “I think I’m going to come away with a more nuanced relationship to technology and to tools. I used to see art and technology synthesis work and feel bored by it. Pixels, OK. Where is the flesh? Where is the body? Now when we’re all forced to be pixels, I feel so much more empathetic to it, and I feel so much more interested in its complexities and the way it’s really helped us.”
“Some things are really better on Zoom than in life. Like when you need to perform from your bathroom!” says Plotnikova. “You can work with perspective. You control the screen entirely.”
“I feel the gift right now to artists is that we get to control the frame,” adds Smith. “You can’t go to the wrong side of the sculpture anymore because I won’t show you the wrong side of the sculpture!”
“But there’s something beautiful to accidents and mistakes,” says Campos. “Mistakes still happen in a virtual world. If people choose to stick to live, witnessed performance, it’ll only be better after this.”
Earlier in the day, Sifuentes: “Liveness is something that’s being redefined all the time, not only in art but in life. How do people listen to what we have to say? Do they want to be whispered to? Touched and hugged? How are we able to touch our audiences? Different things feel good that I never thought would. My definitions as I relate them to performance-making have all been blown apart, so it’s now time to reconceive them.”
Later in the day, Guillermo Gómez-Peña: “The only difference between a madman and a performance artist is that the latter has an audience, so thank you for not letting me go mad.” v