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Enacting Stillness

Between slowness and stopping altogether is a temporal space of possibility: being still. To begin thinking about what it means to enact stillness, one might look back on historic social and political conditions that have made stillness a productive and viable option, to give insight into the potentials of stillness, as both a passive and active course for claiming different forms of agency.

As Simone proposes in her protest song Mississippi Goddamn, to “go slow” or to approach stillness, generates a contradictory state in which one actively stops, slows down, or rests. Doing this deliberately, with intent, is not a simple task. Anyone who practices yoga or meditation knows that maintaining a still position requires physical and mental energy. At the molecular level, even seemingly inanimate objects continually shift and vibrate according to their surroundings, making the case that stillness is an illusion, or a relative condition at best.

Drawing on writer and curator André Lepecki’s writings addressing performance art, which engage slow motion or no motion at all, the artworks featured in Enacting Stillness activate Lepecki’s assertion that “what stillness does
 is to initiate the subject in a different relationship with temporality. Stillness operates at the level of the subject’s desire to invert a certain relationship with time, and with certain (prescribed) corporeal rhythms. Which means that to engage in stillness is to engage into different experiences of perceiving one’s own presence.”2

In this way, the idea of being still can only be understood relative to one’s own sense of movement, set against a larger environment. This notion of stillness manifests as different forms of intentional resistance like meditation, conceptual and literal reversals, and distortions of time, encompassing a range of emotional and psychological states. These positions disrupt the broader cultural, political, and social landscape. The experience of stillness can also create space for ideas
to form and plans to gestate. The artistic outcomes can be performance, or activism, or both, functioning as avenues for producing change in the world. Outward appearances might indicate a lack of action or output, but an individual who is still and quiet is not necessarily idle. Similarly, performance art may be perceived as less directly effective than activism. However, in the recent history of political resistance, Occupy Wall Street for example, agitprop performance has become intertwined with activism. According to critic Yates McKee, in his book Strike Art, “Occupy took the avant-garde dialectic of ‘art and life’ to a new level of intensity.”3

Enacting Stillness reveals how shifts, both large and small, in the flow of performance—a pregnant pause or a lull in dialogue—gives the viewer time to question the status quo,

of what is, and what could be. These questions might lead to new ways of thinking, a necessary catalyst to build activist energy. The double entendre of the word “movement,” one related to performance and one related to politics, becomes clear when examining artworks imbued with both meanings.

Artistic precedents to the thematic framing of this exhibition are found in works by Bruce Nauman, Kirsten Justesen, and Joan Jonas. Choreographed by Meredith Monk, Nauman’s Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance), (1967–68), creates, through repetition, an awareness of the body only achievable through physical engagement. Nauman has described undertaking these durational movements as

a way of pinpointing the tensions implicit in finding balance during the process of performing a gesture to the point of fatigue. Of her Sculpture II (1968) Justesen says: “a sculpture is a plinth with a form on top and it’s often a naked woman up there. My Skulptur II is a cardboard box with a black and white photograph of me inside.” Through the removal of the objectified, voiceless woman from the top of the pedestal, Justesen gives a more realistic, feminist interpretation of a woman’s position in art and society. Nauman and Justesen each take a different material approach to the form of a square: one dances around the square, while the other occupies it.

Stepping out on a grand scale, Joan Jonas’ film Songdelay (1973) is at once a piece of choreography and a time-based earthwork. Drawing on movement, sound, and theatrical gesture, Jonas converts the urban landscape of Lower Manhattan into a stage. The group of performers—including artists Gordon Matta-Clark and Steve Paxton—are as important as the setting itself, the tabula rasa of the lower west side which is now the highly developed, northern edge of Battery Park City at Chambers Street and the Hudson River. Songdelay is composed of staccato choreography in which dancers use sculptural props to generate sound. Participants clap wooden blocks together that reverberate across the barren waterfront. If the echoes of sound are suggestive of temporal ruptures, then the landscape is a transitional wasteland—where ruins and construction collide and time stands still.

Rather than focusing on derelict urban surroundings, the importance of neglected inhabitants in urban landscapes—as well as the lone figure in nature—have taken centerstage in many of Kimsooja’s projects. Her approach to performative video works often involves the subject turning away from the camera, remaining frozen against the fast-paced environments of cities like New York, Delhi, Lagos, and Mexico City. Included in the exhibition are pieces from two related series of video/performances: A Homeless Woman (Cairo), 2001, and A Needle Woman (Kitakyushu), 1999. Alone on a mountaintop in Kitakyushu, the artist lies on her side, facing away from the viewer, a pose that recurs throughout the series A Homeless Woman. After seeing people sleeping on the street in India, Kimsooja wanted to position herself as homeless to better understand the experience. Through this interaction with the general public in Cairo and other cities, the artist stated, “my body becomes like a stone 
on the street.”4 A Homeless Woman demonstrates how a meditative stance juxtaposed against the chaos of urban life reveals the characteristics of both onlookers and place. Her disempowered position, lying motionless on her side on the ground, becomes a mirror to the world that surrounds her.

Passivity and subjugation are also embodied by Clifford Owens in his video Anthology (Maren Hassinger), 2011. This piece is part of a larger project Anthology in which Owens engaged 26 artists of color by asking each of them—Kara Walker, Terry Adkins, and Benjamin Patterson, among others—to provide him with a performance score, written or drawn, which were then performed during his exhibition at MoMA P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City. In the video, Owens follows the instructions of artist Maren Hassinger’s performance score. Audience members move and position Owens, who remains in what Hassinger called “a reprieve of action,” exposing the continually negotiated tensions and power relations between choreographer, performer, participant, and audience. Owens’ interpretation of her instructions can be read as an enactment of power play, and a comment on how race and identity politics in the United States remain painfully unresolved. The adjacent issue of homelessness and poverty both city and countrywide, mirror Kimsooja’s vulnerable engagements with the public in Cairo and Delhi. While some might question the dramatic nature of Kimsooja and Owens’ gestures of politically charged passivity, art is one of the only spaces where we can test our limits, and the capacity of others to witness, as a way of beginning to understand the experiences of one another. In another score, Owens follows artist William Pope.L’s instructions to “Be African American. Be very African American.” The resulting piece is a set of photographs of an African American artist friend of Owens running through the halls of MoMA P.S.1’s building, tracing his movement with white lines of tape. William Pope.L’s score is one that Clifford has reinterpreted, inviting audience members (many of them not people of color) to attempt, much to their discomfort, to perform blackness.

In this first interpretation, the idea of “being African-American,” represented by a black figure’s movement through architecture trailed by a white line, can be understood as a linear tracking device, or a means of plotting an escape. Cuban artist Carlos Martiel also uses his body as a medium, and has developed a performance trajectory that tests the limits of his own physical capacity and the audience’s comfort in the role of witness. On view are prints documenting Expulsion (2015), made for the 4th Thessaloniki Performance Festival. It began with Martiel standing still with the twelve stars of the European Union flag stitched to his bare chest. As if this painful procedure were not enough, the performance involved the careful removal of the fabric stars from his body—unstitched by the same piercing artist who affixed them. The discarded stars then littered the floor surrounding the artist. In another project, Ruins (2015), performed at CentralTrak in Dallas, Martiel lay naked in a fetal position on the floor. Two Caucasian men proceeded to cover the artist with rocks until his body was no longer visible, a comment on the vulnerability of immigrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border, in a state that was formerly part of Mexico. For Enacting Stillness, Martiel is developing
 a new performance that draws parallels between the United States’ prison system and the historical injustices of World War II, when the rise of Nazism justified the exile of specific ethnic communities, often to unknown places, under brutal conditions. Given that the United States makes up only five percent of the global population, and holds nearly a quarter of the people incarcerated worldwide,5 the level of trauma for those who have served time, their families, and communities is tragically beyond measure.

In thinking about different forms of historical trauma, it is worth questioning how we engage with what it means to be “still here,” particularly for those who live with or have survived adverse conditions, like those revisited in Martiel’s work. In 1994, choreographer Bill T. Jones with Arnie Zane choreographed and performed Still/Here, an artwork about survival, criticized for holding up death and dying as artistic subject matter. Though not directly about AIDS, the work may be interpreted as Jones’ refusal to accept that “being HIV-positive equals death.” While injustices related to AIDS were rampant throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, at present we are just beginning to understand the collective impact of oppression and trauma implicit in this country’s practice of incarceration. Arlene Croce, who was dance critic for The New Yorker at the time deemed this as the type of work that was beyond critique because of its morbid nature. (At the time Croce wrote about Still/Here, she refused to see the piece performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music.)6 For a number of politically charged artworks in the exhibition—by Clifford Owens, Kimsooja, Carlos Martiel, among others— the act of viewing may be one of stillness, but the potentially traumatic affect of witnessing justifies the issues raised in Croce’s critique. Then again, her refusal to see the work in question is a form of resistance in itself.

Featured in Enacting Stillness are two experimental narrative projects that carry historical patterns of stillness into the present day. Rehan Ansari’s play Unburdened (2010) and Claudia Joskowicz’s video installation Sympathy for the Devil (2011) examine the aftermath of political upheavals experienced during the Partition of India and World War II, respectively. Ansari’s play tells the story of a journalist
 on assignment in Pakistan, staying in the apartment of his elderly aunt and uncle. The couple live with an unspoken secret—an ordeal experienced by the aunt—dating back to Partition. Through the course of the play, they revert to the incident that brought them together. Reading the play today, the couple’s experience is not removed from what we are beginning to understand about the current refugee crisis. The set for the play is comprised of a photographic backdrop depicting a graveyard in PECHS, Karachi, a cemetery where many who died during the conflicts surrounding partition are buried. To the right are stills from a recent performance at MeetFactory, Prague, shot by Petra Jacenkova and Thomas Lor, featuring dialogue between the aunt and uncle recalling their experiences leaving India for Pakistan:

When we went to Karachi from Delhi

I saw an entire city on re

I saw Delhi seek refuge at the camps

What is a Muslim?

We have become rolling stones.

Ansari writes, “Unburdened revisits the long-term effects of being a refugee, specifically about the legacy of Partition and its impact on identity, psychology, and ethics in particular. This legacy is usually a silenced subject in South Asia, and to this day this silent legacy stands behind very loud political violence and ethnic cleansing. We see in these characters of Unburdened the drama of talking and not talking, remembering and choosing not to remember, remaining still through trauma, and questioning whether stillness is indeed stillness.”

Set in an apartment building in La Paz, Bolivia, Joskowicz’s Sympathy for the Devil almost imperceptibly unfolds in two slow tracking frames that capture the uneasy, but daily encounter between two neighbors who live parallel lives. The former, a Polish Jewish refugee who fled to Bolivia during World War II, the latter, Klaus Barbie, a Nazi known as the Butcher of Lyon, living under the assumed name “Klaus Altman”. The unintentional relationship between these two neighbors is representative of the experience of Jews and Nazis who sought asylum in Latin America, and lived side-by-side, sharing more in common culturally than with many of their neighbors.

The “suspension of disbelief” inherent in narrative theater and film is evident in Ansari’s and Joskowicz’s work. This artificiality is contrasted by the work of Roman Štětina, which dispenses with any form of illusion, leaving the cameraman exposed as the main subject of the film. While the slow, deliberate tracking shots in Joskowicz’s work are reminiscent of news reporting, manipulating the viewer’s sense of time, the equipment used by Štětina is also used in live news reports to keep the camera still when moving quickly. Štětina’s Test Room (2015) captures, on video, a lone performance by a camera operator whose tense choreography alludes to the steady camera rig’s original purpose as a military tool for carrying weaponry. In his prolonged direction of the cameraman’s dance with his equipment, Štětina reinforces the painful choreography that goes into the production of aesthetics, war, and how we receive news as truth. Within the exhibition, Test Room highlights the role of documentation in time-based artistic practices, as well as its function as witness.

What does it mean to bear witness? How do we understand urgency, and the need to act in response to injustices happening in real time? Alicia Grullón and Kameelah 
Janan Rasheed explore the under-recognized experiences of communities impacted by gentrification arising from urban development in our city. Grullón’s silent, masked street performance An Auto-Ethnographic Study: The Bronx (2008), is met with stories of displacement by the public she encounters, while Rasheed mines unspoken and invisible narratives, giving voice to those whose histories are overlooked by official institutions. Her piece How to Suffer Politely (and Other Etiquette) (2014–2016), presented as a series of signs in galleries and public spaces, posits that the imposition of cultural change should not be met with resignation by the displaced and disenfranchised. Her contribution to Enacting Stillness is a new series of prints that feature excerpts from texts by Nina Simone, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr. Each reflects on the trouble with waiting for injustice to be reversed.

Like Baldwin, Nina Simone questions in her song Mississippi Goddamn why progress takes so much time and why patience is needed. Rasheed’s text-based prints distort the letters and format of her selections to inflect them with temporal ruptures—long, furious pauses. Her warped words poetically confuse the viewer, conveying a sense of frustration about progress delayed for the sake of someone else’s convenience.

Alicia Grullón’s An Auto-Ethnographic Study: The Bronx (2008) is staged as a roving, interactive protest throughout her neighborhood. Grullón states: “New York City is largely defined by ‘other’ because it has been other that has defined it. As more mini-malls, chain stores, and real estate prices continue to replace small business and generations old residents in the boroughs, New York will lose the very character that has attracted so many to it.” Her project hones in on the current transformation resulting from a lack of affordable housing, which has led to increased displacement and stratification. For each of the walks depicted in her video, Grullón collaged a mask from a daily newspaper, using headlines related to worldwide food shortages, the mortgage crisis, and the rising cost of living in New York City. During the performance, she attempted to sell one-pound bags of rice, beans, and flour for $1000, $3000, and $5000, priced to cover a mortgage bailout, reflecting how gentrification has inflated the price of food and other basic living expenses for New Yorkers.

Grullón’s piece was produced soon after Nicolás Dumit Estévez staged For Art’s Sake (2005–2007), which he developed and performed as a series of pilgrimages that concluded with a Last Supper. Each highlighted the obstacles, financial and otherwise, faced by contemporary artists in realizing their work, especially those involved in the process of pioneering new forms of art. Modeled after El Camino de Compostela in Spain, Estévez embarked on journeys from Lower Manhattan to seven different museums, as far flung as Jersey City and the Bronx. Loaded with the weight of donated art publications strapped to his back, he aimed to reposition religion as a tool in the service of art, reversing the historical power dynamic of religious patronage, and its control over artistic production. Estévez considers how his faith in art can be attributed the same level of intensity that moves religious devotion. For Art’s Sake inscribed an awareness of performance art’s importance in the collective conscience of NYC’s art community at a time when certain performance-based practices were shifting towards socially engaged art. Estévez’s public engagement with performance art “for art’s sake,” foreshadowed the formulation of social practice as an antidote to the art market and the increased monetization of cultural practice. Estévez and Grullón’s methodologies intersect—walking through the city and facing the public—and together express concerns around the sustainability of working and creative classes in neighborhoods where development is underway.

Grullón’s haunting masks serve as a counterpoint to John Ahearn’s live-cast portraits of youth from the Bronx and East Harlem. His method of casting, often performed in front of an audience of passersby and local residents, results in frieze-like, in-the-round polychrome sculptures. This process was further developed in collaboration with Rigoberto Torres, a local Bronx resident whose uncle ran
 a statue factory nearby. One of Ahearn’s contributions to the exhibition, Mirror for Andrew Glover (2014) was made with input from participants at the Andrew Glover Youth Program, which provides alternatives—education, training, counseling, and employment assistance—for youth facing criminal charges. Ahearn’s sculpture is a star shaped mirror framed by a cast of linked forearms of kids from the center. His long engagement with the South Bronx community has served to commemorate individuals who might not otherwise have an artistic exchange in which their portraits are so painstakingly created. Ahearn typically makes two copies of each sculpture, giving one to the subject, allowing the work to be experienced in the community where it was created. While it may be reductive to consider sculpture a still object (as opposed to one that is performed, in motion), Ahearn’s practice produces snapshots, or stills of life in the community spaces where he works.

Yoko Inoue’s Transmigration of the SOLD (2006–2016) embodies related contradictions implicit in immigrant identity and labor conditions in the context of an ever-growing globalized economy. She also proposes—like Estévez—reversal as a form of resistance. In Inoue’s case she is resisting the rising tide of economic development. Initiated on the heels of 9/11, Transmigration of the SOLD first engaged communities in two locations: Canal Street in Manhattan (where much of Inoue’s video takes place), and Isla Amantani, an island in Lake Titicaca in the Puno Region of Peru, where Inoue travelled to commission American flag sweaters as materials for her performances in a vendor stall on Canal Street. Over the course of fifteen years, Inoue has used this site as a stage for her ongoing time-based performance. She interrogates the labor relations and economic conditions surrounding global marketplaces where common commodities are sold. Envisioning a more ethical production process, Inoue disrupts the expected, but unfulfilled consumer transactions, as she unravels the sweaters into skeins of wool. Passersby repeatedly ask, how much for the sweaters? How much for the wool? Inoue’s interest in engaging these means of production can be understood as a direct response to the influx of Latin American immigrants in New York City, many of them working in underground economies like those found in and around Canal Street. Her impassive expression as she unravels the sweaters belies a growing concern about the sustainability of communities, both immigrant and local.

Another form of stillness “Informed by the histories of avant-garde dance and its relationship to visual art,” can be found in Brendan Fernandes’ The Working Move (2012), photographs of which are presented in the exhibition. By positioning performers with plinths that typically support sculptural objects in a gallery setting, he reveals, through moments of pause, the physical strain inherent in ballet
 and contemporary dance. Fernandes directs the dancers 
to interact with the plinths, which he considers to be sets, supportive props, or unwieldy burdens. He sees the body as an artifact and an expression of the othered cultures so often displayed on pedestals, echoing Kirsten Justesen’s resistance to the fetishized female nude in art. Fernandes’ poignant and, at times, absurd staging calls into question how physical labor is valued in the production of art. Choreography in performance is often a collective endeavor, where structure and collaborative synchronicity are critical. The same could be said of the organization of political movements. Elements of physical struggle for a political objective and overcoming obstacles are evident in the work of Fernandes and Emily Roysdon. The concepts and strategies employed in the labor of art—specifically political art—are precisely mapped out by Roysdon in Ecstatic Resistance (schema), 2009. Her diagram analyzes the interplay between intentionality, improvisation, and the boundary between what can be spoken and what is unspeakable during the process of staging performance with political intent. Ecstatic Resistance expresses a determination to undo the limits of what is possible. As Roysdon states, “Ecstatic Resistance develops a positionality of the impossible as a viable and creative subjectivity that inverts the vernacular of power. By exposing past impossibilities, the actor of history is thus revealed as the outcast of the contemporary. Ecstatic Resistance works to change this by celebrating the impossible as lived experience and the place from which our best will come.”

Roysdon also proposes a mutability in the way that identity is constructed, as it relates to gender, culture, politics and society, building on Fernandes’ choreographic staging, which also rethinks otherness. Both artists engage the tropes of dance to resist what is, in order to find a way to speak the unspeakable, extending the realm of possibility. This expansion of what is possible is especially articulated in 
the context of art. Over time, this kind of expression may or may not be absorbed into the political sphere, but within this space of imagination afforded by art, other possibilities can be realized. And so, enacting resistance as a form of stillness gives way to transformation, as two types of movement—political and performative—are intertwined.

—Sara Reisman, August 2016 

  1. Simone, Nina, writer. Nina Simone in Concert. Philips, 1964.
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  1. McKee, Yates. Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. London & New York: Verso Books, 2016.
  1. “Episode #085: Kimsooja: “A Beggar Woman” & “A Homeless Woman” | Art21 “Exclusive,” YouTube video, 3:35, posted by “Art21,” December 4, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0le-hqLVJm0.
  1. Liptak, Adam. “U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs That of Other Nations.” The New York Times, April 23, 2008. Accessed September 6, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht- 23prison.12253738.html?_r=0.
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  1. “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.” In American Masters, directed by Karen Thorsen. PBS. August 14, 1989.
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September 29, 2016