Steakhouse Live Writing was an embedded criticism pilot project that ran as part of Steakhouse Live’s Longer Wetter Faster Better Festival (14-16 October 2016). The project aimed to bring together three critics new to live art to new models of criticism that can support the shape-shifting practices, and different contexts that live art finds itself in. Phase One of the project was a multi-authored, durational writing project exploring live critical responses to the work presented during the festival, preceded by two workshops that explored relevant histories and practices of criticism in relation to live art. Phase Two features a series of reflective articles by each of the writers taking part in the pilot- Palin Ansusinha, Jennifer Boyd, and Katharina Joy Book.
In this collection of pieces for Exeunt, the writers reflect on different aspects presented by the works in the festival, particularly focusing on questions of identity politics, including gender and race. Steakhouse Live Festival featured performances by artists like The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, Owen G Parry, Harold Offeh, Jade Montserrat, Rachel Young and Dwayne Antony, IMMA, Hester Chillingworth and more.
The performative slip – Palin Ansusinha
It’s uncomfortable to witness a performer slip on stage, especially as part of a highly choreographed piece of theatre or performance. Rachel Young’s slip in her and Dwayne Antony’s performance, OUT, at Rich Mix for Steakhouse Live Festival is no exception. In comparison to what has occurred until that point, the abruptness and degree of violence of the incident gives the impression that it is more of an accident than an artistic decision. Whilst feeling strangely responsible for witnessing a potential injury towards another person, a part of me remains indifferent. In fact, my passivity brings me to shame. Perhaps, there is also a sense of disappointment that I, as a critical spectator, have experienced some kind of ‘failure’ in the virtuosity that a performance, in general, promises.
My theatre professor once told me that art always disappoints since it claims to situate itself outside the normative framework, whether that position be idealistic, reflective, or critical. Therefore, to encounter disappointment or failure in a performance is to become aware not only of the distinction between the ‘real’ and ‘fiction’, but also the blurring of the two categories: Young’s slip occurs within the performance but it poses a real physical threat to the body. I am talking about the ‘slip’ in not only in the physical sense but also the performative sense, which is a rupture that reveals the multidimensional presence of art, not only in the symbolical realm, but also embedded within in the real world. Young’s physical slip, then, cannot be discussed in terms of ‘intention’ or ‘accident’ because the artist’s awareness of the threat she is putting her own body through in this live art performance makes literal what is meant to be metaphorical: the violence against queer and diasporic identity. Young and Antony’s performance presents the experience of two queer, diasporic identities subjected to the violent repercussions of gender and racial assumptions of the cultural history they themselves are excluded from – an experience too often neglected in the live art community presumably because of its specificity, but brought to the forefront in Steakhouse Live Festival.
OUT opens with a video that documents a Jamaican club night. Men and women in the video twerk and grind, strobing each other’s body parts with their phones. Young and Antony, topless with their nipples taped over, begin to choreograph movements from the video; however, they quickly fall behind to both the music and each other. Through repetition and delay, Young and Antony’s performance exploits the notion of imitation to unmask the layers of cultural meanings their bodies carry; it ironises the notion of ‘reproduction’ and ‘multiplication’ spoken repeatedly in the background music in order to deconstruct gender assumptions in the deeply heteronormative culture of Jamaica. Young and Antony’s nipples are taped up with aggressive X’s, reminding us of the censorship of nudity in the media at large; the X’s here, however, act as an equalizer between male and female bodies, undermining the problematic gender binary socially constructed out of physical differences. Young and Antony are physically ‘out of time’ just as their queer and diasporic identities – of being born and bred outside their Jamaican heritage – are excluded from the historical continuum that shapes the ‘authentic’ Jamaican identity.
More significantly, however, an everyday act of peeling and eating an orange becomes an act of self-punishment from the shame of non-conformity. Young and Antony’s bodies are soaked with the juices of the oranges they are crushing onto their skin; the juices soon drip to the floor, thus adding another dangerous dimension of slipperiness that threatens the body. All this leads up to the moment when Young slips and lands violently on the floor, demonstrating the real physical threat that took place within the performance. Young and Antony’s performance is not a representation in the fictional sense; it is rather the slippery reality of their own displaced and precarious bodies constantly threatened to be appropriated by the perpetuating cultural and historical narratives imposed onto their gender and racial identity.
A S S I M I L A T I O N also presents a historically displaced body as the site where physical and metaphorical violence coincides. marikiscrycrycry faces the audience behind a standing microphone, his face covered in glitter. There is an element of unrealism in the spectacle of a queer, black man alone on stage: a momentary opportunity for autonomy, or am I being too hopeful? Instead of being able to ‘speak’ to us in his own voice, marikiscrycrycry is ventriloquised: his voice trails off into literal silence when singing Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence; he navigates across linguistic borders as his body moves to the Japanese R&B soundtrack. Both songs are products of cultural appropriation and the jarring interruptions we hear concur with the physical violence simultaneously inflicted against the performer’s naked body, struggling against the invisible force that twists, crushes, and shoots it twice. A S S I M I L A T I O N is where the body and text intersect, where the metaphorical violence of cultural appropriation is made literal.
marikiscrycrycry’s search to find ways of expressing himself simultaneously navigates the audience through moments of oppression and resistance in black history. At one point, the computerised voice repeats ‘black lives matter’, presenting the metaphor of a broken record; actions and speeches are performed in loops and, therefore, history is not presented as a linear progress but a vicious cycle of violence disguised in various forms. marikiscrycrycry adds more glitter to his face, before continuing to be subjected to a violence that has him crawling on the floor, screaming soundlessly, yet another reminder that he has no voice of his own. The theatricality of this self-fashioning act of his black and queer identity is placed, or rather displaced, in the realm of the idealistic, of existing images of black identities in pop culture. Archival images and phrases are recycled until they become an illusion of reality, thereby hindering the individual’s attempt to speak of their own experience, here and now. A S S I M I L A T I O N is a moment of exposure; a rupture that illuminates the one-dimensional assumption of queer and black identity with the glitter mask that is in fact multifaceted and kaleidoscopic.
If being queer means being outside any temporal regime, whether it is resisting or being left unrealized, then Eunjung Kim’s durational performance, On: Off, shows that the site of festival is where different perceptions of time coincide. Kim’s performance consists of covering herself in paint and falling violently onto the ground where she lies disturbingly still for twenty minutes. In a day of durational performances happening concurrently in Toynbee studios, I encounter Kim already lying on the floor, slithering across the corridor at an extremely slow pace. She is covered in bright yellow paint that bears witness to the violence that had taken place earlier. The slowness of her movement is mesmerising but also disruptive to the audience’s perception of time. Kim’s movement is un-human, but not yet animalistic; it rather evokes something that is extra-temporal. Without any context given to this performance other than the marks of violence from earlier, Kim is not trying to stand in for something or someone, but presents herself as an unnamed identity in a traumatic state. Perhaps, this can only be grasped, by the audience, through a process similar to that of mythologisation. On: Off slips in:out between the fine line that divides fiction and reality, suggesting the ambiguous relationship between the two categories as well as the susceptibility of precarious identities to being idealised by assumptions rather than acknowledged for their individuality.
The slip that occurs in Steakhouse Live festival serve to remind us that performance and reality are interchangeable labels in live art, as the performing bodies at the festival are equally affected by metaphorical and literal violence. More importantly, these performances raise the complex layers of representations, not just what it means to speak for other, but what it really means to speak for oneself, post-violence, against the things already spoken.
The Glittering Body – Jennifer Boyd
Applied to the skin, glitter becomes evocative of bodily fluids. It glistens, similarly to pricks of seeping sweat. It transforms into a purple bruise, or hints at blood that has risen to the surface in reddened rage. It glints damply, as if it is blood secreting from a graze or streaming from a cut. Its hundreds of tiny particles cause it to appear almost aqueous; analogous to tears. In relation to the body then, glitter speaks of stress, strain and pain, as well as glory. In A S S I M I L A T I O N, the work that opens day two of Steakhouse Live by marikiscrycrycry – the solo alias of NYC/London-based experimental choreographer, Malik Nashad Sharpe – purple glitter waits in a bowl at the back of the performance area, on a table in front of a mirror. The work begins with marikiscrycrycry twisting his limbs and staggering backwards on his heels. This is DIY, down to earth—the real body rather than the CGI achievement of strange physics. His corneas stretch, trying to reach inside his skull; the whites of his eyes look out at the audience and staccato groans emit from his mouth, direct from the larynx. This is not only about the external body that can be readily seen. The entirety of the body is engaged—the beating heat and pulling muscles of the internal body made present.
These movements are marikiscrycrycry’s articulation of the ‘allostatic load’ – the wearing and tearing of the body through repeated maltreatment – faced by the Black body. Over the course of this chap-work comprised of a series of abstract vignettes, marikiscrycrycry collects together things and symbols relating to contemporary narratives that surround black identity and experience, reworking and reconsidering and entwining them, threatening and deriding and queering them, through choreography. The costume marikiscrycrycry begins in of denim shorts and a long white tee is taken off, a computerised voice talking about Black Lives Matter is followed by a pageant queen wave, a stage-width infinity symbol is walked repeatedly to a chant of “blood blood bloody blood.” This tactic of recalling and revisioning is Afrofuturist in its approach; this, an aesthetic strategy that combines aspects of science fiction, magic realism, technoculture and ancient Egyptian aesthetics as a means to interrogate historical events and concerns of the African Diaspora, and re-imagine black futures. The elements in marikiscrycrycry’s work combine to create a raw portrait of black, queer identity and politics, rooted in the actual, physical human body.
Glitter is the apex of this. As a material it contains the histories, pains and pleasures of both black and queer identity. Think of the trashy aesthetics of the eighties and the ensuing AIDS crisis, or the glitter and gold as used in afrofuturisms, in which glitter becomes a material plane where these identities and their histories can intersect. Glitter provides a plane where these identities and their histories can intersect, in aim of creating visions of the future that oscillate between, and converge, the two. Around halfway through the piece, marikiscrycrycry takes the bowl of glitter in both hands and, with his naked back to the audience, pours it over his upturned face. It anoints his head, forehead and eyelids, before spilling down: a flush on his torso. This action references ‘scrying’, the ancient practice prone to reinvention, of looking down into something such as a bowl of water, in order to reveal a vision of the past, present or future. marikiscrycrycry accelerates scrying to a contemporary iteration; here, it is their glittering skin that is the surface that will reveal the future.
Marikiscrycrycry uses glitter to construct images that weave identity into other discussions. Glitter is a material used in the experiments of adolescent becomings—it references all the eyes of teenage girls it has adorned and all the young queer cheeks it has touched. By pouring it over himself, marikiscrycrycry also engages in an act of ‘refreshing’, which becomes a digital act: glitter as pixels. But this act of pouring also draws a parallel with dropping water, with the sparkle of sun and stars. This is, in a manner, speaking about identity in conversation with essential life forces.
In this work, glitter evolves from the self-armoring of late-twentieth century club kids creating outfits in their bedrooms, to online identity building, for example on platforms like Tumblr, and the ripping of the body that takes place on the Internet. Through marikiscrycrycry’s work, glitter comes to contain a new future history: it becomes a physical manifestation IRL of the pixelated quality of the digital, and a referent to intersectional online communities.
The work that closes day two of Steakhouse, This could be the last time, is also a solo work by an artist with a dance background, Alabama-born trans performance artist and director, IMMA, who cites influences such as Michael Clark and Leigh Bowery. However, unlike marikiscrycrycry, IMMA enters the performance space ready-glittered. The coating over the entirety of her near-naked body is thin and even, causing her skin to scintillate in the semi-darkness of the dimly lit room. The glitter is part of her, presented with more permanence—it is in her pores. The intimacy of the near-darkness summons the spaces of queer discos, strip clubs and bedrooms. Such spaces can offer both safe freedom of expression and violence, as evidenced, for example, in the Orlando shootings at Pulse nightclub last year. The title references the precarity of these bodies. IMMA’s work causes an uneasy catch in the throat that comes with danger feeling far too close.
IMMA moves boldly around the space, demarcating it as hers. Desire is what is at stake here. The audience is placed in the position of desirer. IMMA interacts with members of the audience – a flirt, an implication – and then moves on. This is not neutral territory, an undercurrent of menace runs beneath each teasing action, and her face flutters between looks of confrontation, knowing, repletion and mutuality. IMMA is fully in control and it is the audience who has been invited in; her interactions threaten to turn at any second. However, the desire that is at stake isn’t solely that of an exchange. This work is also about IMMA’s own desire for herself and for her present and future. Her only props are a pair of high-heels and four cans of glitter spray, pillars which mark the corners of the performance space. The additional glitter sprayed onto her face at various points serves as a motion of self-reinforcement. Glitter represents power and wealth, ancient rocks and jewels—IMMA is her own riches.
By appearing already glittered, IMMA does not present an identity in a state of becoming; she appears already formed, already having accelerated—she is already the future. As a result, there is also a weariness to IMMA’s work, a fatigue with how long it is taking the status quo to catch up. In relation to each other, as the performances that bookend day two, age is also a factor. Malik’s body in part presents under the often-repeated-by-the-media phrase of a ‘young, black, male’, and the work in general builds up an in-process, multiverse portrait: to watch A S S I M I L A T I O N is to witness a body working things through. IMMA’s work is about an already formed glittering body, eye-rolling with boredom at the sluggishness of her own context—something that perhaps, comes with experience. In both works, glitter potentially also serves to highlight the spectacle made of marginalised bodies through commercialising of their narratives, which results in dilution and whitewashing (think about trans celebrities, for example). This is emphasised in IMMA’s concluding, whispered – this is not the hot blustering of Trump and the Tories – monologue. She states that she is a black, trans woman, before repeating: “Do I bore you? Because you bore me.” IMMA’s is a performance of unapologetic sexuality and identity, against being made plain and ‘palatable’.
In her 2014 book, Citizen: An American Lyric, American poet Claudia Rankine writes: “because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” Glitter provides a material that allows a skin and a surface on which to emphasise and explore the identity politics of blackness and queerness, and the futures desired by such bodies, in difference and direct opposition to mainstreamed narratives of what these experiences might be like, often imagined rather than informed by actual experience. In this, the beginnings of glitter in its commercial iteration as ground up plastic and landfill materials may also be related to its use in these two works, connecting them to the rubbish of human overproduction, in terms of both commercial capitalism and this trash talk. Glitter is a material used by these Steakhouse artists to speculate and spur towards future visions of Black and Queer and their joint inhabitation. Both these Steakhouse works burn in their desire to be in a different future; this feels both uneasy and enlivening when thinking about recent political shifts in terms of the far right gaining legitimate platforms of power, noted in a tweet by Mariene Le Pen “that their world is dying and ours [that of the far right] is being built.” The use of glitter as a material in Steakhouse reflects its concerns as a festival as a whole; to give space to the complexity of the politics and experiences of marginalised bodies. The glittering body is up ahead, and it is longer, wetter, faster and better.
Instances of Voice – Katharina Joy Book
In her memoir Feelings are Facts, choreographer Yvonne Rainer describes how she moved away from dance and towards using film and language as her medium – she came to believe that words were more specific and universal than the body and its functioning, which are uniquely personal. Across the live art works presented during Steakhouse Live festival, audiences encountered speech in various forms – artists met us with mediated language, subverted language, language out of bounds, and language painfully constrained. It became apparent to me that there is no possibility of speaking in a ‘universal’ way – how can words be blank slates if bodies aren’t?
The last day of the festival was dedicated to durational performances, and it is on this last evening of Steakhouse Live that Wright announces to those gathered in the Toynbee Studios’ café that Hester Chillingworth will be performing that day’s instalment of The Archers.
‘Oh, it’s you!’ Chillingworth’s piece, Home Correspondent, is a version of simultaneous translation – for the past seven hours, she has been transmitting live with her own voice what she hears on Radio 4 over headphones; the room erupts in laughter as someone opening the door and peeking into the performance space times perfectly with her repetition – ‘Oh, it’s you!’ – of the radio voice. Earlier in the day, a good hour or so had been spent transmitting the horticultural discussions on Gardeners’ Question Time to a delighted audience trying to follow her re-enactments with as much concentration as Chillingworth is employing to produce them. When it comes to The Archers, Chillingworth is still remarkably quick on her feet, reacting swiftly and projecting her voice as if on a large stage – yet more frequent become the moments where she interrupts herself laughing, caught off guard by what her unsuspecting mouth repeats.
My expectation had been that Chillingworth would be, in a sense, making the words she hears her own by embodying them in her speech – strangely, though, she seems to put a lot of effort into emulating intonations; such as the conventional rhythm of dialogue in film and theatre, for example – and even after seven hours, she is performing an assimilation to these familiar customs of performative speech.
“We may speak, but we never capture our words.” (Kenneth Goldsmith)
I am struck in this piece by the relationship between representation and ownership played out through the voice. Chillingworth is receiving words through her headphones, and speaking them out loud with minimal amount of filtering through thought. At the same time, though, these words pass through her as a person, the way she is and speaks, and how she herself receives language.
Chillingworth’s performance intends to open up conversations on what is known as ‘received pronunciation’ – defined as ‘the standard form of British English pronunciation, based on educated speech in southern England’. The history of received pronunciation sees the speech practice of a privileged social class, namely the privately educated, being set as standard for most of the 20th century, in dictionaries, for media broadcast through the BBC, and for export to English teaching programs worldwide. Chillingworth states that this ‘voice of Middle England’ is so dominant to her that she doesn’t even hear it anymore; in this performance, she is taking that immersion to the extreme, and what we witness are fluctuations between familiarity and unfamiliarity that are self-perpetuating for the duration of the piece.
I think about how my own consumption of radio is tied to my need for comfort, the need to be spoken to in familiar tones. I’ve realized that in doing that, I very much choose my voices – I want to hear American English, perpetuating the expansion of what I know as my comfort zone. Home Correspondent makes me consider all the different ways in which I have ‘received’ my pronunciation and manner of speech; and I wonder, instead of feeling comfortable in the sounds of the language surrounding me, what if I felt at odds with it, and thereby not represented?
In phonology, assimilation is a common phonological process by which one sound becomes more like a nearby sound.
In marikiscrycrycry’s performance A S S I M I L A T I O N, to the soft soundtrack of The Sound of Silence, a young black man scrambles for footing, reeling across the Rich Mix main stage, where Friday’s performances take place. A S S I M I L A T I O N deals with the real consequences of having no voice in a culture – taking as its central matter police shootings in the US, which gave visibility in the (white) mainstream media to just how vulnerable young black men are in this culture’s public space. Before marikiscrycrycry sets off on his own circular, repetitive protest march – blood blood bloody blood – the voice of Google Translate repeats chants and protest cries, coming from a laptop set up in the back corner of the stage: Black Lives Matter participant in my own life – when I’m dead I’m black. As in Hester Chillingworth’s piece, what is shown here is an act of regurgitation, in this case a regurgitation of the dominant narrative about black men’s identities.
I don’t know this for sure, but the English Google Translate voice sounds to my ears like a standardised, white woman’s voice. Trying to find out about the voice on the internet, I am surprised that there doesn’t seem to be any significant discourse about this dominant translation tool, and apps like this in general, as tools for normalization. What does it mean when a voice that is not your own is set as standard? When this voice is given agency, to speak of the struggle of your body? What does it mean to set standards in language? And do you become more agent than participant in your own life when you conform to the prevailing cultural image of what your identity is?
“As we dictate that the word must bear no trace of the non- normative body, we grant the word (and the technologies that produce it) a normative imperative.”
(Jay Dolmage: Writing Against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn)
Barri Holstein, in her work in progress showing, also plays the scales of representation and subversion. Through her use of a live feed, projected large scale from a hand held camera onto the back wall of the stage, it appears as if she were a celebrity on Snapchat, or a vlogger on Youtube – but the footage is always already uploaded. This mediated perspective is internalised and plays out in the act of recording even before the upload. What happens when what we say is viewed through the online medium, through a public channel, through the dimensions of a rectangular screen – and what does the internalization of this do to our communication (offline)? The constant prospect of an external viewer provokes more navel gazing, which is most obvious on social media platforms. Increasingly, in art and performance, content is framed to be viewed through a screen when shared on social media. At times during Barri Holstein’s performance I was watching the screen more closely than the live action. I wonder if that is to do with the dimensions of the screen as a large backdrop, or because I perceive the mediated image as having more authority. The screen dominates the current media landscape to the degree that I apparently take its superiority as given. Also, if an action is mediated by a screen, often it has been captured and framed for me – which makes it bite-sized, but intangible, and in many cases that means: easier to deal with.
Slipping into different pitches throughout her extravaganza – from high and obnoxious, to deep and dangerous – The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein toys with preconceptions for what a ‘decent’ woman’s voice sounds like, and what a predator’s voice sounds like. Hollywood, mainstream media, image culture at large, equip us with navigation tools in this area that are often less than helpful; there are multiple ideas in circulation on how a high-pitched voice supposedly attracts men, or how a low pitched voice supposedly attracts men, for example. Of course, when it comes to silence, there is the Bechdel test, designed to discern the level of active presence of women in films. The Bechdel test centers around the task of finding two women speaking to each other, about something other than a man; amazingly many films fail this test. This discussion around women’s voices in public spaces reminds me of the ‘vocal fry’ debate: also known as ‘popcorning’, ‘vocal fry’ describes the use of the lowest vocal register in speech, which produces a kind of popping sound. This speech habit has been described as an ‘epidemic’ ‘afflicting’ young American women – comparable to phenomena such as Uptalk and Valleyspeak, which supposedly render women less credible when they speak. This idea, in the end, was found to be an absolute myth – the hostility might have had much more to do with the fact that men were uncomfortable hearing young women speak confidently on public radio.
Even before watching her pee ceremoniously on popping candy, The Famous apologises for such digressions as ‘putting your tampons up my ass and then putting them back in the box’. It is this state of vertigo between intimacy, allure, and disgust which reveals the seductive powers of language, and the subversion of seductive clichés and mental shortcuts concerning women, femininity, and feminism.
Are our ears in good condition? (Michael Hessel-Mial: Conceptual Writing in the Time of Non-Indictment)
Emma Selwyn’s performance My Hands and Feet are Wiggling confronts viewers with awkwardness, with the immediacy and muddle of live speech painfully made aware. Coming on in a suit and still making up their hair, Selwyn creates a situation of public address gone slightly askew, at the end of which they erupt in joyful singing and dancing. Selwyn goes on to ask the audience ‘How can you be so still? My hands and my feet are wiggling –’, in a way that I, questionably, perceive as ‘unnatural’. Selwyn expresses this state of a body in sensory overload, when communication, especially in public spaces, is expected to function in a seamless and sterile way.
As part of the performance, Selwyn describes their translation of the pop song that forms the basis of My Hands and Feet are Wiggling from Japanese into English: Proceeding purely by sound of the words, likening them to similar sounding words in English, they then made up sentences freely from there. This is an act of playful transgression against the conventions of translation in academia, where the main aim is to convey the ‘original’ meaning of a piece of text as closely as possible.
“Creative misuses of language like homophonic translations and mondegreens as models of playful anarchy. Question linguistic structures, question political structures.” (Kenneth Goldsmith: Displacement is the new translation)
Established bodily norms express themselves in language, in grammar and in metaphors. Norms are very active: they are a means to control bodies, and to relegate those that don’t conform to the margins. In this culture, the ‘normal’, ‘able’ body is the white, male, straight, upper middle class; his body is thought of as free of ‘mistakes’.
By taking as given the bodily norms embedded in our language, we are disregarding the experience of those who do not conform to these norms. As exemplified in relation to the black body in A S S I M I L A T I O N, this attitude extends to translation technologies, and as tools like these are developed towards automation more and more, issues of representation and the perpetuation of damaging narratives will become increasingly urgent. If we think about language and speech as another system among many that govern our interpersonal relationships, then in works of Live Art the multiplicity of possible identities and their necessity to be expressed in language, is very potent.
“As we compose media, we must also —always— compose embodiment. (…) [W]e must be careful about which bodies we conceptualize.” (Jay Dolmage: Writing against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn)
We receive language before we can utter it; it shapes our identity, and we express this identity when we choose to speak. Verbal communication is a physical experience – there can simply be no sound made without the body. Thinking back to Yvonne Rainer’s point of view quoted in the beginning of this article, I would say that she doesn’t take into account there how in this way, the use of language is highly personal, too – and as such, how speech and language are socio-political battlegrounds. In Live Art, ‘othered’ identities make use of language in ways that shatter habitual ways of communication between people. The pieces in Steakhouse Live using language challenged systems of representation and receivership as they are shaped by language – thereby subverting expectations of comprehension and coherence.