PERFORMA 09 in review: Part 2

The second of two reports from the third edition of New York’s performance art biennial

Guido van der Werve: Nummer twaalf

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Photograph: Paradise Gonzalez

Sparsely decorated with plaques, trophies and photographs of intense figures hunched over chessboards, the narrow townhouse that is home to Manhattan’s Marshall Chess Club – a former haunt of Marcel Duchamp and Bobby Fischer – conjures an aura of asceticism, of innumerable hours sacrificed practicing a game with countless possible outcomes. It was there that, for his video Nummer twaalf (Number Twelve), Guido van der Werve was filmed playing grand master Leonid Yudasin on an ingenious ‘chess piano’ whose squares function like piano keys. On a stormy night he returned to perform on it live with composer Benjamin Boyle, accompanied by the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.

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The three movements of Nummer elf: The King’s Gambit Accepted, The Number of Stars in the Sky & Waiting for an Earthquake (2008–9) echo an opening, middle game and endgame, but the performance seemed to start before the first movement when the poker-faced artist pressed down a rook so the musicians could tune their instruments. After a handshake, the music – and game – began. The lush composition evoked moody introspection, but there were also witty moments, such as when castling (a move in which a rook swaps places with a king) caused two notes to ring out together.

Given the themes of futility threaded through Van der Werve’s work, it’s appropriate that the performance concluded with a dramatic stalemate. Afterward a white-haired club member with a Russian accent remarked to me on how the game’s ‘liveliness’ contrasted with the melancholy score. His wife later advised me, with obvious pride, never to marry a chess player because ‘they’re completely obsessed.’

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers: K.85/K.62

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Photograph: Paradise Gonzalez

A more shadowy and labyrinthine site inspired Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers’ K.85/K.62. On arriving at the Henry Street Settlement, I was given a blue ticket and pointed to a bunker-like space containing an empty stage, a smattering of audience members and an oboist noodling away in a dim corner. Twenty minutes later we were told there had been a mistake and joined streams of others entering a larger theatre, where in 1937 Orson Welles directed a cast of schoolchildren in Aaron Copland’s operetta Second Hurricane.

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Welles’ 1962 film The Trial was a more direct source, as was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), though how was revealed gradually, as women with walkie-talkies tracked the location of ‘K’s, who materialized throughout the evening – audience members whose tickets had sent them to various locations in Scorsese’s film and then through a door at the back of the stage in front of us. Meanwhile, the plot deepened with orchestral renditions of music from The Trial’s score, a flock of laughing white-gowned children, a Wellesian doppelgänger and a magic trick. After the ‘K’s were accounted for, our intermingled journeys – which for some involved a lot of Josef K-style waiting – culminated in Welles’s mellifluous voice reading the credits for The Trial, as if we had entered into the space of the film.

Darius Miksys: Artists’ Parents Meeting

Do parents play a role in creating artists? At e-flux Darius Miksys facilitated a meeting of parents of artists to discuss the question. Martha Rosler brought her son, the cartoonist Joshua Neufeld, who recalled that he ‘couldn’t imagine engaging with the world intellectually the way she did’ but was able to think of himself as an artist when he discovered alternative cartooning. Rosler remembered forgoing film and selling furniture on the street to buy him milk but admitted a reluctance to make him ‘Exhibit A’ because she doesn’t think she produced him any more than her more dismissive parents produced her. (Although she did say at one point that ‘I didn’t believe in talent until I met him’.) Some parents said they’d wanted to be artists themselves; others had been captivated by their children’s insights and enthusiasm. After setting things in motion, Miksys remained silent until the end of the discussion, when he credited his parents with allowing him to take risks, saying, ‘My parents support me although they think I’m doing nothing.’

Deborah Hay: If I Sing to You / Yvonne Rainer: Spiraling Down

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Yvonne Rainer, Spiraling Down. Photograph: Paula Court

At the Baryshnikov Arts Center the double bill of Deborah Hay’s If I Sing to You and Yvonne Rainer’s Spiraling Down brought two eminent choreographers together for the first time in more than two decades – and the pairing was nearly seamless.

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Deborah Hay, If I Sing to You. Photograph: Paula Court

In the hilarious, sometimes bawdy If I Sing to You, female dancers, some in drag, tied singing and glossolalia to movement in revelatory ways. Humorous yet melancholy, Spiraling Down, performed by four female Rainer regulars, drew on sources including mincing soccer moves and Steve Martin movies and incorporated verbal snippets ranging from novelist Haruki Murakami’s meditations on running to references to Facebook.

Dexter Sinister: The First/Last Newspaper

Journalism may be suffering a failure of nerve in the slippery media landscape to which Rainer’s piece alluded, but for The First/Last Newspaper, Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey) collaborated with writers, designers and artists to create six exuberant broadsheets, distributed throughout the city, that examined the media’s past, present and future from many absorbing angles. The action took place in a temporary office set up near the New York Times, like a burnt offering placed at the feet of the gods of the press. I visited on the last day, not realizing that the workshop had been shuttered after leftover broadsheets were used as fish-and-chips wrappers the night before; through a tear in the brown paper lining the glass storefront, I glimpsed only a box of papers on a table. Meanwhile, despite the Times’ uncertain fate, its futuristic new building on the opposite side of the street still beamed with lights.

James Hoff: How Wheeling Feels When the Ground Walks Away

The past, and the difficulty of engaging with the present, also haunted James Hoff’s How Wheeling Feels When the Ground Walks Away, whose poetic-sounding title was meant to evoke ‘detachment.’ With lights snuffed, we stood in the middle of a circle of speakers at Artists Space as sounds of modern warfare and rioting at concerts revolved around us in overlapping waves of bellowed expletives, grinding machinery, shrieks, cheers and sirens. Hoff found the poster’s eerie image of a masked police officer nonchalantly aiming tear gas at the camera in a 1960s gun manual.

Alicia Framis: Lost Astronaut

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Unfinished business from the 20th century generated still more unease in Alicia Framis’ Lost Astronaut, which imagined a female astronaut adrift on Earth, never having been allowed to travel to the moon. In a gentle parody and a reminder of lunar exploration’s imaginative potential, she carried out instructions from a team of writers and artists while wearing a Russian spacesuit. Her SoHo ‘base camp’ offered Le Corbusier’s chaise longue, designs for moon architecture and a Mad Men–esque secretary who tapped on a vintage typewriter.

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Whenever I visited, Framis was showering or out wandering where I was unable to find her, but in the end it seemed appropriate that I had to follow her progress through typewritten documentation, mysteriously telegraphic reports posted on the web, and melancholy photos of her riding the subway, planting flags or viewing the lights of Times Square.

Loris Greaud: The Snorks, a Concert for Creatures

It was also in Times Square that a video from Loris Gréaud’s The Snorks, a Concert for Creatures – an ongoing project that began in Abu Dhabi with fireworks mimicking marine bioluminescence by pyrotechnicians Groupe F accompanied by music by Antipop Consortium – screened on large LED screens at midnight. In its ‘trailer’ form, The Snorks… was somewhat anemic, but its bluish, silently shimmering explosions smuggled another dose of fruitful disorientation into the heart of the New York.

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.