Fresh Performance: Contemporary Performance Art in New York City and the Caribbean
The Fresh Performance Project is a collaborative, experimental documentary project by FRESH MILK’s off-site resident artist Damali Abrams, focusing on performance artists based in the Caribbean and New York City.
Damali Abrams is a New York City-based artist working primarily in video. She received her BA at New York University and her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Damali was a 2009-10 A.I.R. Gallery fellowship recipient. Her work has been shown in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Memphis, New Orleans, Denver, and Miami. In New York City, her work has been exhibited at The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA), A.I.R. Gallery, JCAL, Rush Arts Gallery and BRIC Rotunda Gallery, among others. Damali is a member of the women’s artist collective tART and one of the NYC coordinators for The Feminist Art Project.
Chapter 1: Defining Performance
Fresh Performance is an experimental documentary that I am working on through a seven-month off-site residency with Fresh Milk. Each month I will interview one artist in New York City and one in the Caribbean concerning different aspects of performance in their respective practices and post the videos online. I will then edit them all into a full-length documentary. My intention is that as artists we can connect with and learn from each other through our work. In my own practice, I use my art as my therapy, my school, my playground and also my surrogate when I need to communicate things that I do not know how to communicate otherwise. Through this project I am studying performance via conversations with a group of exceptional contemporary artists. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to collaborate with Fresh Milk and all of these talented makers.
Art itself is a nebulous concept that eludes definition. Performance art is that much more precarious. I am drawn to performance because it can encapsulate just about anything else from any medium or discipline. It seems to be somewhat lawless and anarchic. But that is my own personal definition. In chapter one of Fresh Performance, artists Sandra Vivas, originally from Venezuela, currently living in Dominica, and Nyugen E. Smith from Jersey City, share their own definitions.
I met with Nyugen at 59th and Columbus in New York City on a very chilly early Spring day. It was far windier than expected and we scouted around for a location that would not provide too many audio challenges. We tried inside of a mall, a hotel lobby and finally Nyugen suggested a tunnel at Central Park. It turned out to be perfect.
Sandra Vivas and I met on Google Hangout. Despite many technical difficulties, she and I had a very warm conversation. It was more like speaking with a friend I had known for years rather than someone I was meeting for the first time online. Sandra shared that while she enjoys living in Dominica, she feels very isolated creatively and has not done any performance art there.
This project is a work-in-progress and as stated above, Fresh Performance is intended to remain an open discussion so please feel free to share any questions, comments and critiques.
– damali abrams
Chapter 2: Performing Gender
We begin learning the rules of gender performance at birth from the compulsory colors we are dressed in to being told “girls don’t do this” or “boys don’t do that”. Performance art can be an effective tool for exaggerating the performative aspects of gender identity in order to comment on the societal limitations that come with whatever gender box we check off. Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow and Alberta Whittle are two interdisciplinary artists who utilize performance to comment on many issues, including gender and sexuality.
Jodie invited me to her live/work space in Ridgewood, Queens on a Tuesday evening after work. Appropriately when I went to visit Jodie she was baking banana bread. Both Jodie and Alberta have performed pieces that involve distributing bananas to audience members, though in different contexts.
Jodie’s performance, Crop Killa, “references Jamaica’s once self sufficient agriculture to its economic decline partially due to loans by IMF and the World Bank in the mid 1970’s”. Alberta’s performance, Hustle de Money, is a “critique of the visual language and gender stereotypes dominant in fete [party] posters” in Barbados.
Even though Jodie and I are good friends I learned a lot about her work from this interview. Alberta and I had a long deep conversation about gender performance and the global dangers that women face daily from street harassment to rape and kidnapping.
It was enlightening speaking with both Jodie and Alberta and I have much more footage than I could possibly fit into this video. Hopefully when I edit the full-length documentary it will give viewers an opportunity to get a better sense of these two amazing artists.
Special thanks to kiza, who is based in Serbia and provided the music for this video.
– damali abrams
Chapter 3: Performance & Power
Power is a complex notion. There are so many systems of power that seem to control our destinies with so many groups feeling oppressed for various reasons. In American society, which cultural critic bell hooks describes as ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, power is held foremost by wealthy straight white men. The quality of the institutions we have access to such as healthcare, education, and employment are dependent upon our ability to appeal to those in power for whatever scraps they choose to share with the rest of us.
Thankfully there are many groups and individuals who continue to insist upon quality of life for all people, as there have been throughout history. Many artists utilize performance as a means to confront these systems and speak truth to power. However I think that Ewan Atkinson and Seyhan Musaoglu‘s work challenges systems of power in more subtle ways.
Ewan Atkinson’s work plays on the Caribbean tradition of masquerade. As in the custom of playing mas, Ewan intends to challenge the viewer to step out from the comfort zones of our day-to-day personas. Though he does not view this as a subversive act, I think that challenging our comfort zones is often a great catalyst for personal and collective transformation. Since Ewan’s use of performance is mostly in performative photographs, he is hesitant to call it performance art. Definitions and classifications can be very slippery as we saw in Chapter One of this documentary, Defining Performance. But for the purposes of The Fresh Performance Project, I am interested in art that includes performance of any kind.
Seyhan Musaoglu’s work explores the radical possibilities of sound art performance. I met Seyhan years ago when we both showed our work at Synthetic Zero events at Bronx Art Space. Later she included my work in SØNiK Fest, a festival of sound, video, interactive media, and live performance that she curates.
Seyhan and I were scheduled to meet up for her interview during the beginning of the Occupy Gezi protests in Turkey. When she told me that we had to reschedule because she was attending daily solidarity protests outside of the Turkish consulate in midtown Manhattan, I decided to film her at a protest. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to document the performance of the power of the people. Though Seyhan is quick to point out that her art is separate from her activism, her work is rooted in feminism and deconstructing elitist art world ideas. She is also a classically trained guitarist who emphasizes the importance of learning the structure of music before experimenting with creating new sounds or noise art. It was especially exciting to be able to include two examples of Seyhan’s sound art as the soundtrack for this chapter of the documentary.
– damali abrams
Chapter 4: Performing Love
Is there anything left to be said about love that hasn’t already been said? Poets and songwriters have been trying to pin down an apt way to describe love for centuries. Yet that doesn’t stop each generation from making an attempt. Some see love as hokey, trite or cliche and may think that it has no place in contemporary art.
Shanika Grimes and Shani Peters address love in their work in somewhat different ways. Shanika’s work explores familial love from the point of view of a young wife and mother, while Shani’s work is more about her love of Black people and communal progress.
Though Shanika had a wonky internet connection , we had an engaging conversation where she described becoming a wife and mother at age 20. Rather than merely sinking under the weight of these hefty roles, Shanika transformed her circumstances into transcendent art. I think that this demonstrates a great self-love as well. As artists many times our practice is what helps us to cope with situations in our lives that we may not feel equipped to handle otherwise.
Shanika beautifully articulates the pressures of a woman in the Caribbean who chooses to marry and have children. She makes important connections between patriarchy, misogyny, corporal punishment and spousal abuse. Shanika makes it easy to see that when women are viewed as merely food dispensers or the property of their family, it creates an environment where men feel comfortable abusing them (as well as their children).
I chose Shani for this chapter of the documentary because of her amazing project called ‘We Promote Knowledge and Love.’ For this interventionist performance, Shani and her enlisted volunteers don sandwich boards with the words “We Promote Knowledge and Love” emblazoned on them and hand out fliers with inspirational quotes from legendary thought leaders like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. I have participated in this performance in Brooklyn as well as in Harlem for the African American Day Parade and I must say that it is truly a labor of love. Many NYC residents are familiar with the sandwich board flier distributors with fliers that read “We Buy Gold and Diamonds” who work for local pawn brokers. Shani remixed this idea with her own sandwich board performance. During our candid conversation in her Harlem studio, Shani spoke about social justice and activism as acts of love.
It was interesting editing these two artists together and seeing the connections between romantic love, maternal love and love of community.
– damali abrams
Chapter 5: How Performance Communicates
I think that art is above all a form of communication. As much as I derive great pleasure from the mere act of making, no work feels complete to me until I share it with someone else. For artists who utilize performance, that communication has the potential for deep levels of intimacy. Performance can include one’s voice and body and energy with a sense of immediacy not always available through other mediums, as well as extreme vulnerability.
Both Zachary Fabri and Michelle Isava use performance to communicate their personal experiences. Zachary’s work largely pulls from the Black experience in the U.S. while Michelle’s work explores her concerns a as a young Trinidadian woman. A lot of Michelle’s work is very raw and visceral as she places her body in various scenarios, combines herself with technological machines, lays her body on the ground and interacts with the landscape. Zachary inserts his body in spaces throughout various New York City communities in order to make political statements. Sitting on a street corner or running down the block with helium balloons tied to his knee-length locs, leading visitors through exercises in popular museum lobbies or pushing himself down the streets of Alphabet City in a milk crate on wheels.
Ironically or (aptly?), I had more communication problems trying to schedule interviews with these two artists than with any of the prior chapters. Whether it was travel or just the usual drama of life, it was a feat trying to find a moment when I could speak with Zachary and Michelle. However, when we were finally able to connect, both conversations were fruitful and informative. I was curious about the way that these artists consider communication with viewers throughout their creative processes. It was interesting to hear Michelle talk about the differences between performing in Trinidad, Venezuela and Germany. Of course the same gesture can communicate very differently in different cultures. Zachary spoke about the way that viewers of different races experience his work and the ways that affects his practice.
I continue to learn through this project that artists turn to performance when what they seek to communicate will not manifest through any other form. In grad school I learned that in order to be effective, art has to have the intention to communicate something specific, something beyond that pleasure of making. Both Zachary and Michelle have powerful intentions that they communicate very clearly through their work and I hope that I have been able to communicate that as clearly through this video.
– damali abrams
Chapter 6: Intuition & Vision in Performance
Being an artist means being able to trust one’s intuition. Intuition may be viewed as an abstract concept. Some may even think it is nonsense, the kind of foolishness that intellectuals or sensible people do not discuss. Since artists are often dismissed as senseless dreamers, intuition is risky territory for us to cop to. Contemporary art is about research and rigor, strong concepts and aesthetic concerns. Of course all of these elements, as well as technique and skill are crucial to the work. Yet that does not diminish the importance of intuition.
Growing up I remember hearing my mother exclaiming in frustration, “I should have followed my mind!” anytime she ignored her intuition and faced negative consequences. This always stuck with me and as a result I try to follow my own intuition as much as possible, especially when it comes to making art. My practice is very research-based and I love to read and write about a project extensively before, during and after creating it. But at some point I have to surrender to my muse and follow the art wherever it takes me.
Suspecting that other artists might approach their processes similarly, I interviewed Brooklyn-based artist Maria Hupfield, who is a member of Wasauksing First Nation, and Jamaican artist Olivia McGilchrist. Both use their own bodies to explore issues of culture and race in order to address universal concepts such as connectivity and alienation. They both also utilize costumes and props in creating the scenarios in their performances. These artists begin with a clear concept, an ideal vision of how their performances will manifest. But at some point they let go and allow the performance to carry them in order to create change by furthering dialogue about pertinent issues in their respective communities.
Maria Hupfield is a multi-disciplinary artist who creates the objects that she uses in her performances along with bodily gestures and her voice. These tools facilitate her performances, which are part of what she deems “new conversations.” However there is simultaneously a timeless as well a futuristic quality to her work. I met with Maria in her studio in an industrial area of Brooklyn. In performance, Maria is bold and confident. Yet in casual conversation she is soft-spoken and very careful about her thoughts and words. Talking with her it became clear that she applies the same careful consideration to her work so that by the time she arrives in front of an audience she can embody that sense of confidence and clarity.
Olivia McGilchrist was born in Jamaica to a French mother and a Jamaican father. She spent most of her life in Europe and suddenly had to return to Jamaica two years ago. This is the impetus for her alter ego “Whitey.” This work is not only about Olivia’s experiences of whiteness in Jamaica. She hopes to raise questions about whiteness in the Caribbean context. Olivia is using performance to help process these heavy personal as well as societal concerns.
This is my final posting for my six-month off-site residency with Fresh Milk. I am so grateful to Fresh Milk and all of the amazing artists that I have had the opportunity to speak with and learn from during this time.
What I did not reveal is that the six chapters of the Fresh Performance Project were based on the chakras, which are energy centers throughout our body. There are seven that people tend to focus on and I used these as the template for this project, inspired by the work of performance artist Linda Montano.
The first chakra is the root chakra and it is the place of grounding. So chapter one was about defining performance art in order to ground the project.
The second chakra is the sacral chakra and concerns sexual matters and chapter two focused on gender and sexuality.
The third chakra is the solar plexus and is our power center so of course chapter three was about performance and power.
The fourth chakra is the heart chakra and is all about love, as was chapter four.
The fifth chakra is the throat chakra and governs communication. Chapter five discussed how performance communicates.
The sixth chakra is our third eye, which is the space of intuition and here we are at chapter six: intuition and vision.
The seventh chakra, the crown chakra, is about Divine connection and oneness. Instead of a seventh chapter, this chakra will be represented by a full-length documentary bringing together all of the artists I have interviewed over the last six months. The intention of Fresh Performance was to learn about the connections and differences amongst artists working with performance in NYC and those in the Caribbean. I have learned a tremendous amount, not only about performance art and contemporary Caribbean art, but also about kindness, generosity and the ways in which we are all connected.
For the next four weeks I will be in residence at Fresh Milk as well as Groundation Grenada completing this project. I will contribute weekly blog posts to FreshMilkBarbados.com documenting the experience. Please also check out damaliabrams.tumblr.com for less formal updates.
Thank you so much to all of the artists who have participated and a huge thank you to Fresh Milk and Groundation Grenada! Also, thank you the U.S. Embassy for funding this amazing residency. I am infinitely grateful for this opportunity.
– damali abrams