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A Night of Performance Art Brings Soho Back to Its Roots

by David LaGaccia on July 11, 2012

Ginger Shulick arm wrestling Chester Zecca

Ginger Shulick arm wrestling Chester Zecca, who cheats as Death (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

It’s hard to walk around Soho by day without bumping into tourists carrying bags from Topshop or Uniqlo or some other obnoxious boutique store, so it’s nice to be able to head down Broadway during the evening and visit Spattered Columns Exhibition Space, an art gallery that shows off the neighborhood’s artistic roots.

Located at 491 Broadway, the gallery is on the fifth floor in a building across from Bloomingdales. Probably no bigger than an average New York apartment, it hosted a night of performance art on June 27 as a closing celebration for the exhibition Deconstructing the Habit. The event featured the work of artists Hannah Heilmann, Ann Hirsch, Nathaniel Sullivan, Matthew Silver and Angela Washko, plus a durational piece by Chester Zecca playing Death, who cheats at arm wrestling. If only the neighbors knew.

“This is where it all started,” said Ginger Shulick, executive director of Spattered Columns. “This is the birthplace of experimental art in New York City. It’s nice to show work where it all happened.” Shulick, who has colorful tattoos inked down her arms, has hosted performance art events in the gallery for three years; in fact, they began as fundraisers for the Lumen Festival, the night of video and performance art that took place on Staten Island a few weeks ago.

Many of the performance artists at Spattered Columns looked like they could have stepped out of paintings from Picasso’s rose period: they are modern-day harlequins, cheerful, charming, looking to explore the jest of our daily lives and to challenge the social and political world that surrounds us.

Hannah Heilmann performing

Hannah Heilmann performing “It wasn’t Like That. It Was Like This.”

In one corner was Hannah Heilmann, who was visiting from Copenhagen and performed a piece called “It Wasn’t Like That. It Was Like This.” During the performance, she appeared neglected, her face dirty and her hair matted. She sat at a desk strewn with trash — a pile of contact-lens bottles and wrapping, dirty cups of tea, tinfoil, a pile rubber bands — and passed the time by putting in contacts, making more tea, endlessly tapping on a laptop set on the desk, checking her email and looking at advertisements for cameras. She put some dry ice in the electric hot-water boiler, and a puff of smoke came out and crawled along the floor.

“She brings this weird alchemy,” said Angela Washko, the curator of the exhibition. The performance was wonderful in its decrepitness — a reminder of how often we stare at our computers and get so lost in our mundane routines that we forget about ourselves and the world around us.

In another corner was Nathaniel Sullivan, who performed a piece called “Before the Nation Went Bankrupt.” He read a love letter by J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to his wife, Judith Kent, while three others played the role of a Greek chorus. Sullivan mined the tragedy of the banking collapse to see if love and money can truly coexist.

Matthew Silver performed later in the night. I had run into Silver earlier in the day, when I saw him performing as a village idiot–type character in Union Square. His sign says “Matthew Silver the great performer,” but the crowd seemed unsure if he was acting or crazy. It was interesting to see him take a piece that would typically happen outdoors and bring it inside a gallery setting. In both cases you could see similarities: he knows how to get the crowd involved, laughing, clapping and yelling while he performs. Filling his piece with odd pauses, he forced the viewers to guess when he was finished and when they should start clapping.

“I always think the crowd wants to perform just as much as you do,” he told me.

Exhibition curator Angela Washko

Exhibition curator Angela Washko, wearing a blond wig, reads some of the comments she got about feminism in “World of Warcraft.”

The last performance of the night was by Ann Hirsch. She started by slinking out of a closet and into a rectangle, see-through plastic container, wearing nothing but a one-piece swimsuit and a pair of high heels. She held a tall glass of heavy whipping cream (she said she had practiced earlier with water) in hand and, by blowing into a straw, splattered it on her face and chest, rubbing it all over her body until it was all gone, or until she couldn’t stand the taste.

“A lot of my work is narrative based, but recently I was like, ‘I want to use my body!’” Hirsch said. She has been using her body to explore her performance and try to find her voice in her work. “Is this art true to myself, or is this art something that I’m supposed to do?” she asked.

Deconstructing the Habit had been running since June 6 and was curated by performance artist and independent curator Angela Washko, an artist in residence at Flux Factory who performs at local venues throughout New York City. She explained that she proposed the exhibition a year ago, hoping to encourage people to look at our values of beauty and greed, our daily routines and other social structures, in order to try to subvert them and help us break free of habits. She said that she wanted each performance to explore the question, “Why are you doing the things you’re doing to subvert this lifestyle?”

Washko’s performance consisted of her playing the role-playing game (RPG) World of Warcraft while a live feed of the game was projected onto a wall. After logging in, she took her character into Orgrimmar, a populated city in the game, and started a dialogue with other players, asking questions like, “How do you define feminism?”

Responses ranged from quick, snide comments — “child support” — to offensive statements like, “Women are lower creatures.” It was even more depressing that Washko had three stills hanging on the wall in the gallery that showed similar comments by other players from a previous performance.

Angelo Washko, "The Council On Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in RPGs. World Of Warcraft Explains Feminism #1"

Angelo Washko, “The Council On Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in RPGs. World Of Warcraft Explains Feminism #1″

Washko called her work “super political” because “it came out of this urge to mobilize the community.” She said that this performance was just the first phase in an ongoing project, “The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness,” which looks at and creates a dialogue about feminism in World of Warcraft and other RPGs.

The gallery also featured interesting artwork by other performers such as Yana Dimitrova and duo Zehra Khan & Tim Winn, who had performed earlier in the exhibition but were not present closing night. Their work was interesting, blending photography with painting and blurring the line between what was captured on film and what was painted later. It was like looking at a cartoon brought to life.

Zehra Khan and Tim Winn, “The Pawn Shop – Fox Proprietors” (2011), inkjet print, 20 x 27″ (photo via zehrakhan.com)

The night ended around 9 pm, with everybody standing outside on Broadway. The forty or so people who had attended dwindled to twenty. The performance artists formed a steady line, walking past the shops toward Canal Street, looking for a good bar to hang out at and talk about the night.

Deconstructing the Habit was on view at Spattered Columns (491 Broadway, Soho, Manhattan) from June 6 through June 28.

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