PORTLAND, Oregon — On a trip to Portland last month, I encountered a number of artists who use writing’s structures and processes to order performance behaviors. But for Lisa Radon, it’s reading, not writing, that serves as the moment of performance. Over soup, Radon and I discussed reading as a shared act of creation between the reader and the writer: every time a piece is read, it becomes, in some sense, a new text. Radon believes performance is an “activator” — something that, beyond showing an audience action in the immediate moment, creates a change or consequence in people’s lives. She works primarily in the creation and publication of text as ongoing actions. Her 2012 piece “ἐπί ἡμέρα” involved eight hours of hand writing within an austere installation (she favors white in her work and her dress code), evoking a kind of monastic discipline. Ritual, Radon told me, allows people to do real work.
Jessalyn Wakefield and Stacey Tran are both Portland-based writers who are just beginning to work in a performative format. I attended the first live performance of their first collaboration, “OUR DEVOUR”: a meal set in a loft church space in Northeast Portland. Met at the church door by a veiled figure carrying a lantern (Wakefield), the other guests and I were led into the main performance space and to a long table. We sat waiting, making small talk with each other, for about 10 minutes, until Tran and Wakefield, our high priestesses, began to speak. They led us through some of the actions of a religious repertoire (stand up, sit down, center on something spiritual, consider where you are) as well asking us to become more present in our bodies (concentrate on breath). No cues were given for us to eat, although there were baskets of bread, wedges of brie, oranges, fish roe, and olives on the table. Eventually we were served soup, without spoons. Later, we received some pickled fish and mushrooms, and thin slices of star fruit. At one point everyone was blindfolded, then left to their own devices as they nibbled. As the physical stimuli increased, language from the performers waned. After the salad course (the final one), the audience was left to end the work, a moment that went on for far longer than the performers seemed to desire.
Of course, a meal itself is a kind of ritual. But set against the backdrop of a nonsense religious service with elements of yoga-speak, Catholicism, S&M, and other less identifiable linguistic tropes, the meal also takes on the significance of an anchor. Wakefield and Tran manufactured a beautiful scene, but one that wasn’t entirely controlled. The real work here was neither the performed text nor the elaborate (though not always delicious) dinner, but the experiential oddness manufactured for the participant-guests. I spent approximately two-thirds of the work in a state of extreme skepticism — a state that was only broken when, along with our salads, we were given an assortment of dollar-store toys and games to play with. The absurdity of dinosaur stickers, tiny notebooks, puzzles, and Slinkies helped break the ice of individual skeptical isolation and unite the group in camaraderie. Finally, we knew whether or not it was right to laugh.
The comfort of ritual allows performance to behave as a kind of stabilizing gift. Perhaps the “real work” that Lisa Radon references is the difficult work of generosity and hospitality — two states of giving that live art necessarily conjures, whether or not these elements are consciously acknowledged. To present a series of familiar or repetitive actions gives the audience members space to read a piece in their own way. That allows for a wonderful, but dangerous, openness. Not knowing whether an audience will laugh or cry — or rather, giving them equal permission to do either, both, or neither — makes the creative moment a fluid and untrustworthy thing. To read makes live art live again.
“OUR DEVOUR” took place on November 5 at the Alberta Abbey (126 NE Alberta Street, Portland, Oregon).
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