The 11th edition of French Institute/Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line Festival in New York took its name seriously, presenting work that traversed cultural and national borders and toured the cosmos.
The Special Artist Focus for this edition is on Congolese performer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula, whose pieces, shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the NYU Skirball Center, narrate their own creation. Linyekula is an easygoing, warm stage presence who projects assurance and calm. As Linyekula explained during the performance at the Met, Banataba [new work] began with his commission for the festival. Linyekula started by investigating the Met’s collection of Congolese art, and this in turn led him back to his mother’s village, which he had not visited since 1974. The commission resulted in a sculpture of a man that can be assembled from its wooden parts.
The audio track for Banataba alternated between recorded segments and the artist singing or talking into his body mike. Linyekula and the one other performer used pieces of the sculpture as rhythm instruments, striking them together or against the floor. They both wore black and draped themselves with large swaths of black fabric at certain points. The black costumes and white marble environment curiously cooled the live presence in contrast with the colorful settings of the Congo pictured in the video segments. The performance started with a slow procession by the two, while a video shot in the Congo was projected onto the plinth of a statue, wrapped in white fabric; at the end, video portraits of individuals from the Congo were projected onto the upper level of the courtyard in which the performance took place.
Linyekula’s story about the representation of his culture persuades forcefully in the context of the Metropolitan Museum, which is dominated by occidental art from the Greeks and Romans through the American Century. It was almost as if the building itself resisted the story. The cold acoustics of the two-story 16th-century Vélez Blanco courtyard at the Met, with its marble walls and floors, muddled Linyekula’s softly accented English. The base of the plinth onto which the first videos were projected was at floor level and could not be seen by anyone sitting past the front row. At the end, the two performers tried to assemble the sculpture to stand for a final tableau in the spotlight, but the figure fell apart several times before they got it to hold. Several attempts to insert its penis failed, and Linyekula was forced to hold it through the end of the performance.
In Search of Dinozord (Sur les traces de Dinozord), Linyekula’s piece at the Skirball Center, also reflects on the frustrating process of creating a performance. Linyekula wanted to go back to his village for the burial of a friend, but one of their circle of friends was unable to attend because he was in exile. His exile implicated the bloody history of the Congo.
Just as in Banataba, the black and white costumes were stark, as was the set. A red stripe running from the ceiling to the floor, a few thin strips of tape, and lines of light projected on the stage asserted the barest suggestion of a space, like the axes of the Cartesian coordinate system.
The soundtrack through the early part of the show was the sometimes painful screech of voices sped up to the point of unintelligibility, along with other acoustic interference. Mozart’s Requiem and various recordings by Arvo Pärt and Jimi Hendrix provided music, as well as the lovely live voice of countertenor Serge Kakudji. Four actor-dancers completed Linyekula’s ensemble.
The meta-performance narrative, though often submerged or lost, led nonetheless to presenting Linyekula’s exiled friend, Antoine Vumilia Muhindo, by live video. A surprisingly cheerful man, he told his story, after a brief sketch of the successive brutal dictatorships in the Congo over the last fifty years. He was arrested in connection with one of the coups d’état and imprisoned for years, until he managed to escape. His story was unbearable to hear: torture, deprivation, and exile. Like the history of the Congo, its pain was unrelenting.
Annie Dorsen’s The Great Outdoors, at Florence Gould Hall, takes quite a different approach to storytelling. A computer program generates the text anew for each performance of the piece, pulling posted comments from a designated set of web sites. “A virtual landscape made of language” is how she describes the script.
Despite the machine-produced script, the piece was performed in a cozy campground setting, with pillows arranged on the floor in two circles around a projector. All of this was inside an inflated dome on the stage. Kaija Matiss, who has a perfect radio voice, read from a laptop screen while seated in the outer circle. At the performance I attended, the text began with many decontextualized monosyllabic utterances and evolved into longer speeches. The body, sexuality, politics, relationships, and mathematical formulas were recurring motifs.
The highlight was the projections, by Ryan Holsopple, on the dome overhead. At the start they seemed to be a co-mingling of the desert and a bayou landscape. As Matiss began to read, the sky darkened gradually, and “stars” emerged — the non-twinkling lights in fact more resembled planets than stars. The view of the heavens drifted through space, around what might have been the Milky Way in 3-D modeling, with stars clustered in dense purplish clouds. The space inverted from sky to earth, and flipped again.
A whirring musical background, like insects in a lower pitch, wove through the performance, sometimes overwhelming the spoken word, which proved less interesting than the visuals. With reality in the United States at a bizarre extreme, I welcomed Dorsen’s chance to escape Earth and voyage through the stars.