“Sands make the mountain, moments make the year.” —Edward Young, as quoted by James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson
Esther Neff has hooks in her conversation that make you want to pull your seat a little bit closer. Her speech is that of a native Hoosier (although without the extra s’s), and it has a nasal tonality, remnants of a speech impediment that has been diminished through voice training. “I needed to learn to speak from the back of my mouth,” Neff said. She talks in a quick-witted, assertive manner that rubs off on the people around her. “I owe everything to her,” said Brian McCorkle, co-director of Panoply Performance Laboratory and Esther’s boyfriend, referring to his own speech.
A performance artist, Neff is frank in how she defines what she does and how she goes about doing it, calling performance art “the act of being”: “To study the act of being, you have to study it by doing it. Performance art is a discipline, not a medium.” She has a remarkable need to know, with stacks of art magazines — Artforum and such — in her gallery and opinions on psychology and philosophy in her mind. In the city, she could probably relate Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Lacan in the same sentence, cast it off and talk about performance art and the nature of theorizing several minuets later; in the country, she could name birds as they perch on feeders and the flashpoints of different types of firewood as they ignite.
Once, late one evening when a group was leaving the Center for Performance Research and talking about seeing another friend at a party in Bushwick, Neff started a conversation about freezing the yoke inside an egg. Just to prove that it could be done, she pulled out a small bowl from her nearby cart that happened to have ice reaching to the lip and a single white egg standing in the center. She struggled to free it without anything to chip away the ice, at which point McCorkle gave her a hatchet, placing it with alacrity in her hands. She chopped and quartered the bowl, leaving ceramic shards all over the sidewalk and then revealing to everyone a small, yellow egg sorbet in the palm of her hand. Like her words, her actions have a direct form of reasoning.
Together, Neff and McCorkle run Panoply Performance Lab, a gallery devoted to making performance operas and “social arts projects,” at 104 Meserole Street in Brooklyn. It’s a small building with multicolored streamers tied from a nearby No Parking sign to their neighbor’s door. Spread Art had previously been there, another performance-art gallery founded and run by Thomas Bell and Christina deRoos, who both now live in Detroit. “It was just an empty garage filled with junk,” said Bell, who renovated the space by knocking down walls and adding lofts for storage.
Inside, Panoply is sparse, with the necessary furniture clinging to the walls. The aesthetic is one of a little boy’s or girl’s metropolitan tree house, complete with a cubby shelf by the entrance, scattered chairs and stools and a workbench piled with pencils, brushes and art projects that can be described as “in-progress.” Parts of a piano are mounted under an open window by the door, and you can strum the metal strings and startle passersby outside. There is a makeshift kitchen in the back, with a portable twin burner plugged into the wall and a shelf of canned beans hanging above, and an old wooden piano off to the side where McCorkle can spend his time entertaining late night guests or composing for his next project.
“I would say my own music is concept based, and whatever the concept is, I want to investigate it,” said McCorkle. “I tried to make music more flexible. Hopefully, if I did my job correctly, everybody can do what they want. I try to make my music foolproof, so if somebody makes a mistake, misses a note, the music can still come out.” He said his influences are the people he has worked with, including now-retired Brooks Grantier, under whom he sung in the Battle Creek Boychoir, when he lived in Michigan, and composer Robert Ashley, from whom he learned “discipline, constant effort, the amount of effort needed to get over the basic plateau.”
“I think I just learned what it was to work with a group of people,” he added about Ashley, “and to trust yourself, because, man, he is a special guy. I used to be the bad cop, and Esther used to be the good cop. It’s your work, but it’s not only your work; it becomes more collaborative. It’s taken a couple of years for me to open the process to other people, and it’s good.”
She the librettist and he the musician, the two have written operas and worked on projects together since they were both students at the University of Michigan. She graduated with a degree in performance, and he graduated with degrees in comparative literature and music. Usually they compose the music and write the libretto individually, though that is not always the case. “We do different sections in different ways, ” said Neff. “Sometimes he has a structure he wants to do.”
“I would take the text and destroy it and put it in musical forms,” said McCorkle. “We always go about these operas — if they’re going to be very long, then we cut and cut.”
“He’s a good editor,” Neff added, “taking sections out and putting sections in. We took out one entire act [referring to their opera Nature Fetish]. I don’t think people can handle any more than 70 minutes.”
Their works are called performance operas and have titles like Institute_Institut, The Last Dreams of Helene Weigel or How to Get Rid of The Feminism Once and For All, On the Cranial Nerves of Barbarians, Time: A Complete Explanation in 3 Parts and their most recent piece, Nature Fetish. Depending on the opera, they work with many different types of artists, such as trained singers, trained actors, amateurs of all kinds, musicians, poets, plus the audience and whoever else they think can bring a voice to performance art — a form that, however expressive, seems to remain silent or pantomimic much of the time.
“I really like singing as a performance art; it’s one of the absurd things we do,” said Neff. The act of singing is really important. You’re trying to hit certain notes and certain note structures. There’s the desperation of trying to communicate. A group of people singing is a very specific act.”
“When we say performance art opera, there’s an explosion of ‘What are you talking about?’” said McCorkle. “We approach it with the same mindset of someone who historically would be writing an opera. We take it seriously. My family doesn’t understand what we’re trying to do. I don’t understand what were trying to do. They can appreciate the composition — they like that I’m composing operas. It’s the performance art that makes them uncomfortable.
“I think it does relate really well to people who don’t know anything about it,” he continued. “That’s why I like working on opera, because it’s such a weird art form. They don’t need to know a lot about performance art to enjoy it. The point is to create a situation that may or may not be understood by the person witnessing the situation. If you’re an audience member, you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy it.”
Unlike traditional operas, which have lavish set designs, costumes, absurd romantic plots and a separation between performer and audience, performance opera feels more primitive, like how you’d imagine the genesis of opera must have been, when new ideas were being tested out and people were still trying to define what an opera is. Although it has a fixed libretto, performance opera is unfixed in many of its actions, with each performance evolving from the last as the creators and performers cut out and shift what doesn’t work, elaborate on and test new actions to get new responses. The performance artist’s body is an evolving frame, freeing the viewer from expectation and offering a sense of anticipation. You get a different experience every time you listen to the same music; watching performers, musicians, the audience and sometimes entire acts shift location gives you a subtle feeling of newness.
Nature Fetish, Neff and McCorkle’s latest project, ran from July 12 through July 21 at Grace Exhibition Space, a performance-art gallery run by Jill and Erik Hokanson. The floors are grey but scraped from the heels of shoes. When she and McCorkle arrived in early July, Neff could feel the energy built up from past performances. An hour before one show, she had a conversation with performers Jessica Bathurst and Natasha Missick about the notion of the energy we all carry and project towards each other. “It’s the heat of being alive,” she said.
Before Neff and McCorkle could begin, they felt they needed to clean the space by scrubbing the floors and repainting the walls to lay down a new foundation of presence. They pulled the two benches towards the entrance in the loft, and they strung a white curtain across the middle of the room, creating a second, obscured space that separates the view of the passing J train from the entrance. They had been working on Nature Fetish for several years, through several stages of development, from public workshops with focus groups — asking questions like “What is nature?” to gather ideas for scenes and lyrics — to rehearsals, interactive public rehearsals and now public performances. Each act took McCorkle three months to compose, with the music based on the circle of fifths and algorithmic structures.
Now it was time to make Grace their space. The libretto was settled, the music was settled and now their cast was settled, with both new and established friends. With them were helpers Cory Bracken and Devlin Goldberg, as well as performers Bathurst, Arla Berman and Matthew Gantt. Some of the other performers had already worked on these operas before: Dave Ruder, Ellen O’Meara, Katie Johnston, Missick, and Michael Newton were all in Institute_Institut. “I’m starting to explore this crazy world that’s performance art,” said Newton, whose role was in Nature Fetish was the father and whose background is in technical writing and poetry. He stood behind the counter tending to the refreshments — drinks and McDonald’s one-dollar cheeseburgers cut into slices. “I feel like it’s really exciting. I think it’s really free. I also think performance art is a form of self-therapy.”
“It’s the kind of collective experience of it,” said Neff. “It takes a certain lifestyle for it — people wanting to work all day and create art takes a really special person. You develop a sort of concept short hard. These kind of people know how to perform this kind of material.”
Katie Johnston, a singer who played the role of Olympia in Nature Fetish, explained how she got involved: “She [Neff] did a production of Void Check [at the University of Michigan]. I auditioned for that so hard; it seemed like everything I was interested in. She didn’t cast me, but that was fine.” Johnston called Nature Fetish “beautifully specific. Somehow it communicates a lot of sense to me. It’s hard to walk away from this; it’s hard to divorce myself from this art form.”
Several years behind Neff and McCorkle at the University of Michigan, Johnston looked up to them, thinking that if this was what acting life could be, then there couldn’t be anything better. Like the pair, she moved to New York after she graduated. But she kept moving on. She put her hands on the counter; an engagement ring was on her finger. She had decided to teaching yoga as a career, and she also teaches children to garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She said she had lost her passion for performing but decided to join the opera after they asked her to. Despite being more familiar with traditional stage acting, Johnston said that any form of acting was discouraged throughout the performance. “That’s one of our explicit directions: don’t act. Most of us are theater people, and it’s going against most of what we were taught to do.”
“Performance art requires a certain type of being there and knowing that you’re being there,” said Neff. “They have to be present in a certain way. The performer knows you’re there, being with your audience instead of demonstrating towards them — although some performance artists do that.” She looked to the side with disdain.
“It would be too stiff,” said McCorkle. “It’s not performance art. You have to be precise about spontaneity.”
It’s easier to see performance art than to explain it, but for a brief explanation: Nature Fetish is a 70-minute or so performance opera without intermission that’s separated into four acts — Logic, Ecology, The Wild and Consciousness — dealing with the theme of our relationship to nature. McCorkle called it “an attempt to map musical tone to music and evolution” and to look at “what people have absurdly categorized as nature.” Neff described it as “a series of images and ideas juxtaposed.”
The opera always starts the same way, with everyone gathered, holding drinks and talking when suddenly Dave Ruder’s clarinet or Ellen O’Meara’s saxophone sounds off, overtaking the chatter. McCorkle tells everyone to go downstairs to the sidewalk in the middle of the Puerto Rican neighborhood on Broadway.
On one particular night, the crowd walked outside and formed a crescent shape around Berman and Bathurst, who had their backs to the busy street. Newton was lying down, appearing dead in the middle of them. Nature Fetish begins with a chorus of all the performers speaking the following lines in a robotic form:
Input: Instructions, imagine you are a part of this eco-system, imagine, you are a component, like a digit, an item, a note perpetually recited in a natural anthem, your brain is a part of a biological system, your body a complex technologic totem, mostly known, partially understood, eventually comprehensible, yet undeniably objectifiable, made of what matters, the answers to everything.
Berman and Bathurst play the roles of Scout Leaders, conducting the crowd to either make the sounds “Ah-Ah” or “Ah,” while Neff holds up an orange sign with musical notes written in binary, which, when sung, form G-flat, A-flat, B-flat and C-flat, respectively.
In the first act, Logic, the dialogue and songs look at nature in a logical way. The main performers were Berman, Bathurst, Newton and Johnston, although O’Meara, Neff and Gantt joined in the middle of the act, singing: “Species attempting to survive, creatures with instinctual drive / they fight the ultimate death / all life acts only to perpetuate its own species.” Each act ends with the performers pronouncing “A fetish a faith proved false,” a running motif throughout the opera.
By the end of Act I, you could see that everybody was comfortable with what they were doing, performing with a sense of fun rather than awkwardly fitting in actions. They weren’t just filling their roles, they were playing them out — something that wasn’t there in the first performances. This enjoyment and comfort reflected back in the people watching. Sitting in a car right in front of the performance, a mother and son laughed as they watched O’Meara chase around Newton and play licks on her saxophone.
Everyone walked back upstairs, the viewers and performers moving together towards the second act. McCorkle’s keyboards could be heard before you reached the doors, a bouncing, haunting melody. All the performers except for the musicians stood on the benches in and around the crowd. The main singers were David Ruder and Katie Johnston. She began first, stepping onto the floor, and then he joined in, also stepping down. They confronted each other, then sung back-to-back, spinning in a circle: “Once upon a time / it all seemed like an open lap / we rubbed ourselves up on the grasses / and heard the sighs of fish flashing in the icy creek,” she sang. “Knowledge helps humans / control the actual / agency is a function of social learning / the survival of our species depends / on each of my decisions,” he sang back.
For the third and fourth acts, the audience was directed to walk through the white sheet that sectioned off the rest of the gallery. Upon entering, they were greeted by Michael Newton, who held a sign telling them to place objects such as small, gold ornaments, mousetraps or balls on a large, painted cloth that resembled the circle of fifths, except instead of notes there was a graph of the evolution of nature, plants, animals and man. The musicians circle these objects while playing their instruments; the rest of the performers picked up the objects and made improvised mewing sounds.
From there was a bedlam mass of actions, from performers running around in a circle to pulling and breaking objects, all with music and signing: “I desire, I desire, I desire / to go back / to nature, to the state of neo-natal child / floating in the amniotic fluids of early earth,” sang Johnston. Meanwhile, a man ran from the circle to his drums, brushing the rutes across the snare drum to the tempo while being drenched in shampoo and sprayed with water or whatever gunk Berman or Johnston could find in a bottle. The opera ended in silence, everyone sitting and waiting for applause.
* * *
It was exhausting seeing Nature Fetish four times, with the last time — the final performance, on the night of July 21 — feeling like a composite of the three before. There was a performance earlier in the afternoon with one viewer showing up, a friend. McCorkle said you only need one person to perform, so they went through the entire opera. The night before had been his birthday, and the effects of partying combined with a full day of performance were starting to wear on him. He sat down at a table, wearing a dark brown jumpsuit, his costume for the performance, and began talking about how it would be OK, because every time he performs he goes into a trance-like state that washes all his concerns away.
“What if they run into me, and I miss a note on my bass?” he said. “I usually go into a trance state, where I’m not thinking about anything. Before that performance, I felt like shit — I didn’t want to do the performance, I didn’t want to do anything. But afterwards it’s as if it cleanses all the problems you think you had; all your doing is thinking about existing. It’s like a mind cleanse. If I wasn’t making art, I would be a very sad person. When I’m not writing music or composing, I’m very, very upset. Maybe it’s because I’m addicted to it. All is not right in the world when I’m not performing.”
That night’s performance was well through it’s first act when an angry store manager came up to the crowd and performers in front of Grace. He yelled and threatened to call the police, unaware that police officers had seen a previous performance and had just smiled, laughed and taken photos with their phones from the inside their squad cars. He then kicked a banjo that had been resting on a support pillar for the J train. It hit McCorkle on the side of the head, causing his left temple to bleed throughout the show. The angry manager then scuttled away, now hoping the police wouldn’t come. “That’s the difference between opera and performance opera — blood,” said McCorkle.
After the performance was over and most everybody had left, Neff sat on a bench. “How do you gauge the success of something like this?” she asked. It’s easy to say that performance art is ephemeral, a series of fleeting actions, cleaned and swept up, gone and forever hidden in the private life of a New York loft, yet it would be a shame for an art form so fundamentally alive to take on such a prosaic attitude towards its meaning: “Not everything needs a meaning,” Neff said once. Yes, you can, as James Boswell wrote in The Life of Samuel Johnson, “pound St. Paul’s cathedral into atoms, and consider any single atom,” and you will have nothing but rubble, just as you can regard any single action in the course of a life and disregard its significance. But measure that action in the context of its whole, and you will have a lifetime.
Several of us went back to Panoply Lab. Valerie Kuehne, an experimental musician and artist in residence at the gallery, was there; she had returned from traveling and performing. She looked through her mail, looked at a “best wishes” card from the veterinarian that sent condolences for her dead cat, Phoenix. Neff tended to McCorkle’s head. The banjo had left a bad cut. Her expression turned from concern to fright as she tried to make a bandage from some offhand materials: ripped blue cloth and a folded coffee filter, something to keep pressure on. She dressed the cut with the cloth and an ice pack and tied the two around his head, caring for him; he sat staring, like an old cartoon character with a toothache. She and Kuehne left to find a corner store with some gauze. It was two o’clock in the morning, and they walked silently walking past the lampposts that scattered the shadows of leaves checkering the pavement. Memory is only a shadow of experience, but it is more than nothing, if only a residue of the heat of being alive.