All eyes were on Ryan Hawk. The lanky college undergrad asked everyone in the audience of about 40 people scattered around the Bushwick loft to stand and circle him. He began by applying a can of Reddi-wip to his face, spiraling the cream until every feature was covered. Then he wiped off clumps of it and gingerly placed them on the quizzical faces of the surrounding onlookers. Red paint slowly seeped from the front pockets of his skintight black jeans.
As the performance wound down, he asked everyone to take a step or two closer. Then he unzipped his pants. Moving slowly, he carefully tied the string attached to a nearby oversize bright blue balloon around his now exposed penis. He lit a cigarette. As he looked intently into the faces of the group, the lit end of the cigarette met with the delicate skin of the inflated balloon, which instantly burst and exploded a handful of blue glitter over the room.
It was oddly intimate. It was exciting. It was absorbing. And also incredibly difficult to put into words.
“I was thinking a lot about western sources of hierarchy and belief systems and how those things could manifest in my very present ego,” Hawk explained in an email a few days later.
“The work was supposed to be ‘in your face’ but very satirically so (I mean, I’m pretty sure that I metaphorically ejaculated on the entire audience).”
I guess you just had to be there.
* * *
“Performance art is human poetry without words,” says Jill McDermid-Hokanson, co-founder and director of Grace Exhibition Space, the Brooklyn loft-turned-gallery devoted exclusively to showcasing visual performance art where Hawk performed.
In recent years, performance art has gained an increasing level of mainstream awareness. It was just over two years ago that Marina Abramović transfixed museumgoers at the Museum of Modern Art by silently sitting still for weeks as part of her retrospective exhibition; last year Marni Kotak’s “The Birth of Baby X” at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn inspired countless snarky Post headlines; and a few months ago, visitors at the Whitney Museum of American Art were drawn to the 2012 Biennial’s performative residencies with artists like Dawn Kasper, who recreated — and lived in — a cluttered artist workspace for all to see.
As art critic Jerry Saltz’s wrote in a cover story for New York magazine this spring: “After too much art that made too much sense, artists are operating blind again. They’re more interested in the possible than the probable, the private that speaks publicly rather than the public with no private side at all.”
Enter performance art.
“Performance art is supposed to be rejected by the mainstream, though,” muses Hawk. “That’s what gives it all the charm … unless we all start having blockbuster shows at the MoMA.”
“On one hand, performance art became inescapable for some reason. Everyone has to do it, it’s a big thing, it’s a big trend,” says Andre Lepecki, an associate professor of performance studies at New York University. “But not only is it a trend, it also conceptually, philosophically, politically really puts pressure on how to make art today.
“So you have to deal with it.”
* * *
Fresh-faced with just a touch of pink lipstick, McDermid-Hokanson looks younger than she implies (“I’m a woman of a certain age; I’ve entered that realm”). On the evening of Ryan Hawk’s metaphorical ejaculation — he was one of four artists on the program, part of the space’s Friday night performance series — she moved around Grace Exhibition Space at a relentless pace. She appeared to always be filming the performances, hugging visitors, engaged in animated conversations, even participating in the performances. She was dressed simply in a black dress, patterned black tights, and matching leather boots — that is, until the evening neared its halfway mark and a pair of colorful, glowing bunny ears made a surprise appearance atop her head.
There’s something about performance art, McDermid-Hokanson explained, that just engrosses viewers.
“Some people come to see the work and they don’t know what to expect — there’s a lot of chuckling, people get uncomfortable,” she said. “They think that the artist in front of them is some sort of freaky weirdo and they’re not sure how to handle it.”
But the experience rarely ends there.
“A lot of those people will go home and think about it some more. They’re just really struck by this strange thing they saw,” she added. “And you just can’t get it out of your mind, and it makes you think about things. And then for some reason, you want to go back.”
* * *
From the outside, Grace Exhibition Space is easy to miss. The loft is located just above a gritty-looking liquor store, beneath the roar of the J and M subway lines.
On a quiet Tuesday evening, the space resembled an overgrown attic. That week’s artists prepared to deliver presentations about their work to a small group of fellow performers and friends. To one side, a bright red drum set, a clothing rack, and a group of old, colorful, plastic Apple desktops are strewn about in a chaotic array. The corner kitchen has become a bar, fully stocked with cans of Tecate and boxes of Franzia wine.
There is seating everywhere: mismatched countertop stools, dining-room-table chairs, and hard, gray benches, though many people opt to sit on the beat-up hardwood floor that has been painted gray. There is no stage, deliberately blurring the line between performance artist and audience. “Performance art or action art can be defined in real time, breaking the boundary between artist and viewer,” explains Hawk, “and by manifesting a visceral experience through visual imagery that has its place within art history.”
McDermid-Hokanson founded Grace Exhibition Space in 2006 with her former partner Melissa Lockwood. Having worked as performance artist for several years, studying the form at the graduate level for three years and attending performance art festivals around the world, she was confused by the lack of performance art in New York City. She set up Grace Exhibition Space as a “permanent place” to showcase the form.
“Grace Exhibition Space is unique because there are only a few other spaces in the world like it,” says Hawk, who is also an intern at the space as he completes his BFA at the Museum School in Boston.
“I feel like we’re the only ones that focus only on performance art because you’d have to be an idiot to focus only on that,” says McDermid-Hokanson, laughing. “So I guess I’m kind of an idiot savant or something. But I just love it so much.”
* * *
An essential component of performance art is a spirit of spontaneity, which makes curating a performance so much more difficult than, say, a room full of paintings.
“It’s a different kind of coordination than you normally encounter,” says Nina Horisaki-Christens, who chairs the board of visual performative art space and gallery Agape Enterprise.
Agape opened in November 2011 in an old commercial warehouse in Bushwick converted to art spaces and galleries. The single room is tiny, and dark, hardwood paneling contrasts with the stark white walls scattered with photographs. Co-directors Kikuko Tanaka and Eric Heist first envisioned the space as a sort of gift shop. Gradually, however, the two began to take a closer look at the concepts of performativity, social engagement, and the ephemeral event. Today, the space hosts monthly performances or installations by performance-based artists.
“With performances,” adds Horisaki-Christens, “you don’t necessarily know all of the details of exactly how it’s going to go until you’re there in that space, at that moment.”
Curating performance art can be especially complex in museums, which tend to be less equipped to deal with the concepts and issues that arise than galleries. In a graduate course called Curating Performance that he co-taught at NYU this spring, Lepecki invited a number of curators to speak to his students. The collective concerns expressed by those curators typical fell into two categories: First, “visual art institutions are not prepared to deal with the question of labor. Performance art needs bodies that need to be paid, they need to be in the museum, they need to be fed, they need to rest.” Lepecki describes the second as “a little bit more conceptual in a way: What is it exactly that you are buying, acquiring, or collecting when you’re collecting a live event?” In other words, is it a specific movement, score, or choreography that can later be reenacted by another artist? Or is it the entire piece that exists only in that moment? And who gets to decide?
For gallerists, costs are always a major concern, but even more so if the artwork they are paying to exhibit can’t actually be sold. “It’s not easy to commercialize,” says Tanaka. The potential sales from the exhibited performance artwork are nearly nonexistent. But without them, how can a gallery cover the costs of rent, staffing, or the wine for opening night?
Funding is one way, but that isn’t easy either. “The economics of it make it difficult,” explains Horisaki-Christens. For instance, it can be difficult to convince grant givers to invest in a temporal performance work that will not be on display for an established, considerable period of time, versus, say, a monthlong exhibition of paintings.
There are those like McDermid-Hokanson who maintain that there is an opportunity to make money from presenting performance art, through the selling of documentation and artifacts.
“I know a bunch of performance artists that have to become somehow visual artists because, as they say, they have to sell something,” says Lepecki. He later concedes, though, “It’s really hard to sustain this economy of performance.”
Just ask McDermid-Hokanson. She and her husband, Erik Hokanson, who works as the space’s co-director, currently fund Grace Exhibition Space out of pocket.
“Basically we’re, like, going broke funding it ourselves,” she says. “We get a little bit of money at the door [a suggested donation of $10] and a little bit of money at the bar — enough to cover the beer and wine so that we can buy more beer and wine for the next week. And some food for the week. But in terms of the electricity, the heat, and the rent and insurance, the door and the bar don’t cover that.”
For McDermid-Hokanson, there are creative costs as well. Since much of her energy is spent organizing the performance schedule, hosting visiting artists in her Williamsburg apartment with Erik, and gathering materials for each week’s performances, there is little time for her to work on her own art, an occupational hazard that seems to put her on edge.
Nonetheless, she renewed her lease for the Bushwick loft last spring.
* * *
Back at Grace Exhibition Space, after Hawk’s glitter had been swept away, the crowd was anxiously eating chocolate chips. The sweets came courtesy of UK-based artist Rachel Parry, the evening’s final performing artist.
After taking time to carefully set up her performance area, melt chocolate atop a nearby hot plate, and change into a clean white dress with matching stockings, Parry began by handing everyone an individual chocolate chip with an unsettling level of eye contact. Next, at a daringly close distance to the crowd of guests that surrounded her, she repeatedly sharpened a butcher knife in an overtly sexually suggestive manner.
Eventually a mound of chocolate carved to resemble a human head made its debut. She alternated between kissing the bust, first gingerly and then with breathless intensity, and destroying the figure. Encouraging audience participation, she had onlookers assist in covering her with the melted chocolate before cleaning her off with single dollar bills. She closed with a final monologue, saying, at one point, “This will never be the last moment of hope.”
And then she ate one of the dollar bills.