Under the Hollywood Sign
By Dino Dinco
This is an article reprinted from Dance Theatre Journal: Special Edition on Sex and Performance, an academic but user friendly publication by the Laban Centre in London, which Tessa Wills co-edited with Doran George in 2013. We used the festival THIS IS WHAT I WANT as a lens through which to reveal the field of the intersection between radical sexual practice and radical performance practice in the Bay Area, and our work. Read the other articles here.
A dispatch from Los Angeles, California follows from the book I’m writing on recent West Coast performance art practice, a survey of some of the makers, curators and scholars who reside in the major art centres at North America’s western edge. I’m exploring modes of practice, thinking, curating and scholarship that emerge from this geography, perhaps specific to this geography, investigating what it means to live and make work in San Francisco, Tijuana, etc., and how particularities of cities inform how and why the work is made. Lifestyle practicalities and economies, for example, as well as community (dis)engagement, funding resources, ethnic-class-gender identities, arts institutions and their faculty, nightclubs and alternative spaces, etc. Some Los Angeles performance art / dance makers, for example, make a living by choreographing dance routines for some of pop music’s biggest selling artists. Commercial choreography is their ‘day job’ that supports their art practice, an economic and creative opportunity specific to Los Angeles as a world entertainment centre. (For over 15 years, my side hustle has been ghostwriting pitches for directors of TV commercials and concepts for music videos.) This dispatch chronicles a Sunday evening gathering of performance makers who assembled in Hollywood (the neighbourhood, no more, no less) to spontaneously perform only for one another.
Dispatch: Los Angeles; Mariel Carranza Performance Salon
The invitation from Los Angeles performance artist Mariel Carranza arrived in a brief email:
I had shared with you my intentions to gather a group of performers
There will be no audience nor documentation.
You can bring some materials although you should not prepare in advance.
Performance should manifest at the encounter.
Where your vulnerability became your guide.
Where the notion of failure or achievement is irrelevant.
and dinner will be served afterwards
Mariel Carranza and I first met when I was asked to curate the 2010 winter fundraiser for the non-profit art space, LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). Known for consecutive years as Lust for LACE, the annual benefit typically offered literary readings, film screenings, live music and performance.
LACE, now in its third location, has been operating for 35 years and has occupied a unique role amongst spaces in which to experience art in Los Angeles. Founded and managed by artists in a space above a bridal shop in downtown Los Angeles in 1978, LACE continues to be one of the city’s most vital art spaces, now located on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame amidst garish wig and costume stores, trinket shops, throngs of tourists and a number of Church of Scientology outposts. LACE has exhibited the visual, performative and otherwise difficult to categorize work of over 5,000 artists, including those whose practice is often identified as transgressive and experimental. Many of the most celebrated and influential artists in the U.S. from Los Angeles and beyond have exhibited work at one of LACE’s addresses.
For the 2010 incarnation of the winter benefit, LACE chose to focus solely on performance art and asked me to be its curator. When assembling the roster of artists for the event I renamed GUTTED, I came across Mariel Carranza and her work.
Peruvian born and raised, Mariel immigrated to Los Angeles where she raised her family. She received an MFA in Sculpture at UCLA, studying under Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, Nancy Rubins, Tom Marioni and George Herms. Her MFA thesis was a sculptural piece in which Mariel suspended herself in a harness, able to swing between and strike two taut membranes, each one stretched across a simple, outward-facing wooden cone, much like a set of drums. In this sleek, minimalist construction, Mariel embodied both pendulum and noisemaking clapper, a particularly poignant design as Mariel was born with a congenital hearing disorder.
Mariel creates durational performance pieces that often involve the repetition of a physical action over many hours, sometimes days, and typically while fasting. In her performance at LACE for GUTTED (2010), Mariel used chalk to inscribe the walls of a large gallery space with parallel row upon row of the phrase, I am the witness, from ceiling to floor. In an earlier work, she modified the existing architecture of a gallery space by ‘knitting out’ each corner with raw Peruvian wool, working again from ceiling to floor over the course of many days, subsisting only on a mixture of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Mariel finished the piece by knitting herself into a ‘cocoon’ in the center of the room’s new configuration. Through physical repetition, Mariel enters a type of autopilot; her mind quiets, it ‘empties,’ working in a moving meditation. Mariel feels that the essence of her work lies within this gradual process of physical exhaustion and absence of thought, or at least it’s where it begins to take off, an alchemy of spirit, vapour and energy.
In early 2012, Leo Garcia, Artistic Director of Highways Performance Space (Santa Monica, CA), asked Mariel to present two consecutive nights of performance. Highways was founded in 1989 by performance artist Tim Miller and writer Lynda Frye Burnham. (In 1978, Frye Burnham, along with Steven Durland (to whom she is married), founded and edited the highly influential Los Angeles based performance art journal, High Performance.) Mariel invited a number of her performance friends, myself included, to perform simultaneously with and around her in an ensemble piece she titled Construal. I interpreted Mariel’s call into this collaboration as an opportunity to craft a performance that not only addressed my relationship with Mariel, but to directly reference her body of work.
The turnout for the first night of Construal was lighter than Mariel had expected and this led her to think about the role of anticipation – anticipation of spectators, of an audience. At one point, she told me later, she remembers turning around to take in all eight performers who were simultaneously engaged in their work around her and her feeling overwhelmed. In that moment, it occurred to her that what was taking place between and amongst the performers was the art – and the absence of much of an audience was what allowed this to be clear.
Mariel soon after met Boris Nieslony, one founder of the European performance collective, Black Market International, in Cologne, Germany, where Nieslony is based. It was here where Mariel was exposed to BMI’s performance practice philosophy and strategies, manifested in their ensemble-style, openly collaborative performances they call encounters.
Impressed and inspired, Mariel’s experience with Construal at Highways coalesced with her exposure to BMI’s performance practice and she chose to launch a similar kind of performance encounter at her home in Hollywood.
Driving to Mariel’s house, I thought about taking a shower upon arrival to get started, despite having just showered at home. I wasn’t sure why or what it could lead to and I was also trying to not think much about it at all, as her instructions were to not prepare.
My lifelong experience with performance – witnessing, making, curating – has largely involved the presence of an audience, of varying and unpredictable sizes. It’s not my interest here to argue whether or not spectators play active roles in a performance, nor if performances and actions are ‘complete’ only with the presence of an audience. I was intrigued by the idea of performance makers coming together to work spontaneously, simultaneously as performers and spectators. I was also curious to how an encounter such as this one might inform my relationship to performance, including the possible re-orientation of how spectators fit into the equation.
Rafa Esparza and I arrived at the door of Mariel’s building just behind Allison Wyper and Ladan Yalzadeh. Allison is a recent graduate of UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures / Dance (known at the time of her graduation as simply, Department of World Arts and Cultures). In addition to her own performance work, Allison is affiliated with La Pocha Nostra, the performance collective founded in 1993 by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Roberto Sifuentes and Nola Mariano in California. I’ve curated Allison’s work in the past, including Witness, her piece that addresses torture, domination and spectator complicity and that is typically performed for / with a single spectator. Ladan’s background includes acting for live theatre.
We joined Asher Hartman (a painter, playwright, performer and medium – the psychic kind) along with Mariel inside Mariel’s kitchen. From 2000 – 2005, Asher co-directed Crazy Space, a now-defunct gallery in Santa Monica, CA dedicated to experimental visual art and durational performance. It’s where Mariel performed several of her early works.
As I mentioned, the book that I’m writing will address some of the who’s, why’s and how’s of living and making performance work in West Coast art centres. It’s worth mentioning here that among the artists gathered for Mariel’s encounter, Rafa Esparza was the only Los Angeles native of the group, born and raised in Pasadena, a small city within the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. He studied locally and graduated from UCLA’s School of Art and Architecture in 2011. I was born in rural Pennsylvania and left my parents’ home at the age of 14, joining relatives who moved to Los Angeles over a decade before me. At different times, Allison and Asher both came south from Northern California to study at UCLA, Ladan to Los Angeles from Iran, and as mentioned above, Mariel from Peru.
Mariel had stripped bare her dining room, creating a familiar white cube. The floor is concrete. Dressed in loose, white cotton (Mariel’s performance uniform), she walked to a corner of the room, sat on the floor and closed her eyes. She spread her legs as wide as she could and opened her arms so that each one met a wall, expanding herself to fill the space. She began to move her arms parallel to the floor so that they met in the middle before returning them to the wall. I sat on the ground, looking at the floor and occasionally at the other performers, who spread out through the room. As Mariel continued to move her arms and legs back and forth, eyes closed, it appeared that most of us were thinking, planning a move.
I thought about the yogurt parfait thing that I had bought at a café on the way to Mariel’s that I couldn’t eat while driving, and that was now on her kitchen counter. I walked to the bathroom, stepping over Allison, who had installed herself within the doorframe along the floor. I stripped off my clothes and showered.
Aside from being independently wealthy, it’s hardly possible to sustain oneself based on the income from performance art. All of the artists at the encounter have some type of job that supports their practice (and in Mariel’s case, her family) and most have multiple sources of income. Mariel owns and operates a busy hair and beauty salon near her house. It’s adjacent to Tailwaggers & Tailwashers, ‘a full-service pet store,’ and equidistant to an upscale supermarket and the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International. Her shower is loaded with good-smelling hair products. As I bathed for the second time within the hour, I wondered if this shower at Mariel’s was a pre-performance pseudo-ritualized shower or whether the shower itself was part of the performance chronology. I rinsed and turned off the water. After I slid the shower curtain aside, I walked back to the performance area without towelling off, trailing water across the floor.
Stepping over Allison once again, I chose a spot in the middle of the room near the patio door. I have a vague recollection of the other performers. As no one had been making much noise, I can’t recall what he or she was doing. I crouched down and through a lazy, slow, reverse push-up, came to rest in a prone position on the cool concrete floor, my arms folded under my head. I slid a hand under myself, adjusting my balls so that my pelvis wasn’t crushing them until I was comfortable.
I closed my eyes and just felt. The chilly floor. My skin. The length of my body. Water moving across my skin as I shifted slightly. I opened my eyes, closed them and opened them again, seeing rivulets of water trickling down and across my arm, zigzagging through the hairs like a pinball making its way through the machine. I shut my eyes and continued to feel the water – the sensation just felt more interesting, somehow.
I decided that along with the ambient air and natural process of evaporation that the collective exhalations of the other performers would dry my skin – and once dry, maybe that’s when I would get up.
I heard Mariel in the corner, past my head, making noises on the walls. Slapping them. Thumping them. Just behind and over me, a woman’s voice was speaking in Spanish and by the cadence of her voice, I guessed that she was reading from a book and that even if not fluent, she knew how to pronounce the words.
I felt fingers – or toes – pressing on my toes and when gauging their length, I was pretty sure they were women’s toes.
I heard Asher’s raspy voice over my back, speaking in the characteristic and often-repetitive patter when he’s engaging his mediumship. I remained motionless as I felt fingers – I guessed Asher’s fingers – touch various points on my back, maybe hitting some of the moles on my skin.
The fingers touched different nodes of my spine and the contact felt nice, tender. Admittedly, I like being touched.
I started to hear the sound of scissors cutting something and I guessed maybe it was fabric or someone just using them to create that sound. With eyes closed still, I wondered what Rafa was doing and where he was.
As Asher continued to speak about something that I now can’t remember, I also wondered how fast I was drying off. I do remember that his fingers were on my spine and he mentioned how he’d like to ‘leave the subject,’ but that he could not. He repeated this phrase many times, occasionally changing where his fingers met my spine.
I thought of Luis Buñuel’s film, The Exterminating Angel, in which an invisible force prevents the guests of a formal dinner party from leaving the table, leaving the room, the house, to the point where they became anxious, aggressive and manic, ultimately turning on one another.
Mariel began repeating a Spanish name – a man’s name – and a title of what was maybe a story from the same book I might have heard being read from earlier. Maybe she was saying llamas (you call) or llavas (you take or carry).
Scissors. Spanish. I kept my eyes closed. Someone walked nearby ringing a small bell. I shifted my body a bit, but didn’t feel any water moving on my skin. I remained there for another minute and was ready to change. I thought about the yogurt parfait thing in the kitchen.
Using my arms, I raised my upper half from the floor, separating myself from the water stain from my body. I stood, feeling little streams of water slide down my skin and onto my feet. I walked into Mariel’s kitchen, naked, with goose bumps.
I found the yogurt parfait thing on the counter. Balling my hands into fists, I prepared to carry it into the performance area using only my mouth. As I stood in Mariel’s kitchen, naked, I wondered if she had given her adult daughter, Cathy, who also lives there, a heads up about the encounter.
The parfait was blocked by a couple of heavy water glasses that I first had to nudge aside with my face before locking onto it with my teeth and lips. With it hanging from my mouth, I gently walked in measured footsteps to the performance space, arriving to see Ladan and Asher crossing paths in the middle, Asher talking in a hushed voice.
I slowly lowered myself into a crouched position near a white wall, dropping the parfait the last 18 inches to the floor, hovering over it on my hands and knees. I removed the lid of the cup with my teeth and flung it to the side, dipping my tongue into what seemed like pure granola. As I made my way through the relentlessly dry cereal, rolled oats stuck to my lips and started scratching my throat. I wondered when I’d hit some yogurt. Finally, the tip of my tongue slid against a smooth plastic floor, revealing that a clear plastic cup separated granola from yogurt. I heard sounds around me – someone ringing a bell, low voices – but I was focused on consumption. I finished the last of the granola before using my teeth to remove the secret cup.
In comparison to the dry granola, lapping up the yogurt was a treat. It was cool, silky and easy to swallow. I didn’t rush it, taking my time to thoroughly chew each strawberry. Yogurt and saliva saturated my moustache and beard. It clung to my chin, my nose, my cheeks and the smell started to make me nauseous.
I arrived at a point where my face was too big for the cup. My tongue couldn’t reach the yogurt, but I had more to eat. An image of a street dog popped into my mind. I again made my hands into fists and started to squeeze the plastic parfait cup to raise the level of the yogurt. I squeezed, licked and swallowed, adjusting the angle of my head, the cup, my fists, to continue eating. When squeezing the sides of the cup stopped working, I mashed the cup against the floor with a single fist to work the last bit of yogurt out of the cup and onto my tongue.
I surveyed the smashed, empty cup on the floor, its sides lined with streaks of yellowish yogurt residue. I felt a little rush of success, of completion. Crouching over the cup on Mariel’s cool concrete floor, naked and on all fours with sticky yogurt smeared across my face, I saw again the image of the street dog.
I looked up for the first time in about 20 minutes.
Across the room, Rafa held a pair of scissors and had chopped off the hair that had once grown to the middle of his back. I walked over to him, squatted down and wrapped my arms around him. I took the scissors and evened out the rough patches he had missed. Bits of Rafa’s black hair stuck to my hands, arms and chest. When I finished, I kissed him on the neck and silently walked to the bathroom to shower.
As I towelled off, I noticed Allison’s dress on the counter and carefully put it on. I took the towel and wrapped it around my head like a turban. I entered the performance area with a single goal: to catch Allison off guard and make her laugh. Everyone but Allison noticed, smiled, giggled. Allison, however, was naked and crawling around the floor, face down, cleaning the floor with a bath towel. (I will, someday, write a text on the popularity of cleaning as performance action). I changed position. I walked through the space. I thought that either she wasn’t letting on that she saw me in her dress or that she really was immersed in getting the floor clean.
I felt done – and satisfied – with the day’s encounter. I returned Allison’s dress to the bathroom and put on my own clothes. Rafa and Ladan were standing at the kitchen sink, Rafa turning a glass in his hand while Ladan pressed her tongue against its side, creating a high-pitched tone.
I grabbed a glass of wine. As I moved through the performance space on the way to the patio, Mariel and Asher were suspending a lime between them using only their foreheads. At any time, the lime could have shot out from between them, causing their faces to painfully collide into one another.
I sat outside, drinking wine and listening to the stirrings from inside Mariel’s place. Rafa came out- side a bit later, then Allison. We didn’t talk much, even when Mariel and Asher finished and appeared.
We assembled in Mariel’s kitchen for dinner. Mariel had made ají de gallina, a traditional Peruvian spicy chicken stew, as well as a vegetarian version. There were salads and bottles of wine and sweets and coffee for dessert. Yet still, we mostly spoke of things other than our performances or about the performances of others.
Rafa and I live together and curiously, he and I didn’t speak much about the performance encounter – what we had individually done, saw, thought; not during the drive home, nor for several days after.
The encounter that Mariel organized instigated my re-considering the role of spectators within the context of performance, particularly in contrast to when the spectators are also the performers. It was also refreshing to perform with the absence of cameras and hence, the conscious absence of documentation, save for the mind / body memory of the performers, as well as this text, a mediation of my memory. More broadly, I wondered if the more ‘conventional’ performance art set-up, with performer performing for a stationary audience, does in fact push it closer towards the genre of theatre, and even more so, closer towards the even broader category of entertainment.
Dino Dinco is an independent performance art curator and maker, as well as a director of film and theatre. He is currently writing a book on contemporary performance art practice that occurs in major cities along the West Coast of North America, from Vancouver, Canada, south to Tijuana, Mexico. This survey will largely be ahistorical and non-scholarly, using artist and curator interviews and localized dispatches to encapsulate a history that’s been and being created in the most recent years, and that comprises a specifically West Coast performance art discourse and practice.
Republished with permission at http://tessawills.com/under-the-hollywood-sign/. Originally published in George, Doran, Hargreaves, Martin, Shaw, Thom and Wills, Tessa eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.