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The Arthropologist

Can't sit still? The performance experience can be a magnificent or claustrophobic thing

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Nancy, the performance experience, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal in Cantata, January 2013
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal in Cantat Photo by © Robert Etcheverry
Nancy, the performance experience, December 2012, Shaun Leonardo, The Arena
Shaun El C. Leonardo, The Arena, 2012, performance, PABA, Houston, courtesy the artist and Praxis International Art Photo by Max Fields
Nancy, the performance experience, Tony Feher looks on as Kristen Frankiewicz interacts with his DiverseWorks installation Free Fall
Tony Feher looks on as Kristen Frankiewicz interacts with his DiverseWorks installation Free Fall. Photo by Sarah Cook
Nancy, the performance experience, The Bridge Club, January 2013
The Bridge Club, The Voyage Out II, 2012, archival digital print edition of three, 24 by 36 inches. The Bridge Club's show Still, running at Art Palace until Feb. 16, offered an even more elusive physical experience.  Photo courtesy of The Bridge Club
Nancy, The Performance Experience, Phil Solomon, American Falls
Still from American Falls (2000-2012) by Phil Solomon. It required a full 51 minutes of the viewer's attention, and the captivated columnist stayed the entire time. Photo courtesy of the artist
Nancy, the performance experience, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal in Cantata, January 2013
Nancy, the performance experience, December 2012, Shaun Leonardo, The Arena
Nancy, the performance experience, Tony Feher looks on as Kristen Frankiewicz interacts with his DiverseWorks installation Free Fall
Nancy, the performance experience, The Bridge Club, January 2013
Nancy, The Performance Experience, Phil Solomon, American Falls
Nancy Wozny, head shot, September 2012

It all started one dark, troubling day while I was sitting in one of those red velvet plush theater seats. The house lights dimmed, the doors closed, the blood pressure surged, the heart pounded and there I was, trapped in the dark.

Why is it just now occurring to me that being a member of the audience is a form of captivity? A season of theatrical claustrophobia followed, where I solidly earned my nickname, "one-act Wozny." 

The affliction got me thinking about the bodily experience of art, not for the artists, but for the viewer. We can experience a host of different reactions from art, whether we are comfortably seated in a theater seat or wandering about a gallery.

 Why is it just now occurring to me that being a member of the audience is a form of captivity? A season of theatrical claustrophobia followed, where I solidly earned my nickname, "one-act Wozny." 

In the first case, we are the object as the art moves about, in the second case, the art is the object and we get to move about.

Art can be hard on the bod

Time-based art is a commitment, usually an hour or longer. We can't talk, and our attention is supposed to be on stage. There's a sense of stuckness to the experience. Now, if what you are watching puts you in rapture, then you are happy to be glued to the seat, if not, it's more like a sentence. When the lights came down on the Alley Theatre's powerful production of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, it seemed too soon, I was just getting to know everyone.

I've always enjoyed the freedom involved in the visual arts. I can stay as long as I like, walk around, talk to friends and drink crappy white wine. Phil Solomon put it succinctly when he said, "The viewer dominates the work," during a panel of the Cinema on the Verge artists during the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

Solomon's stunning American Falls required a full 51 minutes of the viewer's attention, but in a gallery setting, most just walk by. The bench was a tip off to hang around, which I did.  My body was free to come and go, but it chose to stay for all 51 minutes.

The middle ground of performance art

Performance art is a rich place to consider all of this, as it exists in some kind of strange in between world that I will never truly comprehend. Yet, I cherish the tension. The fact that people don't quite know what to do with themselves becomes a part of the experience. Awkwardness can be so alluring. Between the CAMH's Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art through Feb.15, and Tony Feher Free Fall at DiverseWorks though March 17, it's a regular performance artpalooza

 The fact that people don't quite know what to do with themselves becomes a part of the experience. Awkwardness can be so alluring. 

At a recent performance of Theaster Gates "holding court" as part of the CAMH show, I couldn't quite decide what to do with myself. A group sat at a table, too close for me, especially for his confrontive tone. I moved several times, further and further from him, until I was by the door, for a quick and easy escape. 

When Leslie Scates, Damon Smith, Shanon Adams, David Dove, Sandy Ewen, Kristen Frankiewicz, Spencer Gavin-Hering and jhon stronks took over DiverseWorks in a musical and movement response to Feher's Free Fall, numerous possibilities surfaced, from getting in the way of the performers, to playing with Feher's suspended water bottles. You would think the viewer would call the shots, but this sassy gang kept breaking up our little cliques. Nicely done!

The Bridge Club's show Still, running at Art Palace until Feb. 16, offered an even more elusive physical experience. The photos from the performance collective serve as artifacts of past performances. Looking at these surreal rituals, I want to join them, project my own body within their schema. They evoke a bodily participation.

Music is in your bones

When Gruppo Musicale Assurd took to the Cullen Theater stage this weekend with the dancers from Les Grande Ballet Canadiens to perform Mauro Bigonzetti's Cantata as part of Houston Ballet's Cullen Series, my southern Italian body was wailing along. These songs are in my DNA, it's a cellular response. Brain scientists tell us our bodies fire similar neurological patterns to what we are watching in a theory known as "mirror neurons". Although I have seen Cantata twice already on the Dance Salad bill, I welcomed another chance.

As part of the CAMH show, Shaun El C. Leonardo's The Arena, a  Greco-Roman wrestling collaboration with Musiqa and Project Row Houses, at the Progressive Amateur Boxing Association, brought a whole other layer of visceral agitation. Watching bodies get pummeled, accompanied by fabulous percussion, proved deliciously traumatic, with lots of screaming from people besides myself. The event may have won over some new Greco Roman wrestling fans. 

 Watching bodies get pummeled, accompanied by fabulous percussion, proved deliciously traumatic, with lots of screaming from people besides myself.  

I do feel music in my bones, but it's always better when I happen to be sitting next to "culturebro" Joel Luks. Often, he has actually played what I we are listening to, which was exactly the case during Sandor Ostlund's terrific interpretation of Bizet's Carmen at a recent ROCO Chamber concert at Gremillion & Co.

It's hard to sit there and just be a lump to such luscious music. I just leaned in and took a ride on Luks' mirror neurons. Again, the body wants to join in on the fun. Hey, don't try this with strangers. 

Body-friendly books

After a good long break, I got over my sudden onset theater claustrophobia. During my time away, I rediscovered reading as an art activity. Books may be the most body-friendly form of art. These portable little word-stuffed rectangles are delicately scaled to fit in our hands, and offer a completely flexibility experience.

You can stop and start at will, take them anywhere, even send them to your mother when you are done. You can move about while your imagination is free to run wild. And get this, they are free at the library. Although, sadly, I have recently learned that they want them back.

The weird thing is how I read, which is most often at show time, 8 p.m. when I dutifully take my seat, turn the light on and open the curtain of the first page. 

The Bridge Club in action in Medium at Art Palace

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