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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
Mary's New York Diary
by Mary Paterson
Monday 5 November 2007
Chelsea in New York is not quite the same as Chelsea in London. The Stateside version is what I imagine the British one would have been like a hundred years ago - large leafy houses that are still cheap enough to be populated by artists and bohemians. This morning I have been asked to witness a 'life-swap' ritual at one of these generous homes. I ring the bell, and am ushered in by a young Frenchman. 'I just live here', he says, and sits back down at his computer. I loiter in the hallway, looking at expensive prints and listening to a disembodied New York voice from the other room:
I wanna make sure there's no garlic in the glaze. For the gammon? I wanna triple check. No garlic.
This is Nancy Weber, an author who spent a month in 1974 swapping lives with another woman. They swapped everything - jobs, hobbies, children, loved ones, lovers. Now Nancy is a writer and part-time caterer, and her home is the temporary host to a Berlin-based artist group called Wooloo Productions. They have initiated something similar to her life swap - they are match making people to swap lives for a minimum of twenty-four hours. 'We're very person-focussed', says Martin Rosengaard, one of the artists, 'This is not Wife Swap, which is all about the audience. This is about the individual'
I stand in Nancy's garden, looking through skylights in her patio to a basement room, where one man is sitting on a rug, blindfolded and wearing medical scrubs. Nancy brings me some warm cider. A few minutes later, another man is led through the garden. He has bleached streaks in his hair and multiple piercings. He is taken past a sign that says 'Warning: when you pass this sign your life will be swapped', and he casts a look of trepidation in my direction.
'There were rules for this one,' Martin told me earlier, 'They both agreed to leave $100 in each other's wallets and to keep their phones charged.' Doesn't sound like much of a safety net to me. Before I know it, the men have left. They walked out the door wearing each other's clothes, carrying each other's passports, and never having seen each other's faces.
Like I said, Chelsea in New York is not quite the same as Chelsea in London.
Wednesday 7 November 2007
As soon as I come out of the subway station at Wall Street, I can tell that something is different. Most New York subways open unceremoniously onto the street, but at Wall Street the station opens into a vast atrium, complete with marble pillars and palm trees.
It's one of New York's, 'privately owned public spaces': areas designated for public use but which have been carefully designed - by their private owners - to delineate exactly what that use could be. It's also the fourth space in the city's wealthy financial district that the artist Pablo Bronstein has chosen for his performance, 'Plaza Minuet'.
At about ten past five in the afternoon, a troupe of turquoise-leotard-wearing dancers bounds into the atrium, to the mutual surprise of the security guards and most of the passers by. The dancers lay out an X on the floor in masking tape. They stand along its lines and, for the next fifteen minutes, move slowly and elegantly between classical ballet poses, while Pablo Bronstein and a choreographer bark orders at them from the front.
The security guards start to smile, but then look stern again when they catch my eye. The traders pause to watch as they scurry between skyscrapers. The 'art-crowd' - those of us who knew it was happenig - stand in groups, which makes our 'alternative' dress sense look a bit like a uniform. Who is really performing in this space - us our the dancers? The answer is everyone, and the architecture is helping us perform. Just like the strict and rarefied discipline of ballet, the height and grandeur of this atrium make us shape our bodies and behavour in certain ways.
All at once, it's over. The dancers disolve into the crowd, pull on grey and black clothes and look like everyone else. But the space around us has started to look different.
Friday 9 November 2007
A busy day full of failures. First I fail to get to NYU in time to see the panel discussion I got out of bed for. It's the second day of the Performance Studies International conference, and, ironically given the nature of the discussions, the organisers don't seem to have considered their audiences. A popular talk is being held in a room that seats about 20 people. The rest of us loiter in the corridoor for a bit, then leave.
Second, I fail to get anything out of the panel I have been looking forward to all week. Isaac Julien, Yvonne Rainer, Laurie Simmons and Adam Pendleton are talking in the Judson Memorial Church, hosted by Roselee Goldberg. The lineup reads like a dream - internationally famous artists and one up and coming star, plus the director of the Performa festival itself. But it's too promising for it's own good, and the discussions disolve into mutual praise and self-congratulation.
Third, I fail to impress several important people. A lunchtime meeting for 'Writers Hub', the network of critics that I am helping to co-ordinate in New York, proves surprisingly popular, and the table we have booked is too small. The Arts Council Officer who approved my application and paid for me to come here is left standing while we argue with the waiters about moving chairs. After a few minutes, she leaves. Ouch. There are other important people at the meeting who I variously mis-hear, mis-introduce and generally act stupidly in front of, but it's the Arts Council mix up that stings.
Fourth, I fail to see the man I am meant to be meeting in Washington Square. Instead, I watch He Yunchang's performance, 'Mahjong' for one and a half hours. The artist is playing Mahjong in the park, using tiles made out of concrete bricks. He is also naked. The work has layers of political signification, but it is freezing cold and I would prefer to be watching from somewhere inside, with a cup of tea.
This miserable day is rounded off by a drinks party held to foster networks between New York and London. It's getting late, I'm tired and I would rather have a hot chocolate than stand in a queue for the bar. I vent my frustrations by having a heated and fruitless argument about the nature of art and the academy with two people I know from London. Is this a sophisticated way to be angry? Or is it just too pretentious for words?
Saturday 10 November 2007
8.30 am, on the 7th floor of a building in Washington Square. I'm here at the PSI conference early, to make sure I get a seat for the talk between Amelia Jones, an art historian, and Carolee Schneeman, an artist. I have spent many hours, days, weeks poring over these women's work in the British Library. There, the light is carefully diffused, the reading rooms are silent, the books have been stripped of their covers and the photographs are in black and white. Here, there is a crisp panorama over Manhattan, the smell of tea and toasted bagels, and those two names that I have read over and over again turn out to belong to real people, sitting at the front of the room.
They talk about how to record or document a performance, and Carolee Schneeman shares an anecdote about a Scandinavian reporter who once asked about her famous work, Interior Scroll, in which the artist took a rolled-up piece of paper from her vagina and read its contents to an audience. The reporter was very concerned about the claws on this scroll, which seemed baffling. Eventually Carolee Schneeman realised that the reporter had misheard the title of the work, and thought it was called Interior Squirrel.
When it comes to the time for questions, one member of the audience begins to speak in what sounds like gibberish. In fact she's talking in quotes, and giving the references for each quote as she goes. She has a quote for everything, even a greeting ('"G'day" – Steve Irwin 2005'), and she quotes Carolee Schneeman from the 1960s in order to ask a question to Carolee Schneeman in 2007. It makes me think of all those hours I spend in the British Library, faithfully trying to piece together history using quotes – prose, poems, photographs. There isn't another way of speaking except through the words and memories of other people.
The rest of the day is also full of words, and history. I arrive early for another talk in the afternoon, between Tim Etchells, a writer and the director of the theatre group Forced Entertainment, and Adrian Heathfield, a writer and academic. Predictably, the conference organisers have woefully underestimated the popularity of this talk, and I have to sit on the floor, in a pile of dust in the corner of the room. It doesn't matter. Tim Etchells and Adrian Heathfield deliver a performance lecture about fiction and story-telling that leaves me with a lump in my throat. At the end, I spend far too long picking the dust off my trousers so that no-one will catch my eye and see that I have been crying.
A quick change at home, then off to a venue called Joe's Pub to see 'Wow and Now: A celebration of feminist and queer performance'. The 'wow' refers to the line-up – Karen Finley, Nao Bustamante, Lois Weaver, Holly Hughes, Kalup Linzy, My Barbarian, Dynasty Handbag, Carmelita Tropicana – which reads like a who's who of influential feminist performance artists from the 1980s, plus a couple of hot new stars thrown in. But it’s also 'wow' in terms of the 'WOW Café', a legendary New York venue and arts collective that supports this type of work.
It's a strange night – a mixture of cabaret and nostalgia, watched by performance academics (this, too, has been organised by the PSI conference) and students. A lot of these academics have written these artists into history. A lot of these students have only read about these artists in books. Somewhere in between, the spontaneity and transgression of feminist and queer performance from 1980s New York has been sedated and trapped between bookends. This is the kind of stuff I try to invent memories for, alone, in the British Library.
Here in Joe's Pub, when Karen Finley gets her breasts out on stage it feels less like an act of feminist defiance or misbehaviour, and more like an obligation carried out by a dutifully respected grand dame of performance. It strikes me that, fallible and second-hand as they always are, words are quite a good way of documenting the past. They leave gaps for the imagination to breathe, in a way that reconstructions of history never do.
Sunday 11 November 2007
I interview Martin Rosengaard, one of the members of Wooloo Productions who carried out the 'Life Swap' I saw last week in Chelsea. I am disconcerted by the fact that Marting is the doppelganger of a friend of mine in London – they don't just look alike, they look identical. Martin is charming and eloquent even though I am flustered by this spooky similarity. When I get home, I realise the audio recorder only picked up the first fifteen minutes of our hour-long conversation.
I go to the plenary session of PSI, in which the organisers have chosen to do away with any pretence at summing up, and just staged a party. But this is a party for performance art academics, so of course there is a man playing the cello in a bath, and someone in the corner is blowing bubbles.
Tuesday 13 November 2007
The third of our workshop sessions for Writers Hub takes place today at midday. Writers Hub is part of PERFORMA's 'Not for Sale' education programme, and I am here with two colleagues from London to work with US writers on reviews, interviews and opinion pieces for the PERFORMA blog (http://07.performa-arts.org/performa_live.php).
We get there early to lay books out on the table, staple handouts together and wait. We arrange some cookies and chocolate brownies. Five past twelve. I eat a cookie. Ten past twelve. It dawns on us that we don't know if anyone's coming. Quarter past twelve.
Eventually, five people arrive, which is enough for a discussion. We pick apart some texts from the New York Times, The Guardian and various blogs, then we get down to the nitty gritty, and critique each other's writing. It's a useful exercise and I'm glad that we have created a nurturing environment in which we can all speak our minds and help each other improve. Nevertheless, I have my fingers crossed beneath the table when the group is looking at my work, hoping that they won't be too mean.
Uplifted by the session, I go to a bookshop to read some poetry and then, on a whim, phone someone I haven't seen in over five years. Julia got a job at the Guggenheim Museum after we graduated and never looked back – she's been living in New York ever since. It turns out Julia has hurt her leg so she's working from home in Williamsburg, and I jump on a train to see her.
Julia looks exactly the same. We both say: 'I never expected to see you again.' We have tea and more cookies, and talk for about three hours. We could have just stepped out of a history of art lecture six years ago, except that instead of moaning about student housing and the misery of Edinburgh University library, we talk about the dating scene in New York and how little we get paid in the arts. It is one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have spent in years, and I leave Julia's flat with a broad grin on my face.
Thursday 15 November 2007
My American relatives must be rich because they 'summer' in Europe, and anyone who uses summer as a verb clearly marks their leisure time in seasons, not weekends. Another clue is that they live on Park Avenue, which is where I am running – late, and in high heels.
Mr and Mrs New York (let's call them), are waiting at the top of the private lift when the doors open (note to future self: don’t try making smalltalk with the man who takes you in the lift, he doesn't like it). My hazy family geography tells me they must be in their eighties, but it is impossible to guess their age because they're both very fit, extremely well-dressed, sprightly, and (at least in part) surgically enhanced. A middle-aged woman in a white overall offers to take my coat.
I thought Mr and Mrs New York might have a maid, because of a conversation I had with them over lunch last week - the first time I had seen them in more than a decade. Mrs New York told me about the house they used to live in and complained that 'It was so big you needed a couple'. A couple of what, I thought? Dogs? Children? After a while I realised she was talking about servants. Still, nothing really prepared me for the strangeness of a silent, live-in presence who serves the food, pours the drinks and is summoned by a bell.
Mrs New York offers me a tour of the apartment and I accept with glee. The apartment is huge. There is a sitting room, a dining room, a breakfast room, a library, a room for playing bridge in, a room for getting manicures in.... And every room is filled with exquisite furniture - it looks like Louis XIV furniture. It looks like the kind of furniture you're not allowed to sit on in museums.
The paintings are also of museum quality. In the sitting room I immediately spot a peasant scene by Breughel and a view of Venice by Canaletto. Every painting is by a master – even the still-lifes in the bathrooms. The library is lined exclusively with leather-bound, gilt-edged first editions of Eighteenth-Century English satirical novels.
Later, during our three course dinner, I look down at the exquisite porcelain I'm eating from and the silver fork in my hand begins to shake. It is lucky that Mr and Mrs New York, and their daughter (who also floats in an ageless body) are such good conversationalists, because I am literally struck dumb by my surroundings.
Friday 16 November 2007
The queue at the Anthology Film Archives snakes around the block, intermittently entertained by some Hare Krishna dancers - I'm surprised that the restoration of a 1976 film by Carolee Schneeman has received so much interest. Then I realise that the queue is for a cult version of 'Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark', and that us Carolee Schneeman fans can walk straight in.
'Kitsch’s Last Meal' is ostensibly about the last days of the artist's cat, Kitsch, but it's also about Carolee Schneeman's relationship with her partner at the time, Anthony McCall, and about Schneeman herself. It's shown on two Super-8 projectors, one above the other, which creates a kind of symmetricality of movement – side to side, up and down. Normally, films show action going from left to right, which echoes the way that we read and signals 'progress'. But the vertical relation of these two films undercuts that formal expectation, and makes me relax into free association between the elements on screen.
Schneeman's melodious voice speaks over the first section, recounting an argument she had with a male structuralist filmmaker who did not approve of her work. The sound track in later sections is the incidental, domestic noises of her home - conversations between Schneeman and McCall, the sound of the cat purring or miaowing, the sounds of laughter.
Although Kitsch's Last Meal is about loss - its premise is the inevitable death of Kitsch, the cat - it's also a celebration of domesticity and intimacy. Everything that happens involves Schneeman, McCall, Kitsch or their domestic environment. They seem to make a tangle of lives that interweave with and complement each other, and by retelling her argument with the structuralist filmmaker at the beginning, Schneeman asserts the resonance of this intimacy over logic or form.
Part of the power of these intimate scenes comes from their own ambivalence. Unlike shapes and lines, the relationships shown here are never absolute; and, just by recording them, Schneeman makes them bittersweet. It's impossible to acknowledge your own happiness without admitting that the happiness will end (contentment is a different emotion), which immediately tinges happiness with its own mortality. Kitsch's Last Meal doesn’t just anticipate loss; it also spells out beauty and visualises grief. It is an eloquent memento mori, its celebration of life so tangible that its reminder of death is almost too much to bear.
In her introduction to this screening, Carolee Schneeman told us that just after Kitsch died, she lost her job and her relationship ended with Anthony McCall. Although she had anticipated loss, it still crept up and surprised her. Suddenly, I realise how much I miss my friends in London. END
(c) Mary Paterson 19 November 2007
Mary Paterson was a Writing Live Fellow for Performa Biennial - New York - 27 October - 21 November 2007
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