4th Annual Festival Welcomes Small Bevy of Internationally Renown Performers
You think you've taken risks?
Try dangling a vegan burrito from your crotch and inviting the white men in the audience to absolve themselves symbolically of colonial guilt by taking a bite. Or kidnapping visitors to your gallery show and driving drunk around Los Angeles looking for a hustler to assault them. Or wrapping your nude body in clear packing tape and teetering up a stepladder in ankle-breaker high heels. Or sealing your head in a water-filled plastic bag to create "a real, and urgent situation to respond to." Risk may be performance artist Nao Bustamante's stock in trade, but none of her previous aesthetic daredevilry prepared her for the summer and fall of 2003. That year, her brother Cruz was running for governor of California in the scattered aftermath of the vote recount, and somehow the media deduced that the amiable Democrat and the notorious performance artist were connected.
"All the major networks were calling," Bustamante says of the chaotic days after the story broke. "Fox wants to talk to you, CNN wants to talk to you." Suddenly her uncompromising and definitely uncommon oeuvre had the full attention of a national audience--a Faustian proposition for any fringe artist who'd spent the last decade toiling in obscurity. Disoriented by the sudden opportunity, she asked her brother for advice, and his response was generous. "`You can do what you want,'" she recalls him saying. "`If you're going onto these programs, talk to our PR people. Or you can wait for it to go away in three days.' And it did."
Now that the fervor's cooled, Bustamante, who is performing as part of the Transmodern (nee Transmodern Age) festival at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson this weekend, has returned to the avant-garde circuit that's nurtured her for the past 17 years. She'll be doing a video performance piece as a "nefarious hag character" in the forest--a theme inspired by the transplanted Californian's discovery of how the seasons transform the upstate New York landscape she now calls home. ("I find the fall so ecstatic," she gushes. "It's so beautiful.") But during that trying time three years ago, was she seduced by the opportunity of that sudden quasi-scandal to gain some overdue recognition? "There were some tempting moments that could have been cool for me, but to be honest, I've worked so hard to stay in the underground," she maintains. "Aside for the money, I don't see the point in going mainstream. There's not a lot for me there, except some misunderstanding of who I am. It's not that I think going mainstream is sellout. It's just that the underground has been really good for me."
The underground has been really good to the Transmodern festival, too. Since its 2003 inception as a one-shot celebration of "otherworldly adornment," its footprint on the national performance community has grown--not to the proportions of venues like New York's the Kitchen, but enough that event co-organizer Catherine Pancake notes that, thanks to artists posting an appearance at Transmodern in their online résumés, the festival's "Google cred" is increasing. This year, for the festival's fourth incarnation, Pancake and co-organizers Bonnie Jones and Ric Royer (Jackie Milad, the other founding member, switched to a curatorial role this year) wisely revisited their original mission in a planning session. Among their renovations: drop the "Age" from the title, receive the grant money and nonprofit status that they'd applied for, and revisit their charter to sharpen this year's strategy so that 2007's festival would have as much snap as in years past. Attracting national artists was never necessarily part of Transmodern's mission--after all, there's plenty of worthwhile, gutsy, fringe performers like City Paper contributing photographer Carly Ptak and Laure Drogoul who call Baltimore home--but you can't help but notice that the away-team roster has grown each year. But, like the adage that "all politics is local," speaking to visiting artists like Bustamante, Baraka de Soleil, and Wendy Babcox reveals that there's much to be had in small, indigenous festivals like Transmodern.
"Baltimore seems like the perfect place for me," Wendy Babcox says via cell phone. "Wrestling isn't going to go over as well in Santa Fe as it will in Baltimore. It seems like a place that allows, or is interested in, carnival things."
Babcox is speaking from a highway rest stop, a stopover on the arduous drive back from a photography conference to her current hometown of Tampa, where she's an assistant professor of photography and intermedia at University of South Florida. And she's referring to Slapdown!, the satirical all-women's wrestling league she's bringing to Transmodern. "I've never been to that space before," she says of the Creative Alliance, her stateside-softened British accent still gently clipping her speech. "I pray to God there's alcohol there. There's something important about having a beer or two to grease the wheels."
Babcox never imagined her professorial résumé would include wrestling art students half her age. But during a teaching stint at Western Michigan University, two of her students showed her a video of artists who had created their own farcical wrestling league. "I said, `If you want to do that for credit in my class, you can, but you've got to do it well--work on the performance, create costumes, make a web site, all of these things that would help promote your performance work. You'd be gaining skills in this medium.'" Her students eagerly complied, and eventually asked their teacher to join their roster of fighters. "I thought, This is ridiculous, the dean will kill me," Babcox recalls. "Most of the shows took place in rock 'n' roll clubs and bars, and I imagined the dean saying, `This is not dignified, rolling around onstage.' But to my surprise he was really supportive."
In its three years, Slapdown!'s bout cards have included a Southern belle, a nun, a cave woman, an aerobics instructor, and various other cheeky variations on female stereotypes. "One year I had a couple girls who had a Florida voter versus a voting machine," Babcox says. "They got onstage--it was right after we'd had those hurricanes, and the Florida voter had her hair all whipped up and she attacked the voting machine and the ballots went flying." If audiences laugh at her work, Babcox is all the more gratified. "There's something defiant about women laughing. I'm interested in the power of women's laughter. I'm interested in women transgressing through mischievous ways."
Babcox, whose other body of photographic work gleans inspiration from the hopelessly tacky attractions of the Florida tourist industry, sees the connection between the spectacle of wrestling and the cultural profundity of performance art immediately. "I take my hat off to WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment]," she says. "They're probably second to The Simpsons in terms of dealing with topical issues. They pull from what's going on in the culture to a large degree. What I love about wrestling is that it's totally self-aware. You know, the wrestlers know that you know, that it's all fake. What matters is the show."
The show matters to Baraka de Soleil, too. The New York-based dance and performance artist and founding member of Minneapolis arts community network D UNDERBELLY is also performing at Transmodern, showcasing excerpts from Koool-aid Luv Odyssey, a "multimedia performance collage" riff on the trippiest, ghetto-est, funkiest, and cherry-reddest powdered drink mix. Listening to de Soleil speak (his name means "blessed of the sun" in Swahili and Haitian French) is like sliding into the flow of a poetry jam. His highest compliments are "rich" and "deep" and "dense," and when he's asked about what inspired Luv Odyssey he quickly slips into a free-associative reverie on "Kool-Aid as a sensation, Kool-Aid as an icon, Kool-Aid as getting high. Loving Kool-Aid is how we look at the loving of love, and what better way to talk about love than rock and soul and funk. And the masculinity of the Kool-Aid, as an icon, represented in James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Rick James--liquidy, sexy, funky, psychedelic."
De Soleil crafted this unique piece of theater after many workshops with his core quartet of volunteer dance performers, drawing on their personalities to create the Afro-ed, supafly characters that interact in a layered visual environment that includes video and a live DJ. "I believe in creating work that challenges audiences to have this visceral and kinesthetic response," he continues. "African-American audiences have come up to me after Koool-aid Luv Odyssey, and some say, `You've shown a piece of us that should be shown,' and some say, `You've shown a piece of us that should not be shown.' I'm not interested in providing answers. People who are attracted to my work are metaphysical. They have some sense of who they are."
That sense of self, especially as it relates to the African-American tradition--or, as de Soleil puts it, "African-Americana," a "dense, rich, fragmented thing"--is essential to his work. "I believe ancestrally there are connections," he says. "I feel the shackles of slavery. I feel the Middle Passage. Those things haunt me. I feel it in my muscle memory. So for me to remember [those events] in the act of creating is easy. I can tap into that.
But "I don't do `blame whitey' shows," de Soleil says. "Each of who we are culturally, we all got stuff to deal with to empower and enlighten ourselves. I'm basking in Negritude, and that's everything from the Negro Southern watermelon [stereotype] to the black man reading the book."
Part of Transmodern's focus was always bringing minority voices to the forefront, but the audience for fringe work still tends to skew white and well-educated. Is it a struggle to get African-American audiences to come see performance art? "It's a struggle for people to come see performance art," de Soleil laughs. "But I believe in the neighborhood and working with the community where it's rooted. I like connecting. I don't like ivory towers or elite, aesthetic rigors. I would rather someone from around the block came to see my work than a so-and-so. It's tied into the African tradition of the people in the neighborhood generating the energy for the group. I don't know if Creative Alliance has the kind of space where people would come, but I'm really into discovering."
That sentiment of inclusion is seconded in Bustamante's reasons for coming down to a local festival in a second-tier art city like Baltimore when many of her internationally known peers wouldn't make the time. "A lot of great stuff happens in the off-of-center local scene," she says. "I'm going to come early and stay late and hopefully see other artists to find some things to steal," she teases, that daredevil streak bleeding through her impish giggle. But then she turns serious. "I'm coming because people cared enough about me to ask," Bustamante says, her gratitude echoing that same desire to connect voiced by de Soleil, Babcox, and likely many, many others coming to Transmodern. "I feel honored that they did."
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