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Playing the Dozen

Rebecca Nagle snaps through 12 things she wants to do onstage

Rebecca Nagle does one of her A Dozen Things I Want To Do On Stage.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/10/2009

A Dozen Things I Want to Do on Stage

LOF/T, June 12 at 8 p.m.

Rebecca Nagle is one of the more beguiling provocateurs working in Baltimore right now. The petite 22-year-old MICA graduate and performance artist sits at a table in a Bolton Hill coffee shop dressed in professional black skirt and top--she has to head to her job as a community connections coordinator at the Waverly Elementary/Middle School after the interview--talking about the genesis of her A Dozen Things I Want to Do on Stage cabaret show that she performs for this first time ever in its entirety this Friday, her 23rd birthday. And as she talks about Dozen's lively mix of performance art and staged performance, she recalls some of her earlier performances, such as doing a contortion act to a traditional folk ballad that she rewrote to spotlight its central misogyny more clearly and that time she just kept slapping a young woman.

For her 2007 performance "Actions to Relate," Nagle set up a table with 60 cards on it that each included a command--kiss me, touch me--that ranged, as she puts it, from "benign to sexual to violent." People would come up to the table and pick a card, and when the person stood in a blue box Nagle, who always stood in a red box, performed the described action.

It was a performance that explicitly explored two ideas. "One was intimacy--like, here's all of these interactions that normally have all of these meanings and normally are so loaded and are a genuine exchange between people and it was really not intimate because the only reason I was doing those things to that person was because they handed me that card," Nagle says, in the sort of rush of energy that matches her personality.

Her dark hair hangs in short curls around her nimble mind, and she agilely moves from talking about feminist performance to Michel Foucault in the blink of an eye, all of it punctuated by laughs and smiles. It's the sort of affable mental-juggling act expected from a woman who is not only premiering a one-woman performance this week and finished helping coordinate an interactive block party for Bolton Hill, Upton, and Sandtown, but who is also curating the Midway at Artscape 2009, working on an interactive billboard for her entry into Artscape's Baltimore sculpture project, and working on a piece for a Creative Alliance at the Patterson July show curated by Aidah Aliyah Rasheed, whom Nagle met when they were both students working on 2007's At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland as part of George Ciscle's Exhibition Development Seminar. You know, Nagle is just one of your typically under-motived Baltimore artists.

"It was not intimate and it was irrelevant who they were and what our relationship was," she continues. "And I didn't perform it where, like, if you were my friend I was going to be friendly with you. And the other issue was power. There was one situation where I was slapping this girl and she kind of was really out of it and was crying and wasn't leaving the box--probably because she had just been smacked and she was in shock and so she just kept standing there. So I just kept slapping her.

"And power is really complicated. Power is so complicated. She had asked me to slap her, so she has power. But who really has the agency in that situation? And 'Actions' was sort of making that transparent."

The transparency of social structures is one of the central ideas that runs through Nagle's wide body of work--which includes performance art, video and new media art, fiber and fiber installations, and, most recently, staged performances and community-art projects.

"But they're all interactive," Nagle says of her works. "And they're all, sort of, about some general themes that I like--power, boundaries, the body, sexuality--and a lot of them come from this way of trying to make apparent and deconstruct the structures that order our lives and we live in and order the way we interact with people. So trying to get people to understand those things and see them."

With Dozen, Nagle brings staged performance and performance art together in a cabaret setting that toys with the idea of performance--what is fake and what is real and how can we tell? "In 'Actions to Relate,' I'm not acting," Nagle says. "Those are genuine moments. Those are interactions that are actually happening between people. And in theater, there's this idea where, well, this is performance--like, this isn't actually happening--and it's sort of going back to Erving Goffman post-structural performance theory and this way in our culture where we sort of dissect people and dissect people's actions into these discrete categories of genuine and real and authentic and then performing and fake and so [Dozen is] taking those different categories and those distinctions that we make and sort of toying with them. Because there are these performances, these sort of real-life moments, real-life interactions, but then a lot of it's staged, and there are a lot of times where it's not clear what's staged and what's not."

For Dozen, a few of the pieces were given test-runs at the Charm City Kitty Club and Minás Gallery's Boite nights, Nagle runs through a series of different characters and situations, including numerous costume changes, a few slapstick routines, an emcee character who speaks in limericks, and a contortion routine in which she folds herself inside a small box. She admits it's an intentional collision of two distinct eras--1920s political theater, particularly German cabaret, and 1970s feminist performance art--that both intimately share Nagle's thematic interests in the body and power.

The 1970s legacy is evident in Nagle's performances in which she invites the audience to do things to her, and even cites Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" as an example. Dozen's 1920s political theater debt is both more and less obvious, as so much of that era has been revised in the mere surface sheen of its costumes and look more than its content. "It's frustrating, because the whole neo-cabaret movement is so far removed from the origins, which is--I mean, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, the people who were doing these cabarets, a lot of them were arrested," Nagle says. "It was a really intense reaction to the violence and how messed up World War I was. And in some places it became Dadaist performance, it became totally experimental. There was this one cabaret called the Eleven Executioners in Germany and they would open every cabaret with this sort of chorus poem, and so that's why I start with a chorus poem--of course, now I've got puppets opening with the chorus poem."

Nagle's jaunty mixture of hard-line intelligence and an impish, almost childlike sense of play is what makes her performances such a treat. Her dozen things dart from the uncomfortable--sharing her fantasies, reading the audience members' secrets, taking a truth serum and letting the audience ask her questions--to circus-like feats, such as her contortion act and slapstick pratfalls, presented in such as way where some of the interactions feel like games. The overall piece itself sounds like it has the feel of a narrative, and even concludes on a definite endpoint: an act of staged barbarity that directly addresses the performance's meta-performative mission. Some of the violence is absurdly fake and funny and some of it intense, but it's all "fake" violence.

"The order is important," Nagle says of the Dozen. "Well, the last thing I do is disembowel myself, and after you disembowel yourself, it's pretty much over at that point. You can't disembowel yourself and then do a contortion routine."

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Tags: Rebecca Nagle, MICA, Performance Art

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