Drop into any Brightest Young Things party or Pink Line Project event with a DJ, a food truck, and some graffiti, and there’s a good chance you’re going to see some performance art. Not, mind you, the Viennese Actionism of the late 1960s or the NEA Four of the early 1990s or Marina Abramović trying to make you cry, but something that feels like a distinct thing in its own right. It might be Katie Balloons (Katie Laibstain) wearing balloons in place of clothing, or Holly Bass strapping basketballs onto her behind, but there’s something to it that’s very D.C.
Performance art today is a label that captures a lot of diverse genres, to the chagrin of some artists and the delight of others. In D.C., there is only one thing that those artists have in common: They all just got here. In 2007, the city hosted almost no performance art whatsoever. As of this month, it boasts one of the country’s biggest festivals dedicated to just performance art. This weekend, SuperNOVA will assemble nearly 100 performers in Rosslyn, and attract, its organizers hope, 10 times that number of viewers—or more. Performance art has not just taken root in the D.C. area. Washington is aiming to be the nation’s performance art capital.
Consider the scene only a few years back. In 2007, D.C. artist (and longtime Washington City Paper critic) Jeffry Cudlin put together a performance art event that made light of the fact that the city had no performance art tradition—no blood, no screaming, no nudity, nothing. For “Ian and Jan” at the District of Columbia Arts Center, Cudlin and artist Meg Mitchell put all of that into a faux retrospective of two seminal artists from the Washington Body School, documenting the body-oriented performances of a D.C. movement that had since fallen by the wayside. (It was expertly executed: Area curators even chimed in, via mockumentary video interviews, to lament the lost stature of the Body School.) At that time, it was the first performance art show in who knows how long and a cheeky critique of the city’s utter lack of body or durational art to boot. (If the movement sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a spoof on the Washington Color School, an actual D.C. movement that has, in fact, fallen by the wayside.)
But by the time that Cudlin and Mitchell noticed a paucity of local performance, things were changing. The following year, in 2008, a short-lived gallery called Meat Market hosted an unprecedented “Performance Week” in the former Church of the Rapture warehouse space at 14th and T streets NW. Here was an authentic display of local performance artists. Never mind that Meat Market is long gone and 1840 14th St. NW is now home to upscale furniture shop Room & Board; those are signs of other sorts of change that tie into the plethora of performance now. “Performance Week” was a first effort to correct that oversight spoofed by Ian and Jan, even if it meant just a couple performances a night, for an audience of about a couple dozen people.
If “Performance Week” was an indication of healthy growth in D.C.’s art scene, SuperNOVA points to something like hyperthyroidism. The Rosslyn festival is a weekend-long performance art extravaganza across multiple locations and mediums. In what may be a first for performance art, SuperNOVA is a festival that won its supporters for the economic benefits they believed would come from hosting it in Rosslyn.
“We want to grab people’s attention,” says Cecilia Cassidy, executive director of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, whose retail task force is putting on the show. “We want to stun them. Rosslyn is really a hip, cool place. We like that element of surprise.”
Not since business owners in Rosslyn began peddling the area as “Manhattan on the Potomac” has such an outrageous claim been made about the gray neighborhood of corporate high-rises. Still, the people who may be stunned most by SuperNOVA aren’t the yups who call Rosslyn home—but the flinty artists and art fans who have watched the movement emerge and then explode in just a few years.
Spiritually, Rosslyn is much closer to Room & Board than a shuttered Pentecostal church. But SuperNOVA may be just what the District needs, according to two of the artists closest to the city’s performance art buzz.
The chief curator for SuperNOVA is Eames Armstrong, 24, an artist who has in recent years emerged as D.C.’s most productive booster of performance art. She is the performance art curator at Hillyer Art Space, where she runs the “Soapbox” series, the city’s only sustained visual-art performance series.
“It’s hard to say how many artists are involved [in SuperNOVA], which seems kind of silly,” Armstrong says. Some performers are collectives or otherwise involve multiple individuals. All told, there are 73 performances, so she estimates that around 90 people are on the slate. Art scenemaker Philippa Hughes, who is something of an executive producer for SuperNOVA, recruited Armstrong to find the artists and work out various logistics, while she serves as liaison to the suits.
For a BID project, SuperNOVA resembles the sort of DIY effort that Armstrong might program at her home in the 52 O Street studios. For the Rosslyn show, she put out an open call through word-of-mouth channels while inviting a few select artists to submit proposals. SuperNOVA is happening at a much larger scale than anything she’s done before, though.
The Rosslyn BID ponied up $150,000 for the festival. Part of the purse goes directly to the artists, who each receive a base honorarium of $250. When SuperNOVA began soliciting submissions, Armstrong says, they also asked for artists to list any additional costs. “All the artists are getting paid, and a lot of their projects are getting funded,” she says. For example, the Rosslyn BID is picking up the tab for the two assistants and materials involved in J.J. McCracken’s 24-hour performance, as well as the field paint that Patrick McDonough is using to turn part of Gateway Park’s lawn white.
Why Rosslyn should invite McDonough to paint its Gateway Park chalk white—and not, say, prosecute him for it—is a question that doesn’t faze Cassidy. “The arts in Arlington generate $85 million in local economic activity,” she says, referring to annual figures from a December 2010 study assessing the state of the arts in Arlington County. “Arlington audience members spend $7.5 million [annually] on retail.” Citing chapter and verse, though, hasn’t redeemed Artisphere, the struggling Rosslyn cultural center and SuperNOVA venue. Nevertheless, Rosslyn authorities appear undeterred in their efforts to make art a thing there.
Support for art has its limits in the ’burbs: There’s to be no nudity in SuperNOVA. Asked who made that call, Cassidy simply says, “Me.” Then she rebounds with the language that one expects of a BID: “We don’t want to offend anyone’s sensibilities here. We want families to enjoy it.”
Armstrong frames this restraint another way: None of the artists were planning to disrobe in the first place. “I don’t think all performance can go anywhere,” she says, adding that plenty of fully clothed performance works wouldn’t fit SuperNOVA, either. If finding work that was Arlington-appropriate was a challenge, it turned out to be a solution, too. “A lot of the work takes Rosslyn as an integral part of the piece,” she says. She notes Cudlin’s pledge to scale Rosslyn’s streets and sidewalks—as if they were a rock face, in an hours-long durational test—as one example of site-specific work among many.
Crusty art punks may be less offended by the restriction on nudity than by “Big Bang,” the hipster-flavored Saturday dance party produced by Pink Line Project to gin up attendance at SuperNOVA. But that would be a mistake, Armstrong says. “[A dance party] is actually quite in line with a lot of performance,” she observes. “Maybe not very rigid, academic performance. But there’s a lot of partying in performance in the 1970s. Early Warehouse stuff”—referring to Andy Warhol’s outfit—“it’s a constant party.”
Armstrong says that the success of SuperNOVA would be measured by a followup festival the next year, or the year after. Artist and curator Sheldon Scott would like to develop a practice that’s not confined to just a few calendar days.
“I’d like there to be a D.C. dialect,” he says. A performance mode of D.C.’s own, he means, something native, like go-go or hardcore or mumbo sauce—all things that have been made the subject of recent gallery exhibits.
Looking at D.C.’s most visible performance artists, it’s hard to say what that vernacular could possibly be. Since her debut at Meat Market, artist J.J. McCracken has established herself as the best in D.C. performance by a margin. (For that 2007 show, she crafted small clay pots the traditional way; then, working with a staff of lab-coated assistants in a production line, she tagged and bagged them, vacuum-sealing the still-wet vessels and hanging them on the wall, like so many historical artifacts.) She has a challenger in Wilmer Wilson IV, an inventive young artist who shows at Connersmith. Kathryn Cornelius has a diverse practice, from vacuuming up sand on a beach in 2005 to marrying (but not legally) seven people in one day at the Corcoran Gallery of Art last year. Holly Bass is D.C.’s most prolific performance artist; Cudlin’s work is (unsurprisingly) metacritical but (quite surprisingly) often tragicomic. The city also has its share of enfants terribles, such as Andrew Bucket and Adrian Parsons, event impresarios who blend partying and performing into a way of life.
If a D.C. dialect exists, it’s in the fluidity of its genres, which combine the work of a somewhat cloistered gallery scene with performance rooted in happy-hour entertainment. Like Bass, Scott hails from the city’s storytelling scene. His history performing in non-galleries—Scott got his start in spoken word at Busboys and Poets—drives his view that performance art belongs in parties and bars, not just art galleries, which attract a limited crowd. “If you’re white-cubing it, you’re talking to the same audience,” he says. A pragmatist, Scott sees concrete advantages to moving performance art out of those cubes—which are diminishing in D.C. anyway—and into a cabaret setting. After all, he says, there’s no performance art without people to watch it.
Scott has also broken into another emerging support system for performance art: curation. With co-founder Armando López Bircann, Scott recently launched Animals & Fire, an effort to codify and organize the D.C. performance art scene.
For a first foray, Animals & Fire organized one of the strangest D.C. performances yet: a collaborative workshop to expand the practice of artist Bizard (Benoit Izard). On May 25, this workshop culminated in “Scotch Across D.C.,” a performance walk from the trendy Montserrat House to the staid Capitol reflecting pool. Over the course of the workshop, Bizard instructed co-performers on best practices for wrapping oneself from head to toe in colored tape. They passed through wildly divergent neighborhoods—a very different experience from performing in a 14th Street gallery—but one taped-up performer was kicked in the back while passing through Little Ethiopia in Shaw.
Scott, who is black and gay, says that part of the point of approaching visual performance art through panels and workshops is to find a common ground that traverses other kinds of boundaries. It is the same impulse that has led artists to take up land art and street art and social-practice art: to get out of the galleries and museums. Leaving one community might mean crossing racial and class lines and encountering other groups; in D.C., performance art also cherishes collaboration over working alone, which opens other doors.
“A little black sissy boy growing up in the rural south and a princess from the Upper East Side can appreciate all those same elements of self,” Scott says, given the chance.
Scott’s single lament about SuperNOVA is that it’s happening in Rosslyn, not D.C. This gets at one of the qualities that forever guides art in D.C.: It’s not a hub-and-spoke municipal model, such as you see in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis. It’s several neighborhoods competing to be the hub. Rosslyn wants in—and the area has decided that performance art could be its leg up.
“When a business is making a decision about where to locate, part of the consideration is about how the environment enriches the life of their workers,” Cassidy says. SuperNOVA “actually fits in exactly, this kind of festival. Rosslyn is pushing all facets of itself forward into the future.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery