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The Case for Performance Art in Houston

Performance by Raindawg. Image by Rebecca Botello

Performance art is born of interdisciplinary thinking. It’s the art of the mashup, mixed media, switched rolls. It violates the sacred 4th wall that protects the spectators and keeps them safe. Boundaries between art, artists, and audience disappear, allowing them to intertwine, coalesce, unify. To fuck and fuck up. The practice of performance art deconstructs high society and low, making them its medium, taking them as targets. It aims to unsettle, to get under its audience's skin and in the audience's mind. It evolves organically to remake art from the inside, removing the spaces in between the observer and the object d’art.

Houston is a humid, hot mess of a city. Including its suburbs (Sugar Land, Pear land, the Woodlands, etc.), it contains six and a half million people scattered over 10,000 square miles, which is an area larger than New Jersey. It's loosely defined borders contain the contradictions of larger American cultural conflicts. Houston is the most culturally diverse city in America, and yet its deep in a conservative state that thinks it a monoculture. Built on an open prairie, it’s closed off and corralled by gated communities and socio-economically exclusive neighborhoods. It is the old, the white, the male, becoming the new, multicultural, the diverse in fits and starts, through micro-revolutions and the inevitable evolution. Houston remakes itself, daily, through its denizens, which are its social engineers.

Performance art, like Houston, is of and about the people. It’s method is action. It’s medium is the body--bodies of color, queer bodies, hetero bodies, non-normative and normative bodies--as it reclaims itself from the institutions that have defined and enshrined it. No longer merely an aesthetic object, the body becomes a political entity, empowering its owners to represent themselves, to speak their truths through their words and actions.

Similarly, Houston struggles to acknowledge and accommodate these bodies, to ensure their dignity, to nurture their cultural imperatives, and to help them flourish in daily life and in the arts. Houston’s world class art institutions: The Museum of Art Houston, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, The Alley Theater enshrine its past and pay homage to a heritage and a narrative supported and approved by its financially successful donors, the 10%. It’s nationally recognized, non-profit galleries such as the Art League, the Station Museum, The Houston Museum of African Culture, MECA, The Asia Society, and private galleries and collectives, celebrate contemporary, national and local artists alike. But what the Greater Houston Area lacks, what it yearns for is the dynamism of performance art to give voice to the other 90%, the marginalized, the multicultural. Performance art is the art of the imperfect future, the art of the improvisation, the art of the hustle. It tells the story through the bodies of Houston’s diverse population. It gives voice to those who are not economically well endowed.

Houston’s evolutionary process requires new ideas, innovative approaches, and fresh perspectives. Performance art partakes in those processes merging life and art. During a performance art piece, the artist and the audience may make a painting or wear one, perform tasks or instruct others, make objects to hold or interact with their bodies or position their bodies or others in space, engage audience members or passersby, assume identities, conduct transactions, challenge the limits of their physical or psychological endurance, become the audience or have the audience become the performer, explore desire, power, androgyny, sexuality, exoticism. They will challenge the status quo and look to their audience to help them redefine it.

Because of its fluid nature, because of this blending and blurring of roles, performance art resists commodification. It can't be hung on a wall. It will never match the sofa. It will always clash with the carpet and the drapes. Performance art defies classification. And thus, it doesn’t depend on the mindset of the market or on the fickleness of foundations.

Houston needs its Altuves, its Deshaun Watsons, its James Hardens. It needs its Stanton Welches, its Dominique de Menils. No doubt. But on the fringes, in the shadows, at its cultural edges, it also needs something more, something dynamic, something that pushes it into the uncomfortable future, that makes it face the unknown, makes it partake in this experimental action, this H-town Hustle, this remaking of Houston into a place of equality, dignity, opportunity, into a home for all. Houston needs performance art.

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