Last week in celebration of women and in protest of their treatment, at times unfair, at times oppressive, at times unethical, immoral, and downright evil and in opposition to the Trump regimes assault on them, Women's Marches were held all over the United States from NYC to Houston to San Francisco. These marches were part celebration, part protest, part performance art.
In the photo essay Signs of Creative Resistance at the 2018 Women's March, Hyperallergic's co-founder Hrag Vartanian collected pictures of his favorite signs, costumes, and performances during the march. Using humor, irony, and wit, the marchers drew attention to the many issues facing women. While in Houston for Artist as Culture Producer: A Community Conversation hosted by UH Center for Arts & Social Engagement and fotofest, Vartanian described the arts as the "R&D lab of culture." That phrase rings true to me, especially in regards to performance art in Houston. The phrase also reminds me of one of the first performance art groups that I saw, Houston's Performance Art Lab, which was active 2008-2009.
In Houston's cultural R&D lab, performance art is the designated experimental area. Regional, national, and international female performance artists have been some of its leading researchers. Conducting powerful pieces that put a social spotlight on women's issues, these artists have educated their audiences and surfaced or re-introduced these topics into the public discourse. In the spirit of Carolee Schneemann, they created works "...(the public) need. (Our) culture is going to recognize it's missing something."
In Experimental Action 2017, many of the female performance artists presented pieces that either explicitly or implicitly contributed to the many conversations on women's issues. As pointed out by Annette Arlander in ‘Is Performance Art Self-Portraiture? – Me or Other People as Medium’, these artists use their bodies and costuming not simply as a “universal, sculptural and corporeal body,” but as “gendered, ethnically and racially defined bod(ies)” that are reinterpreted for identity politics. Their work highlights the human condition, but more specifically delves into the additional complexity compounded by gender, ethnicity, and race.
The artist Rosi Bytheway performed her piece Untitled (Epithet) where she invited audience members to physically label her. As a LatinX woman, she forced audience members to surface their subconscious process of categorizing people. The labels exposed some of the stereotypes that are literally stuck to women and people of color.
Rosi Bytheway in Untitled (Epithet), photo by Rebecca Burwell
In Piñata Dance by Christian Cruz, the artist explored the cultural and metaphorical significance of the piñata, in which the doll is beaten, ripped apart, and destroyed and yet still expected to "pour sweets out of me...onto you" as she writes in a description of the project. Although this piece explicitly addresses ritual and cultural appropriation, Cruz's performance also focused on the treatment of women, ending in her physically and emotionally exhausted. In an economic climate where women earn a fraction of what a white male earns (Asians 86%, White 79%, African-American 63%, Hispanic 54%), the performance highlighted the often irrational demands made on women and the unhealthy results.
Christian Cruz in Pinata Dance, photo by Rebecca Burwell
In a performance that was a modern, operatic ritual, Amanda Gregory reclaimed her reproductive rights bringing the subject of reproductive freedom to the fore. In this piece, she symbolically removed her IUD. (The actual removal was performed by a medical professional prior to the performance.) During the performance, she implied that the device was inserted in her for her own protection. Its removal allowed her to wrest control of it from the fertility-industrial complex and reclaim her reproductive freedom from the patriarchy. This same struggle to obtain and maintain control over their bodies continues to be a leading issue for women world wide.