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Women's March, Women-Centered Issues & Performance Art in Houston

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.

Pinata Dance by Christian Cruz

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.

Amanda Gregory in Untitled, photo by Rebecca Burwell

In a climate where a political candidate avoided a line of questioning into his misogynistic behavior by claiming that a female journalist had "Blood coming out of her wherever," Cat Scott challenged the taboos around menstruation. She asked audience members to assist her in reaffirming her womanhood by baptizing her in a solution of water and her own menstrual blood. This communal act violated the many social taboos and religious rules against interacting with a woman going through menstruation. It exposed prohibitions which prevent women who are menstruating from performing certain tasks like prepare food or socializing with her own family or community.

Cat Scott in The Woman Within, photo by Rebecca Burwell

Brittani Broussard's performance explored identity and recognition. Adorned from head to toe in a costume consisting of geometrical shapes in vibrant colors, she danced in front of a back drop consisting of the same design. The energy, precision, and grace of her dance were at times obscured by the background. The performance drew attention to and mimicked the state of woman's work, which is often camouflaged, obscured, discounted, taken for granted, and undervalued both socially and financially.

Untitled by Britanni Broussard

Brittani Broussard in Untitled (Camouflaged Choreography), photo by Rebecca Burwell

Casey Waldner's performance Refund metaphorically explored the ideas that women are force fed. Dressed in stereotypical feminine clothing and make-up, Waldner opened seven white boxes wrapped with baby blue bows, and consumed the blood red present within each. The size of the boxes and each's present increased with each box. After consuming each present, she "cleaned herself up" using a mirror to fix her hair and reapply her make up. Ultimately, the gifts caused her to vomit. Once she finished retching, as if on cue, she cleaned up and continued on. The performance was visceral. Its symbolism forced the audience to contemplate what it metaphorically feeds women in terms of societal value. The audience was invited to question why society promoted concepts such as beauty, purity, safety, and security for women. Waldner's performance exposed how shame and exclusionary practices (ugly, slutty, dangerous, etc.) are used to ensure compliance from women and promote this behavior as normative.

Refund by Casey Waldner

Casey Waldner in Refund, photo by Tyler Price

In Shibari Sketch, the artist Shattered Pulse literally used another woman of color as a medium of communication. Her piece invited audience members to provide either a word, a shape, or a picture. Shattered Pulse and her performance partner then interpreted the suggestion using Shibari, Japanese art of rope bondage. This piece introduced many in the audience to bondage and also provided a potent metaphorical reminder of how patriarchal societies use women and women's bodies to construct their narratives.

Shibhari Sketch by Shattered Pulse

Shattered Pulse in Shibari Sketch, photo by Tyler Price

Lost Islands was a performance by the artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong. In this piece, the artist wore military fatigues and carried a rifle. She positioned herself at the top of a staircase behind a door. One at a time, audience members entered the space and were immediately confronted by her, pointing the gun at her/ him from the top of the staircase. When the audience member moved, the gun followed she/he until she/he left the space. This placed audience members in a situation of surveillance and subjugation, which is currently a concern for all the citizens of the world. However, this ersatz situation is equivalent to the one women have faced through out history. Constantly being watched and having their own behavior monitored for their own good, women throughout history have been dissuaded from pursuing their interests or following their curiosity. If they didn't capitulate, they were often confronted. Ironically, this performance was cut short because a male audience member attempted to overpower and subdue the artist. This is one of the dangers in performance pieces when artists break down the fourth wall.

Lost Island by Chun Hua Catherine Dong

Marta Jovanovic's piece Until Death was a culmination of a decade of collaborative work and a marriage. The end of the collaboration and the divorce "brought her down to her knees personally, creatively, socially and financially." For Jovanovic, the piece was a catharsis. It consisted of Jovanovic elaborately dressing a tailor mannequin with lace corset and luxury lingerie given to her by her ex-husband. Then she placed her designer wedding dress on it, doused it in gasoline and used an extended fuse to ignite the soft sculpture. Jovanovic's performance symbolically dissolved the union, but it left unanswered questions for the audience to reflect on as the mannequin burned. How have gender roles defined by institutions influenced our qualitative evaluation of those relationships? What's a good marriage for a man, for a woman? What's a good divorce for each? Does ones gender-defined role influence what one defines as good or fair or equitable? This personal ritual facilitated reflection in the audience on relationships and gender parity.

Until Death by Marta Jovanovic

Marta Jovanovic in Until Death, photo by Rebecca Burwell

Celestina Billington performance Love Lucha confronts the role of machismo in subjugating women. Taking on Mexican professional wrestling, she alters the wrestling format from one of violence and physical domination to one of empathy and caring. Her Love Lucha matches rewarded participants for empathetic actions and caring touch. In complete opposition to a patriarchal culture that celebrated Lucha Libre, the Love Lucha performance values and validates women as caring combatants/warriors, celebrating their feminine qualities.

Love Lucha by Celestina Billingon

Celestina Billington in Love Lucha, photo by Dean Liscum

As this survey of ExA 2017 shows, performance artists in Houston are conducting the vital research and development in the area of women's issues to help the culture as a whole resolve issues and redraw boundaries. Experimental Action 2019 promises to push those boundaries even further.

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