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Serious Work Done Seriously, Sort Of

Disclaimer: The picture is repurposed from because no cameras or phones were permitted.

A performance artist, naked, performing a durational piece is an art cliche. Been there. Done that. Got the Marina Abramović's selfie to prove it. When the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (CAMH) announced that it was going to present Julia Barbosa Landois' Serious Work not once but thrice on April 28th , June 30th, and July 28, I was intrigued. Any institution can make a mistake or commit a little retrospective indulgence, but three times is a little much. For my tastes, however, the CAMH usually gets it right. So, I decided to give the artist and the institution the benefit of the doubt and check it out.

The CAMH's website spoiled any element of surprise for the audience, plainly revealing

"Serious Work satirically contrasts the banalities of parental life with the performance artist persona, using a smartphone as mediator and monkey wrench. The 30-minute performance begins by invoking 1970’s era endurance works, only to unravel audience expectations with irony and humor."

The performers and performances that the CAM alluded to are the likes of Marina Abramović's Rhythm , Vito Acconci's Seedbed, Chris Burden's Five-Day Locker Piece, Tehching Hsieh with Linda Montano's Art/Life One Year Performance (Rope Piece), Carolee Schneeman's Up To And Including Her Limits and many others. These artists and their performances are in the canon of performance art. Serious works done by serious artists. As the CAM mentions in its introduction, Barbosa Landois work takes aim at both performance art purism and vox populi of contemporary culture so I knew what I was in for.

When I entered the wing of the CAMH in which the performance was to be held, I had to check in my phone. The website stated that the performance contained nudity and that phones, tablets, and cameras would have to be temporarily surrendered as the price of admission. I thought it a little prude for performance art from a veteran, but controlling the images and documentation of a performance was a key issue for the first wave of performance artists. At first, they eschewed any photographs/videos or documentation of their performance in order to prevent the commodification of their art. Later, they strictly controlled this same documentation in order to profit/make a living off that very same commodification. Whatever the reason: may be it was part of the satire of the performance art purist, may be it was part protection of the artist's person, may be it was protection from the social media culture. I wasn't sure, but I did as I was told.

After dephoning, I mulled around the gallery space revisiting some of the Right Here, Right Now: San Antonio exhibit of which this performance was a part.

Without any announcement, the artist unceremoniously walked to the far corner of the room, shed the dark smock she was wearing and stepped onto the two foot, red cube that matched the red walls of the gallery. Up and to the right of her was a projection of her phone. (See the picture.) Below the phone was a digital stopwatch that counted down from 25 minutes. For the first few minutes, Barbosa Landois took turns making eye contact with every one of the 30 to 40 audience members. She stared directly into each person's eyes for 10, 15, 20 seconds, and then moved on to the next. Think of this as a low rent version of Marina Abramović's work at the MOMA, The Artist is Present. However, Barbosa Landois only engaged each audience member until it blinked or looked away rather than until they left the space. After all, this is Houston. We got things to prove, money to make, budgets to stay within. We don't have that kind of "New York Art Time and Money". We got our mind on our money and our money on our mind so the museum and the audience gave her what we could collectively afford, which was 25 minutes. She had to hustle to make her art work within those constraints.

About the time the audience's intensity was beginning to wane, she got a message on her phone, which everyone could plainly see projected on the wall. She slowly, awkwardly squatted down, picked up her phone, which lay at her feet. Then she stood, hesitantly started texting, and then slowly, awkwardly put her phone down. This series of actions occurred several times until finally she just held onto her phone between text.

The texts appeared to be from friends and family. They consisted of messages from a partner/caregiver about her sick son, opinions on a friend's dating options, questions about work such as what to do if you're doing a nude performance and your on your period. In other words the banalities of life with the added of emphasis of being writ large/projected on the CAMH's wall. As the performance progressed, Barbosa Landois became more comfortable and causal. At one point, she took a break, climbing down from her pedestal, retrieving a snack from a bag, and eating it before returning to work. The text conversations continued until the time expired. Then she climbed down, picked up her smock, and strode out of the gallery. The end.

The performance seemed to both lampoon and legitimize performance art as 'serious work'. The genre has become associated with confrontational nudity, emotional commitment, and obligatory endurance work for both the artists and audience. Barbosa Landois piece acknowledged these extremes playfully and poignantly in the title as well as the content. The nudity was extraneous except for the tampon joke, but it was there. The Houston audience had to resign itself to it for the duration of the piece. [After all, Houston is simultaneously the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S. (we'll pretend that means accepting) as well as being in the top ten U.S. cities with the most religious places per person.] Her peering gaze was penetrating if only for a few seconds, and possibly mocking but only later upon reflection. The text were obviously scripted to be both humorous and universal, which also served as a realistic representation of our lives speeding by in a digital blur.

But it was not all fun and games. Barbosa Landois had the intensity, the piercing stare, the vulnerability of an Abramović. Subtly, the performance did the serious cultural work that we needed it to do. It held up aspects of our lives (artistic, cultural, social) to be examined and analyzed. By depriving us of our phones, Barbosa Landois out Marina's Marina while also criticizing her. She made sure that the audience was present. It had to do the serious work of participating in this piece or at least acknowledge that it couldn't. Individual members couldn't hide behind their devices and distract themselves with social media or use the filter of a camera lens to put distance between themselves and the work. They had to engage or consciously disengage. Regardless of which they chose, Barbosa Landois ensured that they couldn't reflexively check out by reaching for their personal electronic distraction.

Serious Work is both trivial and tragic in that it mocks performance art and contemporary culture and simultaneously revels in and mourns their ongoing evolution. If Barbosa Landois has another performance, I'd give up my phone for 25 minutes (may be more) to see it because as she proves performance art, like life, be some complex shit worth engaging in.

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