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Experimental Action is a sponsored project of Fresh Arts, a

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ExA 2019 in Review: Esther Neff

October 13, 2019




Esther Neff


February 23, 2019


The artist Esther Neff stands on top of a bar in a loose black t-shirt, loose gray, sweat pants, and a green monster or ogre mask that either vomits / reveals her face through the open mouth. In her hand is a stack of grey sheets with hand writing on them. She speaks of emotions. Who is responsible for whose emotions and emotional responses? Who owns the emotion? Who owns its response? 


As she speaks, she disrobes. First she removes the mask from her head, then her t-shirt, and finally her sweat pants. Naked, she climbs down off of the bar and walks through the room. The crowd parts for her with a mixture of fear and awe. As she passes people they follow her. Curious and apprehensive, they close in behind her but keep their distance. As she navigates the room, she stops periodically and reads from the paper on the top of the stack. Audience members recognize these as questionnaires/surveys that Neff filled out while interviewing them during the festival. They press in closer. Neff quotes from the interview form. Then she begins acting out / interpreting the interviewed person’s emotional responses. Her voice grows louder. She becomes agitated. Her gestures and tone crescendo with the narrative. The mini performance climaxes when Neff rends the gray form, tossing the pieces into the air, and then bolts to another area of the room to perform the same ritual with a new narrative.  


During her performance at Experimental Action 2019, the crowd was captivated by Neff's every word. Throughout her reenactments, interviewees and sometimes the people that were involved recognized the situations, crowded her to hear the associated feelings and emotions, and then pounced on the shredded forms to piece them together to get the full response.  


Neff referred to this piece as “ARC IV: Affaction Research Center/Appropriate Response Concerns/Automatic Relational Choreography.”


The stated premise of it focuses on "appropriate response." Neff interviewed festival attendees asking them to describe (perhaps extremely sympathetically to her/his self) a situation and then describe her/his response. Neff’s public interpretation of that response was then performed in front of an audience. According to Neff’s design of this interactive/performative/social practice piece, it’s incumbent upon the audience to then judge whether the response was appropriate. Neff doesn’t define “appropriate” but leaves it to be interpreted by the audience members using the social constructs in which they participate. However, Neff does provide her interviewees with guidance. Within the instructions on the ARC form, she lists the following example: “This ugly undead skinhead was stalking me in my dreams, so I killed him and made his head into a wearable.” By her own account, she questions whether her action (the killing and wearing) is appropriate. 


In Neff’s own account of the performance, she acknowledges her role as facilitator (or medium to use a more archaic term). She conjectures that participants may have experienced a ritualized release or share a positive effect with the assembled audience. She never refers to herself as shaman/shawoman o