ExA 2019 in Review: 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 or her practice as shamanism/shawomanism. Nevertheless, her performance fulfills the role of a modern day shaman.
Her acts and the responses that they illicit from the interviewees and the audience align with how the historian of religion scholar, Mircea Eliade, writing in 1951 described shamanism. Eliade defined it as the ‘technique of ecstasy’, involving “the purposeful invocation and use of dreams and visions to solve problems.” (quote from Thomas T. Hill in “Masters of Reality”). Neff doesn’t describe herself as a shawoman. However, she does stress that her work (referred to by Neff in an interview with Experimental Action as “interviewing performativities”) does not result in data. She explains that she is attempting to communicate “about elements of sensation and perception that are...hard (impossible?) to reduce to ‘data’.”
During the performance she creates both a space and set of interactions in which the communicated data is socially transcendent and personal. Her technique avoids traditional taxonomies. It doesn’t reduce to a data set or fit neatly into a three dimensional matrix. This approach and its results more closely resemble the mystical interpretation of a shawoman than the academic outlook of a sociologist / anthropologist / psychologist, whose work her interest/ research overlaps. Neff describes her efforts as being “... about how persons standunder/understand one other (especially emotions/affective sensations and perceptions) and if/how we/I can per-form/in-form (each) other('s) reasoning and envisioning (worldviewing/world-forming/per-forming/in-forming) processes.” In other words, how she through her performative research can help others create new processes or ways of solving problems. In that way, Neff has become, perhaps reluctantly or inadvertently, the shawoman that we need.