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Piqued by Performance

Ready or not, a small, but diverse scene of performance artists has broken through GR’s conservative force field.

By Curt Wozniak
Photography courtesy Rachel Finan

If you haven’t been looking for it, you might think performance art in Grand Rapids to be the lonely pursuit of one or two exceptionally gung-ho karaoke enthusiasts. Once you notice it, however, it’s almost ubiquitous.

Monday night poetry slams pack downtown coffeehouse Morningstar 75 at 10 Weston SE. A Tuesday theme night at Club North, 1359 Plainfield Ave. NE, features a self-professed “one woman freak show” named Miss Pussykatt, who breathes and eats fire outside the bar and performs other unusual feats on stage. The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) programs performance art along with dance, film, literature, music and visual art as part of its multidisciplinary mission. This month, performance art promises to be a huge part of the Flash! Performance Festival, a UICA-produced event that takes place Nov. 10-13.

The kid-sister medium in the fine arts family, performance art traces its roots back just over 40 years to Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” (see Glossary) and the work of the Fluxus artists. The ancient Greeks may have preferred tragedy to the unexpected and provocative juxtaposition of people, objects and events, but today, the validity of performance art as a legitimate medium is no longer questioned in the contemporary art universe.

Unfortunately for some of the city’s edgier performance artists, Grand Rapids still orbits near the edge of that universe.

“ Automatically, a lot of what I do is just seen as weird,” Lisa Orr told Grand Rapids Magazine. Orr holds a BFA in sculpture from Grand Valley State University and began time-based performances as an extension of her 3-D work. “People might think, ‘Oh, that’s odd,’ or ‘She’s just trying to be freaky’ — that kind of stuff. I think a lot of those stereotypes are bought into and few people actually watch the performances evolve.”

Similar to other types of conceptual art, the sometimes challenging ideas behind the work of performance artists such as Orr seem to supercede process and technique. On the other hand, a traditional oil painter can be completely content immersing herself in technique without thinking twice about deep concepts to explore in her work. Because of its confrontational nature, performance art depends upon the viewer more so than other art forms. Sometimes that can generate a sense of community. Other times, it can generate frustration for the performer.

“ I think a lot of times, people think performance art is easy, that it doesn’t take a lot of thought, that anybody can do it,” Rachel Finan lamented. Finan, who studied theater at New York University, co-founded the Grand Rapids-based experimental theater troupe X-Performance Group, for which she directed a recent deconstruction of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s play “Blood Wedding.” She also performs Butoh at the UICA and other local venues.

“ When an audience doesn’t have any frame of reference to compare something to, they just think it’s crap,” Finan continued. “When it challenges the audience, they get irritated and they call it ‘crap.’ Or if they don’t understand it, they feel like they should understand it, and it’s ‘crap’ again.”

So why keep beating one’s head against a wall?

In a word: passion. Stage actors need to act because they have a passion for it. Similarly, poets need to write, ballerinas need to dance. And whether anyone in the audience gets it, Finan needs to make herself completely vulnerable in front of a group of strangers.

“ For me, it’s not about what I can do on stage to freak people out,” Finan said. “It’s more about building a connection with people and about exposing part of myself, my conflicts.”

For similar reasons, Grand Rapids native Josh Villaire began incorporating elements of performance art into concerts with his now-defunct music ensemble, Coin. Today, Villaire is involved in Butoh and other projects he describes as “experimental theater,” but he shuns the label “performance artist.”
“ I prefer ‘self-sacrifice.’” Villaire said. “That’s what it is.”

He continued: “You’re up there ripping your heart out in front of people. And if they don’t like it, maybe it’s because they’re looking into a dark side of their soul that they don’t like. That’s what I like about it.”

At first glance, Villaire’s take might seem a little self-indulgent (yet another reason some members of the general population might employ the word “crap” rather than working out an understanding of a performance art piece). But Villaire doesn’t see it that way. Posing a challenge to audience members, as he explained, is a way of gifting them with something to think about.

“ It’s kind of like the stuff Andy Kauffman used to do,” Villaire said. “You never know if people are going to like it, and that’s so much better than people just clapping without even thinking about it.

“ Maybe they’re angry when they go home, but at least they’re thinking about why they’re angry.”

Calvin College assistant professor of art Adam Wolpa also sees the performative sculptures and events he creates as holding a gift for viewers, but Wolpa’s work follows the theme of generosity a few steps further. Often, his pieces offer a literal gift to viewers as an inroad to the broader concepts behind the works. Example: In 2001 while teaching at the University of Virginia, Wolpa explored themes of the American West, Judaism and absurdity with a piece that set an electric train in the university’s Fayerweather Gallery and delivered free Kosher hot dogs to passers by. Entitled “Condimentalism,” the piece is representative of Wolpa’s commitment to using humor and accessibility to break down stereotypes commonly attached to performance art.

“Often I think performance gets a bad rap,” Wolpa said. “You say (performance art), and people imagine naked people in berets painting their bodies and saying abstract, poetic things. But I feel that it’s so much broader than that, so I try in my own work to break those stereotypes and really bring it into the streets and into a friendlier realm.”

Wolpa’s work manages to be evocative without necessarily being shocking. With such power to provoke and engage viewers so intimately, performance artists tend to walk a fine line between being challenging and reducing their work to pure shock value. From the artists we spoke with, it’s clear that Grand Rapids’ performance art scene is striving for more than that.

Performance can be a conceptual language capable of revealing truth more effectively than any other art form. Does every performance achieve this? No — not here, not in Chicago, not in New York City, not anywhere. When one does, however, it can be a powerful experience, one worth seeking out this month or anytime throughout the year. GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

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