As my identity as a performance artist continues to evolve, I think a lot about why I do this work. Why do I feel compelled to get up in front of an audience and say strange things, and sing odd songs, and move how I do? What is the audience supposed to get out of it? And what am I supposed to?
On Saturday I had the opportunity to perform “Swish,” a 13-minute piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the ways we try to force boys into narrow gender compliance and how it contributes to gay teen suicide. I performed at Woodland Pattern Book Center for the “100 Thousand Poets for Change” international day of poetry for social justice.
“Swish” is a tough piece, both to perform and to watch. It’s rooted in the story of a gay Milwaukee teenager who killed himself at school a few years ago and in the piece I actively implicate the audience for their role in his death. I ask audience members to join me in holding a long rope that gets tied into an act of implied violence on stage. It’s hard on people. Often they cry or shout out at the end. Sometimes they get angry.
The last two times I’ve performed “Swish,” it’s been in intimate spaces where I’ve had the opportunity to address the audience before I start. Both times I’ve felt compelled to warn them that this is going to hurt. I say, “What I try to do in my work is make you laugh a little bit and then break your heart in useful ways.” And that pretty much sums it up.
I think art is supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as Mother Jones (borrowing from Finley Peter Dunne, apparently) said of her social justice activism. When we as a society have lain down comfortably in a bed of complacency and fluffed up the pillows real good, it’s the job of the artist and the activist to pull the sheets out from under us and knock us to the floor.
Years ago, I went to the Steppenwolf Theater with a friend to see Tony Kushner’s play “Homebody/Kabul,” about the conflict in Afghanistan. The play is painful and when the lights came back up, my friend said, “See, this is why I stick to Gilbert and Sullivan.” He wanted to get back into the warm, comfy bed of comic opera. I get the temptation. The world is hard.
After Saturday’s show, an audience member found me on Facebook and sent me this thoughtful message:
I saw your performance today and I was near tears (I hate crying in public) and I was going to talk to you after but was afraid I’d start crying. Just wanted to say you did break my heart in a useful way and I will always remember that piece of power you performed.
So, I guess it works. May we all go to art ready to have our hearts broken, to be changed and make change.
Art as Confession
By Morales Writes | September 24, 2012 at 11:21 AM MST | No Comments
Last night, just before I turned off my computer, I caught an email from Pegi, a performance artist friend of mine. She’s curating a show in December and a few of the artists have had to drop out for various reasons. She was wondering if I could step in.
The show is called “12/12/12” — 12 artists performing for 12 hours from 12 noon to 12 midnight on 12 December 2012. I said “yes” right away because I don’t like to pass up an opportunity to perform, but went to bed thinking about what I could possibly do for 12 hours.
Overnight an idea formed and when I woke up this morning I thought, “Quicken.” I’m the daughter of a bookkeeper and like nothing more than filling in my day-to-day expenses in my electronic Quicken ledger, categorizing them, and running reports once in a while to ruminate over money in and money out. I often consider how much of my life story is in this ledger, a kind of diary or a memory book. Who needs photos or souvenirs when you can just scroll through the check register to see those debits detailing a long night out on the town or trip into the woods? Ah, the memories.
How does this become a performance piece? My first thought is a storytelling room based on the reading of 12 months’ worth of Quicken entries. I would read through the list and when something piqued my interest or that of the audience (the composition of which would be constantly changing over the long haul of the day), I would tell a story about it. Throw in some props and songs and maybe even a food I bought or prepared that month, and I think we have a project. What could possibly go wrong?
The devil, as they say, is in the details and my Quicken ledger has them in spades. Can I really share this much about my life? Other people’s business is wrapped up in mine — can I tell my story without telling theirs? What is good enough cover for them? Or for me?
Here’s the answer: If I do this show, I’m going to lie sometimes. I’ll just put that out there right now. I’m going to tell all the truth, but I’ll tell it slant. I’m going to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” And allow the audience to “trace the implication of things,” based on some words, my tone of voice, my body language, my emotional presence.
How much to tell about ourselves and how much truth? This is a constant dilemma for writers and artists of all sorts. We need to be gentle with ourselves and especially with others, but we do need to find ways to tell our true stories.
I think all art is confession, if you’re doing it right. If you’re doing it right, your truth is on you when you walk onto the stage, as clearly read as a check register.