Last week, two women in wetsuits—one yellow, one blue, both breathing through snorkels—spent five-and-a-half hours submerged in an inflatable kiddie pool. They’d set up shop in the Hedreen Gallery and had arranged tarot iconography on the walls and floor, lit incense in front of a small, uterine-shaped statue of a woman holding two gold eggs above her head, and suspended a wolf hide several feet above the pool. Red liquid dripped from the wolf’s snout, as slowly and regularly as a water clock. Someone in the gallery said it was coming from a sack of pig’s blood hidden inside. As the audience came and went, the water turned redder and the pool began to smell like iron. I had hoped to stay until the performers—who nosed slowly around the edges of the pool like slender manatees—got out, to see what state they were in. But another performance artist named Ethan Folk informed me that the gallery was closing and the artists wanted to emerge from their self-imposed underwater prison in private.
This performance, by a group calling itself the House of ia, was the first piece of this year’s Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival, curated by Italian dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Alice (“alee-che”) Gosti. And it disturbed people.
Gosti, who’d planned to stay for a long time, said she felt claustrophobic watching the performers’ constricted breathing and had to leave. One gray-haired woman in a white T-shirt and sandals sat at the edge of the pool—watching the blood drip onto the butt of the woman in the yellow wetsuit and listening to the wheeze of their snorkels—with a look of quiet intensity. And after I wrote a brief post about the performance for Slog, The Stranger’s blog, the comments thread bloomed into a little flower of indignation: “the fuck is this shit,” “it’s called masturbation,” and “Stupid. Not art.”
During a discussion about the Yellow Fish festival at Hedreen Gallery the following afternoon, some people—many of them performance artists—wondered aloud what was “the point” of such displays. People mused about the frenetic pace of contemporary life, a public hunger to sit quietly and discover small details, an excuse to do nothing but bask in the present, and a cultural pushback against digital rationality by embracing the irrational. (Renewed interest in Guy Debord and the Situationists might be a symptom of these desires as well.) “Durational performance,” Gosti explained in an interview a few days later, “is a radical act. In a time when everything is time limits, time commitments, there’s not enough space, rent is going so high everywhere, gentrification is the word in every intellectual’s mouth—then durational performance becomes a statement.” And what would she say to someone who asked what “the point” of the House of ia’s performance was? “It was,” she said, “setting up an environment in which a rebirth could happen.”
No matter what you think of it, durational performance is having a rebirth of its own. Some critics mark 1893 as “year zero” for the phenomenon, when composer Erik Satie wrote a piano piece titled Vexations that would take 18 hours to perform (John Cage and a relay team of other pianists ran that marathon in 1963), but its latest boost came from Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Since then, Jay Z, Lady Gaga, and James Franco have lined up to work with her (performing “Picasso Baby” for six hours in an art gallery, releasing a video of nude performance-art calisthenics, and getting covered in gold leaf, respectively).
Abramović is the icon of contemporary durational performance, hitting her stride in 1974 with three major performances: For Rhythm 5, she drenched a large, five-pointed communist star in gasoline, jumped through the flames into its center, passed out from oxygen deprivation, and had to be rescued by onlookers. For Rhythm 2, she took two pills, one to counteract catatonia (which gave her violent seizures), the other to counteract aggression (which made her catatonic). And for her most infamous piece, Rhythm 0, she placed 72 objects on a table: bread, grapes, feathers, knives, one pistol, one bullet. She stood there for six hours, allowing the audience to do whatever they wanted with her body. Some kissed her, some fed her, some carried her around, but as the evening wore on, people became more aggressive, cutting off her clothes, cutting her neck and drinking her blood, and sticking thorns in her flesh. One man loaded the gun and pointed it at her head before someone else wrestled it away. Abramović later explained that she was taking the temperature of the human condition—if people felt like they could take liberties, what liberties would they take?
But in the wake of her retrospective and recent work with celebrities (as well as accusations that she’s treated younger artists working with her in a high-handed fashion), Abramović’s pop cred skyrocketed while her street cred plummeted. Some say she’s losing her marbles; some say she’s just a sellout. But it’s worth remembering that she has always played with self-mutilation, physically and otherwise. A generous interpretation of these “sellout” projects might view them as just another 72 instruments, laid out on a table for critics and aesthetes to use in the service of kindness or cruelty. Or maybe she just wants to make a buck.
Gosti invited Abramović to Yellow Fish. The artist declined, saying through an intermediary that she was flattered but too busy with a residency in Britain. Gosti was shocked that she even responded, but dreams of the day Abramović might show up. “How many durational performance festivals are there?” she asked. “I have not encountered any.”
Gosti’s durational invitation is wisely ecumenical—this year's festival includes work by well-loved filmmakers (Adam Sekuler on July 14), choreographers (Mark Haim on July 15), at least one playwright (Neil Ferron on July 16), and dancers (Molly Sides on August 1). But Gosti doesn’t know what most of them will do. “I’m not interested in creating a contract based on ‘you told me you were going to do this thing,’” she said. “I believe in a body of work, which allows a space for change, new discovery, huge failures. When you put people in the state of being able to fail, they make the most amazing work—because they have everything to lose.”
If we want to know what’s going to happen, we’ll just have to show up.
The Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival takes place every day now through August 2, mostly at the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, with select events at Northwest Film Forum, Studio Current, and Cal Anderson Park. Go to thestranger.com/theater for a full schedule.