Open Your Heart To Performance Art

In honor of Berlin’s recent Month of Performance Art, we recently shared this definition of the genre to help newbies orient themselves. Now, with the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival running in various venues from July 4–28, 2013, it’s Brooklyn’s turn to light up with performance art’s peculiar firework display of unpleasant substances, nudity, cold stares, and near bodily harm. It can be nonsense and it can be really affecting, and I’ve found the performance art that’s most likely to be affecting to me consists of an implied or specific goal and a series of obstacles the artist sets herself that stand between her and that goal. The success of the piece hinges on two things: the reality of those obstacles (are they actually difficult to overcome, or is it just acting?) and the commitment of the performer to the task.


At the BIPAF 10-Minute Marathon, I felt like a performance artist myself (goal: see some art, obstacle: might sweat to death first). We sweated and panted and drank water and sweated some more, alternating between the thick air bathing Goodbye Blue Monday’s indoor stage and the super-sun-heated air in the bar’s courtyard, where about half of the performances took place. An appropriate proportion of guck and goo saturated the performance pieces, too. I caught only the end of a piece that sent Raquel du Toit slip-sliding across a slick, muddy surface in flip-flops, before dipping back inside to watch a woman’s mouth devour an apple in ever-larger bites, singing haltingly into a mic: A long time ago…a long time ago…I gave you all of my love…

"A long time ago…a long time ago…I gave you all of my love..." Photo: Christina Kruise

Is she Snow White poison-appling herself? Is she her own Wicked Queen? The piece sent off a string of potential associations in my mind, but didn’t do much else. Was I supposed to wonder whether she was going to actually choke on the apple? It remained static, without a turn to draw me in or a goal to keep me invested.

Looking For Something Real

The next performance had a moment: the artist had held a small mirrored cube between her teeth, her tongue pressing against the back, almost like a hard gag, for most of the piece. She removed her heels, writhed on an ornate couch, enacted something like a silent orgasm, all the while gripping this cube in her teeth. She then stopped, looked at us long and calmly, stared us down, and then it happened – the moment – that feeling of something real: she swallowed the cube.

Is she really going to swallow that cube? Photo: Christina Kruise

Except, wait, she didn’t. She held it hidden in her mouth, then turned around to take it out and place it on the couch – as if she were hiding the action, ashamed she couldn’t do what the piece so clearly demanded as its finale and swallow the damn cube outright. She skirted the challenge, proving it to be a sham obstacle. Shame on her. She’s clearly in cahoots with Abramović and Jay-Z to murder performance art.

Luckily we still had Karla Stingerstein and Jenna Kline to resuscitate things. Karla came first, with a fresh infusion of sticky ooze. Faced with a wooden table full of fruit (with some accessories: sugar, cream, cakes), Karla began to slice the summery treats. Collected. Calm. But when the watermelon wasn’t slicing to her liking, frustration soon bubbled up and she whipped out an electric handsaw. That cut through the watermelon just swell. It cut through a stack of strawberries too, like butter, and chipped into the china plate beneath them. Then the saw bit into the wooden table. The table shuddered and groaned, raining fruit and china and cream onto the floor.

Karla Stingerstein sawing more than just the watermelon. Photo: Christina Kruise

Sitting at the very edge of the stage, I found myself in the splash zone, eyeing a growing tide of sugary goo—fruit pureed by handsaw—as it swelled towards me over the edge of the bucking table; Karla, merciless, tight with concentration, forced the saw’s teeth deeper. In the end, the table was halved and everything was right again.

That piece got me invested: I was cheering Karla on the whole way. But it was Jenna Kline who conveyed real emotional weight through the obstacle course she’d set herself. After allowing herself an initial shudder at the prospect of what she was about to put herself through, she spoke casually and cheerily, narrating a how-to guide for dressing to “go out.” Bracelets made of hearts (two real, bloody, once-beating hearts) were a centerpiece of the outfit. Munching on lipstick, she pretty nearly vomited, but soldiered on, chewing up the second half of the stick too. She filled her mouth with glitter, looked out at us, and said, “Don’t worry, it’s non-toxic.”

Jenna Kline: "Don't worry, it's non-toxic." Photo: Christina Kruise

Then she spat and choked on the glitter and on the lipstick residue that was sticking between her teeth. She tottered upright onto her high heels, the last piece of the outfit, “shoes you can’t walk in,” and stood there, successfully past her obstacles. Before us was a bloody, glittering monster on display—as on display as I’ve certainly felt at a club or two in my lifetime. Performance art is alive and well in Brooklyn.

Article by Cory Tamler