Emily Hoffman reviews works from performance artists Rebecca Patek and Miguel Gutierrez at the 2014 American Realness festival.
When Ben Pryor inaugurated the American Realness festival in 2010, he created a platform for a kind of dance that wasn’t being seen in other APAP venues. He didn’t create a cultural moment in dance—but he had the presence of mind to name it, and to name it well.
In its fifth year, American Realness isn’t an upstart festival any longer; it gets strong press coverage and presenter attendance. It is recognizable, and so are many of the aesthetic gestures in the works; it is easier than it once was to identify an American Realness brand.
Rebecca Patek’s inter(a)nal f/ear and Miguel Gutierrez’s myendlesslove, both presented at this year’s American Realness, are illustrative of what can happen when a moment in performance starts to calcify into a style. This is not to say that the pieces lack merit. Only that they are strangely similar in structure, in spite of obvious differences in content and ostensible purpose. And this structural similarity suggests a kind of template, a ready-made shape that seems a danger in any experimental field.
inter(a)nal f/ear is a satire, most promising at the outset. The piece begins with the screening of a brief mockumentary, positioning Patek as the founder of WPP (When Past is Present), an organization created to help survivors of trauma heal and move on from the past. The short film is tonally brilliant; you can tell it’s a sendup, but only by a thin margin. A heavily accented narrator and French subtitles are wonderfully askew means of contesting sincerity, especially in light of the festival’s primary structural and economic function: to offer the work to a European market. The laughter evoked, at least from me, was grateful—to be given permission to dismiss the asinine tropes of “forgiveness,” “community,” and “moving on” is a wild and libratory ground clearing. Unfortunately, Patek doesn’t do as much with that new space as one would hope; the piece doesn’t really trod it’s new territory.
Instead, Patek repeats the satirical gesture in more and less effective forms for the duration of the piece. The traumas are eventually articulated in full: Patek’s, a stranger rape, and her co-performer, Sam Roeck’s, a coercive first gay sexual encounter that resulted in the contraction of H.I.V. Patek and Roeck dance as their stories are played over the sound system. They halt the piece in order to “process.” Roeck registers his discomfort with some aspects of his role in the performance as Patek undresses him. Patek sits in the audience and asks (in a spot-on imitation) insulting questions about Roeck’s rape, insinuating that he may not have resisted or that he might be fabricating certain details. Intermittently, the lights suddenly change and the Rent anthem “No Day but Today” begins playing, with Roeck standing triumphantly wounded, looking straight at the audience. Just as quickly, the music stops.
There’s an interesting calculation that happens in the mind of the audience in a piece like this, where sincerity has to be calibrated amidst the irreverent and potentially offensive. The more callous or insensitive the piece seems to be, the more one is inclined to believe that the traumas are autobiographical; that is, that the performers must be speaking from experience if they’ve taken this kind of license.
And yet, Patek doesn’t capitalize on this or any other number of central paradoxes or ambiguities in the work. The framing of the WPP falls away without comment, and every moment of audience address is heavily scripted. The piece remains indeterminately arch in tone; no turns are orchestrated, no reveals, no developments. The satire goes slack.
The piece is not without a climax, though. Around three quarters of the way through, a video begins to play in which Patek, in deadpan, discusses the work’s intentions while performing various sex acts. As another commentary on artistic markets, a hard-core artist statement is inspired, especially as a means of upsetting received notions about the way sex ought to function in a piece that centers on sexual trauma. Patek also performs a live sex-act with Roeck: he wears a strap-on and penetrates her from behind.
The sex is in no way gratuitous, but, from a structural perspective, it is cheap. A sexual climax is an easy out for a piece that wasn’t going anywhere: it creates the illusion of a build without any of the supporting architecture. This may be why the piece ends so quickly after the sex: because the climax isn’t arrived at organically, there isn’t anywhere to go once it’s passed.
Miguel Gutierrez’s myendlesslove is plagued by a similar structural weakness. Both more expertly composed and executed, and less conceptually provocative than Patek’s piece, myendlesslove takes as its subject queer loneliness. Both in the manner of performance and in press materials, Gutierrez implies that he’s treading newer and more radical ground than he really is. While he may be right that there is not sufficient space for meaningful queer grief in our culture, the image of the sad, lonely, washed-up older gay man is as old and entrenched a stereotype as they come. For Gutierrez to inhabit this trope so fully and unwittingly in the name of queer grief seems bizarrely naïve. Still, there are moving and tonally rich moments. The piece begins with a repeated dialogue between Gutierrez and a tape of himself. “What are you going to show us today?” the tape asks. “Whatever happens,” Gutierrez responds. “We’re kind of hot to find out,” Gutierrez-video says. “I really hope it’s going to be beautiful. That you’re going to try all the possible variations and positions.” The dialogue has the stilted excitement of a bad 90s porno and matches perfectly the aesthetic world of the piece, one of old school video monitors and cassette tapes. On another screen, Gutierrez, lying on the floor, shot from the shoulders up, rocks and vamps in delight, as if someone were (and perhaps someone was) pleasuring him off-screen.
Gutierrez has a beautiful singing voice that he puts to mesmerizing effect in a multi-part harmony he constructs on a looping machine: “loveyouloveyouloveyouloveyouloveyouloveyouloveyoulove,” many Gutierrezes wail. In a more comic moment, Gutierrez takes a drag of a cigarette and blows it out through a harmonica.
But the structure is one of bits, party tricks of gay loneliness, which gives the piece a kind of demonstration quality. And, sure enough, three quarters of the way through, another performer enters. Connor Voss, a 22-year-old white dancer, who has been standing as a kind of set piece, holding a full-length mirror up for Gutierrez, puts the mirror down. He walks over to Gutierrez and begins filming him. Voss pulls down his underwear, and lowers himself onto Gutierrez’s mouth. Gutierrez fastens his mouth around Voss’s penis and, connection unbroken, the two begin to move about the stage, crawling at times, at times Voss standing and Gutierrez on his knees.
Contact-improv-cum-fellatio, as with Patek’s artist-statement-cum-porno, is a provocative confluence. It calls into serious question the motivation for dance making, strict separations between the aesthetically sensual and the sexual, and the coercive power of older choreographers over younger dancers, newly arrived in the city and on the scene. This last element seems the most troubling and potentially interesting, and the least explored.
One would like to believe, and perhaps Gutierrez would argue, that sex is just another material the artist has access to, like the heeled boots Gutierrez wears, or the loop machine, or the porno that plays on one of the monitors as Gutierrez and Voss tangle their way around the stage. But Patek and Gutierrez’s deployment of sex-as-climax belays a more conventional notion of what sex is and how it functions. In both pieces, the sex is made to lend the piece weight and substance, to provide that pesky Aristotelian spike even the most “experimental” performance artists seem not to be able to do away with. Even if, on the surface, Patek and Gutierrez wish to disavow traditional notions about the value or meaning of sex, the structure tells another story.
The American Realness Festival returned in 2014 for its fifth year at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City.
Emily Hoffman is a writer and critic living in New York City.