Performance artists break the fourth wall, among other objects

Nick Bonadies

Staff Writer

The concrete hallway of the Fine Arts Building’s third floor echoes with anxious footsteps, shifting props and the cool and collected voice of Cosima Storz as she doles out orders. I almost feel bad having asked Storz (a junior painting and printmaking major) for an interview. From the looks of it, curating is hard work. She’s flying up and down the hallway faster than I can hope to follow.

The evening’s exhibit, “People: of, by, for,” is Storz’s brainchild: a series of performance art pieces by fellow art students. Aside from reserving the space, “of, by, for” has been organized and run by Storz entirely independently of VCU involvement, professorial or otherwise. So naturally Storz has a lot on her plate.

“Aaaah, look at all these people! I’m so happy.”

By the time she’s allowed a spare minute with me, Storz has noticed an early trickle of visitors.

“It means a lot to me, when people come,” Storz said. “This is done out of love, as cliché as that sounds.”

Storz is vividly impassioned when discussing “time-based art–art that’s not gonna last forever,” for which she’s considering pursuing graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

“I really like art that you can’t ‘buy.’  The thing I like about performance is that it’s public; it’s for people,” she said. “Art shouldn’t have to cost money, and it shouldn’t be too far out of reach for people to have it in their lives and to enjoy it.”

Though a performance artist herself, Storz’ role this evening is that of MC. When the evening commences, she’s leading the crowd like a herd of sheep. “Go in the fishbowl. Go. Go in the fishbowl.  Fishbowl, fishbowl, fishbowl.” She looks like an air-traffic controller.

Andrew Kotsch’s segment begins by constructing a sort of human harp. Nine volunteers hold the end of a string and “play” a word of their choice when Kotsch plucks their string. What follows is a surreal 10 minutes involving wind-up sushi, a large cage, ukulele music and a chipmunk.

Later, while listening to Ashton Hudgins’s music (performed the entire two hours, filling the space with shimmering waves of otherworldly roaring)  I talk to Kotsch about his piece. Kotsch explains his performance was mostly an extemporaneous reaction to pre-selected props.

“So you hadn’t actually planned to throw an audience member in the cage?”  He laughed.

Over the course of too many performances to list, a trend seems to emerge in fascinating breakages of the fourth wall: Katie Palmer, humming absently and plucking at flower petals, makes such deliberate eye contact with her audience as to almost compel them to say, “Hello.”  The tension is delicious during Cameron Robinson’s piece. She’s straddling a helium tank under her frilly pink skirt, repeatedly inflating balloons until they burst like a gunshot as the audience holds their ears, grimacing, waiting.  Later Robinson resorts to inhaling the helium and giggling, but our apprehension is never quite lost.

Béranger LeFranc sits on a pedestal in a black leotard and heels with a huge plate of chicken wings between her legs.  Slowly, methodically, she goes about eating them. When she’s done with a greasy bone, she flings it at an audience member, who tend to scoot away. Over about 15 minutes she grows visibly ill and finally shoves the plate away to shatter on the floor.

One piece by Rebecca Henderson invites viewers on an astral projection to Saturn. She instructs the audience to close their eyes and follow a slow, steady, mantra-like incantation:

“Think about your family dog. The family dog is dead. Forget about the family dog. It is not real.”

“Think about all the people in the room you find attractive,” she intones. “Think about all the people in the room they find attractive. Forget about the people in the room you find attractive.”

By the end of the evening, my consciousness has slipped many more times than I expected it to. In a way somehow different from the way you’d experience a painting or sculpture, I frequently found myself acting not as a passive observer of the artistic act, but as something of a participant. The experience derived from this exhibition has depended in large part on the viewers’ interaction and engagement with the performance, not simply their interpretation of it.

“One of the things I think is most compelling about this form is the possibility for artistic production that puts the artist in direct contact with their viewer,” said Hope Ginsburg, Storz’s professor and a frequent performance artist.  “There’s an unmediated connection between the artist and the viewer.  I think that’s one of the most powerful affordances of this form.”

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