Busting Borders: LabBodies makes space for performance art
By By Maura Callahan
Jun 23, 2015 | 12:10 PM
The smell of blood seeped from the entrance of Platform Gallery last March. Inside, two women sat on small pedestals on opposite ends of the room: one slid melting chunks of frozen pig’s blood across her skin, the other spit into her hands and rubbed the saliva all over her body. This went on for two and a half hours while audiences filed in and out of the gallery (which, full disclosure, is owned and run by my friend and roommate Lydia Pettit), sitting on the floor, marinating in the odor and uncanny atmosphere. The performance, titled “Blood Cube & Spitface,” was created by Emilia Pennanen and performed by the artist and Jennifer Wright. The show was curated by LabBodies, a performance-art “laboratory” that is now hosting a multivenue performance-art survey called “Borders, Boundaries, and Barricades.”
Sparked by Coco Fusco's lecture on her interdisciplinary performance art at The Contemporary's first CoHosts Speaker Series event in January 2014, Ada Pinkston and Hoesy Corona formed LabBodies in Copycat apartment B401 after years of separately and collaboratively producing performance-art events in Baltimore. Pinkston was one of the organizers of Rooms Fall Apart, an immersive performance held at Maryland Art Place in 2013, and Corona performed as an original member of the Copycat Theatre Company located in the room next to LabBodies' future home base.
Both founders developed their performance-art practice out of other disciplines. Corona trained as a painter and worked with a multidisciplinary approach, often in the form of installation, that eventually opened to performance elements. In addition to visual art, Pinkston studied modern dance and West African dance for about 10 years.
After the Fusco lecture, the pair began discussing the fringe state of performance art in the city, particularly the dearth of a language for their kind of work.
"We were thinking about how good it would be to have a consistent format to highlight performance artists," Pinkston recalls as she and Corona discuss the lab's history at Gallery CA, one of the three venues hosting "Borders, Boundaries, and Barricades."
LabBodies started organizing Lab Nights in which they'd curate two or three performances followed by an open-mic-style component at their headquarters. They soon introduced "Pop Labs," held in public spaces such as the former location of Canteen on Charles St. and an empty storefront on North Howard.
"Performance art is a format that can be in any place," says Pinkston. "It needs some core basic elements. It needs audience-performer interaction, it needs time, it needs space, it needs some presence of the performance body. Performance art is grounded in some of the more traditional forms of performance: theatre, dance; but it's not that. It's at the intersection of all of those works."
Since its founding, LabBodies has been commissioned by multiple groups and institutions to curate and perform work. At the last Transmodern Festival in September, they produced the "Over/Under Limbo Lab" held at Subbasement Artist Studios before the venue closed two months later. The event showcased works from about two dozen local, national, and international performance artists. In November, the Baltimore Museum of Art commissioned LabBodies to curate performances for the museum's centennial celebration.
Next month, for Artscape, LabBodies will produce an interactive performance installation as part of the "Lazy River," a curated group of installations, sculptures, and performances inspired by the festival's "water" theme. In "The Water Bearers," Pinkston and Corona will create a "river" made from recycled materials and will be joined by costumed performers to invite audiences to navigate through a body of plastics as an exploration of the misuse and commodification of water.
Meanwhile, Pinkston and Corona are devising an online performance-art archive called "Performance Art Pay-Per-View" that they hope to launch next year. The video database would serve not only to sustain ephemeral performances, but also to pay the artists for their work. Grants can help to financially sustain performance art, but as Pinkston explains, "when a performance artist is usually funded, it's usually for performing arts instead of performance art." The profits raised through the website would be divided 60-40 between LabBodies and the performers.
Sustaining impermanent work is one of many dilemmas performance artists face in working with the medium of their own bodies. Pinkston and Corona say that audiences often attend performance art with expectations that pertain more to more-traditional forms of performing arts, anticipating some level of comfort and entertainment value from the work. Recalling audience discomfort at "Blood Cube & Spitface," Corona says, "Folks showed up, and there's no seating for them. They kind have to work around this, and just engage [with the work]. The blood starts to melt and the smell starts to permeate. Folks have certain expectations."
"I feel like there is a limitation that exists between the audience and performer dichotomy that happens in more traditional theatrical settings," says Pinkston. "For me as an artist, that was one of the things that drew me to performance art. I see the body as like a three-dimensional piece."
Corona explains that audiences more familiar with traditional art media can be intimidated by performance art and are often unsure of how to approach the work.
"I think that if you are coming into, say, a visual arts show, and it's hard for you to dissect the work, you can still fall back on formal elements or certain kinds of training," he says. "Like, I don't know what to say about it; how do I enter it? When really, the easiest way [to interpret the work] is to ask 'What happened? What did I see; what did I feel?'"
This element of uncertainty, in addition to the scarcity of locations that allow artists to perform without censorship, contribute to a disparity between the performance-art community and the general public.
"Baltimore certainly has a very rich performance-art presence," says Corona. "I feel like a lot of times it is very 'underground' for lack of a better word, and so it's warehouse spaces or other alternative locations, which works for performance art because [the space] is a conscious decision. But I think that a lot of the time it also leaves out a huge population of people because you have to be 'in the know' to be aware of it. Even Transmodern, even though it's had a lot of press and has been around forever, it is a community and you sense it."
On Monday, LabBodies kicked off "Borders, Boundaries, and Barricades," a performance-art review showcasing performances, installations, and talks by more than 30 performance artists taking place at Gallery CA, La Bodega Gallery, and the LabBodies base in the Copycat. Among other events, the survey includes a live-streamed performance from Finland by Pennanen, a Lab Night programmed by LabBodies program manager Kristen McWharter, a panel discussion, and two events curated and hosted by City Paper contributors Lexie Mountain and Michael Farley, closing with an afterparty curated by Mia Loving on the Fourth of July. Each evening centers around a different subtheme pertaining to the overarching subject of social, political, and geographical margins, including issues of gender and race. According to LabBodies' founders, the idea for the review emerged from unrest surrounding Freddie Gray's death.
"That was definitely a starting point for the entire review, during the Baltimore Uprising and just witnessing how the situation was handled and then broken down into the different borders that were drawn around Baltimore City with the curfew," says Corona.
The pair says that social or political commentary often goes hand in hand with performance art, whether or not it is entirely intended by the artist. The body—the vehicle for the artwork—is written with identifiers, such as race and gender, that are established by society and become an inherent part of the work—borders that the artist works within and around.
“Performance art can’t not be socially aware because it’s dealing with people, or it’s dealing with the element of the body, and the body is a social form,” says Pinkston. “Basically, all of the performance artists that are featured in this review have some type of social consciousness or are socially aware in some respect.”
"Performance work engages with a way of thinking," Corona says, "instead of a way of entertaining."