Jaime Alvarez, a multimedia artist and photographer, Adrienne, and Magda San Millan and Chelsea Murphy (aka Magda and Chelsea), dance and performance artists, came together for a week to think about the performance of shame and depictions of shame in art. How do we document shame? How can we recreate the feeling of shame or inspire it in others?
Early in the process, the group came up with the idea to create “still life images of shame,” brainstorming ideas about specific gestures or situations that might communicate that emotional state through art. Examples included images in which people were laying face down on the floor, hiding their face, or looked as though they were “caught” by the camera. The group was also interested in creating images of things that “might feel shameful” while making them feel “soft or inviting [by] diffusing them with pleasure.” Interested in experiments that would integrate elements of vocal improvisation, performance, movement, and photography, they set out to find ways to expand their own perceptions of live performance and photography. As a witness to this process, I will offer some insight into the exercises they performed during the course of their research, as well as what was going on just outside of the frame of some of the photographs captured in their sharing, here.
A brief critical context might help frame the experiments they conducted throughout their collaboration. Conversations throughout the week coalesced around the differences in both temporality and subjectivity between live performance and photography. Live performance disappears as it is happening; those exact moments in time can never be recreated or repeated. Photographs, however, are indexical signs of the past – they capture a moment “as it was,” preserving it precisely and in perpetuity. Similarly, as a medium, performance capitalizes on the subjectivity of individual performers while photography has the power to objectify and reproduces subjects. These distinctions prompted them to explore how they might combine live performance and photography in ways that challenged the traditional intersection of these two mediums: bad PR photos. What could they do instead of using photography to document or prove the existence of performance?
As a way through this question, the group experimented with “translation.” What if a photographer listened to a violinist, then used photography to recreate that music without capturing the actual violinists’ performance? As much of Jaime’s previous work proves, photography can be used to create art that is non-literal and non-documentary. The group brainstormed ways to use photography as an instigator, and end-in-and-of-itself.
The early exercises the group worked with were movement and vocal improvisations. Magda and Chelsea lead the group in exercises that required a leader to influence the movements of their follower with touch, and later, sound. Leaders would translate an impulse they had into the body of their follower, concentrating on different touch and sound qualities. A brusque or rough touch might inspire a skeletal or jerky movement, while a deep sound may encourage a follower to sit down or plod forward in a heavy way.
The group continued to explore the interactions between live performance and photography, creating movement-photography duets. One person was directed to move or complete a series of actions, while the other would follow with the camera.
Chelsea and Magda created a movement piece in which Chelsea moved throughout the space while Magda followed her with the camera. It was fascinating to observe this documentary dance, noticing the ways in which the framing impulse of the camera influenced Chelsea’s movement in the space. At which moments was she most conscious of the camera’s gaze? How was she responding to Magda’s efforts to frame the photograph? Magda’s dance as she maneuvered the camera was not captured by the camera’s lens. Instead, her movements are recorded by the perspective of the images in this series. This photo series is the translation of a movement impulse into a photograph.
Another translation exercise required everyone to think about what they are ashamed of and prepare a self-portrait. Chelsea drew a picture of herself, titled “Vapid Teeny-Bopper Portrait”.
Here’s what she had to say about the drawing:
Chelsea Murphy: I am small and I’m cute on the outside, but on the inside I’m not cute. Sometimes I don’t even feel like a girl. I am bigger than that. I’m like a young boy and a grandma. I counteract my outside by taking up more space. I’m really afraid of being called stupid or ditzy, I make my voice lower. I try to own the bigness of me.
Arianna Gass: Why did you draw such big eyes in your photo?
CM: I feel like big eyes make me look like a little stupid girl.
AG: And the headphones?
CM: That’s a teeny-bopper thing. The thing I’m shameful of is that [this picture] exists in me. I didn’t expect to feel shame [while] taking these photos, but I totally did.
Taking her drawing as inspiration, the whole team worked together to create a “shameful” scenario for Chelsea. We had 90s pop music playing loudly, we gave Chelsea some gum to chew, Magda chose her dress, and everyone shouted encouragement as she posed for the photograph. Here’s one of the shots:
Sometimes, these shameful photos took more than just a scenario. Adrienne’s shame portrait was about being “afraid that I’m a huge giant that crushes things, that I’m too big, I make big sounds.” She had brought in an assortment of objects that evoked shame, including a box of jewelry she had broken on stage while performing as The Truth. Magda commented that if Adrienne was afraid of being too big, she should pose in a “barbaric” way. As we had with Chelsea, we costumed Adrienne and got her to pose in front of the camera, but a costume, some music, and encouragement weren’t quite enough. As Jaime captured the photographs, Adrienne started to sing opera. Soon, Magda and Chelsea hung off of her arms, just out of frame. We had Adrienne bang loudly on a drum. It was not enough to create the situation – she had to perform it.
As the group continued to work together, they experimented with more photo series, both posed and improvised, that included aspects of shame and the translation of musical or movement impulses into photographs. Photographs of Kewpie-doll Magda; hair, both chest and pubic; bare bellies and butt-cracks were the results of this work, and they all proved that photography could augment live performance, working in more than just the traditional documentary realm.
In several photographs, they demonstrated the ways that photography could capture what was never really there, or erase what exists.
They also showed ways in which photographs could tell a story, and how the modern dance structure of accumulation could manifest itself visually.
This residency week culminated in the creation of a “story box of shame” – a series of photographs and one transcribed story that evoke and invoke elements of shame. The box is like a Flux Kit: a mixed-media experience that encourages participants to excavate their own feelings about shame. Shame is a floating blue cloud or disappearing white glow. It is exactly how dumb we look when we are dancing, or moving, or singing, or smiling. It’s what we fear we are, or know we aren’t, but still think about sometimes. The box (or digitally, the PDF) is more than a record of this collaboration. Its a short performance, an uncanny dance of those things that we hide away, that make us blush, that beg for a second look.
Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.