on performing [ send and receive ]

I sat in a gallery, at a table, in a turret. This was semiprivate space. At Northern Illinois University, the gallery is in a building like a castle. The turret room has arrowslot windows. It felt well-defended. I had daisies, the signifier for the piece. I wore grey. I waited.

performance installation send and receive

send and receive installation

I had invited audience members to come to the gallery, to tell me a story about guns. My request inverted the art object’s signal flow. The audience usually comes to a museum to get something. Now they were asked to give something.

His father taught him how to shoot. What the gun actually does. How to respect it, what code of conduct was related to it.

I am no therapist. I listen when people tell me their experiences. I can be present for their narratives.

Beyond that personal skill, this work is the fruit of working directly with audience for years. I have hosted experimental art-video shows. I used to guard art in museum-spaces from drunk people. I guided museum tours.

This work is a long look at audience relationship with the mediated story [ the artwork itself / the stories in news and entertainment media ] and its authority.

My studio space [ a computer ] means I sometimes make art in public spaces, like coffeeshops. Making ungun I was working with decayed images of guns. The visible screen became an invitation to strangers to interrupt, to ask “Hey what are you doing? That looks cool.” To tell me about guns. About being American with guns.

It meant staying alive, to carry three guns through Bosnia-Herzegovina as a UN-authorized peacekeeper, discovering countless bodies in fields, barns, knee-deep in pits, bodies made by guns. 

Guns are surrounded by cocoon of silence spun, paradoxically, of fear and bombastic noise. They are intimately connected to issues of authority. Who has the right to tell a story about guns – a story that easily can, illusively, be corrupted, become, paranoidly, the story about –

How could she raise her sons and keep guns out of their hands?

 

send and receive performance installation at Northern Illinois University

send and receive [ turret space ]

I spent four hours in the gallery listening to the space, to the visitors. Very few people accepted my invitation.  That inversion of audience relation to public art space needs a different introduction, perhaps.

I listened to the gallery sounds, to the floor creaks, the oops its time for me to leave hustle footsteps, to the fear. Staff at NIU are most afraid of the young white men with baby faces. That’s what NIU’s mass shooter looked like.

She left the day he brought a gun home. Things were bad enough and she knew the statistics.

Good art encourages the audience to examine their own experience. Art about guns doubles the authority of the mediated story – doubles the illusion that truth is outside of onesself – for the audience.

This is tricksy, working with potentially painful or trauma-sourced content. What is only a signifier for the artist can evoke intense memory for audience members. Memory of lived experience powerful enough that it denies the artwork. It also can challenge the audience member’s ability to manage that memory.

The reality, for people who have survived gun violence personally, or whose daily lives are affected by navigating spaces shaped by that violence – the audience needs to retain that authority over their own difficulty. Ceding that authority to the art doesn’t work.

So – instead of censoring published media, give space for the audience’s voice. Give them a space other than they have to avoid the signal of information coming from the artwork in order to be OK.

I was thanked by members of the NIU community who could not look at UNLOADED.  It was the language of gesture, ameliorating the re-traumatization that can be provided by published media.

 

send and receive performance installation

send and receive [ daisies ]

ungun : UNLOADED @ Northern Illinois University

As what’s left of summer turns to fall, I’m getting ready to be the audience for some amazing spoken word performers. I’m also preparing new work – a performance piece, of all things! Both are built into an existing body of work visiting Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Illinois.

An exhibition of “works by over 20 artists examine and represent the role that guns play in our national mythologies, suicide rates, incidence of individual and mass murder, cases of domestic violence, and the militarization of civilian life”, UNLOADED opens at Northern Illinois University today. Curated by Susanne Slavic, it includes work by Devan Shimoyama; Adrian Piper [ work pictured here : Imagine (Trayvon Martin) 2013 ]; Mel Chin; Stephanie Syjuco; Andrew Ellis Johnson; Vanessa German; and myself.

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Imagine (Trayvon Martin) 2013. Adrian Piper.

events for UNLOADED : Guns & Consequences and send & receive

One of the privileges of living in Chicago has been listening to poets who write about American injustices, inequities, and violences head-on in their work. Tara Betts  Reginald Eldridge  Mojdeh Stoakley  Billy Tuggle  and Nikki Patin each have their own visionary approaches to the subject of guns. I get chills writing their names in a list like this – this is going to be an amazing evening! I hope you can join me for an evening of poetry on October 8. Nikki Patin will be our host for Guns and Consequences, a poetry/spoken word/prose event that night. I don’t think this much brilliance is normally allowed to be together in one place. Don’t worry – more details will follow as October approaches . . .

Guns and Consequences arose from my conversations with Josephine Burke, the curator at NIU’s Art Museum. She got in touch with me earlier this summer after she had programmed UNLOADED into the Museum’s galleries for the fall. We discussed possible events to extend the content of the show. Ms. Burke mentioned to me that some faculty and staff at NIU had survived the devastation of a classroom shooting on campus in 2008.

There is no place in America, really, where gun violence doesn’t leave its mark. Gun violence marks people.

Who has the authority to lay claim to the stories around objects which can have caused this harm? In the process of making ungun, I listened to many non-artists’ spontaneous stories about guns. Some were traumatic, others, utilitarian.

send and receive, the performance installation I created for UNLOADED, makes space inside the exhibit for the audience’s narratives. In this work, I will listen to audience members as they, one at a time, tell me a single story, an experience with guns. As a living ‘listening post’, I will not share their story with others.

The social mechanics of listening will be designed in a particular way. I will have assistants to help explain the work and help visitors participate. There will be an etiquette to the work, a formed ritual designed to assist a kind of routinized, public participation.

The work is a first attempt of mine to honor the reality that art made with the symbolic presence of these weapons – well, any published media claims the authority to tell the story, takes the story from the reader. When the story opens space to the traumatic, the audience, too, may need the space to be the authority, to say their own truth.

I will perform send and receive on Saturday, October 17.

A full calendar of events related to UNLOADED is visible at Northern Illinois University’s website.