Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Iranian Film Shown on Campus

The day I became a Woman (Roozi keh zan shodam)

The film The Day I Became a Woman by Marziyeh Meshkini comprises three short Stories named for characters that are the respective heroines in each: Hava, Ahoo, and Houra. In the first story, Hava wakes up on her ninth birthday to discover that she is now considered to be a woman and not a child any longer. What this means is that she is no longer allowed to play with her best friend, who is male, and that she is now required to wear a traditional chador to cover her hair. In order to preserve her freedoms a little longer, Hava persuades her grandmother that, since she was born around noon on her birthday, she should be able to enjoy one last hour of being eight years old until it is noon. Her grandmother agrees to let her play with her friend for one hour and teaches her how to use a stick as a sundial in order to tell the time. Hava enjoys this hour by going down to the coast and trading her veil for a water toy which she releases into the ocean (a metaphor for her desire to set herself free), and going to the candy store. Her friend is not allowed to come outside to play because he has to finish his homework, so they enjoy the candy through his window. Finally, the shadow of the sundial disappears and Hava’s mother arrives to usher Hava into womanhood, symbolized by the gift of the chador and the revoking of her freedom to play with male friends.

The story of Ahoo begins with a sequence of shots depicting an Iranian man on a galloping horse. He appears to be searching for something, and he is aimlessly screaming the name “Ahoo,” but it is unclear what this means until he catches sight of a bicycle race. The viewer then discovers that it is an all-female bicycle race as the camera cuts to a sequence depicting the man searching among the women while still on horseback. He appears to recognize one of the women, and calls out her name, “Ahoo!” He then proceeds to reprimand her for being on a bicycle and participating in the race. We find out that he is her husband. She appears frightened and pedals faster to escape him. He retreats. More harassment arrives in the form of a judge, her father, the male members of her tribe, and her brothers, and each of them verbally assaults her for being disobedient and rebellious. After each barrage, Ahoo summons her strength and her incentive to pedal faster. Her husband divorces her during the chase, and it looks like she may have achieved her freedom, but eventually her brothers are able to block the road and succeed in stopping her.

The third story features the final heroine in the trilogy: Houra. Houra is an old woman who arrives on the island via a plane and is assisted by a young black Iranian boy who pushes her wheelchair. She tells the boy to take her shopping so that she can buy furniture. She has ribbons of fabric tied on her fingers to remind her of each item she wishes to buy. More young boys are recruited to help push her carts of items. Eventually there is only one ribbon left on her finger, but she cannot remember what it was supposed to remind her of. To solve this problem, Houra instructs the boys to unpack all of the items on the beach so that she can see what she is missing. The site at the beach becomes a fantastical domestic space in the middle of the outdoors. The items are arranged as if in a house with invisible walls. Houra tells the boys that the things she has purchased are items that she never owned in her life but always desired. Houra can’t remember what she has forgotten, but she asks a couple of the boys if they would be willing to be her sons, but they refuse, politely telling her that they have mothers already. This seems to sadden her. The story ends when she decides to load up all of her items onto rafts to be transported to a ship that is nearby. Two women who were in the bicycle race from the previous story and Hava from the first story are watching as Houra drifts out towards the shift with all her material possessions.

What surprised me most was the simplicity of the scenes, the script, and the narratives of each story. The story of Ahoo, in particular, baffled me because the heroine barely spoke (in fact, the couple of words she uttered when her husband threatened to divorce her were under her breath and barely audible). I found it immensely powerful that her response to being reprimanded by her husband, the judge, her father, and her tribe was simply to keep pedaling, and in fact to pedal faster. Each new threat of punishment seemed to further strengthen her motivation and determination to win the bike race. The constant flux of Ahoo falling behind, being pursued, and racing ahead was metaphorical of her flickering hesitation and subsequent renewed inspiration to keep resisting her oppression.

I was also struck by the candy scene in Hava’s story, in which Hava has returned from the candy store and feeds her male friend hand-to-mouth through a barred window. They share a lollipop, which pops in and out of their mouths as they take turns sucking on the sweet. It was at this point that I became aware of a certain sexual tension that had nothing to do with the candy, but arose uncomfortably out of my meaning-saturated reading of this action. This scene made me implicitly aware of my own cultural background as I viewed it, which was frustrating. I would have rather watched the scene without my cultural baggage that predisposed me to associate the prolonged lollipop-sucking with pornography; however, I did not seem to have this choice.

In my opinion, the most beautiful scene was the scene in which Houra is floating out to sea surrounded by her newly purchased domestic items on makeshift rafts. I found the scene to be strikingly poetic, surrealistic, and inspirational in ways that the previous two stories had only just shied away from accomplishing. The juxtaposition of the frail old woman, luxurious domestic items, an endless sea and pitching waves triggered a gut reaction of agitation and worry over the seemingly doomed voyage. To counteract this, however, was Houra’s peaceful, elated smile. She seemed content and at ease, which soothed me. I cannot get that fantastic scene out of my mind.

Visit to the SFMOMA

I had the privileged opportunity to spend my spring break this year in San Francisco among like-minded people who were interested in visiting San Fran’s Museum of Modern Art. Having been in this class for half a semester, it was a dream come true! There was an entire gallery devoted to John Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, whose pieces seemed to be in conversation with each other. I was very excited to recognize their names and the significance of their work in the same room.

Another dynamic exhibit was the Picasso exhibit, which featured Picasso works alongside works by other artists that were inspired by Picasso. The resemblance between the original Picasso piece and the work that imitated or developed a technique or motif was striking! Picasso’s influence on other modern artists cannot be overstated.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Heidi Chronicles

Two weekends ago I was fortunate enough to stumble onto the opportunity to see one of my favorite plays, The Heidi Chronicles, by one of my favorite playwrights, Wendy Wasserstein, performed at Arena stage in D.C. Due to an unexpected flow of money (it was a bonus from my work in the phonathon!), I was able to splurge on a ticket to see some great D.C. theater, which is something I try to always take advantage of when I can.

This performance delighted me, but also in some ways disappointed me. It was delightful to see a play I know and love come to life, but it seems some things are better left to the imagination. Heidi, for example, was supposed to be charming, witty, sincere, and likeable; however, I found her to be cartoony, fake, simplistic, and annoying. The actress did not succeed in winning me over like she should have. What did win me over were the directorial choices in the "protest" scene, which is a scene I directed last semester in Directing class. The director's choice to have Heidi be so flabbergasted and emotionally stung by Peter's sexuality that she cannot respond properly is perfect! That scene gave me so much trouble before, but now I finally understand Heidi's reactions. (This is so personal it probably does not make much sense! I should focus on ... the set.)

The set was a little garishly square, but it actually seemed to work for the play. At one point during one of Heidi's monologues she describes a piece of art as a square with a cube floating above it, which is ironic because that's exactly how I would describe the set configuration. The cube was a giant four-sided screen onto which various images were projected throughout the play. This quickly and easily located a scene in a place. It was very useful... but perhaps too simple? I did the same thing for my amateur rendition of The Vagina Monologues last year. Projections seem to be the new fad in theater-- not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, as I have said, I find them quite useful, both as a director and as an audience member. I'm afraid it just might be becoming a bit mundane. Technology is to blame!

Anyway, I really did enjoy the show. Except for the way the director chose to play up the clich├ęd ending. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the final scene of the play as it is, since it suggests (if you translate it into politics without a rendering) that women who struggle with "having it all" should give up trying to maintain their careers and just have babies. The director chose to paint this scene in total whiteness, including putting Heidi in all white, giving her the appearance of an angel. The lights fade as she gently rocks her little girl. Again, too easy! After all the explosive self-exploring, the emotional rollercoasters, the gains, the setbacks, the director is going to settle for an image of mother and baby in heaven? For a feminist play (did I mention it is a feminist play?) that is a criticism just waiting to happen.

But I'm so glad I got to see it! The performance of Peter was heart wrenching and beautiful, and some of the minor characters really stood out. It was definitely worth it.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Proposal for Installation Project

I propose to create a video installation in the White Room for my final project. It will be called An Installed Experiment Involving Memory, Space, Art, Spectatorship, and the Spillage of Secrets. The video will be a recording of myself sitting on a wooden stool in the White Room and reading aloud from my diaries (called Bath Books). By “performing” in front of an audience on video, I intend to play with the concepts of memory, time and space (the video is a memory of my being there before the audience arrived, the space has the memory of me being there, layers of time seem to blur, then become distinct again…). The video will run long (an hour of film or more) and possibly “looped.” The video will be projected onto a screen before multiple rows of chairs. My installation will be open from April 30th until May 3rd. Advertisements around campus will attract spectators during this run, but I also intend to invite the audience of “Theater Night” on May 2nd to visit the White Room and experience the installation for approximately ten minutes.

The purpose of this project is to experiment with autobiography, performance, memory, time, space, spectatorship, voyeurism, and the (blurred) boundary between public and private. By virtue of addressing the lived experience of being female (self-identified as well as socially-identified), this project aims to explore themes of gender and sexuality in the sections of my journals that I will choose to read aloud. What I choose to share with the audience will therefore render a portrait of my gender and sexual orientation identity.

This work will self-consciously refuse to deny being personal, intimate, and (possibly) apolitical; I intend to admit to my own self-indulgence by making the absence of critical voices and political connotations in the installation conspicuous. By calling attention to the fact that my installation is expositional and explicit, I hope to instigate questionable reactions from my audience. I would love for my spectators to re-consider the epistemology of autobiography, performance, and voyeurism.

The reason I have chosen to install this project in the White Room is because the White Room is an accessible theatrical space that is ideal for exploring the relationship between spectator and installation art. The room can be set up like a movie-theater configuration, with a projected image and rows of seats for spectators, dark walls, surround-sound… It is precisely the fact that the White Room is a theatrical space that encourages me to use it for this installation, because it calls into question what is appropriate for performance, for the stage, for the “high art” of theater-- and also what is appropriate protocol on the part of the spectators: should they be listening to me reading from my diaries at all? Are they innocent spectators, or hungry voyeurs? And lastly, what am I—a radical exhibitionist, an artist, or a person caught unawares on tape reading her secrets? WHO is innocent and WHO is responsible?

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Installation Project Research

I am interested in exploring the themes of autobiography, performance, memory, time, space, spectatorship, voyeurism, and the (blurred) boundary between public and private in my next project. These themes are often addressed in feminist performance and installation art, so that is what I will be researching.

I researched a few different artists who have done work that touches on some of these subjects. In Imaging Desire by feminist artist Mary Kelly I came across a transcribed conversation between Laura Mulvey (the prominent feminist theorist who coined the term “the male gaze”) and Mary Kelly. In this conversation Mary Kelly discusses her installation work entitled Post-Partum Document (three images of this installation are posted above), which “was conceived as an ongoing process of analysis and visualization of the mother-child relationship” (Kelly). This work is relevant to my research because it is autobiographical in the sense that the installation addresses the artist’s experience as a mother. In Kelly’s words, “It is an effort to articulate the mother’s fantasies, her desire, her stake in the project called ‘motherhood’” (Kelly). However, Mary Kelly deliberately sheds this label and denies that the work is autobiographical. She states explicitly: “Although the mother’s story is my story, Post-Partum Document is not an autobiography… It suggests an interplay of voices—the mother’s experience, feminist analysis, academic discussion, political debate” (Kelly). This is where my idea for an installation project differs from this artist’s work. I want my work to be an intentional autobiographical document that does not address outside voices that are disconnected with my own. The voices that will be present in my work are located in my self, in past selves, and in powerful influences that speak through me. My work will self-consciously refuse to deny being personal, intimate, and (possibly) apolitical; I intend to admit to my own self-indulgence by acknowledging the absence of critical voices and political connotations in the installation.

The second artist I researched is Rachel Rosenthal, a feminist performance artist. My source is Out From Under, texts by women performance artists, edited by Lenora Champagne. I am very interested in the way she “combines autobiography and social criticism in visually stylish performances that often use slides, props and music” (Champagne 74). This cocktail of spectacle and intellectually stimulating material is exactly what I find most invigorating about most feminist performance art I have come into contact with. Unlike Mary Kelly, Rosenthal admits to using strong threads of autobiography in her work (for example, the subject matter for her piece My Brazil, 1979, came from her experience of fleeing Europe for Brazil during the Nazi’s rise to power when she was thirteen (Champagne 73). Unfortunately, I was unable to find any images of this performance piece. But, going off on a brief tangent here, I was delighted to learn that after having lived in New York for periods of time during her twenties, Rosenthal was friends with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns! As I said before, it is my intention to treat my installation project as a self-conscious autobiographical piece. However, I do not plan to adopt Rosenthal’s stylistic combination of autobiography and social criticism. In this piece I simply intend to call attention to the fact that my installation is expositional and explicit, which will hopefully instigate questionable reactions from my audience. I would love for my spectators to re-consider the epistemology of autobiography, performance, memory, time, space, spectatorship, voyeurism, and the (blurred) boundary between public and private, but I do not intend to include any critical insights that might lead them directly to this contemplation. However, I do look forward to experimenting with social criticism in my performance art for a future project!

Therefore, I propose a few different possibilities for my installation project:

I want my installation project to be intimately personal, so I’m planning on using my own diary as source material (I do not call it a diary, though; my “diary” is a series of books called the “Bath Books”… this I may explain in the piece). One possibility is re-creating pages of my Bath Books out of sheets or canvas; this would be an exercise in re-writing myself, contextualizing/re-contextualizing/de-contextualizing myself, perhaps using images, creating separate spaces to enter, different kinds of safety…

I am also interested in creating a video installation. Preparation would include recording myself reading out of my Bath Books in the space which I intend to install my piece. The actual installation would be a projected image of the video in the space where the video was shot. By “performing” in front of an audience on video, I intend to play with the concepts of memory, time and space (the video is a memory of my being there before the audience arrived, the space has the memory of me being there, layers of time seem to blur, then become distinct again…).

There is also the possibility of being even more overt in demonstrating the relationships between installation, performance, and feminism… For example, I could “lead” my audience into the room, pretending to be “setting up” to read from my diary (in person!), but actually slip behind the scenes, call the audience inside, and have my projected image confront them as the “live performer”… Also, I could read only pre-selected sections of my Bath Books that especially pertain to gender or sexuality issues and experiences, thus invoking a distinctly feminist overtone in the work.

Regardless of which of these slightly different ideas I choose to develop, I have decided that my piece will be installed in the White Room. The White Room is a theatrical space that is available to me, accessible to all, and remarkably well-suited for this particular project. The White Room can serve as a gallery (should I choose to develop possibility number one), or a theater (should I choose to develop the second or third idea). Since the White Room is simply a black box room, it can be converted into either of these spaces. Also, a theatrical space is also ideal for exploring the relationship between spectator and installation art, which is a theme I am hoping to explore in this project.

Some other small details: I think this installation shall be called An Installed Experiment Involving Memory, Space, Art, Spectatorship, and the Spillage of Secrets. Also, I am thinking of advertising this installation by inviting people to a "live reading" of my diary. This is provocative, exhibitionist, sure to garner attention, and also raises important questions about performance, voyeurism, and what makes something "live" (is a re-run of a Saturday Night Live show still "live?").

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Live Art / Performance Art Skillshare

Live Art!

Live art, or performance art, is an art form that grew out of the Dadaism and Avant-gardism of the early 20th century as well as the “happenings” from the 1960’s. Performance art can be defined as such:

“Performance art is art in which the actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work. It can happen anywhere, at any time, or for any length of time. Performance art can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer's body and a relationship between performer and audience” (Wikipedia).

RoseLee Goldberg states in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present:

“Performance has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture” (Goldberg).

In other words, performance art is often connected to radicalism, since the object is usually to shock the audience as a way to gain attention for an art piece and the motivations behind it. This intention to “shock” can be summarized in the term “agit-prop”, which is an abbreviation for “agitation propaganda.” Agit-prop can be described as any form of visual or aural aid that appeals strongly to a spectator as to agitate him or her to believe something to be true or to take action. In this sense, “agitate” does not have negative connotations-- it means simply to persuade. Television advertisements are a kind of commercial agit-prop, because they utilize auditory and visual cues to agitate the spectator into buying a good. Performance art is often agit-prop because it often has a personal or political agenda (or both simultaneously) that aims to shock the audience into believing something or doing something.

Karen Finley is an example of a feminist performance artist. She is well-known for disrobing before her audience and smearing chocolate on her body. In her book “A Different Kind of Intimacy,” Finley explains that the chocolate-smearing was to commemorate Tawana Brawley, a young black woman who alleged that some police officers raped her and smeared her with feces (the police officers were found innocent). Her performances often deal with sex, sexuality, rape, and objectification.

Another example of feminist performance art is the Guerilla Girls, a “bunch of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks. [They] have produced posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large. [They] use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. [They] wear gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than our personalities” (from the official Guerilla Girls website). They also do performances at schools, museums, and organized events, in which they wear their gorilla masks and perform skits dealing with the issues they protest.

[Clare then expanded on the origins of live art in Dadaism and sound poetry]

To Do Live Art:
Here is a summary of what we did today to do live art.:

1. Clare and I led the class through two fun improvisational games: the Sound Circle, and "Yes, But...". This helped us loosen our vocal chords and allowed us to experiment with sound. Our final exercise was to warm up our bodies.

A) Sound Circle
Participants stand in a circle, and the first player makes a motion with their body accompanied by a sound. The sound/motion combination travels to everyone else around the circle until it gets back to the player who started it. The next player makes a different sound/motion combination, which again travels around the circle of players, and so forth.

B) "Yes, But..."
The first player comes up with a completely outrageous situation and tells it to the person on his or her left. The person on the left says "Yes, but" and then offers a response to the first person. Then the person on the left makes up a new situation which he or she relates to the person to his or her left, and the game continues around the circle of players.

C) Directional Movement
Players are told to move in ways that have to do with timing, weight, or space; or in directions or orientations. Examples: horizontal/vertical, downward/upward, light/heavy. Players cannot stand still and must move around the room.

2. We then split up the class into two groups of five people and worked on using our bodies as vehicles for agit-prop. We did this by experimenting with prototypical statements one might make using performance art as a medium (with the option to come up with an original statement), and using only our bodies to communicate these messages.

5. Then we introduced character development and incorporated specific character traits into our performances.

6. Finally, we performed!

Please feel free to repeat these steps if you are interested in warming up for or experimenting with performance art. :)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Artist Lecture: Christopher Coleman

I recently attended the artist lecture by Christopher Coleman, who is an animation teacher at the University of Oregon. He presented on four projects, three of which I will discuss here.

The first project was a video installation titled “Collusion,” which depicted smokestacks expelling and consuming pollution to the soundtrack of realistic human respiration. It was installed as a full wall projection in a gallery with “surround sound” so that the visual image of the “inhaling, exhaling” smokestacks and the sound of breathing immerses and overwhelms the spectator. According to Coleman, the intention of this project was to play with “notions of hope”-- and, in effect, dispersing hope by portraying a never-ending deluge of pollution into the air followed by the re-consumption of it. He mentions that one can’t breathe exactly with the piece because the smokestacks “breathe in” more than they “breathe out,” and human respiration does not function with this ratio. In this way Coleman is remarking that one can’t consume more than one wastes. Coleman begs the question: What if smokestacks sucked in pollution instead of emitted it? He also uses immersion to remind the spectator that he/she is the secret collaborator in the process of pollution. I enjoyed the way Coleman juxtaposed the cold, steel machinery with the organic, living sound of breathing.

Coleman’s second project was named “Spatiodynamic.” This work consists of an interactive machine that records and codifies the patterns of its spectators, then transmits this data to a grid of computer fans which receives and interprets the code into a pattern of wind. This wind then manipulates a sheet covering the fans, creating billows and ripples in the fabric. The image of these billows and ripples is recorded into a live feed that can be seen by the spectator on a small screen in the gallery. On screen, the manipulated sheet appears to be a moving landscape or ocean waves. The spectator is then able to walk around the corner to examine the machines that are creating the image he/she just witnessed on screen. The spectator can see that the image thought to be endless and organic is actually contrived and mechanical. What’s even more interesting is that the spectator IS the material, the conduit for this art piece! The spectator is translated in a unique landscape. I find that to be a very exciting viewing experience.

The third project of Christopher Coleman that I will discuss is an animation titled “Modern Times,” which was inspired by Charlie Chapman’s film of the same name. This piece deals with human relationships to information and terrorism. To create this animation, Coleman used characters from the online safety pamphlets on the government website www.ready.gov, which is a campaign about preparing the American public for terrorist attacks, in order to critique the government’s appropriation of fear and terror to advance patriotism and ideas of nationality. This work also deals with identity and the arbitrary lines that divide countries and other territories. He describes today’s “Modern Times” as being the age of information and misinformation, and this work shows his distrust in the governing system that pretends to enlighten the masses with “information” that really just keeps the population afraid and under control.

In conclusion, Coleman’s artist lecture proposed that we use art and other creative means to reassess our safety systems currently in place, question our management style and structure, understand our collective responsibility, and critically examine the dangerous implications of a “data body” that is codified, controlled, and managed by others, and that is arguably more valuable than our real, physical body. I found Coleman and his art to be very interesting and pertinent to real-world concerns. I like the way he uses art as a persuasive tool to agitate the viewer into critical thought and (hopefully) into action.