Performance art and immersive theater play to a fresh spirit of adventure and performativity in local arts
Someone in the impromptu barbershop quartet jokes about performance art being “all bullshit,” setting off a rumble of laughter in an audience of artists, performers, art lovers, and writers, all familiar with the conflicted nature of the medium. It’s another evening of RADAR, a new, regular Downtown performance event. Frequently not as palatable as more traditional painting and sculpture, nor easily defined or understood, performance art can be a difficult medium to establish in a local art community, though it’s been a fixture in some cities for years. Still, it’s natural that an art movement such as this would grow in the shadow of the Strip — and it feels long overdue.
Prepping to perform, singer Sean McCabe had requested the barbershop doo-wops, adding lyrics poking fun at the performance-artist friends singing backup for him, which included artist (and Desert Companion designer) Brent Holmes and UNLV Art Department Chair Marcus Civin, the two figures responsible for RADAR (short for “under the radar”). Since beginning in November, the twice-monthly event has become a hot spot for performers and audiences seeking nontraditional and theatrical work.
For those paying attention, there’s a new spirit of offbeat performativity in the local cultural scene, whether it’s the presentations at RADAR and similar events at the CORE Contemporary gallery, or ventures in immersive theater by Majestic Repertory and The LAB LV theatre companies, among others. The immersive Meow Wolf project arriving later this year promises to up the game even more.
This is, of course, not the first surge of interest in performance art locally. The last major outbreak took place around 2012, which included a memorable performance by artist Michael Barrett’s at Trifecta Gallery and a sprawling event at Henderson’s Pop Up Art Gallery, which saw several storefronts in a strip mall devoted to wildly different presentations (Holmes and Yasmina Chavez served garishly colored food; Jevijoe Vitug drank his own urine by way of recalling a survival ordeal from his childhood). Each event prompted questions to whether the medium would finally catch on in Las Vegas. Those galleries closed, and interest seemed to wane, until now — again raising similar questions. As Kate St-Pierre of The LAB LV puts it, “The city has yet to breed a creative counterculture.”
Civin’s appointment to head UNLV’s art department, this past May, was a major development breathing fresh life into local performance art. His background in theater and interdisciplinary art empowers the scene, providing it with expertise and institutional authority; he’s teaching a class in performance art, and hired Barrett to do the same. He’s also engaged in a level of community participation seldom seen by a member of the art faculty outside the confines of UNLV. “We’ve got more people putting the focus on performance art,” says Barrick Museum employee Deanne Sole. “Marcus brought that with him. He’s been so passionate about going out into the community.”
Leading off this evening’s RADAR festivities, Civin invokes the 1962 film The Music Man, coaxing the crowd to sing, “Thuuuuuuuuuuh Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street / Oh, please, let it be for me.” The film — about a man who cons River City into paying for a sham marching band, and then somehow succeeds in creating an actual band — speaks to the nature of performance art. The peculiar actions of this medium can easily be perceived as illegitimate, as if artists are trying to trick viewers into accepting it as art, only to frequently surprise them with unexpectedly profound and meaningful experiences.
Sometimes, at least. Civin puts a pillow, printed with a self-portrait, over his head and climbs up a stepladder, unfurling a roughly sketched wanted sign for the film’s con-artist character, Harold Hill, then descending, still pillow-blinded, to strike a cymbal positioned next to the ladder.
If the take-away does not seem entirely clear, Civin says that needn’t cause concern for either viewer or artist. “I think of (RADAR) like a lab,” he says. One if its core purposes is to let performers try out ideas. “Artists don’t get a lot of test runs,” he says, before musing, “I bet Carrot Top has some weird things he’d like to try out.”
The remainder of the evening’s roster is equally experimental. Chavez’s lesson in making salsa, combined with instruction in salsa dancing, gets the audience grooving with tortilla chips in hand. In another piece, Holmes reads the Wikipedia history of the Manzanar concentration camps as Chavez repeatedly bites him, thereby illustrating the way minor irritations distract us from larger issues.
Reminiscent of an infamous 1971 performance by artist Chris Burden, in which he was shot in the arm by a .22-caliber rifle, Barrett shot a BB at Holmes’ bare back as he stood with his hands against a wall. The context of a white veteran shooting an unarmed black man invokes all-too-frequently tragic headlines. The audience did not attempt to intervene — but perhaps this tacit acceptance highlights the social situation that is part of the problem the piece examines.
In some cases, performance art is not entirely about the performer. In November, artists Clarice Tara Cuda and Amanda Keating offered a performance at the CORE Contemporary gallery in which viewers interacted with “living mannequins” through window displays, as a commentary on human intimacy in the age of social media. (They reprised it at the prestigious Art Basel Miami in December.) For her event at CORE in late January, titled FEEELINGS, artist Jennifer Henry gathered an extravagantly dressed three-artist panel; attendees talked about their emotions, and received Olympic-style scores from the panel, albeit in abstract symbols. The bombastic glamour and glitter of Henry’s work is bursting with Vegas flavor.
Audiences are also being drawn into the performance in immersive theater projects, like Majestic Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town. “Majestic’s immersive approach,” says director Troy Heard, “is to convert our space into a small-town social hall, with the cast — all people of color — in contemporary clothing, sharing a potluck supper with the audience as the story unfolds all around them. I wanted to stress Our Town as ‘our’ town, a reflection of Las Vegas recovering from the October 1 tragedy.”
In addition, Majestic’s space is often given over to Las Vegas show performers trying out experimental ideas, such as The Shit Show by the Spiegelworld clowns, or a recent performance about the female menstrual cycle by Opium contortionist Gypsey Wood.
Also commenting on Las Vegas, the recent piece RE:late(D), conducted by St-Pierre and other performers of the experimental LAB LV theatre along with local artists, interrogated notions of home that seem a bit foreign in a city characterized by transience. A blur between theater and performance art, the event was limited to an audience of 20 and took place in a typical suburban house. At one point, visitors had to crawl into a couch fort for a bedtime story with artist Stig Zeiner.
“The reality is, this is a performative city,” Holmes explains. “Service is performative, your waitress, room service, front desk, taxi driver, showgirls — all these people have to maintain a façade.”
The performance art and theater works coming out of this burgeoning community complicate the Vegas façade. Groups like Blue Man and Cirque de Soleil provide the spectacle that Vegas has become known for and, at one point, were the performative avant-garde themselves. It makes sense that their seedlings would sprout beyond the Strip.
“The goal is to create this kind of space,” Holmes says, “and see what blooms.”