In early April 2013 I was invited to participate in “REVIVAL” by directors / producers / impresarios Eric Andrew Hoff and Jesse Morgan Young. I would create one of nine performances to occur simultaneously during the event, held October 25 and 26 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and about which you can read more here at Time Out Chicago. Despite not having performed in more than three years — and not even sure who my “performer self” was anymore — I decided to accept and got to work conceiving something both appropriate to “REVIVAL” and reflective of my ideas. This post is a retrospective report of that process, and its product, ISO (“EYE-so”).
The core prompt for artists involved in “REVIVAL” was a pair of questions: What are we praying for? and What are we willing to sacrifice? I was immediately curious about who “we” were. Humans? Americans? Queer people living in Chicago? Not being a person who subscribes to or practices any religion, I was also curious about the question of prayer, and began wondering what prayer means to me, and whether anything I do or have done in the past might qualify as prayer.
I started to imagine pairs of prayers that canceled each other out, e.g. the wish of a young girl in the U.S. for an iPad for Christmas, and the wish of a young boy in China to not have to go to work in a factory assembling iPad components. In the same moment, one person might pray for a life-saving organ transplant while an organ donor prays he survives the 10-car pileup occurring in front of him on the highway. I imagined some cosmic balance provided by the fact that every prayer had an opposite and, as a dance artist, decided to interpret this idea in movement by working with isometric actions. I noticed a commonly understood gesture for prayer — two palms pressed together in front of one’s chest — was itself an isometric action. This begat the work’s title, ISO, which in other contexts means In Search Of, or denotes internationally recognized standards such as units of measure.
I considered the question What are we willing to sacrifice? from a personal perspective, as a 33-year-old, single white male living and working in a major U.S. city in 2013. My honest answer to that question was “Not much.” I recognized that I was prone to avoiding making significant sacrifices, and also that I was privileged to have the luxury of deciding when and how much to sacrifice. My understanding of “sacrifice” was that it’s optional — it’s something I can do and for which I might receive some sort of “extra credit,” some positive bump in my self-image and perhaps in others’ perceptions of me. In his special Live at the Beacon Theater, comedian Louis CK relates noticing that he feels good about himself after having ideas about doing good things for other people, such as giving up his first-class seat for a soldier flying commercial into combat — even when he doesn’t act upon those impulses at all. It’s an excruciatingly funny bit and resonates with the way I was thinking about sacrifice.
Many, maybe most, other humans don’t enjoy this degree of privilege. In many communities, sacrifice is not an optional, available opportunity for self-improvement, but rather a necessary and urgent surrender to circumstances beyond one’s control. I imagine some people must make huge sacrifices on a daily basis, and can’t conceive of, or don’t know at least, a reality in which sacrifice is just a good deed.
I considered how my place of privilege in this regard was unsustainable, on both “micro” and “macro” levels. I acknowledged how, sooner or later, life would throw me a nasty curveball and I wouldn’t get to choose whether or not I would deal with it. I imagined the world and my daily existence in it in 2033 (at age 53) and 2053 (at age 73). How will our planet have changed by those times? Will single men living and working in major U.S. cities be forced to ration their usage of fresh water, disposable vessels, gasoline and electricity? Will the human race have collectively taken steps, by either of those years, toward more environmentally sustainable practices that more equitably distribute the costs and impacts of consumption?
Around this stage of the process for ISO, my site for the performance was confirmed: two small practice rooms for musician warm-ups, adjacent to each other at the far end of the stage-right crossover in the Pritzker complex’s northwest corner; and a larger production lounge across and about 15 feet up the hallway. Other things that I knew or had decided by then were:
• that ISO was a solo performance
• that a helper or “sentinel” would be available to me
• that audience members would have 45 minutes to experience some or all of nine performances including mine
• that my performance would not have a set beginning or end and loop, but would have a three- to five-minute cycle during which all the major components could be observed
The small rooms came into focus as spaces in which I could express the idea of oppositional pairing, using movement. The north-side room’s light fixture was gelled blue, and the south-side room’s was gelled red, saturating them with those colors, and my body when inside. I assigned to the red room a set of parameters for movement improvisation and character exploration orbiting ideas about negativity, inner “darkness,” frustration, anxiety, heat and confinement; and physical tasks around isometrics, grotesque gesture, arrhythmic movement and violence. To the blue room I assigned concepts including freedom, nostalgia, peace, memory, water and patience; and physical tasks around finding rhythms, moving “organically” and expressing tenderness. If when in one room I located through movement a specific imagined state, I would in the other room attempt to identify and express an opposite state.
In the production lounge, which featured stained carpet, mismatched furniture and abused, striped walls, I created an installation using two large rectangular tables and one round, three pairs of desk chairs, a striped couch, a yellow armchair, a black biscuit-upholstered vinyl swivel chair, a floor lamp, a grey desk and a utility cart. Working with these terrific elements — no other space at the whistle-clean, Frank Gehry–designed Pritzker exudes such fatigue — I designed a ransacked bunker. A video camera mounted in one corner captured the end of the room out of sight from the hallway; a sideways flat-panel TV propped up on the couch made the entire space visible from outside. Using a variety of colored gaffer’s and painter’s tapes, I added stripes and tangled patterns to these piles of shitty furniture, echoed by “scrambled flag” pieces I created to cover all signage in the area.
When in the production lounge, I was visible onscreen in high-contrast black and white, live video. My movement tasks in the room were to describe the tangled lines of the design; execute crunches, “jumping jacks” and push-ups; and “recharge” for my next transit to either the red or blue room (which paths I alternated).
Again due mostly to privilege and good fortune, I have never served in the military, but ancestors on both sides of my family have. (See my late maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Cherry of the Colorado Air National Guard, in this short USAF film from 1970.) I developed for ISO a character who appears to be some kind of soldier, with a “high and tight” buzz-cut, wearing a black tank top, utilitarian pants and boots.
The kernel of the performance was my fourth imagined state in a complete single cycle (consisting of production lounge solo, blue room solo, production lounge solo, red room solo): the moment of transfer from one room to another, which I executed as quickly as possible, in a way I hoped would express that, in doing so, I risked death from a bullet. I began each transfer just inside the room, my back pressed to the door frame, gathering my courage while waiting for the best opportunity to run.
Diana Raiselis, my excellent and talented “sentinel” helper, stood guard outside whichever room I was in. I instructed her to initiate my transfer across the hallway approximately every 45–90 seconds. She would signal me, move to the next doorway and guide audience members to clear the space. I directed her to imagine her role as if she were a zookeeper, letting viewers know how to observe me in this “habitat” while managing their safety.
As a nonstop, highly physical performance lasting 45 minutes, during which I sprinted regularly, ISO made me sweat profusely and breathe heavily, adding textures of sound and odor. I did not make eye contact with Diana or anyone else during ISO; I tried to execute the score as if I were alone. Before most transfers, I would mumble softly to myself things such as “Oh, fuck” and “Shit. Shit. Shit.” I sometimes pretended to begin to cry but stopped myself from doing so.
My goal was to create a performance cycle that isolated the emotional state of needing something desperately, and having to take an extraordinary risk in order to get it, without ever completing that cycle or landing anywhere safe and sustaining. My concept for ISO was a solo performance that seemed to be missing a part, because missing parts are so often the things for which we pray and make sacrifice.
If you observed either performance of ISO during “REVIVAL,” I welcome any impressions it made, questions it triggered, and responses you might have; please share in the comments below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Huge thanks to Eric Andrew Hoff, Jesse Morgan Young, Jane Beachy, Joseph Varisco, Kiam Marcelo Junio, Diana Raiselis, all of my fellow “REVIVAL” artists, and especially Shoshona Currier and everyone at Millennium Park, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.