One sunny day in May 2012, I was sent to deliver a Bernadette Corporation DVD to Electronic Arts Intermix in Chelsea. As a happily semi-employed-unpaid intern, I took the opportunity to pop in a few galleries on the way back from the errand to make my trip worthwhile. With thirty minutes to spare, I poked in and out of each space until I came upon a small windowed storefront called Family Business. A table outside was topped with books and documents weighed down with a few smooth rocks. Bystanders dotted the entrance. “What is this?” I asked the woman with a clipboard as I eyed the multiple television screens mounted on the back wall of the gallery. “It’s like an interview. Have you heard of Katarzyna Kozyra?” she went on. “She’s the most famous and prominent performance artist in Poland.” She handed me a large coffee table book with the artist’s name printed on the front. “Do you want to participate?” she asked. “Only if it’s quick,” I said, flipping through the pages to get acquainted with her imagery, video stills, and performance art themes.
At the time I had been interviewing others for my work, and thought I had struck upon a golden opportunity to observe and analyze myself with roles reversed. Reaction time. Discomfort. Statements. Body language. Things only I was responsible for. I glanced through the window again at a guy sitting cross-legged during his apparent interview. As a rather shy and insecure person at times, I shrugged it off. Harmless. “Where do I sign this thing?”
By this statement I authorize free-of-charge, indefinite use of the film recording featuring my image and voice, and the use of such recording for artistic purposes.
A crewmember called me into the small space, propping the door with his foot. Once in the gallery, I was pointed to a spot on the floor where I should stand. Three to five cameras were adjusted to film me, lights flicked on and pointed, and a woman who I assumed was the artist glanced at my form while propped on a low equipment trunk. I passed a wordless moment by watching the many screens flash to my left with video art and documentation of performances past. I noticed my shirt was wrinkled and didn’t fit in the most flattering way; I wondered how much I weighed that day. I feigned carelessness as I straightened my posture as slowly and discreetly as possible, waiting for the questions I would answer. Language is a vaulting, something you leap into and get lost in with your tongue.
I have to say, there is nothing wrong with me. I am not falling in love. I have no illness. I feel sorry for the inactivity of my legs. I listen to a part of myself I’d like to kill off. I am the body that turns food and dreams. I start something and look away.
“Whenever you are ready,” Ms. Kozyra said. I looked blankly. “Go ahead, we are waiting.” She nudged on, speaking with an accent. I felt as if I had jumped in a cold pool, my body prickling at the sandpaper feeling of bubbles rushing against skin. It was apparent they were expecting me to perform, turning the tables of our little interview into a stage. At the time I was going to stress management sessions on the Upper East Side. I had just learned a new breathing technique to nip an oncoming panic attack in the bud. So I did that. In for five seconds, out for ten. In for five, switch off the fight or flight mechanism, out for ten. In for five, eyes open to the cameras but glazed over, out for ten. The pressure of being put on the spot felt like I was gathering every embarrassing moment I’ve had in my life like crumbs in a wide skirt. In for five, how long could I play this off, out for ten.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure in one of the videos make a gesture, so I imitated the gesture. Then I imitated the gesture again, imitating myself this time. I kept this up for a while until I felt I could bend my knees slightly into a squat. At this point a few minutes had passed so it felt appropriate to say something. “Something,” I said. “Something.” I squatted some more. Then a force outside of my body shrank me into the corner, like a zipper. Now I’m in the corner, I thought. I pliéd, struck the floor, contracted, and addressed the bystanders filming me on their iPhones through the window. I moved fast, slow, considered and made decisions in a moment. Can movement become inhuman, or only more human?
I start to feel life. I feel my hands around the corners of it like a package I cannot see, that will never open. Only the feeling of opening a gift every day. Seeing then doing, doing then seeing, doing and seeing at the same time; doing and seeing that action.
I enacted just about every genre of body movement memory I had; hunching over my desk during a test, winning a backstroke race, climbing stairs, fifth grade honor choir with that African song I still remember, ballet, and the modeling class I took that one time. I mined movement I learned from High school musicals, shaking hands, Shaolin Kung Fu self-defense classes I took at the local community college, and Martha Graham techniques. It seemed the only way to adequately deal with the awkwardness of the situation was to relinquish making any sense at all, and instead eek out every last bit of experience I had synchronized inside of myself.
The creation of man is a few inches between fingers on a ceiling in Rome. This is called Sistine, which sounds more like a lovely death, or watching a small child learn what to do and how to do it.
I thought of poise, of stature. I must have been at it for 10 minutes. Before I knew it, they had stopped me. Ms. Kozyra began to ask me questions, but I’d already done something I didn’t know how to say. “Thank you. What made you prepare this performance for me today?” I stood there, out of breath.
“Well actually, I was just walking by on my way back to work from an errand.” Her eyes widened. “You mean you just improvised? Do you know I am auditioning for my upcoming film in order to cast the role of myself?” That part was hazy for me. “I’ve done many things in life for my art. Difficult things. Do you think you could do difficult and dangerous things in order to replicate my life on screen?”
I asked her what dangerous things. “I have killed a horse. Would you kill a horse for art?”
Um. “I think conceptually I could. But physically, like actually—in reality—to be honest, I’m unsure.”
“How far are you willing to go in order to receive the role of Katarzyna Kozyra? Do you have the ability to reenact my performances so truly and honestly that they become yours? Would you change your gender? Would you wear a fake penis and beard in order to illegally enter a men’s bath and film yourself secretly?” I nodded yes, of course.
After a slew of other intense questions, I began to think she was rather excited about me, that I was a real prospect for her film and that somehow I would win this thing right off the street. They thanked me and ushered me out the door, Kozyra assuring me they would be in touch in case they decided to cast me for the part. I flew back to my internship and recounted the whole experience to the curatorial assistant.
A few weeks passed and it became obvious the “film” she was casting for would never materialize; that her project, Casting, at Family Business was indeed the actual performance. Even so, something about the experience of believing in something and the enacting of sheer improvisation ignited a force in me. I had put myself on display as for art’s sake.
I have long wondered if it’s possible to maintain a mode of being that exists apart from physical experience. Through my improvisational performance, I felt that somehow I had addressed the puzzling dynamic between the inner and external space and the constant battle we face reconciling the two each day.
With the selfie, we deliberately place our bodies and faces in relation to the person scrolling, clicking, and masturbating on the other side of the screen. We make “posts” of ourselves with the recognition of humor and vanity and yet with it, a lack of concern. We consciously build an image, our outstretched hand reaching to curl back around into ourselves. The marble busts and bronze figureheads of the contemporary society are our peers, celebrities, and role models putting themselves on display everyday; rather than chiseled into a moment, attached to a base, and installed in the town square. We invent our own image as patriots in an act of patriotism. We find what is self-like and stare it down.
I recently attended Cynthia Rowley’s Spring 2014 presentation, my first ever New York Fashion Week event. For one hour, the attendees had the opportunity to regard lovely clothing donned by models standing in a row, absolutely still, on black theatre box bases. Like many other fashion shows, the models stared out, on display and towering above us like the Hall of Famous Missourians honored for their achievements and contributions to the state. They represent supreme proportions, a future ideal, trajectory, the “mode.”
I think about environments where we go to see and be seen: bars, after parties, gallery openings, the clustering of humans with similar physical traits and unending arrangements of differences. The way we flaunt our appearances while countless thoughts pass through the mind in one moment, and another moment, and then another. The force of the patterns we draw, repeat, follow, and share with one another. The feeling and fear of failure that can be transferred to one another, felt—though sometimes indescribable—and seen physically through posture. Poise. The fact that I can feel empowered by my jewelry and clothes. We contort ourselves; we adorn ourselves—yet we are still so bewitched by our bodies. We constantly obsess over what we are made of and how we can push the limits physically. We ask who we are and we look for ourselves in others, seeking reflections of ourselves.
Self-representation is something we usually become aware of at a young age. It’s presence and relevance ebbs and flows with time. Every night when I finally turn off the lamp and decide to open the door to sleep, I face my being: a body in the dark; the grossness of its volume; the sag and tug of its misalignment. Let’s face it; you’d do plenty just to get out of your skin. You’d use your bones as a ladder to climb out of this lumpy world of gentlemen.
My heart runs so fast and my breathing falls short falls, short falls. I am a total collapse of self. A solvent. There is nothing in here to find. I don’t want my memories. I don’t want my heart. I don’t trust my body.
Thankfully, art empowers and celebrates the body as a form. The idea of presenting oneself as spectacle is often discussed. One of Kozyra’s famous video installations, Bathhouse (1997), was filmed inside a women’s bathhouse with a hidden camera. On tape, the women engaging in personal hygiene seemed to naturally assume the same postures that figures from old masters’ paintings held.
So what about the body as temple, the body as public space? Will we begin to consider those who take selfies to be social practice artists—just like how we now deem anyone who groups things together a “curator?” Really, what does the empty white gallery externalize about ourselves? What sort of temple are we building each time a new alternative space, public theatre, and well-curated instagram account appears on our radar?
I like to ask lots of questions; let them layer and build into a rock formation called belief and then let the earthquake of experience break it apart. I know my heart is a place where people can live—like that one song deep and wide that I find in the darkness. If I could only reach in and find the location of my soul (which wrestles all night with the sense of forever, and can’t be determined, unlearned, or reversed) I’d be ready for you in the first person. But right now I’m going to bed, and I know where I’ll be when I get there.
By Olivia Smith