*SPARK! at DEFIBRILLATOR: Live review
It’s 9:30pm on December 17. Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times is putting the finishing touches on her scoop that the Harris Theater is in talks to bring the nearly-350-year-old Paris Opera Ballet to Chicago for the first time, in the summer of 2012. The item will smart a bit when I see it about four hours later, but ballet is the furthest thing from my mind as I take in the Warhol Factory–silver environs of DEFIBRILLATOR, a Milwaukee Avenue storefront just south of the so-called Polish Triangle. But you could say DEFIBRILLATOR’s opening is an equally momentous occasion: Chicago, most agree, hasn’t had a space dedicated to performance art since 1998, when Randolph Street Gallery shut after a two decade–plus run.
Exactly five weeks earlier, over a frosty glass of water at Lakeview cocktail lounge Wang’s, DEFIBRILLATOR founder Joseph Ravens is enthusiastically laying out his plans for the space, outlining its progress and hurdles thereto, and giving me a crash course in contemporary American performance art. His huge blue eyes and giant, toothy grin flash constantly, like they do, as he talks east coast school versus west coast approaches, the spaces and concerns that inspired his project, and recaps a tumultuous year, from his unlikely inclusion in a performance art survey in Myanmar to the shitstorm his penis caused for the Chicago Artists Coalition in June. He’s obviously on the verge of being overwhelmed by it all, and concerned with making DEFIBRILLATOR’s planned opening date, but he also seems charged by his mission, even more electric than his usual 1,000-watt self.
To my eyes, everything seems to have worked out in the end. DEFIBRILLATOR has two deep display windows Ravens calls “Electrodes,” which are strewn with glossy catalogue pages generally red in the north window, and generally black in the south. Artists 3 card molly (Ania Greiner and Liz Winfield) are dressed in costumes to match and have massive wings also made of overblown holiday promotions; each makes and holds eye contact with entrants to the space, the rest of her face obscured by an oversized beak, and moves to communicate, convincingly, involuntary captivity. The piece, Flutter & Flap, isn’t too deeply engaging but perfect for its site and early slot in the evening. I watch the red pterodactyl—Greiner—for a good stretch.
Roaming more freely is a trio representing Industry of the Ordinary, giving its durational work Epilation—in which a glamorous, aloof woman in a fur coat (Jesse Achramowicz) goes about her glamorous, aloof business while two men in lab coats (IotO’s Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson) meticulously trim the hairs off of it—a third iteration. (Prior Epilations occurred at the opening gala for the Hyde Park Art Center and during a sunny stroll down Michigan Avenue.) Their quiet antics are slowly littering the space’s glossy white floor with sad clumps of fox or mink or whatever it is; if I hadn’t seen the performers first, I would’ve started looking around for a dog with mange. (Brooks and Wilson tell me later via e-mail that they’ll periodically reprise Epilation until the coat is bald to its hide.)
Next, me and the opening’s 70-some attendees are encouraged to populate a tight square of benches surrounding a metal ladder. Meg Duguid scales the ladder with a camera while her collaborators, dressed in matching Little Tramp outfits with crumpled hats and old heels, mill obnoxiously through the crowd snapping photos of us and each other between whispered “Excuse me’s” and “Pardon me’s.” Some responses from the audience—“You’re sitting in my wine glass!”—seem forced and planted, but it’s hard to say what’s scripted, or how much. Mostly, us viewers just watch each other, waiting for something different to happen, or Ahem, as the piece is called, to end.
(I will say that Ahem was better in retrospect. Duguid’s bird’s-eye perspective added tiering to the screwball, silent film paparazzi’s boring intrusions; “not all photographers can see the big picture,” she seemed to be reminding us. But was this news? No, not really, and it had no more arc than the durational works.)
Many grab refills from the wine bar as the ladder is struck and benches reorganized for Adam Rose’s performance, Auto Body, to a grating, epic score he made with found sound including audio from this video of the Dominator 106, a combine built by Claas (Europe’s John Deere, you might say). Rose is, as often, in goth drag, wearing a red-orange and black polka dot dress and inky wig, with the same red tape around his throat as when he performed Fascist Girls with Andy Braddock in September. Chatter and distraction marked some of the earlier performances, but Rose quickly earns everyone’s rapt attention; I’ve seen him dance dozens of times but I hope his audience keeps growing, because there’s nothing quite like seeing the uninitiated react to his grotesque bodily exorcisms and jarring, twisted shifts in mood.
More wine, more small talk. Ravens scales the ladder and delivers an enthused welcome speech and introduction for Estonia-centered collective Non Grata which, according to its website, numbers some 40 members hailing from countries from Chile to Quebec. Ravens heard his opening coincided with the group’s U.S. tour; he invited them to swing by DEFIBRILLATOR and the representative quartet—Anonymous Boh, Devilgirl, Moggelitoo and Dionysos Monroe—accepted. Thus I found myself wondering whether a hose attached at one end to an industrial vacuum cleaner and, at the other, my bare chest, would give me a pancake-sized hickey. (It didn’t.) A cardboard mask in the likeness of, presumably, one of Non Grata’s members, is affixed to my face. It’s hard to be sure, as they’re anonymous under heavy makeup and sheer stockings pulled over their heads and balloon ears, looking like Mickey Mice about to rob a bank, or Takashi Murakami’s Kikis via Eugene, Oregon. One member walks around shouting into a megaphone that we’re all about to “become art.” Others shoot cap guns, light firecrackers and melt small objects (a Madonna and child, a jester’s hat on a clothesline) with impromptu aerosol-can blowtorches. We’re pelted with snowballs. (Two steel garbage cans filled with dirty street snow were dragged into the gallery shortly before Non Grata began its assault; the clump that hits me in the back of my head as I sneak away from the front row feels like it’s half made of ice.)
Near the front door, Joseph Ravens’s big eyes are bigger than I’ve ever seen them; he’s seated at an electric typewriter, tasked by megaphone man with recording what’s happening (see below). He types furiously as the room fills with smoke and attendees take cover, flee outside or, like me, laugh uncontrollably at the expertly conducted crescendo of chaos.
Non Grata vaporizes the performer-observer relationship with a grenade of uncertainty, excitement and survival instincts; at a certain point, I stop cataloging details because it becomes more important that I not get hurt. The image of these clowns pulling out real guns and gleefully riddling us with bullets does, honestly, cross my mind. His head costumed as a giant brain, a man climbs the ladder and we’re led to chant, “SAVE THE BRAIN!” From the war-zone atmosphere to Ravens’s futile, forced documentation, it’s a stunt worthy of Heath Ledger’s Joker, one of the wildest, most disorienting experiences I’ve had as an audience member, shit I saw at Burning Man included.
About fifteen minutes later—or hell, three, who knows—the noise and smoke clear and Ravens’s crackerjack staff are furiously sweeping, mopping and striking. Miraculously, it’s not long before there’s barely a trace of the pandemonium that just transpired. DJ Sasha Hodges throws some disco on the decks, its familiarity helping us decompress. People find their friends and decide on next venues. If, 18 months from now, the Paris Opera Ballet honors us with its presence, it will be a big fucking deal. In the meantime, there’s a space that proved, in the first four hours its doors were open, that anything can happen right now.