Screaming their Nature

Accumulation project, Boston, US 2014 / Review by Evan Smith
Project in collaboration with Shannon Cochrane

Because of its immateriality, as well as its reliance on a specific moment, context and usually an audience, performance art is heavily tied up with contemporary ideas of place, its increasing fluidity and confusion. The performance art festival, for example, breeds a certain kind of output, and with it a network of artists and collaborators that are able to work and exchange beyond constraints of geography. The traveling performance artist requires a sort of openness and flexibility in the face of uncontrollable conditions far removed from the typical concept of a studio practice. Shannon Cochrane and Márcio Carvalho traveled to Boston from Toronto and Berlin respectively to create Screaming Their Nature, not only embodying these characteristics but addressing them critically. The first of two performances by the collaborative in as many weeks, it made comment on the layering of materials and archiving impulse present in the Accumulation project while maintaining a structure that allowed for genuine improvisation.

The two performers, dressed in black slacks and dress shirts, stood behind a folding table covered with a white cloth, a pile of assorted objects stacked off to one side. A knife, two apples, two onions, an inflatable tire, a bottle of wine, beer, two glasses, a ladder, white plates, black plastic bags, tissues, a music stand, sheets of paper, a dozen eggs, a cabbage, two cardboard boxes, a bucket of water, a saw, a shovel, two sawhorses, a mop, a bell, small plastic figurines, saran wrap – an incomplete list among many others – the materials evoked the clichés of performance art while pointing to the highly functional, the innocuous and the everyday.

The performance began with a coin toss, and the selection of an object from the pile by an audience member (the beer). From there, the winner (or loser depending on perspective), Shannon, stepped up to transform this first item, quickly taking the beer can behind the table and destroying it in a spray of brown foam. The can, now spent, was placed on the other side of the table from the pile, against the wall. She then selected a roll of toilet paper from the pile, set it on the table, and stepped back, making way for Márcio’s turn.

Márcio then made use of the toilet paper, wrapping it around a brown bag snatched from the pile, altering it slightly then dispensing of it beside the beer can. He then grabbed the bottle of wine and left it on the table for Shannon.

This process of deliberating on a chosen object, marking it in some way, disposing of it and selecting another for the other performer to take on continued for roughly ninety minutes. As the first pile of fresh materials diminished and the more disheveled collection of the ‘performed upon’ grew, the objects became more absurd, the challenges greater and the actions themselves more frantic. When Shannon selected a large, army-green canvas sack filled with something heavy, apparently so heavy that she could barely manage to get it onto the table, Márcio responded by lifting it, with much effort, over his head. Similarly, a ladder was propped up and climbed rung over rung, straddled, and descended again; a refrigerator-sized cardboard box was crawled through; a bucket of water was dumped unceremoniously over the performer’s head; a saw was desperately and somewhat dangerously employed, to no successful end. These actions took place almost begrudgingly but not without a flicker of humor, both Márcio and Shannon playing campily into the expectation of a performance artist faced with typical performance art objects.

Although some actions felt like ironic references to the tropes of performance art, others appeared to reference the collaboration itself, either recalling past collaborative efforts by the two or actions from earlier in the night. These were easily the most satisfying moments of the performance: when, for example, Márcio was left with the smaller of the two cardboard boxes and attempted awkwardly to climb, legs kicking, through the small container much as Shannon had with a more reasonably sized box earlier on.

The artists have a long personal history and a brief but active history of collaboration, and their shared energy was clear. The two seem to have, in their collaboration, a sustained interest in the traditions and audience expectations present in performance, their work full of references to the potentially overexposed signifiers of performance art. When Márcio was left with a spool of twine, he selected a piece of paper and marker, drew an arrow, and rotated the sign repeatedly around his head with the twine sitting dumbly on the table in front of him. It was a subtle, humorous reference to the overplayed action of wrapping something around the head, which I had expected him to act out. Throughout the performance I was made conscious of the “other material” always at work: the performers’ bodies. How they chose to use this most fundamental tool, not only to mark the objects but to address the expectations of performance art, were surprisingly deft. The two have demonstrated skill in those qualities necessary for this kind of work: physical awareness and, perhaps more importantly, the faculty for quick mental leaps – the ability to quickly size up the materials and produce an action that referenced what came before. Several actions fell apart before they were finished, adding to the refreshingly unserious quality already implicit in the work’s structure of friendly, escalating competition.

The idea of one-upmanship saturated the back-and-forth between the two performers, whose connection is evident in their ability to communicate nonverbally through their actions and the transitions between them. This idea of talking through objects is highly resonant to the performance series as a whole, which could be thought of as a kind of chain letter or game of telephone stretched across the weeks between artists through performance documents. But it’s also resonant in a sense to contemporary living, particularly the way that individuals move through stuff at a prodigious rate. In our consumption habits, we process material goods rapid-fire, altering their nature briefly through use and quickly discarding them. The performance highlighted this, with an interest in the shifting signs that exist in everyday objects. Simultaneously it provided the counter-argument that, even after charged with specific intention, the basic nature of objects are unchanged. In Márcio’s words from an audio interview made after the performance “an apple is still an apple.” Even if that apple has been bit into and had a mouthful of raw onion taped to it.

Photo credits: Sandrine Schaefer and Daniel de La Luca