Performance art is unpredictable and ephemeral, which makes it entirely an experience and a kind of art that falls flat when reproduced on Instagram stories or social PR strategies. The truth is, entering the space for performance art is daring; it’s consensual to receiving, witnessing, and participating in an experience impossible to experience once more. The experience could be anything.
October 3rd to 8th saw the tenth edition of LIVE International Performance Art Biennale in Vancouver. The international performing artists successfully transported participants outside of the confined space of the day—I remember thinking, 'I cannot believe this is happening in Vancouver'. The swelling of desire for artistic expression is on the brink of exploding in a city that has limited capacity for it. Still, a team of collaborators and volunteers made such a five-day event happen, and it was indeed explosive.
I arrived at VIVO Media Arts Centre on the last evening of the biennale and was taken aback by how many people from various age groups were crowded in the main space, seemingly waiting for the next performance. The chatter was almost overwhelming, but always a positive sign at an arts event. Some huddled by the walls, watching the painted-all-over performer Jörn J. Burmester from Germany continuously contemplated in red, while intermittently pondered over his own reflection with a small round mirror hanging from the ceiling. The energy in the room carried a sense of community, simultaneously celebratory and anticipatory for the unpredictable.
Praba Pilar’s performance, “The NO!!!Bot” very quickly made me realize that by joining her in the room, we were in the face of evaluating the consent we give, on a daily basis, to not only using digital tools and participating on the web, but further, what the artist refers to as “militarizing” our bodies. Pilar walked in as an “Exoskeleton”, with plastic flaps over her head serving as a wig, a phone over her eyes with the screen facing out, another phone hung from her head, and the rest was darkness and robotic noises screaming silently. The Exoskeleton, NO!!!Bot walked into the spotlight masturbating a pretend-penis made of plastic. The stretching and unstretching of plastic made a disgusting noise; blown up condoms jumped out of her hand. Ejaculation was officially performed on “stage”.
She paced slowly throughout the room, going uncomfortably close up to some audience with her digital face gleaming in the dark and casting that awful blue light on their faces. The screen showed silly emoji faces that eerily reminded me how deeply the wordless symbols are part of our communication, which seems to have become mostly digital. At times she grinded up on an audience, pushed her body close to another’s, even climbed over seated audience, making copious contact between strangers and her barely clothed body. It was simultaneously erotic and grotesque. The absence of dialogues was filled with the abundance of repetitive heavy breathing, creating a heavy, serious atmosphere. Much like in the Netflix series, Narcos, the intentional placement of dogs barking during suspenseful scenes intensifies the situation as well as the stress level of the viewers. I could feel the tenseness under my skin.
Then, Pilar held our breaths as she confidently stood atop a chair and took off her garments, one piece at a time. The dignity she exuded while stripping made the process intriguingly unsexual. The fully nude Exoskeleton took off her plastic wig with a stride, shook up her peppered hair, and faced the applauding audience with a look of balanced humility and indifference. The NO!!!Bot is a human in flesh again.
She began wrapping her hand with duck tape, then proceeded to select one individual at a time and tape their hands. Without interruption, a few people were chained by duck tape. Once Pilar gathered her chain of participants, she circled the tape around herself a few more times. In the meantime, only mechanical noises and Pilar’s chuckling floated in the air. The participants followed Pilar to the spotlight with a mystified look on their faces, utterly at a loss as to what would happen next. Pilar guided them to sit down as she took out a crate of corn on the cob. She began husking the corn, passed one to each participant and put them to work. Pilar held up a corn and juiced it onto herself, which invited the audience to break through the silence with laughter. Corn oil and corn meal were presented to follow. The performer gestured one of the participants to hold up the jug high and pour the oil, then the cornmeal, onto her naked body. As if taking a shower, or masturbating with corn products, she rubbed it with a look of sexual enjoyment and moaned as the oil and the flakes fell on her body. At last, the performer sprinkled corn silk onto her oily, sticky body with an element of comedy; once again, facing upwards, as if satisfying a thirst. Using every part of the corn, the performer’s resourcefulness with the crop provided a stark contrast to the first part of her performance, which was dominated by digitalness and nonsensical emojis.
LIVE Biennale delivered nothing short of surprises as such, multiple times a day for five days. To be amongst a crowd of Vancouverites—again, beyond just Gen X or Millennials—in this town where the culture and small talks have been colonized by topics of real estate and the rain (still!), immersing together as a collective, tacitly sharing chemical, creative, and at times sexual and even uncomfortable reactions towards an array of avant garde international performances is profoundly incredible. The magic about live performance art, I realize, is indebted to the recognition that the person up there is as much of a human as you, the viewer, are. The seeming absurdity of a performance is surprisingly effective in provoking introspective thoughts: how are we behaving? What is the normality I live in? It is many things, but above all, uplifting for a person working in the arts to have experienced the energy of LIVE Biennale in all its impressive international programming, the calibre of the performance artists it had invited, as well as all those who showed up and had fun.