Each crowd that enters the video installation performance piece occupying Nicole Klagsbrun Projects space reacts in different ways. As they walk through the door, past the front windows of the ground floor space, and into the pseudo-laboratory that makes up the collaborative work by Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler, a number of reactions occur. Some people sit, anxiously anticipating a performance in the traditional sense, prepared to stay seated on the skinny wooden benches for the thirty-seven minute run of the piece. Others mill about, poking around the bizarre machinery, taking stock of the eight visible performers, then settle in, facing one of the several video monitors. Some people, like myself, can’t keep from circling the gallery, taking in each of the vast spectrum of interacting elements, excitement building along with the tension in the piece.
SEVEN is a performance piece, but it is too an installation, sound scape, film and sculpture. Commissioned as part of Performa 11, sculptor Kessler and video artist Rottenberg joined together to create a multi-faceted experience. The piece follows the parallel narratives surrounding the production, collection, and distribution of “chakra juice,” or the sweat byproduct of a cast of performers engaging in a ritualistic physical activity. Seven athlete-performers wait in a small pocket immediately next to the entrance of the space. Each sports a white bathrobe and socks in their designated color. As their moment arrives, one of the seven walks to a set of time cards, clocks in, then gets to work. Kessler has constructed a massive exercise bike connected to a sweat collecting pod. As one performer pedals away, another sits, near nude, on a rotating disc, and as the temperature increases inside the tank, sweat drips from their skin, eventually running through a tube that passes overhead.
Across the gallery space, Asia, the technician, runs what appears to be a highly technical, extremely complicated lab, dedicated to the cultivation of the rainbow colored chakra juices. While this action unfolds in the physical gallery space, several monitors tell an initially vaguely related simultaneous story. We see a village in Botswana, as few unnamed characters move throughout a clearly different landscape. As the two spheres of action progress, the two spaces, though miles apart, become collapsed in an interesting way. Eventually, we realize the chakra juice before us is headed to the community of the south African country. As the live performance builds, eventually giving way to the narrative depicted on the screens, the impending climax becomes palpable. Seven colored light bulbs light up in the laboratory as an elderly Mostswana receives each corresponding test tube, seemingly delivered to him from the lab through a tubular vacuum system.
Through SEVEN, Rottenberg and Kessler have created a whole history and mythos embedded in the performative action of harvesting the rainbow colored liquids and the documentary function of the accompanying video. Ritual is superimposed on technology, and in both seemingly familiar elements a bizarre twist is rendered. Thirty-seven minutes later, the grand finale cements the interconnectedness of the two sites, in a gesture so emphatically whimsical, so saturated in positivity, it’s hard to keep from grinning. When we finally witness the power of the chakra juice as captured by the film, there is a kind of magical payoff for a half hour of careful observing of an almost overwhelming amount of action and awkward negotiating of our place as viewers in a space wholly taken over by the art work it holds. Exactly what happens, I can’t say: the doors to Klagsbrun’s project space close for the last fifteen minutes of each run to ensure those inside, and those inside only, see the finale. The block-long queues that formed along the sidewalk on opening night attest that the wait is worth it. “Of the past eight years of Performa,” I overheard one viewer say, “this may be the best piece I’ve seen.”
~Hannah Daly, a writer living in New York.
Images: Installation shots. Photo credit: Hannah Daly.