Authority Figures

JIMMY BROOKS, CA Conrad, and Cory Kram
At Little Berlin Annex
August 9, 2014

by Asimina Chremos

On August 9, Little Berlin’s Annex and Garbage World Performance Series presented an evening of three acts: Cassandra Troyan and Rachel Ellison’s (JIMMY BROOKS) DADDY’S CAVE, CA Conrad’s (Soma)tic poetry, and a solo by Cory Kram.

In the opening minutes of the piece DADDY’S CAVE, Cassandra Troyan and Rachel Ellison of the performance duo JIMMY BROOKS offered themselves for view walking seriously, purposefully, very slowly, and with great control along linear pathways in the confined space of the room. On the wall behind them, a video projection scrolled the image of a suburban street. In the video, possibly shot from a moving car, homes appeared on one edge of the screen, passing across our view, and disappeared on the other edge. 

Seated on a random collection of chairs and benches facing the performers and the projection wall, those of us in attendance could “read” the series of houses and yards like a wordless run-on sentence: human habitation, middle-class values, and creature comfort. Simultaneously, a voice, presumably that of one of the performers, came through the sound system reading an alternately poetic and prosaic text.  Through the fuzzy sound system, I made out words signifying emotion, the body, violence, political consciousness, and desire. 

JIMMY BROOKS’s artist statement, heavy with academic-jargon, reads like many of their other contemporaries in the field of feminist performance. The duo purports to “reconstruct the boundaries between female identity, popular culture, voyeurism, and spectatorship through means of performance, interruption, dance, and video to formulate a heterogeneous subjectivity that seeks to create an identity out of the already present detritus of ever-fluctuating trends.” However, what makes Ellison’s and Troyan’s collaboration outstanding is a deft weaving of live and recorded content that gives ample space to their real, human bodies. The fact that the duo move through their work with control and precision is evidence of their own embodied authority. 

Even their costuming showed a kind of body-consciousness grown from the inside out. Women in our culture have long felt the pressure of being sexualized and objectified by the gaze of others. Men often look at women for sexual pleasure; women often look at other women as competition. The costumes for DADDY’S CAVE consisted of informal workout wear, nondescript outfits that in no way nodded to our potentially prurient gaze—but then they also each had a small squeeze toy stuffed in their pants. These squeaked when the two did an athletic sequence, alternately throwing their bodies face-down on the ground to perform a log roll while the other jumped over her, giving hidden genitals a high pitched little voice. 

The gravitas of JIMMY BROOKS performance stood in contrast to the opening act, a solo by Cory Kram. Titled Saturday Night, this piece raised uncomfortable questions about performance art, amateurism, expertise, and craft. It seems that more and more visual artists are taking on live performance as a medium, even though they have never studied even the most basic elements of the form such as use of space, time, the body, sound, and light.

In the Facebook invitation for the event, the Kram’s solo was described as a “dance” using “interpretive motions” to “channel her younger self.” I must admit that I look askance at the word “interpretive” used in this context because it is often used in ridicule of dance-as-art (it is a phrase that most dance artists detest). The idea of channeling the younger self threatens that an inner-child type psychodrama will be enacted that is potentially embarrassing for the audience and shame-inducing for the performer.

Kram’s piece managed to avoid stepping directly on these landmines. It had many visually arresting moments, such as the very beginning, when Kram appeared onstage wearing a large cardboard box over the top half of her body. Later on, Kram flailed and leapt through the space like a frustrated bat or moth without a flame. Her attempt to mark her face with tear-like vertical lines from eye to jaw was stymied by a broken crayon, but because of the overall context of the piece, this worked. 

Kram’s expression was sincere and strong, but it also looked as if Kram is a beginner in terms of the craft of performance. Once she removed the cardboard box from her head, her hair covered her face for almost the entire solo. Whether this was because of discomfort appearing before the public, or as a considered gesture of childlike petulance, I could not tell. Information online revealed no study of performance as a medium; examples of Kram’s work on her website are limited to visual art. A discussion with the curator, Eileen Doyle, made clear that Kram comes to performing through her explorations of appearing in her own videos or doing durational installation-type pieces in which she is also physically present as a character in costume.

Sandwiched between these two pieces was a reading of poetry by the nationally-recognized Philadelphia poet CA Conrad. Seated magisterially in a chair off to the side of the performance area on a slightly elevated platform, Conrad reminded me of the Emperor from the traditional Tarot deck. Conrad’s writing method is to create experiences that are almost little performances in themselves, take notes, and then write. One of his recent poems was written after a several sessions of riding public elevators.  At the top and bottom of the ride he would show photographs of himself to strangers and ask, “EXCUSE ME, have you seen this person?” The resulting poem, I HOPE I’M LOUD WHEN I’M DEAD, contains the unforgettable lines:

many are
haunted by
human cruelty through
the centuries
I am haunted by
our actions since

Conrad’s powerful and piercing voice rang loudly in our ears. He made sure you can hear every word he says. 

Asimina Chremos currently lives in Philadelphia and works with improvisational processes to create freeform works of dance and crochet. She is a former dance editor and writer for Time Out Chicago magazine.