Soapbox at Hillyer Art Space

There’s a breakdown in the street team, and that would seem to be an issue, since the collaboration of DJ and MC is one of the defining art actions of Pax Americana. But in Chukwuma Agubokwu’s “Cuirass Cavus” the infrastructure that has been articulated to accessorize the situation, A.K.A. The Swag, bogs down and finally stops the flow.

Of course Swag didn’t always or doesn’t always mean gear, stuff. It also refers to its polar converse — the immaterial animation of character and spirit that makes a body move. But that kind of inspiration is fleeting and fickle, as the poets say; it’s easy to get hung up on what you do or don’t have as a reason for why it isn’t happening. And it clearly isn’t happening for Agubokwu’s gear-heavy protagonist, even as the erstwhile laptopper at stage left starts and restarts the grind, giving him his opening again and again.

Finally the MC sheds his hat and shades, jacket and pants, the hypertrophied chest protector that gives the piece its name, and, with most difficulty, his jumbo wristwatch (just a mistake? Or is it really hardest to give up “being watched”?) and removes himself from the riser. We’re left with a few more reps of the beat. It’s like that in history, when innovation gets absorbed into the spectacle and becomes commodity, harmonized into the seamless flow of total product. Know Resistants?

It doesn’t seem right to attribute some larger theme or value to the three performances that comprised the second episode of Soapbox, Hillyer’s new performance series, last Friday. Each act grappled with the terms of its presentation, with its mediation and its content, and that grapple could easily be mistaken for a “discourse” on “violence” or “institutions”. It’s the individual, not to say eccentric, angle that each artist takes in presenting themselves in the space that is the take-away.

Wilmer Wilson IV’s “Blank Shot”, the middle set of the three, casually foregrounds gun violence, but explores the artist’s own mediated unfamiliarity to surprising effect. Wilson is the shooter, and his audience his targets. But the gun here is a sticker gun — first I said to myself, “a pricing gun” and about five different resonances of monetary life and gun violence came to mind. But then I got stickered, and I got to see that the gun was spitting out “Use By” date stickers — no, there’s not a price on your head, not necessarily. But you do have an expiration date. That date is left blank, as I suppose it must be.

As in “Cuirass Cavus”, the accouterments comment on the act. Even as he takes on the malevolent silence of the psycho shooter, Wilson sports appropriate eye and ear protection. Not down from the hills, but in from the burbs, and literally, not gunning for the home room, but right in the middle of the city. If this is class war, then we might want to ask, who’s waging it on who? Logically, a good deal of the firing in “Blank Shot” is turned on Wilson himself, as he covers his chest and forehead, a self-mutilation that is no less real for its being easily removed.

A kind of deflected self-mutilation also happens in Chajana denHarder’s “Door”. But it is happening as a kind of fourth-level drill down in to the actions and set-up she’s chosen. Traversing boundaries is her theme. denHarder’s performance incorporates shades of emotional resonance that make unification a more fraught adventure than is usually advertised.

What does it mean when we are compelled to watch something we cannot see? That is, in some old etymology, what we mean when we say, obscene. Something there is off-limits, and it is out of sight, as a metaphor for that condition.

The lights dim, and that movie-theater gesture may enough to propel us into a world of uncertain fantasy. A sheet of paper has been stretched across the doorway and backlit like a shadow-puppet screen. As the artist’s hands make their appearance, spattering and caressing the paper, we get the essential moment of horror, drained of all the gore and trappings. It is the same as intimacy. Maybe this is the subtlest part of the scary movie, the kind of love that can tear flesh, the kind of knowing that can make it happen.

As the scrim of paper stands between us, it can also stand in for us, a mirror or a mannequin. And when the artist begins to fretfully pick and tear at wet spots where the paper has weakened, we can feel it, the emotional singularity of dwelling on/in a physical wound as a way to process a psychic one.

The paper eventually shreds into long  jagged vertices, and glimpses of the other side appear peek through, direct light and color. Throughout the process, I thought of lots of other things that seemed related, but I think I was mostly seeking analogues to process the sensation — “Heart-Shaped Box”,  Mullholland Dr., a handful of other artworks that stand, as Joshua Clover puts it, “at the corner of creep and shame“. It’s the other side of “crossing boundaries”, mixing the seen and the unseen, the past with the future, that makes performance vivid and ephemeral at the same time.

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