Last week I finally grokked a little of what performance art can do, having been left cold by most of my previous encounters with it. I’d gone to the Faith and Terror festival almost by accident, and was pleasantly surprised by how much it touched me.
On the Faith side of things, Sara Zaltash spent perhaps an hour repeating a modified call to prayer. Modified partly in being sung by a woman, but also by entirely removing Mohammed. Is this a personal preference, an attempt at non-sectarian prayer, or part of some tradition I don’t know of? Zaltash’s multilingual translation and commentary doesn’t explicitly explain.
At first her fervour and the beauty of her voice held the room rapt. Then as time passed people mentally disengaged, fidgeted, left the room. At first, I counted it as the unfortunate side-effect of a long performance after a long evening after a long festival.
But then: repetition to the point of irritation is one of the basic, near-essential, building blocks of religion. When I lived in Bosnia the call to prayer was a soothing piece of background, semi-consciously absorbed through its identical presence every day. In my time at a Christian school I was constantly frustrated by the repetitive pattern of hymn and prayer. Yet, like it or not, the prayers are permanently burned into my brain. Repetition works. More than that: it’s obvious from inside any religion, but rarely experienced from the outside. So it’s a perfect thing to bring to a festival about faith.
As for terror: Openspace Performunion gave us a quasi-military march around the theme Every Flag is a Border, and Borders Kill.
It could have been menacing, but wasn’t — and in its way, the lack of menace was more unsettling. We see the soldiers stop for a smoking break — regulated, but gentle. We see them strip and dress and carefully paint each other’s faces. We see them each briefly break away from the group — always alone, as though if two got away together they might never come back. Unnervingly, it’s a platoon you could imagine wanting to join.
The flags are another matter. White they may be, but certainly ont peaceful. They mutate from flag to weapon to phallus to baton to fence and back to flag, but never stop being the enemy of the piece.
With Ritournelle, Anais Héraud and Till Baumann managed to nudge me from peace to nightmare and back again. Sheets of paper flutter through the air, telling us to inhale and exhale. In the back a plastic pole circles horizontally on what looks like a modified record player, while a metronome ticks in the front. Ticking, circling, breathing — the three rhythms don’t align, but they lull me into a meditative peace. Then, slowly, the logic becomes darker, Héraud loses herself in the repetition of a phrase, pulling other words out of it as anagrams. It’s not quite terror, but it does have something of the inescapable self-reference of a dream.
Why did I like all this so much? Partly through encountering it after a while without seeing any performance art, so that even the clichés seemed fresh.
Mostly, though, because of the relationship between the artists and the audience. This was a small and close-knit group, many performers themselves. They skipped past the two usual, frustrating reactions to contemporary art — either unthinking dismissal, or blind acceptance of anything the artist presents. Instead there was healthy, informed criticism, which seemed to get us a lot closer to understanding and communication.