I was staying on my dear friend Rachel Rabbit White‘s couch for a few days at the end of August. I was intrigued to discover she was working on her first performance art piece while I was there. I’m also currently working on my own first performance art piece with Rea McNamara for the massive contemporary art event Nuit Blanche on October 5th in Toronto, so I was so enthusiastic to be able to play a role in Rachel’s work, learn more about the form, and of course help my friend take on a challenging project.
The performance was the opening act of gURLs, a female-only art event at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn. We lived inside of the project for days, and it truly did become a very personal shared meditation on creating with and for other women and the profound power of female friendships. Without any sexual power dynamics or commercial motivations, the event felt very honest, with a remarkable lack of pretension. You can read Rachel’s record of all the performances at Rhizome.
This is Rachel writing, as I envision her.
I have my own naive ideas about performance art and art itself – I believe it is important to give your whole self to it, to not hold anything back, to take it seriously. Even when your resources are small, it seems obvious to me you have to use whatever you have in the service of the piece. It bothers me when art is too clever to make up for lack of effort and style. The art I admire does not conceal the investment of time and materials that went into it. I like it when artists emphasize the work in artwork. My career is as a commercial fashion illustrator, so of course I also like to uphold the aesthetic. Above all, I love art that is beautiful.
This is the shrine we built.
Spending time with Rachel working on her performance was especially rewarding for the creative dialogue. We laughed about how “earnestness is our cross to bear” so it is apparent we share the same values of sincerity both in ideas and appearance, although this may seem odd since we might look very different to the casual observer.
Rachel’s concept, of playing the role of a priestess providing absolution for past internet transgressions, could be treated trivially, as if it is a joke – but we know from our own experience and the experiences of our friends that online regrets are not any less real than offline regrets – they are actually far more literally haunting, popping up unwanted in inbox searches and ricocheting back at you with reminders in random comments or seeing your own images appropriated out of context. Part of having an online persona is concurrently carrying with you every previous iteration of that persona. And those previous versions of yourself too often distort, distract, and contradict who you want to be now. Rachel was providing a very true and valuable service to the participants in her piece, and we undertook this task with as much rigour as possible.
The other value Rachel and I share is an attraction to the attractive. We spent a lot of time discussing how we could make the piece beautiful, and I was pleased to play the role of the viewer while we rehearsed the gestures of the piece and assembled the costumes. I enjoyed playing the role of the handmaiden to her priestess. On one hand, she was like my living doll as I draped her gown – as someone who adores doll play and was trained as a fashion designer, giving her a gorgeous costume was utter indulgence. I got to wear a similar, but less impressive outfit.
Since her duties as a high priestess were paramount, it fell to me to support the practical parts of the piece – guiding initiates through the steps. I invited them to write down what they wished to release at the shrine, present it to the priestess who would burn and receive the regret, and approach a tub of water where they could make an offering of oil or flower petals. After the audience was seated, the priestess poured the ashes into the water and entered the water herself, to ceremonially bathe herself in it. At the end, it was my responsibility as handmaiden to remove her mantle before she stepped into the water for the finale, and receive a wet priestess, wrapping her in a sheet and making her disappear.
When we were preparing her to enter the water in front of the audience, we had to undo her hair from a knot at the top of her head. There was a long, excruciating, quiet moment while I extracted what felt like dozens of pins from her hair and tried to untangle an unruly elastic band. That’s when I felt my role most keenly as a supporter – it was Rachel’s piece, she was deeply invested in it, and as we dealt with an unanticipated jog in the rhythm, eyes locked, I whole-heartedly tried to send her reassurance, to absolve her of the accidental contingencies of performance, giving her my total devotion.
Afterwards, another far more experienced performance artist, Ann Hirsch, told Rachel that it was the best part of the piece. I know it was, for me.