Sunday, November 17, 2013

Jamal Cyrus & Benjamin Patterson @ Performa 13 (High Line, NYC)

Benjamin Patterson, attaching
my thought headband
This year's November in New York has brought many things, not least among them Performa 13, the biennial event-filled celebration of live, inventive performance in and around the city. Many of the events, like Rashid Johnson's staging of Amiri Baraka's landmark play Dutchman in an East Village bathhouse have been sold out since they were announced (or mentioned on or in The New Yorker), but one aspect of Performa that deserves unending praise are the public, free pieces that occur in large enough spaces that anyone who can get herself or himself there will be able to enjoy and participate in them.

Some years ago, the scholar Fred Moten gave a brilliant talk at Northwestern University on Fluxus pioneer and music innovator Benjamin Patterson (b. 1934-). Fred's descriptions of Patterson's work deeply intrigued me, and so when some of his compositions and other creations appeared at the Studio Museum in Harlem not long after that, I hightailed it up the island to see them. But viewing a conceptual and performance artist's works in a museum, enriching and inspiring though this may be, does not compare with witnessing the work being performed live, especially by the artist herself or himself, nor, better yet, with being an active participant oneself.

The High Line announcement
of the afternoon's events
As part of Performa 13 and in conjunction with the Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver and presented in two parts, at New York University and at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Patterson was scheduled to perform a number of his works, both in gallery and performance spaces, and in public. Several of these events, like Pond, at NYU's Grey Art Gallery, quickly sold out, or, like Action as Composition: A Retrospective Concert, occurred on a night (and in Brooklyn) when I had to be on campus. But I did see--thank you, Performa 13!--that Patterson and a few other artists would be offering free public performances on the High Line, I vowed to take a break from my herculean grading duties and other pressing responsibilities (galley editing, etc.) and be there.

Originally I had also planned to see Jamal Cyrus's Texas Fried Tenor, a piece he developed in 2012 in which he fries a tenor saxophone, with a poem, and mixed and live instrumental soundtrack as part of the experience, but my lunch companion, Dorothy Wang, and I were running a little behind, so I figured I'd missed it. My friend also thought it sounded like avant-garde hijinks taken a bit too far, but the idea of frying not just anything, but everything, especially a saxophone, struck me as a particularly apt gesture for our contemporary culture, as well as a fitting tribute to Texas, African American, jazz, and black Texas musical culture. Rather than installing it in a museum, why not drop it all in burning oil? And, perhaps with a bit of Beuys behind the ears, there was no way anyone could directly consume it, except ephemerally, in the moment, or in documented form. No hardened arteries from this indelible inedible.

Yet when we reached the High Line at 14th Street, we could smell something burning, and lo, a crowd was gathered around a column of smoke, amplified crackling sounds were audible, and I spotted a brother dressed in all white that I figured must be Cyrus. It was he, and while we missed his recitation of a poem based on the tenor sax tradition, we did see his event's denouement, with incense, a bell, and a very different mode of saxophony than I'd ever witnessed before. That scorched instrument, lying in a metal trough, was playing itself something ferocious. Texas fried saxophone, in New York, indeed. The clips at the bottom of this page below the jump should give a sense of what it all looked and sounded like.

Jamal Cyrus, at his mixing board
Jamal Cyrus placing the fried saxophone
in an amped trough
Cyrus, mixing away
At a certain point, as Cyrus's performance was approaching its conclusion and in my search for a better vantage to photograph him, I happened upon an elderly gentleman sitting at a table with a flipboard sign announcing his event, "Penny for Your Thoughts," and just from his face alone I recognized him as Benjamin Patterson. I introduced myself and he invited me to have a seat, as I would be the first to participate in his performance. I wanted to let my friend know that I'd seen him, so I went over to where she'd sequestered away, to make headway into her own stack of student work, and led her to where Patterson was. By the time we'd returned, someone else, a scholar I know from the New York Public Library and an old friend of Patterson's, had taken a seat in preparation for the start of his performance, so I gladly decided to go second.

Benjamin Patterson, before his event
His idea was simple enough, but fascinating nevertheless. For 1¢ (a penny) he would buy thoughts from participants, which we would write down on a sheet of paper (I wrote 6, though it looked like 5), and then we could buy thoughts, also for 1¢ from him. I bought 10 cents' worth, which he deposited in his piggy bank. A mini-market for a neoliberal artworld and society, no? As a token of our exchange and purchase, we received a headband with new thoughts, culled from various magazines and newspapers Patterson had brought with him. He created it on the spot, using pink ribbon, strips of paper and staples, and then attached it to our heads.

He read the ideas we contributed, but diced them up into thin strips, which he may or may not have reused at some point. I wondered about that, though I was delighted to be able to think on the spot and let him know some of what was in my mind at the time. We kept up a sotto voce patter the whole time, and when I had received my headband and was walking away, several people stopped me to inquire what we were talking about. One person may even have jotted down my name and what I said; I should have asked where that was going, but perhaps onto another blog like this one.

I wore my headband for a little while, and the feeling of delight--and new thoughts--didn't wear off even after I'd taken it off, nor did the realization that I had an opportunity not just to meet one of the most original and still living figures in the Fluxus movement, but that I'd been fortunate enough to participate in one of his performances. For a free afternoon, that was invaluable. There's still two more weeks worth of Performa 13 performances, so catch them if you can!

My thoughts
My payment for the thoughts
Patterson making the headband

The two of us, chatting as he
makes one for the first participant
Receiving my thought headband
The next vendor of
her thoughts
Videos after the jump!

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