BLOU STEEN/BLUE STONE (2018): REFLECTIONS

It’s just over a week since I dismantled my performance installation in Pretoria , and 4 weeks on from the actual performance of the work informed by my Master’s dissertation. Both were immense tasks of endurance, physically and mentally. The rising of the frosty new stubble on my head marks the passing of this time, these 4 weeks. The entire process, commencing with my insular waxing performance on January 1st, , and including a 10 month, 286 day fast, and culminating in the huge physical task of dismantling my installation on November 2nd, laid waste to me. In part this explains why I have not written about my experiences as yet. I find myself still trying to get to know the creation I have become. The best example, or metaphor?, I can offer to give you an insight into my lived experience is this: in 2012 I performed a shaving ritual (Gaze) removing the hair from my head and body, since then I have grown my hair, rarely even trimming it so that it became this thick, heavy, protective and insulating mass on my head. During the Blou Steen/Blue Stone performance I again shaved my head, planning it, much like the military barbers did, as if it were a piece of wood. In an early evening thunder storm (the High Veld in South Africa is known for these) that followed my performance, the shock of feeling rain on my bare, nude, sensitive head was both truly unsettling and otherworldly. The sensitivity, vulnerability and dislocation I was feeling internally after the performance was exemplified by this physical moment of experiencing the weather in direct contact with the flesh of my newly-exposed scalp.

In performance art the blood is real. My scalp bleeds minutes after the performance.

On the 7 hour drive back to Durban the next morning, I had plenty of time to reflect on the performance experience, and the past months leading up to it. And yet I have still not put it into actual words what it was all actually like. The fact is life and people do not give a damn (about art and sacrifies) and remain demanding. And bills have to be paid, so that Monday I was back in the factory working. As the King (Elvis) said, I was TCB-ing, taking care of business. And before I knew it, 3 weeks had passed and I had to return to Pretoria and the gallery to dismantle my performance installation. This was an endurance performance all on its own. I began at 9 in the morning and only finished at 3:30 in the afternoon. It involved shovelling up 1.3 tons of sea salt, putting it in bags, carrying them some 50 metres and then loading them into a van. After that I still had to load my metal structure and all my relics. When I climbed into that behemoth of a van which I had hired to carry my work back down to Durban my right knee and my back were aching like rotten teeth. A further 7 hours later, after driving through the night, (and being pulled over in a massive police roadblock, a story for another time) I arrived back in Durban, and 4 hours later I was back in the factory working. TCB!

TCB indeed, because as I write this on this Sunday morning I am in the factory, working. TCfreakingB! It’s a little less hectic today being a Sunday so I am taking the opportunity to reflect while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory. I remember that the actual installation process went quite smoothly and within 3 days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) my performance space was ready. By Friday, the day before the opening of the exhibition, even the dying of my hair to the correct colour I wanted (electric blue; after many attempts and using a number of different products) had successfully been concluded. But of course, then along came gallery politics and academic constraints/dictates. Firstly, I was informed that my performance (at an estimated 40 minutes) was way too long. This was a valid point though, people having miniscule attention spans these days as a result of social media and the internet. I was told that I would need to keep it under 20 minutes. This is all very fine and well, but this is like 2 days before a performance I have been planning and working up to for over 3 years. But!  I didn’t panic because I allowed for these worst-case-scenario events, and so I spent the entire Friday coming up with a new soundtrack for my performance and was still ready by Saturday. Or so I believed!

What do they say about the best-laid plans? Or about learning that God has a sense of humour by proclaiming your plans out loud?  For a performance I do my best to control everything I can, and for me, key is being in my space long before the performance so that I can mentally prepare. Some 600+ kilometres from home and being locked out of the gallery until minutes before my performance is not ideal, to say the least! Nor is having to rush in, check the sound, lights and video, and then don my uniform, only to find out that the order of events of the programme have been changed. Spending 30 minutes behind a screen and having to urinate into a box is definitely not conducive to getting one’s mind centred and prepared. But performance art is kind of like jumping from a plane, once you are out there, there is no turning back, and what will happen, will happen; you have very little control or choice. This is the adrenaline-pumping rush and beauty of performance art. The combination of chance and the interaction of artist and audience/viewer result in a totally unique, temporal, ephemeral artwork.

My performance, I felt was almost-frantic, with me, at one stage, hacking at my bleeding head with the razor. As always, I felt exposed and vulnerable, and yet barely aware of the audience (some 40 people).  I was aware of really only my soundtrack and its cadence, dictating when my various rituals should take place and their rhythm. I was also acutely aware of the sea salt crunching firstly beneath my army boots and then later under my bare feet. Its aroma permeated the entire gallery space, enveloping my senses, rising from the luminescent white mounds on the floor. Afterwards, although there was a sense of cathartic resolution, I was, as always, shy, withdrawn and reflective, perhaps even shameful. But, as always, I am forced out, because people want to speak to me, whether it is for me to acknowledge their presence or for them to acknowledge mine I’m never certain. This is a good thing. Men wanted to talk to me about their military experience, one even burst into emotional tears. This is very good and something I strove for! Activism: art as a tool for change!

Blou Steen performance: I’m wearing my Mask of Masculinities headpiece.

So what happened then? Well, after arriving home and TCB-ing I sorted out the documentation of my performance. I am pleased to say that despite all the problems on the day I got some really amazing video and photographs. These I sent to the postgraduate examinations department thereby meeting all my requirements for my Master’s degree. Now it’s all about the work and dissertation being assessed by the university, and me waiting to hear my grade. In the meantime I will be working on editing the video for an exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery. This will include my installation and a new performance informed by the old. The work does not stay static or final, it grows, transforms, spreads… This is good. This is very good!

Performance Art 101

Dallas Dahms Photography www.dallasdahms.com

swany – untitled performance January 2016

Today I feel all of my days, each and every one: each and every second, minute, day, week, month, year…hell, every milli-second of my existence. My meat aches, my bones creak, my muscles are stiff and sore, I move like something very brittle and fragile, like ice with cats’ paws. I have lesions on my swollen hands and a large bruise on the inside of my right arm. My feet are tender and blistered and my head feels as though it has a pillow stuffed into it. Eyes all skritchy-skratchy, I am tired, sooo tired: physically, emotionally and psychologically. I have just completed a performance and I am here to tell you that performance art is not for sissys! I am not just saying this to butch myself up. It really does take its toll on you. I am such a train-wreck today. Let me tell you about it so that you, dear reader, may grasp the sheer unbearable being of the performance experience.

Traditionally in performance art the human body is the site for creation, the Materia prima. It is the empty canvas, the instrument, and an open book; it is the centrepiece of the altar. The body is the matrix of the performance piece regardless of the location, situation or the artefacts and participants/viewers involved. This is quite logical if one considers that our body is also the very centre of our symbolic universe—a tiny model for humankind, and at the same time, a metaphor for the larger socio-political body. If we are capable of establishing all these connections in front of an audience, hopefully others will recognize them in their own bodies.

Just for interest’s sake, the other basic elements of performance are time, space and also the audience, the one element that the artist has little or no control over. Marina Abramovic, the so-called mother of performance art, said that “the audience is like a dog. They can feel immediately that you are afraid, that you are insecure, that you’re not in the right state of mind – and they just leave…”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

swany – untitled performance January 2016

 

 

 

So just to re-iterate, for performance artists our main artwork is our own body, ridden with all the accompanying semiotic, political, ethnographic, cartographic and mythical implications that the body implies and carries with it. This is magnified/amplified by use of ritual, artefacts, symbols, a sacred space and a significant gesture. OK, but what is the difference between Performance Art and the Performing Arts? Performance Art is “making, not faking”! The intention of performance art is not to simply entertain: it is to provoke, to raise questions and most importantly, to implicate the audience/viewer. Performance art is rooted in conceptual thinking while performing arts has its roots in the theatre. In performance art you, the artist, are always you, it is only your context that changes. In performing arts the actor/dancer plays a role, they act. So in performance art one enacts (carries out) while in performing arts one acts out.

OK, back to my performance in particular, the “why”, the “what”, the “when” and the “where”.

Why?:  for the practical component of my master’s degree

What?:  a performance which explores/comments on/questions white masculinity

When?:  from 6 pm on Saturday 16 January  until 7 am Sunday 17 January (13 hours)

Where?:  at artSPACE Gallery (6 to 6) and then at the Natal Command Precinct (6-7)

Dallas Dahms Photography www.dallasdahms.com

swany – untitled performance January 2016

OK, so you have the particulars, now the details. Gender theory states that our gender is socially constructed, by our families and various organizations such as schools, universities, sports teams and the military. They shape our various masculinities and femininities. I spent 3 years in the armed forces so I my masculinity was definitely affected by that time there. In my Masters study I am asking one central question, do artists (white and South African in this case) represent the status of masculinity in their work or do they, as the avant-garde, lead the way in changing what masculinity is and should be? Is it evident in their creations?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

swany – untitled performance January 2016

To investigate this moulding of masculinity in the army I undertook a nightwatch in a local gallery, artSPACE durban. The owner, Claus, locked me in the gallery for 12 hours, from 6 pm until 6 am. In the gallery I performed certain rituals such as hitting a punching bag I had installed until my hands were bloody and bruised, and so swollen and tender that I could not hit it anymore. I also performed marching drills and martial arts katas throughout the night. This is where I stood guard, within the so-called “white cube”, surrounded by artists’ visions and creations, dreams and nightmares. Being January the air was moist and heavy, swampy, and I was soon drenched with sweat. Outside Durban’s city life clamoured at the doors and windows: music from a nearby club and passing vehicles, an adrenalized heartbeat; drunken bellows and laughs like street hyenas; the smashing of glass, the wailing of sirens; gunshots. And then at about 5.30 a brief moment of silence, the city pausing to catch its breath and then once more onward.

At 6 am, dressed in my old army uniform, I ran the equivalent of a 2.4 kilometre to what used to be the Natal Command military base in Durban. The 2.4 was the standard fitness test that we would run once a week while in the training phase in the army. Once at the old base, I performed 3 blood rituals using my own blood drawn by a nurse.

Dallas Dahms Photography www.dallasdahms.com

swany – untitled performance January 2016

 

I have to say I was really worried that I, at the very least, would be arrested  once I entered the public space and that was the least of my worries. There was also the very real possibility that I could be attacked on the streets. I was after all wearing my old apartheid-era military uniform. However, the reality is, the local police with their fat bellies wedged behind steering wheels looked the other way, white people avoided me like the plague, detouring around me frantically, while black people were quite inquisitive and interested to know what I was doing.

So 13 hours of physical exercise, no sleep, no food, lots of stress and really testing my physical and mental limits, pushing my body. Performance art asks a lot of not only the viewer but also of the artist. One hell of an experience!  And where to now? Well, I need to build on this beginning, this experiment I carried out. As I tell my students: the answers all lie in the making, in the doing.

Dallas Dahms Photography www.dallasdahms.com

swany – untitled performance January 2016

 

On Being a Postgrad and Paying the Bills

OK, so what do you do once you have graduated from a university? You would think that having completed 3 to 4 years of studying at a tertiary institution, and suitably armed with a degree (in my case a honours level degree), you would head out into society and land that career you have always dreamed about. Not if it is an art degree! Unfortunately the reality of the world we live in is that art-focused jobs (and I am not referring to designing, advertising/signage or décor) are very hard to come by. This is especially true here in Africa (3rd world) and therefore South Africa. Art is in general considered a frivolous waste of time and certainly not worth paying for or funding. If you are fortunate you can try and make it as a full-time artist creating and selling your work but it is my experience that those artists who are able to do this generally have partners (husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, mom and dad) who help support them, or they have to sell out and create things that are fairly “safe”. By “safe” I mean it will have a colour scheme that matches most décor-tastes, so that it matches the carpet/couches/curtains. It will not make any sort of real statement or ask any real questions of the viewer. It will blend. But the bills have to be paid; somehow, that is the reality of life. So they do what they have to.

 

Above: Proof of Life (2013)

I am not one of those artists I have mentioned above, supported or other (unfortunate or not, time will tell). So, postgrad, I still have to work my 12 hour shifts, 60 hours plus a week, in a factory to… that’s right, pay the bills. I am fortunate in that I do get to lecture art part-time at my alma mater, and although juggling that and my work commitments is extremely demanding, I absolutely love it. This is the other thing postgrad artists do to pay the bills; they turn to teaching. In addition to my lecturing, I also attempt to exhibit as much as possible to keep myself focused; conceptualizing and creating art. I believe that exhibiting is a very important way of establishing yourself as an artist. An artist’s worth should certainly, in part, be judged by his/her exhibitions and should appear on his/her cv. Exhibiting tells people that you take yourself seriously as an artist and so should they. And that is another thing, another bill that has to be paid; exhibiting is expensive. Work has to be made, gallery owners have to be paid.

The other thing that postgrads do is continue studying. For some it is an addiction, and I think perhaps I am one of those people. There really is not a time I can think of that I have not been studying, and I am not talking about being a student of life, we are all those, willingly or not. I am talking about studying in some sort of formal learning institution; school, the military, sport institute, dojo, tech, university, you name it, I have done it. So it is no surprise that I am continuing with my studies; my Masters: after that my Doctorate, and so on and so on. I honestly really enjoy it, despite the stress and cost and lack of social life. There is just something about learning new skills, discovering new facts, acquiring new knowledge and testing and pushing one’s self.

Above: Proof of Life (2013)

Why do I bring this up? Well, I submitted my first draft of my formal Masters proposal this week, this after 6 months of researching, compiling, analyzing and composing: 35 pages of my opinions; educated, researched opinions on a subject. The really awesome thing though is that after I complete my thesis I get to put together an exhibition of work informed by my research.

This is my abstract which provides an idea of my research focus:

Title:

Confronting the Anima: Locating White masculinities Within Post-colonial, Post-apartheid South Africa.

Abstract:

White masculinities, as a case study, reflect the tremendous changes that South African society has undergone in the past 21 years as well as how much it still needs to change. I intend to research the role of the South African artist as indicator and locator of these masculinities within this transforming society.          My research will be practise based, in other words, it will be an investigation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice. This will, however, necessitate a complete contextualisation of the creative work via intense and sound research. My outcomes will therefore be both theoretical as well as creative, the significance and context of which will be described in words, referencing the practical. The methodology utilized will be autoethnography, a study of my own masculinity; this in order to extrapolate a possible future for white masculinities in South Africa.

Key Words:

Anima; animus; autoethnography; extrapolate; equation; factor; femininity; gender; hegemony; masculinity; mythopoetic; patriarchy; whiteness.

So all that basically means is that I intend to study myself and my art as representative of my specific masculinity. You may think that narcissistic but it is in fact, extremely daunting and just plain freaking scary, and certainly does not scream, “oh, look how wonderful I am”! This is because any really character forming incident in our lives has generally been unpleasant, humiliating, humbling etc. etc.Imagine having to present all that has formed you, warts and all, not only in writing but also images in a gallery: Fear Factor on steroids, I kid you not! Well that will be my project for at least the next 2 years. I will keep you updated.

OK, now on to something completely different: swany’s list of awesomeness!

daydream-nation

 

This movie makes my awesomeness list! It is an indie movie so you probably have never heard of it but watch it! It has some really amazing dialogue in it, for example:

Jenny: [seeing Caroline in the restroom] Ugh, slut.

Caroline: What’d you call me?

Jenny: I think I just called you a slut, slut.

Caroline: Why?

Jenny: Because everyone knows you’ve banged, like, forty different guys since you came here.

Caroline: Really? Forty? Okay, let’s just say I have banged forty guys. What’s the problem? You’re just jealous ’cause you’ve been, uh… brainwashed by puritanical assholes who believe sex is a sin. Then again, your, uh, little… gerbil-sized brain has been reprogrammed by the media to believe sex is the be-all, end-all. So now you’re stuck, right? ‘Cause on one hand, you love to fuck, but afterwards you feel overwhelmed by guilt and you’re not sure why. Maybe it’s because sex is neither as good or as evil as you’ve built it up to be.

Jenny: [hurt pause] Shut up, slut!

Caroline: Jenny…! Seriously. Listen to me. The highlight of your entire life… is gonna be your yearbook photo. You are already nostalgic for shit that has not even happened yet, ’cause you have so precious little to look forward to. You’re gonna spend the first half of your life planning your wedding, you’re gonna spend the second half regretting it. And if I were you—and thank God I’m not ’cause you have terrible hair—I would stop and I would reconsider your whole value system, because everything you know… is wrong.

 

I suppose the best way to describe it is to say that it is about lot of damaged people doing what it takes to keep going every day. Kind of like real life, I guess. There is a lot of dark humour, a serial killer, an illicit, inappropriate affair, a number love triangles and as I said some really awesome dialogue. Something different than the normal formulaic, by the numbers, Hollywood movie. Watch it!

daydream