Saturday, September 28, 2013


photo by Jet Liam

This is the post-mortem of a piece I did the first Friday of September. Because I'm interested in process, I'm going to write about the process of making the piece. If that's not your thing, enjoy the pictures.

A few months ago, I had an idea that involved clouds of color in the air. I didn't have any idea for what, I just pictured throwing something in the air that would make a colored cloud. I figured flour would make a cloud like that and asked on Facebook if anyone had any ideas for coloring flour.

I should say, I had no idea at the time that there is an Indian holiday that uses just that sort of thing. Holi. Had I known that, I might have just asked an Indian friend or two about it, but in any case, it was an Indian grad school classmate, Shikha, who answered with a link for making colored flour. Indeed, had I known this was an actual thing, I would have just conducted my own web search for instructions. There are, I've learned, several pages with this information out there.

So, anyway, that just sat in my brain for a few months and gestated. Then, the movers and planners of Continuum announced a night of three-hour, durational performances, which is one of my favorite forms of performance art. I went to brainstorming and came back to this vague colored flour notion. What resulted was Flouring/Flowering

This was the initial idea: I'd stand under a slowly dripping water hose. Around me would be pans (or whatever) of colored flour. The audience would be invited to toss the flour into the air over me. Hopefully, the water on me would cause some of it so stick as it fell, so that the cloud of flour would then color me.

It would fall in line with a lot of my work, which is a celebration of body, of being incarnate. It would also test my comfort zones, as I knew I had to be (at least) mostly unclothed for this. I seldom am in public with so much as my shirt unbuttoned very far. I also knew part of this was also dealing with my hirsuteness. In general, I'm not ashamed of my hairiness, nor do I dislike it. I simply know that some people find it on the "ew" side of life, particularly in this age of shave, waxing or otherwise "manscaping."

I don't manscape. I think life is too short for all that.

Anyway, I figured the water and settling flour would highlight my hairiness as well.  Something for the bear admirers out there, maybe.

The first thing I learned was that making colored flour, while not difficult, is time consuming, I should have started coloring my flour at least two weeks earlier. I also found that it doesn't want to pulverize back into a find powder so easily. My blender did an okay job, but after sifting, I still have a few cups of colored flour that is the consistency of sand.

But the most important part is the time consuming piece. I knew that I would not possibly have enough colored flour to put out for random people to toss. I tried to find an assistant who might ration theflour as the evening went on, but no assistant ever materialized, so that a little more was available at the start of each hour. I was concerned that someone would think it would be funny if they dumped it all in the first half hour and then what would I do for the next two and a half hours?

So being distrustful of humanity in general and a bit of a control freak in particular, I decided I would just toss the flour in the air myself. That way I could make sure I rationed the supply to stretch through the whole three hours.

Also, when I went to scout the warehouse where the event was held, I really liked this nonfunctioning elevator car. While there was a source for water not too far off, there wasn't an obvious way for it to drain without having regrettable consequences. The warehouse was un-air conditioned and in September in Houston, that meant I would be making plenty of my own water. So I ditched the dripping water hose notion and decided that anything that stuck to me would be sticking to my sweat.

That's two changes from the original concept, for those who wish to keep track.

I did agonize over what to wear---an unusual emotion for me. I toyed briefly with the notion of going ahead and wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but that seemed to obscure some of the point of the piece. flour accumulating in the creases of clothes might have been interesting, but not as clearly a celebration of my middle-aged body, in all it's beauty and flaws.

I thought I had a tan, full-bottom dance belt. For those of you who don't know what a dance belt is, it's a bit like a jock strap that male dancers wear. Most fit somewhat like a g-string, but there are those with full bottoms, making them something like aggressively supportive briefs. Anyway, I thought maybe that would work for the piece. Except I couldn't find it. The tan dance belt that I did find left more of my lower cheeks hanging out than I was willing to let hang out.

Now, a word about nudity. I'm not against it. I'm even willing to be nude in the right circumstance. I also know that whenever I, personally, see nudity in a performance piece, it can really overwhelm the whole thing and the piece becomes about the nudity. I'd just seen a video of a dance piece by a famous and respected choreographer and there was a section with nudity. While I got what he was after with this section, I have to admit that the nudity was distracting. If I wasn't convinced I would not be nude before, that convinced me.

I admit, I had the converse discussion within my own brain: If all I'm wearing is something like briefs, does that become really obvious and does the piece then become about the one piece of clothing I'm wearing? Maybe.

What really cinched that I would wear something was that I really don't feel like I have a life where I can appear in public fully nude with random strangers taking pictures of me. I've been an artist model a few times, so in a controlled situation like that, it isn't a worry to me. But for better or worse, I do have a day job to worry about and a few relationships that are probably strained enough by what I did wear.

So for better or worse, I wore some athletic boxer-brief type things I found at Academy. They're form-fitting and didn't have a fly, so they seemed like a good choice. And they were. I feel like they allowed me whatever safety such minimal modesty allows while also keeping the shape of my body in focus (and confirming well enough that I am a cis-gendered male). As a bonus, they were super comfortable! I believe I hit on the right balance with these.

In coloring the flour, I decided that I'd stick to the primary colors---red, blue, and yellow. After I started making these colors, I realized something---mix those colors together, and you get black. Despite knowing this, I had pictured having a rainbow of colors on me. As you can see in the pictures, that didn't happen, the black did. So if I were to do this again, I'd stay away from full spectrum and just do maybe three colors from a narrower portion of the spectrum  (blue, green, yellow or red, yellow, orange or maybe even blue, purple, red) but not a combo that will create black. It was still kind of interesting anyway, I think, but the black mud look was not part of the original concept. And had I realized this before I had colored a whole lot of flour, this would have been another change.

At the last minute, I also realized, hey, white is a color. So, to extend the life of my flour supply, I added white, uncolored (or bleached, as the package says) flour to the mix.

Over all, I'm really happy with the event. I felt the flour caking on my lips and other places. When no one was watching I pulled wads of black paste from under my arms. It took 48 hours---and a whole lotta eye drops---for my vision to return to normal (mostly, I saw halos around lights for a while). It wasn't what you would call comfortable. And yet it all felt right. I had some good, positive feedback from people, and while I'll take some of what I learned and alter it if I ever do this again, I have no regrets about this iteration of the piece.

Oh, and the smartest thing I did? I laid down a small lap blanket on the floor of the elevator. Did that ever make clean-up easier!

Now, for a smattering of photos from various sources:

photo by Craig ArrMutt
phot by Craig ArrMutt

photo by Alex Barber
photo by Alex Barber
photo by Jet Liam

photo by Jet Liam
photo by Jet Liam
photo by Dean Liscum

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes from a Presentation on Theological Aesthetics

Here, in Houston, there is a new, monthly gathering called the Queer Theology Discussion Group. On Tuesday, September 17, I presented some of my thinking on theological aesthetics as applied to performance/live art. These are some of the thoughts I presented. I'm really just at the beginning of trying to express some of this formally and I very much invite comments and questions.

I started with a very brief introduction to performance/live art, talking about it's difficult-to-define-ness, but how it always seems to come from the edge. There are plenty of places online to get historical overviews of the form, so I won't repeat that here. I did pass around my copies of Peformance Art: From Futurism to the Present by RoseLee Goldberg, Performance; Live Art Since the 60s, also by Goldberg, and the Artist's Body by Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones. I'd marked a few pages in each to draw attention to some of the more famous performance pieces, such as Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll (do not look this up at work or around people sensitive to nudity or sexuality), Vito Acconci's Seedbed (concept not safe for work, but most photos are), and Yoko Ono's Cut Piece.

I also introduced the concept of theological aesthetics, which can have nearly as broad a definition as performance art. Briefly, theological aesthetics might address:

1. The beauty of God/glory of God; beauty of church doctrine, of theology itself (theology as creative writing genre).

2. Theology of creation or the natural world, which reflects God's beauty.

3. Liturgy and liturgical arts.

4. An artwork, an artist's body of work, a particular movement or medium of art---all of it approaching the conventions of the art with an eye to what they may say about God.

5. Among other things.

I should go without saying, I'm about the business of #4 and performance art.

Some assumptions I bring with me to art:

From an after-performance talk by Bill T. Jones some years ago: The best way to look at modern art is to look at yourself looking at modern art.

I've interpreted this to mean that it is fruitful to investigate my own reactions. Do I think an artwork is offensive? Am I disgusted by it? Why? I may not change my reaction, but it may be an insight to myself that I'd not met without the help of the artist.

Ask questions of art. What am I seeing? What am I feeling? What is the artist/artwork telling me?

With these approaches, liking or not liking are less the issue (although, to be sure, there is work I like and work I do not like) but the dialogue it creates become the thing. Quite often, the more difficult pieces---the ones you don't like---have the most to tell you.

Theological assumptions I carry with me:

Art-making is always an act of incarnation. Ideas and words (logos) take form. (Form can sometimes give birth to ideas, of course, but the notion remains this: flesh and spirit are both necessary for what we recognize as life, including an artwork that has "life.")

Also, we humans are made in the image of God.

There is beauty in these notions, but I also hasten to add that wherever there is flesh is there is also death and decay.

A somewhat famous quote from Flannery O'Connor: "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

 In a chat with a friend on Facebook, we were talking about incarnation. at one point, I said, "We want incarnation to be magazine cover models who don't fart, but I'm a gassy middle aged man." The point being, there are things we think of as unpleasant associated with incarnation but we don't like to think about them. They make us very uncomfortable and queasy and so much of our society tries to avoid them. Pastor Lura Groen says one of the most controversial things she ever said in a Christmas sermon was to reference changing the Christ child's poopy diapers.

Performance art often addresses the limits and the functions of the body. Endurance of pain, bloodletting, other bodily fluids are often part of performance art. When I look at live art that uses/exposes these things, I think of the O'Connor quote above. I feel the artist is trying to tell me something, show me something. I admit, I sometimes struggle to hear.

I believe it's a tricky thing to look at non-religious and even anti-religious work with a theological eye. I sometimes feel I'm bringing to it something the artist might find offensive. Still, I confess to being who I am and I can't avoid doing this, especially as I'm drawn to this type of work.

One thing I wonder about is the sacrifice---a religious term---of the performance artists. Once you read a scroll of text that you pull out of your vagina, can you get an office job? Once you've masturbated beneath a platformed as you broadcast your sexual fantasies to the people above you, can you coach little league?

In other words, some breaks with social normalcy are made when you break social conventions in such a public fashion. As someone who often says security is a false idol, I admire their lack of concern with the security they're risking by putting their ideas and bodies so literally nakedly on display. It seems to me a performance artist, on the extreme edges of performance art, sacrifice something of an "ordinary" life when they say what they say in the way they say it.

Is this prophetic? (In our discussion afterward, Jeremiah came up.)

Is this liberation, speaking from the underneath, speaking from the fringe?

Are they telling us something about justice, speaking seldom heard truths to conventional power?

If all this piss and blood and cutting is ugly, is it a more true representation of the crucifixion than most of the pretty art pieces in our churches?

If "Christian art" has spent too much time in safe, pretty, sterile pictures of Easter, does this often non-Christian form of incarnation give us a way to enter Good Friday, the necessary passage on the way to resurrection?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When Things Don't Go As Planned, Plan As You Go

In two days, I'll be participating in a night of durational performances produced by Continuum Performance Art they're calling Submission. 

Because they're good enough to let me play once again in their sandbox, I'm doing a piece I'm calling Flouring/Flowering.

And because it's late at night and I still have to get to the day job in the morning, I'm not going to talk too very much about this---I'll do a post-mortem after the show and give more detail on the evolution of this piece. In fact, I suspect even in the 48 hours until it's in progress, it wouldn't surprise me if it evolved a little more. Such is the nature of this performance art thing. It's definitely not going to end up being what I first thought. Planning. Whatever.

Suffice to say, there is colored flour involved. Above is a picture of my first batches of it.

And I'll be in an old, non-functional elevator as I do it.

I hope it'll be pretty. At least for a bit. Then I predict it'll get messy. Maybe it'll be a beautiful mess.

Read a little bit more in this notice in the Houston Press.

And come see me. Leave the kids at home, but come see me and the other artists of Continuum.