A performer was stomping around on the second floor of a vacant townhouse on London’s Cork Street last weekend, as Frieze’s Live program played out in an unusual year. Visitors to the gallery down below might have heard the thumps above from Cécile B. Evans’s piece, but only I—and others taking in the performance remotely—could see the performer’s face. As I watched online from Berlin, she gazed and spoke to one of the several cameras on set: “The revolution will be uncertainty—not me.”
In a year of paramount changes, the art world has lost nearly all of its usual rituals. This year’s unusual edition of Frieze London opened bravely online last week, with visitors clicking and scrolling across diverse presentations all flattened to fit the grid. In trying to save the concept of Frieze Live, the fair’s performance platform, Frieze London’s new artistic director Eva Langret tapped curator Victor Wang to establish an “institute” of performance and sound that could be seen partially online and in-person during the “fair” week.
“Performance art is always in the process of being made,” Wang told me over the phone on Thursday, speaking from the stoop of his three-storey Institute for Melodic Healing. Performances took place over 111 hours, featuring new works by Evans alongside artists including Alvaro Barrington, Anthea Hamilton, and Zadie Xa. Events were live-streamed online via Instagram TV, with some also viewable in-situ to a select group of visitors.
Intimacy Over the Buffet
Wang wasn’t disappointed by the low number of in-person visitors. London’s coronavirus cases have doubled in recent weeks, and Boris Johnson is expected to deliver even more restrictive rules today, October 12. Given that the M+ Woods curator has been based in Beijing for the majority of the pandemic, Wang has an acute understanding of the severity of the situation, though he did not let it permeate the energy of the weekend.
“I prefer this, the intimacy over the buffet,” he said. “I’m masked up and making sure everyone is safe. The energy high, people are curious.”
The curiosity is multifaceted. Not only was Wang’s selection of artists timely and tapped into an intergenerational cohort of some of the brightest figures in the London scene, but the format of a performance event meandering between offline and online has piqued the art world’s imagination. As bans on public gatherings are here for the long haul, there has been a race to find a solution for performance art, and facilitating engagement through screens has posed a challenge. The Institute for Melodic Healing demonstrates that a third way—a hybridized sort of gathering—is possible.
New Possibilities for Performance
Each artist experimented with the digital-physical split in different ways. I tried to catch as many presentations as I could over the weekend—logging on felt, admittedly, a little less atmospheric than experiencing something IRL, but the ways in which each artist took up Wang’s brief showed that live-streaming offers a whole new gamut of possibilities for performance.
Like Evans’s “dress rehearsals” for her video piece Notations for an Adaption of Giselle (welcome to whatever forever) that took place upstairs throughout the weekend, Mandy El-Sayegh’s performance piece your words will be used against you addressed very current concerns. Masked performers, including the artist, entered and exited past Anthea Hamilton’s installation-cum-stage that consisted of two black mannequins standing in as viewers to the performance.
The dancers moved in and out of contact with each other in isolated acts of intimacy (taking a jacket on and off of each other in an act of care, for instance); they filmed each other from afar, the two meter distancing that we have all become used to this year becoming a tight rope between bodies. It was a tense and beautiful performance. As a poignant inversion, Denzil Forrester’s electric 1980s paintings depicting dancing bodies of London’s reggae and dub nightclubs in East London, looked on from the walls of the Cork Street space.
Alvaro Barrington, who is known for his innovative collaborations, hosted a multi-chapter piece that took place over two days. There was a DJ set by Shama Anwar in the basement of Cork Street; over the weekend, East New York comedian Gastor Almonte was live-streamed for a comedy hour. On Sunday, New York performance artist Zachary Fabri took over Frieze’s Live feed with a piercing (if a little bit choppy) performance piece. Fabri attached a police body cam to his chest—one camera captured his movements while the gestures from the bodycam’s perspective were shown on a screen. It was a meditative performance that even reflected the street behind the screen—at one point, a jogger ran by.
Along for the Ride
While not directly commercial, the performance event added dynamism to Frieze London’s static “booth” offerings. The artistic director Langret told me that Live was not about making a marketplace of work as much as giving it ground for creation. “I hope that it has demonstrated the potential of performance and the possibilities for creative exchange, despite the challenges we all find ourselves working in today,” she said.
Indeed, the power of performance to transform itself into the digital space could also prove to be much more fruitful than the digital “exhibition.” While some tried to subvert the limitations, paintings and sculptures do not hold the same dynamic space online as a moving figure. Outside the art world, more than 12 million players logged on to watch rapper Travis Scott perform in the video game Fortnite this spring—on top of another three million who streamed it. While the slow-to-tech art world seems to be limited to Instagram for now, the explorations in the Institute for Melodic Healing give me a sense of optimism for the creative production that will come out of this painful pandemic year.
“The aim was to allow for experimentation without a defined outcome,” said Wang, who believes we need to rethink the parameters of what live art can be and how we can form community in a new epoch of remoteness. “How does information and the body travel now, when people cannot? We’re all along for a ride without a destination in mind.”