EXPORTED: MKNZ in Vienna
VIENNA, AN EXEMPLARY CASE OF LOVE WITHOUT RESPITE
In times of performance, during its gestation, its realization, and its aftermath, everything seems fated: every circumstance, every choice, every unanticipated generosity, and surely every setback. Performance creates an extended experience of coincidence; a prolonged sense of the present, achieved through fits of bravery and willingness to suffer– or, perhaps more specifically, a desire to reap suffering’s benefits.
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell (‘Ryan’), director of the theatre company, Saint Genet (which many of my dearest friends, lovers, and colleagues have been involved with over the years), invited me to fly out to Vienna to collaborate with him on the 72 hour performance, An Exemplary Case of Love without Respite. I would join him each day at dawn and at dusk for a ritual involving wine, honey, leaching, bleeding, tattooing, and gold-leafing. The time between these two rituals was filled with a 30km procession, completed by Ryan, with consuming devotion, each day.
My role in these 72 hours involved descending onto the ‘stage’ of a stark, candlelit factory in Traiskirchen, Austria and, in the evening, the small, white-walled, Charim Gallierie in downtown Vienna. The stage of each location was indicated by a rectangular layer of slowly deteriorating sod, filled with the sounds of peeping chicks and the heartbreaking compositions of Brian Lawlor, executed by a trio of strings and keyboard. I would remove my shirt and shoes and walk slowly to my mark, while Ryan finished a bottle of red wine; thinned blood streaming from his wrist around the body of a fat, throbbing leach. I would walk to a neatly folded nurse’s gown (starched, linen white, dating back to 1940s Austria, and sourced by Patrizia Ruthensteiner, who was responsible for the creation of a striking pussy willow mask, worn by Ryan during each procession). Upon approaching the gown, I would wait to be carefully dressed by Patrizia. Each day a new gown, each gown soiled by blood, dirt and honey. On my knees, I would assemble a tray of materials to tattoo Ryan, freehand and without machine. I would wait at my station, while he struggled to undress; drunk, sleep deprived, sore, and sticky with sweat and honey. He would make his way to lie at my knees, belly up, trembling (especially in the mornings, when the factory was chilled and damp). Over 6 sessions, I completed a tattoo on the right side of his ribcage, content unknown to everyone but me. During each tattoo, a stream of honey poured over Ryan’s face, into his mouth, ear, and nostrils, sometimes choking him, causing him to gag and writhe. His bleeding arm would clutch and stain my thigh during the process. At the end, I would decorate his face in gold leaf and pussy willow buds, then rise, undress, and leave the stage.
I am an untrained performer. I have a limited, novice education in performance art and tremendous stage fright. But I am compelled by a brief feeling of freedom I experience in the throes of performance. For me, this is a kind of freedom derived from the hungry and inescapable energy of a crowd. Historically, I have created performance works that involve a significant amount of physical discomfort, or some display of strength and stamina, to distract me from my apprehension. This is the first role in which those elements have been absent. Of course, my task involved emotional endurance and conscious effort to proceed while a person I care for suffered at my lap. This moral compromise, for me, was thoroughly premeditated and acceptable- no, necessary, for Ryan and I to get nearer to understanding the concepts we had been exploring; for us to begin to name our actions; to respect the collaborators, the audience, and the sanctity of each passing ritual. It became obvious, as each of the six sessions passed, how crucial it was that they were all completed.
Photo: Ethan Folk
On my way from the airport, my first day in Vienna, my driver told me the city is built like a snail, with districts spiraling from its center. The streets in our neighborhood were littered with smoky, dark cafes and Turkish markets. I’d be staying at Mo.ë, a contemporary art space converted from an old warehouse, with a small residency area in the upstairs unit.
Each morning at 3:30am, we’d get coffee at Liman, a big cafe and kebab near Mo.ë, and wait for a van to take us to the factory in Traiskirchen for the dawn performance. We would return to Liman around 8am, for Turkish breakfast: a pool of honey with a pat of butter floating on top, sliced cucumber and tomato, a pile of olives, cheeses and hummus. The table got sliced loaves of white bread to sop it all up. Coffee with milk and a pack of Parisienne Milds. One ritual to come down from another.
Vienna is profoundly Catholic; everything is closed on Sundays, even grocery stores. And perhaps it is the pervasiveness of Catholicism that inadvertently encourages Vienna’s debaucherous and gritty underbelly of legal prostitution and unrestrained indulgence of cigarettes and libation. The moral makeup of a society is not hierarchical but circular. Good and Evil are a pendulum, a mirror; they require each other to survive; to be named. They are, at best, units of measure, creating sprawls of grey area for the rest of us to operate within. Perhaps Vienna’s perceived familiarity with this duality makes her a natural host for the work of Saint Genet; certainly for our recent performance.
There is a moment during a performance when failure clings to the air around you. It is stiff, unsympathetic and evident to everyone in the room. In my experience, it is in these moments when fear is replaced by a total, immovable obligation. Not an obligation to succeed, per se; success is uninteresting and unimportant, but an obligation to rise to the occasion, to be as present as possible, to turn inside out. Failure or success, you do it with your whole heart.
My principal role in this performance (born out of a shared desire between Ryan and myself) was to come up with the content and location of this tattoo without any input or direction from Ryan. It was to remain an uncertainty until the end of the final day.
This wasn’t the first time I engaged in a performance involving an unknown tattoo.
In April of 2013, my forearm was tattooed by my then girlfriend and collaborator, Taylor Pinton, while I simultaneously shouldered the weight of a large wall that leaned precariously over her body. The imagery of the tattoo was determined by Taylor in advance, and was not seen by me until the performance concluded.
Somewhere in the midst of the 72 hours of An Exemplary Case of Love without Respite, I thought about Taylor. Specifically, the look on her face after we exited our performance space, and before I looked down at the new tattoo on my forearm. Tears were welling in her eyes and she trembled anxiously over my imminent reaction to the new mark on my body; the mark she’d determined for me. My new tattoo read, darling if you want me to, a Prince lyric and a prophetic notion that has been slowly unfurling its significance ever since.
I loved it immediately.
When I remembered that look on her face, I recognized my immediate future. I knew that at the end of these 72 hours, I would stand in a bathroom with Ryan, waiting for him look at the new mark on his ribs. It felt right, felt fated, to know that I would have to experience this place of immense vulnerability that I had asked Taylor to occupy two years ago.
That relationship died abruptly and sometimes I feel that its carcass still lingers; acrid, rotten, never picked apart or swallowed up by the earth. Its bones never dried out and bleached into some tidy keepsake of the past. So when I have little revelations about that relationship, they feel particularly affecting. They bring me a little closer to resolve.
Photos: Courtney Howell
Ryan’s new tattoo reads, “LOVE ME OR KILL ME, BROTHER”, a line from the 17th century play ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford. The play is centered on the incestuous and passionate relationship between a brother and sister. There is a scene in the play, when Giovanni (the brother) confesses his love and desire to his sister, Annabella, with the expectation that she will reject the indecency of his admission. She, instead, kneels before him and says, “Love me or kill me, brother”, to which he replies with great potency, “Love me or kill me, sister”. With this vow, they seal their fate. They proceed to love one another shamelessly, and without regard to the contempt in which they are held by society. And this passion brings them to a hasty and gruesome death. Near the end of the play, Annabella is faced with her executioner, and instead of pleading for her life, she sings defiantly of a love worth dying for; of her passion for her brother. In his book, The Theatre and its Double, Antonin Artaud refers to this moment as “an exemplary case of love without respite”.
Photos: Ethan Folk, MKNZ
I am writing from Reykjavik, Iceland – my final stop before heading back home to Seattle.
I am here to visit my best friend, Morgan, who moved here a year ago to make a home with her husband (and newly dear friend of mine), Sindri. They have graciously taken me in and shown me kindness in my exhausted state.
The air here is cold and sulfuric. The wind beats my face red, but I am serene. This landscape begs me to surrender and I oblige. The color of the country is muted, with mountains jutting out of fields like raw onyx. There are vast plains of craggy, black, volcanic matter, made still by the cold, and preserved in a lacquer of snow. The architecture of Reykjavik is modest and built to endure; homes made of concrete and painted aluminum roofs. Window sills decorated with sun bathing cats and porcelain tchotchkes. I’ve been eating smoked salmon every morning and making big, starchy dinners: spaghetti and marinara, white bean and kale soup, potatoes and sauerkraut.
Trying to come back to myself.
Morgan reflects onto me everything tender and capable about my nature and I try to absorb what I can of these affirmations while I’m here.
After all this exploration of grief and sorrow, and harrowing persistence of love through trials of transgression, I am left with an intermittent feeling of unfamiliarity.
But I am humbled by this new territory of vulnerability that I charted with my collaborators in Vienna. I am heavy with gratitude for all of it.