Body Maps: 8-Week *Free* Performance Series for Chronic Illness Communities Launches in Philadelphia
This month I interviewed artist Anne Weshinskey, whose genre-crossing work offers creative resistance to commercial expectation. While her training roots, and foot juggling as an art form, are a product of finely-tuned tradition, her approach to an independent body of work has more to do with contemporary art and concept. Here we talk about “circus” as an expectation, invisible labor, the inevitable state of entropy, and how punk rock attitudes can save US circus.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
So what does your creative practice look like currently? As in, this week?
For the past couple of months, I’ve been focusing on commercial work. It’s something I have to do, create something digestible. Something that looks cool, but has nothing behind it. People only want to see the tricks. Things that look pretty, or nice. I’ve been struggling with that… it’s like it was too easy, and that made it difficult. I kept thinking I’m missing something. I’ve also been fantasizing about making it more practical, something that packs up easily, so that it’s ready to go and I don’t have to think about it anymore. While I’m doing this, I’m also getting other ideas for work I want to make, writing them down, and moving on. Hoping that I’ll remember what I was thinking about when I return to that type of practice.
What do you think about these “limitations” that come with commercial work. Do you see commercial work purely “aesthetic”? Is this because we’re not giving audiences credit for being able to digest more challenging or nuanced work?
I go back and forth about this. I’m interested in doing more experimentation, guerilla theatre, where you show up with what you have, and don’t say anything about it. This is different from creating an act to get paid for, where there’s an expectation with who’s hiring you. They know what they want. The prospect of money limits you in what you think you can express. That said, even when creating work like this, I have to have a backstory there. I worry a lot about cohesiveness of presentation. People don’t necessarily have the vocabulary of the cultural references I’m pulling from, but I still stick with it because it’s important to me. Ultimately the audience wants to see tricks. The umbrellas are the hardest, most finicky things, they spend so much time to master, but no one cares about that. They only care about me balancing the coat rack, the carpets. It’s like the visual equivalent of muzak. It moves fast (5 minutes is not long), it’s an impressionistic view of things, so much of the thought behind it doesn’t come across.
Do you think it’s possible that there’s more that’s interpreted, but just lost in translation? That the viewer is actually receiving more, but their vocabulary to describe art is simply limited?
People are finding that lack of meaning, the difficulty of expressing yourself with circus, this limit. It’s always in the back of my mind. The commercial work is a good exercise to contrast with more experimental work. When I’m making commercial work, I feel like I’m not able to step back from the worry about not being able to express myself and go, “does it look cool?”. At the same time, when I’m doing something experimental, I worry that I’m not getting it across. Props and things hinder me from what I’m trying to say or project. I think it’s because of the umbrellas.
So what is your relationship to impossible tasks? There is almost a fatalist, or Sisyphean struggle there...an umbrella is always going to be an umbrella.
Obviously this is something that’s compelling to me in some way, there’s always some sort of unfinished business in every aspect of art. The whole point of making the commercial act is to have a contained unit and not having to think about it anymore… but once it’s made, I keep tweaking, undoing it, changing the costume, so it’s never finished, there’s not just a bag I can grab and go. The props themselves are always in need of repair.
For my act I needed a new coat rack made, so I found an awesome woman who has a welding school in Frederick. Now I’m going to be taking a class in Frederick and learning to make it myself. It adds layers of labor onto things. I try to make low effort art, but it doesn’t really work like that. I had an old collaborative partner from Turkey who had this problem too, where any work we make is so labor intensive, we were complaining about it. Obviously we must get something out if it, the process slows us down to the point where we’re able to get to what we’re going for, and labor is part of the investigation. Maybe it’s just our Midwestern protestant upbringing and work ethic. My husband (sculptor Arni Gundmundsson) is the king of low effort art. He can conceptualize something and execute it with almost no work, and always gets to the point. When we work together, collaboration evens it out. We meet in the middle.
You performed the first iteration of a piece called “Umbrella Trauma”, a piece that features you carrying heavy buckets of rocks to exhaustion, and foot juggling with paint on your feet. Where does this sit in the realm of Sisyphean tasks?
The point of that performance is definitely Sisyphean, literally carrying buckets of heavy rocks until I couldn't carry them. It’s about labor, efforting, and over-efforting. It’s not an “act”, but more like task based performance, the kind of thing where every time you do it is an attempt to uncover why you’re doing it. It wasn’t fully realized the first time, so I plan to perform it again. I wanted to see the image of whiteness on the umbrella, with splashes of color, traces of where my feet hit in repetitive motion. Not repetition in a meditative way, repetition in an annoying way. It’s about labor and the amount of time spent in repetitive motion. Like I’ve spent 10 years of practicing something to show nothing. There was pain and suffering put forth to get to that point.
So it seems that the metaphor speaks to invisible labor more broadly, as well as entropy and repair, not just in circus, but in life. What are some of the more social issues that you deal with in your work? And where does this sit with some of our models for capital “A” performance art, which there are very few of...people like Marina Abromovic?
I deal a lot with volume and excess, which has to do with repair and entropy for me as someone who has to buy these umbrellas. I have to try to learn how to make them. They’re hard to get, I literally have to go to China to get them. I am not rich, like Marina, so I have to think about the fact that I have real things that are dear, irreplaceable. I want to somehow address issues of limited quantity, of objects that are difficult to make, artisanal things. There’s this perception that if you get things made in China, then they’re cheap. There’s some sort of unlimited supply. But in reality, the construction of these umbrellas is a dying art form. There’s like four families that make them and they’re very hard to get. And now with trade wars and tariffs, things change. I’m not going to do an expose about this, but I’m interested in people’s ideas of what Chinese production means. Slave labor factories, but also fine craftsmanship that is worth something.
So you pick up these topics out of your natural instincts and process. What do you think people need circus to be in a holistic sense?
In the US, it’s a physical display of prowess. It’s expertise that is presented as a show. It’s pretty much the same as sports, but with music, like figure skating or gymnastics. People are waiting for you to do the tricks.
And why is that? Is it an issue of producers not taking risks or giving their audiences credit to digest more sophisticated work? Other structural issues?
Structural issues. Not putting value on what’s artistic. Lack of educational outreach. Most arts organizations here stop at educating people, but they don’t do that in other places, like Europe. There are problems with the whole structure of our education system. People are not exposed to art that’s not commodified. “Circus” is commodified because it’s entertainment.
So what is the opportunity we have here as American artists?
Forget about funding for it. It limits what we can do. To do it our own way, we have to jump it on people.
Haha, that sounds almost violent, or confrontational.
My background was like this, it’s a conscious approach, this guerilla style of performance. My and my friends almost got kicked out of school for it when we were young. It’s disappointing that after so many years, there’s no recognition, you can’t get grants, or real traction. At the same time, it doesn’t make me want to stop doing it. I see this attitude from a lot of “young artists” that they are waiting for the money, but if you do that, you’ll hold your breath forever. Maybe it’s the generation I’m from, times have changed. With social media, etc there’s so much volume of art, but very little is interesting. Perhaps the idea that “good art rises” is not necessarily the case anymore? When I look at art that’s being collected, there’s nothing in it that you can object to. You wouldn’t say, “I’m so offended that someone painted this”. But people object to experimental circus. People get hostile about it. I’m interested in why they’re mad, how could they object to it?
I think as artists we take on any kind of negative projection that society doesn’t want to face. We take on the collective shadow. Perhaps we even trigger insecurity in people who don’t feel they understand the work. Does this feel true?
I think people go to gallery nights to see something they haven’t seen, but I hardly see this anymore. I think that when people view art that challenges them, if they can’t “understand” it or don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, then they might feel insecure. Artists themselves say there’s nothing to “get”, whatever you get out of it is fine. If you’re looking at a sculpture, you don’t have to “know”. Maybe the viewer who’s looking at it, it resonates or it doesn’t, but people have this idea that they’re supposed to be feeling something with performance. Then there’s this idea that experimental circus is not respecting traditional circus, but I think that’s wrong. All of my friends who are creators of experimental circus consider traditional circus as art. I think we need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to make room for all of it.
Do you think perhaps that this reflects society’s gap between intellect and intuition, and what we see as more valuable (intellect)?
The way that people create art is based on the environment they’re placed in. This is why I’m interested in incubators, catalysts, artistic communities, environments that establish there is not an expectation that your work has to look like mine. Programs that actually teach you to be artists, not to follow along with a school of art. Americans are stubborn, you’d think that would resonate.
I have a fondness for naive art and folk art because it’s intuitive. It’s people trying to connect with the greater world, with whatever materials and heart they have, and no one is really telling them there’s a failure of significance. I feel like circus in the US has that potential, but it’s going the wrong way. Since we don’t have money for the arts, or heavily established teaching structures, the art form can go anywhere. Anybody’s individual interpretation should be celebrated. Being experimental is a good position. Instead, people don’t want to fuck shit up. They are worried about the money. In the punk era money was distasteful, and I still like that mentality. Give us money or don’t. Maybe it’s outmoded, but I would like to meet people who are thinking that way. Of course, I was of a different generation, which is one of the reasons I got into it in the first place, it was still a counter-culture thing.
With that said, I will leave our readers with “Sparkle Riot 7”, which is a fun, self-contained performance art video, conceived of as part of Landscape X (artistic interventions in the developing exurban landscape by Anne Weshinskey, Heather Teresa Clark, and Arni Gundmundsson). For me, this demonstrates your thoughtful use of site, and work that is playful, irreverent, and deeply committed to the traditions and people that are part of them.
On Anne Weshinskey: With a background in underground performance art, music, and circus, Anne has never been one to observe the limits of genre, and as a result, her activities are hyper-hybridized. From dancing onstage with rock bands, site-specific installations, sculpture, video, and touring as a professional circus performer, Anne choses her medium based on the situation and her surroundings. As co-founder and co-director of the artist initiative, Caravansarai, in Istanbul, Turkey, she instigated and executed cultural projects in collaboration with European and Middle Eastern artists, curated a group exhibition parallel with the Istanbul Biennial (2013), and participates internationally as an artist and organizer. Since returning to the United States, in addition to concentrating on her own artistic development, Anne has also founded and directs a network for avant garde circus (Risk Agitator for Circus Experimentation) and works as a librarian (MLIS, University of Texas) in the Loudoun County, VA public library system.
Michael Herch’s “IMAGES FROM A CLOSED WARD”
Performed by Flux Quartet with special guest Ah Young Hong singing works of Cage, Feldman, and Lassus. Presented by Crane Arts and the Icebox Project Space. Sunday, December 16, 2018
In the beginning, muddied abstractions of human figures, dark marks create bodies that are alive but not fully human. Etchings and lithographs of Rhode Island psychiatric inmates from the 1960's record a not too distant past, made alive through a quartet's sonic haunting. Strings and vocals narrate images, embodying the “other”. Instruments combine and pull apart with a momentum that plays to our thresholds of adrenaline and empathy.
In the images of Mazur's "Closed Ward", bars on windows and stripes on institutional clothes are a reminder of the quest for a sense of order in the individual that is somehow not created by the “outside world”. The atmosphere of the characters is stark isolation littered across crumbling, desolate walls, and even more chilling, in groups occupying disconnected worlds. Repeat phrases like, “This winter all the snowmen turn to stone” pair with rows of bare planks, grave markers for those who died presumably in institution, never finding their way out of a “rehabilitative” environment. At one point, a frame of eyes stares out at the audience, slowly enlarging, and we the viewers become watched, more aware of our spectatorship and implied responsibility. “This winter all the snowmen turn to stone”. Empty beds and rows of toothbrushes become more personal in light of the deceased. Then suddenly we are slammed with intensity, both in sound and in images of brain scans, accompanied by details like age, gender, diagnosis, and death date. This sudden specificity thrusts the viewer into comparison by broad strokes of demographic, and such common, murky categories like “undifferentiated depression”. Now, we are helpless to find lines that bar us from them, or anyone else for that matter. “Canaries beat their bars and scream”. At times white projection space and performers' breath between movements gives space for our hearts to catch up with us. Book-ending vocal works and the only color image used, that of a blossoming flower, provide for the viewer a subtle circular narrative and drop of hope. With it, a sense that while these images and emotions are dire and current, as well as horrific and historic, we can locate our agency in the ability to bear witness to a deep, resonant sadness, and to carry it with us into a brighter future.
Find more about the show at the Icebox Project Space website.
written by Sarah Muehlbauer
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Me. On my 35th birthday. After my first 10-minute cold shower. 5 weeks in.
What led me to the method was the perfect storm of frustration, hope, and information. I was heading for retreat in the Midwest, listening to podcasts on a 16 hour drive when Wim Hof on Joe Rogan caught my attention. I had previously held vague awareness of the method and played with hot and cold immersion intuitively over the last two years. During that time I battled autonomic disfunction that set in unexpectedly and was limiting my ability to participate in life (this in addition to 18 years of Crohn’s symptoms that were still nagging despite my technical remission). On the first day of breathing practice, my hands tingle and I become lightheaded, signs that are characteristic of the method as one works to grab more oxygen than is typically possessed. I had an acute release of tension in my diaphragm. It all felt good. I felt energized for the day. I felt ready to take on the cold. And this is unusual for me… because over the years I had only watched my body get more sensitive, more tired, and less adaptable. My aim in recording this process has been to track transformation, because in particular with autoimmune dysfunction, which holds great potential for improvement through the WHM, there are a lot of unknowns.
Aside from the fairly typical description above, one of the primary sensations that has come up for me during breath retention in the first 5 weeks is a nervous or hot feeling at the front wall of my pelvic floor. I have my curiosities as to whether this may be related to the surgical intervention that left a tight c-section style scar on my abdomen. I consider also that my body may have shut off feeling in some parts of this region to accommodate swelling, inflammation, and tissue trauma. Perhaps this is the return. The sensations come at the bottom of my breath retention when I near the end of my natural capacity to hold, and when my mind is training my body to be calm and survive on the oxygen it has in its bloodstream. It’s bizarre, fascinating, and continually changing. I also notice unevenness in the movement of my torso as I inhale. Whether it’s due to old rib injuries or some combination of physical and psychological misalignment that has patterned me, I recognize this as something I can work with through conscious intention and by engaging other aspects of my physical training. There is a general disconnect mid-body between the bottom of my rib cage and my lower belly and abs, which are far more supple. I bring focus to upper back mobility in extension as well as more core/pelvic floor integration. I add sprint sets to my workouts to round out my practice and keep my cardiovascular system challenged.
Cold showers have felt largely amazing, although I have had to slow the process of the online program because my body needs more time to adapt. On my second 10-minute cold shower, I was hit with exhaustion, phlegm, respiratory restriction, and a generally cranky pants attitude the day after. I had a moment like this somewhere in the 2nd week as well, and I will call these “integration days”... where my body says, “hey girl, you sit with what you’ve got before moving forward”. I recognize a similar, yet different kind of limit I’ve experienced in levels of athletic training. I chill. I repeat the previous step. I continue when my energy is on an upswing. I have now taken my 3rd 10-minute cold shower. Music helps.
Integration days have peaked my interest enough that I downloaded an app to monitor my HRV (heart rate variability). HRV provides information about the body’s ability to toggle between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by measuring differences in beats when you first wake up. There’s a more in depth post about WHM and HRV here if you want to read it. Suffice to say that I have many reasons to think that tracking my own might help me better understand recovery needs and care for my immune system as I progress through the method. I will write a follow-up once I’ve completed the coursework and share any observations I have then.
As a general overview, I am already optimistic about the results of the program. In the weeks since I started daily practice, I have watched myself gain energy regularly. I’ve had a huge decrease in anxiety and belly symptoms. On occasion I have tears, trembling, or grief processing following cold exposure, but this is how stored trauma leaves the body. The frozen tiger must be woke in order for it to leave. In general, I have a feeling as if my body is creating a natural shield. Stress stays outside it, or perhaps just on the surface, allowing me to deal with it objectively in the material world.
Footage of a polar bear's trembling response to discharge trauma.
As an autoimmune sufferer, I pay close attention to subtleties in order to be kind and safe with this method and my physicality. This cold is personal, and yet it’s not. While the effects are absolutely individual and must be treated as such, the cold and the method are clearly impersonal teachers that provide no shortcut or ability to be outwitted. They only give steely resolve and frozen reflections: of body as machine and spirit as the driver, headed to our evolutionary potential. Will we meet it, and will it in fact be more than we anticipated?
Down to find out.
a.k.a. Lion or Fox
Operation resilience: Year 3. Or 5, depending on when you start counting. All points of origin exist in relation to each other, like constellations forming a mythic referent, a navigation tool, or simply existing as points in space: hydrogen, helium, and cosmic dust. “Things That Survived The Winter” (TTSTW) is a poem, a concept, an aspiration, and an evolutionary performance collaboration.
Hope, fear, relic, and dreams. Loving people with their swords up, imagining futures based on past, present, and unformed future. Multiplicity of not just narrative, but of self.
“Prediction is the most characteristic and pervasive element in animal behavior and in human speech and thought: it is the dynamo of the feedback cycle. We make predictions literally all the time, and survive only by their accuracy. Our slightest automatic movement - reaching for a piece of food, glancing up to see what made the unexpected noise - is possible only because we can make that continual alternation of tiny predictions and corrections to converge on the target. Speech, conscious thought, our experience of making choices, all reflect the process by which the brain uses the past to predict what may be coming.” (The Search for Solutions, Horace Freeland Judson)
In stating this, Judson speaks on behalf of science while honoring predictive theory and soft edges around dreams, past ways of knowing that were right for their age, and esoteric practices that may not pass the scientific lens, but nonetheless hold great consequence for believers.
Judson goes on to observe, “Strong predictions force the growth of theories. They turn hypothesis into research programs.” In that space, we can hold great faith for the endeavors of scientists and artists. Scientists seek the concrete, the knowable, the feedback that assures our logical mind, cures diseases, frees our energy. They test their theories with microscopes and formulas and the eyes of the scientific community. Artists seek the edges of the unknown, aspects of the human psyche, the cusp of organic social movements, the aesthetics that will come to define the next era before anyone knows it has begun. We test theories on our audiences, shaping a mirror and a coded message that will emerge in relation to its resonance and resources.
TTSTW: This is our research program. What started as an architecture and a possibility of becoming, over the last several years formed a book, a structure, a soundtrack, a series of works-in-progress performances, and a test of elasticity to navigate change.
“Things That Survived The Winter: A Brief History”
In 2015, over Skype from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, I met with artist Dan Cole who introduced the work of his band Rexedog, and we began to shape “Things That Survived The Winter’s” methods and structures. At that point, my working title was the esoteric “Bi-Con-Port” [an idea about divergence and carriage that became an underlayer and a still-intended duo work]. Dan is an incredibly versatile artist, flowing between painting, printmaking, sculpture, video, and music. I admire his ability to jump in, throw ideas around, and continually be a positive presence. The music developed for the soundtrack forms TTSTW’s backbone, Rexedog’s take on a 21-part structure of core concepts from “Spring Freeze”, my artist-memoir (2013).
In 2016, I introduced the project to two aerialist friends from Madison, Wisconsin, and together we presented the first performance of concepts: Allegiant, Zombie Bodies, The Apocalypse Rewind, Oceans Ignited, and Reflections - opening for a friend’s solo tour. Ours was a primarily aerial-driven starting point, an establishment of new collaborative relationships, and a hybrid of personal and transpersonal narrative dramaturgy. I am thankful for the talented and hard-working artists Jess Brusch and Luv Joy Seamon, who were willing to dive in for the sake of artistic research. We put on a stripped-back, no fancy lights or costume, ecstatic dance into being that was a beacon and a beckon for future development.
Time and space continued. Following a move back to Philadelphia and still lacking substantial time and resources, I continued with solo aspects of the score knowing that my hypothesis, a hybrid of visual arts and performance work, needed to be “proven” both to myself and my audiences. I spent about 50 hours sewing a wearable sculpture piece that was also a performance instigator, which then got developed in the context of “Circus Sessions” creation lab as the “Infinity Labyrinth” (“yay, people", says my lonely soloist heart). I went on to build a floor piece around it called "Continuous Deforming Landscape" (an og underlayer that grew to become a primary theme) in residence at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and the videos are (here) if you’d like to find them.
I spent the last year trying for grants, and the Leeway Foundation came through with an Art and Change Grant to build the next scene, “The Wave”. Built around a tensile fabric wave form designed by Simon de Aguero, video by Dan, and to-be-defined choreo that will integrate chronic illness communities into the hybrid muggle/ professional model, you are now as up-to-date as I am on the project ;-P (sort of). In actuality, this is just the start, and I will use the Patreon platform to go deeper into each concept and to update you on the project’s future trajectory.
I leave you with the first chapter of the book (poem) about truth and solidarity in the etheric.
IN AN EFFORT TO MOVE TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY, FUTURE CONTENT WILL BE AVAILABLE ON A SUBSCRIPTION BASIS THROUGH PATREON. FOR AS LITTLE AS $1, YOU CAN HELP MAKE WORK LIKE THIS POSSIBLE, RECEIVE AN INSIDE PERSPECTIVE, AND EVEN DIRECTLY INFLUENCE PRODUCTION. I AM THANKFUL TO EVERYONE WHO HAS BEEN FOLLOWING THIS JOURNEY SO FAR. HERE IS THE LINK TO SUPPORT: LION OR FOX ON PATREON
Artist, writer, seer, circus.
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