Allison Wyper set out to create a relational art piece. Granted that all art is relational, relational aesthetics, conceptualized by Nicolas Bourriaud, make what artists and viewers take for granted—the terms of their coming together—the center of the piece. In relational pieces, artists turn participants into the co-creators of their work: you may be asked to cut the artist’s dress (Ono), choose objects from a table and use them on the artist (Abramovic), cut a strip of paper and form a Moebius loop (Clark) or dance (Tolentino). As part of a context of artists and academics committed to thinking about the political moment, movement, and mobilization, Wyper developed a piece about the viewer as witness. In Witness, the eye is charged. Watching carries a responsibility. We are asked to embody our position as spectators, to take the performance contract seriously. Wyper’s piece prompts us to consider the theatrical protocols followed by the audience as a model of other social contracts where we are suddenly caught in what Diana Taylor calls “bad scripts.” The performance addresses how in our role as passive spectators of exceptional situations that have become normalized, we in fact become the very protagonists of bad scripts.
Wyper’s piece, a performance for one viewer only, plays with the two grammatical uses of the word “witness.” As a noun, “witness” characterizes the position of someone who is engaged in a scene that carries a particular sociopolitical and legal weight. As a verb, “witness” is a command. The relational aspect of Wyper’s piece involves us performing not only spectator, but also witness. Witness as a command implies that we are being choreographed, that even when in a passive position, we are part of a crafted arrangement of bodies in space (see Susan Foster’s “Choreographies of Gender”). In this piece, witnessing is our score, the corporeal script that cracks open the role of the spectator, summoning the ethical dimension of watching a controversial event. In Witness, the supposedly neutral viewer becomes a co-participant in the action.
My performance as spectator starts when I arrive at the performance space (Glorya Kaufman Hall at UCLA) on Saturday, April 16 at 3.15 pm, the time slot for which I had signed up by email in advance. The performance will take place in a sort of corridor that is peripheral to one of the main rooms located in Kaufman. Before I can access that space, I am welcomed by a hostess who, dressed in a formal women’s suit, asks me to take off my shoes and “whatever may get in the way of the performance” out of my pockets. Place it in this box. Sign a release form. I will be taped. I am asked to release rights related to my being on camera, recorded, only for the artist’s use. I sign.
Next, the hostess asks me to record my name in a tape recorder she holds. I am asked to identify myself. Marcela Alejandra Fuentes. Then the hostess reads a text to the tape recorder, a text that frames the terms of my presence in the performance space: The artists have committed … (memory blurred). UCLA asked them to change their performance for my safety. I will not leave. I have to say yes. I do. I have signed and declared; now I am cleared to enter. The hostess accompanies me to the space in which I am invited to be the witness.
Inside, I am told to wait before I can go through a curtain leading to the space where the performance is already in progress. My first encounter with Witness is aural: an incidental soundtrack is the backdrop to instructions voiced by a woman (she is presented in the performance written materials as “the choreographer”). Another female voice repeats a text that includes the words “body,” “mine,” “yours,” and “only.” [“… your body has become not yours/ only nor left my body mine only…” Walt Whitman “To a Stranger”]. After a brief moment, the host indicates that I enter the performance space behind the curtain and take a seat. Now, I see a woman in an orange jump suit, a sign connecting the performance with the controversial operations carried out at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.
The woman is blindfolded, barefoot, and wears black gloves. She moves across the lower level of the narrow performance space. In close proximity to my chair, and to my right there is another woman wearing a sexy dress suit and shiny red high heel shoes. Her face is marked by ink. She utters the instructions to be followed by the performer. “OFF THE WALL!” / “ON YOUR KNEES!” The proximity between me and her makes looking at her, the choreographer, a conscious decision.
In the next minutes, the performer in the orange jump suit will give me her black gloves; she will also ask me to slip my hands into the knot of a thick rope. The choreographer will wrap the rope around me. The performer, still blindfolded, will take my hair away from my ear and whisper the phrase she was repeating when I entered the space. Breaking the sentence in fragments she will ask me to repeat. “Your,” “my,” “mine,” “body” are transferred. Hers is now mine, like in the accounts of those who typed the testimonies of people who had been tortured. The choreographer will set another type of transfer: with the same recorder in which I recorded my name before entering this space, she will capture my voice while I utter the sentence: your body has become not yours/ only nor left my body mine only. The choreographer captures my body. Although I am at this point tied, the recording is perhaps more unsettling an action than being tied. I am leaving a trace, entering an archive. I become paranoid but the terms are set: I follow every directive I receive, out of pure performance convention. As in the Milgram experiment, I trust the system, I respond as expected.
Still tied to my chair, I observe another transfer, this time, between the victim and the victimizer who shift roles. This happens when the performer in the jump suit unfolds the cloth that blinded her and passes it on to the choreographer. The performer then strips the choreographer, now victim, out of her clothes down to her underwear. The performer will later display the victimizer’s clothes arranging them on a chain link door in the far end of the performance space. The performer now stands in front of me, looks at me in the eye and takes off her orange suit. She lays it down on the floor to smooth it out and, holding it in her arms as if she was carrying a dead body, she hands it down to me. I receive it, and in my arms it will remain.
I activate the orange suit later, when I am asked to respond to the prompt “what do you want to do now?” I hesitate. I look around. What elements of this “now” can I rely on to craft my response? What props do I want to use to convey my personal take on the ethical questions raised by the performance, to craft my response to the randomness of these acts of subjection carried in the name of law, performance laws. “You have three minutes.” Choreography involves a management of time and in this case it summons a concrete action. The choreographer refines the prompt: I am asked to perform a “gesture” (this is the word she employs) in response to what I witnessed. I grab the orange suit and place it alongside the victimizer’s suit on the latticed door. There is not much space on the door, but I choose not to juxtapose both characters. For me this choice, displaying the empty suit, disembodying the roles of victim and victimizer, means relegating this history, victim and victimizer, to the museum, making it past, ending the circle of violence. I am a witness who, at the moment in which I am asked to act, chooses to embrace another institution, one in which “to look” is to observe things past, in pedagogical fashion. (Now I am thinking, what if museum goers were positioned as witnesses of the histories of violence conveyed many times by relics and artifacts? “The Witness Museum”.)
After I complete my gesture, the choreographer and performer, now in a somewhat equal position of power, ask me to join them in a circle. The performer asks me to sign my name on the choreographer’s body. I write my name. The choreographer plays the tape recorder. I hear my voice. Marcela Alejandra Fuentes: The name I sign on the choreographer’s body, the name I recorded at the beginning of this process. The tape continues. My voice: “your body has become not yours/ only nor left my body mine only.” These are the traces of my presence. They mark the memory of my performance. I am the witness, witnessing my compliance.
Now I can leave, says the choreographer.
I feel thrown outside. No threshold to smooth my transition into the hallway where I am met by the hostess. She hands me a questionnaire for me to evaluate my performance. The questionnaire can be read as the score of the performance. It lists the actions that I was asked to take part in before and during the performance: “I relinquished my shoes and other personal items as requested by hostess.” I check “yes” on the sheet. “I consented to be tied to the chair.” Yes. “I took the gloves.” Yes. And so on.
The questionnaire is categorical. It is a gesture, not a statement. It effectively anchors the performance without providing a dogmatic message about social responsibility. It states facts, the crafted steps of my choreography. And this is a record for me to keep. It is a testament to the instances in which I complied, a proxy of the unwritten fact sheet, the performance that turns compliant spectators into accountable witnesses.
Photo credits: Allison Wyper.
Diana Taylor, “Trapped in Bad Scripts: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.” In Disappearing acts: spectacles of gender and nationalism in Argentina’s “dirty war.” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.
Julie Tolentino, “A True Story About Two People.” 2005.
Lygia Clark, “Caminhando.” 1963.
Marina Abramovic, “Rhythm 0.” 1974.
Susan Leigh Foster, “Choreographies of Gender,” Signs, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 1-33.
Yoko Ono, “Cut piece.” 1965.
Previous version of Witness MFA2 UNCOVERED at UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Dance Theatre.
Witness at 3 x 2 x 3 #1, live works curated by Dino Dinco, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), April 21, 2011. Review by Carol Cheh. Another Righteous Transfer!