Report from Lumen for Whitehot Magazine
Staten Island, NY, June 15th
With xeroxed maps and plastic cups of sangria, crowds entered Lumen—an annual performance, installation and video art festival that took place on June 15th. This year’s iteration was held at Staten Island’s Lyons Pool—a public swimming destination that was drained specifically for this alternative evening. It’s difficult to dislike any event that repurposes public space for the sake of art, and Lyons Pool offered a satisfyingly odd setting in this respect. The pool’s aqua-colored floor, adorned with crisply painted lane lines, created a kind of sunken performance-nest that functioned as both stage and seating. Scheduled during an inclement few weeks in New York City, in the end, Lumen fell on a bright day that turned into a clear night. Performances began before sundown.
Allison Brainard’s Untitled (Beach Barbie) (2013) was an early attraction in a far corner of the pool, where Brainard and four bikini-clad collaborators moved, talked and behaved like beach Barbies—animating and heightening a sense of female objectification. Their actions were comical. Attracting art viewers and girl-ogglers alike, the young women posed stiffly and smiled incessantly. Sometimes they would wave at the crowd like beauty queens while holding crazed and candied faraway grins. Brainard’s Barbies then mashed bananas into their faces and spilled water as their ‘plastic’ arms brought bottles to their mouths in disjointed motions. Brainard, whose own identity was not pronounced within the group, explained, “The piece comes from a practice of structured improvisation work, riding the line of dance and performance art, maybe ‘post-dance.’”
A little later, clumsily swimming laps on the pool’s concrete floor, Alien Moon Partnership (a performer who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) dragged and slumped their body from one end of Lyons Pool to the other for two hours. The performer, wearing a wig, high heels and soaped-up plastic under a women’s swimsuit belabored the task—dramatizing the discomfort they faced in childhood and adolescence during sporting events. Alien Moon Partnership explained, “In Swim Team Tryouts I revisit this past to reclaim the terms of swim competition at the bottom of the empty pool. During the performance audience members chose sides both heckling and cheering me on.”
Alien Moon Partnership’s Swim Team Tryouts was especially effective alongside Brainard’s Untitled (Beach Barbie). The comedic discomfort and acute sense of pressurized (or neutralized) gender presentation in the two performances was unique to the festival. Subsequent acts at Lumen shifted the focus—to sound, light or experiential uses of the emptied pool. Like Brainard, performance artist Miao Jiaxin also expanded his performance to include collaborators, broadening a larger socio-political issue. In Clock, Jiaxin and two other men created a regime for themselves inside a circular clock formation wherein they ritualized daily needs of oppressed working-class laborers. The clock’s audible ticking intensified the scene and was interrupted sporadically by music which played at certain times like an alarm.
Jiaxin later defined his performance as a rumination on “mundaneness, tediousness, numbness and how working class people are trapped in a system of capitalism.” The men, sometimes stacked on top of each other, used their bodies to act as the clock’s arms, slowly shifting as time constrained and repeated the performers’ tasks. An open suitcase containing thousands of bundled $1 bills lay on Jiaxin’s clock. The money represented just one of Jiaxin workers’ needs. Other needs, which would be ritually consumed at designated moments of activity, included food, magazine pornography, family photos and bottled water. While Jiaxin was performing, night fell on Lyons Pool and in the dark the scene took on a different, less literal intensity. Throngs of visitors crowded around them.
While Jiaxin's performative endeavors were grounded in a sobering sense of oppression, Lumen had plenty of work that seemed made explicitly for the festival. Elana Katz’s performance Clear Soap was a crowd favorite. Wearing a white dress created for the performance by Emporio dei Giovani, Katz sat in an old fashioned bathtub filled with soapy water and inwardly played with the bubbles for hours.
Durational performances like Katz’s tended to be so repetitive in their structure that most any Lumen viewer would witness the same actions. Other performances offered a wider variety of surprises. In the rotunda and locker room of Lyon’s Pool, vocalists and instrumentalists played with acoustics. In Locker Room Duet, singer and performer Gelsey Bell collaborated with fiddler Cleek Schrey in a performance that utilized dressing stalls of the locker room as listening booths. Bell’s powerful and expressive voice interrogated with Schrey’s fiddling while viewers sat in the stalls. Each stall constrained listeners’ views to only the other spectators facing them. “My hope was that that experience would translate into a deeper examination of the relationship between two people—with all the searching, straining, hiding, desiring, coming together and moving apart,” Bell explained of her performance.
Because Lumen’s performances are widely diverse and not joined thematically by any one characteristic, it’s hard to say what defines this particular festival. For every one performance like Clock or Locker Room Duet, there were three more that lacked the same integrity or purpose. This erratic level of quality is merely the nature of any summer arts festival and the lesser pieces are truly not worth unraveling here. Still, each viewer must deal with the barrage of content at Lumen. This year, gender-focused satire, sobering socio-political work and acoustic musings colored the evening’s most luminous moments. In planning a return to Staten Island next year, it’s tempting to wonder how, if at all, this particular festival can cut through the water and seize a clearer identity, which could then serve to situate and elevate its best moments.
Matthew Farina is a critic and painter in New York. His visual work can be seen at matthewfarina.com.view all articles from this author