A devil’s handshake is a move in jiujitsu where an opponent is presented with an amicable gesture that turns deadly. On the night of Saturday, November 12, 2011, the Love Like collective gathered at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center to present Love Like a Devil’s Handshake, an evening of performances by Kirstin Pilar Mitchell, also known as Kiki Blood, and the Back Pockets, as well as installations by Blood, curator Jonathan Bouknight, and Brian Hitselberger. The devil’s handshake theme was chosen because these artists aimed to “alternately seize, seduce, disarm, and disorient [the] viewer, operating under the aesthetic premise of a handshake.”
The performances took place in the courtyard of the ACAC, while the installations were presented in Studio 3. I wasn’t quite prepared for how like a cocktail party this event was going to be, and found myself floating through the space alone, overhearing conversations. In some ways, the art felt like an accessory to the social energy.
Bouknight, Studio 3’s usual occupant, had several video installations on display, one of which, A Soft Weapon & 10 Easy Steps, was projected in a brick courtyard adjacent to the studio. The 10-minute film concentrates on two subjects, a man applying a brownish substance to his face like makeup, and a woman in extremely long, garish red acrylic nails clipping her hair back and fumbling with a chocolate gun. It took a couple of cycles through the video to realize the substance on display here was chocolate, which, in the 10 eponymous steps, is sponged on as a syrup, brushed as a powder, squeezed from a pastry bag, rubbed on like a crayon, and dabbed on with fingers, leaving the subject’s face coated in chocolate. The longer the woman handled the gun, the more it melted in her hands; the viewer can imagine the texture as she awkwardly scrapes the chocolate from her fake nails. On the opposite wall, almost hidden by the door, was a second film, 10 Easy Steps (Removal), in which the man cleans his face. On display in Studio 3 under a glass cake dome were the nails.
Mitchell’s work, Contestant #12, actually comprised two separate performances, one in 1996, and the one at 8 PM that night. As a senior at Jacksonville State University, Mitchell competed in a scholarship pageant against other female students. Throughout Blood’s performance, footage of the pageant, edited to sync up with Blood in the present, was projected on a screen. The score set the mood before Blood entered, with what I have described in my notes as “shitty, whiny 80s pop.” Further investigation revealed this to be By the Time This Night Is Over, a 1993 track by Peabo Bryson and Kenny G, which explains a lot. This was ridiculously effective. Blood stood behind the audience looking strident as the video gave all the exposition, introducing the contestants. When 23-year-old Mitchell was introduced, she said she was majoring in art. In the present, Blood stepped up to the mic and added, “performance art.”
The performance varied from a close mirroring of the original pageant to moments when Blood’s actions diverged. For example, to mimic a physical fitness portion of the competition, Blood dressed in black lingerie and vamped to taped cues such as “strut,” which became increasingly sexual, ending with Blood lying on the ground, spreading her legs in the air. For the talent portion in 1996, Mitchell performed a modern dance to a Sarah McLachlan song. In 2011, the video slowed down to a crawl as Blood shed her clothes and climbed under a pile of white fabric. She imitated some of the original choreography, but eventually got up to walk, wraith-like, down the aisle through the audience. In front of the projection, her makeshift cloak shifted in the wind, light catching in its movements, fixing the performance in the moment. A voice over announced that beauty is like a shroud.
This was one of the most entertaining pieces of performance art I’ve ever seen. I can qualify that with the fact that it had a narrative: Is she going to win? I don’t know Mitchell personally, so I wondered throughout the performance how what I was seeing was going to change depending on the outcome—or was there even going to be an outcome? It’s interesting to consider how someone who knew about Mitchell’s scholarship-pageant participation would view Contestant #12.
In the end, Mitchell was champion. But before crowning herself, Blood stepped up to the mic and said, “I’m thinking about whether I deserve this title.” Which begs the question, who deserves to win a beauty pageant like this? Blood never paused to answer. She ended the evening with a wide, manufactured smile on her face, bearing a bouquet of flowers and a sash, and wearing the beaded aqua gown that Mitchell wore in 1996. The performance closed with the 1985 song Boy by Book of Love, which chimes, “I want to be where the boys are / but I’m not allowed.”
Blood also had an installation in Studio 3, Best Interview, Miss Jacksonville State University, 1996; Mitchell’s undergraduate diploma was displayed nearby. In the video, when asked why she wanted to be an artist, Mitchell responded, “Follow through, that’s my platform.” She also claimed that her plan after college was to pursue a master’s in graphic design, because, “I love to paint, but I want to make money.” I found myself wondering if Blood would feel the same way today. There was a moment in Studio 3 after the performance when the artist walked into the room, and briefly, I felt I should ask her. But, from overhearing, I gathered that she was talking to her mother, and didn’t want to intrude. It felt as through after watching Contestant #12, rooted in such a deeply personal moment, asking her for anything else would be missing the point.
I wonder if reliving such a specific moment in life is even healthy. How does a viewer attach significance to a collegiate memory from the life of a performance artist? Later I overheard a conversation where a woman in a gray jacket was saying that it was one of the best performance art pieces she’d ever seen. She wasn’t “onboard with every moment,” but in a single performance there’s “lots to choose from, a moment for everyone.”
Which is also the beauty in a night like Love Like a Devil’s Handshake.
For more photos of the performances from Love Like a Devil’s Handshake by Kiki Blood and the Back Pockets, as well as images of works presented by Kiki Blood, Brian Hitselberger, and Jonathan Bouknight, visit BURNAWAY‘s flickr page.