Shop Talk: Hanna and Palovick, the evolution of a performance

Photo courtesy the artists.

Last month I caught up with Rebecca Hanna and Erin Palovick to chat about their performance at FLUX 2010 titled On Closeness; and the Inexhaustibility of the Subject. Although the piece left a lasting impression on me, mostly due to the raw, foreboding atmospherics of the warehouse space the two collaborators claimed as their project site, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was aware of only part of their story. The artists kindly agreed to a longer interview.

Palovick began by retelling their journey from being complete strangers, to becoming creative partners and submitting a proposal, to sharing a bathtub and other experiments in intimacy, to considering safeguards against hypothermia and other performance-day calamities. Of course, all artists create similar narratives describing “the making of” a new show, including all the usual melodrama of risks taken and disasters averted along the way. The difference is that, according to Hanna and Palovick, understanding the process leading up to the performance is important to the overall meaning of the work.

At this point in the conversation, the skeptic in me was both intrigued and unsatisfied. Can we as an audience validate Hanna and Palovick’s statement? If so, how would our criteria apply in another situation where, for instance, a lazy sculptor covers up the ugliness of his exhibition by calling it a performance, pointing to the process of creating the sculptures as the real art?

Despite my initial skepticism, however, I couldn’t help but admire their courage in attempting a such a public work. Neither artist knew the other before this summer, and, although they both studied painting in college, neither has any formal training in performance.

This interview is a continuation of Shop Talk, a series of career-oriented profiles I started in 2009 in response to the economic downturn. (It originally ran under the double title, “Fighting the Recession: Shop Talk.”) My previous interviews focused on experienced professionals who might have advice for someone just starting out. Consider the following a snapshot taken from the opposite perspective: two artists beginning to discover their own way.

Photo courtesy the artists.

BURNAWAY: Where are you from?

Rebecca Hanna and Erin Palovick: Erin was born in Chicago, but she has lived in Atlanta for the past ten years and is starting to consider it home. Rebecca was born and raised in Atlanta, and she always comes back, no matter where she goes.

Can you expand on the title you chose: On Closeness; and the Inexhaustibility of the Subject?

Closeness is something most of us work tirelessly to achieve. Our exploration of the word/concept seemed to have no end and exist as an inexhaustible cycle. Despite the fact that it is a fleeting emotion, when we do feel it, it’s edifying. And this is a powerful feeling that we were very interested in exploring.

Why did you pick this location? What were some specific features of the building on Nelson Street that attracted you?

It seemed like a very natural choice for us. It is such an incredibly beautiful building, but it’s at a level of disrepair that supports a lonely feeling that we really felt was essential to the piece. That particular building has lived so many lives. It’s been used for baking supply, tractor supply, and upholstery supply, to name a few [ways it has been used]. We made it a priority [during the] pre-performance [stage] to inhabit the building and infuse some life-energy back into the space. We wanted the space to actually become ours for that period of time.

What were the objects that you used to occupy the space? Why the bath tub? Why salt? What is the significance of water?

The performance was centered around a bath tub and a sofa. These were our personal spaces within the larger shared space. Originally we only had the tub, but we realized that we each needed our own spaces to exist as completely separate individuals. Salt has a long history of use in purification rituals in various spiritual practices. It is frequently used, as an element of protection, to ward off negative energy. The water inside the tub is acting as a conductor of our energy; it facilitates the transfer of emotion, and it’s elemental. We wanted to be very grounded and connected to the elements. Water is second only to oxygen in being our body’s most crucial resource. Water makes up almost half of our blood; it’s the source of all life.

Photo courtesy the artists.

Why didn’t you practice? Is it naïve for visual artists who have no performance training to take on performance projects? Is it fair to members of the theater community who may have different avenues of training and/or standards of success?

We were concerned that, [if we were] too rigid [in our] planning, there would be less room for presence in the moment and honest expression. Though we didn’t practice in the common sense of the word, we planned intensely and considered everything. We must have done mental run-throughs a hundred times! That being said, it is very important to us to actually be in a moment and not simply act out presupposed actions and reactions. Regarding naivety, it seems to us that not having done something already is not a good enough reason to not even try, especially if stepping outside one’s comfort zone is what your concept requires or deserves.

You seem to draw a lot of value from what you personally experienced and learned during the process of creating this work. What would you say to an audience member who saw the work, stayed and listened, but did not appreciate it? In what way have you privileged process over product?

All of the complexities and conflicts that present themselves during the planning and the subsequent resolutions are what make the piece even possible. We did not intentionally privilege process or product. We began with the goal of presenting a performance on the subject of closeness with all the triumphs and complications that entails. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the subject matter … was maybe a strange thing for two people that had just met to undertake. And it became increasingly apparent that our personal and working relationships were becoming somewhat symbiotic. So all the work … to build this performance, as well as the very real trust between us personally, culminated in the actual performance.

Photo courtesy the artists.

Were you concerned about hypothermia? How was vulnerability part of your aesthetic?

We knew going into the performance that the combination of water, cold air, and the handling of rock salt over a long period of time could lead to a certain level of physical discomfort. We were prepared for worst-case scenarios, but that physical discomfort, and the vulnerability it created, was a crucial element to the progression of the piece. Essentially, we set ourselves up to navigate through physical and mental struggles because we wanted there to be room for unpredictability.

Were there moments when one partner crossed the boundaries of the other, or when you were surprised by the boundaries set by the other?

Boundaries, [and] the constructing and crossing of [boundaries], were an integral part of our concept. We were both unafraid of, and in some ways welcomed, conflict, because we believe it to be crucial to the ongoing growth of our work together.

Within the performance, Rebecca had the task of filling the performance space’s ground with rock salt. This was her sole responsibility and stood as a metaphor for each of our individual endeavors within relationships. At the half-way mark, she realized she would have nowhere near enough salt to fill the space. Once Erin realized that Rebecca was experiencing this unexpected obstacle, she was quick to step outside of her previously defined role and help to solve the problem. In a performance that was marked by highly defined literal and figurative boundaries, this was an instance where an unplanned crossing of those boundaries served a greater good.

What did you learn and/or experience about your relationship as performers to the audience who experienced your space? What were reactions that interested you or surprised you?

We both ended up feeling the presence of the audience much more than we’d anticipated. Initially, we wanted the audience to fill a voyeuristic role, but they actually ended up being hugely influential. The general vibe that night, and certainly with our audience, was very warm and open. At least, that’s how we perceived them to be. The exception was one heavily booted gentleman who seemed particularly offended by the presence of a very literal boundary (a flour perimeter that was constructed around the space in the beginning of the performance). However, that’s what makes performance so unique and interesting. Any member of the audience may choose to attempt to affect the performance at any time. Hopefully, there’s a level of trust between performer and audience to allow for a genuine experience.

Where to next?

We met only last June, so both our personal and working relationships are fairly new. The trust we gained from this experience is something the two of us are amazed by. Our plan is to continue similar dialogues with one another and grow with each upcoming project. Our subject matter allows for infinite exploration, and we are eager to submerge ourselves. Our next performance will take place in Venice, Italy, over the last days of December and first days of January. The performance will be a continued exploration of closeness, though with a more finely focused emphasis on communication.

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