Performance Experience - As The Air Moves Back From You
Laurel Jay Carpenter
I just completed a 2 day performance, 5 hours each day, in an expansive interdisciplinary performance installation by D Chase Angier. Standing nearly motionless, rooted to a spot, gaze-fixed, I witnessed the pile of rice diminish one day to the next. With this specific set of circumstances: standing still facing a dim corner with hypnotic video projection in the too warm gallery, I was in a distressed tug-of-war between letting go into the wooziness and snapping back to awareness so that I would not lose my balance and fall. It was as if I lost my center of gravity, as if I forgot how to stand upright, and I had to keep fighting for a way to remember. It was the rice, the single reality of the edge of the grains against the dark floor that kept me grounded. I could not bear to look away.
On an intellectual level, I suspected that the constructed environment of dim lighting and mesmerizing video would be the unknown element in sustaining the performance. Once the installation was set that week, I did stand there for an hour with Chase to become a bit familiar with it. On the other hand, I knew more of what to expect with the challenges of standing still, so my effort was on finding the right shoes to protect the stance. So I stood and felt the hard cement for that hour, and talked to Chase and others about the logistics, comfortably distracted. I let my body test the site. But I never let my mind test the site.
Almost immediately as the performance started, I became dizzy. My initial gaze was at the far edge of the rice, the corner where the video overlapped the pile. Was I experiencing motion sickness or vertigo? I felt hot and lightheaded. It felt like I could not stand up because my sense of up and down was lost. My center of gravity was lost. My legs were unexplainably weak and shaking; I was fighting to remain standing. I had to shift my weight to feel grounded, or I feared I would literally fall to the ground. I was in considerable distress, nearing panic, the first 2 hours of the performance, struggling to hold on to my position. I learned to look away from the video, to the near edge of the rice where it met the floor. This helped with the vertigo, but the video is wide and expansive and was always in my periphery. It kept pulling my focus, and in that moment, my eyes would unfocus and I would go woozy again. I had to keep snapping back to attention. It was a tug-of-war between the lure of letting go, and the desperate need to hold on. I had to train myself to unsee the video, to blot it out as much as possible. I was often hallucinating, seeing shadows and colors and slippery shapes in the rice. The rice and floor would go into negative: dark rice and pale floor. I was all turned around, but the edge of rice was my bulwark, my only security. After hours, a kind of tunnel vision set in, and I started to feel more stable. My legs felt strong again. The third hour had a kind of grace, a relief. I could stand comfortably, if I just kept my eyes on the rice. In the 4th and 5th hours, the body fatigue set in, causing a new tug-of-war. This is where I would normally surrender to the discomfort, but my mind could not soften. I still had to maintain a sharp awareness to restrain the video vertigo. It was a practice in unmatched presence; I had to accept the pain in the bottoms of my feet and cling to a real-time attention. I was repeating a mantra, “I am here; I am here” to keep myself present. There was not a moment where I could afford to let my mind wander apart from my body. Every fiber of me was struggling to persist, and the rice was my touchstone.
The part of my left foot that felt strained from the day before was feeling mostly better after a night of elevation, and I started out feeling stronger, and knowing I needed to employ techniques of visual focus right away. The video was still a strong pull, and it took time again to train my eyes to unsee it. Just the rice. Just the rice. But my legs felt strong and sure, and I noticed I was shifting much less. I was swaying organically, but the motions, external and internalized did not feel like they could overpower me. I did not feel dizzy as long as I kept my focus. I thought this would be an easy day. Whereas yesterday the soundscore served more as a timekeeper in my distress, today I was soothed by the melody. It made my focus feel porous, I felt softer in my sharp focus, my body could relax if my vision stayed fixed. Then, after only about an hour, the pain set in. The bottoms of my feet were on fire with acute cramping. I tried to subtly stretch them, one after another, but the pain slowly built and expanded. My legs felt leaden; it became difficult to shift weight to give one foot a rest. My arms started to get heavy that no gesture alleviated. My neck tightened. All that intensity of focus turned back into my body, every muscle was gripping because of my feet. Soon the pain was so strong and consistent that shifting weight was no use; there was no way to ease even a drop of pain. I planted my body firmly to match the focused gaze, and just became one with the pain. This was so much better than the distress of the day before, because at least I felt strong. I could understand my own mind. I still was having some hallucinations; at one point I was convinced that someone rolled a big metal cart up next to me. I knew if only I could look, I could dispel the false vision, but I kept my focus, understanding that today’s hallucinations were less slippery. The cart was a symbol of strength beside me. And I was there, watching the rice, a witness no matter what.