Contesting Conventions, Emma Jaster at Soapbox: "To Know a Veil"
“The need to create this piece first became clear to me on a walk in the Sahara desert a year ago. It was my first time in a Muslim country and as a western woman, especially one whose entire career revolves around the expression of my body, I had a hard time accepting the extreme veiling surrounding me.”
With a few exceptions, the work I show at Soapbox tends to come to performance via the visual fine arts, painting, video, sculpture, photography, and practices I sometimes call “the still arts.” However, Emma Jaster is coming to Soapbox this Friday 1/18, 7-9pm, with a rich background in dance, and most of her experience in DC has taken place in the Theater community. To Know a Veil: Peeling back the layers of our cultural femininity is an “immersive exploration of the personal and cultural implications of how women veil and reveal themselves.” Tired of the static audience conventions in traditional theater, she seeks to upend expectations of how performance is produced and consumed. She disrupts both preconceptions about the subject matter she's dealing with, and the different forms of performance she draws on. “My goal with this piece is to open a dialogue on veiling and revealing. I hope to subvert people’s assumptions as my own assumptions have been subverted through this process.”
To Know a Veil is multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary, showing interactive sculpture, a sound installation incorporating interviews with veiled and unveiled women, and a performance presented as a fashion event including “burquas, bikinis, and scandalous ways to wear a sari.” The piece is an ongoing project that morphs and expands with each iteration, drawing on additional research, interviews, and responses gathered at the event. “The stories from these women have inspired particular moments in the show and clips from the interviews themselves will play in the space throughout the performance offering differing perspectives on the action unfolding live.” To Know a Veil is conceived and directed by Emma Jaster, audio installation by Matt Pearson, beats by Unown, and performed by Kate Folsom, Neelam Patel, Naima Ramos-Chapman, Selomé Samuel, and Anastasia Wilson.
I try to approach each Soapbox I organize differently, and the scope and scale of this month's performance challenges my own ideas about performance art. Jaster says, “One of the biggest differences for me between performance art and theater or dance is that performance art seems to me to be primarily conceptual. Brilliant ideas executed in simple ways. Often the performance artist lacks the physical or expressive training of an actor or dancer. The work conveys an idea but lacks the beauty of technical expertise. Whereas with dance we can be swept away by the virtuosic grace of the dancer, not knowing what she dances about.” Opting for openness over limiting terms about the work and her practice, Jaster says, “I’d rather not title what I do as any defined form but ultimately I’m trying to merge all three: dance, theater and performance art”
To Know a Veil rejects the polarizing position that performance art and theater are diametrically opposed, a simple explanation I fall into giving myself. This view is articulated clearly by Marina Abramović, and repeated ad infinitum to define performance art. “Theatre is fake... The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.” (source) Like the unfixed and changeable identity of To Know a Veil, I think it is more useful to consider performance as an open field with moveable and moving boundaries, or something totally unbound, rather than Abramović's totalizing definition.
Instead of locating performance against what it is not, (theater)- I'm drawn to the performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena's position. “Traditionally, the human body, our body, not the stage, is our true site for creation and materia prima. It's our empty canvas, musical instrument, and open book; our navigation chart and biographical map; the vessel for our ever-changing identities; the centerpiece of the altar so to speak. Even when we depend too much on objects, locations, and situations, our body remains the matrix of the piece.” (Read his In Defense of Performance Art, here)
At Hillyer Art Space, a visual art gallery, there is no stage per se- and because Soapbox is a “performance art series,” any piece performed within it is already born into a particular framework. In the twenty-odd performance art events that I've organized since 2011, I have become increasingly aware of the social significance of the time and space between and before and after performances as an important place of encounter and exchange for attendees. In the spirit of Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics, Jaster's To Know a Veil constructs an experience of the performance as an event, including all the interactions among the audience as a significant aspect of the work. “The event is meant to be as much of a social occasion as a performance. My hope is for it to foster conversation and connections.” Though, unlike a lot of Relational projects, Jaster is reinvesting the significance of form and aesthetics in her work, through practices of theater and dance, while simultaneously addressing a specific social issue and incorporating a participatory social component. This is going to be complicated and complicated.
Back to Emma Jaster in the Sahara- “And then one day, as I walked under the relentlessly hot sun, I thought to hold my scarf over my head like a canopy to give myself some shade. I was immediately cooler, protected from the sun. Then eventually my arms got tired holding the canopy up and so I let the scarf fall, draping over me and fully covering my face and head. The fabric was such that I could see out, but others could not see in. Much to my surprise I suddenly felt not like property, but like a princess. I felt protected and valued, safely enclosed from the harsh sun. I began to wonder if some of these women I saw, covered head to toe in the heat, may have felt the same way- not oppressed, but respected and powerful. Through the rest of the trip, I went back and forth, sometimes veiling myself, sometimes not- sometimes entranced by the women swathed in fabrics, sometimes horrified by the need to cover one’s face at all. Clearly, it’s a sticky subject.”
Soapbox: Emma Jaster, To Know a Veil is Friday, January 18, 2013 7-9pm at Hillyer Art Space, located in behind the Phillip's Collection in Dupont Circle at 9 Hillyer Ct NW, DC. $5 at the door.
All quotes by Emma Jaster unless otherwise noted!
First posted on DC Performance Art.
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