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When modern-day performance art took off in the '60s and '70s, it provided a vehicle for artists to turn away from the conventional art market and create works that were ephemeral, visceral, and impossible to sell.
But as performance art pioneers such as Marina Abramovic were described in art history books, and museums took note of their work, the genre has soared. Abramovic even entered mainstream consciousness with the feature-length documentary The Artist Is Present, recently presented on HBO.
The movie shares its title with a performance piece Abramovic created at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2010. It marked MoMA's first performance retrospective, and the documentary captures Abramovic, who has taken to calling herself "the grandmother of performance art," throughout the lengthiest piece ever executed in a museum.
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The Serbian artist, known for drawing no distinction between life and art, creates work that tests the limits of physical and mental endurance. She sat at one end of a table at MoMA while seemingly endless lines of visitors waited to sit at the other end and lock eyes with her in what came to be called "an energy dialogue."
It's that type of challenging work that for decades has had audiences asking, Why is this art? A new collection of work opening here this Thursday poses the same query. Organizers of the Miami Performance International Festival (M/P '12), which is showcasing more than 50 emerging and established talents from 11 countries, call it the "Anti-Basel," referring to the United States' biggest art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach. They say it offers a more democratic platform where audiences can experience the works in a visceral and genuine way, including everyday aspects of people's lives that almost anyone can relate to.
"Don't get me wrong," says Edge Zones' Charo Oquet, the new Miami-based performance festival's founder and chief curator. "Basel has been an important cultural platform for our city. But art is not only about commerce, and we need this type of venture and more like it here year-round to... continue elevating Miami's profile internationally."
A year in the planning, the fair has attracted participants from Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Panama, Colombia, El Salvador, Chile, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Canada who are eager to share the stage with talent from the Magic City.
"During most art fairs, including Basel, most artists find themselves spectators in an arena where they have no control and little engagement with the public," Oquet observes. "At our festival, participant artists will be totally present before the audiences, who will have the opportunity to engage and even become part of their works."
The four-day event will take place at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden and in the Design District and is free to the public. The theme is "The Art of Uncertainty," and M/P '12 will feature panels and talks on the art of performance and workshops for adults and children.
Expect to see plenty of video installations, music, poetry, and other nontraditional art forms in presentations that delve into issues including migration, gender, identity and religion, ecology and feminism, sexual tourism, and living with depression. Some of the works on display will be inspired by early performance art pioneers.
Hollywood's Pip Brant, who is an associate professor of art and art history at Florida International University, is combining her love of music and back-yard farming to create "Chick Wagon," which employs old ladders, kitchen shelves, and children's bicycle parts. The mobile contraption, housing three tiny Malaysian hens, "can provide quail-size eggs and mow the lawn," she says. It can also serve as a quick getaway vehicle to help chicken farmers escape law enforcement in cities that ban livestock from urban dwellings.
In addition, Brant plans to play the accordion, the saxophone, and the clarinet during her performance.
Canada's Irene Loughlin is another artist who'll draw from her personal background in the work she'll perform this weekend. "My project addresses the experiences of living with depression, anxiety, and the ability to disassociate," she says.
"In the first part of the performance, I will paint lying on the floor under a sheet with a branch in my mouth onto a dropped ceiling," Loughlin explains. "Then I stand up and also paint a circle on the floor, where the viewer will later be invited to stand. I stand in front of the circle and put my head within a head halter-traction kit which is attached to the ceiling or door above. I hold the gaze of the viewer. In the third part of the performance, I will then create wings for religious sculptures out of plaster, and the viewers are invited to assist. I plan to create an alcove of flying religious sculptures."
The Canadian artist says the piece is a direct response to Marina Abramovic's recent work. "In the performance, the viewer is invited to stand in front of me and look at me and hold my gaze. However, here "the artist is not present, due to my disassociation," Loughlin explains. She says Miami's hybrid of cultures and faiths also inspires her piece. "The religious sculptures and Catholicism are part of my history, and I thought it was a way to engage the public about issues of personal freedom and spiritual liberation."
Panama's Diego Bowie says, "[I plan] to create a conscious social criticism of the human addiction to technology by embracing it in my piece and merging it with my body and behavior. I'm experimenting with audio recordings and interactive terminals such as headphones, so the audience can not only expect to interact with the piece but to also be a part of it."
Ismael Ogando, who hails from the Dominican Republic, says he usually explores issues of religion, sexuality, and the African influence on his culture but that currently he is interested in male prostitution and sex tourism in the Caribbean. "I rarely use elements other than my body. Normally I mix it with cross-dressing elements such as skirts and dresses, but this time I went for something more museographic and will show a complex audiovisual installation activated with the body's presence," Ogando says. Others such as Miami's Catalina Jaramillo are planning a communal feast to feed hundreds, while Canada's Christine Brault is working on a project she calls Latina del Norte in which she mines themes of migration and the home environment.
Local artist Belaxis Buil agrees that pushing the boundaries of art is what makes the festival a challenge. "We have to take risks and present work or ideas that may seem a bit ahead of our times... but this is the way we adjust our contemporary societies to new frontiers," she observes.
Miami's David Prusko perhaps best sums up the spirit of the affair. "The Miami International Performance Festival is the anti-'object' art solution. What is there to buy? How can you display it? You can't brag about spending $100,000 for the performance piece that hangs over the couch. You can't mount an artist to the wall!"