All of the actions took place during a six-hour performance by Black Market International, the international performance collective that visited Aalborg last weekend. As I wrote in my last blog entry - see here - I was there to engage the audience in conversation about the event. Since the performance took place in the entrance hall of a community centre containing a theatre, a cinema, a fitness centre, a pizzeria and lots more, this was not an easy task: a large percentage of the spectators just happened to be passing. The taciturn nature of the local population didn’t help either: “So what do you think of the performance?” [a couple of minutes’ silence] “I don’t know.” “But what do you think they’re doing?” [another couple of minutes’ silence] “It’s a bit weird.” End of conversation.
But then, this was a very special kind of performance. Black Market International (BMI) perform together, but without agreeing on roles or a plot beforehand. All you see is a number of performance artists, all of them with their own style and background, who meet up, who start out by doing their own thing but who sometimes come together, drift apart, come together again, et cetera. Because that was what’s happening. In amidst all of the chaos the performance area suddenly divided itself into two, one area where people did things and one where people built things. Or suddenly two of the performers were doing something with numbers. Or four of them were slowly moving along in a kind of conga line, swaying from side to side.
In this kind of performance – and there isn't really anyone else who does it quite like this – what you have to look for is not a story or a structure, but the dynamics, the ebb and flow of the action. The famous Untitled Event at Black Mountain College in 1952 springs to mind. Here, Cage himself read a text on music and Zen, Robert Rauschenberg played with a gramophone, David Tudor played a prepared piano, Charles Olson and Mary Richards read poetry, Merce Cunningham and other dancers moved through the room – all independent actions, performed in such a way that the audience could never take it all in. However, the event was organized by Cage by means of time slots allotted to the players and the seats were arranged to ensure that every spectator got a different view (see here). There was no story, but there was a scheme. The BMI performance, on the other hand, was entirely unplanned and unorchestrated. All there was, was the action unfolding in time.
BMI serves performance art the way the textbooks want it to be. This is really performance taking place in its own time, performance that it is impossible to document, performance that takes place in the spectator’s here and now. What it certainly is not, is just a bunch of people fooling around. While it may strike the casual passer-by as strange, perhaps even alien, no-one was tempted to see it as pure nonsense. It was obvious to everyone that the actions were performed with sincerity and with a lot of experience to back it up. It is not hard to see why BMI has continued existing for 30 years and why the individual artists take part in it for such a long time: this exercise in leaving all your plans and routines behind leads to the purest, barest performance art imaginable. Whether you like it or not, this is a fascinating experience.