If a tree falls, does it make a sound? – Hanna M. Owens and Joseph Gordon Connelly

We are pleased to begin our 2014 series of thematic posts with, If a Tree Falls, Does it Make a Sound? (artist accounts from actions that had no witnesses.)  Over the next few months, The Present Tense features works that explore private action and challenge the role of audience.  


Hanna M. Owens
“Love Letters” project

Recently I came across a video on YouTube, a film from 2005 by the Iraqi filmmaker Saad Salman, and was suddenly struck with a sense of responsibility. Salman’s film is entitled Lettre d’amour à la fille du président G.W Bush, introducing me to a man with a message: a poet named Haitham Adam Jobbo Jubra’eel. He reads his poetry in the hopes that his love letter will be delivered to [one of] the daughter[s] of George W. Bush. The filmmaker then questions his motivation, Jubra’eel affirms the sincerity of his gesture, and the filming wraps up. I immediately felt obliged to deliver this message. As an effort in translation and internet outreach, I translated and re-subtitled the film, now in Arabic, French, and English, and have been attempting to deliver it, across multiple digital platforms, to both Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush.

Born in rural Vermont, Hanna M. Owens is thoroughly Baltimore and currently Chicago with pit-stops in Calais, Dakar, and West Virginia. Her work has been exhibited and performed in spaces including the MCA (Chicago), Little Berlin Gallery (Philadelphia), Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland Art Place, Maryland Institute College of Art, Towson University (MD), and Floristree Gallery (Baltimore) among others. Her face and body appear in films echoing all across the internet and she regularly broadcasts herself on cam4 under the handle madbushswag (tip if you like what you see + tip to see more of what you like / just send positive energy). She is currently completely her thesis as an MFA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Joseph Gordon Connelly
“Fissure Fix”

A repaired crack in a telephone pole. The crack was filled with wood putty and then gilded. The piece was installed in an industrial area on Cleveland’s southeast side. No identification was left with the piece.

Joseph Gordon Connelly was born in Columbus, OH. He has a BS in Dance/InterArts & Technology. He received an MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught studio courses in Time
Art, Performance, Installations, and Artist Video. In addition to his solo work, he is part of the art collaboration team Gordon & Gordon Art. He has produced work in the US, Germany, Israel, Russia, and Slovenia.


The following is a collection of videos from the work made for LONG TERM, co-curated by Adriana Disman and Sandrine Schaefer as part of LINK & PIN performance series.  LONG TERM occurred at HUB 14 and around the surrounding areas in Toronto on Saturday, April 12, 2014 – Sunday, April 13, 2014 and was co-presented with Fado.

The work featured in LONG-TERM investigates extended duration, collaborative practices of various artist duos. Unfolding over 2 days, the event addresses the complexities involved in creating, balancing, and evolving a shared creative process.  Enjoy!


Miller and Shellabarger


Miller & Shellabarger- LONG TERM 2014 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.


JV “Tactic” – LONGTERM 2014 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.



VestAndPage – LONG TERM 2014 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.



Duorama – Long Term 2014 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.


ROOMS “Ritual No.1: COUNTING BIRDS” – LONG TERM 2014 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Accumulation and the precious object

I feel lucky and grateful to have participated in Accumulation a second time. During the first phase, which happened in 2009 at the MEME space, my participation was less than frequent. As I began rummaging through my studio for possible object participants in phase two, I reflected on my actions from Phase 1.  I quickly realized that I relied heavily (almost entirely) on interacting and performing with objects brought to the space by the other artists. As someone who uses mostly objects that have some sort of sentimental value or emotional connection, Accumulation had given me an ultimatum: risk having your important objects destroyed or use objects that have little or no emotional connection to your work. During Phase 1, I did not have the courage to accept that kind of challenge.

ACCUMULATION (Phase 2) Philip Fryer 02.07.14 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

What I didn’t realize was happening, was a parallel between my hesitance to bring meaningful objects to the table and the very reason many galleries had declined to show Accumulation over the years. The uncertainty of the performances, the preciousness of the physical materials caused hesitation. I simultaneously felt frustration and understanding about these things. Five years after the first phase, Accumulation found a home for Phase 2 in the 808 gallery at BU, thanks to Lynne Cooney. Lynne’s willingness to bring unpredictability into her space allowed me to push myself out of my comfort zone and choose to bring objects to Phase 2 that I wouldn’t have brought to the first.


This is a single I came across in my dad’s record collection. It has the name “Hughes” written in messy black letters and has smudges of white paint on both sides. To anyone else, it might just look like a ruined Mary Hopkin single, but to me it holds the hallmark of my uncle Richard (Hughes). I grew up with Richard being around almost all the time, he was a house painter through the 80’s and 90’s and frequently came home covered with white primer paint which subsequently, covered many things within my home. This is the only thing I have left with that signature, a bittersweet momento of my favorite uncle who was more fun than anyone in the world, who is now legally blind and resides in a Quincy homeless shelter. I have few things in my possession that hold this much emotional value.

Shannon Cochrane during Phase 2

Needless to say, I felt neurotic about what would happen to it after my performance. My heart jumped when Shannon picked it up during her and Marcios second performance. A green apple, similar to the one pictured on the record, is cut in half and taped to it. I felt instant relief, but more than anything, instant gratude. Gratitude to Shannon and Marcio, who acknowledged and honored this object and brought it into a new light for me. And gratitude for a community that pushes its members into new territory. I can only hope that other artists included in Phase 2 shared similar experiences, and that Phase 3 won’t take another 5 years to come to light.

Collaborative Duos- Part 1

The Present Tense was built out of Sandrine Schaefer and Philip Fryer‘s long time collaboration.  Because of this, we have always held collaborative duos close to our hearts.  Next month, LONG-TERM, a live art event curated by Sandrine Schaefer and Adriana Disman that features the work of various artist duos who investigate extended duration, will come to Toronto’s Hub 14.  In honor of this upcoming event and our sustained love of artists who choose to make work together, The Present Tense has revisited the archives to bring you a few videos from artist duos we have exhibited through the years.  To begin, we are sharing excerpts from Sandrine and Phil’s 17 year “Cicada Project.”  Then we revisit the Contaminate Festival to share Mari Novotny-Jones & Kristina Lenzi and Coach TV.  We also bring you JV‘s “Trapped” at the Seconds Festival, The Royal Najo Family at PT3 and Tomoko Kakeda and Joanne Stein at PT5.  Enjoy!



Sandrine Schaefer & Philip Fryer “Cicada Project” 2006-2023

Philip Fryer & Sandrine Schaefer from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Cicada Project 8.2010 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

3CiadasFinal from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Mari Novotny Jones & Kristina Lenzi at the Contaminate 3 International Performance Art Festival curated by The Present Tense & TEST 2008

Mari Novotny Jones and Kristina Lenzi @ Contaminate 3 2008 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Tomoko Kakeda & Joanne Stein  at PT5 curated by The Present Tense 2007

Tomoko Kakeda & Joanne Stein@ PT5 2007 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Royal Najo Family at PT3 curated by The Present Tense 2007

Royal Najo Family @ PT3 2007 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

JV at the Seconds International Performance Art Festival curated by The Present Tense 2006

JV @ Seconds 2006 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Coach TV at the Contaminate 1 International Performance Art Festival curated by The Present Tense & TEST 2006

Coach TV @ Contaminate 1 2006 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Allison Wyper- One-to-One Fictional First Person Accounts Part III



The following performative text is an excerpt from a paper called “Always wanting you, but never having you: intimacy and desire in one-to-one performances by women,” in which I adopt an imaginary time traveling avatar self in order to virtually and fictionally “experience” three participatory performances that I have never seen.  Though fiction, this account is based on a detailed written account by Susan Kozel, a Canadian dancer, choreographer, and writer who works primarily in London and Vancouver (“Spacemaking: Experiences of a Virtual Body,” 1994).  Kozel has a Ph. D. in philosophy and specializes in dance and media.  As performer of Telematic Dreaming, a live performance that used ISDN teleconference technology as an interface between individual visitors and her remote body, Kozel explored physical intimacy through (then new) media.  The concept and technology behind Telematic Dreaming was conceived by a U.K. media artist named Paul Sermon, and the piece toured extensively in the early 1990s.
The intensely intimate proximity between bodies in Telematic Dreaming–one of flesh and muscle and the other of light and shadow–amplifies the emotional and ethical stakes of the participatory performance. This viewer-participant is given no instructions on how to behave; it is up to them to decide how to interact with Kozel’s virtual presence.  Kozel, on the other hand, is obligated to make her body available, and to figure out how to make virtual contact with the “user.” In her essay, Kozel’s account of the performance focuses on the “relation between my ‘cyber-body’ and my fleshly body” and the “sexual and political implications of the technology.”  She writes: “It was not a substitute for sex, it was a mimetic version with strong physical and emotional qualities… it was undeniably real, not a compromise…”


II. Paul Sermon/Susan Kozel, Telematic Dreaming (Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, 1994)


The gallery is dark.  In its center is a full-size bed illuminated by a projection cast from the ceiling.  A two-dimensional projection of a woman with dark hair curls around the left side of the bed, the folds in the white bedding slightly warping and twisting her body.  She lies still, on her side, a profile on the linen.  She seems to be resting.  She reminds me of a Gustav Klimt painting—golden Danae curling across the canvas like a giant goldfish.


I stand, arms crossed, a couple feet from the bed, watching her, letting this live painting (literally) breathe for a few moments before I join her.  I’ve been invited to lie on the bed “with her” if I desire, and while I’m there, within the frame of the bed, she will be able to see me, remotely, through a live video camera on the gallery ceiling, in a kind of horizontal “teleconference.”  (I giggled when I thought of that joke, out in the lobby, but now it seems slightly disrespectful.)  In the darkness of the periphery I am invisible to her.  She displays herself for me.  I consume her, giving nothing in return.  I collect her beauty and store it up in my memory for later.  I could write a song about the way she looks, another courtly lover wooing from afar, impotent and selfish.  But that is not the invitation.


I tentatively, carefully, reach my hand into the light, holding it an inch or two off the mattress.  She sees me.  She smiles and reaches her hand toward mine.  Her fingers slide over mine, a collage of fingers and fingernails suspended inches above the sheets.  I expect to feel something, though logically I know her hand is just projection, not a real hand.  I nonetheless expect some warmth of contact, just for a moment.


We line up the tips of our index fingers, a feminine re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, she the goddess on the cloud reaching me through the miracle of ISDN teleconference technology.  After a few minutes of acclimating to one another through this finger and hand foreplay, I am ready put my whole body on the bed, to lay into the light, as it were.  I take a breath and hoist myself up onto the mattress, a little awkward and panting ever so slightly from the exertion.  I lie on my side, still, shy, completing the frame of the bed with my body, facing her.  And so we lie, facing one another, eyes downcast, every now and then flitting over each other.  I giggle nervously and she smiles back.  We begin playfully shifting in small increments, describing complimentary arcs and curves with our torsos and limbs.  She nudges me with her head—or rather, I imagine the feeling of being nudged, and respond in kind.


We are, more or less, spooning or cuddling, getting to know one another within a prescribed “couple in bed” movement vocabulary.  I blush, suddenly physically aware of the intimacy of the moment—and that we are sharing this private moment in public.  A few gallery visitors stand in the doorway, at a respectful distance, watching us.  Aware of their probing gaze, I briefly stiffen, and shift a little away from my electric friend, wondering, what is a respectful distance in a public bed with a virtual partner?


She notices me withdrawing and retreats several inches.  She cannot see the others in the doorway, and so does not understand my sudden self-consciousness.  Perhaps she thinks she has been too forward.  She withdraws into the shadows beyond the bed, leaving only a disembodied right hand behind.  This saddens me, and I feel ashamed for feeling ashamed.  I’ve betrayed her trust already.  I reach for her hand.  Nudge it playfully with mine in apology, until at last she returns in tenuous forgiveness.


This first bump in our relationship mutually negotiated, we continue our game of overlapping, filling one another’s negative space, in small, incremental shifts.  At times our bodies overlap, and it occurs to me that I could line myself up under her, making us one composite body.  I could try her on, if she was willing.  But what would that do to her identity, her autonomy?  Would she be absorbed by me?  Would she disappear, cease to be her?  But no, of course, “she” exists safely ensconced away from me.  She is protected there.  This electric body is only a projection of her.  I can’t touch her here.  Not actually.  No one can.


And yet…


I am anxious about her telepresence, as if she has projected her soul into another dimension, like some hi-tech shamanic out-of-body ritual.  In that respect, this is an extremely vulnerable space for her to be in.  If she is damaged or hurt in this place, will she feel pain in her physical body?  Is she psychically vulnerable?  Her projected body must feel, because already I’ve hurt her with my carelessness.  It’s not that she is “out-of-body” with me on the bed; here she is a “virtual body” enjoying goddess-like access and power her physical body cannot experience.  Here she is liquid and electric at once.


The doorway voyeurs have multiplied by now, and I’m aware that I should give others a chance.  But I linger.   I don’t want her to be alone, vulnerable, isolated, and I’m not sure I trust others to care for her properly.  Those people might take advantage of her, distort her, make her ugly.  They could make fun of her, ridicule her.  They don’t have the relationship we have.  Hell, we’ve already had our first fight and made up!  She notices me growing introspective again and strokes my shoulder.  I shiver and gasp, amazed because I felt her touch.  I really did.


Okay, reality check: there were others before me, and there will be others after me.  Our brief tryst is ours to keep.  Now it’s time to go.  Reluctantly I move my hand to her face, my fingers melting through the edges of her cheekbone, the edges of her face bleeding into my fingertips.  This is the best way I can think of to say goodbye.   She nuzzles my hand as I roll off the bed into darkness as quickly as I came.


For more information on this piece see http://www.hgb-leipzig.de/~sermon/dream/.


About the Author

Allison Wyper is a Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary performance artist who creates intimate and one-on-one performances that challenge viewer-performer dynamics and the ethics of participation. Allison has been an Associate Artist of La Pocha Nostra since 2004, and a collaborator with Western Australia’s Hydra Poesis since 2011. Her work has been seen in museums, galleries, theaters, universities, and streets in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Germany. Her writing has been published by Itch Dance Journal, Platform (U.K), Emergency Index, Whore Magazine and the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. More info at www.allisonwyper.com.

Allison Wyper- One-to-One Fictional First Person Accounts Part II

The following performative text is an excerpt from a paper called “Always wanting you, but never having you: intimacy and desire in one-to-one performances by women,” in which I adopt an imaginary time traveling avatar self in order to witness the “intimacies” that I imagine generated in participatory performances that I have never seen.  Though fictional, this account is based on extensive research, and includes quotes taken from a paper by the artist, Helen Paris, called “Crossing wires/shifting boundaries in Vena Amoris” (Women & Performance12:2, 2002), as well as a review for Live Art U.K. The fiction is further informed by my personal praxis as a performance artist working in the one on one genre. Wendy the bartender is completely made up.
The performer’s instructions to the participant that I’ve quoted and indented in this passage are copied directly from Paris. Spelling and punctuation are original.  




Helen Paris, Vena Amoris (Toynbee Studios, London, 1999)


I’m sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and waiting.  I check my phone again, to be sure it’s on.  I dial my voicemail, to be sure I have service.  Again.  If I miss this call it’s all over, since they haven’t told me where this performance is supposed to take place.  They just said they’d call me at 17:40 and to be waiting in the bar in the lobby of the Toynbee Studios arts complex.  When I arrived and checked in at the front desk, they took my cell phone number and told me I’d get a call with instructions when the performance was about to begin.  Wendy, the bartender, glances toward me periodically, both to check to see if I need another beer, and to see if I’ve gotten the call yet.  People like me come and go, there’s a different single audience member every 20 minutes, but Wendy is always there.  In a way, I figure, she’s the real audience, and I’m part of a rotating cast of performers, performing for her.  Scene 1, waiting by the phone…



The phone rings.  I jump, startled, and nearly spill my beer.  Wendy chuckles softly and takes another order.  I pick up the phone and answer.  A woman’s voice, soft in my ear:


 “Hello.  The performance is about to begin if you’d just like to make your way to the theater…”


I enter an empty theater.  Red velvet seats and not a soul in them.  Onstage an empty spotlight.  Through the phone She tells me this is my light.  I climb a short flight of stairs and step into the pool.  I see a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches.  She invites me to smoke, if I wish.  I do.   I strike the match with pleasure, feeling like a character in an old movie.  Just as the thought occurs to me, the house lights fade, two side lights come on, and familiar music swells.  Doris Day, “Make Someone Happy.”  How very grand.  I smoke, searching beyond the bright stage lights to the shadowy seats beyond.  Is someone out there, watching me?  Even just a technician in the light booth…


The sound of applause is delicious,

It’s a thrill to have the world at your feet.

The praise of the crowd, it’s exciting,

But I’ve learned that’s not what makes a life complete…


Fame if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.

Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?

Love is the answer.  Someone to love is the answer…


Make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy,

And you will be happy, too.



As the last strains of music fade, the house lights come up, and bright fluorescent work lights in the wings, exposing the grimy, messy reality of the theater.  Old set pieces, half-painted lumber, dust, the imperfections normally hidden by velvet and limelight.  My cell phone is still cradled next to my ear.  She instructs me to go through an offstage door marked Fire Room.



I step into a small, oak-paneled room, empty but for a white platform in the center of the space, on which sits a metal cylinder topped with a bulbous top.  It reminds me of a model of the Space Needle.  She tells me that this is a Van Der Graff generator.


“After I’ve finished speaking please could you turn off your phone.  I’d like you to approach the Van Der Graff and extend one of your hands toward the metal ball on the top very slowly, until your fingers are an inch or two from the surface.  As you move close enough, you will experience a spark of contact with your body’s own electrical current.  If you look closely you will be able to see this as well as feel it.  I have to go now; I’ll see you soon.”



I turn off my phone and reach for the metal.  I feel a gentle shock and see a faint blue spark reaching for me.  I saw one of these as a kid, I think.  At a science museum or fair. I remember reaching for it with fingers sticky from candy, Mom telling me not to touch or I’d get it dirty.  I hover my fingers just off the surface, a blue string of electricity dancing between me and the apparatus.  My hair stands on end.  On the platform there is note:

Egyptians believed that the third finger of the left hand follows the vena amoris, the vein of love that runs directly to the heart.  A direct “digital” blood flow.



I imagine this blue flame swimming up my inner arm and through my coronary arteries.  I shiver and pull my hand away. The note then instructs me to exit the room through a different door than the one I came in.  I step into a small, cold, fluorescent hallway.  A beautiful blonde woman in a black velvet gown greets me with a smile.  She punches a code into a door lock, and pushes the door open a crack. On the other side, I’m surprised and delighted to meet an exact twin of the blonde woman, in identical black velvet.  The first woman reaches toward me, places a crimson-tipped hand on the middle of my back, and gently I am pushed into a larger, more dimly lit space beyond.  As I cross the threshold, the twins lean in to one another, until their identical blonde heads rest together.  I catch the first whispering softly to the second:

“I’ve missed you.  I’ve been thinking of you.  I’ve so wanted to see you again. I wanted to say something to you.  I have to go now.  I’ll be thinking of you.  I’ll be waiting until we can be together again.  Goodbye.  Goodbye.”


They kiss on the lips and the door closes, separating them once again.  I giggle under my breath self-consciously, and examine this new space.  It’s some kind of dance studio, dim, heavily curtained with thick velvet.  At the far end of the studio there’s a tall mirror surrounded by naked light bulbs like an oversized dressing room vanity.  The blonde twin gestures for me to sit in a chair before the mirror.  Just then, a familiar voice, close, gentle, loving… from where I can’t tell…  It isn’t the blonde woman.  I look around for a speaker, electronic or human…

“I’m glad you came.

I didn’t know if I would recognize you.

I had a picture of you in my head.

Did you miss me?  I mean

Did you ever think of me?

Did you want to see me again?  I mean

Did I make any difference?”



I realize that She’s somewhere behind the mirror.  Is She watching me?  I squint, trying to see past the glare of the bright bulbs.  Then I give up and relax, staring at myself in the mirror.

“Did you want to say something to me?

Did you want to catch hold of something that you

thought you might have seen or at least thought you’d

caught a glimpse of and, at least, for a little while not

want to let it go?



She grows more and more breathless, urgent, desperate, her words piling on top of one another, a torrent of emotion…

Was I too late?

Did I say the right thing but at the wrong time?

And what I’m really asking, is do I get another chance

while everything is changing skin, legs, flesh, hair, head,

heart, chest?

Did I lose part of myself–the part where I recognize

myself but never had a chance to say goodbye?

…And did you need that tiny jolt of electricity just to

know you were alive?”


Silence.  Then a metallic click and my face, staring back at me through the surface of the mirror, becomes transparent, an orange glow behind it and another face—incredibly, another face!—melts out of the darkness, morphing with mine into a chimera.  She lights a cigarette, I smell the first puff.

“I’m glad you came

When will I see you again?

I’ll miss you

I miss you already





Then as quickly as she appears, the flame goes out and I’m left alone again with my reflection.  The blonde woman escorts me out of the studio and directs me back to the lobby.  Wendy is waiting at the bar.  I order a bourbon.

For more on this work, see the artist’s website at www.placelessness.com.


About the Author

Allison Wyper is a Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary performance artist who creates intimate and one-on-one performances that challenge viewer-performer dynamics and the ethics of participation. Allison has been an Associate Artist of La Pocha Nostra since 2004, and a collaborator with Western Australia’s Hydra Poesis since 2011. Her work has been seen in museums, galleries, theaters, universities, and streets in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Germany. Her writing has been published by Itch Dance Journal, Platform (U.K), Emergency Index, Whore Magazine and the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. More info at www.allisonwyper.com.

Allison Wyper- One-to-One Fictional First Person Accounts Part I

The way that a performance piece is archived in the memory offers a piece to evolve long after it has been released by the artist.  What about pieces that one has never experienced first hand?  What happens when one allows a piece to culminate through their imagination?  Artist, Allison Wyper does just that in her  fictional first-person accounts in response to 3 one-to-one performances by women. Over the next 3 weeks, The Present Tense will be featuring these writing on our archive in 3 parts.  Enjoy!



The following first-person, performative text is an excerpt from a paper called “Always wanting you, but never having you: intimacy and desire in one-to-one performances by women,” in which I adopt an anxious, self-conscious dream body that can travel through time to experience, through a leap of imagination, the intimacy that I imagine in participatory performances that I have never, and will never, see. These accounts are fictional, but based in rigorous research, including (in this case) personal interviews with artist Julie Tolentino, and with choreographer David Roussève, who attended the performance I describe.
In addition to the performers’ accounts I rely on the accounts of viewer-participants, including critics who reviewed the works, and visitor accounts that the performers included in their own writings. In order to perform a close reading that teases out the precise natures of the diverse kinds of intimacies created by each piece, I rely on my imagination, and my own subjectivity as a theatre, dance, and performance artist, experienced in the one-to-one genre, who is grappling with her own desire for a moment of connection. My ephemerally bodied witness, reporting back through time and space, is a passionate, eager young performance artist, tired of sitting and watching. So when she heard about Julie Tolentino’s performance For You, she was the first to call for an appointment…



I. Julie Tolentino, For You (Participant, Inc., New York, NY, 2003)

The street is icy, with that acrid Lower East Side bite as I rush to make my 4:40 appointment. I called three weeks ago, leaving my name and number with a young gallery assistant. I never received a confirmation—hope she didn’t lose my reservation. I spot Participant, Inc., the site of Julie Tolentino’s For You, and rush inside out of the New York cold. A gallery attendant greets me and asks for my name. I give it to him, a little anxious. He nods–like a restaurant host but without the strained fake cheerfulness—and asks me to wait in the lobby area. I’m a few minutes early. The telephone rings and he leaves the room to retrieve it. Alone, I wait.


Glancing upward I see a plastic slitted curtain, the kind you see in butchers’ refrigerators, loosely lining the entry to an open gallery space. I can barely make out the people inside. Softly, I hear a song I think I know. A woman’s voice trills like a bird. Joni Mitchell, I think. It’s comforting, familiar. I hum along.


I turn toward the sunken “lobby,” a small gallery space to my right. At my feet is a projection of the performance in progress. Every now and again I see a dancer’s body in a loose, white jumpsuit or pajamas drift slightly into and out of the frame, shot, it seems, from above her head. I never see the audience. These glimpses of the performance taking place at this moment are tiny bits of information, meager as the appetizer I had at that trendy Soho restaurant last night. They whet my appetite, not that I wasn’t already excited to see this performance (just for me!) for the past three weeks, but I have no idea exactly how I’m going to be incorporated into the performance.


As I start to imagine myself in that white room, the attendant returns. He hands me a menu of song titles. My first act as a participant in this performance, he explains, is to choose a song for my piece. “Something special to you.” I scan the menu. I know about half of the offerings, and the others I’ve at least heard of. They’re mostly pop songs. Feeling very “New York” today, I select a personal sentimental favorite, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” A cliché, maybe, but I’m curious how Tolentino will use it. Right after selecting it, I momentarily panic—was that a good choice? Will she be disappointed in me? What will it tell her about me that I didn’t choose something more obscure…?


I hear the murmur of voices and glance up again to the gallery. Tolentino and a middle-aged woman are saying good-bye. The woman pushes her way through the curtain, a private smile on her lips, eyes downcast. As she descends the short staircase, she notices me watching her, and quickly transforms, business-like, into her brusque public self. She nods to me (cat that ate the canary, I think, its as if she’s done something forbidden…), thanks the attendant, and looks at him expectantly. Is there something else to do? Is the performance over? Does she have another role to play? He invites her to leave a comment in the guestbook. The woman, a little disappointed, declines, puts on her wrap and leaves.


I look at the attendant. My turn? He asks me to wait a few minutes more, while they re-set the space. I take a seat and watch the video projection on the floor, where not much happens. I feel as though I’m waiting for a massage or something. It’s as if I’ve made an appointment for some luxurious treatment at a spa—a treat just for me. At the same time, though, I am still a little anxious, not knowing exactly what the artist expects of me.


At last I get the go-ahead. The attendant instructs me to enter and sit in the chair by the bed. There will be further instructions projected on the wall. “Those are for you.” I take the stairs quick and light, and pause just outside the plastic curtain. I draw a breath and push through the clear plastic strips that rattle gently back into place behind me, loosely sealing me in. The room is semi-private, permeable; all white, but not terribly bright; beautiful and spare. A projection on one wall (vague moving lights… headlights?) casts a thin, cool illumination. “THIS IS FOR YOU,” I read on the wall.


As I enter the room, Tolentino lies on a bed, swathed in white sheeting. A small lamp casts a pool of pinkish light her feet. Next to the bed, a plastic chair. I flash momentarily to a hospital scene, a sick ward, a maternity ward. I smell the plastic of the curtain, the chair. Quietly, respectfully, I take the seat next to the bed. The seat of care, I think.


She lies with her back to me. She does not speak. She lies still, breathes, occasionally shifts or moves a bit, never leaving the bed, subtle adjustments, as if she’s listening to me, for several minutes. Eventually…


She performs. And it is for me.


The sheets rustle softly. I sit back in my chair, hands in my lap. I imagine, absurdly, that if I sit back I am giving her more space, though she makes no move to approach me, or even look at me. I sit. I witness. I am quiet by her side. She rolls, shifts, reaches and retracts. Her movement is gentle.


She gets up out of bed, crosses the room, brushing her hair from her face. I let out a kept breath as she moves away, in a mixture of relief and disappointment. She gives her body a loose shake—to wake herself? To warm her muscles? To reacquaint herself with verticality? Her movement is gentle, loose, organic.


A new projection: “VIEWER: SOON, TIME TO MAKE A MOVE.” I sit up. Maybe I get to choose where to sit—how to view the dance. But not now; “SOON.” I relax, wait, watch.


She finds a spot in the corner, left of the projection, and slows down, releases her head so she gazes at the floor, arms loose at her sides, hidden in the very long sleeves of a white lab-coat-style pantsuit. She turns slowly, looking like a naughty child dressed in her mother’s shirt. But she is not a child. She is quiet. Waiting.




I do. Now I am seated on the side of the open floor, nothing between me and her but a few feet of space. She walks toward me, pauses, and begins a new dance. She dances hard. Head relaxed on her spine, her arms swoop and swoosh in big, long arcs, dipping into the floor, then whirling up and around. The kinetic force builds as she sinks and energizes into her movement, opening the room in front of me, charging the large white walls with her long, white-shrouded limbs. I’ve rarely been this close to these large movements when I wasn’t dancing as well. She smells of sweat and Ben Gay. I wonder how sore she is. I wonder how tired she is.


From a soft focus gaze, indirect mostly, but with flashes of directness, she reads me. She takes my temperature with her nearness. She listens for my breath, the squeaks of the chair as I shift, she sees me look for her eyes, she sees me smile, seeking her smile. She dances for me. She dances off me. She gifts me a dance. (Me, a total stranger.) She takes my hand.




She chooses a new place for me, on a different chair. Or perhaps we choose it together, but I admit I am following her lead. The dance is for me, but I still feel like a guest in her home. I sit along the opposite wall, next to a pinkish red theater light. She dances to music—my song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” She lowers her eyes. She dances a memory, I think, a private memory to a shared experience. We share the song, but she has her memories associated with it, and I have mine. We are two different people with different histories, but our histories are linked by this common referent.


She dances in the red light. I hesitate to describe the dance to you now, because, well, it’s private, between her and me. I am overwhelmed with emotion, watching her. My heart catches in my throat. I notice I’ve stopped breathing and gulp in air with a mixture of gasp and sob.


The song ends. We are quiet. I hear her breath, heavy, but steadying. The dance relaxes into an end as she releases it and meets my eyes. She takes me by the hand. We thank one another, and she escorts me to the plastic curtain. I seek her eyes, and we exchange brief, shy smiles. I slip, slowly, regretfully, through the plastic slits, back into that other world, where I will again be no one special. No one out there will dance just For Me.


(For more on this work, see Julie Tolentino’s website at www.julietolentino.com



About the Author

Allison Wyper is a Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary performance artist who creates intimate and one-on-one performances that challenge viewer-performer dynamics and the ethics of participation. Allison has been an Associate Artist of La Pocha Nostra since 2004, and a collaborator with Western Australia’s Hydra Poesis since 2011. Her work has been seen in museums, galleries, theaters, universities, and streets in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Germany. Her writing has been published by Itch Dance Journal, Platform (U.K), Emergency Index, Whore Magazine and the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. More info at www.allisonwyper.com.