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,
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.