WCMA takes to the ‘Street’

On Thursday, video artists Nao Bustamante and William Pope.L screened selections of their work and spoke on the issues surrounding the creation and place of urban art in conjunction with “Street Show,” an exhibition currently at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). Both Bustamante and Pope.L are featured in the exhibition, along with fellow artists Mario Ybarra, Messieurs Delmotte and the Surveillance Camera Players.

In her opening remarks, Lisa Dorin, curatorial and programs assistant at WCMA, described “Street Show” as “a culmination of interdisciplinary efforts” which examines not only urban spaces, but the experience of these spaces by the artists performing in them. “Street Show” encompasses examples of performance art that reject the assumption that the artist must exploit his or her own body in order to create a compelling performance, instead focusing on how the artist’s urban environment affects the performance.

C. Ondine Chavoya, assistant professor of art, introduced the speakers and moderated the panel discussion that followed the artists’ presentation of tastes of their work. He called Pope.L “the poet of the abject” and enthused that Bustamante encompassed every type of art between pop and punk. Pope.L is best known for his “crawl” pieces, which typically feature the artist creeping on his belly through urban neighborhoods. One of these, “Tompkins Square Crawl a.k.a. How Much Is That Nigger in the Window?” appears in the WCMA exhibition.

Pope.L led off the presentation with a slide show depicting parts of “William Pope.L: eRacism,” a retrospective exhibition of his work. He described his 25-year career as examining and utilizing every conceivable artistic genre – “from mayonnaise to Martin Luther King’s DNA. . .high fat and low art.” On slides, he flashed images of a mechanical dog mired in several hundred pounds of flour and a frankfurter map of the world, much of which was blanketed with white mold. Pope.L looked at the screen amusedly, declaring “much of my work decays over time.”

His video selection, entitled “The Black Factory,” was filmed at a motel in Lewiston, Maine, near Bates College, where he is a professor of theatre. He proclaimed that the goal of this piece was to create a video “to serve you to you.” Three characters – two men and a woman in a cropped white bath towel – watch infomercials in a cramped motel room.

Most of the action takes place within three long takes, the lengthiest of which shows a power struggle of sorts between the three characters. The camera is situated on a tripod outside the room while the two men take turns affectedly speaking the line “Hello, my name is William Pope.L” directly to the camera – in effect creating an infomercial of their own for “The Black Factory,” a concept which is described at length in vague terms by the true Pope.L. The scene concludes with the three crammed into a small bed, tensely watching more infomercials on a blaring TV set.

Bustamante, accompanied by her poodle Foo Foo, took the podium next to screen several pieces of her work as a performance artist. The first piece, entitled “Rosa Does Joan,” was one part original filming and two parts recorded segments from an episode of “The Joan Rivers Show,” on which Bustamante was a guest in 1992. As a candid “stunt exhibitionist” named “Rosa,” Bustamante appeared on the show opposite a self-styled voyeur, presenting herself as a “voyeur’s dream.” She then discussed with Rivers various fictionalized examples of her need to show off her body, once at an aquarium. The clips of the show that aired are paired with backstage shots of the voyeur and his friend, who discuss between themselves their desires to become famous.

Bustamante explained to the audience after the clip that this video was designed in part as a vehicle for her to interject words such as “ambisexual” into a national space at a time when ambiguous sexuality was not the status quo on daytime talk shows.

Her second selection was a brief stunt of the artist sealing her head into a clear garbage bag filled with water from a garden hose. Her features are magnified and distorted by the mask of water, which she tears off when she can no longer hold her breath. She gasps for air and stares into the camera lens in what she describes as “Fellini-esque. . .type of endurance work.”

Following this was a fantasy lifestyle piece of Bustamante chatting on a cell phone while walking her dog through well-manicured streets. Back in an all-white apartment, her lover talks on the phone to her in another language and waits for her splayed on a bear rug, while another man mixes a Mojito. All three end up in bed together – both panel artists laughed about the unintentionally recurring threesome theme of the afternoon.

The final piece of the presentation was part of an experiment Bustamante conducted while at a party in Havana, Cuba. She had participants improvise a soap opera while a violinist played screeching melodies in the same room. She clarified that her intent was to demonstrate how well “we carry the narrative within us, like a soap opera,” and that participants did so with relatively little encouragement.

“Street Show” is on display in WCMA’s Media Field, which has been renovated in order to feature exclusively digital media-oriented artwork, through Jan. 12, 2003.

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