By Michael Workman
“Rapid Pulse,” the international performance art festival conceived by Joseph Ravens, executive director of Defibrillator Gallery, enters its fifth year this June. We talked with Joseph about the evolution and future of the fest, which brings together artists from Chicago and abroad for the cutting-edge performance series of the summer.
This is the fifth year of “Rapid Pulse”; can you tell me a little about what’s grown, changed, remained the same about the festival?
The most consistent factor has been the director and assistant director, me and Giana Gambino, respectively. We’ve been involved since the beginning and the festival has reflected that, I feel, by keeping a very similar format over all five years. We’ve always had work in the gallery (though we were on Milwaukee Avenue for the first three editions), work outside the gallery context (in the street or site specific), work in the windows and a video series. These elements have remained the same over the years. The first two years, the festival was a ten-day marathon. It was very difficult. The past two years were eight days with a three-day break between—also difficult. This year, however, in honor of our fifth anniversary and in order to make things more manageable, we have five days of performances and video screenings.
The first four years also had four curators for the live work: Giana, myself, Steven L. Bridges and Julie Laffin. Steven took a position at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, so he isn’t involved this year, sadly. Julie has been busy with other projects, so this year she co-curated the video series along with Giana. Giana and I curated the live work this year which was a little easier as it was difficult to get all four of us together. Our move from Milwaukee Avenue to Chicago Avenue also shifted things quite a bit. Our new space is much larger and can accommodate works in the gallery, the windows, the basement space and our video performance series will be in our garage. So things are condensed and more efficient this year. Usually we secure a hub to have our lunches and a place for artists to hang, but this year we decided to have our lunches in local restaurants—invigorating our local economy and giving local artists a better feel for the Noble Square, West Town and Wicker Park neighborhoods. The past four years we also presented formal artist talks and panel discussions. This was so much work and, unfortunately, under-attended. This year we started a Gastronomy Series, STU, where we asked local artists to create a soup or stew as a late-night pop-up supper.
It seems like the festival has grown in popularity, receiving over 200 applications for this year. How were the performances selected?
We invite a few artists we admire—each curator adding suggestions to a list—and then we narrow it down and extend invitations. We then put out an international call for proposals. We compile a pool of our favorites and then begin thinking about various things: what region they are from, what style of work they make, where they are at in their careers, and how they fit all together. We really think about what we are able to offer the artists, not only what the artists will bring to “Rapid Pulse”—we view it symbiotically. We want good energy and a group of people who will make a vibrant five-day micro-community. This year having only two people on the curatorial committee definitely streamlined the process. However, when it came down to making final decisions, we called in Julie Laffin, who we rely on to offer thoughtful contributions to the overall process. We really do curate the work, making selections based on project proposals and combining them in thoughtful ways that we believe are interesting.
What are some of your favorite performances in this year’s program? Domestically and in terms of international performers? Who are your headliners?
We are thrilled this year to include the work of Linda Mary Montano in this year’s festival lineup. An artist since the mid-1960s, Linda’s work investigates the relationship between art and life. Through shared experience, role adoption and intricate life-altering ceremonies, her boundary defying performances last for hours, days and even years. This year, on Wednesday, June 1, she will embody her famous role of an “art/ life counselor.” On Sunday, June 5, after presenting her “Glandathon” as the final performance of “Rapid Pulse” (an honorary slot), Linda will lead an overnight workshop called “Sleepathon: An Overnight Experience.” I’m in love with each and every one of the artists and can’t wait to meet them and see their work. It’s the reward after months of grueling work to make it happen…but, I’ve been following the work of Sarah Trouche, of France, for some years and I’m really excited to meet her and see her work. I’m tickled to work with amazing local artists like Edra Soto, Joseph and Sarah Belknap, and the pothole mosaic artist, Jim Bachor. We are proud to feature his work as performance because it is, but I think he thinks it is a strange way to frame his work. We’re so proud of the art and artists in Chicago and we love sharing them on an international platform, representing the best Chicago has to offer. We really think of the local and the global simultaneously and hope to provide a unique opportunity for performance artists to build community while sharing their work with Chicago audiences, other artists, international curators and respected academics. We’re particularly tickled to have the legendary Cynthia Plaster Caster as the guest of honor at our “Vernissage,” a celebration the night before the festival, Tuesday, May 31. Cynthia will give a talk/performance around 8:30pm.
Which performances would you consider the most “challenging” out of this year’s program and why?
We have a few very challenging performances to produce this year! For instance, Gavin Krastin from South Africa needs to work with a local dentist who will administer novocaine to his mouth throughout his performance; Peter Baren from the Netherlands would like to collaborate with a local dervish (which is harder to find than expected); and Sarah Trouche will be using a power washer in her performance, so we have concerns about that. In terms of challenging content, we expect David Frankovich, Keijaun Thomas and Kelvin Atmadibrata to push the limits. Erika Bülle, from Mexico, will pull the skin and fat on her back together with a measuring tape looped through a series of pierced hoops, like a backwards corset of flesh. This year we printed in our brochure that the 7pm performances are intended for mature audiences.
What have been your goals for this year’s event as a curator, director of Defibrillator and as a performance artist yourself?
One of the newer goals for “Rapid Pulse” 2016 is to make it feel like a retreat and really emphasize the importance of sharing and engaging in experiences with people in the international performance art community. In the past we brought artists in as two groups, one after the other (to save money), and the two groups never interacted. This year we condensed the festival into five days and are bringing all the artists in at the same time. We’re really happy about that. We are excited by our new category, STU, a late-night pop-up supper for the artists and crew and a few select individuals. Giana and I discussed and decided that artist talks and panel discussions are outdated modes of information exchange. Setting aside these traditional forms of discourse, we decided to provide an atmosphere where exchange of ideas happens naturally and conversations flow freely, as they tend to do over food and drink, at a table.
As director of Defibrillator, my goal is to not have a ton of debt after this festival! That sounds silly, but for the past four years I’ve been left reeling financially, for months, really struggling to pay the bills and manage expenses. We’ve cut the festival down in size and we’re doing all we can to get donations, but outside support is minimal. I’d guess that eighty percent or more of the festival I fund myself with money earned at a grueling day job. As you can imagine, this sum is quite large. So my goal is to stay on budget.
Actually, I’ve a lot of goals for dfb, I’m always dreaming big. Our apprenticeship program is getting stronger and more interesting each year. We’re contracting young artists to work with/for us (documenting, installation, etc.) in exchange for perks like working in the gallery when it isn’t booked, studio visits, discussions and performance opportunities. We’re taking more people who are not students—we actually don’t care if they are getting credit or not—we are trying to assemble a non-institutional educational experience, very specifically focused on the creation, production and presentation of performance art. This excites me a lot. We currently have a wonderful group of young artists who devote themselves to us and we love them. As a performance artist I simply hope to make more work. Because of the gallery and my day job, my personal practice has taken a back burner. But making performances makes me happy and I can’t give it up. So I have been seeing more opportunities. I have some projects in the coming year that are really exciting, including a residency at Arizona State University and (I just found out) the amazing 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in Toronto.
Funding for performance art in particular has always been a difficult prospect and in recent years it’s only gotten tighter for operations like that of Defibrillator. Can you tell our readers a little about the effects the funding challenges have on programming and ways in which they can help support it?
Funding for performance art is notoriously tricky; aside from the historical culture wars, which unnecessarily scandalized performance art, we still find ourselves having to explain performance art to people and organizations. We often fall between the cracks, existing in a place between visual art, dance and theater. We generally apply in the visual art category, because we champion performance art as a visual arts practice. Not surprisingly, most funding for “Rapid Pulse” comes from other countries. Netherland-America Foundation is helping with bringing Peter Baren, and many other international artists have received funding on their own, with our invitation. That’s sort of how it works. Our invited artists get a few perks, but artists we accept through the open call must find their own airfare. Once they arrive in Chicago we house them and feed them and produce their work, often providing materials at considerable cost. But we can’t give them private accommodation or we place them with local people who have room in their homes. We are a humble festival and the artists who attend are very special for they must also feel our financial challenges. One of the most burdensome challenges is our inability to pay our staff or provide artist fees. We would love to be able to compensate our team members and the artists for their hard work and art work. The simplest way to help support Defibrillator and our programming is to make an advance ticket donation on Eventbrite, donate time as a volunteer and to promote or share our mission and programs with others.
I’ve heard mention that this could perhaps be the final year for the festival. Why? What could potentially take its place?
I’ve heard this from a few people but not sure how it’s getting around. Giana and I want to take next year off to work on the catalogs, hoping to print one for each year and also packaging them as a set. Each year artists are told they will receive a catalog and I intend to honor that commitment. But printing isn’t cheap. We’ve also talked about a visual art exhibition of relics from the first five years, along with videos and images. So it may not be about skipping a year, just a transitional year that takes a different form. I’m not comfortable with saying this is the last one, but I do know we will take next year to focus on the archive from the first five years of the festival and then see where that takes us. Maybe (hopefully) it begins again with a different structure or a different vibe. Basically, it’s hard. Giana and I work year round to make it happen. A bunch of people make sacrifices and put up with a lot of crap, all for the festival. Artists come from around the world and we can’t give them a private room or a plane ticket or a small honorarium. We want to change that. We want to be a better festival to give our team and our artists more. Taking a leap year might allow us to think long range. Annual festivals are murder because it all happens in such a condensed amount of time. Referring back to the question about funding—in the United States it is common to apply for things far in advance with all the details in place. This doesn’t work for “Rapid Pulse” or Defibrillator or performance art. There are exceptions, of course. Defibrillator does long-range planning, inviting artists and applying for funding a year in advance, but this is risky business and often doesn’t come to fruit, despite a lot of work and planning. It’s frustrating.
Future plans for Defibrillator in the summer, beyond the fest?
This summer we aren’t programming, but we won’t be idle. Zephyr Dance is making a new site-specific work this summer that they will present in the fall. They’ll make work all over the gallery, including the basement and the courtyard and the garage, all worked out during a six-week residency. Like “Rapid Pulse,” Defibrillator is struggling to take it to another level. We are feeling the same burn, wanting to pay our volunteer staff who have devoted so much time and energy to this medium. We also want to start providing artist fees. So this means cutting back on programming, sort of. This past year we have been trying to arrange two-week residencies with our featured artists, especially international ones. Presenting performance is always our focus, but we want to focus more on forming relationships and fostering community. Looking at the calendar (totally subject to change), it’s exciting to see names for next season like Jill Orr (Australia, US premiere), FK Alexander (UK), and a name or two I can’t share because they are very well-known and I would hate to get your hopes up! But always keep an eye open, we show amazing work all the time, no joke.
Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival 2016, at Defibrillator, 1463 West Chicago, June 1-5. Tickets available online at www.RP16.eventbrite.com.