Last Friday, while waiting in line to see Jesper Just and FOS’s Performa commission, one chicly dressed attendee could be heard saying, “I love this idea of ‘Don’t have a performance within your performance.’ ” Alas, there was a performance in the Danish artists’ installation/concert, titled in the shadow/of a spectacle/is the crowd—but there was no way she could have known that going in. No information had been posted to Performa’s website; no pamphlets were given out. As a line of curious New Yorkers waited on the mezzanine of a Financial District skyscraper, nobody seemed to know anything about the performance and installation they were about to see. “I’m in a state of waiting here,” another impatient attendee said.
Ten minutes past the scheduled start time, audience members were shepherded into several elevators. Two businesswomen heading out for the day were amused by the steady stream of hipsters going upstairs; the hipsters themselves continued to check their phones and murmur about Just’s past film works. Once inside the cramped elevator, everyone stood confused as it rocketed upward. (Only after the performance was over did we learn that we were sent to the 43rd floor.)
When the elevator let out, there was more herding, this time to the foot of a thin staircase. Ambient music, punctuated by loud thuds, was played from an unseen source, and there was barely enough light to see. Slowly but surely, the crowd climbed up the staircase to more darkness, where, sure enough, there was more herding, now to the front of a video that started out as an aerial shot of a forest. (About half of this hour-long performance was spent waiting for various things.)
Just is known for his cinematic video work, so seeing one projected here was welcome. In an unsurprising move for Just, who has previously filmed handicapped people moving about in 1 World Trade Center (which is just minutes away from 225 Liberty Street, where the performance was held), the video was pretty strange—it ended up involving people of all shapes, races, and sizes wandering through the woods as though they had just crawled out of a crashed plane before dissolving into bright magenta light.
But never mind all that—the main attractions, for most of the audience, were several painted-over windows that had clear areas. Looking out the windows, you could see the New York skyline, lit pink and orange by what happened to be an especially beautiful sunset that night. A video of a skyscraper’s exterior was projected on a scrim nearby one of the windows. It was unclear whether the video was a live feed—workers could be seen typing away at their desks, and some people seemed to have already left for the day. People didn’t watch this one for too long, nor did they spend too much time around a whirring, Mike Kelley–esque machine that provided the sound for the installation.
Finally, at the back of the installation sat the work’s sole performer—a woman wearing what looked like a moss-green hijab, black tights, and fashionable shoes. Seated on a folding chair, the woman, who turned out to be the singer Sahra Motalebi, would check her watch occasionally. Next to her was a camera cocked to its side, trained on an empty film set.
Just’s best videos find characters in unexpected situations. It is as if his characters know they’re in one of his videos, and they decide to leap out of their roles by acting on their own accord. In his 2004 video Bliss and Heaven, a country bumpkin hops into the back of a truck and is let out into a theater, where he steps onstage in drag and sings an Olivia Newton-John hit. (In a BOMB magazine interview, Performa’s founder, RoseLee Goldberg, said that seeing this video caused her instantly to commission Just to do a performance for the first Performa, in 2004.) In No Man Is an Island II (2004), a bunch of men drinking alone in a bar start belting a song together. By now, you might have guessed that in the shadow/of a spectacle/is the crowd climaxed in a similar way—Motalebi uncrossed her legs, stepped in front of the camera, and started to sing loudly.
After a long waiting period between the first video finishing and Motalebi launching into a nonsense aria, the crowd was finally at attention. Some people sat on the ground to watch the whole thing, while others hovered in the back, prepared to leave if it got boring. Whether either half of the audience got what it wanted is questionable. Once Motalebi began orgasmically singing a song composed entirely of “oohs” and “ahs,” everyone seemed confused, entranced, and bored, in that order. After about ten minutes of singing, Motalebi stepped off the set, walked through the audience, and exited the installation.
The crowd followed in suit, claiming a free bottle of juice from a tray near the elevators as they did so. (I’m honestly not sure whether the juice was part of the performance or not.) The performer became the audience, and the audience became the performer. But I was left wondering why Just and FOS hadn’t just let the video be the work. The videos and installation successfully created an environment where we were literally in the dark—where we didn’t know our surroundings, or what the performance was going to be. The performance seems to matter little, though, and that’s not something you’d want to say about a Performa commission. The last thing I waited for was the performance to matter, but that feeling never came.