When the artist becomes the art
Sharon Arts: New exhibit, ‘(con)TEXT,’ explores digital performance art
Atticus Collette of Dublin, NH texts Tricia Rose Burt, left, and Rachel Perry Welty during the artists' "WTF" performance during the opening reception of "(con)TEXT" at the Sharon Arts Downtown Gallery earlier this month. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
Rachel Perry Welty,left, and Tricia Rose Burt texting during their "WTF" performance opening night of the "(con)TEXT" exibit in downtown Peterborough. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
Forty-six extraordinary works reached out to visitors to the Sharon Arts Exhibition Gallery for the opening reception earlier this month of “(con)TEXT,” a highly innovative show of words and phrases graphically transformed into creative design, objects and collage in a variety of shapes and sizes, provocations and purpose.
As the patrons shuffled around the gallery, pausing to gaze, reading the labels, gathering in small groups and enjoying the refreshments, two women sat in the center of the gallery, hunched over their cell phones, texting, texting, texting. First impressions by some of those in the room were that they were just being rude, paying no attention to the art, seemingly lost in their personal i-worlds. Closer inspection, however, revealed that each had a cellphone address stuck to her blouse, and they were actually communicating with people in the room who were in turn texting them. In other words, these two women were part of the exhibition, a brilliant example of performance art, provocatively titled “WTF (2013)” and performed by artists Rachel Perry Welty and Tricia Rose Burt . The pair continued texting nonstop with phones firing continuously, even through the executive director’s and curator’s remarks. Adding to the tension, the two performers totally avoided contact with the audience. No eye contact, facial expressions or gestures, just two tech-driven automatons hunched over their cell phones, dedicated to their art.
Of the experience Burt said, “Our performance was a chance to explore our choice to communicate through devices, rather than through personal interaction.”
“Right,” added Welty. “It was a comment on the changing nature of conversation, and how we seem willing to forgo face-to face contact for easier, frictionless e-contact. I think we were both curious rather than judgmental — not is this a bad thing or a good thing, but what does it mean for us as humans in this world? Another surprise,” she continued, “was the fragmented nature of our conversations. Thoughts got interrupted continuously. There was a natural overlap of responses, crossed messages and therefore the ever-present possibility of misunderstanding each other.”
The experience was physically challenging for both artists as well. “I had thought texting for two hours would seem endless, but instead, the time flew by for both of us,” said Burt. “My breathing was minimal — almost like I was holding it. It was very physically draining — I had to visit the chiropractor a couple days later.”
Welty concurred. “A couple of things surprised me about this performance,” she said. “One was the intensity of continual texting. Our fingers were flying. It was physically and mentally exhausting. When the performance ended, we were both rattled, because we had been so focused on these tiny screens, responding to a barrage of mostly unrelated information.”
Each of the “performers” also has a work in the “(con)TEXT” show. Welty is a Boston-based conceptual artist and a MacDowell Fellow. She uses fruit stickers, restaurant take-out containers, messages left on her answering machine, medical records, toys and email spam as materials for her art. She is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York.
Burt is a visual artist, writer and performer who lives in New England. She is a frequent guest storyteller with National Public Radio’s acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning, “Moth Radio Hour.” She’s also been a visiting artist at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge.
Text art can be traced as far back as the 4th century when Simmias of Rhodes presented poems in interpretative designs like a poem about an axe written in the shape of an axe.
But it was the early 20th century when Kurt Switters, dubbed “The Godfather of Modern text art,” combined performance pieces and poems giving equal weight to the poem and to the art material employed. Soon the concept migrated to cubists like Picasso, Braque and Gris, eventually finding wider expression in the modern art of the 60’s.
Text art now encounters the technology-driven 21st century, Tim Donovan, director of the Launch F18 Gallery in New York and curator for “(con)TEXT,” observed.
“Text incorporated within art offers a profound purpose by both redefining our perception of what language can be and what it can do,” he said. “It offers an array of ideas, questions and visual considerations in a thought-provoking colloquy.”
Sharon Arts’ “(con)TEXT” exhibition continues at the Exhibition Gallery in Depot Square, Peterborough, through Oct. 25.
George Duncan is freelance writer and marketing consultant in Peterborough.