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Underwater and ‘knitting for tattoos’: An afternoon of performance art at CAC’s ‘Off the Strip’

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Photo: Kristen Peterson

When it comes to performance art, you never really know what to expect. Famously, it has included artists rolling around on raw fish and chicken, being nailed—Christ-like—to the back of a Volkswagen and mutilating themselves in front of an audience.

The diverse and widely varying discipline, for better or worse, has a general reputation as provocative, and sometimes wacky.

But given the gamut of artists and their approaches to work (including the more moderate Laurie Anderson), a blanket statement is largely unfair.

However, whether tame, effective, community minded, self-indulgent political, ritualistic or humorous, you know performance art when you see it.

So when artist Michael Barrett walked through a small crowd at the Contemporary Arts Center Sunday carrying a plastic inflatable pool and wearing only a black jockstrap, black ski mask and athletic cleats, it was clear that Sunday’s Off the Strip performances were underway.

CAC's Off the Strip 2012

The former Marine, athlete and survivor of testicular cancer, known for unusual endurance works –pushing a tractor tire up Lombard Street in San Francisco, for example, was taking on another endurance feat: submerging himself (with a breathing tube) underwater for as long as possible. But first, he’d need to inflate the pool, a task that was also part of the performance.

As its name implies, Off the Strip is not just physically removed from the entertainment corridor, it’s artistically an entirely different animal than the highly choreographed, general audience, linear multimillion-dollar productions. The performance and video works presented in several days and multiple locations by local, national and international artists are in contrast to Strip entertainment (even while reflecting it) and vary wildly in approach, topics and execution.

At Sunday’s event, organizer Jo Russ, who rescued Off the Strip after a year hiatus, said the goal was to present a cross-section of contemporary performance art in Las Vegas.

Sunday afternoon offered a nice sample platter: In addition to Barrett, whose squeaking foot pump was audible throughout the gallery, serving a rhythmic backdrop, was artist Amanda Haymond, camped out on the floor of the gallery, knitting alongside a tip jar and a cardboard sign that stated, “Will knit 4 tattoos,” a performance similar to the one she did on a street corner.

Sculptor Miguel Rodriguez, dressed in a skin-tight black body suit and wearing a carved black skull (15 times the size of his head) on his shoulders, portrayed a potter who lived “eons” ago and returned as a mute ghost wanting to create, but could only instruct others to do so through pantomime.

Aaron Nemec’s brilliant Elvis! Live! YouTube! highlighted the everyman YouTube performer singing to popular music over the Internet. More specifically, it acquainted the small audience with an impassioned performer, known only to viewers throughout the world as Gronio 27, a man inspired by Elvis and gesticulating with unbridled drama. Nemec’s piece gives Gronio 27 a stage and live audience—a show. Once Gronio 27 finished “Hound Dog,” Nemec joined him in a duet for the Elvis rendition of “Bridge Over Trouble Water.” Applause, applause.

By then, the click-clack-slide of Barrett’s cleats marked his departure and re-entry to grab supplies: a bucket, camera and tripod and breathing hose. He was now in the pool, filled with water using a garden hose and surrounded by onlookers. A camera above him on a tripod presented the birds-eye view on a wall in front of him. Visitors stood around, chatting about Barrett holding the record for largest jock strap in the Guinness Book of World Records and pointing out that he’s moved here recently from San Francisco to Las Vegas to be a part of the art scene.

Haymond continues to knit. The performance reflects her views of panhandling, homelessness and stereotypes. “Most homeless people do not panhandle,” Haymond says, explaining that she’s worked with homeless people for five years. “Most panhandlers are not homeless."

By 5:45, some wondered when Barrett would come out and what was going through his head. His performances have had contraptions punching him. They’ve involved him running in heels, moving objects with orifices, and building and navigating obstacle courses. He’s earned respect for his work, which has been presented in galleries, museums and other places around the world. It’s all about endurance, testing and challenging his limits in ways that speak to his background and personal issues. But his body is shaking from holding his buoyant self down; his skin is spotty; and his eyes have remained opened underwater. How much longer before he comes out and what, exactly, will it mean?

At 6:15, two hours after he first walked into the gallery carrying the pool, Barrett emerges to applause.

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