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Performance Art Exhibition Showcases Riverwest Talent

by Jeremy Berg

Ultimately they decided to call it Convergence, but at one point, Pegi Taylor tells me, the name “Not Not Not” was being floated for the performance art exhibition happening in early October at the Walker’s Point Center for the Performing Arts. Performance art, she says, is often defined by what it is not. It is not theater, dance, a concert, or a movie, though elements of all of those arts may show up. It is, by consequence, poorly understood, and perhaps a little scary to some. “Performance art has a somewhat wild history…[Convergence] is meant to be sort of a safe introduction to people.” Performance artists come from many disciplines, and the highly individual nature of any given piece makes it hard to give it a definition. However, says Taylor, one thing unites all aspects of performance art: immediacy. “It’s happening right now and it’s based upon that right now experience.” Performance art differs most of all from any associated discipline in that its very nature changes with the circumstances of any given night (which is one reason that performance art frequently involves audience participation). Unlike theater, a performance art piece, while it may contain planned elements, can never be written down and done by others because “it is live, it is personal.” For Renato Umali, performance art provides a means of expression for his long-time interest in statistics. “I always enjoyed seeing a bell curve, I always liked looking at Babe Ruth stats. It’s always nice to see it graphed.” For a while he charted various things on a website, but grew dissatisfied with its static nature and created an awards show and quiz, which he finds much more satisfying, especially since his current set of statistics tracks how many people he’s talked to each day. “Presenting it this way, involving the audience, is kind of like a final exchange…the world at large has filled my life…so doing it as an awards show or quiz gives it back…kind of always completing a circle.” Each night of the show features a strong Riverwest component. Umali, who is part of the Friday night performance, moved here from Chicago in 1998, and he says the Riverwest community provided him access to performance art: “When I got here, it seemed that there were all these spaces. Venues that weren’t just places for a rock band or traditional play — Bamboo Theatre, Pumpkin World, WPCA… Chicago seemed so hard to tap into.” The program’s three nights cover, respectively, 1980-1990, 1990-2000, and 2000 Forward, though every night will end with a discussion of the present state of performance art in Milwaukee. Brent Budsberg will speak on Friday night about performance art in the ’90s in the basement of One Nation Gallery. Mark Escribano and Allyson Bahr, appearing on Saturday, are both involved with the Whitebox Painters, who have created audience-involved performance spaces in Riverwest. Taylor herself is a relative newcomer to performing, having started when Woodland Pattern hosted performance art workshops in 2000. As she says, “The reason I did this is because I had a lot of curiosity about it.” She also sees an opportunity to make sure performance art in Milwaukee continues on its upswing, following an ebb in the 1990s. A community is important to performance art, both in an abstract sense — so artists can collaborate or trade ideas — and in a literal sense, so that there can be good places to live and perform. “It’s really nice to have a space that’s not a bar, but not an art museum either,” Taylor points out. Umali echoes her thoughts: “Presenting it the way I want to present it requires collaborators.” Both agree that Riverwest fills those needs quite well. “I see Riverwest as about living in a particular place and performance art is like that…about being in a particular place at a particular time, and that creates an immediacy that doesn’t exist in other art forms,” says Taylor. In addition to the part it may play in the future of performance art in Milwaukee, Riverwest already has a hand in its past glories. Woodland Pattern has hosted such performance art luminaries as Laurie Anderson and Holly Hughes, and Convergence offers us a chance to see a little of this past one last time — and perhaps a glimpse of the future as well. “Convergence: The History and Mystery of Performance Art in Milwaukee” will take place Thursday, October 2, through Saturday, October 4, at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts 911 W. National Ave. 7:30 p.m. For information and tickets ($7 per night or $15 for the series) call 672-2787.