“Night Shift: A Morning of Performance” at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

This article was written in December 2013 while I was a student in the course “Night Practice,” in which I was enrolled during my final term as a BFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

header image: Leah Ransohoff, “Volunteer” (2013)

Veiled by obscurity from the scrutinizing eye of the dayshift, night work ranges in occupation from janitor to jewel thief. By the light of day, the nightshift is remembered by its ghosts or shadows, as empty wastebaskets, used condoms, extinguished kindling, the remnants of a séance. The night is time set away for labors (banal or fantastical) made bizarre and extraordinary by cover of darkness.

Since August of this year, Robin Deacon, artist and professor in the department of performance at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has led Night Practice, a performance course consisting of “a series of after hours maneuvers.” In Night Practice, students were asked to engage the theme of night and darkness as form and content. Late night workshops took students from the damp, lakeside woods at Dune Park to the top floors of Chicago’s skyscrapers. Students reconsidered Chicago and its periphery as simultaneously dazzling, illuminated by its historic skyline after sunset, and obscure, shrouded in the darkness afforded by its long shadows and subterranean crannies. Beyond its investigation of the unique topography of the night, Night Practice explored the cultural associations between the hours of darkness and all things intimate, criminal and magic.

Night Practice culminated in Night Shift: A Morning of Performance which took place Saturday night / Sunday morning of December 13 in The School of The Art Institute of Chicago’s MacLean Center.

Georges Bataille, the so-called “excrement-philosopher,” wrote fervently against the primacy of vision. Furthest organ from the detestable big toe, the eye is closest aligned with the fantasy of ascension and ‘goodness.’ The big toe is literally treaded underfoot, smashed into the primal mud [1] . The big toe recalls the day when people walked on paws, our gazes positioned along the horizontal axis of our animal bodies. Freud imagined that the birth of civilization corresponds to the erection of the body: the eyes, pulled from the earth and directed at the sun, literally ascending to authority and primacy over our repressed animality. But night pulls the eyes down away from the celestial domain of the sun back to the ground below. In the woods at night, we watch our feet.  Not only is the scope of vision redirected by night, it is slackened. Night brings us back into the blind labyrinth of the world, an echo of our animal past, turning all cities into catacombs. Obscurity, among Bataille’s many other conceptual clusters (dismemberment, the Acéphale, the obelisk), emerges as a connecting thread through Night Shift.

Arriving guests ascended the foyer stairs to the building’s opulent period ballroom. Dove Drury-Hornbuckle could be heard in the long galleries overlooking the tiled floor: a costumed mass of jingle-bells that bounced rhythmically along the horseshoe balcony. Guests were invited to breakfast while they checked in. Displacement of the morning meal recalls Poy Born’s Bataille inspired curatorial project last year in Pilsen, The Use Value of Breakfast. In a glittering clamor of chimes, Dove announced the stroke of midnight. Cathy Kim took the galleries, where she had assembled a modest spread of romantic clichés. Satin rose petals invited audience members to this one-on-one performance, climbing the stairs to the galleries where they were scattered on a white tablecloth in one of the booths set over the ballroom. Two tea lights and drinks to share. Kim disrobed, requested her guest’s outstretched hands and offered up her contact lenses.

In the black-box theatre past the ballroom’s eerily vacant kitchen, Joshua Roginsky performed with four powerful stage lights switched off and on to a pre-recorded reading of Georges Bataille’s Solar Anus, the spoken text cut up and reimagined as a cacophony of layered and disjointed distortions. Roginsky sliced his three-piece suite away, a treatment that echoes his dismemberment of Bataille’s seminal essay on the blinding excess of an anti-platonic sun. In the chaos of dilating pupils, little glimpses of Roginsky’s tattered costume could be discerned in the soft spotlight of a can lamp he carried.

Jake Vogds performed his Camp Co., which debuted earlier in the month at Cabaret Cabaret, a performance mini-series hosted in Pilsen. Jake was joined by Nico Gardner and Ro Silberman. Vogds and Gardner were squeezed into a gray tent-shaped garment, recalling GAP’s “Be Bright, Be One” ad campaign, here a surreal two-headed monster. Silberman was topless under a similarly tent-shaped garment (this one transparent instead of grey), wore a long gold chain and sported a baseball cap. The trio performed phrases extracted from pop-music. Disembodied snippets: “Let’s do it! Dream! Oh Baby!” the ingredients of Pop dismembered; paired down and essentialized to the point of absurdity.

Leah Ransohoff, disguised in a loosely fitted black zentai, was met with a mix of fear and delight when she crawled backwards into a darkened room, hands and feet becoming the paws of some impossible, headless animal. Ransohoff’s stood upright, head emerging from the garment to kiss a volunteer on the cheek. She reassumed the disguise and crawled back into darkness. After, the audience was asked to lie down and get comfortable. Naturally, pillows were provided. The lights were cut and Dylan Sell entered, ostensibly naked in the small halo his flashlight provided. He dragged a clinking, black trash bag and recited the sweet and sinister details of his clandestine entry into the home of a sleeping friend- an object of obsession he had never met and until then claimed to have only observed from a distance- a simultaneously goofy and haunting monologue. He hunted around in the garbage bag for the perfect present, claiming, “after all, night time is the best time…for making new friends.”

On the elevator to the 13th floor, Duff Norris entertained guests with a juggling act and Cabaret themed musical number: a mustached clown or trickster. Abbey Odunlami and Mitchel Mittelstedt screened films in the building’s micro-cinema, and Alessandra Gomez performed her Fragments of The World Seek Eachother, where she and a partner simultaneously executed instructions for performance on either side of a glass wall. Mayra Rodriguez’s Synonyms For Touch on the 4th floor had the audience waiting in a small side office, with little more than a water cooler and printer. The presence of the audience queued the printer to released pages of poetic text- we assume Rodriguez was watching from nearby. Questions of presence and liveness were raised in the otherwise unremarkable administrative workspace, aptly abandoned by the dayshift to the lonely quiet of night.

The audience for Paul Smith’s Theatre Or An Ordinary Gesture (For Kovanda) observed a snow covered Michigan avenue from the 14th floor lookout of the building, where somewhere below Smith smoked a cigarette or paced discretely. Smith’s Theatre recalls themes of vantage, scale, and the apprehensibility of location in and urban landscape, notably addressed in Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Bataille writes “against architecture,” [2] as architecture stands in for a coherent, comprehensible visual field and emblemizes repression in the image of the monumental obelisk- literalizing the absurd drive to ascension and symbolizing the accumulation of wealth and power opposed to Bataille’s theory of a general economy [3] .

Chicago is at no loss of epic towers- the Brutalist Aon Center juts from its foundation north of Millennium Park. By day, the granite clad superstructure (once marble, the tower was re-skinned when it began to crumble in 1990) glows like a bone against the lake and surrounding city. Visible from the same windows used in Smith’s performance, it directs our gazes optimistically upwards towards the boundless sky. Though by night, this obelisk plummets into the cavity of darkness. Night is both the absence of the sun and the inversion of the day. The tower at night assumes an electrical luminosity (Chicago’s buzzing skyline); yet, even when the commercial brilliance of the sleepless city illuminates the streets, a psychic darkness arising in the absence of the sun is eminent. The city at night is a parody of the sun. Smith’s performance could be read as a mere hunt for the performer amongst the bleakness of the city in winter; or, as a staging that locates the subterranean both above and below an audience in the city at night.

In the early hours of the morning, while exhausted guests filed out of the ballroom as if in a trance or dream, one could sense that in someway the platforms on which performances occurred had dissolved. Thick and surreal, the environment was totalizing. These performances had become, plainly, a fact of the night. Then, as now, the night shift- that other end of the work day- retains all the seductive powers of darkness; its mysteries, its horrors and its enchantments.

[1] “The division of the universe into subterranean hell and a perfectly pure heaven is an indelible conception, mud and darkness being the principles of evil as light and celestial space are the principles of good: with their feet in the mud but their heads somewhat approaching the light, men obstinately imagine a tide that will elevate them, never to return, into pure space.” (Georges Bataille, The Big Toe [1929])

[2] see: Denis Hollier, Against Architecture, The Writings of Georges Bataille (1992)

[3] see: Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share (1946-1949; 1991)