“This is the symbol of all of the things that we are always carrying around.” : An Interview w/ The Third Thing

outline

The Third Thing is a performative poetics collaboration between Bay Area poets Ivy Johnson and Kate Robinson. They deploy still and moving images, live performance and poetry to create multimedia collages in the service of an ecstatic feminist agenda.

Cosmo Spinosa: Before we talk about the performance that I attended, I wanted to discuss The Third Thing as a performance group and entity. So, how would you define The Third Thing, what is it that you intend to do in your performances, and. . .

Ivy Johnson: I feel like I should get the artist’s statement. . .

Kate Robinson: Oh, yeah, grab that.

C: What made you decide to start a performance group? So I guess that’s three [questions].

K: That’s probably the easiest part to start with while Ivy’s looking for the artist’s statement. Well, we had been separately interested in performative poetics for a while, and talking about doing something about that. We didn’t really know what that something was, though. And then, actually Alana Siegel gathered some people, us included, who had been talking about that and called a meeting. She was just like, “We should get a group together,” and I don’t really know what the intention of that group was particularly because it never really got off the ground. We had one meeting. There were a number of people–maybe eight. . . something like that, and we just talked about what our interests were, you know some of us–I think a lot of us–had been inspired by performance artists, like. . .

I: Ana Mendieta for example. . .

K: Well, you know, it’s hard to say what the other people were really interested in. I think Ivy and I definitely had similar interests. So that group just sort of. . . it dissolved immediately. That first meeting had maybe eight people, the second and third meeting there were probably six people, then there were four. And there were four of us for a while. It was Ivy and I, and Lionel–a friend of mine, and Tom Comitta. Then Tom kinda disappeared, then Lionel disappeared, and then it was just me and Ivy.

I: That’s when it felt like it kind of took off.

K: That’s when it felt like a group, when it was just the two of us, and then Olive Blackburn from SALTA asked us to do a performance at one of SALTA’s dance houses. Up until that point we had pretty much just been reading this book, The Transformative Power of Performance by Erika Fischer-Lichte, discussing it, doing some performative exercises, that was pretty great.

I: I think, for me, the reason that I started to be interested in performance art was that so much of my writing is about embodiment, so, there was definitely a need to craft an embodied response to the work, and. . . I think that I also felt influenced by CA Conrad. I had done a workshop with him while I was living in New York. Just a one day workshop where we would do Somatic Poetry exercises, and then write work that came out of that. And so, in my own work, both through my experience with Conrad and separately, I ended up, without really knowing it, writing performance scores into poetry. I ended up writing poetry that was a description of a performance that I wanted to do, this is an action that I want to do. And so, it came out of wanting to actually create the scenes of what I was writing about.

ivy silueta balloon

K: Yeah, I think embodiment is definitely a thing that we both were concerned with in our poetry. I also think that we both come from sort of ritually-minded background, I mean Ivy, you had a pretty religious–performative religious, ritually religious–background.

I: Uh-huh.

K: I did too. I was really involved in YRUU, the Unitarian Universalist teen organization, and there was a lot of sort of creating your own–we called them worships, which was a bad name because we weren’t worshipping anything necessarily, but we did a lot of like, creating your own rituals that we used as both bonding exercises for the group and as spiritual experiences for individuals, and I was really into that; I took the lead on planning many of those. I also did a lot of theater as a teenager.

I: I also think for me, too, something that I have been really searching for in my life is having these radical ecstatic experiences with other people. That’s something that I write about a lot. But I can’t really get those experiences through the writing of them. I can only get that through moving and being with people. Those types of experiences are something that happen, like, you know, on the dance floor, or when I get really drunk with people, but it’s something that I wanted to do while completely sober.

K: With maybe some more intention behind it.

I: Definitely, yeah.

K: Yeah, I think that goes back to embodiment, where I feel like there are lots of ways in which my obsession with language has disappointed me, and I think this manifests in my visual poetry work, too, where I’m feeling like language isn’t enough, or like I want to do something else with it. And embodiment is a part of that. It feels like you can get at something more essential in the language by putting your body on the line. So I feel like what we’re doing is close to that other nebulous thing, and not really detached from language because we do a lot of writing together, or cobbling together of our individual writing, and I think that even the performances that aren’t language centered, like the last one that we did where there was no language involved, still come out of a writing practice.

I: Yeah, and when you talk about that I think also, when we started to collaborate or before then, I was reading Bataille and Artaud, and Artaud particularly, I think that he writes really beautifully about wanting to create what he describes as a cruel wind, or wind of cruelty that is supposed to transport you into the present moment. But that’s not something that I experience when I read his writing. It can’t happen in the writing or reading of it. It’s more like a call to action. And with Bataille, I was reading about inner experience, which is a problem he’s dealing with, where you can’t look back and intellectualize these ecstatic experiences because if it’s after the fact they are lost. Although, of course as poets, we want to do that, look back, think about what happened. It’s something that comes after the ecstatic moment. Also it seems like, I feel like my writing practice would be–there would be something missing without that performative aspect.

K: Sure, yeah. I have a big problem, I feel, personally, with writing that I view as being didactic. Writing that tells you what to think or feel, either about the work itself or about something that it’s pointing to in wider culture. And I think that a lot of my personal engagement with poetry, even when I am writing actual words is trying to engage with some sort of transcendental level of experience, or like, bewilderment, or like, a feeling that washes over you, or trying to get at, for example, these experiences that I had as a teenager in one of my YRUU worships, or as a twenty-something in the pit of a punk show, and this sort of like, ultimate release that you feel when you’re throwing your body around with other bodies. I had spent a lot of time trying to re-create that feeling with words, because words were the thing that I liked and felt fluent with. . . . So this just feels like that, you know. Like you’re taking that to the logical conclusion where you’re putting your body in the place of words. But we’re not a punk band. [laughing]

I: But I feel like we might be sometimes. . .

K: We kind of are. [laughing]

I: And then just like, going back to the original question of. . . I think you asked what our intention was. . . so, recently, I crafted an artist statement that came out of an interview that Timeless, Infinite Light did with a bunch of their authors, and they asked these vague questions inspired by religious pamphlets. The question that they asked was: “If I watch violence passionately, with care, will that free me from violence?” And this is my response: “If it is freedom you seek, don’t watch the violence, but participate in it. I want to put my body there again. I want to re-live my trauma and again. If aestheticized, it becomes an image, a body to be consumed. Eat your heart out. I want nothing left of it. And yet, I hold onto my wounds with irascible grief. And yet, I dream that with enough momentum, we can ride that great wind of cruelty into the real, which is to say, pure presence. Touch me and touch me hard; katharos, pure. What does it feel like, now to both live in and be a body that was once occupied by violence in violation of that body’s will? Now, if I hold up the infrared light to my subtle-bodied, naked flesh in the dark room, searching for DNA evidence, where will that glitter of blood taken persist?”

ivy emerges

K: I think that there’s something that happens, like after we did our first performance, it was a really transcendent experience. We both were pretty overwhelmed with the almost-out-of-body experience of doing that. And I think that subsequently we have kind of pushed ourselves to use this space as a place to work through some pretty real shit, like traumatic experiences that we’ve had, or traumatic–not experiences, but like a thread–like a trauma thread that kind of exists in the life of women. I mean clearly most of our performances thus far have been pretty obsessed with violence towards women specifically, and so that feels like a traumatic thread. And there’s something happening when we put our bodies there and use our bodies in these things to kind of face that reality in a really deep and intense way. I feel it, this seed of trauma, move and it’s different now than it was the first time we performed it. And that feels like it’s a functional art–like it really makes me feel like I’m doing something with it, even if it is just for myself and Ivy. But then watching an enraptured–feeling an enraptured audience–we can’t really know what is happening to those people, but like in our last performance, I did not expect what happened, which was that everyone just stayed there and watched us the whole time.

I: Yeah.

K: I thought people would leave, or leave and come back, or be fidgeting and milling around, but they weren’t. They were just there.

I: People felt very present, as well. I mean, we kind of interacted with the audience. We at least handed out candles that people held, and I was making eye contact with the audience a lot, and it felt like this very calm present space.

C: Uh-huh, interesting. And it’s interesting to me that you’re talking about embodiment, especially in terms of trauma, and as a way of working through traumatic experiences or traumatic threads. Um. . . how do you, like, what do you expect an audience to be experiencing when you’re going through this embodiment? Do you think that it’s this sort of communal healing process, is it like, this. . . do you know what I mean? Is that sort of the end of doing that? Or is it just this thing in itself that you’re embodying and hoping that someone is getting something out of it?

I: That’s one thing that we talked about a bit at the closing discussion. The performance that we have been talking about was a performance that happened at E.M. Wolfman Books, which was our art opening/installation where the process of the performance was the installation, i.e., we left the performance space as is for the month afterward, and then we closed the event with a tent discussion about trauma where different feminist poets read and we discussed how trauma works through our/their work. For me, I don’t see it as a healing process. I feel suspect of that. I just don’t even understand what healing would mean in these traumatic situations or how that’s even possible. Kate said something, I don’t even remember what the question was, but you said something that really resonated with me during that discussion where you were like, “Sometimes I just don’t know what else to do. . . I just have to cover myself in blood and scream, and it does something.”

K: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it’s healing, it feels like it’s coping–right? Honestly, that’s the best we can do. Or, like what you say in our artist statement about aestheticizing something, consuming it, so then you can transform what it’s doing to you so that it’s actually feeding you in some way. Yeah–the word healing feels really suspect cause it’s like–do we feel healed after this? No. I’m still in pain about all of these different things. But, can I face it better? Yes. Can I feel somehow connected, specifically to Ivy, but also to these other people that are watching and bearing witness to this? I feel that being able to create that channel makes it easier to deal, I guess. Or makes it. . . . It’s actually really funny, I’ve been listening to that book about Scientology, Going Clear, have you guys heard about this?

C: No, I haven’t.

I: Yeah.

K: There’s this book called Going Clear, it’s all about Scientology, it’s fascinating and really disturbing, HBO made a documentary about it. But one of the biggest things–the auditing of Scientology, the main thrust of what they do is like, pulling up things from the depths of your psyche. They pull up traumatic events. A lot of it seems like bullshit because it feels like they’re forcing fake memories of past lives. But what they do is, they try to get you to pull up some traumatic memory, and then they get you to say the story of that traumatic memory over and over and over and over again until it doesn’t hurt you anymore. . . until you can just say it and you don’t cry, and you don’t feel the visceral response to it. This made me stop for a second. I feel like that is very similar, in some way, to what we’re doing. And the difference between this and Scientology is that according to them, then you’re healed! And I don’t feel like that’s healing. I don’t think it’s healing. But it’s coping. It’s transforming that trauma into something else.

C: It feels like it’s just numbing.

K: It’s numbing! Yeah, it’s like coping, or it is numbing. But is that productive? I don’t know.

I: Part of the thing for me is, and something I think that I also said in the tent discussion, is that going through the process of reliving trauma with Kate has made the trauma real for me, which is something that I didn’t feel before.

K: Before it felt like an abstraction?

I: Yeah, before it just felt like something that had happened in a void, and I mean specifically I’m talking about a rape that happened when I was in New York, and, after that rape happened, I basically went through the process of. . . so the rape happened while I was passed out, basically drunk. And then I woke up in the morning and I felt very strange, and I called into work, and I just hung out with my friend all day. And we were just very hungover and we walked for hours. And it wasn’t until I got home that I actually remembered what happened. And then I called my friend back and he came back and I told him what I remembered and his response was basically, “I don’t know a guy who wouldn’t have done that in that situation.” Which was basically like, “You deserved it.” And then whenever I told other close friends of mine what had happened, I felt that whenever I told them, they were kind of judging me, they were suspect of me, they were like, “Well, you know, you were really drunk,” or they would try to sympathize, but I felt like they really didn’t believe me. So I felt like I just stopped telling people, because that was incredibly disappointing. So, I was at Emji’s (Spero) birthday party a while back, like last week, and I was talking to a dancer, and she was asking me about The Third Thing, and she was asking me about what it was like to have this connection with Kate. And I was sitting in the sun, sweating, it was probably eighty degrees, and then all of a sudden, I had goosebumps all over my body. I was shivering in the sun.

[Kate laughs]

I: She’s like, “Holy shit! I can see that you really felt something.” And to have Kate just there, and to look into my eyes and to feel that with me has been really. . . .

K: Yeah, there’s something incredibly powerful about having a person that is just. . . ”I am here, and you are real, and whatever you’re thinking and feeling, I can’t know,” but it’s. . . there’s something about the wordlessness of it that is really grounding, and it has cultivated this deep intimacy that, in a certain way, the bond that I have with Ivy is totally different from any other friendship that I’ve had in a way.

I: I mean, I remember particularly in our first performance we had a moment. It started off really intense where we were like, menstruating in front of a mirror and blood was pouring down our legs and then we were rubbing the blood on each other and we were like throwing porcelain things and breaking them and screaming and there was a track of me reading poetry that was interrupted by Kate yelling assaults that people had yelled at her on the streets, which is also a performance that she had done previously. And then we got into. . . basically, we had filled a bathtub up with a blood-like substance and we sat there and stared at each other and touched hands. And for me, that was when it really became psychedelic, but also simultaneously grounding.

the third thing

K: Yeah, it’s interesting when I think about this effect or the differences between the function of healing versus coping, or healing versus subsuming it. . . maybe that’s it, like aestheticizing it in this way, and consuming it, and making it real, and making it a thing: “This happened to me, this is integrated into my body. I’m accepting this.” You cannot undo these violences that are happening to you. Either something like a rape or something like the thread of violence/microagression that happens to women constantly everyday, all the time. You can’t undo that, and so what do you? Well maybe one way is to just accept it and to just sort of make it real in this other way. You share it with people. You say, “This is real, I’m having this happen to me, I’m going to make this really over the top performance about it, do it with this person in this really intimate way, and have all of these witnesses hold it.” So that makes it real. You can’t talk to your friends about it, so you act it out in this way that makes it more tangible, more able to be subsumed into your actual person as opposed to this floating ghost that haunts you.

I: And also, the other side of that is that it does become real, but also in the artist statement it talks about how it becomes a cartoon, or it’s so over the top that there’s also something that lets you separate yourself from this really. . . like when we’re covering ourselves in blood and screaming. . . there’s an element of ridiculousness. I think there’s a part of me that wants the catharsis of that, where it does become this thing that can then be consumed by the audience and then it’s gone. Although I don’t think that it ever actually does leave. But I think that the question of audience is interesting. I feel like in most of our performances, we’ve tried to at least encourage participation to break down the barrier of audience where it doesn’t feel like such a spectacle. But the spectacle is definitely there.

K: I feel like every time we do it, I have less expectation about what they’re going to get from it. And every time I do have an expectation of how someone will respond or what people might get from it, I am wrong. So, that’s kind of great!

I: I feel like part of the way that we’ve dealt with audience is having the tent discussion, where it’s like, we’re doing really intense shit, other people are doing really intense shit–they’re either performing it or writing about it, so let’s talk about this. And it felt like a really fruitful discussion. We talked for a few hours, we had to stop at a certain point, but it felt like we could have gone on for many more hours. And we asked questions like, “Why do this at all? What does it do to the trauma? What does it do to the work? How does it hurt the writer?”

C: But I feel like it’s making overt, in a lot of ways, gender violence. . . 

I: Sure. Yeah.

K: Definitely.

C: …like systems of gender violence. Like, that’s what I got out of it, and I feel like I also got out of it this sort of recognition between you two, right? Like smearing blood on each other and going through these sort of ritualized actions as this sort of this mutual recognition like, “This has happened, this is something we have to deal with in whatever way we can.”And that was my perspective.

K: Yeah, and that we’re marked in some way. Like making those traumas visible.

C: Right.

K: Yeah, I was just thinking. . . I was listening to “Memory Palace,” that podcast, earlier today, about a woman who was a singer on the radio in the 30s and 40s and she was in this terrible plane crash, and she was one of the only survivors, and she was like, super famous, you know? She was like the Britney Spears of her era, right? She was the most famous voice on the radio and she was in this terrible plane crash and she was in terrible pain for the rest of her life because of all of the problems she had because of the plane crash. But she kept singing. She had to because she had to pay for her medical bills because she had these constant surgeries. The podcast ended with this sort of statement about how you cannot see other people’s pain. Like the pain that people carry around with themselves all the time. Or I think about Amy Berkowitz’s writing. She just finished this book called Tender Points, it’s coming out on Timeless Infinite Light later this year. It’s about her fibromyalgia and like, I’ve known that Amy had that pain for a while. Not the whole time that we’ve been friends but for a lot of it. And it wasn’t until I read that book that I thought about it that much when we were actually hanging out. Listening to this podcast reminded me that everyone is carrying around some degree of invisible pain, and this allows us to make it visible, the “blood” is a symbol of this invisible pain. And we just fucking cover each other in it, and it’s like, for that time, we are just able to be over the top, to be completely honest and vulnerable in front of these people and say, “This is the symbol of all of the things that we are always carrying around.” And forcing each other and everyone else to just look at it. Just look at it. Like, we can’t fix it, we can’t wash ourselves clean of it, even when we wash each other during the performance we can’t clean ourselves off completely. The remnants of it linger. And then we left this tent and we left our bloody nightgowns with blood drips everywhere, all over this tent, and we just left it there for a whole month. This evidence of pain.

blood ritual tent ivy in mirror

C: Yeah, how do you see that figuring in with the video that was playing upstairs? Cause I felt like those are very sort of different, but similar, like. . . things, you know like. . . when I was looking at the video upstairs, I felt like it was talking about how women’s bodies are at stake and how it’s kind of this fraught situation where it’s very difficult to reclaim a traumatized body and it’s very difficult also to mold. . . you know, you find yourself probably trying to mold yourself to the expectations set out for you in some ways. And those are juxtaposing threads in the film going back and forth. So, how do you see that figuring in with the ritual?

K: I mean I guess in some way the ritual is the fallout of the video, right? The video is somehow trying to embody, you know, there’s me eating all the spaghetti, which I feel like is sort of this almost literal image of living life in that you have to feed yourself, you have to keep going, you have to keep doing whatever it is that you do. And Ivy is climbing up that cliff face. But then there’s also just the metaphor of the woman who keeps taking more on and more on, like emotionally or being everything to everyone. There’s Ivy lying on the sheet, being this beautiful corpse almost…like you’re somehow objectified, but also just dead or kind of depleted.

ivy cliff climb

I: I feel like in the two instances that you first brought up–me climbing up the hill and you eating the massive amounts of spaghetti–for me something that came up in both of those is something about how female bodies are trying to live their life and then the expectations imposed upon those female bodies. I remember when I was about to climb up the cliff, I was thinking like, “I’m doing this in a black slip, like, you know, should I be wearing something more conservative?” In the sense that the camera angle is like, straight on my ass. But I was like, “I have to climb up this hill. I can’t really think about how I look right now.” This is just a woman living her life. And the same with the spaghetti, you know, it’s like this over-saturation of I don’t know. . .

K: The mundane violence.

I: The mundane violence, and then Kate is trying to saran-wrap her body into this sort of girdle. And you have the silhouette of that and a blond wig. So she’s trying to make herself into some sort of blonde bombshell like. . .

C: Idealized.

I: Idealized, right. A lot of that was inspired by Nao Busamente, who, I saw a performance of hers on UBUWEB, which was like–she’s super comical and circus-y but she did a really similar thing where she arrived on the stage naked and she actually duct-taped her body and put on a wig and then she attempted to climb this really, really tall ladder, which was terrifying because her body was so constricted, but she was in a female body, living life, having to get shit done.

kate spaghetti 1

K: And you know, when I’m doing the spaghetti thing I’m totally naked, and so there’s this element of eroticization in it. And when I’m wrapping myself with the saran wrap I’m naked and there is this. . . sexual undercurrent, but it’s also disgusting. I’m lit in a weird way, I’m really fleshy and covered in spaghetti sauce and. . .

I: You look like packaged meat, basically.

K: Yeah, there’s a point where, by the end, my stomach is just covered in this spaghetti sauce and it’s like like. . . squishy and there’s saran wrap. I wrapped a whole hundred feet of saran wrap all over my body. . .

C: Wow.

K: And it was painful.

C: I’m sure, yeah.

kate packaged meat

K: By the end I couldn’t really breathe, I could hardly move, I’m like, awkwardly turning for the camera, but then the effect is so interesting because you almost look. . . there’s still that sexy element there even when you’re so gross. It was really funny showing it to Caleb, my boyfriend. He was like, “I was disturbed by still finding you sexy in that moment.” And I felt like, well, that’s perfect. That’s exactly it. You should be. You will find my body sexy, and you should be disturbed by that. You can’t escape that. You cannot escape me being sexualized. There’s nothing I can do to make myself not be sexualized by. . . even myself! I look at myself and I still see those sexualized elements. Women are conditioned just as much as men to see that. Or I look at Ivy in that slip lying there and I’m like, “She looks so hot.” And then I’m immediately like, “That’s fucking weird.” You know?

ivy sheet powdered slip

I: I mean the other part for me is just the ritual part. I’m so fascinated by ritual. Forgive me if I’m not being eloquent at all, but I’m obsessed with Pasolini’s film Medea. And there’s a part where the centaur gives a speech to Jason when he’s about to leave this edenic place and go into the world, and the centaur explains to Jason that the mind of ancient humankind perceives ritual as being a part of their body. And that’s something. I mean, Medea for me is the perfect figure of modernity in that way. Because also she came from a Pelasgian culture and she was a high priestess and she would perform a ritual where they would like, tear a male sacrifice in pieces and sprinkle the fields in blood and then the fields would grow. You know? That would be their harvest. There was no separation between that ritual and the rewards that they reaped. And then she ended up leaving for Jason, and basically killing her brother and going through all of these things, and then she lost all of her power. There’s a scene where she says, like, right after she’s left and she’s with Jason and his crew, and she’s walking on the earth with her bare feet and she’s like, “Earth! Speak to me! Why can’t I hear your voice?” And I feel like a lot of the Mendieta-inspired stuff that we have done is about that. It’s about trying to create, and trying to be connected to both my body and the bodies around me, and the body of the earth, if that makes sense.

C: Definitely.

I: And that also ties in with the ecstatic, as well. Where it’s like we’ve tried to create these ritualized experiences with the hopes of reaching some form of, at least for me, I’m obsessed with ecstasy, or the ecstatic, probably because I was raised Pentecostal, so I had those experiences as a child where I felt completely like God was inside of me and I was speaking his language. There was no separation between the language of God and the ecstatic experience of God.

C: And then recreating that in a sort of disembodied way–not in a disembodied way, but a way in which God is absent from with equation, but you’re still having an ecstatic experience. I think that’s interesting.

I: For me, I guess if there was an aim, I think about, well my birthday party is going to be our next event, which is going to be at LOBOT on Saturday. But in the invite, I quote Žižek, who says, “The holy spirit is an egalitarian community of believers linked by love for each other,” which he said during Occupy Wall Street. And for me, it’s that connection with other people, like this experience of being able to access the present moment that is what God was for me as a child. That’s the ecstasy.

K: Yeah, it’s like immediate joyful presence. Like presence at its peak, the peak of presence where you have lost all thought about your existence as a person that has anything to do with anything outside of exactly at this moment, as your body is connected to these other bodies.

C: So you call yourself The Third Thing. And usually you think about the third thing in terms of either the holy spirit, this sort of like ethereal being that is not really existent in a body but is still present. Or you think about it in terms of Marxist ideas of like, commodification, fetishization, all this stuff, right? So is that what The Third Thing is, in your mind, is it a sort of idea of presence or, can you explain why you decided to call yourself The Third Thing?

K: Yeah, I think that’s like definitely part of it. I think it’s manifold. I personally feel that part of why we call it that is because we don’t want it to mean a specific one thing.

C: Do you think it has threads of those?

K: Definitely. I feel that way, I feel that the holy spirit and commodification–that those two ideas definitely speak to even some of the stuff that we’ve already been talking about. I mean, it’s also just the simple act that we are these two people and we come together and then this other thing happens. Which, I think, also connects to this holy spirit thing.

I: For some reason I keep going back to this Wallace Stevens poem, the “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which I read in my undergrad. There’s a line in which he says, “A man and a woman are one. A man, a woman, and a blackbird are one.” Where the blackbird is maybe the thing between the man and the woman, or between two people in general. The blackbird is The Third Thing. [laughing]

K: I have a blackbird tattooed on my ribs.

I: Oh, do you?

C: And there’s obviously also this sort of like thread of you two coming together in a performance and having an audience and that sort of like, triangulation of performance and audience being sort of like this third. . . space.

K: Yeah, there’s that thing that’s hovering between. And it’s always like the kind of not-quite-expressible. It’s like, I wouldn’t go so far to say that it’s inexpressible, but it’s hovering between. It’s sort of the thing that we’re talking about always. Whatever that thing is.

I: I feel like it’s a good name for us too because most of our performances have been durational and almost completely spontaneous, where we will kind of. . . we’ll have some kind of idea. We’ll basically set ourselves up in a space with props and interact.

K: Yeah, we set up a framework and just sort of improvise within it. The only time that we’ve ever been particularly scripted was sort of a failure. It’s the closest thing to a failure we’ve had. And The Third Thing doesn’t exist in that moment. There’s too much control happening. I think that that’s something I’m just realizing right now, where it’s like you have to allow the energy of that force to come up, which means that you have to relinquish some amount of control over what’s going to happen.

under the influence performance

C: Yeah, so that kind of rolls into this question of how you choreograph, how do you prepare yourself, if it’s not choreographed, if it’s not scripted, how do you prepare yourself to enter into the space and perform?

I: We basically just sit and talk in preparation for the performance. So we’ll meet and talk about different ideas we have. I mean the blood ritual came out of a dream that Kate’s friend had. Maybe you could describe that dream better than me.

K: Yeah, my friend had a dream about a gang of marauding women basically. She had a dream where all the powerful women she knew in her life were going around the streets killing men, like slaughtering men, and there was some. . . she doesn’t remember in the dream how she knew, but she knew that the men that they were slitting the throats of were perpetrators of gender violence. And she told me about this dream and I just became obsessed with it, and it was in the middle of me particularly starting to really feel like my anger about street harassment in particular, but other gender violence also, was peaking, and so I just latched onto this image and I couldn’t stop thinking about blood and just how could I re-enact that in a performance? It felt like her dream was this manifestation of that pain, and so I was like, “I want to make other people look at that.” Like, Liz has to look at that in her dream, I’m obsessed with this in my life, and I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t think about these things all the time. How do we show how much violence is there, inside of our psyche. I think that’s what the performance came out of.

I: Yeah, it definitely came out of taking that as a launch pad and talking about that. And part of the first performance we also had projections where, basically the idea for the projections came out of women masturbating for the male gaze, and so we used webcam footage–girls masturbating for the male viewer, and we had crafted some poetry that we read together, and set ourselves up. We created an altar, we had a blood bath, we had blood, and we just worked within that. And I feel like every performance has started that way, just setting up the space.

K: And I think that the longer we do it, we’ve created these certain tropes. We’ve had the layered images of these videos, we have video collages frequently, and then we have blood, and the painting each other and ourselves with blood. Or, we had that sheet–we had a sheet with a bloody outline, and it’s corn syrup so it’s sticky, and so we did this one performance where I was struggling with the sheet. But what’s cool is that we’ve managed to come up with these different images that we can sort of just layer on top of each other and recombine in different ways that make sense for whatever performance it is we’re doing at that moment. So the longer we do it, in a way it just gets simpler, like, “Let’s use this image, and this image, and this image.” Some of them are active in that we’re performing them and others are a video we’ve already made.

I: And we also have our poetry collaged together. Which is kind of the thinking-about-it portion of it. I think that element is really important for what we do.

K: Definitely. Well I think it’s the backbone because a lot of that writing is working independently around these issues. It’s writing we’ve done independently throughout the years. I mean some of it’s stuff that’s pretty old, I think. And then we collage it together and it means something bigger and different when we put our words together.

C: Totally.

K: And the writings are definitely the seeds of it. Even the first instance we started with our writing. That’s even how we connected just as people, seeing these similarities or affinities via our writing, even though it’s different it definitely has connections.

C: Right. And that kind of rolls into the question of, how does the performance affect the writing practice, and how does the writing practice affect the performance, which I think you just went over in so many words. But if you want to talk about that more, that would be great.

I: I mean, for me it just galvanizes my writing practice, where we go through and do these things, and I don’t necessarily write about the experience of it, but just having an embodied dialogue, an embodied, unspoken dialogue about these things, having a connection, and then feeling the intense emotions that come out of that, whether that be ecstasy, or pain, or whether that brings up trauma or not, it makes me want to write.

K: Yeah, actually I feel like doing The Third Thing has made me able to write about these things in a more clear way. By doing that, by taking the abstract feelings of it and sublimating them and moving them through my body, it has definitely galvanized me–so that’s a good word–or like, clarified a lot of my feelings about it and has made me more able to write. Cunt Teeth, my manuscript, like a lot of that stuff is old or has been moving around inside of me for a long time, but it was only after I was doing these performances that it just started pouring out. It unleashed that, and so these two projects are very closely linked.

I: I think a part for me, too, that’s really important for my writing practice is that I just feel supported in general. I think that when I was writing more in a vacuum, I would just kind of second-guess what I was writing about or the importance of what I was writing about. So it gives me the confidence to say the things that I need to say.

C: Well. . . I think that’s all the questions that I have. I feel like that’s a good stopping point, actually.

K&I: Yeah.

C: Is there anything else you want to add or say? Things I didn’t talk about that you might want to talk about?

K: I mean, I think that I am really struck by the support system, and the support and intimacy that has come via doing this project. And just kind of, we got lucky, in a way, I guess in how fluidly we have been able to collaborate. And a lot of this stuff had been really intuitive and we sort of like, go with it. And luckily, we have this connection that facilitates that. There are plenty of people that I have tried to collaborate with and it’s just like, hitting a wall, and this felt really natural right off the bat but then, on top of it, it’s interesting–I notice the sort of physical intimacy that I have with Ivy that I don’t really have with. . . and I’m a physical person, I hug my friends, I don’t have a problem with touching people or being touched, but at this point, Ivy’s touch is so much different from any of my friends. It’s really. . . it’s sisterly.

I: It is.

K: Yeah, and either when we’re performing or when we’re out with our friends or a hand on the shoulder–it’s different. It’s a totally different thing. And for me, I like writing, I like poetry, I like art, I like all of these things. But really, the biggest reason I do any of it is for the other parts around it–the connecting, and the doing, so, no matter what, I feel like this is one of the most successful things I’ve ever done because it’s really actively doing that. Even if it’s only with one person. That’s really amazing. It feels like, “This poetry is working.” I can never say that about any of my other poetry. I don’t know. Well, maybe sometimes you know, but most of the time you don’t know.

C: Right.

K: This, I know. I know.

I: Agreed.

Kate Robinson is a poet and intermedia book artist living in Oakland, CA where she co-founded the Manifest Reading and Workshop Series and creates artists’ books as Manifest Press.

Ivy Johnson is a poet and educator in Oakland, CA. Her book, As They Fall, is a pack of 110 notecards for aelatoric ritual, and was published by Timeless, Infinite Light Press in 2013. You can find her recent poems in Open House, as well as forthcoming work in 580 Split and Elderly this summer.

Cosmo Spinosa is the co-editor of Open House.

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  1. […] Spinoza at Open House interviewed Kate Robinson and I […]

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