by Heather Kapplow
Exiting South Station, I feel already surrounded by every day performance: the busy-ness of travel and transit, which always feels quite put on to me. The visible invisibility performed by our homeless folk, an elegant tightrope walk between tourists. It is fine tourist weather…
CENTER FOR RESTORING THE MEANING OF FAKE WORDS
A sign reading “Fake Words” is visible through the greenery as I approach The Rose Kennedy Greenway from South Station. The starkness of its black-and-white-ness stands out from a distance, and then, when I grow closer, seems related to the more permanent public art in the same area, Aakash Nihalani’s Balancing Act. The visual contrast between the two works is that of handmade versus machine wrought, but the notion of balancing is good preparation for Milan Kohout’s project. He’s chosen his site well.
When I arrive he is trying to convince a young lady with long navy blue fingernails to be his first meaning-restorer of the day. She’s game to talk to him, but is hesitant to pick a word. It turns out she just doesn’t want to be in any pictures. She’s curious and beautiful and there are maybe too many men gathering around her.
Milan gives her a New York Times to look through. She says her problem is that “what’s fake is a feeling not a word.” Then she says maybe it’s “happiness.” It’s what everybody says they are but she doesn’t believe they’re happy every day. “I’m so happy at my job at Target! I’m so happy with my new baby…” Milan holds up a mirror and lets her say the empty phrases into it, then asks her to make up a new word to replace “happy.”
It’s green here, but we are essentially in the middle of a traffic island. There’s honking and a highway onramp is nearby. It is an unlikely place for language to be retooled, but that’s what makes it feel plausible. Milan isn’t just prompting people to think about how meaning is stolen from us and what else might be being stolen from us by those in power. He’s teaching the techniques that might allow a reversal of these trends. He’s letting people practice taking power back.
Her word is “pinco.” Milan calls out to the traffic and to passersby “Are you pinco?!” Then he pulls her words, from a long white paper roll, out like a carpet onto the grass. The woman with the word works for the trains. She has time to kill—she has to be on standby, close to the station.
Milan begins announcing through his loudspeaker: “All the treasured words are emptied.” His ‘ch’s stick—it’s part of his accent—and they ring out loudly after the rest of the words are completed. His pronouncement about how all of the wealthy pigs are hoarding money in the basements of the tall buildings echoes off of them. “Let’s be ‘pinco’ again!!”
WOULD YOU SIT WITH ME?
Pavana Reid is taking a cloth from a woman who is sitting in one of two chairs and the woman gets up. Pavana puts the cloth on the chair and a man comes up and sits in the other chair. Pavana puts the chair with the cloth on it so that it is facing him, and then sits in the second chair herself, handing him the cloth. They speak with one another but I can’t hear. Slowly the tableaux shifts: Pavana and the man in the chair are still talking beyond my ear-range, but now they are sitting with their chairs back to back. I step in to experience the piece.
I am sitting. Pavana gives me the cloth. It’s warm. She smells like lavender. She feels like a stranger. We talk quietly about how that feels. About what makes her feel the least like a stranger. (It’s when people stop and help her or answer a question for her on the street.) She feels that time is the most precious thing that people can give to each other. She mentions an anti-suicide ad that she saw on the subway so I tell her about the memorial service for a friend and teacher of mine that I am missing in order to be at the Greenway—that he committed suicide and that I am thinking of his close friends and family while I am sitting with her. Pavana gets up and wraps me in her cloth, swaddling me to the chair. Then she wraps herself up in the other end of the cloth and tucks herself in close and tight to me. She says my story made her feel like she wanted to be closer to me, and asks if that’s okay. It’s okay. Just being together brings the strange kind of peace that being with someone you are close to does, but it feels uncanny because Pavana is, of course, a stranger.
Pavana wraps the whole cloth around herself as she unwinds it from me, and it looks like she’s a flower—there are hints of the wrapping of saris and ceremonial kimonos in the gesture…
I see a scrambling movement up ahead. Sara June is in white on the ground, bouncing, for lack of better word, while someone else on the ground is engaging with her in a way that is a little unclear from a distance.
When I approach, Sara is sitting on the ground, legs out straight in front of her, feet bare. Black hair, white outfit, a pile of round mossy stones behind her. Her seat is astroturf on grass. In front of her are four colored buttons. Or are they lights?
She moves slowly. A group of kids speaking a language I can’t identify congregate around her, but don’t engage. Sara continues her slow cycle of movement. Maybe she is turning? A woman with a dog stops and takes her picture.
I press the green button and it makes a videogame sound, and Sara moves a new way. I step on the red button a few times. It makes an alarm sound each time I step on it and she leaps, turns and rolls. I press the blue button and it plays a triumphant sound. Sara leaps up and down each time I press it. Someone else presses the orange button and she leans in towards them. Each button triggers a different gesture, slower, faster. She evolves very slowly between button pressing, regal.
The title of the piece throws me off, but slowly it dawns on me that despite her seeming humanity, Sara is a digital artifact. The motions are rote, evolving in the way that permutations do, but never having the kind of variation that living things organically do. A strange thing to say about a living thing that is performing, but it is a good performance of the non-living. (Also raising unanswerable questions about performing as a non-living thing.)
A NOSE FOR THE TRUTH
I see two women dressed in red, one with a gold shopping cart full of gold bags. The cart is strung with cassette tape innards and has a stash of cassettes on the bottom. They seem to have been interviewing a young lady. She puts her cassette in their basket and then is invited to pull on the tape while remembering her words and what they mean to her. With loud construction sounds in the background, she steps out onto the grass, walking backwards, the tape streaming. Light glints off of it.
The ladies in red discuss the poem she spoke into their recorder. “I stand in the water and wait for the water god.” The girl is pulling the tape as if the act were a dance, smiling back at them from about 20 feet away, then moving closer again, the cassette tape still streaming around her.
The piece moves fluidly between something a bit transcendent—sharp spots of beauty—and something very mundane and scatological. There is true artfulness in the performance of what are essentially crone roles—an inspiring mixture of faux dottiness, real warmth, darkness, and mysticism, all played out like a game with the props.
The ladies in red are laughing. Mari Novotny-Jones says to the girl “I said to Frances, that was so elegant!” They ask her to say her poem again and she recites some of it: “The sound of rushing water fills my brain, my jaw begins to numb….” Construction sounds drown her out for a bit and when she is audible again she’s saying “Prismatic hues form an expanding ring of colors. The water grows louder and louder.”
She explains to Mari and Frances Mezzetti how the thing she spoke is related to her research on shamanism—it’s a performance she’s developing. As she says this, a dog gets caught up in her tape/words. It takes a shit (literally) on it/them. Frances gathers up the tape while Mari continues talking to the woman. A little girl calls out “What are they doing?” Mari explains about the tape itself—the detritus of people’s stories. Frances continues gathering. Light reflects off of the tape.
Gold, cloth bags, bags crocheted out of tape. “That’s life though, the little dog comes and shits on your work.”
PRIVATE PERFORMANCES FOR SOLOIST TROMBONE
AND SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER
Construction sounds ring out. There are jackhammers and the smell of hot tar.
The trombone fits in perfectly. And it’s a break from everything.
I close my eyes, sit, my hands cupping the headphones against my ears, and emotion floods through me for a second. Then the music turns more playful—I can hear Tom Plsek breathing, open my eyes, see his feet tapping out a rhythm. It gets diggery-doo-ey. Then synchs up with the construction. Then ends. We sit and talk about the sound and the mechanics of the device. And the construction—he’s been trying to resist it all day, but this time gave in and played along with it.
A NOSE FOR THE TRUTH again
When I get back to the ladies in red, they have unpacked one of the “bags” in their cart and it’s a tube. Mari is in one end and a woman with glasses on is in the other end. Frances is holding the center of the tube still while they record in there, butts sticking out of either end, cassette tape streaking off of the cart.
I realize now that the gold “basket” is actually a big soft nose.
Someone is emptying the trash near Sara’s piece. I’m watching him, watching a little kid enthusiastically pushing Sara’s buttons. Sara drops and hops, jumps and leans, rolls, hops, curls in a ball, hops, falls, jumps up, falls, scoots forward and back, rolls, hops. Her astroturf is littered with moss-rocks now. She stacks them on her legs, an action to fill space, calmly between actions. Also a reminder that there is never non-action in her piece.
WOULD YOU SIT WITH ME? again
Pavana is dancing almost with her interlocutor. They slowly fold the cloth between them, and then Pavana holds it, standing between the two chairs.
When the next visitor comes forward, she hands him the cloth. She pulls the chairs so that they are sitting knee to knee. His hands are on the cloth, folded in his lap, and hers are too. Between his. They are talking quietly. He smiles and the wind rustles the trees.
The two do not move at all. Then they stand and Pavana lays the two chairs down on the ground. They sit on the chairs lying down, heads in opposite directions, and their conversation becomes very loud. “Can you hear me?” “What do you see?” “Do you think we see the same thing?”
The “not moving at all” seems a key to Pavana’s piece, despite the fact that the performance is improvised anew with each person, the call to sit with her, seems sometimes not as much about the sitting with her, as about just sitting in a special, set-aside-from-everything-else way. Taking time to really settle. But Pavana provides the excuse by offering her company.
CENTER FOR RESTORING THE MEANING OF FAKE WORDS again
There is an echo between Milan’s paper and Pavana’s cloth. They were similar in size and shape earlier, but Milan’s paper is very long now. As I grow closer to him his amplified voice booms off of the buildings in the area. “All thoughts are fake!!”
Here are some new words:
Luxury=YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT
Cruelty Free=JUST GET RID OF THIS BECAUSE IN THE REVOLUTION THERE WILL BE NO NEED FOR THIS.
Milan’s voice continues to bounce around. “Words are all privately owned. The word ‘delicious’ does not mean anything any more!”
Could this really be true? He might be right. I’m not sure I remember what ‘delicious’ is for me, and then, right there, wondering about whether I really know deliciousness, Milan gives me an incredible gift: an understanding of Capitalism as something akin to clinical depression or mourning. They’re the only other things that can strip away meaning and flavor from life.
WOULD YOU SIT WITH ME? again
Pavana sits with Marilyn. Black outfits, one next to the other. Sara in white moving very slowly in the background.
Pavana puts her chair back to back with Marilyn’s then slowly unfurls the cloth, making a path outward to one side of Marilyn’s lap. The smell of weed wafts over from somewhere.
Pavana moves the empty chair, wraps Marilyn slowly and almost entirely, then rolls herself in the rest of the cloth and sits back to back with her in a similar cocoon. They speak over their shoulders to one another, looking like kids at a sleepover, then they cover their heads completely and become a sculpture for awhile before Pavana unwraps things, gathering the cloth in a crumpled bundle this time rather than folding it. The chairs stand empty for a bit.
The final guest folds the cloth into something organized again with Pavana and takes one of two seats set next to each other as guided. Pavana spreads the cloth across her lap, shaping it so it flows down to the ground like a skirt, and kneels at her feet. The woman gets off the chair and comes down to her level. They kneel together, touching and kneading the fabric between them, smiling and talking, leaving the two empty chairs side by side. We sit in another row of chairs, watching.
It’s a bit of breakneck hustle getting there—driving to three places on a fruitless errand earlier in the morning then it taking forever to find parking. Running for the red and blue lines, barely making both. Then emerging from the station, pushing through traffic with arms full: I’m the one performing the role of busy person in transit today…
I learned yesterday that the pieces all weave together no matter which direction you move in, so I’m starting at the other end of The Rose Kennedy Greenway this time.
I’ve gathered with Frances Mezzetti and Jimena Bermejo a little before noon, and we’re waiting for other mothers dressed in white to arrive. It’s a bit chilly. Frances tells us about the Irish (pagan) equinox celebration of Demeter and Persephone (“seed becomes fruit, fruit becomes seed”) which focuses on motherhood, creativity, and the circle of life; Jimena talks about finding gestures related to the experience of motherhood; and I speak briefly of the tradition of mothers as activists and demonstrators.
Then three women in white begin moving in a slow circle around the perimeter of The Greenway’s Rings Fountain. They are pacing thoughtfully and the mist makes it all look very romantic. They are leaving a stream of white rose petals in their wake.
There’s no way to know from looking that they are mothers. The piece relies on the subtlety involved in knowing the name of the pathway they’re tracing, though Frances, invigilating, does explain to visitors about what’s going on. Even without explanation, you feel their presence as serious and mystical. The piece of motherhood not visible at the surface here is the daily difficulty of it. The image is much more poetic than mundane.
STILL WORKING IT ALL OUT
Dogs and their owners are running in circles across the large lawn. Something brightly colored is happening in one corner of the grass.
It’s a free class! There is a circle of yoga mats with piles of something on each one, and Sinead Bhreathnach-Cashell, wearing a pink visor, is playing with a small child on one of the mats. She’s demonstrating a duckbill that you can wear on your face to squawk like a duck. The class is called “How to Draw Like a Beginner.”
Now the mom of the kid has a drawing tablet on her head and is drawing on top of her head. The small boy draws with a marker on a long stick and then opens an umbrella.
The class is very small—tailored—but it’s clear already that this is no ordinary class. The mom is working harder than the young boy, or maybe they are working equally hard. In any case, they are equally beginners, and the act of being new at something as a distinct experience, best supported by an environment that emphasizes play, comes through strong and clear.
MOTHERS WALK again
I see the three women in white pacing by in the background.
Jimena leaves a rose stem at the end of the Mother’s Walk and turns around.
WATER TABLE PERFORMANCE
I round the corner of the beer garden and see some kind of construction is in place. A strong/sturdy looking man, Brian Connolly, is fixing one of the tables it looks like.
There are four tall 2” x 4”s propped against each other like a teepee.
Some more are lying on the ground in shorter lengths with signs on them, around the perimeter of the circle (this is all happening in a circle.)
There is also a chair in the circle, and a table. A very tall table which the man is making taller, slowly, by clamping the 2” x 4”s to each leg.
The signs on the ground have images of water with logos floating over them: DuPont, Marathon Oil, FTS International. The 2” x 4”s without signs seem to be waiting for signs.
The table, now about five feet tall, has a pan of water underneath it, a pendulum hangs from beneath the table, over the pan of water. What looks like another pan of water is on the table’s surface, along with a dish (silver) with a sphere (silver) set inside of it. Some wisps of plant also seem to be coming out of the top of the table. Brian supports the table with his head as he adjusts it.
The pyramid/teepee also has a bowl (silver) under it and a feather hangs on a thread with a block of wood above from a tree. Brian makes another sign out of one of the 2” by 4”s, stapling paper on it.
The pieces of the piece feel abstract—require a bit of puzzling together—but then it becomes abundantly clear: water is teetering in the balance. Mankind is pushing its limits.
HOW FAR APART
Up ahead is a small hill with trees and a man lying on it. Dominic Thorpe has the leg of a black chair balanced on his (shaved or bald) head. He is turning on the ground very slowly, holding a black marker to his stomach which leaves a line as he turns. I don’t notice this until the chair falls off of his head. There are many beautiful, wavy lines on his stomach. They look like rings on a tree stump, circling around his core.
Dominic replaces the chair when it falls, and begins the slow turn—like a very slow motion rotating spit—again. It’s like a nap in the grass in one way, but not at all like a nap in the grass in another way: he’s relaxed, but you can feel the pressure and tension of the precariously balanced chair.
A tourist trolley drives by and I can hear the pickup of a truck’s engine and a bus engine on either side of the path simultaneously, a stereo whooshing, then three different cars broadcasting the music they’re listening to, then a motorcycle.
Dominic’s back is facing me now, for the first time.
From the other angle (I’ve moved around to his front,) the image Dominic is making is so different. The copse of trees and the fact that he is on a hill among them feels more evident and important.
Overall, the esthetic quality of all the works has been very sharp and bold—they are blending into nature, but also standing out as strongly as the less ephemeral artworks do against the ground. They feel more organic than the fabricated things because they consist of bodies, cloth and other simple materials with less degrees of removal from nature.
As I cross the street, a group composed of men and women pushing baby carriages and visibly preggers pause, unsure of whether to move through The Greenway or to walk alongside it on the sidewalk. They split into two groups, each taking one pathway.
An oil truck with a logo similar to one on one of Brian’s signs is idling at the light.
I see a woman in black with some kind of small bags hanging from her dress. She is talking to a man in hat. They part and she—it’s Margaret Bellafiore—takes something, a dark blue paper cup, from one of the bags and begins drawing something on the ground with a white powder in the cup.
Cars honk. Some youths step around one of her drawings carefully and she invites them to engage, but they decline shyly.
Margaret draws an elaborate butterfly. There is also a penguin.
The (canvas? hemp?) drawstring bags pinned to her dress have drawings of animals on them as well: there are turtles, birds, fish…in white on the ground, in black on the bags.
A family stops to talk to her. She asks them what they know about penguins. The young boy answers, and they begin to discuss global warming and its impact on penguin eggs. Then cod reproduction. The family tells her what they know, she tells them what she knows of the subject. The white chalk is graceful between them on the ground.
The disbursement of the chalk becomes the disappearance of the animals, destroyed by human footprints.
MOTHERS WALK again
On my way back to check in on the mothers walking, I see two mothers along The Greenway re-dressing their children. One child was peeing in the bushes, another had gotten its shirt wet.
The Mother’s Walk, is strewn with white rose petals and stems. I step into the performance, holding space for mothers, because I am not one, so I do not walk, but I follow Jimena’s instructions as she followed mine, finding three gestures that connect/resonate/feel true to my only experience of mothering (of myself, from a very young age.) I trace the straightness of a rose stem between two fingers; softly stroke my own hair into place around my face; shift my weight from foot to foot occasionally.
A wall of parents and children lines up between me and the fountain. The fog comes up. I feel as if I am invigilating for motherhood, watching over it as it is performed in real life.
The walking mothers return from their break and make their first circuit. I’m trying to discern their gestures.
I love how everyday they look—not costumed—just two mothers on a walk, disappearing into the crowd. This is the mundane element I was looking for. As they trace the path, their route takes them through the misty, romanticized circling of the fountain, but also across the street with the dead pigeon in the crosswalk.
STILL WORKING IT ALL OUT again
Sinead and Pavana Reid have umbrellas open with rubber ducks and pinecones balanced on them. They are trying to pass them to one another without their falling but it doesn’t work. Now they are applying temporary tattoos or stickers to themselves with Frances. Pavana holds a gold square to her chest and takes a bow. Sinead’s yoga mat has a banana, an apple a headset mic. There’s not much action now but the yoga mats look much less organized now than they did before, and the last time I passed by there was a good crowd of people—mostly with young children—at the yoga mat-circle.
Sinead is on a break with a “shall return at ___” sign, and tidies everything for the next “lesson.”
The mothers drift by again.
WATER TABLE PERFORMANCE again
Brian has more signs now: BP, OXY, Andarko.
The table I would say is now about 12 feet tall. Brian is on a ladder. Things are wobbly, but stable.
Is this where we are now? As the piece progresses, I feel as if it’s mapping a situation in more and more accurate real time.
Margaret’s chalk is more ground in than spread around. It looks like constellations. I’m standing on a moose. The chalk is losing the race to adapt to its environment.
HOW FAR APART again
Dominic’s line is darker and thicker. His feet are black now. I can’t help but think about his view.
People are really stopping to watch for the duration now. It’s hard to tell which element of what he’s doing they are focused in on.
I notice the fallen leaves now, the steady rate at which he slowly traces his lines, the peace on his face, the beauty of the lines themselves. Somehow the chair doesn’t ever slip off of his head anymore. Without looking at the guide to learn what his piece is about, I can tell that it involves paying more attention than people usually do. That it’s about how action accretes and adds up to a shape it may not have intended by simply being a repetitive pattern.
WATER TABLE PERFORMANCE again
The table now looks to be about 15 feet high. The teepee is gone: every board is a sign. People are exploring close-up. Brian is making a mini-teepee out of signs on posts.
How can it be so high and not tip over? How has nothing spilled yet?
STILL WORKING IT ALL OUT again
Sinead has a full class—every yoga mat is occupied. Everyone is holding a mirror—she is helping them see the sky, the ground, what’s behind them on either side. Then they “warm” their mirrors up with a paintbrush and everyone paints a leaf on their mirror with a brush dipped in water.
The tracing of nothing on a reflective surface feels like a magic spell—like the magic spell—the one that makes things out of nothing. This last piece I’m seeing today feels like the bookend to the first piece I saw yesterday. Sinead is teaching people how to do to knowledge what Milan Kohout was teaching people to do with language. Take control of it by making your own.
I also see Jimena pacing in the background, picking up rose stems, alone now.
Sinead’s voice is so present. Everyone flicks their fingers as she guides them, “Flick, flick, flick.”
Then she gives everyone something to take away: a small square of gold leaf. It’s like she’s giving communion. I remember that you can eat gold leaf. As if she could hear my thought, Sinead’s amplified voice says, “It is not edible. The edible stuff is really expensive, but you can get a kind that you can eat.”
She brings me a piece. I don’t eat it.
A crowd roars somehow nearby—a ballgame at a bar with an open air seating area I assume.
A rabbit hops across my path as I make my way back to the Mother’s Walk.
Photos by Jordan Hutchings