Updated: Apr 20, 2020
On a recent Friday in Philadelphia, on the kind of night where the weather straddles winter and spring, four University of Delaware MFA candidates descended on the Vox Populi Black Box for an evening of performance and video screenings that explored ritual, transformation, and identity. Curated by Vox Populi member Aaron Terry, Phase IV transported me to another world on that rainy night. I existed somewhere in the past but simultaneously in the future, a grey space in between my distant memories and memories I have not yet created. Through the eyes of Camilo Cárdenas, Natalie Hutchings, Moon Rodríguez-Decker, and Mafe Valero, I explored this ambiguous place and emerged on the other side feeling as if I was now on the cusp of the vernal equinox.
My evening began with a stop at Outpost 3, a mixed media performance by multi-disciplinary artist Natalie Hutchings. The sign read “PSYCHIC SURGERY” and I approached the ramshackle structure with a sense of skepticism but curious as I enjoy playing with my own psychic abilities. Inside that roadside shanty I found what I can only describe as a dystopian future vagrant, who perhaps had the answers to the universe but may only be selling me snake oil for the low, low price of a cherished memory or a first love. I obliged, paid my fee, and watched eagerly as the ritual unfolded and the surgeon began sewing blue thread into the flesh of her hand. At first repulsed I soon couldn’t look away as I watched the thread move slowly through her skin eventually being tied off in a small knot. The surgeon signaled the ceremony was over and handed me a small plastic bottle of hydrating and lightly filtered “Dihydrogen Monoxide” and I walked away not quite knowing how I felt but electrified as to what the rest of the evening had to provide.
I needed air post-surgery and searched for it in the dreamy video performance Pesadilla by Mafe Valero. What at first seemed like an endless loop subtly revealed itself as a syncopated montage showing Valero swimming through the air atop an artificial cloud made of fiber fill. I became caught in her loop, sucked in by a recurring beat which I later learned was a recording of Valero’s grandfather using a cheese grater to mimic the sound of a güiro, but as the video preceded the humor receded and I found myself stumbling through Valero’s nightmare. Her strokes became irrational, flailing, and almost panicked as the cheese grater güiro sounded in an increasingly mocking tone. It wasn’t until I peeled the headphones away from my ears I awoke.
Luckily, I was soon able to turn my attention to Camilo Cárdenas’ mutedly colorful rotoscope animation Transformación Colibrí (primel intento). This style of animation is made through a process in which Cárdenas applies various paint and pencil mediums to printouts of each frame of an earlier shot video. As the piece progressed, I saw the artists hand manipulating the frames as he wove his story of ritualistic transformation from man to hummingbird. A golden egg, the sun, rain, and apparitions appeared and dissolved in a staccato rhythm that led me through his evolution. Cárdenas says of working in this style, “It’s a performative action, a performance for the camera, not only an animation”, but I saw it as even more; through his process the ritual was completed, and the animation served as a record of his actual transformation.
The room then grew silent as Moon Rodríguez-Decker began walking back and forth across the Black Box, moving individual sheets of porcelain from one side of the room to the other. His slow and deliberate actions at first existed as a singular practice but as the performance unveiled itself viewers became participants and helped shoulder some of the burden Rodríguez-Decker had taken on. There was a tipping point, and his tedious and at one point insurmountable task was quickly completed as we came together as a group to aid a fellow human being. These simple actions reminded me of our need for community in our usually self-driven and increasingly divisive society. I had finally caught my breath and drew in the positive and airy energy that had filled the room.
My witchy soul had been gearing up for the dawn of spring and this evening of cooperatively transportive art is just what my body needed. I walked out of the building and stepped back from the future with a refreshed energy and a better sense of my present tense. Armed with my umbrella, I instead allowed the last rains of winter to fall on my shoulders, slowly soaking into my denim, cleansing me as I walked towards Chinatown and into the equinox.
Left, Mafe Valero's video "Nubes", center, Natalie Hutchings performing in "Outpost 3" and right, Moon Rodríguez-Decker performing in "Most Fragile Things".
Photo credit, Valentine Smith Photography
Kate Testa, 2019