Last Friday night, September 8, a countercultural group gathered for the opening night of Grace Exhibition Space‘s fall 2023 season in a welcome respite from the false pretenses and polite fictions of Armory Week. The New York-based, anti-fascist comedian and performer Crackhead Barney curated and performed in the showcase along with Amanda Brei Frei, MangoDog, Jacob Cohen, Contessa Stuto, and Jarva Lund. The audience turned up for shock value and enjoyed the variety show, with a dysfunctional pas de deux between Crackhead Barney as Donald Trump and Jarva Lund as Vladimir Putin as the undeniable highlight of the night.
The definition of “performance art” is hotly contested, and rightly so. Whatever it is or isn’t, Manhattan’s Grace Exhibition Space is keeping it alive by exclusively devoting itself to the genre. In this empty, unadorned Alphabet City storefront next to a banal laundromat, performance artists can activate the void and create a moment. The space lacks seating, dissolving the boundary between artist and viewer, differentiating the venue from others like Dixon Place, Triskelion Arts, or the Center for Performance Research. Something rawer and more chaotic occurs when that fourth wall no longer separates a performer from a seated audience.
Each artist navigated the space in their own way. Crackhead Barney, a Black woman performer, chooses to be anonymous. “I don’t want people to know me, because I fuck with the right wing and I don’t want my personal identity and address to get out,” she told Hyperallergic. She audaciously opened the show with a plastic doll painted black dangling from her vulva and invited members of the audience to pull on the doll to stimulate her clitoris. The women and nonbinary individuals in the audience predictably understood this invitation better than the men. In a startling moment, bizarrely reminiscent of that time Yoko Ono invited men to cut off pieces of her clothes in 1964, a cisgender, straight White man yanked too hard on the doll, breaking the cord and prematurely ending the entire piece. Crackhead Barney coped with a funny remark about how most White men just want to screw her and “don’t give a damn” about her pleasure as a Black woman.
For the next act, performer MangoDog sang for the audience. He views his work as more of a living art piece than music. “My intention is to be as raw as possible,” he explained in an interview with Hyperallergic. “A lot of my lyric content comes from being a Black man and feeling stuck.” That intensity came through as he embodied his lyrics’ anguish and frustration; his song “Itchy Eyes” was a metaphor for wanting to see progress and change.
“I wanted to make the performance my domination, and the audience my submissive,” said Contessa Stuto, who also performed several songs with an embodied presence. She chose her most over-the-top pieces for this crowd. Words do not fully capture the enrapturing stage presence of Stuto, which hits in the guts; song titles like “Horny Lil’ Slut,” “Fat Bitch,” or “Power Slash” show the influence of trap metal. The audience felt the catharsis in our bellies.
Brei Frei performed pregnant, gliding in on roller skates and inviting us to tune into our emotions. In one exercise, she handed out a piece of paper to each audience member and asked them to act out and pantomime the feeling written on it, or better put, what their version of that feeling was. People in the crowd went for it, screaming loudly to evoke their assigned emotion. Frei also did her fair share of yelling during the show. “You can scream when you are fucking happy, you can scream when you are upset,” she told Hyperallergic. “I like to play with things happening simultaneously.” In another part of the performance, she threw multicolored paint onto a white sheet and then did a dance to her own original song, “Love Fuck.”
Crackhead Barney and Jarva Lund’s duet as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was mesmerizing. After Kyla Gordan poured paint all over Crackhead Barney in a Trump mask, the latter proceeded to wrestle with Jarva Lund, wearing a rubbery Putin mask. Jacob Cohen played the cello in the background. Later, Crackhead Barney as Trump was snarled in ropes by Putin on the floor and then tied up on a chair before donning a diaper, showing off his infantile nature. Although Trump has been impeached twice and indicted in four separate criminal cases this year, we’ve become too overwhelmed, and too numb to it, which he benefits from as a chronic repeat perpetrator. With her intense physicality, Crackhead Barney got to the heart of the biggest problem in American politics today — the normalization of harm.
Riveting, off-putting, and over-the-top, the performances presented at Grace Exhibition Space mark the opening of the fall season on a strong note.