Performance art utilizes real time, real space, and often times, real bodies. These are materials that everyone can understand, making the medium accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Performance art, however, has roots in conceptual art, which utilizes a language all it’s own. I am always enticed by performance that makes use of the tension between common language and art speak. Allison Halter’s “R. Kelly: A Critical Lecture” examined the interstices between these two languages, simultaneously exploring the impact of context, conceptual framing, and parody.
The artist stood behind a podium, donning fashionable and professional attire. Projected on the wall next to her, R. Kelly’s image greeted the audience, his eyes shaded by a pair of dark sunglasses. The absurdity of seeing R. Kelly’s face projected in the context of both an art gallery and a lecture space felt bizarre. Over the duration of 2 hours, Halter shared her ongoing scholarly research on the Chicago-native, convincing me that there is more to the R. Kelly’s artistic intent than I ever could have imagined. I found myself asking, ‘Why can’t R. Kelly share a space with Andy Warhol, Ryan Trecartin, or Cindy Sherman?’ I considered my own pop-culture guilty pleasures and how they would look within an art designated space. Halter describes herself as a “performance artist’s performance artist.” “R. Kelly: A Critical Lecture” was clearly created for the other artists in the room. As we travel through life, we each create our own languages to navigate, document and communicate our experiences. Halter reframed R. Kelly’s work in language that we could understand. She simultaneously illuminated the absurdity of art speak; offering an experience to laugh at ourselves and reconsider the boundaries that language often creates.
Halter humorously delivered a critical analysis of R. Kelly’s work that included ideas around the feminine, the serial form, and camp. She unpacked the soap-operatic structure of Kelly’s videos. This created an opportunity to discuss Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch’s 80’s soap opera, a widely popular and acceptable indulgence amongst art communities. She quoted proclaimed performance art enthusiast, James Franco, mentioning high and low art. Halter juxtaposed Kelly’s videos alongside Kalup Linzy’s video work and talked about the use of phone as site. When tackling “Trapped in the Closet,” Halter stated that the most frequent question she hears about Kelly’s 33- chaptered episodic song series is, “Is it serious?” (a familiar reaction to performance art). She answered this question by showing footage from R. Kelly’s performance at the 2005 MTV Video Music awards where he performed all of the parts in a montage of ”Trapped in the Closet.” She argued that Kelly’s performance was transcendent although it was seen as disastrous at the time it was performed. As I watched Kelly move between performing himself, and characters of different ages and genders, I couldn’t disagree with Halter’s statement. Kelly’s performance did explore the many extensions of self.
During a panel talk Halter gave as part of Jess Dobkin’s piece, “Free Childcare Provided,” the artist claimed her attraction to performance art comes from her desire to engage in momentary intimate connections with her audiences. She admitted that she hopes that her audience will fall in love with her. She described her performance “I Will Always Love You” aka “69 Love Songs”. In this piece, Halter sings requested love songs to strangers. She gave us a glimpse of this experience, ending her artist talk with a love song sung for a volunteer from the audience. Although I wasn’t the individual being serenaded, I must admit, I did fall in love with her in that moment. As she unapologetically belted out Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” we watched her searching. The object of her affection was also searching. Both were hoping that they would find a common ground. This candid display felt a bit silly at first, but quickly revealed the complexities of the human condition. Days later, as I watched Halter mouth the words to “Contagious” and “Busted” in her lecture performance, it occurred to me that we were witnessing Halter’s love affair with R. Kelly. In an age when our interactions with one another are increasingly occurring through the mediation of interfaces, I wonder how future generations will learn to communicate and connect. There is no doubt in my mind that R. Kelly has touched Halter through the screen and that this affection is genuine. By sharing this connection, unique to the 21st century, Halter offers an opportunity to contemplate how technology has and continues to expand the human reach.
Photo by Sandrine Schaefer
Sandrine Schaefer is a Boston-based Artist, Educator, and Independent Curator. Sandrine has exhibited her work extensively, nationally and internationally. Sandrine is a Co-Founder and Director of The Present Tense, an art initiative that produces and archives live art events, festivals, exhibitions, and exchanges. Through her curatorial endeavors, Sandrine has exhibited over 300 artists from around the globe. Her writing on contemporary experiential art practices has been published in several international online and print publications and she is a Contributing Writer for Big Red & Shiny. She teaches performance art practices through the Interdisciplinary Department at Montserrat College of Art and through the SIM Department at Massachusetts College of Art.