The Bridge Club probably isn’t what you think. Annie Strader, Christine Owen, Emily Bivens, and Julie Wills are not little old ladies who meet up to play cards. They make up a collaborative of performance artists, coming to Santa Fe to immerse you in a slightly uncomfortable, otherworldly experience. Medium, a multimedia performance piece by the group, is one of several public performances during the opening weekend of Currents 2013 at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. You might think of Medium as a typical bridge-club meeting, insofar as there are four participants, and they all sit in chairs. However, there is no table, no cards, and the chairs rest not on the floor but suspended from the walls of the room where members of the group interact with video projections and one another. Three performances are scheduled throughout the evening of Friday, June 14, with another three on Saturday, June 15.
The Bridge Club’s pieces are often of long duration, sometimes lasting over several days, and are site specific, incorporating not just the physical landscape of a geographic location but its history and culture as well. Wearing wigs and costumes that evoke bygone eras, the artists conflate past and present to suggest themes of universality and commonality. Medium was performed only once before, in August 2012 at the Art Palace Gallery in Houston. Owen and Bivens spoke with Pasatiempo about their performance style and the physical demands of their art form.
Pasatiempo: You have been working together for nearly a decade. How did it all come about?
Emily Bivens: We started working together quite informally in graduate school. We quickly realized that there were ideas we were all interested in and best pursued as a collaborative.
Christine Owen: It was sort of spontaneous.
Pasa: What is going on with these characters or personas you create for these pieces? They all seem very similar to one another, the way they dress.
Bivens: When we’re all in character we see ourselves less as individuals and more as a type of person that might experience these unified themes. So the collaborative really works for that multiple perspective rather than the individual perspective.
Owen: Our costuming kind of make us anonymous. We realized we could play around with ideas of gender and how gender changes because our outfits are nonspecific and of different eras. There’s always an ambiguity in our costuming.
Pasa: Are the performances spontaneous happenings or more choreographed?
Owen: We have grown to think of ourselves as modern dancers — no. I’m totally kidding. When we find ourselves explaining what we do as performance artists it’s often said, “Oh, you’re a dancer,” and, speaking for myself, I’m quite clumsy. Some of our performances require arduous, physical choreography that we’re training ourselves to do. But it’s not innate, and we don’t have any professional training doing it.
Bivens: I would say, too, that one of the ways that we work is we set up circumstances or a logic with certain rules of participation where there’s structure but we leave a good deal up to the movements that occur within that time/space parameter — a loose structure, but we let our interactions dictate how we proceed.
Owen: We have a skeleton of action, but there’s improvisation that fleshes it all out.
Pasa: You’re responding to one another, but are you interacting with the audience as well?
Bivens: We don’t typically acknowledge the audience, almost as if we exist in a different time or space. At the same time, the audience’s movements and interactions definitely affect how we’re able to move or interact within a space. There’s a tension, I think, built from that lack of interaction while being in the same exact space as the viewer. We capitalize on the awkwardness of that. Awkwardness is sort of our forte.
Owen: We do a lot of work in public spaces. When we were invited to do Medium at the Art Palace, we were forced to address the walls of the gallery. We considered how to address the walls conceptually, aesthetically, and that’s how we ended up putting ourselves up on the wall. We feel more like the observers in the space. That creates a different kind of relationship between the viewer and ourselves. It just flips it a little bit.
Bivens: What I found really interesting about Medium is that the audience was really captivated by the subtlety of our eye contact. So for example, if I looked across the room, the entire audience followed my gaze. The audience was looking at us, but their actions became the center of the performance.
Pasa: The title Medium seems to have several connotations. What are some of your ideas about that?
Owen: It’s connecting up with the idea that artworks can be available for knowledge and how we access this information. There’s a performer on the wall who has a stack of books on her lap and is searching through the books and tearing pages. The books are a collection of technology books, anatomy books, how-to books —
Bivens: Nursing books. Somewhat antiquated books.
Owen: The manuals are maybe not accurate any longer, or this method of finding information is not accurate. So it references this idea like a medium, meaning otherworldly messages, and that artwork requires a medium. The sound components and video components are integrated into the performance. The images being projected are in a circle around the performer on a particular wall. It has images of clouds going by and also text.
Pasa: It must a difficult piece to perform, because of the physical demands required.
Bivens: The suspended state is a difficult one. We’re often doing durational performances that require stamina. The length of time becomes interesting. People are often surprised at what they want to sit and stare at. We want to push that moment where there’s not necessarily a beginning or an end where we’re telling the audience when it’s no longer appropriate to watch. They’re actually deciding that on their own. It’s important for it to be long enough so that the audience is left to make that decision for themselves. There is a sense that it just continues, that it just is.
Owen: Typically, our performances are a one-off because they are site specific. It’s exciting to get a chance to re-perform this piece. We didn’t know how painful it would be to sit in that straight-backed chair for two hours until we actually did it. We once did a performance where we wore these very high-heel shoes. That was it’s own form of discomfort.
Bivens: Although mine were cozy as could be. I don’t know what you guys were doing wrong but my stilettos were just fine.
Owen: We also each have different kinds of pain thresholds.
Bivens: Mine being the lowest, in case you weren’t clear about that. ◀
▼ The Bridge Club: Medium
▼ 6 p.m., 7:45 p.m. & 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 14; 11 a.m., 2 p.m. & 4 p.m. Saturday, June 15
▼ El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, 555 Camino de la Familia, 992-0591
▼ No charge; www.currentsnewmedia.org