You enter the industrial space with your hands still shoved in your pockets, desperately trying to keep your fingers warm against the chill of waiting in line outside, wondering where you’re about to be.
As your hands adjust to the indoor warmth, your eyes adjust to the near-darkness. In the center of the room, a glowing half-sphere is filled with some gel – glue, Jell-o, opaque alien ooze? The light from the orb diffuses around the room, illuminating the audience – a well-packed group of about 100 viewers – as well as the three performers, all masked, all dressed almost fully in black. On one side of the orb, a woman lies on the ground, feet up on a mirrored chrome cube. On the other, another figure is seated, Buddha-like, with a circle cape encompassing their body. Attending the vat of goo is a lanky man. He reaches in, smoothing and testing, dipping his hand in and out.
Slowly, he reaches in and pulls out a submerged net, he shakes the goo off, and walks away, between the crowd, which fully encircles the performance. The two dancers stay behind, their bodies cranking and bending mechanically, twisting and writhing in unnatural ways. You are enthralled and confused.
Upon return, the man moves between the goo and an iPad – bee-like in his attention. Slowly, a device is lowered into the gel, a syringe pumps out blue-back something, trekking around and in the half-circle.
Around you, a mechanical soundtrack, loud and rhythmic, is punctuated by the hiss of an air compressor, determined to be acknowledged.
You are braver now. You have adjusted to the strangeness and are moving – skirting the perimeter, watching the dancers, whispering to those around you as you all wonder what is going on. The artist statement clutched in your now-warm hands is useless in the dark, more of a security blanket than a sword to fight whatever masked-monster may separate itself from the shadows, or whatever alien may be birthed from the centerpiece of the performance.
As you move you discover a fourth performer inside a large black fabric cylinder, which has been slowly creeping its way around. A tall body is visible, back lit by the gel depository. It moves deliberately, winding something up and slapping it to the ground, moving in a circle like a trapped animal in a cage.
In a heartbeat, the lights go off. The music stops. The air compressor is silent. The dancers stop moving and the vat-attendant has dematerialized. There is a collective pause. Do you clap, or wait? Is this a pause, an accident, or the end of the performance?
In the back of the room, the lights come on. A slow, careful curiosity draws people toward strange objects, hanging like fabric on a clothesline, and a shallow pool of water on the floor. The walls feel too white to have been so dark the moment before.
There is some kind of collective relaxing as people decide to touch – feel those blue-black umbilical cords and stick their hand gingerly in the slime.
What you have just witnessed was a birth, of sorts, printing in three dimensions; not layer by layer, but as a line pulled through space, in reverse.
Terre Mécanique, a performance by Kelly Nipper in association with the MIT Self Assembly Lab, was presented as a commission at Performa 17 Biennial (November 1 – 19, 2017) in New York City on November 9th, 10th, and 11th (this performance on the 11th). More information on the event can be found here. More information on Performa can be found here. Note: “line pulled through space” is a phrase used by Nipper at her artist talk on November 12, 2017.