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Cows, Pomp, and A Puzzling Performance

By Arts & Culture

Photographed by Grace DuVal.

I find participatory performance art occasionally charming and pleasurable, so when I heard that Mark Jeffery’s ATOM-r (Anatomical Theaters of Mixed Reality) was hosting a pageant cow processional and ritual dance during the autumnal equinox, I jumped at the opportunity to see “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Founded in 2012 by School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) performance professors Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey, the nebulous collective engages with virtual reality, new technologies, and poetry to articulate, amongst other things, queer embodiment.  The cows were shockingly not the goofiest component of what was an otherwise disjointed, awkward, and puzzling piece of performance art.

I arrived, late, via Uber Pool, which deposited me several blocks from the performance on The 606 (an elevated bike path that runs across Logan Square and Wicker Park). While recovering from injuries I sustained in a car accident, I use a modified walker that I lean on from one side, and push with my non-broken hand. Although it has wheels on the front, the clamor of its legs on raw concrete is often deafening, and was apparently disruptive to the fifteen arts-patroning families who turned, indiscreetly, to watch me approach. The crowd, though eagerly prepared to receive a dressage of five pageant cows, was apparently not as equipped for the abrasive sound of my walker scraping on the uneven pavement as I approached a friend I was meeting.

The cows gathered in a neat line at the ramp entrance to The 606 behind the YMCA. I was distracted by the morbid prospect of a car exiting the gate and having to temporarily relocate the crowd, cows, and me, walker and all. A single wiry musician in a glittery cowboy ensemble played a minimal, fuzzy melody on guitar by the entrance to the trail.  Despite eerily clinging to the wind that pooled around the procession, whatever kind of surreal, campy Blue Velvet atmosphere the music was supposed to produce fell flat.   

About ten performers adorned in matching white t-shirts depicting the moon lined the ramp and platform of the Equinox Exelon Observatory, the spiral structure designed for stargazing by artist and SAIC Sculpture Professor, Frances Whitehead, at the West end of the trail. While jerking cell phones around in the air in alternating directions, each performer would call out some incongruous word or phrase revealed on the cell phone once it was wrenched in a new direction: “Potomac,” “the moon,” “crossing the boundary,” “the river,” and  “a cow of the now.”

I asked other audience members how they’d heard about the performance. Two suggested “Facebook,” and a third offered an “I know Mark” with the grim self-satisfaction of a Friday evening Chelsea gallery-walk patron after two plastic cups of free wine.

Photographed by Grace DuVal.

A confusing twenty minute respite followed during which the performers restructured into a bulky circular formation. They fastened themselves together with a gaudy, flag-like material that appeared to be a nod to the cows’ dressage uniforms. The whole blob shuffled down the path led by performers holding outward-facing iPads displaying fragmented poetry (barely legible in the glare of the sun). Ahead of them were the cows, who were in turn led by handlers. Despite purporting to be a “ritual, ceremonial dance” for the cows, the performers made no contact or actual acknowledgement of them. In the moments before sunset, each performer held out a small plastic toy cow, as if to say to the audience, “the last two hours of your life would have been better spent playing with this.”

There were moments so excruciating that I doubted the legitimacy of the entire medium of performance. The performers’ call-section was beyond shrill. The cell phone poem was delivered with an astonishingly cliched self-seriousness, but not enough to distract from the primal and feverish desire to photograph the cows. This is where Jefferey’s aptitude could have been most salient. My own experience of the cows was mitigated by my cell phone, as was virtually the entire audience’s. The piece hinges on this prophecy that the new intimacy of cell phones can effectively intervene in consuming any new experience. The deluge of camera phones was a sufficient catalyst to examine the cow’s relationship to technology. To wit, the cows themselves were enough to augment the reality of the bustling crowd waiting around on The 606; the mere presence of the animals was enough to cast an unsettling and bizarre tone over the experience of the evening.

What makes this city’s relationship to farming and agriculture distinct from the rest of the flyover states, however, was left totally unclear by this performance. The intended function of the cow’s rhinestone costumes to reveal archival photographs of Chicago’s dairy industry & architecture was effectively lost to lack of visibility — to good fortune. That this was intended as tribute to the choreographer’s late father, a life-long farm worker, was the most moving motif of the evening; the lore that dairy cows came to his rescue after falling from a milking parlor’s roof was elegantly cemented by the animals’ obtuse but fervent gaze of the human spectators. However, the irony that the sparkling cows being celebrated for their sacrifice to Big Agriculture would never be used in the commercial dairy industry was not lost on me.

The whole pageantry, pomp, and circumstance of the relatively amazing feat of getting cows gussied up in wreaths and costumes, parading them onto The 606 for a crowd of 200 people evoked the energy and audacity of an emerging performer eager to disrupt and willing to risk failure. Markedly missing, however, was any of the tact, polish, and restraint that would have made the performance effective. These are attributes I expect of a storied performance maker like Mark Jeffery.

In 2018, are we beholden to the myth of the non-traditional space? ATOM-r’s stated intention is to interrogate formal modes of practice, but what lines are actually being blurred by merely relocating a piece to a public place? More to the point, what do we actually challenge when we distort performing platforms? Though purporting to push back on conventional performance practices, “Rhinestone Cowboy” reinforces a trite, old-hat convention that simply swapping out a location makes something interesting. More unfortunately, in their intention to create a spectacle, ATOM-r lost a paramount opportunity for a poignant and introspective work that would have posited technology, agricultural spirituality, and mythos in conversation with each other.

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