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The grid occupies a seemingly contradictory place in our culture, representing both dystopian rigidity and utopian perfectibility. Take for instance, the architecture of prisons v. that of modernist utopian art movements. As organic bodies, we are caught between the two: simultaneously defined and corralled by the dystopian, and striving toward and illuminated by the utopian. The recent exhibition Performing the Grid at Otis College of Art and Design’s Ben Maltz Gallery, brought this tension to a sustained vibration, bringing the eccentricities of the body into relief. Here, bodies perform the grid, but also confront, are dwarfed by, give rise to, and abide within grids both monolithic and evanescent.
One of the pleasures of the show was its inter-generational roster, as well as the range of media within which the artistic investigations took place. Dance and performance were well represented (on video) with iconic works like Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967); Dance, Lucinda Childs collaboration with Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass from 1979; and David Haxton’s strangely affecting Cube and Room Drawings (1976-1977). More recent performance and video works included Sense and Sense (2010), Emily Roysen’s video of the artist MPA’s awkward and somehow tender attempt to walk on her side along the grid of a notorious Stockholm public square. Neil Beloufa’s The Analyst, the researcher, the screenwriter, the cgi tech and the lawyer (2011), dislodges any notion of fixed perspective by bringing together divergent narratives around an ambiguously surveilled city block.
The two and three dimensional works in the show also highlighted the unmanageability and temporality of the body, as grids made by hand go happily askew and/or become opportunities for spontaneity. With titles like 1,000,000 Days Away (2009), Xylor Jane’s hand-drawn grids translate the ineffability of time into complex visual systems. Even when the mark of the hand isn’t present, the grid is a structure against which improvisation can occur: the mysterious curve and the shifting green of Kathleen Ryan’s Wave (2015) transforms an imposing chunk of gridded metal fence (rendered innocuous on its back) into something vegetal, aspirational, and airy. Conceptually and formally, these and other works in the show demonstrated both the transcendental and the oppressive qualities of the grid, contrasted with the delightfully unreliable, always shifting human body.
On a Sunday afternoon during the run of the show, MPA held an event called Interrupting the Grid. This included a lecture on her research into the future colonization of Mars and its relationship to current life on Earth. The talk was held simultaneously with an exercise called Walking the Grid, which was performed by former students of the artist. The design of the exercise caused the performers to haphazardly run into each other—and the audience—as they walked imaginary grids. Afterwards, everyone came together to discuss the lecture and how it felt, as actors and spectators, to participate in the performance.
Since the grid is about definition and demarcation, the separation of audience and performer during the event—and the occasional lack thereof—brought to light the kind of psychological structures that function like physical grids, but are invisible. The performance produced an acute awareness of how codes of logic and separation inform our bodies and their movement: classifications that inhibit us, hierarchies that structure our movement, and value systems that delineate our relationships to each other. Ultimately, these psychological grids serve the logic of capitalism, which benefits from defining us and our relationships solely in terms of the roles we play as actors in its system.
MPA’s performance, and the exhibition as a whole, gave form to the ways that our bodies are vulnerable in relation to these physical and imagined grids. However, coming together in a non-hierarchical formation to discuss what it felt like to be bodies relating to each other seemed like a radical departure from the unconscious ways that we usually engage with the various grids in our lives. Changing our relationships with each other changes the structures that limit us.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 5.