As Wojciech Kosma burst into a spontaneous fit of tears on the concrete floor of INTERSTATE, his performance partner, Sjoerd Dijk, stroked the artist’s hair and waited for their performance to end. Where did these tears come from? And why didn’t I believe them?
The–family, of which Kosma and Dijk are a part, is a performance collective that stages highly physical, improvised conversations that attempt to approach states of heightened emotional vulnerability. In Liberty Is Everything When It Necessitates Love for a Human, staged last Saturday at INTERSTATE, Kosma and Dijk performed a series of homoerotic and precarious acro-yoga positions while they goaded one another into revealing anecdotes about memory, their significant others, ass play, and the tendernesses and insecurities of their three-year-long friendship.
An obvious imbalance of power marked Kosma and Dijk’s dynamic from the beginning. In The–family, it seems, Kosma is patriarch. As Kosma called the shots, Dijk let loose spurts of nervous laughter, glancing tentatively toward his aggressive partner in anticipation of the next step in their duet. Unfortunately, such a starkly unbalanced power dynamic between two performers does not necessarily encourage emotional honesty, which would seem requisite for the vulnerability that the collective proposes to pursue. While there was much laughter—the pair tested one another’s trust by seeing how close they could get to one another’s genitals, laughing nervously as a way to diffuse this invasive touching—the audience was never afforded the chance to laugh first. Nervous laughter became a hallmark of the piece and a barricade against openness; a fail-safe that was never demolished.
There is a common misconception that performance art differs from theater in that, in performance art, one can get in front of an audience and simply “do anything.” This is both true and untrue. Performance art can be an excellent tool for forcing people to realize that everyday reality is performative. In simply “doing something” in front of an audience, a performer can elevate an otherwise benign action, forcing a reconsideration of the way in which it is charged with meaning. But just “doing anything” onstage does not necessarily ensure the emotional sincerity that The–family so covets. As indicated by the lone promotional graphic that accompanies this review, the artists are vehemently opposed to any published photographs of their work; in fact, all but one of the images originally published on the gallery’s website have been taken down. Perhaps this is another indication of the collective’s kamikaze-like fidelity to the present moment in performance.
The group describes its dynamics as “at times theatrical, yet hardly staged.” This gesture toward theater incites a fundamental critique frequently leveled at even the best playwrights: You have to give your audience a reason to care about what they are watching. The problem with relying on an improvisational formula to generate emotional honesty, as The–family did in this performance, is that sometimes it simply does not happen. When you gamble in improv, you force your audience to gamble with you. And if nothing happens, the audience is left to try to intellectually parse out meaning where they did not feel it. In not connecting us to feeling, The–family denied its audience as well as its participants the very impetus of its project: that precious access to cathartic emotional release.
Perhaps the most productive result of Kosma and Dijk’s experiment is that witnessing its trials and errors drove me to dissect the minutia of what might make for successful performance art. Such a question is bound to eternally chase its tail, but like those elusive emotional breakdowns so sought after by The–family, it is one worth pursuing—even in the event of perpetual failure.
Liberty Is Everything When It Necessitates Love for a Human was performed Saturday, July 26, 2014, at INTERSTATE, 66 Knickerbocker Ave., Brooklyn, NY, 11237.
 From The–family’s artist statement.