Elizabeth Prendiville of Saffronart discusses Raqs Media Collective’s performance at Performa 13.
New York: During my intensive work on the performance art biennial Performa 13 one performance was often discussed with excitement and mystery. Raqs Media Collective’s contribution to the month-long biennial was heavily anticipated, because it was intended to involve film footage, music, spoken word, sculpture, history and a number of other major themes all in one piece. “The Last International” was described in the Peforma publications as “a celebratory performance that takes New York’s history as an international gathering place for people from all over the world as a starting point, and proposes a moment of coming together”. This description brings on so many different themes and approaches that I had no idea what to expect from the artist’s group credited as India’s artistic “think tank”.
The Connelly Theater in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan was the ideal venue for this performance, because it allowed Raqs Media Collective to immerse every inch of the multi-leveled space in their fantastical and literal imagery. Although it was quite conceptual from start to finish, the performance created such rich visuals for the audience. The jumping point for the performance was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s aspirations to move the Council General of the First International Working Men’s Association to New York City. However, imagery of a rhinoceros, a wealth of film projection and endless use of language transported viewers completely from these historical roots. Just as the description of the performance implied, it was such a full sensory experience that I could barely decide where to look.
Prior to the performance beginning viewers were invited to explore the space. This included areas that would normally be off limits to an audience such as behind the stage and in the wings where a traditional performer would prepare in secrecy. The space was filled with impressively sized potted citrus trees, which immediately transported the audience away from the urban New York City environment. A large mountain of plastic chairs was also piled in the center of the room looking equal parts chaotic and architectural. The audience was invited to completely explore this transformed space before sitting in the round to take in the performance. There was no traditional start of the performance, no dimming of the lights or a call for viewers to take their seats. The performance just began (a trend that would repeat itself in the finale of the performance). The piece began with performers stacking, crawling through and negotiating the space around and within this huge pile of chairs. From there each aspect of the performance was a striking visual narrative snowballing from one idea to another. Raqs utilized everything from spoken word to tape and chalk on the ground. Ideas and concepts were illustrated both literally and verbally. One of the most striking visuals was a large ladder allowing performers to move from the ground level to the upper balcony freely. In the same vain as letting the audience explore every inch of the space, this ladder broke the normal spatial rules of a theater. The area where performers present and the audience observes blurred together more and more throughout the performance. This concept was even clearer when massive balloons were blown up and then released (one from the highest point of the ladder) to float through the audience. In “The Last International” Raqs Media Collective presented the most visually rich and conceptually intricate performances that I encountered during the entire biennial.