Performance art is a bit difficult to define. It’s not theater, exactly, or dance, or music, though it can incorporate all three genres.
“It’s all of those and none of them at the same time,” said Abagail Beddall. “It’s a happening.”
Beddall founded the Pittsburgh Performance Art Festival in 2014 to draw attention to what she considers an underappreciated discipline. This year’s festival is the most ambitious yet, with 33 acts, one-third of which are from other countries, as distant as China, Croatia and Venezuela. Another one-third are Pittsburgh-based.
The free, two-day event takes place this weekend in six indoor and outdoor venues in Millvale.
Most of the artists are solo acts doing cutting-edge works of 40 minutes or less – though at a couple of “durational” works will last several hours each, and at least two will span both days of the festival, said Beddall.
What performance artists have in common, she said, is making art with their bodies. Dancers do that too, of course, but performance art is seldom dance in a conventional sense.
Guests this year include Quinn Hunter, a North Carolina-based artist who’ll braid her hair through the gap in a cinder block – which she’ll then drag around Panza Gallery using only her hair.
“It’s sort of a reaction to her hair as a black woman, in the black community, and the importance of hair, as well as the struggle of what that means in larger society,” says Beddall.
In GAPP Park, in an immigration-themed work, Pittsburgh-based Samir Gangwani will build a brick wall with his own hands – then attempt to climb it before it’s set.
Nigeria-born Vivian Chinasa Ezugha, now based in England, performs a work exploring depression and anxiety. “She’ll be wrestling with this giant piece of clay about the same tone as her body,” said Beddall. That work is staged in Ton Gallery.
Croatian multidisciplinary artist Vesna Mačković brings her Public Performance Periscope World Project, an interactive installation in which she hides herself inside a "human-sized periscope." Visitors can look or, via headphones, listen in on what she's doing inside. There is also an online component.
Though each work in the festival will be performed just once, Beddall said, it is possible to see all of them because they are staged sequentially. Other venues include the Millvale Library and the outdoor Gardens of Millvale.
The festival is Pittsburgh’s lone showcase dedicated to this kind of “body-based” work. (The Pittsburgh Fringe, by contrast, tends toward edgy theater and spoken-word pieces.)
Beddall is an artist and educator. She launched the performance-art festival in 2014, as a “house-party”-like event in the Garfield building housing the Mr. Roboto Project and Bunker Projects. (Beddall is a co-founder of the latter, which accommodates resident artists and shows their work.)
In 2015, the fest hosted its first international performer. The most recent iteration, in 2017, was held on venues on Melwood Avenue, in Oakland, including Glitter Box. Beddall took 2018 off; she plans to make the festival biennial.
This year’s festival is funded primarily by a grant from Neighborhood Allies that allows Beddall to pay the artists.
She hopes other arts groups, here and elsewhere, will begin building a circuit that provides a home for performers she said provide a unique artistic experience.
“You’re exposed to their actions and their interactions and it really is very relatable,” she said. “There’s nothing like seeing someone else put themselves in such a vulnerable position for everyone to kind of relate to in a way where it’s like, ‘OK, so why am I feeling this way, why are we doing this, how am I interacting with the world, how am I dealing with what’s going on?’ Which is a really important thing to ask ourselves in our era.”
The festival runs Friday and Saturday. More information is available on the event's Facebook page.