My First Banana

Posted on September 17th, 2010

Adina Bier performed her piece On Boulevard de Clichy tonight during the Rooftop Patio Launch Party for Visualeyez at Latitude 53. “Rooftop Patio Launch Party” was a bit of a misnomer; it was too cold to go outside, so the launch party was not on the rooftop patio. That doesn’t mean the evening was a disappointment, however! In fact, it meant that wherever partiers chose to hang out, they were in the midst of performance art.

Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader were busy making edible culture in Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden – from birthing fetal tomatoes to creating a “vinegar mother” to serving mint agar desserts in petri dishes, their space was bustling with activity and bursting with life all evening. This is one project to keep coming back to, as their work will evolve and literally grow over the course of the festival. Their performance doesn’t officially start until tomorrow (Friday), but they’ll be in the gallery from 12-5 every day for the rest of the festival.

Though she wasn’t scheduled to perform either, Chun Hua Catherine Dong couldn’t keep the participants away from the installation for her performance Hourglass. Everyone wants to help paint a few grains of rice black – just enough, it seems, to really grasp the overwhelmingly impossible nature of the task. By the time she arrived once the party was already in full swing, I’d heard from at least half a dozen people who wondered if they’d get in trouble if they started without her.

It was Adina’s project that really captivated the crowd, however.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s work, I really respond to artwork that challenges the audience to take a risk, to make themselves vulnerable in a gesture of solidarity with the artist. For Adina’s project, I was prepared to simply NOT be nauseated by the bananas in the gallery, but I didn’t know if I would be able to give her any more than that.

For On Boulevard de Clichy, the artist dressed in a bodysuit made of “nude”-coloured sheer nylon, standing amongst 365 fresh bananas. With one banana (still fully encased in its peel) shoved into her brightly painted mouth and one banana in each hand, Adina Bier handed gallery visitors bananas. Signs instructed participants to peel and eat the banana, depositing the spent peel in her bodysuit when finished.

Borrowing the name for her project from the street in Paris famously home to the historic Moulin Rouge and other notorious cabarets of the period, Bier puts herself on display seemingly for the gratification of the crowd. Though Clichy was once home to  artists from Van Gogh to Degas to Picasso it is best known today for its strip clubs, topless cabarets and sex shops. As the artist stands silently in the gallery I wonder briefly if she is referencing the art history of the area at all, or simply the viscerally decadent sexual subculture. Then I remember that they’re hardly inseparable, and that the art scene at the height of Boulevard de Clichy’s heyday was a very hedonistic and indulgent one.

I watch some of the first people take their banana, eat it, and stuff the peel timidly into the arm of Bier’s bodysuit. Every new person to enter the gallery is offered an outstretched arm, banana in hand. Posted signs explain how the audience is to engage with the work, but it seems to me that the artist’s eyes are much more communicative than the posters. With them she pleads with each new visitor to help her; take a banana, please. Just one banana. I can’t possibly eat these all myself.

I’m reminded of the definition of performance art that requires the engagement of ‘bodies at risk.’ The artist appears so vulnerable and so much in need, and I can see that the audience recognizes this too. Almost every person I see in the gallery has taken a banana. Every new person that arrives at the party is dragged into the gallery by someone asking “Do you like bananas? You need to help.”

It has been less than an hour since she has started her performance, and I can see Bier suppressing a gag reflex constantly now. Eyes tearing, her banana-plugged mouth silently begs me to eat a banana.

I have never eaten a banana.

But finally I am worn down, at least as much by my sense of responsibility to the art and my commitment to engaging with the work as by the artist’s manipulation. I take a banana as I tell her that I have never eaten one before. I feel as though I am sharing a special moment with her, that we are both vulnerable and at risk in this moment. (I worry that she makes everyone else feel this way too; that I am indeed not special, that everyone who takes a banana from her believes that they are the only one, or that their banana MEANS something which the other bananas do not.)

Failing to understand how to open a banana and thereby destroying my first, Adina peels a new one for me and I take it, feeling ever more vulnerable in my banana-virginity against this world-weary apparent banana whore. Watching her strangle on her own banana-gag, I start to choke down my first ever banana and feel that I somehow understand what she is going through.

Managing to eat the entire thing without retching audibly, I wonder silently – If I write in the blog that I’ve never eaten a banana, will readers think it’s somehow significant that I’m a queer woman? It’s not, really. It’s not like I haven’t sucked my fair share of cocks. (My fair share being relative, I suppose, to the fact that I’m a queer woman. So maybe it’s significant. I guess.) My distaste for bananas has nothing whatsoever to do with their phallic nature and everything to do with their – well, uh, I’m not sure. I mean, it must be the texture, mostly. As a classic case of the orally-fixated, I certainly like putting things in my mouth, so it’s not that, that’s all I’m saying.

The crowd at Latitude is loosening up now. Banana jokes are flying. People are wondering if Adina’s jaw is getting sore. Partiers are showing off in front of their friends, conversation is getting louder and ruder. Yet, I don’t feel that Adina is any more at risk than at the start of the evening. While normally, I expect that performance art plus alcohol eventually leads to someone going home in tears (and I programmed performance art year-round for eight years), this crowd which has been protective of the artist from the beginning is getting, if anything, MORE protective. Sure, the banana peels are starting to be pushed deeper and deeper into her bodysuit, but now I see people taking their second and third bananas, against their own better judgment and the pleading of their stomachs. I talk to people who are hanging out shiftily in the back corner of the gallery, or unwilling to return into the gallery at all, who uniformly explain that if they look her direction again they’ll have to take another banana, and they just can’t handle any more. I talk to a woman who the artist has literally CUT OFF from the supply of bananas, fearing (after the woman’s 7th banana) for her health and safety.

So now I’m thinking about a performance I saw in Vancouver during That 70’s Ho at the Western Front. Curator Victoria Singh invited female performance artists born in the 70’s to remake or update work of feminist performance artists from the 70’s. During an evening cabaret, Maya Suess, reinterpreting Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, invited viewers to cut the clothing off her body with scissors provided for that purpose. It could have gone any direction, but the audience in this instance opted to treat the project like a dare. Instead of being shy or respectfully modest, or protective, each visitor took his or her turn to one-up the previous cutter. You cut off several inches? I’ll cut off a couple of feet! You cut off the portion of the dress covering her breasts? I’ll cut off the portion of her skirt covering her crotch! You cut off her panties? I cut off her shoes! You cut off her gloves? I cut off her hair! That work seemed to operate as a game, and the objective of the game was to see who could upset the artist. The challenge seemed to have been put to us thusly, and from reports I heard afterwards, we succeeded. I guess she didn’t really think people would take her up on her offer. Not really.

But it made me wonder (then as now) what does an artist do to make an audience behave appropriately in the context of their performance? What I mean is that in the performance I saw at Western Front, the project seemed out of control. In a way not intended by the artist. I’m sure that audience was feeding off of just that energy, the energy of a runaway performance. The artist herself now likely recognizes the power in that volatility and claims it as her own, though at the time, it did not go well for her at all.

Adina Bier, though, has harnessed exactly the response she needs to make On Boulevard de Clichy a success. Though there are still two-thirds of the bananas remaining, it seems quite a feat to have engineered the consumption of 125 bananas over the course of a few short hours, to wordlessly convince dozens of people to stop what they’re doing and eat a banana for art. Over the course of the evening, an entire party full of people have done their best to protect this plainly vulnerable woman from the great banana menace and yet, as the fog lifts and people start to realize what they have accomplished, there the artist stands, completely covered in banana leavings: bloated and lumpy, old and saggy, the banana bukkake princess of the world.

I still want to have a good talk with the artist once she’s had a chance to digest (so to speak) what’s happened tonight. She’s already decided that she won’t be continuing the project tomorrow; it somehow seems anticlimactic after such a concerted effort by such a large crowd. Plus, she’d have to make herself get back into that bodysuit filled with grey, mushy, cold day-old banana peels. I have doubts she could stand in one spot again for a second day in a row, but I should never underestimate the commitment of a performance artist. (I once programmed Kelly Mark, who did a piece called Smoke Break. She stood outside city hall all day, chainsmoking. As soon as she butted one cigarette out she lit up the next. From the minute they opened until the minute they closed, she smoked. I don’t remember how many packages of cigarettes she went through. Eleven? The first thing we did after the performance was head to dinner, and I listened to Kelly describe how taxing and toxic and nauseating it was to smoke that many cigarettes in a row. The very first thing Kelly did AFTER dinner? She lit up a cigarette.)

Anyway, I am curious to talk with Adina more about her work, and to see what she decides should be done with the rest of the bananas.

Chatting with her briefly after the performance tonight, Adina said that she is actively manipulating people into performing an act, which, (thinking about it symbolically), might be considered morally reprehensible. Out of all the people who interacted with her, only one couple took a banana, debated eating it, and then returned the banana to her, explaining that they “couldn’t do that to her.” Of course, they immediately understood the symbolism behind the work, which is not to say that nobody else did. It just means that they considered it seriously and applied it to their moral system before choosing not to engage. It seems to me that any of the other participants may have had a similar internal dialogue before submitting to the artist’s plea to take a banana, but acquiesced on the point that, in this setting, it is better to help an artist by engaging in their performance than to refuse to engage on moral grounds that are arguably spurious because the project in fact aims to address and challenge our relationship to those moral standards themselves.

- the banana cycle - gleefully taking a banana, happily giving back the peel, and pleading for more help.