Like most of the other festivals this season, PROTOTYPE has been moved online, but they did offer one in-person event: the video and audio installation Ocean Body at HERE Arts Center. Audiences were limited to four people per time slot and strict COVID protocols were in place, so I felt safe enough to venture downtown and set foot in a performance space for the first time in ten months. There were no live performers, so, at first, the experience was more like one of the side galleries at the MoMA where you go into a curtained room and view clips from an artist’s video work than it was like an opera or theatre piece. But going to a theatre, checking in at the box office, and stepping into a darkened room with other real humans (albeit only two of them at my performance) was such an incredible, if momentary, rush from the before-times.
Ocean Body is a fifteen minute collage-like experience where three screens and two performers immerse the audience in the sand and seaspray of the Gulf Coast. Composed and performed by Helga Davis and Shara Nova, the two women occupy narrow floor-to-ceiling screens that face each other from either side of the space. They are larger than life, but the images give the impression of two people communing with each other. They’re not physically there, but the screens substitute their bodies. It is an ingenious use of video and space and does a lot of work to simulate the presence of the performers without their actually being in the room.
There is a long, narrow screen in the center that bisects the two and mirrors the sculptural dresses that tie the performers together. Designed by Annica Cuppetelli, the bodice on each woman’s dress features long white strings that can be pulled and released, drawing the other nearer or allowing them to slip away. They sing of “constriction” and of being called to the water. It becomes clear as we progress that Nova’s character represents the ocean and is pulling Davis’s character ever closer.
In the visually stunning final section, Davis stomps on broken shells, resisting the call of the water, but eventually relents. She slowly treads into the ocean, nearly up to her neck, and as the tide recedes, she slaps the surface repeatedly–with anger, with passion, with tenderness. The ocean is her daughter, her sister, her mother, she says. Thunderous rhythmic music comes in and it’s her heartbeat. As she connects with the water, the two performers, one a human and one the ocean, sing together and become one, succumbing to each other.
The power of this last section hits in a way that would not have been possible over Zoom. We are on the beach, we are in the water. It’s the achievement of both Davis and Nova as well as the director Mark DeChiazza that something taped months before and transmitted with whirring projectors on white screens can feel so vital and alive.