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Celestial Bodies in the City: The corporeal and virtual worlds of Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey

Marissa Perel

The following article is part of the Present/Presence series on local performers who contribute to Chicago’s cultural landscape through their artistic and curatorial practices.

Rehearsal for “The Labors” by Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey at the MCA from Marissa Perel on Vimeo.

Zihan Loo and Sam Hertz perform a duo within the 10 men ensemble for “The Labors,” a performance-installation that is part of the Interactions series for the exhibition, “Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Its Audience.” The piece runs now through January 16th.

When I came to the MCA for a preview of The Labors, Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey’s latest performance-installation, premiering January 11 – 16, I had no state-issued I.D. and couldn’t get through security to see the piece. After explaining the issue to Jeffery through the glass doors of the museum, curator Tricia Van Eck came down to get me through security and onto the Main Floor. It was haunting to walk through the MCA without any visitors, which heightened my sensitivity to the museum as a fortress of art objects. Without detailed security measures, who knows what threat any ordinary looking person, even at the height of 4’10’’ might pose?

Switch to the large black stenciled words on the walls that read, “Without You I’m Nothing,” the title of the exhibition in which The Labors is featured as part of a series of interactions by artists through May 1st. Standing in two rows under these words are 10 men dressed in navy blue. As Jeffery rings a triangle, each performer picks up the shovel at his feet and stands in a straight line in the center of the floor, repeating the words, “trials with an overhead view,” then each performer walks to a specific spot on the floor and says a Greek name.

After each performer has gone to his spot and spoken, a delicate choreography proceeds with movement occurring between duos and trios with detailed hand motions, moments of stillness and repetitive interactions.Watching The Labors, I forgot about the security measures that almost prevented me from getting there, as I was so absorbed in the material of the movement. It posed a curious question about the body in relationship to the art object. One could argue that I was compelled by the performance because it took me out of the ordinary experience of looking at a thing, where instead I experienced the urgency of live bodies, realizing that much of a museum is really just empty space.

Joseph and Sarah Belknap in "The Living Newspapers" at the MCA last year, photo by John Sisson Jr.

Or, on the other hand, the performance is in itself an object made with precise timing and coordination such that you can have your experience of looking without the risk of an inimical solicitation of intimacy. While the answer to what makes this piece noteworthy probably involves both standpoints, I talked with Judd Morrissey about the meaning of The Labors, with a question typical of performance art, “This is so cool looking, but what is going on?”.

Morrissey informed me that the performers’ movements are based on a celestial map of the MCA, as in the position of the stars directly over the museum. Each performer goes to a specific node and says the name of the star on that node, then the group reconfigures to form celestial bodies together. The shovels they hold represent the theme of labor, and their movements are based on the labors of their own jobs, their parents’ jobs an d their grandparents’ jobs.

The plotting of star maps and the interpretive movements of labor intertwine to create this minimal yet poignant performance. Throughout the week of the performance-installation, visitors to the MCA will be interviewed about their own work, and the performers will incorporate new movements based on the visitors descriptions to embody what could be called a community of labor.

10 men drink a glass of wine on the Winter solstice in "The Precession," at HPAC photo by John Sisson Jr.

While Jeffery’s work is on the choreographic end of the piece, Morrissey’s data processing builds a virtual world through which the audience can see the celestial maps on screens in front of the performers.  The Labors is born out of a project that began at the Hoover Dam, when Jeffery and Morrissey visited this Mecca of Depression-era labor as a source for thinking about work, sacrifice and the meaning of these things in our own atrophied economic times.

The collaborative team have already created 2 performance-installations based on material from their research, The Living Newspapers at the MCA last year and The Precession at the Hyde Park Art Center that is now showing through March 20th daily from 3:00 PM to close.

For all of these works, Jeffery’s austere directing paired with Morrissey’s live twitter feeds or geometric projections of language result in a complex composition of quotidian movement and found poetry taken to virtuosic lengths. They will use their system of star mapping and the performance of labor for more site-specific pieces both in Chicago and London, UK this year.

Morrissey's digital text-based projects on the windows of HPAC are up through March, photo by John Sisson Jr.

Jeffery and Morrissey are ubiquitous in the small live art scene of Chicago not only because of their artistic rigor, but also for their curatorial tenacity. Jeffery started Chicago’s only performance biennial with co-curator Sara Schnadt, The IN>TIME Festival, which has run in 2008 and 2010. Having attended the 2010 Festival, I was awed by the sheer force of audience presence at the Chicago Cultural Center, where the events were held. The Cultural Center seemed to literally be bursting at the seams with people there to see live art by local emerging and established artists, as well as national ones.  A panel that was part of this conference boasted prestigious local curators, internationally renown artists and a performance studies scholar from the U.K. Jeffery also curates the Incubator Series Studio/Residency Program with artist Sara Schnadt, Chicago Artists Coalition and the CLA for site-specific performances throughout Chicago.

"Family Portrait" by Clover Morrell, Photo by Jordan Schulman

I had the opportunity to perform in this program for resident Clover Morell who completed her time at the former Ritz Camera store on 208 S.Wabash Ave. last week. She had spent 4 weeks at the store creating participatory pieces for passers-by, most notably the Family Portrait project where she sat with strangers who came into the store for family portrait style photo shoots.

The month before, Chris Cuellar participated in the residency developing code that isolates moving subjects from a video feed and swaps out their images with the pixels from the background, creating the illusion that you can “see through” people.

screen capture from "Studio Series" by Chris Cuellar

Jeffery and Morrissey’s latest curatorial project with artist Claudia Hart is The Simulationists: A Mixed Reality Exhibition and Performance Symposium that will open February 1st at the Rymer Gallery, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The show is based on technological hybridization of the body with digital processes. Participating artists range from techno-poets to dancers who create virtual Butoh. The exhibition and performances include hybrids of gender, interspecies video work, digitally constructed identities and words that appear to be pixel bodies on the screen. The show’s themes seem to draw from OPENPORT, Jeffery and Morrissey’s curatorial project in 2007 that took place at Links Hall.

In an interview between Mark Jeffery and Zachary Wittenburg on the IN>TIME Festival, Jeffery said of his work, “You do it because you want to see it, and if you don’t see it someone has to stand up.” Whether this means creating site-specific participatory performance-installations at the MCA, or creating a space in the city for innovative live artists to present work, Jeffery’s and Morrissey’s labors prove that there is no time like the present not just to stand up, but to pick up a shovel and start dancing.

Marissa Perel is a Chicago based performance artist, writer, independent curator and healer. Her writing and criticism can also be found on the Art21 Blog,Tarpaulin Sky and Body Blog.