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DfbrL8r Performance Art Gallery: Giving Chicago’s Performance Art Scene a Jolt

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally posted May 23, 2011.

Carrie McGath

Interior of DfbrL8r

Walking into Defibrillator (aka: DfbrL8r) Performance Art Space, there is a feeling of noir, like walking into a black and white world that barely waits below the surface to come to life. The edgy performances that have happened there since its opening last winter, are  ghostly presences still chivvying up the corrugated silver walls.

The space happened mostly due to a collaboration of coincidence and fate by Executive Director and performance artist, Joseph Ravens. After his artwork was censored in a PopUp Loop Gallery last fall, Ravens had planned to move eastward, to Brooklyn. “Some nude images of myself were removed from the wall. I was really irritated with Chicago for that. It’s just a naked body, I was not doing anything perverse. So I secured an apartment in Brooklyn. My deposit was due on a Monday.”

But on the Friday before, Ravens spied a vast open space that had been a retail shop. He called the phone number on the sign thinking he was still heading to the coast and would simply recommend the great space to a friend. That weekend, Ravens pondered his find a bit more. “I had two options: to flee a situation and the other was to stay and do something about it. I tend to take the harder path.”

DfbrL8r then became a space that would function to not only help emerging artists in Chicago, but to also bring in national and international acts that have not typically passed through the city to perform. “A friend and I were talking and came up with this concept of Defibrillator: shaking things up; jolting something into life. I don’t think the scene here was dead, but I wanted to infuse it and make it better.”

Interior of DfbrL8r

The space is adaptable and can be rented for rehearsal space as well as exhibitions. “I provide affordable rehearsal space and it helps me make ends meet.” He went on to discuss how performance art itself had some painful, static years from “NEA Four” in the late 1980s and 1990s. But Ravens says its popularity has returned thanks to events such as Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA and biennials like Performa. “Both Marina and Performa, as well as people’s quest for new and interesting things, has brought performance art back into the light; there’s a new generation interested in it and interested in performing.”

As far as finding artists to perform at DfbrL8r? Again, coincidence and fate lends a hand. Ravens performed all over the world for the better part of ten years and he has made a lot of international connections. “Part of my curation is relying on my sources from my international travels over the past ten or eleven years. Another aspect is scouting. I am out there trying to see as much work as possible. I especially try to foster young and emerging talent since that was what I needed as a young artist.”

The mission of DfbrL8r is admirable and feels like a cosmic moment in time: many elements coming together to create an ideal space for performance art in Chicago. Not far from the Division subway stop on the Blue Line, this silver-walled palladium of performance art that has become the vibrant DfbrL8r, has a promising future.

The building itself lends to the missions of the space. The two large display windows that flank the entrance act as performance spaces, art made visible to the passing world. Ravens sees these large windows as the pads of a defibrillator and therefore he insists that when they are used, they are used as one cohesive piece of art. This complicates the situation of the artist and facilitates creative answers to deal with the difficulty of the fissured “stage.”

Exterior of DfbrL8r

“I feel really grateful to be in this neighborhood. This area is really a creative area that I feel really proud to be a part of. It has turned out to be an artist area.” This is a sentiment that fits with Ravens’ mission of DfbrL8r. The website continues the notions of a defibrillator in its production categories of “Amperage” an online Tumblr forum; Arrhythmia, meaning “guest curatorial endeavors”; Joules, a queer performance series; and others.

DfbrL8r aims to spark a discussion about performance art while it also aims to foster a supportive community among the artists.

It is really a utopian space. Its look is surreal and clean, ghostly and noir. And with the wide-eyed passion Joseph Ravens so clearly possess will not only put DfbrL8r on the map of performance art in the twenty-first century, but it will also no doubt put Chicago on one the spokes of the wheel that is the international performance art circuit.