High in a lofted gallery on Oct. 4, 1959, a handful of art appreciators left the shoulder-bumping crowds streaming down New York's Fourth Avenue and ducked into the Reuben Gallery to participate in something startlingly original.
Inside the space, three rooms formed by semi-transparent sheet plastic and fake fruit concealed an avant-garde collective of artists bouncing balls, squeezing oranges and making odd facial expressions. What was unique about this show—credited as the first of many Beat-era "happenings"—was the audience's central role in the spectacle. Allan Kaprow's "18 Happenings in 6 Parts" signaled the birth of what would later come to be known as performance art. Half a century later, it's happening in Boise.
"We're not innovating any forms of art or anything," says Bill Hofstra, co-curator of the upcoming performance art show "Incidentally, Yours" at Gallery Alexa Rose. "A lot of these ideas about bringing performance into a gallery space had been happening in the international art scene for several decades. But as far as thinking about what's happening here, it's not something that's really been tried out or studied so much in practice."
Hofstra was briefly involved with the guerrilla performance art troupe Boise Naval Base in 2004, but says there has been a relative scarcity of performance art in Boise since the group ceased their regular happenings.
Performance art is live and never performed the same way twice. It blurs the line between audience and performer and, unlike most high art, is not for sale. Performance art differs from the performing arts because it requires a one-time-only interaction between space, time and audience.
"Basically it was all about reacting to the environment that they were given," explains Jenny Rice, co-curator of "Incidentally, Yours." "A lot of [artists] had a general idea of what they wanted to go into it with but needed the space to react to. So it's sort of like installations, where depending on where the person's going to be in the gallery space, is going to depend a lot on the art they make."
With the help of dancer Johanna Kirk, Rice and Hofstra put out a call to artists for the young Alexa Rose gallery's second show. They plucked from the submission pile a varied group of performers whose proposals were complementary. The roster includes dancers Kelli Brown, Brecca Olson, Elizabeth McSurdy, Amanda Micheletty, Catie Young and Kirk; writer Heidi Kraay; choreographer and sculptor Hofstra; video artist and musician Tim Andreae; musician Jessie Proksa; and cupcake artist Heather Plummer.
"One thing that's going to be cool about this is we're going to have a lot of performers from the dance community in the gallery," says Hofstra. "If you go to a dance, you expect to have this level of separation from the dancers so the viewer and a dancer are separate things, but in this situation, the performer and the viewer are going to be occupying the same space, so it's really hard to tell how the viewer is going to react."
Longtime local dancers McSurdy and Micheletty have been rehearsing their piece Big Fish, Small Pond in a large dance studio, but will perform it live for the first time in the gallery's tiniest room.
"Dancers dance in very large spaces ... you don't really take into consideration that your movement would be hindered in any way," explains McSurdy. "We tried out this concept of creating a dance in a really large space and then putting it into a very small space, while staying as true to the movement as possible."
Though McSurdy looks forward to the slapstick comedic effect that tangled legs and ping-pong collisions are sure to elicit, she hopes the audience will also take a deeper meaning from the piece. To her, it's largely a symbolic commentary on the limitations of the art community in Boise.
"It's sort of a microcosm for Boise itself and the art scene where you want to do so much, and you can do so much, but there are certain limits due to it being a small and growing community."
This notion of being bound by both time and the gallery's space, yet striving to create a dialogue that transcends space and time, is a theme underlying all of the performances in "Incidentally, Yours."
"I think the sense of place is a huge thing with most of [the performances]," explains Hofstra. "I'm going to be doing a sleep performance, so I'll be bringing the idea of sleep, which is normally seen as something that's done in an intimate, private space, into the gallery space."
Another uniting theme in most performances in the show is a multidisciplinary focus. Andreae will perform in the gallery's darkened film room, projecting slides of random objects he found on excursions in the Foothills onto various audience members' arms and torsos. His piece will also incorporate sound and shadow in a variety of ways.
"It's kind of broken into three short pieces that are all somewhat linked together in theme," says Andreae. "The first will be a straightforward shadow puppet piece with a narrative. The next piece, I'm going to use my own heartbeat and amplify that. I have a heart monitor and a light that has a heart symbol on it that will be behind the screen ... then the next piece is the slide show. "
Hofstra breaks the structure of the show down into two categories: ambient performances, ones that will be constantly occurring throughout the evening, and spectacular performances, ones that have a specific time limit and will be performed three separate times.
"What's so interesting about this whole idea is, in the gallery, you're used to being a voyeur; the person stands and they are looking at the wall or looking at sculpture and observing something. In this case, they're going to be observing a person specifically on display, and I think that automatically creates this kind of awkwardness," says Rice. Awkward or not, Hofstra and Rice hope that "Incidentally, Yours" will be a springboard that both provokes dialogue and challenges downtown art-goers to re-conceptualize their passive roles as mere observers in the arts community.
"I'm really looking forward to people developing more of a critical perspective in the arts in Boise," says Hofstra. "I want people to not just take everything as it is and think, 'This is how it should be.' I want people to start challenging the status quo. "
Thursday, March 5, 6-9 p.m.; Thursday, March 11, 6-9 p.m., Gallery Alexa Rose, 280 N. Eighth St., Ste. 118.