Performance artists from around the world will convene in Houston February 21–23 for the second biennial Experimental Action, an international performance-art festival. This year features many Houston- and Texas-based artists, as well as performers from Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, and Chile. To find out a bit about the event, OutSmart spoke to creative director Julia Claire Wallace.
Neil Ellis Orts: Do you have a guiding definition of “performance art” as you build the festival?
Julia Claire Wallace: I do! I’ll say first that if you go to performancearthouston.com, I have collected my favorite links that define performance art, and there’s a “Performance Art?” link to some of my favorite guides. But for me personally, performance art is creative action that creates transformation in myself and those around me. The reason I do it is because it is one of my favorite ways to grow personally.
Do you recall when you first encountered performance art as a specific category?
I don’t remember when I found out what it was, but my real introduction came when I was going to the University of Houston and I took Elia Arce’s performance-art class. She’s been a huge influence on me. Definitely, Elia was my teacher and mentor in learning this medium. I discovered that if I listen to myself, listen to my body, listen to my mind, then ideas come forth about actions that I could do. Performance art really opens up the door to some creativity that can be really powerful.
Tell us a bit about how the festival got started.
I’m the director, but a management team of artists leads the festival. I have set up the festival much more like a social sculpture than a logical festival that makes sense. [Laughs] One of the unique things about it is the community aspect. I worked really hard to make sure that the artists coming in get to really spend time with each other and the artists from Houston. I also make pathways for volunteers to very easily come and really get to know these artists from all over the world. Any artist that agrees to come understands that this is the festival that is all about getting to know everybody and having an exchange with Houston, instead of just coming in and doing your work. Creating a short-term community that has lasting impact is important to me.
The history I was taught says that contemporary performance art comes out of 1960s female artists who couldn’t get their work into galleries— places that were full of paintings of women. So they said, “You want to look at women’s bodies? Here, we’ll give you women’s bodies to look at.”
I’m not incredibly well-versed in the history, but I have sensed that [dynamic], for sure. Since performance art is rooted in the body, people who have had painful experiences related to their bodies have used it, historically, in order to work through that oppression or to create activism to address those issues.
My experience is that performance art attracts a lot of queer bodies.
Yeah. I grew up in a very restrictive Christian [environment] that taught me the carnal, the body, was evil. I knew I was bisexual in high school, so I already felt the conflict of that. My body was telling me this one thing, but then all the people around me were telling me this other thing. So performance art taught me to honor what my body was telling me in a really powerful way. It has been incredibly healing. So that’s my personal experience.
I know it’s not a “gay festival,” but can you tell us about a couple of the queer artists?
It’s a funny thing [to ask] who the queer ones are. I don’t know! I didn’t ask everyone their sexuality! [Laughs] I will say our management team has a lot of queer people on it, but it’s a diverse queerness where every sexuality is represented. I’m really excited to be hosting Jose Villalobos. Cassie Mira is a trans artist who is doing some really cool things—some of the most powerful work I’ve seen in Houston. She has a really strong voice. Jonathan Lopez is a member of our management team. He won’t be performing, but he’s doing all the videography on our website. Antonius Tin-Bui is an amazing nonbinary queer artist who is currently doing a residency at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.
Anything you want to say about Experimental Action that we haven’t covered?
I want people to come to this festival and have powerful, mind-altering experiences that leave them better off than when they came. I want this festival to change the lives of the audience, the artists, and the volunteers. And I do encourage anyone who wants to volunteer to let me know, because there are some really incredible opportunities to be engaged with the short-term community that’s going to be created.
What: Experimental Action Performance Art Festival
When: February 21—23
Where: Various venues
This article appears in the February 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.