2008 – 24-hour endurance event with Maida blindfolded and with ears plugged. In response to the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, Miguel Gutierrez, NYC, invited artists across the country to participate in Freedom of Information 2008. The directives were the same as for his original work performed December 31, 2001: 24-hour continuous movement improvisation, blindfolded and ears-plugged.
What the press is saying
What does a 72-year-old woman rolling around on the floor of a George Washington University dance studio blindfolded, with her ears plugged, have to do with the plight of Iraqi refugees, the bombing of Gaza and the scourge of war in general?
The 31 solo performances -- probably a modern-dance record of some sort -- commenced across various time zones at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and lasted until midnight on New Year's Eve.
You may find it somehow comforting to know that while millions elsewhere were getting sloppy-drunk and braying out bits of "Auld Lang Syne," some artists were taking humanity's problems very seriously. Or maybe you'll think, what-ev. Because you've got your own problems and one of them yesterday was a hangover.
But anyway: The project was instigated by New Yorker Miguel Gutierrez, who described it as an "endurance-based action" to draw attention to refugees displaced by war, particularly the Iraq and Afghan wars. (He tried to recruit soloists in every state but fell short.) It was either art, depending on your view of such things, or a political protest, or both. But it was definitely weird.
"Hello, I think I know you," Maida Withers, a veteran local dance provocateur and GWU professor, said to the mirrored wall inside the studio, after strolling around snapping her fingers and singing, "La da dee, la da dee dee."
At that point on Wednesday she'd been at it for nearly 12 hours but was still full of various artful moves: She did yoga-style stretches on the floor, pounded her fists together, clasped a pillow, prostrated herself like a Muslim in prayer, clung to a pillar, and blurted out personal and political observations. She chastised the United Nations in particular for maintaining its "impressive composure" in a world soiled by "war, starvation, refugees, pornography, slavery, you name it."
At the moment her walk-in fan base consisted of one Jeff Bagato of Falls Church, who works in the university's law library and appreciates Withers's art. "She's really an amazing person," he said, as the septuagenarian dancer rubbed her back, catlike, against the concrete pillar. "Maida is one of those people who you always know is going to do something interesting."
Dan Venne, an artist and professor at the University of the District of Columbia, minded a video camera that captured her performance. He also gave assistance to Withers, who paused only for water and bathroom breaks, making sure she didn't blindly bump into anything.
"Can art really change people's consciousness?" Venne wondered. "Part of it seems a little silly."
But Venne, who had joined a protest march at the Iraq war's onset, can't say that had any effect, either. As he put it stoically: "I'm not certain that doing something does anything either."
Gutierrez, 37, called the collective performance "freedom of information 2008" -- the works can be seen at freedomofinformation2008.blogspot.com -- naming it after a 24-hour one-man marathon he mounted in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks and U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In an interview earlier this week, he made no claim that 24 hours of self-imposed deprivation equated with the misery of war refugees.
"There is no way I can know what it's like. Who the hell am I?" he said.
"But at the same time, I care about it," he continued. "You know you want to do something. You become like an antenna for an idea, and an antenna for a value system. . . . It's saying, 'Hey, let's think, let's move, let's consider.' It's a lot about tapping into basic human things like compassion and memory, and who you want to be in the world."
The penitent and ritualistic aspects of the event appealed to some participants. "It's not about being radical for the sake of being radical," Sharon Mansur, the dancer representing Maryland, said before commencing her in-home performance. "For me it's part of a whole idea of really focusing myself -- being in a very contemplative space for that 24 hours. I connect to the ritual aspect, turning everything inward. To me the sensory deprivation aspect is about that."
Mansur was unable to gain access to a performance space at the University of Maryland, where she teaches dance. But she seemed satisfied with an audience consisting of Mia, her cat: "She will hopefully be a good witness."
She made a studio in her living room. "I am going to clear out my furniture and set it up in a mindful way. I will create a perimeter for myself."
In Charlottesville, a 38-year-old dancer named Christina "Zap" McConnell did her piece in an arts center. The webcast showed her hopping, doing backbends and even a somersault at one point. Thanks to the Internet, "people from all walks of life can potentially be touched by this action," she said beforehand. And for her, the grueling performance beat the alternative:
"Usually I support myself through teaching and waiting tables. For me, New Year's means a lot of drunken weenies trying to grab you and kiss you as the ball drops, not some amazing epiphany and meaningful resolutions. I see people drunk and hitting all the parties, and that is not how I want to spend the last hours of 2008." (Susan Biddle photos available) Richard Leiby, Washington Post