To be quite honest, watching performance art has always kind of sqeaked me out. More often than not during a performance, I find myself shifting in my seat, picking my nails or enamored by a particularly interesting speck on the chair in front of me. It’s uncomfortable for me- something I could never do. It balances so delicately on the line between prolific and self serving. Risk is innate for the artist and that much vulnerability can be hard to watch. For me, a detrimentally empathetic person, the pressure they put themselves under can be too much to take.

I find performance art fascinating.

Physical expressions of art making have always been foreign to me. I envy and admire those who put their bodies through demanding tasks and risk public humiliation for the sake of their expression. It’s not how I think. It’s not a situation I would willingly put myself in and for that reason it has continued to capture my attention as an artist.

I came to performance art the same way that most undergrad art students do. I remember the first time I wrapped my mind around the concept. “They just shot him the arm? He WANTED them to?” , referring to Chris Burden’s early performance/body artwork. I was grossed out and totally captivated. My curiosity naturally let me to Marina Abramović, the godmother of performance. She was scary and edgy yet qualified, even adored, by the high brow art world. Her acceptance by the mainstream allowed me to see her work as composition. I made copies of stills from her performances and plastered them in my sketch book. I was drawn to how serious and dark she was, no room for playfulness. This was art with a capital ‘A’.

For outsiders this is still what performance means. It can be confusing, disjointed, it might involve bodily fluids. However the definition of performance has expanded. That work still exists and serves an important and vital role in the landscape but performance has become much more.

I do not presume to know the extend of performance art happening in Cincinnati. This exact misgiving is why I felt inspired to explore this topic. What kind of performance is happening here and who is making it? Where do performers exhibit their work and does Cincinnati have room for this fluid type of art making? What I’ve learned is that there are rich communities of performers creating their own audiences. They range the spectrum of performance art from the serious to the absurd. I have barely scratched the surface of what is being created here.

Performers have a certain aura about them. Musicians, actors, artists- there is an otherworldliness they possess when they step off the stage. This aura is what makes tweens scream at concerts and transforms everyday tasks into pieces of art. It is something the artist brings to a movement. It is not something you turn on or off; it’s part of who you are. The artists I spoke to did not chose performance as their medium. Artists keep trying different things until their story is told. Some stories must be performed.

Pam Kravetz is a local artist and a darling of our art community. Kravetz had never thought of herself as performance artist until I approached her to talk about this article. It’s hard to believe, since to many she is one of the more visible performers in our city. Kravetz is a high school art teacher by day and a glamorous, polka dotted party princess to the art world. Her sky scrapping wigs and signature tutus can be spotted across the room at any given art opening on a Friday night. Kravetz is an artist who lives her art. Her work and persona have grown closer and closer together to the point where she has become a living extension of her quilts and ceramic sculptures. She says teaching has been vital to her development in performance. “The best teachers are performers. You have to learn to be engaging and intellectual.” she says. Kravetz’s involvement with the Bombshells, a collective of women who create collaborative public art pieces, got her primed for art making through costume and persona. Their colorful elaborate installations led to costumes and eventually the group took on a performative role. Kravetz’s wigs and glittering cowboy boots emerged from this era, but the spirit behind it has always been Pam.

“I was never good at putting art on a wall and then walking away. I always wanted to keep interacting with it or playing with it.” The need to actually become part of the work started with her installation Beauty Queen, Super Hero and the Peanut at the Contemporary Arts Center’s Unmuseum in 2009 where life- sized quilted puppets representing personae alive within her were displayed. “Everything about me was there, except for me.” Since then, her work has continued to blur in its mediums and incorporate more interactive elements and performative vignettes. This takes the form of performances in conjunction with quilts or sculptures, MCing events such as CACtv in 2014, or even her social media accounts on which she considered curated storytelling.

Kravetz stands in stark contrast from the stereotype of performance artist. She is colorful and bubbly. Kravetz is all about accessibility. She drives the Arnold’s bathtub in downtown parades, sewing and building elaborate thematic costumes; she considers that role as much an art performance as anything else she has invested time in.

Pam Kravetz in the Arnold’s Bathtub on Opening Day of the Reds

All the performance artists I spoke to explained that collaboration was central to their practice; thus their voices could be heard louder in numbers. Cincinnati and its size seems to lend itself well to these collaborative pieces. Artists here rely on each other for support. “I think we are like the little engine that could” says Kravetz “We want to elevate each other and keep creating this work. It’s important to know what you do well and how to pass things on to others who have different talents.” NEAR*BY Curatorial Collective curated High Art in 2014 which gathered artists and performers to create site specific work on the roof of buildings in downtown. The audience viewed the pieces atop the Carew Tower – a 574-foot vantage point. Among the 5 rooftop installations and performances, Kravetz and a team of rainbow clad volunteers danced, sang, and marched the Conga, creating a bizarre and joyous happening only visible from above.

Photo courtesy of NEAR*BY Curatorial Collective – High Art, 2014

Napoleon Maddox is an artist who has towed the line between musician and performer for years. He has found collaboration to be vital to performance. His band, ISWHAT?!, originally featured three performers, but has expanded and contracted to include new musicians and collaborators. “I knew it was going to live between avant garde jazz and hip hop. I would beatbox during our performances to sound like drums. I started making motions, like drumming during our performances and people would think I was a drummer- it became believable. I wanted to capture the energy of a drummer, not just mimic it. It became a bridge between theater and music.”

Maddox credits Hip hop with his moves towards performance. “Hip hop thrives as a genre because it is performance. People take it for granted now as music but it was theater that facilitated it. Even back to James Brown, he wasn’t just a dancer or a singer, he was a performance artist.”

Napoleon Maddox performs at the LIVLongEnough concert. Photo credit: Joelle Gueguen

I became familiar with Maddox’s work recently at the “Response Project: Do Ho Suh” at the Contemporary Arts Center, co-hosted by Chase Public. Artists were asked to respond to the exhibition Passages in any way they like for 10 minutes. Maddox performed what was almost an internal dialogue. He was dressed in a painter’s jumpsuit, wandering and sometimes stumbling around the stage explaining the steps to build a house. A recording of an automatic messaging system from the City of Cincinnati Building and Inspection office spliced with jazz faded in and out throughout. The piece centered around the echoing voice of his father, telling him to pay attention and follow the blue prints- to stay the course. Family consistently leads the themes of Maddox’s work- pulling from a personal history of performers and preachers. He says his work is less about performing and more about storytelling. “The soul is important [to performance]. The soul comes from real experience and that’s what makes it art- the soul.”

He admires great orators. “There is a need for oration now more than ever. People are speaking more but not saying anything. Being a storyteller requires you to reevaluate your standpoint and stand behind it. You’re responsible for your view point.” “Like a musician, your instrument must be tuned. You have to understand timing. When to speak and when not. When to use a prop and when to hold back. A storyteller can make anything interesting.”

Maddox will perform Twice the First Time at the Contemporary Art Center as part of the Black Box Performance Series this winter. The CAC Performance Series is responsible for bringing in many impressive and provocative performance artists to Cincinnati. Their programs stretch the limits of Cincinnati’s more conservative audiences and address current social and political issues. Twice the First Time will confront themes of slavery, race and exploitation through the story of his great-grand aunts who were born conjoined twins in 1851.

Image from Twice the First Time, premiering in February 2017,

Lindsay Whittle is not only a performance artist but is building a space for performers to exhibit new work. A graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and a student of performance and fashion, Whittle runs Pique, a gallery and experimental arts space in Covington. She will teach a course in performance art this fall at The Art Academy. She brings a wide viewpoint about performance, pulling in her experiences from Chicago, a city with a much larger performance scope.

Compared to Chicago, Whittle says Cincinnati is still up and coming. Her goal is to create a local movement. Pique provides a unique venue which welcomes any kind of art making. “It’s a place to explore an idea without judgment. People reach out to me when they need a place to sketch out an idea.”

Jonathan Hancock performing at Pique

Whittle’s work often takes her out of a gallery and puts her in public spaces. In graduate school she put herself through a rigorous semester long regime in which she constructed and wore outfits made entirely of paper. She wanted to draw people in. “People would just walk up to me and laugh. They would say ‘what are you supposed to be?’ It would start a conversation. My work takes silliness as a starting point to spread good cheer.” She calls these moments ‘interventions’. Performing in public spaces comes with its own responsibilities and considerations when planning work. “We live in a society of terror. It’s not open to people doing weird or unexpected things in public. You have to make sure people know they are safe.” Her public performances have included throwing parties in subway cars and velcroing large sculptural plush objects all over her body until she is barely visible.

Lindsey Whittle in one of her Velcro performance suits

Being immersed in an intensive performance program, Whittle has seen the most extreme kinds of performance. “It never gets easy watching people hurt themselves but sometimes it is good to make yourself uncomfortable. Rules fly out the window in performance art. The unspoken rules of society just don’t apply.” As a teacher, she reminds her students that there are many ways to express your ideas. “The problem with academia is that they are still trying to make people painters or sculptors- one thing- but artists now are much more fluid and want to convey an idea. In the real world as an artist you have to be adaptive and have many tools in your tool belt. Artists need to know how to do multiple things.”

Whittle continues to mesh fashion with performance. She is currently working on a life uniform that she can adapt and change to her daily needs. The garment is designed with prints of her own design and can snap together and come apart as needed. Like Pam Kravetz, she continues to meld her daily actions with her art making practices. She sees no need to define a separation between life and art.

Performance stands out from other art forms because the audience is part of the work. They are inextricably linked- they feed off of each other. Each performance is different because each audience is different and their changing reactions make the performance a wholly unique experience. Katie Dryer is a local writer who often writes about performance art being exhibited around Cincinnati (for She does not consider herself a critic but rather a “translator”. Growing up a dancer, she understands the language of physical expression. Talking to her, you can sense how performance, even pieces she doesn’t like, excite her. “The medium is the message. Performance art gives the viewer so much to work with. Paintings don’t have a smell, they don’t have a sound. Performance has a smell. It’s human”.

“Performance must be what theater used to be like. Not flashy, not spectacular. There’s not lots of money poured into it. The audience has to decide to suspend disbelief and suspend reality. If you’re willing to try and understand it, you’re in.” In terms of Cincinnati’s receptivity to performance, she sees our tight knit town’s loyalty as a strong suit. “We support our own. Cincinnati is loyal, intelligent, scared and willing to learn if it is important to the people that we care about.”

To Dryer, the performance scene in Cincinnati exists on a spectrum. From the Contemporary Arts Center on one end to spaces like Ice Cream Factory or The Comet in Northside on the other. “I go to shows from across the whole gamut. On a weekend night I might be holding a $2 PBR or a $7 merlot. I enjoy seeing all of these pieces because they all come from something different. The high brow side is esoteric and engages Art History. Shows I see in bars are just as important. Music is a language everyone understands and artists are redefining the boundaries between art and music.” It’s important to Dryer to experience all that Cincinnati’s performers have to offer. She relishes the opportunity to consume performances and then share them with others.

It is clear to me that there is much more to be explored in Cincinnati to fully understand what performance means to this city. Through my conversations I learned about many more performance groups creating innovative work around the city. From Pones performance art troop to Experimental Music Night at the Library curated by Steve Kemple- there are far more artists exploring this medium than I knew. We are cultivating a community of artists who build off of each others’ skills and are expanding our conception of what makes something performance. Cincinnati is cultivating an audience of eager viewers, ready, albeit timidly at times, to follow an artist into the unknown. I am eager to continue peeling away the layers to see how far and wide this medium can go. I have a feeling the end is nowhere in sight.

–Chelsea Borgman is an artist and writer working in Cincinnati, Ohio



0 Responses

  1. As a Performance Artist my work has ranged from an audience painting real people and plaster casts of themselves, to Butoh. I think you have captured much of what performance art is at least for me. There is always a real risk of failure because there can be a zillion things that are beyond control. But it is alway a challenge to inform a public about what you are thinking. For me Performances are intimate expressions, and sometimes “hands on.”

    Thank you for your most accurate and enjoyable look at Performance Art.

    you may view one of my performances at

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