“Art was made to overcome chaos,” was a powerful sentiment iterated by Don Jones, a renowned artist and pioneer of art therapy. Alex White, a UR student and performance artist, embodies this sentiment through beliefs and artistic endeavors.
White is a junior English major and will be taking a fifth year to obtain a master’s degree in education from the Warner School. We sat down to discuss not only White’s art and its impetus but the ability that performance art itself has to help society and how it has helped grapple with life’s most essential questions.
Before interviewing White, I was only aware of the obscurities that comply with performance art. The first idea that came to mind was this piece of Yoko Ono screaming at the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art). I never considered the social, political and emotional health implications that cultivate performance art.
At 19, my only personal connection to performance art is the work of my celebrity idol: Lady Gaga, and to some, that isn’t even a legitimate example of the enigmatic art form. It was pertinent to walk away from this interview not only to learn about White’s personal journey with the art form, but to understand why the form even exists.
To begin, I simply asked, “How?” “How did this become a passion; where did it come from?” The Chicago native responded that it “came out of nowhere” and it rooted from “always being an outwardly expressive person.”
White found music at 7, was introduced to the theater community in elementary school and at UR decided to incorporate dance and movement. The inspiration to pursue performance art came when White witnessed a friend from high school create his own pieces. From then on, White was left with an inner drive to create their own art. (Note: White uses they/them/their pronouns).
“Coming from such a strong background in the performing arts, there was always something that I felt was missing from each element,” White said.
Even at the University of Rochester, White felt constrained by many of the performance organizations offered.
“I’m in NJR, take dance classes, am in the breakdance club and TOOP . . . There are still boundaries put on what you can do. (The groups) put limits on creativity that I wanted to explore.”
While appreciative of these clubs at UR, performance art and being able to generate work gives White “this feeling to explore artistic ideas and themes I may not be able to by means of other creative processes.”
Still a bit curious as to how performance art is defined, I turned to White and asked for a personal definition.
“It’s an exploration of the breaking point between action, artistry and how actions can be explicitly social and political,” White said.
From that definition alone and throughout the majority of our interview, White discussed how, personally, art is a form of activism. From their debut piece entitled call/Response and the recent creation Noah, an extended metaphor comparing the biblical story to depressive episodes, White strives to be “brutally honest while exploring personal and sensitive topics.”
These explorations of delicate subject matters come from a personal place as White has struggled with gender identity. This work is an “emotional rehab” but also provides White with the”responsibility to do some good” in this world.
call/Response took place in April 2015 and was collectively a piece of liberation and gratitude. White performed this piece in four phases, two of which were reinterpretations of one of White’s predominant inspirations, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic.
I vividly remember seeing White perform phase two of call/Response, entitled “Fitting in.” They had a blue tarp lying on the Wilson Quad and was accompanied by a large rack of clothing that was stereotypically masculine and feminine. White asked me to choose any clothing that I wanted, and I was instructed to place it on them.
Anyone who approached White that day was instructed to do the same. The piece was an exact representation of what anyone questioning gender identity ponders. It was also a commentary on universal gender roles as from birth we are expected to look a certain way based upon the gender we were given.
” ‘Fitting In’ was about exploring how people ascribe gender onto others based on facts about their body and then use this to generate concepts of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of presentation,” White said.
Recently, I was invited to attend the premiere of White’s Noah. I entered the performance space and was greeted by a dark room, rain-stained windows and sounds emulating thunder. In the center of the performance space, I found White lying on a bed, with a video screen above. The screen portrayed images of people that faded in and out of one another. Those images were accompanied by graphic effects resembling rain.
I must admit, it was an eerie scene that I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for. I was placed into my own personal isolation and it was incredibly surreal how this simple piece of a human remaining in a bed was able to trigger personal and deep thoughts about my own life.
That is the beauty of performance art, and most importantly, White’s work. Noah put me in a space where I could slow down and allow my anxieties to wander. While experiencing the piece, I found myself on the journey with White.
During a Q&A three hours after the performance’s start, I watched as White explained all of the moving parts of Noah. They collaborated with filmmaker Ray Goldberg from Chicago and White obtained the audio from freesfx.co.uk, a website of free sound effects.
It was explained to everyone in attendance that the people portrayed in the video component were the ones who were “washed away in the flood” from White’s life. Noah was conceived to be an apology to those people whom were washed away in White’s depressive flood. What I desired to understand was what or who was God within this extended metaphor.
After asking that question, I glanced over at White, who clearly needed some time to arrive at the answer.
“God is most analogous to mental health or my mental health status,” White said. “Mental health concerns can drastically change how we see the world,” White said. “And for Noah, his relationship with God determined how he not only saw the world, but how he lived his life.”
White concluded the Q&A by saying that currently the flood will always be a part of life, but now it exists as a drizzle.
Art wasn’t only made to overcome chaos, but it was meant to be used a medium to change lives and mindsets. Alex White is someone who is beginning a movement here at the UR. White is an activist who will continue to envision and execute artistic responses to social issues.