In her book, The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson explores the “full-fledged assault on the barriers between art and life that much 20th-century art worked so hard to perform.” She discusses Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece and Chris Burden’s self crucifixion to a VW bug and his infamous Shoot Piece, in which he suffered a bullet in the arm, concluding that even though these works don’t invite, but rather incite, violence, they ultimately stare down death, and fend off turning into a hunk of meat for another day.
Control Group Production’s neverhome, a site-specific mobile performance, embodies a similar fearless aesthetic to Ono’s and Burden’s works, one that challenges the viewer to see the body as something greater than meat, our city as something bigger than streets and buildings and parks, our humanity as something precious and hard-won. Poetic, poignant, startling, and daring, neverhome takes a nuanced look at migration and displacement on micro and macro levels. It’s an homage to the Denver of the recent past, the one without a crane-filled skyline. It’s a testament to perseverance on the one hand and indifference on the other. It’s a work that raises deep questions, confronts complexity, and wrestles assumption to the ground.
The work begins inside the MCA Denver where Peter Farr, the evening’s gray-suited, aviator sun-glassed, Radio Flyer-toting narrator, lays out the ground rules for the performance. Performers Patrick Mueller and Kay Gurley dressed in indigo denim jackets and gray-green utility pants hand out flowers to the audience. From there, we’re led to an A-frame structure weighed down with cinder blocks in the Delgany cul-de-sac. Two blocks dangle from the top of the structure and as Mueller and Gurley move around and between them, the blocks take on a guillotine-like ominousness. Perhaps it was Mueller’s and Gurley’s methodical movements or the spectacle of twenty-some people standing in the street, but Platte River bikers, pedestrians dressed to the nines for a Saturday night downtown, and SUV drivers slowed to a halt as the performers bobbed and weaved and swayed with the blocks. At one point, the cinder blocks lower on to the dancers’ backs and they turn into construction Atlases.
The audience helps carry several of the blocks down the street as Gurley and Mueller tumble, roll, and crawl down the oil-spotted street. Everyone gathers under the corner of the MCA as the dancers pair group audience members together, the heat and grit of the asphalt rising from their warm bodies. Mueller and Gurley then collect the flowers and drop them as if marking a trail as they cross the street. Farr holds the audience back until the next light, letting the cars on 15th Street crush and mangle the flowers. While crossing, he asks the audience to pick up any flowers. Even though they’ve been run over, most flowers still hold their shape, still cling to most of their petals. It feels like a small miracle. As he leads the group down 15th under a viaduct, Farr ruminates on the city’s rapid development. “Here hasn’t been here all that long,” he says before pondering a possible future filled with radioactive humanoids. Under the viaduct, Mueller and Gurley alternately run and jump onto each other. While Gurley staggers under Mueller’s masculine frame, Mueller looks like he could toss Gurley’s lithe body over the railing at any point. They use the walls and each other to run parallel to the ground.
Next, Mueller and Gurley drag the cinder blocks behind them as if oxen. Farr says, “Context affects experience and your knowledge of the context affects experience,” as he leads the group behind Mueller and Gurley, and, is if on cue, a souped-up truck honks and its cab of hooligans shouts obscenities at the audience. “Best thing to do is not look away,” Farr responds. At The Grove, Colorado AIDS Memorial Park, Mueller and Gurley tiptoe their way across railing edges, crawl among the tall grasses, and run through the bramble. At the top of a hill, they crash into one another again and again before they take off. Farr leads the group behind musing about the deceptively wild-looking park that is actually well-tended, the City’s desire to build “a more impressive memorial park” before he sings a solemn Willie Nelson tune as the group approaches the river.
The audience makes it way down to the river bank. Gurley floats as if dead on her back while Mueller holds her head. The non-audience, those people enjoying a late summer night at the river, stare quizzically even after a few audience members whisper, “It’s a performance,” as if that could possibly explain the harrowing, funereal-like scene. Farr recites a poem about a girl made of wood. He says, “There is much to be weary about. This too shall pass.”
Then Mueller and Gurley stand and traipse through the river, alternately leaning on one another for support, dragging the other by an arm up stream. The audience follows under train tracks that rattle and creak with the weight of steel. Farr recites mini history lessons of the river and Auraria campus, the Irish and Spanish immigrants, a 1960s flood that wiped out of the area, the city’s purchase of the land for higher education before quoting King Leer, “Come, let’s away to prison” and leading the audience back to the cul-de-sac at the MCA. When Gurley and Mueller emerge from the cold water, their backs heave. The peaty smell of the river mixes with their sweat, the scent of wet denim and canvas, the undertone of the oily street a faint memory.
neverhome leverages the physicality—the external and internal obstacles—of migration to create a visceral and poignant experience for the audience that mimics and manifests those same struggles. It uses a rapidly changing city as its stage as it makes a bulls-eye assault on Denver’s problems: gentrification, inequality, a loss of history and culture. But it does so with nuance, without standing on a pulpit. The loose narrative, the weaving of song with quotes from literature and the ponderings of a narrator create a rich, oral texture. The diversity of locations and landscapes within such short proximity to the MCA and seen while on foot, allow the audience to experience the city anew. But ultimately, the brilliance of neverhome is in its ruthlessness, the lengths to which its performers go for their art, their ability to push themselves to the metaphorical and literal edge again and again and it exponentially raises the stakes to stunning results.
A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.