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Kate Pope. Photo by Liz Houlton

“Just like a meal, when you are full, you are done eating,” explains interdisciplinary dance artist Alice Gosti. “Here, when you are full of what you witnessed, you leave.”

She’s talking about Yellow Fish, the durational performance festival she founded in 2013, and the latest iteration of which began last week and continues until April 8. Attendees are free to come and go during all festival performances, which last anywhere from one to 48 hours, creating what Gosti calls “democracy of the audience.” When there isn’t the expectation for the audience to stay, or the pressure for the performer to entertain, the performance can be about both parties being present in the moment. In this way, duration fundamentally changes how we interact with temporal art mediums. “Time and space stop,” says Gosti, “There is only the now.”

I experience this first-hand in Kate Pope’s offering, the first of Yellow Fish 2017. Though her background is dance, Pope’s performance was more like an art installation than a choreographed dance piece. She lays colorful strips of cloth on the floor, navigates the room blindfolded and runs the length of the gallery until winded. Sometimes she just stands for long periods. I enjoy having time to notice the details—dirty feet, a softening through her ribcage, light bouncing off passing cars onto the gallery walls—but after about an hour I am admittedly antsy; I notice my desire for formalism, for spectacle, for some clever gimmick. I’m forced to ask myself How long can I stand not to be entertained? Can I be with this artist, myself and my thoughts without being productive? Without checking my email?

Somewhere near the two-hour mark I finally settle into the idea that presence is enough. Because there are only a handful of visitors to the sunny Hedreen Gallery at any one time, the performance feels very personalized—almost like she’s dancing for you alone. What she’s doing isn’t extraordinary, but as a work of art it’s hard to beat the exquisite liveness of the human form. While bodies surround us, social norms generally dictate that we do not watch the bodies of others—it’s not polite to stare. Here there is permission to take in the physical form—to observe a stranger the way you might a lover or a child. Pope’s presence and openness invite this tender exchange.

Jéhan Òsanyìn’s work offered similar intimacy in The Factory’s tiny gallery space. With piles of journals surrounding her feet, Òsanyìn explains that she’s been keeping journals since age nine, and invites the small audience in attendance to call out a date between 1994 and the present. 1999 is suggested and Òsanyìn laughs with some embarrassment as she reads her teenage words, “Wow, I’ve never been more sexually aroused in my life…” But as the entry readings continue, it becomes so much more than confessional catharsis. Grounded and warm, she conversationally annotates the readings—how she’s changed, what is funny to her now. The slow reveal of her incredible life, full of family estrangements, shifting identities, overseas adventures and devastating loss, gives a rare glimpse inside someone else’s experience.

Rounding out the first week of Yellow Fish was a performance by Natasha Marin. If her name rings a bell, it may be because of her digital social experiment, Reparations, an online platform for white people to fulfill requests from people of color that went viral last summer. For Yellow Fish, Marin offered a tea ceremony melding Japanese tea tradition and Caribbean dancing, again at Hedreen. Shortly after I arrive, however, the ceremony shifts into a facilitated group discussion that seems slightly forced.  Marin’s presence is a little flustered, like she’s either run out of steam or ideas, but things get interesting again when she reveals her desire to consensually slap a white woman. After some group discussion, I end up sitting knee to knee across from Marin. Twenty seconds of staring deep into each other’s eyes pass before the sudden sting on my left cheek. “I’ve had sex less intimate than that,” she says after we hug it out. My tingling cheek remembers her hand for the next hour, and I have to agree.

Though diverse in approach, every performance at Yellow Fish creates space to foster experiences for those who are willing. The audience does not exist outside these worlds, but within them, and when the self is implicit in the performance, intimacy and connection are quick to follow.

The second week of performances begins Wednesday with Bay Area artists Leslie Castellano and Kevin Dockery, who will physically explore how to simultaneously stay with each other and with the complexities of freedom in the current cultural and political environment. Chelsea Rodino will be destroying an installation in order to generate something new, while also exchanging letters with the audience. Out of LA, Soyoung Shin and Anthony Bodlović will engage audiences in a three-episode event loosely following a reality dating show format they describe as “The Bachelor meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

All events are free and more information can be found at yellowfishfestival.com.

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