It’s About Time

Alice Gosti flour tracings
'Ho sempre voluto regalarti un elefante rosa' Live performance with flour tracings created by Alice Gosti with Devin McDermott, Anh Nguyen and Amiya Brown, performed at Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Trebisonda in Italy.

The first time I saw Alice Gosti perform, I felt like I would throw up from a blend of terror, excitement and visual overload. To be specific, I got a migraine I was so stressed out. But I stayed until the end.

The piece was called “I will follow you” and lasted three hours. Staged at Hedreen Gallery in the hot summer of 2013, Gosti began nearly undressed, in a pair of plain white panties and a bra. Nearby she’d placed two miniature red chairs, almost toy-like in their smallness, and a ream of industrial toilet paper—the kind of cheap, flimsy stuff that comes on gargantuan rolls and falls apart too easily. She began wrapping herself, one limb at a time, gracefully at first, increasingly awkward as time went on and her body became mummified in layer upon layer of tissue. Eventually she was so buried she couldn’t see or hear. A cardboard tube connected to her mouth allowed her to breathe under 18 inches of toilet paper. It was laughably absurd but terrifying. Her head became heavy and sagged under the weight. When she spoke, her words were muffled and communication staunched. Sometimes she might’ve been crying.

Taped to the floor by her feet was a message written on a piece of paper. “Tell me a story,” it read. Over the course of those three hours, visitors came to sit beside her on the tiny chairs. Gosti couldn’t hear their intimacies whispered against her giant cotton head. Some tried to feed her sips of water or clear the tube to help her breathe.

A high pitch of anxiety and an odd sense of community marked the interminable passage of minutes. A few times I was afraid for her health—perhaps her life.

At the end, an assistant signaled Gosti with a burst of loud music and she tore out of her paper prison. Shredded, it fell like a frayed wedding dress around her. Makeup streaked her eyes. She gasped for air.

During that time, Gosti had passed through stages: the naked 20-something girlish dancer poised to entertain, then the bizarrerie of her material, the humor of which was gradually subsumed by the horror of an imperceptibly slow self-strangulation. Without the help of strangers, she would have hurt herself. When she emerged, like a soft, vulnerable thing reborn from a chrysalis, the emotional electricity in the room exploded with a collective exhale of applause. To varying extents, Gosti had taken her viewers through an ineffable experience that didn’t make much narrative sense and lured us into an uncertain waiting game, a countdown that made time ache.

Gosti calls herself an “architect of experiences.” Drawing from an increasingly popular artistic approach that uses time as a medium, she has spent the bulk of the past five years honing her version of durational art. Some of the pieces she designs last for hours, others for days. While some involve feats of strength, the tedious completion of tasks or time-wasting absurdities, the format differs from traditional performance in that it’s not a passive experience. Whether by contributing their presence over an extended passage of time or being actively involved in the proceedings, the audience is involved.

When successfully plotted and executed, durational work creates a quickened sense of time itself, often invoked by an intense emotional or physical connection between the viewer and performer that’s established by prolonging the performance. A sense of risk and sometimes excruciating uncertainty are built into the structure of the event, transcending mere theatricality. Durational art has been part of the fabric of performance since the ’60s, but in recent years has increasingly become popular among artists and even edged into pop culture. Last year, Jay-Z and Lady Gaga each collaborated with the godmother of durational performance, Marina Abramovic, augmenting their art world caché.

This fascination with durational work points to the fact that we—artists, rock stars and everyday audience members alike—have lost track of time, and we will go to extremes to find our way back. Gone are the days we measured out our lives in coffee spoons, as per T.S. Eliot’s famous “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; our lives are measured by a stream of bytes, meetings and Netflix binge and chill. If in the era of Eliot the appreciation of time was a subject worthy of the greatest bards, now it is even more so.

“I’m thinking of durational work as a political statement in a time when time and space are such a commodity,” Gosti says.

‘Meditation on homelessness – nonna’s dowry’ A five-hour durational performance by Alice Gosti for Yellow Fish // Epic Durational Performance Festival 2015. Photo by John Marc Powell

Gosti arrived at the form gradually, but she was born into art, the daughter of a painter and an architect. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy, she grew up in Perugia, a “sister city” to Seattle and the capitol of the region of Umbria.

Now 30, Gosti returns to Perugia when she can afford to. In late December, she was home for the holidays, seated at a desk in a cluttered art studio, Skyping with me for an interview. The studio occupies a centuries-old woodworking shop converted to a live/work space by her parents. From the video feed I can see what looks like an artisan’s garret straight out of a novel, stuffed with easels, scraps of canvas, tables filled with paintbrushes. A large abstract painting hangs behind Gosti, painted by her mother decades ago.

Gosti points her laptop out the window toward the gray Umbrian morning. The remains of a partial stone wall are visible. It’s pre-Roman—Etruscan—winding around the perimeter of the city. This romantic scene is not where Gosti grew up.

“I was raised in a low-income housing area in the richest part of Perugia—a sort of design fuck-up,” she says with a thick Italian accent. She leans into the screen, wearing a colorful plaid shirt and tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses. “They built an entire building for recovering addicts and people under house arrest all in one building in the center of a town. All the other buildings in the area are so old they’re owned by the aristocracy.”

While Gosti’s parents lacked financially, they compensated by passing down a devotion to the arts. Gosti’s mother, Jodi Sandford, was an American student at Evergreen studying art history and Italian. At the tail end of an exchange program to Italy, she met her future husband, a young Italian architecture student named Valter Gosti, at a party.

“Their story sounds so cheesy,” says Gosti, laughing. “She liked his voice. He spoke no English.” After Sandford returned to the U.S. to finish her courses at Evergreen, she reunited with Valter in Italy as soon as she could. When Gosti was three, her parents scraped up the money to put her in a dance class.

“In Italian culture, if you’re a little boy you play soccer; if you’re a little girl you do dance,” she says. “It took many years for me to realize what a commitment it was for them and for the economy of my family to put me through those classes.”

At age 18 Gosti applied to the University of Washington’s dance program, attracted to the size of the school and the variety of studies available there—the opposite of the stultifying, concentrated dance education of European conservatories.

“I felt American, but I never lived here,” she says. “But when I lived in Italy everyone always told me I was American, and so there was this weird thing—I needed to learn what it felt like to be an American, how that side of me would feel like.”

By the time she graduated in 2008, the Italian economy was slumping and Gosti knew she wouldn’t be able to afford to work in dance if she returned. She had better odds of scraping an artistic life together here. Diving into the dance-festival circuit, Gosti was bothered by its standardized time format, which generally requires pieces to clock in at 20 minutes or less. Premeditated choreography in general bothered her. Her first work in the early 2010s provided the rumblings of something that might break those boundaries.

Spaghetti CO. Saga, a dance performance with three “chapters,” quickly made Gosti a name in the local art scene with its striking imagery of red sauce, slippery and splashing through the air, slapping the faces of three young women. Simultaneously familial, violent and colorful, Gosti’s vision of ritualized dinner—Italian-style—examined the messy relationships of women and feminism while harkening the old-world traditions for which Gosti was homesick.

She had yet to consider duration in her work but was nevertheless creating events that began to play with chance, and with choreography that was more situational than stringent. The sheer chaos of Spaghetti CO.—with its unruly, sloshing food and deliberately unpredictable environment—offered a glimpse of the possibilities.

“It was the first time I felt alive performing, excited by the possibility of things breaking and falling apart and being surrounded by people who had to solve problems,” she says. “The hyper-awareness that created was fascinating for me. I started thinking about things that are irreversible, where you cannot control the time. Things like ice melting, liquids being absorbed, a glass falling to the ground, breaking, scattering. I got obsessed with the sensation of feeling something real could happen.”

Inspired by artists like Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Gina Pane and Yves Klein—all of whom push the limits of the body, mind and endurance—Gosti organized the first Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival in 2013. The month-long festival (named for goldfish conspicuously made spectacle in his glass bowl) debuted work by local and international artists experimenting with the durational format, with some performances lasting up to 48 hours, executed in Seattle’s art galleries and dance venues, free to the public. Counting grains of rice, counting time, nonstop dancing: The festival meted out minutes in a smorgasbord of performative increments and iterations. Visitors were invited to come or go, to take it in, in their own time. Yellow Fish has since become an annual event.

In 2015, Gosti was commissioned by Velocity Dance Center’s Made in Seattle program to produce a new piece, bigger than anything she’d previously attempted. How to become a partisan debuted at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on April 25 last year. It was another turning point, one that would finally reconcile Gosti’s Italian roots with her American present.

“History and politics have always been in my work,” she says. “But before now not in a way I would clearly understand.”

In post-WWII Italy, partisans comprised the pro-Allied citizens who formed resistance groups in opposition to the Italian Fascist regime. They fought in squads and brigades, in the countryside and in cities, employing guerrilla strategies, labor strikes and extensive propaganda campaigns. Women played a significant role in the movement, with more than 50,000 female members—mostly in their 20s—serving as couriers and organizers, occasionally taking up arms.

In her teens, especially during the George W. Bush presidency and the Iraq War, Gosti organized political protests with friends. She backed off when she arrived in the States to study.

“When I made the decision to move to the U.S. it was very contradicting at first,” Gosti says, “the idea that I would continue my political journey, since it was so much against the place that would give me bread and let me follow my dream. It was hard for awhile just because I was silencing a part of me that had been really important.”

How to become a partisan reached back to her political origins in more ways than one. It began in Italy where Gosti interviewed WWII resistance fighters and based the premise of the piece on them—with an emphasis on the “invisible” and forgotten partisans, especially the women who played a significant role in the nation’s history. The performance premiered on the 70th anniversary of Italy’s liberation from fascism—a lucky coincidence. The final piece was an immersive, five-hour event at St. Mark’s Cathedral created in collaboration with Seattle composer Hanna Benn. Like Yellow Fish, visitors were welcome to come and go as they pleased.

Over the course of those five hours, the cathedral was flooded with sound and movement. The centerpiece was Benn standing atop a tall riser, which was hidden by her gown, its long skirt stretched taut over rigid panniers and pooling on the floor beneath her. For hours Benn stood caged in the panniers, singing, while blocks of ice dyed with red pigment were piled around the hem of the dress. As they melted, color seeped upward until it stained the white garment to the neck. In the foreground, a “herd” of seven female dancers, snorting and contorting, spilled through the aisles, gently stampeding, their necks slashed with blood red marks. It was Gosti’s wake-up call against a numbing to political past and present. In the same way we are out of touch with time, she suggests, we’ve forgotten we can effect change.

In December Gosti scouted locations in Italy where she could re-mount How to become a partisan. Back stateside in January, she began a residency with the Cornish Playhouse Arts Incubator program, a space provided at Cornish College of the Arts for performers to explore concepts rather than final products. As part of that residency she’s teasing out future iterations and new chapters of partisan planned for the summer. In March she collaborates with ritualist Timothy White Eagle for City Arts’ Genre Bender.

For Gosti, performance is a means to combat forgetting and the chronic whitewashing of history. There’s also, according to the rules she’s been gradually forging, a way to arm the audience with an agency of which they weren’t aware. She calls that dynamic a “democracy of the audience.” It unfolds in her work, as the minutes and hours tick by and viewers are forced to interact on their own terms.

“I’m interested in what happens when the audience chooses to be active or inactive,” she says, musing on the potential of performance in the broader scheme of art, activism and her work. “I want to set up a situation where there’s a choice to engage, and if you don’t engage then I failed—or you think I failed because I didn’t entertain you properly. But I’m not interested in that dynamic of power; I’m more interested in what are you going to make of this, the decisions are you going to make.”