In many ways Performa, New York City's performance art biennial, feels like a giant lab, so it weirdly makes sense to step into the Nicole Klagsbrun Project Space at 534 West 24th Street—where one of Performa 11's major commissioned works, Mike Rottenberg and Jon Kessler's Seven, is being performed—and come face to face with a lab-coated scientist holding test tubes and beakers. But this isn't a conventional laboratory by any means.
For one thing, before laying eyes on the makeshift lab—all copper tubing, mysterious dials, strange furnace-like chambers, colorful lights, absinthe dispenser-like spouts and at least a couple of implements made from large coffee cans—visitors see a tiny resting area where performers are sitting in white bathrobes and slippers reading or texting. In the main room, in front of three small rows of benches (attendees are encouraged to move around), a scientist pushes buttons, pours liquids and removes a cylinder of clay from a glowing container when prompted by a loud alarm. On screens throughout the space we gradually surmise where these pneumatic tubes full of clay are coming from: a small desert settlement in Botswana, where locals are extracting the dirt samples from a vast, dried up flood plain.
Once sent around the world in a couple of seconds, from the hut on the screen to the contraption in the gallery, the clay sample is mysteriously turned into a bowl-like container into which the harvested sweat of the performers is poured and distilled into colorful test tube samples. The sweat arrives, via a tube strung up to the ceiling, from a glass sauna chamber to the left of the lab where, one by one, the performers sit under a steam jet on a slowly rotating platform being powered by the next robed performer in line who sits just outside the hot box on a stationary bicycle. The spinner's sweat, captured by a kind of funnel beneath the rotating platform, passes through the tube over the audience and into the lab area. As the participants rotate roles, those coming out of the sauna and coming back from the resting alcove dutifully stamp their punch-cards. This isn't a lab, in other words, so much as a factory for producing, harvesting and refining human sweat—a literal sweatshop. But what is the coveted product being used for?
Well, it won't make sense until the 37-minute film-and-performance cycle ends after all seven performers have passed through the "Chakra Juicer" (as the contraption is called) and sweated out the seven colors of test tube liquids (hence the piece's title), which are then returned to the African desert for a finale that, weirdly, evokes a Skittles commercial.
As an experiment Seven is very successful, gradually revealing its rules and logistics to attentive viewers and then sustaining our curiosity about the end goal of this absurd extraction process. There's certainly a post-colonial reading available here too, with these seven inhabitants of the developed world ritualistically producing sweat for the benefit of the few dozen inhabitants of a remote African village. Such subtexts remain very much beneath the surface of what is essentially an absurdist comedy, in which a campy scientist in an improvised lab collects sweat from mostly stone-faced professional sweaters.
Seven continues, Wednesdays through Saturdays, until November 19.