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Friday, October 8, 2011, at 8:01pm, one block from my apartment, I was attacked by a man with a knife. He cut the right side of my face. He did this because I was calling 911 for a woman who was yelling for help, and he didn’t want me doing that. I was later informed that he was involved in a domestic dispute that originated a few streets north. A previous call was placed at that location, so he fled and dragged the wife and daughter to mine in time to give me a thrilling tale of by-stander’s heroism, an inch long scar on my right jaw, and numerous sardonic jokes about how calling 911 made me need 911 and how I’ve wanted the spot on my left jaw cut off for years. The one time someone could have done it for free…
I was just beginning my run, and as I approached an intersection, a woman yelled “Do you have a phone? Call 911!” Having no idea what was going on, I paused and dialed. As I was dialing, I heard, “He got a knife—he tryinga cut my mama!” This did not have time to register in my brain, and before I could explain to the operator what was happening, I heard, “Run! Run!” Before I could get around the corner of the building I was standing in front of to run down the sidewalk, a wiry man holding a small, partially serrated knife charged at me, grabbed me, pinned me against the wall of the building, and put the blade against my right jaw. I barely got a look at his face. He pinned my left hand, which was holding the phone, to the wall, and said, “Give me the phone!”
I froze, released the phone, he released me, then ran down the street toward my building. My phone’s battery fell out and vanished. What followed consisted of standard emergency room and police procedures. I was annoyed that I didn’t get to go for my run, but I had ridden my bicycle approximately 30 miles that day, shopping for hard-to-find items, so it was ok. Two officers met me at the hospital to get more information and return my phone’s battery. The attacker was recently arrested and charged with disrupting pubic services, domestic violence, and felonious assault. It wasn’t until after midnight when I was out of the hospital and at my friend’s house that I noticed the crescent shaped cut on my left wrist from the attacker’s fingernail.
I meditate on that moment of being grabbed and pinned to the wall, knife to my face. One inch lower, and his blade would have cut my jugular. I meditate on the feeling of being completely out of control, at the whim of another force. My father was abusive. I often feared he would hurt me, but I never thought he would kill me. In this moment, I didn’t know. So this is what violence feels like.
The EMTs, hospital staff, and police officers seemed to feel worse for me than I did. They kept using the word “helping”. “Did you know the people you were helping?” “And you were just trying to help somebody.” I never thought of it as helping. I was ignorantly making a phone call so someone else could come and help. But this couldn’t have happened to a more willing victim. I hope I do not mark myself for a worse fate by stating this. I’m starting to think that I live to do the kind of things that frighten most people and could kill me—experiences that give me stories, jokes, and feelings atypical of a normal, safe existence. I love performing poetry and body contortions in front of crowds. I am often the first and only one on the dance floor. I’ve recently taken up aerial silks. I decided to wield, wear, and run through fire for my MFA thesis. I was in a metal smithing and jewelry design program, in which students typically design objects whose sole purpose is to be looked at. More interactive works are emerging, but I was bent on being a performer in mine, using myself as one of the materials.
I am not a happy spectator. If I enjoy something enough to bother watching it, I would most likely rather be doing it. The first thing I wanted to do with my life was be a figure skater and dancer. I’ve always possessed a high degree of flexibility, balance, and strength, and longed for an outlet that allowed me to display it. Financial and later medical factors made following these dreams next to impossible. The circumstances of my childhood were not conducive to building any effectual amount of self-confidence. Abuse at home and bullying at school squelched the extroverted flamboyance with which I wanted to conduct myself, and I became shy and intimated by most people. Being who I want to be is still a battle.
I did take some gymnastics as a child and roller-skated in our basement. I started writing as soon as I knew enough words to have words to play with, particularly gravitating to poetry. My parents did some crafts—knitting, crocheting, sewing, and stained glass, so I grew up surrounded by art supplies. I started drawing abstract pictures when I was six, and learned macramé when I was a bit older. I was given a lot of dresses and vintage clothing and jewelry by older relatives, and I always liked paying dress up. This got me interested in fashion design, and I eventually decided I should study that in college, if not writing. I was accepted into Indiana University and took a pre-freshman class on culture and dress. I did very well in it, but realized that my intellectual priorities were different from those of the other students intending to pursue fashion design. I thought that if they were representative of the educational and professional experiences I would have, I should pursue a field of study that encouraged and facilitated a deeper examination of the world. I realized that to major in writing would involve much more reading of material that I had no interest in, and I wanted to major primarily in bringing my own ideas into reality.
I know that I turned to visual art partially because the performance art activities that I desired to do were out of my reach, and because for so many years, I did not feel physically well or psychologically confident enough to take dance and performance classes in college. Even in elementary school, I frequently felt so sick that I had trouble thinking and grasping what was being taught. This sickness is also part of the reason I took eight years to finish undergraduate. When I say “sickness” I want you to imagine having something that makes you feel like you have the flu ~50% of the time. It causes such intense drowsiness, fatigue, and mental fog, especially after you eat, that you think you have diabetes or a thyroid disorder, but multiple blood tests reveal nothing. Add actual flues and colds that last two to three times as long as anyone else’s and cause lengthy coughing attacks, and depression and anxiety so bad that you end up trying multiple medications and experience negative side effects to every one of them. Pile asthma that is worsening despite twice daily medication, fiercely itchy eczema, and a nearly constant indefinable pain and discomfort throughout your body on top of that.
I didn’t figure out what was causing most of this until I was 25, after i had finished my BFA and was working on my IMP thesis. I’m allergic to wheat. (Not all gluten, just wheat itself.) And I had been eating many products containing wheat. I also have a high number of environmental allergies—trees, crops, grass, mold, smoke, and mites—which were not being treated effectively, resulting in a histamine overload in my body. In addition, I still have to carefully monitor my diet because of hypoglycemia and caffeine sensitivity. It makes sense that my mind and therefore work constantly focuses on the body, mine feeling like the lemon of the lot whose speakers are turned up too loud.
If art is not your career, making it can be therapeutic. If art is your career, it can make you need therapy. Although I excelled technically and conceptually, I also took longer on every project than my classmates and the process made me very cranky and emotional. Although studio art and design allowed me to develop my own ideas, it did not allow me to perform in the ways I had always wanted to, so it didn’t really satisfy me the way my professors and classmates seemed to think it should. Designing and making is one of my facets, but it leaves much of my being in want.
I did perform my writing at poetry slams, learned some human tricks with the break dance club, and practiced spinning and throwing my unlit fire staff, but it wasn’t enough. My discontent waxed after seeing Stomp, Tap Dogs, and Riverdance, because the life I wished I were living was beaten into my eyes and ears during each of those performances. I didn’t want to disappear into the studio anymore. I wanted the stage. Performing poetry in front of a large crowd had always made me feel more invigorated and satisfied than anything I did in the studio. Unfortunately, this realization was hitting me so close to the end of my journey that I had to finish it.
I had created my own version of a fashion design major through the Individualized Major Program called Socially Reactive Clothing Design, been accepted into the BFA program for Metalsmithing & Jewelry Design, and did a minor in Gender Studies. My BFA thesis work consisted of mechanically precise, hand made, wearable items that addressed the pervasiveness and invasiveness of technology, and its omnipresence yet invisibility in our surroundings. My IMP work consisted of a combination of items that parodied consumerism, the functionality of certain heavily gendered items of dress, and elegant androgynous clothing inspired by men’s and women’s clothing from 1600-1900 ACE. I also did an independent research project on Japanese, Peruvian, and Sea Faring braiding, and incorporated some braiding techniques into my BFA work.
I’ve always been on the edge of the various communities that centered around any of my interests, whether academic or extra-curricular. I never even felt like I belonged in metals studio, except for the fact that I took on and completed ambitious projects. I am between worlds, as I do not want to make and sell individual pieces for a living, nor is it my goal to make things whose sole purpose is to sit in display cases. I want my work to perform, and I want to perform with my work. I want to impact the culture with my ideas and actions. I didn’t know how to make the performance part of this happen until graduate school.
I was accepted into MFA program at Bowling Green State University to study under Tom Muir. I thought Tom was an interesting character, energetic and refreshing to be around, and I liked that he put functional mechanisms in his work. I had wanted to study with him since 2005, when he did a hinges and latches workshop at IU. I thought I could take two more years of design work then be able to get a job and pursue performance based activities in my time off. Additionally, the economy was in such a terrible state when I graduated, that graduate school was a preferable option to living with my mother and working a fast food job. I ended up going crazy shortly into the MFA program, and wanted to quit it completely and pursue the study dance.
Part of this craziness was a bad reaction to a psychiatric medicine that I no longer needed to be on, having stopped eating wheat some time ago. Part of it was my pent up need to be a performer boiling over. Actually feeling as healthy as I looked was a paradigm shift. I had the energy to use my body for more than making things now. I stopped taking the medicine, and returned to some semblance of lucidity. I tried to design items to use in performances of my own but my ideas were so dependent on costumes and objects that they never fully developed.
I needed to know more about what makes a performance effective, so I took a performance studies class during the summer. Resultantly, I was recruited into one of my classmate’s theatrical piece to take place in the fall, based on the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humans, with a contemporary angle addressing oppression and discrimination. The piece was also a self-aware celebration of our bodies’ ability to move and dance. It was strikingly fitting that I was invited to be part of it. The author and director, JP Stazsel, wanted the pair of aluminum “Sword-File-Hammers” I had made the previous semester in the piece and allowed me to design my own costume for my role as Zeus and his wrath. I decided that Zeus should have wings, so I designed the kinetic costume titled “Vindication”. The wings attach to my arms and respond to the slightest movement. I titled it such because the project engaged more than one of my facets. I was vindicated because a group of people wanted me to use my body to perform, not just design. The Sword-File-Hammers fit the story perfectly, as I handed one to the character Hephaestus, who used the hammer end to spike Prometheus to the mountain, and I danced with mine and used it to signal other characters to start their assigned choreography.
The wings and I got to perform again that winter during BGSU’s Arts Xtravaganza, a night when the entire School of Art is filled with exhibitions for the public to experience. Jonathan, from my fire corps, uses sound with his sculpture work and is an improvisational musician, so he played ethereal synthesizer music while I danced with the wings, sometimes with the swords as well. As usual, I had many doubts that it would be any good, but I was shocked at the overwhelmingly positive response. They were also in a wearable sculpture show in California. They are now in a corner in my apartment awaiting their next flight.
I took Tom Muir’s ring workshop during the summer as and designed some performing rings. The striker ring set and the buzzsaw fan propelled me into the work that became my thesis. I took apart a flat fire torch lighters, constructed finger tip rings to attach the flint and file, and used them to make sparks by scratching the index finger flint on the thumb file. It occurred to me to make a buzzsaw fan as a joke to cool myself off when the sadist in charge of heating and cooling at BGSU decided it would be a good idea to turn off the air conditioning in the art school during the 4th of July weekend. The temperature was in the high nineties and it was even hotter in the studio. It later occurred to me to make a bigger buzzsaw fan spin to fire. I made it of aluminum and put Kevlar wicks on the blades. When I tested it with the assistance of classmates, I soaked the cotton cords in water so they wouldn’t ignite or snap. It worked perfectly.
Being involved in a theatrical piece about fire and oppression was incredibly sybchronistic. My work with fire came out of my desire to destroy the workbench slave that I had become. I was so disappointed with myself for not studying dance and performance earlier in my life that I wanted to burn myself up. Fire is the visual distillation of cathartic expression, and being full of pent up hostility, I had much to cathart. Fire is hyper-responsive to its environment and fuel source. “It’s perpetual motion” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451Burn, consisted of the artifacts and documentation of the performance of the rite of passage. It employed the elements of fire, catharsis, liminality, community, ritual, rites of passage, and transformation.
Liminal: adjective, origin—Latin, threshold. The term “relates to a transitional or initial stage of a process;” of “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” Liminality is a term used by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in Les Rites de Passage, 1909, referring to the state of being between one social role and another, such as the time between childhood and adulthood. According to van Gennep, rites of passage typically consist of three stages: separation, transitional or liminal, and reincorporation. A community of elders, mentors, and peers supports these transitions.
There is a noticeable dearth of widely recognized, structured, performative rites of passage to formally mark life transitions, such as from childhood to adulthood in American culture. In the culture I was raised, phenomena involved in sexual maturation and aging are treated as dirty secrets, burdens, or causes for joking and taunting. In my parents’ house the subjects of puberty and sexuality were scarcely brought up and seen as something disgusting when they were, thus I saw maturation as something to not be done or to be hidden. I suspect this suppression, in conjunction with the abuse, and my partial inclusion, partial exclusion from many social groups contributed to my feeling of perpetual liminality and immaturity.
Going through a Master of Fine Arts program is a rite of passage in itself, essentially a coming of age ritual whose process is facilitated by academic structures. It involves the same elements of separation, liminality, and reincorporation, and a community of faculty and classmates. When project was complete, I realized that I had created a community that I couldn’t possibly not belong to. I constructed my rite to consist of a community ritual, an individual challenge, and a form of emergence and elevation—a visual demonstration that I had passed from one state to another. This was achieved with group dances with the buzz saws, my putting on war paint and running through the fire walls, and by my appearance in the flaming outfit consisting of Pele’s Gown and Pele’s Helmet.
I made six buzzsaws and recruited performers to use them. The Circle of Six consists of six buzzsaws and six operators. We had to practice pulling and letting the saws unwind at the same time. To use them, we had to soak the pull cords in water so they wouldn’t ignite or snap from the heat, then soak the wicks in fuel. We rotated them in small pans of a denatured alcohol-naptha blend. Three people would light the buzzsaws. We arranged ourselves on the outside of the circle at every other saw, let the operators get them spinning, lit with blow torches, and rushed to the next saw.
The Buzz Saws circular form spins smoothly and evenly distributes the fire. The ring is a widely used symbol for fire; i.e. symbols of the elements Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Earth is represented by a circle with two crossed lines, Water, a circle with a horizontal line, Air, a circle with a dot, and Fire, just a circle. These symbols are also sometimes drawn as triangles (Barbara G. Walker,The Women’s Dictionary of Sacred Symbols & Objects, 1988,7). The rotation of the Buzz Saw around an axel of cotton cord speaks of the wheel, which has many mythological associations, one being with the “‘kyklos geneseon,’ the wheel of rebirth and transformations throughout time”, ruled by the Greek Fates (Walker, 17).
The materials—aluminum and Kevlar, and the petal-like fan blades speak of an industrialized culture. The Buzz Saws are a marriage of ancient spirituality, antique entertainment, and modern technology. Aluminum is commonly used for contemporary fire performance tools, as it is light, durable, and does not transfer heat quickly. Fire is one of the oldest technologies used by humans and one of the primary tools used in the creation of the objects that wield it in my performances.
The “Circle of Six” takes the elemental symbol for fire and the shape of folk dances from around the world. It refers to the idea of the sacred circle, a place of communion, protection, or transformation. Historically, the circle has been “associated with the idea of a protected or consecrated space, the center of the motherland, a ceremonial space where all participants are equal (Walker 4). I think of this formation as a group of individuals pooling their passions to create something magnificent. For all of our formations, we practiced getting our Buzz Saws synced up so we would be pulling, and moving together and the buzz saws would be spinning at the same time.
The “Hand Off” involves two chevrons of three operators each. A chevron consists of three operators—one in the middle wielding two Buzz Saws, and two end operators. To oscillate the chevrons, the end operators take two steps forward while the buzz saw cords wind up, all three operators pull the cords to restore the momentum and make the buzz saw rotate the opposite direction, then the end operators take four steps backward as the buzz saws wind again. The “Hand Off” routine is as follows: Two chevrons face each other, oscillate, the center operators move toward each other and one passes their two buzz saws to the other, who momentarily wields four Buzz Saws, then the other center takes their two back.
In this formation, I was one center and handed off my pair of Buzz Saws to my friend and classmate Jonathan, who has been a source of information about the myths surrounding fire and a supportive friend since the project’s conception. It was fitting that he be the one to take on my burden in this rite. This routine refers to instances in one’s work or personal life when their load is too much for them to bear alone, and they need someone to carry part of it for a while so they can rest or regain composure. The action of the hand off speaks of knowing one’s limits and knowing when to seek help. The preparation for this project involved buying and hauling many heavy supplies, and I do not have a vehicle. I literally had to ask others to carry my loads in order for this rite of passage to occur.
Before I ran through my threshold of fire, the Fire Walls, I applied pigments, the War Paint, to my face, hands, and hair. Each pigment is of a material significant to 3D art and to me. Via their material and color, they refer to the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: grayish-white clay, reddish rust, black charcoal, and green tea respectively. These elements are held in alter-like glass vessels that made in Glass I class by myself and other students who helped me. I designed these as double vessels; cups that can hold liquid or powder from either orientation. Their contents are elevated above the ground, which enhances their sacred quality. When applying the War Paint, I was on my knees on black gravel in front of the fire pit, my community surrounding me in a half circle. They connected to each other with fisted hands over top of each other’s. I placed the dry elements in the mortar, crushed them with the pestle, added the tea, and mixed them into paints.
I applied Air and Fire in stripes to my forehead, cheeks, eyelids, nose, chin, and beside my eyes and only Air to the tops of my forearms near my wrists. I applied Earth in large patches to the area below my eyes, then covered my hair and hands with it.
I have avoided working with clay because it dries out my already dry skin and I dislike the way it behaves. My decision to use clay as a protective paint was informed by two facts: 1. Some African cultures use mud to sculpt their hair into various styles. 2. Fire can be smothered with dirt. Metal represents my area of study, and rust is the result of metal oxidizing, which is why I chose it to represent Air. I collected this rust by submerging pieces of steel and iron in a bucket of acidic solution over the summer, then exposing them to air, and repeating the process. Charcoal facilitates fire and is the result of burning. I’ve used various kinds for drawing and melting metal. Green tea has associations with cleansing, restoration, and stimulation, and the color with regeneration. I used to drink coffee for the stimulating effect of caffeine. Due to blood sugar issues, I had to cut down on caffeine and started making my own low caffeine blend. I found my body was still experiencing irritation from the acid in the coffee, and started drinking tea. I chose green tea for my water element for these reasons and to refer the Japanese culture, which has its own rituals surrounding tea making, and has been a strong influence for me.
The wearing of the blindfold was about relinquishing some of my control and awareness as much as it was about protection. I had to rely on cues from my community and environment to know when to run through the threshold, and the blindfold ensured that the flames on the rope walls did not burn off my eyelashes or damage my sight. The blindfold is indicative of how little control I had over this entire situation. The success of this project depended on my being able to find licensed flame exhibitors to supervise the events, the owners of the property we used allowing us to, the weather being dry and clear, and my having enough of my volunteer performers show up for practices and the event. During rites of passage, the initiates often lose their autonomy and are at the mercy of whatever forces to which they are being subjected, be they dozens of bites from stinging ants or a flew hard floggings. All they can do is try to maintain their composure in the moment and let it happen. This is something I have always struggled with. I never learned how to regulate my response to negative emotions. This contributed to my feelings of immaturity and perpetual liminality. During the performance, I became so cold that I was shaking and could barely think coherently. I was exhausted from building and preparing everything. There were multiple tools to fuel and parts to set up and I had to rely on my well-trained corps to take over much of the process.
The Fire Walls are a distilled embodiment of the liminal threshold. The fire on the Kevlar rope wicks represents the danger and uncertainty of the in-between state. Running through blindfolded was a utilitarian decision to protect my eyes, and to illustrate the surrender of one’s autonomy during this period. The Fire Walls are made four six foot tall pipes supported by sand in four five-gallon buckets, held together by rebar spanning the length, inserted in holes near the tops of the pipes. Five-gallon buckets are far from ceremonial in appearance, but were an adequate short-notice solution. The first configuration, the walls held by my performers, proved too hot and had to be dropped before I could run though them. Five pieces of rebar lie across the supports with eight or more strands of Kevlar wick dangling from them. The wicks were soaked in a solution of half denatured alcohol, half naphtha. Running through these walls represents the test of courage to which initiates are often subjected, the successful emergence.
The image of me wearing Pele’s Gown and Helmet ignited, titled Volcano Active, is the emergence photo. My arms are raised as if I am conjuring and directing the fire. It speaks of a willing sacrifice—the incineration of the old self and emergence of the new. It reminds me of a debutant descending a staircase, pageant waving to the congregation of community members at the bottom. It also reminds me of the public’s tendency to build up celebrity idols then tear them down—someone to worship and someone to burn.
I hope to direct another group fire performance soon. During the past few months, I’ve been adjusting to life outside of academia and not sleeping as well as I used to, so it has been difficult to concentrate on any large endeavor. I suspect this is because I am not using my brain in the ways to which I have become accustomed, creating and conceptualizing from 7 am to 10 pm or later, everyday. When I first moved to this new city for my new job, I didn’t want to work on anything. I’ve kept myself busy with swing dance, aerial silks, occasional Latin dance lessons, and going to the gym. I’ve recently become re-obsessed with the chain mail garment I started a few years ago, consisting of various sizes of split keyrings. It is becoming a gown that will be worn over a flared dress with a steel cage under the skirt.♦
ZQ Drake recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in Metalsmithing & Jewelry Design at Bowling Green State University, using fire and performance in her thesis work. Prior to that, she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Metalsmithing & Jewelry Design and an Individualized Major Program Bachelor’s Degree in Socially Reactive Clothing Design and a Minor in Gender Studies at Indiana University. The banner image is Drake’s project, “My Spark.”