Tested Waters: A Review of CounterCurrent 2016

Alexandra Irrera

Each year, CounterCurrent establishes its roots a bit deeper within the Houston art scene. April 12 – 17, 2016 brought the third iteration of this experimental festival organized by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. The weeklong event featured live performances, installations, lectures, and participatory art in eleven locations across the city. Although not provocative enough to be labeled avant-garde, CounterCurrent 2016’s thirteen works and “public conversations” series achieved consistent conceptual success, with many formats intent on testing the boundaries between observation and participation.

Anthony Hawley offered a key example of such experimentation with his performance/installation Fault Diagnosis. In this work, audiences observe a broken-down car and a ghostly cast of characters that interact with it over five nights. The car’s vague story is narrated by an app that visitors listen to as they meander through each evening’s new installation space. An array of drawings and red and green projections are featured around and inside the car—until it disappears on the final performance day. Big Dance Theater’s This Page Left Intentionally Blank was similarly presented in an interactive package—a museum tour/dance performance. In This Page, viewers also make a journey, now following wistful tour guide Tymberly Canale across The Menil Collection’s grounds and into Dan Flavin’s light installation at Richmond Hall. Under Tymberly’s direction, the tour stops to make unusual observations (the beauty of a construction site, set to operatic music) and considerations (the will of the “gods” in art and life). Eventually, Flavin’s light installation becomes the setting in which the audience both watches and participates in several dance routines. At once a satire of and joyous ode to a museum-goer’s experience, This Page Left Intentionally Blank reveals with graceful humor the satisfaction and insecurities that can be garnered while engaging with art.

Houstonians Hillerbrand+Magsamen’s lent the festival the curious medium of the “bouncy house” in Home Balance. In signature style, the couple invites the viewer into a depiction of their surreal family adventures—this time to jump among magnified projections of their own bouncing bodies. Meanwhile, internationally acclaimed “calligraffiti” artist eL Seed could be found painting a mural at the University of Houston Main Campus. Utilizing an Arabic translation of Sam Houston’s quote, "Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge," eL Seed fashioned a medallion-like entanglement of bright colors and swooping text—a beautiful reminder of the many intersection between different cultures, creeds, and languages that exist in Houston. Conversely, artist Carmen Montoya of the collective Ghana ThinkTank addressed the tensions among these interactions in What’s your Houston diversity problem? Constructed in the shape of a buggy and equipped with two iPads, this work functions as a confessional and conversation generator, prompting visitors to record their diversity-related challenges and solutions.

Even the festival’s Ten Tiny Dances experimented with its usual format by adding an element of video installation to the defining 4’ x 4’ stage. However, the standout performance of the series had the simplest visual art component—allowing human movement to be the work’s focus. An emotive synthesis of lyrical dance, mime, and breakdancing, Jehlan Vaughn was set to background images of pulsating speakers and newscasters reporting the death of young Houston choreographer-dancer Vaughn. Performer Jarell Rochelle’s intuitive, fluid movement beautifully paired dance’s gift of cathartic expression with the tragic loss of local talent through gun violence.

Despite considerable repetition in the experimental formats and content of the works, this year’s CounterCurrent festival persisted in presenting a selection of art worth seeing. Featuring thoughtfully crafted works, CounterCurrent 2016 was a pleasant third edition to this annual body of performance that is invested in enhancing Houston’s creative culture. One hopes that next year’s iteration (April 18 – 23, 2017) takes a dive into even stranger waters.