Peer pressure is the point at 'Thank You for Coming'

Presented as part of the IN > TIME festival, a two month collaboration between the City of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Faye Driscoll’s "Thank You for Coming: Attendance," on tour from New York last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, falls right in line with the spirit of experimentation that we’ve come to expect from series curator Mark Jeffery.

The lines continue to blur between performance art and dance, and yet there is something quite formalist about "Thank You for Coming," and its rigorous attention to detail. Granted, the performers must be prepared to throw all those details out the window, because the fate of each performance lies largely in the hands of the audience – and I think that is exactly how Driscoll wants it. The piece seems to be built on a singular goal of making us (the audience) uncomfortable.

Goal accomplished.

In a recent trip to the Field Museum, I took a tour that described the use of props and masks in Native American ceremonies, and couldn’t help but compare my experience at "Thank You for Coming" to a modern version of the Hamat’sa, a traditional coming-of-age dance featuring wild special effects simulating cannibalism. The replication of this bizarre, overwhelming, frightening ceremony was so convincingly unsettling during a run at the 1895 Atlanta World’s Fair that police were called to arrest the performers.

This is not to suggest that "Thank You for Coming" includes images of cannibalism exactly, but its many provoking moments in the opening tableau – feet planted on each others’ faces with wriggling toes, obscene angles given the dancers’ tiny shorts and our below stage vantage point, an awkward degree of eye contact and a mini stage so abrasive that dancers were bruised or bleeding 10 minutes in – it all gives the impression that something is amiss, with bizarrely ritualistic movements that feel intentionally wrong to the witness.

As the evening wears on, the audience becomes increasingly vital to the thing; we are given various props and tasks, and instructed to move about the space to accommodate a flurry of vignettes. The controlled chaos leads up to a glorious maypole of pants once worn by the cast and crew. We are then invited to “skip,” opting into a folk dance of sorts, while those who abstain are left to our anxieties about being the center of attention.

"Thank You for Coming" poses the question: who gets to chose how a piece of art is experienced? In theory, I love the idea of audience participation in performance. It pushes the art form and places mutual responsibility on the creator and witness. Everyone leaves the room feeling as though he’s been part of an experience, rather than a passive viewer of some superfluous act. In execution, however, I found myself tucked into a corner, unable to see much of anything, praying “don’t pick me” and having a generally bad experience. I like having choices about my level of engagement, and while I’m pretty sure participation was optional, I continually felt as though the choices I made were the wrong ones. Maybe these feelings are entirely the point of Faye Driscoll’s dance, but I anxiously await a participatory experience that makes me feel anything other than uncomfortable.