The Present Tense

Within the one year I have lived in New England, I’ve noticed a curious change come over my artistic sensibilities: I have become much more accepting of, and even come to like, performance art. Despite living in Kansas, I was able to take in a fair share of it. But in Boston, where I became acquainted with several performance artists and learned about their work, a positive impression was forged in my mind. What surprised me most was that none of the works I was encountering were distinctly better than anything I’d seen before.

What changed? Suddenly I was seeing performances in a context that made sense. Previously any pieces I saw were solitary events, disconnected from anything outside of themselves. Sometimes, it is only when one pulls back and views an artist’s performance as a small fragment in their entire body of work, and that artist’s body of work as a fragment of a larger community that the work begins to make sense. Sandrine Schaefer and Philip Fryer are two forward-thinking Boston artists who understand this, and play a major role in creating the community necessary to make performance art relevant through an effort called The Present Tense.

When Schaefer and Fryer officially formed The Present Tense in 2005, it was in response to a perceived lack of informational access to existing Boston performance art. “There’s no book written about the history of performance art in Boston, although I know people have tried,” Fryer explained. “We really want to think of it less as an organization that does events, or an archive, but more of a resource, in whatever sense that means.” Of course, the Internet is a major factor in how The Present Tense operates, and the extent to which they use the platform is beyond what most artists bother to do. Schaefer and Fryer conduct artist interviews and curate web documentation of performance, essentially creating the online equivalent of a hybrid publication and a gallery space for this artistic medium that often struggles to find either.

What makes The Present Tense remarkable is the variety of functions it performs. It isn’t confined solely to the virtual world. Schaefer and Fryer also organize live performance events, bringing in artists from outside Boston, such as the pyrotechnic-loving Estonian collective, Non Grata. This September, they are taking part in an exchange with the Defibrillator Gallery in Chicago, in which six artists from each city will trade places and share their work in the other community. Shortly after the exchange, Schaefer will be displaying an exhibit of relics, or physical objects that remain from performances, at the LAP Gallery in Waltham, Massachusetts. Examples of relics include unraveled cassette tapes, a smashed Greek column replica that an artist attempted to glue back together, a stencil of the word “dignity,” and 100,000 wooden skewers used to mark the outlines of people’s bodies on the ground. “A lot of artists are traveling, so they’ll leave us this stuff. At the time it’s maybe like, ‘Good, I can get this object off my hands,’ but it holds memory, and that’s really exciting,” Schaefer said.

While performance enriches all areas of art by constantly building the vocabulary of what is “acceptable” art practice, it often does so at the cost of accessibility. Simultaneously, performance artists find themselves facing increasing competition for the attention of fewer and fewer people. The Present Tense counters these obstacles by acting as creators, curators, journalists, and archivists, playing an active role in creating the scene and context needed by performance art, and serving as a model for how artists and collectives could operate in the future.