What purpose does it serve for a crowd of strangers and not-strangers to gather in a former high school classroom on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late summer to sit in the almost-darkness and watch a man from another country strap candles to his body and smoothly, methodically noodle his honed body through pretzled poses so as to light these candles one tip to the next, only to extinguish them by blowing through a system of tubing as he goes?

How can it be that at one point most of the people in this crowd are smoothly and methodically spooning mint chocolate chip ice cream into their mouths as their eyes devour the ridiculously specific and arduous task this man has set for himself?

“What is this? What is he?” a little boy whispered from the floor, corkscrewing his body around to stare up at the older woman he was with. If she answered, I didn’t catch it.

The what was Michel Groisman’s Transference performance. It was in some ways utterly mundane and straightforward. Dressed only in shorts and occupying a low wooden platform, his body festooned by a homemade-cyborg-like system of leather straps and tubing and headgear, his bare skin soon speckled with wax, he cycled through repetitive positions, knotting and unwinding his body in order to serve the long white tapers affixed to his feet, arms, knees. He paused at times to catch his breath, and gave himself (or maybe only us) one long break in the middle (he encouraged the ice cream procurement). And though he sometimes progressed into more difficult phrases, he largely stayed away from the circus-trick expectation in which the feats must keep getting bigger, harder, more dangerous in order for the show to go on. He allowed for boredom, for space.

I was with Sheila Lewandowski, the dynamic driving-force behind the Chocolate Factory theater. We each had cups of ice water, and were touching them to our own wrists, necks, shoulders, knees; I didn’t even realize at first that we were doing what he was doing. Both acts served to bring us into our bodies, only we were trying to give ourselves relief, he to test himself.

I sat there, feeling sleepy and half-drugged by the heat and unlit room, and thought of all the things we do and don’t do in a day, all of the myriad, often internal ways in which we become ingenious and impotent. Sisyphus rolling the bolder. Kate Gilmore destroying the block of clay. Our love affair with and deep ambivalence toward technology, the idea of progress—how this has played out in art over the centuries. The Futurist sculpture manifesto.

I thought, at the end, how good it must feel for him to loosen and unbuckle those straps, what relief. And already the knowledge that they will soon enough be strapped back on.

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