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Engaging Artists

Althea Rao: Adapting Art and Performance During the Pandemic

November 20, 2020
Althea Rao


Althea Rao: Adapting Art and Performance During the Pandemic

“I can think really beyond what I am capable of doing, and I can propose ideas, and within the limited amount of time and resources I have, my collaborators can help me realize them.”

Althea Rao, Vaginal Chorus. Image via the artist’s website.

Althea Rao (@cloudville) is a multiform conceptual artist with a social practice. She approaches systems and structures as products of design that shape and get shaped by human experience, examining this interdependent relationship and studying how ethical values are institutionalized in the process via the lens of technology, social justice, and capitalism. Rao’s works exist as codes of conduct, performative interventions, multimedia installations, and their documentation. She performs absurd interpretations of ethical values and negotiates idealism within a fully diverse society, while knowingly exhibiting a willingness to count on human agency to see change for the better. Recently she has focussed on revealing states of institutionalized disempowerment, facilitating radical community healing, and designing systems for intrinsic accountability.

Rao is one of More Art’s eight Engaging Artist (EA) Fellows for 2020. A two-tiered fellowship and residency program for artists seeking to both develop and sustain their public art and socially-engaged practice, the EA program curriculum encompasses a professional development series, public art commission opportunities, mentorship, and peer networking.

During her time as a Fellow, Rao has been able to continue her work on Vagina Chorus, a (now) social-distancing friendly live performance, combining wearable technology, theater, physical therapy-inspired choreography, and vaginally produced music to create an immersive audio-visual experience. “Exposing the most intimate secrets of our bodies and destigmatizing historical taboos, the project will create an affirming context in today’s world for vaginas to morph into new myths for positive reinterpretations, foregrounding womxn and their vaginas as the narrators of their own representations,” Rao writes. She spoke with Jules Rochielle, Engaging Artists Artistic Coordinator, about some of the unexpected challenges of the project, her need to adapt, and the very special impact of collaboration; Rao’s responses are excerpted below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Althea Rao: Vagina Chorus is a project that I’ve been developing since February 2019. This work is about raising awareness about this medical condition called urinary incontinence, that’s quite common among women. As the pandemic hit, a lot of the live performance format had to be re-imagined for social distancing and public health reasons. I’ve been reconsidering the format of this performance and also adding more meaning to this project, beyond what I had originally envisioned.

It’s called Vagina Chorus because we are using a wearable device that people normally would insert into their vaginas and perform Kegel exercises, but we’re changing that into a vaginal instrument that will be able to translate people’s muscle movement into musical notes. So when a group of performers gets together they can create harmonies.

Originally, it was supposed to take shape as a participatory choral project. I imagined there would be twelve participants that we would invite from local New Haven communities, and then we would gather weekly for twelve weeks. We would practice pelvic floor exercises together with a Bluetooth Kegel trainer, and then the final performance would be these twelve people doing this music performance in front of the live audience. But after COVID we can’t allow so many people to come together and for such an extended period of time. So we’re not moving this performance virtually but we are imagining reducing the number of performers and creating enough social distance between the performers. We’re also adding a glass wall between the performers and the audience, and potentially having the audience listen to the interactive music through headphones instead of listening to the ambient sound. We’re creating distance, creating an interior and an exterior and adding the sense of domestic feeling to the content of the performance, and that is something that I’ve been quite excitedly exploring.

Originally, this was going to be purely a musical music experience — that was going to be almost 90% of the performance experience — but now with a reduced amount of performers, and also increased stage space and audience distance, I’m considering adding a theater play, so there will be dialogue and spoken word added to this experience. Right now I’m working solo on writing this play and then the technical part and the production and the musical composition will resume next year.

I’ve had two collaborators for this project: An electronic musician and Don Undeen, a professor at Georgetown University. We are now remotely collaborating but we are still a creative team. [Through collaboration], we’ve reduced the restrictions on me imagining. A lot of the skills and talent my collaborators bring to this project are things that I am not necessarily an expert at. They, in a way, extended the possibility of form and connections. We’re the experimental quality of this project. So I can think really beyond what I am capable of doing, and I can propose ideas, and within the limited amount of time and resources I have, my collaborators can help me realize them. I feel most of the collaboration is about different specialties, different backgrounds, different experiences coming together, and sparking really interesting directions that maybe none of the individuals can achieve on their own.

There are two interesting things that I’m looking into and researching lately. One is ancient mythology basically about vaginas, wombs, and uteruses. There’s a Hawaiian myth that talks about a goddess that has a detachable vagina, which she uses to scare away rapists to protect her sisters. This vagina can fly around and when it smashed into the ground, it formed craters on the Hawaiian Island. Then there are similar mythologies in many different cultures that attribute power to the female reproductive organs, which I thought was very interesting. The other chunk of history that I was looking into is modern American gynecology, starting with J. Marion Sims, who made a lot of breakthroughs on surgical procedures through conducting brutal experiments on enslaved black women without their consent.

People viewed the female body and their reproductive ability as this really powerful and even sacred being, and how does that gradually shift to something that became controlled and only [allowed to be] explored by men and not even with consent? These are the new subjects that I’m exploring and trying to add to my project through a series of drawings as well as dialogue that I will add into the play.

Vagina Chorus is a recipient of the 2020 MAP Fund and is currently being mentored by Theater Mitu through their Hybrid Arts Lab fellowship. It scheduled to premiere in 2021, with presenting partners in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and Alabama.