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The improvisational, and confrontational, work of performance artist and poet Billy Mark

Billy Mark

Billy Mark is motivated by instinct. 

On an exceptionally hot day in May last year, the local performance artist, poet, and 2015 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow walked down 8 Mile Road in a black wrestling singlet splattered with fuchsia paint, gold shoes, and a white head piece. He had just completed a grueling 24 minute performance composed of a series of movements and exercises one might see a wrestler perform. His goal, he says, was to "engage in a struggle against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

After the performance, he ran out of the audience sight-line and found himself lost without a wallet or phone. He was feeling very exposed—maybe a little nuts—and thirsty. Just as the heat was getting to be too much, rain began to fall and Mark felt a sort of sweetness. 

"I don’t think I’ve ever felt so in my body and in my skin," Mark says. "The fact that I can walk in a onesie and with this paint—to walk in this wonderfully revealing suit—to walk into a Subway and just feel at home."
Billy Mark
Mark's performance on the Detroit border was his first public appearance as The Wrestler, a character he developed over the course of six months. The idea came to him in a dream. "I was sleeping and I just saw this image of me in wrestling gear—okay me in wrestling gear with a singlet," he says with a laugh. 

Most of the spectators were positioned on either side of the Detroit border, separated from Mark by traffic and other city sounds. For the viewer, it was a poetry reading without words.

In January at Trinosophes, Mark resurrected The Wrestler for a collaborative performance with Yvette Rock, another local artist and recent Knight Arts Challenge winner. While it didn't take place on a heavily-trafficked street, the enclosed and acoustically rich space allowed the audience to connect with Mark’s work both visually and verbally. 

The Wrestler was developed as a response to an internal tension Mark was experiencing around race. "I'm growing more and more to realize that I am biracial and I can't—I refuse—to choose."

This tension worked its way into a reading and fundraiser at Rose’s Fine Foods in May. Mark spent some time between the two dinner sittings walking around the predominantly black neighborhood near the hip diner. Upon re-entering the space Mark acutely felt the shift in demographics, and during his reading, moved very slowly throughout the space, shaken by the change. 

"When things get really intense, I'm going to let them be what they are," Mark says. 

After making a brief remark about the mostly white diners, Mark gave both himself and the audience time to sit and reflect. Even when standing in complete silence, it's evident that Mark gives his entire body to every performance, often times pushing himself to exhaustion.

Mark is originally from Wisconsin. Some Detroit transplants may take years to understand and explore the racial division that still exists in the art and music scene in Detroit. But he explores—instead of ignores—this divide, and incorporates it into his work.

Mark and his wife Sarah Perry Mark, a fiber artist, were first lured to the city by the Detroit Design Festival's website, and visited without knowing a soul. They felt an immediate connection. Upon returning to their home in Los Angeles, they quickly decided to pack up and move to Detroit by car. "The place we were supposed to live didn't get confirmed until about Denver," Mark recalls.

The increased space and cheaper real estate was a drastic change from their lives in Los Angeles, which allows the artist couple the time and space necessary to pursue their respective practices. They renovated the third floor into an artist studio containing recording equipment, a performance space with a recently built stage, and a soon-to-be prayer room. 

Part of Mark’s time in L.A. was spent at the California Institute for the Arts where he focused on music studies, poetry, and performance. It was there that he began to develop a more improvisational method of performance, and also where he began using silence as a way to communicate and reflect.

In concrete poetry, silence can easily be depicted on a page with the break of a line or the staggering of words. These breaks give the reader time, if only briefly, to prepare for the words to come. They can also be arranged to create an image, a recognizable or abstract shape, which provides visual interest and context for the poem. 

Mark believes similar effects can be created by movement. "The body can produce images, poetic images filled with poetry. We spend so much time opening our eyes and trying to re-pronounce images onto the page so that they could come into people’s minds." 

For Mark, the silence in his performance operates in a similar way, giving the audience time, not only to really absorb his words, but also put those words into context and open their eyes. 

Although, it’s usually Mark that needs the time to take in the space, the vibe, and to breathe. "Sometimes I don’t know what to say and I stop because I'm not gonna keep saying words and that is a place of tension but it’s also a place of freedom," Mark says of the silence, "I often feel connected to the people in the room in really strange and powerful ways in those moments."

It is said that only the closest of friends can sit together in complete silence, without the pressure of trying to fill the space with conversation. Mark's performances create a similar dynamic—building an intimacy and trust between himself and the audience—which he often takes a step further by inviting the audience to participate.

"The more time that we spend in this space, the less I am in this space, the more people feel freedom and comfort to explore it."

BILLY MARK from Kresge Arts in Detroit on Vimeo.

Read more articles by Maia Asshaq.

Maia Asshaq is an Iraqi-American writer and founder of the Detroit Art Book Fair. She is the recipient of the 2015 Gilda Award for emerging writers by the Kresge Foundation and a 2016 Salzburg Fellow. 
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