E. Jane Signals a Vibe Shift in What ‘Performance’ Means

I’m sitting in the stands at the Kitchen, a storied Manhattan performance space, watching Stephanie Mills sing a showtune on my phone.

No, the night wasn’t so boring that I had to stray to Instagram. “Where there’s love overflowing,” a self-styled performance score in four dimensions by the young New York-based artist E. Jane, takes place partially on your hand-held screen.

Scan a QR code at the front desk, point your camera at one of five big gouache murals on the Kitchen walls spelling the names and dates of key performances of “Home,” a showstopper from the 1975 Broadway musical “The Wiz,” and an app links to “DivasSingingHome__archive_v2.mp4.” There’s Mills, star of the original cast. Whitney Houston does the number for her network TV debut her in 1983. Diana Ross in the film adaptation; Jazmine Sullivan in a grade school production; and Beyoncé in 1988, seven years young, owning a Texas awards show in a sequined blue Dorothy get-up. E. Jane’s compilation gives Mills an encore: a triumphant 1987 performance at the Apollo.

In a way, the Kitchen show could have been an email. Maybe a website. Another artist would have installed monitors. Instead, E. Jane took the trouble to letter the names of divas high on the black masonry of a physical room, spotlight the paintings, then link them through a clunky, browser-based augmented reality (AR) smartphone app to a video hosted on Vimeo.

This streaming serenade is just one of the ways E. Jane pushes the exhibition, and the viewer’s attention, out of the circumscribed time or space that is the Kitchen. A low square platform in the room’s center is a placeholder for the show’s culmination, a live public performance on May 14. Starting May 11, visitors might catch the muffled strains of E. Jane (who uses the pronoun they) and their cast’s closed rehearsals through the Kitchen lobby doors.

Born in 1990, seemingly on the Internet as much as in Maryland, E. Jane is known for queering the ways we construct identity, refusing the traditional boundaries of art as well as the conventions of gender and race. Not least, they’ve released albums and performed live as an underground pop star avatar named Mhysa.

“Where there’s love overflowing” hybridizes the White Cube and the Black Box — the normative settings for fine art and avant-garde theater, respectively. The usual categorical language surrounding contemporary art breaks down. Here, the work doesn’t ring the gallery. The performers, including one — Houston — who died in 2012, present to an absent, past or future audience as much as to the present viewer.

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E. Jane is the sixth diva — one for the digital age, performing as the persona Mhysa. Behind the stage, an iridescent tulle bell covers a monitor showing “Mhysa — When I Think of Home, I Think of a Bag,” a recording of a 2021 webcam performance of the song. The audio pumps through the theater’s speakers. But visitors must lift up the fabric to get a good look. Under this shimmering skirt — another displacement, another buffer — the rest of the world disappears.

Flanking the bag, five prints on stretched fabric float from wires like high-concept backdrops. The panels offer snippets of the lyrics of “Home” in noodly digital handwriting, embellished by cloying graphics of butterflies and flowers. As the divas are describing a place “with love overflowing,” you can frame E. Jane’s prints in the Kitchen-provided AR app and watch the wildlife flap and unfurl across your screen. Some text on the panel at right pops out, drifts away: “It’s real to me.”

This is E. Jane’s first institutional solo exhibition but not their only connection to the Kitchen. Lumi Tan, who organized the current show with Sienna Fekete, tapped E. Jane for a 2019 residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Legacy Russell, the executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen since 2021, spends a chapter of her book “Glitch Feminism” (2020) on the ways E. Jane and Mhysa don’t privilege IRL over cyberspace.

Russell tends to overstate the utopian bent of our corporatized internet, and AR’s state of the art is pretty goofy. Still, in the New York venue that nurtured the musical experiments of Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley, the E. Jane presentation signals a vibe shift. In fact, “appearance” might be a better word for what E. Jane does — artwork undefined by bodies, a stage or physical space. For them, home is a place where the straight world’s hierarchies don’t count.

“Home” is a powerful but maudlin song. It’s also fundamental. Its lens of love focuses on the interplay of meatspace and insubstantial connections. Dorothy can traverse Oz, but also snooze in Kansas. Oz can be an illusion without discounting the love of her Oz-bound friends her. The same is true for lovers texting goodnight or E. Jane You-Tubing divas. We wake up, we die. In the meantime, however it appears, love is real. But I still prefer it in person.


E. Jane: Where there’s love overflowing

Through May 14. The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, Manhattan, (212) 255-5793; thekitchen.org.

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