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November 3, 2019 by

Toxic Tango: Site-Specific Art for Environmental Crisis

Scarlett Wardrop

Scarlett Wardrop

When artist Julie Laffin and writer-teacher Jennifer Natalya Fink talk about environmental degradation, they focus on more than rising sea levels, polluted air, fouled waterways, and animal extinction. In fact, their site-specific art project, Toxic Tango, asks viewers to draw connections between our physical, emotional, and public domains, in essence making the personal political and vice-versa.

Performed just twice, in South Bend, Indiana, and Washington, DC, Toxic Tango aims to raise consciousness, unsettle viewers, and provoke debate about how best to promote tikkun olam, the healing of our devastated planet.

Laffin, based in Illinois, and Fink, based in Maryland, spoke to Eleanor J. Bader by phone in early October.

 Eleanor J. Bader: Where did the idea for Toxic Tango originate?

Julie Laffin: I have a long history of making gowns and inserting myself into public spaces to promote a particular idea, but after I became disabled 15 or so years ago, I could no longer do this. I have environmental illness. Unfortunately, not much is known about these things. Is it a brain injury? Is it an endocrine disorder? Toxic overload?  No one knows. What I do know is that these illnesses are idiosyncratic. People with them have a lot of different symptoms including respiratory difficulties and food sensitivities. Since I can’t easily go into public spaces anymore, but still want to make art that intervenes in public life, I’ve looked for surrogates, other women, who enact the performance pieces I co-create.

Jennifer Natalya Fink: Julie and I went to graduate school together at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1988 to 1990. We connected again over disability – I have a daughter on the autism spectrum and, as she said, Julie has environmental illness. We started talking about doing a performance that addressed environmental contamination and found an opportunity to collaborate in the fall of 2018. I was going to &NOW, a conference at Notre Dame University. The city of South Bend, Indiana, where Notre Dame is located, is very flat, with areas of extreme wealth and areas that are poor and largely African American. LaSalle Park is in the African American neighborhood and was built on a toxic waste site. It looks like a huge mound in an otherwise flat landscape.

Julie and I devised a performance for this park. I wore a beautiful, glamorous, 100-foot-long red dress which played into the spectacle of the female body. The performance involved me running up a huge hill, then rolling down until I was bound up in the dress. At one point I inserted dirt into my stomach via a hidden pouch. As I moved up and down the mound, Julie read the government’s Super Fund Report about the site’s contamination. She was audible through my cellphone. At the end of the performance, we gave out leaflets that explained the context for what we were doing. We informed people that the Park was designated as a Super Fund site in 2013, but that both state and federal officials had known that the land was contaminated as early as 1984. Why, we asked, hadn’t it been cleaned before the park was constructed?

EJB: That’s horrible. But why a 100-foot red dress?

JL: I see red as a color that is disruptive, that can’t really blend in. Some of the dresses I’ve devised for other projects are shorter, 50 or 60 feet. I’ve also used purple and black, but I’d say 90 percent are red because I want them to be bold.

JNF: Red is visually striking. It can be beautiful. Actually, there is something almost archetypical about wearing red for me.

EJB: Did you do something similar at Georgetown?

JNF: Our Spring 2019 performance was cosponsored by the university’s Disability Studies and Theater and Performance Studies Programs. This time, we asked people to write on my body with lipstick. The presentation asked two questions: What is your toxin and what is your cure? Our fact sheet talked about the cosmetics industry and reported that testing by the Food and Drug Administration found toxic metals in 100 percent of the most popular brands of lipstick: aluminum, cadmium, chromium, manganese, and lead.

These toxins seep into our mouths, enter our skin, and find their way into soil and water. People need to know this.

The performance was successful; the students were engaged and found it meaningful. But since I teach at Georgetown, students who did not know me likely found it easier to participate.

EJB: What kinds of things did they write?

JL: Some of the toxins were men, shame, plastic, gossip, and unhappiness. Their cures included yoga and dance.

EJB: Are the performances more challenging because Julie is unable to be physically present?

JNF: I feel a great responsibility to perform well because I know that I’m a surrogate for Julie. There is added pressure because I’m doing something that she can’t do, but that is an extension of her vision. Nonetheless, I’m comfortable doing this; it has been exciting.

JL: It’s also super satisfying for me. There were definitely moments in my performance career where it might have been a problem for me to let someone else perform something I created. But Jennifer and I have been performing together since graduate school. There is an implicit trust between us. I love watching her. When she performed at Georgetown, I was there through Skype and I was amplified, speaking through Jennifer’s phone, in South Bend. Basically, I feel that I attended both performances. 

EJB: How much planning is involved in developing each piece?

JNF: The performances are co-devised and we focus on what I’ll do and how I’ll do it. This is not improv. The performances are orchestrated to the second for the entire 20 to 30 minutes they last. We talk about every detail via Skype or Zoom repeatedly beforehand.

EJB: Do you have a third Toxic Tango planned?

JNF: We’re thinking about it. In the late 19th century there was a green paint that was all the rage. The paint had arsenic in it and was so toxic that the hands of the factory workers who made it decayed. They were literally poisoned.

Nineteenth century artists, especially the French masters based in Paris, used a lot of this paint so we’re thinking if inserting ourselves into that city and walking in a spectacular way through it. We’ll reference the Paris Climate Accords that Trump took the US out of, and link the history of toxic substances to our current environmental crisis. We’re still in the planning stages for the project, but we’re discussing ways to pause, to let the audience interact with us a bit differently than we’ve done in our previous performances. We’re calling the project Going Green and are hoping to have the idea finalized by the spring of 2020.

EJB: Do you also want to raise awareness about environmental illnesses?

JL: Right after the Georgetown performance, a study was released about lead in the university’s drinking water. So, yes. We’re always trying to bring attention to things that don’t get much notice.

And I do talk about what happened to me because I know how I got poisoned. I was working with military blankets that had been laced with moth balls for a piece critiquing the US invasion of Iraq. It was 2004 and I had been repeatedly washing the blankets and putting them in my dryer. My direct contact with this toxin lasted for months and made me sick. At this point, I can’t work outside my house, but I can function very well at home. I have a fulltime job in publishing—I’ve always had a dual career—and have gradually gotten a bit better. I can now go out for short periods but I still can’t socialize or enter crowded public spaces.

JNF: Our work requires us to talk about negotiating the world and it interrogates our relationship to outside spaces. It’s about relationality—connecting disability and environmental issues, and looking at how culture interfaces with gender expectations in a specific time and place.

But it’s more than this, too. I see Toxic Tango as a form of tikkun olam, a way to value cooperation over competition. In addition, Toxic Tango gives the audience factual information. So far, this has been about a toxic dump site and about beauty products. We hope the information will get under the audience’s skin, that they’ll think and act differently because of what they’ve learned. We also hope that the combination of a spectacular performance, supplemented by a fact sheet, will stay with them for a long time and remain relevant.


Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer living in New York City.