Artist and UNSW Art & Design PhD candidate, Kusum Normoyle, has explored the boundaries of performance art, noise and her body for the past nine years. Her latest installation work, Slow/Dark, is at Artspace now.

The desire to push the limits of the human body is common to many. It was believed impossible to run a mile in less than 4 minutes until Roger Bannister did so in 1954 (3:59.4). Many failed in their attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest until Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first recorded successful assent in 1953. (Since then 4,042 people have made it to the top, while 265 have died on the mountain.)

But it’s not only athletes and mountaineers that are interested in the frontiers of focus, risk, determination and the body. Artists are too. Forty-two years ago a young Frenchman, Philippe Petit, tied cable between the 110th floors of the (now destroyed) Twin Towers, stepped into the void and walked across it at dawn on August 7th 1974. It took him 45 minutes to do eight passes between the buildings and to create what is now known as the ‘artistic crime of the century’. That same year, pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic, staged a series of now legendary endurance works where she invited audiences to select objects to be used on her body. Among the many items were a gun, scissors, a hammer and sugar. It was during the last of these performances, Rhythm 5, that Abramovic lost consciousness while jumping through fire and later commented that she was “enormously mad that there is a limit with performance…” 

And now, following in the historic steps of Abramovic, Kusum Normoyle, a Sydney-based artist and PhD candidate at UNSW Art & Design, is experimenting with boundaries of the body and the limits of performance. Normoyle’s areas of exploration are sound and the voice – such as screams and other non-verbal vocalisations – and the accompanying relationship of her body and inanimate objects. Armed with a microphone and amplifier (sometimes two), and customarily dressed in a black shirt, jeans and high tops, Normoyle sets the scenes for her performances in alleys, galleries, courtyards, stages, street corners, basements, and parking lots. 

Anyone who has seen and heard her will remember. Normoyle's performances are ferocious and primal, usually involving kicks, wide lunges, running and throwing her body on the ground. They’re also intensely loud and public and the reactions from observers tend to be as extreme as the performances themselves.  

Normoyle’s earliest explorations of the impact of voice-noise in public spaces were made as a student in Melbourne in 2009 on the rooftops of university buildings. She found she was “getting responses from people all around the city. I had someone from one of the high-rise buildings clapping while another person was making a complaint. And this was very interesting for me, this hot and cold, this negative and positive thing all at once.”

Normoyle's performances quickly took the shape of confronting loud and kinetic actions. She sees her performances like a “ramp that I escalate, irrelevant to my desire or active choice to do so… I need to disconnect from people’s faces in the room, people I know. Individuals become part of the environment. My eyes switch off and act simply as space-negotiation tools that take lead from my ears and body that are searching for and responding to sound vibrations. “

To more fully interrogate the overall performative experience, what Normoyle describes as the “spatial aspects of vocal techniques”, she’s been documenting and recording herself for years. Normoyle’s works may be public interventions, but they are also interplays between her own death-metal-like screams, feedback created by the amplifier and reverberations from the surrounding environments. By recording, she furthers her investigations into the body and noise and the possibilities offered through sculpture and installation.   

Since 2008 Normoyle has exhibited and performed live on more than 40 occasions across Australia and New Zealand, England, Germany and Japan. This week she’s at Artspace with a piece called Slow/Dark. This work is an installation in which Normolye’s voice is displaced from the body and presented across the visual framework of the space. It’s also a collaborative publication with Sydney-based sound artist, Peter Blamey, and artist and UNSW Art & Design PhD candidate, Hethre Contant.

Slow/Dark is presented as part of the Ideas Platform at Artspace, a flexible space where artists are encouraged to take risks and present new and raw works. Artspace curator, Talia Linz, says Normoyle is an artist Artspace has aimed to work with for some time –  "she’s interesting… dedicated… and a woman holding her own ground with such tenacity in an area of contemporary practice most often the realm of men.”

So, is there a limit to the boundaries of Normoyle’s works and the effects they have on herself and the audience? Her installation at Artspace may help to answer that. Its goal, like Normoyle’s key area of interest, is “things in their extremes and what happens when something is over modulated."