Pollenland: spreading seeds and pushing boundaries

BY: SASHA MILENA

I sit awkwardly on a wooden platform box inside a warehouse. I find it hard to believe that the woman introducing herself to me is the same woman I saw two months earlier completely drenched in honey. Toni Ivashkov is one of the performance artists of Pollenland, an avant-garde performance art collaborative group from Long Beach, Calif. comprised of experimental musicians, artists and dancers.

Sitting next to her are three other members, or as they affectionately refer to each other as, pollenators. Pollenland’s sitar player Darren Saravis begins to introduce himself to me, but is interjected by bass player Alex Balin.

“Papa Pollen,” Balin says with a wide grin, while the others nod in agreement. “Call him Papa Pollen.”

Pollenland is a true artistic collaboration. From the music, to the performances to the costumes, each member of the group plays a critical role in the creative process and final output of the show. The performers make their own costumes and design all installation pieces for the shows. For each performance piece, the group figures out a theme and then creates a storyboard that ties the music with the performance. An interesting aspect of Pollenland is how the musicians and the performance artists interact with each other and with the audience.

During a recent performance at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana, Calif., wide-eyed audience members had stunned, confused, and at times repulsed looks on their faces. Toni Ivashkov’s sister, Goldie Ivashkov was topless and her entire body, including her face, was painted white. An oversized white decorative headpiece sat atop her head and looked as if she would topple over if she leaned too far forward. There was no announcement that the show had begun. The only cue something was about to happen was Goldie slowly walking around the art gallery placing rocks in the hands of any audience member who would take one. There were several installations in the center of the room including a hanging 4-foot nest of human hair, a low-lying metal and wood platform and a round table with two chairs.

As the band started playing, several characters and creatures entered the space. Two women with funnel -shaped heads completely wrapped in caution tape crawled around the floor. They then ripped open the stomachs of their costumes and pulled out dirt that had been concealed inside. Later, performer Olivia Maria Lopez entered the space wearing a white tutu with her upper body covered in tulle dancing in a frenzied pace around the space en pointe.

The show ended with Goldie dumping a gallon of honey on top of Toni’s head as she stood on top of the metal and wood platform. Goldie began placing small black rocks on Toni’s body and coaxed the audience to do the same without saying a word. Hesitant observers became part of the show as they pressed rocks against Toni’s honey-drenched skin.

“Performance art in the way we present it forces people to be in the moment,” Goldie said. “It is very interactive and emotional for the observer.”

Lines between the audience and performers can be blurred at times during a show, and the group relishes performing in unexpected places. A show at Max Steiner’s Bar, now named Candi’s, in Long Beach challenged performer-audience boundaries. The performers dressed head-to-toe in trash bags and piled on top of one another to make a human trash pile. They crawled out of the pile one at a time and placed temporary tattoos that looked like eyeballs on audience member’s foreheads.

“Some people ran right out of the bar,” Saravis said.

"Then, other people came running in,” Balin said.

According to Toni, some people in the audience that night became confused and frightened. She said some people thought Pollenland was a cult.

“People get emotional and it disturbs them at some points,” Toni said. “It depends on the person and how they perceive it.”

Most Pollenland performances include an element of nudity, which can make audiences uneasy.

“In the beginning there was a lot more nudity,” Toni said. “It was all about being free, open and raw.”

People react differently, sometimes depending on the venue or space.

“It’s sexual and arousing, but it gets serious and most people are able to go beyond the nudity” Toni said. “We never want it to be just about sex.”

Every Pollenland performance is different, and the loose structure allows for self-expression.

“Instead of using a classical approach, where every musician is dictated what he or she must precisely play, we use more of a Jazz approach,” Balin said. “We establish a minimal structure, and then we create.”

Pollenland drummer and Cal State Long Beach film major, Miles Van Dusen said the process has been challenging yet transformative since he joined a year and a half ago.

“I’ve been changing the way I play,” Van Dusen said. “I played a lot of progressive rock in high school, so this is very different.”

Grace Hansmeyer, performance artist and strong collaborator of Pollenland said although every show is different, there are parts that remain the same.

“Elements are repeated but the process unfolds differently every time,” Hansmeyer said.

The collective has about 14 members, but can fluctuate depending on the piece. In addition to Balin, Saravis and Van Dusen, the band includes Cal State Long Beach student and trumpet and mandolin player Casey Martin, trombone player Johhny Smith, and Laura Merryfiled who plays violin and sings. Performance artist Dan Kusunoki incorporates spoken word into the music, while Bruce Ford uses Abelton Live to control computer generated sounds as well as mix the live audio. Pollenland vocalists are Marley Balin and Pat Weinell. Along with Toni, Goldie, Hansmeyer and Lopez, Summer Stiles and Abbi Davis contribute to the performance aspects of the collaborative as performance artists.

Pollenland uses spontaneity and improvisation to create their art. The loose nature of this process allows for evolution.

From membership to the name, the group is constantly evolving. Even the name has evolved. Beginning with an ambient electronic sound, Digital Caravan was founded by Darren Saravis. Digital Caravan transformed into Caravan To Pollenland when the band started collaborating with local performance artists.

“We would play shows and performance pieces would just sort of happen,” Saravis said. “It was spur-of-the-moment.”

“Once we fully integrated performance art into the musical performance, the Caravan had arrived at Pollenland,” Balin said.

Saravis said that in the last couple of decades he has seen a huge shift in art and the way it is observed. Festivals such as Burning Man are becoming increasingly popular and smaller art and music festivals like it are popping up in the area.

“There are a lot of forces both technological and social moving things into a new direction,” Saravis said.

Pollenland continues to build their energy out and shift in new directions. The group wants to travel more as a performance art collective. They want to find places where this new kind of performance art is desired.

“I see it as a very strong beat, like a drum that keeps on going,” Toni said. “I can feel it in Pollenland, and people are attracted to it and follow us.”