A young woman slowly rotates around a neon green, nylon-bristled broom pressed into the center of a ragged pink towel taped to the floor. As she revolves around it, a scraping noise crackles from a speaker set somewhere off to the side. After a long minute of methodical rotation, she picks up the broom and begins smoothing it across the towel in long strokes, as if sweeping away invisible particles. The amplified scrapes and whooshes shift with her movements, a sonic mirror to her careful choreography.
The performer creating this surreal vignette is St. Louis-based noise and performance artist Grace Smith, a.k.a. Janet XMas, a.k.a. JANET. Dressed in a sheer negligee, thong underwear, black combat boots and a leather dog collar and bracelet, Janet reads as a twisted version of those stock characters of heteronormative fantasy, the sexy maid or oversexed housewife. Yet, wielding her sexuality as she does her broom when performing, Smith appropriates the tools of domestic reproduction to her own, unproductive ends: non-narrative performance art and abstracted, grating noise.
It is exactly this melding of performance art with noise music that makes Janet such a compelling — and, for the St. Louis art and music scenes, unique — project. Both noise and performance are notoriously difficult genres; at their best, each can challenge audiences' fundamental ideas about what qualifies as "music," "art" and "performance," while at their worst they can be obnoxiously self-important and pointlessly obtuse.
By combining a sense of humor and playfulness with spiritual ritual and queer sexuality, however, Smith draws the viewer into the ephemeral scenes she conjures, crafting spaces of pleasure as well as sonic dissonance. Another of her oft-performed pieces features Smith tap dancing with a metal folding chair connected to contact mics that she variably straddles, scoots across the floor and jumps up and down on, all to a background soundtrack of static. While the amplified metallic banging is undeniably harsh, it is equally difficult to not be charmed by her joyful soft shoeing or find humor in her appropriation of a piece of office furniture as a musical prop.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Smith got her start in the noise scene attending, and eventually booking, house shows in Beloit, Wisconsin, where she went to college. Used to seeing bands in more traditional settings like the Pageant, she says "it blew my mind that you could be on the same level, just stand on the same floor as the musicians and ... actually talk with the performers afterwards and build a friendship if you want."
When a show she booked during finals week failed to draw a crowd, the performer, grindcore violinist Joey Molinaro, asked if she wanted to help promote an upcoming show he had booked in St. Louis at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center. Rather than just putting up fliers, Smith, who had already realized she wanted to do more than book shows, decided to perform as well, to provide extra incentive for folks to turn out. It was from this opportunity that Janet was born.
For that first performance Smith wasn't exactly sure what she'd do.
"But I found this name tag in my friend's abandoned building, and it just said 'Janet' on it, for the Grabber School of Hair Design, so I just started wearing it," Smith says. "I had just turned 21 so I was going to bars and introducing myself as Janet and pretending like I was in hair school, just as a social experiment."
After this fortuitous find, Smith got to work creating a costume for the character.
"I wanted to make a soundsuit because I've always loved dancing, I've always been a dancer," she explains. "So I knew for the performance I wanted to dance, [in] a Nick Cave soundsuit thing." Smith made her own Cave-esque soundsuit by sewing a bunch of costume jewelry onto a pillowcase. "I had a portable cassette player, and I had a leotard on," she says. "So I took off my pedestrian clothes and then I put on the soundsuit, and I put in the earphones and I wore a plastic bag as a mask and I just danced for the entirety of a cassingle." (Classic '90s banger "The Sign" by Ace of Base, to be precise.)
Except when it came time for the performance, Smith belatedly realized that the batteries in her Walkman were dead.
"So for that first performance I faked it and I just danced to no music," she says.
While this technical mishap could have easily killed the show, Smith went for it anyway and totally sold the audience on her performance.
"Nobody knew!" she recalls, laughing. "Everyone was like, 'What were you listening to?!'"
It was Molinaro who first described Janet as "Dada noise burlesque," a label that instantly resonated with Smith and has since served as a guiding principle for the project.
"I was like, 'Wow, that sounds so good, that's everything I want to be! If I saw that on a bill, I would definitely want to go to that show,'" she recalls. "So I started crafting the performance around that idea. I was like, 'How can I make this a visceral thing? How can I fit this description?'"
Using the "Dada noise burlesque" descriptor as a prompt, Smith created the first performance she toured, a piece she calls "the ladder dance," in which a folding ladder became a kind of cell in which she writhed, blind-folded, for several minutes, accompanied by noise soundtrack. Through this early performance, Smith worked out the defining aspects of a Janet piece.
"There's always this ritual aspect to [a Janet performance]," she says. "I used to start by playing a singing bowl or have some kind of objects of power or meaning, candles or incense, or bells." The purpose of these rituals, she explains, is to make the performance "something sacred, to make it feel sacred for me and the audience, an intimate [experience]."
Her performances also always include some form of dance. "[Janet] has always been very dance driven, I've always wanted to dance and move my body, and I've always been inclined to charge things sexually," she says. "Someone called me a sex symbol, and I was like, 'Whoa, cool, I really respect you, that's kind of cool.'"
Smith is incredibly active as Janet, frequently going out on the road for weeks at a time and performing as part of noise music and performance art festivals all over the country. She even recently had a live TV performance on the Adult Swim variety show William Street Swap Show. While in other cities she plays all kinds of venues, from metal clubs to DIY spaces to art galleries, in her hometown of St. Louis she reports feeling somewhat overlooked, because venues and promoters here tend to book shows around a single sound or musical genre. She encourages those who might hesitate to depart from standard booking practice to "add something spicy!" to their lineups.
"My act is like ten minutes long, and it'll instantly add variety to any show," she points out.
Like any good spice, Janet is sure to bring that sting that keeps you reaching for one more hot wing or handful of wasabi peas even though your mouth's on fire. Couldn't we all use a little more spice in our lives?