Words by Jené Gutierrez
Photos by Leon Alesi

“Hi, would you like a treat from the Treat Suit?” a colorfully-clad and friendly woman asked me. I excitedly unzipped a pocket at her side, plunged my hand inside, and retrieved my treat: a yellow smiley-faced, bendable figurine. Though not that captivated by the treat itself, I was intrigued by this performance. Who was this person and what was she doing?

Katelena Hernandez is a performance artist based out of Austin, Texas. Her work largely revolves around the theme of providing comfort and Treat Suit is no exception. Made of tubes, layers, folds, and 125 zippered pockets, Treat Suit was designed by Hernandez and Austin artist and costumer Chrissy Paszalek. Hernandez’s colorful, tubed hair design complements the structure that she carries around her body for hours and hours at a time.

When Hernandez began her performance at CAP’s launch party, I found myself enchanted. Everyone’s reaction was unique, ranging from skeptical aversion to excited entrancement.  Some people pulled small trinkets or toys out of the suit, while others pulled bafflingly larger objects from her; some of the pockets are deeper than you would expect. Hernandez explains that some people stop short of acquiring their treat and tell her there is nothing in her pocket. She has to tell them to plunge deeper. The provocation of her suit and performance is apparent. For example, in her experience with Treat Suit, Hernandez has noticed a trend among younger men and older, but not so much the middle range. She says both groups respond in very physical ways, but that the younger group appears more into the maternal aspect of the interaction, while the older men seem more drawn to the sensuality evoked by the performance.  Some men will look deeply into her eyes as they are retrieving a treat from her, creating a moment of connection that she feels is fundamental to her work.

“I really do liken my work in a lot of ways to being a courtesan,” Hernandez explains, in that what she is offering is their experience. She says that as people approach the suit, they will ask her how they are supposed to interact and react to it. “There’s no ‘supposed to’…it’s the way they need to react to it.” Hernandez feels that the physical interaction, the care and unconditionality of the exchange are essential to the pleasure both her and her audience experience. “It’s actually slightly transgressive to offer that to someone who you don’t know,” she says. “I’ve had people who say they’ve put the treat in the most honored place in their house…They feel like that moment of trade is really satisfying. Even if people aren’t as specifically responsive to the object, there’s still that transfer of discovery and wonder.”

While Hernandez’s work centers around the idea of “comfort,” some do not perceive it in this way at all or are put off by it. Perhaps the most touching Treat Suit moment she related was during an interaction she had with an older woman who appeared to be in her late 70s. The woman stuck her hand into a pocket on Katelena’s shoulder and pulled out a small magic wand. Katelena says she first interpreted her reaction as bewilderment at what to do with the object. She was about to suggest she give it to a little girl nearby when the woman looked up at her, crying, and asked, “How did you know?” This woman, like everyone who has engaged with Treat Suit, carried her own personal history into the experience.

Although her appearance and performance seem like they would appeal most strongly to children, Hernandez says that children are often afraid to approach her because of the big, colorful suit – not to mention the fact that children are often told to be wary of strangers. In December, Hernandez traveled to Miami to participate in events for Art Basel, an annual contemporary art fair spawned from Art Basel Switzerland that has been growing in scope and size annually since its inception in 2002. She was standing outside of Aqua Art Fair and approached a little girl who seemed intrigued by her suit. Hernandez told the girl that if she unzipped her pocket, there would be a present for her. The mother then pulled her daughter away and shot Hernandez a look like she was the weirdest, kinkiest woman she’d ever seen. Other people aren’t even interested in her treats; they just want a picture, telling her, “But you ARE the treat!”

Among her influences, Hernandez cites artists Marina Abramović, Anne Hamilton, Ana Mendieta, Annie Sprinkle, Patty Chang, and Linda Montano. All of these artists address the idea of boundaries of self and other, some more concerned with bodily boundaries, while others quietly ask for your engagement in some way. The most compelling thing about Hernandez’s work, as well as her contemporaries’, is that it offers the audience an opportunity to confront something unknown and unlock a capacity for transformation. In this way, performance art greatly differs from a more objective engagement that a viewer has of visual work. Performance artists are living, breathing, bodied sculptures who ask for more than your observation; they want you to be affected in visceral, emotional, and physical ways. Performance art demands you be present to witness and become part of the work. The older woman and her magic wand encapsulate this conception most purely.

In an age where a lot of our experience of life and art is dictated through the lens of objective media like the internet, performance art like Hernandez’s becomes both more transgressive and sought after. There is something about interacting with work of this nature that feels more meaningful and affecting than an experience in a gallery. Performance art is similar to theater in this way. When you watch a theater production, an event that takes place in your real time, you become a part of the performance. The audience or viewer becomes an active participant in the art form. Asking people to become active can excite, pacify, or disturb them. Whichever way you react it, it is a new experience that offers transformation, however simply or profoundly. For this piece to be a success, both Hernandez and her audience have to become vulnerable to each other. In a society that seems to privilege separation and individuality over connection and the potential for transformation through each other, Katelena Hernandez’s work seeks to bridge that gap, offering an experience that is unique to each participant, but connected through her and the same basic ritual interaction: unzip, fish, and retrieve. 

Visit Katelena Hernandez’s website to learn more about her work and how you can schedule one-on-one comfort sessions.