[ToC]

 

DANGER CANDY

REVIEW

RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century, Thames & Hudson, 2018

Reviewed by Will Cordeiro

[Review Guidelines]

When I was a kid of seven or eight, I remember choreographing my first performance art piece. I enlisted a neighborhood friend to play dead on the side of the road. Meanwhile I would pretend trying to revive him or alternately flag down cars for help. When someone stopped, my friend would hop up from the ground and we would offer the driver a jellybean.

While certainly not a landmark in innovative performance, the piece never as much received parental recognition of the refrigerator-art variety. My mother scolded me for it, in fact. Until now this piece has been undocumented. Let's call it Danger Candy (1987). Unfortunately, no visual record survives. Yet, even such a puerile work demonstrates how the ill-defined genre of performance may challenge both terms comprising art history.

Performance is not quite—or not just—"art." It resists whatever frames, boundaries, or institutional categories cordon off art from more direct and sensuous and risky experiences; it plunges into the event horizon of whatever's not art, perhaps into life itself. Its material, as it were, is social action, which overlaps with a far greater range of goings-on than the merely aesthetic; or, in some instances, performance offers a perceptual or aesthetic vantage point for comprehending everyday behaviors. Performance art, at any rate, willfully flouts the conditions and expectations latent in any received understanding of art, and therefore it's ironically a medium which must invent its own tradition, assemble its own generic kinships anew at every permutation.

 

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day (2003)

Similarly, performance art problematizes the notion of history. Performance always takes place in the now: it is live. It is lively. Indeed, it's alive. And while there may be some fruitful tension between the ritualistic or iterative nature of performance and its improvisatory impulse, almost all performance involves a dynamic reciprocity among its actors, audiences, and the unfolding processes they are undergoing that evades capture in a static script, film, or photo record. The aftermath of performance is not performance, it is documentation. Where records exist, their archive operates as a repository of residue only. Against the artifactual nature of history, performance is decidedly not textual—it is more analogous to the electromagnetic voltage pulsing through a collective hallucination or the vectors of a contagion.    
      
A big, bright coffee-table book may not be the best vehicle to do justice to performance art.

Performance Now by RoseLee Goldberg attempts an overview of this intractable medium as it has developed over the course of the new millennium. Goldberg, a respected historian as well as curator of performance art who has been instrumental in shaping its reception in both academic and art-world circles, offers an informed perspective with diverse examples from around the globe. Her latest book expands on and updates her previous work, which includes several art history compendiums about the medium considered exemplary.

However, as a colleague of mine quipped, this beautiful book should secrete an acid to eat away at the expensive coffee tables upon which it will be placed.

 

Marta Soares, Vestígios (2010)

Often the best performance art holds something at risk, venturing to cross the line from being a purely artistic affair into a realm where there are real-world consequences: violence, imprisonment, political disruption, civil disobedience, a threat to artist or viewer safety, possibly the destruction of precious artifacts. The artist stakes wasted years, income, or reputation on her craft, and usually some literal blood, sweat, and tears. The audience is implicated, irritated, offended, shocked, disoriented, disgusted, bored, entrapped, and perhaps even trolled. The absurdity chafes at our certainties. At the very least, a performance piece discomfits its viewers to reconsider previously unexamined assumptions, norms, and behaviors. Often, performance enacts—through the anxiety it provokes—an embodied contemplation, its action requiring viewers or performers to reflect on and reevaluate commonplace practices.

Certain "ugly feelings," as critic Sianne Ngai argues, may harness a power to unsettle the co-option of artworks into the business of maintaining business as usual. More appeasing work might produce perceptions of beauty, cuteness, elegance, or sentimentality—affective states often aligned with political obedience and/or consumer desires. Twee, Disney, and kawaii, for example, are not simply styles, they are lifestyles; within these subcultures a nexus of prescribed modes for relating to others, oneself, and products constitute a habitus that abets an unstated yet omnipresent political and economic order.   

Performance art is often anti-art, an ephemeral moment of human interaction that defies the hierarchies that inhere in the institutionalized art object. The performance artist may also exemplify a lifestyle, a subculture, but one that is self-critical in its gestures and questions most particularly the very conventions one abides. 

If, to oversimplify, performance art emerged with the Futurists and Dada as a response to the political upheaval around WWI, flourished in the 60s and 70s as a consciousness-raising reaction to Vietnam among other things, and continued its radical march into the 80s with feminist and queer activism, then the politically subversive nature of performance art is integral to its project. At times the aesthetic parameters of the form collapse and it edges into outright protest or terrorism.

 

Hugo Ball, Emmy Hemmings, Tristan Tzara, et.al., Cabaret Voltaire (1916)

In this regard, the turn of the millennium witnessed two of the most astonishing large-scale orchestrated public performances: the "Battle of Seattle" demonstration against the WTO in 1999 and the fall of the World Trade Center towers in 2001. Where does contemporary performance go from ground zero?

Walking around Zuccotti Park and nearby environs in lower Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street circa 2011, I was struck by the costumes, music, puppetry, and spectacle employed at the encampments. This was street theater, complete with signage, scripted action, and mise en scène. I recalled that the Situationist International were influential in the '68 student uprisings in Paris, and I realized the similar performative tactics the Occupy Movement adopted. For all its faults, Occupy was an experiment in reimaging communal relations, and its persistent sloganeering against the 1% was effectively leveraged by the Obama campaign.     

 

Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, Mémoires (1959)

Less than ten years later, that seems like ancient history. Trump, casting himself in the guise of reality-TV star and WWF goon, uses the tactics of performance artists in a daily provocation of renewed bluster. We're on perennial orange alert, and we're suffering glutamate exhaustion. Laura Miller, writing in Slate, claims both that "The bourgeoisie is not so easily riled anymore" and "outrage is a routine feature of public life." Miller's apparent contradiction captures a zeitgeist wherein the taboo-enforcers are now on the left, who police for bullying, blackface, cultural appropriation, mis-gendering, and political correctness. Transgression against such interdicts is not "punching up," and so is largely the purview of reactionaries. Most art today displays its political implications openly, yet subversion against the powers-that-be no longer feels like it could have much liberating force.       

Even more than the 60s, we live in the Society of the Spectacle today, playing out a charade of ourselves on social media where critical discourse is replaced by the ceaseless flow of images and prefabricated scandals. Except the disruption, the hijacking—the détournement of these images has been folded back into the all-consuming spectacle: constant disruption is the flow, to the point where no escape velocity seems possible. Ugly feelings, far from throwing a monkey-wrench into the gears, have become weaponized as routine machinations of disaster capitalism. Grease for the wheels, grist for the news cycle.

In this context, what's happened to happenings? The possibilities of social action look fundamentally different as the new millennium advances. Older performance art that once shocked or titillated now feels blasé. Chris Burden, for instance, had an assistant shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle in Shoot (1971) as potent commentary on the Vietnam War and crucified himself to a Volkswagen in Trans-Fixed (1974) to protest the sacralization of consumer society. Today, however, the comments on YouTube compare Burden to Steve-O from Jackass or the "magician" David Blaine. The violence of these pieces has been normalized for self-promotional and entertainment value in pop culture, and the pieces' political context is often lost on a younger generation. 

 

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971)

Banksy's recent stunt at a Sotheby's auction was a viral sensation: the special frame around his graffiti work Girl with Balloon (2006) shredded the canvas by remote control upon being sold. Footage showed a stammering auctioneer surrounded by hoity bidders aghast at the destruction of merchandise. To all appearances, Banksy asserted his street cred.

As many critics and dealers pointed out later, however, the new work, consisting of the tattered strips, Love Is in the Bin (2018), is now worth more than the original, as is Banksy's entire oeuvre. Moreover, persuasive evidence indicates that Banksy—far from perpetuating an anti-corporate takedown—was actually in cahoots with the art-world marketeers. Why else did the preposterously heavy frame escape notice, the item stand as the very last to be auctioned that day, or the canvas hang on a sidewall instead of being displayed from an easel at the front of the showroom like other merchandise? 

Art critic Seph Rodney writes, "The truth is, it's far more likely that Banksy did not play a trick on the market, or on the auction house—but that he played a trick with them." Banksy's posturing as an anti-authoritarian hero, I dare say, feels eerily parallel with Trump's own performative maneuvers. Both promote an atmosphere of disinformation and chicanery, which ultimately benefits their own brand.

 


Banksy, Love Is in the Bin (2018)

Simply put, much contemporary performance art has lost its edge. It feels neither as playful nor as revolutionary as it once did. It just doesn't seem all that odd or offensive, either. And this is an intuition which is only reinforced perusing the pages of Performance Now, even when compared with RoseLee Goldberg's previous coffee-table books such as her 1998 anthology Performance: Live Art Since 1960.

Likewise, scanning earlier books and compilations on YouTube or UbuWeb, I still have some capacity to be mildly taken aback by works like Shigeko Kubota's Vagina Painting (1965) in which she places a brush up her lady parts or Keith Boadwee's Purple Squirt (1995) in which he Pollocks a canvas by ejecting paint from his anus. The increasing ubiquity of porn probably diminishes their impact, as it certainly does with the orgiastic and scatological films of the Vienna Actionists. The body modifications of ORLAN or Stelarc still produce a frisson, despite countless plastic surgery shows. And the antics of provocateur Joseph Beuys, such as his performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) in which he flew to the States only to share an insulated room with a wild coyote for three days, feel relatively fresh even in the face of stunt shows like Fear Factor.     

Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974)

I surmise that this situation is the result not so much from a post-postmodern deadening of affect or the exhaustion of shock value, but rather the result of two forces working in tandem: the widespread acceptance of performance art by established institutions and the dissemination of performance practices into pop culture for apolitical, anesthetic purposes.

 

Keith Boadwee, Purple Squirt (1995)

Flash mobs and vloggers have assumed some of the stratagems and gimmicks of performance art. Lady Gaga, for instance, lifted her "meat dress" (2010) from earlier performances by artists such as Carolee Schneeman, Linder Sterling, Zhang Huan, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The "meat dress" could be deemed an evolving trope of performance art, if not at this point a cliché.

 

Zhang Huan, My New York (2002)

Pop culture has taken over the antics and tactics of performance artists. Does Sacha Baron Cohen's mainstream success preclude him from the mantel of "serious" performance artist? How about Nathan Fielder's reality-TV show Nathan for You? What of the hijinks of a celebrity like Kanye West?

 

Kanye West and Lil Pump, performance at Saturday Night Live (2018)

Perhaps illustrating how performance art has come full circle from 70s radicalism to its contemporary pop status, Jay-Z appears with Marina Abramovic in the video for his song "Picasso Baby" (2013) as they re-enact her 2010 performance at MOMA, The Artist is Present. The name checks by museums and music videos alike signal the infusion of money and mainstream currency to this formerly outré art form.

If once upon a time performance art felt raw and spontaneous—prankish and punk rock—most of the illustrations in Performance Now have a rarified, museum-ready quality. The images possess a hyper-photogenic, fully saturated finish with high production values, not the grainy, bootleg clips one finds in archival footage from past eras. In large part the selection process likely favored performances that had professional make-up artists, gaffers, grips, handlers, assistants, videographers, and curators involved since Goldberg sought photos that would pop on the sheer white catalog double-page spread. Upscale performances, though, are far less likely to upend any delicate sensibilities or induce any hazards compared to those staged in dingy underground dead-ends. 

Another factor is the changing role of galleries and museums. While many scholars of museum studies tout their new role as forums for the interchange of ideas, staging grounds for communal events, and sites where dominant narratives can be contested rather than just rehearsing a Wunderkammer's showcase of consecrated and "exotic" artifacts, this newfound openness comes with its price. Literally so, in the case of liability insurance.   

Compare, for instance, the exhibition of Robert Morris's Bodyshapemotionthings in 1971 and the way the Tate remounted the exhibit in 2009. The initial exhibit of Morris's interactive sculptures used flimsy plywood panels and cheap, quick assembly methods. Several audience members found themselves with splinters, knee-injuries, or other ailments after vigorously clambering on the installation, which forced the Tate to close the exhibit prematurely.

The more recent exhibition used durable, expensive materials and was able to extend its run. Morris used a hasty free-hand sketch for his opening while the remounted show contracted a digitally-rendered 3D plan by an outside construction firm. I would argue that the risk-averse context of the second show actually stripped the work of its materiality and, more importantly, its phenomenological character of aiding one to "feel oneself feeling." Those feelings should include pain, after all. While critics accused the first exhibit of being little more than a playground, the second one precluded any grounds for risky play. The mutual give and take between viewer and object, as well as the social arena itself, is fundamentally changed.           

 

Alex Schweder + Ward Shelley, ReActor House (2016)

In Performance Now, a single still and brief paragraph are all that readers are given about most pieces. The book thus flattens the visceral action of these live performances into glossy images and captions ripe for distracted consumption. Goldberg, in a preface on the book's intent, reflects that: "the photographs in this book are to be read, detail for detail, for colour, composition, rhythm, and content, as one would the elements of a painting or sculpture. In telling us something about the complicated context in which each performance was made, they are essentially references in contemporary art history." The book insistently privileges the scopic attributes of these media, remaining centered in traditional art-world values. 

This method of documentation eliminates the essential awkwardness and menace involved in these works. It reduces the convulsive jolts and tremors one encounters in the presence of the on-going communal event to just another photograph to be contemplated for its composition, the very relationality that many of these performances situate themselves against. It curtails duration to a single instant, simultaneity into a unified image with a traditional sightline or focal distance. As Richard Schechner wrote in regards to the new performance art emerging in the 70s, "Works can no longer be evaluated abstractly; that is, on paper." But such abstract evaluation is exactly what Performance Now attempts.

In Vanessa Beecroft's piece VB55 (2005) a hundred oiled nude women stare out from a Mies van der Rohe glass box onto the street as if they were mannequins. The performance confronts the passersby with the temptation of the voyeuristic gaze at the prohibitive cost of having that gaze returned by the living models or others watching them amid the sidewalk's cross-traffic. One imagines spectators snatching a furtive glimpse and scurrying on with their workaday routines. Depicted as one of the few full-page spreads in the book, however, the viewer can indulge himself analyzing the contours, textures, and skin tones of the models without recrimination. Placement in an art historical book undercuts the performance of exactly those elements that engender its tense if not truculent atmosphere. Beecroft herself is complicit in evacuating her work of its liveness, not only in how she depersonalizes her models, but also by capitalizing on sales of large, glossy photos from these events. No wonder she's featured so prominently in Performance Now.    

 

Vanessa Beecroft, VB55 (2005)

By contrast, Cassils's continuing series Becoming an Image anticipates and inverts the process by which live performance undergoes a transformation into a document or a performer transforms into a body of art. One of the most stunning images in the book, Performance Still No. 8 (2013) shows the transgender body builder jabbing their sculpted shoulder elbow-deep into a massive lump of clay, as if exhaustively wrestling against the unfinished material. Cassils deconstructs the act of art-making so that live action is shaped like a photograph, the photograph molded to foreground its performative potential.         

When Cassils was an MFA student, their collective Toxic Titties infiltrated Beecroft's VB46 (2001) by answering a call for nude models with a certain tall, white, blonde yet vaguely butch look. Beercroft's assistants depilated and bleached each model into "an Aryan overgrown troll baby, a sci-fi porn star." Beercroft later altered and airbrushed the photographs, placing queer bodies under erasure and commodifying images of women's flesh. According to the collective, the conditions of modeling for Beecroft were akin to sorority or military hazing. Cassils contemplated hiding an egg in their vagina to deposit on the floor of the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills during the middle of the Beercroft performance. Instead, the collective took revenge by unionizing the models for overtime pay when the shoot dragged on for hours. Cassils never dropped the egg—they chickened out. Just as tellingly, perhaps, other members of the Toxic Titties didn't undress in the audience to expose the diverse body types excluded from the performance for fear of arrest.

 

Toxic Titties, Beecroft Intervention (2002)

If the Toxic Titties acted paralyzed in the face of art-world decorum, what hope is there for the rest of us? Pussy Riot might be the antidote. Arrested for hooliganism, beaten, pepper-sprayed, censored, subjected to show trials, shipped out to the Gulag, placed in solitary confinement, and enduring a hunger strike, members of this guerrilla collective of anarcho-feminists refuse to perform at concerts where tickets are sold—even at the invitation of Madonna or Björk—and their music and videos are posted to the internet with no intent to monetize them. Pussy Riot has inspired international attention, along with protests, counter-protests, and vandalism in their homeland. Much like the internet collective Anonymous, Pussy Riot masquerades so that "anybody can be Pussy Riot, you just need to put on a mask and stage an active protest."

Some of the more interesting performance art recently has been taking place under authoritarian regimes—Russia, China—or in postcolonial states. Ai Weiwei has turned his own persecution in China into the subject of some of his most moving pieces, such as his live-feed journal, Weiwei Cam (2012) that parodied his own surveillance by the government. It was shut down after only two days. Similarly, in his installation S.A.C.R.E.D (2011-2013) he produced six life-size dioramas about his experiences being held and interrogated by authorities for 81 days. Audience members could only view the exhibit through slits like those in a prison door, apertures recalling the knothole in Duchamp's erotic diorama Étant Donnés (1969) reimagined to position the viewer as a police officer rather than a peeping tom.

 

Ai WeiWei, Self-documentation after police beating of fluid surgically removed from skull (2009)

Zhu Ming's 14 O'Clock July 27th  (2008) involves a giant transparent plastic orb placed on a remote mountainside in which a group of roughly sixteen naked individuals lounge around. The work at once reenacts an idyllic, back-to-the-land ethos and sends up the naïveté of that movement though its artificial bubble world. The isolation of the group echoes the isolation of the setting, though this may have been necessitated by the fact that performance art is still censored and prohibited in China.

 

Zhu Ming's 14 O'Clock July 27th (2008)

Other Chinese performance artists not included in Goldberg's book, such as Zhu Yu and Ma Liuming, are also doing cutting-edge work. In the notorious piece Eating People (2000), photos document Yu chowing down on an aborted fetus. Click on the link at your own risk—there are some things you will never be able to un-see. There is much speculation online as to whether Yu's photos are faked. Nonetheless, the images remain disturbing, not least for Westerners immured to mondo graphic horror like the Faces of Death series. Yu—along with Huang Yong Ping, Xu Bing, Sun Yuan, Peng Yu, and other Chinese performance artists—have received admonishment from Western critics for their use of live animals in their work. Nonetheless, the use of land, humans, and animals in such work highlights the ways that human, animal, or ecological rights intersect with cultural imperialism, and foreground these as pressing concerns the works address.   

Ma Liuming photographs their own naked androgynous body—feminized face with masculine torso—in contexts, such as a walk along the Great Wall of China or eating a comically long prosthetic penis with a traditional Chinese lunch, which trouble one's concepts about cultural taboos and the dynamics between East and West. While Westerners such as Abramovic and Ulay might have staged a performative walk along the Great Wall, Liuming's journey raises different questions while troubling the heteronormative assumptions of that previous work. To label Ma Liuming, even in the guise of their alter ego Fen-Ma, with the Western term "transgender," however, begs certain questions. By applying such a Western term, we might overlook indigenous gender practices in China such as the historical prevalence of eunuchs during the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties; Fanchuan roles in Beijing opera; and the fluidity with which "female" infants were forced into the traditional roles of "males" during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. The complex significations of performance art is highly dependent on its specific cultural context.   

 

Fen-Ma Liuming, Fen-Ma Liuming Walks along the Great Wall (1998)

Disturbingly, particular cultural contexts are both embedded in a work and easily erased from it. New Delhi-based artist Subodh Gupta, for example, paid professional mourners called Kanthababas—after they haggled for a price—to glutton themselves on mounds of creamy, rich cuisine in Spirit Eaters (2013). Staged in front of an audience without a motive of grief and largely divorced from the specific subcultural background, the ceremony appeared "simultaneously brilliant and bizarre," as Dipanita Nath wrote for The Indian Express. The piece enquires into the morality of cultural appropriation, the abuse of labor, and the material versus spiritual significance of such acts.  

 

Subodh Gupta, Spirit Eaters (2013)

Recently, though, Gupta found himself involved in a different ethical dilemma. He stepped down as a guest curator of a festival after being called out for harassment, according to Artforum News. He has been accused of asking "an assistant to pose nude despite their multiple refusals," a charge which he denies. Although Gupta's situation may be lamentably familiar in the #MeToo era, the special circumstances of performance art may in fact raise more ponderous issues of consent.

In a discipline where unexpectedness, nudity, violence, viewer participation, street action, general provocation, and even public sex are nearly de rigueur, whose boundaries, discourses, and customs of respect should be observed? Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964), in which she passively allows spectators to scissor away her garments, is only the most famous of many performance art pieces that question the nuances of agency, sanction, and violation between interacting parties. The ambiguity in her instructions causes viewers to ask, to what exactly was Ono consenting?

VALIE EXPORT similarly performed TAP and TOUCH Cinema (1968) where she invited random men on the street to reach into a theater-shaped box she had placed around her chest and fondle her boobs. The piece calls attention to the street harassment that women experience on a daily basis. But, in an age that places emphasis on positive consent and regard for cultural differences, could EXPORT's exploits be seen as offensive to those inadvertently flashed or as harassment of the men she prompted?

The works of Santiago Sierra, nominally Spanish but renouncing national identification, complicates the notion of consent even further. In one piece, 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People (2000), he paid drug-addicted prostitutes the going rate of a bag of heroin for allowing him to tattoo a line on their backs. Despite their professed willingness, the piece suggests that the women's bodies were "raped" not only by the artist but also by the systemic forces of substance abuse and market pressures. Where individuals labor under exploitative conditions and false consciousness, what measure of agency can they truly possess? The capitalist model of consent—the contract—looks coercive when the unequal power of those entering a so-called agreement is highlighted.

 

Santiago Sierra, 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People (2000)

Goldberg's book ensconces the political upshot of many performance works into an art historical narrative, though, a narrative that strangely levels the importance of any given work by condensing each exemplar to one page, one snapshot, one soundbite. At the same time, the book conveniently packages its selection of works and reproduces a standard canon-making apparatus of the synoptic retrospective tour, the textbook anthology, the greatest hits album. The book's sections furthermore classify pieces according to conventional disciplines—visual art, dance, theater, politics, or architecture—policing pieces back into the very strictures that many of them seek to elide, interrogate, or break down. While the architecture section felt revelatory, the categories feel arbitrary: why not incorporate other sections on, say, music, literature, film and video, new media, or comedy?

 

Tania Bruguera, Tatlin's Whisper #5 (2008)

The book nonetheless serves as an attractive and instructive primer for the uninitiated despite these limitations. Marxist pretensions aside, judged as a coffee-table book, Performance Now must be regarded as scrumptious eye-candy. 

And that's just the problem. It's empty calories. Its sugarcoated images look slick and giddy. The book's pretext is ultra-progressive, though nothing inside is corrosive enough, nothing has the intensity to provoke or truly scandalize. The nudes are unrepentantly tasteful. The violence shuffled off-stage, more basic than acidic. The questions it poses rehearse tired academic lesson plans. It all smells a bit like the starch of crisp dollar bills, beautiful pictures made for rich people. Another affected fetish of the art-world marketplace. 

 

RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century (2018)

I'm willing to entertain that my own critique, however, may be outmoded, a retrograde assessment implicitly based on some untenable distinction between "posers" and "authentic" rebels. Authenticity, after all, is often a cover story. Identities fluctuate between the given, situated facts and some latitude of self-fashioning so that authenticity functions as one among myriad social constructions.

Perhaps I'm also drawing a too-rigid line between exploiter and exploited, as if our global economic system afforded one anything but degrees of complicity. Still, gradations do not necessitate moral equivalence, and though few can escape completely from participating in the interlocking systems of global capital, certain acts resist those pressures more than others.    

Maybe I valorize a performer's peril and vulnerability too much, as well. But I want art that can transform me, that still recognizes some utopian or transcendent possibilities. Such transformation requires struggle, uncertainty, exposure to contending social forces. The performer's vulnerability acts as a cathexis by which the audience can endure, can undergo their own bombshells, boredom, or bolts from the blue. Whereas Aristotle theorized that performance purges the social body of its excessive emotions such as fear and pity in order to restore the polis to its status quo, my own preference is for work that shakes things up, even if nauseating, in an effort to revolutionize its audience's perception of reality. By provoking new interpretations and judgments, performance historically aimed to induce personal and social change.  

 

Installation shot of the Industrial Board Room from Art and Economics, APG (1971-72)

Nevertheless, the emergence of an official infrastructure for performance art in most developed Western countries has been a mixed blessing. Although there now exist support and prestige for practitioners, those same things have professionalized the discipline, deflating a bit of its seditious zest while making it easier to accuse the discipline of puffery.

What I find paradoxical in Performance Now is that Goldberg's previous collections helped usher in a paradigm shift in aesthetic thinking, which this latest book undermines. Art historians like Arthur Danto and Hans Belting have argued that our Western concept of art emerged in the Renaissance when the idea of the religious icon and medieval guild gave way to a worldview that emphasized instead the autonomous secular artwork and heroic individual artist. With the rise of the bourgeoisie and colonial expansion, for centuries "art" had been constituted by ways of seeing and forms of life interwoven with capitalist expansion and the (re)production of commodities. Through most of her career, Goldberg's impact championed work that called attention to and challenged this once-dominant framework of art.

Over the course of the 60s to 90s, the grand narrative about art changed, in part because of those like Goldberg. Practitioners and viewers no longer wanted wall hangings that furnished conspicuous displays of wealth nor expected material objects that they could appreciate with disinterested contemplation in a sterile, as-if universalized, setting. Rather, artists thought outside the white gallery box. Action and insight became valued over mimetic beauty, decoration, or self-conscious technique; traditional notions of art lost cachet. Performance was the new paradigm, involving a provisional set of situated processes, which had social praxis as their end.

 

Gerhard Richter, Erschossener 1 (1988)

Traditional work seemed like so many "museum pieces." A morass of innovation bred relativism about aesthetic standards until eventually any particular style was just another option in the vast catalog raisonné of the past. Gerhard Richter, for instance, operating in that most conventional medium of painting, epitomizes both a nostalgia for virtuosity and a countervailing trend to appropriate and thus level different historical styles. His Abstract Expressionist canvasses gain no preeminence over his Hard Edge or Photorealist ones. By contrast, I doubt I am alone when I found Richter's uneasy series October 18 1977 (1988) about the Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe attacks most striking in his MOMA retrospective in 2002 since it placed his career in an explicitly post-war German milieu, questioning the veracity of historical events and the "performance," we might say, of documents and pictorial narratives.

Catherine Wood, a senior curator at the Tate Modern, writes, "the Internet opens up the possibility of a 'live' audience that is separated geographically but nonetheless actively engaged in the same communal conversation or experience." New media affords a viral contagion in which events are at once live and highly mediated. Performance has permeated all forms of art and the ways we regard identity as well as everyday life. Hence, she proposes:

The live is, arguably, no longer understood as a radical or urgent quality, but more… the center of a constellation of formats including photography, video, object-prompts, and written instructions. The current generation of artists have pushed this question further by establishing "liveness" as a potential quality of the state of things rather than something attributed only to human presence.

Computer algorithms, social media feeds, and organic decay all possess aliveness in this sense, but so does a traditional still life or marble sculpture. Instability inheres in anything understood in terms of its relational activity, an unfinished reciprocal coding and recoding of sociopolitical cues among makers, users, viewers, and curators.

Amelia Ulman typifies this emerging understanding among the younger generation. In Privilege (2016) she combines forms as varied as Instagram modelling, installation art, and parodies of New Yorker cartoons to playact exaggerated versions of her own insecurities. A pigeon who chanced to fly in her office is incorporated into the years-long performance as a recurring motif, pet, and alter-ego. The mood is off-kilter gurlesque—a style which ambivalently re-appropriates such things as up-speak, vocal fry, over-apologizing, melodrama, fashion branding, hysteria, stripper poles, and money shots among other millennial stereotypes, resulting in a queer mix of sexiness, cuteness, and horror in regard to the female body and its didascalia. So, too, her art lectures decouple the academic forum and its associated logic by using dry Powerpoints with business flowcharts and Harvard quotes alongside balloons and hyper-fem voices and songs. Such performances leach out into their paratexts and reception. Viewers' reposting and comments feed back into the ongoing project.

 

Amelia Ulman, Privilege (2016)

Ulman's work recognizes the way cubicles, dating apps, and Snapchat box us in even as they fracture the curated self. Ulman's posts act as meta-commentary on contemporary fashioning of identities. Her pieces feel imprisoned in their own anxiety and abjection, ever proliferating into new platforms: Instagram page, videos, books, lectures, exhibitions, and rumor—all of which are virtual in one sense or another. The medium is immaterial. Yet the intangible nature of the work, dissolving into so much ephemera and folderol, nonetheless highlights its status as quicksilver and alembic. The recombinant process and its bewitching cheek is possessed in equal parts of playfulness, self-examination, and political import. Like an unstable isotope that fizzles and fissures, the documents themselves curdle, split, fuse, and radiate.     

Assessing art by its formal, representational qualities has fallen by the wayside. The relationship of the viewer to the work in situ, and the work to its cultural and political environment, has taken center stage. The modes of production and consumption of art have fundamentally altered. For several decades, RoseLee Goldberg's labor in curating and anthologizing exciting, radioactive performance art was part of this quantum leap. 

The art critic Arthur Danto claimed that today "everything is permitted." Far from it, in fact. We evaluate the worth of artworks, as much else, on their micro-political valence. The seemingly rear-guard portraiture of Kehinde Wiley, for example, gains relevance not from its obvious craftsmanship or appropriation of Old Masters so much as from pushing back against the staid white rich patrons that circle and shark through equally staid white rich galleries. His images of African-American homeboys with their unabashed ghetto-fabulous fashion sense infiltrates the arena of bespoke suits and couture dresses. Wiley has stated, "The performance of black American identity feels very different from actually living in a black body. There's a dissonance between inside and outside," a quote which exemplifies how his portraiture is an investigation into the issues, including the limits, of the performativity of race.

 

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson) (2010)

However, Wiley's craft and nod to classicism contain his subversive energies more than they decry the implied institutional context they seek out. This is especially true when he turns from depicting anonymous brothers from the street to taking commissions from millionaires such as Michael Jackson, LL Cool Jay, or Obama. It's redundant to be-laurel the King of Pop or the President with the trappings of armorial insignia. In framing celebrities already acceptable to mainstream white society in postures that reify their power, Wiley's racialized indictment evaporates.

The larger point here is that performance is less a discipline or medium today than it is an all-encompassing strategy or worldview. The dramatic, participatory, and political qualities of a work take precedence. If the story of art begins in the Renaissance, it largely ends with Modernism. So-called "performance art" might one day appear an oxymoron, a relic of an interregnum when performance had not quite unshackled itself from the long-established canons of taste that underwrite aesthetic consumption. Goldberg's latest book, Performance Now, re-inscribes performance work into the defunct formalist guise of visual art, stressing color, form, composition, and so on. It often ignores what is most, well, performative about the pieces it gathers.

Nobody can really claim a rational justification for one's aesthetic predilections, good or bad. And no one much bothers to, except in pedantic barstool debates which are themselves performative. Taste, style is merely a whim, a caprice based on one's socio-economic conditioning or an epiphenomenal byproduct of neuronal activity. This is a cultural state, I confess, that makes artistic criticism improbable, except among like-minded cliques.

What people do care about deeply, however, and the way that they defend their supposedly aesthetic credos is by ultimately grounding those judgments in political commitments. Who cares if you like or don't like John Waters; the important issue is what you think about Maxine Waters. And it is these political commitments that are enacted when we view anything, including art, under the guise of a performative paradigm. Because performance operates with social action as its material, it is inherently politicized, engagée, inescapably bound to the conditions under which its actors function. If Sartre once dissed Flaubert as a "talented coupon clipper," today we might see a talented coupon clipper as a powerful performance actor adducing a commentary on food stamps, shopping, and exchange value.                     

A couple months ago, I participated in a performance art night held at a local café in the small university town where I live, directed by the performance artist known as Cilla Vee. In a series of improvisatory acts, I ripped up poems, which I had at first considered reading, into variously shaped configurations, syncopating my shenanigans with another performer who created noise from the cappuccino maker; I draped the audience in fabrics; and I played feedback from my shrieking hearing aids as if they were musical instruments.

In a second piece, I masticated a peanutbutter-and-jelly sandwich, drooling large hunks onto the floor, smeared peanutbutter onto another performer then licked it off him, and finally distributed crumbs among the onlookers as if feeding the multitudes. I did these acts in front of some of my conservative students, including one whom I know is Mormon.

The night felt liberating, and I wondered why I tend to adhere to the performative conventions of readings, lectures, or plays. I should add, I'm not making any claims whatsoever about my own originality here. Participating, however, did make me keenly appreciate that my small town had a regular series to stage avant-garde performance works, where professionals collaborate with rank amateurs like myself.

 

Odyssey Works, When I Left the House It Was Still Dark (2013)

Outside a few major metropolitan centers, such opportunities are rare or fleeting. Could performance art one day become as commonplace as spoken word, open mics, storytelling events, punk-rock spectacles, stand-up comedy, improv, drag performances, electronic music shows, black-box theater, or jazz nights? Perhaps all these media have already absorbed lessons from performance art; increasingly, a greater political and performative awareness has permeated the staging of events across media today. Perhaps in many cases such works are already performance art. Or is performance art inherently so weird, so estranged from the requisite stipulations needed for mass popularity and standardization, so fluid and shifting, that any attempt to disseminate it more widely would prove futile?

My hunch is that, aesthetically speaking, performance art flourishes most in environments that are hostile to it. On an ethical level, however, my gut indicates a contradictory conclusion. If we taught performance art starting in elementary school alongside classes like music, visual art, dance, and theater, then society would become more conscious of the assumptions and norms that undergird our ways of life, and that this critical thinking would help bring about the downfall of corporate hegemony, racism, gender discrimination, and political complacency. If we understood artwork of many different stripes as social interventions from an early age, then we'd not only register the political import of art, but we might also gain a greater appreciation of the aesthetic dimension of everyday life. In my utopic vision, I wish all children had the chance to experience their own danger candy.