May 31, 2007

Performance Simulacra: Reenactment as (Re)Authoring

It has now become an urgent matter to re-assert the original focus and conception of performance as a contemporary art practice. Current essays concerning the "cultural phenomenon of reenactments" express a somewhat relaxed critical approach to performance art, proposing that it is capable of "challenging and reassigning the authorial agency of the (re)performed works."(1) As such views proliferate through contemporary art's discourse, I fear they may whittle away at performance art as first presented in the 1970’s and eventually erode its ontology as an art practice.

As a practice, performance art is characterized by the ephemeral yet is distinctly marked by two features that also qualify as criteria for evaluation: duration and presence. As I have previously written, "The performance act is time-based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s)."

An art practice that definitively involves presence, often inextricably linked to place, a performance art work is positioned temporally between beginning and end points. The actions of performance are overtly related to the corpus and this body engenders the performative (possibly psychic) experience. That performance is concerned exclusively with the body has provoked a fixation on language as insufficient to describe, critique or discuss it, given that performance reflects a transition from "grammar of the word" to "grammar of the body."(2) To reveal this as a misapprehension of performance, we need only recall that the conceptual foundation of this late 20th Century visual art practice projects performance as a document that defies inscription.

One of the default texts on performance states: "Performance art usually occurs in the suspension between the 'real' physical matter of 'the performing body' and the psychic experience of what is to be embodied. . . Performance boldly and precariously declares that Being is performed (and made temporarily visible) in that suspended in-between."(3)

Additionally, from the same author: "To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. . . Performance is the attempt to value that which is nonreproductive, nonmetaphorical."(4)

Disconcertingly, the above Peggy Phelan quote (from her "go-to" performance text) was reprinted in Robert Blackson’s otherwise scholarly essay, "Once More. . . With Feeling: Reenactment in Contemporary Culture", in defense of the Marina Abramović performance series Seven Easy Pieces (2005). That Blackson gives Abramović carte blanche to "potentially eclipse the works she reenacted"(5) is all the more shocking when one considers Abramović’s own characterization of her Seven Easy Pieces series:

"My version will be exactly as the piece was, but as a very long duration piece."(6)

Apparently, Abramović had not read Phelan’s text. If she had, she would undoubtedly see the inherent contradiction in her mistaking a reenactment of a performance as "exact" yet "longer." As we recall, a performance piece relates to a particular duration of an action occurring in a particular space. Thus, to reenact, for Abramović, seems to involve scant allegiance to the original time-based actions of the original performer who created the piece.(7)

This may be incidental to some critics but I find it to be irretrievably damaging to performance as a continuing art practice. Before we grant "open license" to future artists to "re-create" or "emulate" historic (iconic) performances, then we must define the fundamental differences between reenactments and recreations. Moreover, it would be a disservice to the founding tenets of performance to allow these reenactments to be judged under the laboriously retroactive critique of "taste."

Performance art is time-based yet as originally conceived it presents its ontology as beyond documentation. To visually document art is indeed daunting. James Elkins contends that:

"Visual documentation, whether it is video or photography, brings with it an ideology and an aesthetic which prevent it from functioning simply as evidence. . .The visual becomes suspect: it is no longer evidential, but contentious. . . Performance art is, in this sense, immune from the danger of being reduced to documentary evidence."(8)

This is of little concern for Blackson, as he believes that the "loose translation of eyewitness memory and historical documentation" of Seven Easy Pieces permits "the possibilities for and acceptance of reenactments that intentionally differ from their sources."(9)

We can at least remain indebted to Blackson for proffering a somewhat debatable (working) definition of reenactment as "a creative act." However, he seems conflicted as he realizes that reenactments are "slowly eroding the need for accountability to an original source" and yet still contain "the possibility for new experiences and histories to emerge."(10) It is this denial of the original, this re-casting previously enacted performances as "new experiences", that introduces the final thorny summation of reenactments like Abramović’s as weak copies, drained of their specific time-based authenticity, that transform performance into vapid simulacra to re-place the "real" Being of the original work.

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1. Blackson, Robert. Art Journal, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Spring 2007): 39.

2. Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, 1993, 150.

3. Ibid., 167-168.

4. Ibid., 146-152.

5. Op. cit., 39.

6. Moulton, Alan. Flash Art 38, No. 244 (October 2005): 89.

7. Unquestionably, Abramović is an artist of intensity and intelligence when she is performing her own works. From the Guggenheim Museum: "In 'Rhythm O,' she invited her audience to do whatever they wanted to her using any of the 72 items she provided: pen, scissors, chains, axe, loaded pistol, and others. This essay in submission was played out to chilling conclusions—the performance ceased when audience members grew too aggressive."

8. www.jameselkins.com

9. Op. cit., 40.

10. Op. cit., 40.

May 21, 2007

The Bedazzled Syndrome



Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
- John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) to the audience from the stage, 14 January, 1978.


News that graffiti artist Banksy now commands low-six-figure prices at Sotheby's should come as no surprise, given that art historical precedents have long established the “outlaw” artist as a worthy commodity. Rebellious artists are never more desirable than when they toil in the shadows and, as a recent New Yorker article on Banksy attests, struggle mightily to maintain that anonymity. We duly revere our reclusive artists, from Duchamp to Dylan, and will forgive their obsessive reticence to discuss their art, particularly if they happen to be geniuses.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to unpack Banksy’s aesthetic value here, but urge other critics and art theorists to delve into his street-art interventions that utilize a distinctly Surrealist, yet re-cycled juxtaposition for their effect. Instead, I wish to spotlight how Banksy’s near sadistic (mock?) rejection of fame and recognition has produced an increased and frenetic desire in (masochist?) collectors and, finally, an enhanced interest in this artist by the art world.

In film director Stanley Donen’s original Bedazzled, actor Peter Cook, playing the Devil/British pop singer Drimble Wedge, variously replies to feminine choruses of "You drive me wild" and "You knock me out" with his soporific "Leave me alone" and "I’m not available." Filmed in black-and-white and set in a TV studio, this scene brilliantly depicts the hypnotic adulation of the young for a self-absorbed pop idol, as his boredom with and verbal abuse of these fans continues to fuel their insatiable need for him. As an archetype of the “outlaw” artist, this character study reveals what we might call the Bedazzled syndrome, in which utter disdain for the public yields further desire.

To see Banksy shrewdly taunt his newly developing audience of wealthy and rabid collectors with an insulting cartoon (I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This S**t.) is to witness again the "Not Available" mantra, as that very same punk ethos proven to somehow attract rather than repel. Banksy joins the ever-growing “outlaw” horde (Dash Snow and Dan Colen come to mind) of artists who create “in the shadows,” projecting disinterest in the “game” yet reaping the benefits, all while feigning an atmosphere of “unavailability” that cleverly drives public interest and collectors to auction for the artwork.

May 15, 2007

Curatorial Practice, Pt. 3

Two contemporary art exhibitions in Washington, D.C. might provoke our further consideration of the implications of curatorial practice, particularly if undertaken by artists themselves. Generally speaking, contemporary art’s curatorial efforts are, for the most part, initiated by persons trained in either institutional settings or from the “vantage point” of art history. However, these recent exhibits were mounted by artists who define themselves by their art practice, rather than as curators, and this “difference” appears to project an “insider’s” point of view concerning contemporary art.

In the case of Supple, the show itself consisted of “abstract” work of varying degrees of effectiveness from (for the most part) proven entities, i.e., established artists with commercial gallery representation. Concomitant discourse that has issued concerning Supple mostly neglects the “objects” in favor of either lampooning or publicizing a controversial “live installation” by a young artist. This discursive tact has catapulted Supple’s curator, J.T. Kirkland, into the (possibly) unforeseen position of defender of both his show and the galvanizing act of said young artist. It is this (probably) unfortunate casting of Kirkland (also an artist) as a protector of contemporary art’s meaning that concerns me here.

As valorization, curatorial practice has definite power within the contemporary art world, and practicing as an artist and curator implies a certain “knowledge” of art and a desire to affect the history of art, if however humbly. A curator must also be prepared to tackle the hard questions that will come from the public sphere, like “what is the meaning?” and “why these artists?” I sympathize with Kirkland having to endure such inquisitions as, “How does your [curatorial] practice engage with your audience? How did your curatorial voice speak in the larger context as it moved out into the world?”, especially if he did not realize that these inquiries would become part of his curatorial burden. And this is my point: those who undertake curatorial efforts will undoubtedly assume multiple roles of art critic, historian and cultural producer. As such, Supple is doubly enlightening to artists thinking about “organizing” shows, as this ongoing and contentious discourse reveals the actual, day-to-day grind that curators go through after putting on such challenging shows.

The other exhibition I wish to discuss is even more revealing in its problematic relationship to the duality of the artist-curator role. As printed in press materials that accompany the Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School show, contemporary artists Jeffry Cudlin and Meg Mitchell create an “alternative history” about two imaginary Washingtonian artists from the 1970’s. The exhibit functions as a kind of parallel universe of “vintage” photography and video of the fictional duo, along with a (concocted) documentary that seemingly “validates” Ian and Jan’s position within art history as under-recognized, “major” artists who “have been expunged from art history.”(1) The show is mostly conceptual in that it “constructs” two cleverly episodic lives that apparently existed under the radar of (New York City) 1970’s art world cognoscenti.

Rex Weil, who contributes his significant theoretical acumen to Ian and Jan, perhaps frames the “real meaning” behind the show when he rhetorically asks, “How does the grand narrative of art history seek to weave art and context in some useful, rational way?”(2) This allows me to introduce (again) the idea of “meaning” as established through the historic “narrative,” a futile and embattled effort at recording “genuine” knowledge. If one’s cultural position (now) conveys epistemic knowledge that might (theoretically) be used to unravel and re-write the past in new ways, then who else but contemporary artists would be better suited to assess the fragility of the “written” past in relation to its significance for today? Yet this exposes curatorial practice (again) as a journey fraught with responsibility and consequence. For example, does the application of an ironic but “false” art history engage humor at the risk of curatorial credibility? If we “construct” fictive beings (and grant them belated validation) are we wrestling helplessly with metaphysics?

George Kubler proposed that history ought to “do justice both to meaning and being, both to the plan and to the fullness of existence, both to the scheme and to the thing.”(3) As a fully engaged conceptual scheme, the fictional artworks of Ian & Jan toy with existence cleverly, and the “grand narrative” is indicted as a suspect ontological position. For to “neglect either meaning or being, either essence or existence, deforms our comprehension of both.”

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1. Weil, Rex. Excerpted from publicity materials for Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School, © Copyright 2007.

2. Ibid.

3. Kubler, George. The Shape of Time, Yale University Press, 1962, p. 126.

May 10, 2007

The Database

Administrator’s Note: This week’s post, the last of this semester, is by Randolph Williams and it focuses our attention on theories of the narrative as related to New Media.

“In computer science, database is defined as a structured collection of data. The data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval by a computer and therefore it is anything but a simple collection of items.”


Lev Manovich, believes that the database form has replaced the narrative as new media favors this form over others. New media is defined through objects borne from the computer age. This database form is problematic because it creates a rift in the way human culture has previously stored information. Previously, humans have constructed ways to store and display information that allow a viewer to gauge its significance within its context. The new media database not only allows for information to be pulled out of context, but also allows for information to be altered at any given moment. A continuous alteration of a database destroys the idea of a beginning, middle and end. The organization of the information is rendered arbitrary, because the user is aware that it is always being altered, and never truly complete.

“To qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy a number of criteria, which literary scholar Mieke Bal defines as follows: it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula; and its ‘contents’ should be a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors.”

Manovich then describes the reinvention of the narrative through computer games. These games rely on algorithms to guide the user through the beginning, middle and end. Through Manovich’s description an algorithm is one’s objective, this objective is pre-programmed and is not altered. This is the predominant existence of the narrative in new media, and in a way bridges the gap between old and new society.

I believe that Manovich’s assessment of the way humans store information is an apt one, however, it seems that he believes that mankind doesn’t have the capacity to describe and adapt to the database. Although the digital age has in some ways rendered the hard copy obsolete, and has allowed for a flood of half truths to be given significance through the Internet, I believe that too much information is better than none. As literates, it is our responsibility to assess all information to find our truth.

May 6, 2007

Repo Pop Cult

Administrator's Note: This week I have decided to re-publish portions of a previous post that I wrote on the "interpellative address" of media as a "metonymic factor in post-conceptualism."

. . . In our reading of Laura Kipnis’s "Repossessing Popular Culture" this week, she paraphrased Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he goes to great pains to split the origins of Modernism into two oppositional components. On one hand were the original aestheticists, who developed an art of “purity,” where form was the “supreme” content, an art that possessed “autonomy from the concerns of everyday life.” Rising up against this were the “original” avant-gardists, with their brilliant use of “shock” and contestatory manifestoes, seeking to return art to an engagement with the people, to “rebel against the enforced social impotence of art determined by institutional status.”

. . . Marcel Duchamp first exhibited his bicycle wheel as a “readymade” in 1913, before the start of World War I. This simple act of “choice,” Duchamp’s answer to the dreaded “retinal” images of aestheticism, would gain strength through the 20th Century with its engagement of the intellectual realms of “context,” commodity and the institutionalization of art. The Dadaists had implored Duchamp to join them (he lived in Munich for awhile) but he steadfastly refused – always the iconoclast – preferring instead to carve his own niche in the tumultuous “history” of “modernist” art.

But it is the “avant garde” dance with “mass culture” that interests me here. By “taking” the imagery of advertisements and posters, to make a “collage” of existing newspaper and magazine texts, the Cubists and Dadaists created an art that “arrested” the attention of both prole and bourgeois. Raoul Vaneigem, who admits his Dada influences, extends Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation into a condemnation of this “address” of advertisements that provide individuals the “universal images” with which to “recognize themselves,” effectively becoming “actors” in the “spectacle.” It is this “address” that the original avant-gardists had anticipated and manipulated so well, imbuing their art with an absolute immediacy and recognition that did provide a “social” engagement.

I am proposing that it is this idea of an interpellative address that has become the defining metonymic factor in post-conceptualism. If the “part is made to stand for the whole,” then that element, or part, benefits from the “arresting” confrontation of advertisement. To enable “the subjects” to better “recognize themselves,” this appropriation of a commodified image or object allows the artist to engage the “whole” (avant-gardist “social” potency of politicization) with metonymy (Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” drawing, Carolee Schneemann’s World Trade Center “jumpers.”)

Reading for 9 May: Ch. 32: The Database by Lev Manovich (first section available HERE.