Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#4 Nancee Oku Bright 1 Jan 1990

Purity and Danger in Performance

The language and concerns of much time based art have had many links with the coincident trajectory of academie disciplines such as sociology, psychology and anthropology. Though those links are too far-reaching to fully explore here, it is clear that ideas within performance work since the 1960s have embodied aspects of these twentieth-century investigations. Group dynamics, the power of the body in ritualised contexts and power systems in general, the tapping of the unconscious, transcendence, catharsis, engagement with everyday social structures, the importance of context - all these are familiar themes in the area of live art.


Purity and Danger in Performance -

The anthropologist looking at actions and events within the loose framework of performance will soon discover that the various social and aesthetic territories they traverse present ample if difficult possibilities for research. This is increasingly pertinent in the light of the interest in world art (the word international has lost favour in some circles due to its implication of limited, usually western, loci) as seen in last years exhibition of ‘worldwide’ art in Paris, Magiciens de la Terre, considered a milestone in Post-Modernist curation. Conversely, the practise of social anthropology is seen less in terms of a Rousseauesque study of Third World peoples, and is increasingly addressing Western systems. As a part of this twin fertilisation, cross cultural comparison is becoming more important in the art text, and the validity of art practises out of the context of Western modernist historicism are being re-evaluated.

The primitive artist probably didn't think of himself as an artist', he was just a member of the community and he somehow... was assigned that responsibility. The products of his labour would have some particidar function unthin the society, magical or otherwise. The Hopi, for instance, have some highly developed functions of this sort. Tribal dances were definitely dance, but they were a ritual and a frerformance. (1)

(1) Glenn Lewis, ‘Performance Notes from the Western Front',

pp.274, in: A. A. Bronson and Peggy Gale (ed)Performance by Artists A979

Using the empirical, academic tools of observation, interpretation and comparison we soon learn that artists working within performance have something in common: their work is often mystifying, demanding and as a result, marginalised by both the public and the art establishment. While there is an uneasy niche (installation work in particular has found space in terms of the gallery establishment), live art has had a difficult time establishing its territories.

Perhaps this is self-fulfilled. Performance work is generally dynamic and reveals a continual capacity for adapting and assimilating a diversity of new cultural ideas, influences and practises. This has made it difficult - perhaps it is too gestalt - to pin down in terms of its boundaries, a problem enshrined in the title Edge. Historically, live art has not followed a linear progression and its inherently syncretic character can be likened to new religious movements which borrow and expand upon established ideas to create a more personally reflective dogma.

Beginning with the Romantic period an attempt was made to reconstitute something like the fullness of the shamanic role within the art realm; poets especially were apt to attribute both healing and transcendentalising powers to the art experience. This project has been acted out in the last twenty years by those artists whose work appropriates its materials from the early history of religion. (2)

(2) Thomas McEvilly. 'Art in the Dark’, in: Artjorum, Summer 1983

The enlightenment in Europe, in the 17th and 18th centuries, provided the ground in which the romantic 'other' was fertilised. Claude Lévi-Strauss stated that intellectuals attempted a separation between science and mythical thought...(3) Against this background, cultural producers proposed a new field of the isolated artist. The artist became a special individual, divorced from everyday life; a paradigm which is still being reasserted both in artistic production and in attitudes towards artists.

(3) Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning 1978

Performance broke rules by moving away from entrenched artistic conventions and yet, at the same time, used deconstructed combinations of these mediums within itself. Students began to emerge from art schools during the 1960s and 1970s fascinated by new media and sceptical of the relevance of forms such as painting. Experiments with dance, film, and theatre followed, and the Happenings of the 60s became a kind of laboratory in which something potentially significant might germinate and spread into other media. Time based art changed ideas about aesthetics and challenged the spatial role which the audience traditionally occupied. Formal distance was done away with; amateurism and spontaneity were celebrated. Art-life barriers were dissolved; for some art became, in Marshall McLuhan's words, anything you can get away with.

Originally, such work was anti-disciplinarian and in many ways amounted to a rebellion which aimed to free itself from prescriptive forms and idioms. But for many it was not simply a celebration of release from the arbitrary boundaries of what might constitute art. Some artists began to recognise that their work had redemptive, even therapeutic capabilities to be experienced by performer and audience alike.

The ultimate (and usually theoretical) release of the gratuitous act - André Breton's belief that the ultimate Surrealist gesture would be to fire a loaded gun into a crowd - was less in favour, however, than the personalised agony of catharsis. Artists such as Chris Burden, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, and Marina Abramovic have, for example, all used endurance of ritualised pain, intense physical exertion, and elements of real danger in order to reach higher levels of consciousness, and in doing so have obliterated the delineations between life, the human body, and art. Art making moved into shadow areas, influenced by depth psychology and magic, addressing uneasy themes of purification, danger and voyeurism. The naked, bloody, but celebratory and Dionysiac work of the Viennese Actionists and Carolee Schneeman in the 60s led the way forward.

Psychedelic culture may have had an influence in this development. Aldous Huxley influenced a generation of artists and writers with his essay The Doors of Perception, which borrowed its title from a line of Blake’s: If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is, infinite. (4) Huxley, after experimenting with mescaline, became convinced that it had given him some insight, such as had been achieved by earlier religious mystics through fasting and ritualised pain, into the nature or this-ness of things, and this allowed him to see life and its objects without the perceptual framework which derives from socialisation. Similarly, artists working in performance seem to have been driven by an atavistic drive for authenticity - the difference being that onlookers are also engaged. Whereas the effects of Huxley's mescaline was essentially self-emetic, much of the soul-searching that results from the 'Ordeal Art’ of Burden and Abramovic is experienced by the audience as well. Abramovic’s travels to China and Australia, and her absorption and translation of cultural signs and holistic references form the core of her main body of work, around which many of her performances are based. During her performance Rhythm Zero she gave all present permission to use 75 objects (including a loaded pistol) for pain and pleasure on her body while she sat motionless for six hours. (5)

(4) William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement 1810
(5) Performance Magazine, no.53, p.17,1988

Burden has similarly transferred the responsibility for his well-being to his audience on occasions. In Prelude to 220, or 110 (6), of 1971, he lay strapped down by copper bands to a gallery floor, around which were buckets filled with water and electrical wires which, if knocked over, would have resulted in his being electrocuted. In Shoot(7), of 1971, he had a friend shoot him in the left arm expecting the bullet to graze him, but instead was badly injured. It has been said of this kind of performance that they were above all an existential attitude.

(6) Ayres/Schimmel.Oiris Burden, A Twenty Year Survey, 1988
(7) Chris Burden, ibidem

Like mystics, artists were using elements of mortification - purgation, self-denial and disciplinary exercises - to transcend notions of self-hood in their actions, or to chart rites of passage from the metaphysical province of the profane to the sacred, from the unremarkable to the feared. In a well-known example of this passage, Carlos Castaneda's guide and mentor, the shaman Don Juan was feared by his fellow Yaqui because of his extraordinary powers. (8) The historic precedent of flagellatory cults, with their emphases on mystic redemption, were a model for this sub-genre in live art. Many cultures display this tendency. For example, during the middle ages in Russia existed a religious sect which exhibited a mania for self-flagellation called the Stare-Vests.(9) Generally they would meet barefoot and shipped to the waist on a floor shewn with sharp flints, where they would engage in wild dancing, confessing and beating themselves until their backs were torn. Their most important night was Easter, when they would come together to worship the mother of God, choosing a young virgin whose breasts would then be cut off. At this point a mystical picture of the holy spirit would be placed in the girl's hand, to reflect her separation from the old world and her passage into the new, higher ethos. All of those who were mutilated in this way were considered to have been rendered sacrosanct, and were thus feared. lake the Sufi whirling dervishes, society could exercise no control over them for they were sacred, untouchable and dangerous. This aspect of performance was picked up in a review of the last Edge. The means (of performance) can he... agonisingly selfabusive. (10)

(8) Carlos Castaneda.TV latchings of Don Juan (a Yatjui Way of Knowledge), 1976
(9) William M Cooper, History of the Rod, 1988
(10)Deanna Petherbridge in: Financial limes, 1988

Because of the lengths she is prepared to go to in exceeding the limits of prescribed decency, the American artist Karen Finley is both admired and abhored, even defiled. Her work aims to offend, not for its own sake, but in a contagious, dynamistic way. It is a powerful exercise in enlightenment by excess; achieving mutual purification by identifying and characterising the polluting strains that are her subject matter. The territory which Finley interrogates is emotive (rape, incest, aids), and her outrage at power abuses. As well as holding a mirror to society in the theatrical sense, her work is also the Trojan Horse that penetrates the consciousness of the power-bearers. Like the magical law of pars pro toto (a part for the whole), that you gain mastery over a creature by seizing some part of it, Finley seems to render male aggression impotent by appropriating it for her transgressional performances. There is a sense of her performance being a healing exorcism; a return to purity via danger and outrage.

This notion of transgression has entered into the live art vocabulary. The formative nature and lack of an established syntax in live art has given rise to a number of artists being involved in transgressional activities in order to process the taboo - The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.(11)

(11) Georges Bataille. Erotism, Death and Sensuality, 1957

The use of the shamanic identity in performance can relate to a search for symbols and metaphors which link our everyday experience to the modern world. Guillermo Gomez-Pena acts as a guide and interpreter between the Mexican and American cultures. Taking as his starting point the role of the brujo, the Latin-American medicine man, Gomez-Pena addresses the myth of the American melting pot from his vantage point as border artist. He works against the prevailing liberal notion of multiculturalism, attempting to act as guide between cultures; destroying the Western notion of the exotic other on the one hand, and creating the mental space for practical co-existence. He recognises that identity is both relative and dynamic and that often these constructs are imposed upon individuals and groups by external forces whose syntax is almost entirely marginalising.

The questions that inform Belgian artist Ria Paquées work concern the boundaries between art and life. But rather than take the paradigm of the shaman or any other extraordinary member of the community, Paquée infiltrates mundane real-life situations such as an old peoples outing or a dog show dressed as an authentic participant, and strikes up conversations with unsuspecting strangers. She takes part in middle-class activities, which she has documented in video and photographs which become the seen-artwork. In this sense Paquées work is reminiscent of proto-anthropologists like the Arabist Richard Burton, who smuggled himself into Mecca in the guise of an Arab. And as in anthropological investigations which use methods like participant-observation, there is also an ethical consideration of voyeurism.

This consideration, in a more sinister way, is also raised in the investigations of Sophie Calle. Calle’s work has included actions like picking someone at random and secretly following them around for several weeks (reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s Following Piece of 1969, where he followed random members of the public). While working as a maid in a hotel, she photographed the rooms as she found them, investigating and exploring the fives and situations of her chosen objects of curiosity. The collaborators in her art are unaware of their roles. Calle becomes, through her work, interchangeably dominant, threatening, omniscient or omnipresent, rendering the objects of her interest vulnerable.

Like the anthropologist, time-based artists are often concerned with exploration and symbols and symbolic thinking. Personal symbology, like Joseph Beuys’ autobiographical use of felt, is often part of the conundrum of appreciation. But in the over-burdening of codes and signals, an insulation is taking place. There is an element of non-objective artworks that without an empirical investigation, the artwork will be mystifying. This may risk the audience’s marginalisation and introduce a social anxiety at odds with a direct engagement with the artwork.

All that is spontaneous, organic and instinctive is to be neutered by art and myth... art arises from unsatisfied desire. (It is) compensation and palliative, because our relationship to nature and life is so deficient and disallows an authentic one.(12)

(12) John Zerzan, The Case Against Art' in: Apocalypse Culture, 1987

There is therefore a case for making the conceptual framework of art pieces as clear as possible, in order for them to avoid self-annihilation and to have resonance for those other than fellow artists and theoretical adepts, especially in the era of the baffling image choice offered by electric reproduction. Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation(13), illustrated the dilemma and argued for a return to a primordial appreciation of art: One did not ask what art said (in earlier times) because one knew... what it did. We have an obligation to throw over any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or erroneous or insensitive to contemporary needs or practise.

(13) printed in: Studio International July/August 1976

But in the reinvestment of art with the magical function of mental transformation, a change is taking place which requests that art provides more than a document of ideas or self-referral; that it aspires to transformational power, therefore re-aligning artistic practice with the primitive social function that it had lost.