Tag Archives: performance art

noos from noo york

On the way back from Montreal, we spent a few days in Brooklyn, nosing around there and Manhattan… two highlights:

Anthony McCall's film installation Doubling Back (2003) at the Whitney Museum.
Rumour has it that the recent resurgence in interest in McCall's films of the 1970s [especially Line Describing a Cone] has prompted him to get back into the game. Line Describing a Cone. is like no other film – during its 30 minute duration, a single point of light grows, inch by inch, to form a circle on the screen. The screen, however, aint where the action is – the room, filled with fog, becomes a container for a massive sculptural object – a cone of light – and an audience is free to roam, and play with the shell of light as it curves over your head. The piece is marvellous as a reductive structuralist film – literally, all you have is light and duration, and McCall makes you aware of the travelling path of the light beam – but it's also a great participatory experience, and very liberating, once you get over the inhibition to play that's been programmed in as a natural part of film and art-viewing practice.

Where Doubling Back goes beyond and above Line Describing a Cone, is in its infinitite loop-ness. While the earlier piece had a definite beginning and end, and a fixed audience, the newer one plays continuously, and visitors can casually enter and exit the gallery space. [in this case, the film was screened all day, every Sunday, as part of the Whitney Biennale]…In that dark room, I lost all sense of time – I think I watched the piece all the way through twice, but I couldn't be sure…

In addition, the shapes in Doubling Back are far more complex than the simple cone – two curved lines intersect each other, each moving almost imperceptibly slowly, constantly changing their curvatures. Concentrate on the movement, and you don't see it – look away for a few minutes, and you'll notice the change. The curved lines at times scoop under your knees, sometimes forming very a very tight leaf-like shape, and at other times they open right out, soaring above and around your head. Standing in the middle of these shapes, and gazing back towards the projector, I felt curiously disembodied – like my eyes, in my head, were my only sensory organs. But when I walked back out of the conoid shape, the light caressed my skin and I could palpably feel its tickle like the surface tension of a liquid.

Doubling Back was a delightful, subtle experience, in the midst of an exhibition [the Whitney Biennial] otherwise too chock-full of bitsy art and gossiping visitors.

[ps… you can see a page on McCall at the Whitney Museum's website, but I can't link to it directly – you will have to go to it [http://www.whitney.org/biennial/] and select "Explore Biennial Artists" in their stupid Macromedia Flash web pages…] … better still, have a look at a pic of Doubling Back here: http://www.artnet.com/artwork/424029518/_Anthony_McCall_Doubling_Back.html

Vito Acconci archive at Barbara Gladstone Gallery
Acconci is a legendary New Yorker whose artistic output [performances, videos, texts, photographs] between 1969 and 1973 was enormous. It seems evident from his work in this period that he was working some heavy shit out, personally – especially in his private relationships. In one work he would obsessively follow a stranger in the street, in another he masturbated under a temporary floor, apparently fantasising about the gallery visitors walking above him. He tried to stuff all of his partners long hair into his mouth, and thus get closer to "consuming" her; and in one durational piece, he waited each night at the end of an abandoned pier for lone visitors, to whom he would tell a [presumably damaging] secret. In many of his works Acconci used the formulae established for "conceptual" art-making to push the limits of his own psyche, to go beyond the "normal" and the "comfortable, especially with regards to daily behaviour.

With his work of the early 1970s I never get the idea that Acconci is simply "making art" or playing out hollow gestures for philosophical or intellectual pleasures. His work is moving and personally challenging, even at a distance of 30 (!) years.

In this show in New York, hundreds of type-written "scores" for performances and activities are presented, alongside photographs and video, where available, of the processes/outcomes. Plenty of the scores, it seems, were never realised, or else were self-sufficient and required no documentation.

One of my favourite pieces [which also I saw recently at the ICA in London] is a video in which Acconci, circa 1972, presents a slide show of some of his work from the previous years. There are two levels of "disclosure" in the slideshow. In the first, the artist, his back to us, selects a slide and points to aspects within it, explaining very simply and logically what he was attempting to achieve. Every so often, however, he gets up, walks to the wall on which the slide is projected, and turns sideways, whispering, as if to somebody just off camera, a woman who he is obviously close to. And he says things like "…but only you, only you would know what this piece was really about, only you know what happened between us that July, when she came and began living with us, and the tension, the jealousy was thick in the house…" and so on. What I found moving about this work was the need, the tangible need to disclose, everything, and so to avoid letting "Art" take over, for the work to become merely an "art-work". The risk is clear – Acconci's art activities could (and did?) change his life.

[links: Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Acconci Studios]


Martha Rosler, Carey Young at the Whitechapel Gallery

On Thursday night (Nov 20th 2003)– Martha Rosler presented a remake of her “Semiotics in the Kitchen” video from 1975. It’s the video in which she pretends to be a cooking show presenter, and goes through an a to z of kitchen implements, waving them to the camera, and sometimes brandishing them threateningly. She’s trapped inside the tv, inside the kitchen, inside the structure of language (that’s how she talks about the piece herself).


The idea of re-enacting, live, a performance originally made for video was a bit odd, and I think she dealt with it as best she could – by creating a kind of “audition” situation where a couple of dozen young women (who had been recruited from the local art scene) queued up to take a role in the kitchen, going through the alphabet of implements. There were 3 “kitchen sets” where this process was going on simultaneously, meaning that the huge crowd that had assembled at the whitechapel had a higher chance of “getting close” to the performance. It was pretty messy and unruly, but not a bad way to bring a certain intimacy (most of the other pieces this week have used the "auditorium" set-up, which was fine for their work, but Rosler’s needed that closeness between audience and performer). It felt a bit like being in a shopping mall, looking at a (very odd) product demonstration, rather than watching a tv show (although the action was transferred live to tv monitors within the room). Some of the performance participants hammed it up, others were deadpan, I think they all got a kick out of taking part. Rosler acted as a kind of director for the piece, even giving instructions sometimes as it was in progress.


"Semiotics in the Kitchen" came after Carey Young’s “Optimum Performance”, which took the ambiguous meaning of the word “performance” (meaning either “a piece of performance art”, or “a level of achievement within the business world”, similar to “effectiveness” or “efficiency”) and transformed the gallery into a motivational business seminar. She hired an actor to present the piece, which he did very well indeed, in front of a set consisting of grey felt-lined panels and indoor plant. The speech itself was all about how we can all "achieve better performance by having regular reviews". It was very funny, and cleverly written and crafted.


However, I would not make any claims for the effect of the work beyond being a (in-)joke or stunt…unfortunately, that’s just what Young did in the discussion panel session at the end of the night, jargonistically telling us what the piece was “about” (“soft architecture” “soft business”, (whatever that means) and “creating a space of ambiguity”) and so on. She told us that she had worked in the business world for some years, and that she felt it was important for artists to develop the ability to speak corporate language and operate within a business environment. She even mentioned that art was being considered as a diplomatic tool for international trade deals, and that it could therefore be a powerfully subversive element in world politics.


Young's argument was utterly unconvincing, especially after the Morris lecture from the previous night, which had hammered home the way that large artworks have constantly been used as an unconscious tool of capitalist imperialism. Young was also disappointing for her lack of commitment to any "actual" real life politics – she said that she had used the business sphere as “research” for making artworks. Contrast this with Rosler, whose work and life deals with labor and gender in a direct and concrete way, and, as Rosler said, maybe there was a “generation gap” issue going on between the two artists. Young came across as a caricature of the late 80s artist-entrepreneur (Koons et al), whereas Rosler presented as a throwback to a forgotten generation of outdated and somewhat unfashionable politics (unionism and labour conditions etc). The final question from the audience was “besides being two women, why are you both presenting work on the same night?” – Rosler, who had been holding back up til then, leaned into the microphone and droned “actually, I had been wondering that myself.”

Inventory at the Whitechapel Gallery

…had a stack of radios of all shapes and sizes piled up like a Cash Converters display window. We sat in chairs surrounding the radios, and the artists, after a minor attempt at tuning some of them in, retreated and we were left alone with the technology. A broadcast ensued, generally in the form of guitar music overlaid with a text read aloud, about architecture, life in the city, civil disobedience. Some of the texts were clearer than others, both in diction and content, but the work was just not engaging enough to captivate an audience, and after less than half and hour people began to wander off, and chat amongst themselves. I didn’t find the work interesting enough to warrant staying around for discussion afterwards, and went off to the pub with friends. (Nov 21, 2003)

Atlas Group and Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery

Saturday night (Nov 22, 2003) was dominated by Walid Raad's tour-de-force powerpoint presentation about the activities of The Atlas Group. The Group’s archive deals with "the situation" in Lebanon, especially since the civil war in the mid 1970s. It is a fictional archive, (sometimes a fiction based on true documents and events), which attempts to make sense (and even poetry) of the constantly unstable political climate within Lebanon. It does so by utilising the minutiae of everyday life, and this is important for both the archive’s intrinsic content, and its apparent authenticity.


By concentrating on vast quantities of very minor information (such as the make, model, and colour of every car used for a bombing in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989) we are swept into a world enormously different from our own (in terms of daily personal danger) and yet incredibly similar and banal at the same time (ordinary cars, in colours we might choose ourselves). In this, The Atlas Group consistenly proves that it is in masterly control of the craft of its fiction – the overwhelming quantity of detail which makes us swoon, and forget the fact that it might actually be all just made up.


Raad extends this performance craft even to the point of planting questions in the audience, for which he has answers ready-prepared. In response to one of the questions, “can you give us some background information about the situation in Lebanon?” Raad sighs, and opens up the directory of his computer (visible to the audience on a data projector), revealing countless filenames for documents on the history of Lebanon decade by decade for the last five hundred years. By this strategy, he can reveal the breadth of the answer to that question, without actually needing to answer it directly.


For as he said, “when you talk for too long, people will try to make you shut up. But when you are asked a question, you have permission to talk for a long time”.* As both me and a friend commented at the same time, he is one clever cookie.


*…however, it should be noted, that this information about questions and answers was volunteered by Raad, and not given in response to any particular question. (Perhaps he wants to hammer home just how clever he really is, and why not, we all got a kick out of it anyway).


Mark Dion, prior to Raad’s presentation, showed old-fashioned slides, and gave an entertaining A-Z of extinct animals, and biological nightmares of our times. In moments, it was very informative (especially in relation to biological facts), yet, as my friend Tom pointed out, the tone of the lecture was "more catastrophic than critical", and therefore not very useful for instigating concrete change to the problems it described. However, the scope of the lecture was modest, and I don’t believe it set out to achieve more than it did – therefore it was nowhere near as irritating as the Carey Young performance (and the claims made on its behalf) earlier in the week.

Andrea Fraser at the Whitechapel Gallery / Art Quiz Night

On 18 Nov, I went with my friend Lilly to an “art quiz-night-” in a pub near East London's famous Whitechapel Gallery. This was a really interesting event, and made me think about the kind of social structures Bourriaurd writes about in Relational Aesthetics. Here we were in a kind of low key performative atmosphere, engaged with the esoteric minutiae of the history of art, drinking beer in a pub. It was hilarious. I think it would work well in Sydney's Hollywood Hotel with the Briefcase Gallery. Questions ranged from “what is the title of the Duchamp readymade of a snow shovel?” to a “name that monochrome” test based on a handout of black and white photocopied images, to “what was renaissance artist Donatello’s full name”. It was hilarious and infuriatingly difficult at the same time, since it showed how little “detail” we know to precision about art historical “facts”. I thought of my friends Elaine and Angel’s "slide recognition tests" they had to do at the National Art School in Sydney. Rote learning is really out of style now…





At the pub, I also met Andrea Fraser, who had done a performance at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier that night. I really liked her piece, which was called "Official Welcome", in which she created a fictional opening speech for a museum or gallery. Fraser is a good actor, taking on several different roles during the performance, alternating between gallerist/director and artist on show, navigating the clichés of that (usually incredibly tedious) ritual. Yet her “speech” was not tedious at all, she weaved close enough to the art world figures we know and love/hate, without ever making explicit parody of any one person. I thought I detected Vito Acconci’s stuttering New York drawl in one of her characterisations (in fact, later in the pub she said it had been a combination of Shirin Neshat and Cy Twombly). And I could have sworn it was Tracey Emin she was lampooning in her faux-impersonation of an artist being honoured for her gritty, truth-telling work, having been through rapes, abortions, suicide attempts. And surely in there was a joke about Vanessa Beecroft and her designer-underwear-supermodels performances. But none of it was clear-cut. My guesses about the sources for her succession of “take-offs” could be totally off the mark – it could be that in five years time, the exact same performance would seem to ape a completely different set of artists/gallerists. Perhaps the "types" stay the same, but are occupied by different real people. At the pub I suggested she should come to Sydney with her piece, I would love to see it at the MCA, where Liz Anne MacGregor is routinely drowned out by the loud conversation of alcohol-guzzling guests not at all interested in hearing her say yet again, “the work can be understood on many levels.” I mentioned this MacGregor classic to Fraser, she said it was a good one and maybe she would try work it into her next piece.



Fraser’s previous work has included similar “institutional critique”, including pretending to be a museum guide, and focusing visitors’ attention on “peripheral areas such as the museum’s canteen rather than its collection” and “incorporating references to class, sexual and cultural difference that are generally elided by official histories”. (Quotes from Whitechapel catalogue spiel about Fraser). In another piece, she visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, borrowed the official audio tour guide, and proceeded to respond to its “lyrical and sensual” descriptions of the building by rubbing her body up against “the curvaceous walls”, all documented by a hidden camera. In an earlier work, she pretended to be a museum director – (from the Whitechapel catalogue) – “taking the podium unannounced during the opening of the triennial art event in San Diego, inSITE, Fraser surprised the crowd with an oration that went well beyond the limits of accepted protocol, weaving references to the NAFTA trade agreement into the exhibitions rhetoric about supporting cross cultural activity. The real inSITE director was then required to take to the stage and, rather awkwardly, deliver the real speech in a very similar vein.”



When I spoke to Fraser in the pub, I realised that I had misinterpreted the framework of her performance pieces. I had assumed, through reading the text in the Whitechapel Gallery catalogue, that her “interventions” were unauthorised, mischievous (but ultimately harmless) actions. No, she told me, the catalogue was slightly misleading, and the works were presented in collaboration with the venues concerned. My friends Lilly and Will had suspected as much – they said they had seen the hidden video documentation of the Guggenheim piece, and they thought that it was “too high quality” and “the angles were too good” for it to have been a "real" guerrilla action within the museum.



So the “institutional critique” she makes is carried out with the permission of the very venues she lampoons. Why shouldn’t I have expected that? Naturally, museums must be clamouring for her to grace them with a work, hungry, self-centred attention-seekers that they are (the museums, that is). As one of her collector-characters said in her “Official Welcome” speech, “we mainly collect art about sex and excrement. We’ve always loved her work”. Is Fraser any more than the art-world’s stand up comic? Could it be possible that her work has the potential to transform the institutions which smile politely and lap up the attention, as she sends them up? Perhaps that’s not important, or maybe it’s too much to ask anyway. With “Official Welcome” she is telling it like it T-I-S, exposing the spurious prestige-swapping relationship between artists and the gallerists and museum staff who “(re)present” them. I had a hearty laugh, and that’s rare enough in art these days.



Robert Morris lecture at Whitechapel Gallery

Morris gave a lecture entitled [something like]

Notes From a Chomskian Couch – The Imperialist Unconscious

(on 19 Nov 2003)


Morris spoke on contemporary "image making". Specifically, his point was about how (what he calls) the "mega image" ( or "megig") is complicit with the American project of cultural imperialism. According to Morris, this was the case with large abstract painting through the 60s, and in earthworks, and through to large "multi-screen-video-installations" (or "muscrvit") today.


Very few (famous) artists escaped Morris' web of "the imperialist unconscious" he slammed the big video men – Bill Viola, Doug Aitken, etc, the big painting men – Pollock, Barnett Newman, etc. His exceptions included Jasper Johns – he maintained that Johns always maintained a resistance to American imperialism, (and what's more, Johns' paintings were small) – and Ad Rheinhardt also, who, apparently, "was at every peace rally, every anti Vietnam march". (How does going to marches change the nature of his work though, I wondered, since it still looks like monochrome painting?)


Morris presented the text of his lecture in the form of a psychoanalytic encounter between himself (the patient) and Naum Chomsky (the analyst). "Chomsky's" role, however seemed rather minor, and his comments and interjections were only punctuations within Morris’ tirade. They helped, certainly, with maintaining the attention span of the audience, since otherwise the talk may have seemed somewhat monotonous.


[By the way, Morris’ said that his performance pieces from the 1960s were originally conceived as “dances”, in a La Mont Young vein – where the ordinary movements and actions of everyday life might be regarded with the same level of interest as “expressive” movements usually associated with the work of trained dancers. This is the context of his piece  "21.3", where he lip-synchs a lecture by Erwin Panofsky called "Studies in Iconology"…apparently, all the minor movements (a cough, a sip of water, shuffling papers) were "choreographed" in advance, and noted on the "performance script". I felt that the Whitechapel presentation of "21.3" was a bit unconvincing in its realisation, as a video recreated by somebody else (an actor re-enacted "21.3" for video in the early 1990s). I wonder why he did that, rather than videotaping himself doing it.]


At the end of the lecture, Morris stated that he would take 10 questions. He then proceeded to re-enact a performance by John Cage from the late 1940s or early 1950s (?) – at the end of a lecture on chance, Cage took questions from the audience, answering them with pre-scripted texts pulled at random from a hat. In Morris’ case, the audience played along marvellously, their questions moving quickly from the serious ("you mentioned you were going to present some exceptions to the project of imperialist unconscious as embodied by image-art, but I must have missed it, can you tell us what those examples might be?") to the absurd ("what will you have for breakfast tomorrow?", "did anyone ever tell you you look like Sigmund freud?", "how many questions are left?")

This humourous end to an otherwise pessimistic lecture lent a certain lightness, (what relief!) since, within the lecture itself, Morris had not left much room for examples of artwork that could escape the net of the "imperial unconscious" (or "impunc").

Re-Enactment of Meat Joy

The re-enactment of key historical performances seems to be a growing phenomenon. I found reference to a season at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, called “A Short History of Performance”, which included Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964).

of the original Meat Joy, Schneeman has written:

Meat Joy is an erotic rite — excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, ropes, brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic — shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent. Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic imagistic stream, in which the layered elements mesh and gain intensity by the energy complement of the audience. The original performances became notorious and introduced a vision of the “sacred erotic.” [quote found here at http://www.eai.org/eai/tape.jsp?itemID=6892]

Below is a reprinted excerpt from an article by Alex Farquharson called “Action Replay”, from Frieze magazine, [Issue 77, Sept 2003, p 52], about the Whitechapel gallery re-enactment:

Over the course of a week the gallery hosted re-enactments of seminal performances from the 1960s, each for one night only. Together they brought into focus a set of philosophical questions more or less particular to our relationship with a historicized, ephemeral medium. With most art the notion of the original is tied up with an object that usually undergoes little physical transformation over time. But where does the original reside in performance? Is it gone once the performance, in its original location, overseen by the artist, is over? Are film and photographic documentation, relics and physical residue – of the kind Paul Schimmel assembled for “Out of Actions” at MOCA in LA (1998) – the most authentic connection we now have with the original event, or do thse fragments pale next to a faithful re-enactment? Is the reconstruction still a copy or appropriation even if the artist performs or directs it, or should performance be regarded as a reproducible medium, like a play or musical score? If the latter, then the work probably won’t have undergone any immanent change. Instead, differences in the ways it is now interpreted would ve attributable to changes in historical circumstances. Then again, wouldn’t these changes equallay affect readings of a Roy Lichtenstein painting or an Ed Kienholz tableau, say, of the same period?

Meat Joy, for example, answered all these questions with an ambivalent “yes” and “no”. On one hand, seeing the full performace made you realise that your understanding of the work, based on black and white images of the climactic scene, was extremely slanted. Its slow, mesmeric quality, its long narrative arc, its references to gestural painting and Jungian archetypes, and its olfactory intensity are absent from the photographs, whose static iconography and documentary edge have transplanted the work form the context of the late 1950s and early 1960s happenings to feminist action-based works of the 1970s. On the other hand, the artist had made slight but significant alterations to the content of the piece for its re-enactment. Her own role changed from main orgy protagonist to party hostess or cult leader, reflecting her maturity, while the young men and women were no longer naked, because the nude body, according to Schneeman, has been drained of its emancipatory significance since the original event, and now operates as little more than prurient spectacle.

A more radical transformation had taken place on the level of audience reaction. The return of Meat Joy felt triumphant, a cause for celebration, like the reunion of a legendary rock group. The entrance of the meat and fish to the music felt as if it should have been greeted with applause, like the apprearance of a special guest during an encore. Meat Joy, this time around, functioned as entertainment, albeit for a relatively rarefied audience.

Jonathan Jones agreed. He wrote (in British Newspaper The Guardian):

Meat Joy was a spectacle, but I’m not sure it was anything more. We did not get involved. A few people were enticed to dance at the end, but only a handful out of hundreds. We sat upright and uptight. And there was more than repression rooting us to our seats. There was a gulf between audience and performance that could not be bridged, as if the action we witnessed were elsewhere. Time stood between. This was repetition, and while on its own terms it was a triumph, it was also as pointless as restaging Gettysburg. It could only be a breathing waxwork.

*pictures of the 1964 Meat Joy can be seen here. at http://www.caroleeschneemann.com/meatjoy.html

*it seems another “re-enactment” (or performance) of Meat Joy took place in 2003… see http://www.amherst.edu/~pubaff/news/news_releases/02/meatjoy02.html

A hard-hitting review of the Whitechapel re-enactment, by critic Jonathan Jones, is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/story/0,3604,686046,00.html


[for related posts, visit the re-enactment category in this blog…]