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1: Maximising the Potential for Disaster

An art. A discipline. A technique. All provide one with an established benchmark against which to measure one's relative mastery of a particular school of thought. Mastery reaches saturation point once the potential for falls and corpses are eradicated, and thereafter our performer maybe finds himself going through tedious motions. Let us look at Foucault's studies of bodily discipline. Many of his examples are based on militaristic paradigms, the apogee attained when one has "'got rid of the peasant' and given him 'the air of a soldier'" 1 Regulation and correction through subtraction, of abnormal bodily characteristics, "...'incorrect' attitudes, irregular gestures" 2 are the order of the day. Phillip Zarrilli does not distinguish between the varying techniques of acting and any other bodily technologies where "'humans develop knowledge about themselves.'" 3 If we apply the shibboleths of restraint and prohibition to our training of the performer, we drift towards a kind of puritanical asceticism, again associated with military and religious practices. For instance, consumption before a performance is always to be restricted; alcohol for example, will make one too garrulous; food will make one sluggish. It seems suggestive of the desire for the neutral state in line with the neutral space. An empty vessel, or in Foucault's terms, a docile body. However, if one does smoke, or if one is overweight for instance, then the restrictions this can put on a body can introduce greater potential and perhaps even greater extremes of breakdown than the 'fit' body put through similar, highly physical paces for example. Perhaps I am describing nothing more than a fast forward to the moment when the second law of thermodynamics taps on our shoulders. Either way, the idea is to work against something until one hits the metaphorical 'wall', this being where the interest begins; the moment the body loses knowledge of itself. This just happens sooner if the corpulent body is 'out of shape.' Perhaps this is a twisted variation on Barba's principle of opposition, 4 of bodily movement based on resistance. He recalls Etienne Decroux's belief that, "it is in discomfort that the mime feels comfortable..." 5 My uncomfortable memories of Seiji Shimoda's performance at the Cardiff Art In Time Festival in 1996 were resuscitated with Anthony Howell's description of Shimoda's attempt to crawl over and under a table; he concludes: "Knowing that it is possible for him to fail enhances the performance for me. It proves that the action is not just a circus trick." 6 Incidentally, Shimoda is a smoker. He also fell off the table on two occasions. The spectator can go full circle. If one sees exhaustion setting in, then an element of prediction (i.e. he will probably fall again in a minute) may re-enter the fray. But it is dependent on whether this exhaustion is to be overcome or yielded to or indeed, whether it can be. We know that sooner or later Franko B will lose consciousness due to the copious suffusion of blood onto the floor of the ICA theatre. He can fight to remain lucid but the biological fact of the loss of oxygen to brain precludes this. But make no mistake; I am not pandering to the mores of those who crow about the 'authenticity' of a performer as martyr, of those who 'suffer' for their art. Passing out per se represents a bodily safety mechanism rather than a (conscious!) artistic expression. This is one instance where the body may not acclimatise even by means of repeated practice.

2: The Costello Show

As opposed to the expulsion of bodily fluids, there is scope for chemical intervention. After Gilbert and George, I have experimented with incorporating the drinking itself as part of the dynamic of a performance piece. In The Costello Show, (BBB Contemporary Arts, London 1999 with Laurence Harvey) two performers sat opposite one another and proceeded to consume ten bloody mary's 7 in what could be described as a competitive manner. The audience was able to make determinations of the level of intoxication as the bodily characteristics of over-consumption took their toll on the 'efficiency' of the performers. The steady increase in empty glasses served as a tool of measurement. Assuming that the we would not 'act up' our lack of control, the rubicon of mere 'Dutch courage' would be passed when we entered into a state where all of Welford's symptoms showed their credentials in a more exaggerated manner. Intoxication does not occur simultaneously with the units of alcohol consumed however. Depending on the body mass for example, each performer reacts to alcohol in a plethora of differing ways and most particularly over differing time spans. There is a lag time before the manifestations of its influence begin to show themselves. I felt the peak of these effects only towards the denouement. We have the means, but what of the end? Is one to be mindful of Franko B and drink until one passes out? Compare and contrast this to Allan Kaprow's instruction for performers to repeat an action "...until they are tired" 8 Tiredness is of course, a potentially more equivocal state than that of unconsciousness. However, passing out is also an action reliant not on the objectivity of the clock, but this time on an individual subject's capacity for alcohol consumption. I mentioned the competitive element that could be attributable to any 'drinking game'. Following the show, my fellow performer admonished me for not consuming as much as he had. I could not deny that this was the case. However, this experience was a sobering insight into one's reaction to the possibilities of completely losing control. If I was not drinking quite as much as I could have, this was a conscious decision. Even in this loosened state I still found myself attempting to impose order by contradicting the raison d'être of the piece, which was primarily, inebriation. Breaking the rules in this case diminished potential, the opportunity to lose control squandered in favour of the familiarity of a clear head. The grip tightens. But how far does one go to loosen this grip? The Wooster Group have used LSD in the process of rehearsal9 and the Turner prize nominated Wilson sisters have similarly imbibed, albeit from the safety of a video document of this experience. The extremes of reaction being dealt with in this case are far removed from the recalcitrance engendered by alcohol use, and there are also associations with paranoid reactions which can complicate the performer audience relationship. William Burroughs was at great pains to make the distinction between the use of psychoactive stimulants and those drugs that elicit physical dependence. Addiction is by its nature a repetitive state; the end in this case is only ever sated temporarily, for "...beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control." 10 In this sense, the high generated by the addition of the drug is also balanced by the sickness generated by the omission. There is no neutral state in this case unless one wishes to experience "the excruciatingly painful return to normal metabolism."11 Burroughs autobiographical fiction showed that the only relationship the addict can have is with the person supplying his habit, whereas the Dionysian spirit of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy alluded to the destruction of barriers between men by rituals of bacchanalian revelry and intoxication: "Now with the gospel of world harmony, each man feels himself not only united, reconciled, and at one with his neighbour, but one with him, as if the veil of Maya had been rent and now hung in rags before the mysterious primal Oneness." 12 However, my previous examples of chemical excess placed the onus on the performer to partake in refreshment, whilst the audience watch the decline into chaos. The drinking action of the aforementioned Costello Show was a closed circuit where two performers indulged themselves. According to Anthony Howell, "To acknowledge the audience destroys the performer, since it dissolves the difference between them." 13 It could be argued that paradoxically, even Peter Handke also shows the utmost of respect to his audience by addressing them so directly in his play Offending the Audience. And if the offended audience answers back? The stand up comedian responds, digressing and therefore dignifying whatever is said, although within the gladiatorial environs of the comedy club it is always open season as far as heckling is concerned. But whilst acknowledgement can be the greatest form of flattery, it is questionable whether flattery should be the business of the performer.

3: Contractual Obligations

How does a paying audience view a drunken, drug addled performer? With feelings of envy? With tension? With diminished respect? Even if effrontery is the raison d'être of the piece, a healthy dose of chutzpah on the part of the performer may have to be added into our equation. So does the lack of control displayed in The Costello Show equal irresponsibility? Does the performer need to be responsible? If so, to whom? Undoubtedly, when the performers palm is crossed with silver, an additional pecuniary, 'service giving' dimension is introduced that informs the experience of the phenomena. Peggy Phelan expounds the Olympian viewpoint that "Performance resists the balanced circulations of finance. It saves nothing; it only spends." 15 She describes a discipline that resists and transcends economic concerns. But could it be argued that essentially, if money changes hands, something is owed? It is at this point that studied cackhandedness is to be questioned. Clause 1 of my contract with the New Works Festival, Leicester 1999 stipulates an obligation "to ensure the work is adequately rehearsed/ready for public exhibition." Chance activities in particular cannot guarantee the deliverance of 'adequacy'; but then again, what can? There is the inverted schadenfreude that Susan Melrose writes of: "...something painful in its pleasing... when it works." 16 This is the flip side of what I write of when it doesn't work; in this instance there is pleasure in the others pain. Difficulty of a life threatening nature has a particular kind of 'entertainment value'; the escapologist suspended over a shark tank, or the high wire walker without a net. But while it is one thing to bungle or forget one's lines (to die in the metaphorical sense) it is entirely another to actually die. Another unrepeatable experience. It was often in the hands of the capricious audience whether performance artist (and consenting adult) Chris Burden, famous for a piece where he is shot in the arm lived or died. His intention is unclear, as he is in one sense, 'asking for it'. But if there is the potential for something to happen in the frame of the clear and present danger I have described, the factor of acceptance again has to be considered, but the relation is different from the freak occurrence of the chance event. So in this strange melange of performer risk and audience trust, there could also be at play a kind of stoic acceptance that "anything could happen". This way, it could be argued that the death of Chris Burden could never be classified as an accident.17 But if the last gasp was actually happening before one's eyes, what is the role of intervention to stop something from 'going too far'? What if the intervention is against the will of the artist? It is now a question of audience responsibility pitted against some of the more extreme forms of expression where everyday pragmatism does not necessarily hold any currency. I recently read about the filmmaker Harmony Korine who would wander the streets picking fights with muscle-bound strangers and having the (usually bloody) outcome filmed by a hidden camera. He stipulated that none of his crew were allowed to intervene under any circumstances. We have the means in this "cross between a Buster Keaton film and a snuff movie", 18 but the end is less than well defined if the crew cannot break up the fight. Korine makes the point, "...I didn't realise how short a real fight lasts, especially when you're fighting a guy four times your size...its about 20 minutes right now, and I wanted it to be 90 minutes, but I don't think I can survive it..." 19 We can be fairly sure that a certain chain of events may culminate in these foolhardy actions (a calculated risk has been taken) but the thorny dilemma of personal responsibility remains. If being beaten to death is the end, Korine cannot walk away if the integrity of the work is to remain intact.


1: Ordinance of 20th March 1764 cit. Foucault, M. P135

2: Foucault, M. P178. Michel Foucault made the link between detail and discipline. He wrote about the scale of bodily control; of the wholesale and retail use of the body. The idea of a retail use of the body brings with it a particular and detailed breakdown of bodily functions in the manner of the nesting doll; reduction to smaller and smaller units of scale. This is characterised by the minutiae of Christian education, school education and military education, which found their way into social life to be manifested in the discipline and correction of the body itself. The performing body can be similarly disjointed; again, space given value through fragmentation as Foucault shows in 'The Temporal Elaboration of the Act' in Discipline and Punish (Foucault, M. P152). We have a theatrical equivalent in Samuel Beckett's "Not I" where the protagonist was reduced to a mouth.

3: Foucault, M. cit. Zarrilli, P. P72

4: See Barba, E. 1995

5: Decroux, E. cit. Barba, E. P24

6: Howell, A. P115

7: This performance was a meditation on the life and times of Elvis Costello. Many of the actions and props used were linked to titles of albums from his extensive back catalogue. In this case, the drinks used were derived from an album entitled "Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How's your Fathers."

8: Kaprow, A. 1965 in Sandford, M.R. (Ed) P196

9: See Auslander, P. in Zarrilli, P. (Ed) 1995 See also the interesting descriptions of Aldous Huxley's experiments with mescaline, particularly with reference to perceptions of space, time and motivation. We may reconsider the option of doing nothing: "Interest in space diminished and interest in time falls almost to zero…the mescalin taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting." (The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell, Huxley, A. P21).

10: Burroughs, W. P8

11: Ibid. P159 Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating alcohol and drug abuse, but merely attempting to extricate their consideration from moral standpoints (the idea that a chemical composition is evil...) and show their potential to be a useful performative tool.

12: Neitzsche, F. P17

13: Howell, A. P54 If acknowledgement destroys the performer, audience participation is the final nail in the coffin. I do not use the word 'destroy' pejoratively however. In my work with the Social group (1998-99), we have used the idea of performer participation. The performers intervene into the paradigm set up by a bar environment. The evening is not advertised as a 'performance night' and even if the 'audience' already in the bar begin to sense that something is going on, they are never sure who or if the 'performers' are; we are unfixed, our trajectories a metaphorical Brownian motion that insinuate themselves amongst rather than in front of them. But most importantly, the others are established as a group before we are, and our actions are contingent on this fact. If we reach the egalitarian ideal of performer/audience equality, do we still have a performance? Yes, but it is a guessing game as to where 'the thing' actually is. Blink, so the saying goes, and you might miss something.

14: See Phelan, P. P112-129

15: Phelan, P. P148

16: Melrose, S. P63

17: The bluff, however, was never called. Burden is alive and 'well', but not performing anymore. 1

8: Korine, H. cit. Charity, T. Time Out P80

19: Ibid. I realise of course that any definitions of 'going too far' are culturally specific. For example, Stelarc wishes to distance himself from the mystical and sadomasochistic connotations of his work. But he has been accused of rationalising non-western practices into industrialised time scales. "When you are hung up by as many hooks as he is, it is possible to hang that way all day, only he does it for one and a half minutes, thirty minutes...very short periods. If he hung for a longer length of time, he'd have a mystical experience. I can't help to think that he may have had one or been on the border and it scared the hell out of him. So he limits the length and calls it art." Musafar int. Ambrosia & Lanza cit. Parfrey, A. (Ed) 1990 P116