THE USE OF ALCOHOL / 2000
As opposed to the expulsion of bodily fluids usually associated with performance art cliché, (masturbation, urination, defecation, blood letting - take your pick), there is also scope for chemical intervention through alcohol, although as I found out, expulsion of other bodily fluids (usually vomit) often results anyway. In The Costello Show, myself and Laurence Harvey sat opposite one another and proceeded to consume ten Bloody Mary's in what could be described as a competitive manner. The decision to consume these particular drinks was derived from an album entitled Ten Bloody Mary's and Ten How's your Fathers by Elvis Costello. 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 (or half empty in my case) 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 symptoms of natural performer tiredness 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 only felt the peak of these effects after a performance of the piece at Toynbee Hall in London when I apparently attempted coital union with a ticket machine at Aldgate East tube station. However, I have no recollection of such behaviour.
We have the means, but what of the end? Are we to drink until we pass out? Compare and contrast this idea to Allan Kaprow's instruction for performers to repeat an action "...until they are tired" 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'. I also mentioned the 'half empty glasses' on my side of the table. Following the show, my fellow performer admonished me for not consuming as much as he had. He continues to dine out on this anecdote to this day. To be fair to him though, I could not deny that he was completely correct in his assessment. This experience was indeed 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. Stupidly, I took this criticism very much to heart, and the next time we did this performance, I attempted to 'prove' myself by drinking way beyond my capacity - this was when I got rather ill as a result.
So far does one go to loosen the grip of the rational, sensible and boring mind? Acid perhaps? The extremes being dealt with in such a situation would be far removed from the recalcitrance engendered by alcohol use, and there are also associations with paranoid reactions which can complicate the performer audience relationship, to say the least. What about other forms of drugs that may have more - durational effects? 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." 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." Burroughs autobiographical writings (Junky, 1953) 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."
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 Costello Show was a closed circuit where two performers indulged themselves. This works both ways though. There is such a thing as a pissed up audience, and no where is this more prevalent that in the gladiatorial environs of the comedy club. In this bear pit, it is always open season as far as heckling is concerned, where throwing the performer off balance is part of the night out for some. Of course, the stand up comedian responds, digressing and therefore dignifying whatever is said. This is an area in which I believe performance artists are spoiled - at the average gallery event, you can cut the politeness with a knife.
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? When there is the distinct possibility of irredeemable fuck up lurking, schadenfreude is only one step behind. Like it or not, there can be pleasure in the others pain, or less melodramatically, ineptitude. Of course, difficulty of a life threatening nature has a particular kind of 'entertainment value', be it 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 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. 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? How can we be sure that the artist is sound of mind and in a position to make these decisions? 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 again have the means in this "cross between a Buster Keaton film and a snuff movie", 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..."
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. That's entertainment.
Burroughs, W. Naked Lunch, Flamingo (1993) originally published 1959 by Olympia Press, Paris.
Charity, T. Punch Drunk, Time Out Magazine, November 10 -17th (1999).
Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Whiteside, S. Penguin (1993) originally published 1872.
Sandford, M.R. (Ed) Happenings and Other Acts, Routledge (1995).