WHAT IS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST? / 2005
Originally written in 2004, this essay was designed to accompany a short video of the same name compiled using references to the word (and notion of) performance art in mainstream television and film.
Going up the escalator at Tottenham Court Road tube station recently, I saw an advertisement for some sort of new fangled digital camera. Below the picture of this consumer durable was the caption 'Performance Artist'. Looking at the caption, I wondered as to whether this was some bizarre allusion to the clichésof self laceration, nudity and profligate use of taxpayers money that are often associated with the phrase 'Performance Artist'. Perhaps the ad-men were even canny enough to have spotted the niche market amongst performance artists for tools of documentation such as the one pictured here.
I readily admit that this response to seeing the words 'Performance Artist' in this context is one of a knowing insider. But such ironies and in-jokes would be lost on those who (like most people) would interpret the caption as evoking the 'performance' and 'artistry' of a wide range of up to the minute features. It has recently been brought to my attention that Performance Art is actually a rather outmoded term - these days, its 'Live Art', at least to the practitioners and academics involved. Sadly, as it may take some time for this fact to trickle down into the public consciousness, the words 'Performance Art' will have to do for the purposes of this essay, which is to muse on the application and significance of a phrase, outmoded or not, which seems to be becoming increasingly employed in the most mainstream of contexts.
For a long time, being a Performance Artist was something you would be accused of - rumour had it, you'd be one of those incorrigible types who took all their clothes off, and did either a) something unspeakably perverse for an interminable length of time, or b) absolutely nothing for an interminable length of time. Even the artists themselves seem almost apologetic about the trade they ply. In his article, the tellingly entitled 'In Defense of Performance Art,' Guillermo Gomez-Pena begs the reader 'to cut me some slack' within the first paragraph. And we've already seen what happens when the Performance Artist sticks a ketchup smeared head above the parapet and ventures out onto the street. 'PERFORMANCE ART MY A***' screamed The Sun (6 February 2003) on the day the news broke regarding Andre Stitt's intention to kick an empty takeaway curry carton down Bedford High Street, allegedly in exchange for the princely sum of £12,000. Cue spleen fuelled editorials and outraged missives from the heart of Middle England. But is this under the counter, top shelf reputation set to change? In the light of the Live Culture exhibition of performance art at Tate Modern last year, and the ongoing History of Performance Art shows at the Whitechapel, some people certainly think so. Many of those 'in the know' confidently declare that such events represent an arrival of the genre in terms of acceptance (tits, arse and all) by major institutions, albeit institutions with rather specific audiences. So perhaps the vague possibility of blockbuster retrospectives with big corporate sponsorship and overpriced merchandise represents an opportunity to challenge this seemingly hotwired scepticism in the uninitiated (albeit gallery going) public. But perhaps we don't need to go to the gallery to get this education. Despite its esoteric reputation, looking into certain pockets of mainstream culture, I believe we can begin to establish an archetypal image of the Performance Artist that already exists 'out there'. But does this image bear any resemblance to that which Performance Artists have of themselves? Back in 1990, Steve Buscemi starred as a Performance Artist in the film New York Stories. He plays opposite Nick Nolte's abstract expressionist painter as they both vie for the romantic attentions of Rosanna Arquette. When she admits to a dalliance with him, Nolte says "what, that comedian?" Arquette corrects him with the pithy retort, "PERFORMANCE ARTIST". Nolte continues to vent his disdain: "what the hell is a PERFORMANCE ARTIST? A person is a singer, a dancer or an actor…"
So, my first example of a reference to performance art in a mainstream film merely highlights a wider perception of wooliness regarding the definition. However, it seems to me that the writer is pretty clued up here, as many Performance Artists I know would indeed acknowledge that when they try to explain what the hell it is they do, conversations often start and end with "well, it's quite hard to explain…" There is the archetype of the 'self harming' Performance Artist that seems to be a ubiquitous point of reference. So in the context of the continuing conversation about what the hell it is you do, questions may include the following: "is there pain? Is there blood, or any other miscellaneous bodily fluids involved?" I have been asked these questions by people who I know for a fact have never attended a Franko B performance, or any other comparable event. So where does this idea of Performance Artists as a bunch of bleeders and wankers come from? While I acknowledge that word of mouth is a distinct possibility, exposure to David Fincher's grisly serial killer movie Seven represents a more intriguing proposition. In this film, the murder weapon representing the deadly sin of lust is found to be a crotch mounted blade attached to a man who is then forced to copulate with the female victim. Its maker tells the police he assumed that the man who bought it from him was "...ONE OF THEM PERFORMANCE ARTISTS...you know, the sort who pisses in a cup onstage and then drinks it." If there is a grain of truth in all stereotypes, it seems this unsavoury reputation is sealed - not a good start for the Performance Artist who wishes to be understood, or even loved.
A talk that I attended by London based artist Philip Stanier presented a challenge to this image of the loony Performance Artist. He was explaining that because of his white, heterosexual, middle class status, he felt he had no 'issues' with which to make his work angst ridden - as if this was to be expected. In fact, much of Stanier's work is centred around the subject of his personal happiness and contentment. This presentation of himself as being shamelessly sound of mind raised quite a few pierced eyebrows amongst the audience (made up mostly of Performance Artists), some of whom seemed to be of the opinion that a 'well adjusted Performance Artist' represented an oxymoronic premise. It occurred to me that in the light of controversial affirmative action programmes in the States (apparently creating a newly disenfranchised minority - the angry white male), Stanier may yet find his 'issue'. But in the face of this peer group onslaught, Stanier's ostensible normality was made to appear exceedingly strange. It did beg the question as to whether the cliché's such as those highlighted in Seven are perpetuated by the artist's themselves, manifest as a form of competitiveness in the 'more fucked up than thou' stakes. You could be forgiven for having the impression that while you don't have to be insane to be a performance artist, it helps. In this situation, doing work about being happy is perhaps the most radical thing a Performance Artist can do.
A friend of mine rang me recently, and told me about an episode of Sex and the City he'd seen involving the appearance of a Performance Artist, apparently a bit of a ringer for Marina Abramovic. I watched the repeat, and sure enough, here was another representation of a weirdo Performance Artist, sat doing nothing in some Lower East Side Gallery space. Strangely, Sarah Jessica Parker had been taken to see this Performance Artist by a new boyfriend. "Of all my odd dates, this was number one..." she coos. During an old episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza also recounts his experience of going on a date, only this time with a Performance Artist. "That woman was unequivocally the worst date of my life..." he complains. When he hears she's pregnant, George conjectures that she might give birth live on stage as part of her new performance piece. As for the date itself "...she dragged me down to some warehouse on the waterfront at Brooklyn, to see her performance. She's yelling and screaming, and then the next thing I know, she's thrown a big can of chocolate syrup all over my new red shirt." Not a completely unrecognisable experience to regular attendee's of Performance Art events. Perhaps the endless portrayals of Performance Artists as chocolate syrup hurling, sex-crazed urine imbibers have taken their toll on some. I went to see a talk by the notorious Paul McCarthy, who unlike Philip Stanier, fulfils every stereotype of the 'sick' Performance Artist. During the Q&A session, a member of the audience piped up. He began his question by wheeling out an obscure quote from Georges Bataille, and proceeded to ask whether McCarthy saw himself as a "TRANSGRESSIVE Performance Artist". The shy and retiring McCarthy seemed rather flummoxed by the question - he paused for a few moments before replying, "...no...I see myself as a comedian." In this case, it seems the last thing a Performance Artist wants to be described as is a Performance Artist. However, there are others more than willing to fill McCarthy's shoes. From the so-called flashmobbing craze to that guy who gatecrashed Prince William's birthday bash, it nowadays, it seems that everyone wants to be a performance artist - and who can blame them? For someone like David Blaine it's a description that arguably carries more artistic gravitas than that of c-list celebrity conjurer.
Although we're told that the relationship between popular culture and the margins is symbiotic (that one feeds the other, and vice versa) perhaps the aesthetic that one would associate with Performance Art has been stolen by the mainstream - a mainstream with bigger bucks and prettier people. Take a TV show like Jackass. The performers in this programme take the same sort of physical risks associated with the many Performance Artists who use their bodies in an extreme manner. However, in the case of Jackass, this is done with a 'stoopid' approach that bypasses accusations of publicly funded perversity that can surface when the phrase 'Performance Art' is invoked. A couple of times I've got students to watch the section of the South Bank Show profile of Franko B when he is being continually slapped around the face, then watch the part of Dirty Sanchez (a poor Welsh man's Jackass) where 'the boys' are 'having a game of slaps'. The perrennial question being - what's the difference? If I'm honest, its not always very easy to answer that question. Perhaps the fact that Jackass/ Dirty Sanchez is defined as 'entertainment' rather than 'art' is what makes it more acceptable to the mainstream post-pub TV palette. But maybe the mainstream is now even beating Performance Art at its own game. After all, David Blaine's six weeks of incarceration makes the five days managed by self styled Performance Art hard man Chris Burden seem relatively puny. It goes without saying that in terms of reaching that coveted wider audience, Blaine wins hands down. I'm not saying that there's an intrinsic merit in an ability to get bums on seats, but perhaps this kind of presence in popular culture has the possibility of representing something far more radical than a presence in the cottage industry of Performance Art. For example, if we compare the equally bizarre plastic surgery disasters of Orlan and Michael Jackson, could it be said that its the King of Pop's huge mainstream fan base (a wider audience in the true sense of the word) that makes him the more extreme and compelling figure? Whether or not you believe there is a heightened sense of what Performance Art might be amongst the general populace, I still have the feeling that as an artistic discipline, the wider perception is of an exclusive, specialised cabal in which the artists and audience are equally implicated, and often interchangeable.
I mentioned the Andre Stitt 'scandal'. Now you'd have thought that a half page feature in the UK's largest circulating paper would be pretty good going for a C-list celeb, let alone 'one of them Performance Artists'. Even the sight of some ungainly hack attempting to pre-enact the curry kicking work (complete with the caption 'Booticelli') that accompanied this article must have been strangely heartening. But page 11 of The Sun was as far as this particular adventure went, as the event was unceremoniously cancelled. According to the subsequent press release, this was due to the "extraordinary levels of interest at a national level", the ostensible concern being for public safety. Whether this was a decision taken by small minded council bureaucrats or the artist himself, I don't know. But it does seem odd that public interest, the very possibility that things could get mighty crowded is given as a reason for not doing something.
If the latter is the case, I guess its understandable - rudimentary explanations are not required for your own audience. However, if you leave these explanations to the likes of The Sun newspaper, whatever is defined by Andre Stitt as an 'action', or 'akshun', will always be reported as a "madcap stunt" or "wacky prank." These are exactly the same sort of descriptions that have been applied to the antics of David Blaine. But journalistic concision precludes any distinction being made between the two (other than the fact that Blaine actually went through with it), hence muddying the waters further as to who is or who isn't a Performance Artist, wacky prankster, publicity junkie or whatever else. And herein lies an unpalatable fact for the apologists within the field - when it comes to the world outside the Tate, definitions of what Performance Art is are not in the hands of Performance Artists. It goes without saying that a tabloid paper represents a more potent 'opinion former' than say, a copy of Live Art Magazine, so it seems the Performance Artist still has a lot of explaining to do.
"I thought he was one of those performance artists...you know the sort who pisses in a cup on stage and then drinks it."
"Of all my odd dates, this was number one."
The Sun newspaper, 6 February 2003