Monday, December 05, 2005

Laurie Anderson, Performa05 & Marina Abramovich

There are not many of the old-school performance artists still making work but their presence has been felt by me in the recent flurry of performance activity in the U.S.

Laurie Anderson is touring the results of being the first artist in residence at NASA.

Marina Abramovich recently performed a much-hyped series of redos of famous performance art pieces, Seven Easy Pieces, as part of the Performa05 festival in NYC. She also presented a new work of her own.

Performa05 is a new performance art biennial started by the performance historian Rose Lee Goldberg in NYC. RLG's, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, is the basic textbook on performance art history right now and an important voice.

The fifty buck ticket priced me out of Laurie Anderson's presentation here at the Art Institute of Chicago but I like that it happened for the same reason I like that Marina Abramovich is recreated old works..it confirms performance’s history and gives it a shape in the market.

In the United States, there isn't currently the same kind of academic and cultural support for performance that you might find in Europe...something that I as a participant I find annoying and backward. Though people seem vaguely interested in performance art when you read about it or talk to young artists there is a very real gap in understanding it and understanding how to approach it.

But performance is a difficult art form I think.

One problem is history. Performance art fits uncomfortably in the histories. While this is often conceptually interesting it is pragmatically difficult. Most of the famous works seem to have been badly documented and then there is the basic mismatch of trying to place into history a stubbornly living and present tense art form. The history of theater gets around this somewhat by being able to preserve the scripts and leaving the performances to oral knowledge...performance art doesn't have scripts as a standard.

Why is a history useful to performance art when it often is positioned in opposition to the idea of history? For the practical reasons that have never gone away...it can help educate the audience, help mobilize funding and give the next generation something to react against.

I heard some folks from the Franklin Furnace debating the ramifications of the impoverished history of performance art. It seems they are choosing to move towards embracing technology over live performance because of this lack of history of performance art. I over generalize their position I think but in the public dialogues these are the generalizations that get batted around...that performance was only interesting because it was the new thing (which is ridiculous) and now technology is the new thing or that performance shouldn't be recorded because it only exists in the present (which I assert is a confused position).

So, Performa05 is important and Marina's actions are a good thing in my opinion because they put out the past (in the present tense) and it helps the thinking around performance move forward. The next generation can react against whatever monstrosity that Performa becomes and can reject the definitions that they put out if they like. The hazy marginalization of being a present tense art form and the contradiction of holding the definitive acts of the past as sacred cows can move towards a resolution.

Another problem is the difficulty fitting performance into the economic market for art. Performance artists are often rebelling against the market and entrenched society itself. In the U.S. that leads to a minimum of work, produced in disconnected sub cultures around the country. To many of us Europe seems like the better liberal ideal for artists, with culturally educated audiences and institutions supporting festivals and work.

I like Laurie Anderson because of price. I like she can and does charge a lot and has a huge, interesting sponsor in NASA, even if they never do it again, because it is something other than the free and ten dollar donation standards that you find at a local show. There is economic space in between those prices that artists and venues might find an inclination to fill. And, there are people on high who aren't going to think to support performance because it just doesn't cost enough. Pay for both if you can and see the local drag show for five bucks and see the moon gazing for fifty.

Another problem is the lack of criticism. The artists I know are not writing about themselves or each other and few of the professional critics are either. Again I thing there are some inherent aspects of performance that get in the way. One is that the majority of "reviews" in the world are shopping guides and it is hard to write such a thing about a one shot event that you either go to or miss. And then there is also the sheer volume of time that has to be spent with some works.

I haven’t seen much beyond one NYTimes review of Marina Abramovich’s pieces at Performa05 and that piece struggled just to describe what happened over the many days and the hours that it took to present the works. I saw the same thing locally after the SiteUnseen show of performance and installations at the Chicago Cultural Center, there were so many things to see that you first cannot see them all but then afterwards there is not much discussion about it. I dismiss a notion that the work is not worth discussion, so that leaves me with the thought that there is just too much for the most observers to digest and then discuss coherently.

Hopefully, more discussion of Performa will trickle out in the magazines over the next few months. I saw press before hand in everything including an issue of Vanity Fair so hopefully someone will do the work post show too.

Now I suppose these three problems of history, economics and criticism are rather glibly rendered as I talk this out here. I may come off as some kind of moderate in the face of the critical theories and radical performance politics that try to define themselves in opposition to white western male dominated histories, marketplaces, and critical perches, but hope any one that might read this can look beyond the casual blogging context of this post. If anything I think these are three large categories that seem to need to get discussed but also need to be acted upon to not only move things conceptually forward but practically.

As someone, currently in the heartland of America, who is looking to support a sustainable practice in performance and who isn’t impressed by the options of just working in a gallery context or a theatrical context or an academic context or an entertainment context, I find myself in the very essential present tense problem of performance…how do I do keep continuing to do this activity, here in the place that I am right now?

I am infested with these problems and plop in the landscape that the generation before me has prepared and the fine citizens of Chicago barely notice. Not much infrastructure for performance here. Not much relationship with its own history, the market and the critics. Seems almost parasitic and self-destructive. Perhaps the additional questions are just as present tense but with some vision of the future as well…where is performance going and how will it get there?

What is exciting about the Performa organization and this new biennial is that it seems to be something that has a credible chance at comeing up with some answers to these questions of the present, past and future. It is in NYC, there are names involved, there are ideas and there is money. Kind of a last minute clean up before the guests show up for dinner but it is something. And in a year or two, the trend of interest in performance they create, if they can sustain their agenda, will probably even trickle down to Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S. Nice.

Here is a blog entry I found in response to the first of Marina’s Seven Easy Pieces.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Erik,

A few thoughts about your post...I definately agree, it's a strange situation and a difficult one to have a sustainable practice here in Chicago operating outside of the protective arms of academia. I wonder though, is Europe really better? I talked to someone from Europe the other night who was convinced the opportunities here are much better. Your "trickle down" from New York theory doesn't honestly give me a lot of optimism, because well...it's a trickle down theory. But better than handwringing still. More performance out there can probably only be good. Liveness vs. mediated--we live in a service based economy, so I think there's still plenty of room for liveness to be relevant. Although I feel I do see a lot of work that emphasises liveness that is stuck in the "golden age" of 70's performance, which is not a good sign. I feel like I see and hear about more performance stuff going on than I did maybe a year ago, even though all these problems you point out are also still very much there.

-Deva

December 06, 2005 11:12 AM  
Blogger Erik Fabian said...

Thanks for the response Deva.

Your point that we are in a service based economy is an interesting one.

I read yesterday that Microsoft is now using "service" language to talk about its products. Software as service and one that is distributed over the internet. Maybe someday we will see paintings being sold as a service again and portraiture will return.

I also think some industries (like the tech industry) are more feast or famine and performance art may be one. I imagine the stuff that is different and makes it through the down time will get absorbed by the market in the next hype time. I imagine there is lots of stuff out there that just isn't being seen by folks cause it isn't economical to sustain and distribute it right now.

I think when technology gets a bit better and video or holography is distributed by the web more efficiently there will be a big change as well.

December 13, 2005 4:26 PM  

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