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We don’t have much time (haha) to make new posts here, as we near the opening of TIME: A Complete Explanation in Three Parts but it’s worth noting that tickets to the culmination of this gloriously strange music-theatre collaboration between PPL and thingNY are now available online! Click HERE to purchase them, HERE to download a Press Release and see both preview videos, photos, and HERE to read about the accompanying 300-page Performance Book!

Performances are: Wednesday, May 4th, Thursday, May 5th, Friday, May 6th, Saturday, May 7th, Thursday, May 12th, Friday, May 13th, Saturday, May 14th all at 8pm

 The Brick Theater
575 Metropolitan Avenue
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

(L/G to Metropolitan-Lorimer)

The performers! clock-wise from top left: Matthew Stephen Smith, Erin Rogers, Brian McCorkle, Esther Neff, Jeffrey Young, Gelsey Bell, Dave Ruder, Paul Pinto. (not pictured: Jason Anastasoff)

Heads-up! It sounds like the Nerve Tank‘s (collaborative theater for the new century) masterminds, Melanie Armer and Chance Muehleck will be curating a Saturday-in-May event addressing the deck of questions in and related to my recent blog post about theater and performance art, discipline, the need or perceived need for a “new form,” etc, and the debate surrounding this question, its implications for artists working across the board in performance, and whatever else the participating artists find personally stimulating about anything in this swarm of questions.

The Nerve Tank's 'LIVE/FEED'

Dramaturgically, after speaking with Melanie and Chance yesterday, I have ultimate faith in their ability to nudge and choreograph said swarm into a honey-producing project and am terribly curious about what will come out of this buzzing. In this analogy, I suppose “honey” is dialetic, or concrete nourishment for and by the artists and audiences and we are all bees. Ok.

The Nerve Tank's 'The Attendants' (2007) is an interactive performance installation. The dominant set piece is a transparent plexiglass cube. People communicate with the performers by texting to them with their cell phones; the messages appear on screens that surround the cube.

This event, at Surreal Estate in May 2011, will address these questions through form and content of work by “theater” and “performance” artists whose work draws on multiple performance disciplines. (One hopes in search of  sustainable intellectual, aesthetic, and effectual inquiry. )

In the meantime, if you are not already familiar with the Nerve Tank’s work, please visit their website and watch some of these videos.

Hopefully, if you have not been fortunate to see their work live (say you just moved to the city, or don’t go to the theater), these videos and descriptions, etc will give you some idea of how work can seek to be dramaturgically, conceptually, and aesthetically unified and interesting while remaining nebulous in terms of its medium. Semantically, I guess it’s about medium vs. discipline? Well, hopefully you (reader) will join the discussion!

Does the category “collaborative” or “large scale” performance art exist or is it just another term for theater? Is it necessary? Is it worth making distinctions between “THEATER” and “PERFORMANCE ART”? (this is a prompt to comment folks…I’d love to know what you think!)

On the side of YES:

One could argue that we need to identify performance art vs. theater, because theater and this “something else” (which could still be multi-performer, may have a director, a playwright/text czar, etc) seem to be drawing farther apart, along fissures in ideology, intention, form, and content, or, perhaps just because “context is everything,” and the name of the medium greatly influences the audience’s perceptions and ability to access the piece. L.J. Sunshine suggests this in her article about Donna Uchizonos longing two, entitled Aesthetics of Denial in this month’s Brooklyn Rail in which she asks “Had longing two been advertised as a mixed-media art installation rather than a choreographic work, would I have liked it more?” (and dance is supposed to be the “liberated twin” of theater, in terms of acceptable rebellion of craft and form).

Donna Uchizono and Hristoula Harakas in 'longing two'

If L.J. Sunshine would have liked this piece better if it was called a mixed-media art installation, then why would she have liked it better? Perhaps because we (as vaguely as “they”) perceive the visual arts as being 1.) more directly a product of the creator’s subconscious/subjective vision in some sort of Romantic way and therefore when boredom sets in, imagined autobiography of the creator fills the void? 2.) the visual arts are perceived by theater and dance people as a godless, formless territory in general and therefore a piece being devoid of an element the viewer perceives as essential to a stricter medium such as “dance” or “theater” is more palatable if it falls into this devil’s zone? and/or 3.) conceptually, a work of visual art is not expected to communicate, refer, or even necessarily symbolize anything in the “real” shared world, intellectually or emotionally, it may be pure aesthetic Modernity, completely opaque to the viewer and therefore justified in any incomprehensibility on the part of the audience member?

Bottom line for YES: we want audiences to enjoy that which is experimental, and we should call it whatever facilitates their experience, and allows them to open their minds and hearts. Opening up a new medium has worked before with conceptual art, and it could work again with this re-definition-as-rupture, creating a kind of loophole through which artists who wish to truly experiment with their practices may slip.

Taylor Mac's OBIE Award-winning work, 'A Lily's Revenge' at the HERE Arts Center

On the side of NO:

These three points (above, about perceptions of visual art vs. theater/dance) are interrelated of course, but the last point produces the most undesirable offshoot ideas in my mind, springing off into the question, Does calling theater/dance a visual arts medium simply throw it into a nebulous, a-critical zone wherein the audiences of theater and dance can write it off as outside their realm of interest or subjective application? Do audiences really want to engage? Or would they rather call experimental work “visual art” and therefore justify their lack of interest/time/ability to accept the ideas, images, viewpoints, and emotions that are present in the work? A bad taste in the mouth! Never should audiences be made to think “this was not made for me but for audiences in another medium.” Taylor Mac (above) writes in his artist statement: “I believe my job as a theater artists is to remind my audience of the range of their humanity. I do this by using theatrical traditions and established styles and forms (which allow the audience to recognize what they’re experiencing) and injecting them with as much originality as I can (which creates surprise). Surprise (not to be confused with shock) is the way I get audiences to feel. When they feel they’re confronted with their humanity.”

After all, THEATER vs. some kind of collaborative or “large scale” performance art, needs nurturing engagement from an audience, no matter how diverse that audience may be, regardless of the form of the work itself. So would any type of “large scale performance art” or the like, therefore the re-labelling merely serves as an intellectual and emotional “out” for both the creators to follow only their own desires and not consider their audiences at all, and for the consumers of the work to immediately reject anything they haven’t seen before.

Bottom line for NO: we want our audiences, those members of our artistic community who share our aesthetic memories, to come with us in new directions, to accompany us on our formal and artistic journeys and to engage critically with us as we figure out what works and what doesn’t, they form our work more than anything. If we make a new medium, we will have no audience to tell us whether a piece of work is effective.

This declaration is basic narratology, stolen directly from Mieke Bal. She very helpfully lays out some basic things for us:

“Performance Is not; it occurs. It happens and takes time. It has a past and a future, and hence, a present. From linguistics and the philosophy of language, we take the notion that utterances do something: they perform an act that produces an event. From theatre, we borrow the notion of role-playing, which can be extended to include social role-playing, then restrict it to that aspect of playing that is effective in that it affects the viewer. From anthropology, we take the idea that the performative speech act, in the extended sense, requires the participation in the production of meaning, of the ethnographer’s partner, that is, of the people belonging to the culture studied. In art, this entails the indispensable participation of the visitor to the museum or the viewer of the work, without whom the artwork is simply nothing, just a dead object.” (see how helpful I am? I bolded at least half of this quote…)

Yes, a fancy way of saying “there is no theater without the audience” but it’s nice to hear it from Bal in addition to Shechner. There are also subtleties here: note that this is the statement of a narratologist, narratology is crucial to our work in performance mediums at the moment, is has been since Hans-Thies Lehmann identified what he calls post-dramatic theater, which hit English-language readerships in 2006, as a performance of states, references, and scenographic considerations. In English-language texts responding to Lehmann we find an endless focus on narrative, inchoate pre-narrative forms, post-narrative conclusory declarations, and emotional clouds hovering around narratives, a fascination with the lack of narrative, or so-called “alternative” narrative forms.

…but that’s for another post, back to the point here: Narrative does not necessarily mean story, it means rather a time-based perspective (this is a lowest common denominator definition taken from that which Barthes, Bal, Ricoeur, Propp, and as many others as possible might agree to), which COULD BE (and I make this statement with some trepidation) the difference between any supposed visual arts medium performance and THEATER as such and such: the former deals with an author-narrator. I.e: a performance art piece’s narrative and perspective/narrative logic of the artist herself, which is additionally underlined in many cases by her use of her own body and the latter deals with the experienced narrative of the audience, as it perceived/narrativized (meaning(s) extracted) from what it experiences. If you know of a book or article either saying this or arguing against it, please let me know.

Bacially I suppose my conclusion is that THEATER, as a medium (like Piscator says) evolves to suit the needs, both emotional and intellectual, of its audiences and their historicity/social context. So if a piece of theater is unable to reflect anything outside the creator’s subconscious cycle of anxieties (although the artist as a conduit/product of society is another argument entirely: what if the audience simply doesn’t LIKE seeing its face reflected), perhaps there is no reason to make it…but on the other hand, if it is effective in some kind of uncanny, “other medium-ly” way, perhaps those feelings of repulsion, disturbance, a shiver, then a thrill, are the side-effects of being an audience member to the avant-garde.

Here are some examples of theater companies and artists who have been said to create “collaborative performance art” but usually perform/create work in a theater venue and exist in the theater community in terms of awards, grants, audiences, criticism, section of the newspaper, etc but are highly respected by the visual arts or music community and often shown in those contexts:

Taylor Mac
Nature Theater of Oklahoma (they even have “theater” in their name)
Richard Maxwell
Meredith Monk
Object Collection

Actually I could have just as easily made this a post about how funding, venues, and publications, the capitalism-driven industries of these theater and performance art/music/dance/video/whatever keep mediums apart for (largely classdriven) marketing reasons when they are actually the same thing…so many perspectives, so little time!

In a sparkling new mall in Jamaica, Queens, there is a gallery, Crossing Art, that is very worth attending, with pieces by Cui Fei, Li Shan, and other notable artists (primarily Chinese and Chinese-Americans) and perfect air conditioning.

McCorkle and I went out to Crossing Art to participate in A-Lab Forum called “Queering the Bodies,” for which the blurb ran:

“QUEERING THE BODIES revolves around issues and concerns about the body as a tableaux, interface, canvas, and/or agent for artistic creation. Participating artists explore notions of identity, gender construction, and social representation in relation to the physical or virtual representation of the body image. This month’s forum presents artists who use the body as canvas, as user interface (UI) or as a metaphor for the exploration of territory(ies) within their work(s) and general practice in contemporary art. ”

It turned out that a discussion of bodies can’t help but encompass the whole of “performance art” as such. The other artists on the panel were:

Matthew de Leon
Christen Clifford
Alison Ward
Genevieve White

Genevieve White we knew from the PERFORMANCY FORUM where she showed a video in May of her project “33 Balloons“. She went to school (The New School) with Matthew de Leon, and Meghann Snow (who will be performing as part of the July 2 PERFORMANCY FORUM). These three artists are perhaps a good indication of where performance art, as part of the visual arts industry, lives in the hands of artists born in the mid ’80’s (like myself and McCorkle). Durational, pre-invested with symbolic or representational meaning, body-conscious, and often slightly comedic, either via repetition or overt theatricality, the work has a “contained” feeling, which perhaps stems from the art industry’s constant battle to make performance art a consumable product in the same way that a painting or sculpture can be, or perhaps as a continuation of performance art’s birth from action/conceptual work. As a slightly older artist, Alison Ward’s work contains elements of this also, for example her video piece during which she devours 30 cupcakes as they appear, at first delighted and eventually hiccuping (in a squeaky electronically modified voice) with helplessness and despair: repetition, action-as-symbol, self-abuse. However, Ward, dressed in a pink costume, bridges this kind of durational performance with narrative/theatrical performance art, which lives on the line between visual art performance and theater. In particular, Ward’s work exists in a universe of characters and environmental unity (as does de Leon’s) that is also very much a part of contemporary performance art (witness Ryan Trecartin, Tamy Ben-Tor, etc) and references a type of universe and characters that exist in one of the primary current aesthetics (western/rural, fairy tale/Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and Murakami would be my top votes for most popular). The piece that Christen Clifford (who is a NYFA Fellow so I was familiar with her work) showed was a kind of homage to Carolee Shneemann’s 1975 Interior Scroll. Clifford said that she was interested in embodying Shneemann’s rage and relating it to postpartum depression and anger, not performing a parody of 1970’s Feminist art, but rather working to feel inside it. This is getting into a whole other post (which would be mostly about Marina Ambramovic at MoMA this year and re-behavior etc) but in relation to this general post about “where we are” (with which I am obsessed) I believe that Clifford’s piece demonstrates a definite re-evaluation of the role of performance art, especially in terms of EMOTION, in terms of the artist’s subjective/private emotional impetus, the desired emotional response from an audience/spectator (which Hector asked us about) and in terms of theatricality, and mode of expression. Clifford’s piece culminates in the smashing of child-related items, cribs, baby buggy, etc, with a metal pipe. This overt emotional action in contrast with White’s expressionless inflation and bursting of red balloons actually was not that great, I mean they did not seem that different; both actions spoke to the usefulness vs. destructive capabilities of emotion and likewise (consciously I think) to the emotional spectrum inherent to performance as a medium.

I guess this is where I found the subject of the forum most pertinent, the body vs. its content, and the body vs. its implications, indicators, and index. The “queer” body is one that has no normative, permanently adapted state, but one that shifts its identity and form to communicate, to express, to describe, although at a certain point a person (I) balk at so much deconstruction and bandying-about and re-definition of words, though it all delights me.

Well, we know why performance art is important, but here are my top three (out of 26) reasons why performance art is a crucial part of industrialized cultures (I won’t speak about non-industrialized cultures or “pre” and “post” as if time is linear) this is mostly for theater people, art people, you’ve heard all this already:

1.) Art History 101: It is not a commodified object, no matter how hard it is pushed in that direction. As a temporary, experience-based product it can be monetarily consumed only as documentation or ticket to the show, not possessed. This is a stone in the tooth of all-masticating capitalism, which keeps it Outside to a certain degree and perhaps allows a bit more “objectivity” to its commentary.

2.) The relationships between the subjective/private experience of the artist in performance and in creation/planning of it is contrasted to the shared/public experience of the performance as a product, which creates a contextual filter for all and any content that reminds us that we are separate selves, and that we are not separate selves. This paradox needs to be constantly recognized as it holds the access point to the reason for human consciousness (ability to make decisions for the future in consideration of both the self and the species).

3.) Despite its loose boundaries and “anything goes” manifestos, the medium “performance” has one of the tightest dialectics in the arts today and is perhaps the only artistic field that has really tied itself theoretically to and constantly examined itself in light of contemporary philosophy, political science, other social sciences scholarship, and more. Like theater, performance art is about people (in terms of depiction AND subject matter, if you can find a piece that isn’t, please let me know) and is therefore interested in minds, bodies, thoughts, feelings, words, imaginations, actions, etc, etc and often analyzes these in detail, unifying art and thought in a way that I feel is extremely culturally sustainable. As such, performance art remains in a state of constant experiment, testing what it means to be human and testing complex ideas about what it means to be human. Hypotheses are all very well and good, and so are images and emotional bursts, but performance can test hypotheses against emotion, to see if they feel true.

The space is so different now, it is practically unrecognizable. Uploading of images from this past Friday’s PERFORMANCY FORUM will happen soon! We had a lot of music this time, from the likes of Chimneys, Bonnie Kane and Scott Prato, Jason Anastasoff, Brian McCorkle, Nathan McKee, ANON, poetry by Kelly Egan, and spoken word by Velez Moore!

The next event is on July 2nd. This month we are going to attend some similar events, especially Potion Collective events and the Catch performance series. These groups go a long way towards making performance a popular form of entertainment, with evenings of it organized like band shows. Come on out, young peoples!