Joey Orr, Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
Joey Orr on his book
A Sourcebook of Performance Labor
with Philip Auslander
A Sourcebook of Performance Labor, Routledge Press, 2023
The first instances of performance art in the United States were the Happenings of the late 1950s. These developed from the desire of young visual artists to use performed action as the material of their work. Many of these artists wanted to distinguish Happenings as ephemeral events from the art objects they made, and from conventional forms of performance such as theater, music, and dance. For example, Allan Kaprow, who was an abstract painter before pioneering performance, insisted that each Happening should be performed only once, as opposed to the repetition of performances in other forms.
Fast forward half a century, and the situation of performance art changed radically, due to its incursion into the mainstream art world and the discovery on the part of collectors and museums that performances can be sold and collected. This has resulted in the objectification and theatricalization of performance art. Many artists working in the medium now design events to be performed by others and are more than willing to see their works performed multiple times at different international venues. Older performances are now often reenacted. Whereas Happenings were made largely by groups of artist friends working together, a new professional infrastructure for performance art has come into being. This infrastructure comprises artists, institutions that commission and present performances, production and technical staff, and performers who understand the specific demands of executing performance art. The latter are the relatively anonymous—and certainly unsung—heroes of performance art today. I was intrigued that Joey Orr, the Mellon Curator for Research at the Spencer Museum of Art, had compiled a book of interviews with these performers and wanted to talk with him about both the book and the people in it. --Philip Auslander
Philip Auslander: The idea of giving voice to the performers who give life to the work of well-known artists but are under-recognized in their own right is a great one for a book. How did you arrive at this idea and at the interview/oral history format you chose?
Joey Orr: Some of my previous writing has explored what kinds of support make social forms of artistic practice possible. It may seem counter-intuitive, but such works can require quite a lot of resources to exhibit, especially if specific people are intended to activate the work. I was writing an essay about some of this when I saw the exhibition Life to come curated by artist Asad Raza at Metro Pictures gallery in New York. There were hosts who led visitors through the exhibition and were responsible for micro-performances, of sorts. I tracked down one of the hosts through the gallery and Raza, and ended up interviewing Rafay Rashid. He had been doing this kind of work for just over 10 years at the time, what he called his “indescribable decade.” As the interview unfolded, we began to realize that there was no shorthand for this work because very little sustained attention has been focused on this form of labor. So that interview became the first chapter in a larger project. The Sourcebook addresses a category of work I refer to as “performance labor.” I believe the ideas and practices of these laborers are important to understanding the works under discussion. The familiar, non-academic tone of the recorded conversations presents the performers’ experiences without couching them in the discourses established by the attributed artists, critics, or presenting institutions. We’ve heard from all of them before. I was trying to convey the experiences of the participants on their own terms. Putting them in conversation with other claims now will be helpful in considering what kinds of sociality are actually being produced. Otherwise, we are not fully addressing the works.
Life to come, Installation view, 2019. Metro Pictures, New York, Organized by Asad Raza, January 17 – February 16, 2019
PA: Why is it called a sourcebook?
JO: Since there is so much territory covered in these interviews, and my own specific writing will likely only lead me to address and situate some of it, the title is an invitation. Other researchers, writers, critics, scholars, and just other practitioners could certainly apply the contributors’ insights toward destinations beyond what I could imagine for them. I know I’m always appreciative of being able to use the research of others who cover territory I could never get to on my own. And there is so much here for people interested in labor theory, social practice, performance, affect, authorship, collaboration, dramaturgy ... I couldn’t even list it all, much less do a thorough job of covering it all intellectually. The introduction was almost an impossibility for that reason. In the end, this publication was about making a place for the voices of these artist workers. Their contributions should be available to the field as primary source material—that’s why I call it a sourcebook. For those whose thinking reaches beyond notions of singular authorship, these kinds of insights should help re-situate our considerations of socially produced works of art.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #155, 1985, Chromogenic color print, 72 1/2 x 48 inches
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #257, 1992 Chromogenic color print, 68 x 45 inches
Life to come, Metro Pictures, New York, Organized by Asad Raza, January 17 – February 16, 2019
PA: How did you select the people you interviewed and the artists for whom they’ve worked?
JO: The initial interviews unfolded pretty organically. I happened to see Life to come at Metro Pictures gallery, so wanted to interview one of the hosts for that exhibit. That was Rafay Rashid, and he was working with artist Asad Raza, who had previously helped produce Tino Sehgal’s work. Raza then connected me with Louise Höjer, who has been working with Sehgal for over 15 years. So right out of the gate, the project was addressing the experiences of these artist workers, and also the existence of these active networks. Some of the works discussed in the book had made distinct impressions on me, or I had relationships with some of the artists in thinking about how institutions try to support social practice. Sometimes an artist or a curator would give me specific names or sometimes a list of names, and I’d see who came through. It was a true labor of love. The contributors taught me a lot about a subject I have spent a great deal of time researching.
PA: One of the earliest forms of art performance in the US was the Happenings of the early 1960s, which were usually collective undertakings that sometimes included the creator as performer and sometimes not. By the 1970s, though, performance art came to be seen as typically a solo undertaking in which the artist was also the only performer. In your view, how did we get from that point to the present, in which much art performance is once again undertaken by people separate from the creator?
JO: I’d say that even though people separate from the “creator” are involved in shaping the public experience of the work, the relations often get subsequently calcified into celebrity. One effort the Sourcebook makes is to tend to the relations the works actually produce. In Claire Bishop’s notion of “delegated performance,” which at least begins to identify this work, people are being recruited as exemplars of class and are not necessarily being discussed as actors with various degrees of autonomy within the work. The effort to deal with the aesthetic without collapsing it into commentaries on labor or social betterment certainly enables the art to do its work. But can we consider the possibility that some authority passes to the experiencer? And who all is that exactly in these works? Once we begin to think about the social as form, I think we must necessarily broaden who we are identifying as artistic actors.
Ernesto Pujol, The Listeners, 2019, commissioned by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, developed as part of LMCC’s Extended Life Dance Development program Photos: Nisa Ojalvo
PA: In your introduction, you suggest that there is a fairly smooth continuum between social activism and socially oriented art works.
What are the differences between collective action in the context of art versus activism?
JO: The introduction does spend a little time on how social practice has been framed in the US, including the relationships of collective and dematerialized art practices to activisms from the Civil Rights era, for example. But I’m not sure I’d say there is always a smooth continuum between social activism and socially oriented work. Some of the discussions in the Sourcebook, and in early iterations of social practice, reflect on the difference between what Pablo Helguera calls the symbolic and actual practice. Rudy Gerson, who appeared in a work by Tania Bruguera at MoMA, speaks about his aversion to the symbolic in dance and theater. Although I’d argue that some of the works in the Sourcebook do accomplish a real politics in the world, not all do. Raza makes the statement that the soft skills required in political organizing are useful in finding participants for projects, which makes sense to me as an organizing method. But also, a lot of these works deal with issues of inequity around gender and race, for example, which means performers might be motivated to participate by their own activist commitments. Uncle Bobby and Aunt B who performed in Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment, for example, are political organizers and, as far as I know, do not strictly identify as artists. But even when the subjects of the interviews were artists, as in most cases, there was a real passion for the work being done. In any event, how individual experience and collective experience get parsed and valued seems to me at least a political exercise.
Dread Scott’s performance Slave Rebellion Reenactment, Nov. 8-9, 2019, in New Orleans, LA Photo: Soul Brother
PA: One thing I found very interesting in the book was the idea that the need for performers to work with artists in galleries and museums has produced networks through which artists find the performers they need and an infrastructure that includes intermediaries who, in theatrical parlance, might be called producers, stage managers, talent bookers, etc.
JO: Yes, I think many readers will be surprised by this. What surprises me is that these networks can exist, and yet this category of labor is still so under recognized. Even the people who do this work are trying to figure out what it’s called. It is one of the many things in the book that I hope will be taken up for closer consideration. Of course, it was the artists and their teams who worked so diligently to begin to build these networks, interviewing and spending time with hundreds and hundreds of people over years to achieve these works. On the one hand, Louise Höjer talks about “teaching a culture” when training others to perform in Sehgal’s work. This seems to me related to notions of movement as meaning-making and also of an embodied archive. On the other hand, an efficiency has been created here, which makes it seem more like an industry structure. Both are fascinating for very different reasons. Taken together, one might say that we recognize particular forms of social value in the moment of their decline. Rafael Ortega says art is losing its communal structure. He talks about how his practice has always been deeply collaborative, even as a politics. So in response, he has spent his life building a working community. I think these ideas and manners of working together are very useful for all of us to consider now.
Richard Perales (right). When Faith Moves Mountains, Francis Alӱs, 2002. Lima, Peru.In collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega. Photo documentation of an event. Courtesy of the artist.
PA: How does the research you did for this book reflect your curatorial practice? How will it influence your practice going forward?
JO: In the introduction, I cite Diana Taylor who has discussed performance as an “episteme.” I have been involved for some time in thinking about artistic practice as a research method that can make its own epistemological claims. When I was younger, I understood that artistic voices were important in political discourse, but more recently I have been involved in making the case that there are things we can know through artistic practice that need to be incorporated into research across many fields, which are, of course, never devoid of their own politics.
In my recent and current curatorial projects, I have been thinking about how performance enacts its own modes of knowing. The Sourcebook tries to make an opening in text-based scholarship for the kinds of knowing that sustain themselves through performative methods. However, I am also thinking about how exhibitions are often just one spoke in a longer inquiry. For me, an inquiry can include a performance or exhibition, but also my own thinking, reading, and writing, as well as the programming, partnerships, and collaborations that are important to the communities where I situate my curatorial work. The artworks under discussion in the Sourcebook and the views of the contributors are therefore all part of a larger inquiry, in a sense—a shared framework for thinking together across different approaches to and conditions for knowing.
PA: Since your project is to give voice to under-recognized performers, do you think there are good means of making them more visible in the ways performance works are framed in presentation? Is this desirable, or is it possible that it could “ruin” the work by exposing too much about the processes (and people) underlying it? Is such information best reserved as part of the documentation of the piece rather than its presentation?
JO: Well, so far it’s been less about shifting the spotlight than better underscoring how participation really functions in achieving the works’ goals. But my way of making under-recognized performers more visible at the moment is to publish their insights. The Sourcebook is simply advocating that we listen to the practitioners to better understand what has been going on. The interviews reveal the thoughts and affect that, in part, have helped to shape public experiences of important works of art, ones likely being taught in contemporary art history classes right now. But your question about ruining the work reminds me of a quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.” If we begin to take seriously the collective nature of some social and performance-based artworks, including an artist’s ability to have a capacious commitment to making that is informed by those co-making the intersubjective experience, some of our paradigms and criteria might shift to reflect this.
Jordan Rome holds laser pointers on an unseen target. Photo: Orlando Pinder
PA: As you see it, what is the role of theatricality in this work? I notice that your interview subjects frequently insist that the work they do, or for which they recruit others, is not acting and they just want people who can “be themselves” in public, while also sometimes admitting to the more theatrical dimensions of what they do. For me, this position is linked to the anti-theatricality frequently expressed in performance art circles, an idea that frequently belies the actual theatricality of the work in question.
JO: That’s a tough one. Broadly speaking, I link the instinct to keep theater out of the visual arts as a kind of medium purity I’m always surprised we have not moved beyond. However, terms like “social” and “performative” have referents in adjacent fields of practice that do not always share commitments, vocabularies, and histories. On the one hand, in some of the interviews it seems very pragmatic. For example, some folks in the book say that although they’ve worked with very accomplished people trained in theater, those people tend to perform in ways that do not illicit the kinds of social interactions the work is trying to establish. On the other hand, some participants who were trained in theater take issue with the claim that social practice somehow belongs to visual art. In other cases, this was not a factor either way and so there were theater practitioners, poets, and others involved. The Sourcebook tends to the messy details across a range of practices that sometimes have little in common besides the social, and what is meant by “the social” can vary. Therefore, the experiences under discussion do not always conform to the same categories and theories that our respective discourses have codified. Discursive inconsistencies often signal the spaces where knowledge and the authority it produces are unresolved. Epistemological trouble can be a hotbed where the newest ground is being formed. That is always the best place to set up camp and do some work.
Joey Orr is the Mellon Curator for Research at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, where he directs Arts Research Integration and is affiliate faculty in Museum Studies and Visual Art. Previously, he served as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where his major project aligned three concurrent exhibitions around artistic research. His curatorial work generally focuses on site specific installation and artistic research collaborations. Recent writing has been published in both edited and peer-reviewed publications, including Art Journal Open, BOMB, Hyperallergic, and Journal of American Studies. His research on performance and social practice has also appeared in the chapter “Collecting Social Things” in the volume Rhetoric, Social Value, and the Arts (Palgrave Macmillan) He has served in various editorial capacities for many publications, currently as a contributing editor for Art Papers magazine. He holds an MA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD from Emory University. A founding member of the idea collective, John Q, his collaborative projects explore public intervention, queer memory, and archival practices. Link for the book: A Sourcebook of Performance Labor
Activators, Activists, Archives, All
Philip Auslander writes frequently on performance, music, and art. His most recent book, In Concert: Performing Musical Persona, was published in 2021. The third edition of his book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture will be published at the start of 2023. Auslander is a Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, and the Editor of The Art Section.
Philip Auslander, photo: Marie Thomas
A Sourcebook of Performance Labor:
Book Launch with Author Joey Orr and Discussion with Dread Scott, Rudy Gerson, and Kyle Carrero Lopez
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
The 8th Floor
17 W 17th Street,
New York, NY 10011