Josiah McElheny, Yard (Junkyard), 2009. Courtesy: Hasuer and Wirth Gallery, New York
Reduce, Reuse, Re-perform
By Harry J. Weil
Why are we so afraid of ghosts? Is it because, like the characters in a Charles Dickens novel, we are scared by them under the cover of night? Do they remind us someone who was once living or remind us of our own mortality? Ultimately this primal fear of ghosts is a fear of not being able to understand what once was. We are afraid of having the past elude us only to come back and haunt us. While it may seem like a stretch, the image of a haunting ghost is an apt metaphor for performance art. Conventional theories of performance dictate that unlike paintings or sculptures, performances die, relegated to a singular moment in time, then made to collect dust in the form of films and photo-documentation in the mausoleum of the museum archive. Each static black and white photograph – whether of Chris Burden nailed to a Volkswagen or Gina Pane breaking a mirror with her bare hands - depicts only a split second of the actual performance and attempts to confirm the who, what, where, when and how of early performance. This documentation can never evoke the corporeal and tactile nature of the original live performance. However, some recent scholarship has salvaged performance documentation from its limiting qualities and champions its role in reactivating the experience of the performance for new audiences. Documentation is not merely a stand-in but itself constitutes the work of performance, thereby allowing the performances of the past to be actively engaging as they were in the present. Internet file sharing sites have further legitimated this new experiencing of performances through mediation, where sites like You Tube allow video recordings of performances to be limitlessly accessed, watched and turned off. This discussion of documentation goes beyond the limits of this essay which focuses on another phenomenon that has received a lot of attention recently: re-performance.
Re-performance is the ghost of performance art past that returns historical performances to a living state. The concept of re-performance is not wholly new. Fluxus artists have re-performed their work countless times without documentation and even encouraged the audience to re-perform their works from event scores. However, in the past decade, re-performance has generally taken the form of either historical recreation or reinterpretation of seminal performances from the 1960s and 1970s. While the original performances can never be completely recreated, they can, as art critic Roberta Smith writes, "be pulled into the present, stripped of some of their mysteries and returned to living art." Yet, many remain skeptical as some insist that re-performance reduces performance art to mere mimicry. Such sentiment has played out in harsh criticism from a generation of artists who demand performance art take an oppositional stance against commercialization and, by extent, institutional pressures to conform.
In our contemporary culture information is easily accessible through digital and Internet technologies and, as a result, we fear forgetting. We fear that we won’t get our forgetting right and we must bear the burden as creatures who could actually forget such things. Re-performance guarantees that we can experience things from the past. Performance artist Marina Abramovic (the self-proclaimed grandmother of performance art) has stressed that “re-performance is the new concept, the new idea,” otherwise performance would be dead as an art form. In an attempt to stop this untimely death Abramovic createdSeven Easy Pieces. The performance took place at the Guggenheim Museum in November of 2005 for seven hours on seven consecutive nights. The re-performanes included: Bruce Nauman, Body Pressure(1974); Vito Acconci, Seedbed (1972); Valie Export, Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969); Gina Pane, The Conditioning, first action of Self-Portrait(s) (1973); and Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). Abramovic explored the possibility of representing and preserving performance by engaging audience members beyond the ontological limits of photographic documentation with performing, living bodies. The original performances are revived so that the audience’s gaze is directed back upon the body of a performer instead of on a static document.
These re-performances attempt to dispel any myth and uncertainty surrounding the original performances. However, each re-performance, because of its temporal distance, will never evoke the same experience as the original. These are wholly new experiences, as faithful re-performances are not possible. The original incarnations of the performance inevitably need to be altered to accommodate differences in location and audience experience. The most evident difference was that Abramovic performed in an established art institutionon a stage some four feet in height and was protected by dozens of security personnel. Most of the performances from the 1960s and 1970s were either in galleries or artists' studio where audience interaction and participation was necessary. The archive forSeven Easy Pieces is filled with emails and notes from the artist and Guggenheim curators discussing how to make the re-performance feel like the originals - a task they admit is not possible.
It seems that Abramovic’s commitment to re-performance will determine her legacy: “You have to have a vision. [. . .] Performance is fleeting. But this, this place, this is for time. This is what I will leave behind.” As such she devised a model for artists to follow in ethically re-performing the works of other artists. Her proposal for Seven Easy Pieces established a series of guidelines: “It is important that we: (1) Ask the [original] artists for permission (2) Pay the artists a fee (3) Perform a new interpretation of the original work (4) Exhibit the original material: photographs, video, relic, and etc. and (5) Exhibit materials documenting the new interpretation of the work.” Thus, re-performances did not take place if not agreed upon by the original artist or their estate - Chris Burden, for example, refused multiple times to have his performance Transfixed reenacted. Abramovic states quite clearly that this standard will morally guide the future of other re-performance practices both within and outside the art establishment: “But to me the idea is that performance has to live. If it doesn‘t live, it dies. And then it has to have the conditions on how to live.” In furthering this commitment to preserving art, she is slated to open in 2012 the Marina Abramovic Foundation for Preservation of Performance Art in Hudson, New York, where she lives. This nonprofit foundation will be dedicated to the teaching and preservation of performance art, with artist workshops, public courses, a library, and a grants program. Audiences will be offered a timeless space where 20th century performances and re-performances of them will be in continuous dialogue. Abramovic's resurrection of performances of the past allows audiences to have tangible experiences of a past that otherwise would elude them.
Re-performance can also be understood as reinterpretation. Fluxus artists were, and those who are still living are, not interested in recreating earlier interpretations of their event scores. There have been dozens of re-performances of Alison Knowles's Proposition #2 (Make a Salad), however the salad ingredients vary at each performance and re-performances without the artist can be found on You Tube.Joan Jonas, while not affiliated with Fluxus, stresses that faithful re-performances are not possible; rather, performance should be revisited and translated at some point into another medium (be it video or installation). “There’s never a way that you could repeat the original thing; it just can’t be done,” she states, “so you have to think, ‘How am I going to deal with it if I’m going to show something of that moment?'”
Reinterpretation was what Hauser and Wirth had in mind for their commissioned re-performances of Alan Kaprow's Yard for their gallery in 2009. William Pope.L, Sharon Hayes, and Josiah McElheny’s re-performances were part of the recent wave of attention given to Kaprow’s work following his MoCA Los Angeles retrospective in 2008. The original performance of Yard entailed hundreds of tires cluttering the gallery space. Participants were encouraged to rearrange the tires, making movement both complicated and playful. The artists at Hauser and Wirth Gallery were given full artistic liberty not only to re-perform but also to reinterpret Kaprow’s work. Pope.L altered the playful atmosphere with a deafening soundtrack that blustered inaudible commands to move the tires, interrupted by the sounds of foghorns and train whistles. The tires were accompanied by body bags filled with Vaseline-covered mannequins, wall to wall mirrors, and strobe lighting. His re-performance – titled Yard (To Harrow) – took a dark turn with political and social commentary more akin to his own oeuvre than to Kaprow’s more subtle social critique.
Sharon Hayes, Yard (Signs), 2009.
Courtesy: Hauser and Wirth Gallery, New York.
Sharon Hayes’s Yard (Sign) involved littering a grassy patch of Queens’s historic New York Marble Cemetery with yard signs, some mundane and others comical. One proclaimed, “If I catch you dumping you are dead.” Hayes attempted to summon the ghost of Kaprow without at the same time giving him free run of the yard. At the Queens Museum of Art, Josiah McElheny’s Yard (Junkyard) projection showed a 90-by-30-foot aerial photograph of the “Iron Triangle,” a nearby, seven-block-long area of wrecking and tire yards currently slated for redevelopment. Like the other re-performances, interaction was limited since the wall projection occurred in a room containing the museum’s famous “Panorama of the City of New York,” the world’s largest architectural model commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair. The juxtaposition was intriguing, but a far cry from resembling anything Kaprow may have had a hand in. As unengaging as this re-performance was, Michael Wilson (in a Time Out New York review) correctly suggests that re-performance offers a challenge to artists and institutions to never quite be the same, “yet always recognizable.”
These re-performances are not recreations of Kaprow’s Yard; rather, they are reinterpretations of Yard. This brings to light an issue that is at the heart of re-performance: how faithful do re-performances need to be? While the answer to this question is open to much debate, I offer a simple rationale. Performance art is conceptually based; the performing body of the artist (or the re-performer) gives form to a concept. Thus, one incarnation of a performance does not have more value than another. The best examples of this are Fluxus event scores that allow participants to perform the indicated actions in their own way, wherever they choose. In fact, it is hard to conclude that there is such thing as an original performanceon which to base a faithful recreation. Walter Benjamin's discussion of the futile attempt to locate an authentic photographic print gives form to my rationale: "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense." This semantic conundrum begs the question of what constitutes an “original” in performance art and imposes on performance art a value system, an endless search for a lost original masterpiece. Re-performance, as it continues to evolve as a concept and practice in performance art, denies such a value system by allowing artists the opportunity to re-imagine, reinterpret and, more importantly, re-conceptualize performances from the past.
Re-performance is not confined to the white walls of the museum or gallery. Eva and Franco Mattes (also known as 0100101110101101.ORG) used the online community Second Life as the venue for their re-performance project Synthetic Performances. The recreated performances include Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculpture, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, Chris Burden’s Shoot, Valie Export’s Tapp und Tastkino, Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks and Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Imponderabilia. Second Life is a whole synthetic world in which representation and existence are one and the same. In Second Life, users can create avatars, called residents, who interact, socialize, form communities, and create and trade virtual property and services. They carry out mundane activities such as eating, watching movies and having sex. Avatars can take any form users choose, allowing them the choice to mimic their real-life appearance or conceive of a resident who is any combination of human, animal, or vegetable. Cultural theorist Domenico Quaranta suggests an intimate relationship between participants and their avatars: “I am my avatar, and the fact that my avatar is an artifact, a puppet made of polygons and textures, certainly doesn’t stop me from identifying with it.” Over time, operators of avatars cannot help but acknowledge that the world of Second Life is indeed a world, with its own complex society, rules to obey, and trends to follow.
The performances the Matteses choose to re-perform are focused on bodies - be it bodies in space or bodies in interaction with an audience. In the original performance of Imponderabilia Abramovic and Ulay stood naked at the entrance to a group exhibition in Bologna. The blocking of the door required visitors to pass sideways through a narrow gap between the artists’ naked bodies. In film documentation of the performance the reaction of visitors varied from comical to dismay, fulfilling the artists’ intention to question the larger social constructions of physical interaction. While the original audience was susceptible to feeling the flesh of the performers, audience members experience the online re-performance quite differently. In fact, two audiences were created when Synthetic Performancespremiered at Artist Space in New York as part of Performa 2007. First there was the audience of people at home using avatars that interact with the avatars of Eva and Franco Mattes who took on the roles of Abramovic and Ulay. This virtual audience could either left click their computer mouse to cross the threshold facing Franco or right click to face Eva. Thus, the physical element of contact between artist and viewer is replaced by physical contact of avatar to avatar.
As Quaranta suggests, because participants in Second Life closely identify with their avatars, the avatar pressing against another avatar is indeed, like a living body pressing against another living body. This online audience performed for a gallery audience who witnessed their actions through live-feed projections at Artist Space. A good analogy would equate the avatars, who get to have all the fun, to football players, while the gallery audience are the fans watching the game on Jumbo-tron screens from the nose-bleed seats. This proliferation of audience positions raises many questions concerning how re-performance can and will be experienced through virtual technologies when the physical element of a performing body is replaced by a virtual one. As we go forth as a society that relies more on email than handwritten letters and Netflix instead of the movie theater, the changes in social interaction will undoubtedly affect how we experience art.
"Synthetic Performance defines the virtual destiny of performance art in an age where life itself can be easily reproduced" (Quaranta). Re-performance shows the limitations of the ephemeral nature of performance while suggesting a path for the possible continued existence of performance. However, this destiny is not fully assured. As illustrated by this brief survey, re-performances can completely alter the context and content of the original performance. Just barely 100 years old, performance art already has a contentious and complicated history. Studying re-performance will allow us to better understand the inherit complexity of performance art. More important, looking at the future of re-performance will enable us to see better how performance art can and will adapt to social and cultural trends.
Harry J. Weil is a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University in the Department of Art.