1. Inscribing Multicentricity
Performing Other Los Angeleses
Edge Gazing/Center Flash
In the late 1960s the Los Angeles painter Sam Francis produced a series of mural-size works uniformly named Untitled (Edge Painting), [year of produc tion]. These paintings suggest a way of observing contemporary Los Angeles cultures from the multiple perceptual centers of the edge. They also prefigure the profusion of luminous performances that first happened in the margins and remained “on edge.”
In a typical Edge Painting configuration the canvas is largely painted white, with stripes of vivid colors—red, blue, yellow, green, black—delineating the edge. A palpable tension exists between the central territory of white and its colorful peripheries. Although the white and the colors are structurally segregated, there is no absolute barrier between them. In Untitled (Edge Paint ing), 1966 (fig. 1), for example, some white color crosses over to the blue and drops into the yellow-red-blue; two blue scratches and a gray dot float somewhere in the white middle, while the bottom band of red rages into the white like waves of fire. The drama of territorial negotiations continues within the colored sphere: the yellow is covered by blue, turned green, and submerged by red, or perhaps it is the green that was there in the first place, and has subsequently been covered byyellow, blue, and red. Atthis point there is no telling
1 Sam Francis, Untitled (Edge Painting), 1966, acrylic on canvas, 199 × 100 cm. © The Sam Francis Estate/The Litho Shop, Inc. Permission granted by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
As it plays on the margins, Edge Painting paradoxically foregrounds the enigma of the center. In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cul ture, Russell Ferguson raises the question: “When we say marginal, we must always ask, marginal to what? But this question is difficult to answer. The place from which power is exercised is often a hidden place. When we try to pin it down, the center always seems to be somewhere else.” Ferguson's comment addresses the ambiguity of an “invisible center,” which exerts undeniable power over the ways we live, eat, think, work, exercise, play, and relate to others, but cannot be fully described. The center'spower always exceeds our definitions for it. Edge Painting flips Ferguson's question: “When we say center, we must also ask, center to what? ”
This question seems easier to answer: center to what is marginal. Center, then, is what is not marginal. Center is a locus circumscribed by what it is not, a region framed by its peripheries. It is a norm delimited by its deviations, its others. But the “center” or “norm” cannot be fixed, because it resides in silence. It may mutate over time and in response to strategic necessities. It may consume itself and need to be renewed. It may even overlap with the margins. The composition of Edge Painting implies that it is easier to recognize the margins by their specific colors than to name the void that occupies the center. The void claims an undeniable power because of its impenetrable homogeneous mass. That semblance of homogeneity is nevertheless captured in suspense: it has the potential to change. At times center may signify the status quo, which resists change and pursues hegemony; it possesses the power to co-opt and assimilate its margins. At other times it is caught in a process of modification, decomposition, compromise, and reinvention, often as a result of the pressures from the margins. As Edge Painting provocatively proposes, center is a blank that needs to be filled. It can be filled with a multiplicity of contents. Therein lies the possibility of subversion and contamination from the margins.
Edge Painting offers us a structural model to study the complex and dy
Let me return to Ferguson's comment about the power exercised by the hidden center. He describes the center and the margin as two constitutive entities in understanding contemporary culture. As Edge Painting evinces, these constitutive entities are fundamentally structural (relational) rather than determinedly figural (with fixed patterns). Further, this structure is both finite and unstable. The painting exposes the structural positioning between center and margin as fluid, porous, and subject to contingencies and temporal adjustments. Not only will the respective contents for each be altered over time, but the apparent polarity between center and margins captured in Edge Painting may not always hold. Thus, when we say center is what is not marginal, we may also say margin is what is not yet center. As the scale decreases in our analysis, more flexibility is available in the structural positioning between center and margin. The polarity between center and margin might become less rigid, while the mystery of center might be relatively easier to decipher. This is the paradox presented by Edge Painting as a paradigm of centricity: the painting needs its mural-size scale to convey the central blank's awesome appeal.
The simultaneous complexity and blankness of being center manifested in Edge Painting point to other characteristics: center is seldom self-sufficient,
Center is seldom self-sufficient because it can hardly be conceived, let alone defined, without resorting to its negative. On a secular and suprapersonal scale, this paradigm of centricity divulges the dynamics of codependency between the dominant class and its others. On a personal scale, this paradigm becomes a model of subjectivity that defines the individual subject by intersubjective re lations. I may see myself, for example, as an individual center. But I cannot define who I am without differentiating myself from others: I am not-you, not-he, not-she, not-we, not-they. Nor can I differentiate myself from others without simultaneously positioning myself in relation to others: I am at various moments with you, with him, with her, becoming part of us, joining them. Being center is then a perception that compels me to recognize the coexistence of those who frame my margins. I must therefore admit my own lack of self-sufficiency and my interrelatedness with others. I may be excessively self-centered, even egocentric, but my constant reliance on others to know myself better exposes my solipsistic egocentrism as faulty and inadequate, even self-destructive. By making the circumference explicit, Edge Painting undercuts the implicit power assumed by my centricity/subjectivity and insists that I also keep the limit of my centricity in view.
To recognize that center is hardly transcendent is to regard being center as situational. I see myself as a center; therefore I realize that you also have your own center, and he his, she hers, we ours, and they theirs. When gauged from different time-space coordinates, the multiple others who frame my center are themselves their own centers. Just as I see my others as marginal to me, my others see me as marginal to them. Every individual subject is her/his own center. Sometimes, bychoice, coercion, or force, the subject may identify with deviance or marginality rather than centricity. In that case, I maintain that the subject's supposed deviance/marginality actually occupies the space of her/his center. As every subject projects her/his own norm, every norm may be an exception, while every exception is potentially a norm, depending on where we view it. Thus, on an individual scale, there are centers and circumferences everywhere. Centricity is an effect established bycontext and changes with perspectives and situations.
The argument that being center is often a subjective perception variable with situations leads to the axiom that center is a potentially receptive structure. As Edge Painting epitomizes, center is a largely blank structure with distinct edges. From a semiotic perspective, I may read the structure as a schema for the human's cognitive system. The white area signifies the epistemic status quo, formed by a particular conglomerate of genetic, neurological, social, cultural, and political determinants. The colorful fringes are then the emergent
If center is a potentially receptive structure, then it is also a provisional process. The blankness that occupies the center of Edge Painting is both foreboding and inviting. It is so not only because it eludes comprehension and definition, but also because it is filled with possibilities. To introduce any specific content into this blank means the reduction of its full potential in sacrificing all but a few of its possibilities. Still, the challenge posed by its blankness is its very appeal. The painting looks tantalizingly unfinished. Its central area seems to have emptied itself out for visitations. Perhaps it simply withholds its resistance to alterity. Its static white surface appears open to other colors. Maybe it poises to appropriate their otherness so as to disrupt its present stagnancy. It yearns to become once again a live painting—an artwork still in the making. The blankness left in the painting's center therefore poses itself as a process rather than a permanent condition. Being a voided center, it inhabits a state of becoming.
A live (nonstagnant) center is caught in constant motion; it is a vessel that changes with its particular contents. Inorder to maintain/reclaim its centricity, a center—whatever it signifies—may undergo a cyclical process of absorption and reinforcement, whereby it becomes customized by its contents. A center sustains its centricity not by holding on to its customized state, but by regarding all its present contents as temporary, provisional, and radically alterable. For a center's ability to survive depends on its sensitivity to contingencies and its willingness to adjust for vicissitudes. In this light, center becomes simultaneously a susceptible vessel and a vital vehicle, strengthening its established contents while absorbing other stimuli for continuous self-renewal. Edge Painting drives this idea home through a paradox: it reveals centricity as a mutable process by showing a blank structure with distinct margins but a dissolved center. Inshort, this model of centricity is simultaneously decentered — the center is there and nowhere.
Multiple Los Angeleses
Re-scanning Edge Painting
I discover in Sam Francis's Edge Painting a path to Los Angeles, the site for the contemporary performances that my book studies. The painting's model of
The Los Angeles where the painting was “born” is of course another Los Angeles, which exists only in the elsewhere of memories. Francis first exhibited his Edge Painting series in Paris. The fact invites us to speculate about the painting'sallegorical dimension. The central white area might signify the dominant forces in the painter's hometown that rendered his artistic expressions marginal. Francis might be critiquing the hegemonic center of power rather than contemplating a general theory about decentered centricity. Whatever the artist's intent, our question is: Can Untitled (Edge Painting), 1966 retain its efficacy as a structural paradigm for the turn-of-millennium Los Angeles? Can it account for the multicultural ecology, the complex relations among diverse ethnic groups, and the urban geography in this expansive postmodern metropolis?
To me, the artwork's own ambiguity allows it to be read in various ways as portraying this malleable city. On a literal and diagrammatic level, wecould read Edge Painting as a political parable. It presents a quantified mapping of ethnic competitions, where a white majority asserts its dominance over people of color, while the color contingencies agitate from the margins. Conflicts exist between the white and other colors, but there is also antagonism among different nonwhite colors. Inthis vein, the painting offers a haiku impression of Los Angeles during the 1992 South Central civil unrest. Wecould also read Edge Painting as a general scheme about territorial struggles and negotiations, hinting at the dilemmas of immigration confronting present-day Los Angeles.
On a metaphorical—non-color-specific—level, we could cast Edge Paint ing in cultural terms. The white area represents the amorphous mainstream culture, while the peripheries contain the heterogeneous other cultures: alternative cultures, subcultures, ethnic minority cultures, feminist cultures, queer cultures, diasporic cultures, and the self-proclaimed avant-garde culture that desires to inhabit the cutting edge. As the contrast between the white mass and the narrow spans of other colors implies, it is easier to label these marginal cultures as “other” than to pin down the “mainstream.” Isthe mainstream culture synonymous with the traditional, Eurocentric high culture, the peoplegenerated popular culture, or the money-driven, ideologically muffled mass culture? In the specific Los Angeles context, is mainstream culture identical to the Hollywood Cultural Industry, to the Disney Fantasy Factory, and to the values, standards, and signifying systems instituted by the city's Cultural Establishment?
The answer to this last question seems readily affirmative. All three parties combined represent the critical mass for the Los Angeles cultural mainstream.
City of Fables
I am fascinated by the ability of Edge Painting to inspire speculations by posing a tantalizing emptiness front center. It is reticent yet very there. This quality of being vacuous yet suggestive, present yet volatile embodied by the painting inadvertently articulates why Los Angeles is a magnet not only for migrants and settlers from other states and countries, but also for imaginary and discursive investments. “Back in Los Angeles, we missed Los Angeles,” writes Randall Jarrell. Los Angeles is a void and an ideal, an impossible vacuum and a violation, a kaleidoscopic vision, a fractal formation, or, in Lars Nittve's phrase, “aprojection on the windshield.” Poets, novelists, artists, playwrights, screenwriters, cartoonists, television sit-com teams, lyricists, journalists, architects, world travelers, ethnographers, seismologists, late-capitalist economists, postmodern urban theorists, postcolonial cultural critics, media scholars, and performance historians all formulate and promulgate their versions of Los Angeles. The wide range of their interpretations can result only from amultiplication of the interpreters' specular, verbal, temperamental, and circumstantial disparity with the city's own diversity. Thus, ironically, extreme opinions abound. Jack Kerouac, the chronicler of the Beat Generation, wrote: “ ‘LA.’ I love the way she said ‘LA’; I love the way everybody says ‘LA’ on the Coast; it's their one and only golden town when all is said and done.” And Bertolt Brecht, a European exile briefly flirting with Hollywood during World War II, found “on thinking about Hell, that it must be / Still more like Los Angeles.”
Other cities certainly have their shares of local narratives, but Los Angeles was actively built on boosterism, on the promises made by speculative words and images. According to Gary A. Dymski and John M. Veitch, “Although
The center is there and nowhere. As a city of information—which is often nonhierarchical, even unverifiable—the being of Los Angeles is largely constructed upon the interpreters' own ideological investments. It becomes what the interpreter wants it to be. What's the end result that we enjoy today? That which can be grasped readily does not seem to untangle fully the vast and inscrutable lining of this city. The mystery of Los Angeles is, as Jean Baudrillard ventures, “precisely that of no longer being anything but a network of incessant, unreal circulation.” The center of Los Angeles seems to have dissolved in the murmurs of information, or rather, more exactly, it has proliferated into multiple centers.
Heteroglossia in Heteropolis
The centers follow the split tongues: the Bakhtinian “heteroglossia” at once produced by and reproducing Los Angeles confirms one of the truisms surrounding this megalopolis—there are many Los Angeleses. Baudrillard's theory of simulation holds that it is no longer possible to ascertain the causeand-effect sequence between the city's images and materiality, between its hyperreal virtuality and lived actuality. I find the claim pertinent only to an extent, for the many Los Angeleses certainly also exist outside of the stunning array of information and cultural phenomena epitomized by such European conceits as Baudrillard's “precession of simulacra” and Bakhtin's “heteroglossia.” Consider the remarks of another European cultural observer who latches
I appreciate Jencks's enthusiasm, although I doubt that heterogeneity is always “enjoyed” by Angeleno/as. In any case, Jencks hits the mark in indicating heterogeneity as a physical and a historical condition of contemporary Los Angeles. The city's expansive urban geography and diverse ethnic populations encourage the dispersion and re-formation of polycentered, multiform, ethnically and linguistically mixed enclaves. A city of cities, turn-ofmillennium Los Angeles has developed into a cultural, economic, political, and demographic conglomerate of multiple centers. Heterogeneity is seen, heard, tasted, worn, carried, encountered, transacted, dwelled, and shuttled. Yet neither the city's territorial expansiveness nor its supposed tolerance for heterogeneity is preordained.
In 1781 Los Angeles consisted of a scattered collection of towns centered around the settlement of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula. In 1871 this violent “Hell Town” made headlines around the world for the racist massacre of about twenty Chinese workers out of a total Chinese population of two hundred. With the surge of primarily WASP migrants from small-town mid-America, separate municipalities such as Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Pomona were founded around the end of the nineteenth century, prefiguring, in Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja's terms, “the sprawling, polycentric character of [the region's] urban built environment.” This unidimensional, centrifugal, and multicentric character was reinforced by the construction of freeways, which enabled a period of “mass suburbanization” and, subsequently, with the growth of outer cities, a period of “mass regional urbanization.” The five-county region of greater Los Angeles now expands outward for sixty miles in every direction, encompassing more than 160 separate municipalities and a current population of fifteen million. Los Angeles has surpassed New York as the most ethnically diverse of all North American cities.
With the surges of multiethnic and multinational populations throughout the region's history came various purges of differences. Anti-Asian sentiment “rationalized” the confinement of more than thirty thousand Japanese Americans from Los Angeles in concentration camps in 1942. Hostility toward Mexicans worsened after the so-called Zoot Suit riots of 1943. The fear
Despite the undercurrents of racial discrimination, economic inequality, and intolerance of human differences, Los Angeles has enjoyed a century of almost continuous boom, slowed periodically only by national and global economic recession. This factor—augmented by the balmy Southern California weather; the myths of L.A.-style freedom, comfort, and glamour; and its geographic proximity to Asia, the Pacific islands, and Latin America—ensures that the city's heterogeneity will never be in short supply. Even after the Northridge earthquake, L.A. has continued to be the mecca for “enormous population movements both from other parts of the United States and from other parts of the world.” Demographic reports positively support the trend of “minoritization” identified by Jencks: L.A. County's “population shifted from 70 percent Anglo to 60 percent non-Anglo between 1970 and 1990, as what was once the most white and Protestant of American cities changed into what some commentators now call America'sleading Third World city.” The ethnic map summarized by Jencks boasts a mosaic of Mexicans, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Indians, Iranians, Russians, and many more—“with Latinos, Jews, and WASPS the largest minorities in this minoritized place.” The effect of such thorough minoritization, Jencks adds, is to divide Los Angeles into village-size fragments, like a set of countries forming “the crazy-quilt pattern of a simmering Europe before World War I.”
Heterogeneity may give off the pleasures of abundance and inclusiveness (which Jencks celebrates), but it may also become depoliticized into a mass of interchangeable differences. L.A. is a metropolis “in love with its limitless horizontality,” maintains Baudrillard. As one may see in a glance behind the wheel, this extended megacity wears its own micro-diversity on surface streets like variety tattoos. I discover that such nonhierarchical and uniformly dispersed heterogeneity has produced another effect of minoritization: the superficial
Consider this quick inventory of the many Los Angeleses experienced from various vantage points: the aerial view preferred by the European travelers like Baudrillard, who marvels at the city's “inferno effect” seen from above; the automobile view that inspired the logo of traffic signs for a 1998 exhibition entitled “Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960–1997” at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum; the sub/urban pedestrians' views that differ drastically among economically segregated neighborhoods; the surveillance camera's view rebuked by Mike Davis in his prescient City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles; the ocean surfer's view that assembles a solartopia from crests of waves, bikinis, in-line skaters, and Venice Beach performance artists; the gay bartender'sview that absorbs staccato loneliness in the House of Blues; the Mickey Mouse impersonator's view that sweats over a fantasy job in some Imagineers' utopia; the homeless teenager'sview that scavenges behind a donut shop; the Compton gangsta rapper'sview that practices “apolitics of location” via nasty rhymes for cash cows; the traffic jam victim's view that exudes impatience seasoned byamild worry about the “Big One”; the Korean merchants' views that witnessed their grocery shops burned to the ground on Sa-I-Gu (April 29, 1992); the running celluloid views that dismember, multiply, beautify, cannibalize, and embalm this hyperreal heteropolis on the silver screen.
A sea of numbing differences translate perceptually into a desert of insignificances. The flow of “global non-meaning” flushes through Los Angeleses like automated and evanescent billboard commercials.
Other Los Angeleses
It should be clear by now that I believe neither centricity nor multicentricity guarantees a ticket to paradise—or to purgatory. As I pour the multicentric bodies of Los Angeleses into the mold of centricity held up by Edge Painting, the middle void becomes a collage of fragments, with independent, parallel, or intersecting centers, bubbling in varying sizes and colors, filling the canvas all the way to the edges. Does that mean that I have found a group portrait for the many Los Angeleses?
A Paradigm of Multicentricity
Let me first turn to multicentricity as a conceptual angle. Above all, the notion of multicentricity privileges different entities' right to centricity. It has
Multicentricity as a strategy for cultural intervention focuses on the conceptual level. The multicentric paradigm serves to activate a procedure of cognizance that may eventually change general perceptions about the status of minoritization. Being center connotes the existence of an independent, if not unique, sphere, within which a self-referential network of signifying systems operates. Granted that a center must always be bound by other centers in a multicentric situation, the cognizance of its own centricity exposes those outside forces that seek to marginalize it as arbitrary and unduly oppressive. Those dominating forces then seem no longer “warranted” or “naturalized” by the status quo. In this capacity, the concept of multicentricity subverts the existing power structure, which takes for granted the boundary between the “majority” and the “minority,” between “dominant” cultures and “marginal” others. The multicentric paradigm consequently has the potential to become a resistant strategy for those who are involuntarily relegated to the margins by the existing power structure.
Multicentricity is, however, far from being an activist solution to present cultural dilemmas. It does not purport to be an ethical or redressive measure, as does “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism, at least in its idealistic phase, aspires to institute fundamental changes in the directions and definitions of “national cultures” through education, hiring principles, and media advocacy. With “multicentricity,” my intent is to offer a more precise description for an existing phenomenon in the city I live. Being descriptive rather than prescriptive, multicentricity has no direct political stake or any immediate
Naming may facilitate revolution, but naming is not in itself a revolution. The phenomenon of multicentricity witnessed in this region clearly does not bring about equivalence, equilibrium, or equality among the many Los Angeleses. If I've found my portrait of multicentric Los Angeleses, it would stress that heterogeneity, multiplicity, and incongruity exist both within and between centers. Each Los Angeles has to deal with conflicts, differences, and incommensurabilities within itself. Likewise, it has to handle a complex ramification of relationships with other Los Angeleses, including opposition (antagonism among competing entities), coexistence (parallel subsistence among different entities), coalition (cooperation between different entities for mutual benefit), and hybridity (merging with other entities).
Multicentricity and Polarity
The discursive emphasis on multicentricity tends to blur the tenacious polarity underlying the polycentered and polyglot veneer of heterogeneity. Numerous accounts byurban theorists reveal the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in the many Los Angeleses. Michael Dear, for one, holds a somber view: “In social terms, postmodern L.A. is a city split between extreme wealth and poverty, in which a glittering First World city sits atop a polyglot Third World substructure.” Dear's analysis echoes what Scott and Soja observe as “an intensified bifurcation of regional labor markets”:
On the one hand, there has been a growing high-wage, high-skill group of workers (managers, business executives, scientists, engineers, designers, and celebrities and many others in the entertainment industry); on the other hand, there has been an even more rapidly expanding mass of marginalized, low-wage, low-skill
Los Angeles's present multicentricity coexists with the persistent polarity between the current hegemony and its others. Such polarity condenses the surface of multicentricity into two opposing entities—the center and its margins. Neither the center nor its margins can be delineated without contradictions. Both recognize the inequitable power status that exists between them and both register the pressure of contradictions. On the one hand, in the polarized picture where the current hegemony still owns the large central ground, to describe a surface that allows multicentric expressions tends to gloss over the undercurrent inequality. On the other hand, multicentricity does affect the existing polarity between the established parties and their others. This contradictory scenario reflects the nature of hegemony theorized by Antonio Gramsci. As Lisa Lowe explicates, Gramsci's notion of hegemony works both ways—for the dominant class as well as the marginalized class. Gramsci maintains that any specific hegemony, though it may be for the moment dominant, is never absolute or conclusive. Thus, I suggest, similar to multicentricity, the polarity evinced in contemporary L.A. resides in constant fluctuation. The current hegemony is always subject to the contestation, resistance, and counterhegemonic forces launched from the margins.
Observing the economic inequality, the collapse of communities, and the increasing urban fragmentation, Michael Dear concludes his essay on postmodern L.A. with a warning and a plea: “This polycentric, polarized, polyglot metropolis long ago tore up its social contract and is without even a draft of a replacement. […] This is the insistent message of postmodern Los Angeles: all urban place-making bets are off; we are engaged, knowingly or otherwise, in the search for new ways of creating cities.” Before we find those new ways, Angeleno/as have to live in a paradox: there are many Los Angeleses, and there are two implicitly separate Los Angeleses: the multicentric and the polarized L.A.
Let's return again to Edge Painting. Contemporary Los Angeles has both revised the painting'sstructure of centricity into multicentricity and remained in agreement with its original structure, which polarizes an elusive middle with multiple entities in the margins. With the revision, we are able to name the
Performance Art in Multicentric Los Angeleses
Come to the edge, she says They say: We are afraid Come to the edge, she says They come She pushes them … and they fly
—misquoted from Guillaume Apollinaire
A malleable medium open to many possibilities, performance art best illustrates the frontier spirit, the eclectic conflation, and the rule-defying characteristics of L.A. cultures—(I'll let “L.A.” stand as my shorthand for the multicentric and polarized Los Angeleses). In its nearly four decades of history in L.A., performance art has acquired a unique position by emulating the city's multicentric artistic ethos: its aesthetic heterogeneity, multiple agencies, and parallel constituencies. Performance art defies definitions, embraces contradictions, and rebels against formalist confinement. It has engendered a mélange of events ranging from the esoteric and ephemeral to the committed and proactive. In some extreme cases, the risk-taking nature of live action has even placed artists on the verge of death. Since it is a medium that absorbs and expends most of its energy from being on edge, performance art tends to keep an ambivalent distance from the cultural mainstream but maintains productive associations with other cultures. The majority of performance projects in L.A. are low-tech, performer-centered, concept-or processoriented, “poor theater” pieces—distinctly antithetical to the sleek finesse and technological ingenuity of the city's blockbuster films. More an art of necessity than an art catering to commercial interest, performance art continues to mimic, forge, and embody what we may call Los Angeles fringe sensibilities. Metaphorically, performance art has produced its own variable series of “edge paintings,” inventing miniature cultural signifiers for the phantom galleries in Other Los Angeleses.
A Definition of Performance Art
Given the amorphous proclivities of performance art, I describe it broadly as an intermedia visual art form that uses theatrical elements in presentation.
Performance art is highly adaptable in form, content, and situation; it is often site-specific, of unpredictable duration, and highly aware of the immediate environment. Performance art's relative ease of presentation, intentional volatility, and interactive context allow it to tackle point-blank the phobias, drifts, and traumas that crisscross contemporary cultures. As Rose-Lee Goldberg aptly phrases it, performance art, traversing “a thin divide between high culture and popular entertainment,” “retains a tentativeness that allows the obsessions of our cultural moment to seep from its edges.” Perhaps the combination of sensitivity and expedience has enabled this permissive mode to develop an intimate, if also complex, tie with L.A. cultures. Sometimes performance art functions as an index to the shifting cultural trends; sometimes it reveals the symptoms of sedimentary social ills; sometimes it probes into taboos, stereotypes, or other calcified public myths; sometimes it launches frontal attacks against received ideas and inherited prejudices; sometimes it stages cleansing rituals to treat personal or communal wounds; sometimes it pushes against its own limits as an aesthetic methodology, contributing to the city's imaginary commonwealth. Although it may not have accomplished all that the artists have intended or claimed to do, one thing is sure: performance art aspires to be contemporaneous with L.A. cultures.
Performance art's heterogeneous modality corresponds to this coastal region's psychic vista of cross-cultural ferment. Because of its ambivalence toward the mainstream culture, performance art is most directly linked with other cultures. This intermedia art form either defines itself by its otherness from the cultural status quo or is defined by the status quo as its other. In this
Naming Performance Art in Multicentric L.A.:
A Midway Self-Critique
My approach to performance art hinges on the proposition that this hybrid medium has a pronounced relation to its surrounding cultures. Like a sponge, performance art absorbs what permeates its cultural ambiance and spills out the excess qualities. I see performance art, then, more as a flexible mode of cultural expression than as a specialized medium belonging to any particular aesthetic discipline. I argue that contemporary performances in L.A. are multicentric because the region is multicentric. This admittedly inclusive approach is inspired byperformance art's own democratic impulse to be an open-ended and accessible medium, by its existential connection with the practitioner as an individual subject, and by its phenomenological interest in intersubjective engagement within the performer-audience context.
My take on performance as a cultural expression highlights its status as an art practice that exists in and for the public realm. Since no sacredness (no setting apart as a privileged realm) is presumed for an art practice that solicits public interest, I contend that performance art is conceptually owned by whoever desires to name it. This public ownership of performance art explains why so many politicians and media pundits feel licensed to critique performance pieces without having seen them. The public perception of conceptual ownership concerning an artwork is certainly not unique to performance art, for it derives largely from media coverage of controversial contemporary art. But this conceptual ownership does complicate the act of naming performance art. Who, we wonder, has the right to name performance art—the artist, the art historian, the theater scholar, the cultural critic, or a couple of travelers from Australia who have just seen a piece? What has been named—an intermedial visual art form, a boundary-breaking theatrical medium, or a nebulous cultural practice? Who must bear the burden or wear the accolade of such naming—the artists who evade categorization at all costs, or those who eagerly take on the category for its very elusiveness? Who can pass judgment on any single name invented to decipher an evolving public art phenomenon—the practitioner, the critic, the spectator, the journalist, the publisher, the cultural vanguard, the art funder, or the taxpayer?
These are all difficult questions, and my book does not promise any definitive answer. Indeed, by defining performance art, I inevitably limit its aesthetic, conceptual, and political possibilities according to my theoretical premises. Confronting an art form that embraces mutability, no single definition can
But naming is what I do with my present act of stringing words together, knowing that my naming cannot but put some indomitable historical phenomena into discursive frames, while trailing behind those unfolding others that continue to happen beyond my frames. The concept of multicentricity that informs my practice of naming empowers me to accept my perceptual/ conceptual centricity as the pivot of my investigation. At the same time it reminds me of the coexistence of multiple other perspectives. The reminder of multiple other centers adjacent to my own renders my version of performance genealogy in L.A. only one among many other possible versions—both extant and to come. I am not asserting that all different versions of performance genealogy are of equal validity or stature. Rather, the awareness of multicentricity brings to the fore the subjective grounding of my work. It recontextualizes my inquiry as a volitional action responding primarily to the call of my individual agency.
My action recognizes my individual agency as a channel of my perceptions and a means of reprocessing what I've learned from my object of inquiry. In effect, it evinces not so much the power as the need of my individual agency, for I cannot claim a transcendental authority (power) for my work (being merely one among many), yet I am driven by an inexplicable compulsion (need) to do the work. This need is partially professional but profoundly existential. I can best explain it by borrowing from Samuel Beckett's wry paradox: “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” This passage yields an intriguing reading of the paradigm of decentered centricity embodied by Edge Painting. Beckett interprets the blankness that occupies his authorial centricity as an inherent failure, a depletion of significance, competence, and purpose that nullifies his attempt to write. Beckett the writing subject is placed at a point of exhaustion even before he starts. Yet he is compelled to meet “the obligation” to express. He cannot but accept the radical inadequacy —the in
My conception of writing as a performative act accentuates the serial labor of finding and placing the words into a certain order as an embodied action. Itdoubles the process of writing with that of staging a virtual, interactive scene between the writer, her/his writerly quest, and the projected readers/audience members. Itmakes explicit the tacit recognition of writing as improvisational, contingent upon emergent circumstances, and susceptible to chance, compromise, reductiveness, time constraint, faulty judgment, and accidental manipulation. (Don't weall dance, wittingly or not, under the influence of magic, memory, and mortality?) Undertaking performative writing provides a temporary relief for the writer because it conceptually encodes her/his impotence in expressing the elusive multiplicity of the world in an immediate action. It declares the individual's will to survive and produce as a decentered yet nonetheless self-referential subject/center in a multicentric universe. My single act of naming, then, can be best understood as a performing process, a happening in which my body experiences the fluctuating transitions between silence and articulation, always moving toward temporary truths.
With this self-critique, I offer my study not as a definitive text but an individual performance. The ensuing act charts a partial history of performance art's proliferating paths to multicentricity in Los Angeleses.
A Cultural History of Performance
As a cultural expression, performance art changes with the transforming cultures in L.A. As a live art medium, however, performance art does have its own centricity, which assumes a certain degree of internal consistency in its
This exposé presents a performance genealogy in L.A. by examining how performance art has transformed from its visual art foundation in the 1970s into a multicentric cultural expression in subsequent decades. From its diverse practices, I observe three characteristic ways in which performance art interacts with L.A., serving reflective, redressive, and generative functions to mirror, critique, and replenish the city's other cultures.
In my conception, performance's multicentricity arises from the interrelations among the reflective, redressive, and generative functions in their respective and joint interfaces with L.A. The three functions address the contribution of performance art to the continuous making of other cultures in L.A. Although they do not represent the artists' conscious goals or individual agendas, my introduction of these functions into a discussion of L.A. performances does honor the artists' intents to situate their works in the immediate physical, social, and cultural environments. This insistence on engagement with immediate others—be they the specific site, the presentation context, the contingencies of process, or the projected viewers—both enables and compels performance artists to reconceptualize the purposes, meanings, and impacts of art-making in a changing world. During such re-envisioning, many performance artists shift their concerns from creating objects or conforming to the vagaries of international art markets to investigating how their work may impinge on the local art and nonart worlds. They also cultivate an attentiveness to the fortuitous happenings and contiguous associations triggered by the performance situations. It is through this shift to the immediate, the local, and the contiguous that the divergent performances covered here acquire their shared identity as L.A. art.
The Reflective Function
Geography and History
L.A. performance art has developed among multiple geographic centers that reflect the region's flung-out, polycentered urban typology. These geographic centers have fluctuated in numbers and varied in qualities, responding to L.A.'s changing cultural preoccupation.
According to Richard S. Weinstein, the primary image of L.A. is of “an extended
L.A.'s urban geography, paired with a history of focused development in the motion picture industry, has produced an art world fragmented and segregated into separate systems, networks, and pockets, including little privatized galleries, theaters, and clubs; underground communes; isolated museums; and other insular art institutions. The city's specific circumstance allowed the dominant Hollywood industry to create its famous “lineal developments”—the Sunset Boulevard and the adjacent band stretching from North Hollywood to Culver City—but it discouraged similar development of a Broadway theater district, an Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway alternative fringe, a So Ho, or an East Village. Before the 1960s there was hardly any significant art world besides that of Hollywood, which attained its supremacy as “the Industry” of L.A. starting in the 1920s. The first gathering places for the city's emergent avant-garde in the late 1950s were isolated spots, such as the Circle Theater in Hollywood, founded by Rachel Rosenthal for her Instant Theater in 1956, or the Ferus Gallery at La Cienega Boulevard, founded by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz in 1957. The development of L.A.'s contemporary art scenes depended on these emergent self-contained and geographically dispersed nodes, or activity centers.
Multiscaled Nodes in Performance History
The existence of various multiscaled nodes of cultural activities dictates the pattern of distribution for performance art; the presence of performance art in turn adds cultural values to those nodes. In some early cases where no permanent nodes were available or desirable, performance art created some nomadic nodes of activities by gathering an audience. In a city where the public realm has been devalued byextreme privatization and the need for constant motion to conquer geographic distance, performance art has actively contributed to the temporary forming of public realms.
Different types of nodes appeared for performance activities in L.A. They
NOMADIC NODES IN THE 1960S
In the 1960s, when performance art was newly introduced to L.A., the nodes of performance activities weresporadic and contingent, as they werecarried— like a snail'sspiral shell—by individual artists. The nodes centered around the sites where pioneering events took place or where performance workshops were taught. These temporarily created, nomadic nodes followed the trajectory of numerous visiting artists who were involved in Happenings, Fluxus, and the Judson Dance Theater in New York City.
Both Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg, two principal figures in New York Happenings, staged influential performance events, according to Moira Roth. Oldenburg's Autobodys (1963) took place in a downtown L.A. parking lot, involving barricades, flashing lights, cement trucks, milk bottles, and other vehicle-related objects. Kaprow's spectacular Fluids (1967) consisted of “building huge, blank, rectangular ice structures 30 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 8 feet high,” with 650 ice blocks per structure, cemented by rock salt. Over a three-day period, volunteers constructed these quasi-architectural ice structures in about twenty places throughout L.A. The event thus featured a performative sculpture in a constant state of fluidity, its performance lasting until all the structures melted and evaporated. These two Happenings by Oldenburg and Kaprow address/reflect crucial elements of L.A. experiences: cars, unpredictability, vigilance, isolation, displacement, spatial dispersion, surprising or fortuitous encounters, and ephemerality.
Another type of activity in the 1960s was introduced by the Judson dancers Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and Alex Hay, who organized performances and workshops on their visits to L.A. Alex Hay and his workshop students eventually presented “One Evening of Theater Pieces” in 1968. As Roth observes, the event produced by Hay “drew several hundred people and provided the Los Angeles art community with its first large-scale encounter with the burgeoning, and sometimes bewildering, art of Performance.”
PEDAGOGICAL NODES IN THE 1970S
In the 1970s, when the artists associated with Happenings, Fluxus, and action art started to get employment in academia, numerous art schools and
The graduate art program at UC Irvine began in 1969, attracting the first class of students who independently transformed their academic art training into performance art activities. These graduate students soon founded an off-campus cooperative gallery called F Space in Santa Ana to accommodate their performances. It was mostly in the F Space that Chris Burden, then an Irvine student, performed a series of daredevil body art pieces. Burden's extreme performances, coated with controversy and mystique, first brought L.A. performance art to national media attention.
The greatest contribution of CalArts at this period was the Feminist Art Program, codirected by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Originally founded by Chicago with a group of students at Fresno State College in 1970, the program moved to CalArts in 1971, bringing many students from Fresno to Valencia. Adopting the proto-performance pedagogy devised by Chicago at Fresno, the CalArts program encouraged the students to recognize the significance of gender and sexual difference in their art-making. Chicago and Schapiro led twenty-one female students to create an autonomous node of feminist activities off-campus: a collaborative environment called Womanhouse. The participants transformed a condemned mansion in residential Hollywood into a site-specific installation and hosted a series of performances for public viewing in this reinvented domestic node between January 30 and February 28, 1972.
The plastic, painterly, and performative activities initiated in Womanhouse created a precedent for feminist organizations centered around the Woman's Building, an educational, performance, and activist node that moved from site to site in L.A. until it closed in 1991. For almost two decades, the Woman's Building served as a hotbed of feminist ideas, a gathering place, and an exhibition space for feminist performances.
WIDE-RANGING NODES IN THE 1980S
In the 1980s L.A. enjoyed a boom in general cultural investment aided by am bitious developers, entertainment moguls, and other financiers, who rode the tides of the land-rush capitals from Japan and Canada. These mercenaries turned-art-sponsors, recognizing “culture”as an asset in the land development process, began to “patronize the art market, endow the museums, subsidize the regional institutes and planning schools, award the architectural competitions,
Prominent among the alternative spaces run byartists, collectors, and writers were the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), both founded during the 1970s and persisting in the 1980s, offering important downtown venues for exhibitions, music concerts, and performances. According to artist Luis Alfaro, there were three major “schools” tying pedagogy to performance art in the 1980s: Tim Miller's “tell it like it is” school centered at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica; Rachel Rosenthal's “doing by doing” school centered at her studio, Espace DbD, on the Westside; and Scott Kelman's “an actor with an idea” school, which ran through several downtown venues managed by him and Alex Wright, including the now-defunct Pipeline, Inc., the Wallensboyd, and Boyd Street Theater. Among these three multifunctional nodes, the most active and diverse has been Highways, established in 1989 by Miller and Linda Frye Burnham, the founding editor of High Performance magazine, which was a significant channel for performance documentation and critiques for two decades (1978–98).
Artist Anna Homler recalled L.A. in the 1980s as a splendid performance town where “every artist was performing in everyone else's show, supporting each other's effort.” A radical art turned Fringe chic, free performances proliferated outdoors, in public plazas, and on the beach. Homler, for example, began her esoteric incarnation of the ancient Breadwoman, putting a fresh loaf of bread on her head and walking through a farmer's market in the mid-Wilshire section of L.A. She subsequently wore a self-baked bread mask as the mouthless Breadwoman (fig. 2) and performed a wave dance in the market. Spectacular large-scale, but low-budget, performances werecreated bytwo directors/artists: Lin Hixson and Reza Abdoh. As art critic Jacki Apple historicizes, a new performance scene coalesced around Hixson, whose collaborative performance pieces usually “began with images and gestures lifted from films”and proceeded to make wry comments on American pop and media culture. The late Iranian-Italian Reza Abdoh, on the other hand, tackled the taboo terrain of sexual subcultures. Abdoh produced performances in abandoned
2 Anna Homler, Breadwoman, 1983. Photo: Susan Einstein. Courtesy of Anna Homler.
This climate of bohemian festivity and cooperative spirit manifested itself especially in the alternative presentation pockets run by individual artists/ curators. At the same time as she assumed the position of performance coordinator at LACE in 1980, Hixson opened her own Industrial Street loft in downtown L.A. for independent performance activities. John O'Brien, likewise, coordinated a series of performance art evenings called “The Pink House” (1987–90) in his own living quarters. He described “The Pink House” series as “no more than a postcard. It invited people to come and see eight to twelve performances. I performed one and I would curate the rest. The works were verydiverse, representing the whole gamut, racially, aesthetically, and [genderwise].” Hixson's and O'Brien's curatorial projects illustrate the isolated formation of interest-generated nodes of performance activities.
Another type of sociocultural node emerged in response to the underside of the Reagan era's materialism. In contrast to the boom that endorsed “the concentration of cultural assets in nodes of maximum development” like Westwood and Bunker Hill, a cultural depression occurred in most of the inner city, where such vital spots “for community self-definition as the Watts Tower Art Center, the Inner City Cultural Center, and the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts” all suffered from drastic cuts. Several emergent community-based art centers, however, proactively countered this aggravated polarity. John Malpede collaborated with the downtown Law Center to start a free performance workshop with homeless participants from Skid Row. A few blocks away from Skid Row, the city-owned LATC, managed by Bill Bushnell and Diana White, began commissioning ethnic minority artists to create performances that would speak to audience members from the immediate neighborhoods.
MULTIFUNCTIONAL NODES IN THE 1990S AND AFTER
The perennial imbalance of economic, political, and cultural assets between the hegemonic classes and others deteriorated during the 1980s. With the onset of recession, the rising unemployment rate, and the white racism exposed by the Rodney King's beating trial, the frustration of L.A.'s “underclasses” erupted in the 1992 South Central urban insurrection. The trauma of South Central epitomized the darkened moods in the performance circles.
A decade's cultural boom proved to be a mirage for many alternative art centers and vanguard galleries. By the mid-1990s LAICA and LATC had folded; LACE moved from downtown to a Hollywood storefront site and stopped producing regular performance art programs. Just as “performance art” became a ubiquitous party topic after the media furor over the “NEA
An interesting twist occurred in the late 1980s and intensified in the 1990s with the accretion of other institutional nodes for performances. The HBO Workspace, housed in the Melrose Theatre in Hollywood, emerged as the “Industry”venue to produce monthly performance programs, focusing on standup comedies. Following the precedents of the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, three well-endowed museums—the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Armand Hammer Museum of Art—all featured performance as a unique contemporary art genre in three major exhibitions in 1998. Performance art has thus found another center in L.A., in the center for canonization in art history. Now that the Getty Museum has begun hosting occasional live performances, we know that performance art is recognized as a staple in the local art and culture diets.
Multicentric Cultural Sites
Since its inception, L.A. performance art has been an art of multicentric locations. The dwindling of presentation venues does not minimize the medium's multicentricity, but rather exacerbates the sense of physical distance among these locations. These geographical sites for performance are conditioned by the city's own polycentered urban structure. Performance art itself as an expressive medium, however, has actively mobilized multicentric cultural sites. These cultural sites are constituted by the artists' identities, their ideological affiliations, the different purposes behind their art-making, and the divergent routes through which they migrate into performance art. I suggest that the multicentricity within performance art reflects the diversity and complexity of L.A.'s own cultural terrains.
L.A. performance art began as an independent medium associated with visual arts. Most earlier performance practitioners identified themselves as visual artists and consciously adopted the emergent medium to contest or dialogue
My research reveals that the shift within performance art has had much to do with L.A.'s history as an entertainment capital without a substantial tradition of experimental art. Many artists are drawn to L.A. because of its mythicized freedom from an established cultural structure that may “dictate norms of experimental behavior.” Even more moveto L.A. for the availability of creative work related to the Industry, which now encompasses motion pictures, network and cable television, commercials and other ads, music CDs and videos, theme parks, cyber-technology, and other design professions. These artists are attracted to the existing opportunities of performance as parallel and often more accessible outlets for their creative energies. They do performances to immerse themselves in an artistic process relatively free from commercial pressures and compartmentalized corporate partnership systems. Still other artists, who have no desire to “break into the Industry,” adopt performance as an immediate medium to explore the hybrid potentials of multiple static and kinetic arts. As for those who are not artists, performance becomes not only their rite of initiation into art but also their passport to the city's imaginary polis of cultural expressions.
An art form driven by centrifugal forces and the logic of inclusion, performance follows atrajectorythat refracts L.A.'sown centrifugal development into an extended city of multiple centers. It perpetuates itself and multiplies through existing artist-run workshops, which recruit students from both art and nonart worlds. These workshops take performance as a flexible method to create live presentations that integrate text, music, movements, and multimedia visual arts. They also teach performance as an approach to selfrenewal, which connotes a more introspective assessment of the participants' subjective locations in the cultural sites that condition and enable their daily lives. This specific local context has complicated performance's standing as an aesthetic medium.
In fine, performance in L.A. has assumed a dual status: as a live art medium and as a mode of cultural expression. The field of actions for performance has become much broader, synonymous with what Antonin Artaud phrases as “culture-in-action.” Performance supplies its practitioners with a set of poitive
The dual status of performance intensifies the medium's multicentricity, reflecting and reinforcing L.A.'s own multicentric cultures, which are shaped increasingly by epochal demographic changes. The composition of performance practitioners, likewise, mirrors the diversity of L.A.'spopulations, differentiated as they are by races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, classes, ages, sizes, physiological abilities, nationalities, immigrant status, professions, areas of residence, ideologies, leisure hobbies, pet-raising tips, cellular phone subscriptions, and cooking recipes. This catalog of multicentric diversity can go on ad infinitum, imitating the heteropolis's limitless horizontality.
The Redressive Function
More often than not, performance is an art form discontented with the status of being just an art form. I use the redressive function to note performance's self-conscious attempt to be more than it should or need be. By virtue of its goals, the redressive function places performance in between artistic invention and cultural intervention; it galvanizes performance to address both the meta-reality of art and the empirical reality of life. Redressive performance, my term for the genre that has grown out of the redressive function, seeks to break away from its self-referential systems of signification in order to merge with the interwoven fabric of social existence.
Performance artists with redressive tendencies follow the renegade spirit of the European avant-garde and the postwar international action artists. They defy the Kantian theory of aesthetic autonomy and insist on a phenomenological involvement with the surrounding perceptual world. They refashion the role of artist from an individual of virtuoso talents to a subject who experiences and fulfills her/his subjectivity by intersubjective engagement. They change the meaning of artistic skills from a masterful control of intentionality to the abilities of creating bonding and interactions with other subjects. The redressive artists relocate the telos of art-making from within the conventional
Performance's redressive function emerges in response to preexisting conditions of crisis, stasis, or malaise that plague the public and private realms. Redressive performance often entails a teleological intent, a purposive action, an interventional scheme, and a readiness to devise and alternate strategies. The performance takes place as a means to an end. The artist tends to invert the McLuhan axiom from “the medium is the message” to “the message is the medium.” Performance's redressive function manifests in various rhetorical guises: parody, satire, accusation, advocacy, supplication, testimony, didacticism. In general, these performative devices serve the purposes of criticism, diagnosis, demonstration, or remedy, depending on the artist's stance and desired degrees of involvement.
Redressive performance may take multiple forms, such as a single-time event, a repeated ritual, a narrative ranting with multimedia spectacles, a boxing match, a pacifist protest, a fund-raising benefit, a long-running workshop, guerrilla theater, an improvised dance marathon, a large-scale activist demonstration, a communal healing prayer, a street parade with eye-catching puppets. The targets of redressive performance—the crisis, stasis, or malaise against which they react—could be social ills (economic inequality, political injustice, environmental hazards, epidemic outbreaks, imperialistic militarism, legalized racial discrimination), ideological prejudices (homophobia, misogyny, racism, classism, ageism, ableism, xenophobia, religious persecution, censorship), or individual dilemmas (psychological traumas, physical violations, inertia, phobias, obsessions, inhibitions, addictions).
Because of its multiplicity, redressive performance is neither inherently altruistic nor always activist; nor does it guarantee redemption. When centering around an individual subject, redressive performance may well be antisocial, solipsistic, reclusive, private, and extreme. Most redressive performances, however, are infused with a certain purposiveness, because they invest in the potential of art to transform life, cause social change, and improve global existence. The criteria of evaluation for redressive performance therefore are concerned less with the look of performance than with the process of its execution,
The Prominence of Redressive Performance in the 1970s
Redressive performance is certainly not particular to L.A. In fact, during the 1970s, redressive performance was the most prominent genre in the field of performance art—so much so that many critics have theorized about performance art of the 1970s only in terms of redressive performance, disregarding other types of performance. Although they do not use the label “redressive performance,” these critics place incipient performance art in the contexts of protest, activism, and rectification. Josette Féral, for instance, maintains that performance art was born “out of a movement of protest against established values,” which represented the aesthetic order of an entire period that privileged representation, rehearsal, memory, and the finished art products. She further asserts that performance art in the 1970s “had a clearly defined func tion ”: that of “contestation.” This function, according to her, disappeared in the mid-1980s, when performance became merely one genre among many others.
Since the function of contestation fulfills the critical purpose of redress, Féral's account attests to the prominence of redressive performance in the international art scenes of the 1970s. I find, nevertheless, that Féral's analysis suffers from a totalizing tendency, subsuming a great variety of performances under the single function of protest. This totalizing tendency also affects her theorization about the sudden eclipse of performance's redressive function in the mid-1980s. Although I am provoked by her distinction between performance as a function and as a genre, I consider Féral's periodization arbitrary. My own observation suggests that performance has always been a genre with many functions among many other genres. Contrary to Féral, I argue that performance's redressive function did not disappear in the mid-1980s but persists today.
Early Strains of Redressive Performances in L.A.
As in the rest of the world, most L.A. performances in the 1970s were redressive. Great diversity, however, existed within this genre. Among the numerous concurrent strains of redressive performances were, notably, the “education of an un-artist” strain of lifelike performances revolving around Allan Kaprow's theory/practice and “the personal is the political” strain of feminist perform ances centered around CalArts and the Woman's Building. Both strains grappled with the collective experiences and ideological constructions pertaining
Common to these early strains weretwo attitudes that have established the conceptual sine qua non for redressive performance: the emancipation of eclipsed values and the empowerment of other subjects. In the first case, redressive performance aims at a conceptual re-formation, so as to liberate the cultural, moral, and ideological values that have become suspect or underrated by the current hegemony. In the second case, redressive performance strives to be an enabling discourse for individual subjects other than those who normally assume the position of power. In a performance situation, “other subjects” most directly signify those individuals other than the artists. As other subjects, spectators in a redressive performance are often jolted from their traditional roles as passive observers to become active participants. “Other subjects” may also refer to the status of the artists themselves, who differ from the hegemonic subjects either by cultural designation or by deliberate choice. At any rate, these artists contest the power assumed by what Audre Lorde calls “the mythic norm ”: “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure.” Ofcourse there are performance artists whose personal identities happen to conform to this mythic norm. They may still consider themselves other subjects due to their emotional or ethical alienation from the mainstream.
These redressive attitudes found expression in the two performance strains that dominated L.A.'s radical cultural margins in the 1970s: lifelike perform ances inspired by Kaprow and feminist performances inspired by the feminist movement. Redressive performances associated with Kaprow's theory/practice seldom make the artists' personal identities an issue; instead, they tend to privilege the audience members as other subjects. Redressive performances shaped by feminisms, however, often invest in the artists' identities as other subjects, while they simultaneously solicit the audience'ssupport and distribute power performatively among artists and spectators.
A veteran of New York Happenings, Allan Kaprow joined the faculty at CalArts in 1969 and soon established himself as a conceptual fountainhead for performance experiments in Southern California. Moira Roth and Linda Frye Burnham, two experts on California performances in the 1970s, have both noted Kaprow's widespread influence—which, through his pioneering performances, prolific critical writings, and various academic appointments,
In 1959, at the Ruben Gallery in New York City, Kaprow set up a threeroom structure divided by plastic walls for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts —an event that gave the name “Happenings” to the performative activities that Kaprow began to produce and chronicle in the late 1950s. Some invited viewers had received instructions and little props from the artist before the event; they expected to simultaneously experience and become part of the Happenings. “There is no separation of audience and play,” Kaprow specifies in his 1961 essay “Happenings in the New York Scene.” His prototypical event at the Ruben Gallery carries out the conceptual sine qua non of redressive performance. He has partially exchanged his artistic control for audience interaction, allowing his artistic subjectivity to be realized through the voluntary participation of other subjects. Moreover, his performance privileges those values that had been dismissed by the dominant aesthetic order of the time. Kaprow's 18 Happenings in 6 Parts relishes aesthetic impurity, incompleteness, rawness, contingency, lack of autonomy, self-reflexivity, impermanence—precisely those elements deemed anathema by the reigning Greenbergian school of modernist formalism.
THE BLURRING OF ART AND LIFE
What I term Kaprow's theory/practice stresses the indivisible tie between his performance work and discursive articulation. Central to his (artistic) corpus is the merging of two (or more) seemingly discrete activities into a dynamic continuum. For him, theory is practice and practice theory. Together they make possible a deliberate space for free play and a prototype of redressive performance. They chivalrously project certain redressive functions in those group activities known as Happenings, which are preplanned yet largely improvised, hence lifelike. “Happenings are not just another new style,” argues Kaprow. “Instead, like American art of the late 1940s, they are a moral act, a human stand of great urgency, whose professional status as art is less a criteria than their certainty as an ultimate existential commitment.” These notes on “a moral act” of “great urgency” and on “existential commitment” implicitly link Happenings with two philosophical schools identified by Kristine Stiles as establishing “the fundamental political and philosophical condition” of performance art: Sartre's existentialism, which privileges conscious individual action, and Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology,
In proposing that art and life can or should be blurred, Kaprow presumes that a division between them exists; hence, the need for remedial measures to suture the division. The pursuit of these remedial measures, I suggest, delineates the teleology of Kaprow's career. His experimental art activities started out in the 1960s to initiate certain altered “cultural attitudes ” toward the unmarked zone “between what has been called art and ordinary life”; he wished to amend the “manufactured schizophrenia” that preordained their separation. Since the 1970s Kaprow has merged art-making with teaching, which is, supposedly, closer to life. In this vein he published a series of essays entitled “Education of the Un-Artist,” a three-part manifesto/curriculum that proposes such categories as “Artart” and “Nonart.” The former presumes the condition of spiritual rarity and devotional seriousness in creating art; the latter is “whatever has not yet been accepted as art but has caught an artist's attention with that possibility in mind.” I find Kaprow's coinages pertinent in that they both problematize the taken-for-granted attributes of art and foreground the spectrum of possibilities in the liminal zone between the special field of art and the convoluted, multicentric, yet mostly unself-conscious, terrains of life.
UN-ARTING VERSUS ART-ARTING
Kaprow's educational program proposes essentially three objectives: (1) unhinging the artists from their preoccupation with “Art art,” (2) training artists to perceive the richer and more fluid textures of “Nonart,” and (3) enabling artists to “un-art” themselves and give up any reference to being an artist. To me, this program offers a redressive procedure that may alter or deconstruct the stagnancy of a normative condition. As implied by his coinages, Kaprow is firmly ensconced in his identity as an artistintellectual, even though he does not make that identity an issue in his theory/ practice. The normative condition in Kaprow's life and work might include a combination of an intense inquiry into the role of art in life, a constant evaluation of his own life/work position as an artist or an un-artist, and the inevitable negotiations with what he regards as the “moribund” conventions of art. Accordingly, Kaprow's redressive performances, which comprise his work as an artist, a critic, and a teacher, consist of dislocating that normative condition and un-arting himself, in order to utilize other possibilities of life. He intends to jettison the assumption that art is “a profession lacking inherent utility,” so as to direct his artistic gifts “toward those who can use them: everyone.”
But not everyone is a Kaprow. Those whose normative condition of life has little to do with art might actually desire to art-art themselves, escaping into the aesthetic autonomy of art, thereby counteracting the excessive utility of their lives. The best artistic gift for one who has no basis for un-arting might be the gift of art-making itself. The education of an un-artist would then have little utility value for those nonlife-ists who toil daily in the spheres of nonart and long for the momentary transcendence of art art. Nor would the task of un-arting hold particular appeal for artists whose identities as artmakers, unlike Kaprow's, cannot be assumed and often have to be selfconfirmed, as is the case for women artists and artists of color in L.A.'s current art world. Although in his capacity as university professor Kaprow has trained several successive generations of artists, including males and females, Caucasians and other ethnic Americans, his specific educational proposal for un-artists may not be applicable to all.
The strongest alternative to Kaprow's un-arting agenda in the 1970s was the rise of feminist performance art, which coincided with the country's feminist movement. Inspired by the feminist movement's redressive campaign against the subjugation of women as a gendered class, feminist performance art aimed to undermine or rectify the cultural mythology of gender hierarchy. That many women artists chose performance as their medium was far from coincidental. As a relatively young medium, performance was not yet fully colonized by male artists, so there werefewer institutionalized obstacles barring women's practice. Performance also offered the collective environment sorely needed for many women artists, most of whom suffered from isolation, lack of selfesteem, and doubts about their desires to practice art. Live performance helped these women process the information gathered from consciousness-raising meetings. The democratic format of consciousness-raising, which gave everyone a chance to speak, in turn influenced the permissive scope of feminist performances. The interactive context of performance, moreover, enabled these artists to gain proximity to an immediate audience, whose presence validated their art-making efforts, built up a spectatorial community for moral support, and offered a dynamic circuit of emotional, intellectual, and social exchange.
To be sure, not all performances by women advocate feminist causes, nor do they all concern experiences related to the female gender. I argue, however, that most performances shaped by a feminist awareness are redressive, for they consciously confront certain gender-specific values, criticize the discrimination based on sexual difference, and empower the artists as other/ female subjects. Most feminist performances from the 1970s, the first fertile
Many of the putatively gender-specific distinctions between male and female art treated by feminist performances are now open to debate, if not to charges of essentialism. When they were first conceived and publicized, however, these distinctions documented an ongoing struggle by women artists to subvert an entrenched patriarchal culture. Contrary to their male colleagues, who had the privilege to consider the benefits of un-arting, the first generation of feminist artists had to confront a cultural status quo that discounted, even ridiculed, their claims to artistic subjectivity. The normative condition of their life was to accept as axiomatic the assumed contradiction between their gendered identities as women and the status of being artists, for “artist” was a category historically constructed in Western culture as coincident with “the straight, white, upper-middle-class, male subject.” The intervention of feminist consciousness, however, propelled women artists to act against the grain by exposing their normative condition as a distortion resulting from sexual discrimination. They fought for their right to create serious art that acknowledged their sexual difference, redressing their cultural invisibility.
THE FEMINIST ART PROGRAM
Feminist performance art in L.A. gained initial momentum through the founding of an educational program and the construction of a collective environment—both strategies aimed at establishing an autonomous society of women that nurtured female-centered explorations. As mentioned earlier, the Feminist Art Program began in 1971 at CalArts, where Kaprow also taught. The first class of female students began their education of art-arting themselves by collaborating with one another to build a performative environment: Womanhouse. With both humor and earnestness, Womanhouse demonstrates what Kaprow regards as a compelling aspect of nonart: the evanescent process whereby nonart is transformed into art. This collaborative environment exhibits the largely unseen and undramatized aspects of women's experiences in a domestic/domesticated setting. Not only are these nonartexhibits lifelike, but they are also framed and displayed as art.
Every re-created room in Womanhouse reveals and comments on the routine activities carried out by the conventionally unpaid domestic laborers— women in the house. The kitchen, for example, is wittily remade into an in
THE WOMAN'S BUILDING
Womanhouse established a prototype of a collective feminist art environment by offering women artists spaces, colleagues, and viewers for installations and live performances. This feminist prototype found a more permanent basis with the opening of the Woman's Building in 1973. A collaborative project with strong activist and educational initiatives, the Woman's Building housed the Feminist Studio Workshop—“the first independent feminist art-education institution” —and operated as a public venue for emerging women artists to gain access to an audience. It further addressed the efficacy of performance in feminist empowerment by hosting the first documentary exhibition of West Coast women'sperformance art. Because of its reputation as a cohesive women's art community, the Woman's Building quickly attained national visibility, attracted many more established women artists from across the nation to try out their performances, and effectively legitimized the nascent performance art medium. The presence of the Woman's Building attested to the need for a redressive institution that would foster the making of other cultures. Although not all performances bywomen during this period were sponsored by the Woman's Building, the institution's prominence heightened public interest in the burgeoning genre and succeeded in placing L.A.'s feminist performance on the map of contemporary art in the United States.
REDRESSIVE STRATEGIES IN PERFORMANCES BY WOMEN
The performances by women artists in the 1970s present a rich array of innovative strategies for redressive performance. The majority of these pieces adopt intentionally amateurish techniques, an agit-prop impetus, and kitsch sensibilities to subvertthe mainstream preferences for artistic neutrality, intellectual abstraction, and methodological
The images, metaphors, and materiality of food, for example, are featured prominently, perhaps because food-making is traditionally a woman's labor/ work. In a pioneering piece, Ritual Meal (1969), created by Barbara T. Smith while a graduate student at UC Irvine, a group of guests are invited to a formal dinner served in test tubes and other laboratory apparatus by waiters and waitresses garbed in surgical masks and gowns. The guests are offered masks and rubber gloves as their dinner attire, while they listen to tapes of heartbeats and discordant sounds. Inserted in a fantastic context, the quotidian behaviors of eating and offering food, shift their meanings from sustenance and routine to slaughter, incision, dismemberment, and sacrifice. The use of food in Ritual Meal finds a disturbing echo in Laurel Klick's Suicide (1972), in which Klick slashes her wrists and drenches her torso with red paint, turning her body into a sacrificial sight and her death into a meal to be devoured by a group of men (played by women) who make callous comments on her suicide. The techniques of displacement in Smith's piece and sardonic hyperbole in Klick'spoint to their redressive functions, which render ordinary aspects of women's lives extraordinary, ambiguous, hence worthy of dramatization and invested observations.
To bring into performative visibility hitherto unmarked sights is the impulse behind many redressive/feminist performances. This impulse is primarily redemptive, with the pleasure of transgression an added bonus. Thus, many pieces deliberately challenge decorum, taboo, and the moral order of the day to bring forbidden subjects to light. They excavate the mysteries of birth, menstruation, procreation, female sexualities, aging, and dying, so as to remove the perceived stigmas from these psychobiological, and often genderspecific, experiences. Some of these pieces are extremely private, self-oriented, verging on confessions. They redress personal traumas and phobias, turning the individual artist/subject into an emblematic figure, an every woman.
Rachel Rosenthal's The Death Show (1978) exemplifies the type of autobiographical performances that have become especially associated with feminist art (fig. 3). Accompanied by aticking metronome, Rosenthal reminisces about her initiation into various types of dying from the death of her pets: a teddy bear from childhood, a kitten born defective, and a beloved cat who said “au revoir ”to her before it died. She mimes the lurking of a “thousand deaths”that she has experienced by using a sharp knife to slice off the fingers of her black gloves one by one, exposing her blood-red nails. The ritual leads to the unveiling of the “Icon of the Fat Vampire,” represented by an old photograph of
3 Rachel Rosenthal, The Death Show, 1978. Photo: David Moreno. Courtesy of Rachel Rosenthal.
Another provocative feminist artist who has mobilized autobiography as a propelling force in her performances is Eleanor Antin, who was a colleague of Kaprow's at UCSD and performed at the Woman's Building and LACE. Antin pushes the concept of autobiography beyond a record of a self made through time, into a mobile zone of possibilities where a self can be remade. In a series of performance quests from 1972 to 1986, Antin explored a set of personas that both crystallized and expanded her malleable self. These personas included the King, the Black Movie Star, the Ballerina, the Nurse, and, most elaborately, Eleanora Antinova, a fictional black ballerina from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Inher earliest lifelike performances as the King (beginning in 1972), Antin puts on “a false beard, a grand chapeau, a velvet cape, and leather boots over denim jeans” and strolls around Solana Beach (in northern San Diego County) to converse with unsuspecting passers-by as subjects in his kingdom. While Antin adopts masculine signs (the beard, the kingly garments) and a regal attitude as the King of Solana Beach, she does not fully alter or disguise her feminine-marked figure—in one of her portraits as the King (fig. 4), her cleavage is tantalizingly visible. Her impersonation plays with the juxtaposition of a residual self (traces as female) and an other self (the King) as a histrionic add-on. This juxtaposition visually mocks the limits of a gendered self, undermining its socially assumed fixity to turn it into a playful performance. Most intriguingly, Antin carries on her transformation without erasing her own personal identity as a Jewish woman. Thus, her performance of autobiographical fictions stands as one of the earliest feminist works to investigate the intersection of gender and ethnicity.
At the other end of the spectrum from self-oriented work is a type of redressive performance that decries the violence of rape, incest, sexist conditioning, and social oppression. Ablutions (1972), a collective piece by Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandy Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, includes a duet and some solo actions: a woman methodically winds gauze around a sitting, naked female; a woman nails beef kidneys on the rear wall; two other naked women bathe themselves in tubs containing eggs, blood, and clay. Broken
4 Eleanor Antin as “The King,” 1972. The image is one of four formal photographic portraits first exhibited at the Stretffanoty Gallery in New York in 1975. Also shown was a videotape of the artist applying her beard and transforming into the King, photographic images of the “life performances” in which the King walked around his kingdom (Solana Beach, California) talking with his subjects, plus a number of the King's Meditations (watercolor and ink drawings). The artist also presented a live performance in the gallery. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.
5 Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandy Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, Ablutions, 1972. Photo: Through the Flower Archives; reproduced by permission.
These redressive performances with a gynocentric ethos exercise a feminist revision of the established, masculinist culture's definitions of aesthetic veracity and criteria. Some women artists have attempted an alternative method of artistic creation through collaboration and collective works, trading the glory of single authorship for the political and spiritual efficacy of coalition. Characteristically, their strategies include both defensive measures and offensive tactics, mixing redressive with generative functions in performance.
On the defensive side, these women artists search inward, into their private lives. Following the feminist axiom “the personal is the political,” these artists seize upon the political power of personal expressions to advocate their interest. Through introspection they reclaim their bodies from patriarchal pos
On the offensive side, they expose the arbitrariness of traditional values that universalize “male genius” at the expense of women artists. Against the dominant decree of objectivity, feminist artists intervene with performances that foreground their subjective viewpoints and emotional investment. Against the Kantian claim for the disinterested nature of art, feminist performances unveil the masculocentric complicity within such a claim. The artists protest the psychic and physical violence done to women's bodies by enlisting their own bodies performatively as contested sites where nature and culture meet. Being other subjects, these artists take performance as a public cultural forum through which to empower themselves, to question their persistent marginalization, and to make their own histories happen.
Redressive Performances and Multiculturalism
Both Kaprow's nonart stance and feminist artists' proactive stance succeeded in broadening the boundary of art, even if they did not overturn the hegemonic systems. Their diverse theories and practices evinced alternative conceptions of art. In their work, art is education, advocacy, social critique, cultural service, existential contemplation, spiritual discipline, emotional engagement, psychosomatic healing, activism, guerrilla resistance, and affirmation for the self as well as empowerment for others.
These new equations werethe redressive messages transmitting from the performance medium bythe early 1980s, when L.A. was fast changing into a megalopolis populated by other subjects. During the next two decades the city witnessed a host of predicaments: the widening gap between the rich and the poor; the worsening of the AIDS epidemic; an increasing drug problem; a high rate of illegal immigration; de facto segregation of different racial/ethnic groups, especially through the class line; disintegration of the social commonwealth during the materialistic 1980s; and economic recession in the early 1990s. The heteropolis suddenly sensed the burden of its precarious multicentricity. On the one hand, persistent crises became more pronounced: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other prejudices—all pointing to intolerance for people because of their otherness, variously embodied in their physiological peculiarities, sexual orientation, health, immigration, or economic status. On the other hand, L.A. launched a quest for redressive strategies to deal with these crises, if only to salvage the city's image.
In response to the city's quest to improve its sociocultural conditions, an ironic coalition occurred in L.A. around the mid-1980s among corporate developers, government and academic institutions, the mass media, and freelance performance artists. “Multiculturalism” emerged as both the cause and effect of this contingent coalition, producing an answer to the city's redressive quest. By fluke or by fate, multiculturalism became the newly minted ideological currency in which disparate constituencies invested their trust, cash, euphoria, discourses, and performances. Multiculturalism appeared to be the latest panacea to all social problems, the buzzword for granters and employers, and an overnight cause célèbre that promised a brighter rainbow future for this bulging citadel poised between Latin America, the Pacific Ocean, and the Bible Belt over the hills. Always already multicentric, L.A. found an ideological twin for its multicentricity: multiculturalism.
REDRESSIVE PERFORMANCES BY AND FOR OTHER SUBJECTS
The collusion of divergent forces and predicaments in L.A., intensified bythe rage of multiculturalism, produced a cultural climate conducive to redressive performance. Although multiculturalism itself would soon be put under public scrutiny and academic unraveling— as all trend-setting movements are—redressive performance would endure as a ubiquitous genre during the 1980s and early 1990s. Redressive performance came forth as the emergency aid to the social ills that troubled L.A., for it offered countermeasures against the erosion of public conscience. In its highly adaptable formats, redressive performance was a uniquely suitable means for artists to conduct a subliminal or activist cultural campaign for tolerance. The genre supplied a seemingly ideal vehicle for multicultural expressions, thanks to its affinity to other subjects, its sympathy toward repressed values, and its ability to draw together a community of spectators and participants.
With the rise of multicultural consciousness, many artists who considered themselves other subjects—ethnic minority artists, gay and lesbian artists, artists with physical disabilities, immigrant artists, artists from alternative lifestyles, artists with proactive social visions and programs—adopted redressive performance as their medium of choice. Like feminist artists in the previous decade, these emerging artists used performance to explore issues concerning personal identities, politics of representation, and cultural in/visibility. Their redressive performances attacked social mores, engaged in grassroots activism, and affirmed their own disenfranchised communities. In their manifest configurations, redressive performances became thoroughly multicentric. The dilemma of being an/other in a city filled with other subjects was a central paradox treated by new strains of redressive performance. These works made by and for other subjects have greatly complicated the connotations of being an/other in a multicentric habitat such as L.A.
Recent strains of redressive performance follow the expanded conceptions of art as pedagogy, resistance, activism, healing, self-determination, and community building. At their best, these performances pursue numerous possibilities in tandem with a strong version of multiculturalism: to acknowledge the pertinence of race, to accept the irreducible presence of difference/otherness, and to encourage the representation of diversity. At their most simplistic, redressive performances ostensibly invert but practically duplicate the dualistic structure of the current hegemony, posing the uniformly perverse oppressors, who usually represent a single sex/race/class matrix, against the uniformly victimized others. While performances that adopt such a polemical approach may serve to expose social injustice, they often fail to recognize the contradictions and heterogeneity within any single constituency, or to challenge the pernicious reasoning behind entrenched social hierarchy. Consequently these performances obscure the interactive dynamics at work among diverse groups within a multiracial/ethnic nation such as the United States and forfeit the opportunities for serious self-critiques directed toward the subjugated individuals and communities. In the worst scenarios, redressive performances are reduced to superficial propaganda for a given ideological cause (be it nonartism, feminism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism, separatism, or holism and environmentalism) without substantial inquiry into the cause and its relation to other causes. In these cases, redressive performance, instead of being a liberating force, becomes a confining simulacrum of its own illconceived teleology.
The Generative Function
At least two levels are involved in the generative function of performance in L.A. On the internal level, the function deals with the medium's intrinsic aesthetic properties rather than its extrinsic efficacy. Performance's generative function in this context contrasts with the redressive function. Art performance, a live art genre imbued with an exclusive interest in its own medium, characteristically makes no attempt to connect with the surrounding environment of L.A. On the external level, however, performance'sgenerative function complements the redressive function to alter the cultural environment of L.A. I use the generative function in this expanded context to signify performance's ability to generate an alternative theater culture in L.A.
Art Performance and Place
Framed within a self-referential context, performance's generative function concerns the medium's intrinsic aesthetic properties and their abilities to engender
By stating that the place has little bearing on the generative function intrinsic to performance, I do not deny the subliminal influence that a place exerts on artists and their activities. Indeed, even the most “objective” factors of a place—say the climate, sunshine, earthquake threat, traffic, architecture, and ecology of L.A.—affect an artist's lived reality and thus her/his imaginary outputs. Besides, “the place” may be chosen by the artist as subject matter, a theme, or a character in a performance. I distinguish, however, between L.A. as a performative representation and L.A. as the surrounding environment. Should L.A. become thematized in a piece, I hold that the performance is about L.A., rather than necessarily of L.A. A performance about L.A. doesn't have to happen in L.A.; it can be conceived and produced anywhere. A performance of L.A., conversely, cannot exist the way it does without the particular L.A. that has inspired and produced it at a given time/space axis. A performance of L.A. may happen in L.A., or it may travel to other regions and countries as L.A. art. Given that all the performances treated here are fundamentally of L.A., I understate the import of L.A. in my present analysis only to emphasize art performance's individualistic, relatively autonomous, and self-referential qualities.
The generative function intrinsic to art performance has less to do with the external than the internal environment wherein the art-making takes place. Art performance gains momentum from the innate condition of the performance medium; the medium, however, encompasses simultaneously the artist, the method, and the formal contents (message), featuring a triangular zone of fluid interactions. The artists distill their methods from interacting with the medium, thereby creating the “internal environments” for their artmaking. Onthe whole, art performance practitioners generate new works after intensive studies of the medium's aesthetic/conceptual properties and limits. They immerse themselves in a gestating process whereby they gain a command of the medium through practice, a keen examination of other performances, and an awareness of the conventions, fashions, and innovations within the art world. The artists working in the vein of art performance usually have already achieved a certain level of technical expertise prior to the performance.
The generative function is tied in with performance'sstatus as art art, rather
Art Performance and Theater
It is useful at this juncture to recall my earlier definition for performance art as an intermedia visual art form that uses theatrical elements in its presentation. Art performance takes an acute interest in those theatrical elements— time, space, action, performer, spectator—as the problems and materials posed by each project.
My choice of the term “theatrical” inevitably evokes one of the thorniest issues in theorizing about performance in earlier decades: the relation between performance art and theater. This somewhat pedantic issue has troubled performance artists, art historians, and theater commentators alike, especially those who practice in New York City (because it is an active theater town) and in L.A. (because it is an active movie town without a strong experimental theater tradition). The L.A. producer Scott Kelman, for example, once organized a symposium entitled “Theater or Performance, What's the Difference?” Heset up a debate, with four people on either side, representing theater and performance art. For Kelman, the answer to his question was “Who cares.” He never expected a conflict in which the participants accused him of spawning a hostile environment. Kelman's experience suggests the intense controversy over the issue under debate, even though the issue itself centers on the naming of categories in theory rather than the exigencies and hybridity of mixed-media practices, which both theater and performance art are. Since I argue that art performance approximates theater art, a revisiting of this contentious issue is in order.
Suspicion against Theatricality
Linda Burnham began a 1979 essay on performance art with a disclaimer: “There are no performance artists in Southern California. There are some 30
According to Kristine Stiles, many early visual artists “vehemently rejected the term performance art ” because it “inappropriately connotes theater, not visual art.” Tothem “theater” means “entertainment,” which is farthest away from their goals as visual art practitioners. Some other artists, like Kaprow, use live actions to stress a ceaseless existential state, an art/life continuum that denounces the reification of art into a sacred zone of specialized activities. They may not oppose to the idea of entertainment per se, yet these un-artists resist calling their performance activities “theater” because theater signifies an intentional artistic frame and a materialized action displayed in front of a live audience. To them, such signification is confining, for their performance can just as well be nonartistic, lifelike, thought of and carried out only in the artist's head without being witnessed by any live viewer other than the artist's own consciousness. The third group of artists dissociate their work from theater because of theater's conceptual proximity to pretense, fantasy, make-believe, illusion, and simulation. Chris Burden, who was, with Kaprow, one of the most celebrated Southern California action artists in the 1970s, has claimed that his body art projects were real-time live events distinct from the “more mushy” world of theater. “It seems that bad art is theatre,” said Burden in a 1973 interview, “Getting shot is for real… there is no element of pretense or make-believe in it.”
In my opinion, these antitheatrical tendencies all pivot on certain restricted definitions for theater as a style and a cultural institution. Only Kaprow's nonart stance has achieved a degree of theoretical sophistication, because it rejects theater on the basis of a wholesale skepticism against all art arts. The other two tendencies—seeing theater as entertainment or as simulation—both privilege visual art over theater only to betray their own high-art snobbery. Such high-art snobbery is so ingrained in the visual art world that Timothy Martin, in his catalog essay on L.A. performance for Sunshine and Noir, justifies featuring Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy bystating that “they had the good sense to stop performing. ” I see the two tendencies, united by
THEATER'S STATUS AS ART
Kaprow'snonart stance exemplifies the attitude typical of many redressive performance practitioners. Although most redressive performances incorporate an essential component of theater—the audience—the artists not only shun the use of traditional theater spaces but also avoid theatricality as a performance style. “Theatricality” here is understood restrictively as technical proficiency, fantastic fabrication, character transformation, and representational illusionism. Many redressive performances deliberately employ incompetence as a political or conceptual gesture. Instead of well-scripted and meticulously rehearsed presentational polish, redressive performance stresses real-time, task-oriented, ephemeral events. Insofar as a theater piece can be considered a more complete product than a redressive performance, theatricality is indeed a value traditionally associated with art, hence subject to critique by redressive performance. These nontheater (un)artists distinguish their work from theater as part of their dispute with the art world's fixation on professional expertise, which ensures a predictable level of aesthetic aptitude and consistency. By problematizing those received professional values and standards, redressive performance manages to open up the performance medium as an expressive mode for amateurs, nonartists, un-artists, as well as artists not trained in either visual art or theater.
THEATER'S TIE WITH ENTERTAINMENT
The equation between theater and entertainment is partial, if not arbitrary. Richard Schechner, in Performance Theory, posits efficacy and entertainment as the two poles of a continuum of intentionality for all performance activities, which he further classifies into five general types: aesthetic theater, sacred ritual, secular ritual, sports, and social drama. Schechner offers a prodigious “Performance Time/Space/Event Chart,” subsuming both Happenings and performance art under the category of “aesthetic theater.” Schechner also argues that “[no] performance is pure efficacy and pure entertainment.” While Schechner's classification may be debatable, I believe his argument convincingly establishes the fallacy of linking theater solely with entertainment and exposes the puritanism of denying any hint of entertainment in performance art.
The prejudice against entertainment is often unexamined. In Presence and Resistance, Philip Auslander cautions against the anti-entertainment bias as an avant-garde reflex that should be questioned in our late-capitalist society of mass-media saturation and professional crossovers. Heeding Auslander's warning, I argue that entertainment is not necessarily an illegitimate cause
THEATER'S ESPOUSAL OF SIMULATION
The link between theater and simulation is undeniable, yet the judgment against theater/simulation is often unreflected and self-righteous. Such ajudgment is corroborated by an inherited moral habit that believes in an absolute dichotomy between honesty and lie, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, designating superior social values to the former entities. I urge that we fine-tune this inherited dichotomy, for although its clear-cut system of binarism is, for certain purposes, necessary, it is, in essence, arbitrary. As a legal necessity, the dichotomy has to be assumed by general consent. As a belief system, however, the dichotomy is just as artificial and mediated by human will as any other belief system. In our daily existence we are obliged to follow the order of this legalized belief system and to presume the virtues of honesty, fact, and truth. Theater gives us an antidote to this routine belief by being an art form that operates in another belief system: it truthfully confesses its own untruth.
Herbert Blau describes theater as “a moving fiction, a lie like truth, a mere cast of thought.” He beautifully captures the paradoxical nature of theater's belief system: “What is there is not there. What is there is an evanescence, an
Victor Turner expands Blau's analysis to focus on theater as a simulacrum of good faith. What I noted as theater's belief system follows the logic described by Turner as “the subjunctive mood of a verb,” used to “express supposition, desire, hypothesis, or possibility, rather than stating actual facts.” Let me reiterate both Blau's and Turner's observations: Theater is a living artifact that thrives on the premise of “as if,” presenting in all sincerity the perceptual framing of an embodied illusion. The theatrical illusion is simultaneously a transformed reality and a disappearing presence that resembles, evokes, intimates, defers, or temporarily substitutes an absent world—be it the world of the historical past, the unverifiable psyche, the reassembled fantasies, or the current events outside the theater proper.
Blau's“laminated illusion” and Turner's“subjunctive mood” echo Antonin Artaud's famous analogy for theater: the double. The “double” is a notion formally associated with sorcery. A double is a spectral duplicate, an alchemical substitute, and a phantasmic parallel of the perceptual “real,” which is supposedly the double's material origin and counterpart. The double ranks in the order of simulacrum, dream, magic, illusion, metaphor, and shadow; it inhabits the world inside the mirror; it is a conspicuous copy of the Platonic ideal, flamboyantly defying Plato's moral hierarchy. Theater is par excellence a medium of the double, which conflates two extreme qualities: that of mirage and that of corporeality. A place to see, hear, sense, and partake of the play of doubles, theater allocates a special, agreed-upon time to celebrate the symbolic and actual congregation of the players' and spectators' imagination. Theater is therefore a belief system that recognizes the virtues of ambiguity, of imaginary and visceral exchange, and of the heavy matter-ness and the essential ephemerality of human embodiment.
If I've established so far that theater is a belief system devoted to projecting concrete phantoms, then I must agree with Chris Burden'saccusation that theater is guilty of “pretense and make-believe.” Yet, I question, does this unabashed espousal of disguise necessarily make theater “bad art”? I have no intention to argue with Burden's personal opinion, which carries the authority of his own “body art” practice (a type of performance that takes the artist's body as the subject matter, source, and object of art). As mentioned earlier, Burden's career attained its high profile in the early 1970s as a fascinating sample of L.A. performances. His “bodyworks” continue to represent an extreme facet of L.A. art. Burden's disdain for theater, moreover, represents a typical attitude among many of his coeval visual art-based performance artists in L.A.
Chris Burden's Extreme Art Performance
Within a short span of five years (1971–75), Burden produced a variety of live performances that can best be described as minimalist transgressions. All achieve a high degree of visual economy and conceptual provocability typical of “minimalist” aesthetics. They also enlist Burden's own body as the primary art material, invariably pushing this body to the limits of endurance, pain, and danger, thereby transgressing the commonsensical rule against self-harm.
In Contract with the Skin, Kathy O'Dell uses the film theorist Deborah Linderman's notion of “limit-texts” in assessing Burden's “masochistic performance.” O'Dell's angle is insightful, considering that Burden's body art pieces, always on edge, are precisely “limit-texts,” which “quer[y] a boundary that is normatively repressed in other texts.” I propose, however, to read Burden's performances not in the context of masochism but as limit-texts for art performance. In my view, Burden's work deals less with the erotic psychodynamic associated with masochism than with the intrinsic condition of the performance medium. I see Burden's body art as a type of extreme art per formance, for his projects invest in the artistic potentials of those elements constitutive of the performance medium. His live performances evolve from reconsidering how to manipulate those intrinsic elements to the extreme, addressing them at their limits so as to express his own artistic subjectivity at its limit. By continually testing the boundary of these elements, Burden locates the generating force to create new limit-texts for art performance.
BURDEN'S F/ACTUAL PERFORMANCE
Stripped down to essentials, the intrinsic condition of performance emanates from the flexible matrix of time, space, action, performer, viewer—the very elements I call theatrical. Burden might, given his disdain for the “mushy” theater, object to my qualifying those elements as theatrical. Our difference at this point, however, is no more than a semantic issue, a question of naming and categorization. As such, it can neither deny the validity of my analysis nor change the nature of Burden'spractice. Itsimply indicates that wehave different assumptions about what “theater” means.
I take a more inclusive approach to theater, regarding theater as a multivalent signifier and site enlivened byan intentional engagement with the timespace-action-performer-viewer matrix. Burden's take on theater is restricted to the notion of simulation, with its implications of pretense, make-believe, fakery. This is the reason behind Burden's judgment of theater as a “bad art.” In order not to do “bad art,” I surmise, Burden stresses the actuality of experiential extremity endured byhis body during performance as the essence and
LIMIT-TEXTS FOR ART PERFORMANCE
Increating extreme performances, Burden'sobjectives might include any combination of the following: to pursue innovation, experiential knowledge, and self-transcendence; to demonstrate his courage, machismo, witticism, and dedication; to compose sensational visual images; to construct the mystique of an extraordinary artistic persona. His means of achieving these objectives, however, involves a recurrent confrontation with the basic elements of performance, stretching each to its (antitheatrical) extreme.
In Bed Piece (1972) Burden sleeps in a single bed placed inside a gallery for the duration of the entire exhibition (February 18 to March 10). He does not speak to anyone during the performance. The curator Josh Young, on his own initiative, provides food, water, and toilet facilities for the sleeping artist. The time for this endurance performance lasts twenty-two days. The space is framed by the boundary of the gallery, and the bed becomes the stage entirely occupied by a performing body. The action involves the artist/performer sleeping, encompassing the invisible scenario of his dreams and meditations and the biological drama of his sweat, stench, snores, and other metabolic effects. Most viewers experience or imagine the impact of this performance through the photograph documenting the action.
In a contrasting piece, Doorway to Heaven (1973), Burden pushes two live electric wires into his chest, while a few spectators watch the action taking place in the doorway of his Venice studio. The wires cross and explode, burning the artist, yet saving him from electrocution. A magnificent pyrotechnic image from this performance itself becomes a displayable art product. In this piece the time for the simple physical action lasts only a few minutes, yielding an instantaneous climax and an actual wound borne bythe artist/performer. The performance happens in a semi-open space, witnessed by a few invited and random viewers.
These two pieces exemplify the general aesthetics and ethos of Burden's
I suggest that the most striking distinction between Burden'swork and theater lies in his habit as a visual artist of producing displayable artworks out of live performances. All of Burden's performances are accompanied by a formulaic method of documentation—a set of exhibits consisting of a catchall title; a photograph of the artist/performer in action; a text succinctly describing the time, the space, and the action score, plus records of audience reactions; and some props—called “relics” by Burden—left from the action. This schematic documentation can be exhibited long after the performance is over. A photograph from a theatrical performance can seldom be evaluated independently from the original production; it is appreciated more for its historical and documentary value than for its worth as an aesthetic object. A photograph from Burden'sartperformance, conversely, is designed as a performative artwork in and of itself; it is enriched by yet detachable from the original performance to become both a document and an aesthetic object.
ACTUALITY IN PERFORMANCE AS A BELIEF SYSTEM
Despite Burden's claims, actuality is not the key that distinguishes his body art from the “bad art” of theater. Although theater embraces the premise of pretense, the actors who embody fictitious characters have to actually experience the dramatic transformation of their live actions, as much as Burden the artist has to experience his own nondramatized persona through f/actual actions. Actuality exists both in theater and in art performance, albeit in different guises. As my analysis indicates, theater and performance art presuppose a different ontology for actuality. The actuality in a theatrical performance is intended to be shared by performers and spectators together in a designated time and space. Theatrical actuality arises from a social communion among consenting bodies. The actuality in Burden's art performance, however, is primarily experienced by the artist himself, with or without the participation of a live audience. Hence, this important distinction: whereas a theatrical production has to be experienced and witnessed live for it to be theater, Burden's art performance can be experienced conceptually as a legend. Burden himself has realized as much in commenting on the conceptual nature of his bodyworks: “the very instant the work is made … it starts to become a myth.”
Despite this difference, I find Burden's evaluation of theater as “bad art” self-serving, because it fails to acknowledge the similarities between his work and theater. Burden's antitheatrical f/actual performance resembles theater in that it also operates as a self-referential belief system: it truthfully declares its own actuality on the level of the artist's personal experience. Although Burden might believe otherwise, his body's actual experience of endurance, pain, and risk can never be physically ascertained by an other. Even for those who witness his action live, the affect of Burden's f/actual performance is still mediated to some extent by the viewers' suspension of disbelief (as if that affect were provoked by a theatrical illusion). Burden himself seems to be aware of the belief system at work in his f/actual performances; he has even turned that belief system into the subject matter of a piece, White Light/White Heat (1975; fig. 6).
In between the ceiling and floor of the Ronald Feldman Gallery, a triangular platform is constructed according to the artist's specification, allowing him to lie flat without being visible from any angle in the gallery. For twentytwo days, Burden lies flat, fasts, and remains silent on top of the platform without being witnessed by any viewer. The truthfulness of the action is declared by the routine set of documentation prepared by the artist, but it cannot be empirically verified by others. Faith, as a currency exchanged in a belief system, is the emotional task required of both the artist and his visitors to experience White Light/White Heat.
Burden's bodyworks established a strong precedent for art performance in L.A. Of course, it is impossible to know whether Burden would have done similar types of performances had he resided in any other part of the world. History tells us that contemporaneous bodyworks were created in New York City, Europe, and Japan. Since Burden's extreme body acts address the archetypal theme of human embodiment as it intersects with performance's intrinsic components, they have only a coincidental relationship with L.A. This recalls my thesis that art performance, the genre corresponding to performance's intrinsic generative function, is individualistic and self-referential rather than region-specific. The documented existence of Burden's extreme body acts in L.A.'sperformance history, nevertheless, adds to the frontier mystique of this coastal metropolis, illustrating an aspect of its fringe sensibilities. The generative function of performance has spurred Burden to engender unique art performances; it has also enriched the performance cultures of L.A.
The Making of a Performance/Theater Fringe
Burden's ambivalence toward theater ironically points to the external effect triggered by performance'sgenerative function: its fortuitous impact on L.A.'s
6 Chris Burden, White Light, White Heat, 1975, documentation of a one-man show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, February 8 to March 1, 1975. Chris Burden's own documentation for the event reads: “For my one-man show at Ronald Feldman, I requested that a large triangular platform be constructed in the southeast corner of the gallery. The platform was ten feet above the floor and two feet below the ceiling; the outer edge measured eighteen feet across. The size and height of the platform were determined by the requirement that I be able to lie flat without being visible from any point in the gallery. For twenty-two days, the duration of the show, I lay on the platform. During the entire piece, I did not eat, talk, or come down. I did not see anyone, and no one saw me” (from the caption label attached to Burden's photo document). Courtesy of Chris Burden.
By citing performance as a model for theater, I wish to acknowledge performance's contribution to the art/culture/entertainment ecosystem of L.A. Before the 1980s L.A. was known as an entrepreneurial port for mass entertainment without an experimental or avant-garde tradition in the performing arts. The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 was for most Angeleno/as the first exposure to the experimental theater work imported from New York and Europe. “That kind of work had to be done in Los Angeles by performance artists,” noted Burnham in 1986. Her remark registers that performance art was, at least till the mid-1980s, the experimental/avant-garde fringe in L.A.
This avant-garde fringe was first established and occupied by visual artists in the 1970s. Most of these artists, like Kaprow and Burden, guarded their work against any suspicion of “theatricality.” Rachel Rosenthal, for instance, has complained that she was not accepted by most peers because her work was theatrical: “It's only after many years of practicing performance that performance artists became more and more theatrical themselves, and so now I don't stick out as much as I did in the beginning.” Ironically Rosenthal emerged as one of the most influential teachers of performance art in the 1980s. Her Dbd workshops were taken by visual and nonvisual artists alike. Rosenthal's experience reflects the shift within performance art after the 1970s that I noted earlier. By the end of the 1980s performance art had departed from its visual art lineage and revised its initial antitheatrical interdiction to become a methodology open to multicentric experiments.
Two factors converged amid the cultural boom of the 1980s to make performance a particularly user-friendly medium in L.A. First, the presence of a local audience in tune with 1970s performances encouraged new experimental activities. Second, the structural proximity of performance to theater enticed the participation of many theater-or media-trained actors. The result was a gradual blurring of distinctions between performance art and experimental theater during the last two decades of the twentieth century, facilitating the rise of an alternative theater culture in L.A.
Burnham offers the insight that performance art was actually “an audience,” a group of self-selected individuals who were more “tolerant, informed, and adventurous” than the conventional theater or movie-going public in L.A. How did this performance art audience train itself? Onsite, according to Burnham. More than other paying customers, the performance art audience was willing to join the artists in “risk taking”—since there was no telling of what would transpire during a performance. This audience's prepared lack of expectation in turn licensed the artists to show novel, hermetic, repulsive, half-baked,
The development of performance art in L.A. soon affected the world of performing arts. As Burnham observes, when performance art became hot currency in 1980s art/culture/entertainment circles, theater groups and producers began to ally themselves with this live art medium for the purpose of acquiring its audience, sponsors, funding sources, publicity outlets, and cultural visibility. The surge of interest in performance experiments and the availability of presenting venues in turn attracted artists trained in the performing arts, especially actors who floated in between dreams of stardom and a life drifting from unrequited auditions to transient employment.
For actors, performance art promises a self-determined career. Since performance art has incorporated theatrical elements, it is not impossible for actors to acquire a performance dialect out of their own live art training. The creative autonomy exercised by performance artists as independent authors/researchers/presenters offers an alternative to the chain of command in the conventional movie and theater worlds. Actors are inspired to self-produce their self-scripted solo performances, taking initiative in designing their professional paths. Through artist fees and touring opportunities, performance provides actors a means of quick exposure and economic survival—however minimal—while allowing them to continually hone their skills. Most important, performance art motivates actors to generate new works for the perceived freedom, power, and value of individual imagination and self agency projected during performance.
As the constitution of its practitioners has changed, so has the art form. Actors' entrance into L.A. performance art has added a strong theatrical accent to performance art, refashioning it as an alternative theater culture.
Beyond the Generative Principle
The generative function of performance, on both the intrinsic and the extrinsic levels, has moved the genre from its initial visual art center toward multiple other centers, theater being one of them. This centrifugal trajectory in the performance medium mimes the broader developmental patterns in L.A. The diverse field of performance therefore presents a facet of multicen-tric LA. Performance art resembles L.A. to connote an existing hybrid space where individuals of multicentric persuasions can claim their residency and
My narrative about performance's generative function reflects the perspective of a theater critic who welcomes the creative possibilities performance art offers to theater. To be sure, someone from a visual art perspective may regard the transmuted field of performance art as a conceptual mayhem and feel disenchanted, agitated, and demoralized bythe changes. Tome, however, such a defensive mood inadvertently echoes the sentiments that some Angeleno/as have expressed about immigration. Performance appears as a microcosmic refractor of L.A. cultures even in this respect.
For whatever reason, theater artists' and other creative personalities' migrating into the liberal territory of performance art has coincided with many visual artists moving away from this live art medium and resettling in other areas. Kaprow, for instance, has transferred his energy to teaching and to nonpublicized lifelike rituals. Burden has returned to sculpture and installation from his extreme body acts, leaving his notoriety/celebrity dangling in public memories as just another California myth. Other “old settlers,” including both artists and critics who first practiced and promulgated the performance medium, have been more vocal in their resistance. They seem unwilling to forsake their perceived proprietary right to naming performance art and regard the present field as a Babelian spectacle of morbid proliferation. Emblematic of this distress over the loss of the “original” performance art is a 1994 High Performance article entitled “Performance Art Is Dead/Long Live Performance Art”by Jacki Apple, a visual/performance artist and critic. Reviewing Apple's article suffices to note the change within performance art and the resulting tensions in the L.A. art world.
Apple's polemic opens with a declaration that performance art “seems to have disappeared into a fault line in the cultural terrain, swallowed up by theater and entertainment on one side, and the commodity driven art world on the other.” Inside the fault line, she sees performance art as absorbed by confessional texts and “splintered by the politics of culture (both multi and money).” Thus, sweepingly, Apple targets several supposed beneficiaries and opponents of performance art: theater, the entertainment industry, the capitalist art market, the self-oriented narratives, and multiculturalism. Her apocalypse-tinged analysis soon singles out theater as a usurper, “where actors and actresses who write their own material perform solo skits under the misnomer of ‘performance art.’ ” Apple judges that these theater artists have misappropriated performance art:
How ironic that a visual art form that initially positioned itself as anti-theatrical, and later was accused of being “bad theater,” should end up more often than
This passage, albeit from an antithetical standpoint, confirms my argument that performance art has mutated from its visual art origin to its present theater affiliation. Yet I have reservations about the antitheatrical inflections in Apple's comment, especially her implication that the one-person show is inferior because it duplicates conventional theater. In my view, conventional theater is not necessarily inferior; besides, many actor-created solo performances square with the autobiographical strain of feminist/redressive performance. Instead of being an ironic degeneration, as Apple would have it, solo performance can be seen as a recent genre developed within the performance art tradition. Apple's suspicion of text-based solo performance then reveals an antitheatrical elitism. Her allegation that “new performance artists” are ignorant of their chosen medium is likewise biased. Some of these artists may have entered this relatively young field precisely because it invites further experiments. If we consider that performance art has always thrived on hybridization and amorphousness, Apple'sconsternation regarding the changed field verges on territorial protectionism, if not xenophobia.
Like a besieged old-timer who mourns for the loss of precedence, Apple immerses her text in nostalgia for performance art's “visual art roots.” Her subtext seethes with the desire to conserve the turf for what she believes to be the true-blue performance art, described ingeniously—à la John Cage—as “a perceptual intervention.” Apple maintains that “traditionally the politics of performance art was covert rather than overt,” while reiterating performance art's identity as “a genre of work within the visual arts.” However legitimate her definition is, Apple inevitably delimits performance art according to her own preference and ideological investment, thereby reducing the genre's aesthetic, conceptual, and political possibilities. On behalf of feminist performance, for example, I would counter that the medium's radicality lies in making “the personal is the political” dictum overt. Apple's version of performance art suffers from unacknowledged reductionism.
Without exonerating myself from a similar reductive tendency, I wish to stress that performance art was already diverse and contradictory in its nascence. Further, performance art has changed to the extent that L.A. has changed. The newcomers to the “nation” of performance art are bound to
The Limit and Potential of Multicentricity
My version of performance genealogy in L.A. reflects the working of multicentricity as an epistemic principle, which informs my perspective in historicization and coordinates my map for contemporary L.A. Simultaneously shaped and conditioned by my own centricity, my version can never fully represent the performance genealogy in L.A. In fact, it can hardly delineate in full what I know about L.A. performances. By the same token, my account cannot fully supersede others, nor can other accounts fully invalidate mine. Although I strive to offer the best within my present capacity, my work cannot stand alone as the authoritative text. Rather, it depends on other works that assess performance from multiple other perspectives to paint a more complete picture of the medium's presence in L.A. This is not to suggest that all versions are equally sound, or to neutralize their differences and contradictions, and least of all to exempt any single account from critical scrutiny. On the contrary, the awareness of multicentricity allows me to espouse my own perceptual/conceptual centricity, even as it simultaneously obligates me to acknowledge the limits—both the blank center and the vivid circumference— of what constitutes my centricity. For the multiple other centers that coexist with mine will likely expose the deficiency of my centricity/subjectivity, even as they complement my lack.
Just as the paradigm of centricity in a multicentric universe is inherently (decentered and) fallible, the concept of multicentricity has its limit. The dilemma of multicentricity is predicated by the complex relations between subjective perceptions and material conditions. Multicentricity adheres to a relative value system, which is strong in asserting the interconnection between perception and materiality yet weak in resolving their discrepancy. Because of its relativity, multicentricity tends to suppress the validity and potential benefit of a more “absolute” value system. Moreover, this concept is powerless in dissolving the de facto hierarchy within a less than relative material world. This is why multicentricity cannot replace polarity in L.A.
Multicentricity promotes the value of subjectivity by foregrounding the power of individual perceptions in forming a picture of material reality. Nevertheless, it cannot account for the fact that individual perceptions often derive from material basis beyond the individual's control. There is indeed an objective grounding to one's notion of reality, although one's notion of reality cannot unilaterally alter the objective grounding. Since I live in an implicitly
My performance genealogy, being interpretation, is no more valid than Apple'sversion. Our different versions, however, describe similar patterns of transformation within performance art, thereby pointing to the existence of what I've called “objective grounding.” I may state that performance art is a broadenough territory to accommodate all practitioners, but my statement cannot increase the resources for those who must compete in the field. The “nation” of performance art may have a founding constitution elastic enough to welcome “immigrants,” but, up to a point, it must start contemplating both the meaning of its newly emergent “nationhood” and the aporia of psychological uncertainty and material scarcity resulting from its elastic constitution. I've argued for the need to reconceive performance art's multicentric nationhood. My argument is nevertheless unable to resolve the aporia inscribed in this hybrid medium's founding constitution, which encourages the migration of self-motivated personalities into its rank, thereby securing the prospect of its own transmutation.
A melancholia of dislocation is adrift in a multicentric vision, for the multicentric subject can neither exercise absolute control over her/his own center nor possess firm knowledge about the multiple other centers that frame her/his lived reality. Besides, multicentricity cannot ensure universal euphoria, ration equivalent fulfillment, or manage available resources. The only certainty it affirms is the obligation of individual action and the necessity of self critique amid a teeming, slippery, and conflicting world.
Multicentricity is a proposal enacted by my exposé, an individual performance that declares its own power to change how we understand contemporary performances in L.A. Michel Foucault once mentioned that intellectuals can best contribute “instruments of analysis” to the world. I present multicentricity then as a performative instrument of analysis that projects its power—precision, validity, and pertinence—to probe L.A. performances. With multicentricity, I carry on an inquisitive action in the time/space—the interwoven components of a site —provided by this book.
At this moment of utterance, the analytical power of multicentricity is both contained and ephemeral, exactly like that of a performance. The concept
Multicentricity also serves as my proactive strategy to uncover the multicultural ecology of L.A. Multicentricity recommends the terms in which we conceive of cultural relations among disparate constituencies; it nevertheless promises no revolution to overturn existing conditions, nor to reproduce a brave new world with boundless wealth, health, happiness, and justice for all. I propose this notion to stimulate the circulation of a different cultural attitude toward the contemporary world, avowing the centricity (or, viewed from a different angle, the marginality) of each cultural, social, sexual, racial, ideological, and religious group, despite each group's predetermined position in the current hegemony.
I take performance as an art practice most indicative of the cultural states of many Los Angeleses. Performance resembles L.A. to be simultaneously a singular entity (a particular art medium) and a conglomerate of discrete enti ties (divisible into many genres). There are many Los Angeleses; hence, there is always an elsewhere—another and other Los Angeleses—somewhere in L.A. A similar analysis applies to performance. Since performance is a broad and diverse category, I can hardly produce a panoramic text that tackles all performance genres in their respective complexity.
The three (reflective, redressive, generative) functions that I use to analyze performance's cultural positioning in L.A. by no means exhaust a hybrid medium's interactions with a hybrid city. In fact, when I include the three, I am simultaneously excluding multiple other functions from my performance genealogy. Worse, the three functions raised here are already insufficient to evaluate most performances covered in the following chapters, for these works either encompass all three functions or jettison any analytical category. I call these performances multicentric, knowing that multicentricity is itself a performative concept with merely the present-tense validity. While multicentricity still awaits its cultural validation as an analytical instrument, I can almost anticipate its obsolescence by the time my book is published. I am confronting the Beckettian conundrum all over again—I cannot go on; I must go on.
To characterize contemporary performances in L.A. as multicentric is to demonstrate their diversity, coexistence, and plenitude, but also to disclose their tensions, contradictions, and negotiations with their immediate cultural environment. My ultimate task lies in avowing and critiquing my own centricity in a multicentric universe that I travel and chart. For I am energized but also framed, circumscribed and hence confined, bymy own center, a plexus of subjectivity sculpted by cultural conditioning and modulated by personal and social networks. I deal with the predicament that the more works I cover, the more keenly I am aware of the works left out. I face the enigmas and richness of my others whose embodied actions elude my naming. Mymulticentric narrative, then, performs the anxiety of terminology, the tangles of temporarily chosen words, the battles of territories and ideologies, the scars left on flesh by fire-spitting tongues. It also remembers some splendid, self-disappearing monuments built by diverse, colored bodies. From the edge, they signal the nothing that will remain at the center.