Performance Art: Life, Death, and Transmigration
On May 16, 1998, I was watching a rehearsal in an officelike room inside St. Vincent's, a homeless shelter in downtown L.A. The performers were members of Los Angeles Poverty Department (alias LAPD), a performance ensemble founded by the artist John Malpede in 1985 to continue his work with homeless and formerly homeless people in Skid Row areas. Most of LAPD's performances are collectively created by the ensemble, drawing on its members' autobiographical materials. The rehearsal I attended was led by David Halenda, the assistant director, since Malpede was on sabbatical leave. I could tell that the work-in-progress played on the theme of Dr. Faustus as a migrant everyman, being tempted by Mephistopheles in various urban guises. A chorus of divine beings was added to the scene. Halenda instructed the chorus members to laugh as wildly as they could. Although he didn't specify the reason, I understood the subtext to be the equivalence between mortal folly and divine comedy. Madeline Stroup, a woman probably in her seventies, laughed so heartily and devotedly that she won a round of applause from all of us present in the room.
Six weeks later, on June 26, I attended the performance of LAPD's Paul's Place, the piece developed from the one rehearsal I witnessed. Before the show started, Halenda announced that the performance would be dedicated to Madeline Stroup, who had been with LAPD for several years and who had just passed away a couple of days ago. I read through the program that comprised a list of cast members with abrief statement byeach. Next to her name, which was still on the cast list, Stroup wrote, “Here we are again. I hope we're great!” Remembering her rehearsal as a divine chorus member, I wondered if she was playing the role now on a divine stage, laughing at Paul getting lost in his places on the street.
Stroup's unexpected departure gave me a slightly shocking confirmation
So what is performance art? A historiographic account might go like this: Performance art has inherited the renegade spirit of the European avant-garde movements from the early twentieth century, extending the experimental energies manifested in such postwar international activities as action painting, Happenings, Fluxus, conceptual art, body art, feminist art, multicultural art, and environmental/earth art. It has hastened the proliferation of postmodern dance and music and spawned a significant theater genre: solo performance. Itparticipates in community-oriented projects that link art with activism and pedagogy. It also leads the investigation into the interfaces between art, the human body, and technology. As a mode of contemporary expression, performance art encompasses a wide range of conceptual, aesthetic, politicized, esoteric, sonic, kinetic, verbal, and single-or multi-media outputs.
This neatly historicized paragraph, however, cannot convey certain recurrent discoveries during my research. The LAPD story epitomizes these discoveries, which I may sum up here: (1) Performance art is a survival art. (2) Like other live arts, performance art embodies an act of simultaneous disclosure and vanishing; yet its conceptual premise invites the spectator to continue certain forms of imaginary investments after the live event. (3) Small but extraordinary deeds are being done by ordinary people in L.A., a place known for its big-budget pursuits of surfaces.
As I argue in this book, performance art is, above all else, an art of necessity. Performance art once had a reputation of being a provocateur's vehicle to engage in taboo subjects and extreme body manipulation and to stir up ethical or political controversies. After three decades' tenure on the contemporary art scene, performance art has shifted from its underground mystique to being an easy label for any live presentation ranging from the avant-garde to the amateurish. Some performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, have attained international critical acclaim, awards, and almost rock-star fame. To most of the artists covered in this book, however, performance art is still an art form with little commercial value. Even
Historically performance art originated in visual artists' rebellion against the monolithic standard of professional expertise assumed by the art world in the 1970s: a standard commercially defined by the collectibility (i.e., the formalistic polish) of an artwork. The artists' contesting of the implicit mercenary trend succeeded in radically expanding the reified artistic criteria. Such fundamental revision resulted in at least three distinct developments: (1) the equation of mere concepts as art, leading to the “dematerialization” of static artworks in the rise of conceptual art and process art; (2) the incorporation of the artist's body and other time-based elements (e.g., a live audience, a durational project, a presentation based on improvisation and without documentation) as integral components of an artwork, which can be shared temporarily but not possessed; and (3) the insistence on a blurring between art and life, aesthetics and politics, or artist and artifact. These developments have helped complicate the economic standing of performance art as a cultural product in L.A.
Most crucially, performance art's incorporation of transitory elements disrupts the art market's collector ethos and commodity economy. Besides, performance art's broadened function as an aesthetic model with extra-aesthetic efficacy lends itself more readily to existential and social deployments than to capitalist commodification. Both factors are reinforced by performance art's status as a live art, which greatly limits the scale of its public circulation and consumption.
As a live art, performance art shares many characteristics with other timebased arts, such as theater, ballet, and opera. Compared with these more established performing arts, however, performance art offers its practitioner a higher degree of individual autonomy and flexibility. It often places more emphasis on the process of art-making than on the finished art product. Toamuch greater extent than other types of live art, performance art enlists, recomposes, enacts, and exhibits the artist's life. Wemay even dub performance art a “live/life art” to distinguish it from other live art forms. A live/life art inspires the practitioner not only to live art as a framed segment of life, but also to live (a sequence of) life heightened by aesthetic intention as art. This strong desire to commingle art and life may be another reason why the performance artist tends to use her/his body—including that body's materiality and histories—as a ba-sis of performance. Italso motivates the artist'spursuit for interactive encounters with other bodies in the shared time/space of a theatrical matrix.
My argument provides a clue to the emergence of performance art in the L.A. of the 1980s as a mode closely related to the practitioner's perception, construction, and representation of the self —the nominal center for an individual life. As exemplified by the work of LAPD, performance art offers an accessible means for progressive and/or disenfranchised artists—those I call “other subjects”—to produce committed performances that foster the formation of and interactions among diverse communities. These artists practice performance art because they are compelled to, as if their very existence and sense of well-being depended on it. For them, performance art is not just another art-making method with a variable set of formal parameters, but a process of probing and displaying the conundrums of survival as a sentient, cognitive, acculturated being.
While performance art is certainly not unique to L.A., its presence in a city dominated by a powerful entertainment industry has a particular local significance. As the avant-garde film critic David James analyzes:
Hollywood affects the city first as an all-pervading, all-colonizing system of spectacular representation, almost entirely inimical to minority and working-class self-consciousness. But it is also an economic system, an industry that holds out the promise of fame for some and employment for many. On both levels— as a textual system and as a means of cultural production—it affects everything in the city, including other forms of culture. Even if these are initially maverick or adversarial to it, they can only exist in dialogue with it; and even if their intention is to displace it, in however small a way, they often benefit from its resources.
James's incisive critique articulates the complex, and often complicitous, relationships between Hollywood'snear-monopoly and other agents of cultural expressions. Within this nexus, performance art functions primarily as an alternative source of aesthetic production, one that permits the emergence of an/other cultural ecology to resist, bypass, or abate the Hollywood hegemony. In its active cultivation of multicentric habitats for other visions and voices, performance art provides a space of survival for experimental live art. Moreover, its embodied context serves up an antidote to the prevalent postmodern experiences of alienation, segregation, and mediation. Take, for example, someone like Madeline Stroup. For her, “Hollywood” might simply mean the billboards of stars underneath whose shadows she sometimes paused to avoid the sun. But performance art afforded her a sense of emplacement, if not a permanent home, for her last days in L.A.
That performance art was able to render a small miracle in Stroup's life suggests how the process of making a performance may actively serve the performance maker. In this sense, performance art revolves around a paradox: it
An artwork that centers around the self is left to be completed by others. The statement foregrounds metaphorically the circuit of embodied exchanges between the artist and the viewers in a live performance context. The artist presents a rehearsed or improvised action in front of and for the sake of an audience; the audience returns the imaginary gift in kind by contributing its own covert performances —to use “performance” here in its larger implication as an intentional enactment. This scenario is likely to occur in every publicized live action, whose impacts may indeed be gauged by the circulation of explicit and implicit performances from the stage to the auditorium and back. I imagine that the relations between the explicit performance and its implicit others resemble those between a progenitor and its progeny. Like an inverse birth, a hermeneutic space is virtually carved out within the performance proper, so as to incorporate—to put into its corpus— the spectatorial other's tacit and reactive performances. These covert performances include the spectator'ssilent attention, tangential comments, fond recollections, and sustained critiques, during or after the live event. They are born out of the interpretive exchange occasioned by the performance; they hold the prospects of extending the reach of the originary performance. This analogy explains why a performance artist would desire to share the imaginary ownership of a given piece with a spectatorial other. Only when there is a fluid circulation of imaginary currencies can the act of communicative transaction between the artist/actant and the spectator/reactant be marked. And only through such communicative transaction can a performance find an opportunity to be remembered.
To be remembered, a performance has to live at least twice. For the first
Let's recall my earlier contemplation of the interplay between the one and the many, which underscores multicentricity. If an originary performance is analogous to the one, then a prosthetic performance may be likened to a single realization in a pool of many re/creative possibilities. The same thesis applies to the relations between the artist, who is the authorial one, and the spectatorial recreator, who is potentially one among many. The politics of performance art therefore pivots on the dynamics of power, need, fantasy, confrontation, and symbiosis at work between its modal pair: two sentient subjects, each existing for the other—the artist/self and the witnessing/interpreting other. In this light, I suggest that performance art actually supplies a constitutive instance of multicentricity, because the artist'sauthorship or centricity has become conceptually dispersed and shared among many. Itis worth noting, however, that the act of making available such multicentric shareholdership is not utterly altruistic. By surrendering its centricity, or self-sufficiency, performance art engenders its own return as a phantasmic collage for posterior cultural circulation. This magnanimous self-surrender allows and entices a spectatorial other to become a recreator, who dreams up a memory