The Affective Anatomy of Performance Art
Underlying the awesome performance technology exemplified by my checklist is Lacy's persistent fascination with the self/other dynamics and her ethi/thetics of connection. As a single self, she extends her artistic subjectivity to encompass and interact with more and more others. This expansive orientation entails an intersubjective exchange between the artist's self and her participatory others: Lacy's self becomes reiterated, fragmented, multiplied, and transformed by these others, while these others both take over parts of her self and are temporarily subsumed under her nominal self, the cooperative project that has mobilized them all.
The extended process of preparing and executing a large-scale project binds Lacy with her collaborators and participants. All of them have to devote certain periods of their lives to the gestation and procreation of their communal project. Since Lacy has always chosen to work with participants who are to some extent subjugated, misrepresented, or even victimized, the interactive process of carrying out a serial collaborative action may have potential healing effects. It enables the participants to break out of their habitual isolation and feeling of impotence—to do something and to be seen and known for doing it. The significance of such a project is then measurable in a concrete sense by its scale, which indicates the artwork's capacity to affect the lives of many others by bringing them closer to themselves and to others. Through the open and prolonged process of approaching a common destination, the artist's participatory others are able to claim their own ownership of the path and experience the power of initiative agency. They become, in a functional sense, Lacy's surrogate selves, her other/selves. Or, as Lippard describes it incisively, “for all [the] dispersal, or radiation [involved in a large-scale project], Lacy'sindividual vision remains central. She takes her chosen diversity and forms a new hybrid: a multiple self. Thus she gets to be one woman and all-women: the maid, the bride, and the hag; the light and the dark madonna.”
In an unpublished manuscript entitled “Women in Transition: Artand Public Policy,” Lacy suggests that she takes on enormous community art projects because she believes that artists should take “a responsive, rather than reflex-ive, position of leadership in community life.” Her effort to assume such a responsibility (read responsive-ability) is revealed in a major theme that characterizes
For Lacy, this “other-directed empathy” translates into the desire to understand and connect with the audience, her immediate others in a performance context. Thus, in a later article, “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art,” she emphasizes reconceptualizing the role of the audience as an analytical tool for new genre public art. Since many new genre public performances are situated in “the space between artist and audience,” Lacy theorizes, the process of interaction is often the only art product and the artwork itself becomes “a metaphor for relationship.” This “relationship” exists not only between the artist and audience but also between the audience and the art-making process: “Of interest is not simply the makeup or identity of the audience but to what degree audience participation forms and informs the work—howit functions as integral to the work's structure.” Stated in my lingo, how does the audience voluntarily become, to varying degrees, the artist's participatory other/selves?
It goes without saying that Lacy's conception of the audience is much broader than the conventional positioning of the audience as consumers of cultural commodities. Disregarding the line between the artist/self and the audience/other, she takes “the audience” to be her signifier for a motley and flexible pool of potential collaborators. In “Debated Territory” she compares the audience to “a series of concentric circles with permeable membranes that allow continual movement back and forth,” radiating out from the central artistic core in a rippling effect. For me, the insight of this model lies in Lacy's designation of “responsibility” as the force that propels the vacillating movement among these circles. “Genesis and responsibility are paired in this model, the center equaling the creative impetus. From this center, the basis of which varies from artwork to artwork, emerge images and structures (though not necessarily the meaning—that is completed by the audience).”
If Lacy uses “genesis” to signify the creative energy that emanates from the artistic subject/self, then wemay take her “responsibility”to indicate the self's ability to interact with the projected task and with others involved in the same task. By pairing genesis with responsibility, Lacy simultaneously neutralizes the artist's privilege as the creative genius and compels the artist to maintain, or even to earn, her/his authorship by remaining responsive to vicissitudes.
Since the targeted performance in her analysis is a large-scale and community-based piece, such as The Dark Madonna, Lacy proposes a complex, fluid, and multilevel model for reconceptualizing the audience. Her model begins with the center around which the gravity of responsibility pivots, radiating out to six concentric circles: (1) “The center of the circle are those without whom the work could not exist.” This circle may include the artist alone as the author/performer of one or an ensemble of artists who initiate the project. (2) “The next circle out from the center includes the collaborators or codevelopers, shareholders who have invested time, energy, and identity in the work and who partake deeply in its ownership.” This group represents the true believers, who become engaged with the work after its point of origin. (3) “The next level of participation would be the volunteers and performers, those about, for, and with whom the work is created.” This constituency is often located in the community to which the performance is addressed. (4) “Another ring of the circle consists of those who have a direct experience of the artwork”—the group weusually recognizeas the live audience. (5) The next ring consists of what Lacy calls the “media audience”—“the audience that experiences the work through reports, documentation, or representation. This audience includes people who read about the artwork in newspapers, watch it on television, or attend subsequent documentary exhibition.” (6) Beyond this ring exists “the audience of myth and memory,” an audience of posterity that carries the artwork over time as a cultural heritage or, in Lacy's words, “a commonly held possibility.”
In elucidating her multiple audienceships, Lacy manages to chart what I like to call the affective anatomy of performance art, revealing her understanding of performance as a transmuted genre of conceptual art. Here I propose simplifying Lacy's model to elucidate the essential tripartite anatomy of a single-authored performance, which comprises the creative center, the immediate witnesses, and the tertiary others—without attaching hierarchical value to privilege “original” center or “authentic” account over “tertiary”imagination. In this performance anatomy, the concentric circles represent different
Just as Lacy has stressed that her model is nonhierarchical in intention, so my simplified version does not evaluate the merit of audience responses based on the respondent's actual or virtual experience with the originary performance. A person who reads about a performance, for example, may feel more affected by this virtual encounter than a person who sees it live. Since an artwork's impact on society tends to be subliminal, syncopated, and deferred, I contend that it depends to a great degree on the existence of a tertiary, virtual audience. It takes time and people for a performance to become a memory, a rumor, a myth, a commonly held possibility, an inspiring cultural deposit. I believe this is why most conceptual art-based performance emphasizes documentation of the project, almost to the point of compromising its ephemeral premise. For only through documentation can a performance reach a virtual audience. Hence, Lacy's question: “Is an actualized work more effective than a proposal?” Ultimately, I contend, it is the person who becomes compelled to respond to a performance, even a proposed performance—by thinking and writing about it, by creating another performance, or by starting a community outreach project—who claims cultural ownership of the originary performance. Myargument questions the conventional weight given to the “authorial intention,” “actual experience,” “immediate impact,” “unmediated encounter,” and “verifiable proceeding” of a performance project, but radically validates a tertiary audience/respondent's subsequent conceptual appropriation of the performance as an affective model and a cultural legacy.
The conceptual economy circulating in performance'saffective anatomy that I have just sketched yields a different interpretation of Lacy's large-scale feminist/redressive performances. While these works attack pressing social issues and seek to empower disenfranchised participants by joining them in a temporary community for a common artistic cause, they still exist at best as heuristic models that bridge aesthetic and social occupations. These performances, as we've seen, exercise an ethos of connection, exert immediate influences on the artist's and participants' lives for a certain period, urge positive social change, and instigate appropriate legislative modification in policy-making. It would be harder to claim, however, that these performances are therefore
The Dark Madonna, for example, may have exposed multicultural and interracial tensions among women in L.A. before the problem became coopted by media saturation into just another topical issue. Under the auspices of diverse community organizations, the project may have brought a large sampling of these women together to interact with one another. The year-long process behind the project and the presentation of the final performance pageant may have emphatically demonstrated that such cross-cultural and multiethnic communication is necessary and possible. Nevertheless, the project can neither be held responsible for the persistent racism that plagues L.A. nor be exempt from critical evaluation of its multifaceted expressions as a public artwork, an extended performance, and a cultural product. As Lacy comments, “It is possible that process-oriented public art is at its most powerful when, as with most visual art forms, it operates as a symbol.”The Dark Madonna, in this final analysis, survives as an affective and provocative symbol for Lacy's contribution to L.A.'s performance culture.
During her nearly two-decade tenure in L.A., Lacy engaged in agynocentric investigation of corporeal existence, embodied other-directed empathy, and attacked violence against women. She interrogated inherited barriers to interracial understanding among women, idealistically affirmed the strength, diversity, and beauty of ordinary women, and exhibited their record of survival. Lacy has remapped the artist's self as committed, malleable, effervescent, and vast. Her art denies the antinomy between self and other as predetermined, for she is able to turn the material and psychic borders that guard her artistic subjectivity into the limina that binds her with others. Her largescale feminist/multicultural performances envision the union of multiple others as an expansive communal self. Lacy's legacy in L.A. is one that demonstrates the possibility of performance as a birthing event that connects the self to the world. Her feminist art has engendered other/selves, even just for the duration of a sunset.
15 Elia Arce, pre-performance installation for I Have So Many Stitches That Some times I Dream That I'm Sick, 1993. Photo: Martin Cox. Courtesy of Elia Arce.