Artists, Critics, and Spectators in a Hetero-locus
My naming of the genre in question as “self performance” is, to some extent, controversial. The artist Joan Hotchkis objects to the term because, to her, the word “self” connotes individualism, narcissism, egoism—ideas antithetical to the sociopolitical intention of this work. Worse, Hotchkis adds, the term conjures up the popular pursuit of psychoanalytical therapy in this country. Detractors have used the very reference to stigmatize self performance artists as perennial complainers, even self-indulgent hypochondriacs, who arrest an innocent audience for their own problems. “Is it art, or is it therapy?” the critics question. “Is it art, or is it social work?” goes another version. But I wonder: Why must there be such a division? Why can't a work
Since self performance openly tenders fragments of an artist's re-dreamed life, the enactment of a piece is literally a double passage of being: a living and reliving through atime/space from which the stuff of self is extracted—fished, as it were, from an opaque swamp. And if self performance not only resembles but enacts life, then this comment by Gilles Deleuze on writing may also apply to performance:
Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. It is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traverses both the livable and the lived. Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or vegetable, becomes-molecule to the point of becoming imperceptible.
The live body on stage performing is not merely the specimen of an individual life; s/he is also the surrogate for myriad other lives, both present and absent from the performance site. The singular life displayed is then an instance of and a canvas for what Deleuze calls Life. In self performance, one becomes one's self-representations, becomes one's significant or malignant others, becomes one's critics, fans, clinicians, patients. One becomes one's nostalgic home/site, schizophrenic motherland, and present utopia. One becomes one's dead memories in a grave or instant salvation at a checkout counter. One becomes one's immediate and projected communities.
“Performance artist, heal thyself,” calls Miller, reflecting:
By sifting through my own sense of deep need, as it speaks to my observations and participation in a community, I identify a hot-spot. I explore the feelings surrounding this theme. I propose some plans of action that address my own needs and might possibly be of use to others in my community. I desire to convert our private and communal fears into a courage to connect with each other, to convert the anxieties we face in these troubled times into a deep commitment to face the challenges in our daily lives.
I call a therapy useful if an individual self is repaired. I call a performance inspiring if a damaged body is metaphorically dissected, its wounds exposed, medicated, or sutured, while an ambition for health or at least enlightened sickness is communicated. My validation of self performance as a potential healing and community-building tool is not to deny critical encounter with this work. I merely urge us not to condemn self performance for its working
Liberal cultural critics, impelled by what Cornel West calls “the new cultural politics of difference,” tend to refrain from rebuking the sociocultural underclass. West cautions, however, that such hesitation ends up denying individuals from those classes “the freedom to err.” As a critic who is an other subject sympathetic toward the cultural politics of difference, I have to alert myself not to become ideologically blind to the limitations and grandiose claims that have affected some self performances. I attempt to exercise what Román describes as “amode of criticism that is neither adversarial nor polemical.” Román candidly points out that a critic's work “is never objective; moreover, it affects the very artists under consideration—psychically, materially, spiritually. And yet despite the claim, critical generosity is never about conceding to the artist's intentions or authority.” I believe that both the critical process and self performance aspire to a similar function: to stimulate cultural debates about the dominant social mores that have become so ingrained in our daily lives that we no longer perceive their artificiality and their power to debilitate our best judgment and fair conscience. In this respect, my critical project joins Román's cultural practice, which responds to the challenge set forth by Jill Dolan in Feminist Spectator as Critic: to “institute a dialogue that resonates beyond the confines of an insular community.”
The desire for radical sociocultural change fuels most self performances. To ensure the possibility of a dialogic process, the genre's practitioners typically assume an equal footing with their multiple audiences, for no fair exchange is possible without the participants' awareness of their own positions in a specific context. Thus, unlike the involuntary audience who chanced upon Gómez-Peña's Loneliness in an elevator, the spectators who come to a heterolocus such as Highways are seldom innocent. They might not leave the space satisfied, convinced, or converted, but they have come to the hetero-locus anticipating a live solo performance, a theater of enacted and displayed self. Most likely this random assemblage of self-selected spectators functions as witnesses at the performance site. Being witnesses, to quote Diana Taylor's eloquent analysis in “Border Watching,” these spectators consent to participate in “a different scopic economy than peeping or watching. Gone is the comfort of perspectival vision—the safe vantage point from which the visual field is opened up and organized before the seeing ‘I’ that leaves the viewer out of the frame.”
The witnessing others who are directly addressed byaself performance artist lose their freedom to be undisturbed. “The border has suddenly moved,” Taylor continues, “it's no longer a question of the outer looking at the inner— we [the spectators] inhabit the expanded border zone of the ‘inner.’ There is
Knowing the schizophrenic U.S. context that at once practices and disdains individualism, longs for and mocks self-healing, I deliberately use “self performance” in lieu of “autobiographically based solo performance” to open up the conceptual implications of “self.” Whether they agree with my terminology or not, the selected artists' works challenge the monolithic understanding of “self” as a transcendent, egotistical individual, free-floating in a degravitated, others-proof solitude. I admit that whining self-indulgence may well flavor some self performances, but the self represented in my selections is much more troubled, expansive, multiple, and radically intertwined with others. For the task of naming oneself is ever complicated within a hetero-locus, a queer space, a deviant site, a subaltern-commune-in-transit.
Self performance proffers a sheltered arena for a subjugated individual to publicly name, disclose, and legitimize her/his selfhood and otherness—the secret collage of strangeness that affects us all. The complication of self-naming becomes doubly so within a hetero-locus because the artist, as an estranged or othered individual, has never been granted unearned access to a transcendent, competent, and unproblematic selfhood. The pursuit of identity definition, especially for one whose subjectivity is presumed to be suspect, impure, or queer, must at least be doubled. It requires simultaneously the deconstruc tion of her/his internalized oppression and distorted self-images as well as the reconstruction of an emergent, provisional, and temporarily cohered (if not fully coherent) drama of self-identity. Self performance signifies the demonstrated series of the artist's deconstructed/reconstructed self—or rather selves—retrieved or reimagined from her/his episodic auto-narratives. The deconstructive procedure often involves the dismantling, evocation, or parody of cultural stereotypes that confine the artist/self. The reconstructive proce-dure entails the compositions of auto-mythologies, the mythic retrieval and acquisition of one's singular identity (e.g., as a woman; a Latino; a panhandler;
With both the deconstructive and reconstructive procedures, the artist cannot but be the perceptual center who gleans, assembles, and sifts from diverse sources—memories, diaries, family albums, ancestral lore, cultural fictions, outright fabrications—the heterogeneous fragments of a self-in-progress, a contingent, ephemeral, but fervently enacted body/subject, a corporeal entity that Chela Sandoval names as “tactical subjectivity” and Norma Alarcón proposes as “a subject-in-process.” Whatever terminology we choose, I submit that the subjectivity portrayed and enacted by a self performer is both decentered (as traces that scatter all over the piece) and recentered (as auto-inscriptions acted out here-and-now in a communal/theatrical site). This perceptual center embodied by the artist recalls my concept of decentered centricity laid out in Chapter 1 and points to the dominant concept-metaphor developed here: the hetero-locus.
Up to this point I've used “hetero-locus” to explain the cultural and geosocial locations of Highways as a site where signs of otherness are sanctioned, shared, and exchanged among artists and spectators. “Hetero-locus” is also an apt metaphor for a self performance by an other subject: “hetero” signals the decentered/recentered contents of the performance; “locus” conveys the perceptual center—the artist—who offers these contents to those who congregate at the designated site. Insofar as the performance site itself bears no relation to the spectators before an event starts, the artist who draws the individuals together is the body actively creating the “locus” where a miscellaneous group will inhabit for a certain duration. A compound triple-effect then takes place when a self performance happens within a hetero-locus like Highways. The artist, who is the perceptual locus bringing forth an auto-narrative, creates the occasional locus —the self performance itself—which gathers an audience within the geocultural locus, Highways. This sequence contains two key concepts: the artist-agent who creates a communal occasion for individuals to witness a self-presenting action and the multiple loci—the perceptual, occasional, geocultural sites—activated by such artistic agency.
The artistic agent becomes linked with the multiple hetero-loci through a crucial element: time, which virtually engenders, assembles, and dissipates all inhabitants inside a performance site. At a certain hour (say, by 8:30 p.m., the regular show time), two predominant types of spectators arrive at Highways: one is what we might call Highways' in-house audience community, composed of regular patrons; the other comes from the multiple cultural communities to which the artist belongs. The artist, together with the spectators who might experience various degrees of complicity, constitutes the
Based as it is on a joint currency of collaboratively consumed time, self performance, unlike a conceptual performance, draws its energy from an immediate—not a virtual—audience. It takes advantage of live theater's potential efficacy to cohere and define a “spectatorial community.” As a form of theater that attracts intersecting cultural interests, self performance can overcome the geographic dispersion and cultural segregation of an urban locale that prides itself on a perpetual and rapid circulation of time. “Time is money!” goes a Hollywood truism. In the industrial standard “movie speed,” every “art consideration” has to happen and be executed yesterday, for it to be sold tomorrow—today seems to be eclipsed bytoo much trafficking smog. A commercial theater activity, with a high price tag, might still fit into this economy as a quaint cousin from a bygone village. A noncommercial, anticorporate, and community-oriented theater work, such as a self performance at Highways, is an anomaly. The value of this anomaly lies precisely in its idealistic reversal of the late-capitalist zeitgeist of L.A. Today is the spring wind of May, the utopian seal in Shakespeare's love sonnets, that breezes through the affective locus of a self performance.
My insistence on the primacy of time in a self performance has a larger theoretical implication. As the genre practices identity politics, I emphasize its temporary modality to tackle the suspicion that practitioners of identity politics necessarily constrain themselves and homogenize their affiliated cultural communities. I find it hardly possible for any live enactment—be it self performance or not—to fix the meanings of the materials conveyed. Neither the artist's “identity” nor her/his “politics” can be adequately “essentialized” by a self performance.
As Amelia Jones argues in a context related to solo body art, the artist's self/identity embodied in a performance is never “completely legible or fixed in its effects”; rather, the artist's self-re/presentation, “through its very performativity and its unveiling of the body of the artist, surfaces the insufficiency and incoherence of the body/self (or the body-as-subject) and its inability to deliver itself fully (whether to the subject-in-performance herself or himself or to the one who engages with this body.)” In other words, even when self performance artists continually expose the multiple layers that constitute their identities, they can never guarantee that the meanings of their enacted selves will be fully intelligible to themselves or to their mixed spectators. Self performance provides a temporary sanctuary for artists to reiterate explicitly the
This uncertainty of communication—even when explicit meanings have been uttered—is exacerbated by the peculiar condition of theater, for every assertion made in a performance site only begins and always ends with the actual performance. Time, a dramatic persona favored by Shakespeare, is ever present to turn all images and words into unverifiable memories—our march toward mortality, alas, never ceases. Given this theatrical logic, or reality principle, nothing performed or lived can be held to the test of permanency. Just as the affective locus for a self performance technically does not exist prior to the scheduled show time, so the artist's “self” exists at best as an amorphous unknown before a self performance starts. There is no predetermined selfidentity worn by the artist like a set costume. On the contrary, the artist's performative action itself constitutes, displays, and disseminates the impressions of a self through time. Thus, self performance presents nothing but shards of an individual life temporarily illuminated for the occasional gathering of witnessing others.
At this point, another distinction must be made between the artist's display of self/identities as a performance and the artist's own continuous engagement with her/his self/identities in life. My commentary pertains to the former situation, which is, moreover, viewed from a critic/spectator's perspective. I imagine that from the vantage point of the artist, who is after all the protagonist in her/his continuous autobiography (till death do they part), the unfolding of a self performance does not stop with the end of a show. It merely suspends itself in mid-breath, hibernating amid the memory of others' applause, in anticipation of the next unfolding.