Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Problem with Performance Art

       Of course, there are many problems with performance art.  Self-indulgence, pointless obscurity, unearned gravity – and being boring, perhaps the greatest sin for art. (A hilarious send-up of these travesties is one of many reasons to see the musical Passing Strange.)
       This piece, however, is about the problem of documenting performance art. It's an issue JJS has run into not only while watching and sometimes creating performance art, but also while wondering about performances only heard of by folks such as Eleanor Antin, Penny Arcade, William Pope L., Nicolas Dumit Esteves, and others. The question "How should performance art be documented?" was ever-present in the recent show Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the 
Americas, 1960-2000 at El Museo del Barrio. (El Museuo's definition of the word "action" includes mail art, interactive art, and "interventions" as well as "performance art.")

     The exhibit presents a very wide spectrum of "documentation."  There were, as would be expected, videos and photographs – but there were also instructions, manifestoes, schematic drawings, props, and media coverage (often negative) of performances.
     Upon entering, in fact, no video was visible, which was disappointing at first. But by the time JJS reached the end of the exhibit and had looped around again, it was clear that video is often not the best way to experience archival, non-proscenium performance art. In fact, some of the videos were somewhat alienating – you can feel as though you're missing out on the energy of the work or its relationship to its social, political, or temporal context. Surprisingly, an object can sometimes convey more of the performance's energy.
     For instance, seeing the shiny, 8+foot-long blonde wigs worn by twins in an interactive performance bring the work more alive than a black and white photograph of the performers. Similarly, a typed manifesto from the 70s provides insight in to the performers' perspective and goals that may not be obvious in a video.
     Many of these non-video artifacts were probably exhibited because video from the 40 years of the works was not available. But even when it was available, video was often not ideal. Most of the performances were not in theaters, so the lighting and sound were often bad. And because many public performances – and the responses to them – are unscripted, the videographer can have trouble keeping up with the action. Ironically, objects and media that are incapable of capturing the full audio-visual experience can actually provide a better feel for or sense of the work.

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     An exception to everything written above is a new video installation in the one-man show Work by Bill Shannon, better known to dance aficionados by his breakdancing name, Crutchmaster.
     To experience the major video installation of the exhibition, you sit in a chair with two very large screens to your left and right, forming and arc with another directly in front and one behind you. It's digital video surround-style, showing various NYC street scenes. If you get a chance to see this installation, stick with it; after a few minutes you realize each screen shows simultaneous footage of the same location from different angles. Shannon taped the footage by skateboarding through the streets with six hidden cameras. While the artist realizes – and often styles – the very presence of his dis/abled body as a kind of performance, he himself is visible in only one of the sequences. In it, he dances alone, at night, in an empty city intersection. It is a lovely moment, a quiet contrast to the other crowded, bustling street scenes.
     The work is itself compelling, but it is also useful for thinking about performance documentation. While Shannon's installation obscures the artist, the performer, and his specific performance, the simultaneous video also highlights the performance of everyday activity, and immerses the viewer in that auditory and visual experience. Because the video literally surrounds you, you can feel that you are in the scene and not just watching it.

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     So, what is the best way to document performance art?  There is not one best way.  If the performance is meant for a traditional proscenium stage, then a straightforward video might approximate the live audience experience. (Though I'm sure there was an energy present during, for instance, Yoko Ono's Cut Piece that isn't palpable in the video.) And as compelling as 360° video may be, it is only appropriate and feasible for a small number of projects.
     Aside from demonstrating that performance art and other creative "actions" neither originated in nor were dominated by Europeans and North Americans, the greatest achievement of Arte ≠ Vida is to reveal how much notes, schematics, and other physical artifacts can convey the experience of performance art. After all, most of this genre is not meant to be viewed days or years later; it is meant to be experienced immediately, in the zone that artist Gabrielle Civil calls "performance time." Those of us who miss the actual experience are lucky to get whatever residue or documentation we can.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Arturo Lindsay's LOVE

Love.  Are you rolling your eyes already?  Trite, clichéd, annoying – we think we've heard everything about love.  But love among people of color is still hardly discussed outside of magazines and private conversations.  And it is rarely the subject of visual art.

Thankfully, in his refreshing exhibit at MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts), Panamanian-American Arturo Lindsay gives us a wide and thoughtful range of work.  His humorous covers of a fictional men's magazine – all featuring him, of course, provide a light interlude between much more serious work.

The lush installation in the back room ties earthly human love to religious and spiritual love.  Thousands of shells are layered with other objects beneath floating feathers.  On the perimeter of the circle are four pillars topped with religious symbols from Yoruba-derived practices.  The entire piece is almost enclosed by white gauze, leaving just enough room for one person to walk in and pay her or his respects – if, of course, we were allowed to touch the artwork!

This gorgeous installation leaves you in a peaceful, quiet mood at the end of the exhibition, meditating on the different expressions of love in African/diaspora communities.

But quiet meditation was not the mood at the opening of the exhibit.  Several generations of the Panamanian community turned out to support their son with traditional singing, dancing, food, and lots of energy.  Even Laurie A. Cumbo, MoCADA's director and curator, was surprised by the turnout.  I hope she encourages more community-oriented openings.  Though the place was completely packed, that just forced people to mingle rather closely and have even more fun.

Several weeks after visiting the exhibit, Jujustring saw Lindsay give a talk at "Here & Now" a conference on African-American art and African film.  He was incredibly dynamic, pouring librations for the ancestors and speaking in English, Spanish, and everything in between.  He talked a lot about his own arts activism - check out the art colony and collective he founded in Colon, Panama via his website,

For more info: