Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Contemporary Performance Practice essay, 2004.

'Liminal hegemony is the transitional area at an intersection where power relations shift from one state of being to another. At least, that's one definition.'

I loved writing academic essays on my Writing Studies and Drama BA (2001-4). At the beginning of the second half of the second year a light of life-long learning switched on; after 18 months writing blindly and not knowing if I was deluding myself or not and just trusting in the work-rate I was doing (typical mature student), and that the fact I loved it and it felt instinctively right, would lead to something measurably artistic that would lead to me becoming a normal person happy and contented with what I was doing.

Especially in the creative academic disciplines such as Creative Writing, it's all pretty much bollocks anyway. Some say. A theory that crystalised in one of the final core Drama 3002 Contemporary Performance Practice essays: “Discuss the contention that the work of the artists studied on this module, have value as instruments of epistemology within performance.”


'In keeping with the non-traditional nature of the material under discussion, I have chosen to abandon the Hegelian approach in this piece of writing and will adopt a style of presentation which I believe finds resonance with “qualification descriptor” guidelines, which state we must engage in the study of “cutting edge creative scholarly activity,” and which also issues a challenge to what I consider to be, the essentially meaningless debate surrounding the artists we have studied on this module.
   Performance theory is a new discipline and the current buzz concepts relate to exploring performance within anthropological and sociological contexts. The notion of performance occurring at liminal borders of human activity, which are then “framed” or contextualised as performance, is now dominant within the academic performance field of inquiry, and is directly applicable to the material under debate. Rather than posit thesis, antithesis and synthesis I will present my ideas in an experimental and creative manner, the intention of which is to expose what I have termed a contract of “hoax,” which I will expound on later.   

   The modern concept of what constitutes art, arguably underwent a fundamental shift when Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool, and since that time, in the words of Louise Gray writing in The Guardian “..has grown to revolve around a notion of framing.” This would seem to be the case, certainly in relation to the artists under debate within this essay, who have all attracted a large amount of critical debate from within the academic community. One thing they all have in common is that they are all outsiders in some way, who have channelled their unconventional lifestyles into the arena of performance art. Ex drug addict Ron Athey, was raised by his religious fundamental parents to be the new messiah. Annie Sprinkle graduated from prostitute to porn star to performance artist, whilst Franko B and Orlan would seem to have had the most conventional arts background, although Franco B’s turbulent childhood has been well documented.

   My argument is that, in the clamour for intellectual sophistication within the academic avant-garde of the performance community, the “envelope” of what constitutes serious art is pushed further and further into liminal spaces with an ever-quickening momentum. This is because performance theory is essentially meaningless, in the sense that it has no effect on the material world, and so engages in elaborate “fictions of belief,” in order to justify and bestow a sense of meaning and worth upon the activity of theorizing about performance. When the topic of performance theory is raised in critical discourse the George Orwell quote below springs to mind.

“…the concrete melts into the abstract…. consisting less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” 1

    Much of the debate surrounding this embryonic area of performance engages with a post-modern language in a poetics of justification using fashionable neologisms that have been generated over the last twenty years by the disparate strands of various critical discourse which few outside “lit-crit” university departments understand. Much of the criticism relates the changing role of the body with the decline of traditional Judea-Christian and Cartesian systems of belief and interpretation of the world. Highly intricate and ephemeral logic is employed to demonstrate why a self harmer bleeding in front of an audience, a woman prizing open her vagina for detailed inspection, a woman undergoing cosmetic surgery and a man performing S&M scenes combining religious and gay iconography (which by his own admission are more of a cathartic release of his own inner self rather than for the benefit of an audience) constitute art.
   Obviously, the logical answer to the question of whether or not the performers primary aim is to shock is to research the responses of the artists themselves to that singular question, and the answer generated is a firm, and somewhat unsurprising, no. Franco B, when asked by Robert Ayers if he considers his work shocking stated

“I suppose some people would say that, but that’s not what I’m interested in. I take myself more seriously than that; it’s a waste of time. Also I think people want to be shocked.” 2

   He then goes on to expound his central theory about his work, arguing that people are shocked because of a general sense of guilt surrounding “touching yourself,” which he terms “brainwashing.” His main concern, he states, is to create “beautiful things,” and declares that his art is essentially a public extension of his everyday life.

“But really, the idea of doing things I want – beautiful things – I think like everybody else, basically comes down to taste. I dress the way I like, I eat the food I like, I make the things I like. In a way it’s no more than that.” 3

   This seems to be the key tenet on which his artistic philosophy rests, a logic which seems to be saying, “Art is Life,” much like Tracey Eminen seems to. The corollary of this argument therefore is that the whole of human activity, from painting, making music and other traditional art forms, right through to nuclear holocaust, could be legitimised as a work of art. “This is what I do, therefore it is art if I say it is a beautiful thing.” And whilst it is easy to dismiss this response as flippant, we only have to look at Annie Sprinkle’s activities in order to see it is not. 

   Annie Sprinkle’s artistic manifesto is based solely around the body as a sexual instrument and calls for a radical overhaul in sexual relations –

“I have a vision for the future…..Fetish lingerie and sex toys will be freely distributed to all people. …Men will be able to have multiple orgasms…It will be possible to make love anywhere in public, and it will not be impolite to watch.” P172

Needless to say I find it difficult to take Sprinkle artistically serious. Her sole interest being the “artification” of commercial sex in order to materially benefit and gain a place for herself in the avant garde artworld. I believe that the air of critical solemnity she has generated is a result of certain branches of feminist theory attempting to carve out legitimacy of terrain where their own ideas can be aired, rather than any inherent artistic value in Sprinkle’s “work.”

Athey’s reason’s for bringing in an audience to watch his work seems to be to raise the awareness of AIDS, which he equates with being a gay Western disease rather a third world heterosexual epidemic. In an interview with Tom Liesgang the purpose of Athey’s work is described as wishing to raise

“….their audience's consciousness to the plight of people infected with the AIDS virus.” 4

In this interview Athey states that his work is a cathartic way of dealing with the HIV virus and recounts a time –

“Cleo Du Bois, a dominatrix friend of mine, gave me a ritual whipping over grieving. I wouldn't call this masochism. I was filled with so much sorrow because three friends had just died. She beat me for a half hour until I cried, focusing on the loss, not the sensuality of it or the submission - power trip.” 5

As I will explore further, it seems to me that Athey is basically indulging in bouts of child like demands for attention, which performance theorists have hoaxed themselves into studying, for reasons I will develop later. By choosing to appropriate HIV for the gay community, and attempting to take ownership of what is primarily a heterosexual disease worldwide and use this, by his own admission, as a kind of personal therapy, Athey’s initial claim to be interested in raising awareness of people who have HIV, is seen to be palpably false. There are no references to Africa or the terrible suffering there. He is only drawing the audience’s consciousness to the plight of Western gay men who have HIV, which overall, is a small minority of the total worldwide.   

   The real argument, I would suggest, is that the true debate lies not in analysing the artists and their motivations or the content of their work, but analysing why this work receives an audience. Franko B states that, in his opinion, this is fundamental to his work.

“…the work is more about them – the people watching. About their feelings.” 6

   And whilst this is true about all art, the challenging nature of explicit body performance infuses and raises very important questions which could be broadly related to the concept of voyeurism and breaking taboos on one hand, and the theatre of cruelty idea of “freeing the mind through assaulting the senses,” 7 on the other.

   The three words which immediately spring to mind are the last three the Twentieth Century modernist James Joyce allegedly uttered on his deathbed immediately prior to departing this world. “Does anybody understand.”

   As I have never seen any of these performers work, the ideas presented can only be provisional and open to revision. My notes for the first lecture on this module states that we are studying this material due to a government directive which instructs educators to expose third level students to “creative,” and cutting edge research. However, I am of the opinion that these performers, with the possible exception of Franko B, and to some extent, Athey, are a product of the late twentieth century’s avant garde's obsession with self justifying navel gazing, the lineage of which can be traced to 1917 Zurich and Cabaret Voltaire. It was here that young artists engaged in activity, which set the trend for what I have termed “audience masochism,” whereby the audience’s primary aim was not to enjoy themselves in the traditional sense of being entertained, but to gain a masochistic pleasure in being affronted. As a result it is very difficult for me to work up any interest to actively engage in a traditionally prescribed manner with the debate surrounding explicit body performance/modern primitives/surgical performance/body fluid art and the numerous other labels which have been or can be attached to the activities of the four named artists. 

This is because I am starting from a position, fundamentally cynical of the artistic legitimacy of these various activities, and whilst I could construct an argument starting with pre Christian body religions and trace it through Plato, Plotinus via Byzantium and Augustine, through Scottus Eriginus and the medievals to touch upon the post Tridentine philosophy before ending up with Renaissance metaphysics in order to contextualise the enlightenment and eventual rationalism of the 18C which post structuralism has displaced, it would be a hollow argument on my part.  Watching people self mutilate, open their vaginas so an audience can inspect their cervix, video themselves when under the plastic surgeons knife or any of the other “art” works under scrutiny in this module add an air of unreality to my whole time studying here. 

The natural logic of this material allows the presentation of virtually any physical act as being labelled art, however ridiculous. For example, it would be legitimate for me to suggest that a staging of myself having sex with a number of prostitutes whilst being tattooed, pierced, having a blood transfusion, defecating, urinating, vomiting, undergoing dental work etc, is not the end result of an indulgent imagination, but true art. Further, I could argue that people should come and see the spectacle to challenge themselves and I could sell raffle tickets whereby the winner could take part in the “performance-orgy.” This is not to say that I am of the opinion that they are not sincere in their actions, as I am of the belief that, as previously stated, the real area of interest lies in analysing the reasons why an audience would choose to attend these events and engage in the “hoax.”

   During the early lectures for this module, we were asked

“When you get angry about this work, what value systems are you demonstrating that’s different from theirs.”

The general tenor of the debate during these sessions seemed to imply that the material warranted serious consideration, but I could not help being reminded that the main reason we are studying this is to comply with the “qualification descriptor” guidelines laid down by the current Labour government, and it was at this point the “hoax” theory started to take shape.      

Northrop Frye famously described academic thesis research as being –

“A documents which is, practically by definition, something which nobody wants to read or write.” A statement which if true goes a long way towards damning the whole system. It may be more true of the humanities than of the sciences and reflect the way in which 20C economic and cultural pressures have forces the former to model themselves on the latter, to eschew their real function in favour of often facetious “research” and prefer quantity to quality.” 8

   I believe that this is the key to understanding the “hoax.” After Descartes separated mind from matter and Newton’s theories began the process whereby the practical results of material science relegated the humanities to a poor second place within epistemology, a mimetic language of psuedo scientific justification has evolved within the humanities in an attempt to compensate this fact. An academic language, which seeks to “technicalize” abstract creative ideas surrounding man’s relationship with and to existence. Prior to the Newtonian universe, abstract ideas were dominant religio-scientific theoretical “fact” which had evolved over centuries and were unquestionably accepted with all due reverence at the time. 

The theorists were a small band of elite knowledge keepers who controlled the masses, much the same as quantum physics does nowadays. The progress of science accelerated the decline of the previously dominant mode of ideas, roughly comparable to the humanities, and proved them as rational fictions created, modified and controlled within a process of religious dominance and power. The magic and Gods which the old order presented have now been displaced with the real magic of technology, which few of us truly understand but accept as not being magic at all because we have shifted our faith to the alter of science. Within the general humanities the gradual response to this development has effectively been to dismiss scientific development as a dehumanising process, with increasing hysteria, very much in the mode of children playing a game of make believe. As the influence of theories generated by the humanities, particularly performance theory, has no effect on the material world, there is a deepening sense of inadequacy and denial in being obsolete, and like the redundant bank manger mental patient pretending s/he’s Napoleon. This analogy is the most extreme and could be applied to the notable theorists and practitioners, whilst the day-to-day performance theory folk are more akin to battle re-enactment enthusiasts engaging in a hobby. On both counts the wider world takes no notice of these people and indulges him in their harmless fantasy, although the bank manger Napoleon draws attention and is worthy of study, much like the cutting edge avant-garde.

   So it is with much of the theory related to performance, which huffs and puffs at the edifice of science, safe in the knowledge that it isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference to events in the real world. This is the essence of the hoax. Those performance theorists huffing and puffing during office hours about the big bad technological world, switch of their “performance of belief” at 5pm and go home via the supermarket in the car, switch the lights on, use all the handy appliances which make modern life so pleasurable and then settle down to be bombarded by images. The following day at 9am they switch on and rage about the terrible effect technology has on man. Everybody plays the game and is encouraged to make believe in the name of art.  Obviously these ridiculous positions mean that the theories are presented in a highly confused and meaningless rhetoric of conspiracy and damnation of the controlling theories, which have displaced them. This confusion is a result of ignorance and fear, borne out in the language, which those entering the humanities are encouraged to learn, although not seriously question or challenge the wider validity of. So when I read Chris Straayer writing about Annie Sprinkle –

“I would like to be able to make use in sexual-political thinking of the deconstructive understanding that particular insights generate, are lined with, and at the same time are themselves structured by particular opacities,” p164

I am reminded of Orwell’s henhouse metaphor, as the opacity which immediately springs to mind is the language of the above sentence and the argument presented is “by gumming together long strips of words….and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” 9

Sheer humbug, therefore is what I consider the majority of explicit body performance, and the theory surrounding it to be. The audience are “challenged” and view “powerful” material, in much the same way as watching a car crash, or being an observer at the gynecologists would be “challenging” and “powerful.” If I wanted to view material of this nature I would go the whole hog and station myself at the local A&E department, join a swingers club, befriend a plastic surgeon or start a drama therapy group for those seeking to act out fantasies within performance. As previously stated, in my opinon  the real debate lies with the motivation of the audience not the performer.'


7 Campbell, P & Spackman, H    1998    The Drama Review: Winter 1998    New York     MIT Press
Gray, L    1996    The Guardian: Me My Surgeon and My Art P8    London    Guardian Newspapers Ltd
1, 8, 9  Neal, R    1992    Writers on writing: an anthology    Oxford    Oxford University Press
Straayer, C    1994    The Seduction of Boundaries: Appeared in: Dirty Looks Women Pornography and Power.     London    BFI
   2 , 3,  6-   http://www.liveartmagazine.com/core/index.php
    4, 5      www.fadmag.com/items/athey/athey.html

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