For ArTrend International Performance Art Festival
12 Nov. 2017, Tainan, Taiwan [Slide 1]
Our curator Tzu-Chi Yeh asked me to talk about the difference of performance in live art events, in video, and in photography. [Slide 2] I understand that her desire for me to address this topic came as a response to the tendencies of galleries and museums in Taiwan and in Macau to place performance, video, and photography together as one category in their calls for proposals and competitions for commissions. She also observed that the institutional sponsors in Taiwan tend to privilege video and photography over performance. To me, these institutional curatorial priorities reflect a couple of contemporary tendencies, including the cultural shift toward electronic communications—at least in globalized metropolitan areas—and the choices of art institutions to curate multimedia artworks that would be easier to be integrated into the transnational exhibition networks.
Because of the preponderance of the digital media widely accessible via the Internet and other individualized communication technologies, such as smart phones and social media, performance as a live action and as a mediated representation have increasingly become blurred. What is “live” via the actual encounter of enfleshed beings is no longer so distinct from what is “live” as an immediate interactive interface between distant human subjects connected via technology. We live in a posthuman era where globalized cultural tendencies appear to move toward convergence and hybridization rather than uniqueness and distinction. In this context, the live and the mediated are perceived as existing in a continuum; performance—traditionally centering around the body of a living artist—becomes linked with video and photography, which have been widely used to record and document performance artworks.
While performance art, as executed by a living artist, has become a recognized medium in contemporary art, the preferences for video and photography over performance in this region’s mainstream art institutions reflect the exhibitors’ interest in showing object-based artworks unbounded by time-based and location-specific concerns. As Noel Carroll observed, both performance artworks and installation artworks “are rooted to specific locations,” nevertheless, “much of the performance art at large scale international exhibitions is there by the grace of video, while, at the same time, a lot of installation art is multi-media, incorporating video, photography, audio recording and even computer technology” (386). Both phenomena suggest the institutional sponsors’ calculations to show artworks that might be installed and assembled by the curatorial team rather than necessarily by artists—unless the artists themselves are well-established and their presence might serve to draw a large audience. [Slide 3] Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (March 14-May 31, 2010), the endurance performance art piece enacted by Abramovic during her retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a famous example of the latter case. Otherwise, mainstream institutional sponsors might consider that it makes better budgetary and managerial sense to curate media-based artworks, such as video and photography, than to commission performance artists producing ephemeral artworks.
This larger transnational context shaped by our contemporary technological circumstances and capitalist economy is the professional environment with which performance artists must negotiate in sustaining their practices nowadays. A possible solution to the relative lack of mainstream exhibition opportunities is for performance artists to create across mediums, generating ephemeral live actions together with the more durable media-related artworks, such as video, photography, sound-recordings, and digital work. Another proactive strategy, as this ArTrend International Performance Art Festival demonstrates, is through artists-led efforts to generate and participate in an alternative international network of presentational channels, which aim to foster the production of live artworks to be shared with a local audience. In Taiwan, live art festivals might not have attained the cultural visibility as, for instance, those in U.K., especially in London where there is an organization, the Live Art Development Agency, exclusively devoted to the promotion of live art. With persistent efforts and more investment in information dissemination, however, one might anticipate a more receptive future for live art in Taiwan. I suppose this is where my presence becomes accounted for in this festival, which also serves as a venue for the exchange of performance information and knowledge and for further dissemination of the live artworks shown here to an audience much wider and more diverse than the onsite observers.
Let me now turn to the more theoretical topic about performance in live events, in video, and in photography. Before I start again, I realized that I am among artists who have been practicing all three art mediums and more. Since we are in a festival featuring performance, I offer this work-in-progress talk as an invitation for conversation. Please interrupt me anytime you wish.
Performance, Video, Photography:
This topic—the interrelations among performance, video, and photography—is an extremely complex one and it’s more suitable for a book-length study than for a one-hour speech. Each term in this triad of art mediums has its specific history, its great range of practices, and its close affiliations with the other two. Each label may be defined in its own terms, but it may also serve the other two as supplements. Performance, or a sense of performance, infuses and underscores video and photography, whereas video and photography have both been extensively used to bear witness to performance.
Among these three performative genres, “photography” has the longest history. It was invented in the 1820s and recognized as an art form in the early 20th-century. Earlier photography was assessed in relation to painting (Phelan 2010, 50), likely because the resulting photographic product, with its formalistic characteristics on a two-dimensional surface, resembles a painting. [Slide 4] Photography’s upstart status seems to be mocked in this unattributed 19th-century manipulated photograph, which exposes the mechanical burden of taking a picture: a metal hook clamps on the head of the sitter and, apparently, the same guy serves as the photographer, who waits passively next to the camera’s cumbersome box, needing no talent other than the ability to click the shutter release button. This image fascinates me because it demonstrates the performative elements in taking a picture, portraying photography as an interplay among the photographer, the model, and the photographic contraptions in a performance of patient labor.
In the early 1960s, United States saw the use of the first portable video equipment, which was developed by “the US army for surveillance purposes in Vietnam” (Elwes, 3). Video technology, however, already existed in broadcast television. [Slide 5] When Sony Portapaks went on sale in the mid 1960s, video art emerged as a creative medium adopted by artists in opposition to its military and commercial lineages. According to Catherine Elwes, Nam June Paik was one of the first artists to purchase the Portapak, which he used to record Pope Paul VI’s 1964 visit to New York. Paik followed the crowd in a taxi and recorded everything he saw during the papal procession. The work stopped when he ran out of tape after one hour. That evening, Paik screened his unedited black-and-white video on a monitor next to the broadcast TV version of the same event (see Elwes 2005, 4). Whereas the TV version displayed the event with numerous broadcast conventions, such as editing, voice-overs, studio discussions, flashbacks and commercial breaks, Paik’s “video vérité” project recorded the procession in “real-time” (Elwes 2005, 4), mediated only by the artist’s eye, while simultaneously enabled and constrained by the available video technology.
In 1965, Paik’s video piece of distorted television images was projected behind Merce Cunningham’s dancers in John Cage’s Variation No. 5 at Lincoln Center” (see Jonathan Price, 2013, MuseumZero, online; William Fetterman 1996, John Cage’s Theatre Pieces, 128). [Slide 6] Paik’s seminal career established that video as an independent art form existed alongside, even preceding its function as a recording device for performance art. Paik soon engaged with the hardware needed for displaying a video—the television monitors—as sculptural materials to create installation art. His subsequent collaboration with the musician Charlotte Moorman further integrated music into the midst to present live performances with mediated components. TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), a well-known Fluxus performance piece, is an inventive and delightful example in this vein. [Slide 7] [Slide 8 = a Youtube video of Moorman performing the piece]
“Performance,” as “performance art,” emerged out of visual artists’ defiance against the monolithic standard of professional expertise assumed by the U.S. art world in the 1960s and 70s: a standard commercially defined by the collectability of an artwork, which often meant an artwork’s formalistic polish. The artists’ contesting of the implicit mercenary trend enabled three overlapped developments: (1) the equation of mere concepts as art, leading to what Lucy Lippard calls the “dematerilization” 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, such as extended durations, improvisation, and a live audience, as integral components of an artwork, which can be temporarily shared but not possessed; (3) the insistence on a blurring between art and life, aesthetics and politics, artist and artifact (see Cheng 2002, xxiii).
In the U.S., a precursor for performance art appeared in a 1952 Untitled Event performed by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and M.C. Richards (“The Black Mountain College,” online). [Slide 9] The event comprised various concurrent and unrelated solo acts, including lecture, poetry reading, dance, painting display and slide projections, done simultaneously by the performers occupying divergent spots in the room—their activities were restricted only by preset time brackets. The first basic documentation of the untitled event appeared in a 1965 interview of John Cage conducted by Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner” (online), yet many participants of the event remembered crucial details differently. Their parallel accounts about what exactly happened at the untitled event highlight performance art’s conceptual status as an ephemeral time-based action that becomes historicized through multiple mythic recalls by participants and posterity alike.
Similar to photography’s rivalry with painting and video’s opposition to television, performance art—having adopted a live action conducted by an artist or a group of artists on a given site with a co-present witnessing crowd—was measured against the more established medium of theatre. Its antagonistic stance against theatre, however, waned as performance artists moved from the radical anti-commodity, anti-simulation, and anti-entertainment ideology in the 1970s toward its more theatricalized, multimedia versions in later decades (see Cheng 2002).
Although performance, video, and photography entered the art scenes at different historical moments, they have the common history of being initially artistic outliers, gradually reaching the status of popular awareness and critical standing, and eventually becoming absorbed into the global art exhibition circuits in the 21st-century. All three mediums share the tendency to blur the boundaries between purposeful art and quotidian life, between an aesthetic practice and political engagement. Photography and video do so via technological intervention, while performance art embraces the merging of hitherto disparate behavioral spheres as its conceptual raison d’être. Both photography and video are technological recording devices that have been used in diverse fields, from everyday life, to scientific and medical researches, to crime scene investigations and military and civil surveillance purposes. Depending on the users, the political efficacy of photography and video may serve both repressive and progressive causes. Whereas an authoritarian State can use such recording and surveillance devices to exert control over its citizens, the same technology may be easily appropriated by the citizens for counter-exposure, subversion, and resistance. In contrast to photography and video’s instrumental neutrality, performance art, having emerged in the U.S. amidst the Civil Rights movements, the feminist movement, and the anti-war protests, has historically adopted a more explicit anti-establishment political stance.
The difference in the three mediums’ politics implies the different nature of technological intervention in the production of artworks. For both photography and video, the artist works with the camera, a technological mechanism, to create and constitute the resulting work. The presence of the camera introduces a nonhuman force, an extra posthuman perspective, to the creative process. The camera may double its function as both the artist’s collaborator and spectator. In its earliest iterations, performance art often revolves around the artist’s body as the constitutive material, medium, and site of performance. Technology, in the forms of a photographic or video camera, typically supports the performance by documenting its ephemeral action and ensuring that a wider audience may still access and assess the performance posthumously via its documentary traces. Since the 1980s, however, more and more live performances have integrated media technology to create multimedia events. Laurie Anderson, for instance, both pioneered and popularized multimedia performance art. [Slide 8] In her case, performance in live and mediated registers converge to create a live performance work. Technology assumes the role comparable to that of her artist’s body in constituting the performance site, environment, and multisensory experiences.
Insofar as we understand "performance" as a heightened state of being, all three mediums are pervaded with performance. In photography, the performance is captured in a fixed visual moment. In video, the performance is seen in duration and the viewer is immersed in more sensory inputs. The live actions that took place for the photographic and video camera are preserved and translated into a mediated set of sensory data for instantaneous transmission via live streaming and for future access. Technological manipulation is available for both photography and video—fakery can be part of their modus operandi. What appears on the surface of a photograph or that of a video might not reproduce exactly how the event happened. In live performance, as in life, the action that has taken place is irreversible and evades absolute control, by either the performer or the audience. Its ephemerality is a trade-off for the interactive energies of face-to-face human encounters. Yet, for any given live performance to be preserved beyond the memories of those present, it still relies on technological apparatus to document its process; the documentary procedure often means the translation of a live performance into the idioms of photography and video.
As a performance writer, I depend on performance documents to understand and appraise a performance artwork, even when I have seen the performance live. As I argued elsewhere, “To be remembered, a performance has to live at least twice. For the first time, a performance lives an ephemeral life in actuality, its mortality consumed by the performing artists and their spectators for a designated duration” (Cheng 2002, xxvi). A performance may safeguard its possible resurrection by leaving documentary traces: texts, photographs, videotapes, interviews, performance scores, sound recordings, peripheral testimonies and embellished eye-witness accounts, blogs and websites for archival collections. Each source in these documentary clusters acts as an imaginary center for subsequent re/creation. “From then on, a performance has the potential to live again, posthumously, in virtuality. It lives an afterlife in the mind/body/imagination of whoever reassembles and reconstitutes its dispersed flesh to create a prosthetic performance, a surrogate that replaces and extends its lost origin” (xxvi).
From this perspective, the performance that we might discern from any image, whether static or moving, is essentially filtered through a viewer’s reading performance, consisting of the reader’s construction of a narrative about the artwork represented and mediated by the image. For a photographic artwork, the reading initiates and substantiates a reader’s encounter with the work. For a video artwork that records both movements and sounds, an extended temporal duration is involved in such an encounter. For a photographic or video document of a performance work, the reader is tasked with filling up missing details of the artwork for which the document serves as a residue, an experiential portal to the elsewhere of a reimagined performance. In any case, the act of reading a performative artwork happens not with the first but rather with a follow-up set of a viewer’s performance. Reading a performance is a repeat performance, involving the reader’s solitary interface with an object of information and contemplation. This condition makes the reading performance different from a viewer’s experience of a live artwork through first exposure and enfleshed intersubjective exchange.
To parse through my theoretical speculation, I have selected a number of images, both static and moving, to exercise my repeat performances in our present live encounter.
[Slide 11] Leap into the Void (1960), by Yves Klein. Photomontage by Harry Shunk. A photograph taken to be a performance document.
When I first began researching into performance art, I encountered this iconic image of the French artist Yves Klein leaping from a second-story window into the air as a highpoint in performance art history, even before the term “performance art” was coined. The image was touted as a transcendental leap of faith for an artist who put his own body on the line for the sake of art. Klein claimed to have done this leaping action twice. As Paul Schimmel notes, “the first, and possibly the only real ‘leap into the void’ took place on 12 January 1960, when Klein jumped from the second story of the gallery owner Colette Allendy’s home in Paris. Bernadette Allain witnessed the private performance and confirmed that there was no support to break the artist’s fall” (1998, 36). Klein showed a twisted ankle as the proof of his leap and fall. According to the artist, the second leap took place across the street from a judo club, where he jumped into a tarpaulin.
The photographic image that we are watching, however, shows no sign of the tarpaulin. It is the reproduction of a work from the photographer Harry Shunk, who collaged together a series of photographs to create the impression that Klein leaped into the air 15 feet above the street without any support to catch his fall. Since Shunk has carefully erased traces of his collage, the photograph appears to record a well-suited man, with his face looking skyward, imitating a bird in flight. There are a couple of odd details: the house from which the artist leaped has no visible window, and the bike rider peddling away from the scene appears unaware of or utterly indifferent to the artist’s heroic, and probably noisy, action. Even with these tell-tale signs, the image was once taken as the document of a live performance. This fact suggests how difficult it is for someone removed from the scene to verify the veracity of a claimed performance action. In this light, a reading performance by a viewer who has not seen the performance live may well be a myth-making machine for the artist's reputation. Since Klein had allowed Shunk’s photomontage in relation to his performance to circulate in the art market, it implies that live performance may be another way for the artist to generate a visual artwork as an intended product. What's captured in the photograph, then, performs both Klein's art ambition and the hidden labor of Shunk, the photographer.
[Slide 12] Chris Burden: Five Day Locker Piece (1971): Photographs as performance documents among other relics of performance.
This photograph of nine lockers also has a hidden performance: the body of the artist Chris Burden hidden inside the locker #5, with a five-gallon bottled water installed in the locker above him and an empty five-gallon bottle in the one below. To enact his Five Day Locker Piece (1971)—which was Burden's thesis project for his MFA degree from the University of California at Irvine—Burden began fasting for four days prior to confining himself inside the locker for five days (Schröder, Chris Burden Beyond Limit, 195). According to Burden's recollection, many people visited him during the five-day period, with some of them even making confessions to him, conflating his unseen presence with that of a priest or a god.
As an artist who first established his career by performing a string of risky endurance body artworks, Burden had insisted that performance art is "real," unlike the "mushy" art of theatre (Sharp and Bear 1973:6). The act of manipulating a photograph to inflate his action, as Klein had done in Leap into the Void, disagrees with Burden's performance ethos. Nevertheless, similar to Klein, Burden had produced performance documentation as displayable artworks out of his transient live actions.
[Slide 13] Chris Burden's Locker #5:
This next image of Burden's locker at UCI, bearing a label that memorialized him when he passed away on 10 May 2015, suggests his influences on the younger generations of artists.
[Slide 12] Chris Burden, Prelude to 220, or 110 (10-12 September 1971).
In this live performance, "Burden lay screwed to a stone floor with copper cuffs on hands and feet and two buckets of live water next to him rigged up to 220 volts" (Schröder, Chris Burden Beyond Limit, 195). The danger in this piece was the possibility that viewers might tip over the buckets accidentally or on purpose, ending up electrocuting the artist. Besides, if the water ran out, "Burden and/or the visitors could have suffered life-threatening electrical shocks" (Schröder, 195).
Prelude to 220, or 110 brings into relief the high stakes that Burden endured during his extreme performance. By subjecting the survival of his body to the care and caution of his audience members, Burden makes explicit the ethical and emotional bond activated between an artist and the viewers during a live encounter. Such an ethical bond secured by enfleshed human interactions is qualitatively different from the connections that a viewer might develop with a performance document, whether a photograph, a text, or a website. A photograph will not die from electric shocks, as an artist might!
[Slide 15] Despite his privileging of "the real" and the consequential in his live actions, Burden also appreciated the conceptual nature of performance art and its potential impact on those who can only access the work via documentation. Burden's typical system of documenting his body artwork includes a photographic performance document, an object used in his original live performance, together with a short text describing the time, space, and score of his action. He called these items "relics" from his vanished live action, implicitly relating the live performance process to death and disappearance, while evoking the Catholic context of attaining sainthood. This religious connotation makes equivalent the dedication and endurance required in enacting Burden's extreme performance with the sacrificial self-mortification of a saint.
[Slide 16] Chris Burden, Icarus (13 April 1973).
Chris Burden's relics play out a performative dimension in between his photograph, his text, and the remaining object from his live artwork. This image of Burden in the middle of performing Icarus, another daredevil action that references the Greek myth of Icarus as the son of the architect Daedalus, who invented two pairs of wings made of osier branches cemented by wax for his son and himself to escape from the Labyrinth. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, for the heat would melt the wax-affixed wings. But Icarus forgot the warning and dropped to his death when his wings melted from the rays of the sun. In Burden's performance, the wings of Icarus are represented by the two gasoline-doused glass panes. The fire that got ignited on the glass panes refers to the heat of the sun, while Burden's vacated body and the crashing glass panes dramatize the fall of Icarus.
The photograph accompanied by a narrative caption published on the page of a catalogue conjures up Burden's original live performance, whose ideas become available for generations of readers to re-imagine the performance. Presciently, Burden's exhibition format, which pairs an image with a brief text, resembles the display mode made popular nowadays on Facebook walls and other social-media platforms.
[Slide 17] Humans of New York/HONY (2010- ), a photography series by Brandon Stanton.
Chris Burden's image-and-text pairing in transmitting his live performance to a much wider off-site audience anticipates the photoblog format adopted by the New York-based photographer and blogger Brandon Stanton, whose photographic series entitled Humans of New York/HONY has gone viral online since its inception in 2010 and has spun off two best-selling books: Humans of New York (2013) and Humans of New York: Stories (2015). Stanton recently started Humans of New York: The Series on his Facebook site, posting video portraits of those he interviewed. Today there are 18 million people following the project on Facebook.
Stanton began taking photographs in 2010, when he was still a bond trader in Chicago. After he was sacked from his job that summer, he traveled across the country to photograph where he went. He visited New York in Aug. 2010 and, after having photographed over 600 people on the streets there, he decided to focus full-time on telling the stories of the people he photographed in the most populous US city, with a goal of taking 10,000 portraits of people. Stanton initially posted these portraits on his photoblog Humans of New York, which attracted only a handful of visitors each day. As he traced, HONY took off through three turning points: he created a Facebook page devoted to the project; he shared his work via the microblogging and social networking website Tumblr; he moved from taking candid shots of unsuspecting strangers to interacting with the people he photographed and initiating conversations with them by asking simple questions about their pride, fear, pain, and joy (see Stanton 2013). These encounters have expanded his photographic series to a story-telling format, which pairs images of people with quotations from them. [Slide 18] [Slide 19]
The success of HONY attests to the power of social media and people's interest in other people's life stories. Stanton's case is relevant to our topic for several reasons. While the photographer-turned-blogger didn't intend to create performance artworks, his project links live performance with photography and lately also with video. Performances happened in Stanton's interactions with his photographic models; performances happened also when Stanton's subjects shared their stories with him while he photographed them; performances happened when Stanton selected the photographic shots and edited the stories to find the quotations; performances happened again when a reader encountered these stories and chooses to interact with them through social-media gestures of engagement and sharing. Live actions taken by the photographer, joined by his participants who volunteered their life stories, and disseminated via social media where performance, photography, and video converge enable Stanton to reach an astounding number of audience and build a virtual community for his art.
[Slide 20] Some more samples from Stanton's website.
Humans of New York demonstrates a compelling way for a performance—collectively contributed, if singly organized—to exert social impact via the mediated performance of the electronic media and the Internet. Popularity, however, is only one measure for social impact. Stanton's keen sense for diversity and his recent more target-specific portraits of war veterans, pediatric cancer patients, refugees, and DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients all speak to his attempts to create art that promotes positive social change.
[Slide 21] Suzanne Lacy's New Genre Public Art, or Social Practice Performance Art. As a quick example, this image shows the large-scale performance project I.D. Entity (Nov. 13, 2004) that Suzanne Lacy, with Elisheva Gross, Unique Holland, and Arthur Ou, and with set design by Nonchi Wang and Thomas Nash, staged in Taipei. There were 160 Taiwanese youths performing in this project (see http://www.suzannelacy.com/recent-works/#/id-entity/).
Interactive encounters between the artist and participants; performative artworks linking photography and video; a massive scale of collaboration initiated by the artist; an optimal mode of transmitting and disseminating the artworks among diverse audience constituencies; and an artistic quest for social justice: These features that distinguish Stanton's HONY series have been the defining characteristics of Los Angeles-based artist Suzanne Lacy's work for more than four decades. Years before the advent of the Internet and social media, Lacy's large-scale performance projects have provided viable models for creating socially engaged live performances that could reach a large audience, both onsite and off, by attracting mass media coverage of the event.
[Slide 22] In this influential feminist performance piece In Mourning and in Rage (1977), for instance, Lacy collaborated with Leslie Labowitz to create a media performance event and memorial ritual, which brought public attention to the rampant violence against women (Lacy website, "Early Work"). The centerpiece of this performance, staged in front of Los Angeles City Hall, was a feminist rally to mourn for the nine women victims raped, tortured, and killed by the "Hillside Strangler" in Dec. 1977. Nine black-clad and black-veiled performers, transformed into giant figures by their headgear, stood as a monument of accusation and lamentation. Led by a woman in a scarlet robe symbolizing rage, these mourning figures were surrounded by a group of women raising two huge banners that read respectively, "In Memory of Our Sisters" and "Women Fight Back."
[We will view the video document of this performance shared on Lacy's website: http://www.suzannelacy.com/early-works/#/in-mourning-and-in-rage-1977/ ]
As we could see in the video document, the nine black-clad mourners stepped forward one by one to protest various forms of violence against women. Each testimony by a woman in black was supported by a choral chant of "In memory of our sisters, we fight back," while the woman in scarlet draped a scarlet shawl on the mourner's shoulders, transforming her solitude of grief into the collective demand for justice. [Slide 23] The information that these performers communicated was extremely disturbing; the numbers of the women victims mourned kept increasing, from the ten rape-and-murder victims of the "Hillside Strangler" to the 4,033 women who were reported raped in LA in 1976 alone, to half a million women beaten in their homes (see Cheng 2002, 120-21). These testimonies did not solely focus on women's victimization, but also offered means of resistance through public awareness and communal action, challenging the sense of shame that a victim might feel in isolation. This note of justified rage concluded the vocal protests, as the woman in scarlet declared, "I am here for the rage of all women. I am here for women fighting back."
In Mourning and In Rage, as a live event and public memorial, offered its participants, along with those willing audience members, an actual and symbolic space to express their solidarity and to form coalitions with one another. Lacy and Labowitz maximized the potential social impact of this one-time event by designing the various elements in their performance to facilitate mass media representations. Both the performers' short speeches and the choral refrains were fashioned for easy quotations by the press; the performers' solemn postures forming a tableau vivant of grief and anger were made-for-camera images. Through mass media coverage, Lacy and her feminist team's politicized critiques found the mainstream exposure they desired to broach the taboo topic of rape and denounce misogynist cultural trends.
[Slide 24] Suzanne Lacy: De Tu Puño y Letra/In Your Own Hand, By Your Own Hand (2015), in Quito, Ecuador.
In Mourning and In Rage pivots on a performance ritual of women gathering together to expose and fight violence against women. In her more recent collaborative performance piece De Tu Puño y Letra, Lacy expanded this symbolic and political ritual to involve men into the struggles to end violence against women and children. This year-long project culminated in a massive performance enacted by 350 men in Belmont Plaza Bullring on 25 November 2015, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
"In Ecuador, an estimated 6 of every 10 women are victims of violence and only 10% of women escape violent partners" (Lacy's website, "Recent Works"). In 2012, the Quito city government organized a consciousness-raising project called Cartas de Mujeres (Letters from Women), where 10,000 Ecuadorian women wrote letters on their experiences of violence. Inspired by the project, Lacy proposed to "centrally feature the letters in a new production" and to recruit men to read these letters. De Tu Puño y Letra, the Spanish title for this performance, may be translated into "in your own hand" or "by your own hand." This dual meaning reveals the implications of Lacy's performance concept: the letters by women were written in their own handwriting and their letters exposed the violence done by the hands of the perpetrators. The male performers recruited into doing the projects would each "adopt a letter" from an unknown woman and read the letter out loud during performance. They would hold their adopted letters—each characterized by the letter writer's testimonial voice—in their own hands, while standing on a bullring that had endured its share of violence done by human hands.
During the one-year process of preparing for De Tu Puño y Letra, the men who volunteered to perform attended "workshops on masculinities and violence—a curriculum designed by Timm Kroeger of GIZ, an NGO specializing in education on family violence" (Lacy's website). Their workshops further instigated the development of an ongoing curriculum on family violence in the Universidad de Los Américas Medical School. As Lacy brought together "city government departments, non-governmental agencies, art organizations and educational institutions," the wide scope of multifaceted personnel involvements in preparing for the event and the extended process of training the participants all had greater potentials to effect longer-lasting sociocultural changes. Drawn by the significance of the subject matter, many people joined Lacy's project and volunteered their services as advisors, producers, recruiters, and stage managers, offering their talents to help design and produce the culminating live performance.
Although Lacy and her team received criticism regarding the casting of men as central performers and the use of the bullring as the performance arena, I find these choices astute. The recruitment of men to engage with what some might perceive as "women's issues" makes these men—and, by extension, other men—accountable for their ethical roles in preventing further violence toward women and children; the rehearsals and performance served to cultivate their empathic relationships to past victims and letter writers. To stage a compassionate performance on a bullring foregrounds the event as an exorcism of the malevolence that has plagued this site of aggressive masculine culture.
[Slide 25] [We will watch the 6-min video document posted on Lacy's website here.]
Accompanied by the City Band, over 1500 people entered the Plaza Belmonte to observe the live performance. These spectators were greeted by Mediators, who introduced the conversational nature of the event. Based on 1,000 original letters, the dramatic script written by Gabriela Ponce divided the performance into four acts. The first three acts featured recitations of men reading from their letters about child abuse, traumatized bodies, domestic violence. "Surprised interventions from live musicians" joined the score with live and recorded sounds composed by Bruno Louchouarn. "The ring slowly filled with hundreds of men of all ages and from all walks of life (including many police officers)"; their voices reading the heart-rending letters surged in "a crescendo of sounds, broken by an abrupt silence. The voice of elderly white-haired women amidst 300 men, asked "Why do you call this love?" (the artist's website).
[Slide 26] In the 4th act entitled "Separating," the performers exited the bullring to sit among the audience, huddling over the candles they held in their hands and reading their letters to small groups of two or three people at a time. This final act closed with conversations that explored how the "real" women who wrote these letters could escape from their aggravated life situations. All those present—including Mediators, Letter Readers, audience members, "artists and activists from Ecuador, Mexico and the United States" (see Timm Kroeger 2016, online)—participated in this interactive forum of public engagement.
[Slide 27] Intermedial sensibilities and Multicentric Convergence
In an international performance art festival that focuses on smaller-scale performance pieces created by artists, either individually or in small collaborative groups, to bring up Suzanne Lacy's large-scale and durational collective performance work might seem counter-intuitive. My intention is to offer a variety of live-performance genres that have cross-bred with photography and video, from Klein's manipulated photographic performance document, Burden's solo body artworks and their relics, Stranton's photographic narrative performances, to Lacy's social practice performance art. These diverse examples reveal the interdependence between performance, photography, and video, so much so that their frequent convergence renders the distinctiveness of each medium insignificant.
As Dick Higgins argues in his "Statement on Intermedia" (1966), since the late 1950s, artists have changed their media to suit a world changed by "the spread of mass literacy," by "television and the transistor radio," and—we may add for the 21st century—by digital and cybernetic art forms, social media, and mobile and wearable technologies. In response to these ever-shifting changes, artists push the media to break down their traditional forms, which have become "merely puristic points of reference. [. . .] these points are arbitrary and only useful as critical tools" (online). To follow Higgins's logic, performance art cannot but exercise "an intermedial approach, to emphasize the dialectic between the media" rather than any purported singularity within a medium. In this light, to address the differences in live performance, photographic performance, and video performance is more an academic exercise than a practical scanning of the hybrid performances that suffuse our current field.
Just as our contemporary world has recognized that sexual and gender identities exist in a spectrum of possibilities, so we may regard the relationships between performance, photography, and video as thriving in a spectrum of mutual interferences and cross fertilization. Live performance is no more human-centered than photography and video, since both "liveness" and "humanity" are experiential constructs subject to constant reinterpretations. Our physical bodies have become increasingly enmeshed with technological prostheses, robotic artifices, screen and corporeal interfaces, software and hardware integrations that we can hardly perform our daily lives without technological assistance, even to the point of being handled, or swindled, by what seems to be the non-human agency of our intelligent machines.
This very factor about our daily entanglement with virtual communications in technology-aided life and work routines, however, argues for the value of performance as live art, in which the creating and presenting of an artwork coincides. In a world that is increasingly privatized and commodified, live art creates a space of encounter between an artist and an audience, generating an instant public sphere—and, for an international performance festival like this, a global village in miniature. It becomes a gathering place of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors, of improvisational energies and relational intimacies expended among people consenting to join their lives together for as long as a performance artwork holds. From its emergence, to unfolding, to vanishing, a performance offers a concentrated dose for the artist and the audience to experience the mystery of being alive, present in the here and now, unpredictable, vulnerable, but shared.
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