What separates a performance art action from the milieu of normal life? When does the action become performance, let alone being art? Guillermo Gomez-Peña famously noted that the difference between acting and performance art is that with performance art, the gun is loaded. While this may be more to the core of the difference than the stage/no stage distinction, what happens when performance art so closely resembles life?
Asking the average person about performance art will yield a stereotypical grab-bag of paradigms. The public display of a naked person, pouring of fluids, covering / smearing the body, entering the body (piercing, cutting, and the like), perhaps a repetitive banal action or endurance test. While these type of actions may be no more common to the average person than holding Gomez-Peña’s loaded gun, what if there is nothing unusual, spectacular or even noticeable about what someone calls a performance.
So, for #TEXTME# visitors were invited to wear a button on their way in to the BAN7 exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California. The button is shown above – they read: This is a Performance.
When the visitor was ready to perform, I led them to the entry of the galleries, and watched briefly as they went on their way.
There was an exchange- they got into the exhibition for free- but they were asked to return to me after their visit to tell me about their visit / performance.
I wanted to see how people’s idea of their actions and presence change when they are conscious of their performing. Do you even need to be conscious of performing to be performing? Could simply putting on a button that says This is a Performance be an economical way to bring on that awareness?
Listening to people recount their time in the galleries was revealing. I wonder how often museum directors get to hear about a normal visitor’s experience in viewing an exhibition. There were common themes that emerged. People talked about ‘grounding’ and ‘returning to humanness’ through certain works that could be touched or hugged. They also talked about the idea of prisoners’ art work: the idea of being so limited and making such expansive images. It makes me think that people like real things. They respect real things.
After typing notes from performers, I tried to condense their memories into a simple wall text. My idea was that, at least as far as institutions go, it’s the wall text that separates the art from everything else. The word ‘legit’ comes from legere which means to write. If it is written, it is somehow true. Print it out on vinyl and stick it to the window of a museum?- it’s art. When the institution and the written word come together some simple magic is created. It’s like real estate. It’s not just location, it’s you in location.
I also became interested in the idea that stories live, change and grow. I was interpreting what people were telling me, about an experience they remembered. This was not the tyranny of video recording, which only records the spectrum of the visual. This was a different kind of tyranny. A lovely, personal tyranny, if you’ll allow me a little poetic interpretation.
I’m interested in this way of working though. This gets to the core of what I think about documenting performance. For too long we have allowed photography and video to be in charge of documentation. As if to say that the meaning that we make of a performance is completely secondary to any visual record of some spectacle that we enacted. I mean, do we care about the rain dance, or the rain?
I worry that I sound too crude for some, too mercenary, advertisorial. All I can say is that a person’s reaction to their performance is part of the performance. I was happy to have the opportunity to curate this show in the museum, and I was happy to give other people the chance to be a part of it. The wall texts of their performances are right by the front entrance to the museum, and will be left up until the Bay Area Now 7 show comes down in October 2014.
The following is what I wrote before the show started, and before I had anyone come through and actually do the piece. It’s a long and rambly road…
Returning from a piano concert in Spokane Washington in 1983, I sat at the piano in the basement of my college dormitory, and played on the keys for over an hour. I was full of conviction, finding keys and the question-mark silence that followed, then connecting other sounds and chords. Perhaps luckily for everyone else in the dorm, I was pecking away down in the basement.
One measure of an art work, is whether it makes you want to play too. You come back from a show, and do you want to paint? Do you want to play music? That to me is a good sign, as everyone should feel the urge to play with something sometime, and what a compliment to the artist this must be.
We may next turn to the location of the action for a clue. Is the action in or around a gallery? Is it within the museum or art institution? And if not, is it sponsored, organized, or pre-planned in conjunction with one of these entities? Then perhaps, of course, we have a closer look- we acknowledge something is happening, someone is doing something, we should watch, we should listen, turn off the cell phone, consider something (or nothing) for its intentionality.
Of course, one thing that denotes artwork is the claim. Not the ownership, but simply the naming something as such. A simple working rule of thumb is the text or label that might accompany something. In museums and galleries of course, there is always wall text or labels attached near to pieces to help us contextualize or understand what it is we are looking at. Information such as the artist’s name, the name of the piece, and a brief explanation of the artist’s work can vacillate between being helpful or distracting to a particular viewer; but at least we know someone else has made an earlier decision on its inclusion. We’re supposed to look at it, to experience to, to consider it, we’re not supposed to like it, necessarily. It was included.
The piece TEXT ME is born from this conversation of mine. I’m often asking when is art art, what are the limits of its form, really what can I do. Perhaps it’s a juvenile negotiation between the parent and child within me- the child always trying to find what he can get away with, what the boundaries are, the parent always judging the action, the brushstroke, the gesture. Actually, I think it’s more than that; that would be selling myself short. It’s more of an aesthetic / formal dialogue than anything else. Not that I want everything to be dictated by some set of aesthetic rules, rather that I want the aesthetic section of my internal library to be constantly expanding, constantly re-negotiated, to make room for new books, expanded definitions.
For TEXT ME, I am inviting museum visitors to be part of the show by creating a wall text label for themselves. As they enter the museum, they can either pick up their pre-made wall text or work with me to design one based on their own awareness. They then attach it to their person, and go about their gallery experience as they might have otherwise. The intention is not to create a spectacle, but to ask those present in the museum space to consider the boundaries of the art. Perhaps some of the visitors are not claiming any intentionality in their presence, but would another visitor know that if they couldn’t see their label? Could the person standing quietly in the other corner of the gallery be enacting a performance? Are they not always ‘performing’ anyway? Then back to the self- in what way might I be performing? Am I only performing if my presence is accompanied by a self awareness of my intentions? Certainly in the facebook era in which we currently live, the idea of being watched is subliminally constant. It’s an assumption we have accepted, like it or not. To claim the power of intention over the arbitrary nature of when and where we are gazed upon, to have some claim over intention, that for me goes into this piece.
For contemporary times, asking the museum audience to consider what is inside the show or collection is always at best a revelation, an expansion, a challenge. Entering the museum, I am asking people to consider themselves and those around them: Are they merely visitor, part of my art work, author of their own art work, performing, not performing? To ask the visitor to make their own claim as to whether they are or are not part of the exhibition, I think, might fill the galleries with silent question marks the way my piano playing did in 1983. At least it will help the questions to linger there a moment.
Bay Area Now 7 showcases contemporary artists working all over the Bay Area of California, and runs from July 8 – October 5, 2014 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California.