The Problem of Performance: or why your intrepid #artcriticfromhell too often finds it full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

CAVEAT: This post contains links that may be disturbing to some, in terms of specific works that are cited in the article.

Let us begin with a funny story, but like any good comedian, I’ll be using this to highlight a sensitive, shall we say, idea that is as good a starting point as any.

Several years ago, when I was winding down my involvement with the #YXEArts community and preparing to leave for Niagara – or choosing to accept my exile, as I’d finally realized that the Saskatoon arts community was like that partner who you kept hoping would change until you wake up one day and realize they won’t, and you’ve wasted your time – I attended a performance piece coinciding with the opening reception for a show at the now defunct Mendel Art Gallery. This was Convoluted Beauty: In the Company of Emily Carr, curated by Lisa Baldissera.

It was a strange evening, in a variety of ways. I had an enjoyable conversation with Karen Tam and Hughes Charbonneau, and Karen remembered that I’d written a review of her wonderful show at a local ARC several years ago (as well as helping with the installation, part of a team of volunteers, really). We chatted a bit, and I commented that I’d be leaving that place soon, as fallout for a piece I’d written re: institutional racism at the university, and the resultant sycophantic cowardice and collaboration among people like Jay Seibel and Marcus Miller in abusing their roles to ‘punish’ me for speaking out on this. (This is a tangent, but as performance art is so often political, or claims to be so, a relevant touchstone). Both Tam and Charbonneau told me that was a badge of honour, and I appreciated that: that sense of seeing beyond the insular ‘walls’ of a community, perhaps, informed the actual story I’m telling here, to begin.

The performance work that opening evening was, in some ways, a throwback to the 1960s oeuvre of ‘happenings’ with improvisation and spontaneity, as well as mixing musical performance with dance, or gestures, involving more than a singular ‘performance artist.’ Further – and this was a piece by Thomas Zipp, if I remember correctly – Zipp was not performing, but had orchestrated, or choreographed, the ‘actions’ – to a point. A brief descriptor: a band of several members played in a manner that was not particularly predictable. Long musical compositions that seemed reminiscent of how – intentionally or otherwise, as sometimes performance artists are ignorantly ahistorical, but more on what I call the Magnussen effect later – the Velvet Underground would fill Warhol’s Factory with sound and noise intertwined and indistinguishable from where one turns into the other. They all wore masks, simple white blank faces: as did the female ‘dancer’ who moved and gestured and gesticulated, like a silent, spastic Nico (there was a definitive sense of that era, both positively – in the energy of the performers – and negatively, in that it was unscripted and thus at times indulgent and tiresome….)

However, there were notable aspects. The exhibition was in the back space of the Mendel, a high ceiling-ed room, and included structures and sculptures by other artists, and thus it became a more enlivened space. That’s the positive factor: a less genial one is that this performance was mounted in a manner that allowed visitors to leave, at any point, without causing a stir, or getting a ‘dirty’ look for doing so from self appointed cultural ‘gatekeepers.’

This led to some interesting social interactions. Specifically, as I was watching and listening, and letting myself be immersed in the piece, I found myself people watching, too.

The point of this tangent: several individuals I knew within that community, who were performance artists themselves, made the worst and most disrespectful audiences. Two people whose performances I’d endured approached me to complain about the work, either conceptually or simply finding it ‘too long’, and saying they were leaving. I found myself continuing the analogy in my mind of Nico, Warhol and the Velvet Underground and postulating that perhaps performance artists share some traits with lead singers of bands, in having ego and expecting indulgence while granting none to others….

Amusingly, in both of those cases, I’d attended pieces by these individuals that were much less engaging. One employed several ‘collaborators’ for a boring work that was ostensibly about research regarding bird calls, that lacked any visceral or ephemeral language necessary for an engaged spoken word action (unlike the excellent performances by someone like Kai Kellough, for example). Another had ‘done’ a work that sampled a song by U2 (this led to a rule I have, as a critic, that any performance that samples a pop song must be avoided).

There was an inherent hypocrisy exposed in these exchanges: one that further coloured my disdain for performance art, though my ability to ‘appreciate’ this genre had consistently waned during my time in #YXEArts. This was due to several things, such as the collective One Night Onlys horrid ice and candle indulgence at aka artist run. There were full years, it seemed, of programming at that space in Saskatoon that privileged performance and ensured that many, like myself, stopped attending. Too many of the works presented were rehashing ideas and actions that were worthwhile two decades, or more, earlier, but that frankly demonstrated the same self indulgent ignorance manifest in the #karaokemodernism that also infested the art scene there.

To paraphrase one of my critical brethren (a theatre critic) who panned a poor performance and was invited by the troupe to come and see it again, you needn’t smell a rotten egg twice to know it’s bad.

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BUT an amusing disclaimer: there was a period where I wasn’t a performance artist (though my last exhibition in Saskatoon was described by the curator as performative), but was a regular collaborator / performer within pieces for artists whom I knew. In Windsor, I was one of a number of people intrinsic to one of Elsi Farisi’s elaborate performances, that was almost theatrical in tone. It was both visceral and sterile, playing upon medical imagery and very grounded in a late 1990’s dialogue around women’s bodies, and a very Foucaultian deconstruction of ‘health’ and ‘disease.’ A previous year, I’d been a main performer in Shannon Boschulak’s MFA opening reception work in response to experiences of censorship within the department, and that was in danger of being shuttered. Even in Saskatoon, I had been asked to assist with an adjunct performance work, as added programming for a touring Brion Gysin exhibition.

So, it’s not as though I’m outside the discourse. Many familiar with my writing undertand that when I dislike an exhibition or an artwork, I’ll often bring more critical rigour to it than when I enjoy a piece. This echoes that: or as I sometimes joke, many have issues with the Canadian Art world for what they don’t know, whereas I have issues due to what I do know.

Consider that a caveat, if you will. It’s the same way I’ve often inspired peral cluthing among my fellow ‘critics’ when I indicate that an artist who writes about art (as with Donald Judd), or an art critic who also has a strong grounding in Art History (whether Robert Hughes or Earl Miller) offers more nuanced opinions than any pedantic pedagogical graduate of OCAD’s ‘critical writing’ program. This is another way in which I value contested narratives as it offers differing, yet valid, places to stand. Or, perhaps more directly (or crudely), I think of several years ago at a reception at the Mackenzie in Regina, where an audio / performance artist had just come from an event she participated in, and commented that she’d wished I was there to offer an ‘audience’ viewpoint. I warned her that too often – with audio art, as much as performance – the ‘artists’ (yes, I made air quotes with my hands at that time) treated the ‘audience’ as though they were in a porn film, ejaculating on their faces for their own satisfaction and simply used others in a disdainful, selfish, irrelevant manner.

And this was BEFORE I was ‘insulted’ by being called ‘art critic from hell’, but we know how that’s worked out.

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So, if my disdain is that grounded, why am I bothering to reconsider this now?

When sharing a post regarding a retrospective of the doyenne of performance art, Marina Abramović , a rejoinder was lobbed at me, from someone who’s opinion I respect. Why do I NOT apply the same critical attitude to performance art that I apply to other art making spaces? To elaborate: When confronted with a horrid painter, as I so often was in #YXEArts, the land of #karaokemodernism, whom would pule that I ‘hated painting’, I’d retort that I don’t hate painting. I hold painting in high regard, when done well, which in their case was not happening, so I didn’t ‘hate’ painting, but hated how they were degrading and demeaning the practice. I used to call this the Lannoo effect, but now it’s the Adamson adage: I don’t hate painting, I hate what you do, and please don’t besmirch Art by your inappropriate association.

When I watched the film about Abramović, The Artist is Present (on a big screen, which is necessary, I think), I found myself energized and optimistic about performance art. Perhaps this was nostalgia. I’m old enough to indulge this, especially as regards art education, from both the position of what my experience was at the University of Windsor or with several fine faculty at the University of Saskatchewan, before the latter became an incestuous cesspool. As an educator for over a decade at a university level, I also ‘miss’ what may never have been, too. But Abramović’s works that demanded more of herself than of an audience (in a narcissistic manner) gave me an idea of the potential of performance. I mentioned the Magnussen Effect earlier. This references a person who engaged in endurance based ‘performance’ which was more about the audience’s suffering than anything else, and I hold him in special contempt as he once jibbered about an article I’d written as being ‘too political.’ This was a special kind of ignorant hypocrisy as the majority of his work lacked aesthetics or engagement but took refuge in political issues to avoid improvement (unsurprising for someone unfamiliar with General Idea‘s canon, while appropriating poorly from them. I once described #karaokemodernism as passing off the innovations of an earlier generation as your own, pilfering valid innovation into entitled narcissism. This applies here, in performance, as well…).

Marina Abramović & Ulay, Rest Energy, 1980.

But many of the works revisited in The Artist is Present, often in collaboration with the late Ulay, were both frightening and visceral, even decades later. The sheer element of danger, of putting oneself into a situation that was personally challenging, resonated. There is a raw, real quality in these works. It was reminiscent of a choreographer I knew who spoke of how experiencing a live dance, with the performers’ physical stresses and the bodily immediacy of the actions, could not be equalled by any recording or documentation. This is something that has often informed my ideas about performance art: whether the immediacy is lost in documentation, and whether or not the integrity of the gestures are diluted and commodified, emptied of their power, by these second hand degradations? This idea returned to me, lately, with Canadian Art’s recent conversation with Zachary Longboy. He’s of a generation of performance artists who eschewed documentation, insisting that one must experience it. This made it more vital and more unique: not to be repeated, and refusing a simulacra of documentation that’s often bloodless and sterile.

It’s also been argued that the calcification of granting guidelines in Canada has both programmed and directed gallery programming in public spaces. The Canada Council will and has denied this, but that’s simply untrue (the aforementioned excessive indulgence of performance art at aka artist run in the 2000s was directly linked to the CC’s funding bias, and was neither supported nor engaged with the larger community). This offers a disturbing consideration of how an ephemeral experience has been transformed into commodity: it’s echoed in how Abramović would sell glossy images of past works, which became ‘art’ while eclipsing the genuine works themselves. I saw it on a more regional level, where individuals regurgitated the same actions and tropes over and over again, more for their own benefit (whether in grants, or like showing the same painting over and over and over again….).

This forces another idea into the Venn diagram of consideration I’m presenting. Several years ago, I was introduced to the ideas of Jacques Attili, by the artist Duncan MacDonald. Attili’s ideas are in direct opposition to Marshal McLuhan‘s regarding perfromance and the experiential role of the audience. McLuhan’s assertions – focused upon music, but applicable here – were later encapsulated by Glenn Gould. He stopped performing live as he felt that the ‘ultimate’, or ‘best’ experience of his music was the perfected commodity that could be recorded and distributed, as an ideal. But Attili took a different position (perhaps informed by his Marxism, and disdain for the commodification of culture). Attili spoke of how music was about the diversity of potential performances, and also disliked how a ‘perfect’ commodified, a singular ‘perfect’ version excluded and effectively excised the important relationship between performer and listener. He praised how it could be unique, each time, and change, each time. The privileging of the uncapturable experience was Attili’s ideal, with performance.

There is a liveliness, an immediate ‘realism’, in Attili’s aesthetic: this is present in the best performative works, and a repetitive pantomime is often seen in the worst. It’s flavourless reheated cabbage.

Rebecca Belmore, Vigil, video still of performance.

This raises another subjective (but since performance is often an immediate experience, subjectivity is intertwined, if not essential, to it) consideration: when considering performative works that are notable, an element of danger seems to – disturbingly – be essential. There’s several that fall within this: Chris Burden‘s Shoot, Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (or Rhythm 5, where the artist nearly died), Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil, or Elvira Santamaría‘s Acciones Urbanas. But other works that trangress the ‘safe’ – and let’s be frank, often boring – space of artist and viewer in overtly physical ways, often grossly visceral, are almost sophmoric in tone and suggest the ‘aesthetics’ of a teenage boy (Acconci‘s Seedbed is within this unenviable self indulgence and masturbatory space – literally, here). Acconci’s work is almost patheticall self indulgent (literally) when positioned next to And Counting… by Wafaa Bilal, where he uses his body to tell a larger story (similar to Rhythm 0, which exposed an undercurrent of misogyny and objectification…)

Marina Abramovic – Thomas Lips performance (courtesy of
Documentation of Chris Burden’s Shoot, 1971.

Other works also straddle this line (an interesting list as a starting point to explore danger in performative gestures can be found here).

On a certain level, this value through danger makes me think of the inestimable Jenny Holzer and her Truisms: Chasing the new is dangerous to society. The element of danger makes it ‘real’ (as evidenced in the exertions of Burden, Abramović , Belmore): does this mean we’re voyeurs, or why is this an element that seems necessary? When Ad Reinhardt showed us black ‘voids’, if you were intellectually honest (whether capable or willing to permit yourself to ‘see’, what he was declaring), it forced an uncomfortable ‘understanding’ of context between the artist and the viewer, and the subjective, fleeting nature of our interactions. The violence of much important performative gestures seem to be speaking of a darkness, a nihilism also found in Reinhardt’s voids, the painted abyss: “But even that is avoiding the real horror. The horror is this: In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.” (Moore)

When I consider Orlan‘s The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, it is this vacuous, offering a shallow – skin deep if you will – gesture that is more about the aforementioned narcisssism of perfromance, the exploitation of a ‘captive’ audience, than any larger, meaningful dialogue of action and response. Other performances, such as Mao Sugiyama‘s Testicle Banquet, seems more a parody of what a FOX News fool would use, to argue about the irrelevance and indulgent ‘shock’ of ‘modern art’, and seems to be ‘transgression’ solely for the sake of the same.

In considering the genre, I shouldn’t dismiss it all, any more than the too often #karaokemodernism or derivative plagiarism seen in the ‘works’ of Michael Adamson mean you should dismiss painting, (This despite his amusing egotistical tendency to think he somehow ‘defines’ painting, but Yeats did warn that ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity‘). That can also be said of performance. But the necessary codicil to that is that one must also be demanding. To proclaim oneself an artist should be to remember another fine, frightening line from Holzer: You owe the world, not the other way around.

I’ve often employed the words of artist and educator Bob Boyer as a starting point to speak to, and about, Art: it must be a meaningful and well made object, and this requirement of conceptual conversation, of relevance to others, and an acumen that speaks to discipline and consideration in execution is necessary. Years ago, a ‘performative’ work that scarred me, and perhaps feeds my dismissal of the medium, was – supposedly – about domestic violence. Yet it brutalized the audience in a manner that disregarded the ‘listeners’: we felt equally abused. It was like the ‘artist’ had been ‘hit’ and turned around attacked us all: it engendered disgust, not understanding, and left us feeling violated, as an audience.

So, what am I attempting to articulate here?

I’ll proffer that genuine, good performance art requires the following: disdaining emotional purge while inspiring empathy: gestures that are meaningful, even in a conceptual or removed framework, and not simply a self indulgent masturbatory abuse of the audience. I require an affront that is not just visceral and fleeting, but that remains with me as an evocative memory that doesn’t require the commodification and degradation of documentation that corrupts the immediacy of experience. I demand relevance, to myself and others, not just being disregarded as a victime of ego. If a performance artist desires for me to attend with consideration and openness, they must consider the audience and not take ‘artful’ refuge in the idea that they ‘create their own theory’ (a horrid excuse for incompetence that might be more honest, and simply admit that you’re a prisoner of performative puerility that is attempting to pass for pluralism).

This might be too much to ask (after all, I fully admit to avoiding some gallery spaces and some artists, as there’s no value, nor likely to be any there). This is simply my considered position, and like anything within the sphere of art, rules are often broken in a way that expands and more fully develops what art can, and might, and should entail. But I offer these ideas and reflections as a potential place to stand and contemplate a medium that can be invigorating, yet too often is inconsequential.

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This is another article produced with the support of AIH Studios in Welland, during my (extended) 2020 writer’s residency. Much gratitude to AIH Studios for turning my COVID extended residency into a space for more productivity and consideration. All images and videos within this article have been found online (the header image being from Abramović Rhythm 0. I also offer several links to further this dialogue. A listing of Canadian performance artists and conceptual framings of the medium (with respective differing parimeters) can be found here, here and here.