Conflict of Interest: Performance as a spectator sport

Performance Research, Spring 2000, Vol. 5 Issue 1
Winner of the Performance Research Essay Competition

The theories of subjectivity, from Freud to the present, which have dissolved the possibility of a solid, unified identity, and forced the thinking subject to doubt the security in gendered, racial, social, sexual and cultural taxonomies, have at once liberated the pressure and constraints of focused, ‘fixed’ identities and caused a crisis of indeterminate identification. This momentum (liberated and indeterminate) feels notably kinetic for me in my encounters with arts practice and especially performance, where my unavoidable status as a partisan participant or spectator, saturates the experience. It is my intention in this short piece of writing, to try and distill some of the flavours which are engaging meaning for me, in two recent performances, Lights, Camera and a Little Action by Peter Richards shown in the Milch Gallery as part of his ‘Performance Lucida’ series, and Instant Exposure, a performance installation by Abigail Davies which was part of her Degree presentation at the Nottingham Trent University, and of which I was both tutor and assessor. Both pieces of work, are themselves dealing with problems of classification in performance practice, in the ‘positioning’ of the spectator, and the fixity of meaning. It is my hope that in exploring the works from an acknowledged position of partiality, that I will come to a more rewarding understanding of how the pieces function.

My encounters with both pieces of work have been marked by a particular position of ‘power’ that it was my ‘duty’ to perform – critic and assessor respectively. It was perhaps my insecurity in these roles, positioned to judge my peers, that produced the works’ meaning – and consequently this text.

Let me start by offering to you, as best I can, my experiences of them.

Encounter One: With the Intention to Write
Wednesday 9 December 1998, Milch Gallery, 2 – 10 Tinworth Street, Vauxhall, London.

Peter Richards employs the principle of camera obscura in an attempt to create performance art and its documentation as a single entity. For Lights, camera and a little action, the last in a series of works, you are invited to be part of a history of performance art. All you have to do is come along dressed as your favourite image from performance documentation. A nine by two meter pinhole camera will be loaded with colour paper. The resulting photograph will be on show the following day.

David Hughes, editor of Live Art Magazine asks me if I will write something on Peter Richards piece at the Milch. I say yes. The performance of being a reviewer is one that continually amazes me – how I have to abandon myself to the mechanisms that it automatically puts in place. As a Drama Assessor for the London Arts Board (a menial job really, if truth be told, that consists of writing a ‘response’ as if one was a member of the public) I had been caught up in the whole note-pad-and-pen construction which lent me, despite my inclination and intention to the contrary, an air of superior ‘knowing’ attitude. Perhaps this was my inexperience; and yet being on the other side of the curtain, performing recently, and seeing Will Self’s agonisingly lethargic and capricious gaze wandering from the occasional pencil scribble on his pad, to the floor, peaking my temperature to a febrile degree, lends me to think that this is a character endemic with the job. I suppose there is a certain authority which has to be worn in the text of a review, if anyone is going to pay any attention to you – but I wonder if the live action version is quite so necessary.

In her paper ‘Experience and the Expectancy of Speech’ at the recent UCE conference in Birmingham, Making a Scene, Kate Love said that ‘to experience oneself experiencing is similar to seeing meaning produced as meaning’. There seems to me in this statement an acknowledgment of the powerlessness to do anything but observe the way in which one’s own subjectivity is produced. Certainly the shifts of identification from spectator, to peer, to reviewer, to performer (etc. etc.) and my awareness of them in my encounters with many pieces of contemporary art, are noted in terms of this meta-experience, as an abandonment to vacillating identifications, and occasionally safety zones of clear(er) comprehension. What Kate Love’s articulation of such moments does – her putting them through language – is to empower through knowledge – or rather a certain knowingness – the subject who is caught in the inevitable trap of seeing oneself being produced as meaning, through experience.

Excited at the prospect of spending the evening becoming ‘part of the history of performance art’ in Richards piece, and conscious that in my role as reviewer I can either remain at a cool distance or enter in to the spirit of the piece whole heatedly, I rummage through cartons of ‘costumes’ from performances I have made or been involved with, not really taking on board the task set – that I should arrive as an image from performance documentation.

I decide upon a series of gilt frames which strap on to the body – and I leave for the Milch.

I have decided that the undercover-reviewer mode is best. “Do we just go ahead and get changed?” I ask someone with a clip-board. “Yes”, she replies, “you can use the toilets”. I haul my frames to the gents where someone stands in a suit, gazing into the mirror. He is painting his face gold. He is going to be Gilbert. At this point it dawns on me that I really have missed the point by coming with my own stuff – I should be someone from a history. Never-the-less I strip off my clothes and strap on my series of body frames. Another guy in a suit comes in and picks up the golden sponge. He is going to be George.

We make our way back to the freezing cold gallery space where more people are now gathered. “Who have you come as?” someone asks me en route. “Oh, I’m not sure”, I reply, embarrassed “just myself I guess”. I feel a bit silly.

I am beginning to wonder if the entire history of performance art is going to be represented by Gilbert and George and myself when a very polite and very laid back Peter Richards draws attention to himself by asking the assembled crowd if they know what is going on. He suggests that it would be fun if we all dressed up and recreated an image from performance documentation – books provided for the uninspired – and that cardboard, scissors and gaffer tape are available for those who have come without an outfit. I wish I had come without an outfit.

As he ambles towards me I dread that Peter Richards is going to ask me who I have come as. “Hello. As you are ready you can stand here in the middle” and he places me right bang slap centre, in front of the giant cardboard camera obscura. I seem to have got away with it.

In what seems like no time at all, Richards positions the assembled crowd around the gallery space. Some ‘re/creations’ are clearly recognisable – Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Annie Sprinkle; a particular favourite of mine is Bruce Nauman ‘walking through a corridor’ which someone has re/created simply by standing between two giant pieces of cardboard. I am pleased to see that Gary Winters has come as his performance persona Lone Twin and begin to feel less anxious about writing myself in to the annals of performance history.

Peter Richards tells us that it would be nice if we could stand still for twelve minutes. “If it doesn’t come out clearly, then it will probably be a pretty blur” he says. We stand still. Twelve minutes pass.

And then it’s all over. I get changed. We have a drink and a chat. During the chat I go up to Richards and announce that I intend to write something for Live Art Magazine and would it be possible to meet up and that I feel very embarrassed that I got the brief wrong. He tells me that he thought I was “really great”, and so I go home having had quite a jolly evening writing myself into the history of performance art.

A couple of days later I go back to the gallery. Where the camera had been two days before is the enormous photograph – the ‘documentation’. There I am, in negative (pin-hole photographs always are) in my frames, slap bang in the centre. None of the images created look recognisable as belonging to any other source. They exist on the photographic paper for the first time. I feel less out of place. This is a flexible ‘history’ – an uncurated documentation, which sets up for itself the perimeters in which it operates. Somehow seeing myself in the representation, my crisis of identifications are resolved. The homogenous two-dimensional surface seems to flatten out and smooth over my anxieties.

Encounter Two: Making an Assessment
Thursday 27 May 1999, National Express Departure Lounge, Broadmarsh Bus Station, Nottingham.

‘Instant Exposure is a performance installation in which Abigail Davies spends 5 hours inside a photobooth and uses the machine and the act of photographing herself as integral parts of the performance. Using a digital photobooth means that the images produced have no negatives and so in effect are as unique as the performance they capture. You may take a photograph.’

If the imbroglio of identifications that I experienced encountering Peter Richard’s piece settled under the lustre of the photographic paper, the same claim can not be made for my engagement with Instant Exposure by Abigail Davies. If you want to see all the work on show in the Contemporary Arts Degree Festival at the Nottingham Trent University, you literally have to run around the hilly city for a week and a half in late June. For a first timer to NTU like myself, the physical exertion was considerably less than the mental stress of witnessing and marking presentations I had expected and inspected from students I had been working with for at least the last five months.

There is an unfathomable strangeness encountering these works that you have been anticipating, and often know, but also see for the first time. You are implicated, involved, helpless and to a degree exposed by the work, and yet make a ridiculous effort to try and be impartial, as if a member of the ‘public’, despite the demand that you must then offer an informed ‘expert’ critique.

“What did you think of that?” I ask a colleague as we leave a performance, who horrified by the question jitters madly, “I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t see it. I’m too close, too close”. Gosh how involved we all were.

Arriving at the Bus Station at about 3.50 p.m., Abigail Davies has already been in the photobooth for nearly four hours. Like with the piece at the Milch, I am surprised at how calm everything is, taken aback that my stress and anxiety are not reflected by that atmosphere of the National Express Departure Lounge, the site of her piece. There are a fair amount of people around. Most of those who slouch on the royal blue hessian waiting room seats are students and friends, come to see Instant Exposure, others are waiting for their coach. Occasionally the strangely intense air of the durational performance is cut by someone inquiring at the counter about returns to Doncaster or Glasgow.

Davies (how strange it seems to use Davies rather than Abigail; here in this writing once more I experience my identifications slide, evidenced by a switch from the informal student address ‘Abigail’ to the subject of discussion ‘Davies’, a requirement of the formalities of this document) has set up a monitor outside the photobooth (as we had discussed in tutorials), which relays, from a camera she has set up inside, a mise-en-scene which allows the spectator to see the action behind the photobooth curtain (as she had told me) and also the digital image she, as the sitter, sees in front of her, of what is going to be printed on the photobooth print.

This relatively simple technological set up has the effect, that for each scenario Davies performs in the photobooth, the viewer has a multi-visual access to its inception, performance and photographing. We see her legs peeking out from the bottom of the booth, and the twitchings behind the curtain; we see a representation of what is happening inside the booth on a monitor, within which we also see a representation of a representation – the image she sees of herself as captured by the booth’s own camera; and we see the photographs themselves, often of the multiple variety – four passport sized or sixteen fun sized – which thus repeat the image again, which are spewed forth from the outer wall of the booth once they have been processed.

Within this arrangement Davies performs a series of gestures, scenes and visual monologues that are sometimes pastiche, sometimes surreal, sometimes confessional, often hilarious and occasionally even moving, which range from the ingenious transformation of the photo booth into a swimming pool by placing a glass of water in front of the camera lens, to blocking out the light for a murder scene.

I have seen or heard about most of what I am witnessing before, in seminars and tutorials. I note where the work has been developed through these didactic processes, and where something that I have not seen or heard about must have been a recent decision or kept back as a surprise.

As I watch this spectacle my understanding of what I am experiencing, how the work comes into meaning, generates meaning, to me and by me, and how I in turn am produced by the work (as spectator, participant, artist, teacher, assessor, friend etc.) are stuck in an intractable quagmire which genuinely becomes a severe problem and inhibits the resolution of an understanding. It is as if I see my subjectivity split. I witness a quasi-diagrammatic separation of my brain, or rather even as if separate physical structures of neurons were parting company and schizophrenically coping with the same physical presences in an alterity of ways. I become agitated and unsettled and my understanding of the work and its complexities can be only be retroactively produced.

The ‘mark’ that I must make as a reviewer of Peter Richards piece in terms of some kind of value judgment offered out to a magazine readership, here becomes an actual percentage which must, along with my colleagues moderation, establish the work’s worth within an educational framework. And here perhaps lies the greatest cause of conflict. For while forcing me to engage with the work seriously in the first place, my ‘job’ as teacher and assessor has the paradoxically inhibitive result of denying me a resolved complicity with the piece by demanding an empirical endpoint. This is not to say that the awarding of a percentage is impossible or undesirable, but rather to acknowledge that its necessity problematises an always already fraught relationship between performer and spectator.

Formation of Meanings
As the photographs pile up on the floor beside the booth in which Davies performs I find myself desperate to possess at least some of them. Now that I have several framed on my wall, I have to acknowledge that this contradicts everything I said to Abigail in tutorials about relinquishing the preciousness and defining permanence of the fetishised photograph in her ‘booth’ work. Both Richard’s enormous, luscious pinhole photograph and Davies photobooth prints are excessively desirable. Christian Metz in his article ‘Photography and Fetish’ offers a convincing argument for the ways in which ‘film is more capable of playing on fetishism, photography more capable of itself becoming a fetish’. Materially, the photographic editions of one which Richards and Davies have created, discreet and salable, offer themselves back to the spectator as doubly fetishised because we are witness to – or in Richards piece – actually complicit in – the indexical link: that is to say we see – or again, are part of – the process of the photographic exposure. Here my ‘crisis of identification’ in terms of how to read the work is superseded by a material desire to own it. Perhaps after all this is just another position my subjectivity takes; my mind departing from the work in a day-dream, starts to try it out on the various walls of my home.

But these chronological endpoints of the performance process, rather than fixing meaning on gallery or sitting room walls, are perhaps the trigger for how the work generates meaning in the wider cultural and historical context. Specifically they challenge the prescription that ontologically performance exists as that which ‘becomes itself through disappearance’ to quote Peggy Phelan. Phelan’s assertion in Unmasked (and she asserts it assuredly, without any problematic) is that performance ceases to be, when it is itself represented.

‘Performance’s life is only in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.’

In Performance Lucida and Instant Exposure it is the very pursuit of representation that both formulates them and ultimately articulates them as performance. It is not surprising then that Phelan’s text (or rather contesting its claims) occupies a central position in Richards and Davies textual accompaniment to their performance practice: Richards’ Ph.D. ‘To reconstruct my conceptual understanding of the histories of performance art’ and Davies’ Degree Thesis, ‘The Performance Photograph’ both use Unmasked as points of inception. It is not incidental that their performance practice should so actively pursue an interrogation of contemporary critical theories of performance. Considering the critical foundations of these works, it is also no surprise that they should issue from the academic context of an institution. They seem to act as a backlash to the current Brit Art trend where it is ‘cool’ to divest work of a critical context, in what John Roberts has hailed as ‘the new Philistanism’.

Both works destabalise the promise of Phelan’s secure ontology through the performative use of the medium of documentation – the camera – and the resultant postionality of the photograph. For both Richards and Davies the camera is the performance. Or rather the taking of the photograph, the fall of light and its physical action upon paper is the performance. The camera is the performative sculptural mechanism which facilitates the performance. The giant cardboard obscura and the photobooth are both site (as the stage in theatre) and source (the text – the actors) of the work.

Reflecting the light in my golden frames, my body imprints its form, along with that of my colleagues in the Milch Gallery, on to the photographic paper. We stand still (more or less) for twelve minutes, and I do my absolute best to stay still. Placing ourselves in this long exposure, to this fixing of an event, of a time, reminiscent somehow of John Cage’s 4’33” – only it is stillness not silence that is highlighted – the exposed photographic paper, or rather the photograph that exposes us, sucks up the performance duration. The result is not a snapshot, not a documentation, but a static two-dimensional performance of its own, which contains a passage of time.

Davies has been sitting staring at herself for hours. Positioning and re-positioning herself in front of her image, testing the images on the screen in front of her, often several times, before she decides to print them. The multi-prints, like a strip of film, contain not only snaps of time, but passages of time as well. Passages which we, as witnesses, have seen be ‘selected’ by the artist through the enactment of a particular scenario. As we pick them up off the floor from beside the booth, and place them in between a book so they don’t scrumple, what we are protecting is not a documentation of a performance, or its remnants, but rather a moment which is performing. And by picking up the print, we oursleves necessarily become players, complicit in the performative enactment.

Perhaps my subjective entanglement with these works has been so marked precisely because of the way they themselves unsettle secure ontologies of performance and of photography. Performance Lucida and Instant Exposure beg to question where and what the work actually is. In doing so they force the spectator to continually reappraise and reinvent their role, and their perception of that role; to ask ‘where am I?’. In her recent book Body Art, Amelia Jones contests the established belief that witnessing live performance somehow gives us access to a greater understanding of the performer and their work.

‘Having direct physical contact with an artist who pulls a scroll from her vaginal canal does not ensure “knowledge” of her (as an individual and/or artist and/or work of art) any more than does looking at a film or picture of this activity, or looking at a painting that was made as a result of such an action’

I think that Jones is right, and it gives me a thrill every time I read the sentence, because this statement is daring; to eschew the visceral one to one, as the bastions of ‘authentic’ high art experience topple down into the passport photograph. Yet while direct physical contact does not ensure knowledge in any sense of an absolute truth, it does mediate experience and thus meaning in a particular way, no more particular than any other way perhaps, but never-the-less one in which I have found an exciting tension between the physical encounter of the work with me and my positionality in relation to it.

Perhaps what I am asking for then, asking myself that is, is simply for an acknowledgment of the lack of neutrality in the interpretation of art. As the students on the Contemporary Arts Course at The Nottingham Trent University sit in seminars, glazing over as I jabber on about site specificity and second order semiological systems, I have to remind myself that the codification of meaning is perhaps more easily controlled in the creation of art practice than in its interpretation. No site is neutral, not least this one – Performance Research; and perhaps academia with its presumptions to audience, to expectations, to certain kinds of knowledges, would benefit from a more open exploration of its audience. For while ‘Post-Structuralism’ and ‘deconstruction’ may have forced us, almost automatically, to peal back the layers of signification in cultural production, it is often easy to erase ‘self’ out of the equation.