Masochism?

During some performances, some witnesses identify with a sense of risk or pain they suppose me to feel –regardless of what is actually going on. Sometimes, they come to thank me and then express empathy and even sympathy and compassion for myself. This is most often because the nature of the action that has been undertaken cannot be easily conceptualized or somehow resists commonsense rationale.

After Europa, an action whose motivation I declared from the beginning as being related to the widely uninformed willingness to welcome Syrian refugees at European homes, several people showed commotion for my bare analogy between bodily and national borders, and even concern for my voluntary exposure. I am not sure whether they had grasped the fact that the action was aimed at our own lack of empathy, hospitality, awareness and humanity whatsoever, and that the body is not as much a material for an artistic expression as it is the very locus of speech and the center of a politics that takes actual subjects into account. Instead, I guess some of them felt reassured in the classical, rather neutral position of the spectator because a group of them identified my action with Marina Abramović’s Rhythm O.

Such identification is not striking in itself: hers is one of the most famous and quoted performances; but it draws my attention that witnesses quote it in order to get rid of the power they, as witnesses, have to appropriate themselves of my action and replicate it in so many ways, such as reinterpreting it, repeating it for the sake of pleasure (as to revisit a trauma), changing their minds about migration policies or any other policy that affects them, or making a decision of not to change at all. You may say such power is a burden. I would agree with you. You may say such power bears similarities with the power of a slave, without whom the master’s supremacy loses its object and efficiency. I would say that the power of the witnesses –which they won’t confess or will keep for themselves– has the exciting quality of being masochistic voyeurs in the double sense that they believe that what they are witnessing is primarily someone suffering (a negative jouissance), and that they are allowed an identification with that ideal pain thanks to the participation of their gaze in a space made safe by the artistic speech frame.

This is, in my opinion, the reason for such widespread misunderstanding of physically borderline performances –seemingly or actually– such as Abramović’s famous Rhythm O, as shown in a recent article published in the Smithsonian.

The burden of the performer’s subjective narrative is an important part of his material because it informs the structure of thought that belies the intended action and it conditions the way in which she deals with the unpredictable. To misinterpret one’s own feelings towards an action and the emotions and associations it may trigger for the performer’s own experience is the kind of empiricist misconception that supports the predominating model of observation. This model is the ground for the old scientific model that still prevails, and the cognitive paradigm that prevents each one of us from suspending the things we have been taught. We do not know; instead, we believe we know.

Masochism is to believe that we know while ignoring it is a belief.

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Pieces of art

How right is it to talk about art pieces in performance art? What is the difference between a work of art and a piece of art? Is the difference it refers to conceptual or material? Is an action an object? If so, what kind of object is it? This is not to ask what kind of objects it may produce, nor what kind of object relations it enacts or recalls, but I will try to answer these two questions in order to exclude false hypotheses.

In the case of objects, following an article by Noah Charney in Salon, I take Ulay and JAŠA as a paradigm for performance art becoming collectible, that is to say, producing its own marketable, auction-able, consumer objects – mostly recordings and relics. Notice that both of these are remainders. Other options are to create side objects such as the Sodium photographs I did with Toni Payan for an action that had not even taken place, or to invest objects in side actions. The latter is a properly “performantic” act that must not be confused with merchandising or commercial fetishes of any kind, such as Bert Rodriguez’s heavy product placement for Apple and bedmaker Bedaga, a marketing piece covered as performance art by Josh Chesler’s misguiding (or bluntly naïf?) piece in LA Weekly.

As for the case of object relations, and following the same article, I take non-tech reach as a paradigm. It includes –and is not limited to– reciprocal naked staring or actual touch.

If we strip performance art from the material objects it may use or create, including recordings or other documentation of the action, if we could even get rid of the object relations it needs and fosters, which are not tangible objects in themselves but are part of the action value, may we still talk about pieces of art in the case of performance? May we call an action a piece of art?

Let me turn to two of my favorite contemporary thinkers, an improbable match you might say, but here they are: J. L. Austin and J.-L. Marion. From the latter, I take the theory of saturation meaning that phenomena may be known conceptually or by intuition, and they can be epistemologically described according to the proportion of conceptual and intuitive knowledge that comes into play when we approach them. Saturated phenomena are those where intuition exceeds concept. Event is one such phenomenon. Not all phenomena are objects; but since objects are phenomena, the first hypothesis I want to make is that performance art creates the possibility of an event, and if it does so it is a saturated object. Of course no one can predict whether there will be an event. The announcement of a performance is only the promise of an object; anything else is a fraud, and unfortunately for performance art, many performers play on that fraud.

From Austin, I bring performativity theory to the fore to illuminate his distinction between perlocutionary and illocutionary acts of speech. To put it very simply, perlocution produces an effect (convincing, scaring, commanding) by uttering, while illocution does something (a demand, an assertion, a promise) by uttering. That most people don’t give a damn about the meaning or the purpose of their actions is not news. But as a performance artist I cannot not-know what I am doing. I would like to expect every performance artist to know what he is doing. This is an example of what Austin called a hedged performative, that is, talking shit while pretending not to. When I say: “I would like to expect”, I am modalizing the utterance “I expect”, which is properly illocutionary, i.e., the real thing. Hedged performatives are a speech structure performance art is not about. However, performance art is not about perlocution either, or at least not mostly, although there may be effects indirectly produced by verbal or non-verbal utterances (I am considering only the intended ones.)

An intended performed action is an object not if it is what it does (i.e. not because it is identifiable with its effect on the witnesses or with a tangible result) but if it does objectively, and can therefore be actually objectified and even appropriated. It does not mean, however, that it can be commodified or purchased. On the contrary: if you happen to purchase a performance art piece before it happens (because it is an event), it is a chance what you’ve bought, and the artist cannot be held responsible if it does not become a piece, an object (or an illocutionary, complete speech act, in Austin’s terms); it is as if you bought the promise instead of the advertised product. And if you want to buy it afterwards, you will be paying for something that does not exist anymore. It is no longer available. But it is because there is no objective piece of art that you should pay for it: your commitment with the chance is that which may make it material for you.

Freud knew it: that’s why you pay for someone to listen to you. Yves Klein knew it: that’s why you pay for immaterial art. The banks know it: that’s why they sell you money they don’t have in exchange for your promise of paying money you don’t have either.

Circles

Two main milestones in the progress –or moving forward– of humankind have circle shapes: the wheel and gathering. Getting together around a fire has often been idealized as the primal gesture of socialization. Et pour cause: a circular distribution of a group of human bodies is not a matter of chance; it grants each one the optimal view of everyone else.

In one of my first performances, Hapah!, I went through a process of mourning by having my head shaven, a friend playing with his feet in a childish manner, and pretending to make love to a mannequin –something I soon realized was unnecessarily representative and coarsely poetic. Afterwards, I stepped to the middle of my witnesses, who happened to be sitting on soft matrasses, and I started jumping from one matrass to another while saying Hapah! – hapah was the after-mourning salute and a way to tell them: mourning is over until someone else dies.

That action now seems rather naïve to me: I find it particularly imperfect, not because of a lack of expertise, which I do not believe to be the case for most of performance art, but because closing the semantic circle of the action I wanted to perform was not symbolized by the circle of witnesses in a consistent way: only by the end of the action –which lasted about forty minutes– did I join the witnesses, thus inaugurating the circle too late, just as someone who has arrived too late to a meeting she is supposed to be hosting.

This exploration of the circle became more conscious after The Age of Aquarius –which, for other reasons, became a milestone in my career–, namely in Kristallnacht, where I repeatedly acted the failure of standing still and keeping balance. For this dystopian projection of a futuristic Barcelona from the standpoint of a non-tragic Kristallnacht, I asked explicitly that the witnesses stood up in a circle. This allowed me to stare at them, dance to them, and get extremely close to them, even to the point of embarrassment.

I therefore decided to provoke the formation of the circle. I did this in Killing Lluís Companys, where the witnesses were prompted to shoot me with mustard and ketchup. They immediately started to form a circle. However, as soon as they realized they were shooting each other too and getting dirty –something that stood for a shared sense of guilt–, they aligned for fusillading: breaking the circle also meant breaking the complicity in killing.

The circle shape eventually started to evolve to non-literal formations. One such formation was narrative circularity in Push, the performance I did at The New School for Social Research along with fellow scholars. By the end of the substantial seminars we had just had with Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak and Jay Bernstein, I wanted to “act out” something that had remained unsaid about the death drive. It had to do with our inner hatred, our disavowed capacity to consciously do harm. It was a tricky question especially on the aftermath of the Orlando shooting (in fact, the grieving crowd at Union Square was the reason I abandoned Aliyah, the performance I had initially in mind). Still, I decided to prompt the witnesses to do any action upon my body, as they pleased, except those actions that could cause permanent harm or death. It did not get excessively violent, I must say, although some underlying hatred did become manifest, to which I eventually responded in non-violent ways that were meant to deactivate the death drive in them. This was probably my first non-literally circular action.

In The Independence of Spain, circularity was marked by the installation I had set prior to the one-minute action of declaring the ambiguous “independència d’Espanya” (of Spain/from Spain). Since I had been sitting down for a couple of hours, writing politically charged messages in a hundred post-its, the material circularity of the yellow sticky papers also indicated a sense of surveillance over the man-sitting-on-a-chair or the bureaucrat I could be mistakenly identified with.

One of the performances I have been reflecting a lot on shall question the speculation over the value of surfaces in art. Is it so important to use a human body instead of a canvas, if you wish to do so? Or to use human bodies as brushes, something Yves Klein is known for? In this performance, tentatively named after Heideggers’s essay Vom Wesen des Grundes, I want to investigate what negative circularity may feel like, that is to say, what degree of materiality can a human body perceive when it becomes not the center of the circle but the object that circulates and surrounds the witness instead. This points to the phantasm as a way for the performance artist to be present, but also as a way for anyone acting subversively to become invisible and therefore effective.