A Symposium on Performance Art
The following forum involved participants in the International Intermedia Performance Festival which took place in Winnipeg from September 14 to September 21, 1986. The conversation was taped in the Board Room of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. In addition to the four performance artists, Gilles Hiebert and Grant Guy, co-ordinators of the Festival and Jon Tupper, Exhibitions Manager at the WAG, were observers and occasional contributors. Robert Enright, the editor of Border Crossings, was the moderator.
BETINA is a performance artist working in Minneapolis/St. Paul. She grew up in Kansas as Barbara O’Brian and studied photojournalism and women’s studies at the University of Kansas. She has lived in San Francisco and performed in Michigan, Wisconsin and at Franklin Furnace in New York City. Betina received a Jerome Foundation Fellowship in 1985. She collaborated with video artist David Brown in making Object of Desire and in presenting it in various cities.
DAVID BROWN is a video-maker who also works in performance art. He lives in St. Paul where he has collaborated with Betina on Object of Desire. His video art is concerned with social issues and with mediaculture. He has shown at the Atlanta, Athens and Global Village Film and Video Festivals and has received support from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Northwest Area Foundation.
TINA KEANE is a video film and performance artist who lives in London, England. She has exhibited internationally since 1975 in various media: her films at Festivals in Edinburgh, Berlin and Montreal and her videos at the Kitchen and Franklin Furnace in New York, A Space in Toronto, Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Tina Keane has received several awards from the Arts Council of Great Britain, teaches part-time at St. Martin’s School of Art and was a founding member of Circles Women in Distribution.
CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN is a painter, filmmaher, writer and performance artist. Born in Pennsylvania in 1939 she was educated at the University of Illinois, Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York. A pioneering performance artist and filmmaker, she has earned an international reputation for her investigations into feminist history and sexuality. She has published two books, More Joy Than Meat, documenting her complete performance works and a monograph on her painting/constructions from 1960- 1983. In 1985 Carolee Schneemann was the visiting artist at the UCLA Department of Art.
KEANE: I think in the seventies a lot of women decided to move into performance because there were fewer restrictions. Also, you could actually make a piece or a performance that was quite political and always up to date, which in the seventies was quite important. It’s very interesting now because performance art has actually moved in a different direction, shifting away from the immediacy of political art. Lt has become much more like entertainment.
SCHNEEMANN: Yes, it’s the same in London and New York and everywhere else.
BROWN: Another reason you might see a lot of women in the field of performance art is that it doesn’t require a museum and the museums are controlled by men.
BC: I’m interested in narrative and in whether there are ways in which women tell stories differently from men.
SCHNEEMANN: I think what it has to do with is telling the truth of the self and breaking through the invention, projection and mythologies that have dominated male culture and the male imagination. Performance art is a form that doesn’t have strict hierarchies. But essentially, I think that early impetus was to be able to tell the lived experience that was coherent with the principles of performance art as being experienced authentically and in a present time mode.
KEANE: I think it actually goes back to the oral tradition and story-telling.
BC: Which had been traditionally a woman’s role?
KEANE: Yes, quite often. Stories often were handed down from generation to generation.
BROWN: I would disagree. That is very much a man’s role.
KEANE: I know men do it too. But I’m very interested in the spontaneity of story-telling, in how a story can actually be shifted and changed within the performance context. There’s a very, very long story-telling tradition in Scotland . I’ve actually made a film about a woman telling a story about the Highland Clearance. This woman used to send me tapes each week including different stories that people used to send to her-a whole collection of stories.
BC: Two issues come out of that. First of all, David has disagreed that story-telling is a feminine preserve. And secondly, the whole question of the flexibility of story. It seems to me that there are ways in which story can be limiting. I mean the Homeric tradition which we inherit seems to me to be a fairly rigid system of story-telling, which was largely determined by men.
SCHNEEMANN: They’re both right from my perspective. It’s a figure eight and you’re both holding ends. You see, as soon as story becomes part of authenticated culture-and that’s been male culture-as soon as it’s codified, then even if it was originally a female mythology, the genders become inverted, the implications changed. So, when it’s free, when it’s loose, when it can’t be possessed, then everybody can move with it. But once it’s codified we only know it as male.
BC: Is it simply a question of who has power then?
KEANE: Always, always, always.
BETINA: Yes, much of the work that I want to do in my performances is to validate those stories. But I find that they’re almost always private. They are stories that women are not telling because they’re not given any power out in the world. And we don’t want that. I think we’re saying that we don’t have to tell stories, or create forms, that are part of that traditional world where we build our power. I personally don’t want that kind of power. I want to go out and to be connected with other people. I don’t want to be part of the pyramid.
BC: So is the question of power that Tina and Carolee are talking about an issue in your work, David?
BROWN: Oh, sure it is. But it’s not so much an issue of my individual power. There are issues of power between performer and audience, but the important ones have to do with who has real power in our world.
SCHNEEMANN: I feel like I’m in a power struggle with my culture all the time, and I’m trying to subvert it and I’m trying to take power away from the inherited mythologies. I feel that fiercely.
BC: You nip away continually at the heels of centralized power?
SCHNEEMANN: I hope so. Sometimes I nip at the toes, too.
TUPPER: Tina said something earlier that was interesting, but I don’t agree with it. You said that work today is becoming less political. I think it may be less didactic, but it’s more political. It’s more simplistic, it’s not preaching to the converted. I think that’s where the narrative comes in; it’s easier to deliver a message within that political structure than from within a preachy-teachy format. Maybe not easier, but certainly more convincing.
KEANE: I agree with you in some ways, but on the other hand I do feel that sometimes this sense of being subversive that you’re alluding to is just not seen or heard. It becomes a waste of time really. I don’t believe in preaching or yelling too much either. But I think there’s a way to get a balance. You can say quite a lot through the imagery you’re actually using.
BETINA: There is a re-emergence of narrative in painting, and in many contemporary forms right now. It’s not just happening in performance. It’s unacceptable to me to see ourselves outside of contemporary art history and not to apply the same critical standards applied in other media. I think that happens a lot.
SCHNEEMANN: But then you have to look at the next fissure, the next change when the new form begins to conventionalize its own structures and materials. So once we’re all discussing narrative, you begin to want to abandon it, to let it go off in another direction. Incidentally, performance started out with no narrative. It snuck in slowly. Narrative is a relatively recent issue.
KEANE: I think another word for what feminists really wanted, when they said they were after narrative, is content. They wanted to bring content back into art. I think formalism and minimalism were totally empty. They weren’t saying anything. So when you felt you had something to say, you actually had to build up the imagery. When the imagery began to build up you got words and then the words grew and became narrative. I think content is really vital.
BC: But almost anyone can understand story. It’s certainly a more traditional way of communicating and perhaps a clearer one as well. Was there a strategy among performance artists to use narrative because it made the form more accessible?
KEANE: Yes, but there’s also the question of how you use the narrative within the context of the piece itself. A lot of performance artists actually use art objects and sculptural ways of dealing with space. And then also by building up imagery and by using words, you can actually tell a story, but it doesn’t have to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
SCHNEEMANN: I guess I prefer to call it something other than narrative, like the test, or the tale. We agree there is a necessity to tell an area of truth. And the truth exists in objectness and in space and in how the language element is enacted or vivified as a piece of material. When it breaks down, when it’s not subsumed in the realm of the visual, then you’re back to that same old problem of standing there with something you have to say or tell. But it’s that mutation of language, language as thing and language as information. It’s important to keep that distinction, keep it breaking apart so that it doesn’t become like theatre where you can predict that the next person’s going to make a speech.
BC: So narrative can be frustrated or discontinuous or broken at any point?
KEANE: Broken, discontinuous, and the fragmentation makes up a collage of words and so on. And I think that can work very well, but sometimes if you don’t collage it well enough then the sections become too long and then it becomes too much of a narrative. There can also be a juxtaposition between what is actually being said and what is actually being seen. And I think that’s a very interesting way of working. A lot of performance artists use it. In a sense, it’s using sound as texture, as a sculptor or a painter would use materials. And then you can just pick up on what you want, leaving space for the audience to put in some of their own ideas as well.
SCHNEEMANN: It’s a sculptural problem really. It’s really like giving language its space so that you build it in time, not in linear time, but in plastic time.
BC: Can we go back and pick up the idea, the criticism actually, that performance is becoming more of an entertainment. Carolee, you’ve talked about a crisis in performance art.
SCHNEEMANN: In New York there’s a very strong tendency among newer artists to use performance as a vehicle towards MTV. You have all these trained people who really want to go to Hollywood through performance art. It’s quite astonishing to see. They’re more organized, more competitive and they attract more money because they look like a really good bet. They are going to fulfill the North American dream of taking the whole pie.
BROWN: I think that’s the history of new art forms. They begin as something that people don’t know about, something that’s hidden away from public view. They develop within a circle of practitioners and then all of a sudden the art form gains an audience, becomes more popular and is affected more by the outside. And in our culture of commerce, it becomes an object to buy and sell and trade on.
SCHNEEMANN: And in the process it loses all the visionary qualities and the formal qualities that we’re really concerned with. What I’m talking about is a kind of vaudeville, people who get up and try to entertain everybody. They’re back on that same old stage. Everybody’s sitting down in front in exactly the same position that we tried to tear apart fifteen, twenty years ago. And somewhere in the deepest image of the creative self is Cyndi Lauper, Madonna or Don Johnson. You know, give me the white linen pants and the whole damn seductive thing.
BROWN: I juSt look at that as an inevitable stage in a contemporary art form. If somebody out there perceives that there’s an audience for some kind of cultural activity, then they’re going to package it and market it.
KEANE: But surely that’s the time when you actually say, “We have to stop doing it like this. We have to change again?”
BROWN: Absolutely. I think that we can look forward to exciting work because of that conscious rejection, but we should also recognize that the people who do that will again be marginalized.
BC: Are you suggesting a general move away from marginalization, away from the responsibility of staying on the outside where you’re able to be critical of society?
SCHNEEMANN: I think we are in for big trouble. The glamour and the money is just so seductive and pervasive, that the spaces and the organizations originally created to support difficult experimental work are governed by this more immediate, simple kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. “Let’s have more glamour; let’s have big names; let’s hook in with galleries; let’s package this show; they’d love us in Germany.” That’s what’s happening now and it completely rejects anybody who can’t keep up with this process. You’re just a dodo bird, so don’t bother us. We won’t even take the phone call.
BETINA: So what do you do? Do you take yourself out of a culture which you find stimulating and exciting; away from other artists that you want to work with? Do you go somewhere and isolate yourself and ask yourself, “What do I want to do and how can I get what I want out there?”
BROWN: Yes. That’s what’s nice about St. Paul. Nobody’s going to make you a star there.
BETINA: That tension is there already.
BROWN: And it’s happened already. It’s a cycle.
SCHNEEMANN: But I think it’s going to be more and more severe. My sense is that this kind of festival here in Winnipeg, that’s been so special for all of us, is going to be harder and harder to organize.
BROWN: I want to be clear that I’m not talking out of any kind of bitterness or jealousy, or even desire to be in the position of other artists who are supported by the art ‘business’. And, I think that’s the important thing, to recognize that it’s a business.
KEANE: I think that’s a very interesting issue. These young artists are what I call professional artists. They’re very different. For instance, in a conversation with one of them you might ask, “Oh, did you enjoy making that piece?” They look at you as if you’re completely bananas. “I had the show to do”, they say, “and I did it because I knew that’s what I should be doing.” I find this incomprehensible because I can’t do anything I don’t enjoy doing. You can’t spend hours and hours being obsessed by something which you hate. It’s just crippling in the end, isn’t it? But life and art to me is all one, it’s all part of my existence. It has nothing to do with being marginalized at all; it has to do with being a person, a woman and an artist. I want to say something, to communicate in some way. It might be a slow process, but at least you’re pushing the things that you want to push.
BC: Does the fact that your activity is marginal frustrate you? Are you troubled by the fact that it doesn’t matter to society?
KEANE: It does matter to society. I think this is where you’ve got it all wrong. Where do you think all the designers and architects get their ideas? It’s from this impoverished, put-down person you call the artist. A lot of ideas do stem from those funny, odd people. And once you cut them out then society gets dangerously short on imagination.
BC: And you think, say, middle America cares about that?
HIEBERT: They don’t recognize it. But the appropriation by the bourgeoisie of things that were at one point considered avant garde or marginal has been going on forever. Take the example of Laurie Anderson. Her effect is not to bring attention to performance, but actually to take attention away from it.
SCHNEEMANN: That’s absolutely pervasive. It corresponds and is parallel to this other phenomenon-every bourgeois kid wants to be an artist.
BROWN: Or a television director.
SCHNEEMANN: Yes. And there’s just slews of them. And again the structure and struggle and process is completely missing. So if you want to be a star all you have to do is get in front of a TV and bang away on the guitar.
BROWN: And dress a certain way . ..
SCHNEEMANN: And get your hair styled. Get a style. Put yourself into a kind of package. Then it’s supposed to happen. All those other values, what I call the vertical values-having to do with history and culture and shared knowledge-they’re shrinking into this strange root. It’s like the human organism is going so nutty that it keeps on producing these art fantasists. They’re fantasists because they have to be connected to something organic, something they care about. But everything’s so fragmented and broken apart that all they do is move around, filling spaces that are really plateaus of deception.
BETINA: I wonder if that’s what they’ re after. I think they want something that artists are still allowed. David and I just finished a tape which included an Ultimatum to the Art world. The test says that children want to be assured that when they grow up they can still be expressive . They don’t want that possibility taken away from them. And artists have demanded that they retain the ability to be expressive, whereas so many other people, in so many other classes and subcultures, at least of American society, have had that pushed right out of them. So I think it’s a dream in the most positive sense. Unfortunately, all they see is the flash.
SCHNEEMANN: Expressive? So what? I mean, commit suicide, jump out a window. That’s expressive. There’s a body of knowledge; that’s what gives structure to expression, that’s what makes it meaningful.
BC: Is it that we have roles now and not identities?
SCHNEEMANN: It’s what Betina calls the flash and there’s nothing behind it. It’s this horizontal, continuous collage of disconnected things. These younger kids experience a kind of psychic desperation to put something together, but they don’t have the materials or the knowledge with which to do that.
KEANE: These deficiencies are showing up everywhere. At one time television news in the British Isles used to be fairly analytical and questioning. But it’s getting more and more like a magazine program. And the newspapers are like comic books really. So for the morning journey to work you get the funnies and at night the TV news looks like a magazine. So all the critical thinking and analysis actually starts to disappear. It affects everything, art as well. The whole thing about culture is that you have to have references backwards and forwards in time. A lot of work today doesn’t want to have any of those references.
BC: You’re talking about performance work?
KEANE: I’m talking about all art, because performance does come out of art, which has its roots in culture. It still has to do with the process of thinking. It has to do with roots actually. I mean, all art starts in your own back yard, really.
BC: Performance art has appropriated the language of television more and more. Ironically, some performance has been victimized by the very thing that it set out to be critical about in the beginning.
BROWN: Some video art continues to try to say that television has no language.
BC: But what I’m getting at is the way in which performance uses and is used by the streams that feed it. It goes back to the whole notion of entertainment. I’ve seen a big change in performance art over the last ten years in Canada. It’s a lot slicker.
BROWN: There’s nothing wrong with being slick. There’s nothing wrong with having a good presentation. Seamless is maybe the wrong word, but there’s nothing wrong with going for the presentation that best fits what you want to say. That’s not a problem. But I don’t know why things have gotten slicker. Maybe because they’ve moved out of the street and moved into theatres and into museums and those spaces make certain demands. But performance can work no matter what conditions it’s being presented under. The best performance I’ve ever had was at a technical university in Michigan. A large part of the audience had never seen or heard of performance art before, but they were the most perceptive, receptive audience that I’ve ever worked with. It was incredible.
SCHNEEMANN: Every now and then I get that too. I once told an audience that I felt like I was part of an endangered species. They went crazy, they were crying, and they brought pieces of fabric and feathers and flowers. And the most ecstatic performance I ever had was in Hamilton, New York, at a little college where six kids with their hair shaved in lines decided that they had to bring me up, so they stole the entertainment funds. All they had for a performing space was the cafeteria and they tore it apart. I mean they rebuilt this whole place. And there was a snow storm battering all the windows. By six o’clock, I said I sure wish I had a little aquavit and they said, “Wait. Somebody go get Gertz from Sweden. I think he’s got a bottle under his pillow.” I mean I was there for them because it was a necessity, an authentication of something that they recognized together. So I did that piece for six people and it was like being on fire.
KEANE: That’s the give-and-take with audiences. It’s a balance, in a sense, which goes back to this whole thing of hierarchy of audience. They really appreciated your coming: they learned something and you learned something as well. That exchange of ideas is important.
SCHNEEMANN: It’s a Shamanistic process for me as well. But we just don’t have a vital enough vocabulary to say you’re being transported, or that there’s a vision, or that the community is suffused with some sort of shared recognition. All those things are viewed as being off there…with all the crazy people. But when it happens, that’s what it’s really about.
BC: Let me raise the most persistent criticism about performance art. That it’s self-indulgent. And critics will use this accusation as a blanket under which they’ll smother most video and performance art.
KEANE: Yes, but they never talk about painters being self-indulgent. I mean there are some pretty transparent prejudices where writing about performance is concerned. There’s film and video and then performance art is a third area, you know, like the third world. Painting and sculpture are the most important things and then there’s third world media.
SCHNEEMANN: What about opera? What about ballet? Are they less self-indulgent?
BC: Well, perhaps they are more codified. I mean, we understand that opera is a system that we’re not expected to believe in at all. Part of the dilemma with performance art is that we’re being asked to believe in what we’re seeing because it’s real, because it’s autobiographical.
KEANE: We’re not asking you to believe in what you’re seeing. We’re asking you to question what you’re looking at.
SCHNEEMANN: Yes. I think terminology is important here. I’m not asking anyone to believe anything either. I’m asking you to question what I’m making.