Tuesday, April 27, 2010

performance anxiety (in three acts)


On April 08, 2010 I was scheduled to give a presentation at SUNY Cortland as part of their visiting artist lecture series. Dr. Kathryn Kramer, who wrote a beautiful essay for the Contemporary Flânerie: Reconfiguring Cities exhibition I curated (March 2009), invited me to come to campus, meet her colleagues, present my work, and interact with their students.

On April 07, 2010 I got on the road, having decided to drive there, via Ontario, instead of flying (Cortland is located somewhere between Syracuse and Ithaca, New York). While the extensive drive may seem like dead time, for me it was a good thinking time (thanks in part by cruise control and GPS navigation). I titled my presentation “Technology Becomes Him” as a means to focus my current artistic interests. This talk (45 minutes long) was an expansion of the Pecha Kucha one (5 minutes) I did in Chicago in February 10, 2010 at the Illinois State Museum. For it I compiled 55 slides into a Powerpoint presentation and an 8 channels DVD compilation of my works from the past 5 years. Though I feel very comfortable with the content of my work and how they all fit together or dialogue, I felt pretty nervous about, once again, speaking in public.

The two strategies I normally employ in such events are humor (specially self deprecating), and audience reading (for this particular talk I had three possible endings, depending on people’s reactions – this time I ended up using the first end and leaving 12 slides and 1 video out). One reoccurring concern of mine for these presentations centers in creating an understanding (a foundation really) on the exploration of subjectivity, which is the main vein of my work. My intent in art, via performance and performative actions, is for an eventual self-erasure (where people will see me as an icon rather than a human being, and consider my expressions as symbolic rather than biographical). The name of this blog, art-sight, proposes that through vision a stance or perspective takes place, which perfectly correlates with the ephemeral nature of this medium. With my work I forward the proposing of body-as-site, where physicality and place creates a position for cognition and expression. As such, I hope that my art/body/sight/site transposes someone else’s, becoming a projection/conduit/mirror for further examinations of others: I am the ticket, not the destination.

Part of my anxiety in public speaking also comes from two nagging terms that I seem never able to shake away from my work: identity and narcissism. The latter was expressed in a question by a faculty member during dinner that same night. I am not afraid to answer such enquiries, because I have very clear and precise answers to almost anything relating to that. My anxiety comes in part because the answers seem never satisfactory to the interlocutor(s), because their questions assume a given or conventional rigidity in meaning. What I mean by this is that unless they are open to consider my interpretations of such (my favorite term now is one borrowed from Kramer, “a return to subjectivity”), my answers create a vicious cycle of perpetual frustration because they are not satisfied by my reasoning (ironically enough, narcissism is characterized by that same perpetual frustration or lack of completeness).


After spending a whole day interacting with students, and their anxieties, Kramer and I drove to Ithaca to have dinner and see the Cornell campus. Given our mutual penchant for wandering, she made reservations at several eateries at different times, and let chance make a choice for us. As we drove around the beautiful lakes and ravines that surround that geography we talked more about the events of the previous days, our future projects, etc. Once on campus proper (which by the way is probably one of the most beautiful settings I have ever been to in an American university), we ran into the fascinating Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art building, which was designed by I. M. Pei (or “he is Pei”, as I like to say).

As luck would have it, they were having an opening reception for their shows (they usually close by 5 pm, but were open late that evening). Of the many exhibitions featured alongside their permanent collection, were James Siena: From the Studio (a presentation of art and artifact collected and made by the alum), Michael Ashkin (a range of media and timeframe on display inside and outside the museum) and Bodies Unbound: The Classical and Grotesque (curated by students in Cornell’s Art History program. It bears to note that extensively informative pamphlets and brochures were available at no cost to any viewer, a huge plus in my (check)book. Their New Media room, really is a closet with video art, was disappointing in its scale, though the work itself, Climbing Around My Room by Lucy Gunning, which I will term as an architectural interaction performance, was pretty interesting, though devoid of much presence (mostly because of the manner in which it was displayed).

The most anticipated work in exhibit for me and Kramer was Carolee Schneemann: Interior Scroll, which was advertized on the exterior walls, and in the main gallery guide distributed at the door. As we anxiously waited for what it seemed like the slowest elevator on the east coast to get to the second floor, our anticipation built.


It actually took us a while to find the piece because we, for some were, were expecting to see it as a film of some sort. What they had on display was a suite of thirteen photographs, some similar to the ones most of us have seen, some quite different (thus indicating that the scroll part was the center of the performance, but not the totality of it). Interestingly enough, the museum provided a pamphlet with the actual transcription of the scroll, it being a dialogue between the artist and a male film-maker... who considered not a film-makeress Schneemann, but “(…) a dancer.” If I had the permission, I’d publish the whole transcript here, but unfortunately I do not. What I will say is that reading it completely transformed the piece to me, raising it to my top ten favorite performance art pieces ever.

Her negotiation between art and film, male and female, body and sex, brought back memories of my first exposures to serious performance art, while I was still in graduate school. Funny enough, it was then that I began to fully utilize performance, dance and sexuality in my work. Two particular performances I attended are worth mentioning here. In 1999, during the CAA Conference in Los Angeles, I saw a performance by Karen Finlay at the Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station, that took place within her Pooh Unplugged exhibition (yes, the bear of children’s stories). I arrived mid performance and found a circle of people standing in their main room, with her in the middle, completely naked, with honey all over her body. Anyone in the audience could lick the honey off her body provided they gave her a dollar. It was very interesting to see much older (then) people negotiating the tension of wanting to participate, wanting to walk away, wanting to be open-minded, et cetera. The tension in the air was palpable, and measurable by the nervous laughter that was enveloped by the smell of the free wine (similar to that of being in a low-end strip club). This was a few months before I actually ran into a classmate in a strip club in Ocala, FL actually. My reaction was more negative toward the work on the wall (I remember saying something to the effect that there was too much text to be read on the walls, the irony is not missed by me), and felt the performance slightly silly. But today I see it in a completely different way. I think that, similar to Schneemann, Finlay created an oddily shocking but non-threatening expression of her experiences and times.

The other performance I remember from grad school was performed at the Harn Museum of Art by Nao Bustamante and Coco Fusco titled “STUFF” in 1998. This piece combined media and original footage with costumes, props and scripted dialogue. It took place in a theater-like setting with a clear distinction between audience and performers, unlike the gallery in Los Angeles. Food, Latinas, media, histories and their representations constituted the main theme for this piece, laced with humor and the absurd. Nao was invited back to campus and featured in a solo exhibition in 2000 (a few months after I graduated). Being unemployed at the time allowed me to spend some time with her and volunteer in the installation of her work. In the few days she was there I felt connected to her. Looking back, her work, which is simultaneously complex, clever, and disturbing, allowed me to create the work I do today.

Time went by and of course we lost track of each other. In 2005 I ran into Nao at a CAA Conference in Atlanta, where I was presenting a video performance titled “free video hypnosis here,” a piece that dealt with my love-hate relationship to media and pop culture. Since then we managed to stay in touch via email, and last January we were able to bring Nao as a visiting artist to OU. I have screened Nao’s piece “Sans Gravity” every year in my video art class. Her visit brought me back to graduate school, our conversations then and our conversations now, somewhat different in nature, still carried some of the same ease from years bacl. Watching her interact with my students and the audience in her talk prepared me for my own adventure in upstate New York, though some anxiety still persisted.

On my second day in Cortland I met with students working in a collaborative, interdisciplinary project on Congo. It is always very interesting to begin such interactions, as usually my first statement, and the student’s response, set the tone for the rest of the day. Should I be the bitch or the nice guy? I opted to be unfiltered, to the point, and slightly nurturing (and luckily I managed to insert the word dildo into the discussion within the first hour without laughing). At the end of the day I was quite drained - we met for about 5 hours - but I believe that every one pretty much left the room with some knowledge gained and a level of satisfaction and accomplishment (at least I did). What brought everyone together in a nice way was a sense that we were all there to learn something, and that no answers were final, but only new pathways for exploration.

Lately I have been thinking about students and their relationship to critique. It is of course difficult to pinpoint when exactly, but I have sensed that in the last four years or so there is a different posture assumed by students. Of course my posture has also changed. The main difference is a more open acceptance to criticism. I cannot seriously remember the last time a student cried in a critique, because it rarely happens. Part of it is a lack of investment from their part, and a softening from mine.

Another aspect is the students’ overall politeness to one another – I usually assume the role of the bad guy and they pat each others’ backs. Kramer and I talked a bit about that in relation to television competition programming. One thing shows like American Idol and Project Runway have brought to the mainstream is the concept of critique as a method for growth and improvement (and cattiness as humor). Of course there have been similar programs for decades (paging Star Search), but the prominent role of media, and the multiple access to it we have nowadays makes critique and creativity/self-expression almost inescapable.

An ex-friend of mine in graduate school (long story, don’t ask) once told me that art was only relevant if it permeated mainstream culture, because then it would become part of the fabric of life (this is a gross paraphrase of what he said). Of course I think he meant something else, and I am not even sure what exactly he understood as art (he was in a language department). In a way this is what has happened with art criticism (I am also using here the term art in a very broad sense). Which brings me to a place where anxiety might be replaced with anticipation. In June 2010 Bravo will begin airing the first season of “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” a reality competition show featuring fine/visual artists as contestant, with a high profile cast of both participants and mentors. One of the contestants is none other than Nao Bustamante. If one watches the preview clips, “Sans Gravity” is re-performed (how pertinent, with Marina Abramovic’s reenactments all over the MOMA this season), and jurors state, among quick cuts and multiple juxtapositions, the sentences “you are not an artist,” and “you give performance art a bad name.” Who did they mean these to? Will they edit Nao to be the villain? It all remains to be seen, and scene’d. We might just have to watch what happens.


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