I I think my initial reaction was one of frustrated response to requests to perform.
I felt comfortably firm and rooted in a decision to not perform that — at the risk of sounding ostentatious — was political. I had stopped making anything resembling performance a while before I’d left New York, but after my move to Berlin, requests to perform surpassed any other invitation. Could people not read my signals? I truly wasn’t interested in presenting my performing self, and by extension the entertaining othered body, to be arranged on a stage — I’d rather be doing something in the dark.
But shifting that aside for now, another reluctance creeps in.
I had been invited to take part in a ‘performance festival’ that would be organized around a schedule of performances, but seemingly without any other underpinning structure or premise beyond the medium itself. Meanwhile, the global art world’s expansive reach had been increasingly subsuming performance, from gallery programming to art fairs to museum departments. The ‘live act’, the experience in ‘real time’: affirmed and promoted, a desire created and then fulfilled.
This manipulation of desire seemed to stand in direct contrast with the arguably oppositional position performance had historically held against the backdrop of Western visual art history. These initially marginalized practices that had averted commercialization and easy consumption, moving counter to a hype-saturated and consumer driven world, were now being employed as adept PR machines for image-conscious art world institutions as they scrambled to tap into the lucrative market around populist event culture. While on one hand serving to correct a historical neglect, this canonizing embrace was, and is, undergirded by an intense and constant drive for more asses in the seats — The Artist
James Franco is seemingly always Present — all the while attempting to invoke previous avant-gardist movements and/or capitalizing on contemporary radical social currents. The image is one of a rapacious and opportunistic validating move.
And what of the way ‘liveness’ was being sold? Certain critical thinking around the visual arts would place significance in the idea that it is necessarily difficult for a static, discrete object to directly engage with an audience. Some would further claim that empathy was created in collective experiences of ‘liveness’. Certainly while studying, part of the appeal driving my interest in performance and other alternative artistic practices — these coinciding with similarly-motivated movements for social and political change in the second half of the 20th century — was in their calling for a different sort of audience engagement, one that Modernist ideas of the singular, autonomous artwork generally failed to provide for. For the work to be politically meaningful — and contemporary — a viewer could not be a passive observer. A certain conscientious presence was required for the completion of the work itself. The art experience is real time.
Growing beyond this initial, perhaps naïve, reading, it’s not a leap to claim that ideally the experience of any artwork could potentially occur in real-time: one’s subjective reflection and confrontation with the work’s affects doesn’t necessitate being in the work’s immediate proximity. You don’t have to see it to know it or feel it. Memories cling to form. With this realization comes a few challenges: how to conceive a perception of performance unravelling in a different sense of ‘live’ time, left unmarked by a singularly determined entry and exit? How could efforts situated between form and formlessness dislodge representation and acts of re-presenting that are embedded within articulations of power? What makes the invisible hypervisible?
The invitation image, of a conservator peering into the depths of the surface of an Ad Reinhardt painting, is a wink to the spectacle implicated in rarity and diagnoses of genius.
II I was egged on by an exhibition catalog (NICHTS / NOTHING from the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt) and specifically an image of an Ad Reinhardt ‘black painting’. Due to the nature of the image, the limits of reproduction, and the book’s minimalist layout freeing images from context (no shadow, no frame, no wall), the reproduction had managed to reduce the painting so that it seemed to function more as a spaceholder for a reproduction in stead of a reproduction itself, or at least as if teasingly flipping between the two. Was this a photograph of a painting, or just a printed black square labeled as a reproduction of a painting? The image/artwork floated beyond context while moored in seas of white space. The place-holder was a black void articulated only by its geometry.
I decided not to contribute a discreet performance into the event’s staged schedule but to insert myself over the course of the day, operating in the background. In the dark, off and on, with no set schedule and no set length. I would occasionally spend time at a station with a compact inkjet printer and a laptop (both black rectangles, set up on a small plinth), and print out google image search results for “ad reinhardt black painting”. These were taped up throughout the space and around the other performances taking place, creating incidental distractions and interruptions. At times, as there was no printer tray, or if I would have walked away from the station and couldn’t catch them, the prints floated down to the floor waiting to be taped up. The space eventually became punctuated with black squares.
The reproduced paintings, presenting as black holes, generated a void. One wonders in which cases and to what extent the images might have been calibrated to read better, hyper-articulated via keyed-up contrasts or consciously imaged to contextualize the black square in real space, affirming and enhancing the ‘realness’ of the representation.) Or on the flip side, there was always the possibility that we were being trolled by images of black squares masquerading as rare and valuable paintings.
A perspective shift from reproduction to placeholder-for-reproduction, paralleling the culture industry’s supplanting of some of performance’s key tenets. The artwork not as singular expression but as ‘some thing’, proxy, a space for the germination of ideas or perspectives. The black hole is an image of a black hole, not a vacuum or a screen, but a constellation point delineating something beyond immediate representation.