Questions On The Present Moment In Performance & Video Art
Essay by Paola Catizone.
Being in the moment, being present, in the now, notions of semi enlightened states borrowed from eastern spirituality have became ordinary currency both in everyday life and in art.
The need to escape the yoke of time and of perceptually limiting habits may also be part of the human condition.
Actors talk of stage presence as a necessary attribute of a good performer and in Visual Arts, performance artists often refer to entering a state of ‘flow’, especially when engaging in durational performances that challenge their stamina.
Being in the present may even allows us to drop our sense of self, so that the actions become more ‘real’ than the persona of the performer.
My art practice is a mixed and layered combination of drawing, painting, performance, video and installation, with these elements becoming central at different times.
Between 2012 and 2013 my focus was on performative drawing, but I wondered how the videos of my performances fitted within what was predominantly a live practice.
Performance is embodied and immediate, occupying the present moment. Video art presents us with mediated and heavily manipulated images recorded in the past, which however have a coherence of their own. Body and embodiment have been a constant through my practice, underlying and anchoring all other material experimentations. Video has been a way of both recording performative work and of creating images in their own right. Both rely on movement and action and their continued presence in my practice has opened questions that I am currently exploring.
Reading Walter Bejnamin’s (1892-1940) essay The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction (1955), has deepened these questions and a recently attended talk by Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan has contributed both clarity and further questioning. In the following pages I will describe my work and the ideas that inform it in more detail, I will also consider the questions that I have mentioned.
Performative drawing has been central to my work in the last few years. The drawings are large, their scale directly related to the reach of my body. They have an immersive feel, a sense of being within rather than visually controlling them from the outside.
My background in martial arts, yoga, somatic movement and dance has filtered unavoidably into my art making, and I have used choreographic parameters to give structure to long sessions of drawing, both in public and in the studio, for the video camera. Collaborations with dancers, choreographers, Dj’s and musicians have been and continue to be a pleasure and a way of generating new ideas. The discordance between
the immediacy of performative drawing and the mediated experience of video art is an area of focus in my current work.
As a working fiction for the purpose of this paper, I propose the notion that performative work is alive in the present moment, and linked to intuition and the unconscious. Video art is technologically mediated, based on a series of conscious, cognitive decisions, reconstructing , in a collage-like fashion, a new reality from fragments of recorded past events.
"Performance’s only life is in the present"
— Phelan, P. Unmarked, The Politics of Performance,1993. p.146.
In the introduction to What is Performance Art?, one of IMMA’ s Education and Community Program What is? publications, curators Lisa Moran and Sophie Byrne write:
"Its (Performance Art’s) origins are more commonly associated with the activities of early twentieth century AVANT GARDE artists...FUTURISM, CONSTRUCTIVISM, AGITPROP, DADA, SURREALISM AND THE BAUHAUS".
By the 60’s and 70’s performance artists were taking stances against the commodification of art objects, and viewed Performance Art, with its ephemeral quality, as an antidote to this.
Byrne and Moran continue:
"By the 1980s performance artists were increasingly incorporating technological media into their practice [and] Having circumvented the museum and gallery for decades, more and more Performance Art is situated and performed within museum and gallery spaces [which are] acquiring live performances into their collections".
— Moran.L. and Byrne.S. 2011. p7
In her talk to NCAD students, (3rd of February of 2014, St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street), Amanda Coogan stated that Performance Art is contingent on the presence or absence of the body. Usually the body is that of the artist but sometimes groups of participants are involved.
Coogan set the edifice of Performance Art as resting on four solid pillars:
Performance is viewed by Coogan as being presentational, as it only ‘becomes something’ when it is live. The presence of an audience is needed to complete the work.
Time is extended in this artist’s work, as a minimum of three hours is necessary to develop one of her performances . The longest of Coogan’s pieces, The Passing, performed in 20011 at The Museum of Fine Art, Boston, lasted for a practically uninterrupted 24 hours, during which the artist sustained herself on water and honey.
These basic elements or pillars provide a framework, a pre-arranged structure functioning as a container within which the performance artist explores the unknown. A task is also pre-determined. During her talk, Coogan mentioned a state of “flow”, quoting Psychologist Csiksent Mihalyi.
According to Coogan and to Milhalyi, flow is a state of deep absorption akin to ecstasy and to the buddhist Jana, during which the sense of time is lost and only the task at hand is held in mind. In Coogan’s work, an altered body/mind state is entered in public.
With this inversion of the private space of ecstasy into the public realm, the performer, not unlike a shaman, effects a transmission between two worlds. An embodied and direct way of being in the world is communicated wordlessly to the audience.
In her essay What Is Performance Art? (2011) Coogan writes:
"This frame of performance art is a particular construct the artist or performer steps into"
— Coogan,A. 2011.p11
Once in the magic circle of the performative structure, ‘The work becomes an intersubjective experience’ (Coogan,A. 2011.p.11) , and she quotes:
"Performance, attempts not to tell (like theatre), but rather to provoke synesthetic relationships"
— Zerihan, R. Vol.35,pp.32-42
Coogan also quotes Feral and Turner: ‘Performance is’ real’ (Feral, J. Vol.25,1982,p.179), in the words of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner it is : ‘Making, not faking’ (Turner,V. 1984,p.93).
The striving for the real, not fake, and authentic is a recurrent theme in Performance art, a longing for an utopian, truthful and cathartic event pervades the imagination of performance. This aura of authenticity is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s notions in The ‘Object of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1955).
It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss Benjamin’s seminal essay . The following quote however, exemplifies Benjamin’s critique of lens-based art at their inception:
"The film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance,..This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera"
— Benjamin,W. 1955, p228
It’s impossible not to hear echoes or similarities with these views in Lacan’s mirror theory, and Laura Mulvey’s writings on The Male Gaze in cinema. During the decades following Benjamin’s critique ,the mass reproduction of images was to both democratise and commodify art.
The transposition of performance into video, even the co-existence of both mediums in a space, may complicate and disrupt the claims of the ‘realness’ of Performance Art, which borrows heavily from Yoga and Shamanism while remaining secular. Becoming technologically ‘infected’ however, may demystify Performance Art.
As an artist whose work is partly performative, and who continues to live, and, despite myself, participate in the late Capitalist culture, I find that my work has to echo the contradictory, disempowered and fragmented condition of the western mind. This has resulted in working with contradictory materials and mediums, which reflect the complexity of contemporary life.
At the same time, performers who uphold the pure ‘Pillars’ in their practice as stated by Coogan, may preserve a tradition of ephemeral art, a valuable presence in our increasingly mediated culture.
For Aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it’
( Benjamin, W.1955. p.229.)
My earliest performative intervention took place in 2008, when I sat in meditation in a crowded Dublin shopping center and had a friend film the event. I then added subtitles which reflected my inner dialogue during this meditation in a public space. In 2010 I sat in the window of a charity shop in Thomas St, and painted on a canvas, for several hours.The event was photographed. What was being explored at the time was my ability to maintain an inner focus while placing a solitary practice within a public environment.
In 2012 I ritually lit and placed hundreds of jars with tea lights over an area of 200m over a hill in Co Wicklow. This gesture was filmed and it represented a blessing of a natural environment existing in an ‘in between’ state, due to its status of development land re-possessed by NAMA. I have lived and made work as a caretaker in a semi decrepit house in this land for five years, which are now coming to an end as the land is going up for sale.
Following a college visit to New York, where I was impacted by the drawings of Tony Orrico at The Chelsea Dance Centre, I began practicing performative drawing, first for the camera, filming myself, and then in public.
At the time I wrote:
"[...] The artist, Gombrich argues: “begins not with his visual impression but with his idea or concept”. (Halsall.F.3013.p11). This schemata, this pre-conceived idea, is what I want to bypass, with the support not just of sight, but of all the senses."
"Emma Dexter’s dual classification, divides contemporary art into “..two main trajectories; the Post-Conceptual and the Neo-Romantic” (Dexter.E.2005.p 006). According to this classification, my drawing practice would probably fall within the category of Neo-Romanticism, as I am seeking marks coming from something ‘Other’ than myself, or at least in collaboration with this, ideally more truthful,other. Marks are blind, drawings embodied, born of impulse....Marks, lines, space, are freed from fixed meaning, closer to the present moment."
My romanticism, which was rooted in a belief in the subversive power of radical presence,(which I continue to hold), was soon tempered by the continuing onslaught of the unprecedented crises of our times, and by my own daily reliance on technology. All of this entered my work, which became more opened to paradoxes and pervaded by a strange sense of loss. The loss of a future, for our children and our planet, hovering like a spectre, casting its shadow on all my actions. Living in the present is now more urgent than ever.
Performative drawing took me to galleries, open urban spaces, art centers and music venues, and to draw “to” the sound of live bands, ( Twisted Pepper, Afrobeat Ensemble 2013) in dialogue with 15 musicians (The Shed 2012) and with a DJ ( DJ Nigel Wood, Ranelagh Arts Festival 2012). In March of 2013 I invited a group of students, dancers and a video artist to work with me for two days in the Students Gallery In NCAD. The small prefab in the college yard proved to be ideal for our exploration, which ended with a pop- up show in the college.
In May of 2013 I had a solo exhibition of drawings in Pallas Studios, Dublin, which included six videos, drawings and a thread installation. I invited a DJ, Nigel Wood, and a choreographer, Fiona Quilligan, to dialogue with me during a live performance.
Preparation was minimal and the performance was an improvised inter-disciplinary dialogue. This collaboration has continued, and much of 2014 has been spent practicing with Fiona. Working with a classical dancer/choreographer has taught me much about the organizing of movement in space, and that choreography can often leave little room for improvisation. It also helped me to define my own performative style, based on minimal but clear structure and much embodied presence.
My performative work leaves a physical trace, building and completing a drawing or installation during its process. It is an act of making. Video is central, and some of my live performances have been recorded, edited and shown later as video. Others have been made in the studio, for the video camera.
An example of combined live and filmed work is a piece I built at the Red Kettle Theatre, in Waterford, during the Summer of 2013, as part of the Waterford Avenue Festival.
I built a web, by stapling black wool to MDF boards on the walls and floor, covering a large portion of the room, the process was filmed and then projected onto the actual web.
In March 2014 , at Soma Contemporary Gallery, in Waterford, I collaborated again with Nigel Wood and Fiona Quilligan. This time, there was plenty of interaction with both collaborators previous to the show.
The performance was an act of translation between dance and performance art, which, while being distant cousins have developed different languages. I was reminded of John Cage’s statement about his collaboration with Merce Cunningham; when he said that rather than collaborating they were doing their own thing in the same space and that by doing so they were influencing, infecting each other. Video, drawings, both on paper and on plastic, paintings and found organic objects were also displayed in this show.
The title Natural Artifice reflected the contrasts between plastics and paper, video and performance, and the mix of live and mediated action. Organic and plastic, slowly crafted work and quick gestural pieces created tension. I refuse to attempt to create a forced harmony or consistency of what is in fact a practice based on a fractured awareness.
I was recently invited into a collaboration with video artist Ian Nolan (February 2014). Together we produced a film in which I performed. This was projected at Smock Alley Theatre (Collaborations 2014) with a set of choreographic drawing directions for viewers to follow and chunks of graphite for their use. The responses were recorded daily and built into the video which was then projected over paper on the wall the following day.
The resulting video showing the interactions, communicates much of the playful joy of the participants.
In her essay What Is Performance Art? Amanda Coogan quotes Adrian Heathfield (under the suggestive title :”But, can we have it all?”):
"Eventhood allows spectators to live for a while in the paradox of two impossible desires; to be present in the moment, to savor it, and to save the moment, to still and preserve its power long after it has gone"
— Heartfield.A.2004. p.9
Video recording of live performance can result in image making that can hold its own potency. While witnessing a performance in real time can allow for an empathy with the performer, viewing it again on video offers a detailed and total view of the event. If memory is often mixed with the imagined, perception in the moment is equally as unreliable, influenced as it is by emotional and physical factors, and by perceptive filtering which select small aspects of reality.
"[...]photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes,....can capture images which escape natural vision....technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself."
Paradoxically, the technological powers that Benjamin critiques, may have become their most positive assets. As with many great discoveries, visual technologies can be misused or used to great effect.
Bas Jan Ader’s iconic video performance I am too sad to tell you, was shown at The History of Tears, at The Mac, in Belfast in 2013, projected on a monumental wall in an equally large space. The epic scale optimised its power giving the piece the status of tragic religious art, the artist as a male figure immersed in pathos. Displayed in the same show, was La Dolorosa, by Bill Viola, a diptych of small scale, on plinths. It showed two figures, male and female, weeping quietly, their motion so slow that they appeared at first sight as stills. Compositionally reminiscent of renaissance paintings, the work conveyed unquestionable emotional content. Performative video is a hybrid combining the live and the mediated often to powerful effect.
If performance art in the '60 and '70s reacted to the commodification of art works by making art that could not be contained or sold, today, this stance has been relativized, as performance becomes increasingly integrated in the art industry through the purchasing of performances by contract, as in the case of Tino Seghal’s work, which has been acquired by the Tate, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Smudge, my work for the end of the MFA exhibition, will combine performance, video and installation in an embodied response to a physical space.
A dance exploration aimed at producing an “awakening of the skin”, is adopted and re imagined as a strategy for ‘ all-body’ drawing, an approach to mark making that relies on the kinaesthetic sense.
The act of drawing with the body, will be ritualised by daily repetition over the duration of the exhibition, engaging with time as a working factor. The cumulative traces of the actions will manifest in the environment, occupying space in the room. The video’s duration will grow through time, mediating the immediacy of performance.
Object making and craft are part of the project, I am currently sewing seven dresses, one for each performance. How to be embodied in a female, ageing body, is an inevitable question for me. Embodiment and presence, with their subversive potential, mediated or live, are at the core of my work.
- Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations,1955, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M.
- Coogan, Amanda, (2011) What Is Performance Art? IMMA Education and Community Series. Dublin.
- Phelan Peggy, 1993, Unmarked, The Politics of Performance, 1993, Routledge, London, UK.
- Moran, Lisa and Byrne, Sophie, 2011, Introduction, What Is Performance Art?, Dublin, Education and Community Programs, www.imma.ie