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TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT: “Authenticity”

All / Opinion / Performance Art / March 5, 2018

“Terms of Engagement” is a monthly essay-column about relationships between performance art(ists) and language(s). Please send your responses to esthermneff@gmail.com.

Do we (“performance artists”) want to argue that “performance art” is so slippery, ephemeral, complex, sensual and “insensible/insane” that imperial, written European-language art history and art criticism—or written language of any kind—can never claim to hold, understand, know, or own “performance art? Or do we (“performance artists”) want to argue for the value and sanity of performance art within dominant (art)world(s) and dialectic trajectories (or “otherwise”), and/or to claim that performance art is an “artistic discipline” like any other and subject to the same markets, framing devices, and recognitions? What are the implications of writing on and about performance art, for us (“performance artists”), and for our practices, if neither of these options seems quite right? Can we devise and relationally develop linguistic engagements, using dictions, languages, ways of writing, and communication processes which perform with, as, and through performance art, increasing its potentialities, becoming ways of “standing under” performance art rather than “understanding” “it” as some-thing(s) to own?

I DIDN’T COME HERE ALONE

I am at Flux Factory’s “Utopia School,” a 5 day pop-up nest of projects and experiments held on January 25th-29, 2018. The performance artist, Nicole Goodwin is naked under a robin’s-egg-blue sheet, waiting to begin. The audience members’ attention is splintered; there are people napping on a mattress, chopping vegetables for a hotplate meal, and people reading the schedule neatly lettered in paint on the wall. Crystals and some vegan chili are on offer, the space is cool and humid.

Behind a black curtain that divides the Flux Factory gallery in half, there is a song writing workshop under way. The participants, mostly white women, sit in a large circle on folding chairs. The leader of the workshop instructs those gathered to sing through what sounds like a 1960’s protest-folk song.

“I didn’t come here alone,” are the lyrics.

I find out that Goodwin’s performance is going to happen right in the middle of this workshop. The two events have been merged at the last minute, putting Goodwin’s “Ain’t I a Woman (?!) Body-Presence and Utopia both temporally and physically right in the middle of the songwriters. The songwriting workshop instructor tells participants that they will be writing songs based on Goodwin’s performance.

***

My friends, the performance art mobilizer Leili Huzaibah, fellow performance artist Honey Jernquist, and I find that the new set-up disrespect’s Goodwin’s authority and intentionality as an artist and poet. We see the placement of an additional frame around Goodwin’s session as reducing her agency and turning her into an object of fetishization, into “content” or “source material.” The additional conditional and contextual elements of authority and authorization, as we interpret them, reduce Goodwin’s practice, quite literally, to fodder or content, to raw material.

Nicole Goodwin

Previous: Cover of bell hooks’ book Ain’t I a Woman(1981) Pluto Classics. Above: Nicole Goodwin performing as part of LiVEART.US program PERFORMING RESISTANCE: Examining the Social Functions of Live Action Art at the Queens Museum, organized by Hector Canonge. Photo by Maria Fernanda Hubeaut.

In the nude, Goodwin performs her work in the center of the circle of songwriters. They balance papers and pens on their knees – prepared to take notes. Goodwin draws improvised poetry out of herself. She describes and embodies a process of self-recognition and self-empowerment, a statement of authorship that brings her arms up in a posture of praise and down to the ground, as if in surrender. She mimes a rope around her neck, puts the sheet over her head and slowly pulls it off, paces the circle, tenderly touches the ropes of a hanging swing. Her movements are strong and precise. Goodwin approaches individual audience members, looking directly into each of their eyes. She beseeches and commands, insisting that we see her, that we see and hear what she is saying and doing. It is as she testifies for herself, the audience members see themselves.

If we, the audience, allowed ourselves to “authentically” react to such performance art, we might start crying. We might stand up and rip off our own clothes. Goodwin’s work brings her audience members to the edge of this potential abreaction, right to the brink of catharsis. Audience members have to physically grip their own upper arms, cross their legs, clench their teeth, stop blinking, just to remain still and silent. This experience is perhaps what leads performance artists (and appreciators) to believe in the raw, visceral “authenticity” of performance art.

In the last installment of this column, I made an allusion to capabilities and capacities of live art which are beyond language. To further develop this thesis the questions I raise here are: What sorts of “excesses,” rawnesses, authenticities “beyond cultural construction” are (artificially) projected by this sense of beyondness? How is language included in and/or excluded from notions of authenticity?

Language (especially English) is perhaps itself a form of cannibalism, consuming and metabolizing bodies, experiences, presences and situations solely on/within its “own” terms.

In theoretical and dialectical terms, the situation described above is a textbook example of what bell hooks calls the cannibalistic tendencies and agendas of white supremacy, colonialism, and rape cultures; these paradigms perform consumption of what is enculturated/framed as “the other,” they seek to “cook the raw.” [1] Language (especially English) is perhaps itself a form of cannibalism, consuming and metabolizing bodies, experiences, presences and situations solely on/within its “own” terms.

On the other hand, Goodwin and I share a belief that a rejection of language is not inherent to ”authenticity;” words, speech, poetry are embodied, affective and onomatopoetic forces as well as descriptive/inscriptive technologies. Goodwin’s performance already uses words, already involves language that is impossible to see as “raw verbality:” her utterances are poetry. An admiration for her poetry in conjuction with visceral presence, increases my irritation with the idea that Goodwin’s performance can be further “cooked” into “songs” by others.

Nicole Goodwin after her performance, during the talkback portion. Photo courtesy of Utopia School.

Goodwin explained after her performance that the last-minute decision to combine the two sessions was consensual and even that it, to her, seemed interesting and valuable. She did not share feelings of indignation with me, Huzaibah or Jernquist.

Perhaps this situation is ”authentically” an attempt (at least on the part of the Utopia School organizers) to combine practices and experimentally perform a pedagogical flux during which lessons and plans bleed together, informing one another and affecting each other. Perhaps I am parsing out the ”wrong” elements here. Certainly, ”authenticity” is a subjective lens that must be deemed, judged, applied in order to operate: discussion of authenticity begets discussion of authorization. It is also my subjective perspective as a (particular) witness and interpreter that frames Goodwin’s as “more vulnerable to being used as raw material” than the songwriting workshop, say.

In my interpretation and analysis, I am positioned as a cannibal (and resenting it), forced to rely on a belief in some “authenticity” in performance art, in “raw” states of presence and becoming. This belief is strengthened by and oriented around dominant cultural theory, especially theory dealing with race/racism, gender/misogyny, heteronormativity and how modes of production, attention, contextualization and presentation reproduce “other/us” paradigms which are broadly and deeply extractive, coercive, possessive, and oppressive.

Later in the week, Huzaibah and I describe Goodwin’s performance as “sincere.” We attempt to define a “radical sincerity” akin to the epic “authenticity” much sought and discussed by performance artists. By “authentic” performance art we mean dangerous, “too real,” too big, too loud, too strong. Goodwin explores this in her performance, these accusations (too big, too loud, too strong, too real) and how she feels controlled, diminished, reduced, and (de)materialized, how she is fighting control, coercion, and extraction with every mental and physical muscle possible.

***

There are terms of engagement writhing here like earthworms around a squash rind in the center of the compost pile. Who has the authority to “interpret,” “frame,” “contextualize,” or “use” performance? How are “authenticity” and “authority” related? How do presentation and event-forms prevent performances from enacting too much agency, moving people too much, being too “authentic,” too real?

TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT: AUTHENTICITY AND CULTURAL METABOLIZATION

To work towards the hot center of all of this, we can identify two types of “authenticity” which particularly embed doxastic conceptions of authorization and authentication. This dual typology is derived from and reacts to dominant mid-20th-century anthropology, especially that of Claude Levi-Strauss [2] and, more recently, the cultural analysis of authorization paradigms and deeply violent modes of thought which distinguish the “raw” and “the cooked,” the “barbarous/savage/native” from the “civilized/respectable/palatable.” Franz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, James Baldwin, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Ganath Obeysekere, and many others write on this paradigm, using shared and differing vocabularies.

The first type of authenticity might be called a “raw” authentic, seen as a natural, indigenous and “rooted” authentic. The second type of authenticity is described as a “cooked” authentic, an authorized, legitimized, notarized, and “appraised” authentic.

I want to be clear here that I am not endorsing this dual typology, just identifying it.

Through a racist colonial (Western, Euro-centric, etc) authentication-lens, the first type of authenticity (“raw”) connotes naiveté and purity. It serves to (e)valuate amounts of cultural capital owed to nativity, spiritual connection, and origination of aesthetics and practices. Authenticity is a little red surveyor’s flag, marking tasty territory ripe for colonization, (re)territorialization and consumption. This type of authenticity refers to edible cultural property/properties. Artifacts, “folk art,” types of music, restaurants, places, even persons can be flagged “authentic” through this authenticating lens, the term more or less operating as a marketing tool. Here, the sellers/appropriators/colonizers/gentrifiers maintain the authority to authenticate and appropriate.

A Picasso drawing is authenticated in order to become worth millions as high art. Here, sellers and—to a certain extent—select authorized producers maintain the authority to authorize and authenticate

The second type of authenticity (“cooked”) also operates through a form of desire for “the other.” But it is a desire for approval from and/or inclusion in the mainstream, the “Big Other” – the dominant as desired by “deprived,” “othered,” “subaltern,” “alternate” persons and cultural bodies/embodiments. As (tired) examples of this type of authentication, we might provide desire for “authentic” norms and products: eye surgery in South Korea for “authentic Western eyes” or a quest for “authentic Levi’s jeans.” A degree from Harvard makes someone an “authentic” political scientist. A Picasso drawing is authenticated in order to become worth millions as high art. Here, sellers and—to a certain extent—select authorized producers maintain the authority to authorize and authenticate.

Autophagies (self-cannibalisms) also operate here and some persons throw themselves into the boiling water, desiring to be cooked, to be deemed consumable/appropriate/of quality and value.

Both of these types of authenticity do also (in many different ways) require beliefs and ways of seeing involving nature-culture binaries, pre-conditional humanisms (Judeo-Christian obsession with “purity” and “singular origins”), and capitalist monopoly of value-assignment. Both of these types of authenticity value “truths beyond language” and propose “essential(ist) nature(s). Both types of authenticity are materialized via anthropological analysis of colonial histories and worldviews, regardless of whether these analyses are critical/deconstructive or reproductive/reifying.

OK, BUT BACK TO PERFORMANCE ART

In terms of performance art, the term “authenticity” is such a stew of common proverbs and problematics that one can scarcely begin with anything but one morsel of colloquial conversation, in which a performance artist earnestly pipes (perhaps in elevator-pitching to a curator) that they are “seeking authenticity” in their work. Within the (self)critique of Western/culturally imperialist anthropology-driven art history and criticism, this term became very popular in the early and mid 2000’s as part of commercial and academic appropriation of resurgent “live art” and “performance art” (vs. “contemporary performance,” theater, and dance) practices in the USA and Great Britain [3]. Everyone involved with performance art knows that Marina Abramovic quote, the one about performance art defined by use of ”real knives and real blood.”

Interrelated yet worth distinctly drawing out however is an overlapping third sense of “authenticity,” carried by and amongst many performance artists. This sense is a spiritual sense, a faith in “spiritus” derived from direct (empirical) experience with energies, affects, and “presences” within individual and social embodiments.

Many of us (performance artists) research the very dynamics and processes of realms unseen, those chaotic instances and matter-real-izations “withal/beyond” systemized, technologized and/or “ontological” (and/or linguistic) becomings. Not solely “nativist” or “appropriative,” senses of “more real reals” are direct [4] as only “direct theater” (e.g. spiritual/metaphysical ritual) can supposedly be.

Here, states of trance and energetic transfiguration are often seen (most simply) as abilities of humans who have tapped into, found, (or, in some cases “transcended”) their own “socialized” and/or “constructed” human complexes of nature-nurturance. Affective relationships are brought into presence, voids are shaped, alter-spheral unknowns are trespassed. While such ways of seeing/becoming/knowing can certainly operate as appropriations of culturally-located shamanic and ritual practices when performed by particular persons, it’s hard to break down, analyze, or categorize these configurations and transfigurations as performance artists may derive elements from ancient and contemporary practices as well as from their own perceptions and sensations, carrying personal “spiritual” senses from many different parts of the world and many different perspectives and contexts. I have no desire (nor authority, presumed or sought) to discount any of the (ir)realities materialized via billions of diffractive and diverse (in/trans/sub)human senses and conceptions. “Authentic” becomes a crucial term (and necessary designation) for performance art that works in ways which are not dominantly considered “really real.” Much performance art evades dominant sense, directly performing “magic,” and the conjuring, materialization, and presentation of states and sense(s) often termed “irreal,” ”imaginary” or ”metaphysical.”

Further, insistences on the “realness” of affectual and spiritual processes (see “feelings are facts” Yvonne Rainer) as well as the practical force and resonance of ritual practice (see Wole Soyinka’s attempts to depose Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha via theatrical play) in many ways define the “otherness” of performance art(ist)s, our “divine madness” and/or ordination as practitioners of “chaos magic” (see also Fred Moten’s “chaos poetics”).

Goodwin’s performance actualized self-authentication by demonstrating and embodying ways of humanizing the self, coming into full presence, temporarily activating a “utopian” space-time through which she defined and directly materialized what might be experienced as “authentic becoming.”

”Authenticity” is not just a term for engagement with large-scale paradigms involving cultural inheritance and property, the term also interrogates private, intimate and personal issues of faith and speaks to direct materialization of forms-of-consciousness and alter-transitivities.
Self-authentication, especially, when practiced as performance art, proliferates ‘radical’ potentials across personal, political, social, cultural and doxastic realizations and definitions of realities. Here, when framed and intentionally situated as performance art, self-authentication is not solely an individualistic act, it requires witnessing, testimony, and social substantiation. Even partially restrained and appropriated by the songwriting workshop at Flux Factory, Nicole Goodwin’s performance actualized self-authentication by demonstrating and embodying ways of humanizing the self, coming into full presence, temporarily activating a “utopian” space-time through which she defined and directly materialized what might be experienced as “authentic becoming.”

As Goodwin’s performance attests, it is possible to formally, critically, and contextually resist “raw” vs. “cooked” stagings, to transcend oppressive assignations regarding who makes authentic (raw) vs. authentic (cooked) art, and to resist schemas and contexts through which authentication and contextualization are performed by authorities and not by embodied authors.

INVITATION FOR RESPONSE: SO MANY “SCARE QUOTES”

How has your work been framed or staged within different situations, and how have these concrete contexts (in)formed the performance and your authority/agency? There is the experience (common to performance artists) of being asked to perform “in the background” of a gallery opening, as “atmosphere” at a gala, our bodies and practices subordinated to an overarching context, have you ever experienced being “content” (raw material) in some ways? How do situational frames ”cook” or ”make raw” performance practices? How do you see the ”capabilities” of performance art when it comes to materialization of realities?

All/any other responses, feedback, reactions are welcome and invited, email esthermneff@gmail.com.

Footnotes:
[1] hooks, bell “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, pp. 21–39. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 24 (read online: https://de.ryerson.ca/DE_courses/uploadedFiles/6052_Arts/CSOC202/Modules/Module_00/eating%20the%20other.pdf)
[2] The Raw and the Cooked is the first volume from Mythologiques, a “structural study of ‘Amerindian’ mythology” written by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. It was originally published in French as Le Cru et le Cuit in 1964
[3] use of the term is perhaps initially owed in an art-historical/art criticism context to Walter Benjamin, who used the term to describe the qualities of an original work of art as opposed to a reproduction (subsequently, performance artists/theorists argue that performance art is always original and originating and can never be a reproduction…). Further reading: PERFORMING AUTHENTICITY, Elvia Wilk (2012) (http://elviapw.com/Authenticity_1.pdf), see also Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity by E. Patrick Johnson, Duke University Press (2003), see also this 2011 discussion on culturebot (https://www.culturebot.org/2011/11/11663/visual-art-performance-vs-contemporary-performance/)
[4] see usage of this concept of “direct” theater/performance, i.e. ritual and perlocutionary dramatics in Schechner, Richard Invasions Friendly & Unfriendly: The Dramaturgy of Direct Theatre, New York University Press (2011)

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Terms of Engagement: Performance Art(ists) and Language(s), Esther Neff and/or other articles archived under Performance Art.

 

 


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Esther Neff
Esther Neff
Columnist, Cultbytes Founder of Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL). PPL is a flexible collective, think-tank, and lab site in Brooklyn. PPL's "operas of operations," performance art, installation, and social projects deal with world viewing processes and organizational forms through direct practice. Neff also makes solo performance, operates as an independent researcher, organizer/caretaker, and theorist. l igram l twitter l website l




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