Sun. Feb 23rd, 2020

Performance Anxiety

AMONG THOSE L.A. RESIDENTS who have listened (patiently) over the years to KPFK-FM, our local — and at times volatile — Pacifica-based radio station, many will recall my erstwhile colleague at the station Jacki Apple and her excellent performance art program, Soundings, which ran from 1982 to 1995. Since that was an era long before the crucial turning point of 2012–’13, when humanity finally reached its potential as walking appendages of electronic devices (a development actually prophesied by some of those performance artists), Jacki was an essential, one-woman dervish of activity in this city, a writer-observer who avidly promoted the furthest fringes of performance art and experimental music in the Southland, through both the printed word (in the pages of High Performance and Artweek) and that unlikely 20th-century medium of radio.
Soundings served as, well, a sounding board, wherein Apple’s interviews with local and visiting European and East Coast performance artists and musicians did much to spread the word of what was going on in a town where performance art — and gallery activity generally — were in need of “boosterism,” since the Los Angeles Times did very little back then to spread said word. I was hosting avant-garde music programs on KPFK, which involved pulling many an all-nighter featuring electronic music by drone-on composers like Terry Riley, Carl Stone, and Stockhausen, and for a long time I had no idea what it was that Jacki was talking about.
At the station, though, I would inevitably come across calendars and announcements advertising “performance spaces” in L.A. and I’d take a look. To me, something always seemed a bit off-putting about the bill of fare: I recall seeing photos of a skinny little artist named Tim something-or-other, cavorting (twitching?) onstage, naked but for a dunce cap, with accompanying captions full of art-talk and strident political-slash-feminist agitprop. It seemed both academic and under-the-surface angry, and who were these people anyway? My circle of L.A. avant-garde and noise musicians did not, I remember, seem to intersect with or know any of them. It seemed to be a scene run by well-funded older women and professors in corduroy jackets and students from what we then called the “Disney school,” CalArts. I couldn’t tell what the point of it all was. On top of that, performance art seemed very actor-ish. I stayed away.
But reading Jacki’s collected essays on this scene, spanning three decades, reminds us that Los Angeles was for a long time a major center of this kind of activity, and her proselytizing back then feels, in this age of easy-information glut, akin to smoke signals sent across the vast old analog flatness of the region, back when only the L.A. Weekly and Artweek were serving a similar function (and now that I think about it, there actually was a music show on KPFK back in those days called Smoke Signals!).
One wonders, too, how large Apple’s audience could have been in Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Proportionately, considerable — this was a much smaller town back then.
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Jacki Apple arrived in L.A. in 1981. She was no wide-eyed art student from the sticks; quite the opposite — a dyed-in-the-wool participant in the New York art scene of the ’70s, who can recall nights spent at Max’s Kansas City watching the big bad minimalist sculptors drinking each other under the table. After moving here, she began writing for Artweek and High Performance, before taking to the airwaves and a teaching career in Pasadena, at the Art Center College of Design.
As this new collection of her art-critical writings confirms, Apple has not been one to jump onto any and every bandwagon surrounding whatever it was that got called performance art. You will not find, for example, that avatar of self-torture piercings, Ron Athey, co-founder of the punk-art band Premature Ejaculation, in this book, but you will find the composer Robert Ashley! Apple is, after all, a critic with actual opinions of her own (gasp!), about both things aesthetic and things in general — “the culture,” as the cliché says. Her reviews here constitute well-informed essays on media, performance, and (inevitably) cultural politics.
Outsiders to this activity and its history may well ask: How entertaining or dour or shrill is performance art? At what point did it become those things? Was the stereotype of self-mutilating-actor-narcissists prancing about onstage well founded? (And dare I ask: Was fun ever allowed, or is the idea of fun taboo in the academy, which would mean we should just all kill ourselves?) What did performance art achieve artistically? Who were the geniuses and the also-rans, and who were those inevitable, canny careerists who used the genre as a stepping-stone to better things (e.g., the visual artist Mike Kelley)? Finally, which particular performance artists and “acts” have been remembered the longest? Is it “vulgar” to still cite Laurie Anderson or Karen Finley? Were they the blended-and-digestible versions, as opposed to the hardcore? No one knows the answers to these questions better than Jacki Apple, who seems to have done more thinking and writing about this unstable and hard-to-contain genre than anyone else on the West Coast.
The curious reader seeking a way into the genre should go right to Apple’s chapter titled “Performance Art Is Dead: Long Live Performance Art!” (an essay from 1994), which touches on some of the earliest names associated with the form: John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Robert Rauschenberg — multi-talents all, who invented performance art more or less as an afterthought. Among other ’60s pioneers in New York, the disgusting Vito Acconci is touched upon (so to speak), though without specifically mentioning his notorious “piece” involving masturbating and gasping and moaning in a gallery through a loudspeaker (oh, those grand old pioneer days!). In this chapter, Apple delves deeply into the body-as-art shtick of early performance art, interpreting and reinterpreting and doubling back and overthinking the matter of naked persons daubing themselves with paint or blood — and here I get the feeling she is perhaps making too much out of what ended up being, well, a whole lotta nothing (but then, what critic doesn’t do that?).
Still, reading all of this one gets the pleasant feeling that one didn’t miss out on the hectoring and preachy gay-feminist-political art world of the 1990s, when a still-nascent, politically correct, mutual surveillance and recrimination cult was starting to bubble up within the art bubble itself. On this, Jacki Apple sounded a word of warning: “At first, there were powerful […] other histories that speak to us all. But too soon ‘oppression’ became the style, and the authentic voice was drowned out by the mass culture of complaint where everyone became a victim.”
To think that she was writing this back in the ’90s should give one pause.
But a society in which artists become cowardly and fear the opinions of other artists is surely a sick one, and among the more startling aspects of this book is discovering how early on Apple expressed — and rather aggressively — an impatience with people who should have been on her side: left-wing, anti-corporate intellectuals. It seems, judging from this book, that the PC-police phenomenon may have actually gestated and hatched inside the art world itself! As Apple opines:
The new penchant for categorization coupled with a rigid doctrine of political correctness […] narrowly confines the artist’s scope of subject matter. The insidiousness of this intellectual inequity has generated a vast festering field of growing resentment and alienation. No doubt there will be those of you who will leap to brand anyone sharing this perspective as reactionary. And there’s always someone who will shout racist or elitist.
We bend to the dictates of students with no historical perspective who attack the First Amendment without any understanding of what it protects and why. By repressing freedom of speech on campus they put at risk the very principles of critical discourse and liberal education, something students in the 1960s so bravely defended and fought for.
The oppressive dictates of the latest outbreak of political correctness in our institutions of higher learning accomplish exactly what Orwell depicts when Winston is told to remove “bad” from the phrase good and bad, and replace it with good and not good. But “not good” is not the same thing as bad. As language shrinks so do all the nuances of critical thinking. When euphemism replaces accurate description, meaning dissolves.
“I can understand the fear,” she writes. Fear in art? Jesus Christ, has it come to this? So much better to just say: fuck your politics, my dear. I’m an artist. You go your way and I’ll go mine. Indeed, at several points in this collection, Apple writes with a clear sense of betrayal when diagnosing what she now calls the “Orwellian universe on the left” that she finds in her beloved art world, formerly a place of relative freedom.
All of this makes the art world sound like one big goddamn headache. But, of course, our entire society has turned into this same big goddamn headache, thanks to timewasting inanities like Twitter (here’s a question: is a person crossing the street while obliviously gawking at his cell phone performance art? Answer: only when the car finally hits him). Artists, it turns out, really were the “sensitive antennae” of future portents they’re supposed to be — though, in this case, not in a good way.
As a chronicle of 35-plus years of avant-garde “barricadesmanship” in Los Angeles, Performance / Media / Art / Culture preserves an atmosphere of politico-aesthetic urgency, which can give the reader the off-kilter feeling that art “spaces” surely are the place where “the world” gets changed. Well, it did happen, slowly. Read this book and witness, as freakish, circus-clown narcissism spread like a stain throughout the larger culture.
But none of this is Jacki Apple’s fault. Not for nothing did the art world’s lip-service hero, Marcel Duchamp, opine in the 1960s that the artist of the future would need to go “underground,” to work alone, in secret, with peace and quiet, to get his work done. Duchamp clearly was not a careerist.
Performance / Media / Art / Culture will not, I suspect, convert outsiders to an interest in this hybrid art form, which is surely not its purpose; but, for younger art folk, it’s a valuable history of some very untamed goings-on over time, and a detailed chronicle of what can happen when art turns into agitprop ruled by committee. One has the feeling that Jacki Apple’s influence extends to many an arts professor and art performer working today; this book ensures that and also shows why. It will have a long shelf life in academic and art libraries.
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Anthony Mostrom is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He was formerly a Los Angeles Times columnist and a book reviewer and travel writer for the L.A. Weekly.
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