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by Robbin Murphy
TOPIC #7: PERFORMANCE ANXIETIES
Stelarc is an Australian performance artist who has worked since the late 1960s to "enhance" his body both physically and, more recently, through the use of technology.
I first heard of him when he attempted to suspend himself between two buildings in New York using hooks piercing his skin as his only support. That was around 1980 in the East Village when the idea of "performing" art was being explored by young artists in a variety of new ways spurred on by the multimedia of the Hip Hop music scene and the use of the city as a canvas by graffiti artists.
I didn't attend Stelarc's early "wired" performance that day. I either missed it completely or the police intervened -- I don't remember now -- but the idea of it still causes a physical discomfort in me. I did manage to see some photographs of previous attempts and can only marvel at his dedication to discovering the psychological and physical limitations of the body. I know I have a lower threshold for pain. Stelarc himself has said that the reason he uses his own body is that it's difficult for him to convince other bodies to undergo painful experiences. What's interesting about his work now is that even though I didn't "see" this particular performance it still resonates because he is still dealing with concepts of extending and enhancing his body by being "wired."
For me any kind of public performance is painful if I'm the one expected to perform. Like many artists I once assumed that I could isolate myself in a studio and send my production out to the public for consumption. However, our contemporary concept of authorship (and ownership) requires art work to be accompanied by someone or something in the role of the artist. An artist may perform the making of an art work in isolation but must also play a part in its dissemination into the public realm.
No wonder, then, that the Internet is so appealing to me. While the prospect of appearing on a panel in a public forum can send me into days of debilitating nervousness I have no problem being on-line where my exposure is vastly greater as is my ability to influence.
In an email interview with Howard Rheingold, the sociologist Sherry Turkle attributes this to the ability networked communications gives us to recognize our multiple selves in a relatively safe environment, and to " make transitions among the many and to reflect on our-selves by standing in a space between states." In other words, like Stelarc suspended by hooks, there is a sense of zero gravity at work where being a body is given a new context for navigation, at least psychologically. You stand apart from yourself and discover your multiple roles instead of putting your energy into creating roles to play for the benefit of others.
In the public areas of the Internet there are plenty of "others" out there in the audience but as Turkle also points out about her own email interview, " The possibility of [Howard] answering me within moments of receiving my words is present in the production of my words . . . " and her words are somewhere between casual speech and more formal written text since "he is within my view, even as I write alone." It's not that you aren't still performing for others but that the form it takes -- on-line writing instead of the more body dependent "dance" we do in the physical world -- is more tentative and experimental and less alienating and, for many, liberating.
You can still make a fool of yourself on-line (and I've managed to do it more than once) but you always have the option to disconnect and let it pass, the equivalent of disappearing into thin air we sometimes wish we could do in physical space.
Many in the art world worry that the whole idea of "art" may be lost in the seduction of technology. They are concerned that children growing up with computer games won't be able to understand the basic concepts embodied by works of art. But a generation growing up on-line opens up a number of interesting possibilities for re-evaluating genres like performance art and the work of pioneers such as Carolee Schneemann (the subject of a recent retrospective at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York) and others. Since what remains after a performance piece is usually ephemeral these artists have been historically left behind or, at best, seen as entertaining oddities. Newer performance artists who take advantage of technology have a built-in audience already involved with performance themselves.
This is one reason that Franklin Furnace -- a performance art stronghold in New York founded in 1976 by Martha Wilson to support publishing projects by artists and time-based performance work -- has decided to move its base of operations on-line. Franklin Furnace has sold its collection of artist's books to the Museum of Modern Art and will close the physical space this month.
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