Some Thoughts On Endurance Performance Art

Recently, art critic Jerry Saltz attended a six hour Jay-Z performance art piece cum music video shoot and made the following observation: “Does every celebrity have to turn into a performance-art marathoner?” The move from celebrity to endurance performance artist seems sensible to me. Celebrities (musicians, actors, athletes) are already performing, but mere performance is just entertainment. How to make entertainment into art? Just do the same thing longer.

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“rapper” Jay-Z dancing with performance art historian RoseLee Goldberg for a pop music video

 

Of course, some “entertainers” also have craft skills other than music or acting. David Lynch, for instance, has movie directing skills and painting skills. So what makes Tilda Swinton or Milla Jovovich lying in a box for a day any more or less quality art (or art at all) than authentic performance artist Chris Burden lying in a box for a day? Well, it’s not the professional quality of the box lying. Chris Burden doesn’t lie a better box.

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actress Tilda Swinton lying in a box

 

Quality endurance performance art seems to have to do with (at least) three criteria:

  1. Is the piece part of a larger conceptual trajectory that the artist is pursuing? In other words, does it connect outward into other media or other concepts in the world (concepts other than the concept of a person sitting in a box for a long time).
  2. Does the piece cost the performer something, or is it a relatively facile thing to accomplish? [MTAA's 1 Year Performance Video is an ingenious, media-aware critique of this rule.]
  3. And finally, related to these first two, but least concrete of all, does the piece produce some sort of magic? Does the endurance performance lead to something beyond what it merely is, or is it merely a person lying in a box?

Endurance performance art is to art what poetry is to writing — anybody can do it at all, but it’s tricky to do it in ways that matter. Just because endurance performance art is a cliche ’60s trope doesn’t mean there aren’t still great endurance performances yet to be enacted. Heck, painting is a cliche ’50s trope, and plenty of people still paint.

Regarding criterias #1 [does it have conceptual merit?] and #3 [is it more than a sum of its parts?], it seems celebrities venturing into performance art are hoping that the “magic” of their celebrity aura will be enough to win the day, make the project magical, and tie the project into conceptual topics larger than the project itself. But the munging up of art worlds and fame is a boring conceptual topic to me. Of course a bunch of art world nerds are going to be starstruck by a performer like Jay-Z. It would be like if Brad Pitt got cast to play Wittgenstein in a Hollywood film about Wittgenstein (implausible, but bear with me), and then he came to a graduate philosophy class to give a lecture on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. All the students would think it was real cool, but it probably wouldn’t be the best lecture on Wittgenstein. The difference is, art has no real boundaries, and “celebrity” is a perfectly legitimate conceptual topic for art, and so Jay-Z is not a fake endurance performance artist. He is “legitimate,” but only because anyone is legitimate. The more relevant contemporary question is not, “Is it legitimate art?,” but rather, “How does it matter in the world?”

Regarding criteria #2 [what does it cost the performer?], I don’t think lying in a box all day costs anybody much. I’m not arguing for the re-skilling of artists or that “craft” become the new criteria for what makes something valuable. Indeed, endurance performance art is cool explicitly because it’s this crazy brute force medium where you don’t have to be “good” at something. But you should at least have to be “stupid” or “brutish” or “stubborn” enough at something for it to spark some kind of magic. I am reminded of the words of King David, when one of his subjects offered him a free field in which to sacrifice an offering to God: “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (I Chronicles 21:24). So, call me old fashioned, but I think endurance performance art should cost the performer something. My earliest models for endurance performance art were COUM Transmissions (proto-Throbbing Gristle), and the rank outsider GG Allin (whose final performance after-party literally killed him, or so the legend goes). And of course the Viennese Actionists, who weren’t fooling around.

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COUM Transmissions (Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti) enduring the cost

 

According to criteria #2, Andrew WK’s recent 24-hour drum marathon qualifies as quality endurance performance art. Yes, he is also a musician celebrity, but he was an authentic performance artist before (and during) both of those things. The 24-hour drum-athon is actually MTV pop celebrity getting hijacked by performance art, whereas Jay-Z filming a music video with a bunch of New York art people in a Manhattan gallery is merely performance art getting hijacked by MTV pop celebrity. The former is better.

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“musician(?)” Andrew WK having played the drums for almost 24 consecutive hours

 

One of my favorite pieces of endurance performance art ephemera/documentation is an essay that Chicago film critic Roger Ebert wrote about a Chris Burden endurance performance in 1975. If you don’t feel the magic of endurance performance art after reading that article, it’s probably not for you. (No worries; not everybody digs haiku poetry either.)

By way of confession, my own art practice dips into the realms of endurance performance art. Sometimes “new media” is added, so that it’s not “just” endurance performance art ( http://deepyoung.org/current/again/ AND http://deepyoung.org/current/doubleblind/ ). But other times, it’s just plain old endurance performance art ( http://lab404.com/video/pop/ ). As a performer, I am always able to cause myself to have some kind of “magical” experience. It seems the real challenge is enabling others to have that same experience. Perhaps it has to cost them something. I am reminded of the wonderful Lydia Lunch quote: “What could be better than to die for your art… TO DIE FOR MY ART.. Now we’re talking.”

Regarding criteria #3 [the "magic" criteria], the Hollywood comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone seems relevant. Jim Carrey plays Steve Gray (known as “The Brain Rapist”), an “extreme” magician whose act is more endurance performance art than magic. The old school magicians in the movie are constantly asking themselves, “where’s the magic” in Gray’s act. In other words, how much of magic is crafted stage theatrics that produce wonder, and how much is un-staged, actual, Houdini-esque athletics (dislocating a shoulder, holding your breath, acrobatic extrication) that produce wonder? The mention of Houdini brings me back to ex-football-player art star Matthew Barney, whose films incorporate a combination of both stage magic (high-gloss production value) and athleticism (Barney himself actually doing physical stuff). Related topics include: the amount of theatrical acting involved in “reality” TV shows, and what percentage of pornographic sex is “real” (they are “actually” doing it) vs. staged (how much are they “actually” enjoying it).

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Jim Carrey portraying street magician Steve “The Brain Rapist” Gray preparing to spend the night on a bed of hot coals

 

I’m unwilling to dismiss endurance performance art as cliche (although much of it is), because endurance performance art is at least one art medium (along with land art, dance, and certain forms of socially engaged political art) where “stage crafted theatrics” (ARTifice, magic) intersect with “actual athletics” (real things which bodies in the world can actually do). Such “actual athletic” art might also be thought of as magick — “real” spells and curses that pragmatically cause bodies to change (as opposed to stage theatrics that only cause bodies to seem to change). Indeed, the best endurance performance art lies at the intersection of magic and magick.

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