Leading up the fourth biennial of the new visual art performance, Performa 11, this November, Performa hosted a lecture Staging Language part of the series Not For Sale at Cooper Union on March 28. This biennial’s research theme is Language, Translation, and Misinformation and “will investigate the use of language in the field of performance by visual artists versus that of theater actors.” Not For Sale’s panelists, Adam Pendleton, Tom McCarthy and Frances Stark, each presented “projects that stage language in material form and ask, ‘What is borrowed from performance in this work?’” If the dialogue created by the first panel is any indication of the quality of Performa’s endeavor, then we are all in for a treat.
Mark Beasley, the host for the evening, opened the lecture with an examination of how protests and protest banners are forms of performance with an objective. Broadcasted media images have always been relevant and influential to artistic expression, but Beasley took this theme one step further in examining protest as performance. It is not a new thought but it is one that I had not considered myself and is particularly relevant as the media currently reports on protests in the Middle East. Everything #10, a creation of conceptual artist Adrian Piper and organized by Creative Time, is one example of words as protest and performance. Participants had henna tattoos applied to their foreheads. The phrase “Everything Will Be Taken Away” was written backwards across their foreheads; a mirror would be needed to make the words legible. For each person, the words carried their own, sometimes conflicting, interpretations of the message. This performance went beyond the participants by engaging those they had interactions with as they tried to decipher the message on their faces, creating the climate for interpretation, misinterpretation and the conflict that arises from the disparity between the two.
From the moment Adam Pendleton opened his mouth, his mastery of language, from intonation to expression, was clear. Each word, moment, or pause was so thoughtfully timed and placed that he held the audience captive. He used video from Revival, a 2007 Performa performance, to illustrate his discussion of the three V’s of value: Visual, Verbal, Vocal. His use of these three elements in expressing his intentions guided the audience through his performance, capturing them from start to finish. I wished to have been present at his 2007 performance as the snippets shown were teases of the full piece.
The focus of Tom McCarthy’s presentation was not his literature but rather his involvement with the International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictitious avant-garde network of writers, artists, philosophers and political activists. His work with them focuses on reenactment and repetition – reenacting and repeating culture itself. McCarthy illustrated this with INS’s Operation Rewrite. For Operation Rewrite, a room was built in a gallery styled like the War Room in Dr Strangelove (1964). Over the course of the Operation, nothing was created but rather the participants took existing newspaper clippings and radio sound bites and remixed them to reinvent what already existed. This project demonstrates the belief that every word has a meaning and yet also has room for misinterpretation. McCarthy’s presentation tied Beasley’s and Pendelton’s presentations together eloquently, embracing not only the possibility of misinterpretation but also calculated word choice when an artist is “EXpressing”* himself. (* McCarthy used this term when describing the act of releasing thoughts through words.)
Frances Stark concluded the lecture with the stand out performance of the evening. It was not only interesting visually but there was a whimsy and lightheartedness to it that absorbed the audience. “Borrowing” the language of Lady Gaga’s Telephone, she programmed the words to flash and move to the music and rhythm of the song. There was quiet laughter across the room but this performance was not a light joke, as the level of creativity and attention to detail was marvelous. She had challenged herself to discover the function of words juxtaposed in a new and highly stylized way, and in the case of Telephone, it was taking a pop song and transforming it into a serious piece.
The importance of language in the visual arts is a topic broached by artists in many media. Barbara Kruger has explored consumerism and feminism in works like Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (Photographic silkscreen/vinyl, 111” by 113”, 1987). The combination of the words and the image compel the viewer to delve in and consider their own role in consumerism and how it has come to define much of Western culture.
Bruce Nauman has also maximized on language with his neon light sculptures. As with Human/Need/Desire (Neon tubing and wire with glass tubing suspension frames, 7’ 10 3/8” x 70 1/2” x 25 3/4”, 1983, MoMA), color and light radiate, attracting the viewer’s attention. Nauman’s choice of warm tones invites the viewer in, and the words he selected – need, dream, hope and desire – have a similar effect on the viewer as Kruger’s work. What are human needs? Dreams? Hopes? Desires? Nauman creates an atmosphere where the viewer will challenge himself, making the work remarkably personal.
Performa’s exploration of language continues a long tradition of reflection, and the discussion of it will only add to and strengthen the discovery. All three of the panelists successfully dissected their own projects to illustrate their use of language and how it can be translated, remixed, reused, interpreted and misinterpreted. Their work will complement the work of artists like Kruger and Nauman in history.
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