Translating Performance by Nicholas Kokkinis

The most immediately striking aspect of Performance Now, a retrospective of performance art from the last decade curated by Roselee Goldberg, is that there is not a single performance piece in the exhibition. All works are thus presented in various forms of documentation – photography, film, installation, and, most commonly, video. Although the introduction to the exhibition notes this transformation “into a ‘solid’ more permanent form,” it does not directly address the ways in which the transformation may damage or improve each work by distancing the viewer and suspending the ephemeral nature of performance. Indeed, many pieces suffer significantly from this translation into new media, while others benefit, and even feel completed by their documentation.

The two pieces in the show by Clifford Owens epitomize this dichotomy. In Anthology (Maren Hassinger) (2011), a performance involving the artist physically manipulated by others, Owens’ nude body appears starkly naked, vulnerable, and malleable in the hands of the clothed individuals that continuously shape him. This concise meditation on the ways we are sculpted by those around us benefits tremendously from its documentation – a steady overhead shot that renders the performers as moving components of a spare composition over a grey background. This perspective simultaneously makes the image of the performance more abstract, and the movement in space across the plane more drastic and poignant. Owens’ other piece Anthology (Nsenga Knight) (2011), however, is made impenetrably ambiguous by its documentation, presented in the form of two large photographs. Differences between the images suggest a single moment of white pigment rising and falling, but nothing of the powerful eruption and subsequent stillness of this action is captured by the two frozen frames. Video would have been able to preserve the motion and duration of this piece, yet a short clip on loop would certainly erode its monumentality, suggesting that some performances simply elude adequate translation.

Although Owens’ work straddles this line created by the effects of documentation, most other pieces fall cleanly on either side. Nikhil Chopra’s photographs seem staged, polished, and still, similarly conveying little of the duration and action of the original performance while obscuring its energy, content, and meaning. Ryan Trecartin’s video loop on a black television over a white pedestal feels divorced from the contexts in which it is more frequently – and appropriately – presented to the viewer: the enclosed frame of a YouTube window or a large projection in a room cluttered to the brim with kitschy paraphernalia for seating and atmosphere. The props, costumes, notebooks, and drawings by Leah Piehl too lack the energy that we can only assume the performance itself had.

Omer Fast’s Talk Show (2009) is one of the few works that is undoubtedly strengthened by its documentation and presentation on three flat screen televisions that line one wall of the north gallery alcove. In an exploration of what oral history might mean in the twenty-first century – how stories mutate and take on lives of their own – Fast adeptly references the ubiquitous daytime television talk show format, blurring the lines between acting and not acting in a marathon game of telephone. This piece, like Liz Magic Laser’s I Feel Your Pain (2003) and Christian Jankowski’s Rooftop Routine (2007), seems to pose some of the more intriguing questions implicit in the exhibition – in this age of surplus information and dwindling privacy, when are we not performing? When are we not inhabiting preexisting narratives?

By presenting political diatribes in a living newspaper version of the petty arguments viewers are used to seeing on Seinfeld, I Feel Your Pain, though, seems to fall slightly short of its ambitions – and short of Laser’s other work The Digital Face (2012) – in highlighting the underlying theatrical dynamics of contemporary politics. The seating and installation, however, are both considered and appropriate: sitting and watching a projection of an audience themselves sitting and watching a projection distracts from the fact that the onscreen events are not live. In Ragnar Kjartnasson’s Bliss (2009) though, the seating is not enough to suspend this same reality.

Bliss is by far the longest piece in the exhibition – a twelve-hour continuous rendition of the final aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro – yet the translation into video fails to capture the spectacular absurdity of this feat. Other marathon video projections – most notably Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) – succeed in conveying the same engrossing relentlessness of an epic work because they do not depend on the audience’s appreciation of the performer’s endurance, something difficult to convey through documentation. When Allora & Calzadilla’s Stop, Repair, Prepare (2008) is preformed live, a different sort of spectacle usually arises: the audience is spontaneously transformed into a mob of paparazzi. This swarm of cell phone cameras that hugs the piano as it glides across the space, though, is similarly lost in translation – the close-cropped video eliminates context and movement.

One collection of performances, however, has issues more pronounced than decisions regarding documentation. A circular centerpiece supports Marina Abramović’s work and cleverly echoes the stage on which she originally performed, yet these performances read as superficial riffs on historical precedents, such as the oeuvres of Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, and other artists who, like Abramović, rely upon danger and the mythology of the artist as transcendent being – both notions that feel stale in this century.

The exhibition would undoubtedly be strengthened by the inclusion of other artists – such as Pipilotti Rist or Laurel Nakadate – who, through performance, place more emphasis on video and installation as mediums in their own right, rather than simply residues of action. Too frequently the duration, motion, and context of performances in the show are obscured by documentation in ways that divorce them from their original energy and content. Overall, though, Performance Now is both enjoyable and engaging – not to mention an enormous privilege for Wesleyan – and regardless of some of the ways that documentation problematizes performance, it is without a doubt worth spending a significant amount of time absorbing this exhibition, which conveniently lasts the duration of the semester.