by Kari Cwynar and Amish Morrell
This issue goes back to the roots of performance art in the 1960s and ’70s to look at the use of performance texts and scores, and artists’ engagement with the political avant-garde. The idea of the avant-garde has changed radically since the 1960s, and it is worth thinking about why so many of the pitches we’ve received lately have wanted to examine this trajectory in performance. What does all this interest in the instigators of the recent past say about the current moment in art-making? And what resonates with present concerns in performance – a medium that now fits easily within the disciplinary boundaries of contemporary art?
This issue is also about refusal, which is a strategy that unites much of what appears in these pages. Refusal is a theme in Ara Osterweil’s article on the use of live radio in Ken Jacobs’ experimental film Blonde Cobra, in Jon Davies’ text on Chantal Akerman and her use of structural techniques of filmmaking, in Sabrina Tarasoff’s piece on the influence of Sylvia Plath on the work of Mike Kelley and others, and in Annie MacDonell’s artist project, Notes for Performers. In almost all of these essays and artist projects, artists use performance scores or structural techniques to facilitate an embodied refusal of power or ideol- ogy, often signalling a shift towards interiority and activating the imagination and unconsciousness of both artist and viewer. And this issue is also about other media and forms of expression – photography, film, radio, the voice – that are often part of live performance.
For example, in her essay on Blonde Cobra, Osterweil writes about how the screen goes black during the film, refusing to show viewers the scenes of orgiastic social transgression that the recorded voice of Jack Smith describes, and forcing us to use our imagination to construct these scenes. Both voice and live radio are key agents in this piece, which is performed live, using a performance score, with a radio played intermittently during the film that is suddenly turned off when the film’s protagonist smashes a radio with a hammer onscreen. Osterweil writes that the film moves back and forth between representation and reality, the black screen working as a form of “conscientious objection” to what she describes as “the mass orgy of media indoctrination,” whereby the film is not a static object, but a living, changing form embodied by its viewers. Similarly, in his discussion of Chantal Akerman, Jon Davies looks at Michael Snow’s structuralist films of the late ’60s and early ’70s and Akerman’s refusal of conventions of narrative film and her use of restraints to liberate the attention of viewers, engaging them emotionally through form.
The cover of this issue depicts a performer from Annie MacDonell’s video work Holding Still // Holding Together (2016), which uses photojournalistic images of protesters resisting being carried away by police as a performance score. Having become limp and heavy, the protesters neither strike back nor protect their faces, but instead use their bodies passively to resist and obstruct the efforts of the police and make visible the operations of power. In MacDonell’s artist project for the issue, these positions are abstracted from the physical context of the protest site. As the performer enacts the position of a protester, her closed eyes are replaced by the painted image that appears on her eyelids and she merges with the historical image that is the script for this piece.
This issue is also about the voice – not just the voice of Jack Smith in Blonde Cobra, but also that of the late composer Robert Ashley, for whom the voice was integral and which inflects Steve Kado’s writing about Ashley’s work. It also arises as a theme in Alison Cooley and Daniella Sanader’s essay on MONOMYTHS, a performance art series structured around Joseph Campbell’s 1949 text The Hero with a Thousand Faces; the series presents multiple forms of storytelling, and this strategy is reflected in Sanader and Cooley’s poly-vocal text, which combines notes, conversation and essayistic writing.
Something that has been steadily emerging from recent issues of C Magazine is the idea of writing as performance, and their inter-relatedness. In this issue’s On Writing column, Cara Benedetto presents the script from her 2015 performance She invented love to not die. And in Close Readings, Richard William Hill takes us through Brian Jungen’s recent exhibition at Catriona Jeffries, in an extended review that is also a primer on looking. Throughout this issue – as we have throughout past issues of C – we consider writing as a performative act, and explore the intersection of writing and art. In different ways, these various media are critical forms that give structure to thought, feeling and politics. Many of the contributions to this issue do exactly this, and much more.