Trace, Body, and Care

Into the Performance Archive with Joan Jonas

by Andrew J. Smyth

published November 13, 2015

May was something of an event for American performance art. On the occasion of the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale, the United States Pavilion presented new work from Joan Jonas, one of the discipline’s certified ‘pioneers.’ (To give you a sense of the gravity of being selected, previous delegates have included Louise Bourgeois, Ann Hamilton, Fred Wilson, and Bruce Nauman.) Beginning in the late sixties Jonas conducted some of the earliest experiments with performance and video in New York. She’s almost eighty now, but hasn’t slowed down. The project Jonas debuted in Venice, They Come to Us Without a Word, explores the questions she has been working through for nearly fifty years. How images sustain manipulation, fragmentation, and combination. How objects figure in ritual, theater, and other performance activities. How text, sound, and visuality feed and challenge one another. Jonas organized the architecture of the pavilion into four chambers of investigation, each of which submitted a general topic—bees, fish, wind, the “homeroom”—to pressure from video, drawings, objects, and quotations. The central rotunda, which she outfitted with a crystal chandelier and 28 mirrors fabricated nearby on the island of Murano, supplied a kind of lyrical funhouse in which the prismatic surfaces of the pavilion, and the body of the viewer, were endlessly reflected and refracted. In July, Jonas and the musician Jason Moran, with whom she has often collaborated, collected and translated this material into a new performance work, They Come to Us without a Word II. The Biennale represented a long overdue opportunity to gather around one of the most radical practitioners of performance art.

Before long, the celebration was colored by mourning and loss. The Jonas show opened in Venice on May 9. The following afternoon, on May 10, word spread about the death of Chris Burden, another towering figure in the history of performance art. His death activated a kind of return. Back to the bullet and the blood, his now-wounded limb, the friend aiming the gun, its being fired and nobody’s intervening. These images belong to a work of performance Burden called Shoot. In 1971, he had himself been shot in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle inside a gallery in Santa Ana, California for an audience of about ten people. The power of that work does not reside with being shot in itself, or the idea that being shot should necessarily make for an artwork. Rather, Shoot unsettled and maimed due to the agreement between the work’s several parties—the artist, the shooter assistant, and the audience—to consent to violence, the fact that each of them allowed it to occur. In addition to the gun and Burden’s body, the work also consisted of the set of choices and outcomes that were available in that room. What ethics of the public, he seemed to demand, might the audience’s permission and spectatorship suggest? What did it mean for those witnesses not to intervene? Somewhere between ushering in new work like Jonas’ and revisiting classic examples like Burden’s, the institutions that tend to performance make choices about how to preserve and remember. Of course, Burden’s work was designed to circulate well beyond the confines of that room. Burden took care to have the performance photographed and filmed, ensuring that the event would be reproduced and reviewed. The documentation that resulted from Shoot not only testifies to but actually extends the work itself. The performance and our knowledge of it both depend on these supplements. 

According to one understanding of the art form, reproduction can only furnish a degraded, damaged knowledge. “Performance’s only life is in the present,” scholar Peggy Phelan wrote in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” We begin, this argument goes, at the place of our not having been there. Absence from the scene of ‘the event’ and therefore its distance for us, the distance of it and its chase. An effort-failure of approximation that persists in its seductive wake. This is one scheme (of loss) that the historian of performance art has been said to find herself inside. Live art transpires in order to fade away, and so it occurs only at the cusp of its immediate, original presentation. This position yields certain credibilities and certain problems. Performance did begin as a practice of resistance to transaction, to the conception of art as an object-commodity around which commercial galleries, auction houses, and museums organize. In reply to this daisy chain of sale and valuation, in other words, performance artists like Burden, Carolee Schneeman, Suzanne Lacy, Joseph Beuys, and Vito Acconci furnished the body, the body and its being-together-with-others. “Performance resists the balanced circulations of finance,” Phelan insists. “It saves nothing; it only spends.”  But if Phelan is right about performance’s resistance to Capital, her emphasis on the original, embodied debut of the work also lands it into an essentialist double bind. If the radical contact of the performance cannot be retrieved after the instant of its debut, if its gifts and pleasures cling to its disappearance, then where do we place Shoot and works like it, whose documentation was clearly a major concern of the artist? If the work is circumscribed to the container of an irretrievable past, practitioners and scholars face difficult questions about how to know, historicize, and care for it. And is it really in the best interests of the work to seal performance in an impermeable capsule? Can there be an archive of performance? Is performance art history?

The “parliament of forms” through which Jonas mediates her concerns, to borrow a term from curator Okwui Enwezor, elicits an expansive channel of shapes and media for thinking and knowing. Performance is a crucial realm of her practice, but it happens inside an open system into which video, drawing, installation, sound, and objects also feed. An image she has formulated in ink might surface in a video, which she may install in a gallery, which could project during a performance, in which she very well may draw the image live again. This rich circuit also occurs between and across her bodies of work, which revisit one another by manipulating earlier material. Because any given gesture in a Jonas work can travel seamlessly across time and media, it becomes impossible to find a proper, authentic, or original register. When the performance is always already mediated the idea of an auratic original dissolves. The art historian, Amelia Jones, has described her disdain for this ladder of authenticity. “There is no possibility of an unmediated relationship to any kind of cultural product, including body art,” she suggests. “Although I am respectful of the specificity of knowledges gained from participating in a live performance situation…this specificity should not be privileged over the specificity of knowledges that develop in relation to the documentary traces of such an event.”  

This multiplicity of knowledges seems a more useful way of caring for and remembering a work of performance. Because an ephemeral, embodied event cannot be cryogenically sealed, performance, just like object-based practices in fact, will always mean different things to different moments and audiences. Reading Burden’s Shoot, for instance, in conversation with a deeply feminist practice like Jonas’ elucidates some of the masculinist bluster that Burden was staging and critiquing. Certainly the mass shootings that persist in American schools, houses of worship, and public spaces continue to demonstrate the permissions that are granted for violence. The work travels, and it is the responsibility of historians and curators to facilitate its movement in time for new audiences. Although Jonas’ career has been historically understudied—she has had, for instance, only one major retrospective at an American museum (at the Queens Museum in 2004)—the infrastructure for its preservation is being installed, even as she continues to challenge and reorder her previous output. In January 2014, for instance, the Getty Research Institute bought up the archives of New York’s performance space, the Kitchen, where Jonas debuted The Juniper Tree in 1977. In October 2014, the Hangar Bicocca in Milan opened Light Time Tales, an expansive survey of her video work from as far back as 1968. Choices are being made about the conventions for representing what is rapidly becoming a historical body of work. If Venice is a commemoration, it is also an announcement that her practice has become subject to more extensive scholarly scrutiny.

When performance is gathered and institutionalized into a kind of avant-garde canon, there are betrayals and distortions at stake. Consider the example of the Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark, who famously invited viewers to touch her art, to participate in it, and to play. Today “original versions” of Clark’s Bichos, or critters, small metal sculptures that can be folded and manipulated, have become subject to the very market logics they were expressly made to resist. A 2014 Sotheby’s lot sold for over $1 million. In the same year, a MoMA retrospective, Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, kept most of the Bichos examples on display behind glass; they have become too valuable to deliver the sensations for which they were designed. Essentialist understandings of performance hold real currency, and they can reinstate many of the hierarchies of objects and experience, connoisseurship and perception, that performance has sought to overthrow. 

Another solution for historicizing performances, of course, is to redo them. The case for reenactment has its most famous ambassador in the person of Marina Abramović, whose 2010 MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present, replayed some of her ‘classic’ pieces with trained, authorized performers. Earlier, in 2005, Abramović served as the instrument for Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim, in which she restaged seven landmark performance works from the ‘70s, all with permission either from the original artist or from her or his estate. On the one hand, transferring these gestures into another body and site allows performance to continue its work for new spectators, and refrains from insulating it in a kind of precious enclave. But does the cult of personality and celebrity that Abramović manages for herself, or the promise of these reenactments to deliver an official, authorized replication of an emerging performance canon really transmit the radical questions that this work instigated? Reviewing The Artist is Present in Artforum, performance scholar, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, clarified some of the concerns that attend to this particular vision for remembering. “More interesting than whether reenactments are art-historically correct,” she offered, “is what they are asked to do—whether they close down or open up the potentiality of performance.” Institutions like MoMA have even begun to “collect” performance, purchasing the copyrights, archives, and instructions for works deemed historically important. This practice not only requires that a single, certified version of the performance survives in the archive, but also restricts access to that work to sanctioned, ticketed instantiations of it. Curators and historians choose how to remember this work and how to care for that memory. To whom the archive will grant access, and whose hands will handle the remains. The radical pleasures and discoveries of Joan Jonas’ work require another kind of stewardship.

The fact of the body’s disappearance does not foreclose performance. Jonas herself has commented on “a desire to continue to perform, but in situations that did not always require a physical presence.” As performance scholar, Rebecca Schneider, has written, “We are challenged to think beyond the ways in which performance seems, according to our habituation to the archive, to disappear. We are also and simultaneously encouraged to articulate the ways in which performance...‘enters’ or begins again and again.”  Finding a place for Jonas in the performance archive demands precisely this kind of open system. It is necessary to devise a place where her work might live on for multiple audiences without foreclosing the diversity of its forms and experiences. A combination of video archives, performance documentation, and objects ought to be gathered together with oral history, written records, and other ephemera. At the same time, embodied work needs to find itself into other bodies. Perhaps such a place would grant invitations for new generations of performance artists to study, rework, and reinterpret the work rather than allow it to harden it into an official, institutional facsimile. This is a utopian project. It would require serious funding, institutional support, and a team of devoted scholars. But Joan Jonas deserves this treatment, because her work is an enormous landmark in the history of American art. Her work maps out an impossible circuit of live events, images, and objects that draw, erase, draw again. Jonas deserves an archive that will harbor these traces. The little hauntings that flicker and persist.


ANDREW J. SMYTH B’16 is a disappearing act