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Los Angeles Performance Art: Now and Then

by Elizabeth Miller on November 5, 2011

LA Contemporary Exhibition staff introduce ideas for Creative Proposals, a series of performances that took place over an eight hour period in the gallery (all photos by the author)

LOS ANGELES — October marked the beginning of the Pacific Standard Time onslaught, a collaboration between 60 institutions to commemorate and celebrate the birth of the Los Angeles art scene from 1945 to 1980. LA Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) is among a host of venues invested in translating the performative end of LA’s art scene for contemporary audiences, and this past Saturday was no exception.

Over an eight-hour period, LACE hosted Creative Proposals, a series of events to creatively address the state of contemporary performance and its relationship to issues like civic life, ownership and collective public practice initiatives. By picking up strands of the political and social issues staged by artists of the 1960s and 1970s, the event made a valiant effort to tackle those issues in a new setting for LACE’s immediate community. The results, however, were somewhat less potent.

The morning kicked off with a United Nations-style debate and caucus followed by creative collaboration workshops and an artist occupation of the gallery entrance. Participants actively picketed passersby to enter the gallery, holding up signs that read “OCCUPY LACE” and even (more farcical) “1/2 Price Pussy,” the latter of which drew in a shocking number of amused observers.

Artists picketing outside of LACE

The morning kicked off with a United Nations-style debate and caucus followed by creative collaboration workshops and an artist occupation of the gallery entrance. Participants actively picketed passersby to enter the gallery, holding up signs that read “OCCUPY LACE” and even (more farcical) “1/2 Price Pussy,” the latter of which drew in a shocking number of amused observers.

One of a series of performances enacted at "Creative Proposals"

Lastly, the teams gathered in discussion before enacting a series of performances and creative proposals inspired by the day’s events. These included an exploration of artist’s rights and restrictions with a gentle quotation of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965), and many other performances that bordered more on the illogical or humorous, adopting a somewhat empty neo-Dada approach to proposals. The efficacy of such approaches is, of course, debatable, and the proposals were more absurd than informative. The end result was something that had more in common with the cut-and-dry amateur parodies of YouTube that with the serious and often radical performative precedents from which the pieces were derived. Messages of civic responsibility or public practice seemed to be abandoned in lieu of a “go weird or go home” aspect that was carried straight through.

LACE’s other offerings, however, displayed much more promise and enlightenment. On any other average day from now until the end of January, visitors will encounter the exhibition component of LACE’s performance series and publication project for LOS ANGELES GOES LIVE. The show, Performance Art in Southern California, is a period mini-retrospective of several interesting and varied events staged from 1970 to 1983. The exhibition itself consists of what LACE cleverly terms “secondary performances” — collected archival recordings and ephemera, including strange and wonderful costumes, and even stranger props. At every stop, the viewer is offered a dial-in audio option to listen to a variety of recordings that bring an array of otherwise awkward, sometimes garish, but nonetheless varied and intriguing objects to life. These recordings include everything from artists recollecting their work or soliloquizing in-character to curators or artists’ peers discussing the original performances.

For Jacki Apple’s piece, a clown-like assemblage costume from The Garden Planet Revisited, a one-hour opera performed in the early 1980s at a NASA launch site, one can either listen to a monologue by Charlie, the opera’s protagonist, or listen to Apple elaborate on the performance.“We got away with a lot because NASA was still relatively civilian then,” Apple recounts in a recent recording.

The costume from Eleanor Antin's "Eleanora Antinova on the Road" (1973 - 2002)

Other pieces had similarly socio-political undertones (and even, arguably, overtones), including a costume and suitcase from Eleanor Antin’s Eleanora Antinova on the Road, an ongoing character enactment played out between 1973 and 2002 of the only “black ballerina of the Ballet Russes.”

John M. White, "Conceptual Striptease" (1972) (click to enlarge)

The costume was fascinating, as was the recording of Antin in character; the clearly Caucasian mannequin, however, left a bit to be desired in terms of animism and ethnic accuracy. Two other pieces — a reconstruction of Barbara Smith’s Nude Frieze (1972) and John M. White’s Conceptual Striptease of the same year — also made apparent the absence of their respective enactors. Yet what LACE’s presentation of ephemera lacked in Antin’s Eleanora, it made up for in the intriguing, web-like aesthetic of both White’s and Smith’s reconstructions, which clearly lend themselves to an exhibition of performance ephemera.

On another wall, one can listen to video artist Hirokazu Kosaka poetically impart childhood anecdotes to explain his connection to the bow and arrow in his work Arrow Track Bestriding the Retina (1979), or observe the kitsch costuming of performance duo Bob & Bob’s Sex is Stupid (1978).

The most interesting recording, however, accompanied the humblest display of ephemera — the garment and International Blue glasses for Paul McCarthy’s Simulated Blind Flying (1970). In the recording, McCarthy explains the apparel as the last of three pieces enacted as homages to Yves Klein in the late 1960s and 1970s, and goes on to recount a laughable story. While studying at the University of Utah, a friend told McCarthy of Klein’s Leap Into the Void (1960), a performance demonstrating against the perceived hubris of the NASA lunar expeditions and ultimately remembered by the art world via its documentation — a well-known black and white photograph by Harry Shunk of Klein leaping off a wall toward the pavement below. During the first of McCarthy’s three homages, he and a friend jumped out a second story window and a short time later, McCarthy jumped alone from the second story of the sculpture building. McCarthy didn’t find out until 10 years later than Klein had staged his performance with the aid of a net. Interestingly enough, this and other anecdotes are really what make the exhibition, not the visual aspect of the ephemera.

Though the performances of the day left much to be desired, the program for upcoming performances through 2012 looks compelling. Moreover, making the trek to Hollywood for a day, if only to listen to the audio recordings and have a peek at the costumes and ephemera of such a strong crop of artists of the 1970s and 1980s is well worth the trip to LACE.

Creative Proposals took place at LA Contemporary Exhibitions (6522 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California) on October 29 from 10am to 6pm. LOS ANGELES GOES LIVE: Performance Art in Southern California 1970 – 1983 opened on September 27, 2011 and will be on view at LACE until January 29, 2012.

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