PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland’s literary prowess is well known. Home to the truly amazing Powell’s bookstore, a number of high caliber small presses, and host to many readings, the city is a great place for people who love words. I traveled there early this month to check out another kink in this phenomenon: the intersection of text and performance.
Increasingly, all over the art world, artists from non-performance backgrounds are integrating the medium into their practices: from “contemporary visual art performance” (hi, Performa!) to the development of social practice as a tactic as well as an aesthetic. Yet the structure and process of writing seems to lend itself to the performative form in uniquely successful ways.
Portland-based artist MK Guth uses pre-existing text as an entry point into an interactive world. Guth views writing as a form of participatory agency: whereas reading can serve as a way into a process or work, writing is already a performance action. I spoke with Guth over morning coffee, she emphasized the importance of language in public interaction. “All publics are different,” she said, and thus two things: first, the language that we use to talk to people in different contexts must always be slightly different; second, our understanding of that public changes through language. To illustrate her point, she shared an example from her project Red Shoe Delivery Service (with Molly Dilworth and Cris Moss). The artists asked passersby to don a pair of red shoes, click their heels, and state a destination, to which they would then be driven by the RSDS van. After several successful runs in the US, the project was brought to the UK, where no one participated. The issue? The use of the word “ride” vs. “lift.” Offering a lift to the UK public engaged participants. A ride, however, is the British equivalent of a scam. The editing of a single word in the project’s starting question made all the difference.
Ariana Jacob’s “As you make your bed, so must you lie in it?” is a live performance piece that explicitly uses editing as a form of public interaction. For a month, the work was on view in the lobby of the Portland Building: a busy office center in the downtown section of the city. Jacob installed a not-too-intimate bedroom set-up, where she invited passersby to join her in leaning on some pillows and discussing the US Constitution. On the morning when I arrived, she was working with Amendment 2, which most of us know only for containing “the right to bear arms.” Over the course of a generous 25 minutes, she and I worked together to edit the amendment. Through a carefully guided but wide-ranging conversation, I determined that the most famous part of the amendment is actually the least relevant. Removing “the right to bear arms” leaves an Amendment 2 that’s easier to unpack: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, shall not be infringed.” No longer about private gun ownership, now the question is simply: do you believe in a militia as necessary to freedom or not?
Jacob’s performance demeanor is warm and engaging: she somehow manages to make it not weird that you’re sitting in bed with her in a public space. She was sympathetic about my wet boots, interested in my opinions, and not too aggressive with her own. That she seems naturally friendly is helpful, but the greater portion of her hospitality — and the performance’s success — lies in her facility with language.
I met with Jacob in non-performance terms (although still on the bed) the following morning to discuss the work. Jacob has worked at the intersection of the personal and political before, in her project “The American Society for Personally Questioning Political Questions,” where she learned that “affirmative conversations make for boring art conversations,” she told me. In problematizing political opinions and political text, she seeks to give her participants something to rub up against. For “As you make your bed,” Jacob encourages editing as a performative function: the piece is not so much about actually fixing the Constitution as it is about the expansive nature of conversation that editing allows or promotes. The final text itself only serves as public evidence that the performance conversation happened. Like a good writer, Jacob holds a subtle command of the dialogue at all times. She doesn’t “use the word ‘performance’ because there’s a sense in the general public that it means ‘deceiving,’” a claim that linguistically makes sense. However, her performance writing tactics result in a structured and narrative approach to what could easily become either overwhelming and unwieldy or depressingly shallow.
At one point in our conversation, Guth told me, “we order our lives through narrative. We don’t order them through abstraction.” As Jacob’s piece reveals, honing in on a narrative element is a performance enabler — one that could benefit even the most out-there work. I like that in this case the mechanism is visible, even discussed. Narrative is the path towards public participation.
Ariana Jacob’s “As you make your bed, so shall you lie in it?” was on view in the Portland Building (1120 SW 5th Avenue, Portland, Oregon) from October 21 to November 15.