"Uncorrupted Joy: Forty Years of International Art Actions, Commissures of Relation,"
OUT OF ACTIONS: BETWEEN PERFORMANCE AND ITS OBJECTS
at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Feb-March, 1998.
...Social movements from civil rights to feminism set the standard for the identity politics, multiculturalism, and post-colonialism that emerged full-blown in the 1970s to claim for itself a shifting historical paradigm and the emergence "postmodernism." The coup de grace of this tumultuous period was the Vietnam War. Witnessed globally on television, this despicably immoral and bloody battle ended in a pyrrhic victory for a tiny Communist nation that had triumphed first over the French, then over the Chinese and the Soviets, finally winning against the United States, wreaking humiliation and disillusionment on that putative super-power and self-proclaimed leader of world democracy. When the 1970s came to a close, it was not just the end of a decade, it was the ignoble conclusion of a traumatic era of struggle and decay. Its immaterial internal pain was perfectly and self-destructively embodied in the material external sign of safety pins stuck through the flesh of young Punks. This picture of abjection and alienation was symmetrically balanced by an international disco scene, itself a mode of action epitomizing widespread dissociation and denial of larger questions of survival that, paradoxically and inevitably, slipped through in the Bee Gee's song title, "Staying Alive."
As for "staying alive," there is no act as pitiable and tragic as the attempt to assert one's life (manifested in eros) against the actual experience of one's desperate numbness unto death (thanatos). Such is the image of pathos that the violent debasement of John Duncan's loathing in BLIND DATE (1980) recalls. In May, Duncan purchased a female corpse in Tijuana for the purpose of sex, and taped his sex act with it. After this experience of "indescribable intense self-disgust," he returned to have a vasectomy in order, he later wrote, "to make sure that the last potent seed I had was spent in a cadaver." Photographs he had taken of this operation anticipate Orlan's equally pathetic and self-destructive cosmetic surgery in the 1990s. Duncan had to wait six weeks for the vasectomy, the waiting period required then in California , and after the operation he scheduled a performance of BLIND DATE before a public to whom he recounted the experience, saying that he "wanted to show what can happen to men that are trained to ignore their emotions." Linda Burnham, editor of High Performance magazine (1976-1997), refused to publish an account of BLIND DATE because she found it "highly morally objectionable" and preferred to be "guilty of censorship" rather than to be "responsible for putting that material in front of any one, especially my kids." When she imagined that the incident was a "rape" from a body whose "spirit" my not have yet "gone from her body," Duncan responded that it was like "having sex with meat."
However contemptable Duncan's desperate event, the artist presented his own excruciating lack, a psychic pain that is palpable. For such an act unfolds within the epistemological spaces insured by white male hegemony, the phallic rule which must guarantee its virility by any means. In BLIND DATE this ideal is carried to the extreme as caricature. But what it unmasked was the reality of impotence, suffering derived from the fact that while the artist embodied the representation of white maleness with all its accreted power, he psychologically cohabitated the disempowered space of the lifeless woman whom he violated, fucking himself to death: "I risked the ability to accept myself. I risked the ability to have sex...and the ability to love." The extreme self-loathing in Duncan's action may be traced, I think, to experiences the artist recounted anonymously in an installation five months later: THE BLACK ROOM, October 1-31, 1980. Duncan installed this piece suggestively in the American Hotel, a real place but also a metaphor for the nation that housed him, then. The hotel was a refurbished flop house, in the industrial section of downtown Los Angeles, where, in a room painted black by its former inhabitant, the artist mounted an electric sander inside a closet, the door of which he locked. On the wall opposite the locked closet he hung a framed, typed text that read line after line - "We hate you little boy." "We hate you little boy." "We hate you little boy." Following four lines of this repeated rant, Duncan's "essay" continued:
We saw you all covered with our blood. We saw you piss and shit all over yourself. We cleaned you up, put food in your fucked-up little mouth. We kept you alive, you ungrateful little bastard. ...We always knew you'd be half-human baggage. You're a blight on our lives...Ugly little body with the sex exposed....Just look at the mess you've made of everything...Every bit is your fault. A dog could have done a better job. We should have put a pillow over your face when we had the chance....Why don't you do everyone a favor and kill yourself. We love a man in uniform. Die, you tit-sucking zombie. Wounded men are so romantic. Go out and blow your head off, prick. We are fed up. Just go out and die. DIE.DIE.DIE.DIE. DIE....[this word is continued for three lines].
Once this heart-wrenching text was read, the power tool could be plugged in - its whirring, sanding sound standing for the confused agony of a mind filled with the hateful, abusive, destructive denigrations of its identity that are displayed in the text. Before Duncan did Blind Date, he said he 'wanted to punish myself as thoroughly as I could...to torture myself, physically and psychically." Self-hatred is learned. Works like BLIND DATE and THE BLACK ROOM are dissociated cries for help, needs blatantly and heart-wrenchingly conveyed in the title of the latter work.
Every example of violence or destruction in art, especially when it is related directly to the artist's body, contains a lingering trauma still present from the past. An absent presence animates the unorganized psychic experiences of the artist either unconsciously or consciously and drives the production of the work. Such art is an overture, a sign that visually signifies the invisible, the process of destruction itself operating within the psyche of the artist. Such works offer access to the inexpressible interiority of individual suffering that few other methods can provide. BLIND DATE makes such dissociated pain visible, albeit in another form, but through a similar process. BLIND DATE was a warning signal of intense distress, sounding alerts not only for the anguish of an individual artist, but about a social context within which one individual pain exists as an expression of the pain of many. It is both an answer and a counter-charge to destruction in public and private spheres. BLIND DATE, however reprehensible, is about many kinds of open wounds, violations and defilements of bodies and minds, for which Duncan's acts require attention, empathy, and care. At the end of the 1970s, artists entered areas of the dissociated unconscious with the aim of unpacking its consequences personally and socially not always with the ability to reorganize, reconnect, and redirect the knowledge gained in such acts to recovery in everyday life.
See also Stiles, "Shaved Heads and Marked Bodies: Representations from Cultures of Trauma," Strategie II: Peuples Mediterraneens [Paris] 64-65 (July-December 1993): 95-117; excerpted and reprinted in French and English in Lusitania [New York] 6 (1994): 23-39; excerpted and reprinted in Dan Perjovschi: Anthroprogramming (New York: Franklin Furnace, 1996); excerpted reprinted in German in kursiv [Linz, Austria] 2-3 (1995): 19-25; reprinted in full with a new Afterword, in Talking Gender: Public Images, Personal Journeys, and Political Critiques. Eds., Jean O'Barr, Nancy Hewitt, Nancy Rosebaugh. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995): 36-64.
See also Stiles, "Debate: The Empty Slogan of Self-Representation," in Siksi [Helsinki] 12:1 (Spring 1997): 87-90. This essay will appear in 1998 in a longer extended mediation on the subject of violent self-representations by feminist performance artists in the 1990s. See Stiles forthcoming, "Never Enough is Something Else: Feminist Performance Art , Probity, and the Avant- Garde," in Avant-Garde Performance, Textuality and the Limits of Literary History. Ed., James M. Harding. Madison: University of Madison/Wisconsin.