On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century

On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century

by C. Carr

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Through her engaged and articulate essays in the Village Voice, C. Carr has emerged as the cultural historian of the New York underground and the foremost critic of performance art. On Edge brings together her writings to offer a detailed and insightful history of this vibrant brand of theatre from the late 70s to today. It represents both Carr's analysis as a critic and her testament as a witness to performances which, by their very nature, can never be repeated.

Carr has organized this collection both chronologically and thematically, ranging from the emphasis on bodily manipulation/endurance in the 70s to the underground club scene in New York to an insider's analysis of the Tompkins Square Riot as a manifestation of the cultural and social conflicts that underlie much of performance art. She examines the transgressive and taboo-shattering work of Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, and Holly Hughes; documents specific performances by Annie Sprinkle and Lydia Lunch; and maps the development of such artists as Robbie McCauley, Blue Man Group, and John Jesurun. She also describes the "cross-over" phenomenon of the mid-80s and considers the far-right backlash against this mainstreaming as cultural reactionaries sought to curb the influence of these new artists.

CONTRIBUTORS: Linda Montano, Chris Burden, G.G Allin, Jean Baudrillard, Patty Hearts, Dan Quayle, Anne Magnouson, John Jesurun, John Kelly, Shu Lea Changvv, Diamanda Galas, Salley May, Rafael Mantanez Ortiz, Sherman Fleming, Kristine Stiles, Laurie Carlos, Jessica Hafedorn, Robbie McCormick, Karen Finley, Poopo Shiraishi, Donna Henes, Holey Hughe, Ela Troyano, Michael Smith, Harry Koipper, John Sex, Nina Jagen, Ethyl Eichelberge, Marina Abramovic, Ulay.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819562692
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 01/21/1994
Edition description: Older Edition
Pages: 334
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

C. CARR is a staff writer for The Village Voice. She also writes about performance art and culture for ArtForum, LA Weekly, Interview, and Mirabella.

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In Extremis


A Saga of Art in Everyday Life

Even as they came to the window to throw me a key, it was Art. Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh have engaged in living every moment as Art since last July 4 when they were tied together at the waist with an eight-foot rope, declaring then that they would neither take the rope off nor touch each other for one year. When one of them had to get something, they both went to that something. When one went to the bathroom, they both were in the bathroom. When I saw Tehching at the window, I knew that Linda had to be there too. They both answered the door, the rope catching most of my attention. It was grayish, freakish, with a padlock at each waist. This July 4, 1984, at 6 P.M. in a ceremony suitably undramatic, the witnesses who hammered those locks onto the ropes last year will testify that they haven't been tampered with. Then Montano and Hsieh will each cut the rope at their waists to end Art/Life One Year Performance 1983–84.

It's a piece no one's watched but in bits, with the performers often hiding from their audience, since they never set out to be spectacles of themselves. They have worked to keep their lives noneventful, avoiding those colorful interactions that would interest a reporter, confining their activities on most days to Chinatown and their Tribeca neighborhood where people are used to seeing them. Daily life is as simple as Hsieh's Hudson Street loft where they've been living — two captain's beds at one end near the windows, two work tables down at the other.

They go out on jobs together. They must. They aren't funded. Often they work for other artists or art groups — to hang a show, put up a wall, do a mailing list, clean a loft, give a lecture. They split the money. Boredom, yes, it's just part of the piece. On a day without a job they may get up late, Montano often rising before Hsieh and exercising between the beds till he wakes. They take out the dog, they may run, they have tea, watch a lot of TV, spend hours at the work tables sitting back to back. For pleasure, they see movies and ride their bikes around, one following behind the other. It's like Life, only harder. "We can't ask too much of each other," says Montano.

They rehearsed the piece for a week to determine the length and size of rope, how to tie it, how to make it comfortable at night, etc. Once during that week they had to cut themselves out of the rope when it began to shrink around them in a Chinese restaurant; they had showered before dinner. They would need a preshrunk rope. Then, last July 4, they both shaved their heads and began the piece. Hair length would measure the passage of time.

They have had difficulty seeing old friends and keeping old habits. Both must agree to do something before they can do it. On jobs, they found they had totally different work styles. Committed together to this arduous performance, they found they didn't agree on what it meant to be doing it.

I told them that when I pictured myself in the ropes, it felt like strangling in total dependency and lack of privacy.

Tehching said my reaction was just personal. Just emotional. Here, we were talking about Art.

Linda said Tehching thought the performance was subsumed by the Art. But she was interested in issues like claustrophobia, and ego and power relationships — Life issues. They were as important as Art.

No, Tehching said, that was too personal. The piece was not about him with Linda. It was about all people.

See, Linda said, this is the way the man traditionally talks about his work. Most women traditionally talk about their personal feelings while the man says, "I am everybody."

Tehching said he hadn't finished. He wanted to say the piece was about individuals, all human beings. He had wanted to do the piece with a woman because he liked to spend time with women. But it didn't matter if it was two men or two women or a man and woman tied together. Didn't matter if they were husband/wife or total strangers before it started, or if they planned to ever see each other once it ended. These things were personal and not important.

Linda said the piece was more than just a visible work of Art. It was a chance for the mind to practice paying attention, a way to stay in the moment. If they didn't do that, they had accidents. One would get into an elevator, the other wouldn't, and the door would close.

One or the other wears a Walkman at all times to record whatever they say. She sees this as a way to be conscious that she's talking. He says it symbolizes communication, that they're conceptual art tapes. (Indeed, they will never be listened to.)

Montano thinks of art as ascetic training. Hsieh thinks his art is often misunderstood to be ascetic training.

This is his fourth year-long performance. In 1978–79 he lived in an eight-by-nine-by-twelve foot cage in his loft, without speaking, reading, watching TV, etc. In 1980–81, he punched a time clock every hour on the hour every day, every night. In 1981–82, he lived on the street, never entering a building, subway, tent, or other shelter. Hsieh communicates in English with a limited but direct vocabulary about what motivates him. Though he painted in Taiwan, he says he's working now from his experience of this country and what he does is "New York Art."

Montano shares his capacity for self-discipline and his attraction to ordeals. An ex-nun, her performances have included drumming six hours a day for six days, handcuffing herself to another artist for three days, and living in a sealed room for five days as five different people she found in her personality. Over a fifteen-year career, she has lived in galleries for days at a time, calling it Art. She has lived in the desert for ten days, calling it Art. She has danced blindfolded in a trance, done astral travel events and once, dressed as a nun, "danced, screamed, and heard confessions."

Montano's attraction to Hsieh's work led her to call him, just as he had conceived of the rope piece and was looking for someone to collaborate with. They had never met before. "We feel strong to do work together," says Hsieh. "When we're feeling good, we're like soul-mates," says Montano.

But they do not touch. As Hsieh says, the piece is "not about couple." Montano says the fact that they're male/female can make them look like a couple, but the fact that they're different races, different ages (he's thirty-three, she's forty-two), and different sizes "throws everything into some strange balance."

Hsieh talks of how they're "married to Art," that they are sacrificing sex, not denying it. They could, in theory, have sex with other people, but, says Hsieh, that would just be a way to try escaping the piece. And, says Montano, it would be kinky, an impossible thing to do to someone else. She says it's a vacation not to have the choice, that not having sex is as interesting as having it, and allows her to see where else she can relate from on the astral or imaginative or visual level.

They ate and dreamt a lot when the piece began, says Montano, because "we were doing something very difficult and repressive. Food was our only pleasure and dreaming was the way the mind processed the new information and brought some ease." Dreaming was the one privacy, Hsieh said, and for him food was important because while living on the street last year, he was never able to eat well.

Montano made a sound, barely audible, when the Walkman ran out of tape, and they both got up to get a new one. She said they were communicating with sounds now — "it's regressed in a beautiful way" — for they had started with talking and yanking the rope, then moved to gestures, now to noises. They were down to about an hour of talking a day.

By the time the piece ends, they will have something like seven hundred of the ninety-minute tapes, each dated on the red and white label that reads: "TALKING." If they have a show of their documentation, the tapes will be displayed along with the photographs they've made, one-a-day, since the performance began. Most show them engaged in some daily activity. For a few days — days when they were fighting or thought of nothing to photograph — there are only gray green blanks. On several days they photographed the word "FIGHT."

"Eighty percent of the year was an incredible struggle," says Montano.

"A lot of ego issues to struggle about," says Hsieh.

They spent most of the winter in the loft, taking away each other's permission. They simply said NO to anything the other one wanted to do outside of the jobs they had to do for money. At one point, the fight went on for three weeks, till they finally just quit, they said, from boredom. In the spring it began to get more physical, pushing and pulling on the rope without touching each other, until Montano insisted they get help from friends. Hsieh still insists this wasn't necessary, because if they fought, it was just part of the piece. They never considered "divorce," since, as Hsieh says, they are not like a marriage, more like a business. Montano says, "It's being done for Art, so the emotions are withstood, no matter what they are."

Eight days before the piece was to end, I met them to go to the park and sensed that they were fighting. They didn't say so, but it was in the air. They were straining at each other, not walking easily — one would start off before the other had noticed, and pull. Weeks earlier, Linda had described how the piece accentuated the negative and "brought it up to the rim of Art ... the frustration, the claustrophobia, the lack of privacy ... to surrender to the chosen and to call it Art — I've always had that as an ideal."

Tehching said the cage piece had been easier. He could focus on Art. This was too much Life. Once, in a better mood, he had said there was little difference for him between these pieces: Linda was his cage. Now, as we sat on the grass, he said Linda was his mirror, and he could see his "weakness part." He couldn't hide. It was "much struggle."

After a year of constant exposure to each other, they're obviously tuned in on a nonverbal level. On a day when we were going out for dinner, I'd been sitting with them at the kitchen table when suddenly they were both walking around getting things, putting chairs on the beds to keep the dog off, and I began to figure out that we were leaving now. They hadn't said a word.

This would be my chance to see how people reacted to them on the street. We stood on the sidewalk discussing restaurants. Tehching asked if Chinese food would be okay. Then I realized I'd already forgotten that they were wearing a rope. As we crossed West Broadway, a woman approached and said, "I must ask why I always see you attached." Linda answered, "It's an experiment." That's become their standard response to the question, Linda said, because calling it Art "plays with that definition too much for a lot of people and then they get angry." It may also play with their definition of Life.

I was most surprised by the Oblivious Ones who passed us. And by the Frightened Ones, with the seen-a-ghost look about them. The Perplexed Ones, I expected. In Philadelphia, where they'd gone to teach a performance art class, they found it much more difficult and abrasive to be public. In New York the heightened level of strangeness absorbs some of the attention they don't want. On a recent visit to Area, people stared at them, Linda thought, not because of the rope but because they weren't dressed right.

I asked if we could visit the art world together sometime. No, they mostly avoided those places. Just recently in Soho, they could hear everyone talking about them as they walked down the street, snatches of "tied together for one year" floating by, and it made them feel like they were giving a show. They didn't want to give a show. "Too sensationalize," Hsieh says. They've turned down That's Incredible, Entertainment Tonight, and Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Dinner and a kung fu movie was more like what they normally did. The ushers at the kung fu theater looked worried when they saw us, while I was forgetting more and more that the rope existed. I made myself look at it and thought, God, they have guts to walk down the street like this. We watched something astonishing whose title Hsieh couldn't translate: a grandmother fighting five villains, men jumping magic distances, girls twirling swords, pairs and groups testing each other to the death. The ritualized fighting looked as powerful, perfect, and hard to choreograph as a wave crashing off a rock. Then we sat through the next movie on the bill, Boat People, without subtitles. I never did figure out what was going on, but watching it gave me a chance to contemplate the fact that I had chosen this, and that sitting there was Art.

July 1984


Before and After Science

The body mounted a platform. Eighteen fish hooks pierced the back of his naked frame. He positioned himself face down below a pulley with eighteen rings. Calmly he instructed two assistants to connect the hooks and pulley with the cord. Thirty or so spectators around the platform were tiptoe-silent. The body suddenly gasped with pain. "No worse than usual," he winced. "I just keep forgetting how bad it is."

He began instructing his assistants about removing the platform from below so he'd be left hanging by the hooks, his skin stretching and causing him excruciating pain. He was prepared for that. As he'd written about an earlier piece, "Stretched skin is a manifestation of the gravitational pull. ... It is proof of the body's unnatural position in space." Once the pulley carried him out the window, he would be demonstrating this to everyone out on East 11th Street between Avenues B and C.

He would be amplifying the obsolescence of the body out there, the need for it to "burst from its biological, cultural and planetary containment" in the post-evolutionary age. With more than twenty other "suspension events" behind him, this would be the most public one he'd ever tried. So one more precaution had to be taken: his assistants would lock the building against the possibility of police intervention. We were asked to leave, and I was the first one out. Hadn't wanted a close-up of that horror show of stretched skin — I mean "the gravitational landscape" — anyway.

Stelarc (born Stelios Arcadiou) would not have understood that. The body doesn't respond emotionally to his own self-mutilation. Why should others? He thinks people misunderstand him. They obsess about the hooks. They ask if he's a masochist. They think he has some spiritual goal. They are all wrong. "I am not interested in human states or attitudes or perversions. I am concerned with cosmic, superhuman, extraterrestrial manifestation."

Stelarc lectured on evolution three days before "Street Suspension." He told 40 of us sitting in the sawdust of a raw loft lit with three bare bulbs that we are on the threshold of space. But we're biologically ill-equipped. It's time to consciously design a pan-planetary physiology. Stelarc thinks the artist can become an evolutionary guide. To illustrate this, he demonstrated his "third hand," a prosthetic device on his right arm. He opened and closed its "fist" by contracting his rectus abdominus muscles. Electrodes on his skin connected these muscles to the mechanism. Some day, he added, it would be nice to have them surgically implanted.

He showed slides of other work, fierce projects described quickly and modestly, most of them done in Australia where he grew up or Japan where he now lives. (He is Greek.) The first slide — the inside of his stomach — had been made by swallowing a gastro TV camera, during a "visual/acoustic" probe of his own organs. Other early work: lying on pointed stakes, lying still for ten days while a huge steel plate hovered over him. Many slides of "stretched skin" suspensions: the body suspended horizontally through a six-story elevator shaft by the insertion of eighteen hooks into the skin.

It reassures me to see that "the body," as he calls himself when discussing the work, stands apparently undamaged in front of the room. He describes a piece for body and ten telephone poles, all suspended from a gallery ceiling and then spun over twelve tons of rock on the floor. Just two weeks before this lecture, the body'd been suspended in a condemned building in Los Angeles and swung like a pendulum. A tree suspension near Canberra had attracted 350–400 spectators. Stelarc told us he had asked them to leave after fifteen minutes so he could experience the "symbiotic relationship of the body and the tree" without being distracted. "They drove away in their cars. It must have been beautiful to drive off leaving the body there."

Someone in the audience asked if he was "motivated by pain." Stelarc laughed. He'd read in an essay about his work that all performance art is masochistic but he didn't agree. He said women did not give birth in order to experience pain, and he did not make art in order to experience pain. "Everything beautiful occurs when the body is suspended."


Excerpted from "On Edge"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Cynthia Carr.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Leaving Terra Firma
Foreword to the Revised Edition
Roped: A Saga of Art in Everyday Life: Linda Montano, Tehching Hsieh
Before and After Science: Stelarc
This is Only a Test: Chris Burden
A Great Wall: Marina Abramovic, Ulay
The Hot Bottom: Art and Artifice in the East Village
Country Clubbing 8BC's Pig Phest
To Thine Own Self Be True: Ethyl Eichelberger
Sex Gods, Ekstatic Women: John Sex, Nina Hagen, Dancenoise
The Revolution That Won't Be Televised: Michael Smith, Karen Finley,Harry Kipper, et al.
R.I.P. 8BC The end of the never-ending talent show
Art Crimes Cinema of Transgression, Outlaw Parties, et al.
Loisada Talking Pictures: Ela Troyano
The Queer Frontier: Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana
Disenchanted Evening: Donna Henes
Big Bang Theory: Poppo Shiraishi
Bad Company at the Love Club: Karen Finley, Carlo McCormick
Help Thou Mine Unbelief The Church of the Little Green Man
Nightclubbing The Tompkins Square Riot
The Triumph of Neoism The Millionth Apartment Festival
Don't Make Me Over: Slaves of New York, Darius James
Just Revolting: Missing Foundation
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts: The Taboo Art of Karen Finley
The Lady Is a Dick: The Dyke Noir Theater of Holly Hughes
Body Beautiful: Frank Moore
Lydia Lunch Faces the Void
Learning to Love the Monster: Jon Moritsugu, Johanna Went
The Kipper Kids in Middle Age
Life is a Killer: Joe Coleman
Is That You? Fiona Templeton
Deconstructing: Dixie Laurie Carlos, Jessica Hagedorn, Robbie McCauley
A Crash of Symbols: Sherman Fleming, Kristine Stiles
Two Birds with One Stone: Dancenoise
A Public Cervix Announcement: Annie Sprinkle, the Smut Fest
Revisions of Excess: The V-Girls, Blue Man Group
An Artist Retreats from Rage: Rafael Montañez Ortiz
Beauties and Beasts: Salley May, Ms. Make-Believe, David Lynch
Radical Shriek: Diamanda Galas
Simulacra Stops Here: The Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo
Redicovering America: Guillermo Gómez-Peña
Talk Show: Robbie McCauley, Jeannie Hutchins
A Cinema Against the Vérités: Shu Lea Cheang
Am I a Camera? John Jesurun
Am I Living in a Box? Ann Magnuson
The Vanguard Moves to Melrose Place: Mel Chin and the GALA Committee
The Heart of the Web: Nina Sobell, Emily Hartzell
Call Her Ishmael: Laurie Anderson •An NEA Timeline (Just the Lowlights)
Portrait of an Artist in the Age of aids: David Wojnarowicz
The Sexual Politics of Censorship: Targeted Artists and the Wrathful Dads
With Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati: "The Perfect Moment" on Trial
The Adventures of Andre Serrano: in Pursuit of the White Supremacists
Gross Indecency: The NEA Four Decision
The Bohemian Diaspora
In the Discomfort Zone: William Pope.L
Dancing in the Streets: Yoshiko Chuma
The Pain Artist: Bob Flanagan
The World According to Jack Smith
Men? Oh, Pause: Peggy Shaw
The Statue of Libertines: Annie Sprinkle
Washed in the Blood: Ron Athey
Stripped Down: Zhang Huan
The Rumble in dumbo: David Leslie
Silence = Life: John Kelly
The End of the Edge: An Epilogue

What People are Saying About This

Herbert Blau

"When it comes to performance at its extremities, or virtually in extremis, C. Carr is the major resource . . . She knows the traditions of the avante-garde, and is quite capable of following the lineage of a performance from Marinetti and Hugo Ball through Jack Smith to the Kipper Kids, from the Bauhaus to the Blue Man . . . What the book adds up to, for students of theater and performance art, is a vivacious record of inaccessible events"

From the Publisher

"When it comes to performance at its extremities, or virtually in extremis, C. Carr is the major resource . . . She knows the traditions of the avante-garde, and is quite capable of following the lineage of a performance from Marinetti and Hugo Ball through Jack Smith to the Kipper Kids, from the Bauhaus to the Blue Man . . . What the book adds up to, for students of theater and performance art, is a vivacious record of inaccessible events"—Herbert Blau

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