To think of exposing one's body to flesh hooks, branding, surgical staples and live flames seems out of the question for many, yet late in January artists known for voluntary self-mutilation participated in an astonishing USC Visions & Voices panel, "Archiving the Sexual Body." On it, Ron Athey, Heather Cassils, Jennifer Doyle and Dominic Johnson raised the provocative question: what happens to an art form that is ephemeral?
The answers were varied and there wasn't enough time to dig into them sufficiently during the Visions & Voices event, so a recent visit to the office of the organizer of the event, USC Professor Amelia Jones, was in order.
Jones, sitting in her USC Roski office crammed with books, including her own publications, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, projects a studious, kindly air. She jumps right into the subject at hand: why and how can ephemeral art forms be archived?
"This is a huge issue if you look at it from an art-historical point of view. Because most art historians talk about objects. And objects are in museums," she says. "With performance art, there are no objects."
Jones, unlike many artists throughout history and modern times, is aware that museums and archives have a bias toward objects over live performance, and believes that these same biases will also influence the writing and recording done on art. The scope of this bias goes further than just the documentation, but even affects which institutions choose to publish these works to share with the public. Unfortunately, in terms of live art, predispositions and prejudices are given too much power, says Jones.
The reason she organized the two-day series of performances and discussions, "Live Artists Live: Performance Art and the Archive" for Visions & Voices she says is, in part, to examine the conflict of biases affecting performance publications, paying special attention to the Chicano, body-based, feminist, queer and other avant-garde art movements. She argues that writing about live art is important, stating, "If you don't know that things happened, you're going to just reinvent the wheel."
It's clear that the work done by performance artists Ron Athey and Heather Cassils have great value, and Jones is simply asking the vital question of how we should understand the documentation of these performance pieces. As a woman whose main interest intellectually and politically is to challenge the deep structures of how things work, Jones is a proponent of challenging the biases against sex, gender, sexuality, race, and social class that are affecting these publications.
For example, Athey's work often involves self-mutilation and serious messages about tough issues like AIDS and sexuality. So, when Athey is on stage penetrating his own scalp with a metal hook, infusing his scrotum with saline solution or freely exposing himself onstage, a journalist covering the piece may see this work and portray it in a light that reflects negatively on the issues he is trying to expose. Unfortunately, this may be the only publication on the piece and if that's the case, future readers must understand the controversy of topics presented in his performance. This is necessary so that readers apply the historical context of the piece to uncover the prejudices that cloud the documentation of Athey's work.
Referring to Athey's most extreme performances, Jones makes a strong and pertinent statement, "The more extreme something is, the more you can argue that it's less possible to understand it though documentation."
Although it is commonly thought by Jones and performance artists alike that no piece of journalism can fully cover all that takes place during a live art event, the discussion of how to view these publications remains a hot topic of discussion – one deserving of future visits to Jones' office at the USC Roski School of Art and Design.
Reach Staff Reporter Kylie Burdsall here.