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Performing Identity in the Digital Age
(Released February 2005)

 
  by Rhiannon Armstrong  

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Overview

Artists from the second half of the 20th century onwards have increasingly dealt with the complexity of identity and how social systems define and construct that identity. From Darwin and Freud to structuralist and post-structuralist theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, the notion that one's behaviour, sense of self, and actions towards others is created through the way society operates has been extensively analysed. The 'self' as constructed through language (language being all human communication) has been revealed as problematic, particularly given that discourses around it often suggest that both group and individual identity are coherent, essentially biological selves. The works I am going to consider do not, I think, attempt to bypass any constructed identity in order to get at an 'essential' self. Instead they accept that identity is a contruct, and focus on exactly how and why these systems which construct identities exist, with a view perhaps that with understanding of cause and effect, we may take responsibility for our part in this construction.

But why performance? The term performance art, or live art, which is increasingly being used in Europe, has many definitions that range from anything timebased, to work with at least a minimal focus on process. A large proportion of artists refered to as 'performance artists' (including those discussed here) work with performance as one form among many. Their use of this marginal form comes sometimes to define them; however, many of these artists come from a visual arts background, and it is revealing that they have chosen the performance mode to investigate the complex, and often provocative, question of identity in contemporary times. Why do these artists choose to use the live, embodied event as their form? Performance's ephemeral nature means that it is difficult to make much money from it; its focus on process means that there are no objects to be sold after the making of the work, and that the number of people who will experience the work, and thus become regular patrons or publicise it, is relatively few.

Performance is thus often seen as being marginal compared to other art forms. In many cases, the subject matter is also seen as marginal, or 'unacceptable' to the mainstream. The people making this work also often feel, or are felt to be, in the margins of society. Performance then becomes an effective form of resistance, as it refuses to conform to materialist value systems, and provides visibility, without the fetishism of the image or artefact, for the body of the 'Other,' an aesthetically 'unacceptable' form in which to express socially 'unacceptable' ideas. Goldberg has suggested that women gravitated towards performance because of its fluid identity and agenda, as a "medium ungoverned by art world protocol". Perhaps the political and social climate of the 21st century suits the form, as with the development of the Internet and other global communication systems the idea of a fluid identity has again become prominent, just as it did with the advent of feminism and the gay rights movement, along with issues of access and visibility for those defined by society as 'Other'. Performance, with its fluid boundaries and inherent resistance to patriarchal structures, is once again a pertinent vehicle with which to question the construction of identity and systems of representation.

Performance's focus on process can be traced back as far as Marcel Duchamp and his use of ready-mades.1 In the context of performance in the 1960s and '70s, this may be seen as a reaction against the preoccupation of minimalist sculpture - a white, Western, male-dominated form - with the essence of the object.2 Duchamp's urinal may be seen as an early example of the idea that the art work is its process: the act of choosing the object as an art work by the artist, or the signing of it, or the placing of it in a gallery, makes it art. The processes with which the audience is placed in direct contact in the body art of the 1960s onwards are less those of artistic creation, and more those of the functioning body; bleeding, menstruation, ejaculation, sweating. Later, in contemporary live art especially, the processes with which the audience is placed in direct contact with and forced to contemplate have been those of social interaction that create the contemporary constructed body. The performance work of Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovic (whose piece Role Exchange I will analyse later), Gina Pane and others from the 1970s, confronted taboos in an effort to confront the social hierarchy of the day. By the 1990s interest moved from asserting the identities of groups in the West that exist as a result of colonialism (an example of which might be made of the work of Guillermo Gomez-Pe€a and motiroti, on Mexican-American and Asian-British populations respectively), to what Goldberg describes as "a new form of internationalism"3 that is about encounters and experiences outside the Western model, represented by the contemporary work of Ricardo Dominguez for Electronic Disturbance Theatre and Walid Ra'ad as The Atlas Group.

Regarding performance's relationship to its audience, MacDonald and Croft have noted that engagement with the art event results in "foregrounding time, context and the complexity of the viewer's experience",4 thus making us aware of the structures of seeing, and our relationship to them, in a way that heightens their relevance to the spectator through direct experience. The engagement in the live event, as a simultaneous experience for performer and audience alike, lies at the root of what performance does that is different from other art forms. Goldberg suggests that this reflects a wish on behalf of the artist to reduce the alienation between the audience and performer,5 an opinion which highlights the difference between art that focuses on process, and performance which also seeks to unite in some way the audience with the artists into a group, collectively experiencing the event's destabilising effects.6

It can be said that performance is always political, as the form's focus on its process shows up the systems that will govern its reception, and in turn the processes which govern our daily lives. Regarding work with overtly political concerns, that of artists of the latter half of the 20th century, and that of artists working towards the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, can be seen as differing greatly. In contrast to the 1980s, the individual is no longer of greatest importance, and social concerns have taken over the focus of political performance. Also, although we are in an age where virtual representation accounts for much of our communication, and it can be said that the 'real', physical body becomes somewhat obsolete (as Stelarc famously stated) and loses relevance as a tool for direct social comment, it remains an effective conduit of meaning, as a leveller, a common point of reference with which to address the recurring theme of the nature and construction of identity.

The body of the 'other': identity as a construct

The performance work of the Yugoslavian artist Marina Abramovic uses the body as autobiographical material to explore the construction of identity and the writing of history on the body.7 The personal nature of the work, and elements of shamanistic ritual and transcendence in it, often produce criticism that centres on the psychoanalytical. Discourses of psychoanalytical theory that focus on the Cartesian mind/body split permeate criticism Abramovic's work, with suggestions that she is acting out unconscious desires in the form of ritual.8 Abramovic herself seems to believe in the mind/body split, as she speaks of reaching a mental "higher plane" beyond performance.9 Although ideas of transcendence might seem to distance the relationship between performer and audience, Abramovic's works produce set-ups in which, faced with the immediacy and directness of her living body, as an audience we are required to "question our witnessing" (Turim, 108), to look at how we interact with the performance, and assess the extent of our responsibility to others.

Abramovic's work Role Exchange, performed in 1975 in Amsterdam, illustrates how performance art highlights the processes which produce our sense of identity, and our relation to space, through the use of the body as artistic material. Role Exchange involved Abramovic befriending and working with an experienced prostitute from the red light district in Amsterdam, so that over a four-hour period the pair exchanged places, and undertook to take on each other's roles for the duration. Abramovic sat in the prostitute's display window,10 and her counterpart stood in for her at the gallery.11

The question of the body's relation to architectural space is explored in Role Exchange through the displacement of two bodies whose work is to perform a role, that of prostitute or artist. Anna Novakov describes the prostitute's place of work as resembling a cell, or military space.12 The image of a woman in this masculine space brings up questions of woman's essence. As an artist taking on the role of the prostitute, Abramovic's body clearly performs a role defined and constructed by masculine space and meaning systems, in turn questioning what the prostitute's body is when she is at work. The body in physical and social space is thus revealed by the performance as socially constructed, through the juxtaposition of the perpetually performing female bodies of the artist and prostitute, and in the case of the female body, defined by masculine meaning systems. The window also functions as a boundary between what should be the public and private, and between the traditionally male dominated world of the street and the brothel, a world whose environment is controlled and populated by women, where men enter for commercial desire.13 It further acts as a storefront where the woman portrays a fantasy, a constructed identity, catered to men's desires. The window as a doorway to the brothel, a way in to transform the fantasy into a reality, presents a space where the personal and social body fluctuate, destabilising the boundaries of meaning inherent in the way we see the world and categorise it (public/private, performed/real), and thus raising the issue that all identity is performative, and constructed by social systems.14

The Australian artist Stelarc has commented: "we function mostly automatically and habitually, the body is absent. Awareness of the body resurfaces when you malfunction."15 For the white Western male this may well be the case; however as Feminist and queer body artists have highlighted, for the 'Other' the body is ever-present. Jane Blocker has analysed how in Western society blood is evidence of the body's indeterminacy, its simultaneous state of living and dying.16 For women blood does not so much signify death as it is part of the processes of life. For gay men in the time of the AIDS pandemic, as performances such as Martyrs and Saints by Ron Athey highlight, even the functioning body is never "absent", as all blood, and sexual activity, contains the threat of the disease.17 Abramovic's Role Exchange brought attention to the body of the artist, and the implications of being placed in a space with different systems and rules of interaction. In this piece, the body of the woman is demonstrated as perpetually not 'absent', as its identity changes and is redefined as it shifts within the systems of meaning that define it. For the racial 'Other', such as the Chicano in the U.S.A., the Lebanese in an artistic world dominated by Western art history traditions, or the Asian in Britain, the body is also ever-present. In this context, drawing attention to the body becomes not about reminding us of the "malfunctioning possibilities" that Palmer identifies, but about revealing how dominant ideologies and systems create the 'Other'.18

Responsibility and the event: witnessing and the interactive

Goldberg describes how body art transformed viewers into voyeurs and implicated them in the action taking place. These practices brought audiences into direct contact with the body, and the questions those bodies raised about social construction. Goldberg has pointed out that early artists put themselves through ordeals, such as Chris Burden in Shoot (1971) and Gina Pane's piece Escalade non-anesth€si€e (1971),19 and that in later work the "weight of suffering € shifted further onto the audience's shoulders."20 The audience's increased responsibility in the event of performance can be seen in the work of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, in performances such as Imponderabilia, where spectators had to choose whose naked body to face when squeezing through the pair in the doorway to the gallery,21 and most famously Rhythm 0 and Rhythm 5, in which spectators intervened to stop the performances as they felt Abramovic's life was in danger.22 The politics of witnessing raised by these works continues to be explored by contemporary live artists with relation to the construction of identity, and by a focus on the issue of compliance with restrictive meaning-making systems, in works such as Guillermo Gomez-Pe€a's Temple of Confessions, motiroti's Wigs of Wonderment, The Atlas Group's My Neck is Thinner than a Hair, and the work of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre.

motiroti's interactive installation Wigs of Wonderment (1995) used individual encounters with beauticians to highlight for its participants the individual's part in the construction of the racial 'Other'.23 The work heightened the audience's awareness of their own bodies by drawing attention to their preconceptions about race and beauty in one section in particular, as people tried on different wigs (including an afro, dreadlocks, and a blonde bob), and their opinions on how they looked and why they reacted like they did were teased out of them in private conversations. The resulting documentary CD-ROM (Documenting Live!, 2003) forces those of us experiencing the work in this way to additionally consider the implications of our witnessing these private exchanges, by presenting them to us in another presumably private exchange (via personal computer). The original participants were engaged in an active dialogue concerning the systems and ideologies that create notions of the 'Other', and viewers of the CD-ROM must contemplate these discussions as well as our own preconceptions, based on opinions formed by our visual impressions of the participants. Whereas body artists relied on the shock of the abject, the gravity of the 'real' body in space, live artists today who contend with Western society's imposing social systems have tended towards interactive techniques to force their audiences to confront their positions within these systems. The interactivity of CD-ROM and Internet work, and the choices it forces its spectators to make, can be seen as an extension of Goldberg's comment on audience involvement, as not only the "weight of suffering" is shifted onto the audience's shoulders, but also the responsibility of events.

Interaction and the live event present participants with a need to contemplate or at least acknowledge their responsibility regarding how they interact in society, but they also raise questions of the politics of representation. Who has the authority to represent whom, and why, are particularly pertinent to identity and its social construction. The issue of representation and misrepresentation is one that the Atlas Group explores in relation to authority, and Electronic Disturbance Theatre uses as a way to comment on the utopian rhetoric surrounding the Internet.

Caroline Smith has pointed out the rhetoric of "utopian internationalism" that permeates discourse on the Internet.24 She highlights the fact that ten Internet works were commissioned for Documenta X in 1997, with a view to breaking geographical boundaries and shifting the focus on and access to art from the West.25 However, as Olu Oguibe has pointed out, "the net offers the power of agency to those who have access to it", and has built-in inequalities that exclude a vast section of the world's population from this 'equal community'.26 The Internet, like any other social space, has historical and political narratives that bring into play discourses of 'Otherness'. This is the dynamic that Electronic Disturbance Theatre picks up on, seeking, in its online interventionist events, to empower both its audience and the Zapatistas to effect social change. Electronic Civil Disobedience, where html users protest at the actions of prominent figures and organisations by flooding their sites and temporarily disabling them, was enabled through the development of Floodnet software, by the Critical Art Ensemble.27 It has been used to bring down, legally, the official websites of the Pentagon and the British Prime Minister, as well as the Mexican government.28 The artists in Electronic Disturbance Theatre give their audiences the means to work within existing restrictive systems and create interventions, such as the Zapatistas' use of Electronic Civil Disobedience to protest their treatment by the Mexican government, and the disabling of Tony Blair's website in response to the Iraq War in 2003. Electronic Disturbance Theatre, then, highlight that cyberspace is not a transparent space without inequality, just as Guillermo Gomez-Pe€a reveals the processes by which prejudices are created and disseminated over the Internet in his piece Temple of Confessions, discussed below. At the same time, however, these artists are providing tools for resistance, which operate within the internet's structure.

John Mateer has pointed out that, whereas body art established the physical body as a site of artistic engagement, contemporary live art responds to the particular predicament of the body today.29 Guillermo Gomez-Pe€a, a Mexican artist living in the U.S.A., has been making work for the last two decades that highlights the way that identity is constructed in modern society, and challenges the construction of the 'Other' in Western society. In a similar way to Abramovic's Role Exchange, his work Temple of Confessions and the resulting performance El Mexterminator II, analyse and critique the construction of the body in a patriarchal society, with particular reference to the role of the internet in perpetuating these systems, and as another masculine space.

Temple of Confessions was an installation and internet project that explored Americans' views of Mexicans living in the U.S.A., by inviting confessions from individuals about how they felt about Chicanos, and then displaying them, uncensored, to the public. Gomez-Pe€a then created a number of personages from these confessions, and performed them as the work El Mexterminator. The resulting 'ethno-cyborgs' were a culmination of the fantasies of those who responded with confessions, representing a collective fantasy of the 'Other'. His portrayal of this constructed identity was complimented by the project's transparency, whereby the processes that led to the construction of these identities were laid bare. It is possible to read the individual confessions, often racist and sometimes violent, submitted by members of the public, that were the ingredients for Gomez-Pe€a's personages. This focus on process in turn highlighted the social processes which form our opinions, and revealed the internet as an inherently Western-biased forum (because of its history: who it was originally developed for, who has had access before others etc.) in which stereotypes of the 'Other' are created, reinforced, and disseminated. Temple of Confessions and El Mexterminator, then, might be seen as works that problematise how identity is constructed, and highlight, as Caroline Smith and Olu Oguibe have analysed, the falseness of the rhetoric of utopian internationalism that surrounds the Internet.30 El Mexterminator, and other incarnations of the 'ethno-cyborgs', can also be seen as work which, by reconnecting the virtual and the real (internet confessions made into live personas), reiterates their direct relation to each other, thereby highlighting the 'reality', or seriousness, of the violence towards Mexican-Americans committed by other Americans, in words on the virtual page.

The politics of representation: a question of authority

The questioning of the origins of identity and the processes of the creation of artwork lead us inevitably to consideration of the politics of representation. Goldberg has highlighted the issue in art of the gap between an original and the artist's role in translating or representing it, and explores this with reference to the emergence of autobiographical feminist performance art such as Eye Body (1963) by Carolee Schneeman. Goldberg sees Schneeman's use of her body as a reaction against, and certainly a counterpoint to, works such as Piero Manzoni's Life Drawing (1960, in which he signed a live nude female model) and Yves Klein's Anthropomorphies of the Blue Period (1960, in which the artist directed a group of nude women to make a painting with their bodies). She points out that although the works used the body - the female nude - as material, and focussed on process, they were created by men who remained apart from the work itself, and from the simultaneous collective experiencing of the event. She also highlights the negative reaction to Eye Body and other works such as Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964), suggesting that audiences reacted against the inclusion of the artists' bodies in their work, and pointing out that "a fully dressed intermediary was required to direct the action".31 This is a good example of how performance's technique of using the artist's body as material was rejected in some contexts (particularly when it was a female body, and autobiographical work). It also raises the question of authority of representation, if we consider that objection to these works may be seen as objection to these artists representing themselves.

Feminist performance, particularly in the U.S.A., brought up the issue of the mis- or under-representation of women, but was specifically concerned with the context of the art world. MacDonald and Croft highlight how early feminist performance took a stance against the patriarchal construction of women's experience;32 works like Schneeman's Eye Body and Shigeko Kubota's Vagina Painting both commented on the art world's patriarchal ideologies, particularly those of Minimalism and Abstract Art. Electronic Disturbance Theatre and The Atlas Group tackle questions of representation, and who has the authority to represent whom, with a particular focus on the visibility of 'minority' groups. Their works' preoccupation centres on highlighting how we all perform acts of representation, or potential repression, through the ways in which we interact with our surroundings. Walter Benjamin writes: "there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism."33 Saul Anton's quotation is helpful in beginning to consider the politics of representation as dealt with by Walid Ra'ad and his collaborators. As Anton points out, the Atlas Group's work in some ways suggests the opposite. Performance lectures that play on the fictional, such as My Neck is Thinner than a Hair, reveal that every act can produce a document of civilisation, and question whether this act of producing a document need be seen as barbaric. One act of 'barbarism' in this work can be seen as the presentation of fiction as fact. Fadl Fakhouri is a character touted in My Neck is Thinner than a Hair as "the foremost historian of the Lebanese Civil Wars". His 'notebooks', supposedly donated to the Group upon his retirement, form the basis of the presentation. However, in presenting the notebooks as fact, Ra'ad highlights to us that this 'fiction' nonetheless reflects the reality of the situation in Lebanon. The person, the notebooks and their content (supposedly a picture of every model of car that was used as a bomb) were constructed by the artist; however, what they convey about living in Lebanon while car bombs were used, a sense of suspicion and the need to predict these seemingly random acts of violence, is 'real', and as such this act of 'barbarism' (historical fiction presented as fact) may also be seen as the construction of a 'document of civilisation' (a 'true' representation of life and events in the period).

Recounting experiences, whether those of ourselves or another, as an act of representation, in writing, documentation, or verbally, is potentially itself an 'act of barbarism', as Benjamin has highlighted. Ra'ad uses these activities (such as the telling of fictional personal anecdotes, or invoking the fictional Fadl Fakhouri) in his performance lecture to highlight the element of fiction or subjectivity in all writing of history. He gives himself the authority to mis-represent, to recount these 'facts', as a Beirut native, which he highlights through the use of a certain amount of autobiographical material and anecdote. In this way Ra'ad may be said to be directing the gaze of the performance inwards, placing the onus for representation of these events, 'true' or fictional, on those who have lived them, steering away from the Said-inspired criticism of Western representations of Arabs, towards a focus on contemporary cultural production in the Arab world.34

As well as empowering its participants with the means of working within restrictive systems, the electronic work of Ricardo Dominguez and Electronic Disturbance Theatre with the Zapatista movement produces an alternative representation of the group to those prominent in the North American media, raising issues of authority and misrepresentation which are also prominent in the Atlas Group's My Neck is Thinner than a Hair (2001). As I have already discussed, Ra'ad's play on fiction questions where authority and ideas of truth come from. The question of who has the right to represent is played on in the piece through the character of Fadl Fakhouri. As a historian, Fakhouri conventionally has the authority to write an official history. It is ironic then, that the person with enough authority to dispense information on the Lebanese wars is fictional, suggesting that perhaps all authority is a construct, a role that we impose on a person rather than any inherent quality or skill they possess. The negative reaction by some of the press to both Ra'ad's and Dominguez's work can be seen as similar to the reaction in the 1960s to the use of the artist's body as material for self-representation. The objection, it might be said, amounts in both cases to a reaction against the problematising of existing value systems, of sexism in art traditions, or racism in the processes of cultural memory. It is also significant that the information presented in the lecture is not that of the official history, but rather marginal or peripheral material, left unused in notebooks. Ra'ad is thus seen to be undertaking the work of documenting the seemingly senseless information beneath the official history, that which has been discarded as not meaningful to the overarching story of the wars. A comment is also made concerning the authority of the artefact, here undermined by being faked, which we in Western society are taught to be in awe of. In a sense, this may be seen as an attempt to increase the visibility of the marginal, the 'Other', in a way that simultaneously highlights the systems, the writing of histories, that suppress it.

Gomez-Pe€a sees performance as a way to be "active in the making of culture".35 The use of the possibilities of expression in the direct encounter of performance unites the artists considered in this overview. It might be said that all performance is interventionist, as it engages in a live dialogue with its audience and surroundings. Social structures have inherent inequalities, and the fluid boundaries of performance as a form allow artists to call into question the restrictive construction of identity. The development and proliferation of new communications technologies and an image culture over the last few decades has meant that live artists have begun to experiment with the new space of 'live' that transcends the geographical, and have found the same problems and inequalities that earlier artists were contending with in the physical space. By highlighting the influence of history on the body these performance works prompt people to look at the meaning-making processes which govern our lives, and as such enact Gomez-Pe€a's aim of an active creation of culture.

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