Notes from Psi16 2010: Exploring the future of performance art

June 14, 2010

It’s been years since I saw Jenny Magnus perform a piece called “Robert” – I don’t even know where anymore – maybe Lower Links, maybe Randolph Street Gallery, maybe N.A.M.E. It later became part of a theater piece called “The Willies” but, initially, it was a stand-alone.  It was darkly funny in parts, but mostly it was about the fear of commitment and the searing pain of aloneness. It touched and scared me and made my head spin.

In the intervening years, whenever I considered performance art, I came back to that stark and powerful stage moment. When performance works, it doesn’t just leave an impression, but something more like a scar.

I say that now, in part, because I want to make clear that I really do love performance. I wrote about it for the Reader and the Tribune for years, and was a regular at all those long gone performance places (For those interested, there’s a Lower Links Reunion — complete with performances — Sunday, July 11, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Lakeside Inn, 15251 Lakeshore Rd. in Lakeside, Mich.)

So when some friends were invited to present papers at the Performance Studies International Conference (Psi16) in Toronto last weekend, I was excited to go. I’d recently been to New York to see Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” and had felt a renewed passion for the form.

The Toronto presentations weren’t performances per se but academic explorations of performance, including fascinating presentations on disability and performance, on Afro punks and blipsters, on dueling modernities and on self-immolation as protest and performatic extreme.

Problem is, I’d forgotten two basic rules of performance: One – when it sucks, it really sucks; and two – when a paper about performance sucks, it really, really sucks.

Some of the worst from Toronto:

• The Swedish professor who talked about AIDS-education community-based theater in Tanzania and, suddenly, in an effort to “not make AIDS an African problem,” suggested that if we disregarded time and geography, art forms and medical specificities, it was possible to compare the current situation with regards to AIDS in Tanzania with that of syphilis in Sweden in 1880. He remained oblivious throughout about the inherent problems of blithely comparing contemporary Tanzania to a 19th century European country.

• While presenting a paper on performing ethnicity in karaoke, a guy who recently completed writing his PhD dissertation asked, “Is there even such a thing as ‘race’?” before embarking on the most basic explanation of how race is a social construction. (He also managed to get through the whole thing without discussing appropriation, parody, humor, self-deprecation or any critical race theorists.)

• After an insomnia-curing presentation on performance and excess, including about 15 minutes on William Pope L., whose work is specifically about blackness, the presenter – without once mentioning race, much less blackness — addressed an on-screen image of onions painted half white and half black. “Obviously, this is an allegory for race,” she said, because, of course, those black and white onions couldn’t mean light and dark or opposites or duality or color and the absence of color or any one a million other things. And race, of course, is just a black and white concern.

• My fave: One fellow completely hijacked a panel of three presenters and talked for about 35 minutes (instead of the allotted 20) about zombies and cell phone usage.