|4. Roots of Performance
One of the main criticisms I get is my art is old-fashion, a throwback to the 60's. I find this funny because the roots of the art is much more old fashion than that, going back to the cave.
Performance obviously goes much farther back than 1909 when it became a formal art form. The Futurists were reacting to the bankruptcy of formal art, with its gallery power scene, the elitism of art, the money, the politics, and the social scene of art. This is a true but a one-sided view of why performance appeared at that time.
I think performance came into existence to fill a void in western life. The void was the lack of magic and inspiration. The two areas of creativity, theatre and religion, that traditionally were the source of this magical inspiration had long ago moved from magic to entertainment and politics. This void also gave birth to psychology during the same time period. I often get the criticism that my work is really psychology and therapy, and not art. When it is realized that psychology as a formal science and performance as a formal art were born at the same time, this criticism can be answered. Performance and psychology are both involved in spiritual healing by digging into the hidden mysteries of life.
The dynamic of seeing art is not the fundamental dynamic of art. The doing of art is art's basic dynamic. The doing of art and having other people see the art work are two separate dynamics, events, rituals. The seeing of art is what the viewer or listener does in her head. The doing of art is the ritual of creation, is what the artist does. In reality, this ritual has more to do with the act of doing than the act of creating. When a child first draws crazy lines on the wall, he is not trying to create something...but to do something for some effective purpose that our linear logic cannot grasp. The crazy person does his insane rituals, not to express himself but to keep the sky from falling or to make pain go away. And it works. The sky does not fall down. Maybe it is because of the rituals of the insane.
The very act of doing changes the whole universe. This is a key principle of magic. By doing a ritual or by speaking a spell, you can effect change. Painting a picture, doing a dance, writing a poem, any act of art can be a magical ritual, the doing of which has nonlinear effects. Seen in this way, most acts of creation are private rituals done in personal caves. What we usually think of as works of art are aftermaths of art.
The problem with our modern frame of art reality is not that we make art to be seen, but that we have forgotten (or have been made to forget by those who control what is to be seen and what is not) that the power of doing art is the main power of art. The private performance is a way to regain the magical power of the doing of art. Defining what is a private performance is an interesting way to enter the magic. I define it as a ritual that is not for an audience. It is something that has to be done, something you may not even want to do. One of the easiest to frame as a private performance is a shaman going to his secret spot to do rites nobody will see to open himself up for channeling visions that he cannot personally use or tell anyone about. We have seen other obvious private performances -- the child, the madman, the artist alone doing art. We can add things like doodling, singing in the shower, playing invisible drums to the radio when you are safe alone in your room. It is something that has to come out. It is something too silly, too taboo, too sacred, too intense, too raw, too vulnerable to be done in public, to be expressed. This may be where real art begins. This kind of doing by one person is clearly private performance. It has an element of secrecy and undercover. I can remember singing on my bed along with the radio, quickly stopping when anyone opened the door, not wanting to be exposed, not wanting to lessen the magic. And now I sing in rock clubs.
The hidden ritual not only kept me from insanity (some people will say that makes it therapy, not art), but opened nonlinear routes of possibilities not only for me, but for everybody. The private performance gives the artist freedom from limits and shoulds and morals, so she can go beyond where the society or culture or the consciousness has reached, to connect to the universal power. By doing this she brings a new universal area into this reality.
It is important to understand the root urge of performance and in general of art.
It is important to go all the way back to the primal fires around which humans huddled, telling one another dream stories -- not to entertain or impress one another, but to keep away fearful demons lurking in the cold darkness just outside the firelight. There was no division between reality and imagination. The gods and demons were real. In this ritual of storytelling, there was no division between the storyteller and listeners. They were all actively involved in the magical battle of survival. The rituals expanded to dance, chant, music. But the ritual was to affect magically the hostile world in which the humans found themselves. The audience of these rituals were the natural world, the gods, and the demons.
When humans started living in caves, they did their rituals and wall-paintings in the bowels of the caves where no one could see. The purpose was an active change -- a good hunt, sexual power, pleasing the gods, etc. Art was not for watching.
The cave artists operated in this magical way. Their art was not for looking at. This is why they did their rituals and paintings in very dangerously inaccessible, pitch-black bowels of caves. The purpose of these paintings and rituals was to magically effect change in the world (the past, the present, and the future as well as the life after death...) or to communicate with the universal powers. This magical effect and these communications were caused by doing the art. The act of doing this magical art released an energy, some of which remained within these caves, making them "holy" or "magical" sites. The walls of a lot of these caves have layers upon layers of magical drawings done by different tribes over time spans of hundreds or thousands of years. These tribes may have been drawn to these dangerously inaccessible caves by this special energy, released through the doing of art, stored in the caves, radiating out of the caves, and recharged by every new act of magic art done within the cave.
This magical action art is not the only kind of art. In the time of the cave art, there was body art which was meant to attract and turn on the opposite sex, and other kinds which were meant to strike fear in the enemy, etc. -- all through the medium of seeing, hearing, experiencing the art product. There were also arts of decorating, educating, and entertaining which used the medium of seeing/hearing/experiencing by a spectator. Moreover, the action art and the seeing art at times were combined.
Photos (from top to bottom): Mary Sullivan, Mary Sullivan, unknown