This is a brief presentation I wrote up for the International Communication Association as an alternative to presenting a research paper -- more a general provocation and attempt to spur discussion instead of talking about a specific project. I ended up presenting the specific project after all but I like this, so thought I'd post it here. (photo: Linda Montano & Tehching Hsieh)
I’m going to suggest media scholars put themselves through something painful--potentially more painful than getting through the long paper I posted for this event. (Apologies for that, I’m a novelist, not a poet.) The potentially painful experience I suggest for media scholars is performance art. Like poetry slams or open mic singers, performance art can be hit-or-miss, and the misses can be excruciating. But hits, even ambitious failures, have a relevance for scholars of media and technology. By “performance art,” I refer to not just people doing wacky things onstage, but also in public, the street, alone or in groups, before audiences or cameras, rehearsed, improvised, directed, collaborative, as themselves or in persona, activism, or ritual. This encompasses a century of art practices: performances,, installations, sound art, integrated life performance, street theatre, conceptual art, experimental theatre, flash mobs, and pranks.
The thread through all of these is decentering.
The thread through all of these is decentering.
Performance art was developed within the visual arts. It was not stand-up comedy with extra irreverence or theatre with extra edge, but visual artists interested in decentering the art object. Artists and movements such as Joseph Beuys, dada, Chris Burden, Fluxus, Yvonne Rainer, Eleanor Antin, process art, Alan Kaprow, Suzanne Lacey, happenings, John Cage, Carolee Schneemann David Wojnarowicz, Annie Sprinkle, Tehching Hsieh, Linda Montano, land art, Frank Moore, Nam June Paik, and many others were about getting away from the things of the art experience.
The gestalt of art making and art experiencing was seen as losing ground to the art industry’s commercialization and commodification of things: pretty and inoffensive minimalist sculptures, soft abstract paintings that matched your sofa, all produced by celebrity art-stars and marketed by well-branded galleries.
Performance art asked, What if there was no thing to buy or sell, merely an experience that disappeared when it was over? Yes, you could sell tickets to the experience, but what if you didn’t? What if you didn’t do it in a theatre or gallery, but on the street, in the woods, in your private life every day for 7 years? The point was to decenter and de-objectify art from things to experiences.
This is a process we’re discussing now -- getting away from reifying the things of technology and media studies. I’m not suggesting we fully abandon things--I think the concrete facts of devices, interfaces, mediality, and affordances, are crucial parts of analyses. However, I’m arguing for broadening our scope to include or at least acknowledge the many personal, social, and experiential realms in which media-things operate.
Performance art moved away from things not only in the sense of trying to make art that could not easily reside on a gallery wall or pedestal, but also challenging and fragmenting other things, such as text and author. You could read a script, watch video documentation, look at choreography notes, handle props, talk to audiences, but where was the art? Which of these was the text? Who was the artist or producer? Duchamp and his legions made clear that “art” was not an inherent characteristic of a thing, but dependent on context: the urinal signed and placed in a gallery became art. “Art” occurred in the mind of the viewer. Each viewer produces his or her own experience. DIY Web 2.0 prosumers and all the other blurred binaries of “new media” have deep roots--as we all spend much time and effort exploring--in many areas, including the arts.
Robert Smithson experienced art in his process of laying the stones for “Spiral Jetty.” Every person who saw it while it existed on the shore of Great Salt Lake had a personal experience of art. More unique experiences of art are had by nightclub dancers who see photos of it juxtaposed by a VJ with images of Hurricane Katrina and quotes from Vico while people dance to “You Spin Me Round.”
A good performance artist thinks about such processes, experiences, feelings, senses, dominant and residual forms, bodies, space, texts, accidents, improvisation, environment, gesture, motion, context, connotation, denotation, reflexes, memory, concentrated and distracted viewers, symbols and that which can’t be symbolized.
A performance artist communicates: not only in linguistic, aural, and nonverbal modes, but also through evocation, the reactions they hope to elicit: When Ron Athey’s troupe makes a printing press out of cuts in a man’s back, the nausea, fear, arousal, and sweat in the audience are part of what they communicate. When Tim Miller evokes the injustices of second-class queer citizenship, or the bliss of love and sex, he communicates those meanings, feelings, experiences. When Goat Island run circles around a gymnasium or church, flipping each other through repetitive athletic movements, they are aware of how their variously shaped- and gendered-bodies bodies move in space in general and that space in particular, how this raises bodily awareness in audience members.
This is how I am suggesting we think about media, in an expansive way that considers communication technologies as part of infinitely variable experiences and processes--not generalizable forms, standardized channels, or fetishized discrete objects. (Although I will confess to salivating like any fanboy over, say, a well-preserved zograscope). Whether the media object is center or not is actually only relevant in terms of research questions and design. I’m arguing for an expansive notion of media uses, experiences, practices, discourses, theories, and representations: How media look, smell, feel, taste, and--as suggested in my paper--sound. What stories we tell about media. How media involve bodies in space. How technologies challenge and constitute race, health, gender, and sexuality. How media practices address and involve more than discrete, specific texts, devices, and authors.
Think of a medium not merely as a specimen, a single representative example of a species, a butterfly pin-mounted in a velvet display case. Consider as well the cloud of butterflies, its undulating shapes, its contexts and environments throughout historic migrations, the sounds of wings, the colors in light, the velvety scales staining fingertips. Consider the multitudes of different species--even moths! Then, examine both sides, just as we examine media professionals and audiences: How do butterflies themselves experience their own butterfly-ness? Finally, consider butterflies old and new: their evolution and diffusion; encounters with different groups at different times; days of novelty, ubiquity, and extinction; nostalgic revivals and imitations. Replace butterfly with television or YouTube.
I’ll admit that such expansiveness may seem a daunting point from which to generalize research, but isn’t anything less intellectually disingenuous, or at least terribly boring?