Performance Art And Reality TV: Initial Questions


In the 1970’s Bay area artist Tony Labat and his partner went on the Gong Show as a work of performance art. In 1976 Cosey Fanny Tutti, with the COUM Transmission, opened “Prostitution” which featured and was inspired by Cosey’s work in the sex industry, in publications in which she herself appeared. Cosey worked as a pornography model for two years for over 40 porn magazines. Her interest was with how British laws classified prostitution as an act that ultimately puts blame on the prostitute alone. She wrote in her artist’s statement:

My projects are presented unaltered in a clinical way…the only difference is that my projbects involve the very emotional ritual of love making. To make an action I must feel that the action is m e and no one else, no influences, just purely me. This is where photos and films coum in. I am laying myself open, fully to myself, and through my action to other people als0…The world dictates what it deems to be reality, thereby annihilating reality and we, COUM cease to exist.

This got me thinking. So, this post is a first “pass” at formulating an approach to examine how/if reality television has altered the notion of performance art, or to put it differently, if performance art needs to be rethought after reality television. My initial thoughts have been to organize the investigation around the concepts of shame/shamelessness, radical/normative, and the more traditional categories of action/object. These are proving, however, to be very opaque framing devices. Regardless, at its conception performance art was meant to be radical. Since Realty TV often hints at the sort of work that performance artists have concerned themselves with, whether the spectacle, shamelessness, the body or boundaries (only to name a few), it seems to me that there may be a good deal of interesting common ground to explore between the two.

In the conclusion to “Leap into the Void: Performance and Object,” the opening essay in the outstanding overview of performance art, Out of Actions:between performance and the object 1949-1979, (published in conjunction with a traveling exhibition put together at the MOCA in LA during 1998), Paul Schimmel writes

Liberating their thinking from the bonds of tradition, materialized in the object, the performative act offered artists the opportunity to investigate such compelling issues as destruction, mortality, and the tenuous boundaries of being in the world. It offered them the opportunity to unravel the systems and structures that provide a false sense of solidarity in a world that is forever in flux. It offered them the opportunity to leap into the void–a singular act that embodied the optimism tempered by despair that is so characteristic of the period in which we live.

For one, the question would have to do with the “ends,” the “reception,” in other words, what happens in the space between performance and viewer, what is created that is new? Of course, the stagings by performance artists can be viewed simply as objects, the performance signifies a work of art, an object. Alternatively, performance art is probably best thought of as action, as a particular modality that somehow creates a bond with performer-viewer, viewer-viewer, which as one commentator suggests, leads back to actions in a chain of inter-dependence. (I think Katherine Stiles made some comment like that, but I can’t recall since I don’t have the text in front of me). This kind of questioning might take this form: what kinds of objects come out of (or are created by) actions? What is created out of the action that is new? New bodies, new forms of life, new boundaries? Barbara Smith’s 1973 Feed Me was staged in a private space where she remained nude for the whole performance, inviting visitors to the gallery one at a time to interact with her. Her private space was outfitted with a matress, flowers, body oils, wine, perfume, music, books, weed, and a heater (this is not an exhaustive list). Participants were invited to feed her and themselves in exchange for conversation and affection. Kristine Stiles comments that

Smith attempted to navigate between the cultural image of woman as “virgin and whore,” between patriarchal and feminist discourses, and between her own utilization of performance as a “vehicle for personal transformation” and a mode of “expanded consciousness about the world.

Yes, ok, I agree too. Now, let’s think about the (shameless) behavior of say, a guy or girl on The Real World on MTV. Is this “radical? ” After all, marketers have certain archetypes for these types, the girls we see on MTV (and really, all over pop culture) taking their shirts off, getting drunk etc are midriffs, I forget the name for the loud, obnoxious drunkard guy, but we can see repetitions of these types across the board. So, is this type of shamelessness shameless? On the face of it, certainly. Some of the things I’ve seen on the Real World–whose formula is get a bunch of narcissistic good looking people who are all completely extroverted, put them in a house, make sure there is plenty of booze and marinate–is absolutely disgusting, but is it radical? Yes, but only in its unadulterated shamelessness! So for one, the question is something like: Does the conception of “radical” have to be rethought after reality tv? The thing that needs to be explored is this: what is the constituitive difference between Barbara Smith’s staging, or better, between Vito Acconci’s well known piece Seed Bed, in which Acconci concealed himself under a low wooden ramp constructed in the gallery feigning or not feigning masturbation for over 5 hours daily as people walked into the gallery (Acconci responded verbally to visitors by using them as catalysts for sexual fantasy, to stimulate himself and the visitors) and the masturbation/anal sex/exhibition or whatnot we see almost daily on MTV’s The Real World?

One of the more notorious cases in the history of performance art has to do with the confusion of the fictional and the real vis a vis the photograph (in our case we should add the video camera) is the story that Viennesse artist Rudolph Schwarzkogler cut off his penis in a performance and subsequently died from the action. Katherine Stiles summarizes:

Schwarzkogler conceived and and orchestrated a series of still tablezux which were then photographed by Lubwig Hffenreich. Together in private studio sessions, Schwarzkogler created the mis en scene, his friend Heinz Cibulka provided the physical body object for the construction of the image and Hoffenreich took the pictures. These private studio pieces did not include a developmental action through time, as in a happening, and were not performances, but were arranged by Schwarzkogler as discrete, simulated events.

Seeming to be photographic documents, these seductive images actually presented only an artificial construction, a series of fictional events, symbolic not only in form, but in content. Apparently signs signifying the real, these photographs are signifiers of the imaginary. Finally, Schwarzkogler did not die in body action, nor do the photos of the staged fictional castration even depict him.

Postmodernism was supposed to be the end of the museum, so is it conceivable that reality tv is the next step out of the museum, or is it simply kitch? In 1976, What I’m getting at is this: is reality tv the result of, or minimally, the next step for performance art? The latter would cohere nicely with the Benjamin idea in the Age of Mechanical reproduction, e.g. mass produced/easily accessed radical performance art. And finally, how does the the idea of shame,which quite literally, means a denuding, a stripping bare, connect to the idea of performance art? If at all?

Next post, coming soon: the issue of voyeurism in performance art and reality tv.

P.S.  If any of our 3 readers have any information regarding any published theorizations, investigations or commentary of Reality TV let me know.

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3 thoughts on “Performance Art And Reality TV: Initial Questions

  1. Pingback: Trash TV and Performance Art: More Comments « Perverse Egalitarianism

  2. Pingback: Badiou and Performance Art « Perverse Egalitarianism

  3. Pingback: Man-Child Reality Television « Perverse Egalitarianism

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