Badiou and Performance Art: Some Notes

Since some on this blog have been on a “Badiou kick” recently (ahem…Shahar), I thought I’d post some thoughts on an article Alain Badiou wrote a while back for Lacanian Ink. In “Fifteen Theses for Contemporary Art,” Badiou suggests that contemporary art must embrace the slogan “something else is possible.” This position mediates what at first appears as the two extremes that drive art, “everything is possible” and “everything is impossible.” Badiou ultimately decides that the two are the same thing, or at the very least, two sides of the same coin; the desire for endless variation within a closed operative system. As Nico Baumbach explains in his essay in Polygraph (17:2005), “To say that everything is possible—there is no end to novelty, variation, the realization of latent consumer fantasies—means only that everything is impossible—there is no new thing that is not made up of a series of effects that cannot be calculated or assimilated to a certain conception of the world that remains fundamentally unaltered.” This assimilation of both positions is also clear in terms of the body, the first position, “everything is possible,” gestures to experimentation with the utmost limits of the body. Such experimentation includes body modification, such as piercing and tattoos, but also extends to the extremes of Chris Burden’s performance and conceptual art. Burden often used his own body as an art object in sometimes shocking acts such as being shot, crucified and electrocuted, in order to confront and destabilize both the artist-observer relationship and the very production of art. Burden’s performance pieces confront the limits of the possible by risking death; the limit of the body is the exhibition itself.

In the second position, the phrase “everything is impossible,” appears as consolation, it is a resignation towards death. From the Levinasian perspective, each position characterizes a “being-towards-death” that has the effect of constituting a subject not unlike Heidegger’s Dasein. In Badiou’s more precise vocabulary, the aggressive inventiveness of an artist like Chris Burden is nothing less than “formalism,” whereas the latter position, which posits death as the decisive statement of our experience, is “romanticism.” Beyond pathos, outside of formalistic novelty, “something else is possible.”

For now, let’s just accept the distinction Badiou makes above uncritically. Although, on this sort of “first pass” I’m not quite sure what this “something else” might actually “be” when cashed out. Peter Hallward gestures to this “something else” I think in his Badiou: A Subject to Truth

Badiou affirms the production of contemporary works of art, universally addressed, as so many exceptional attempts to “formalize the formless” or “to purify the impure.” The sole task of an exclusively affirmative art is the effort to render visible all that which, from the perspective of the establishment, is invisible or nonexistent. Like all truth, an artistic truth begins with an event and is sustained by a subject…art is a matter of putting ultimately sensual experience into (verbal, visual, audible) form…Artistic events take place on the border of what is formless, or monstrous, the point at which the formal resources of the existing arts are overextended. An artistic event demonstrates that it is possible to conceive of what has hitherto been considered monstrous or formless as “formable,” as the material for a new formalization or putting into form. (195)

The brutality of endurance art would seem to fall clearly under Badiou’s first category “everything is possible,” as would some of the pieces I talk about here and here. This performance piece by Bay Area artist Lucas Murgida (stills from the performance are on the first row, images 4, 7-9–“bound with pitbull,” “bound with others,” “released”) raises some interesting questions about art itself (as well as power, the body and powerlessness). This is the artist’s statement:

On Saturday September 8th of 2007 I executed an endurance performance at ROCKSBOX from 6-11 PM . A pit-bull was leashed to my torso while I laid on the gallery floor bound with zip-ties. The door to the room was locked from both the inside and the outside. By using a small remote control I was able to activate an electric release in the door that permitted viewers to enter and exit the space when I saw them in the doors window. The only way in or out of the room was through my permission. Down the hall there was a second room that was also locked from both the inside and the outside. I programmed a timer to activate an electric release in the door that permitted access to the room every 2 minutes. Inside the room an audio track looped which outlined a teenager’s experience forcing his dog to suck his penis. The only way in or out of the room was when the timer that I programmed permitted egress.

This performance piece would appear to prove Badiou’s distinction, in fact, one could certainly argue that the piece is to be read as both embodying the slogan “everything is possible” and the slogan “everything is impossible,” thus, proving the slogans are merely two sides of the same coin. However, I’m not so sure this is the best way to think through this piece. The piece offers a vision of the body as vulnerable, passive, and literally. well, bound up. Yet, the artist is able to maintain control by permitting the movement into, through and away from the performance itself. Moreover, as the viewers were able to chit chat with the bound up artist, the artist also responded by sending them into a room in which a looped tape recording tells the listener about how a teenager (presumably the artist) forced dogs to suck his dick.

This is certainly a difficult piece. While it might be easy to write off this piece as pure pathos, pure narcissism, formalized novelty or just silly, I think that it actually may serve to problematize Badiou’s rather modernist distinction above. If, as Hallward notes above, art is supposed to put sensual experience into form we might ask ourselves what Murgida’s piece “forms.” Perhaps it is better to look for clues in Badiou’s musing on theater. In Rhapsodie pour le theatre (quoted in Hallward p205) Badiou writes:

The true theater makes of each performance, each actor’s every gesture, a generic vacillation in which differences with no basis might be risked. The spectator must decide whether to expose himself to this void, and share the infinite procedure. He is called, not to pleasure…, but to thought (91,92).

This comment gets us closer to the core of Murgida’s piece. It is certainly a call to thought, but at the same time a break from artistic representation or ideas, as well as the defamiliarization or disruption of normative and habitual ways one experiences “art” and understands themselves and others as “subjects” (I know this is quite the opposite of Badiou but I just can’t help it). The Badiou-type of questions it seems to me would be: What conceptual consequences are isolated? Does this piece actually compose its own ideal singularity? Or, put differently, does the piece invent something new? (Answers to these forthcoming)
My sense is to answer yes to these questions because the piece itself can almost not be formalized (even though it was staged in a gallery, albeit one that doubles as a home) and is almost closer to “research” or “investigation” (see the artist bio: work becomes research or the condition for the performance). It presents an experience that is impossible to ignore. While I am not trying to ascribe to Murgida’s performance piece any sort of historical “break” or event or example of precisely what Badiou has in mind for art (since I haven’t really read much of Badiou’s aesthetics, or inaesthetics as it were), I do think that in this case, the piece is distinguished by what Badiou seems to see as its ability to be resolved to the un-determinability of its formal medium. That is, outside mere formalistic novelty/nostalgia and mere pathos. I’m not sure Badiou is the best thinker to work through the issues raised by performance art, but his slogans that drive art do seem to me at this point to be interesting starting points, or, minimally, interesting categories/terms to work with.

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