123. Nancy J. Blomberg, ed., Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art
Nancy Blomberg’s edited collection Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art is another book lent to me by my supervisor, and therefore, of course, something I need to read. It’s an anthology of essays from a symposium held at the Denver Art Museum in 2008; the contributors are experts on performance art in general, and Indigenous performance art in particular. Blomberg’s introduction begins with the questions, “What is ‘performance art’? How do we define it? Discuss it? Critique it? Create it? And collect it?” (9). She notes that the Denver Art Museum’s “involvement with performance art has been limited,” and in fact it has been limited to Indigenous performance art (9). Residencies by Bently Spang in 2003 and Floyd Favel in 2007 were well-received by the gallery’s visitors, which led to “a more in-depth look at the greater world of Native American performance art and some of the issues important to its future” (9). Those issues include questions like “How do native artists use performance to analyze social conditions and offer solutions?”; “How can the artist use performance as a means of transmitting knowledge?”; How does the artist build communities among artists—and also between native and non-native populations and individuals?”; “What is the lifespan of a performance work? Does the camera merely document the moment, or does it create another artwork?”; and “What are the issues for iconic works like James Luna’s The Artifact Piece and the implications for restaging such works?” (9-10). The last questions are common, I think, to all forms of performance art, but the first three questions might be considered more specific to Indigenous performance art. Those three questions might not be the best questions to ask about any art practice. Does art really offer solutions to social problems? Does it build communities? Does it transmit knowledge? I’m not convinced. But those are the questions Blomberg and her colleagues considered important.
The book’s first essay is Rebecca Belmore’s “Making a Garden Out of a Wilderness.” It begins with an anecdote: during a residency at the Banff Centre, Belmore was asked to give a lecture on performance art. Thinking about this task, she stumbled across 1492 and All That: Making a Garden out of a Wilderness by historian Ramsay Cook. In that book, Cook retold a story that was given to a Baptist missionary by the Mi’kmaq people:
One of them, a Mi’kmaq man, was taken to France where he was placed in a wilderness garden with a deer. There, he was told he was to perform for an audience of nobility; he was expected to kill the deer with a bow and arrow, skin and dress the carcass, then cook and eat it. According to the Mi’kmaq, wrote the missionary, the man adhered to their instructions but took the liberty of expanding on their idea of his performance by “easing himself before them all.” I took this to mean that he shat upon the ground. (16)
Belmore saw herself in that man: Indigenous, in a park intended “to protect what remains of the ‘Canadian wilderness,’” like that man, “trapped in a ‘wild’ garden” (16). “A day before my scheduled lecture,” she continues, “I took a shit in the bushes behind the building that housed my studio” (17). Then she worked with a couple of Mohawk media artists to capture video of herself using “a gasoline-powered leaf blower to clear a path through the forest,” and running through the forest with her hands tied behind her back “and then falling, kicking, digging, barefoot into the earth” (17). On the day of her lecture, she collected her shit in a jar; she also collected elk shit and put it into an identical jar. “I place each jar into a plain brown paper bag,” she recalls. “The lecture begins. I arrive carrying the two bags. I stand at the lectern while the ‘leaf blowing machine imagery’ is projected onto a screen. When it is finished, I take the jars out of the paper bags and describe to the audience what I had read” (17). Then she leaves and flushes the shit from the jars down the toilet. She returns “to finish the lecture by projecting the imagery of me running with the hands bound, an escaped captive Indian” (17). “I consider this Mi’kmaq man to be one of the first performance artists of the Americas to work internationally—hundreds of years ago,” Belmore concludes (17).
The anthology’s second essay is art historian Marcia Crosby’s “A Disturbing Certainty: The Multimedia Work of Rebecca Belmore.” “Many of the works of Canadian multimedia artist Rebecca Belmore include disturbing representations of violence, which on one level are about the particular and are layered with encoded references to very specific individuals, acts, events, peoples, and spatially bounded locales,” Crosby begins. “Each of the empirical referents for these artworks has its own deep histories, embedded as they are in larger histories of cultural trauma, most of which have been obscured from public view. In performance, installation, photography, and video, Belmore refers to power imbalances between the state and individuals, between groups of peoples, or between individuals” (21). Belmore was inspired by the Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta, Crosby suggests, who also explored the theme of violence, particularly against women’s bodies (21). That violence raises the issue of trauma:
Trauma in aboriginal performance art can be linked to the performative dimensions of social and political “action art,” ritualized action, cleansing, mortification, and marking the body with various kinds of “wounds” (which is the literal translation of the Greek word “trauma”). The term has been used more recently in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to refer to a single event (sudden injury, death, natural disaster) or a prolonged injury caused by abuse over time, such as, I wold say, colonialism. As an art strategy, woundings have been used to address violence in the artists’ political and social worlds. Such actions make language for past and present trauma, and they can shock and unsettle (create uncertainty), reactivating old traumas that may be reinscribed in the body of the performer and/or audience. (21-22)
Even writing about such performances, Crosby continues, “may activate a process of both acting out and ‘working through’ an experience of personal trauma” (22).
Performance art, Crosby writes, as an art form that presents an activity or action before an audience, has historically been “a particular form of resistance which did not/does not lend itself to conventional containment within museums and did not easily enter the museum or the realm of art magazines” (22). Its ephemeral nature “does not lend itself to ‘telling’ specific historical narratives or producing meaning or explanations,” but “performance can disentangle histories in very particular ways”:
an artist at one level may refer to personal, local, cultural, or national narratives of prolonged abuse or trauma (as fiction or empirical fact); and the body, its gestures (and other media) may expose the imbalance of power relations of a personal trauma. In an aboriginal performance that is focused on trauma or violence, performer or spectator may gather any number of the narrative strings of colonization: lateral violence in the home or community, the dissolution of family, residential schooling, decimating diseases, diaspora, the emergence of fluid or unstable urban aboriginal communities—any events and/or conditions that make up the complexity of colonialism’s historical and ongoing woundings. That said, such narratives are a referent or perhaps only “one arrangement” of an oscillating constellation of other possible elements to the performance, which raise questions about power itself. (22-23)
Belmore doesn’t use performance art “as an attempt to make meaning or create closure in relation to the specific historic events she references,” Crosby continues. “She is well aware that in its capacity to elicit both a somatic response and to call up specific memories, the language of performance art is transient, it is gesture, trace remains of anecdotal evidence; it cannot be objectified and can hardly be explained, and it is viscous in its contradictions” (23). The duration of a performance work “draws a momentary horizon line, pointing both to what is known and that which is emergent and thus yet incoherent,” but Belmore’s use of images of violence, “held in tension with images of beauty, constitutes a strategy that adds to the disturbing or unsettling nature of the work—new meanings continually emerge, calling into question contemporary norms, images, sounds, words, gestures” (23).
“Themes of violence and the ephemeral nature of performance itself conspire to create uncertainty,” Crosby writes, and that uncertainty “resonates with the theories and methodologies employed by anthropologists and writers Michael Taussig and Arjun Appadurai” (23-24). Like Taussig and Appadurai, Belmore points “to the relationship between uncertainty and violence and to the ways in which uncertainty constitutes . . . one of the preconditions for violence” (24). Belmore’s work confronts issues of race and racism, Crosby suggests, which complicates any reading of her work (27). Her 2002 performance Vigil, for instance, “which was concerned with the local ‘disappearances’ and murders of women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver,” many of whom were Indigenous, is at the same time “a collapse of the elements that make up an action” (27-28). “These elements include any or all of the following: the body (as an object that is both hers and not hers); any or all references to the murder[s] of the women; the performance site in the alley; and the audience,” Crosby continues. Vigil “cannot be reduced to polemic, or a political protest based on aspects of Belmore’s ‘identity’—which is not to say that any audience member may participate in a performance, or see the video, in that way” (28). The purpose of the performance, and the subsequent video installation, The Named and the Unnamed, is to disturb viewers: Belmore shouted the names of the missing women, she tore roses with her teeth, and she nailed the red dress she was wearing to a telephone pole and ripped it away until it was in shreds. “Through this series of actions, she pointed the audience to traumatic violence and losses that were so deep that they could not be translated into something to be transcended or redeemed with meaning, or perhaps even spoken,” Crosby suggests (28).
Crosby cites historian Saul Friedlander’s suggestion that any attempt to make meaning out of violence (his example is the Holocaust) “is to presume that such violence and meaningless suffering can be redeemed with significance, can be given a moral dimension suggesting hope” (28-29). Rather, Friedlander suggests that such histories of violence sustain uncertainty and allow us to live “without understanding or redemption” (29). For Crosby, uncertainty is part of “the oscillating constellation of meanings” in Belmore’s performance work (29). “In many of Belmore’s works, ‘disappeared’ people, events, and histories are brought to the surface, emerge for a time, and then disappear from view,” she writes. “It is this emergence and disappearance, which circulates tenuously in public memory and in durational time, that makes the histories to which she refers ‘uncanny’ and disturbs the ground in which they have been buried” (29). Nor does Belmore limit herself to referring to colonialism in general terms; rather, “[h]er works are informed by the details of particular cases . . . and they refuse accepted ‘facile linear narratives’ about them” (29). “Performance, installation, and photograph work to disturb, but without excessive and self-reflexive references to historic trauma and violence as an end in itself,” Crosby contends (29).
Belmore’s White Thread, a staged photograph, “the model is bent over and wrapped in red fabric (with a line of white thread sewn on its edges) from face to ankles; her wrapped face faces her knees, and wrapped arms and legs are bound together from elbow to ankle” (30). She is posed in what “is clearly an untenable position against a white backdrop that also covers the small plinth on which she stands” (32). In 2003, when the work was made, Canada had just gone to war in Afghanistan, and Belmore was thinking about women and that war. While White Thread “may not reveal how ethnicity, race, and cultural politics have been constructed in the media since 9/11,” it is nevertheless “a red flag,” Crosby writes (32). Belmore’s 2007 photograph Fringe (first displayed on a billboard in Montreal) depicts a body that might seem to fit the idea of a martyr or sacrificial victim (32). The photograph shows “a brown-skinned woman lying in repose on a covered white platform, her back to the viewer, nude except for a sash of white cloth over her hips and a diagonal slash across her back, with red beads ‘embroidering’ the length of the wound and cascading onto the platform” (32). According to Crosby, “Fringe maps complicated intersections of mass-mediated images of violence, conflated populist and nationalist signs, and representations of the ‘other’ that resonate with those that circulate at global levels” (32-34). Brown skin and beads, in particular, suggest indigeneity (34). “The many slippages and possible referents for the disturbing and powerful image of the body in Fringe,” Crosby continues, “complicate any literal or narrative reading” (34):
The installation itself may seem, at first or second glance, to be reduced to the cut across the woman’s back—the vivisection, an assault on a woman and/or a visual assault on the viewer. But at second or third glance, the woman’s back provides the viewer with an equivalent, yet absent image. . . . first, a woman slashed and dripping blood; next, a woman with a wound that is beaded with a red fringe. As a kind of filmic frame, the suture as a focal point in Fringe also points to an inside and an outside: the viewer “outside” and the brown-skinned beaded Indian woman’s “inside.” By this I infer the part of her body that is hidden as an “inside,” inaccessible to an “outsider.” This inside image is equivalent to the outside vulnerable and violent one—or vice versa. (34)
Crosby suggests that Fringe, like performance art, “is not intended to create an articulate response” from its viewer (35). “This is also true of the paradoxical ways that Belmore combines certain themes and materials in other works: themes of motherhood and death and materials such as wine and milk,” she continues. “All of the various elements in Belmore’s work may raise questions for an audience, but they do not offer answers or resolution or any specific call to action—just a nervous uncertainty” (35).
The violence in Belmore’s work may shock and unsettle viewers. So is Belmore implicated in “constructions of violence that perpetuate more violence, or add to the degree to which audiences become inured to it due to overexposure?” (35-39). Crosby thinks that the answer to both questions is yes, since “any work about violence is necessarily complicated by the paradox of taking it as subject matter in the first place: we ‘re-present’ it, and representations of violence are always double-edged,” even those that set out to critique violence (39). Belmore’s works, and their use of violence, suggest that she “includes representations of violence with an understanding of how it is constructed and produced,” and Belmore herself seems “compelled to address the subject in ways that create a shift in consciousness” (39). But those “who are compelled to investigate violence” are prone to emotional effects, such as protective numbing; these are “the inherent contingencies and contradictions of both making and ‘reading’ such work” (39).
“Trauma is marking,” Crosby concludes. “And since its mark is also visceral, somatic, and cellular, mental knowledge or consciousness doesn’t necessarily come into play” (39). For that reason, viewers “leave at the end of the performance, still in its middle, without the consolation of closure or meaning. Alive and undisturbed” (39).
The third essay, Polly Nordstrand’s “Evoking Heroism in Floyd Favel’s Snow Before the Sun,” begins with “[t]he disturbing photograph of Chief Big Foot’s body crumpled and frozen between a sitting and lying down position,” taken “in the wake of the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek” (47). “We are devastated by the images of the massacre, but at the time the victims were seen by the soldiers and settler community as little more than outlaws,” she notes (48). “Of course, not everyone then or today thinks of the Indians dead at wounded knee as ‘outlaws,’” Nordstrand continues, particularly Floyd Favel, who was “so deeply disturbed by the image of Big Foot’s frozen body at Wounded Knee and the details of the massacre that he was compelled to create an original performance” (49):
Rather than focus on the victimization of the people of the Plains, he melded the tragic event at Wounded Knee Creek and the beliefs of the Ghost Dance with the 1970s film icon Billy Jack to evoke the heroic nature of two men—one real, once fictional. The drama that unfolds is one of persecution and spiritual resistance. (49-50)
Nordstrand worked with Favel to present Snow Before the Sun in Denver after it had been workshopped at Regina’s Sâkêwêwak Story Telling Festival in March 2004. Favel was planning to study the Denver Art Museum’s collections to inform the performance, and then stage it in the museum. “Favel is an artist hungry for the understanding of history,” Nordstrand writes. “Themes of historic events frequently run through his writings and investigations. He conducts extensive research in order to understand not only the event, but the experiences of the people who lived it and the landscape where the event took place. He absorbs all of this information as part of his creative process” (51). He examined the winter count drawings at the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Those drawings and paintings “showed figures through time, in various periods of wellness and strife,” and Favel wondered how he could incorporate that imagery into his performance (51). But the photograph of Chief Big Foot’s body was the performance’s motivation. “Like many people, Favel was deeply affected by this image of death and brutality,” Nordstrand writes (52).
But Favel also was drawn to the eponymous hero of the 1970s film Billy Jack. An ex-Green Beret and martial arts expert, Billy Jack’s “mixed heritage of white and Cherokee parents motivates him to ‘connect with his roots’ by going to live on an Indian reservation where he has taken up the role of protecting the wild mustangs from being hunted for dog food” (53-54). White Settler violence against students at a nearby school leads Billy to begin a vigilante’s revenge, and he uses his martial arts knowledge to protect the survivors. “As a young person, Favel had seen this film and rather than being disturbed by hot-tempered Billy Jack’s revengeful actions, he connected with the students in the film who suffered racial intolerance from the surrounding local white community,” Nordstrand writes. “Favel had witnessed this same intolerance on his reserve. Favel admired the way Billy Jack stood up to the racists in defense of the Native youth—something that he hadn’t seen in other films or his own community” (54-55). Billy Jack “informed Favel’s rethinking of the story of the Wounded Knee massacre” (55).
Nordstrand describes Favel’s performance at length. Favel is silent throughout, although there is a soundscape, composed by Dene musician Leela Gilday, which “includes sparse dialogue excerpts from the Billy Jack film, and in so doing reinforces the suggested plot” (57). “Favel is not reenacting the event at Wounded Knee, nor is he recreating the plot of the film that influenced him as a young person,” Nordstrand writes. Instead, “Favel compresses time and pieces together an dIndian narrative out of historical memory, fiction, and personal experience” (57). In the performance, “Favel takes the mythological from reality and the imagination to present a deeply moving story where we can find ourselves reflected in the actions” (57).
“Some artists try to create shock through performance; Floyd Favel instead deals with the shock of the images in the photographs as filtered through his performance in order for us to regain a sense of calm,” Nordstrand continues:
He does not respond with words, but instead with movement and sound. He moves through transformative experiences, creating new scenes that allow us to process the killings at Wounded Knee or even the hatred we might have experienced in our own lives. He presents the action and in this way does not implicate the audience, which is made up of people from all cultures, in the event—its racism and violence. (57-58)
“By means of this performance we are given an extended vision of the impact of events like the massacre at Wounded Knee,” she concludes. “We see the afterlife of the fallen victim. We also see the frustration of future generations, but we are presented with the opportunity to consider the demonstration of heroism within the tragedy” (59).
In “The Artifact Piece and Artifact Piece, Revisited,” Lara M. Evans writes about Erica Lord’s reenactment of James Luna’s The Artifact Piece, initially performed at the San Diego Museum of Man in 1987, in which Luna placed himself in a display case with some personal items. “The presence of a live Indian on display punctured the romantic fantasy of the vanishing race,” Evans states. “The Artifact Piece had such impact that it is now one of the most well-known and important performance artworks by a Native American artist” (63). It also helped to change museum display practices (63). The work was “part of a wave of indigenous peoples talking back to the institutions that have represented them to non-indigenous audiences,” showing “the subjects of anthropology” speaking back to “those academic disciplines, patriarchal institutions, and legislative bodies that circumscribe native sovereignty and operate in disregard of existing Native epistemologies” (63-65).
Evans provides a lengthy description of The Artifact Piece, and notes that “[t]he artwork remained effective even without the bodily presence of the artist,” because Luna’s possessions on display functioned independently of his presence, “and the impression of Luna’s body in the sand” in the display case “was an indexical sign of his previous occupation of the space” (66). Erica Lord’s 2008 reenactment “brings the work out of the textual and photo-documentation realm of the recent past and back to the possibilities of the physically present moment” (67). Such reenactments are taking place throughout performance art; in 2005, for instance, Marina Abramovíc reperformed works by Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, and Valie Export, as part of a series entitled Seven Easy Pieces (68-69). (The seventh piece was Abramovíc’s own Lips of Thomas, originally performed in 1975.) Lord’s own art practice “is about issues of gender and hybridity, locale, and the transfer of traditions into new modes and new environments,” and she usually works with photography and multimedia installation (71). She sought Luna’s permission to reperform The Artifact Piece, which she had studied as an undergraduate; that permission was granted, and the work was presented, or re-presented, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
“In the months before the April 2008 performance, I was intrigued by the uncertainties I had about how audiences would react to the work,” Evans recalls. “Would issues of gender trump issues of race? Would criticisms of museum display practices get lost in the mix? Would issues of cultural patrimony and repatriation fall by the wayside compared to the objectification of a young female mixed-race body on display? Would Lord even be seen as Indian?” (71). “To my mind,” she continues, “it seemed clear that while the forms and actions of Lord’s Artifact Piece, Revisited would be very similar to Luna’s original work, Lord’s work could not carry precisely the same meanings because of differences in gender, age, and textual specificity” (72). Evans flew to New York to see Artifact Piece, Revisited. She describes Lord’s reenactment in detail. “Discussion of gender, masculinity, and manliness in relationship to Luna’s The Artifact Piece was nonexistent in the late 1980s,” she writes. “Substituting a female body creates a drastic shift in perception, however. A sense of sexualized voyeurism is inescapable” (81-82). The performance also reminded Evans of wakes and funerals (82). She suggests it reminds her issues of repatriation of human remains and cultural objects (84). “Luna’s original performances of The Artifact Piece humanized and individualized himself as an Indian while also critiquing museum display practices in regard to the ‘other,’” she concludes. “Lord does more than ‘revisit’ the piece; she brings hybridity, sexualized objectification, the trap of beauty, and tribal specificity to the work,” and her reenactment “brings out additional nuances: gender, regionalism, and the fluid interplay between American pop culture and contemporary Native youth culture” (85).
The anthology’s fifth text is James Luna’s “Four Ways: A Performance Script and the Process of Creating a Performance.” “I have maintained over the years that the best way to explain my work is to perform it,” Luna writes, but he hopes that the script of Four Ways will offer some insight “into the themes and the process of developing and performing a performance work” (89). “The beauty of performance art is that there is no wrong or right way to develop and present one’s work, which means the medium is wide open for exploration,” he continues. “I believe the medium of performance art avails itself to Native culture like no other medium, as one can add traditional forms such as storytelling, dance, singing, and certain ceremonial framework as part of the production. There are not rules but skills that artists need to develop, first and foremost of which is their relationship to their audience” (89).The script describes the work, although given the importance of Luna’s presence and the live movement that accompanied the performance, it gives only the bare bones of what took place on the stage. At the end of the text, Luna notes that his process for making art is writing: “not writing in a traditional sense but writing and accumulating short dated notes. Notes on visual ideas, concepts, and technical problems to be resolved for both performance and installation works. There does not seem to be a shortage of ideas but the trick is where to begin, as there is much to do” (100). He describes how Butoh performance has influenced his work, and notes that he looks forward to collaborating with other performers in works he will write and direct. “I now have the luxury of devoting more time to my artwork but sometimes I feel there are not enough hours in the day to get done all I need to do, as there are non-art-related projects to do as well,” Luna concludes. “Life is good” (101).
Tina Majkowski’s “Gypsies, Tramps, Half-Indian, All Queer, and Cher: Kent Monkman Defining Indigeneity Through Indian Simulation and Accumulation,” the anthology’s sixth essay, begins by suggesting that Monkman “appears tired of the overromanticization of the Canadian landscape in his most recent installations” (104). “By strategically redeploying canonical historical images that tell stories of European domination and slash-and-burn of North American indigenous cultures,” she writes, “Monkman works to critique these visual narratives, or, perhaps more so, he labours to question the veritable accuracy of these banal representations of indigenous peoples as noble savages—as ultimately an already vanished, if not dying race” (104). By reinterpreting images of Indigeneity, she continues, “Monkman ultimately interrogates and gives voice to the impact of European colonization on indigenous forms of sexuality and the transmission of homophobia that originated from Christian European imperialism” (104). “[E]ven the seemingly fixed nature of history is always in process, subject to alternative and divergent readings and in need of constant critical vigilance and reinterpretation,” and in that way, “history and performance/art seem more alike than dissimilar given that both happen in space and time as a process, rely on spectatorial interaction, and are always open for reevaluation and revision” (104).
“Monkman is seriously invested in performance and art practices that lend themselves to the creation of a political inquiry into what constitutes ‘the Indian’ in the collective and various national contexts,” Majkowski continues:
On one hand this sort of reinvention is always part and parcel of the artistic process; however, as this theme develops as a prevalent artistic practice among indigenous artists, as a critical and caring audience we are faced with the question of why this inquiry is particularly urgent for the indigenous community and how artistic interventions into the popular visual conception and consumption of the ethnic label “Indian” promote active indigenous communities. (104-05)
“The relationship between political insistence and indigenous performance practices is part of the question of how performance art functions to build and sustain native communities,” Majkowski writes (105).
Monkman—a “queer person of mixed-blood heritage” (105)—faces questions of “messy fractions” and “how to articulate dual identity markers” (105). “For the sake of ideological clarity, where within the field of hybrid racial identity does ‘queer’ fit?” Majkowski asks:
Monkman’s artistic practice guides us in the pursuit of such an answer. . . . [M]aybe, as Monkman’s aesthetic insistence with the singer/actress Cher—his veritable interlocutor—of half-breedness instructs, half-breed is the demarcation of radical alterity that is unconcerned with knowable blood quantum and neat mathematical divisions that half-Cree, half-non-native, and all-queer earnestly defy. Yes, far from an anomaly in what might be a neat, manageable spatial logic of identity and subjectivity, this notion of the half-breed is indebted to the uneven nature of identity. The uneven crossroads of the half-breed is likewise this place of contact and confluence where meanings, identities, and so forth bump up against each other; they intersect and reverberate against and through each other. (106)
“Monkman’s work is ultimately pedagogical in showing us how tinkering with the landscape of the past, of painting Cher into that past—a fitting placement as she is decidedly ageless and timeless—highlights that among the many things that colonial contact altered was an indigenous understanding of gender and sexuality replete with two-spirits and shape-shifters,” Majkowski continues. “Painting such ideas back into the landscape is part of a longing, an anticipation, not for the past but for a radically new future in which Indianness can be seen and felt as a more expansive category of art and racial demarcation” (110).
Majkowski discusses Monkman’s painting Artist and Model, which is “so idyllic and so impeccably painted that at first the audience” at an art exhibition in Brazil “did not register the utter strangeness of the content: an Indian attired in a headdress, pumps, and loincloth standing at an easel painting a white male figure who is tied to a tree, pants at his ankles, held still for the artist with a bevy of arrows” (111). Artist and Model reorients the moment of colonial contact, and his “biting critique” of nineteenth-century North American landscape painting “in regard to the ethnographic gaze upon the Native American is not done from outside the artistic practice of landscape portraiture but, conversely, from within this tradition,” a critique that “serves to sustain the form in an effort to reengage with the content,” offering a criticism “that advocates for working with a questionable object” rather than “a flat disavowal of that object” (112). Another of Monkman’s landscape paintings, Heaven and Earth, gestures “to the impact of colonization on indigenous notions of sexuality with a playful and willful reimagining of who got to top whom in the moment of colonization and conquest” (113). That painting insists on “an indigeneity that is always ripe with a queer potentiality” (113). So too does Portrait of the Artist as Hunter, in which a warrior on horseback is wearing “a red sash and high heels” (115). “This inclusion, or aesthetic accumulation, of the red sash ushers in another modality of Indian regalia instead of highlighting the potential oddity of a feminine male Indian warrior,” Majkowski continues. “Representations and tales of two-spirited native sexuality are not absent within some of our native cosmologies and traditions, but they are sparse on the level of Native American or First Nations landscape portraiture. While this alone would warrant critical attention, it is the particular fashioning of Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, on Cher that commands attention” (115-16).
Here Majkowski shifts to Monkman’s performance work, and she sees Cher as the key to it: “Monkman is invested in playing with the image of Indianness proffered up in relation to Cher’s ‘Half Breed’ persona,” and “he is trying to disrupt this image” (116-17). Monkman “really likes to depict Cher as already playing Indian, which highlights how simulation is used in htis work not as a mimicry of any indigenous realness but as a gesture to the always already simulated fact of Indianness” (117). “Monkman’s delicious rendering of Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle as a simulated scene of Indianness enforces his willful insistence on the legacy of two-spiritism within native cosmologies,” she continues (117). The “‘Half Breed’ persona” Majkowski refers to is related to Chef’s hit song “Half Breed,” which she performed on television wearing Indigenous regalia. Monkman is attracted to this persona in the creation of his performance alter ego, but Majkowski is less interested in why that’s the case than in “how Monkman’s work functions inside native communities and what his work essentially does within art markets” (120).
Monkman’s performance in The Taxonomy of the European Male and its relationship to Cher’s “Half Breed” video “offers us an opportunity to witness the relationship between playing Indian and Native American performance; the relationship between the performance of Indianness, which most generally is the hyperbolic performance of the save or noble Indian à la cowboys and Indians, and the autonomous performance art made by Native Americans” (120-22). “Surely these reference vastly different modalities of performance that evoke different kinds of aesthetics and performance practices, but the dividing line is not as easily located as it might seem,” Majkowski writes. “Monkman’s tricky, evident love of Cher-turned-performance-of-Cher provides another way to think about this relationship” between “coercive mimeticism” in different kinds of performance. “If an identification of the simulacrum of Indianness is the improper identification, as opposed to the perhaps proper identification of traditional Cree or otherwise indigenous art, is Cher a deviant, impure (i.e., non-traditional) influence?” (122). Perhaps, is Majkowski’s answer:
maybe there is an inherent danger in mistaking oneself for a popularly consumed simulation of such a self. Or, more likely, does this very question obscure the fact that one, who better than members of indigenous communities to know how their representation has failed them; and two, that turning away form these ill-fitting and often painful simulations does nothing to rid the native community—artist or otherwise—of them. Might we, then, read Monkman’s work as a biting repetition, indeed a deviant translation, of those often compassionless images of squaws, Land O’Lakes butter tub maidens, wooden cigar-store Indians, and the never-ending panoply of “Tontos” offered up to us in the genre of the western? Such a perspective would indicate how this Native American art practice defiantly translates and accumulates such images into a necessary reminder that they present the indigenous community with an uncanny image of itself. (122-23)
For Majkowski, “Monkman’s work explicates the ebb and flow, the relationship, the choreography if you will between the performative nature of Indianness and the work of Native American artists. I like to think of this choreographic event as something of an aesthetic waver” (123). “To waver is to oscillate, to shuttle between, to reverberate and often in the process to allow for something radically new and even perhaps unexpected,” she concludes. “The waver between Monkman’s alter ego Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle and Cher’s ‘Half Breed’ persona is ripe with the potential to make a space between the Indian-as-simulation and lived experience,” and “it might be in this vibration that a new Indianness emerges at the nexus of indigeneity and queerness,” or perhaps even “an Indianness that is always already queer; or more so a queer identity that weaves within and through histories of racial formation, colonialism, and nationalism, and as such is positioned as a queerness that is not only invested in dissident and non-normative sexualities but anti-normative formations in general” (123).
Greg A. Hill is a multidisciplinary artist and a curator. His “Performing as Someone Else and the Pied Piper Effect,” the anthology’s seventh text, discusses Hill’s recent art work. “I will look at several performances as examples of different ways the presence, deployment, documenting/archiving function, and autonomy of the camera affected the performance and/or the audience,” Hill writes (129-30). In performance art, Hill contends, “”[t]he ‘space’ of the performance is a creative zone that has fluid boundaries” that are “multilayered and overlapping, as they are defined by spatial, temporal, cultural, and personal norms” (130). Performing as someone else, as a character, he continues, involves “a release from the rules—through the character or anonymity of the assumed persona—or even freedom from personal inhibitions that constrain us in ways we may have learned to accommodate and also those we might not expect or that take us by surprise” (130). Adopting a persona, he writes, “enables me to explore the personality—real or imagined—of the character necessary to the performance” (130). The “Pied Piper Effect” he refers to in the title of his essay “is something that has occurred during several of my performances,” he writes, “where the spectacle of doing something odd—something outside of the expected norm, in public space—leads to people following you, curious to see what is going on. It is interesting to think about the desire: is it curiosity or spectacle that draws people, or something else?” (130). “The effect, however, is that an audience materializes where there was none,” he suggests, and the cameras ironically draw in the audience for the live event (130-31).
Is the camera merely a tool for documentation, or do artists perform for the camera? “A particular performance, or a performer’s entire practice, may in large part be about the performer’s relationship with the audience,” Hill writes. “How is this relationship impacted by the presence of cameras; and further, should or can the performer interact with one or the other or both? I think of the camera as another kind of spectator,” one that “represents all future viewers of the recorded live event. However, the camera is really a record of one viewer’s experience that is then shared with others” (131). Recording a performance with multiple cameras and editing the results together into a single record “would still be a mediated experience of the live performance. It would reflect the personal and professional choices of the camera operator(s) as well as those decisions made during the editing process” (131). For Hill, both the live and mediated audiences need to be considered: “How can the unpredictability of a public audience impact the performance? How does the presence of a camera affect the live audience, their relationship to the performer, and the performer’s interaction with them? What happens when the cameras documenting a performance become part of the performance?” (131). In addition, what happens when documentation becomes an art object?
In his 2005 performance Portaging Rideau, Paddling the Ottawa to Kanata, Hill writes, “the presence of the camera . . . was a major factor in the performance” (132). Multiple video crews and still photographers documented the performance. The objects in that performance came from a project “about making—or trying to make—‘traditional’ objects as an urban Kanyen’kehaka (Mohawk) person,” Hill continues (132). He used materials available to him in the city: cereal-box cardboard instead of birch bark, for instance. “The performance that day was about me meeting the challenge, the constant question that arises whenever the canoe is exhibited, about whether or not it actually floats,” he writes. “I had, at every occasion, strongly asserted its floatability and finally I wanted to put that question to rest” (132). “A canoe made out of a material such as cereal-box cardboard is a challenge to what is expected,” he continues. “The material is unproven and quickly dismissed as improbably, and it is reasonable to ask the question: is a canoe that does not float still a canoe?” (132).
Hill portaged the canoe from the Ottawa Art Gallery, where it was on exhibit, through the Rideau Centre and to the Ottawa River, where he got in and paddled around. During the portage, some 100 people followed Hill; he presumes that they might have figured out where he was going and what he was planning to do when they saw him carrying the canoe, but that more likely, the “multiple video crews and still photographers” tipped them off, thereby becoming “a major factor in the performance itself” (133). “In the different videos, the groups keep crossing into each other’s views,” he notes. “At times, you can see a fuzzy boom microphone in several of the shots” (133-34). No matter what clued his audience in to what was about to happen, Hill suggests that they were just waiting for him to sink: “Fortunately, it didn’t happen. I was able to paddle the canoe, that is until the cardboard started to get soggy. My foot made a hole and I ended up having to carry it to a point where I could cross the river over to ‘Victory’ Island where I planted a Kanata flag, ending the performance” (134).
The Kanata flag to which Hill refers is a new flag he designed for Canada. “There were several performances based on this concept that took place at different times in different cities,” he recalls. “In one performance, Kanata Flag Day (Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 2001), I posed as a news reporter and showed visitors to Parliament Hill what I told them was a new flag design for ‘Canada’ to go along with a name change for our country from ‘Canada’ to ‘Kanata’” (134-35). He exhibited video, letters to and from the Prime Minister’s Office, and “a full range of Kanata products” several times over the following years (136). Another performance, Anything to Declare?, “operated from the premise that the two gallery spaces”—a space in the lobby of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and another gallery at the University of Winnipeg—“constituted ‘micro-nations’” (136). “I conceived of these galleries as tiny countries, with all the heraldry and insignia befitting a modern nation-state,” Hill continues, and to enter them visitors “had to pass through Kanata Customs” (138). During the performances, Hill wore his father’s customs officer uniform and greeted each visitor in Kanyen’keha (Mohawk), English, and French (138).
Hill’s 2005 performance in Winnipeg, Kanata Day March, was a community march from the Urban Shaman gallery to the Forks. “We had a video crew and gallery staff documenting the march,” he remembers. “This created both a sense of spectacle and a set of protective eyes and ears for all the marchers. I was a little concerned that we would run into some overzealous Canada Day celebrants who might take issue with our non-Canadian celebration” (139). There was no tension until they reached the Forks, where they were asked what they were up to. “We continued through the Canada Day revelers to our destination at the center of the park where an Aboriginal-run celebration was taking place,” Hill continues. “There, we were able to set up flags and hand out Kanata items to an engaged audience and were even invited to join in the dances and activities underway” (139). According to Hill, the event “was a great deal of fun, and some of the participants got very into the performance. It was amazing to see their willingness to take on this kind of subversion of the official day of Canada. There were times I had denied the political nature of the work . . . but of course it is political when you take a national symbol like a flag and alter it” (139-41). “The television production spanned several performances to provide a larger context for the Kanata work,” Hill writes. “The television production created another level of documentation of my performance practice,” even as the cameras sometimes became part of the performance themselves (141).
Hill’s 2001 performance Joe Scouting For Cigar Store Lasagna was documented by a live webcast, still photos, and video. In the performance, Hill took on the persona of Joseph Brant, a well-known Mohawk leader from the time of the American Revolution. Brant is “a contested figure from a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) perspective and therefore a rich persona to explore” (143). “The purpose of this performance was to rejoin the scout”—the statue of the Anishinaabe scout that had crouched below the statue of Samuel de Champlain in Ottawa until it was removed for political reasons—“to its original location at the base of the Champlain monument. The performance sought to address this erasure of historical and contemporary context and bring these issues back into the public eye” (143-44). The performance was documented by five cameras, and local media showed up, turning the documentation of the event into an event in its own right (144).
Finally, Hill’s 2001 performance Real Live Bronze Indian addressed the scout statue as well. He built a monument base from architectural stone and “re-created the rest of the monument through slides and a video projection” (144). For the performance, he writes, “I got on the platform and did this performance where I inhabited the persona of the Anishinabe scout. I was thinking about what it might be like to be a bronze statue—frozen in place and having people come and sit on me and post for their souvenir tourist photos. I thought of myself cemented in that position but having a voice” (144). He called on audience members to come and have their photographs taken with him. “The viewers became part of the performance; in particular, they were performing as tourists for the camera as they might do with an actual statue,” he recalls. “However, in this instance the agency resided in the statue. The statue’s desire for tourist photos—photos of tourists, that is—provided the ironic twist” (146).
Hill notes that cameras can play multiple roles in his performances. “Performance artists have different views on the evidentiary role of the camera,” he writes. “I consider documentation important. It is a necessary means of creating a record of the event as part of an ongoing art practice, but I believe it is also important to create these records and have them available so that they can contribute to a body of work that will (hopefully) become part of an Indigenous art history” (146). He feels a sense of responsibility “to place ideas, objects, and actions in the public domain,” and hopes that they “will become part of a vibrant and critical discourse on and within Indigenous art” (146). He also notes that cameras are now ubiquitous and people document their own lives constantly. “That the camera and performance art have a long and inextricable history is perhaps a moot point,” he concludes; “more vital is the intersection between the camera and Aboriginal performance art, where this relatively new, lens-based medium is enmeshed with a performance practice that has ancestral roots in ceremony and ritual” (146-47).
The book’s final text is Tavia Nyong’o’s lengthy essay, “Out of the Archive: Performing Minority Embodiment.” The adoption of performance art by Indigenous and minority artists, he writes, “carries with it a number of ironies” (149-50):
What difference is there between the unmarked status toward which live art aspires, according to Peggy Phelan’s influential claim that performance “becomes itself through disappearance,” and the fate of invisibility to which racial and indigenous populations are so often consigned? What “other histories” of “coerced mimesis” might be omitted from Eurocentric narratives of performance art that consider it to have arisen only in the wake of the 1960s, and only in response to specific pressures related to the development and criticism of modernism and postmodernism? And what of the enduring importance of cultural memory to the dispossessed and devastated, for whom the melancholic attachment of live performance to an evanescent present may only preempt opportunities for a more thoroughgoing mourning of the past or a more pertinent engagement with the politics of the present? (150)
“These questions reverberate in much contemporary minoritarian performance art,” he states, citing Mūmbi Kaigwa’s They Call Me Wanjiku as an example (150). That work “touched upon the displacement of original language and culture buy the Christianizing and colonizing process in Africa and centered on a feminist meditation upon the loss and recovery of matrilineage as a dynamic cultural principle” (150). In They Call Me Wanjiku, “the registers of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ meet and overlap,” and “[i]t is perhaps because of this intertwining that, unlike the project of decolonizing minds (at the center of which is the reclamation of native languages for literatures), decolonizing the body lacks a defined process or direction” (150-51). “Performing identity in the flesh,” Nyong’o continues, “produces a different order of temporality than does the establishment of national or ethnic literatures. For this reason, it renders the ‘archive’ as a collective repository of knowledge less an automatic solution than a vexed question” (151). “How is the indigenous body to recover from acts of erasure, misunderstanding, and territorial dispersion of the body itself is not ever, except in fantasy, capable of the full and stable self-representation that the recording and preserving function of the archive expects of its privileged objects?” he asks (151). Answering that question, he continues, might involve Michel Foucault’s “principle of enunciability, shaping what can be known, shown, thought, or said” (151).
“These questions,” Nyong’o writes, “should resonate within the field of Native American performance art and scholarship” (151). He suggests that race, sexuality, and gender should be considered as “unstable assemblages of revolving and devolving energies,” citing Jasbir Puar, rather than “intersectional coordinates” (qtd. 151). “There is a growing interest in investigating the categories of ‘woman,’ ‘native,’ and ‘other’ as precisely such unstable assemblages, and not essences, that operate unexpectedly to link and relay otherwise dispersed experiences,” he continues (151). The “instructive metaphor” in postcolonial space and time, he suggests, “is less convergence than it is justaposition,” and his focus in this essay, he states, is on “a complexly spatial and temporal predicament into which successive waves of conquest, empire, colonization, and now globalization have thrust racialized and nativized communities” (152-53). His hope is that this discussion will be useful “to the artists who struggle to embody and rearticulate those experiences against the amnesiac imperatives of much of contemporary society” (153).
Nyong’o suggests that juxtaposing They Call Me Wanjiku with James Luna’s The Artifact Piece “illuminates the drama of interpellation,” an Althusserian term which, for Nyong’o, appears to mean “the reclamation of names, cultures, and identities,” even though such reclamations “can no longer be a straightforward, singular event—much less a dramatic rupture with the institutional structures of empire” (154). “Between the kinship matrix and its postmodern rearticulation there emerges a kind of indwelling, immanent, and performed critique of the symbolic order that calls out o[u]r names and fixes us in our place,” he states (154). In The Artifact Place, “[t]he gap between what visitors initially took Luna to be and the breathing, listening ‘specimen’ they were confronted with was held open by the playful display cards they were invited to peer in to read” (154-55). He suggests that Rey Chow’s notion of “coercive mimeticism” helps us think about “the conditions placed upon native and black performance art” (157). “It also offers a small history of modernity, within which overlapping categories like native, primitive, and indigene figure as emblems of a project to interpellate and dominate the non-white world,” he writes (157). “Coercive mimeticism” is “an indispensable theoretical tool for fleshing out the complexities faced by performers engaged with embodying themselves, their names, and their histories in museums, galleries, and beyond” (157).
Although mimesis may be associated “with an outmoded approach to culture,” the “fraught terrain between ‘representation’ and ‘imitation’ that it so explicitly navigates remains at issue, often as the issue, for a range of aesthetic and political strategies of minority and indigenous artists” (158). “Performance art’s promise to deliver the presence of the body without the burdens of representation that bedevil prior art forms like painting, photography, and sculpture . . . has been less a point of departure for indigenous and racialized performance artists than a bone of contention,” Nyong’o writes. “Insofar as the body upon which art is performed, for these artists in particular, is interpellated in the social and symbolic order as a site of difference, otherness, and exotic expectation, it necessarily carries with it a history and, in a manner of speaking, an archive” (158). So, if performance wants “to abandon the admittedly crude concept of imitation for the subtler range of meaning conveyed by repetition, restoration, reenactment, even repertoire, that repressed term, ‘imitation,’ tends to return as a symptom in any discourse that adjudicates the ethical or political efficacy of ethnoracial and/or indigenous performance art” (158).
The term “coercive mimeticism” helps to explain why “[w]ork that fails to meet those ethical or political standards can be cast off as ‘imitative’ of a (white) avant-garde or critical practice,” Nyong’o suggests. Chow sees mimesis in a three-part sequence. The first level, according to Nyong’o, is the simplest, “but also the level at which the colonizing and racializing project is exposed in its starkest form. At this level, the white male is the only true and original subject, and the Indian, native, or colonial other is always construed as attempting but failing to reproduce this image” (158-59). The second level of mimeticism, he continues, “retains this dualistic structure of colonizer and colonized,” but “shifts the focus to what the subject undergoes through her or his attempts at mimetic whiteness,” with failure “redefined as a productive ambiguity and uncertainty that ultimately reflects back on the supposedly stable subject of whiteness, distorted in the fracturing mirror of the ‘not quite white’” (160). A third development of mimeticism “in our present era of globalization characterized by an increasingly officious multiculturalism” is the level where “the ethnoracialized or indigenous subject is officially relieved of the burden of imitating whiteness, only to have the emphasis shift to the demand that he or she represent otherness. Be Asian! Be native! Be black! these are the commands that bind the subject coercively, not to what she is not, as was the case with colonial mimesis, but to what she is” (162). “The irony of coercive mimeticism is that to perform who you are, to represent the traditions, cultures, and language of one’s people, is to be everything that the avant-garde, cosmopolitan, iconoclastic performance artist is not,” Nyong’o writes. “It bifurcates the public’s understanding of native and minority performance into either authentic cultural performances or derivative imitations of a Eurocentric avant-garde,” a “direct mimetic imperative to represent otherness” that “endures despite repeated critiques” (162).
“Elaborating Chow’s account of coercive mimeticism across the terrain of contemporary performance art, we can see how it situates the indigenous and/or ethnoracialized artist in a double bind,” Nyong’o continues. “On the one hand, to accede to the command and to be what you already are—the authentic racial self uncolonized by the white world—is in effect to accede to the exoticist gaze of the tourist eager to consume the spectacle of otherness” (163). However, to refuse “any relation between identity and performance would be difficult for an artist in any medium,” but particularly hard for artists whose bodies “remain so defiantly, obstinately present” in their work (163). Chow’s historical approach situates coercive mimeticism “within an archive of embodied articulations and enunciations of subjectivity. If the tactic of so much minoritarian performance art is to somehow name and make visible this archive and thereby move the body outside or beyond it, then Chow’s concept of coercive mimeticism is useful for evaluating the efficacy of such tactics within the constantly shifting strategies of cultural dominance” (164-65). On the other hand, “an attention to the aesthetics and phenomenology of performance qualifies some of the more absolute characterizations of coercive mimeticism”: “the compulsion to perform the truth of your ethnic self . . . is not a self-evident reality but an ideal that . . . must be constantly and anxiously cited in order to maintain itself as a stabilizing fiction” (165).
Chow’s work doesn’t “deny the possibility of authentic difference within a global economy” (165). Rather, “it works to show how the possibility of difference transforms into an imperative, and with what consequences” (165). “In the fetishistic logic of coercive mimeticism, the ethnic other can never be different enough,” Nyong’o writes. “Or rather, since in fact even a relatively perfunctory display of otherness is sometimes acceptable to a distracted audience, its fetish is that there always be more difference to be revealed, displayed, and consumed” (165). For Nyong’o, two examples of this “mimetic imperative” are Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons (1982-1984) and The Golden Age (2008) by performance collective My Barbarian (165-66). “Visual art works together with performance to interrupt the logics of coercive mimeticism, leading many artists to work multidisciplinarily,” as in Erica Lord’s Tanning series, which uses “photographic, digital, physiological, and theatrical techniques of disguise and display to foil the taxonomic logic that seeks to fix the body as either/or” (166). This work exposes “the coercive nature of interpellation by imprinting it directly on the body. Such acts of ‘impression’ present the body as archive. From the neutral or descriptive to the pejorative, these photographs document less the ‘truth’ of the bodies captured by the camera than the ‘fictions’ that are lived as routine and unquestioned realities” (167). “In refusing to provide evidence to placate the voyeuristic hunger of coercive mimeticism,” Nyong’o writes, Lord’s series offers “a testimony that offers a way out of its archive” (167).
In his conclusion, Nyong’o turns to Foucault’s way of thinking about the archive as “‘the system of its enunciability’” (qtd. 167), as “both embodiment and the event,” even as performance (167). What does Foucault intend in locating the archive “not in institutions or documents, but at the root of statements and events and in the performances that embody them?” Nyong’o asks:
What he intends, I believe, is that we abandon the positivist distinction between what we can know and how we come to know it. That is to say, he proposes that we abandon the assumption that discourse is a transparent layer over reality and begin to confront its thickness, its layers and folds, its ruptures, and especially its frayed edges, that is to say, its silences. He invites us to imagine how discourse speaks the body in its division from the flesh. (167-70)
According to Nyong’o, Foucault’s approach to the archive “is the inverse of the normative imperative of the historical discipline, which is to use the former to reveal the latter ever more fully and legibly to us, to restore the past, in some manner, to itself” (170). In contrast, Foucault’s proposal for a genealogy of the body would “estrange the past from itself” (170). I don’t understand Nyong’o’s point, but it’s been ages since I attempted to read Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, which I’ve always found extraordinarily boring compared to his other work. In any case, Nyong’o continues:
After Foucault, we can no longer retreat to the quaint vision of the past as an exotic locale to which one might pay a visit. His work insists that encountering the past is not a beneficent cross-cultural exchange, but a disorienting confrontation with the historicity of categories we routinely experience as natural. It is an encounter that furthermore gives knowledge, not of an empirical other, but of a shifting discursive grid. (170)
The archive “tells us what we can no longer say,” he states, quoting Alex Scott (170).
“Performance studies has been among the fields that have taken up and creatively used Foucault’s reconceptualization of the archive as an active, ordering principle rather than a passive, empirical resource,” Nyong’o continues:
While it is common in performance circles to claim that the body takes over at the point discourse ends, I would suggest that the silence of discourse is not yet the perpetuation of performance. If performance remains in and through the body, it is a body that, as Foucault argued, is already “totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.” The image of history’s destruction of the body should not, however, be taken as justifying the disciplinary priority of history over performance. If we follow Foucault’s definition of the archive as a system of enunciability, of an ordering of the relation of the body to speech, then what the image returns us to is the life of the body in performance. If the process of the imprinting and destruction of the body is not taken as the melancholic victory of time over the body’s liveliness, but rather as witness to the constellation of forces brought to immense tension in the present, then it might provide a slant view upon a principle by which the archive is undone. (170-71)
Nyong’o suggests that two principles of the Foucauldian archive need “to be kept constantly in mind”: the archive is both “the law of what can be said and the principle that ensures that the accumulation of what is said can never order itself into an efficient or total system” (171):
That is, while it is certainly true that the archive operates as a principle of social authority, its power is not unidirectional, transparent, or stably reproducible over time. It does not even . . . stably reproduce the fiction of its stability over time. It has so frequently served as a site of tactical minoritarian intervention, for example in the interventions of the curator and artist Fred Wilson, because its official edifice so quickly crumbles when its elisions and contradictions are probed. By insisting upon a distribution of archival power across society, rather than restricting it to the specific institutions and objects that constitute what we ordinarily think of as the archive, Foucault both extends and qualifies its influence. (171)
“And by making it possible for what it actively produces, and not simply what it passively retains against the erosions of time,” Nyong’o writes, Foucault “helps articulate what is at stake for artists and scholars seeking its reformation” (171).
“The fragmentary, layered, and discontinuous nature of the archive poses a specific challenge and opportunity to the perpetuation of performance,” Nyong’o continues. Because the archive is unstable over time, “it undermines the oft-valorized evanescence of performance. If everything dissolves, especially immutable concepts, then what does the special disappearance of performance consist of?” he asks (171-72). Documenting or reenacting performance “presents as many problems as it solves if it does not confront the survival of positivist conceptions of the archive seeking to reclaim the terrain it prematurely abandoned to discourses of the live” (172).
Nyong’o also suggests that Giorgio Agamben’s theory of testimony, developed in response to Foucault’s archive, might help to explain what it means to embody “culture’s vestibule,” an experience that “[r]acial, indigenous, and female subjects” know well (172). “If the archive is an historical repository of systems of enunciability,” Nyong’o writes,
then testimony, Agamben argues, acts as a witness to what cannot be said. It is to the unspeakable, rather than the speakable, in other words, that testimony must address itself. In so doing, it produces an outside to the archive, not in the realm of reality, but in potentiality. Testimony speaks, as the late African philosopher Emmanuel Eze puts it, to “this past [which] must address its future.” It does so not by supplying its evidences, not by restoring the past to itself, but by estranging the past from itself in positing a subject of enunciation suspended between life and the language, between body and the flesh. (172)
“For racialized and/or indigenous artists, the challenge posed by the archive is at least threefold,” Nyong’o continues:
First, there is the strongly articulated demand to counter the dominant narrative through the construction of stable institutions, artistic genealogies, and collections that define alternative histories “on our terms.” Second, there is the fraught question of how artists, individually or collectively, will respond to the governing statements of the majoritarian archive, through their own work. And third, there is the temptation to mark the archive as solely a site of trauma, loss, and melancholia. These three challenges serve to regulate a great deal of artistic production. But when embodied performance can testify to that which is not yet speakable, to a future grounded in an unrealized potential, then performing the archive need not be limited to the past as it was. It points to the performing body as a virtual archive of what might have been. (172-73)
At this point, Nyong’o suddenly shifts direction to discuss the work of Kalup Linzy. The connection between Linzy’s video, installation, and performance work, on the one hand, and embodied performance as testimony, is not clear. It’s almost as if a paragraph has been left out during the editing of Nyong’o’s essay. I recallibrate. I move on. Nyong’o suggests that Erica Lord’s Artifact Piece, Revisited witnesses a prior work by substituting her body for Luna’s. Artifact Piece, Revisited “neither documented nor preserved the original so much as it testified to the impossibility of doing better,” he suggests (174-75):
In the palimpsest of history that the now in-the-know visitor brings the the piece (unlike the original, the reenactment occurred in a dramatically lit setting in which it was unlikely that even the casual visitor could have stumbled upon the performance supposing it to be an ordinary ethnographic diorama), the particularity of the present is joined to the past in what Walter Benjamin called a dialectical image, bringing history as ordinarily perceived to a standstill. (175)
“To come out of the archive is to emerge into its antechamber, or vestibule,” Nyong’o writes, “which is a place ‘saturated with tensions’; that is to say, a place redoubled with the potentiality of the virtual” (176).
“Performance art cannot of course unilaterally alter the conditions of coercive mimeticism,” Nyong’o concludes. “As a discourse, it conditions what can be said, shown, and performed of native and minoritarian lives, desires, and struggles” (176). The power of performance “lies at the boundary of our present language, in what cannot yet be spoken” (176). For Nyong’o, thinking of performance art in this way, “as condensing past and present into an explosive ‘now’ that presages a future that cannot yet be given words, is a much more promising method than the always burdensome expectation that artists preserve or transmit their culture against the ravages of time and the dilutions of cross-cultural contact” (176). “Even better,” he states, “it gives performance exciting new vocations within the political field, ones for which more collaborations and experiments are urgently needed” (176).
Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art is a useful discussion of contemporary Indigenous performance. It also fleshes out some of what I’ve read about performance art as part of this project. And Nyong’o’s essay encourages me to return to Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge and try to find something interesting there—as well as to read Giorgio Agamben, since the notion of testimony has been recurring throughout my reading over the past year, and it might be time to grapple with that term. I wonder if there’s a bluffer’s guide that might point to the parts of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge that would be useful? Or if I would have to make one for myself by generating another one of these summaries? I hope it’s the former; I fear it’s the latter.
Blomberg, Nancy J., ed. Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art, Denver Art Museum, 2010.