Performance Art for Everyone! Or, Why You Don't Have to Care About the Cremaster Cycle

A few weeks ago I found myself talking to another HuffPost arts blogger about the difficulty of writing about art you're passionate about without proselytizing, or worse, telling people what they should care about. After all, art is a luxury on the list of things we care about, and we're told what to care about on an hourly basis these days. We can't possibly care about it all without being driven into paralysis. A true candy convention--an art experience that matters immediately and deeply--shouldn't need advertising anyway, just directions about how to get there.

Performance at its most basic is about the relationship between performer and audience: a person is present in your space--not making easy fourth-wall-up dramatic theater for you, but rather trying to get you to think differently and challenging your sense of what art is and how you're supposed to involve yourself with it. And, frankly, there are a lot of different reasons to care about performance, many of which you've heard before: how the art market is corrupted (which is sort of a redundant accusation if you think about it), so that we need to search out work that manages to avoid its trappings, which performance comes closest to doing; how with The Internet we're living in more and more of a simulacra of life and need to be reminded of human presence around and in us. There's the fact that performance wakes us up, and that when Improv is Everywhere organizes a pantsless subway ride, or when a Maria Abramovich disciple forces you to rub against his or her naked body to enter a gallery space--we have to perform too. And ultimately it's the liveness that matters--what Peggy Phelan has articulated as the possibility that both the performer and the spectator can be changed by the performance--that might matter the most. It's not just that you're there together; it's that we can manipulate one another. But all performances are different, and generalizing about the field has resulted in some vague (at best) or pretentious (at worst) explanations about why you should care.

It's enough that we do still care. Performance art has been officially confirmed a branch of established art, if Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim and MoMA's Maria Abramovic's retrospective at MoMA, the first for any performance audience, are any indication that performance matters to institutions, for better or worse. And maybe you don't care about performance as a movement. But this fall, there are plenty of performances you will care about.

And luckily, I haven't had much time to write about--or even think about--why we should care. After a couple of years writing for a general public, I'm back in graduate school writing about art for an academic audience, where the director of graduate studies has recently told me I'm too caught up in current art discussions, and where I should write about dead artists. (I immediately thought about a performance piece wherein an academic art scholar hunts down and kills artists she wants to write definitively about.)

But this fall there's more, and arguably stronger, performance than ever before in a Chicago arts season. There's been a huge proliferation of performance globally and even (especially) in Chicago, as we find ourselves in public performative positions more and more. Our lives have dovetailed with what was originally the weirdest, most challenging art form possible--sometimes I try to wrap my head around that one and fail, but I don't fail to care. Performance is not going away, because our lives are weird interactive experiences of performing different personae in media we never thought we'd use to express our subjectivity. Because these media take away the liveness and immediacy that reminds us we have a life outside of these platforms.

But performance emerged as an art that's resistant to being written about, that in some sense is resistant of authorship itself. To the extent that I want to make declarations about it, I will stand by my near-religious beliefs that:

1) Performance that matters opens up rather than closes down the potential for performance (which is why I include Arlene Malinowski's one-woman show, which is really technically a theater piece).

2) Audience has to matter for performance to matter. In other words, your presence is important. Your real, physical, reactive presence.

3) The best performance, at the risk of sounding schmaltzy, makes us feel human again.

This is why you didn't have to care about Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle at the Music Box. Barney is the definition of an it-boy artist and filmmaker, and his cycle of films involves Goodyear Blimps and satyrs, gothic Western film, magicians and the Chrysler building. It's sexy and self-indulgent; it's at best America itself. It's great art. But it's not performance that matters.

I've said enough for me to get kicked out of academia already. So instead of expounding even more, I present directions to performances in Chicago this fall that are richly provocative and often impossible to expound upon, so I'll let myself off with a paragraph of preview each:

1) Arlene Malinowski's solo show Aiming for Sainthood at Victory Gardens, a multi-character examination about Malinowski's hilarious, heartbreaking life growing up as a hearing person with deaf parents. This is theater, no doubt about it, but it satisfies the needs of performance with an intimacy between performer and audience that Malinowski compares only to the best part of falling in love and telling one another about our stories. Her show only runs for a week, so go while you can to get a dose of humanity this fall.

2) Chris Sullivan is perhaps my greatest performance discovery of 2010. A professor of animation at SAIC, he's also one of the funniest, darkest performers I've ever seen. Two pieces, Mark the Encounter though Rhino Fest last winter and Aggression Therapy this summer, imagined a diabolical, vulnerable therapist and the potential for creative absurdity in the therapy industry's "medically prostituted intimacy." Sullivan will be performing October 23rd at the Nightingale at 7 and 9 pm. If you only see one performance piece this fall, it should be this one.

3) Under new chief curator Michael Darling, the MCA is presenting a candy convention of performance all year, which I'm going to lump together unfairly. From Redmoon's comic-book-projection spectacle The Astronaut's Birthday to the MCA's new global stage series, their season this year includes Butoh dance and Napoleonic battle scenes. The two absolutely not-to-miss shows are edgy European theater company Superamas' show EMPIRE, combining a meta-theater piece about Napoleonic war, a film festival premiere, and a pseudo-documentary about Afghanistan; and El Gallo: opera for actors, about an audition and rehearsal for an opera in an invented language, with absurdity and sublimity that's perhaps our own experience of opera exaggerated. (I'll be writing longer previews of these for New City next week). In February the MCA will also be featuring Chicago's Every House Has a Door, perhaps the most exciting performance group in Chicago since Goat Island folded (and it's in large part a reincarnation of their members)

4) The DIALogue series at Links Hall, the soldiers of performance in Chicago and one of the few consistent venues for emerging performance art. Every Monday from now until late November, Links Hall artistic associate Dexter Bullard organizes improvised phone calls between two well-known Chicago performers from the performance, improv, and theater scenes in Chicago, while the audience listens in on headphones and a guest artist mixes a soundtrack. It's the inventive antidote to the staleness that a season of overly controlled theater can bring on.

At the risk of sounding ingenuous, what's great about shows like these is that you don't have to care the way theater asks you do. Performance just asks you to react. It can, like Aiming for Sainthood, remind you that you're a person in a room with other people. It can break down the artifice and conventions of theater like the two shows at the MCA this fall that I've highlighted. At at its very best, it's edgy and daring and weird and funny the way that Chris Sullivan's pieces and the DIALogue series are.

As a final thought, it's lovely as a writer to be able to preview a show rather than passing judgment on it as a review. There's something still to be written about making critics human again that I think is tied to what performance art at its best can do, but I have to get back to my academic writing. See you when I come up for air in December.