Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Towards Anti-Disciplinarity: The (Messy) Hermeneutics of Self-Violent Performance Art

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Towards Anti-Disciplinarity: The (Messy) Hermeneutics of Self-Violent Performance Art

Article excerpt


Co-curated with Sandrine Schaefer, the work featured in LONG-TERM investigated collaborative practices of various artist duos who create extended duration performance. Unfolding over two days (12-13 April 2014) the event addressed the complexities involved in creating, balancing, and evolving a shared creative process.

Presenting Artists:

Duorama * (Paul Couillard and Ed Johnson)

JV (Jeff Huckleberry and Vela Phelan)

Miller and Shellabarger (Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger)

ROOMS (Marrakesh Frugia and Todd Frugia)

VestAndPage * (Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes)

* Co-presented with FADO Performance Art Centre.

They need broken glass. And lots of it. At first, I don't give it much thought. Anyone who has organized performance art events knows that gathering strange materials is an integral part of the job. I add glass to the list, right after "bags of soil," "wood to make a coffin," and "a human-sized rolling cart." It's not until the middle of their performance that I begin to question how I will know.

Because it's hard to tell from here ... how much blood is too much?

Academic scholarship has offered interesting and insightful studies of performance art work variously called "masochistic" (O'Dell), "wounding" (Jones), and acts of "pain and aggression" (Graver). Each of these terms is troubling to me, whether in its implication of sexual pleasure, the need to be "healed," or the assumption of sensation/intention on the part of the artist. Performance art wherein the artist enacts physical violence on themself is as varied and nuanced as the number of artists who perform it. (2) These studies have tended to focus on the relationship between performer and audience, and the meaning making that might be specific to these types of events (see Jones; O'Dell; Graver).

As a curator and creator of self-violent performance art, I have begun to question my own frameworks for making and thinking these works. What follows is an attempt to denaturalize some of the common hermeneutics used in understanding self-violent pieces. In exploring the politics of interpretation, I propose anti-disciplinarity as a way to start thinking new modes of writing, making, and teaching performance.

Andrea Pagnes, one half of the performance art duo Vest And Page who are performing as part of L&P's LONG-TERM event, is blindfolded and seated at a small table. He's working with a lit candle and writing with a long feather plume, inked in his own blood. Verena Stenke, his partner, is across the room: falling flat as a plank, straight down towards the floor, catching herself each time at the last moment ... her nose, just inches from the hard wood. Andrea is in the mound of broken glass, now. He holds larger mirror pieces across his shoulders and chest, like wings. He walks across the glass and the sound is visceral. The glass cracks and pops under his footsteps, his red blood streaking across the translucent slivers and shards.

During the two-hour performance, I see and feel audience members cringing. It's obvious that some are concerned about the fire-blindfold combination (they tell me as much later), and others are frozen by the blood. It's not till Andrea begins wrapping Verena, body-to-body, with fishing line that I, myself, become nervous. They're wearing masks that have been cast from their own faces. Watching their precarious struggle to stay upright, balancing their platform boots on spilled bells and glass, I begin to wonder ... will I know if Verena is choking? Will Andrea be able to tell through his mask?

In Discipline & Punishment, Michel Foucault illuminates the ways in which "disciplinary society" regulates the behaviour of individuals through the organization of space, time, and behaviour, enforcing this regulation through systems of surveillance. This management of bodies also occurs through pedagogical structures: "disciplines" in the academy or arts tend toward organizing epistemologies so as to control and distribute power in asymmetrical ways (read: colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal, ableist, classist, ageist, etc. …

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