Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Hidden Performances Everywhere

Conceptual/Performance Artist (is there any other kind?) Adrian Piper writes about “Hidden Performances,” about herself as a self-conscious art object. At least, I thought she had. Since studying her at NYU, I have always had the term “hidden performance” in my head, but upon returning to the text that I have been drawing from, she doesn’t ever actually use the words “hidden performance,” but “catalysis” to describe a whole range of performances that she has been engaged in. It’s a tired writer’s device to define a word in your text, except when it is an unusual word that is being used slightly out of context. Then, since the person writing the article (me) had to look up the word just to make sure that it meant what she thought it meant and was being used in the usual way, it seems appropriate. Or maybe it shows my ignorance. But I will take that chance. Catalysis is defined as “the action of a catalyst, especially an increase in the rate of a chemical reaction.”

I had also harbored the belief for a little while at least, that Piper had not necessarily intended for people to stare, to interact with her, but was just trying to see if they would. Upon revisiting at least a few of her writings in this regard, I think I had somehow come to a wrong conclusion. She did, in fact, in keeping with the nature of catalysis and of changing people, desire some sort of reaction, a kind of provocation.

In that spirit, allow me, please, to digreess with some “hidden performances,” some acts of catalysis, both of my own and of others.

I have taken to walking around town in bunny ears, lately, a kind of hidden performance, not necessarily trying to provoke or be provocative, and sometimes I even forget that I have them on, except today it is windy and I am waiting for a bus, writing this at a bus bench hunched over a notebook with the bunny ears alternately falling in my face of in the opposite direction off the back of my head.

Not trying to be deliberately provocative, but occasionally looking up at cars to see if the drivers are noticing. I know, or at least I think I know, what bunny ears symbolize. At home, they are sexual, put on for flirting purposes with lingerie or a bra and panties, at most. They conjure up images of Playboy bunnies. And so I am doubly self-conscious at times about them, since outside the walls of my home, I do not always think of myself as a particularly sexy being. But wearing them out in public, the young woman at the counter at McDonald’s gives me a smile and simply comments “nice bunny ears.” The male clerk at the mini-mart in my neighborhood silently nods at another customer, as if to say, “check this out” but the man is, deliberately or not, focused on buying some discounted candy and does not look at me. But I see the clerk, and I see that he has a slightly derisive look on his face, which causes me to feel that I have to explain myself, so I blame it on my boyfriend, who is also with me, saying that he dared me to wear them, although that is not entirely true.

Not deliberately provocative, I am trying to push my own boundaries. When I was 17, I would ride my bike around my smallish hometown wearing a bright green pair of oversized sunglasses that stuck out way far away from the sides of my head. At that time, the glasses were a true novelty, a new thing, the latest thing, and I had never heard of Adrian Piper, but I definitely knew that I was doing a performance of difference, causing passing motorists, bicycle riders, or pedestrians to come into contact with something unexpected, and was both self-conscious and unself-conscious in the process. Now, 30 years later, weighed down with social expectations, decorum, and “appropriateness” I have decided lately to take the small but highly visible step of wearing my bunny hears in public.

I knew the social significance of bunny ears, I think, and so today I have juxtaposed them with wearing a Hothead Paisan t-shirt, one from 20 years ago when I was 60 pounds heavier and so is 4 or 5 sizes too big on me. One that declares “I’m not your fucking spritzhead girlfriend!” and points a gun out of a car window at anyone who looks. In mixed company, adults and children, I wear an overshirt so that I can control the “reveal” of the t-shirt. Again, I am inside/outside, ambivalent/daring about the performance. As I leave the bus, the female bus driver says “Goodbye Bunny” and smiles. I stop to wish her a nice day.

Late at night, the bunny ears are decidedly sexual. Semiotically, they have definitely taken on a different signification. Earlier in the day, I am largely innocuous, non-threatening to women and fun, like the Easter Bunny or some other storybook creature, to children. I walk with a friend of mine around dusk and someone walking down the other side of the street says “So that’s what a Playboy Bunny looks like!” I holler back, “Not hardly, but thanks.” We laugh, but the whole social significance has changed and will continue to do so as the night wears on. Walking around the dark streets of Minneapolis, I start to get the one-honk car horn followed by the slowing down of the car in question. I have come to assume, after years of walking around at night in various neighborhoods, that this is a signal for prostitutes or “bunnies of the evening.”


Meanwhile, earlier and back on the bus, there had been a guy that I have seen around town, a type of performance artist himself. He wears a terry cloth headband and aviator shades and he carries a large boombox with him wherever he goes. He’s a nerdy looking white guy, age indeterminate, very skinny with his hair buzzed short, who goes around town playing basketball alone, boombox blaring. Sometimes he wears more outrageous shades. He is pretending to smoke on the bus today for anyone who is looking, and several young people are looking at him and smiling a little mockingly it seems to me. He is very self-conscious of doing a performance. I have seen him quite a few times over the years and he is never in public as a “private citizen,” but is always performing. He normally rides a bus down Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, between the Stephens Square neighborhood and the Phillips neighborhood, where he can play basketball in a highly visible location. Today, he is across town in Northeast Minneapolis, headed back downtown. Today, there are two “hidden performances” and the passengers on the bus don’t know which one to conspicuously ignore.

He is possibly the better performer, playing self-consciously for anyone who will engage with him, who will even glance his way. I often pretend not to pay attention, simply because I don’t want him to change what he is doing because of me, the way light acts differently as either a particle or a wave when you look at it. I on the other hand, simultaneously don’t want to be noticed and yet am amazed when people don’t react, likely the result of living in a relatively closed culture for the past 18 years and the exact reason for my hidden performances now.

In this regard, I suddenly think back to an episode of The Simpsons where Homer, finding out that his mother had been a Hippie, starts going on “freak outs” to liberate people’s “button-down minds.”

In the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center, a man places his own hat atop the head of a green statue of a man. I wonder if he is inspired by me wearing the bunny ears. I think of the public statue in South Minneapolis, of a man sitting on a bench in front of a row of businesses. Periodically, someone comes along and leaves a knit hat or a baseball cap on the statue’s head. I wonder if these people think of themselves as performance artists or think of themselves as somehow contributing to the world of art. The fact is that there are things like this that go on every day, in every city around the world. There are those that approach any piece of public art with such reverence that they would never dream of touching it or interacting with it, so conditioned are they that art is sacred. And then there are times when someone dares to interact with it, to intervene, and make it their own.

A few years ago I had organized what I called Coin-Op Laundry open readings at a local Laundromat that had out-of-this-world acoustics. No one ever went to this landromat and to prove that fact, it is now defunct. I told everyone to wear their “laundry clothes” and to come and do their laundry while we read. I wore on old ratting skirt and a t-shirt. I got on the bus with my plastic laundry bag full of laundry. I noticed people were trying to avoid looking at me and I realized, these people think I am homeless! So I took that as liberty to act like a crazy vagabond person, talking to myself (louder and more than usual) and rocking back and forth in my seat. I took that liberty, that wide berth that people give to someone on the margins, and I was completely unself-conscious about my performance.

I do, in some cases, want a reaction from people. I want to change their attitudes. I want them to encounter something out of their ordinary daily lives and not necessarily see the “difference” as a threat. I live in a place at the moment where people use “different” to indicate something bad. “That’s . . . different” is a way of indicating that your method is strange to them, sometimes downright threatening. Actions undertaken in this context may or may not produce an immediate reaction. But I do want people to think about what they have seen. Maybe they will loosen up and have fun, in the case of the bunny ears. Maybe they will rethink their assumptions in the case of the coin-op poetry. Maybe it will cause me to reconceptualize all of those things myself, on those nights that I am on the bus and tired and I just want to be left alone rather than being bothered or confronted with “difference,” when I don’t want to deal with a proselytizer, a rapper, or any other type of performance artist

It also seems to me, that this could also be seen that as an artist/art object, one could even be trying to get into the mind of the “art object,” of the Mona Lisa, the Venus DeMilo, the Pollock “splatter painting” to work inside-out of the art object, the way that an actor would use sense memory to get at a character. And then for the artist, they cause the public to encounter this piece of art in a new way, to encounter an “art object” as a living being. I think that this would also be part of Piper’s goal of eliminating the “art object” as a discrete entity, bringing it to life, into being, into something that the “spectator” could interact with, rather than just viewing. Is that the point of walking around with a towel in your mouth, or deliberating creating a foul odor to wear on your clothes in close quarters with others? Is it to get at the feeling of someone looking at you, feeling unable to touch you, talk to you, or even to comment on what you are doing, to break through the decorum and sense of “social appropriateness?” Is it to see just how much people can or will take or “eccentricity/madness” before they will react?

People all around me are snapping pictures in the sculpture garden. I try not to notice if anyone snaps a picture of me. They probably won’t with all of these “true” art objects around.

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