restricted access Live Art in LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970–1983 ed. by Peggy Phelan (review)
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Live Art in LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970–1983. Edited by Peggy Phelan. NewYork: Routledge, 2012; 256 pp.;illustrations. $131.00 cloth, $41.95 paper, e-book available.

inline graphicIs it possible to write a history of ephemeral live artworks that vanished decades ago? If it is, what are the theoretical implications of doing so? How does one approach such a task? What are the resources — institutional and otherwise — that have to be in place to enable this task? If not, why is it impossible to access a cultural legacy that was originally created in the public interest? How can one elucidate, contest, and overcome the obstacles that keep this work from the public for which it was created?

Some of these questions and more may have motivated Peggy Phelan, the editor of this volume, and its four contributing authors (Michael Ned Holte, Amelia Jones, Suzanne Lacy, and Jennifer Flores Sternad) to collaborate on this inviting anthology. Since I am reviewing the book for TDR, the answer to the first question is, Yes — it is possible to write a history of vanished live artworks. Phelan’s title for the volume, if abbreviated as LA in LA, evokes a Steinian French wordplay to imply a promise, reversing Gertrude Stein’s famous dismissal of Oakland (“there is no there there”), while conjuring up the southern California city’s facetious urban nickname. As if saying, “There is thereness there, in La-La Land,” Live Art in LA extends a seductive invitation for readers to follow the authors’ narrative footprints in re/tracing a past in LA that was enriched by many all-but-forgotten performance events. The edited volume was first produced in response to a research program at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), which shared its valuable archives, commissioned performance remakes and historiographic publications, and organized art roundtables and exhibitions in response to the Getty Foundation’s massive regional exhibition and performance initiative, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980 (October 2011–April 2012). Thus, there were indeed institutional resources for the art historical retrieval of the performance pieces assessed in Live Art in LA— even though Phelan’s periodic framing (1970–83) is both shorter (by a quarter century) and slightly beyond (by three years) the time period of the Getty project. This subtle discord, along with the Getty-subsidized and LACE-facilitated research ambition “to tell the story of the rise of the Los Angeles art scene” (Getty Trust 2011), points to a subtext hidden within Phelan’s analysis of “the ways in which institutional violence of various kinds informs the perception of art” (3): institutional patronage often stands behind institutional violence, which might just manifest itself as the (necessary, if also cruel) arbitrariness of period framing.

As the author of In Other Los Angeleses: Multicentric Performance Art (2002) — a book that Phelan graciously acknowledges as “among the few serious critical reflections” (3) on the history of live art in LA — I was invited by LACE to contribute to Phelan’s volume. I delightedly accepted the commission but later had to withdraw because of a schedule conflict. As I read through this insightful book, I could not but regret that I had missed out on the action. At the same time, I wondered if some readers would interpret my absence from a critical anthology [End Page 164] about LA performance art as a form of institutional exclusion (of a Taiwanese-American immigrant writer). My personal, behind-the-scenes relationship to the project gives me another perspective on the politics of redress that underscore the book, and particularly Phelan’s and Jones’s chapters. Phelan suggests that the dominance of the Hollywood film industry and the “[r]outine misogyny and racism” (4) that was provoked by the radical feminist performance that emerged in the region in the 1970s are both responsible for the relative dearth of scholarly efforts to historicize West Coast performance art. Jones confronts the “racism” (161) that she believes has erased certain politically progressive, ethnic-minority activist art collectives from “mainstream [art and cultural] histories” (115) by studiously documenting the performance achievements of Asco, an LA collective composed of Chicano/a...