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Theater 33.1 (2003) 89-92
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To Defy the Perishing Time
In Other Los Angeleses: Multicentric Performance Art by Meiling Cheng 2002: University of California Press
Early in her book, Meiling Cheng offers a memorable formulation about the primary theoretical issue associated with performance art. In response to its notorious and definitional subjection to time, she says, performance art can either "choose to perish with time, or to defy the perishing time." This book joins the growing number of fine critical and theoretical studies that have, in the past decade, helped performance art not only "to defy the perishing time" but also to edge ever closer to the center of artistic and academic attention from which it had long been absent.
This shift from margin to center is at the heart of Cheng's theoretical project, which investigates performance art from a cultural studies perspective as well as from an aesthetic one and engages deeply with recent theories of cultural space, location, and dislocation. Drawing on Michel Foucault's speculations about how human activity is organized not only by state power but also in oppositional and ever-changing "counter-sites" or "heterotopia," Cheng reads performance art as a persistent and hence powerful challenge to the cultural mainstream, as (over)represented in Los Angeles by "the Hollywood Cultural Industry, the Disney Fantasy Factory, and ... the city's Cultural Establishment." It is the latter with which performance art is in dialogue, and the book's analysis of how officially sponsored festivals have both thwarted and enabled new work is extraordinarily well documented and fascinating. The city's deliberate "de-regionalizing" policy—its favoring of imported over local art—gives Cheng her chief organizing idea.The book's focus on Los Angeles [End Page 89] connects it to a performance historiography that began perhaps with Sally Bane's masterful Greenwich Village 1963, which analyzed an artistic movement by linking it to a particular "milieu and moment" (to use a venerable formula from the dawn of modern theater). However, while Banes took the downtown New York location of the sixties avant-garde as a given and useful frame, Cheng goes one long step beyond that in her engagement with place. The performance art that Cheng addresses is not only located in but constitutive of a certain urban environment whose unique character has been excavated previously in works like Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, Edward Soja's Third Space, and Mike Davis's City of Quartz and The Ecology of Fear. The plural Los Angeleses of Cheng's title are brought into being and in turn bring into being a complex cultural phenomenon that Chen calls multicentricity, produced by the encounter of various life and art practices with L.A.'s historical love affair with "limitless horizontality" (Baudrillard).
Paradoxically, multicentricity is the central theoretical preoccupation of this book—its point of departure as well as its framing concept. Amply and painstakingly explicated in the book's opening chapter—largely through a brilliant discussion of Sam Francis's Edge Painting—the notion enlivens and enables the book's other conceptual frame, that of Los Angeles. Multicentricity is, at one level, a more dynamic alternative to the institutionally co-opted and bureaucracy-tarnished "multiculturalism," which had a longer and more serious run in the cultural discourse of Los Angeles than it did anywhere else in the country. Transformed into a festival slogan and funding mantra, multiculturalism lost the ability to designate—much less inspire—the kind of cutting-edge art that Cheng's book treats. Her alternative—multicentricity—is purely a critical tool, as yet uncontaminated by sound biting and grant writing. As developed and deployed here, it is a conceptual guide through the thickets of variously motivated and multiply oriented performance art practices for which it furnishes not only a history but also a historiography, a way of approaching, selecting, organizing, and provisionally labeling a large body of disparate work.
The history begins with the transplantation from New York of two influential artists: Claus Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow, both of whom staged important performances in L.A...