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  • The State of Performance Art 2019
  • Jacki Apple (bio)

In a 1994 article called “Performance Art Is Dead: Long Live Performance Art!” I wrote: “Whatever happened to performance art? It seems to have disappeared into a fault line in the cultural terrain, swallowed up by theater and entertainment on one side, and the commodity driven art world on the other . . .” The article critically examined the evolution of performance art in response to the cultural and political environment of the 1980s and early 1990s. Now, twenty-five years later, the question is worth reconsidering, in 2019, when the term has been totally co-opted and appropriated by media culture to identify, promote, and sensationalize public actions and entertainments.

In Los Angeles, producer, curator, and educator Deborah Oliver has been committed to rejuvenating and reactivating performance art with a new generation of artists in the twenty-first century. Oliver’s goal has been to reconnect performance art to its process-based visual-art roots by re-situating it in the immersive environment of the art gallery where the audience would become participating viewers free to interact in real time with a broad range of live actions and diverse aesthetics. Produced and curated by Oliver, the Irrational Exhibits project began in 2001 around the idea of presenting simultaneous durational performances in individual installations that function as the sets for the artists’ actions, all within a clearly defined art context.1 Staged in the wide-open spaces of the white box galleries of Track 16 and later at LACE, the events became performances in themselves, a kind of three-ring circus with ambling crowds and loosely orchestrated, sometimes colliding or overlapping actions. The artists’ engagement with materials and the body reflected the visual and even painterly origins of performance art in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as contemporary questions of identity, sexuality, gender, the politics of culture, and the ethics of bio-sciences and technology. In the years between 2001 and 2017 these events had an almost rowdy exuberance. Irrational Exhibits celebrated works that embraced unpredictability and the messiness of organic processes and materials, and engaged with [End Page 34] the chaos of our times. It encouraged risk-taking and accepted the potential for failure in the act. Oliver’s commitment to this structure was a response to how detached we have become from a sense of community and shared face-to-face experience in this age so dominated by media culture and technology.

But the world had changed since 2017. We are living in strange times, and for a generation of emerging artists the challenges are greater than ever. Not only does the center not hold, but all the established rules of discourse have been discarded. In an insidious battle between veracity and mendacity, all the old definitions and meanings have been turned inside out. Language and images are no longer trusted representations of reality. There is no solid ground in the arena of doubt, only the giddy spectacle of ensuing chaos in which Nero, the star performer, doesn’t simply fiddle, but sets the fires to burn down the nation, while declaring there are no fires, and the media lies. In such a moment of cultural, perceptual, and political crisis, how does this generation of artists deal with performance as an art form, rather than the mediated spectacle they produce and consume? And how is it informed by its own historical role when all the rules have changed?

Oliver’s latest one-night performance event Irrational Exhibits 11: Place-Making and Social Memory (1), featuring eighteen artists in five gallery spaces on two floors of the old Bendix building in downtown Los Angeles was a perfect opportunity to explore these questions. This time around many of the pieces revealed a distinct psychological shift evidenced by the safe haven of static aesthetic formality versus the riskiness of the expressive activism of earlier years. But then at the end of 2019 we are living in a deeply divided, dysfunctional Orwellian world in which the so-called “establishment” are now the renegades, outlaws, and morally debased deviants outrageously defiant of all the previous norms of civility, rationality, and responsibility. All the bourgeois standards...

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