Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s by Dominic Johnson
The bodies we inhabit are contested sites of inquiry. Their porous flesh and armored materiality serve as vessels for political, cultural, and polemical meaning-making, rendering them at once vectors of power relations and sources of resistance. For decades, performance studies has been investigating the nuances of these power dynamics by pursuing a central question: What can a racialized, sexualized, and gendered body do? Scholar and performance artist Dominic Johnson’s Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s reflects his ongoing commitment to animating this question with discernible passion and care. By considering how performance, both cultural and quotidian, challenges larger structural inequalities, Unlimited Action is in conversation with scholarship that has been asking similar questions for decades, including The Explicit Body in Performance (1997) by Rebecca Schneider, Body Art/Performing the Subject (1998) by Amelia Jones, Hold It against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013) by Jennifer Doyle, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (2014) by Amber Jamilla Musser, and Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (2015) by Uri McMillan, to name a few.
Unlimited Action assumes that all actions are intrinsically subjected to a set of legal, economic, or social limits. At the same time, inspired by philosopher Georges Bataille, Unlimited Action considers limits to be imposed only to be violated or surpassed (15). Johnson’s book therefore examines actions, predominantly in the 1970s, that defied conventional aesthetics through a mode he terms “the performance of extremity,” or the use of physical or emotional discomfort, obscenity, and criminality “to an extent that harasses the artist, us and the category of art” (7). Unlimited Action argues that contemporary critics, who often disregarded the work, could not have fully “captured” extreme performance actions precisely because they went beyond the limits of social acceptability, propriety, and legibility. Influenced by the early twentieth-century European avant-garde as well as the experimental projects of the 1960s, performances of extremity intertwined aesthetic and quotidian realms, positing the inextricability of art and life. While tending to such intertwinement, performances of extremity not only challenged conventional aesthetic practice, they also exposed, expanded, or reimagined imposed social, cultural, and political limits. Extremity therefore served as the artists’ means of resistance to traditional art-making in the postwar era.
Johnson’s study brings to light less researched European and British performance artists from the 1970s, including Kerry Trengove, Ulay, COUM Transmissions, Anne Bean, the Kipper Kids, and Stephen Cripps, whose work was often illegible to and discredited by critics. Although every performance is placed within a specific historical, cultural, and political context and juxtaposed with other well-known performances of the time, Unlimited Action is not a chronological survey but rather a collection of curated case studies. Informed by critical theory, cultural studies, and performance studies, and enriched by archival ephemera, each chapter reaffirms the historical and cultural importance of performance centered around endurance, injury, or duress.
The first chapter explores the significance of the physical and psychological endurance and manual labor in Trengove’s An Eight Day Passage (1977). In his analysis of Trengove’s action, which consisted of digging a hole in the gallery floors and walls for eight days, Johnson claims that by appropriating endurance and manual labor in the gallery setting, Trengove resituated art as coterminous with life rather than contained by aesthetic or commercial frames. Along the same lines, chapter 2 is dedicated to Ulay’s There is a Criminal Touch to Art (1976), a performance of extremity in which the artist stole a nineteenth-century painting considered Germany’s “national treasure” from a highly secured museum. Johnson argues that the criminal element of this action, and “the national insult” it provoked (62), had a twofold effect: Ulay placed in question his German identity in the postwar period, while expanding the formal parameters of the aesthetic. The first two chapters also explore the accusation [End Page 120] that machoism, tied to physical endurance and criminality, promotes an intrinsically masculine way of art-making. Employing feminist performance theory, Johnson argues that Trengove’s and Ulay’s nonconventional relations to the art world denaturizes their heteronormative status.
Chapter 3 tackles the performance Mail Action and exhibit Prostitution (both 1976) by the collective COUM Transmissions, known for their use of pornography and bodily fluids as aesthetic elements. Mail Action consisted of mailing out pornographic postcards in order for the collective’s leader Genesis P-Orridge, as the second part of the performance, to be sued for indecency. Similar to Ulay’s use of art theft, COUM Transmissions used public attention, with the help of the press, to promote the judicial case General Post Office v. Genesis P-Orridge as a performance. According to Johnson, Mail Action aimed to reinvent traditional art practice while challenging public principles of decency. This latter project was extended when Prostitution, a retrospective of their work, erupted in scandal over the use of obscene objects and so allowed the collective to challenge the moralizing practices of artistic institutions.
Chapter 4 considers a variety of Bean’s performances, which often occurred without an audience, documentation, or archiving. Johnson approaches Bean’s art-making as a “perpetual work-in-progress,” in which the artist uses her everyday life as performance, just as Bean preferred the term “life art” to “live art” (131). While other chapters focus on physical extremity, Johnson here conceptualizes Bean’s refusal of proper documentation as her extreme action. He claims that analyzing only partially intelligible and visible practices and dealing with archival inaccessibility are in themselves extreme and so ask for a novel methodological approach.
In chapter 5, Johnson studies Harry and Harry Kipper, known as the Kipper Kids. As their performances were untitled and resisted separation as distinct works, the duo’s practices, like Bean’s, also aspire toward “life art.” On the one hand, the duo refused individual identity by sharing the same persona, while their performances expanded customary art-making with practices of self-sabotage that could have harmed their careers, such as provocative costuming, self-injury, and food fights. Johnson argues for their intentional self-sabotage as a repudiation of traditional aesthetic form and its function.
In his conclusion, Johnson adds two further signifiers of extremity to those considered throughout the previous chapters: recklessness and impossibility. He uses these to ground his analysis of his final case study: interactive kinetic sculptures by Stephen Cripps, who used fire, explosions, and fireworks to induce sound and to animate his sculptures at the expense of his health and safety. Johnson argues that Cripps’s reckless and dangerous engagement with pyrotechnics is yet another extreme practice that challenges and expands the limits of conventional artistic engagement. To conclude, by providing insight into less well-known performance practices, the compelling and passionately written Unlimited Action carves out a place for extreme performances within existing genealogies of performance art that have too often overlooked or underappreciated them. Paying tribute to a generation of understudied artists who challenged traditional art-making, Unlimited Action is an invaluable and creative study that offers an innovative methodology for interpreting practices that take place beyond the “limits” of history, art, and life.