MOCA Musing: Incomplete Thoughts on Ethics in Performance
It is November 24, Thanksgiving. No work today, so I take longer than usual to put myself together. After I put the kettle on for my morning cup of tea—wait for the water to boil—I peruse through the online arts news websites I have bookmarked on my computer, a virtual library accumulated over four years of web surfing for informative sites reporting current events/news in performing arts. When I come across ARTINFO’s recent article “An Open Letter From a Dancer Who Refused to Participate in Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Performance,” I tell myself to read the first paragraph and if it doesn’t capture my attention I’ll keep surfing. Fifteen minutes later, I’ve forgotten my tea.
Written by Sara Wookey, the article describes the controversy surrounding Abramovic’s production of her signature work, “Nude with Skeleton” (2002) for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Although Wookey re-accounts for us the dubious audition process for this so called opportunity, disclosing details that suggest the exploitation of performers, she brings to the forefront a serious issue existing in performing arts today: the profound lack of labor standards for performance artists in America. She states, “If there is any group of cultural workers that deserves basic standards of labor, it is us performers…whose medium is our own bodies.” She goes on to make a general call to performing artists everywhere to embrace “another mode of thinking” or what I choose to refer to as their duty to safeguard ethics and standards for mutual respect or care for each other as artistic citizens.
An active member of the arts community, I am ashamed that I have not myself challenged the abusive psyche that has been ingrained into young artists—particularly performing artists, such as dancers—that is, the assumption that in order to be worthy of the appellation “artist,” we must therefore “suffer” for our art. I do not think I’m the only one out there who has avoided this kind of self-examination. I know many fellow dancers and choreographers who take the term “risk-taking” to questionable extremes. This common ignorance, at best an avoidance, is proof that perhaps dance mentors, teachers, and practitioners have time and time again failed to teach the next generation—or as Wookey states “our cohort”—of performance artists and leaders about the necessity of ethics in performance.
This article is a response to Wookey’s call; it is my contribution to the discourse now burgeoning around the event at MOCA. However, I wish to examine more than this singular event and discuss it alongside other instances in which I have previously questioned choreographers’ and dancers’ intentions, creative processes, and ethics in performance. Furthermore, I would like to pose the question: in performance art—the avant guard, especially—exactly how far is too far? At what point does “for the sake of art” or “pushing the boundary” become euphemisms for the choreographer’s potentially degrading, and essentially de-humanizing exertion of power over someone else’s body? How do we distinguish the difference between exploitation and employment of bodies? When do bodies become objects to be contained or controlled as evinced through the conflicts that have occurred due to the recent Occupy movements and student protests? These same questions that apply to artistic integrity are the same that need to be posed to our government. To the police forces charged with the responsibility of containing and controlling the protestors on Wall Street and across America. To the growing corps of individual bodies that have come together to reprimand the 1%. To the 1% that was present at MOCA’s gala, the 1% that decides which institutions, artists, choreographers, and dancers will be given financial support, the very same 1% that dictates expectations and standards in the performing arts.
Not having seen Abromovic’s work in person, I may be at risk of doing to Abromovic, what New York dance critic, Arlene Croce did to Bill T. Jones’ premier of Still/Here in her article “Discussing the Undiscussable” (i.e. criticizing a performance she had never seen). But I don’t have to see Abromovic’s work to know that artists, curators, choreographers, and dance leaders make unethical decisions pertaining to their work, the creative process, and public exposure to the ideas embedded in and expressed through performance. Anyone familiar with the work of New York based choreographer, Ann Liv Young could probably relate to the traumatic experience of viewing her work, in which bodies are presented as locations of spectacle (Young and her dancers perform sex, masturbate, and drink their own urine for shock value). I appreciate Young’s ability to break through the fourth wall, to force her audience to participate in the performance, to contravene cultural and social taboos—her goals are relevant, even admirable—however, I do question her means and intentions, just as I question the Occupy protestors, the police force, and my own government. Must we take such drastic “action” (exactly what has the Occupy movement actually accomplished?) to impose change or exercise control over what we want to see, participate in, or protest whether it be in art, society, culture, politics, the state of the economy, etc.? Do we lose anything? Why does the “body”–wether it be one person or a mass corps made up of individuals to form a unified whole–pose such a threat? Why is it okay for Jeffrey Deitch to draw a line at naked men in Abramovic’s performance to spare “conventional businessmen” the “discomfiture” from having to confront male nudity? I say it’s about damn time we make the business suits uncomfortable for once. In this case its an edge we should go over. But I forgot its the 1% percent and it’s Jeffrey Deitch (a man) making the decisions. Silly me.
I experienced a different kind of “discomfiture” at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC this past summer when I attended a performance of Rosie Herrera’s work “Pity Party” (2010). After fifteen minutes into this evening length performance thoughts of fascism and images of Hitler arose in my mind. These thoughts refused to dissipate as I observed the audience’s reactions and watched the rest of the performance. Herrera employs performer, Octavio Campos, to act as MC and banter with the audience. Towards the beginning of the performance he makes his way up the aisle of Duke University’s Reynolds Theater and selects a young boy, no older than fourteen, to join him onstage. Once on stage, he proceeds to serenade the boy with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (note: Herrera forgot to credit any of the musical artists and songs she used in the program). Campo exercises his dominance over the unsuspecting audience participant, pulling the boy about the stage—at one point pressing him against a wall—fondling and rubbing him. The incapacitated boy looked ill-at-ease and embarrassed at this sudden accost. I felt his subjugation as if it were my own, my body twitching in response to this physical violation. Were this molestation committed in any other setting (i.e. a public street) but on a stage we would not hesitate to call it for what it is, sexual harassment. The perpetrator would be punished accordingly in a court of law and we would feel safe again. But because it took place on stage and because we decide to call it “performance art” somehow its acceptable; somehow it is removed from our genealogy of morals and our conscience can rest. If the Occupy Wall Street protestors were herded into a theater would we take them seriously? If Campo had explained his expectations to the boy before hand would the boy have allowed himself to be pressured onto the stage in the first place? I guess sometimes we don’t know what we are getting ourselves into.
I, by no means, intend to denounce audience participation. I think that audience participation can be a very useful tool in dance performance. However, the situation Campo created—and Herrera by proxy—was instigated through oppressive means: seizure, coercion, and exploitation of another person’s body—not to mention a minor’s body—for entertainment purposes. The audience, consisting mostly of young aspiring dancers and choreographers, embraced this spectacle with open arms, their insensitivity betrayed by the many outbursts of laughter that rang throughout the auditorium. As choreographers we have to be wary of how we induce an audience to engage in dance performance. Shouldn’t it be an invitation, a matter of choice? If it isn’t then doesn’t the dance become the very thing it’s supposed to fight against? No doubt there are those who would argue that one always has a choice, that the boy could have said no, but let me say this: when we attend a performance, performers are not alone in their vulnerability to potential abuse. The audience is also vulnerable. Their eyes take in what the choreographer and performers choose to put on stage, to express through movement, song, and voice. To receive through sight is a practice in vulnerability.
While I could talk myself into appreciating Herrera for at least giving me the opportunity to ponder the power dynamics in performance, whether she intended it or not, I was more shocked at the audience’s acquiescence to what was happening. Was I the only person mortified by this display of abusive behavior? Was I the only person who had seen a line crossed, a boundary pushed a little too far? The audience was putty in Campo’s hands as he ordered them to collectively put their arms in ballet first position, to let the dancers clamber over their laps. It was the blind leading the blind. The audience was a mindless body, willing to accept anything Herrera’s “Simon Says” captain barked at them. I imagined this must be what it was like under Hitler’s reign, except Herrera’s “salute” was “first position.”
Links to relevant articles:
Video link to forum discussion: