Performing Identities, Identifying Performanceby John Tain
Wherever one turns in the United States these days, one cannot help but find instances of the politics of identity and identification at work. Ongoing criticism by the Black Lives Matter movement has sensitized many to the persistence of racism and white privilege in the police and judicial system, and society in general. That critique in turn has informed public discourse, including the presidential electoral campaigns, which have seen particularly charged debates over immigration, and pointed accusations of racism and sexism. Meanwhile, the seemingly liberal bastions of the entertainment and media industries have come under intense scrutiny for their failure to adequately represent women and people of color, both in terms of content and as a matter of hiring and promotion, though television programs featuring LGBT storylines have received unprecedented levels of visibility and acclaim. Even previously rarely discussed spaces such as locker rooms and public bathrooms across the nation have been thrust into the limelight over access for transgender individuals, escalating to the issuing of an executive order (perhaps predictably followed by subsequent demands for impeachment from certain quarters). And this is to say nothing of the recent mass shooting in Orlando and what it suggests about the deadly toxicity of homophobia and racism combined. It is against this background that the artists assembled here were asked to share their thoughts on identity.
That the contributors all happen to have a basis in performance in some form or other is no accident. Thanks largely to Judith Butler’s analysis of gender roles, identity is today widely understood in performative terms. But performance art already had historically been closely tied to issues of identity. Some of the genre’s earliest practitioners were feminists and other progressive artists who sought freedom from pre-existing biases and the (male-dominated) canons that characterized more traditional media. As such, performance art, based in the artist’s own body and staged for both live audiences and for the lens, became the medium par excellence for exploring matters related to gender and sexuality, but also race. Underscoring this association were the controversies of the early ’90s surrounding the so-called NEA Four (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller), and others, such as David Wojnarowicz and Ron Athey, and the particular potency of performance in this regard has been explored in the writings of José Esteban Muñoz, Jennifer Doyle, and others.
Yet performance itself also has been undergoing something of an identity shift over the last couple of decades. The field has expanded quite considerably, encompassing formerly distinct areas of the performing arts, such as theater, dance, music, stand-up comedy, and also exhibited objects themselves as performative. Thus, though there continues to be numerous artists who work in veins of performance unmediated by the training and techne of any discipline, there now is much more fluidity around the boundaries of performance itself, and it is not surprising that several of the present contributors maintain markedly interdisciplinary practices. Somewhat relatedly, performance no longer occupies the margins of the art world, consigned to scrappy nonprofits and artist-run organizations. Galleries and museums now regularly present performance as part of their programming, and represent it in their collections. With these shifts, performance has grown, but also potentially grows more diffuse in its aims and its impact. It is at such a junction that some of its practitioners were asked to reflect on performance’s capacities and aims.
The invitation to these artists, then, was not just to share thoughts on issues related to their own identities and those of others, but also to think about the identity of performance itself and its capacity for imagining identity otherwise. It is also the occasion to indulge in one of the curator’s main joys, which is to have the opportunity to work with artists one admires—for their keen intellect, their capacity for invention, for the passion with which they engage the world. This certainly is the identity of those whom the reader will encounter on the following pages.
JOHN TAIN is a curator of modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute. He also serves on the programming committee of the art space Human Resources Los Angeles, and co-hosts the monthly program "Performance Now" on KCHUNG Radio.