Performance Photo Archive 1987 - 1992
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia 2000
It was always meant to be a fugitive and disappearing medium. In many ways that was part of the point of the thing . Through choosing live action - a movement, a series of gestures, what people used to like to call 'an intervention' (as if this undertaking was somehow allied to surgery), and through using a specific location and moment in time - the ossifying and distorting effects of 'commodification' were to be resisted. This was an art that was not to be reduced to a component of capitalist bourgeois exchange; it was a way of making art which, in refusing objecthood, was also resisting alienation: the artist was in control, and it was a control not to be ceded to anybody, as the artist was both producer and product simultaneously. At the same time, the fact that performance was not necessarily seen by a large number of people...in many cases very few people...meant that the experience remained rare, specific, not emptied and flattened along the usual lines of repeatability or mainstream ideas of entertainment.
This now sounds as if it has somehow been badly translated from a different language. 'Resisting commodification'.... what does this mean in the context of an art world that seems not only to have proved the impossibility of such a desire but find it plain unthinkable; where the most 'mince' and 'modest' little gesture - a shopping receipt, nude models- can form the basis for a reputation, representation in art-fairs, money and career and nobody is even a teensy bit ashamed of painting?. 'Resisting commodification' is nowadays, at best, taken as to mean 'difficult to sell' and that in turn taken as a challenge. But then, it was an alternative position; and it is only in looking at such alternative conceptualisations that we realise how much the world changed with the collapse of communism and the eclipse of Marxism; the social and economic systems may have sucked, but the alternative imaginative spaces such ideologies provided were entirely valuable, and, in contrast, our current positionings seem one-dimensional and unambitious This is not to say that performance artists were card carrying Marxists, very far from it (although some were revolutionarily doctrinaire): merely that they saw questioning established practice as a philosophically necessary and viable undertaking; rather than as a means to come up with a novel product, or to develop a marketing tool. It was a practice with a utopian underpinning. It was also fun and perhaps the closest a visual artist could get to the rush of rock and roll. Mind you, ironically, without the challenges represented to the market by oppositional practices such as performance, it would not now be able to commodify today so many different forms of art so efficiently.
Such approaches tended to mean a certain distain and casualness about documentation (a word in itself worth pondering) and photographs on the part of the artists. I remember long discussions as to the validity of using video to document a performance. Surely this medium allowed for the registration of that all important element ; 'time' some said. Yes agreed the other, more rigorous, faction, but in it's seeming veracity to the performance it undermines, negates, remains untrue to the essential genius of the event which is locatable in presence, the experience, the fact that it can't be repeated. Oh yes, said faction one, I see what you mean. And many of them returned to their hazy black and white prints of out of focus actions. Entire decades of an artists work are sometimes represented by a single blurry image, which, even though it efficiently resists commodification equally resists comprehension. The photographs here provide a rare window into the work of some of the works made by South Australian based performance artists.
South Australia had a leading role to play in the development and representation of performance and time-based work practices in Australia. This owed a lot initially to the setting up of the Experimental Art Foundation in the mid seventies which focussed on the representation and exploration of non-object based practices. The EAF immediately made Adelaide a node of an international network of similar (usually artists run) organisations dedicated to the exchange of work and ideas, and so located Australian and South Australian work effortlessly within a national and international avant-garde. A heady experience. Such contacts meant that the artists of South Australia and the staff and students of the artschool here had unusual access to radical practices, and to radical artists. And such exposure and such an atmosphere meant that Adelaide was producing some of the leading practitioners working in performance in Australia: The All out Ensemble, Curtis Weiss, Jack Cheslyn, Derek Kreckler, Michele Luke, Nick Tsoutas, Peggy Wallach, Chris Barnett, Anne Marsh, Jane Kent, Pam Harris Leigh Hobba, Wigg and Watt and others. Most of whom left Adelaide to further develop their work elsewhere.
The photographs in this exhibition focus on those who stayed, some of whom are of a slightly later generation: Andrew Petrusevics, Michele Luke, Wigg and Watt and myself. If there is a commonality to the works and practices of these artists it lies perhaps in a shared attitude to duration (modest) and to the politically transformative possibilities of the practice (modest too). The works represented were self-aware, modest, ironic, and reflect on positionings and codings to be found within culture and its imagery. The practices of Michele Luke, Pam Harris and Wigg and Watt were centrally important in defining a shift away from the previous models of performance in Australia - already touched on - which used confrontation and duration to hopefully 'transformative' ends, to a more complex, reflective practice, which was informed more by the approaches of late feminism and the idea that the personal is political than calls to class action and the formation of the dictatorship of the proletariat or even convulsive beauty. The performances here, and the artists who made them were more post-modern than modernist. The performances were short (by performance standards), they exploited already understood social codings, they were investigative: of politics, of sexuality, they were melancholy, they were witty and humorous. They were aware of their own artificiality and the mechanics of their own construction. They were aware that the agenda was changing.
And change the agenda did. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that there was de-facto a virtue in resisting the 'object', for the frames of thinking which allowed the wit and complexity of these performances also mitigated against believing wholeheartedly in such a position, made it seem infact a product of some weird eschatological high modernism. Making a good performance is as difficult as making a good photograph, video, drawing, painting or computer work. So why focus uniquely on a form which leaves so little trace, which is so marginalised by the world if indeed the form has no special ontological weight or loading? All of which means that far fewer artists currently make performance, and very few indeed -one in Australia? - have a practice in which performance is the only thing they do.
Alan Cruickshank has diligently documented these performers and their works over a long period of time and his photographs form a rare archive. They are images not only of individual works, works which are of worth and weight and importance, but of a practice at a crucial time of development and change. These photographs help reclaim the pieces, and perhaps even some of the desires and agendas of the form, from the fugitiveness, from the disappearance, and from the historical erasure of the dirty negative and dark transparency that Performance, perversely, part desired.