Hyperallergic, 2013

Animating the Archive: Black Performance Art’s Radical Presence

by Alexis Clements, 2013

Documenting performance art has always been tricky. There have been tons of panels and talks in the past year or two about the challenges and benefits of different methods of archiving. Martha Wilson, founder of Franklin Furnace, is developing a searchable database of work that her organization has hosted or supported over the years. The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics has mounted a free online digital video library that allows viewers to see a wide range of work by artists from across the Americas. And the recent re.act.feminism project brought together new performance with re-performance of old works, a web-based archive, exhibits of documentation and ephemera, and lectures.

But many of the issues surrounding documentation and re-performance boil down to one simple fact: there’s no way to fully capture what it feels like to be there during the original performance. Not only is it impossible to capture things like the smell or psychic energy flowing between a performer and their audience, you can’t re-create the political and social milieu in which the work was made.

For this reason, one of pieces that struck me right off the bat when I entered the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at New York University’s Grey

Art Gallery was Lorraine O’Grady’s “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” (1980–83). In the gallery, the work is represented by a series of 12 black-and-white photographs from her 1981 performance “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire goes to the New Museum.” What makes the images so striking is not just O’Grady’s use of the iconography of the beauty queen, with her broad smile and long gown (in this case made entirely of white gloves purchased from thrift stores), but also the fact that you can see the reactions of people witnessing the performance. You can begin to read things like confusion, curiosity, discomfort, amusement, and distance in their facial expressions and body language.

According to O’Grady’s website, these performances were intended as invasions of established art institutions — both the many spaces that were exhibiting work exclusively by white artists and black art spaces like Just Above Midtown. Given her use of surprise and confrontation, the photos offer tiny glimpses of the effect that she might have been having on unsuspecting partygoers, whipping herself and shouting through glossy lipstick: “WAIT wait in your alternate / alternate spaces / spitted on fish hooks of hope / be polite wait to be discovered … THAT’S ENOUGH don’t you know / sleeping beauty needs / more than a kiss to awake / now is the time for an INVASION!” (…)

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