Performance Statement #3, 1983

Thinking out loud: About performance art and my place in it*

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1983

A letter to Tony Whitfield in preparation for Just Above Midtown’s Afro- Pop catalogue interview is O’Grady’s most self-conscious to that point. Experiencing a lack of clear precedents for her work, in it she attempts to theorize her relationship to performance art and the paucity of role models, and to face the question of the audience for black avant-garde art.

I AM NOT A PERFORMANCE ARTIST

I have a problem with the name “performance.” That’s what Vito Acconci called the things he did, which came out of Erving Goffman’s theories, and I suppose historically we are stuck with it. But my own work has so little to do with “performance” and “self-presentation” that I may soon stop performing and write and direct my pieces exclusively.

If pressed to describe what I do, I’d say that I am writing in space. I guess that comes from being trained as a writer (I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop, etc.). But I was never able to accommodate to the linearity of writing. Perhaps I’m too conscious of the stages I’ve lived through and the multiple personalities I contain. I think I’m also too aware of the interstices between consciousness and the unconscious: I have a dream journal that goes with my day journal, and it now has 175 totally recalled dreams with elaborate responses to them. The fact is, except for the lyric poem, writing is the art form most closely bound to time; but to layer information the way I perceived it, I needed the simultaneity I could only obtain in space.

I haven’t stopped writing or thinking literarily; but for now, performance is the way I write most effectively. To me, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire is actually a didactic essay written in space, while the form of Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline approximates that of a book — a family photo album, interlaced with personal reminiscence and ritual. And, to overextend the metaphor, there is a sense in which The Dual Soul is a duo of short stories, Rivers, First Draft is a folktale, and Indivisible Landscapes an epic poem. But now I think I’m getting pretentious. I don’t know what form Fly By Night (the performance I’m doing at Franklin Furnace on Feb. 10) will take, because I haven’t written it yet. But I’m already working on a novel-in-space, my next big project after Indivisible Landscapes.

I also think visual artists and writers who’ve gone “live” have moved into a dimension where our native vocabularies no longer apply (no wonder we’re usually incoherent!). Visual ( … )

Download full PDF