Performance Art & the Cruelty of the Artist as “Other”

by Cole Matson

Right now I’m watching a 2001 student recreation of the 1974 Chris Burden performance art piece “Velvet Water.” What strikes me is the futility and cruelty of such types of performance art.

In the piece, the performer attempts to breathe water. Both Burden and this student reenactor – Don Simmons of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design – prefaced the piece by saying that breathing water “is the exact opposite of [from] drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe [the] water to be a thicker, richer oxygen, capable of sustaining life” (the bracketed words are from Chris Burden’s original recording).

Nevertheless, as I’m watching, this student is drowning. Rather, he is waterboarding himself. Because, as one commenter on Simmons’ “Velvet Water” YouTube page succinctly points out, “You cannot breathe water.” No matter how much you believe that water is “a thicker, richer oxygen,” it is not, for human beings anyway. (Fish will experience it differently.)

The recording cuts back and forth between two cameras, one recording the performer, and the other recording the audience, which is composed of about a dozen people seated in a semicircle behind tables watching the performance (which is taking place in a small viewing room next to them) on T.V. monitors in front of them. They each also have a tub of water placed before them. They were warned by the artist at the beginning of the piece that “the following performance involves a non-rational act,” and were invited to “feel free to leave the room or to participate with me.”

No one participates, at least in terms of interacting with the tubs of water in front of them. They all stare at the screen. One woman pushes back in her chair, away from the table and the screen. This happens about halfway through the almost six minutes of self-drowning. Everyone else is fairly still, though there is some nervous movement.

Don Simmons reports on his YouTube page that “the audience reactions were much more extreme than I foresaw. Some upset individuals were mad at me, while some were mad at themselves and others cried.”

This description of audience reaction is reminiscent of the reaction described by Burden to the 1972 piece “Jaizu” in which he sat in a room next to a box of marijuana cigarettes and a couple cushions, wearing a pair of dark sunglasses as he faced each individual audience-visitor as they were alone in the room with him. He didn’t move or speak. He reported afterward that “many people tried to talk to me, one assaulted me, and one left sobbing hysterically.”

The hallmark of Burden’s art is aptly described by Peter Schjeldahl in his New Yorker article on Burden, “Chris Burden and the Limits of Art.” According to him, Burden’s performances had the effect of “creating a double bind, for viewers, between the citizenly injunction to intervene in crises and the institutional taboo against touching art works.” Many of Burden’s pieces involved him putting himself in danger, such as “Shoot” (1971, gets shot in the arm with a rifle), “Trans-Fixed” (1974, crucifies himself to Volkswagen Beetle), “Icarus” (1973, has gasoline poured onto plates of glass resting on his naked body and then has the gas lit on fire), and “Doomed” (1975, determines to lie under angled piece of glass until someone interferes with the piece, which a museum employee finally does almost two days later by putting some water next to him to save him from dehydration). There are many others, including “Deadman” (1972, lies down on La Cienega Boulevard at night under a dark tarp with only a couple 15-minute flares to protect him).

After the event in “Shoot,” he asked the audience why nobody stopped him. This is a fundamentally unfair question to ask, and Simmons put his audience in the same “double bind.” When audiences show up to these kinds of performances, they hear from the performer (expressed in the situation rather than through words) this basic statement :

“I’m an artist, doing an important art piece. You are the audience, here to observe. Hey, why did you only observe? You’re morally obliged to get involved!”

This type of performance art purposely puts its audience in a position where they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s cruel. It places the audience in the position of feeling like they have a moral duty to stop the pain the artist is inflicting upon himself, while also desiring to respect his sovereignty as a free human being and a thinking artist. To place them in the schema of “audience,” and then suddenly switch the schema on them, is to confuse and hurt them.

Are such artists trying to break down the dichotomy of performer/audience? If so, do they mean to say that audience members should become performers, and share the creation of the performance with the instigating performer?

I think this must be what they mean, but if so, how about they give the audience a more valuable experience in which to perform? Simmons’ invitation to his audience to participate in “Velvet Water” with him is not worth much, because what sane individual is going to watch someone waterboarding himself and think, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, I think I’ll do that, too?” (Of course, this is exactly what Simmons himself did when he decided to replicate Burden’s piece. I leave you the reader to draw the resulting conclusion on the relative sanity of performance art.)

Of course, maybe Simmons didn’t mean for his audience to participate in the same way he was participating. Maybe, as the museum employee interfered in Burden’s “Doomed,” he would have allowed someone to burst through the room to pull his head out of the sink and keep him from ingesting any more water. But how is his audience supposed to know that? Is he wanting them to think for themselves, to come up with their own way to participate? But again, how are they supposed to know that? The invitation to the audience to participate in this type of performance art is again unkind, because the performer does not provide the audience with any help to understand what is going on. They’re left in a sea of novel experience, with no lifesaver tossed to them to help them make sense of it all. So, not having any tools with which to find their way to solid land, they’re left adrift, and implicitly chided for not swimming all the way to shore themselves.

The performer should not oppose themselves to the audience. If the performer wants the audience to be a partner, he should treat them as a partner, and that includes showing them respect and giving them the dignity of being initiated into the meaning of the piece. When you partner with someone, you don’t make demands of them without giving them the tools or information needed to fulfill those demands. Otherwise, you become a dictator, and instead of being the freeing iconoclast you see yourself as, you become worse than the creators of the traditional performance rubrics that you think you’re destroying. At least performers who use traditional forms give their audience the ability to participate in the art piece, because they use symbols and structures that they share with their audience as members of the same community. Performance artists like Burden and Simmons demand responses of their audiences that their audiences are in no way equipped to give, and therefore set themselves up as the powerful and secretive Other, cutting off all meaningful communication between themselves and their audiences. For if they refuse to use language that their audiences can understand, how can their audiences share in their secret? No wonder these artists evoke anger and suffering in their audiences.

P.S. – One fan of Chris Burden’s work asks, “To what extent, if any, and under what conditions, does morality have a higher claim on our actions and reactions than esthetics?” I would reply that morality always and without exception has a higher claim on our actions and reactions than aesthetics. The fact that a person would even consider that the creation of an artwork could justify immoral behavior shows how far modern art has become divorced from any framework that gives it true meaning. For if art can exist for art’s sake alone, then what does art provide, except just another meaningless experience?

I understand that modern performance artists may be trying to find, or create, meaning in a world that seems to have lost it. I sympathize. As human beings, we all need to make sense of our world, and artists do it through our art. However, the meaning is there to be found. It’s not gone. We don’t have to create it out of whole cloth, or find it only in our own idiosyncratic experience. Humanity through all time has found meaning in community, and found meaning in art shared as community. That’s where we’ll find it. Meaning is to be found in the beauty, truth, and goodness that is our common heritage as humans, and which finds its expression in our art, and has done since artists first created.