Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 31, 2014
Frazer Ward No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture.. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2012. 224 pp.; 24 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781611683356)

In No Innocent Bystanders, Frazer Ward addresses issues of community and the public through the lens of canonical performance artists—and work—from the 1970s. Ward is acutely aware of the importance of how an event or action is framed as art, noting that the “importance of art as a context here is that it at once invokes and relies upon (even as it may capture) an audience” (2–3). Ward chooses to focus on seminal pieces—many of which were so controversial that they received coverage in the mainstream press—in order to tease out the implications of audience, publics, and counterpublics in Vito Acconci’s Claim (1971) and Seedbed (1972), Chris Burden’s Five Day Locker Piece and Shoot (both 1971), Marina Abramović’s Rhythm Series (1973–74) and Thomas’s Lips (1975 and 2005), and Tehching Hsieh’s five one-year performances (1978–86) and his final work Tehching Hsieh 1986–1999. Ward is justifiably suspicious of assigning an overly simplistic correspondence between body art practices in the seventies and the culture of protest and media in which this art was made. “Historians and critics ally performance art with radical politics, perhaps most broadly because the deployment of the body in art—especially art whose makers came of age in the sixties—finds its political analogy in putting bodies on the street in demonstrations (the model provided by the 1960s typically being demonstrations against the Vietnam War)” (10–11). Instead, he focuses on the troubled relationship between the artists and their audiences. Ward argues that performance arcs away from Minimalist explorations of the idea of the public to the virtual abandonment of audience by Hsieh. Performance art thus charts the move from a public (in the sense described by Jürgen Habermas) to a critical community (as articulated by Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy). For Ward, the question of what audiences will tolerate in the name of art, and what they will tolerate when something is not designated art, or, for that matter, theater, has broader implications for an understanding of what constitutes a public, and a public discourse.

Ward’s book builds upon Kathy O’Dell’s Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), covering many of the same artists and in some cases the same performances. However, unlike O’Dell, who argues that the institutionalized masochism of performance in the seventies had its roots in society’s response to the Vietnam War and the changing nature of the social contract, Ward argues that these events and actions cohere not so much as masochistic contracts among a like-minded community reacting to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movements, but as intrasubjective events that are responding to the demise of the Habermasian Enlightenment bourgeois public sphere—a domain between the private life of the family and the public life of commerce and state government where public discourse, supposedly free of social difference, could operate. While acknowledging that this model, which excluded women and minorities, was deeply flawed, Ward nevertheless suggests that the public sphere, as theorized by Habermas, has much in common with the public sphere articulated by artists and critics associated with Minimalism, particularly Robert Morris, who argued in “Notes on Sculpture: Part 2” (Artforum 5, no. 2 [October 1966]: 20–23) that the large scale of the objects structured a non-personal or public mode for the work. And yet, as Ward notes, the distinction between public and private, a distinction that the public of Habermas and Minimalism needed in order to maintain an autonomous space of discourse as viewing, had all but dissolved—a dissolution charted by Marshall McLuhan in his 1964 book Understanding Media (New York: McGraw-Hill). “Performance artists like Acconci and Burden undertook their own, albeit unsystematic, analyses of the abstraction of minimalist space and minimalist versions of publicness. Putting warm, wounded, needy, desiring, talking, or maddeningly passive bodies into versions of minimalist space had the effect of undermining the public/private distinction upon which the idealized public sphere depends” (8).

Ward traces this trajectory from the challenge to the Minimalist notions of the public sphere to the dissolution of this sphere through the work of Acconci, Burden, Abramović, and Hsieh, each of whom is the subject of a chapter. Ward argues that the first two registered “the possibility that the audience might be constituted as a new group formation, and [held] at bay any such group formation that might express like-mindedness” (52). Ward suggests in works such as Seedbed, Following Piece (1969), and the notorious three-part film Conversions (1971), which included Acconci attempting to insert his hidden penis into the mouth of a woman kneeling behind him, Acconci shuttled between public and private in such a way as to call into question conventional circuits for artistic subjectivity. With the performance Claim, Acconci “claimed” a space—one acknowledged chiefly by documentation made after the fact—much as the anti-war demonstrations and prison uprisings claimed a space in public discourse that depended upon media coverage for their continuation. Ward argues that these demonstrations “point to the transformation of, and the loss of faith in, the ideal of a public sphere in which legitimating consensus is reached on the basis of a shared version of rationality” (77). Burden’s performance Shoot, the subject of the third chapter, “effects the transformation of its audiences into versions of community, which fail their idealization just as badly as Acconci’s versions of the public” (83).

As the book’s title implies, No Innocent Bystanders suggests that the audiences for these pieces are always implicated as members of the public, of a community, and as witnesses. To serve as witness implies an ethical responsibility, one that is not always fulfilled by the viewers of these performances. Thus, in Shoot, an image from which appears on the cover, the performance implicated the audience as a community. But when the audience failed to act—to stop Burden and the anonymous marksman because what they were witnessing was considered “art”—then they became complicit with the public. Burden was also implicated in this public sphere, for, as Ward points out, “Burden established an obligation, or at least an expectation, that he would do something, and might therefore have been shamed had he then not done it” (88). With performances such as Shoot and Deadman (1972), Burden begins to move closer to the role of homo sacer, defined by Agamben as a figure that straddles the limits of social formations and who is both a part of and apart from these formations. For Ward, the figure of homo sacer is ultimately realized in the performance work of the artists featured in the final two chapters: Abramović, who allows her audience to dictate the trajectory of the performance in the Rhythm pieces; and Hsieh, who all but does away with the audience, most of whom only know his work through documentation after the fact. In this way, Hsieh approached the state of sovereign, becoming “both a non-person and a member of a legally marked category; he did not count, and yet, in the abstract at least, the authorities wanted nothing better than to count him among his like—to record and remove him, but indifferently, without imagining him” (137).

As Ward notes in the foreword, No Innocent Bystanders was developed from his dissertation, albeit many years after completing it. And while Ward has subsequently published critical and exhibition catalogue essays on the work of all these artists, the book itself feels as though it does not fully investigate the meaning of audience, public, public space, and institutional context. Ward’s attention to the context and construction of audience is certainly laudable (and much more compelling than O’Dell’s earlier attempt to theorize a masochistic contract between audience and performer), but he does not go far enough in his analysis of the circumstances in which this work was made. For instance, it was not simply the audience who ensured that the work of Acconci, Burden, Abramović, and Hsieh was viewed as “art,” but the institutional structures and critical discourse that provided a context in which these artists could make work to which their audiences responded and continued to respond. Jessica Santone, for example, has argued in her review of Ward’s book that while “performance in the 1960s . . . frequently sought to challenge the existing conditions of art as institution, performance in the 1970s participated in existing structures and institutions of the art world to a much greater degree, including new interdisciplinary MFA programs and galleries eager to support the emerging genre. Consequently, artists such as Acconci and Burden responded to the dominant style in the art world at the time—Minimalism—on its own terms, creating performances that incorporated Minimalists’ ideas as much as they challenged their easy assumptions” (“Audiences and Publics of Performance,” Art Journal 72, no. 3 [Fall 2013]: 89).

No Innocent Bystanders, with its rigorous adherence to the theorization of the transformation of public space through the agency of avant-garde performance avoids a facile analysis that reads these performances in relationship to the artist’s identity and subjectivity. Ward is particularly critical of the work of Amelia Jones in this regard, noting that “even when such reflection insists that performance art participates in important ways in the fragmentation or dispersal of a coherent (usually modernist) subject, it nevertheless accepts subjectivity as the principle matter of performance art” (135). Ward’s desire to engage with the notion of the public for performance art while avoiding an overemphasis on an artist’s subjectivity seems laudable, particularly in light of the canonization of the work and personae of Acconci, Burden, Abramović, and Hsieh. On the other hand, his choice of canonical artists at the expense of other performance and body-oriented artists working at the same time suggests that subjectivity, and identity, still matter very much in terms of which people are given the most authority in the art world and the real world.

In his critique of this overemphasis on subjectivity, Ward cites Jones’s 1998 book Body Art: Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), which engages with several of the artists covered in No Innocent Bystanders, including Acconci and Burden. In Body Art, Jones attempts to address the way in which subjectivity mattered to feminist artists, who were not as interested in constructing performance as an extension of Minimalism. Ward’s desire to reconstruct a genealogy for performance that once again returns to Minimalism, and a patriarchal origin, is troubling. While the idea of the book has tremendous potential, Ward mostly isolates the idea of the public sphere and the public within the general confines of the art world. In so doing, he unwittingly reinforces the problematically decontextualized narrative of late modernism.

In the essay “Lost Bodies,” written for Live Art in LA (New York: Routledge, 2012), Jones writes that the “key question in the end, of course, is ‘whose history’? Who gets to decide what works have an archival, art historical, and cultural presence in histories of LA and even of the US in the 1970s?” (163) Ward writes about the transformation of the public sphere at a time when a number of artists, some of them associated with the Los Angeles Women’s Building, were questioning their role as artists in relationship to their publics and audiences. Artists such as Linda Montano (who performed with Hsieh), Barbara T. Smith, Newton and Helen Harrison, Allan Kaprow, Suzanne Lacy, Judith Baca, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Cheri Gaulke, Mary Beth Edelson, Annie Sprinkle, and Lorraine O’Grady used their bodies in order to engage different publics and overlapping public debates. It is frustrating that the work of Acconci, Burden, Abramović, and Hsieh was not contextualized against the work of these other artists, which would have made for a much more compelling argument.

Jennie Klein
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Ohio University