By David LaGaccia
Written over a period of months, the following story is simultaneously a look at the nature of performance art, my experiences performing with Non Grata, my experiences with trauma, and attempts to answer how we value performance art. It is meant to coincide with an ongoing program curated by Valerie Kuehne called Trauma Salon, that fosters a discussion on the nature of trauma through performance. The essay will appear in the latest Non Grata art book going in production this autumn.
What is the value of a moment, here, now, your next breath? Performance art asks you to value you something you cannot keep. It has created in it’s community of artists, curators, and gallery owners many divergent ideas, ethics, and ideologies on both methods and concerns on how to monetize an artistic, yet ephemeral experience. Time, materials, labor, and rent, basic overhead for a business yet difficult obstacles for the practicing performance artist who at the end of the day, when the work is made, there is little expectation of a substantial payment.
Performance art is unlike other art forms where it is not consumed in a sense that it can be acquired to be appreciated. By its very nature, the production of the art is non-capitalist, or even non-economic for that matter. It cannot be distributed like a book or movie, and it cannot be captured to be hung in a museum or gallery space where say—a painting like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has sat smiling relatively unchanged since 1517. Painting, photography, film, music, writing, dance, theater, all require a viewer, a listener, a reader to take in (consume) the work through their senses to appreciate it, creating a necessity that each of these art forms have a product that ultimately can be consumed: a book, a film, a composition, a painting, a play.
It’s this product of art that also created this multi-billion dollar monster called the art market. Here commercial art is created to be sold at art fairs and auctions all over the world, with artists following the latest trends to (hopefully) make money. Here the art is pure product to be invested in, like real estate or a stock. For example a Picasso painting can sell for $175 million at a Sotheby’s auction because a person placed that amount of perceived monetary value on what is essentially paint and canvas; this is done by answering two questions: How much do they want or value it? and, Will it appreciate in value in the years to come?
Think of art this way:
Artist–>Artwork –> Viewer–> Experience/Appreciation/Interpretation/Meaning/Value
In this model, the artist has to create the artwork out of materials, and the viewer has to consume (through their senses) the artwork to gain an experience that creates its appreciation, interpretation, meaning or value. The consumer and the artwork are detached from one another, with the consumer placing meaning (or value) onto it. For example, if you watch a movie, and it makes you cry, it’s moving you as a viewer at an emotional level of sadness (or happiness) because you are applying the meaning of sadness to the images you are watching. Let’s say another viewer watches the same film and yawns. Here the film moves the viewer at an emotional level of boredom, because they applied the meaning of boredom to the images they are watching; in both cases the film (the artwork) itself hasn’t changed, just the meaning applied to it by the two different viewers. One viewer may value the film, see it again or buy it for personal viewing, or another viewer will never want to see the film again, wishing they never saw it in the first place. In any case, the film needed to be consumed by each viewer to have meaning applied to it. Now, what if music plays in the middle of a forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it art? This answer of course is yes, it’s called conceptual art.
Performance art, however, relies on contribution, not consumption for its creation and appreciation. You cannot take a performance home with you, unless you’re defining memory as a static physical object. Performance art ephemera can be physical objects, though it is just a memento or art object of a past performance. Documentation such as photography can attempt to capture the experience of performance art, and has captured iconic moments from artists like Christ Burden and Marina Abramović, but, ultimately you are looking at a photo that is a fraction of a second of a performance, not the performance itself.
Think of performance art this way:
Artist –> Artwork <– Viewer
In this model, both the artist and the viewer actively contribute to the creation of the art. A famous example would be Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964). Here Ono sat still in her “best suit” and gave the audience one word for direction, “cut”; the audience was hesitant at first, but they then proceeded to cut her dress one swatch at a time to a point where she was nearly topless. The meaning of the work ranges, but it is cited most often as a feminist work. In performance art the intention of the work before its creation can deviate from its ultimate meaning with five variables in any given performance, which are performer, action, time, space, and audience participation (or non-participation), each one affecting the outcome of the work. So, if the participants of Ono’s piece were all female, or if no one decided to cut her dress, or if it had been a performer of a different sex, race, or gender, than the meaning of the work would be substantially different. Because Ono gave the audience a score to interpret and act on, her work was ultimately dependent on the contribution of the audience for its creation and meaning. Cut Piece has rightfully been cited as valuable and meaningful in the development of performance, where it is now being featured in a retrospective of Ono’s work at the Museum of Modern Art.
Performance art has been called an ephemeral art because like any moment, it is destroyed as it is created; it becomes a memory to whoever witnesses it and a story to whoever misses it. Because of this, it’s hard to place value on something that is just an experience, something that is immaterial, and leaves you before you can consider how meaningful it was. Like any memory, it is an act you are still clawing at in the past trying to reconstruct and understand in the present; if you weren’t paying attention when it happened, than it is gone forever. This is the common idea, but it’s not true, because a performance can last so much longer.
Performance creates an identity. In an essay in their 2012 Normadic Diverse Universe New York book, gallerist and performance artist Joseph Ravens wrote “When you invite Non Grata to your space or festival, it is like ordering a heart attack or asking for an earthquake or begging for more torture or something… but afterwards you feel aesthetic, alive…” I’ve written about Non Grata before when I had the privilege of seeing their work for the first time in 2012 at Grace Exhibition Space in New York, and yes the violence is real. That is real fire being inflamed, those are real cuts being made, and those are real scars left on performers from brands heated by a blow torch. And, the performance space is usually left in a pile of demolished performance objects, destroyed beyond recognition. This more or less sums up the reputation of Non Grata that sounds like hyperbole, but is true to a degree.
Outside the performance space, however, Non Grata is best described as a group of friends that I get to see once or twice a year, each time spent with them as memorable as the last. The personalities that once had an extroverted fire during the previous night’s performance, tempers into a quieter, sometimes introverted nature, opening yourself up to a fellow performer, allowing a sense of acceptance to express who you are. There is a custom within Non Grata to give each other colorful pseudonyms like Devilgirl, Little Tom or Anonymous Boh to give a sense of anonymity to the outsider while performing, but around the dinner table, names like Al Paldrok, Tajea Tross, Amber Lee, Sindy Butz, John Hancock and so many more are shared, drinking, telling stories and talking about our lives as they have gone by. I could never have imagined for myself having friends like this. To go from a life where I’ve had very few friends, to within a couple of years meet people from Estonia, England, Japan, South Korea, Finland, and more, is beyond what I could ever believe my life was capable of, beyond what I believed I was capable of.
I remember we were lying on the beach in 2012 during Art Basel Miami when Al Paldrok first asked me to perform with Non Grata which was to take place that night at the Fountain Art Fair. In his thick Estonian accent, his request came off as a command—an expectation that gave me no other choice—start thinking of ideas now—. I was surprised and nervous to not only come up with a performance idea within only a few hours, but also to find an action that would be as visually interesting to stand out and stand with the other performers. With no ideas to develop, I became what is jokingly known as Non Grata meat, an extra body that can help with another artist’s performance; I had to duck several times just in case an errant flame gets close to my back, or I’ve nearly collided into another performer who was probably watching their back as well. It was here where I first became conscious how audiences can create the personality of the performer, even if fictional— that consequently places a sort of meaning, an identity on yourself, which in the course of your performance creates your art. Performance is not a state of acting, it’s a state of being; as much as the outsider defines the performer, we define ourselves by the actions we create.
2014 was an important year for me. Non Grata always tours through the States in the fall, allowing me another chance to perform with them. It was the first time I performed in over a year, so I wanted to be able to contribute in some way; I felt it was something I needed to do. After missing several workshops that had them performing at spots around New York City, including Grand Central Station, I was again offered to perform. The nervousness was still there, but now with an understanding of what to do. Non Grata has a darker aesthetic that is contrary to my own personality, but performing with them connects me to other performers on another emotional level allowing me to explore a part of myself I’ve never fully been able to express—where the invention and the expression of the self is pushed past danger and fear towards excitement and play, overtaking the bareness of being on your own. Seen casually, blowtorches and chainsaws may seem more like spectacle, random actions with little content. In truth, however each Non Grata performance is made up of individual performances used to create a greater image that often boarders on chaos, distracting you from the details of each performer’s actions. Like life, the spectacle of the performance can be seen as a deliberate distraction from the meaning. For me the message Non Grata brings is simple: it weakens inhibitions of what you feel you can do, what you can say, or what you believe you can become as a person both for the performer and the audience.
But what happened in 2013? It was a hard year for me. Years of financial scarcity, combined with overwork, unresolved loneliness, mixed up with years of emotional hurt and an abusive relationship, exacerbated an already worsening and untreated depression. —Sometimes you just get tired—. Depression for me is when you are paralyzed by fears of the future and tormented by the pain of the past; it is not temporary sadness, it is chronic emotional pain. I did not know what it felt like to be “normal”, to go through life with its normal ups and downs; what I did have was at least ten years of almost daily feelings of physical pain, emotional pain, or despair. I had had suicidal thoughts for at least ten years, yet a mistake on my part, never reached out to tell anyone or seek professional help. Depression has a funny way of obscuring what is real and what is not real. An outsider may feel that there should be nothing wrong with your life, seeing little to no reason why you should feel that way, yet you can walk into a room shake hands and give hugs to people you care, you can have a great job, you can have a great life, you can have great relationships, but inside tense you can feel anxiety creep down your back and you say to yourself, I want to fucking kill myself— that’s depression. By summer 2013 during the Brooklyn Performance Art Festival, I was barely functioning, and by the time it was October, and Non Grata came through on their tour, I was day to day on a suicidal brink. I was invited again to go down to Art Basel Miami with them to perform, though, it wouldn’t happen this time. I woke up that Saturday morning after the show and had made a final decision. I had a suicide attempt.
I woke up numb. God I need to kill myself. God I need to fucking kill myself as a heron when she fishes , still prying on all sides, or as a cat does with a mouse, his eye is never off hers-she gloats to him, on her, accurately looking on whom she looks, who looks at her what she says I do something it’s my fault, she does something it’s my fault, she brought him to dinner, at supper that knife worked all right, breakfast was tasteless, the shower was numb, walking, away, for some reason I forgot to lock my door at home, he is the same, still inquiring, stealing, gazing, listening, afraid of every small thing-I need to kill myself, she said not to do anything rash, it takes no imagination to kill yourself, it’s not rash, I’ve been thinking about this for over ten years, I tried it last week, it should get the job done, why did she smile, why did she pity him, why did she touch him? why did she drink twice with that man? why did she offer to kiss, to dance? a whore, an outright whore— And there she was, she found me lying on the floor. I’m going to kill myself today. She pounded on my door threating to call the police. She lied beside me. Why does she have to see me like this? Did you eat anything she asked. She started talking about how she attempted to take her life several times, and talked about what she’s been through, and how she dealt with it. She hugged me and started to cry; I cried too. If my friend hadn’t come at that moment, I would probably be dead.
People who have survived a suicide attempt, or prevented someone from committing suicide, or have known someone who has committed suicide, all have understood the value of a moment. Trauma is part of our lives, it is the process of how we change, how we grow. I’ve dealt with it by understanding that yes, it was a moment that was painful, it was traumatic, and afterwards I felt alone and was afraid what other people would say, it was a moment of physical and emotional pain, but there will be a tomorrow whether I wanted it or not. Experiences good or bad don’t last a moment, they last lifetimes. My attempt was two years ago, and I still deal with that traumatic experience just if it were yesterday. It affects how I view myself, how I interact with others, the decisions I make, and the relationships I pursue. It is not easy telling someone you’ve attempted suicide, with the person stuck in-between needing and wanting to talk, while being apprehensive to find someone they feel they can trust; unfortunately it is a subject seldom discussed publicly, offering little help to people who need it the most. The lie we tell ourselves is that experience is ephemeral, and has little impact on our lives, yet we change with each new experience, that is, the lives we live daily. A loss of a parent, physical scars, sexual, emotional, physical abuse of many kinds, trauma is a memory that becomes biography. This was a moment that was now a part of my life, this was now a part of who I am as a person, and the worst thing I felt I could do was deny it.
How do you value something you cannot keep? Our lives are as ephemeral as the performances we create. Performance—like life— is an expression of the self that explores the limits of the space around you, your body, your mind, your self. As an art form, it forces you to contribute to the emotional experience of the moment or even to the content, giving a greater value to the observer and meaning to the art. What level of contribution you allow yourself to give to the experience will dictate the amount of value or meaning you place on the experience. There are many times I’ve stood watching uncomfortably as an act unfolded, wondering indecisively what can I do, or what should I do. Yet I have never regretted having seen it, witnessing an aspect of a person (sometimes a friend) that is seldom expressed socially, sometimes beautiful, sometimes absurd, sometimes frightening, but in the act—performed with an aesthetic dignity that is shared with a bare intimacy with me. Performance as an art can affect your life in how you see others, how you see yourself, and what you believe you can do or express. It is an art form that becomes biography. To value performance is to value your life, the experience you give and take from it. I’m happy that I’m alive despite the trauma I’ve lived through. Life doesn’t happen to you, you are alive, you are life, so why search for a meaning when you can create it yourself.