Encountering Déjà vu’ and the Performance Art Cliché:
Shannon Cochrane and Márcio Carvalho’s “Untitled”
by Sandrine Schaefer
Márcio Carvalho enters the space wearing a white t-shirt and white boxer shorts. He stands on a plastic tarp that has been spread across the floor. On top of the tarp is a collection of objects and materials familiar to the medium of performance art: a bucket of water, a roll of tape, a roll of string, a spool of ribbon, bread, raw meat, a bottle of syrup of some sort, a carton of eggs, and a bag of flour.
Carvalho engages in the following actions:
Action 1: Drink red syrup- allow it to pour out of mouth
Action 2: Gift Stones to the audience, one by one
Action 3: Connect audience physically using pink ribbon.
Action 4- Tape an X on floor
Action 5- Place Bucket on X
Action 6- Submerge head in bucket of water and emerge gasping for air
Action 7 – Wrap head with string
Action 8- Attach bread to head with the string
Action 9- Attach meat to head with the string
Action 10- Crack eggs on head
Action 11- Gaze at the audience
Action 12-Dump a bag of flour on body
Action 13- Leave performance space (designated by tarp)
Minutes later the objects are reset and Shannon Cochrane enters wearing a black t-shirt and black underwear. As the red syrup trickles from her mouth and splatters on the floor, it becomes apparent that she will be engaging in the same series of actions with the same materials that we just witnessed. This offers the opportunity to observe the subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences between the artists’ execution of each action. This structure also requires the audience to contemplate ways in which different actions are read on different bodies and all of the cultural baggage that comes along with this notion.
Performance Art is a medium that often plays with the boundaries between artist and spectator. This can result in creating confusion around the act of witnessing. Audiences who are unfamiliar with performance art often rely on behaviors presented and preserved by mainstream entertainment. Although performance art may operate with strategies that are similar to those utilized in the entertainment industry, foundations of the medium are rooted in moving beyond holding the audience’s attention alone and creating opportunities to inspire a deeper level of critical thought. This tension around the etiquette of witnessing is echoed through the strategic role of documentation in “Untitled”. One audience member diligently takes a photo every 5 seconds, even if the performer is out of frame. Another positions themselves only inches away from the artists’ face to get the “Money Shot”. The experience of watching the performance being documented becomes a spectacle in itself. These planted photographers set off a chain reaction throughout the audience. People begin to follow their behavior, using their own cameras and phones to document what they are flagging as “important”. Of coarse, this becomes frustrating. The shear quantity of photographers overpower the piece, altering the context so that it is difficult to witness the piece in the way performance art is intended to be experienced; unfolding in real time and space.
While the treatment of documentation in “Untitled” acknowledges the confusion around the relationship between entertainment and performance art, the structure of the piece creates an interesting solution to the act of witnessing. Carvalho and Cochrane invite a unique level of focus and analysis through the presentation of the same series of actions consecutively enacted by two different bodies. While engaging in a sort of memory game, the audience observes Cochrane more critically. Not only had Carvalho set the precedent for each action, his part in the piece exists in the realm of the absurd. Many of his actions ignited laughter among the audience that vanished when Cochrane executed the same actions. When the audience is asked to reconcile what they had previously seen and to look again, to look closer, this invites a fundamental shift of paradigm.
The structure of “Untitled” presents an exaggeration of binaries. The differences in the artists’ perceived gender and race is not only enhanced by their choice to wear black and white, but also highlights an element of competition. The performance ventures into the territory of “who did it better”. As albumen and yolk fly through the air each time Cochrane slams an egg on her head, she becomes the clear winner in the sport of egg cracking. Meanwhile, Carvalho takes home the gold for submerging his head in a bucket of water, burping and pounding his ear to release the water that has seeped in. This impulse to view the piece as if it were some kind of competition seems absurd, but not far off. The format of the international performance art festival can be likened to a kind of performance art Olympics. Artists from all over the world come together to share their best work that will inevitably be compared to the other work presented in the festival even if the work is incomparable. Each artist wears an invisible badge of honor for the place where they come from and are transformed into a representative of their country. When you are communicating across language barriers and geographical borders, this is a way to establish networks and relationships with like-minded individuals. However, like all formats, the performance art festival has its own set of pros and cons.
“Untitled” critiques this format, simultaneously offering potential for a dialogue around the growing interest in performance art in the mainstream. As institutions gain interest in including performance art in their collections, the subject of reiterations and re-performances have become frequent topic of conversation and consideration. Coupled with a rise in delegated performance, questions around the necessity for the artist’s own body to be present in a piece of performance art is a frequent topic of inquiry. Many practitioners of performance would argue that without the artist’s presence it is not even their work, while some argue that the concept of the piece is primary and that the actions can be implemented by anyone who is able. These conversations lead into the murky territory around ideas about authorship, technical skill, and attempting to locate a collective intention within the medium.
Performance art is a medium that has been relegated to the corners of society, perceived as half joke, half avant-garde. We are just now seeing the US learning to speak its language in the mainstream. A large part of performance art’s history has been rooted in activism, providing an alternative to making “Art” deemed suitable for the art market. This concept is at the core of performance art history and still encourages artists to take responsibility for writing and archiving their own histories. Cochrane and Carvalho are well versed in this language, even beyond their individual art practices. They have contributed efforts to evolve the medium through their curatorial work and discourse. Working with the notion of the performance art cliché, each action in “Untitled,” is an action that is frequently used in performance art. If anyone is going to define the clichés in the medium, I feel most comfortable with it being individuals with their credentials. Although at first glance, “Untitled” may appear to be a performance art roast, it is offering something different. To assess, to judge these actions, to create a consciousness around actions that have history and to identify them as cliché, is ultimately useful. They are offering an experience that directly desensitizes these actions. After seeing someone wrap their head in meat twice, does it still hold the same weight as it did the first time? This usage of time is an interesting one. “Untitled” asks how long does it take for an action to become cliché? How long does it take for an action to become irrelevant, or perhaps, even gain relevance? Does it require decades or can this happen over the duration of mere minutes? By archiving these loaded actions into their own bodies, Cochrane and Carvalho open up territory that supports dynamic contemplation around the history, present state, and future of performance art practices.