IMAGINATION: The Art of Transformation
You have to remain a child your
whole life long and yet be a man
who draws energy from the things
of the world.
Imagine that in another time and place, Frank Moore is huddled by the firelight, wrapped in animal hides and carefully protected by his tribe. On ceremonial occasions he is carried to various sacred sites for the purpose of ensuring the well-being of the people who care for him and for whom he provides spiritual and emotional guidance. Moore dances, chants, moans and utters incomprehensible sounds that only a few trusted helpers can interpret for the rest.
As he grows older, he is more revered and respected by the ever-younger members of his clan. These latter know of him by reputation, and they travel great distances to benefit from his wisdom. They know that he is chosen, marked by the gods for a special purpose. He is wounded, but has somehow survived. When he mounts his spirit-horse, the drum, he flies great distances, he talks with gods and ancestors and then returns to tell his visions.
In performance, Frank Moore is a “shaman”; in “real life,” Moore is confined to a wheel chair and ninety-percent disabled. Moore paints, writes, and communicates with a pointer attached to his head by a leather strap. On stage he “sings,” “dances” and “performs.” Moore enjoys a large Internet presence that helps him to obscure the line separating his “real life” from performance. He has a twenty-four hour per day (Internet) radio station, a web site with many galleries and a vast network of correspondence that he calls his “E-Salon.”
Moore has cerebral palsy. A strobe light and the projected images he culls from his thirty years of performance art light his shaman rituals, not a fire. The only skins he is wrapped in are those of the various nude dancers that dance with, around or on him. Moore Has a Bachelor’s degree in English, A Master’s degree in Psychology, and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts (Performance and Video) (Resume). Moore sees his work as ancillary to that of Ann Halprin and Antonin Artaud. Moore is a rolling enigma.
Frank Moore bases his theory of performance on his idea of public and private rituals. Public rituals, for Moore, originate in private rituals. Private rituals are “only experienced within the mind and/or body of the person. Or between the bodies of two people” (Private Rituals). Moore’s performances often take place in “caves” or “tents” or other symbolic, created spaces that separate participants from the everyday world.
Participants in both the private and public performances are forbidden to reveal what happens within the performance space during the ritual. Moore writes, “one of the reasons to use secrecy is to draw a circle around the magic work that protects it from the prevailing taboos, morals, and judgments” (Private Rituals). Some of Moore’s rituals last for several hours, some for days. The outcomes or results of these rituals are difficult to assess because of the secrecy Moore imposes on the participants.
Moore wrote about his “Shamanistic Art” as
“an art that acts for nonlinear change… [that] by bringing new dreams, new myths, new visions into society from the universal underworld, it will radically change society”.(Private Rituals)
Moore concluded that the “job” of the artist as shaman was “to carry the new visionary myths from the gods into the world through [his] body”(Private Rituals).
The designation of a “sacred” space or “shrine” by a shaman is a common practice among “traditional people” like the Dagara in West Africa. Malidoma Some describes two Dagara funeral rituals in his Ritual: Power, Healing and Community (76-91, 100-102). The first account he gives, is of the ritual as it is practiced by the Dagara; the second is a “Dagara-style funeral” as enacted by those attending a “men’s conference” of Viet Nam War Veterans (99).
The participants at the men’s conference were divided into three groups: “mourners,” “containers” and “singers” (100). The “containers” built a shrine that represented the “border” between this world and the “Otherworld.” Later they would, as their designation suggested, “contain” the grieving mourners. Near the shrine there was a “line separating the tribe of men from the Otherworld”(100). A second space was designated as the “village,” the men were to return to the village after having expressed their grief. The distance between the village and the shrine (about twenty feet) was called the “road of grief”(100).
Some’s account related how the mourners became “fascinated by the sight of the Otherworld” and “were unwilling to return to the village”(101). Some of the mourners attempted to “throw themselves into [the Otherworld] as if in a serious need to join the dead”(101). When the dejected mourners were compelled (some by force) to return to the village, they effectively turned the village into a shrine, by carrying their grief with them. The formal structure of the ritual had broken down. The mourner’s seemed to turn the ritual space upside down. Apparently they confused the Otherworld with a goal to be achieved, not a space to be venerated. Some’s carefully reconstructed Dagara grief ritual was transformed into “ritual—period”(101):
People leapt out of the village in single line and danced their way to the shrine, turned around and came back home to the village. It was beautiful to see. The space between the village and the shrine was busy. The cleansing was happening. So much grief surfaced that the shrine was jam-packed with a crowd of men who did not quite register that they were only supposed to go to the shrine and drop their grief and return to the village where the drumming and the chanting was [sic] going on .(101-102)
Despite the misunderstandings, Some declared that the ritual was “a small success”(102). Perhaps among the group of men, the need for catharsis was so strong, that even when they misunderstood the stipulations of the ritual, they were still ecstatically displaced, and experienced catharsis.
Carr described Moore’s shamanic performance at Franklin Furnace in an article from 1987, included in her anthology cited above. She wrote, “Moore’s piece felt to me like five real hours from the Summer of Love, complete with group grope”(139). Carr was there as a journalist, and was not moved to join the ritual. She described the ritual as “a love-in”(140). Participants were first led to a specific place by “mid-priests,” they were offered “a drug” [i] to lower their “inhibitions” and they had their feet washed by their guide (138).
The designation of space, cleansing and communal drinking were all ritual elements. Here they helped Moore establish the unity of the group and the separateness or “special-ness” of the place he transformed into a ritual space. From the beginning, as theatergoers entered, Moore sat in his “cave”[ii] “naked in his wheelchair” and “howling”(138). The outward signs of ritual, pointed to the possibility for the inward journey Moore and his “audience” would take.
Moore then made himself “vulnerable” to his audience by having two of his attendants place him on “a mat on the floor”(139). His audience was invited to “explore Frank’s body,” as Carr reported only “one woman did” (139). As the performance continued, the audience was asked to participate in what Moore called “eroplay”(139). Moore’s wife, Linda Mac explained to the group that eroplay was “ ‘an intense physical playing or touching of oneself or others’”(qtd. in Carr 139). Mac then read a series of suggestive instructions that directed the participants as they performed with and around Moore. The ritual was concluded as “helpers wrapped everyone in a giant circle of cellophane, ribbon, toilet paper, and aluminum foil”(140).
The ritual binding of the group made communitas an explicit statement, complete with an undercurrent of physical restriction. [See Figure 1: Rocking and Wrapping.] This restriction was perhaps a warning from the shaman to the rest of the participants in the ritual[iii]. Or, perhaps the act of “unwrapping” or “releasing” themselves from their restraints was symbolic of the cathartic release they should have felt from the rest of the ritual.
Some’s well-defined “road of grief” has been reinterpreted in cellophane and toilet paper. The linearity of the cellophane and toilet paper was suggestive of a road and its suggested circularity, expressive of life’s cycles in which all were enmeshed. To cast off one’s “wrapping”[iv] was freedom for the participant and catharsis for the performer; to cast off one’s cycle of death and rebirth, for the “dead”[v] was enlightenment. Moore perhaps educed a similar interpretation when he wrote:
[Performance] art can have a more heavy-duty magical side to it that shocks, offends, and breaks new ground. This side is what is locked in, the subconscious, the womb, the underground, hell/heaven, pleasure/torture, the coffin, the grave, birth/death/rebirth, dream/nightmare, the hidden world of taboos. (Reshaping Reality)
In Some’s account of the grief ritual, a pervasive sense of ecstatic displacement and cathartic relief was evident. In Frank Moore’s “Rocking and Wrapping” elements of ritual and communion were enacted by the participants, as witnessed by Carr. Evidence of the experience of ecstasy or catharsis, beyond what was symbolically portrayed in Moore’s ritual, remained hidden.
[ii] Carr described it as “hung with quilts, sheets and strips of aluminum foil”(138).
[iii] In the sense of “that what binds us together also restricts our freedom to act as individuals.”
[iv] Clothing and the tape and toilet paper are “wrappings.”
[v] In many rituals the initiate is seen as dying to his former life. Here Moore may intend that “wrapping” tape is equated with the winding sheets used for corpses.
Carr,Cynthia. On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, Hanover, 1993.
Moore, Frank. “Art of Reshaping Reality” Eroplay.com. n.pag. March 14, 2000. http://www.eroplay.com/Cave/ArtShaman/artsham3.html
—.“Private Rituals” Eroplay.com. n.pag. March 14, 2000. <http.www.eroplay.com/Cave/ArtShaman/artsham19.html>
—.“Resume” Eroplay.com. n.pag. March 14,2000. <http://eroplay.com/Cave/resume.html>
Some, Malidoma Patrice. Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. New York: Penguin Putnam Books, 1993.
Now come with me to the tragedy
And let us sacrifice to both gods.
There is a prevailing view that performance art is new, controversial and incomprehensible. There is also a contrary view among certain critics that performance art is now passé, and must be consigned to history. Regardless of the proposition advanced, the proponents cannot tell us precisely what performance art is. These events are difficult to classify. The performers who present their art offer no one set of rules with which to evaluate their work.
The “content” of this work is diverse, at times strange and controversial. These performances can include nudity, shrieking, public sexual intercourse or masturbation, climbing over furniture and even acts of self-immolation. Although these events may seem radically different or even offensive, they have a valid claim historically and culturally in the visual and theatrical arts. The purpose of this study is to examine performance art through the lenses of Aristotelian catharsis and (performative) ecstasy. This scrutiny leads to a fuller understanding of what performance art is. [Have you noticed that the raunchier my subject matter is, the more scholarly my tone becomes. I’ve noticed it too. Luckily, the more scholarly my tone becomes, the more likely I am to include raunchy pictures!]
Audience members may feel safe with the representations of violence and sex viewed from the distance afforded by theatrical films and video. American culture is saturated with these images. When similar scenes are enacted in live theater, the audience may not feel quite so comfortable. A nude man, woman or couple on stage no longer has the same shock value it once had. However, “transgressive acts” performed by or on the naked man, woman or couple can still elevate the audiences’ consternation to various degrees of intolerant alarm. This principle may hold true even when they see an event on film or video. The question is, “What is a ‘transgressive act?’”
Marina Torgovnick, in Primitive Passions: Men, Women and the Quest for Ecstasy, wrote about the 1990 video by performance artist Monte Cazazza. In the video Cazazza’s penis was pierced several times, and jewelry inserted. Torgovnick’s somewhat exasperated account recalled the audiences “deep collective gasp” as
…a tweezers-like devise descends upon the head of the penis. It stretches the penis out like cotton candy, farther than anyone would have imagined the glans penis could be extended (190).
Torgovnick described the insertion of a “metal bolt, perhaps ¼” thick” into the head of the penis (190). The audience that viewed the video with Torgovnick was characterized as “jewelry-makers and craftspeople” who were attending a convention at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (190).
The context Torgovnick gave for the piercing performed on Cazazza was a “continuum that ranges from adventursomeness [sic], roguishness, and travel, to rape, violence and dismemberment” (190-191). She told us too, that “both ends of this continuum” are connected “symbolically…to the idea of the Primitive” (191). The “shock value” of the transgressive act was located somewhere along the length of the “continuum” she elaborated. [If you concentrate, I’ll show you another picture….]
Torgovnick also gave an alternative context for the piercing that emphasized a less transgressive, more ritualistic meaning (inherent value) for the act: Piercing the penis was intended to imitate menstrual flow (17). It might be inferred that the transgressive act of genital piercing, as a species of performance art, was a ritual act of transformation expressed as theater. The performer’s ability to shock his audience, in this case at least, was not mitigated by the use of videotape. The “idea of the Primitive” was conveyed as a part of the content of the show. The “deep collective gasp” transferred this idea back to the performer: in effect, it completed a circuit of “ceremonial communion.” For those who participated on either side of this exchange, the result was more than symbolic. Even in the artist’s absence, communion was the aggregate of the experience and expressions of the performer and his audience.
The performer and his friends who assisted in the piercing participated in an expression of what Victor Turner called the “liminal” (55). Cazazza was transformed; his penis was ritually converted to emulate the flow of menses. The audience took part in the experience as if it were a commodity, the “liminoid” (55). Cazazza and his companions were displaced into Turner’s “spontaneous communitas,” “a deep rather than intense style of personal interaction” (47). The audience watched Cazazza’s video ceremonially because, as Turner says, “ceremony indicates, ritual transforms” (80). The “deep collective gasp” is an outward spontaneous “indication” of shock or surprise that does not cross the threshold of liminality by way of ritual. In a sense, they took “communion,” they did not “receive” it. The audience was not transformed by the performance. They were just variously alarmed by it.
There was a moment in the experience of the performer that distinguished him from his audience. This moment was necessarily related to the ideas of ritual transformation and the formation of communitas. The performer felt the physical reality of the piercing. He experienced a “rush” of endorphins and adrenaline and was “displaced” for a moment, as if he was “out side himself” and “suspended” in time.
The Greek word for this phenomenon is ekstasis; it refers to an Archimedean “displacement” of the self. If we have any doubts that the experience of this displacement is pleasurable we need only to turn to Torgovnick’s account of the end of Cazazza’s performance video. She relates that when the camera finally pans to the performer’s face: “He’s grinning and mouthing” some inaudible words that she interprets as: “It was great man. Unbelievable” (190).
I suggest that it is ecstasy that transforms, not ritual. While ritual is used to induce an ecstatic displacement of the self, ritual is not the only way this displacement is accomplished. Transformation implies a sustained change in the nature of the self. Ritual implies a constant return to the mechanism that may bring about this transformation and sustain it over time. Ecstasy has a greater sense of sudden, dramatic change that is in some way self-sustaining. Saul of Tarsus’s “ecstatic conversion” blinds him temporarily, changes his mission, his religion and his name. It does not require him to fall off of his horse repeatedly. Much of this distinction hinges on the definition of ecstasy which will be addressed at length in subsequent sections.
Certainly Cazazza’s performance was infused with the “tribal culture” melodramatics of the late 1990’s. Piercing and tattoo parlors proliferated, but there was nothing new about this “callback” to the primitive in Western Culture. There was also nothing new in the appropriation of cultures and cultural symbols that were not one’s own.
Richard Huelsenbeck, wrote in his Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, an account of his recitation of “Negro poems that I had made up myself…” (9). Even when he was told by the owner of the tavern that was home to the “Cabaret Voltaire,” Jan Ephriam, that “they’re not Negro poems,” he persisted. [This all took place in Switzerland in 1916.] Ephriam tried to supply Huelsenbeck with an “authentic” alternative, the latter wrote, “no force on earth could have gotten me to leave out the ‘Umba’ at the end of every verse” (9). John Elderfield, in his “Introduction” to Hugo Ball’s Flight Out of Time, wrote that Huelsenbeck’s “obsession with primitivism in language was to be central to their work”(9). Ball described a typical Huelsenbeck performance:
Huelsenbeck read on the ninth. When he enters, he keeps his cane of Spanish reed in his hand and occasionally swishes it around. That excites the audience. They think he is arrogant, and he certainly looks it. His nostrils quiver, his eyebrows are arched. His mouth with its ironic twitch is tired but composed. He reads, accompanied by the big drum, shouts, whistles, and laughter (Ball 55-56).
Like the Futurist performers before them, the dadas intended their performances to excite, even irritate the audiences they played to. Ball described the purpose of dada performance as a “burning search, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age…” and “ for the possibility of it being stirred, its awakening” (59). “Art” he wrote, “is only an occasion for that, a method” (59).
The Dadaists, in general, sought to effect social change by provocation. Each of them formed his theories and the configuration of the group was serious. Their performances were more cathartic than ecstatic. They de-limited one “end” of Torgovnick’s “continuum,” while Cazazza absorbed the other.
Michael Kirby, in Futurist Performance, sees a continuous line that extended from Futurist drama to the work of contemporary performance artists (6-8). Dadaism and Surrealism are of more interest to us in our present inquiry because the idea of the primitive consumed them. Dada had a certain naïveté that entertained, even as it hoped to change the world and shook a stick at it. As Annabelle Melzer wrote in Dada and Surrealist Performance, “all those in the later dada-surrealist group” sought “the restoration of a type of primitive theatrical communion” (43). This “primitive theatrical communion” as shown above, was precisely what Torgovnick described.
In the 1950’s, artists discovered the meanings ancillary to Jackson Pollock’s paintings. The term “action painting” denoted that the painting was the result of an action or of a series of actions. Pollock made implicative statements about his work:
On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand paintings of the west (Pollock Qtd in Chipp 546, 548).
Pollock saw himself as “a part” of his work, not opposed to it as other artists might have been. He also claimed to work in the tradition of Native American healers. The actions of “walking around,” “working from the four sides” and the condition of “being in” the painting were read as elements of performance, but these also indicated that Pollock was transformed, perhaps “displaced” in the act of painting. What he described was a form of artistic ecstasy: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing….[T]he painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through” (548). According to Herschel Chipp’s note, these statements appeared in a 1947 article written by Pollock (546).
In a 1951 film narration, Pollock stated “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them” (Jackson Pollock, Chipp’s note 546). Pollock presented us with a double image of himself as a painter who was inside his painting and who walked around it; he flung paint, as emotion dripped from his stir stick. He also added, “I can control the flow of the paint” (546). Pollock’s dual location (inside and outside) suggested that he felt he was simultaneously a “part of” his painting and a “part of” his audience. Pollock’s lack of awareness, and his ability to control the paint, may have seemed contradictory at first: however, these statements could have been intended as a further indication of his dual location.
The “performative” aspect of Pollock’s work was emphasized in both the article he wrote and by his participation in the film. Artists like Jiro Yoshihara, Georges Mathieu and Allan Kaprow saw the potential for performance in Pollock’s actions and gestures (Stiles 680-682). Each of these artists, working independently, developed theories about visual art forms that no longer relied on paint, canvas and other materials used by traditional artists. Ordinary objects and simple actions were “elevated” to the substance of visual art, not just the subjects represented by art (Stiles 679-681).
Kaprow said, in a 1966 interview with Richard Kostelanetz, regarding Pollock’s influence on his work: “His practice of being “in” his work was a metaphor, however, once the painting was finished. I wanted to keep that relationship real and constant” (Qtd in Kostelanetz 108). Kaprow wanted to extend the gestic moment of the artist “inside” the work of art; this extension “blurred” or perhaps collapsed the distinction between art and life. Kaprow kept the process and eliminated the product. He said “…its model is life; but as a painting is not a model, so a Happening is not life” (Ibid.124). Two years earlier he wrote, in his “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings”: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid and perhaps indistinct, as possible” [his emphasis] (Stiles 709). Kaprow saw the possibility of blurring the line between life and art, but balked at its erasure.
Artists from many different disciplines began to experiment with these new forms. Each artist applied a different name to describe his “happening,” “event,” “fluxus,” or “actions.” Some artists, like Kaprow, wrote elaborate sets of rules, conditions or plans that added a teleological dimension to their work. Georges Mathieu, a “situationist,” wrote what he called “a phenomenology of painting.” He stressed three main points: “speed in execution,” “improvisation,” and a “subliminal state of mind” (or “a certain state of ecstasy”) (Stiles 701-702).
Around 1973, critics began to use the generic label “performance art” to describe these diverse events for convenience, not for greater precision (Stiles 680). Many artists resisted the term “performance art,” because it failed to adequately reflect their personal and sociopolitical aspirations. Some artists felt that they were unfairly associated with the theater and “entertainment” (680). Most serious discussions of Performance Art have begun with the admission that it can not be precisely defined. Recently, some artists have insisted by shortening “Performance Art” to “Performance,” they have adequately defined their work, or that they have made the term their own.
We use “performance art,” informally, to refer to live presentations by artists (Goldberg 12). We stipulate that these artists use their bodies and ordinary objects as the “material of visual art” (Stiles 679). In a more formal sense, we use the word performance and its etymological origin to launch a discussion of Aristotle.
Victor Turner, in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play reminds us that the word “performance” is derived from the Old French word parfournir, “to complete” (13, 91). That a performance is expected to be complete is a very old idea. It is this idea that leads back to Ancient Greece and to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy which, he says should be “complete and of a certain length” (Kaufmann 33). Walter Kaufmann, in Tragedy and Philosophy, after much deliberation, relates that for Aristotle, tragedy excites feelings of “ruth” and “dread,” and then provides us with a “sobering” or “pleasurable relief” from a “sense of profound suffering, approximating terror” (33-52).
The average Ancient Greek had a fatalistic outlook. In his myths, even the Olympian gods had to answer to the Fates. Tragedy and all of the other institutions of the Ancient Greek civilization, stood against a backdrop of Chaos. The sobering, pleasurable
relief or catharsis that Aristotle prescribed for the Greek theatergoers, was an escape from Chaos and a return to an ordered life. Kaufmann called Aristotle’s idea of catharsis, as applied to tragedy, “the most suggestive idea in his book” (51). Catharsis was after all, a medical term.
Like the Greek tragedian, the performance artist of the twentieth century faced annihilation, perhaps especially those who worked after the Second World War. For performers in the late twentieth century, the doom they encountered sometimes had a name or a face attached to it: Hitler; Stalin; Hiroshima; Nagasaki; Viet Nam; the Cold War; the Bomb; AIDS. All of these names summoned potent images of immanent death and destruction. Performance art arose as the artists’ reaction to what they perceived as the meaninglessness of existence, as they stared into a void. Fro the Futurists’ sintesi, to Frank Moore’s “Rocking and Wrapping” rituals, performance artists wanted to rattle the foundation of social acquiescence.
Performance artists chose a variety of methods for their message; the underlying meaning remained the same: Death waits! David Zinder made a similar point in The Surrealist Connection: An Approach to a Surrealist Aesthetic of Theatre. Zinder confined his comparison of “a Dance of Death: to Dada performance (35). Much of the rest of his argument was based on the premise that contemporary performance found deep roots in Surrealism. Whereas the latter inherited from Dada its preoccupation with “presentism;” and since, despite their “fundamental, philosophical differences,” the “means they employed” were “strikingly similar” (85). It may be inferred that the Surrealist’s message was preoccupied with thoughts of death as well.
Earlier in his text Zinder all but erased these “fundamental, philosophical differences” when he quoted Andre Breton: “It is inadmissible that a man should leave a trace of his passage on the earth” (35). Breton apparently wanted to be a leading Dadaist, before he helped to found Surrealism. As Zinder noted, the quote was from Breton’s “Two Dada Manifestoes” (Zinder 141). Zinder wrote that the Surrealists rejected the negativity of the Dadaists (33-35); but perhaps, when they faced death Breton and the Surrealists simply turned and looked the other way.
Earlier in the section, we located in the art of Jackson Pollock a performative ecstasy and the healing catharsis that Aristotle insinuated as the function of tragedy. Given Pollock’s history as a manic-depressive and alcoholic, he perhaps tried (and ultimately failed) to heal himself. Pollock’s influence on other artists nonetheless, started to collapse the distinction between artist and audience. In Pollock’s work we encountered the genesis of post-modern performance art set against the abyss of death. We have imagined him in an ecstatic, gestic moment seeking cathartic relief for his, and our own anxieties.
We have noted the performative quality inherent in Pollock’s work; and that he equated art making with ritual. Pollock’s ecstatic displacement allowed him to stand both inside and outside his painting. In short, the gestic moment of action painting became the theoretical model for the origin of performance art. In much the same manner, the definitions of ecstasy and catharsis are set into a framework that will help to unpack performance art and to ventilate the academy of interdisciplinary writing about it.
Annie Sprinkle has been a performance artist since January of 1984. Before her performance at the Franklin Furnace with Carnival Knowledge, Sprinkle was a prostitute, “porn” star and exotic dancer (“Retrospect”). Sprinkle has referred to herself as a “sex-positive” Feminist and a “Post-Porn Modernist.” She has written of that first show that it was “fantastic therapy” (“Retrospect”). After this first performance, she launched a career as a performance artist.
In 1985 Richard Schechner invited her to perform her burlesque show “Nurse Sprinkle’s Sex Education,” as a part of his Prometheus Project. Journalists and academics alike noticed Sprinkle’s performances; she was “firmly established in the art world” (“Story”). The “many docu-dramas” she made during the period that followed mirrored Sprinkle’s “shift from porn to art.” She toured her show Post-Porn Modernist from 1989 through 1995 in the United States and Europe. The two most controversial “sequences” of the show were “Public Cervix Announcement” and her climactic “Masturbation Ritual” (“Story”).
Cynthia Carr witnessed Sprinkle’s performance of “A public Cervix Announcement” in May of 1989, at the “Little Red Harmony Burlesque Theater” (174). Carr set the scene as “swarming and buzzing with sex radicals, sex buffs, camera buffs, and the plain old curious” (174). She wrote about the event in the even tones that betrayed a quiet sense of disbelief. She seemed neither to be impressed nor appalled; she was perhaps distantly amused:
A female assistant (dressed as a man) helped Sprinkle with the speculum. There Annie sat, legs spread, inviting the audience to peek inside her with the aid of a flashlight (176).
She concluded, “…to look inside someone’s body is to see too much” (176). Carr suggested that Sprinkle’s performance had “transcended sexuality”: “body interiors aren’t sexy” (176). The audience’s sexuality was transcended not Sprinkle’s. “Annie Sprinkle” as an “object of desire” was juxtaposed to a “cervix” as an “object of desire.” What should have been a sexually provocative performance was turned into a medical procedure performed by one “professional” and many amateurs. The performance was an ecstatic displacement of the audience’s expectations; in place of those expectations, the artist left a dour denunciation of lechery.
Rebecca Schneider, writes in The Explicit Body in Performance, “…I would argue that sexuality is not at all transcended in Sprinkle’s collapse of the binary distinction between public and private” (76). Schneider’s prose is riddled with a near-mad conflation of Barthes’ and Foucault’s liberation of authority from the author; Panofsky’s monograph on perspective; the Sartrian “stare”; and the stiff-bristled brush of feminist Hegelian dialectic. A long quote will serve to prove this point:
Rather, Sprinkle’s “too much” exposes sexuality as indivisible from social issues of vulnerability and power inscribed in ways of seeing. It is this provocation, not her actual cervix, that might be read as “too much.” It is the politicized link [her emphasis] she is making explicit between sexuality, vulnerability, and power that is “hardly able to be seen”—out of bounds of vision for a society habituated to maintaining “perspective” by maintaining distinctions between sexuality and politics, nature and culture, or porn and art (77).
The simpler model we proposed above is probably closer to the artist’s intent. Sprinkle sees her life in two parts: as a “multi-media whore” and as a “post-porn modernist performance artist.” She likes the “nicer,” “art-world audiences” better than the “guys who ran the burlesques” (Retrospect). Whereas she once was the object consumed, she has moved her audience to a comprehensive of her deeper concerns.
Sprinkle offered another, more visceral archetype of ecstasy in her masturbation ritual. She described her costume for the ritual as “a topless and bottomless” “dress,” copied from a “granite statue of a Sun priestess.” Her stage was “transformed into an altar,” with candles and “a copper bowl containing ghee and dried cow dung.” To her right she had a tray of objects that included several dildos and “a tireless, strong, battery-operated vibrator” (Legend). Sprinkle wrote that the purpose of the ritual was to put her into an ecstatic state, once in this altered state she then communicated with or “[brought] prayers to” the “Divine” (Legend).
Exotic music, dramatic lighting, and vigorous rattle shaking (performed by audience members) accompanied Sprinkle’s performance. In later accounts of the ritual, Sprinkle played down the importance of whether or not she achieved orgasm. She wrote, “…the primary goal of ritual is about learning and teaching, about provoking thoughts and feelings” (Legend). Sprinkle certainly was provocative; she noted that the ritual was either the “most loved” or “most hated” part of the show. In the conclusion of her article she called the performance her “most important work to date” (Legend). In a caption beneath a photo from a 1990 performance of the ritual, Rosalie Goldberg called Sprinkle a “heroine of emancipation” (141).
Karl Toepfer wrote extensively about the idea of performative ecstasy in the context of the theater. One of the functions of ecstasy, he wrote, is the “…release of the spectator from social norms…”(37). Both of the sequences of Post-Porn Modernist, described above, located this phenomenon. In “Public Cervix Announcement” the audience was denied their expectation of a transgressive sexually provocative performance. In the “Masturbation Ritual,” the audience voyeuristically looked on as they shook their rattles.
Normally the audience in the theater stays passively in their seats while the “performance” takes place. Here Sprinkle allows the audience to become performers and transgressors. This also becomes part of what Kaprow has described as the “myth-making” process that attends performance art (qut. in Kostelanetz 118). It is not just the audience’s participation that “releases” them from social norms, it is the stories they will tell after the performance. Kaprow explains: “If it catches on –if for some reason it has its finger on the pulse of everybody’s needs—then there is some kind of magic attached to that” (118).
In her “Masturbation Ritual,” Sprinkle used microphones to amplify the sounds of her body as a part of the “musical score” (Legend). The amplification of her breathing and other bodily noises served as a way to make the performance more intimate. The “blurred” line between performer and audience was more mental or emotional, than physical or dimensional. Still the performance was, arguably, more ecstatic and held more potential for catharsis, than “A Public Cervix Announcement.”
Toepfer wrote of the origin of Greek drama as a patriarchal reaction to the ecstatic revelries of the maenads. Their rites of orgia were practiced in secret, they required ecstatic union with the male “earth god” Dionysos (21-27). Toepfer argues that ecstasy is a cultic phenomenon and that catharsis is an institutionalized substitute. He reasons further, that language and dialogue were introduced as a part of theatrical performance to foster a greater sense of Greek identity and social unity (118).
The cult of Dionysos was largely a foreign import from the East. The cult favored the suppression of an individual’s emotions and the ecstatic pursuit of union with the god. The cult also stressed Divine concerns over human (male) needs (Toepfer 118). Catharsis then, is seen as “civilizing,” “assimilating” or as confirming our membership in society. Ecstasy is “anti-social,” “exclusive” and secretive. The power of ecstatic ritual to transform is available only for the few who are initiated into its cult. Catharsis on the other hand, is available to all that are willing to be “civilized” by it (118).
Annie Sprinkle’s Post-Porn Modernist situated her with one foot on the winepresses and hillsides of Ancient Greece that predated Greek Drama, and one foot on the threshold of apocalyptic, post-modern performance art. She was not alone; her work followed in the footsteps of, or alongside that of artists Carolee Schneeman (Eye/Body, 1963; Fuses,1964-65; Interior Scroll, 1975), Karen Finley (Constant State of Desire, 1987; A Certain Level of Denial, 1995) and Ann Magnuson (You Could be Home Now, 1992) (Schneider 52-65, 72-125).
Toepfer writes about a link between “ecstatic feelings” and an “impulsive toward theatricalization of action, toward the impersonation of ‘another’” (11). This latter element of the rather cumbersome “impulse” is accomplished through the “appropriation of another body” (11). Toepfer concludes that this “appropriation” is an “erotic act” (11). To be ecstatically displaced, outside one’s self is to see one’s self as “completely other” (11). Toepfer adds that this state of complete ecstasy is rare. Perhaps the most useful way to use the term is metaphorically or in an analogy.
Torgovnick made a similar point. She noted that the word has a “spiritual register” and a “commonly perceived sexual register” (14-15). The meaning of the latter can be read associatively, as a positive or negative on a spectrum that ranges from “an expression of eros or life force” to “a state of excess, frenzy and potential violence” (14-15). Annie Sprinkle in her performance and in later comments, attempted to combine the “expression of eros” with the “spiritual register” in her performance of an ecstatic gesture. Although Torgovnick sees also a potential for violence that attends the ecstatic moment, and actual violence (real, imagined and as it is performed) that are cathartic as well.
In The Theater and its Double, Antonin Artaud wrote of his visions of a theater capable of the transformation of society and the restoration of “all the arts” (80). Artaud urged that there should be “an analogy between a gesture made in painting or the theater, and a gesture made by lava in a volcanic explosion…” (80). For Artaud, both the actor and the spectator should leave the theater exhausted. Artaud saw catharsis as an “extreme purification” (31). He compared the theater to the plague, and saw both as “a crisis which is resolved by death or cure” (31). In his “Theater of Cruelty the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him” (81).
Much has been written about Artaud’s influence on the artists who performed in the sixties. Although Artaud never fully realized his theater of cruelty, his writings were widely read and discussed. Kostelanetz cited Artaud’s influence on mainstream “literary theatre” as well as what he called the Theater of Mixed Means (25). Claes Oldenberg and Ken Dewey in their interviews with Kostelanetz, mention Artaud as well (135-137, 179). John Cage mentioned Artaud, obliquely in a lecture prepared for the Composers Concourse in London as early as October of 1954 (Cage 146, 187).
Eric Sellin wrote in his “Preface” to The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud (1968) that Artaud’s “influence” was “so widespread and so vague as to be inestimable” (vii). Sellin prescribed a separate study that could “establish its own critical norms. Naomi Greene, in Antonin Artaud: Poet Without Words, responded to those who may have “overrated” Artaud’s influence on the artist’s of the sixties, “Artaud’s metaphysical aspirations…are completely lacking in today’s happenings” (220). Green saw the reasons that his influence on theater was inflated were first, many of his ideas were not new; second that his theater was “essentially unrealizable” (220). She reminded us “…above all, Artaud was a poet who wrote about the theater” [her emphasis] (220).
Green implied too, that much of Artaud’s appeal for the (mostly) young artists and performers of the sixties was his use of drugs like laudanum and peyote. She posited that Artaud was reguarded as a “kindred spirit by this alienated segment of society” (221). Artaud’s use of laudanum and chloral hydrate, were at least in part, an attempt to get relief from massive headaches that plagued him from his youth. Bettina Knapp reported in her biography Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision, that later in his life he turned to these drugs for relief from inoperable cancer (197).
In his works, life, and death, Antonin Artaud emerged as a tragic figure. As he once told his friend Andre Masson: “It is I who will play Artaud” (qtd. in Green 22). The sentence betrayed an inherent sense of the theatricality of life, and of Artaud’s life in particular. Artaud was a man at war with God and Society, in his writing and his lectures. He was also a man tormented by headaches and mental instability.
He suffers and struggles against unrelenting cosmic powers. “Everything that acts is a cruelty” ( Double 85). For Artaud, cruelty is a metaphysical power. “When the hidden god creates, he obeys the cruel necessity of creation which has been imposed on himself by himself, and he cannot not create…” [Emphasis his] (102). He writes, “Good is always upon the outer face, but the face within is evil” (104). Even when evil is “reduced” and eventually defeated by good, the cosmos collapses into chaos (104).
Artaud‘s Gnosticism is more than adequately addressed by Jane Goodall in her Artaud and the Gnostic Drama. She compares Artaud to the heretics of the second century of the Common Era (16-18). She argues of Artaud’s Gnostic beliefs, that he “conceives them, extends them and ultimately rebels against them” (17). Artaud’s underlying philosophy or theology is of less interest here, than the goals he set for his theater. Goodall stylishly conjoins Artaud’s theater with his personality in what she terms his “profoundly adversarial self-obsession” (18).
The goal he expressed repeatedly for his theater was what he sought for himself, an “extreme purification.” It must be noted first, that in a theater that is “essentially unrealizable,” catharsis can never be achieved. Artaud’s earlier formulation pronounced that theater offered either a “cure or death.” As he collapsed the distinction between his life and his theater, the “cure” and “death” were one and the same. Clayton Eschleman wrote in his introduction to Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period, the gardener at the Hospice at Ivry found Artaud;s body. Artaud was seated at the foot of his bed, holding his shoe in his hand (37).
That Artaud believed that death was merely release from this life into a “real” but “separated” existence, was confirmed by his friend Maurice Saillet in his “In Memoriam: Antonin Artaud” (147-159). Saillet wrote, “he attempt[ed], by means of the theatre to escape his own performance” (152). Saillet quoted Artaud, “Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I am not in the world, and that such a statement is not merely an intellectual attitude” (150). Catharsis in theatrical performance, for Artaud was a “turning back” to the “other side of existence” (151). Saillet might have read this as death and the ultimate release, Artaud did not.
There is quiet speculation that Artaud committed suicide. His monograph on the van Gogh exhibit of 1947 (“Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society”) is sometimes cited as coincidence. His use of Chloral Hydrate is suspicious as well; it often caused him to lapse into semi-comatose states. Artaud was a man in grave pain. He was released from the asylum at Rodez in 1946; he gave a disastrous and pathetic performance at the View-Columbier in 1947; and in 1948, the year of his death, his radio play To End God’s Judgement was rejected.
Sellin wrote that Artaud’s concepts of catharsis how it could be achieved “to some extent repeated those of Aristotle” (96). Sellin also maintained that the “means” by which catharsis could be achieved for Artaud, differed from Aristotle “on several major points” (96). As Kaufmann related, Aristotle’s audience could have received equal enjoyment whether they read or saw a play (52-53). Sellin noted that Artaud sought to induce catharsis through the production of “the effigy or simulation of disaster on stage” (97).
Sellin identified a “threshold” in Artaud’s writing, “beyond which the ideas became rarefied” (101). Yet Sellin underrated a similar threshold as described by Artaud: “beneath the poetry of the texts there is poetry pure and simple, without shape and without text” (Qtd. in Sellin 94). Sellin added, “The revelation of this agent or element to the audience via the dramatic experience would ideally produce the transfiguration of which Artaud speaks” (94). Artaud offered a sense of “poetry pure and simple, without shape and without text” in the poetry he created. His poetry is rife with puns, slang and words he has improvised through what Goodall termed his “virtuoso exercises in misprision” and “hermeneutic ingenuity” (7).
Artaud deflated language; he may have as Sellin suggested, treated words like objects (88) or perhaps as “performers.” Artaud may have believed that the more he deflated the structure of words and conflated their sounds and meanings, the closer he brought his reader to the threshold beyond the text. Naomi Greene made a similar point. She analyzed some of his later poems and noted the violence and sexual content Artaud infused them with. She noted also that Artaud included bits of incantations from Egypt and Assyria. She concluded, in part that, “Artaud’s conviction that language is ‘real’” was “obviously related to his desire to make words coincide with concrete physical being” (211).
Greene wrote in 1970 and some of her translations may have suffered from a certain academic modesty. Eschleman published his translations in 1995, and he no doubt had the benefit of writers like Greene, Knapp, Sellin and others, and their works. Some corroboration has been found for the idea that Artaud used his words as “performers” in what may be described as a cathartic ritual. Eschleman’s translation made a more compelling case when seen in contrast to Greene’s:
And you had to beat, belly against
Belly, each mother who wanted to penetrate
Pussy prison into owner-pussy
In the rebellious bloodless tube
As in the center of the panacea:
Pussy prison and owner pussy
Are the two filthy words
That mother and father have
To enjoy him as much as possible
[Italics are hers] (Greene 199-200)
This same passage, taken from a section of Artaud le Momo in the original French, contained many slang expressions and puns that Green has unpacked then rendered into English (199). Eschleman undertook the same task twenty-five years later:
And it was crucial belly to belly bang
Each mother who wanted to penetrate
Pussy-toady on Boss-pussy
Into the insurgent exsanguine tube
As at the center
Of the panacea:
Pussy-toady and boss pussy
Are the two sluttish vocables
That Father and Mother
To get the crudest pleasure out of him
Greene’s translation is perhaps somewhat too literal. “Pussy prison into Owner-Pussy”. The line in French read “Chatte mitte en patron-minet” (199). She explained that a “Chattemite” referred to a “person who is sweet and gentle in appearance only.” Artaud split the word because “chatte” is slang for “the female sex (the pussy)”, and “mite” denoted an insect and was slang for “prison” (200). Eschleman noted that a “chattemite: was a “sanctimonious person, a ‘toady’” (337). Both agreed that “minet” meant “pussy”; Greene rendered “patron” as “owner” and Eschleman chose “boss”; thus Eschleman reads the line “Pussy-toady on Boss pussy” (Watchfiends 113).
Both translations expressed the approximate relationship between the two “actors,” that doubled the mother and father mentioned later in the poem. “Pussy-prison” was not expressive of a person so much as it was of an anatomical trap. Given the parallel structure established by Artaud, the hyphenate was overly deflated. “Pussy-toady” and “boss pussy” described the relationship between the tow actors and hints at their personalities as well.
Artaud perverted relations between men and women twice. He may have seen pussy toady as feminine and boss pussy as a feminized masculine, then he inverted the traditional sexual position as they banged together (belly to belly) “pussy-toady on boss pussy” [emphasis mine]. Artaud further complicated the roles played in the scenario when he referenced them as “deux vocables salauds” (Greene 199, Watchfiends 112). Greene read “two filthy words” (200) and Eschleman, “two sluttish vocables” (113). [We will carry this analysis a little further, and then I will stop saying pussy altogether because I sense that I’m making some of you nervous. I think though that at least from a dramaturgical point of view—or as a director staging a scene—or as an actor involved in the scene as it is being staged—who may have to say words like “pussy” or “dick” or whatever—we should get to a reasonable explanation of why this is important to the script and to the author.]
“Vocables” it might be argued, could be ‘voiced’ but were not fully words. That they may be “sluttish” implied that they might have done anything or perhaps meant anything. They were deflated even as “mother” and “father” “invented” them. They were primitive and belonged to the chaotic and cathartic realm, the realm beneath or beyond the text. They doubled “mother and father” and banged belly to belly “at the other side of existence”; yet they issued no progeny. They were after all, both “pussies.” I think that both Greene and Eschleman are being too literal and not really thinking about what Artaud is “inventing”. Perhaps his “vocables” are the creatures of the Mother and Father or generative principle of the Gnostic Godhead. But they are “sluttish” and “filthy” mockeries of the originals—barely “banging” in pale imitation of the originals. They are little more than their functions. And that I think is the key to translating his slang. We must remember that slang is a kind of poetic language that doesn’t literalize—it symbolizes. Both of the vocables “act” in the scene: they bang together. One of them is passive and insincere, the other active and “bossy” –yet in some sense they are both alike to the point, perhaps where it is difficult to tell which is which and who is who?
Artaud is inventing two new terms of derision for these “vocables” that are closely related, but they are losing meaning or identity even as they are drawn into focus. This is because their meaning is all about their function. The dependent sycophant is not a “pussy-toady” but a “pussy-lackey” or even “pussy-licker”; the more dominant partner or part of the pairing (Gnosticism requires pairings of opposites, but these have become “salaud” or execrable) is a “pussy-bully” or “pussy-pumper”. Throughout the Cahier’s Artaud’s language is explicit when he is making a point, and I believe he is making a point here. Because French is one of those languages where the adjectives and nouns they modify can sometimes tumble around each other to effect different shades of meaning, we might render the pair as “the licking-pussy” and “the pumping-pussy” to make his point even more explicitly.
For Artaud, in his devastating vision, the Mother and Father of the Godhead have created only these execrable vocables of themselves, and that these are disintegrating even as they are invented. He tells us that they have done this to “get the crudest pleasure out of him”. Artaud fears, that in his Gnostic universe, one that requires that he too has a “double” that his double will be execrable as well; a mere “exsanguine tube”. So to extend the analysis from the above discussion, the execrable vocable into which he is disintegrating (or by which he is “doubled”) is a “rebellious bloodless tube.” Here again, I think the scholars have translated the words very literally we all know what a “rebellious bloodless tube” would refer to in this context. But because Artaud has included the phrase as an interjection, Greene and Eschleman have misplaced is as something related to the two pussies—it’s what Artaud is fearing will happen to him—mother and father are reduced to “licking” and “pumping” pussies, without a penis between them—he is to be reduced to “an exsanguinated tube”: or perhaps a “misbehaving, deflated dick” (or maybe “pee-pee” because of the infantilized language that appears in related passages, and throughout the cahiers; and of course because “Mother and Father” are to “derive the crudest pleasure” from him—they are going to make fun of him! ).
Artaud’s vision of the Theater of Cruelty is ambiguous at best. His influence on performance artists in particular, and on artists in general I think came about not only because of his drug use, but because his art and poetry are intensely personal. Sometimes I think that his art is so personal, that we should somehow be ashamed to read it, let alone to hear it or to see it performed. It is I suppose what Cynthia Carr meant when she said, “to look inside someone is to see too much.”
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