Dominic Johnson writes about live art and performance art and is based in the Department of Drama at Queen Mary University of London. He has written a number of books, including most recently Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s. In partnership with the Live Art Development Agency, he runs the MA Live Art programme, which welcomes its second cohort of students in September 2019. Dominic serves on LADA’s Board of Directors.
Dominic's selections are available at 20% discount until Thursday 3 October.
I’ve guest-edited a selection of Unbound titles along the theme of “Back to School”, which might mean it’s aimed at (university) students, as well as scholars returning to teaching (and research), as well as to anyone who feels the need to reconnect with thinking about histories and theories of live art and/or performance art. I struggled putting this list together: to limit a potentially vast list, I decided to exclude single-artist studies, and so include only books that seek some sort of cohesive, argument-driven approach to live art and performance art as a richly self-sufficient field. That said, I also left off books that are handbooks (like those of RoseLee Goldberg or Catherine Wood) as well as books that I assume everyone is constantly (and rightly) reminded to read, like José Munoz’s Disidentifications and Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked.
The first book on my reading list is a classic of performance art studies by (to my eyes) the most influential (and prolific) scholar in the field: Amelia Jones’ Body Art / Performing the Subject. It arguably kickstarted the reinvention of a field of study in the 1990s, brought a series of key artists to light – like Carolee Schneemann, Yayoi Kusama, Hannah Wilke, Vito Acconci, and Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose – and introduced a series of key themes and ideas, including particularity and contingency in the construction of meaning. Body Art can be a demanding text, but a close, slow reading of it yields many insights that are politically tantalizing: especially Jones’s dethroning of critical distance, her refiguring of phenomenology as a tool for reading bodies, and her celebration of intersubjectivity as ‘chiasmic intertwining.’ It’s a thrilling, sometimes maddening ride – one that must be mastered in order to understand everything that came after it. If it holds back its lusciousness, it compensates with sheer force of thinking.
Live: Art and Performance is a beautiful, strange, and engaging book. It was one of the outcomes of the iconic live art exhibition Live Culture at Tate Modern in March 2003, and both showcases the key artists and scholars who participated in the event – as performers and as speakers in the hugely important symposium, and also expands to give a broad and incisive characterization of live art as a vibrant and challenging field of practice. There are plenty of essays I still turn to, including Heathfield’s introduction and chapters by Amelia Jones (comprehensive), Franko B (polemical), Guillermo Gómez-Peña (strident) and Matthew Goulish (psychedelic). It’s full of beautiful images too – including Hugo Glendinning’s wonderful documentation of Live Culture – and so is also a good book to flick through.
Hold It Against Me is a modern classic. Jennifer Doyle is not only one of our most incisive theorists of performance and art, she’s also the most seductive and louche writer. Doyle gives us a set of tools with which to overcome our foibles – squeamishness, conservatism or benignity of taste – to allow us to appreciate more pungently that which gives us pause, including strong images and excessive actions. Her embrace of “difficulty” as a positive value is transformative. The opening section on Adrian Howells is a masterclass in thinking critically about our own (conscious and unconscious) impulses in what we see, enjoy, avoid, or miss in our encounters with performance and art.
This edited collection is a good primer for critical studies of live art in the UK. It was the first study of its kind, and it’s a welcome antidote to the broader American-centric tendency in the study of performance art. The book takes a thematic approach and includes studies of a wide range of artists in terms of key ideas including time and temporality, action, intimacy and risk, collaboration, institutionality, and the politics of Live Art.
The study of live art and performance art has not been strong in its general inclusivity and diversification, especially beyond repeated analyses of a small coterie of artists of colour who recur with ritual inevitability across key studies. This book blows that tendency out of the water, in part by demonstrating that the study of live art in isolation does a disservice to a broader and more inclusive analysis of different experimental practices. One of the wonderful chapters in this book is Tavia Nyongo’s wild study of Little Richard, who ends up looking like a pioneering live art hero: Nyongo’s analysis sets a new standard for how to write about (to celebrate and to critique) figures who don’t quite fit the disciplinary frames through which we seek to understand as well as to value our objects of study (and of desire).
Beijing Xingwei is the touchstone study of performance art in China – a site of much of the most exciting, transgressive, excessive art of the last three decades. Cheng theorises two trends: xingwei-yishu (performance art) and xingwei-zhuangzhi (performance installation). Her study is encyclopaedic, and both describes and analyses works that are often frankly staggering, while also situating the perceived excesses of Beijing xingwei in the geopolitical situation in China in the 1980s and 1990s, the development of an art market, and the rise and fall of the Beijing East Village. Cheng is also a brilliant, compelling, profound writer – aspects of the book approach a kind of performance fictocriticism to make sense of art works involving constitutively disturbing encounters between human and non-human animals, and the living and the dead.
Bryzgel’s book is incredibly comprehensive, borne out of extensive and unprecedented research. Those of us who have been following live art and performance art over the last twenty years, our interests have been magnetically drawn to Eastern and Central Europe, where much of the most politically and aesthetically brilliant work has taken place – often in vibrant and incredibly risky grassroots festivals. National contexts like Poland, Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have seen the most focused development of action-based performance , interventionist art, and relational aesthetics, and the more formally austere end of live art and performance art more broadly. Bryzgel does a standout job of cataloguing a vast array of such practices, including in countries that aren’t typically well represented in our understanding of histories of live art and performance art, including Ukraine, Belarus, Kosovo and Albania. This book is an important reminder of the need for Anglo-American scholarship to widen the net of its awareness beyond Western Europe. (It’s also a good way of remembering that Marina Abramović didn’t emerge mythically and self-sufficiently from a vacuum!)
After the Party is both a critical study of contemporary performance and visual art by artists of colour, as well as an elegy of sorts – namely, a remembrance of and a reckoning with the legacy of the late José Esteban Muñoz. Chambers-Letson’s encounters with art as prompts for both theoretical and confessional writing is virtuosic. He also allows performance art (by, say, Nao Bustamante) to intersect with works of sculpture (Danh Vō) or dance (Eiko and Koma) or photography (Tseng Kwong Chi). The effects of his writing are both intimate and loving, as well as politically incisive, allowing Chambers-Letson – or, more acutely, the works in question – to reveal and perhaps to intervene in situations of grave danger, terminal inequity, systemic violence, rampant “financialization” (of art, human potential, and interpersonal relations) as well as personal grief. If this makes his book sound maudlin, it’s not: it’s grief-stricken but strident, and a call to each of us to persist in strange and incorrigible ways – a call for “[a] collective attempt to survive conditions of negation and annihilation.”
Sensual Excess is the most recent – and the most lushly written – of my selections. Musser does at least two things that I find exciting and alluring: firstly, she writes with a verve that is totally seductive and gripping; and her case studies are surprising and canon-busting. Her book includes chapters on performance artists including Nao Bustamante, Patty Chang, Xandra Ibarra (La Chica Boom) and Amber Hawk Swanson, as well as visual artists such as Mickalene Thomas, Carrie May Weems, and Maureen Catbagan. Musser’s argument is that artists of colour have embraced sensuality and sexuality in performance to rewrite the codes of how intersections of sex and race are represented, towards what she calls revelatory performances of “brown jouissance”: “a reveling in fleshiness, its sensuous materiality that brings together pleasure and pain”. This book is vibrant, corporeal, and idiosyncratic.
I added this as a cheeky addendum of sorts. The obvious indignity of my including it is offset by the fact that – as an oral history – most of the words in it are those of others: of esteemed and beloved interlocutors like Ron Athey, Sheree Rose, Anne Bean, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Ulay, the late Adrian Howells, and others. It’s conversational and therefore highly readable, and a good introduction if you’re nervous of getting stuck into the weightier, more scholarly books I’ve listed above. Let it be a gateway to the more sustained analysis provided in each of the other books I’ve suggested.