When I worked as the Shop Manager and Curator at Art Metropole, you wouldn’t believe how many requests I received for a publication called Caught in the Act (2004). Edited by Johanna Householder and Tanya Mars, this anthology of writing on performance art by Canadian women, from what I can tell, sold out immediately but the thirst is deep for the critical reflections it contains. I’ve actually never seen a copy—Art Met didn’t have any and copies on the secondary market are extravagantly expensive (a quick search tells me $250 on Amazon).
But, I have just got my hands on a copy of the follow-up, More Caught in the Act: an anthology of performance art by Canadian women (2016), which will launch in Toronto at YYZ Artists’ Outlet later this month in Montréal at Artexte later this year, and it’s heavy and thick and gorgeous, full of writing by some of the most exciting thinkers around, bringing their skills to bear on the most important performance artists in this country. And I’m lucky to be a part of it.
Johanna and Tanya approached me a couple years ago about writing an essay about the complexity of the body mediated through film or video. This new publication focuses on work produced in and around the 1990s, and so I dove deep into works by Judy Radul and Penelope Buitenhuis, Cathy Sisler, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, and Dierdre Logue to consider what the confluence of moving images and performance art can accomplish.
Setting out, the question seemed to be this: what makes performance for the camera a specific kind of art practice? What distinction is made when film and video works insist upon a connection to performance art practices? As two means of making, performance art is ostensibly in opposition to artists’ films and videos in its temporal emphasis—performance is live, here and now, volatile; film and video are the material of archives, mobile, repeatable. Spatially, the performance event has blurry contextual boundaries; whereas the mediatized image is fixed within its frame. When a camera is used as part of a performance, it can be as documentation, but performance for the camera is not equivalent to this practice of representation. Unlike documentation, which can never be total, these works must be understood as complete in themselves. When an artist performs for a camera, there is no discrepancy between experience (witnessing a live event) and capture (a recording to be experienced later). The live event is not re-presented in film or video, but unfurled in its deliberate fullness as the recorded image moves.
Performance for the camera is a lush practice that traffics in performance art’s long history of transforming political concern into imaginative response, and it takes advantage of the formal capacities of film and video. The specificity of performing for the camera—as opposed to artists’ film and video, as opposed to documentation—lies in conjoining the apparent contradictions between forms. The works I discuss highlight a range of tactics that exploit the meeting of performance art and media forms, and they are not meant to stand in for the incredible breadth of performances made for a camera that have been undertaken over the last 25 years. They do, however, provide clear examples of what the confluence of artistic tactics can accomplish.
I had a lot of support crafting this essay. Thank-you Fraser McCallum and Barbara Clausen for your generous feedback when I needed it most. Thanks to the artists for producing works that continue to resonate. And thanks to Johanna and Tanya for the persistence in making your vision its own kind of performative reality.