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The Paradox of Performing: Pierre Bal-Blanc

Pierre Bal-Blanc in conversation with Gabriele Sassone

 

After “The Paradox of Acting” by Denis Diderot

 

“The Paradox of Acting” is an essay that Denis Diderot wrote as a monologue in 1769, and then transformed between 1773 and 1777 into a dialogue between a First and Second Interlocutor. Here in the present text, “The Paradox of Performing,” one enacts another such alteration. As a partial explanation, one can say that Diderot’s thesis is a paradox: one might think that the best actor is the one who puts the most of himself into what he plays, the one who plays ‘with sensitivity.’ In fact it is quite the opposite: the great actor is the one who plays in cold blood. In the eighteenth century, we write with a cold sense, keeping the sense, the reason, the cool head, in this, the Diderotian composure gets closer of Brechtian distancing.

 

Below, one proposes to transpose the paradox—that is to say, the counter-play (para) compared to the doxa (opinion)—defined by Diderot’s “cold sense” in the theatrical field by means of a paradox, that of performing, situated within the visual arts. It is a paradox, defined from the end of the twentieth century until the end of the 1970s in the field of plastic arts, by distancing and absorption, presence and the delegation of the task, and the repetition of the performative gesture compared to the attitude expected from the world of performance: a heroic act on behalf of the artist, a singularity, a unique gesture, a virtuosity. To demonstrate the paradox of performing, one will take as an example the activations of the performance score Collective Exhibition for a Single Body, written in 2015 for documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel by one of its curators.[1]

The intention of this text, “The Paradox of Performing,” is to reverse the perspective within performance practices. The problem is that a performance, when only ever embodied by the artist who created it (like a hero), as a personality cult on the one hand and the theatrical performance (live art) on the other, is attacked by fashion effects that compromise the political impact or transform the performance into an apolitical entertainment product, which is no less political—that is, unless the device by which performance is offered is problematized (without decoy), thus offering a way to escape the effects (theatrical dramaturgy). Whether it is addressed directly (frontally) or indirectly (situation), the performative moment must take place in a space that offers critical leverage (a plurality of points of view) to those who take part in this spatiotemporal device. The protagonists who witness the event must be able to deconstruct it (subjugation), to seize it and renew it for their own purposes.

The score Collective Exhibition for a Single Body translates this critical intention by providing solutions to implement the relationships between the collective and the individual, as any constituent power could do (constitution of a country or a city). The difference lies in the openness to the contingencies of the situations (the gestures of the members who take part in them, the nature and the history of the places where the score is activated), which infer differently from each occurrence. Collective Exhibition for a Single Body also promotes a power that is destitute, that is to say the subtraction of gestures from an agreed artistic economy (division of labor within the creative process, theatrical dramaturgy), to exhibit these devices and these postures as such in their lived powers.

It is commonly expected of the actor to embody a character in his or her body, and that the line between the person and the role erases the operative illusion. The paradox that Diderot forces the actor to adopt is to break the deception that the gap is visible. He asks the actor to hypostatize his or her character, to neutralize it by the distance taken with this constructed subject, to produce a real abstraction. “The Paradox of Performing” shifts this distance, from the neutrality of the actor to the neutrality of his or her gesture. It is not the actant who is neutralizing—on the contrary, he or she is present for their own social and historical qualities. It is the gesture that is hypostatized, separated from its initiator. “The Paradox of Performing” summons the sensitive presence of a subject, chosen for him- or herself, by elucidating their social and political status, not to play but to activate their own gestures and those of others as if they were theirs through the score. The performer activates (against the heroic gesture) for his or her own benefit as much as for sharing with others the gestures they receive from the outside as their own thanks for the score, which reproduces this social phenomenon in vitro.

Within the practice of performance, what one has identified in the theater as Diderotian or Brechtian distancing takes place through the mediation of a third party—a delegate—between the artist and the performative gesture, between the score and the movement, a foreign body to the context that anchors the situation in biopolitical reality (a living market).[2] The performer does not live in a distinct territory from where his or her virtuoso gesture is expressed; they are present with us who lead (mentally or concretely) without hindering their gesture. The performer does not practice a single glorious or hideous gesture from which one feels excluded and forbidden to repeat the sequence (the score is published and available). Rather, the performer activates a tangible movement that one is invited to repeat as theirs, since it is no longer the performer’s own.

 

First InterlocutorCollective Exhibition for a Single Body was first activated in Athens during documenta 14 (The documenta 14 Score, 2017) with the contributions of artists participating in the international event and was published by Museumcultuur Strombeek/Gent in 2019.[3] The score is part of the KADIST collection in Paris. A new version was initiated from the artworks of the artists present in the Kontakt collection in Vienna (The Private Score, 2019).[4] This score, also exhibited at gb agency in Paris (2019) and activated for the Playground Festival in Leuven (2019), has been published by Paraguay Press.[5] The score seeks to question the principle of the sovereignty of the single author who distributes assigned roles—who imposes subjectivization—for each of the protagonists who compose the work: artist, producer, curator, choreographer, and performer or dancer, also including the audience. On the contrary, this open score establishes a plurality of contributors/authors, a principle of equality that circulates among those who grasp it as much as for those who contemplate it, partially because the protocols that compose it are accessible (exposed or published) and tangible (not virtuoso). Everyone, witnesses as well as actors, can join the activation on their own time and at their own pace. The separation is porous and fluctuating between those who act and those who feel, and then may possibly wish to exchange their roles.

Second Interlocutor: How did you arrive at this reduced exhibition format for a living body? What is “the paradox of performing” that you wish to expose after that of acting established by Diderot?

The First: Collective Exhibition for a Single Body comes from a practice of the performance exhibition that began with my personal experience of having taken part as a performer in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1992, Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), during the three months of his exhibition at Kunstverein in Hamburg as part of his exhibition Gegendarstellung: Ethik und Ästhetik im Zeitalter von AIDS. I drew from this experience a large part of what has since governed my career as a curator. At the time, I was a simple exhibition handler who had responded to a job offer that would increase my salary.

The Second: What was crucial in this performance as a performer?

The First: I then felt the importance for the artistic practice shared by its protagonists—the artist, the curator, and the audience—of introducing the living into the exhibition space. The reification of my body as an object during this exhibition made me realize that it is impossible to exclude human trafficking from the general trade that invaded all strata of neoliberal society in the 1990s, despite what common morality claimed.

The Second: Was it also critical of the use of the body, the workforce, or the repetitive task that Gonzalez-Torres’s work calls for?

The First: I also felt the discomfort, the pathetic force that Gonzalez-Torres’s work renewed without succeeding in turning it into force to act. It is for this reason that I made the choice to exhibit in the film Employment Contract (after Felix Gonzalez-Torres) (1992), in the strong sense of making visible, the point of view that the performer embodies during his or her daily paid task.[6] I opened another “gaze”[7] not only on the work of Gonzalez-Torres but also on the practice of performance that began in the early 1990s (after its disappearance from exhibition halls in the 1980s) to reappear renewed within the plastic arts and museums, in particular with certain artists sporadically, such as with Gonzalez-Torres or Bernard Bazile (Boîte ouverte de Piero Manzoni, [1989], Mel Ramos [1993]), or more systematically, as was the case in the second half of the 1990s with Santiago Sierra, Pierre Joseph, Vanessa Beecroft, and Pawel Althamer. Without, however, confusing the differentiating use that these artists make of the “performer”—Sierra and Althamer realistically by calling on the presence of people for themselves (as the subject of their own social situation), and Joseph and Beecroft by engaging actors or models to pose or play a role. The Diderotian “cold sense” or Brechtian distancing is reversed in the practice of “delegated” performance. It always consists of dividing and widening the gap between the written or programmed gesture and the actor, but in the delegated performance, this takes the form of a true division of labor between two protagonists: the artist and the performer delegated to execute the gesture. With Santiago Sierra or Roman Ondak, Michael Asher or Marta Minujín, it is a delegation of gesture to a third party who is also present for his or her own cultural and social capital in the sense that Pierre Bourdieu sees it.

The Second: How does this observation of the change in the performer’s presence translate into exhibition?

The First: The mobilization of the living or the employment of third parties during performances organized by artists such as Santiago Sierra, Roman Ondak, or Teresa Margolles led me to realize in 2005–2006 La Monnaie Vivante (Living Currency), one of the first “performance exhibitions” of the history of the practice of the exhibition, which summed up the work as a photo essay by Pierre Zucca and as a theoretical horizon taking the same title by Pierre Klossowski.

The Second: What innovation in the practice of curating does it inaugurate? How does this transform the presence of the people who populate this “performance exhibition”?

 The First: The principle of the performance exhibition is essentially based on the fact that the presentation involves the visitor in an event where there are successive and simultaneous works by different artists with whom I share, as curator, the spatial organization and the adjustment of the temporal rhythm of the event. It is a reconfiguration of the coordinates of the field of experience that proposes to adopt symmetrical and reversible positions with respect to the protagonists who take part, including the audience. It is a questioning of the sharing between active and passive, learned and ignorant, whose objective is to value the gestures performed or written as much as those spontaneous from the participants, audience, and possibly passersby or occasional witnesses. It is a practice of curating in agreement with the notion of presence Guy Debord defines as that of a viveurs (living) in Report on the Constructions of Situations (1957–1972): “The role of the ‘public,’ if not passive at least only appearing, must always decrease there, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new sense of this term, liveurswill increase.”[8]

 The Second: What distinguishes the “performance exhibition” from an exhibition on performance?

The First: We must distinguish this “performance exhibition” from all the exhibitions that took place on the subject of the body and/or performance, which were numerous in the mid-1990s. For instance, to name just two, L’art au corps: le corps exposé de Man Ray à nos jours and Hors limites: L’art et la vie 1952–1994.[9] All these forms of historicization of the practice split in two their intention, with a first living part proposed in the form of a program along which successive isolated performances take place, and a second exposed part that in general presents documents or works associated with these embodied expressions.

The Second:How did you mark your difference in treatment?

The First:My remarks were on the occasion of the presentation of La Monnaie Vivante (Living Currency) at a contemporary dance festival in Paris, to make a different separation among the fundamentals of performance. I wanted to break with the exhibition of document or artifact related to performance on the sidelines of a dance festival to establish a closer link between contemporary dance practices and performance and the visual arts, which shared the same issues without being in the same territory. I approached the performative pieces from different artists as isolated objects, but by restoring them to the visitor in a landscape redesigned within a dance studio. No longer that of the discipline (the theater stage or the museum gallery) that offers a story (a program) where the succession of one thing after another reigns, of one performance after another, but a new biopolitical landscape that opens onto a free plane (an exhibition) in which simultaneity takes precedence over succession to intensify the experience. The consequences of this choice are numerous; it obliges the sharing of the staging of performances in real time with the artists, under the eyes of the public, who in return affect the situation with their behavior. The body of the public is re-entered (each one becoming a performer) during the event and valued in the same way as the pieces performed by the performers, the people involved by the artists, or the artists themselves.

The Second: What were the other steps?

The First: This exhibition led me to extend or tighten this reorganization of curating at the level of the body itself by dissociating its members to make visible that different gestures may emanate from the same body without being coordinated by a single meaning. With Draft Score for an Exhibition, created in 2010, I set out to internalize, drawing inspiration from the practice of artists like Prinz Gholam or Marie Cool Fabio Balducci, a set of works to restore them by intermediary of my own body in support of succinct accessories transportable on oneself during the presentation of my candidacy to the curating for the 7th Berlin Biennale.[10] I also made sure to publish the score of this exhibition so that a third party could activate it in front of an audience; it is not reduced to my interpretation of the works.[11] It was thus offered in many contexts with a performer linked to the context of the enunciation of the works, for example an escort boy paid daily at Artissima fair in Italy (2011), or a soldier in civilian clothes of the royal guard at Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation (2012). This particular choice underlined “the paradox of performing” by creating a gap during this artistic performance in terms of the physical practices of these performers who belong to other fields, for instance that of the sex worker or the soldier.

The Second:  How was the score Collective Exhibition for a Single Body written from these precedents?

The First: We have to come back to the long-term work undertaken during my management of the Brétigny Contemporary Art Center (CAC Brétigny) in the Parisian suburbs. I approached this site in a report that renewed the diachronic and synchronic reading of the program of exhibitions by offering a simultaneous experience of the present, the past, and the future. The exhibition space was not presented for the use of artists and visitors as a white cube brought up to standard after use or as a stage adapted to the standard of touring, but as an environment inhabited by works whose intensity of presence could vary until disappearing—but without being absent. This cumulative principle replaced that which had previously prevailed in contemporary art centers. This model also sought to offer an alternative to the accumulation of capital encouraged by the model of the museum, fund, or collection of contemporary art. To underscore this approach, I unearthed the phalanx model designed by Charles Fourier in order to reify the coordinates of the functioning of the institution. I have thus extended the principle of games of passion, which is at work with Fourier, in the administration of works, in the architecture of places, and in the temporal rhythm of the rituals of the contemporary art center. This resulted in a set of works and events that populate the physical spaces and the memory of CAC Brétigny according to different presences, whose intensity can always be increased or decreased. The score Project Phalanstère, published by Sternberg Press, allows us to take cognizance and make this collective memory (physical and symbolic) available for everyone’s use, outside the norms of property celebrated by capital but in agreement with the sharing of cultural resources promoted by artists.[12] The score is introduced by an extract from Fourier’sNew World of Love (1818), which is also one of the references in the score Collective Exhibition for a Single Body:

“Let us thus determine the way in which the orgy will be modeled on the enthusiasm for art; it will consist in accepting only those beautiful attributes worthy of serving as models, and in this way the composition of the museum orgy or the exhibition of simple nature will be in harmony. Everyone will leave naked those beautiful attributes that are worthy of admiration: a woman whose beauty is limited to her bust and neck, another to her rump, her buttocks, or even her thighs or arms, will leave only that part unclothed; it will be the same for men. Each will display that which he or she judges to be worthy of serving as a model.”[13]

 

Pierre Bal-Blanc is an independent curator and essayist based in Athens and Paris. His recent projects are “Collective Exhibition for a Single Body;” “The Private Score” with Kontakt Collection Vienna, exhibited at gb agency Paris and activated at Festival Playground Stuk/M museum Leuven (catalog by Paraguay, 2019). “The documenta 14 Score” Collection KADIST (catalog by Museumcultuur Strombeek Gent, 2019).

 

[1] Collection KADIST and Kontakt: The Art Collection of Erste Group and Erste Foundation, Vienna.
[2] On delegation in this sense see Claire Bishop, “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity,” October 140 (Spring 2012): 91–112.
[3] Collective Exhibition for a Single Body – (The documenta 14 Score), Athens, 2017. Curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc; choreography by Kostas Tsioukas; with contributions by Pierre Bal-Blanc, Marie Cool Fabio Balducci, Yael Davids, Maria Eichhorn, Anna Halprin, Maria Hassabi, David Lamelas, Prinz Gholam, Ashley Hans Scheirl, Kostas Tsioukas, Annie Vigier & Franck Apertet (les gens d’Uterpan), Lois Weinberger, and Artur Żmijewski.
[4] Collective Exhibition for a Single Body – The Private Score, Vienna, 2019. Curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc; choreography by Manuel Pelmus; with works from the Kontakt Collection by Milan Adamčiak, Geta Brătescu, Anna Daučíková, VALIE EXPORT, Stano Filko, Tomislav Gotovac, Sanja Iveković, Anna Jermolaewa, Július Koller, Jiří Kovanda, Katalin Ladik, Simon Leung, Karel Miler, Paul Neagu, Manuel Pelmuş, Petr Štembera, Mladen Stilinović, Sven Stilinović, Slaven Tolj, and Goran Trbuljak.
[5] Pierre Bal-Blanc, Collective Exhibition for A Single Body (Paris: Paraguay, 2019).
[6] Pierre Bal-Blanc, Employment Contract (on Felix Gonzalez-Torres), 1992, see UbuWeb Film & Video: http://ubu.com/film/bal-blanc.html.
[7] On the “male gaze” in relation to the “female gaze” see Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
[8] Guy Debord, Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale (Quebec: Les Éditions Intervention, 1989), https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/inter/1989-n44-inter1102296/46876ac.pdf.
[9] L’art au corps: le corps exposé de Man Ray à nos jours, Mac – Galeries contemporaines des musées de Marseille, France, 1996; Hors limites: L’art et la vie 1952–1994, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1994.
[10] Score for an Exhibition (2010) was written by Pierre Bal-Blanc with works by Marie Cool Fabio Balducci, George Brecht, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Cornelius Cardew, Ceal Floyer, Jens Haaning, Július Koller, La Monte Young, Roman Ondák, George Maciunas, Lawrence Weiner.
[11] Pierre Bal-Blanc, Draft Score for an Exhibition (Rome: NERO, 2014).
[12] Pierre Bal-Blanc, ed., Project Phalanstère at CAC Brétigny – or “Of museum orgy or mixed omnigamy in composite and harmonic order” Treatise (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017).
[13] Charles Fourier, “Des amours en orchestres ou quadrilles polygynes: De l’orgie de musée ou omnigamie mixte en ordre composé et harmonique,” in Le Nouveau monde amoureux (1818; repr., Paris: Anthropos, 1967).

 

 

 

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