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Mimes are usually mute and wave gloved hands in the air. Actors pretend to be someone--anyone--else. Yet you never know what to expect from performance artists. One day they're masturbating in a gallery. Another, they're having a friend shoot them in the arm with a gun, or ranting about their sorry lot in life. They have a reputation for smearing themselves in feces and rolling naked on floors strewn with broken glass. They rub rotting fish on their loins or hang themselves by fish hooks above gawking city crowds.
Whatever the Jerry Springer-type stunt being staged, say fans of this ill-defined yet growing area of cultural exhibitionism, the common thread is that the performers are usually playing themselves, or some afflicted aspect thereof.
"I think that's one of the real differences between performance art and other more traditional kinds of theater," says Angela Ellsworth, a painter and performance artist who teaches at ASU West and the downtown charter school Metro Arts. And with help from a few other artists and area art galleries and institutions, she has hatched something called LAP (Live Art Platform) to advance performance art in the area. "In traditional theater, actors are usually playing out a role that someone else has written," she says. "They might even be doing a character that maybe someone else has done before. Performance art is pretty much self-referential."
In this age of mediated electronic realities, about the only sure thing you can say about performance art is that it is real, live, in the moment--a lot like life.
You can see for yourself March 26, when LAP sponsors Bull at the Icehouse, in downtown Phoenix. The event is the third of five that LAP has put on in its inaugural season. It features LAP's other co-founders Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, who are visiting artists at ASU, and an Irish duo from the London-based group with the lower-case name, desperate optimists.
The event isn't likely to be for cultural hobbyists. According to a recent press release, LAP is out to win "tough, sophisticated audiences." Audiences with stamina. Even without the delays that usually afflict the medium, Bull is slated to last for half a day, from noon to midnight. Beyond that, the artists involved haven't been able to say what might distinguish their 12 hours at the Icehouse from an equal term in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"We really haven't achieved our performance moments yet," was the only insight Hill could offer about their plans."
Ellsworth wishes she could fill in some of the blanks surrounding the event, but she's as much in the dark as the next inquirer. "Maybe they're trying to add some mystery by not revealing anything about it. I really don't know what they're thinking. All I can tell you is that something will happen and it'll probably include some technical stuff. They're into computers. And there's a mechanical bull they've been working on."
Helen Hestenes, director of the Icehouse, lets out a long ruminative, "Hmmmmmmm," when asked to describe the upcoming event. After a pause, she says, "I don't ask too many questions, because I like to be surprised. I just know it's going to be fantastic. But, it is 12 hours long and I must admit, I haven't seen a 12-hour piece before, so for me it will be the first 12-hour performance piece I've ever seen."
The event reflects the increasing visibility of performance art in the area. Once the exclusive domain of renegade outfits like MARS Artspace, the Icehouse and Allwun House, performance art in the past several years has become an expected offering at art openings in Scottsdale and ASU's art museum and elsewhere. ASU West offers a course in the history of the medium. And Drama City and the Institute for Studies in the Arts at ASU's Tempe campus, have been regular sponsors of performance art and artists.
This institutional embrace comes with plenty of irony, given the medium's beginnings as a protest against prevailing cultural powers and institutions.
In the arts alone, the in-your-face irreverence of performance art has been part of just about every modern avant-garde art movement. In the larger world, public performances of one kind and another have been instrumental in advancing political and social causes and protests.
Arthur Sabatini, who teaches the history of performance art at ASU West, points out that the field got a boost from the political and cultural unrest of the 1960s, which attacked many of the assumptions about western culture.
Among them was the distinction among various art forms.
"You've got to remember that western Euro-American culture separated the art forms like no other culture ever really did," says Sabatini. He says performance art subsequently emerged as a hybrid of various media, combining painting, sculpture, theater and television in a mix that often confounds traditional observers. "That's why it's so difficult for performance artists to explain or define exactly what they do."
The constant, he adds, is that "the forms of expression you find in performance art usually fall outside the categories for every other kind of art. The artists do what they do because there's no other way of doing it."