Neoliberal discourse is charged with a rhetoric of the individual, but neoliberal practice actually destroys individual freedom. Competition and conformism are two faces of the same coin in the sphere of the market. Individuals today no longer pursue autonomous life projects. Instead, they are fragments of precarious time, ceaselessly recombined fractals, connective units that must perfectly interface if they want to be effective under the rule of economic rentability. In the long run, the cult of individualism has revealed its false nature: What is the meaning of individuality if the only evaluative criterion of individual success is conformity to competition? 1
- Berardi, Franco. Breathing: Chaos and Poetry. N.p.: Semiotext(e), 2018. 87. Print.
The artistic landscape of 2019 is riddled with imitation and imitating. The selective and extreme commercialization of art making and the art world still relies heavily on the myth of the autonomous, genius model artist for marketability and financial success. But if you look around, visit museums, or open books, you see most sellable contemporary painters, sculptors and performers are imitating or directly copying aesthetics and ideas from modern and postmodern art. I see these instances as implied or explicit desires to connect with the past in the age of alienated individualism and excessive information circulation. When asked to write about contemporary performance and its intersections with the identity project, I thought it might be fruitful to use the questions and desires of my own practice to look into this trend; the causes, symptoms, and possibilities of imitation in contemporary performance art practices.
“With art and artists, meaning is often found in the aesthetic and political but leads to lineage; we do not, like Athena sprouting from Zeus’ head, birth new ideas in some holy or divine way, but we sift through information and share discourses and challenge – collectively and individually – in order to continue or change a topic of inquiry or method of production.”
There are two ways to look at this behavior as a symptom of neoliberal global capitalism as Franco Berardi points out: competition and conformity. For the sake of this essay I will say competition adheres to the genius, autonomous artist model – the artist who constantly copies but never names their sources in fear of being called an imposter, accused of plagiarism, or simply not having intelligent or original ideas. This denial mostly works in favor of the artist’s ability to be marketed as contributing something new to the western canon of institutionalized and financialized art exchange. To contrast, the conformist artist looks to the past as material to digest and identify with in an explicit relationship based in meaning; Meaning in the sense of locating oneself amongst friends or desires as they shift and change with time and experience. With art and artists, meaning is often found in the aesthetic and political but leads to lineage; we do not, like Athena sprouting from Zeus’ head, birth new ideas in some holy or divine way, but we sift through information and share discourses and challenge – collectively and individually – in order to continue or change a topic of inquiry or method of production. I like to think the conformist artist shapes their relationship to the past in terms of inheritance, mentorship, and even family rather than the competitive artist who bolsters themselves as a Zeus like figure for the sake of ingenuity. I do not blame the competitor or the conformist, as their behaviors are symptomatic of the chaotic psychosocial landscape that has shaped generations of capitalist pathologies – we are all treading water.
Boredom, depression and anxiety are symptoms of neoliberal capitalist individualism; we work to live alone, a slave to landlordism, existing in meaningless relations because we are alienated from our friends and desires. We swim in a sea of information on screens, in our ears, constantly penetrating our bodies whether we like it or not, the addictions are prescribed. The erasure of the emotional memory of history in the era of technocracy makes virtually all information available while proving rare or difficult to have a singular, materialist relationship to any one event unmediated by the shapes and patterns of our devices. It’s like the rotting of the brain in pursuit for the most effective search engine or robotic labor; the streamlining of logic for the price of paralysis. As Bifo points out: In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Emma’s depression was a result of extreme boredom from lack of stimuli in the existential emptiness of French provincial life but our contemporary boredom is the result of too much information, chaos, and the inability or lack of desire to identify with aspects of history that transcend the cornerstones of the identity project: race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and nationality.
We are reaching a moment, or have already reached, when the aesthetic, ethical, and cognitive configuration of the mind cannot comply with the world of the past; a world pre-AIDS when sex wasn’t indoctrinated as so dangerous or fatal and when an event was the way to experience connectivity, not tapping screens for likes or follows or speaking into a device for intimacy.
For some artists there is a desire to connect with the pre-internet world; one of connectivity based on the event, not the alienated consumption of information. Consciously or not, I see artists looking back to eras defined by events; May 1968, hippie dreams, pre-AIDS, AIDS, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989… It’s a generative desperation, if you will. Maybe it’s romanticizing or even yesterbating. For me there is an excitement and camaraderie in this, a kind of connectivity that is based on imitations, idol-worship, and possible and impossible cross-generational dialogues. I see this desire in Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers alike. For the conformist artist who sees history as a materialist reality (not simply a given linear and dominant narrative), the focus is located in a discursive exploration not an obsession with authenticity, as the competitor would incline.
For the rest of this essay I will focus on what excites me; the practices of artists who fall on the conformist side of this argument. The following outlines artists who use imitation in performance as an explicit Marxian pedagogical tool; one grounded in historical specificity, social critique, and radical change for and beyond this moment. These artists and artworks exemplify with great diversity how history, when used as material and dragged through time, can interrupt the hetero-normative rules of identity and time and offer imaginative renegotiations of what constitutes the self.
I recently saw Los Angeles based multi-media musician Dorian Wood perform Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 in its entirety as a concert for piano and voice at Human Resources Los Angeles. The album, released in 1989, speaks to socially conscious political themes like racism, sexism, and poverty. Jackson’s accompanying imagery was militaristic, calling for social change that is organized, articulate, and powerful like the waging of war. To hear this work performed by Wood was both sad and exhilarating. Much of Jackson’s lyrics still ring true today, (30 years later) and when sung from the mouth of a non-binary Latinx artist the permeability of social, systemic injustices are laid bare across time. At the same time the beauty, power, and possibility of how a musical refrain can unite people beyond race to inspire change, however temporary.
New York-based icon Joey Arias has been covering the songs of Billie Holiday for decades. Arias knows New York City pre-AIDS, pre-Disney-fication of Manhattan, and pre-September 11, 2001. Arias lost their best friend, Klaus Nomi, to HIV-related death in 1983, but now performs the music Nomi left behind in their iconic cabaret shows. By dragging and translating the words of dead icons who had different but deep influences on Arias’ own identity and identifications as a transfeminine drag artist, Arias pays homage to Holiday and Nomi while reminding us of the struggles that generated their respective creative output remain. Strange Fruit still stings as a reminder of the United States’ inability to reconcile the history of enslaved and murdered brown and black people, and thus continues to violate and erase those minorities today. Nomi’s songs recall an era of downtown New York City when rents were low, creativity was high, drugs and sex altered capitalism’s normalizing ideologies and much of what we know of as contemporary pop culture was in gestation (there would be no Lady Gaga without Klaus Nomi). The majority of artists and activists who have fought and are still fighting for rights, visibility, and protection are forgotten, erased, and will never be held in popular social consciousness. But Arias brings three voices – Holiday, Nomi, and their own – together in an attempt at collapsing the individual into a larger legacy of queer resistance; one that locates oppression, violence, erasure, critique and revolution in the ideologies that flow through our collective bodies. Arias names the sources, re-presents the art, and embraces the multiplicity that locates the individual artist as a collection of shared stories, influences, and desires across time.
Another New York artist that combines imitation with innovation is Kembra Pfahler. Her band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black was named after the famous American actress who is known for her role in over the top horror films from the 1960’s-80’s. Like Jack Smith’s obsessions with Hollywood and specifically the Puerto Rican actress Maria Montez (he anointed famed drag performer René Rivera with the name Mario Montez in her likeness), Pfahler fantastically analogizes herself in Black’s bold, brash, infamous on-screen characterizations. Pfahler, who was a teen in Southern California during the 1970’s, was allergic to the blonde, tanned, surfer-girl aesthetic that was expected of her. When she moved to New York City in 1979 she began playing with her appearance in order to both dis-identify with her past and to invent something different. Kembra subscribes to a methodology she terms availabism – making use of what’s available. In the spirit of queer theatre practitioners Charles Ludlam (who repurposed lines from Shakespeare, Wilde, political speeches, and help-wanted ads in his epic plays) and Jack Smith (who built elaborate sets and costumes from garbage he found on the streets of Manhattan), Pfahler covers her body in paint from her studio and combines cheap wigs from Lower East Side costume shops to fashion an exaggerated version of Karen Black: her voluminous black hair and large brown eyes grossly caricatured in the spirit of horror – an exuberant transgression of conventional appearances and expressions. The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black play punk, glam shock rock with lyrics that call attention to the environment, class, womanhood, fame, family, and conjure the spirit of the night with an invitation for revolution.
Harold Offeh also looks to music as historical material – both in sound and image – to negotiate his relationship to representation, advertisement, and idol worship. Starting around 2008, the UK-based artist began photographing and filming himself in the poses of iconic album covers from Black women musicians from the 1970’s and 80’s. Growing up in the 90’s I used to refer to album covers as our modern day religious icons; elaborate portraits embedded in the psyche and tethered to the affect of the music or message they advertise. Offeh utilizes an explicit, embodied, often durational imitation to express the power of the photographic image to fix and shape identity. While advertising imagery is a capitalist enterprise of assimilation for profit, Offeh’s works acknowledge that mechanism of desire while relocating its purpose as an encyclopedia of possible identifications to try on or accumulate and not simply as one ideal, categorized self. What I find exciting about Offeh’s Covers are the complex associations and critiques embedded in each simple image or tableau; a reminder of the multiplicity of identities that constantly flow through us, where they come from, how they stick to or pass from our bodies, and how that can change how we are perceived by others. The power in Covers is the reminder that identity is not fixed but is an act of acknowledging how we are seen, and how, through the imagination, we can attempt to complicate and shift that perception however temporarily or permanently.
The queer project of complicating identity beyond the obvious modes of identification and into a trans-historical conformism that acknowledges the past, while pushing against the neoliberal containers that ultimately pit us against each other, is active in each of these artistic practices. For the conformist, art and identity are about connectivity over time, actual and virtual relationships, transferences, and the acknowledgment of the desires that conjure them into being. This is a connectivity that locates the artist at intersecting contextualizations of creative, political, economic and revolutionary thoughts and actions. In his book Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz writes: “Queer restaging of the past helps us imagine new temporalities that interrupt straight time.” These interruptions are poetic and powerful. Restaging the past is not rewriting history, rather it’s adding to it by complicating, doubling, and intersecting fixed notions of how we are taught to see ourselves and others. As Rimbaud reminds us, “I is another”. The neoliberal identity project is infected by competition and domination. The time-space of performance art allows a temporal bubble to actively identify; explore, invent, remix, and conjure possible and impossible identifications as a revolutionary act against the dominant, patriarchal-capitalist narratives forcing us into pre-invented boxes that prescribe meaning against our desires and fantasies.
The concept of identity is a ruse, based on a misunderstanding. Identity is the projection of some traits from the past on the imagination of the future. Identity does not exist, only identification exists. Identity is the fixation on a process of identification that generally reduces complexity to a predictable pattern of behavior, according to psychological needs or political intentions. Cultures exist in a perennial process of becoming and cultural evolution does not depend on ovaries or sperm or skin color- it depends on schools, on books, on friendships, on the sharing of resources and technology. Identity is based on the imaginary sense of belonging to a common past, while cultural becoming anticipates the futures inscribed in the present of social life. 1
- Berardi, Franco. Breathing: Chaos and Poetry. N.p.: Semiotext(e), 2018. 108-109. Print.
Tyler Matthew Oyer (b. 1987) has exhibited and performed extensively throughout the US and Europe. Recent presentations include, Exploring the Nowannago with Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Grand Central Art Center, Santa Ana, CA, and Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; SOPPEN Performance Festival, Oslo, Norway; BOFFO Festival, Fire Island Pines, NY; MoMA PS1, NY; REDCAT, Los Angeles; dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany; Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; Kunstnernes Hus Oslo, Oslo, Norway; Bergen Kunstall, Bergen, Norway; and Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger. His work can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (NY).