21 December 2011

Binge & Purge

In the course of recently trading comments about the passing of director Ken Russell, a friend observed:
"And nearly every film he made had a scene where someone writhes around in shit, mud, food etc. etc. I think he was working on toilet-training issues sometimes -- very 70s!"
And I suppose it was. Or it sometimes seems that way on reflection. It very much seemed that way over the years when I looked at some of the performance art of the era, particularly that of Paul McCarthy and the duo included above, the Kipper Kids. Lots of smearing of and wallowing in foodstuffs and/or anything that might vaguely resemble excreta. Never sure why that was exactly, why that sort of thing had some sort of resonance at the time, turning up as a trope that diagnostically pointed in the direction of some societal neurosis or something. Maybe something connected to the continuing popularity of Freud and psychoanalysis, perhaps? Or maybe it was the product of some sort of nagging puritanical cultural subconscious, a way of acknowledging and exorcising certain demons. Because it was the end of the postwar boom – a two-decade roll of middle-class affluence and all the consumerist, material benefits it'd brought about. And about how that culture of consumption had been driven by a boom in advertising in order to sell that ceaseless gush of goods, advertising of course being all about stimulating or creating desire (false or otherwise), targeting and directly addressing the Id and infantilizing each member of its audience in the process. Dunno -- it's all part of an impression I've carried around for years, but have never gotten around to researching.

But yeah, apparently the Kipper Kids were pretty foremost in the performance art scene of the 1970s. Their work always struck me as the combination of a food fight and some poo-flinging monekyhouse melee, as staged in some Hamburg vaudeville dive under the direction of Jerzy Grotowski. I first heard of 'em in the early-mid 1980s, probably via High Performance magazine. Yes, there actually was a magazine exclusively devoted to performance art once upon a time; and considering the cultural backwater I grew up in, I have no idea why copies turned up on the mag rack of a local second-hand bookstore in my hometown, but there it was. It being the mid '80s, Laurie Anderson had already sort-of brought performance art into the broader culture, her success having hipped a good many people to the idea that such a thing existed, and that it was big in New York and it had a history. And it was in the pages of High Performance that I learned a little about its recent history; not just about the Kippers and McCarty, but also about Marina Abramovic & Ulay, and Rachel Rosenthal, and it's also where I first encountered the names of Spaulding Grey and Eric Bogosian and Karen Findley just slightly before they made national names for themselves. And since the bulk of this stuff was centered in New York, it overlapped with some of what was going on in the music community, which meant that the magazine was probably the first place I read about Christian Marclay and people of that ilk.

And, ironically enough, it was the first time I recall reading anything about the Blue Man Group. Because I remembered them being reviewed in the backpages of the mag sometime around 1985, when they'd just started out and the thing just some off-Broadway production, a much smaller and modest affair than the big complex, franchised affair that it would become some years later. I recall it had a photo from the performance of the blue men all sitting at a table side to side, each of them with his own box of Cap'n Crunch cereal; because apparently at some point in the production they would big through the boxes, stuff the cereal into their mouths, and chomp it all up and then spray it out of their mouths. So I guess by that point the whole business of excess and foodstuffs had long since settled into some performance-art cliché that was game for satirizing.

And then there was Virgin Prunes. Perhaps you've heard of them, because – yeah – they were a musical group. They hailed from Dublin and in some ways they were an odd sibling group to (no less) U2. In their early years there were a number of stories circulating about them. One story had it when they'd played one particular venue, they lined the entranceway of the club with renderings from a local abattoir; which seemed like a cross between Abramovic & Ulay's Imponderabilia and some sort of Aktionist outing. And then there were reports of shock tactics that included simulated oral sex and rolling around in some suspicious-looking substance onstage. Never knew if any of the stories were apocryphal or not; but if true, they certainly got people's attention. Glam's camp and theatricality merged with the visceral end of then-contempo performance art. Soon to be followed by Die Tödliche Doris out of Berlin, who took the art part of the art-rock rubric to such a conceptual extreme that the music often seemed like a superfluous by-product of their activities, a mere residue.

There, was all of the above sufficiently meandering and pointless? Yeah, figured as much.

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