Performance art: mapping spatial geographies

posted on 07 Mar 2014 20:45 by Hanna Hoelling
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By Lisa Adang

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In the dense urban environment of New York City inhabitants are constantly maneuvering for space. The bounded geography of Manhattan creates a type of real-estate game akin to a sliding puzzle where a vacancy is only created when another is filled. This interlocking configuration creates unexpected social collisions and coalescences, linking New Yorkers in a network of spatial interdependencies. Key landmarks appear fixed in this landscape, like the Chrysler Building, the General Electric Building, the Empire State Building or the Woolworth Building, just to name a few of the 1,332 individual historic structures designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City's five boroughs. [1] Yet, the fixity of these landmarks masks the fluctuating tides of tenants moving in and out of these spaces, as well as the surrounding architecture which changes at an entirely different pace according to the needs and wants of the city. On the other hand, certain populations and their traditions manage to remain constant in this city despite unceasing architectural reconfiguration. Neighborhoods, though they may witness dramatic structural and cultural change, tend to maintain their general location and namesake.

Perhaps in an even more liminal category than "neighborhood" is what some call a "scene," a nebulous group of individuals loosely bound together by shared ideas, and also often shared spaces. This conceptual/social/spatial linkage defines the scope of a recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled "Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970-1980." [2] The performances represented in this show occurred mainly in Manhattan's SoHo district, defined in 1973 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as an officially recognized historic neighborhood. [3] After its mid-to-late 19th century mercantile prime and before this period, this was a neglected part of the city, generally deemed undesirable for both residence and commerce. This undesirability, however, created lower rents, which attracted artists and galleries to the area in the 1960s and 70s. This group could take advantage of the unique features of the historic cast-iron buildings there, including cavernous interior spaces with relatively thin supporting columns, walls of massive, typically arched windows, and soaringly high ceilings.

According to J. Hoberman in the exhibition catalog for "Rituals of Rented Island," these spaces were flexible, combining rituals of living and art making. [4] They were conducive to experimentation because they were private spaces where artists could get messy, loud, violent, offensive or nude. Even the desolate streets of SoHo during this period allowed artists' performative works to spill out into public zones. Describing the tapering off of the once raw, artistic neighborhood, Hoberman goes on to explain, "As the once-deserted SoHo merged into the economy of the new, post-manufacturing-based New York City, so the nameless activities SoHo incubated—including loft performance, object theater, and the new psychodrama—were subsumed into a legitimate practice and field of study known, even outside the art world, as performance art." Thus, even as the Performance Art movement was externally reified, it simultaneously was dispersing from its physical locale in lower Manhattan, and along with this, its incubating atmosphere or scene was dissipating.

Physical remains from this performance scene are few. The "Rituals of Rented Island" exhibition cobbled together lingering props, along with limited photographic and filmic documentation, as well as some remembrances gathered through an online oral history project. Though, it felt as if the art itself was absent from the show, perhaps an inevitability given the absence of its performers at the Whitney.

In the gallery, a map hung on the wall which pinpointed the locations of key performance spaces in lower Manhattan in the 60s and 70s. This was used as a didactic display, showing the addresses and names of the spaces overlaid on a vintage map. This stood out to me as a poignant illustration of the how these performances were embedded in a unique time and place. While SoHo and its buildings remain, new tenants have flowed through its spaces, reconfiguring the environment there. I hope to continue this exploration of architecture, locality, performance and time in Hanna Hölling's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported class, "Beyond the Object Principle: Object - Event - Performance - Process," perhaps with a mapping project of my own.

1. "About the Landmarks Preservation Commission." Landmarks Preservation Commission, accessed Feb. 2, 2014, www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/html/about/about.shtml.

2. This exhibition was on view from October 31, 2013 to February 2, 2014. The exhibit website is currently located at whitney.org/Exhibitions/RitualsOfRentedIsland.

3. Jackson, Kenneth T. 2011. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

4. Sanders, Jay, and J. Hoberman. 2013. Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama: Manhattan, 1970-1980. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art.

Photograph: Installation view of Rituals of the Rented Island by Ron Amstutz. The map to which this article refers can be seen on the West wall.

Lisa Adang is M.A. student in the course Beyond the Object Principle.

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