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Running Commentary (A Farewell to Los Angeles)

This editorial was published in High Performance magazine #61, Spring 1993, as Steven Durland and I were leaving L.A. for North Carolina.

When we published the last issue of High Performance, we were so busy at our headquarters, the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica, that we didn’t even notice it was Issue #60, representing 15 years of continuous production of an international art magazine, and 15 years of radical change both for us and for the arts. Since more changes are just around the corner, this is an auspicious time to give readers a (very short) history of the magazine and the activities around it, plus a glimpse into its future.

I have always made career decisions based on needs I perceived in the field. In 1977 I found myself immersed in the deeply interesting field of performance art, but I could find very little information in print. I tried for a while to contribute to existing publications, but discovered small interest among editors of  the day. Without broad knowledge of what was going on in this ephemeral art activity, it was difficult for publications to establish a critical or theoretical ground from which to view the work.

I decided somebody had to begin documenting the field on as large a scale as possible. I founded High Performance on a $2000 loan from the State Employees Federal Credit Union at UC Irvine and published Issue #1 in February 1978. (The logo on that issue is an imprint of my first piece of equipment, a rubber stamp reading “HIGH PERFORMANCE.”)

The first few years featured photos and reports of performance activities by the artists themselves, plus interviews and performance texts. Once we had gathered a body of documentation, the magazine evolved to criticism and theory and gradually a nationwide group of contributing writers developed. I ran the magazine on a shoestring for three years, working full time in a public information office elsewhere. In 1980, just as my credit was topping out, artist Susanna Dakin asked me to join her fledgling publishing company Astro Artz in order to keep the magazine afloat. This finally made it possible to quit my job, concentrate on the magazine and hire some staff. We also published a number of books by and about artists.

We garnered a few grants from the NEA and the California Arts Council, using nonprofit fiscal receivers, and by 1984 it became obvious we needed to form our own nonprofit arts organization in order to attract donors and supporters.

The magazine was based in my studio on South Broadway in Los Angeles, two floors above the original LACE Gallery. It was part of the brief but virulent downtown scene that blazed in New York’s East Village and downtown L.A. 1976-85.

More important, from the beginning, High Performance was involved with the national group of alternative artist-run artspaces that are now the mainstay of the experimental artworld—spaces like LACE, Franklin Furnace, New Langton Arts, Sushi, Randolph Street Gallery, Real Art Ways, Dance Theater Workshop, P.S. 122, Hallwalls and The Kitchen. We were instrumental in creating a stable (if bare-bones) support system and critical framework for artists and new work. It’s impossible to imagine where art would be now without that massive national effort.

Together we watched the rise and decline of conceptual performance, radical feminist art, punk, the art club scene, postmodern dance, interdisciplinary spectacle, multiculturalism, autobiographical standup and other trends. We watched as the museums, theaters, granting agencies, universities, major newspapers, magazines and electronic media caught on to performance art, until gradually it reached the New York Times, prime-time TV broadcast, Ph.d. programs and major Hollywood films, and even became a Presidential campaign issue. Performance art was mainstream, a household word. In terms of filling a void, the field no longer needed High Performance. Running a small magazine is a strain, and it’s only worth the effort if there is a real need.

The need we see today, as editor Steven Durland has explained in the past few issues, is to document and research the resurgence of activity in a rich field that is larger by far in implications than performance art. That is the important experimental work being initiated by artists in community, activist and educational directions. It is, if you will, the next trend, but one we feel is vastly important and basic to the future of art making. It is our opinion that artists are challenging their roles in society and we’re fascinated.

The magazine has been served by a wonderful staff of hardworking people, some of whom stayed on longer than others. The list included here shows everyone who has ever appeared on our mast as staff of High Performance. Not only have these people given of their time, skill and knowledge, they have also, in many cases, sacrificed precious hours when they would rather be making art.

I served as editor from 1978 through 1985, when Steven Durland, who had been managing editor since 1983, took over. I went on to found Highways Performance Space in 1988 with Tim Miller, as well as the 18th Street Arts Complex with Susanna Dakin. The five-building Santa Monica complex houses High Performance, Highways and 22 other tenants with similar missions, ranging from individual artists living and working in their studios to public spaces like the Electronic Cafe.


From 1988 to 1991 we were all neighbors paying rent to Dakin, the owner. In 1991 Astro Artz decided to try to secure the property for the future, which meant a very large capital campaign some 15 times the size of our annual budget. We decided to build credibility for that effort by master leasing the property from Dakin and becoming the landlord to our neighbors. We further strengthened ourselves by officially consolidating Astro Artz with Highways, which allowed us to share certain expenses, administrative functions and fundraising responsibilities. Astro Artz changed its name to 18th Street Arts Complex and Steve now carried both the titles of Editor-in-Chief of High Performance and Executive Director of the Complex, while I served as Artistic Co-Director of Highways and Artistic Programs Director of the Complex. Some titles for a poet and a sculptor.

In the past 18 months we established a quarterly calendar for the Complex and Highways, a membership program that now boasts 375 members and a member newsletter, an educational program that includes workshops in various media and an annual neighborhood arts festival. Highways continues to present more than 200 nights of performance a year and 12 gallery shows, including a major three-month gay and lesbian festival and a 10-week Asian-American and African-American series of events. High Performance, still published quarterly for a readership of 30,000, answered a request from the arts community last summer and published, voluntarily, “The Verdict and the Violence,” a special issue of HP by artists and others responding to the spring 1992 crisis in our city.

In one year we grew from a performance space and a magazine to a full-blown arts institution, and without any growth in staff. Our lives have been consumed with work. I knew things had gone too far when Steve and I, who live together at the Complex, passed each other at our front door at 2:00 a.m.; I was on the way to work next door and he was just getting home. We finally had to sit down and ask ourselves whether we had any energy left to continue running a program of this magnitude. We looked at what we had established and we were proud, but tired, and realized that we could no longer carry the weight of so many different responsibilities.

In November we met with the Board of Directors and, assured that we could move on with our lives without damaging the organization, announced in January that we were resigning our administrative positions as Executive Director and Artistic Programs Director. (As I write this a national search is  underway for a new Director. By the time you read this it will probably be filled.) We are going without leaving behind a deficit, and we feel we have built something that has every capability of going on without us.

We are laying plans to leave Southern California, though we will carry the editorial functions of High Performance with us. For us, the magazine is a privilege, a labor of love, and a pleasure we have sacrificed too long to larger ambitions.

For High Performance there will be no real change: the magazine, which will still have its publisher, managing editor and business manager in L.A., has been produced electronically for many years thanks to Steve’s expertise. It is printed in Michigan and distributed out of Colorado, but written and edited by writers throughout the United States and contributing editors in key regions. We will stay in contact with our information sources, in fact even better than before. In addition, we will have time to travel and, since our equipment is portable, gather information first-hand in a variety of locations. High Performance will become more “regional” than ever.

I have always lived like a pioneer, and I don’t know what lies ahead for me. I only know I recognize the signposts of change, and thank heaven so does Steve. My deep regret is leaving behind my staff and my partner at Highways, Tim Miller, who has been such an important teacher and dear confidante. Most of all I will miss my daughter Jill, who has been with us from the first at Highways and the Complex, has worked harder than any of us, and is among the finest of the new generation of administrators. I thank my lucky stars for the chance we had to work closely and become best friends. Not many mothers and daughters ever get such a chance.

In addition, perhaps this is the place I finally get to thank Susanna Dakin for her inexhaustible support of our ideas and projects. She has long wanted to remain anonymous as a philanthropist because she is herself an artist and would rather be known as such, but recently she has been willing to peek out of the closet. Sue is the heart and soul of anything Steve and I have had the privilege to create. High Performance and 18th Street Arts Complex simply would not have existed without her selfless support for so many years. Her belief in art’s essential place in human life has been the banner under which we took this fruitful journey.

And what a long, strange trip it’s been to this point—full of risk, thrills and heartache. High Performance, Highways and our artworld barely survived the Reagan-Bush years. I thank all those who struggled alongside us: the writers, artists, members, board and volunteers who made it happen. It was sometimes a terrible battle, but we all felt we had to fight it for the sake of our culture. But maybe in our fervor for activism and public service, we forgot to protect our own humanity from the slings and arrows of outrageous ambition. I have thought and written a lot about addiction and codependence in arts administration, and I got an overwhelming response from people everywhere who were sacrificing themselves to opportunity, duty and responsibility in the arts. I tried to get people to set boundaries and let the chips fall where they may. Yet even as I sounded the gong for sanity and moderation, I continued to start things, multiply programs, generate activity and feed my own grandiose vision. I can hardly say I deserve any sympathy. And everybody I knew was just like me.

But now, as we talk with friends all over America, we see more and more artists and administrators of Baby Boom age making similar personal decisions to cut themselves some slack, find lives that work better on a human scale, and go deep inside to look for peace. So many people that, in fact, it’s starting to look like a trend.

Hey, maybe it’s the cutting edge. Let me just take down a few notes…

– Linda Frye Burnham

Editor’s note: The staff of 18th Street Arts Complex and High Performance would like to congratulate our neighbor at the Complex, the Empowerment Project, for winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for “The Panama Deception” (see High Performance #56, Winter 1991). Having watched filmmakers Barbara Trent and David Kasper and their tiny staff develop this project over the past three years despite extremely limited resources, Panamanian and U.S. government attempts to derail the project, and media efforts to keep the film from being broadcast, it is a noteworthy achievement to have even completed the project. We salute their efforts and hope this well-deserved recognition will help bring an important film to the attention of a broader public. —Steven Durland, Ed.




High Performance, Performance Art & Me

Author’s Note: This 1986 article about the origins and early days High Performance magazine appeared in TDR/The Drama Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 15-51. © 1986 by New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is republished here by permission of MIT Press,courtesy of JSTOR. (The title is theirs, not mine.)

I founded High Performance in 1978 as the first magazine ever to be devoted exclusively to performance art, defined then as live performance created by visual artists. I resigned as editor effective January 1, 1986, and this article was published in the spring of that year. During my editorship, 32 issues of High Performance appeared, and the magazine reached 25,000 readers worldwide. (Artist Steven Durland served as editor 1986-1995, and Durland and I co-edited the magazine 1996-1998, after which it ceased publication. For further information, visit the publisher, Art in the Public Interest, where you will learn how to order back issues of HP. There you will also find a link to “The Citizen Artist: 20 Years of Art in the Public Arena,” a High Performance anthology.)

PHOTOS: I have not included photos here because of publication rights issues, but I have linked almost every name and artwork title to images and text on the Internet.

What is performance art? I have been asked so many times to define the term, and I find that it can be done only in a most general, non-specific way. We may call it time-based and non-static and intermedia art, but what we have is a definition so broad that it includes work at the opposite ends of any spectrum you care to name. I might as well be asked to define art itself.

Within performance art are all art movements, all art styles. Often those who criticize a work of performance art will seek to do so by proving that it violates a definition: this piece is no good because it lacks elements of anti-establishment rebellion and therefore is not performance art, or this piece is designed so that it may be performed more than once, therefore it is not performance art and so on.

This kind of fence building is the hallmark of frustrated critics (myself included) who fall into the trap of putting their own criteria above what art is actually becoming, and artists know it. I have discovered that artists will step across any line you draw around them. The more we try to document and historify performance, the more wily and slippery and broad it becomes. Sometimes an artist will express her/his displeasure with “the system” by specifically designing a work that foils the sponsor’s expectations. The dynamic interaction among the support system, the media, the artist and the viewer has resulted in a credible picture of the performance artist as revolutionary pioneer, a person destined to stretch art’s boundaries, test its limits and research its impossibilities, almost as if on a dare.

In one case, two artists collaborating on a performance found themselves in violent disagreement about its intent. When Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh undertook to spend a year of their lives tied to each other at the waist by an eight-foot rope (“Art / Life One Year Performance 1983-1984“), they eventually discovered themselves in a contextual tug of war, literally pulling each other in opposite directions: He insisted the work was completely formal and she wished to examine its personal and spiritual implications (a split seen by some as a war between New York and California art, and/or a male-female conflict).

On another axis, the ephemeral base of performance art can link it closely to the most transitory and issue-oriented kinds of art, work that is so tied to the crusade of the moment that it writes itself out of a possible place among “great timeless works of art.” This sacrificial commitment makes it particularly useful to political activism, especially to issues that are local or peculiar to a small public. However, on the same program about the same issue, there might be included a live work that can speak to any number of issues eloquently and which is issue-oriented only by context.

High Performance (HP) contributes to the definitional crisis by including work we simply appropriated from the nonart world, such as the Mardi Gras parades; a parody religion called “The Church of the SubGenius“; a series of comic books about the real life of its author, Harvey Pekar, called “American Splendor“; an imaginary city invented on a data base by poets and laid over a real city, called “Invisible Seattle.” None of these creators called themselves performance artists.

I feel performance art is actually an audience and not a group of artists. This audience was nurtured at the breast of visual art but reared in an information network of which HP is an important part. And to this audience flock creative people from a number of fields, including the traditionally recognized camps of the performing arts. These creators might be called leading edge players in their disciplines who come to the performance art audience because it is tolerant, informed, and adventurous. The result is a bubbling stew of contradictions, filled with ingredients that did not originate with visual art and have comparatively little to do with art history. In some cases, the audience seeks out performers, dragging them into the art world. In Los Angeles this happened to Johanna Went (punk music) and Weba Garretson (cabaret). Garretson arrived at performance art knowing nothing at all about its history but now [1986] finds herself performance coordinator at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).

In another ironic twist, certain producers seek to ally themselves with performance art for the purpose of acquiring not only its audience but also its sponsors, funding sources, and publicity outlets. Thus, certain theater groups garner more of the spotlight by entering their activities under the relatively spare category of “performance art” in newspaper calendars than they would under “theater.” Also, actor-workers who never made a penny performing in theater suddenly find themselves in possession of “artists’ fees” because they were included in a museum performance art series funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which insists that artists be paid. They gleefully announce that henceforth they are performance artists, since that’s more lucrative than performing Equity showcases.

Finally, the definition of performance art has been stretched beyond belief by a new generation of curators who are filling their series slots with such a wide variety of live performers that many purists are shocked. Often this work is so far from the concept of performance art as it was envisioned by visual artists in the early ’70s that to them it isn’t art at all. These artists declare that performance art is either dead or so defiled that they want nothing more to do with it, and storm back to painting. Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Allan Kaprow, Richard Newton, and Paul McCarthy (off and on) have retired from performance. Some are disappointed with the field; others are frustrated with the art world as a professional arena, desire to start a business, make some money and raise a family, or they have an uneasiness with the emotional and psychic burdens of dangerous or disturbing performance actions.

All these contradictions, so frustrating to writers and everyone else, are symptoms of fantastic growth, even though performance art has been declared dead a number of times. The performance network annually receives more and more money from the NEA; it thrives in regional art centers; it has achieved a high profile in the press; and it has become a part of school curricula. There is so much of it to be seen that I am often moved to retire from the field for a little peace and quiet. While this increased activity could mean that performance art has passed into a place in the general culture and out of its elite art haven, this transformation is usually viewed by the art world as morbidity.

Emergence from Nowhere: the Virgin Birth of High Performance

Now that we have dealt with the (non)definition of performance art, and it’s about as clear as the air over downtown L.A., let’s look at its history.

However you define it, there are traces of performance throughout art history, and historians are having fun mining as far back as the Renaissance for performance art by Bernini and da Vinci. While performance is actually the oldest form of communication, probably predating language itself, its contemporary phase is usually traced back to the turn of the century in Europe, in works by the Dada artists and the Futurists. Indeed, the ideas of those movements—eloquent responses to the birth of the 20th century: the age of machines, world wars, and mass communication—are still being exercised today.

More recently, at the end of the ’50s, came Happenings. Performance surfaced also in response to the ‘6os art market boom, providing artists with something to sell which had nothing to do with objects. It has also been suggested that performance answered a need to bring the human figure back into art, which was dominated at the time by abstraction. It would be another 20 years before HP was born, and in between came conceptual performance, body art, and the feminist art movement. The magazine was not the product of years of planning by a credentialed art historian with the sanctions of the New York establishment. It was the impulsive action of a poet/fiction writer, living in the barbarian wasteland of California. Yet HP more than survived: by the end of 1985 it has received seven NEA grants, state and local funding, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions. I find myself lecturing at institutions like NYU and sitting on panels of experts with the likes of Hilton Kramer. No one is more surprised than I.

I first heard about performance art in the early ’70s. I had read a bit about Happenings when I was in college studying the humanities, and I thought them curious. I imagine if I had lived in New York, I might have fallen in with artists, dancers, actors and others who were, in the early ’60s, giving birth to the world of performances, installations, and conceptual events that later captured me. But I was living in southern California, shut in with raising a family, trying to keep up with things through books and the media.

Around 1972 I saw Regis Philbin interview an apparent madman named Chris Burden on late-night television. I wish I had a copy of this interview now [2014: read the interview here], because I remember my reaction as being completely different from my viewing companions. They considered him a raving asshole who had a lot of nerve to call himself an artist. I thought he had a simple vision of reality and an ability to act on that vision.

Thanks to Ms. magazine, I had also discovered feminism, and it was about this time—again thanks to television, that bearer of enlightenment to the shut-ins of this world—I saw a tape of a whole group of performances and installations: Johanna Demetrakas’ film of Womanhouse, a feminist art project in Los Angeles in 1972. Womanhouse came somewhere between Judy Chicago‘s first feminist performance workshop (in Fresno!) and the establishment of the L.A. Woman’s Building in 1973. Women in the feminist art program at CalArts had obtained an old deserted mansion in Hollywood, reconstructed it and set up their artwork there. On view for one month were installations and performances that spoke often in alarming and graphic ways about housework, women’s role conditioning, nurturing, and body experiences. Individuals or groups had each taken over portions of the house, and Demetrakas’ film showed the kitchen painted a sickly flesh color, with fried eggs on the ceiling, transmuting into breasts hanging from the walls. The “Menstruation Bathroom” by Judy Chicago looked like it was filled with used Kotex and Tampax. One female figure was trapped in (built into) a linen closet, while another was plastered into the bathtub. A mechanical bride descended the staircase on a rail, only to crash into the wall at the bottom. Then she went back up to do it all over again.

Womanhouse performances paid ridiculous and endless homage to costume, makeup, and domesticity, while Faith Wilding‘s “Waiting” offered a simple but devastating definition of woman’s life as constant anticipation-waiting as a child to be fed, waiting to be married, waiting for the children to grow up, and finally, waiting in old age for death:

…Waiting for the mirror to tell me I’m old
Waiting for a good bowel movement
Waiting for the pain to go away
Waiting for the struggle to end
Waiting for release
Waiting for morning
Waiting for the end of the day
Waiting for sleep. Waiting. …

While doing the piece, Wilding rocked in a chair wrapped in a shawl, and I rocked in front of my television set, wrapped in tears.

I don’t mean that Burden’s pieces necessarily operate on the same wave length as these feminist works, but there is something they have in common, something that can be found in all work by visual artists—a distillation of thought and feeling into a cohesive visual form and a reliance on that visual communication. The transmutation of art from the static into performance added the elements of time and the human body, the very idea of which produced an electrifying effect on my imagination. The possibilities for communication were mind-boggling.

Because of performance art, I entered what I must describe as an altered state of consciousness. In my case, the result has been 32 issues of a magazine and seven books (by the HP publishing company, Astro Artz) in addition to the changes that took place in my view of the world and its effect on my personal life. I say this because it is often difficult to point to the way art changes people and people change their world, and that can make artists feel helpless and hopeless. In my case, I was able, with help, to visualize and actualize that change.

In 1972 I entered UC Irvine to earn an MFA in creative writing. I learned that this was the school where Burden performed Five Day Locker Piece and that there was a whole art school of people just like him. They had already graduated but were active in the area. I started meeting them: Richard Newton, Barbara Smith, Nancy Buchanan, Bob Wilhite, Bradley Smith. Of course, their individual concerns and their methods were not Burden’s, but as a group they were motivated and dynamic.

The first live performance I saw that was billed that way was a piece by Bradley Smith in the UC Irvine gallery. Smith installed a huge circle of black plastic in the gallery with the sides heaped up in a border to hold a pool of water. The water reflected everything around it, including the audience (admitted free), which sat waiting on the floor along the pool’s edge. As I recall it, Smith entered crawling backwards, dressed in rags and making an indecipherable sound. He crawled all the way around the pool to a group of bushes in the corner and made a fire. The smoke filled the room with a pungent smell of herbs. That was it.

Part of me wanted to scoff-here was a grown man humiliating himself while an audience of over civilized suburbanites reveled in some kind of manufactured primitivism. But once again I noticed shifts in my consciousness, and as I relaxed I realized the piece was working on a level that made new connections, completely nonverbal. If I had had an intensive art education at this point, I might have related the piece strongly to painting or sculpture, but my reaction was perceptual, experiential, not intellectual.

Soon after that, I saw my first performance by Barbara Smith. Historian Moira Roth arranged a small retrospective for Smith at UC San Diego that included photographic and textual documentation on the gallery walls. It was my first experience with this kind of documentation. It provided a historical context for what we saw later, a performance by Smith called “Full Jar, Empty Jar,” which compared Eastern and Western religion. After a series of actions about materiality and its absence, she departed to a separate room. We were told we could visit her individually and ask a question. I was afraid at first. The reactions of people coming from the room seemed so extreme. One person was crying, another laughing out loud. When I entered the room, I found Smith in Buddhist-like robes with a shaven head and red-stained hands. I knelt on a pillow in front of her and asked, “What are you for?”

“I am for you,” she replied.

I have always been a storyteller, so I tried to tell everyone I met about what I was seeing and what I continued to see over the next few years in California, New York, and Germany. It seemed to be the news of the century, and I thought everyone would be interested, whether or not they were art-educated. I tried to get my hands on all the reading material available. Art historians didn’t seem to regard performance as important, and this caused me to withdraw from the established art world. It was only in Avalanche, the New York magazine by Willoughby Sharp and Liza Béar, or in artist’s books like “Assemblages, Environments and Happenings” by Allan Kaprow that I could find anything written about it.

By the end of 1976, I moved into the loft in downtown L.A. where HP/Astro Artz now abides and was attending performances at the Woman’s Building, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, and other artspaces. When I tried writing about the work I was seeing for Artweek, the west coast biweekly, I was told that there was almost no space for writing about performance (certainly none for reviews from unknown writers). I saw clearly that something had to be done.

I told a few people I was going to start a performance art magazine, and they smiled indulgently. Most people feel that starting a magazine is an insurmountable task. But it’s quite easy if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I had a full-time job at UC Irvine in the public information department, and I belonged to the credit union, so I borrowed $2,000 on my signature and got hold of Ken Friedman‘s mailing list. Friedman was calling himself “Fluxus West” in San Diego and was very active in the mail art network. I had the help and encouragement of Richard Newton, who immediately began to spread the word, collaring people at art openings and forcing them to subscribe.

I sent out a letter to all the performance artists I knew about and invited them to send me photos and descriptions of their performances from the past year. I did not go hat in hand to famous artists to beg for their material (I did notify Vito Acconci, but received nothing in return) because it was obvious to me there was plenty of news in my own back yard. And I wanted to publish people who weren’t getting out there, extending this even to those who were new to artmaking.

Newton and I produced the first two issues on an IBM typewriter in my office at UCI on the weekends, spreading out our designs on the big conference tables, using up all the art supplies we could rip off. I borrowed a design from Chris Burden’s book which documented his pieces in the early ’70s: one full page picture and a straight description of what occurred.

I established this as a format that would be used in every issue until #13 in 1981 and sporadically after that. It was called “The Artist’s Chronicle.” Included in that first issue were pieces by Barbara Smith, Paul McCarthy, Nancy Buchanan, Brian Dailey, Bradley Smith, Bob Wilhite, Richard Newton, and BDR Ensemble of Los Angeles; Tony DeLap, Richard Turner, and D. Gatlin of Orange County (S. Cal.); Jill Scott, James Pomeroy and Paul DeMarinis, and Darryl Sapien and Constancia Vokietaitis of San Francisco; Alison Knowles of New York; Gina Pane of France; and Jurgen Klauke of Germany.


In addition, there was an interview with Suzanne Lacy, who appeared on the cover riding in a dragster. The images, from “Cinderella in a Dragster,” played well with our title, “High Performance,” which was inspired by Newton. There was also an interview with Norma Jean DeAk by Moira Roth and a profile of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art as an art organization presenting performance. Charles Hill provided some comedy with his “Hot Shorts” column.

I wanted good reproduction, because photographs were so important to documentation, so I had HP printed on coated stock, but in economical black and white. I also wanted consistency, so this melange of articles and documentation lasted for many issues.

To make my intentions perfectly clear, I wrote my first editorial:

When I was a child in college, there was a Ginsberg poem’ going around with the refrain: “I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder.” For me performance art has that magic. It is an intimate approach to the art experience.

Surely great art is that which holds humanity up to the light in a way not done before, in a way to jar the soul. Great performance art, created live before your eyes, with the added elements of chance, can be remarkably intense.

Documentation of these events is almost antithetical to that ideal. It is almost a violation to request that they be written down, photographed. But as a journalist, I deplore the loss.

And as a writer of fiction, I am drawn to documentation as a form in itself. …

Too much performance art has been lost to art history. Therefore, High Performance is open to any artist who is organized enough to send me good black and white photographs and a clear description of what occurred. I ask for material directly from the artist because we have relied too much and too long on criticism.

High Performance has no point of view except the reportage of news. And the rebirth of wonder.

[2014: I later discovered, to my chagrin, that it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti who coined that phrase, no Ginsberg.]

In leaving the magazine open, I hoped to offer some sort of spectrum of information to the reader-news from every camp, so to speak. I never tried to give the impression that I was privy to the latest trend, and, though I expressed my own opinion from time to time, I often published articles and documentation of work that was not to my taste. I felt it was important to hear many voices, not to let HP stand for a single school or style to the exclusion of others.

Secondly, I hoped to publish work representative of areas outside the New York City “art capital.” New York artists were always included, but it was obvious to me that there were serious artists working elsewhere who were devoted to their chosen locations for a variety of reasons and who were unpublished. Even regional painting is not taken very seriously by (New York) art magazines, and to expect them to care about performance art in Portland, Oregon, seemed hopeless. I wanted to make a channel for that information to reach my audience.

Thirdly, I always believed there was a large audience that could appreciate performance art on some real level. I suppose this is a common daydream of other art writers, but I thought I could bring art to the nonart-educated reading public. So I tried to avoid, by and large, academic writing, art jargon and writing that leaned too heavily on art history. I always asked my writers to explain themselves.

Artists, as broad-minded and liberal as they like to be, don’t ever really agree with each other. Making art costs a lot in so many ways, and having paid that price, doing it their own way, they tend to look down their noses at others’ choices. Therefore, within the performance world, there are many opinionated individuals grouped roughly into camps. Often one camp does not even regard the work of another camp as art. So, as the publisher of a sampling of all the camps, I was standing on a fence between the formalists and the politicos, between the feminists and the boys’ club, between the kids and the grown-ups. Most sinister of all, we were applauded and sneered at according to which groups got the most “publicity” in our pages (a man called us “sexist to the bone” because a certain issue contained more works by women). And then there were the complaints from those who got publicity but didn’t like it. If you want to get in trouble fast, publish anything at all about mail art, San Francisco, Russians, or music (“new” or any other kind).

In another uncomfortable bind, I found myself on the fence between pro-New Yorkers and anti-New Yorkers. So-called regional artists are defensive, and they like to sneer at New York success. They also liked to view my publication of New York art as toadying to the establishment. New Yorkers, when they sought to compliment me on the magazine, would say, “Too bad it’s not in New York.” They love to refer to HP as a magazine about California art and to its viewpoint as “oddly skewed,” even though, over the years, we have published documentation, features and reviews from 40 states and 15 countries. The idea that the art world could take a California magazine seriously seemed ludicrous, and I have found myself snubbed almost as a matter of course when in the company of certain established writers, artists, and publishers.

Finally, when it came to the style of writing I was trying to foster, it was too pop for the academics, yet East Villagers inform me that HP has the reputation of an academic journal. And as we reached out into the other performing arts and beyond, to parades and parody religions and poetry and comedy, we found ourselves on a fence between art and popular culture.

Staying Alive

From the start of HP, I have watched my peers in publishing become more greedy and money-conscious. Trying to look professional, we brought in advisors who suggested that we should boost our circulation by putting rock stars on our covers and producing benefits starring the likes of David Lee Roth. Magazine publishing normally survives by means of mass marketing and advertising sales. (Federal grants are nice, but very small in comparison to the total budget-they are of relatively little help.) When it comes to single copy sales, the margin of profit is so small per issue that a large volume of sales seems imperative. HP distribution had to be accomplished by a complicated network of small distributors for two reasons: organized crime seems to have a stranglehold on a large part of the system nationwide, and even if we use large independent distributors, they use a scattergun approach to marketing, wasting thousands of copies in search of a market. Over the last eight years we have learned that our readers are literally scattered everywhere, with small concentrations in New York and Los Angeles, but pockets of interest as farflung as Ketchum, Idaho, New Zealand, and Eastern Europe. Talk about needles in haystacks. I had to look so hard for them that for years I knew my subscribers by name.

Advertising sales are also problematic. Primary benefits of advertising in HP should go to the alternative art network, which resides firmly below the poverty line. Galleries that sell objects couldn’t care less about a magazine for non-static art, and local advertisers see little benefit in advertising nationally. There were ways to change this no-win bind HP was in, but I wasn’t willing to try them. I was particularly shaken by the recent Rolling Stone insert to Advertising Age magazine (9 September 1985), 11 pages in which Rolling Stone portrayed itself as the ultimate marketing tool, with a readership that advertisers can take to the bank. They boasted that most of their readers voted for Ronald Reagan, “just like the rest of the country.” The magazine is proud that its highest priority is money and always has been. I don’t have to tell you what an inspiration Rolling Stone was to an entire generation of journalists and editors, not to mention politically and socially concerned readers. This kind of admission, this kind of aggressive marketing is so cynical that it sickens me.

When I came to the end of possible resources, I intended to retire and do something else. Developing a job in the art world didn’t interest me. Neither did any of the prospects I could imagine for continuing HP. I could see no benefit in compromising the magazine to prolong its life. I was inflexible in those principles. It just so happened that a financial backer surfaced who believed in the same principles and offered to keep the magazine afloat and supply me with a livable salary as editor.

So, while I wanted to sell magazines and spread the news to a general audience, I didn’t have to buckle under to commercial compromises. I made only two real changes in my eight-year editorship. First, I broadened the scope of the magazine to include experimental activity in the other arts and their tangents. I learned that artists were interested in breaking down the distinctions between art and everything else: life, politics, commerce, show business. It was a contradiction to draw boundaries around the art form, even though my original intent was to provide print space for those who could find it nowhere else and to save the space only for them. As the field bled into others, so did the magazine.

Second, I began including critical writing. This was a direct response to pleas from the artists themselves and from reader’s surveys. We were dealing with art by people who were often quite unknown. Readers needed some kind of critical framework in which to put the art-documentation was not enough. I balked at this for a long time, feeling that it was the artist’s voice that was important.

Over time I began to understand the readers’ needs and a group of writers gathered around HP who wanted to examine what was going on, to relate it to art history and to culture. The artists’ need for feedback was a more real need in my opinion. They welcomed the opportunity to publish their pieces in a magazine, but they needed to hear what others thought-not just their friends and relatives who made up the bulk of their audiences. They needed to know if their ideas were being received, whether communication had been established, and with whom. So we essentially eliminated “The Artist’s Chronicle” and emphasized reviews. I learned that reviews serve auxiliary purposes that have to do with resumes, jobs, and grant applications. These concerns create a war zone between the magazine and the artists, and this is most difficult for a sympathetic editor.

The existence of HP raises the very interesting question of how the very appearance of a review or documentation changes the nature of an event, codifies it in some way. The peculiar nature of performance art attracted my interest in the first place. Here was an “art form” that was literally open to anybody. Anyone, even a person who had no art education, could announce a piece and perform it, photograph it, publish it, place it in a resume and. use the printed account as credentials, thereby proving her/himself a performance artist. The performance could take place literally any place, indoors or out, or it could be entirely conceptual and never exist at all. It could mimic, parody or comment on existing phenomena in such a way that it might even be mistaken for that which it was commenting on. It defied description and classification. This work, then, reported in a magazine, took on a ring of something “real.” Some readers were attracted and felt they could, or should, attend these events and began to look for them. But reading about an event is entirely different from taking part in it, and many audience members were not prepared for sitting in one place all night long or being in the presence of a sexual action or being privy to personal secrets, or enduring a work that commented on something they held sacred. The audience had personal limits that might not have been apparent to them when reading about work from a safe distance.

So publicity attracted a hostile audience in many cases, which was interesting but painful.

Where’s the Money?

There were other aspects of performance art that attracted hostility, but they had little to do with publications.

In 1978 almost every performance event I attended was free to the public. Then money began to be charged “at the door.” I attribute this change to two aspects of the performance scene: organization sponsorship and the feminist movement.

During the mid-’70s the alternative art movement sprang up to accommodate and encourage alternative art, that is, the wealth of work by the flood of individuals pouring out of art school who could find no acceptance in galleries and museums and no understanding from the critics. Artists banded together and formed cooperatives to show each other’s work, to share gallery and studio space, and to stick up for each other. A system of support gradually began to develop; boards of directors sought funding, and the NEA began to fill the fiscal needs.

These “spaces” saw ticket admission as a way of getting matching money for grants and donations. In other words, contributors wanted to know that there was a demand for the work that was being funded, and an admissions charge was evidence of that demand. It began with voluntary donations, then a sliding scale, then a fixed price of $5 (and more) for everyone.

This process was accelerated by the feminists in the ’70s. During a time when tuning in and dropping out was a fairly well-understood way of life, feminists were promoting “getting paid for what I do.” Women were suiting up for moving up the corporate ladder while many other people were dressing ratty and going barefoot, getting back to the land or defecting to Canada. Women artists flooded into performance art because i) it was an open door and 2) its flexible boundaries made it a platform for political ideas. But their revolutionary ideas included getting paid, even if one’s job was “radical feminist performance artist.” Because this group was so aggressive and determined and its audience so guilty and accommodating, part of the feminist program firmly lodged in art thinking, drawing healthy support from the NEA, which staunchly fosters artists’ fees.

And so performance artists set about the tricky task of mixing art and money.

It’s curious that the amount of money obtained at the door is usually of little to no help, even in the largest spaces. The percentage of the budget earned by door money is about the same, no matter how large the house. Most performance artists never break even, especially those who rise to the level of museums and other top art showplaces, and especially those who are provided with “expenses” and “fees” through grants. The larger the audience and the larger the budget, the more likely artists are to go over budget and into their own pockets. Unlike the actor in a play, the performance artist is also the producer, so all available money goes into the production, usually including the artist’s fee. This kind of outlay is rather pathetic if it amounts to gambling on a “star” appearance to further one’s career. But where can you go after you’ve played MOCA, MOMA and BAM? That’s it, the top of the heap. Unless there is some sort of freak mass appeal in the work that might sell it to the record, TV, or movie businesses, you get nothing but a flicker of fame, a tiny parking place in art history.

I have seen artists go into hock for a whole year to pay for a museum appearance. Cheri Gaulke is working four part-time jobs to pay off the $5,500 she sank into “Revelations of the Flesh.” It premiered May 2, 1985 at the Wilshire United Methodist Church as part of the “Explorations” series sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art and others. A noble effort on behalf of art but a questionable effort on behalf of a career in performance art.

Whatever happened to performance for art’s sake? I prefer to make my money somewhere else than at the door of a performance. In my appearances as a performance artist, I have avoided this charge, or deducted my portion of the door from the admission charged by the space. This courtesy sends a message to the viewer. Some say such a philosophy makes the artist a victim, a chump who is simply giving work away for nothing. For 95% of performance artists, that’s the way it turns out anyway, but most people pretend it doesn’t. So here we have an audience of game individuals who not only have to drive across town in traffic at 8 p.m., but have to pay $5, $10, $I5, or $20 for the privilege of watching something from which they do not know what to expect. There have been no press previews, no advance reviews telling them whether or not it will be the kind of work they can count on to be “good,” so they enter like lambs to the slaughter or the opposite, they have chips on their shoulders. What if the piece is too long or too short or insulting or embarrassing or dangerous? Only the most tolerant person, with the most intensive art sympathies, is going to survive most of these experiences without feeling a little pushed, a little cheated, a little disappointed.

The pressure is too much for most artists. They can’t get used to watching people cringe. Hence the terrible phenomenon of audience pandering. Which brings me to the difference between performance art and theater.

The Difference between Bad Theater and Good Performance Art

I have the strangest professional memories. I remember lying in bed with Linda Montano in the middle of an art gallery sharing our memories about our mothers. I remember dropping 4,ooo baseball players (on baseball cards) into Dodger Stadium with Richard Newton during the seventh inning stretch. I remember trying to get Donna Henes out of jail after she was busted in L.A.’s Pershing Square for celebrating the Equinox without a permit. I remember running down a dark street in Rome with a crowd of people, following Paul McCarthy dressed like a pig. I remember feeling my way across a plowed Montana field in the full moon, following Dennis Voss, “The Mechanic of Isolation.” I remember serving as an official in Steve Durland’s 5-Minute Performance Olympics, choosing the winner by counting the barks emitting from Puck, the Canine Applause Meter (who barks when people clap). I remember a New Year’s Eve spent wading knee deep in popcorn with a crowd who painted all night as Bob and Bob sat on a platform high above our heads, admonishing us to “Forget Everything You Know.”

So you tell me. Why is it that, as a panelist on the subject of “Theater and Performance Art, What’s the Difference?” I had to listen to co-panelist Lee Melville, the editor of Dramalogue, tell the audience that there is no difference between performance art and theater because, after all, performance art is always done on a stage, isn’t it?

This remark seems to throw into the deep past the sorts of performance art remembered above. The fact that “theatrical performance art” is more well known now can be attributed to funding, publicity, and general support and to the prominent success of certain artists. There is a functioning system that makes it easier and career-smarter to program performance art through theatrical venues. Theatrical works in important places cannot be ignored by the established press, simply because of the prestige attached to a major theater or museum.

For most people who have only recently become acquainted with performance art, the piece is on the stage and the audience planted firmly and safely in their seats, observing the action as if in an orthodox theater. Far less emotional risk, no shocks to the psyche, no danger of actual contact with the art or of getting it on your clothes. For this lopsided view we can thank the notorious successes of Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson and Robert Longo and Ping Chong and the flock of prominent artists who have taken to the stage in the last ten years.

The fact that theatrical performance art is more visible than other kinds, however, does not eliminate the question of whether or not performance art and theater are different from each other.

The difference between the two has been a hot topic for years. It needs a well-funded, well-publicized seminar with a catalog. The subject poses many fascinating questions having to do with the intentions of visual art and theater, how they intersect and what happens when they cross, and what all this has to do with the viewer.

The greatest stumbling block between “theatrical” performance artists and theater audiences is that performance art is visually and conceptually based. Artists who are used to gallery and loft audiences will look past theatrical technique and place a much higher value on visual metaphor and concept. Theater audiences, on the other hand, are consumed with a love of the theatrical crafts: acting, directing, playwriting. If a piece is miscast or under-rehearsed, they throw fruit.

Now, oddly, a great play, one that presents a unique concept and vision but also includes great theater technique will satisfy an art audience. But a great piece of performance art can infuriate a theater audience. For example, Kedric Robin Wolfe’s “Warren’s Story” (October-November 1985) at The Wallenboyd, Los Angeles, was a monolog aided by such props as a blow torch, a barber’s chair, and a pair of elevated buckets full of water. Wolfe told a story about his uncle Warren, a war hero. It progressed to reveal Wolfe’s own sexual history, the birth of a child whose conception was a collaboration between himself, a girlfriend and his brother, and the subsequent death of that son in the terrorist bombing of the Marine base in Lebanon. Steven Durland and I and several other performance viewers appreciated his imaginative blend of visuals and autobiographical narrative. But local theater critic Dan Sullivan of the L.A. Times wrote, “Since performer Kedric Robin Wolfe got a standing ovation [. . .] he must have something to say to an audience. I’ll be hornswoggled if I can see what it is. [. . .] Up against professional storytellers, who know how to carve a tale without doo-dads, this performer would be in deep trouble” (15 October 1985).

Performance art critics guard against seduction by technique and can actually become bored by a reliance on great acting, whereas theater critics are driven to the wall by what they perceive as bad timing or mechanical devices that don’t work. If performers speak in their own voices, revealing their own vulnerabilities, some theater critics recoil from the “bad acting,” expecting a good actor to disappear into the role.

Performance artists like to defend themselves—or rather remove themselves from the critical arena—by claiming that they aren’t doing theater, they’re using theater, and the piece is actually about performance. They insist that even though they are using a proscenium stage, a curtain, actors, scripts, cues, lights, music, and fixed seating for the audience, they are not doing theater. But to the viewer without indoctrination, it sure as hell looks like theater. If these artists are going to use what looks like theatrical method, they must not expect theater audiences to throw out thousands of years of convention just because a visual artist feels it isn’t needed.

Besides, the history of the theater in the 20th century is every bit as experimental as the history of art. The time has come for the exponents of each field to learn each other’s histories, especially critics, whose job it is to comment upon the melange that performance and theater have made.

This gap in knowledge is most apparent in California performance artists, particularly those working in Los Angeles. There is a vast difference in coastal theater histories. The mark experimental theater has made on southern California is so negligible it almost cannot be discerned. There simply has been no lab theater, no Living Theatre, no Performance Group, no Wooster Group, no Squat Theater. For most Angelenos, the experimental theater work in the Olympic Arts Festival was a complete eye-opener. That kind of work had to be done in Los Angeles by performance artists. When performance artists began to tread the boards, they expected to attract theater critics, but they didn’t expect it to be so bloody. I say, if artists can’t stand the heat—if they don’t wish to be judged by theatrical standards—they’d better get out of the theater.

The Music’s Getting Ugly

But theater is not the only private catbox being soiled by performance art. The outcry that greets performance art when it approaches other “disciplines,” incorporating dance, or film, or singing, is the outcry of “professionals” who view performance artists as know-nothing dilettantes. Why would a performer get up and sing, they wonder, if s/he is not a singer and doesn’t know how to sing? This controversy always reminds me of the art cartoon showing a couple of ordinary people standing in front of a work of modern art with a caption that amounts to “I could have done better than that!” The presence in performance art of singers who can’t sing, dancers who can’t dance and actors who can’t act obviously points to the fact that performance art is not about doing something well but more often about structure and perception.

When talking about art that intersects with other disciplines, performance artists excuse themselves by offering the possibility that attitudes nurtured in visual art, when applied to other arts, bring a fresh approach and new connections between forms or ideas that would be taboo under conventional rules. That these experiments are perceived as failures so often is, on one level, mystifying. Contemporary performance artists often consider the presence of the audience necessary before the thing can be said to have been tried at all. But audiences with developed tastes have no patience for being used in this way, and for most people, if part of a work fails, the whole thing is spoiled. Audiences expect every piece to be perfect instead of applauding the aspects which do work, those which open doors and posit solutions. On the other hand, if an artist is going to use “singing” or “dancing” the same way a painter might use the color red, then the artist should know as much about “singing” and “dancing” as the painter knows about red.

On October 8, 1985 I witnessed the Los Angeles premiere of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” as interpreted by Martha Clarke, one of the founders of Pilobolus. I was stunned by the visuals, the incorporation of the music and the aerial dances, yet all around me people were walking out. I heard a woman two seats away say, “Let’s get out of here. The music’s getting ugly.” And in exasperation, they vacated their $20 seats. I don’t know who these people were, or how much they had seen, but obviously we were viewing the work from very different points. As much as we would like to have an objective judgment passed on each work of art, it is clear that it can’t be.

Sasha Anawalt in the Herald Examiner guessed that audiences walk out of a performance by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch because they are not accustomed to the company’s angst and repetition of gesture without the benefit of a discernible climax. This didn’t bother me about Bausch, because I had been taught by performance art to look for different kinds of structure and to pay attention in a different way.

To take this a step further, however, I find it interesting that, since Bausch’s 1985 BAM pieces, I have heard two separate art-viewers (one a Californian, one a New Yorker) say: “I don’t need to go see Pina Bausch any more.” Not that Bausch has changed-these two viewers had no further use for Bausch’s current focus. Some work opens a door in your mind through which you don’t need to pass time and time again. Unlike the classics—the great ballets, symphonies, and operas-—these works do not need to be repeated because they are not shows of talents or craft per se. Thus, when Meredith Monk came to L.A. and spent the first half of her MOCA program on a piece that was ten years old, a voice bawled from the balcony, “Why are you so boring, Monk?” I sympathized with this comment, however rude, for I didn’t need to be retold the things Monk pioneered in the early ’70s. These are part of our vocabulary now, and perhaps all they were intended to do in the first place was to expand our vocabulary. Likewise, who would wish to re-experience Burden’s shot in the arm or Acconci’s masturbation under a gallery ramp? As eccentric as these actions might have seemed at the time, in a sense, somebody had to do them, or we wouldn’t know what we know today. We must revise that question we still ask about a performance: was it good? Instead we should ask: were you changed?

Who Draws the Line?

As it became apparent that HP wasn’t going to go away, I began to receive more material than I could use. The last “Artist’s Chronicle” in 1983 contained only about 1/3 of the submissions received. It was obvious after a time that I wanted to hear from artists everywhere, including Odessa, including Tallahassee. There were people out there who were not only isolated from the art world, they couldn’t even raise an audience (and sometimes, in the case of material that was smuggled out of Iron Curtain countries, they were not allowed to). Soon, it was obvious some people were preparing pieces for the sole purpose of documenting them in the magazine and, in a few cases, sending documentation of performances that never happened. As horrifying as this might be to art historians, it never bothered me at all. Performance was so conceptually based that sometimes the suggestion of a performance was as valuable as actually doing it. See any page in Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970). Of course, if the documentation stated that there had been a performance and I knew there hadn’t, I did not publish the piece.

In only one case am I guilty of “censorship.” It was a piece I found morally objectionable: the artist played to a festival audience an audiotape of sounds he said were a recording of his sexual intercourse with a woman’s corpse in Mexico. This was rape, whether or not the woman was alive. I told the artist he had violated the spirit of a human being and if that had been my sister’s body, I would have seen that he was punished. In some way, that woman was my sister. The artist’s crime was compounded by the fact that the piece was presented simply as an act with no reflection or content whatsoever. Why did he do it? There was no clue. Did he wish to make some statement about death? About women? We were not given anything to contemplate except the idea that a man could fuck a corpse. This we know already. (There is some feeling that the artist was lying, that he never actually committed the act. This is immaterial, for the piece would be the same whether he did it or not.)

I thought a long time and concluded that to publish the piece was to take part in it, to extend it, and I decided the buck stopped with me. I published a small paragraph in Issue #11/12 in 1980 that stated he had performed a piece that was morally objectionable to me, but if the readers wanted documentation, they could write to HP and I would forward the request to him. HP was the catalog for the festival, and this piece was the only one undocumented. I could have discussed my reasons, but even this, I felt, was carrying it forward. I had no idea the issue would be later fanned to flame by WET, an L.A. magazine, or that I would be crucified for censorship on the L.A. Pacifica radio station by a bunch of liberals. The controversy around this piece was very good for the local art community. So much discussion was provoked that, in the long run, the piece did what art does. But that is because it fell on very fertile ground—community primed by feminist vigilance against art that promotes violence against women. I regret I did not carry that discussion into HP.

In fact, I did later publish a story about the work of Alex Grey, another artist who performed the same act, but the documentation of his “Necrophilia” was dominated by what transpired in his psyche afterward—what HAPPENS to a man who fucks a corpse and calls it art. For this artist, it was a psychic event in which he felt he was put on trial for the violation of a human spirit and was sentenced to make positive art for the rest of his life.

The responsibilities of journalism are, for me, a mixture of aesthetic and ethical proposals. Artists may break laws and taboos and conventions, but they must be ready to face the music. And so must curators and sponsors and publishers who become a part of carrying such works forward. Sometimes this is the very issue an artist is trying to force when s/he puts the system up against the wall. And sometimes there is a moral decision to be made, for once I am involved, it is my life in the balance. I absolutely refuse to separate art and life.

Let There Be Life

The history of performance art has been permanently colored by those who wish to use it as a life tool. This is the legacy of feminist performance art and the sizable notoriety it achieved in the art world of the ’70s.

Whether the establishment likes it or not, art history now includes works by artists such as Barbara Smith, Linda Montano, Mierle Ukeles, and the artists of the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. Smith uses live pieces to confront questions of her own happiness and comfort and art’s place in them. About “Ordinary Life” (1977), she wrote: “I turn to question the audience to see if their experiences might enlighten mine and break the isolation of my experience, to see if performance art puts them into the same dilemma” (HP #1, 1978). Montano has cordoned off whole sections of her life as art, in which every act she performs is to be seen as an art work simply because she has declared it so. In “Home Endurance” (1973), she stayed home for a week and asked friends to visit her, documenting all thoughts, foods, phone calls and visits. Ukeles’ work on sanitation and maintenance began in 1969 with a manifesto, “Maintenance Art—Proposal for an Exhibition,” which challenged the delegation of housework to women. Then she extended her work beyond feminist content in order to reveal the conditions of work and the stereotypes of maintenance workers on all levels. For “Touch Sanitation Show” (1980), she resolved to “face and shake hands” with all 8,500 sanitation workers in New York City’s Department of Sanitation, saying: “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” The artists of the Woman’s Building have organized exhibitions and performances around the theme of lesbianism, as well as other performances about incest, rape, and child abuse.

Art history now includes massive demonstrations concerned with political and racial attitudes. Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America was organized nationwide by Lucy Lippard, among others. In January 1984 some 200 cities held simultaneous performances, poetry readings, exhibitions, marches, demonstrations, and film and video showings in solidarity with Central American groups suffering intervention by the U.S. government.

Target L.A.: The Art of Survival” (August 1982 and September 1983), organized by L.A. Artists for Survival and directed by Cheri Gaulke, revealed the many ways in which L.A. is a prime target for nuclear bombing. “Artists Missing in Action” (July 1981) was a large performance organized by the Arts Coalition for Equality outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It protested the museum’s ’60s show, which exhibited no art by women or minorities. Smaller demonstrations dealing with rape were included in “Three Weeks in May” (1977) by Suzanne Lacy; “In Mourning and In Rage” (1977) by Lacy and Leslie Labowitz was a media event that included a coalition of artists and antirape groups. John Malpede has received funding from the NEA and the California Arts Council and sponsorship from the Inner City Law Center to make performances with, about, and for the homeless.

Especially within California performance, there is an art that tries to right the world, that plucks images and philosophies and histories and musics from the whole of human knowledge and tries to roll it together into one great ball of meaning to turn humankind from its fearful path. Jacki Apple, Rachel Rosenthal, Nancy Buchanan, and Cheri Gaulke take the world on their shoulders, lug it onto a stage, strain beneath its weight, and face critics who tell them they are making bad theater. Surely there is another response.

Meanwhile, I hear constantly that the really good performance in New York is in the clubs, and that the new art will be clothes and that I should be checking out the fashions in the floating dance halls. But I see artists like  Tim Miller exploring the agonies of growing up gay, doing for gay men what feminist performance artists did for gay women ten years ago. Abstract art and fashion art serve to remove feeling from art, to leave undisturbed the deep sleep we are falling into, where we feel nothing and nothing touches us.

Let emotions belong to the theater, the art critics say. Artists can only be concerned with ideas and philosophies. And the real purists turn away from performance altogether because the very presence of the “hot” human body implies emotion, and emotion flows dangerously close to propaganda and self-indulgence. During the ’60s and ’70s, performance reached out to touch its audience, and now the audience has retreated so far that performance can’t reach it.

In the ’80s, they beg: let us have no more nude bodies, no more personal confessions. No hippie values, no more ’60s, no more California. Artists are buying into the conspiracy, pandering to the audience, advertising fascism, fresh haircuts, and fake personalities.

The Revenge of the Kids

In current performance, there is a conflict that is artistic and generational. The Carolee Schneemann-Allan Kaprow generation—the original vanguard of contemporary performance—is a generation approaching or going well beyond fifty. The newest crop of performance artists in their twenties have managed to cook up an art that is about as offensive to their elders as it can be, for it seems to pay homage to junk culture and television. (In this, it parallels a similar movement in painting.) Where Eleanor Antin expressed herself with a manufactured persona to examine issues of importance to her, her students are using personalities borrowed from Saturday morning cartoons, sitcoms, soap operas, and The Late Show. In these works, lives are not lived but portrayed by bad actors in terrible teleplays and B movies, and the artists seem trapped in their costumes. Sadly enough, this may be true. What at first looked like irony, or at least sarcasm, seems now to be frank admission to a sort of pleasurable dementia. The parody is virtually identical to the real thing.

Writers really sweat to read this work as a new postmodernist language commenting cleverly on the nature of the media and their audience, while others find it an obvious slap in the face to a generation of parents who left their children with the electronic babysitter while they were out taking part in political demonstrations, experimenting with open marriage, finding themselves through therapies, coming out gay, taking drugs and founding the women’s movement. What’s your worst nightmare, Ms. 1965? Little Kimberly dressed up like a Jetson and declaring herself a victim of TV brain damage, a lobotomized zombie?

The older generation, trapped in our own permissiveness, repeat to ourselves that we must remain open-minded, that this generation has its own language, just as ours did, and there is meaning in this mystery. To reject it as art is to admit to advanced age and hardening of the artistic arteries, so we try to stay trendy, hoping what we fear is not true: that everybody is getting more stupid, that the Conspiracy is winning, and that we really are entering the End Times.

The good news is that not all young performance artists use this idiotic cabaret-TV-parody mode (a chief feature of which is cross-dressing—feminists, take note). Among these artists are young people—like the California-based group called “Eisenhower”—who seem to be awake at least part of the time. They have a whole history of performance art tucked into their MFAs and 32 issues of HP. They are politically committed, anti-sexist, anti-racist and excessive. Some of them are studying with Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy at UCLA.

My attention turns to performance artists of all generations who oppose theatrical and cabaret performance. For these artists, the “audience” is a group of participants or witnesses, and the performance is an experience or journey. Pleasing the audience or the critic does not enter into consideration, and the work cannot be termed entertainment in any traditional sense (nor can it be easily consumed, digested and swallowed by the Conspiracy). It is rare that an artwork of this kind is repeated, no matter how good the reviews are or how available the funding. Much of it happens outside the theater/gallery context, in unusual settings or out-of-doors, and the setting influences the context of the piece. The artist relates not only to art history, but to the environment—in its physical, social, political, and spiritual dimensions.

I think of Suzanne Lacy, who organizes enormous works involving whole communities of people and examines such topics as racial stereotyping, women’s history, and aging. In “Whisper, The Waves, The Wind” (1984, with Susan Stone), 100 aged women of all backgrounds were seated at tables in the sand, using a San Diego beach as a forum for their experiences with aging. Patrick Zentz listens closely to the earth and creates performances on his Montana ranch with sound sculptures that are designed to play music corresponding to the lay of his land and the action of wind and water upon it. In August 1985 a performance titled “Instruments for Day” consisted of the 24-hour recording of sounds from the Creek Instrument, the Horizon Instrument and the Run-off Drum, all placed on Big Springs Ranch. Bill Harding [2014: now know as Gene Pool] works with living grass as an art material. He grows it on automobiles and business suits, sometimes dressing the audience in them. Marina Abramovic and Ulay are preparing to walk toward each other the length of the Great Wall of China and photograph it from the air. They’ve created a number of works about setting and stillness. In 1977, for example, in “Relation in Time,” they sat motionless with their hair bound together for 17 hours. In 1981 [“Nightsea Crossing“], they lived in central Australia for three months, spending the greater part of each day sitting motionless. Tehching Hsieh has dedicated whole-year segments of his life as art. His first “One-Year Performance” began in 1978, when he locked himself inside a tiny cell in his New York studio. He talked to no one and heard nothing but the sounds of the disco below him. Frank Moore is a spastic artist, totally disabled by cerebral palsy from birth. He has produced narrative videotapes about his handicap, such as “Fairytales Can Come True” (1980) and produced the “Outrageous Beauty Revue,” a live sex show that ran for three years at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. In performance he engages individuals in private “erotic play,” which is sometimes videotaped. Chris Burden is preparing a piece for the Henry Gallery in Seattle called “Museum Busters” [renamed “Samson“] in which two enormous wooden beams are held against the walls of the entryway by means of a large jack that pushes them further apart as each visitor enters the gallery through a turnstile. Theoretically, they will, at some point, destroy the walls of the gallery if enough entries are made. The point, Burden says, is to make visitors aware of the way in which the public “wears out” the gallery (Kirby Olson, “Art and Death in Seattle,” HP #32, 1985). Many of these works are shocking and questionable, but at least they make it inconvenient for the audience to fall asleep in their theater seats.

So Who Needs It?

Why do we, the art viewing public, need to experience this kind of thing on a regular basis? The world is changing at an alarming rate; we feel in a constant state of disturbance, and some of us have many questions. How can this be true if that is also true? How can X and Y exist, really, side by side? The answers, we have learned, are so often found in perspective. We learn to understand life when we learn to look at things in different ways. That is what I ask of art today. Unlike cautious popular culture, which makes only what the audience will buy, art asks us to make great leaps, impossible connections which bring new answers to unanswerable questions. And perhaps we need live art so that we can gather in groups and assimilate new perspectives together, at the same instant. Being in the audience isn’t easy. We express an inordinate fear of being “bored” by performance art, of wasting our precious time. The artist has us trapped in some sense, under time control. Time, then, the element which lifts performance art away from static art and into its own rich realm, is also its weakest element. If time is ill spent, there is hell to pay.

I have just given up ten years of my prime time to the experience of performance art, and I am not without my doubts about how I spent those years. I could have chosen to relieve hunger or work with runaways or write a novel, do something my children could understand and my parents could brag about. As I look back over the last ten years, I feel like Andre Gregory in “My Dinner with Andre”: sort of nauseated at what I’ve been through. Like some group sex orgy or an intense adventure on hallucinogens, the experience leaves me a bit sick to my stomach and suspicious of myself. I asked to be enlightened, but in the bargain I feel coerced, embarrassed and exhausted.

Performance artist Paul McCarthy said, “It is my belief that our culture has lost a true perception of existence. It is veiled. We are only fumbling in what we perceive to be reality. For the most part we do not know we are alive” (LAICA Journal, January-February 1979). In his performances he takes his witnesses on a journey in which he exhibits beastly characters, wearing their twisted psyches on the outside, displaying for us what humanity has actually become. His performances are called disgusting and impossible for some people to watch. McCarthy and others who make shocking images of human existence might be regarded as the soul of man crying out for help, in a state of extreme emergency. Maybe we are using performance art to snap us out of it. As the Rev. Ivan Stang (Church of the SubGenius) said, “You’re still looking where They’re pointing, when you ought to be looking all around” (“Quit Your Job and Praise Bob,” HP Issue #24, 1983).

It is not easy to slip back into everyday life after assimilating this work, for so much of it is about human abuse. When we allow ourselves to experience disturbing states, are we opening ourselves up or closing ourselves off? We seem to be willing to let Hollywood try to scare us to death, and each year the movies get more violent, more anti-human, which means we are becoming harder, more able to withstand shocks. In his new novel, “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis depicts young people who are engaged in and witness to the most degrading acts yet remain unaffected by them. After watching a young girl shoot up with heroin, or a snuff movie, or a gang rape, the main character feels something between ennui and a headache, takes no action, and goes on with his life as it was. Ellis assures us that his novel is not far from the truth. We seem to have a lust for that which will make us tougher, and deader; ready, in fact, for death.

What does art do? Is it part of the problem? In trying to live near the cutting edge, or at least write about it, I find that I am neither happy nor rich, and I have achieved a flickering vision of enlightenment that has left me so off-balance that I am in a state of perpetual sea-sickness. I see America choosing, in its pursuit of happiness, a life of mediocrity and an entertainment that offers an illusion of reality. I begin to understand why. For reality is change, cruelty, pain, ecstasy, heartbreak and death, and we live it vicariously by keeping it safely on tape. We even put performance art on tape.

As marginal as it might be, performance art makes me feel alive sometimes, and that can’t be bad.

Linda Frye Burnham
Santa Monica, 1986



During the ’70s Chris Burden committed a number of simple gestures over which it is possible to lay not only interpretations from the sculptural context (so logical, so succinct) but also readings from theater, psychology, sociology, politics, economics, communications, transportation, science, astronomy, and criminology. Jarring glimpses of human nature, and so simple, the actions of an artist/philosopher with a voice that came from you and me. His work is a key that unlocks a shared language. He has not chosen to articulate very much about his work, except that it represents, among other things, a “fuck you” to established attitudes. The jury is probably still out as to whether his work will be remembered by the writers of art history books, but to a significant number of artists it was a turn in the road. For us, he is a link between what went before and what came after. I really laugh when I hear older art critics cast aspersions on Burden’s work, trivializing “Five Day Locker Piece” (in which Burden imprisoned himself in a school locker at UC Irvine as his five-day graduate show) or “Shoot” (the infamous one-second sculpture in which Burden had himself fired upon with a rifle). Robert Hughes dismissed Burden in “The Shock of the New.” But if a body of work is significant to a lot of artists, shouldn’t a critic make way for it somehow, eventually? If I had Robert Hughes around my coffee table, I’m not sure I could say anything more illuminating than, “It was too late for you, but it was not too late for me.” Burden once said, “I wanted them (these events) to really be there instead of making illusions about them, because it gives society a broader range–makes the world fuller . . . or at least somewhere in the world there’s a B-car and there’s somebody who got shot on purpose to see what it would feel like.” (view 1978).


Getting on the Highways: Taking Responsibility for the Culture in the ’90s

This article was printed in the University of Kansas Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall 1990, Vol. V, No. 1, pp. 265-278

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens
can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
—Margaret Mead

This is the outrageously grandiose admonition that hangs over my desk at the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica. At this desk I manage the complex and in my spare time I co-direct Highways Performance Space, one of the tenant organizations in the complex.

Even in these dark days, as Congress throws its enormous wet blanket across freedom of expression, I like to pretend art can change the world. I keep up this pretense for all the courageous and blindly optimistic young artists who pass through my life, and I keep the sign on my wall because it was put there by my daughter Jill, who, God bless her, wants to follow in my footsteps as an arts administrator and is part of the heart of Highways.

In the 15 years I have maneuvered around in the art world, I have collected a lot of hats in my closet. Not only did I found High Performance magazine in 1978 and serve as it editor until 1986,1 have also been a critic, teacher, publisher, curator, historian, performance artist, poet, songwriter, fiction writer, producer, presenter, organization founder.

I find at this stage of the game I am perhaps just as interested in arts organizations as I am in the art itself. What’s crucial to me is the notion of creative people gathered together to take responsibility for the culture, to support and learn from each other, and to make something besides money. My friend Susanna Dakin once ran for president as a performance artist and her slogan was “The Nation as an Artwork.” We agree that systems, communities and organizations have design, shape and dynamics, just like a poem, a symphony or a constitution.

Throughout the ‘60s, 70s and ‘80s I think we all learned a lot about the dynamics of groups from working through the civil rights movement, the antiwar struggle, feminist liberation, co-dependency groups, abortion clinic defense, protest against U.S. intervention in Central America, and now, certainly, the movements around AIDS and homophobia. Those between 20 and 50 are children of the revolution, for better or worse. The alternative arts world is peopled with such children. Our arts organizations are worth paying attention to, especially now that they are under attack by religious bigots in Congress and elsewhere.

A Death-Defying Escape from the ‘80s

What led me to start another nonprofit arts organization for the ‘90s is a story of the ‘80s, with all its excess, grief and overblown dreams.

I founded High Performance magazine in 1978 in Los Angeles because I saw performance art as a worldwide phenomenon of enormous energy, but one that was blowing away in the wind, with no one to document it—especially the work that was being done outside of New York. I was originally attracted to the field because of the vast amount of work being done by women. Feminist artists were doing live work that seemed to me to apply to real life, to my life. The interdisciplinary, multimedia formal and political strategies operating in performance art seemed to me to be far more useful than simple writing or painting or sculpture in examining contemporary problems and situations. For eight years I followed the field, traveling all over the U.S. and Europe, writing criticism and establishing a writers network wherever I could. I made performance myself, published books about the field, helped produce several festivals and temporary artspaces, and generally immersed myself in the whole performance idea.

But by 1985 I was fed up with the art world entirely. It seemed to have been swallowed up by the venality of the ‘80s. The performance field looked swamped by careerists, exhibitionists and publicity seekers. Art seemed to be ignoring the enormous pressing problems of the real world that surrounded me everyday—unemployment, homelessness, waves of refugees from the wars we were waging in Central America. Art seemed to take hold of real world images and dump the meaning out of them until they were beautiful empty symbols.

Artists were side-lining themselves, marginalizing themselves into powerlessness. I was fed up, and I quit the magazine and tried to quit the art world. What brought me back was the brazen action of a single artist, a performance artist from New York named John Malpede, who established a performance art workshop for the homeless on L.A.’s Skid Row and proceeded to demonstrate with clarity that art saves lives. I was overwhelmed at the magic I saw worked in his LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department)— performers and audiences literally transformed into beacons of hope in a neighborhood that sat at the bottom of America’s trashpile.

John was a California Arts Council artist-in-residence in a brilliant program that requires artists to create their own workshop projects by partnering with a nonprofit organization. In his case it was the Inner City Law Center. I went to a meeting of other artists-in-residence and met people like Susan Franklin Tanner who had started the TheatreWorkers Project, creating performances with unemployed steelworkers, shipbuilders and immigrant laborers about their lives, their work, their communities and the shrinking of the industrial kingdom that once was southeast L.A. I met a black painter who was teaching painting in a hospital to terminally ill children. I met artists working in AIDS hospices, day care centers, refugees asylums, farmworkers unions. They were doing for “community art” what they had done for avant-garde art in the ‘70s, using revolutionary formal strategies and postmodernist theories to try to unravel some of the great social knots of our times.

I was rejuvenated and inspired. As I said in a column in High Performance at the time, I was so proud of art again, it was almost like falling in love.

The Legacy of Crisis: Act Now

Meanwhile, one of the most devastating occurrences of the 20th Century was unfolding in America, with most tragic consequences for the art world: thousands of creative people were dying of AIDS.

In 1987 Tim Miller and Douglas Sadownick moved to Los Angeles, fleeing New York with its escalating cost of living and escalating numbers of dying. Miller is an L.A. native who went to New York instead of college and in the process of becoming a prominent performance artist, he helped found Performance Space 122 in the East Village. Sadownick is a fiction writer and journalist who specializes in writing about the performing arts, gay identity and AIDS. They brought to L.A. a performance about their relationship with each other under the pressures of the AIDS crisis and when I saw “Buddy Systems” I saw for the first time the agonies of survival as a gay couple in our times. It touched me on a deeply personal level, and triggered an urgency that made me write them a fan letter-before it was too late, as it were. Since then I have realized that AIDS has turned all of us into activists in many ways: we don’t procrastinate like we used to, especially when it comes to expressing gratitude and affection.

I became fast friends with Miller and Sadownick, and before long Miller and I were commiserating over the shrinking amount of performance space in Los Angeles—a city full of performance artists, as I knew quite well. Because of real estate prices, insurance costs and other economic pressures, by the end of 1987 there was only one regularly operating performance space in town. In January 1988, over a cup of coffee in a Hollywood cafe, we decided to try to do something about it. We wanted to start a space that would specialize in performance and provide a place for L.A. artists to work. We wanted to see a lot of new work from established artists, and we wanted to call forth emerging artists who, we felt, were stymied by the lack of available performance space.

By the time we opened the doors of Highways Performance Space in May of 1989, our agenda had changed remarkably. Instead of making an anonymous artspace that would function like an empty tube through which “art” would pass, we came blasting forth with a manifesto.

In that year-and-a-half we both became extremely politicized. I found myself obsessed with the Iran-Contra affair and U.S. involvement in Central America. Tim got deeply involved with the founding of ACT UP/LA. (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and was staging performances at demonstrations and protesting government AIDS policies by getting arrested. I was spending my Saturdays defending women’s health clinics against the onslaught of the anti-abortion movement, and acting as an administrator for Malpede’s LAPD, now a nonprofit organization itself.

In addition we were both touring, lecturing and attending conferences around the U.S. and other countries. We spent a lot of time talking with such innovative organizations as the Border Arts Workshop in San Diego/Tijuana, who were making art on and about the border; and Alternate ROOTS, a network of performing arts professionals throughout the southeast United States who were committed to cultural diversity, artist involvement in cultural policy making, and regionalism—making new work out of the urban and rural locations they call home. ACT UP inspired us to new theories about social activism as well as group process, and Hittite Productions, a black performance company in L.A., was cluing us in to new cultural movement in their community. We kept in constant contact with our own roots organizations, High Performance and P.S. 122, and were in frequent consultation with other vital arts organizations like Sushi in San Diego; Artists Television Access, 1800 Square Feet, and Life on the Water in San Francisco; The Painted Bride in Philadelphia; Dance Theater Workshop and Creative Time in New York; The Woman’s Building in L.A., and all the others in the National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO). That kept us in touch with what was going on in multicultural presenting and new arts theory all over the country.

We talked every day for a year and a half. We realized that we wanted to encourage art about social issues, and that we wanted to go on supporting formal exploration, since we knew the value of such experimentation when it comes to shaking up the mental constructs that create and institutionalize social problems. We also knew that we couldn’t expect to address phenomena like homelessness, racism, homophobia and sexism without turning to those who are so massively affected by these disorders: women, ethnic and immigrant communities, gays and lesbians, the disabled and recovering, the elderly, the homeless themselves. And most significant of all, we dared to hope that artists from these groups would not only come to work at Highways, but that they would come to join forces and start working with each other, and that their audiences would follow them here and intermix as well.

In our search for space, we found that other organizations were looking too, and then we were blessed with an (anonymous) arts patron who wanted to buy some property in Santa Monica, L.A.’s liberal, pro-art beach community. She hired me to find a property big enough for all of us and devise a plan that would make the place pay for itself. I found a complex of five buildings eighteen blocks from the beach in a semi-industrial area set aside by the city for light manufacturing and art studios and galleries. The sale went through on Halloween 1988 and the complex soon filled up with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including High Performance/Astro Artz, the Electronic Cafe, The Empowerment Project, Community Arts Resources (CARS), Parents International Ethiopia, The Bhopal Justice Project and a number of individual artists studios. We all help support the complex by paying rent.

Building Highways

Our performance space was able to move in by the following spring. We called it Highways because it is located not far from the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 405, and because we knew it was about intersections of all kinds.

The space is 3,000 square feet of lofty warehouse that was home for fourteen years to a design firm, and was just next door to the studio where Judy Chicago and company had created the landmark feminist art history work, “The Dinner Party.” There was room for a 1400-square-foot performance area (including space for movable risers that would seat about 130), plus a lobby, gallery, roomy upstairs tech booth, dressing room and “green room” waiting area for performers. We knew that we would have to build a flexible dance floor over the cement for the safety of dancers and movers.

We put out a call for help and the art and theater communities poured forth a wealth of used furniture and equipment that set us up for business. The list of donors represents a history of LA. people, theaters and artspaces.

We walked into this operation without raising a dime, contrary to the general opinion that you couldn’t do something like this without raising a million dollars first. What we needed we bought out of pocket. Our fiscal policy was based on low overhead. We figured we had to make at least $800 a week to pay the rent and expenses, but we knew we would have to run the first year on all-volunteer energy. We decided the organization would always be headed by at least two artists, at least one man and one woman, and never a single arts administrator/executive director, because we had watched too many artist-initiated organizations founder as the artists retired and the business people took over. We wanted to make sure the public saw that we were working artists, and that, as members of the Highways community, we intended to perform in the space ourselves. Our first employees, if any, would be a general manager and a technical director, simply to take care of the details. Tim and I felt we had a lot of expertise in curating, publicity and grant writing.

We wanted to make sure artists got paid, but we knew the healthiest way to turn Highways into a real community of artists was to co-produce with those who came to perform. We would offer artists 50% of the ticket sales, a press release and calls to the press, a splash in our regular two-month mailer/calendar, a box office person and our technical equipment. They would have to provide any extra flyers or postcard mailings, technical operators and designers and stage hands. While this coproduction model is financially difficult, it does give the artists some ownership of the production and a glimpse into the real economics of presentation.

Our manifesto was meant to call forth a special kind of energy from artists in all communities. We called ourselves a gallery for new performance forms and intercultural collaboration.

The Manifesto read:

“Highways is an artists’ community dedicated to the exploration of new performance forms. Highways is strategically located at the intersection of art and society. Highways is an interchange among artists, critics and the public. Highways is a crossroads, a place of alliances, a new collaboration among cultures, genders and disciplines. Highways is part of an international effort to articulate and work out the crisis of living in the last decade of the 20th Century.”

Before we even opened our doors, my studio at the complex was filled regularly with artists, writers, musicians and creative people of all colors and persuasions discussing plans, talking about the artist as citizen, and reading new work to each other. Always included in these discussions were our first board members, Guillermo Gômez-Pena, a Mexican artist from San Diego/Tijuana, and Steven Durland, the editor of High Performance, two artists who were not only monitoring, but shaping the new theories of multiculturalism in the ‘90s.

We talked vigorously about Highways as a cultural center with an expanded vision of the role of art in local, national and global life; an artist-run organization essentially international in scope, with the goals of making visible the diversity of the 86 cultural groups present in southern California.

We told each other that we were especially interested in presenting and encouraging artists with their roots in contemporary cultures of all kinds, particularly those who are concerned with the intersection of those cultures and the vital social resonance of that intersection. We wanted to add to the traditional east-west art axis, a north-south axis—communication with artists in Latin America and examination of their community-based cultural strategies. We talked about an Interstate 5 network of related performance spaces from Mexico to Canada who could collaborate and share the responsibilities of touring for artists, and a similar connection across the southern U.S., an I-10 network.

We wanted a lot of discussion of issues at Highways. From our experience in other organizations, and especially our adventures at the annual gathering of the multiracial Alternate ROOTS clan, we knew that multicultural work would be extremely rocky, and we vowed to create a structure strong enough and flexible enough to withstand controversy. We invented the concept of the “anti-panel” for discussions, since we were very tired of the “politburo” approach to discussions where a panel of experts sits at a table facing the audience and pontificates. We wanted discussions to be circular and to include as many speakers as possible. This image grew out of our secure knowledge that multiculturalism, for us, did not mean two white people opening the door for minorities, and it did not mean charity work for the less advantaged. It meant we were turning to people from other cultural groups for vital information on the crises we found ourselves surrounded by. It would be a learning experience for all of us, an exchange.

The First 365 Days

In the first year we presented more than 250 nights of performance illustrating the goals I have outlined. We both worked for free and kept the space going on volunteer labor while co-producing with artists and sharing the proceeds. In that time we put more than $40,000 into artists’ pockets, most of them local. Newsletters are included in the mailer/calendars we send out every two or three months. We purposely give in-depth reports of both good and hard times because we feel it was important that Highways be seen as a human situation, being dealt with by professionals who are real people with feelings and people who make mistakes. The newsletter, Traffic Report,” has become very popular, especially with our friends who don’t live in L.A.

A brief description of our first days gives a good example of some of our curating decisions and their results.

We opened our doors on May 1, 1989, International Workers Day, with a blessing by Malcolm Boyd, a gay Episcopal priest from Santa Monica’s outrageously ecumenical church St. Augustine’s-by-the-Sea. (A week before the opening, Boyd had collaborated with Tim in a performance at St. Augustine’s that had the congregation laughing, crying, and applauding their message about brotherly love.)

In his blessings, joined by many of the artists who were to work at Highways in the coming years, Boyd invited the spirits from all four directions to enter and grace the space. It must have worked because our opening benefit-four days of performances May 4-7, featuring 75 artists-was a great success. Audiences crowded in and responded warmly to performance by artists from the Anglo, black, Asian, gay and homeless communities. We raised enough money to pay the first month’s rent, and to pay for the minimal equipment we had to buy and renovations to the space. We were also very excited about the large amount of advance press we received from all local papers and magazines.

Cinco de Mayo and the Rise of Latino Issues

Among the most interesting events of the benefit weekend was Cinco de Mayo, May 5, in which Latino artists came together from Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco to celebrate Mexico’s political holiday and recontextualize it for American audiences. The artists, including the Border Arts Workshop, began the evening by dressing as their various Mexican personae-The Wrestling Bride, the Border Brujo—and leading the whole audience up 18th Street to the local bar, La Pantera Rosa, where we ringed the pool tables, and Ruben Guevara, who was born in the neighborhood, reclaimed it as his barrio with drumming and singing.

After some dancing in the restaurant next door, the artists brought the audience back to Highways where they presented a number of individual performances. In a controversial presentation that ran throughout the evening, Elia Arce introduced a recipe for fish stew from her native Costa Rica, then requested help from the audience in slaughtering the fish on stage to put in the stew, which was being prepared in the gallery.

After the performance and in the “anti-panel” scheduled for the next day, this and many other thorny issues raised by the Cinco de Mayo event were aired. Arce’s performance was viewed by many as cruelty to animals, giving rise to discussion of the killing of animals for food, “humane” slaughtering, and customs in other countries where animals are often killed in the open marketplace in full view of children. Also hotly debated was the double standard used by some performance critics when writing about multicultural work.

Another issue, raised by VIVA!, an L.A. organization of gay and lesbian Latinos, was the lack of inclusion of gay sensibilities in the Latino evening, and the paucity of Latino presence in our gay/lesbian festival scheduled for June. We worked hard to reach compromises and launch strong policies for the future.

Performance Art or Theater: The Beast Rises Again

The day before we opened our first full performance run, a two-week stint by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, Highways was visited by inspectors from Santa Monica’s Fire, Building & Safety and Planning & Zoning Departments, who perused our license as an art gallery and dismissed it, positing that we are a theater, not allowed in the zone. Much bureaucratic turmoil ensued, though all in extremely good temper, requiring me to write an essay for the city administrators on the difference between performance art and theater. Unlike the experience of most artists dealing with municipal agencies, this turned into a friendly and supportive exchange. The city decided to look into changing the zoning in our area to make room for performance art, and required Highways to make some structural changes in the building.

Nobody could have been more flexible during a period of such stress than John Malpede’s gang of artists and homeless people, the Los Angeles Poverty Department, who, as we anxiously waited word about whether we would even be able to open that night, exhibited the dexterity that gets them through the gauntlet of life on the streets. We were allowed to go on with the run, with new piece “Jupiter 35,” about Sunshine Mills’ fall from a high window on Skid Row and his subsequent stay in the hospital. Mills collaborated on the script and appeared center stage throughout the piece, cracking wise from a hospital bed and wheelchair. This street-level piece is one of LAPD’s strongest and shines with laughter, pain and fright. (The 1990 Los Angeles Festival selected it for a festival run at Highways.) Tom Stringer in the LA. Reader reflected upon “the group’s great passion and commitment” and the questions they raise about “the role of theater in our lives.” To wit:

“How can theater best reveal what James Agee once described as ‘the metaphysical yet very literal faith in unanimity and massiveness of spirit’? As society continues its half-hearted attempts to provide adequate shelter and services for the homeless, certain theaters and theater artists open their doors—and their lives—to this group, providing them, at a minimum, with a performance home. Fortunately the contributions have not been entirely one-sided. As is evident in ‘Jupiter 35,’ the return on this theatrical investment is the formation of a performance community whose unparalleled belief in the theater’s revitalizing power can inspire us all.”

Another event that brightened our first month was presented by the TheatreWorkers Project, “Steel Blue Water: The Shipbuilders’ Play,” written and performed by workers from Todd’s Shipyards in San Pedro, L.A.’s seaport. This autobiographical documentary piece looked at the ecology of the local shipbuilding industry, as well as the impact of Todd’s on the community and the personal lives of workers. Director Susan Franklin Tanner and writer Rob Sullivan had workshopped with the shipbuilders to create the piece, firmly grounding it in the community. Then they did a large mailing to a list of labor supporters, so the audience consisted not only of performance-goers, but actual shipbuilders-union members. The “second act” of the piece was a discussion with the audience and the questions were pointed and salient-exploring not only the difficulties of the failing shipbuilding industry, but union theory as well, including policies of the theaterworkers union. One audience member who defended the wages of theater technicians was the union sound operator of the performance itself, who talked while he worked the job! We added many new names to our mailing list that night.

Making Opportunities for Growth

We immediately instituted some “mixed bag” evenings for short works by emerging artists and others doing works in progress, called “Car Pools” and “Monday Drivers.” Among the artists in our first evening of short works were Keith Antar Mason and the Hittites, Suchi Branfman, Linda Carmella Sibio and Dan Kwong. This group is an interesting example of how artist relationships develop at Highways.

Of this group, Mason now has a studio at the complex and the Hittites have gone on the create major works here and act as a liaison with the black artist community, bringing artists and new works to us and now working on a conference idea with Highways. Suchi Branfman is a well known New York choreographer whose family lives in Santa Monica and has been a friend of ours for a long time; in June 1990 she returned with a new full-evening solo drawn from a long visit to Brazil, a look at living as a foreigner, even in one’s own land. Linda Carmella Sibio also came to develop her first major solo in June at Highways, a gutsy exploration of schizophrenia, using a jungle gym on stage and separating herself from the audience with a 12-foot chainlink fence. Dan Kwong developed a full-length interdisciplinary work that started in a Car Pool, “Secrets of a Samurai Centerfielder,” about his triple Japanese-Chinese-American identity, and the work is now starting to tour. Kwong was one of the first artists to respond to our manifesto and has been of invaluable assistance in developing and maintaining our sound system.

“Ecce Lesbo/Ecce Homo, “ Ecce Gay Pride

Among our landmark achievements has been our annual gay and lesbian performance festival, “Ecce Lesbo/Ecce Homo.” Tim and I are always very careful to make sure gay/lesbian culture is included in any multicultural discussion we take part in. We both feel that the gay community is pouring forth creative energies right now, due in large part to the life-and-death crisis it is facing, and the massive effort toward survival it has had to maintain. Some of our strongest work and most enthusiastic audience response has come out of this community, and gay artists are visible role models for young artists at Highways.

The 1989 festival during Gay Pride Month offered a stunning and gritty new work by Michael Kearns, “Intimacies,” one-man portraits of six disenfranchised people with AIDS; a searingly funny and sexual feminist monolog by New Yorker Holly Hughes, “World Without End,” which broke box-office records all over America; strong afternoons of readings by gay and lesbian writers; “Meet the Mormons” by Les Mormons, Robert Daniels and Curtis York, a raunchy, glamorous and heart-rending reflection on growing up flamboyantly gay in Salt Lake City; a benefit reading for Northern Lights Alternatives by Paul Monette, who has written such powerful poems and a journal about friends and lovers and AIDS; and “Talking About Talking,: The Power To Shape the World,” dialog between Jewish lesbian Robin Podolsky and black lesbian Ayofemi Stowe Folayan. All these people are still involvedwith Highways and many were back for the 1990 festival.

One of the most energizing features of the festival was an installation in the gallery where ACT UP/LA. showed Chuck Stallard’s photos and relics of art actions at political demonstrations: pictures of the 1988 Gay Pride Parade in Hollywood and costumes worn by ACT UP members, including a coffeepot and two huge cups bearing the legends, “Homophobia is Brewing”; photos of the AIDS fashion show at the weeklong vigil at LA. County Hospital to demand an AIDS ward; large drawings of local politicians who have failed to alleviate the crisis, each with the word “Guilty” stamped across their foreheads. The floor of the gallery was covered (and still is) with outlines of fallen bodies, within which audience members inscribe the names of their friends and colleagues who have died of AIDS.

These are only a few of the dozens of exciting projects we managed, on a shoestring and a lot of community good will, to present. We went on to produce other multicultural festivals, such as “I-5 Live,” which featured artists from Mexico to Washington and celebrated the Interstate lifeline that joins the U.S; to Canada and Mexico; the Feast of All Souls, a soul-searching look at death and rebirth on the Mexican Day of the Dead and following Halloween and All Souls Day; participation in “L.A. Freewaves: a Celebration of Independent Video,” featuring presentations by our Complex neighbors the Empowerment Project and the Electronic Cafe International; a piece honoring Kwànzaa, the African American Christmastide holiday of cleansing and renewal; a wild New Year’s Eve party, “Sex, God & Politics,” a festival of controversial works in performance and dance; a community Mardi Gras; a multicultural performance art Passover Seder, and a bang-up first anniversary benefit featuring another 70 artists including comedian George Carlin. We also took part in numerous political events such as AIDS protests, anti-censorship rallies and pro-choice demonstrations.

Our second year has included a “Women’s Work” festival, a second gay/lesbian festival, a benefit for a new space in the black neighborhood of L.A., and the return of the Los Angeles Poverty Department as our part in the L.A. Festival. We’ve done more than a dozen performance-related visual shows in our gallery, taken part in citywide video, poetry and performance festivals, and Highways performances have appeared on many critics’ ten-best lists.

Future plans include the I-10 project: a multi-site collaboration with three other artspaces in Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta featuring four artists (one representing each space) who will tour the four spaces together with performances, the goal being to strengthen ties among arts spaces across the American south. This project is funded through a grant from the National Association of Artists Organizations. Other grants we have received include those from Art Matters, the City of Santa Monica, the National/State/County Partnership and the J. Paul Getty Foundation.

In July of 1990 we were thrown headfirst into the NEA controversy when Tim Miller was named as one of four artists whose fellowship grants were rescinded by NEA chair John Frohmayer on grounds of being too controversial. This action spurred a number of Highways artists to found ATTACK, Artists Take the Action in Cultural Krisis, formalizing the actions of a squad of artists who had been providing visuals, props and performance actions at political demonstrations. Acting in concert with other organizations like the Coalition for Freedom of Expression, we created an Artist Chain Gang motif to illustrate our feelings of having been criminalized for making political art and for using homoerotic imagery. The Art Criminals turn up in a variety of situations.

At this writing we are in our sixteenth month and looking back on a lot of success, but also on almost daily crises that arose to challenge our commitment to our mission statement. Not only had we had to negotiate endlessly with the good City of Santa Monica, we had to see one of our artists through a threatened lawsuit by another artist (both of whom, on separate occasions, impulsively punched holes in our dressing room wall), and there were violent disagreements during discussions, charges of racism, hurt feelings, incipient cancellations and threatened pickets of events, insensitive reviews and other peripheral attacks in the press. We expected most of this, all aspects of multicultural presenting (perhaps we didn’t expect them all at once!), for, as Guillermo Gomez-Pena says, you can’t heal our wounds without opening them first, and when you approach this work “you unleash the demons of history.” One of the things we learned by then was how deep and aggravated are America’s cultural wounds and how much anger is seething just beneath the formica surfaces of this country.

But the difficulties were more than balanced by the enrichment we all received from working together to present a picture of cultural democracy. We learned that we will fail time and again, and only by listening to each other and trying to be flexible will we at least gain the strength to go forward.

We also learned that much of the work being done at Highways revolves around religious and spiritual themes. Reflecting on this trend, we wonder if perhaps this is the natural direction for multicultural work, since many ethnic communities are so deeply rooted in their native religions. In fact, it may be in the exploration of our deepest beliefs that we become the fastest friends and most terrifying enemies. In any case, we asked for it when we opened our space with a blessing by Malcolm Boyd. He called down the spirits. And they showed up.

At this point we feel that we have surpassed what we had expected of Highways. Thanks to the volunteer work of literally hundreds of artists and interested audience members, and the thoughtful critical work of the LA. arts press, we have a good start on a truly multicultural community of creative, politically active people.

We’ve looked at homelessness, labor crisis, schizophrenia, Asian-American identity, racism, homophobia, spiritual confusion, AIDS, gay/lesbian identity, the Berlin Wall, cultural sterotyping, Globe-O-Mania, capitalist greed, border culture, transsexualism, binational dialog with Mexico, colonialism and conquest, religious intolerance, incest, art and activism, environmental abuse, sexism, rape, aging, disability, sex in the age of AIDS, gang violence, art censorship and the U.S. policy toward El Salvador. And we learned some techniques for enduring controversy and adversity and still sticking together.

For myself, I have changed dramatically. As a result of the interchange at Highways, I am learning to be more culturally sensitive, to de-colorize my language, to understand the richness gay culture has to offer, to listen to the young, and to take religion very seriously.

Even in light of all the adversity and struggle we’re undergoing, we know these have been the best of times, and so personally rewarding that I can’t resist the temptation to urge the reader to wade in there, act up and start something. Fund it any way you can. After all, the culture is the responsibility of its artists, and if it’s a disgusting, depressing mess, it’s our own fault.

Santa Monica, California. 1990

Addendum: I left Highways and the 18th Street Arts complex in 1993 and moved to North Carolina, where Steven Durland and I continued producing High Performance magazine until 1998 under the aegis of our new nonproft, Art in the Public Interest. In 1999, with the help of colleagues, we founded the Community Arts Network on the Internet. At this writing, both Highways and the Complex (now the 18th Street Arts Center) were alive and well in Santa Monica.

Saxapahaw, N.C., 2014


Images from York Chang’s “second life”

To accompany yesterday’s post about York Chang’s “second life” project at 18th St. Arts Center, summer 2011, here are some images:

chang inst

York Chang's "second life" installation at 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica, Calif., summer 2011


An artist/time/history continuum


"No History"


"second life" discussion in 18th Street's Project Room, July 23, 2011


High Performance #12½: The Corrections Issue

In summer 2011, artist (and lawyer) York Chang conducted a residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, Calif., titled “second life.”


York Chang's "Corrections Issue" of High Performance

Chang likes to mess with art history, and in this case he messed with High Performance magazine (1978-1998), which I founded in downtown Los Angeles and edited in tag-team with Steven Durland. For “second life,” Chang (with Fernando Sanchez) documented the activities of Artist Actualization Services (AAS), a performance art group allegedly active between 1979 and 1980. His documentation comprised an installation at 18th St. (former home of High Performance), plus a “new” issue of HP (#12½, Vol. 3, No. 5) and several public events.

Chang’s project virtually “proves” that a number of performances documented in HP during the late 1970s were not actually performed by the artists to whom they were credited, but by impostors: AAS members posing as those artists. In the “corrections issue,” AAS claims to have appropriated the artists’ identities (without – but sometimes with – the knowledge of the artists themselves) and inserted this fake information into art history through the pages of HP, specifically in the Artists Chronicle, a section of the magazine that appeared regularly during the first five years. The Chronicle featured artists documenting their own performances with a self-written description and a photo, plus date, place & time. It was crucial to me that art history include the artist’s voice.

HP #12½ looks exactly like an issue of High Performance, down to the cover stock, the typeface, the page design, the ads and the typos. It even cracks along the spine like an issue of HP. For this “new” issue AAS selects ten performances documented in HP’s Chronicle and presents them in a double-page spread. On the left is the documentary page as it appeared in HP at the time, ostensibly written by the artist; on the right is a “correction,” written by the poser, documenting how s/he chose the piece and carried it out in the persona of the artist.

The artists/victims are Ulysses Jenkins, Cheri Gaulke, Michael Berkowitz, Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, Paul McCarthy, The Waitresses, Bob & Bob, Chris Burden, and Jeffrey Mark Burdett.

Typical treatment is what happened to “Sex Is Stupid,” credited to Bob & Bob, but “actually performed by” AAS members James Norrell & Bert Conner at LAICA on June 30, 1979.

"Bob & Bob" in "Sex Is Stupid"

Norrell and Conner claim to have used subversive techniques (aided by John Duncan and Marc Pally) to literally steal all the paintings from Bob & Bob’s studio that were scheduled for a show at LACE in July, installed them at LAICA in June and sold them all during a performance  at $25 each. The performance component of the event was Bob & Bob “crucified” live to an oversize canvas and hung on the gallery wall, wearing masks of their own faces. But they weren’t Bob & Bob (who are, in truth, fake personae of artists Paul Velick & Francis Shishim); they were actually Norrell & Conner.

I found out about Chang’s project completely by accident. My friend Jerri Allyn was also conducting a residency at 18th Street at the same time as Chang, so she knew what was up. She e-mailed Chang that she would love to attend an upcoming Saturday project event. She suggested Chang invite me and Durland to take part in the project, and she copied the e-mail to me. I happened to be in L.A. at the time, babysitting my grandchildren in Topanga Canyon. I went immediately to Chang’s page on the 18th Street website and read about “second life.” I was at first appalled that he hadn’t told us anything about it, then deeply amused at the concept. I e-mailed Chang and told him I could come to the event. He called me and we got acquainted, then started plotting how I could conspire with him to convince Saturday’s audience that I was outraged and would be suing him ASAP.

When I got to the project gallery early on Saturday, I spent time with the installation and the magazine, which had me rolling on the floor. When it came time for the event, so few people showed up that we abandoned the fake outrage and simply discussed the project for a podcast. I was delighted to tell Chang and the others that there actually were several instances of people faking performances to get them documented in High Performance!

The moment was delicious for me. Much has been made about the artist’s voice in HP and the extensive documentation provided by the magazine. HP’s archive is at the Getty Research Institute and is playing a part in Pacific Standard Time, the Getty’s citywide project this fall about L.A. art history 1940-1980. Curator Jenni Sorkin recently did a thesis about the first five years of HP and curated an accompanying exhibition when she was at Bard College, and the show traveled to LACE a few years ago. It used a lot of the memorabilia in the Getty archive. It is especially delightful, even poignant, to see all this ephemeral performance going down in art history, considering I started the magazine on a $2,000 personal loan in my loft on Broadway in downtown L.A. Back then it was essentially a ‘zine and, come to think of it, an experiment in crowd-sourcing. It warms my heart to think that Paul McCarthy, Hermann Nitsch, Bob & Bob, The Waitresses and the Church of the SubGenius are tucked away in a major archive and in 300 art libraries all over the world. I can hardly wait to see if Issue #12½ winds up in some of those collections. ROF to the L.


The resourceful York Chang

If you want a copy of this “new issue” of High Performance, you’ll have to pry it away from York Chang. Try Chang’s website or contact 18th St. (There’s a Culture Monster review of the project in the L.A. Times.)





Website by Steven Durland