What We Write About When We Write About Art
On Edge exhibits a composite image of a younger, rougher New York: we know it existed, but it still has the power to shock and charm, like a photo of a beloved aunt as a teenager with cropped and blue hair.
The relatively recently revised On Edge: Performance Art at the End of the Twentieth Century by C. Carr offers the reader a curious kind of text. Carr, a columnist and arts writer for The Village Voice from 1984 until 2003, collects over 60 columns, articles, fragments into an elegy for the lost Village avant-garde. For there are no two ways about it: despite the additions and updates of this ‘revised edition’, the second part of the title could fairly be re-arranged to read “The End of Performance Art in the Twentieth Century”. The lost Village Voice mourns the lost Village.
In ways both bad and good, Carr writes about art like a journalist. She has, in fact, been likened to a war correspondent—and we see plenty of that self-fashioning, in essays like “Nightclubbing: The Tompkins Square Riot”:
I just stood there because I was the press and I was wearing my credentials and I hadn’t done anything and this was my neighborhood and this was the phone I use to call my friend over there who doesn’t have a buzzer and…“Run! Run!” screamed a tall young black man, taking me by the arm. “We gotta get outta here!” And I felt a billy club across my shoulder blades, the cop pushing me. Cop pumping adrenaline. Cop yelling, “Move! Move! Move!”
What value On Edge has to offer comes through these punched-out descriptions—through the sheer accumulation of recorded events that would otherwise, as ephemeral performance, be lost to us. Carr writes in her introduction that, even when less sure about journalism, “I had no doubts at all about who and what I wanted to cover: artists who worked in that precarious area just a little off terra firma…[People] called it ‘performance art’ because that category is still relatively uncodified.” What follows is Carr’s manifesto: “These were the artists I wanted to track. As they entered new territory, I would follow, trying to draw the map.”
On Edge exhibits a composite image of a younger, rougher New York: we know it existed, but it still has the power to shock and charm, like a photo of a beloved aunt as a teenager with cropped and blue hair. At the same time, there is plenty irritating about the mournful refrain—familiar since Homer—that the golden days are over, for good, everything is rather cheap now, you just missed it. (I would like, for once, to be told that things were boring until I arrived somewhere.) The only slogan quite as dull as Everything Old was Better is its equal and opposite counterpart: No, Everything New is Better.
One of the book’s last essays, “The Bohemian Diaspora”, sums up the more specific and thoughtful of Carr’s complaints:
Certainly I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those ‘autonomous zones’ seems irreparable. That historic institution once called ‘bohemia’ has been so heavily exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture—more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.
Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.
There is plenty to be said about Carr’s central thesis, but On Edge doesn’t quite do it. And what of the liberations of decentralizing? What about international centers vis a vis this unapologetically Amero-centric view? And how does drastically improved communication technology affect the bohemian diaspora? (A recent New York publication called the internet the ‘ultimate virtual city.’) Carr’s “Wired” section is weakest in the book.
Nor, to be frank, is her prose consistently bearable: what feels lucid, youthful and direct in opening essays grows increasingly telegraphic—in a bad way. After about 50 pages, one suspects that there will be no further new ideas, just more and more evidence. In one essay, artists wear flaming bread loaves on their heads and recruit “five doctors…to draw blood for the collective painting, but they’d arrived when the police had, and they’d fled. There’d be no painting.” In another essay many pages later, a “self-described ‘hetero-masochist, in extremis’” wins notoriety for nailing his penis to a board. And so on.
Yet these stories document events, moments and moods that, in the end, the reader isn’t sorry to stop and wonder about. The ‘art’ is intercut with tawdry but transgressive dance clubs: a little cheap, certainly; more than repetitive; adolescent and hardly thought through; etc., etc. But the thing nonetheless has life to it: a powerful reaction against something, and moving in its fury. Feminists and queer activists are among Carr’s most prolific performers.
Astutely, she notes that “…carnival is the subtext to each new bohemia, which has to consort with the ‘low’ almost on principle.” The idea is hardly theoretically developed (again, that can be said of On Edge in its entirety), and yet is central. If we read On Edge at all, this is why—because we believe in and accept a relationship between the artistic avant-garde and bohemian nightlife: between high culture and alternative culture—if you’ll pardon such problematic terms and distinctions.
This vital tension and interdependence is absolutely there, and even relevant in some arguably novel way in the time period Carr examines. But On Edge leaves us with only anecdotes, if a few brilliant ones. Chris Burden dispassionately describes the action in his 1971 piece Shoot: “At 7:45 P.M., I was shot in the left arm by a friend…”
The four essays truly worth reading are in the first section of Carr’s book, “In Extremis”, which by no accident deals with the most serious art. Like Burden’s, this work comes from 1970s body art and actionism and long predates the flightier antics that dominate the remaining 300 pages. “A Great Wall”, about Marina Abramovic and former-lover Ulay’s journey towards each other from opposite ends of China’s Great Wall, might alone be worth the price of the book.
The artists had titled the piece “The Lovers”. But in the eight years between the initial conceit and its finally approved execution—on crumbling remains of Wall—much went wrong. For one, the two stopped seeing each other romantically and embarked on this, their final collaboration, seemingly out of stubbornness. When they came face to face after an exhausting 90 days, they embraced, but:
[Later] Over the telephone, each complained a bit about the other’s first reaction. Marina had started to cry, which Ulay thought inappropriate. Ulay’s first words were something about her shoes, which Marina thought inappropriate. Marina couldn’t wait to leave China. Ulay said he could have walked on forever.
…From Shenmu the artists went right to Beijing to hold a press conference. The Chinese media has never published anything at all, however, on the journeys made by Ulay and Marina across the wall. The artists returned, separately, to Amsterdam.
Many of the ideas recurring throughout On Edge are introduced in this essay: a lighter touch and humor mingle with tales of great physical and moral courage. Marina Abramovich is one of the real heroes of our time; it is as if her presence infects Carr’s work with depth. Gender, sexuality, the possibility/impossibility of human connection; artistic ego and the search for truth; transgression and awe at culture’s monuments; fear; money.
Yet at the same time this essay, by its range, intelligence and internationalism, threatens to expand the scope of Carr’s book to the point of explosion, or at the very least erases some of the passion from her localism. Scandinavian and Serbian former lovers meet on the Great Wall of China before returning to Amsterdam, as chronicled by (chosen not born) New Yorker. The Village’s gentrification seems a lesser tragedy than most. For the record, a scene almost identical to what Carr describes is currently flourishing in the frontiers of Brooklyn. Bohemia has ever been diaspora.