PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

What We Write About When We Write About Art

Marijeta Bozovic
From a performance by Zhu Ming

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.

Next Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.