2.15 / Performance: The Body Politic

Introduction: Art qua Politics

By Matthew Harrison Tedford April 12, 2011

For well over one hundred years, the San Francisco Bay Area has played an important role in the political theater of the United States. The Sierra Club was founded in San Francisco in 1892. The free speech movement of the mid-’60 erupted on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. The Diggers experimented with alternative economies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The Black Panthers arose out of the ghettos of Oakland.

This long history of political activism extends well into the modern day. The region became a battleground for human rights in the struggle to overturn Proposition 8. Students at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and San Francisco State University fight back as they witness the twentieth-century experiment of public higher education wither. The 2009 murder of Oscar Grant, an unarmed civilian, by a BART police officer sustains local efforts to combat police brutality while supporting racial and criminal justice.

None of this is lost on local art production.

Such a history of civic engagement has fomented a performance art tradition that pays special attention to the politics of the body. For those who are denied access to, or for those who voluntarily eschew, traditional political outlets, their own bodies can become a sites of political transformation or contestation. This special issue of Art Practical, “Performance: The Body Politic,” investigates over forty years of political performance art in the Bay Area. We offer both historical context and contemporary profiles, highlighting artists that have used performance to foreground and contest cultural, racial, gendered, and sexual identities. We do not intend to provide a definitive look at this rich tradition. We offer but a sliver.

Our writers provide profiles of a range of artists, spanning from the emerging to the historical. These pieces raise numerous questions on the efficacy and methodology of political performance art. No doubt, more questions are offered than answers—as is the wont of art. Nonetheless, these profiles contribute to an understanding of the geographic bedrock of civically committed performance art practices.

“Performance: The Body Politic” places an inordinate emphasis on interviews. Art Practical’s orthodox review format allows our authors to write about the works of others. This issue, however, affords artists and theorists the opportunity to speak about their practices in their own words with less mediation. The interviews provide our readers with a self-reflective look at the work of some of the Bay Area’s preeminent performance artists and scholars. These influential voices have shaped a local art practice that cannot be ignored when considering and situating the work of emerging artists.

“Performance: The Body Politic” extends beyond the digital confines of your LCD monitor. The conversation presented here will continue in the flesh, so to speak. On Sunday, May 8, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm, Art Practical will host an afternoon of performance and discussion in the Yud Gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco. Participating artists in the event “Performing Politics” include Ana Teresa Fernandez, Philip Huang, and Wafaa Yasin. Following performances by each, the artists will join in a conversation moderated by Allan deSouza, reflecting on the histories, influences, and objectives of their work. It is our most sincere hope that you join us in conversation.

The month of April brings no dearth of exciting performances and performance-related events to the Bay Area. See below for a select listing.

Art Practical would like to thank Monique Tavian for her invaluable assistance in transcribing the interviews included in this issue.



Under the Influence of Love, April 9, Southern Exposure.

Performance, Act, Ritual: Art and Mourning, April 9, Performance Art Institute.

Igor Grubić screening and conversation with Anne Walsh, hosted by Art Practical's Christina Linden, April 13, Kadist Art Foundation.

lo que nos dió la madre (what our mother gave us), April 15, Brava! for Women in the Arts.

Sea Turtles: Three generations of women cross the Mediterranean, April 15–30, EXIT Theatre.

ArtGasm, April 19–30, Femina Potens.

God Only Knows Who the Audience Is: Television and Performance Through the Lens of La Mamelle, April 21–July 2, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.

BAN6 Conversations: The Customizable Body: The Present/Future of Identity, April 23, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

RADAR Reading Series, April 28, Intersection for the Arts.

Curating People, April 28 and 29, Performance Art Institute and UC Berkeley.

Dance by Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol LeWitt, April 28–30, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

M. Butterfly, through April 30, Custom Made Theatre.

Toxicology: Jessica Hagedorn and Campo Santo Reading, April 30, Intersection for the Arts.

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