3.20 / Review

Stage Presence Performance Series

By Shannon Jackson August 2, 2012

The idea of a performance series in an exhibition entitled Stage Presence might seem redundant. If the entire exhibition—organized by the media arts curator, Rudolf Frieling, with the public programs curator, Frank Smigiel, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)—is about theatricality, why are certain works set apart in a program entitled “Live Art?” The reasons are of course both aesthetic and institutional, and they provide us a chance to think more deeply about what it means for SFMOMA to be exploring theatricality in the first place.

This mostly live-performance series confounds the traditional temporal parameters of the museum and, à la Brecht, defamiliarizes the conditions of viewing. Unlike works by Cindy Sherman, Geoffrey Farmer, or Sharon Hayes, these pieces cannot be found during regular museum hours. Encounters with them have to be planned in advance, and repeat visits are necessary to experience each one in turn. Rather than advertising them with the opening and closing of the entire exhibition, SFMOMA’s website announces somewhat obliquely that these works will appear on multiple dates. Institutional quandaries show up in the domain of art criticism as well. A review of a performance loses its dialogical potential when it is published after any reader will have the opportunity to see it. While we are unable to anticipate all of the dimensions of the series, we can nevertheless speculate in advance on the possible questions this series will pose. Rather than a review, think of this exercise as a critical preview of the Stage Presence performance series. Let’s think together about what theatricality means—its spatial and temporal conditions, its interdisciplinary practices, its repetitions, its viewing relations, and its institutional relations. Then perhaps we can return after the series is over to think about what Frieling and Smigiel have wrought.


Tucker Nichols. Stage Production, 2012; stage design, wallpaper, movable walls, programs, signage; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 16, San Francisco; © Tucker Nichols.

To begin, we can pose the question of what conditions signal theatricality in the museum setting. Do we know that we are in the presence of the theatrical by a particular kind of spatial relation, such as the faux curtain or velvety red set created by the artist Tucker Nichols? How will these theatrical effects square with the non-curtained and dispersed but no less theatrical acts we find in environmentally sited works, such as the video tour by Janet Cardiff? Perhaps we know we are in the presence of theatricality when artists deploy time as a central concept. Though again, we will no doubt find artists managing duration differently: either plotting a story in time, submitting to acts of endurance over time, or scoring time to devise compositions of the live and the recorded, as occurs in performances by Anne MacGuire.

Modernist art critics frequently disparaged theatricality for what we now call its interdisciplinarity across art and media. This fusion animates much of Stage Presence in works that combine video, opera, poetry, musical composition, photography, spoken word, and more. How will we encounter such cross-arts mixtures in the performances of Richard T. Walker, D-L Alvarez, Kevin Killian, and Shana Moulton and Nick Hallett? When do some artists actively blur art forms? When do others place them in counterpoint as elements that resist or challenge each other?


Shana Moulton. Whispering Pines 10, 2010 (still); performance. Courtesy of Art21.

Frieling and Smigiel note that theatricality is about role-playing; juxtaposed with the Cindy Sherman retrospective, this association will play itself out in a variety of ways, asking us to think about mimesis, camp, persona, and maybe even about acting as we witness Magnuson’s cabarets, Tedesco’s cameos, Moulton’s characters, and Hengst’s comedic acts. As an animating structure, repetition is also fundamental to the theatrical, though its effects will be different when the repetition is of a work (a citation, restaging, or reenactment) than when it occurs within a work (as a serial element, as endurance, or in a dialogue).

All of this activity exposes the habits and conventions of the profession of art as well as of the institutions that support it. Theatricality invites the exploration of skill—whether the comedian’s wit, the dancer’s virtuosity, or the opera singer’s training (see, for example, Daisy Press, who appears inside the work of Moulton and Hallett). Others, like the collaborative group My Barbarian, might explore the shifting boundary between the virtuoso and the amateur, simultaneously critiquing contemporary economies that keep us in a perpetual state of training.

In the context of SFMOMA’s new building project, to what extent will this series challenge the museum to reconsider what it means to provide a platform for such performance work? This kind of question is being asked everywhere as institutions train themselves to respond to new art forms. Relational, live, or performance work is sometimes programmed ambivalently as an entertaining supplement, augmenting attendance in museums that are pressured to be ever more experiential. But after performing artists, curators, and critics objected to this kind of placement, institutions such as the Whitney Museum (which awarded the 2012 Bucksbaum Prize for the first time to a choreographer, Sarah Michelson) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York now grapple with what it means to incorporate performance more centrally into their exhibition programs. The week after Stage Presence opened, Tate Modern opened The Tanks, its much-heralded cavernous underground space devoted to social practice and performance works. Mixing relational aesthetics, video installations, and public art next to a live program of postmodern choreographers and camp performance artists, The Tanks’s principles of assembly parallel those found at SFMOMA. It also navigates a similar redundancy, scheduling selected live-performance works (on multiple dates) alongside an exhibition program that explores performance across art and media.

On the stages and amid the presences evoked at SFMOMA this summer, we have a place not only for viewing but also for reviewing our habits of encounter. To what extent will these works produce identification or Brechtian distanciation in their viewers? Will they foreground the difference between being a beholder, an auditor, an active participant, or an unwitting player inside the theatrical event? New pressures will be felt when the museum-going habits of the beholder bump up against the theater-going habits of the spectator, becoming evermore complicated when we recognize that going to the theater compels different habits of viewing that depend on the form of the performance. In the end, SFMOMA joins the laboratories of other museums, festivals, theaters, and biennials that are exploring how and why those effects are produced. It will also leave us wondering whether a different kind of aesthetic imagination is in the offing.

The Stage Presence performance series takes place on multiple dates between July 19 and August 30, 2012.

Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media is on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through October 9, 2012.

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