UCIRA Artist Spotlight on Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly: Work and Play

27 Feb

UCLA artists and Moving Theater founders Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly describe Work and Play: How the Art World Performs as a hybrid—part scholarly convention, part performance art festival. Their three-day event, scheduled to take place this fall at the Hammer Museum, will summon a constellation of practitioners involved in contemporary performance: artists, writers, curators and students. (In the Moving Theatre, the duo function as a little bit of each.) This constellation’s purpose: to tackle from multiple perspectives what Gerard and Kelly call “the requisite issues” of doing, showing and writing about a genre which is itself a hybrid.

Findings from the sessions are destined for a special edition of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, (MIT Press). Meanwhile, the festive part of the program will feature pubic performances of works by participants and screenings of influential films from the last five decades. Among them: Andy Warhol’s Paul Swan, in which the eighty year old actor/ dancer /painter Swan, once called the most beautiful man in the world, spends much of the time off camera, grumping and bumping as he hunts for the clothes he needs to perform in. After a three days spent scanning in one way or another, the distances between the so-called private and performing self, a number of boundaries, including those between work and play, may begin to blur.

While Gerard and Kelley are producing a hyphenate, their subtitle invites another more familiar kind of double-take. Reframed as a question—how does the art world perform? –the phrase points to a couple of different doors containing options only a little less opposed than marriageable ladies and razor-toothed tigers.

On one hand, the genre evoked by the term performance art—having evolved over the past half century on the cultural  fringes and in donated basements—has now accumulated a substantial enough history to attract the embrace of major museums. As an example, Gerard and Kelly cite the four decade retrospective of Marina Abramovic’s work The Artist is Present at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

The wider interest fostered by such shows is welcome. Pieces may get commissioned as well as remembered. One live performance that Work and Play expects to present is Andrea Fraser’s Men on the Line, created for Southern California’s 2011-12 Pacific Standard Time exhibition.

Basing the work on transcriptions of  a 1972 radio broadcast, Fraser, a professor of new genres in UCLA’s department of Art, takes on the voices of four men as they discuss the then-nascent Women’s movement and how they define themselves as supporters and feminists. Ideas of gender and role—social, historical, assigned or chosen—crisscross in Fraser’s delivery. So do easy assumptions about social issues like equality and difference—now as then, a central focus of performance theory and practice.

Another central tenet of performance, however, is that it’s live—essentially ephemeral and sometimes challenging—while museums are geared to housing material objects and enshrining certain modes of decorum.  In one response, to be presented at Work and Play, participant Boris Charmatz has created an objectless and impermanent museum, Musée de la Danse, in which aspects of living performers like exhalations and stance become the exhibition.

For some, though, the question is should the ephemeral be preserved? Another film to be presented is Babette Mangolte’s acclaimed Watermotor, a single four minute take of Trisha Brown’s high speed 1978 solo of the same name which she pairs with a second take shot in slow motion. Considering her film 25 years later, Margolte wrote,” I now think that for a dancer to commit to eternity the way you moved on a particular day is risky.”

Work and Play participant Trajal Harrell frames the question differently. His Antigone Jr swirls together classical Greek drama, the Harlem Vogue scene and the performance theories pursued in the early 1960s at Greenwich Village’s Judson Church. Ephemera, he suggests, is another word for the disappearing acts performed by cultural values.

For all the mainstream attention newly devoted to performance, Gerard and Kelly  note, UC’s slashed budgets have meant that the funding available for presenting such works in the university–once a major source of  the genre’s audience—has greatly diminished. Along with examining the field, Work and Play proposes–for three days anyway—to pick up the pieces.


Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA


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