Durational performance. It’s a familiar phrase in theatrespeak – it sort of rolls off the tongue as the conversation segues seamlessly from planning your sleep/viewing schedule for Forced Entertainment’s next Quizoola live stream to wry reviews of train journeys home from the Edinburgh fringe.
It’s quite a natural part of theatrical parlance, so much so that it’s often part of our humour, but I’m wondering how much we’ve sequestered the performative notion of it, and how it fits into a wider culture of individual feats of endurance that may be considered art.
Take Wendy Davis’ epic 11 hour abortion rights filibuster in 2013, which threw the world into outraged support and the Texas Senate into so much chaos that, despite Davis gaining the third strike which officially ended her stand at 10:07pm, voting was delayed until after the midnight deadline she was endeavouring to broach. Nick Keys has written a thoughtful account on this feat of political endurance as a form of art – notwithstanding the fact that, when Texas rules apply, filibustering is nothing like the more famous examples we’re accustomed to from the US senate, where everything from phone books to recipes have been employed to draw out the hours. In Texas it’s a little more like the world’s most aggressive game of Just A Minute – not only is there absolutely no deviation permitted, but you cannot sit, lean, eat, go to the bathroom or be aided in any way. It’s not something you decide you’ll have a go at while getting in the car for work that morning; it takes mental and physical preparation. It’s performance.
But is it art? And what makes Wendy Davis so different from, say, Strom Thurmond, who filibustered for an intense 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957? The fact that he was filibustering the Civil Rights Act is firmly not in his favour, but he endured over twice as long as Davis – why has no one written about his stand as some kind of obnoxious, ironically humanity-hating art? The key, I think, is not so much the content, or even that nearly 60 years have passed, but that Wendy Davis was able to tweet this the night before:
— Wendy Davis (@wendydavis) June 25, 2013
If a politician filibusters for 10 hours and 45 minutes, but no one is there to hear it, do they make a sound?
There isn’t a wide consensus on the advent of durational performance. Tehching Hsieh’s series of One Year Performances began in 1978, and are possibly the most popularised within the art world – for several separate instances of 365 days he confined himself to a cell with no entertainment, lived outdoors in New York, and was tethered to artist Linda Montano by a 2.4 metre rope, with the stipulation that they never touch.
But at that stage Andy Warhol had already made durational film pieces like **** (Four Stars) – clocking in at 25 hours of audience endurance, should they stick around for it – and John Cage has been single handedly responsible not just for the 18 hour 40 minute performance of Vexations in 1963, requiring a relay team of pianists, but the later commencement of As Slow As Possible which will, when it concludes in 2640, have taken 639 years to perform, should the church in Halberstadt still be standing.
However, there is a much earlier candidate with a vastly enjoyable mythology; Bach’s Goldberg Variations. First published in 1741, the tale goes that Bach composed them for a young Johan Gottleib Goldberg, who was employed by the Russian ambassador to Saxony to play soothing music from an antechamber near his bedroom in order to relieve his insomnia. The notion of the then 14-year-old Goldberg labouring to stay awake, while making his way through the often complex Variations night after night to a lone audience member whose consciousness could not, like Schrodinger’s cat, be ascertained without disrupting the experiment, is a pleasingly fanciful one, and therefore my contender for the first documented instance of a durational performance.
If we argue that this is an art form whose primary constituent is the audience, and whose primary definition may not be that of art, then it begins to take an interesting shape. It may well be a generational issue, but the average person is more likely to have heard of David Blaine and the 44 days he spent sealed in a clear box suspended over the Thames than of Tehching Hsieh’s quieter endurance, witnessed by few and documented for later exhibition. For the most part, Hsieh’s durational performances remained under his artistic control – marked out by individual photographs. Instances such as Blaine’s box and Davis’ filibuster, while outwardly performative in nature, do not naturally take on the mantle of art as they are presented with a rawness, an immediate, almost uncomfortable accessibility of liveness which feels uncontrolled in a way that we do not perhaps immediately associate with artistic framing. They are made art by being watched, rather than by being presented. Or, as Edward Sharp-Paul points out; they are more fun to talk about than to engage with, and the fact of their happening is more important than the detail.
Quizoola sits wonderfully in this hinterland whereby it is just as transfixing to talk about as to watch; as Matt Harvey’s beautiful visualisation of Twitter users chat data on the #quizoola24 hashtag shows that not only does social media go wild for Forced Entertainment’s live stream – they do so while actually paying attention to it. The conversation is continuous, current and reactive. The fact and the content of the performance are both engaging. Quizoola brings with it the rawness of fatigue, of intimately personal and genuinely unsettling questions, but also the fascination with its existence as a performance of opinion, of ask and answer, of the possibility that any of the performers could be lying at any time.
But if we’re talking art-that’s-not-art then what of Julia Butterfly-Hill, who lived in a California Redwood tree for 738 days, conducting radio interviews and even hosting television crews, what of Nik Wallenda, who walked 500m across Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 2012, what of Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, Gennady Padalka?
So, cash on the table; what I think is the greatest durational performance ever undertaken is happening right now, and I suspect that barely any of you are watching it.
Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko are a US astronaut and Russian cosmonaut currently living on the International Space Station. As part of the Year in Space project, they will both spend 342 days off the planet (more than twice the usual ISS mission time) in order to study the effects of space on the human body and to better understand the effects of potential missions to Mars. Gennady Padalka, who returned from the station in September 2015, has spent more cumulative time in space than any other human being in history – 879 days across 5 missions.
Why is this a durational performance and why should you care?
Spaceflight has long been in the business of getting everyone to pay attention. Radio listeners on Earth were encouraged to tune in to Sputnik’s desultory little beeps during its 1957 orbit – designer Sergei Korolev wanted the world to know who had made it into space first. Nowadays, an astronaut’s time is incredibly expensive; every minute of it is accounted for and every minute needs to be worthwhile. Astronauts are not just highly trained specialists, they now need to come equipped with PR savvy, a Twitter account, decent photography skills for their Instagram and a cheery disposition for all of those time delayed interviews they give to overexcited recipients on Earth.
When Wallenda, famous for his high-wire stunts without a safety net, was granted permission to cross Niagara Falls, ABC refused to broadcast the event unless he wore a safety harness. Unable to stage the crossing without their financial support, he reluctantly agreed.
Much like Wallenda’s stunt, every single thing that modern astronauts do is incredibly dangerous – and it’s all broadcast live. This is what I find so fascinating – we have access to the minutiae of their lives in the name of science, but every aspect of their time, from using the toilet to eating to sleeping to moving around, is a subject of fascination; presented, documented and, if not observable, then recounted in detail (yes, alright, here’s a video explaining how you pee in space). Their entire mission is a performance that you can watch on NASA TV at almost any time of the day, and they are intimately aware of that.
Most of the UK probably watched Tim Peake’s Soyuz launch on December 15th with varying degrees of awareness that, despite the impeccable safety record of the Soyuz, he was essentially sitting atop a bomb that could blow up live on international television. Before leaving, he gave an interview to the BBC’s Stargazing Live that signed off with “I hope you enjoy the show.” The show in which he could quite possibly die right in front of you. (Which is, incidentally, not permitted for broadcast according to the BBC’s editorial policy; ‘moment of death’ cannot be shown. Though when your body cannot be distinguished from the wreckage of your rocket, the rules are probably different…)
One of the first things mission control said to Tim when he arrived aboard the ISS was “Great show today.” This awareness that no matter how much scientific discovery, philosophy or engineering they are layered with, astronaut missions function in a very large way as pop-science durational performances, is made even more profound, I feel, by the fact that they literally give their lives over to it. Artists have surrendered themselves to very real mortal danger before – the loaded gun which an audience member held to Marina Abramovic’s head during Rhythm 0 being one of the most notorious – but continuously, every second of every day for a year? I don’t think so. One out of hand fire, one unforeseen piece of space junk and that’s it. The live feed cuts out.So it’s performative, and it’s actually kind of baseline terrifying, but is it art? For my part, I would say yes. I think that everything about human spaceflight continues to tell us new and profound things about ourselves as a species, about our planet and about our potential. If you’re not following Scott Kelly on Instagram, I would heartily recommend it. If you wonder whether astronauts ever make art; the first human being to perform a spacewalk took a set of pencils with him in the Soyuz to draw his experiences, Douglas Wheelock wrote a poem on the day of his first spacewalk from the ISS in 2007 and Chris Hadfield recorded a video to this little-known tune called Space Oddity. Moreover, if you want to make the audience argument, the ISS crew are not just among the most observable and most observed people alive, but they are participating in the greatest reverse-performance ever; watching all of us, every single one, live out our day to day.
This is the fourth in a series of columns exploring the art of science and the science of art, and (hopefully) breaking down the idea that they are discrete and unrelated. First Thursday of every month; same bear time, same bear channel!