Jennie Klein and Natalie Loveless (eds.) (2020). Responding to Site: The Performance Art of Marilyn Arsem. Bristol: Intellect. <https://www.intellectbooks.com/responding-to-site>
Performance art is now.
Performance art is live.
Performance art reveals itself in the present.
There is an almost eerie poignancy to Marilyn Arsem’s 2011 manifesto on performance art when one reads it in 2021. With much of the planet currently still existing under lockdown conditions; humanity still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic; and much of the world having adapted to virtual presence rather than real time interaction, her statements become infused with a type of nostalgia for a time when performance art – all performance, all forms of art, perhaps – was experienced live, in the moment. Relatively little time has passed since the world moved into its so-called ‘new normal’, yet it feels as if the now-ness of Arsem’s performance art is far removed from our present circumstance.
To what extent does one read a book such as Responding to Site: The Performance Art of Marilyn Arsem (edited by Jennie Klein and Natalie Loveless) as situated within a present context such as our own; and to what extent can a collection such as this transcend current circumstance, and perhaps be read against the grain of contemporary reality? Certainly, the editors could not have had any inkling, when they began developing this collection of essays on the photographic traces of Arsem’s long and significant career, of the sudden changes that would alter human experiences of art to the extent that it has. Yet, even without our present context, any book on performance art can raise interesting questions about representation, in reified, published form, of an art form that was conceptualised as ephemeral and transient. Questions of presence, liveness and ‘now-ness’ permeate Arsem’s work, and much of her oeuvre is designed to challenge ideas around museumized art – is a book such as Responding to Site not another form of ‘museum’, a fixed collection of materials that were never meant to remain?
The editors and authors that contributed to this significant and comprehensive publication are clearly aware of these questions, and the overall impression is of a carefully considered compilation that not only serves as record of a long and impactful career, but also resonates with issues beyond the specific output of the artist. Many pages of exceptionally well-crafted photographs of Arsem’s work are interspersed with essays that engage with her output, sometimes directly (focusing mainly on specific events and works) and at other times engaging a broader range of topics and issues related to Arsem’s contributions. What this book does admirably well is to provide as much of an experience of Arsem’s work as possible considering the limitations of the medium of text. It also avoids falling into the trap of attempting to only represent her artistic output: the broad scope of the twelve essays in this collection ensures that Arsem’s work is situated in global social and political contexts, making this book a valuable resource for those not only interested in performance art, but in art theory and practice more generally.
In the detailed introduction to this collection, Klein presents an overview of the life and work of Marilyn Arsem. It covers the entire span of her career from the 1970s and the establishment of the Mobius Collective, through the 1980s and 1990s, when performance art experienced a period of significant interest and institutional support, to her move away from the local and into global contexts (Kristine Stiles’s essay on Arsem’s work in the Balkans is particularly captivating in this regard). The introduction provides important context for the significance and timeliness of this book; it also offers lucid clarification of the conceptual and structural decisions made in the development of the publication.
Twelve essays on Arsem’s life and work are grouped together according to three themes: ‘Duration and Action’; ‘Site and History’; and ‘Performance and Pedagogy’. Klein explains this structural decision, clarifying the connections between the essays in each section. Each essay section is preceded by a series of performance photographs, arranged chronologically (the essays are arranged according to themes rather than date). This serves the dual purpose of providing some access to Arsem’s work (while acknowledging the reality of the limitations of photographic traces that must serve as documentation of performance art), as well as documenting the trajectory of her long and illustrious career.
Lucian O’Connor authors the first essay in the collection, which engages Arsem’s artistic interaction with the institutional space of the museum. O’Connor examines the ‘objects of presence’ that constitute her work, and connects this to the output of fellow performance artist Marina Abramovic. While O’Connor’s essay is quite expansive and covers a broad range of topics related to Arsem’s output, Jeffery Byrd in his essay Salt, Stones and Stars focuses more on Arsem specifically. Byrd delves deeply into details of her art, specifically the 2015 work 100 ways to consider time, and provides sensitive insights into the many different facets of this durational piece. Sandrine Schaefer explores divergences between the terms ‘durational’ and ‘endurance’ as regards performance art. Their analysis of With the Others (2013), as a durational rather than endurance work, is captivating and insightful, and their discussion of these terms provides a critical point for understanding this piece in which
…non-linear time is actively dismantled. Simultaneously unfolding multiplicities of past, present and speculative future are made explicit through Arsem’s choice to actively connect her body to a specified history preserved within the museum. (Schaefer 2020, 69)
In The Lightness and Darkness of becoming-Marilyn, Paul Couillard examines Arsem’s participatory performances One day (2002); Waiting for Sunrise (2017); and Spring Arrives So Slowly (2015). Reading these works with Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of ‘becoming’ (as expounded in their magnum opus A Thousand Plateaus), Couillard’s beautifully poetic essay offers a description of these performance art events, allowing the reader not only to access to these important works but also to experience something of the developmental trajectory of Arsem’s aesthetic.
A selection of performance photographs from the period 2003-2009 precedes the next section, in which the essays shift to more sociocultural and political content. Kristine Stiles traces Arsem’s several projects in the Balkans between 1996 and 2014 and, similar to O’Connor’s essay, the author offers a broad sweep of background information on the political history and present circumstance of the Balkan countries, as a context for the artist’s interventions. In this essay, Stiles examines the making of history in relation to memory, portraying Arsem’s sensitivity to others’ lived experience. E.L. Putnam turns the focus to the position of history in Arsem’s works, positing that
Marilyn Arsem’s performance practice engages with the layers of history as she connects site to culture through the body … specifically, she crafts palimpsests of history where the body, which includes the bodies of performers and spectators in addition to her own, is the instigator of actions through an interplay of material, time and space. (Putnam 2020, 139)
The ‘palimpsest’ of Putnam’s title (Impossible Totalities: Political Performance as Palimpsest) is positioned as a field of action, the space which Arsem chooses to occupy in order to highlight particular social issues and injustices. David P. Miller turns his focus to Arsem’s transition from experimental theatre works to pieces situated in specific environments. The essay offers descriptive analyses of Orpheus (1983), 13 Actions in Yellow (1988) and Red in Wood (1991-1993). Although Miller provides very convincing analyses of the underlying psychologies of Arsem’s pieces (Red in Wood in particular), this essay perhaps overinvests in detailed description of the works, and falls somewhat short in providing the necessary context for understanding these performance pieces. The section closes with John Dennis Anderson’s detailed engagement with the 2007 production Writing Ada, an example of what Arsem refers to as ‘performed historical research’. Anderson deftly explicates her ‘embodied research’ methodology and his analysis of this unusual and influential piece illuminates the artist’s approach to historical subjects and circumstances.
The final section, Performance and Pedagogy is again preceded by a series of performance photographs, following chronologically from the previous collection. The section begins with a deeply engaging essay by Arsem herself, on teaching performance art. Her lucid and astute insights into a wide variety of topics related to performance art provide a powerful foundation for much else that is included in this book. The essay engages topics such as collectivity; presence (the ‘real time’ nature or ‘liveness’ essential to performance art); the importance of awareness of and respect for the ‘witness’ who experiences the performance art events; the body and body-awareness of the artist who creates the performance art; and the boundaries that must be considered between teacher and student, performer and participant. Very appropriate and practical advice for the classroom are included, and Arsem shares specific exercises for the development of performance art practices, making this essay a highly beneficial resource. Sandra Johnston continues the section with a reflection of personal experiences of working with Arsem over several years, particularly in the work If To Drift, in which Johnston participated in 2009 and 2014. Johnston’s translations of personal experience provide much needed insight into Arsem’s practice, and grounds many of the statements the artist herself offers in the preceding essay in real, and personally relatable terms. In Documenting Arsem, Michael Woolley tackles the difficulties involved in documenting performance art by reflecting on his own photographic practice. His first-person account of photographing Arsem’s durational works (such as the 2013 work Making Time II) provides rare insight into the physical challenges Arsem often faces in her performances, experienced to a lesser degree by the individual documenting her work. For the final essay in this collection, Kathy O’Dell offers a close reading of Arsem’s pedagogical writings, with a specific focus on the ephemerality and temporality so fundamental to Arsem’s aesthetic. She also draws connections between Arsem’s output and work by others in the field, such as Liz Lerman, Allan Kaprow and Pauline Oliveros. A final series of performance photographs and an afterword by co-editor Natalie Loveless conclude the volume. An appendix recording Arsem’s output from 1967-2019 is a further valuable resource.
Jeffery Byrd refers to ‘the fleeting poetry of transience’ in his essay, but also points out that ‘images depict slices of an ever-present now’ (page 62). Such ‘fleeting poetry’ is fundamental to Marilyn Arsem’s aesthetic and the ‘slices’ of the moments that constitute her prolific output, brought together in this volume, provide readers with valuable insight into this extraordinary artist’s life and work.
Arsem states unequivocally in her manifesto (referred to above):
Performance art is ephemeral; it is an action created by an artist for a specific time and place; witnesses are privy to a unique experience that will never happen again; performance art reveals the vulnerability of living; performance art reminds us that life is fleeting; we are only here now.
Intrinsically ephemeral, transient and temporary Arsem’s work may be, but Responding to Site: The Performance Art of Marilyn Arsem nevertheless allows access to at least some aspects of this art, and the ethos of the artist. As such it is a significant resource, a valuable collection of artistic traces, an impactful archival document and a moving and engaging read.
Mareli Stolp earned her BMus (2002) and MMus (2006) degrees at the University of Pretoria, and a BMus at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in 2006. Since completing an Artistic Research PhD at the University of Stellenbosch under supervision of Professor Stephanus Muller in 2012, she has held positions as a fulltime lecturer at Rhodes University, Grahamstown; Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the University of KwaZulu Natal; and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Arts Research Africa programme at Wits University. She has been a member of the Journal for Artistic Research Editorial Board since 2015, and is the current Chair of the South African Society for research in Music. Her main research interests are artistic research and South African music history and historiography.