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Fly on the Web: when performance goes on-line.

THE POWER of performance art--its ability to connect with you viscerally--is in the fact that it's performed live. You the viewer may or may not commit to the performer on stage (or wherever), but when you do, there's no hiding the effect. Indeed the reaction of the audience is intrinsically connected to the performance itself and informs the work's effectiveness. But what if the performance went on with viewers who weren't physically there but instead participated in real time in cyberspace? Would that still be considered live performance art? What happens to the connection between performer and audience when their interaction is mediated by cameras and monitors?

On Friday, September 2, 2005, Conner Contemporary Art on Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. opened its doors from six to eight PM to allow the public to witness artist Mary Coble's latest performance piece, Note to Self. The piece was the culmination of the artist's research on the victims of hate crime murders committed against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. These crimes are underreported and although statistics are readily available, names are not, forcing the artist to scrounge through a number of websites (, the Human Rights Campaign's site, and that of the FBI). In her research, Coble discovered that it is not uncommon for the perpetrators of such malicious acts to carve words like "dyke" or "faggot" into the bodies of their victims.



The performance itself consisted of tattoo artist Lea Smith tattooing the names of 483 victims into Mary Coble's skin, beginning and ending with the word "anonymous." Smith did not use ink, so when the artist's blood rose to the surface in the form of a victim's name, Smith blotted Coble with a piece of paper, making a reverse impression, which was then used to paper the gallery wall. While the tattooing and installation harked back to minimalist and post-minimalist strategies of repetition and grid work, what the performance referenced most vividly was early feminist body art in which the body was used as the site of the artist's work. Carolee Schneeman, Hannah Wilke and, more recently, Shirin Neshat come to mind, though Marina Abramovic's recent series of performances at the Guggenheim New York certainly illustrate an institutional acknowledgment of such works.

The specific act of etching names on skin derives from the practice of etching anti-gay epithets on the bodies of victims. What's more, reclaiming harmful names has been an empowering act for marginalized groups. Women took back the word "cunt," just as the GLBT community reclaimed the word "queer." In a sense, Coble has done the opposite, erasing words like "dyke" and "faggot" and replacing them with the victims' true identities, undoing the criminal logic behind this aspect of the crime. And she has done so with blood--a show of sacrifice and a symbol of absolution in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lastly, the work acts as temporary scarification. In many global communities, body scarring gives information about one's age and station in life, as well as other personal experiences. Thus the artist's body recorded an aspect of the GLBT community's social and political struggle, a grim but integral part of our history.

When eight PM rolled around on Dupont Circle, the public was asked to leave, but I did not log off, because in fact the performance was not complete--etching 483 names takes time--and didn't wind up until around five-thirty the next morning. I wanted to be part of the whole performance, so I checked in periodically until the last name had been printed. Where was I, though, other than at my home in Atlanta, Georgia? There is a sense in which I was "there," and knowing it's happening "in real time" is certainly critical to this experience. When the artist decided to broadcast live on the Internet she was forced to appropriate all the technological life support systems that go with it. Much art criticism has focused on how a work is affected by its context, be it institutional, commercial or alternative. But how is Mary Coble's work affected by the configuration of my home office, the resolution of my computer, the speed of my Internet connection, how much RAM is available to process QuickTime? There is a sense that by incorporating live web cast, she has kept the element of performance intact, and the fact that someone could always be watching her is a commentary on our 21st-century surveillance society.

Simon Penney, editor of Critical Issues in Electronic Media, once mused that if computer software is "disembodied information," then "conceptual art can be thought of as 'cultural software.'" This is the kind of thing I was dealing with in my viewing of Note to Self. By virtue of its method of presentation, this performance, in which the "stage" was the artist's body, had somehow become disembodied, placing its context and reception into territory not controllable by the artist herself. How does this inform our impression of the Internet as a space for democratic dialogue? Are not all expressions in cyberspace mediated by technologies created by someone other than the artist? How do these systems ultimately affect our expressions? Does the artist have any real control over them? On the other hand, isn't stepping into contexts outside the artist's control a hallmark of performance art?

For my part, Note to Self was observed at times large and blurry, so I could experience the visual weight of real bodies, at times smaller and clearer, so I could observe more detail. As the artist grew visibly more uncomfortable, took longer breaks, was comforted by friends and gallery workers, had her hair affectionately mussed by the tattoo artist, and as the far-off gallery wall filled up with faint red marks. I adopted as close to a literal fly-on-the-wall position as one could take--a fly on the Web, as it were. In contemplating the mediations between the performance and my experience of it, including its tribute to the dead, I thought of Emily Dickinson's poem, "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died," in which the subject, on her deathbed, notices a fly that stumbles "between the light--and me."

Joey Orr is guest editor for 2006 Atlanta Pride and an independent curator in Atlanta.
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Title Annotation:ART MEMO
Author:Orr, Joey
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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