Ryan McNamara and the Afterlife of Performance

Ryan McNamara. Installation view of "Gently Used" at Mary Boone Gallery.
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How does performance art survive? What artifacts, narratives, or documents testify to performance’s occurrence? For the genre’s venerable practitioners from its historic moment of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Carolee Schneemann or Joan Jonas, this was a non-question. Performance art was defined by its singular execution and relegated by its specific happening in one place and one time. Any documentation of a performance was ancillary, useful for the historical record or mnemonic recall but perpetually secondary to the sheer presence of the event. The very notion of a re-performance was a contradiction in terms.

How we address both the presentation and survival of performance art has irrevocably changed. As museums began to broadly collect and institutionalize performance art in the aughts, questions of recording, documenting, and archiving became urgent. How to display an event that is never to happen again? The entrance of performance art into museum collections, as through the purchases of rights and scores, spiked, but so too the popularity of displaying ephemera no matter how slight or ordinary in its original context. The commercial sector wasn’t slow to the take: performance documentation became a financially lucrative endeavor. As Artinfo’s Rachel Wolff reports, documentation of a 1979 Sophie Calle performance sold for $218,500 at Christie’s in 2011. Even the very props of a performance were valuable: a ladder made from knives used for Marina Abramovic’s 2002 piece The House with the Ocean View went for $109,500 at Christie’s London. Performance created its own secondary market. It imbued any of its products – theatrical or archival – with auras of history, profit, and the cultural capital of an ascendant art form.

Performance’s endurance, then, seems assured. As more and more institutions carve collection and programming space for performance, its materials lose their second-class status from the neo-avant-garde and become crucial components in their own right. Documentation of a performance, or almost any museum and gallery event, is de rigueur. Entire films of a performance become useful aspects of an artist’s portfolio. Performances from anywhere are stored online, usually, in perpetuity. This presents a cynical capitalization on performance art’s attractive price and cachet but also a broader cultural sensibility: consumer technology guarantees the perpetual documentation of the present tense.

The institutionalism and mercantile sexiness of performance might warrant suspicion, but so too does the romanticized postwar emphasis on transience and presence. Performance now, in its savvier guises, would ideally have to account for the perpetual archive of the contemporary while exploring the formal qualities of the genre’s unique temporality and affect. It would dislodge the sacrality of experience as such and instead intertwine itself with the sundry media that comprise visual culture today. In scanning the art press alone, I could nominate one recent instance to carry this torch: Ryan McNamara’s MEEM: A Story Ballet About the Internet, first produced for Performa 2013 and then put on at last year’s Art Basel as MEEM 4 MIAMI.

In McNamara’s work, audience members assembled for a typical proscenium dance performance before being whisked away individually on dollies, still seated, around the theater to encounter various smaller dances and moments. No visitor shares the same experience: they are subject to McNamara’s complex and still undisclosed choreography, taking in whatever happens to be in front of them (ArtNews’s Andrew Russeth has written a particularly vivid description of the piece). As its title suggests, MEEM is supposed to be a performative literalization of the internet. McNamara states in an interview with T Magazine, “[MEEM came from] thinking about my belief in the live experience, and then also the fact that while my work isn’t necessarily about my digital existence, my life is consumed with it. These two things are seemingly at odds with each other, but I knew they weren’t, and I wanted to figure that out.”

Though I never saw the performance, the work seems as fragmented, arbitrary, and jumbled as the internet can be. Genres of dance collide with each other as cultural sectors do online, but the choice of what to see is the not the viewer’s. As much as intense corporate apparatuses of surveillance, statistics, and marketing dominate the typical browser experience, so too does a shadowy, unknown system organize MEEM. But that dystopia remains at bay: every account of the piece has emphasized the sheer pleasure of the spectacle, the captivation at the hands of McNamara’s large cast of skilled dancers. In between its stagy excitement and its conspiratorial organization, MEEM might posit the dark contradiction in forgetting just how fun something can be when it’s at your own expense.

And that fun remains delegated to personal accounts of word-of-mouth. In ironic fashion, for a work of art about the internet, the piece cannot be seen in its entirety online. As much as contemporary performance responds to a culture of “recordability,” it posits that recordability in a value comparison with the exclusivity of liveness (not for nothing did the blown-up Miami spin on MEEM take place at perhaps the artworld’s geopolitical pinnacle of breezy privilege). Performance sits adjacent to its effects now: while the archaeological witnessing of the ‘60s performance photograph may not suffer the demotion it once did, neither has performance been entirely supplanted by its digital doubles. The allure of presence, of being there, is still upheld, but values moves diagonally, not vertically, into its resulting materials — recordings, press, props, audiences, editions, and general discursive weight.

This ecology isn’t exactly novel (see conceptual art’s participation in systems of publicity and information), but it surely expands faster than ever. It accounts for an always-diversifying archive that absorbs and assimilates performance’s materials with alacrity. The medium’s afterlife in the digital age travels on rapid trajectories that take sharp turns for new objects, forms, and instantiations, as much as the mobile viewer in MEEM gets jerked from attraction to attraction. Although the whole apparatus of performance considers the value of the event over the value of its representation, an expanded notion of performance accounts for a dense web of association and connection. Performance in the easy “archivablity” of the internet is less a medium than a particularly commercial chain of reaction. This isn’t to say that all performances executed in the name of art set off dramatic economies of wealth and value (it requires institutional placement to work this way). Rather, the stress on performance in contemporary art speaks to an attitude toward the replication, dissemination, and adaptation of culture.

McNamara manages to trace the abstract afterlife of performance in a variation on his performance work, an exhibition titled Gently Used curated by Piper Marshall as the inaugural presentation at Mary Boone’s new midtown gallery. Gently Used is not an exhibition “about” McNamara’s past work, including MEEM, in the way that, say, MoMA exhibited material from Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans in its contemporary galleries in 2010. Instead, McNamara and Marshall bracket the generative performance next to itself, displacing its themes and visual motifs into a new context that works in tandem with older work while suggesting movement beyond. It isn’t a hierarchical relationship of performance and its things, from original to copy. Here performance and its things form a planar interplay where some points converge and others splinter into disassociation. Gently Used takes the form of a flashback. It repeats with a constantly glitchy relationship to the fecund event.

McNamara’s work has primarily explored performance as a droll meeting ground between a reified skill set of expression, in his case often dance, and their adaptations into domains of the ordinary. “Performance,” as an artistic act, generates models of social life that McNamara’s protagonists attempt to emulate, with variable results. In 2010’s Make Ryan a Dancer, he undertook 104 days of dance classes of all types before showcasing the results live in a marathon session at MoMA PS1 alongside his former coaches. The same year, he staged the Whitney Houston Biennial, which transformed the Whitney Museum’s calling-card exhibition (the biennial) into a karaoke party led by the museum’s docents, in an adaptation of the typical gallery tour. For a 2009 patrician artworld gathering in honor of curator Klaus Biesenbach, also at Art Basel Miami, McNamara danced as though he was a zombie, shambling around a cocktail event with eyes rolling and arms flailing (Move On Up), like an Andrea Fraser work conceptualized by a Hot Topic employee.

For McNamara, performance is caught somewhere between a reflexivity regarding the frame (as in institutional critique) and the live supplement of hired talent. The activist impulse to question the museum’s total digestion of performance is replaced in this work by the motivation to center its operations around the pleasure of pop culture. McNamara’s work is too conciliatory to be critical but too generous to be trivial. In its explicit focus on the internet, and its lessened stress on the museum as such, MEEM in fact seemed to expand on McNamara’s practice. Performance became a sensibility, not just a party trick.

McNamara’s spirit of coy populism takes form in Gently Used to deck out a complex conceptualism in a funhouse assemblage of costumes, spotlights, and merchandise, all in pastels. The show’s opening hallway is itself an invitation to an event of leisure: a row of fairground flags stretch from the white-cube wall into the jaws of a set of toy teeth, itself submerged in a murky black sculpture. They are the same flags of temporary events emphasizing not only good times but an improvisatory place of commerce. The white cube leads directly into the grotesque maw of a plaything: on the surface, Gently Used is innocent pleasure, but darker details emerge in its wacky, allegorical marketplace.

Theater haunts the exhibition, embodying an aesthetic and genre of culture rather than a mere presentation format. A quartet of tall spotlights stands authoritatively in the middle of the central gallery room. They swivel suddenly and bathe the austere architecture of the gallery in dramatic colored lighting. The impulse of an event begins, highlighting the viewer’s gestures in space but also the work as components of some kind of performance. Yet what exactly is being performed goes unstated for McNamara and Marshall: staginess lingers almost post-traumatically in the exhibition. An entire wall is dedicated to the Hand in Foot series, which consists of a row of half-circular limbs reaching from white-gloved hand to white-socked foot in a mannerism between Dr. Seuss and Bob Fosse. The Performance Plaques pieces mount jumbles of white gloves or gesticulating clothing, presumably costumes from earlier performances, in dramatic, uncanny postures. The exhibition isn’t a theatrical act of Brechtian alienation, wherein the audience is suddenly instigated to consider the performativity of the everyday. Instead, Gently Used is a forensic suggestion, a subtle evidentiary ensemble of performance’s social life.

In the vein of Seth Price, McNamara designs complex networks of commerce and consumption stemming from the ‘original’ act of artistic creation. Performance leads to purchase. His T-Shirt Retrospective frames the titular clothing in precise, clean frames as messy collages of images from earlier work scramble over the surface of each shirt. Misty Malarky Ying Yang constructs a series of colored Plexiglas planes, each containing a bright unitard frozen in a comic gesture of movement, arms diagonally spread and knees bent. More composites from earlier work don the fabric. These pieces read like concert apparel, remnants of the performance event that are consumable and wearable as remainders and reminders, the former of a prior occurrence and the latter of one’s position within it. There is a sort of trickle-down economy in Gently Used, as the thrift-store promotionalism of the title suggests. McNamara’s performance work, the basis of his current artworld fame, instantiates as fashion readymades: ordinary in their function but decidedly valuable in their form.

It’s hard to tell how reflexively McNamara treats the whole spectacle. The actual presence of the T-shirts humorously doubles the notion of salable performance ephemera (which on some level, the exhibition basically is), while other works suggest a cheeky multimedia transference. Unitard Stretch uses layers of performance costumes on the actual canvas for a painterly, dimensional effect. The picture plane is literally built up from performance remnants, hinting at the smooth retirement of performance to even more marketable flat media. In the fantastic pun of Untitled, where a unitard stretches over painted wood as a hand emerges from the surface with an iPhone in its grasp, performance becomes an artistic posture itself. The metonymy of the white gloves, which suggests the cast of dancers McNamara hires, transfers to the viewer itself. Holding the phone in the default “selfie” position, the glove establishes a citational circuit. Performance’s remains (unitard, glove, phone) form an autopoietic infrastructure of consumption and capital. It’s hard not to shake these gestures in their relation to Mary Boone, a gallery most famously associated with 1980s Neo-Expressionist painting, a movement loved by the art market and reviled by critics. One wonders if McNamara is responding to a legacy of performative promotion like that bestowed on the work of Schnabel or Basquiat, as if to suggest performance’s market-oriented and maybe fleeting popularity.

But in these reverberations of flashy star power, McNamara’s work consistently includes a kind of humility, even when the proportions expand as they did for MEEM 4 Miami. In other work, performance is a space for shifts in tone and atmosphere, not necessarily dramatic intervention. In Gently Used, the effect is tonal despite the theatrical techniques on display. The extended body parts, the frozen choreography on clothing — these are gestures that don’t necessarily go anywhere. The spotlights move quickly to suggest a change in something, but they are so ephemeral as to signify not much more than themselves. In condensing his career into the Boone exhibition, McNamara is putting for sale performance itself, as performativity. The specificity of his references become general in the coherence of a brand and aesthetic, here informed by somewhat innocuous readymades, tie-dyed pastels, and a restrained installational quality.

The durability of performance in contemporary art is partly based on its elasticity. Anything implicated in the execution or sustainment of a performance is ripe for the commercial archive, always positioning these effects in proximity to the event. Performance is a metaphor for the artist’s Midas touch, especially in McNamara’s case, given his investment in adjustments to the ordinary (MEEM may seem like a special case, but it too has hands in both directions. The standard viewing format of the theater refracts into myriad positions while spectatorship still more or less assumes the same form). In Gently Used, performance extends dually as modes of both production and reception. Performance’s reach may be larger than ever before through its myriad forms, but it still requires an audience. McNamara doesn’t emphasize theatricality as such with the now-rote argument that the self is perpetually “performed.” Instead he stresses a change in the nature of relation deeply infused by the marketplace, pop culture, and an aesthetic field of celebrity. In MEEM, this relation is of equal parts coercion and pleasure, spectacle and fragment. In Gently Used, it is of a bizarre democracy grasping for communicability, attempting to find a point of origin in spite of that origin’s countless refractions.

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