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Timeline of performance art
BRUCE BARBER

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BRUCE BARBER
FROM PERFORMANCE TO [PERFORMANCE]

Bruce Barber: Where, when and how did you first begin to do performance?

Bruce Barber: I was first introduced to performance as a student in the Sculpture Department at Auckland University School of Fine Arts in 1969. Some time in 1970 I became a member of the N.Z. Scratch Orchestra, Antipodean Twig from the London Root Group that had been started by Phil Dadson who had just returned from working with Cardew, Parsons and others in London. The Sculpture Department was very progressive at the time and was going through a minimal/conceptual phase. I remained with the S.O. until 1973 and then as a foundation member of the performance/percussiongroup from Scratch.

BB: Was this the only part of your activity there?

BB: No, during the first few years of my undergraduate degree I was producing many kinds of work: painting, printmaking, photography, some film work, sculptural installations and video. From 1971 I produced a number of performances, some under the auspices of the N.Z.S.O., like Open Day, a poster work for the University open day for which I posted signs throughout the campus defining in a typically conceptualist manner a site, a time and space. The poster read something like "This sign is... steps.. and minutes from the next one you will encounter," revealing the arbitrariness and self-reflexivity of open sign categories. I also produced other materialist works including Hill Body Tape Performance and Saw Horse Performance (early 1972), a very minimal and process-oriented work in which I used a power saw to saw lengths of 2 x 4" into 2" pieces. I undertook a few audio related performance works, photographed found situations and produced performance/installations using megaphones, tape recorders, and walkie talkies as well as more traditional sculptural materials. These were also primarily process/conceptually oriented. My influences were diverse - a little weird to reflect upon now - European, English (via the S.O.), and based philosophically in a kind of hippyish Eastern/ Western eclectic mix of phenomenology, whole earthism, Zen and some Maoism thrown in for good measure.

BB: Any direct influences from North America?

BB: Yes, through a number of magazines and catalogues I became became aware of a number of performance works produced by artists like Robert Morris, Dan Graham, Dennis Oppenheim, Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer and others. I was attracted to the process/conceptual/ perceptual (phenomenological) performance tradition with its strong roots in the recent history of music, sculpture and dance. I was less interested then in the subjective and autobiographical and theatrical until around late 1973-74, the time at which I produced a number of psychologically motivated performances.

BB: Were these the beginning of your socially oriented works?

BB: Yes, I guess you could say that. Even choosing performance as a method of working can have political meaning. I was never particularly satisfied by the contemplative requirements of art in its institutionalised setting. I was attracted to the live aspect of performance. It was risky. During the years 1973 to 1976, I produced a number of performances, many of them outdoors, using parts of the landscape, acoustically and visually as part of the work - a beach, lake, or an extinct volcano. Whatipu Beach Performance, Bucket Action, and Mt. Eden Performance, all from 1973, are the strongest works of this period. They took place over extended periods of time, often with large numbers of performers - up to 30 in the case of Mt Eden - and we used audio, video and film technology as part of the action. With the exception of Bucket Action these were single unique performances and were about information exchange and information loss. In the same year I began to reproduce my work - script (in some cases), block out, draw/plan sites, rehearse timing as well as make props, etc. Documentation also became more important. The performances generally became more conceptually sophisticated. I also began to research performance and avant-garde theatre forms in a more thorough fashion than I had previously. I began to write about performance and produce texts to complement or supplement my work. This has continued, and as part of my position as a junior lecturer in the sculpture department at Elam, I began to teach performance, which has also continued.

BB: When did you arrive in Canada and how did this alter your performance work?

BB: I arrived in August 1976 in order to study at NSCAD in Halifax. In terms of my art work, I had slowly begun to alter my terms of reference before I departed from New Zealand. Upon arriving in North America, I decided to concentrate on the less practical aspects of my work and continued my study of the history of performance. As part of this I wrote a number of essays on performance history. My performance became more political and with this I began to question the identity of the performer and the ego investment in performing. I wanted to work with others and toyed with the notion of starting a professional performance/theatre group. I produced several group performances which were thoroughly scripted, rehearsed - quite expensive productions in Halifax, Banff, Vancouver and New York. I produced La Detente for the Paris Biennale, Revolve E and Function were performances that questioned in various ways the problems of politicising performance. I realised that the most satisfactory parts of the performance, conceived in terms of learning, growing, coming to consciousness about various problems or issues, were the rehearsals. I also recognised that didactic performance could be done in a number of ways that did not reproduce some of the theatrical problems of acting out, the central problem of representation, which I thought was one of the most objectionable features of performance at this time. This led me to the critique of the spectacular and commodity form.

BB: And this led you to theorise a more critical and didactic performance practice?

BB: Yes. This began in 1979 when I produced a large number of Audience Arrangement drawings in which there was no performance as such. The performances were excised. The audience became the [performers]. I began to think of a [performance] that negated the commodification of the performer and the performance; one that concentrated on the acquisition of critical knowledge through other less spectacular means. The means became discussion groups arranged in a similar way to those associated with popular education groups. [Performance] became a method toward the construction of knowledge in a more collective and organic fashion. I provided the tools, the occasion, the space, and some of the information. But the information was not packaged nor was it displayed in ways similar to the conventional art commodity form. Therefore, it required some effort on the part of the participants, including myself, to construct meaning together. The Agit-lectures, Reading Rooms I and II each attempted to confront practical and theoretical issues pertaining generally to the interpretation of culture, including those problems associated with the critical analysis/comprehension of propaganda, the denial of the politics of photographic representation, audio imaging analysis, the ideological deconstruction of popular culture e.. learning "tasks" reinforced the meanings common to... notions of function and utility, and of instrumentality, which .. semantic origins. In early 1983, as part of an introduction for.. which I edited, I wrote: "Nominally, [performance] describes the engaged and committed task of acting on culture, as distinct from an enactment in culture." In this sense the task becomes resto.. critical.

BB: Redemptive?

BB: Well, perhaps. Whereas in 1973 I wrote "This is.. activity and I must act as if the 'performance' were soci.. tive", now I assume that it is and I act on this assumption. ...is never a neutral activity.


Notes:

i W. Allen and Wystan Curnow, eds. New Art: Some New Zealand Sc.. Post-Object Art (Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1976).
ii Bruce Barber, Preface, in Barber, ed. 1983. Essays on [Performance] and Cultural Politicization. Special Issue of Open Letter, no. 5-6: 5.

Bruce Barber's self interview published in: B. Barber, Performance, and Performers, Vol. 1: Conversations, ed. M. J. Leger, Toronto: YYZ Press (2008), pp. 135 - 140.

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