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Timeline of performance art
MARILYN ARSEM

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This question of when and how I began making performance art, or perhaps more accurately, when I began to name what I was doing as performance art, is complicated.

I can identify my first awareness of performance by artists in the mid-60s, when I heard about Happenings. I was in high school, and my friends and I began to create our own Happenings. They were non-narrative events with simultaneous actions incorporating different media. We were all involved in many kinds of art - music, dance, theater, poetry, painting, sculpture - and the events reflected that.

I studied theater directing in college, and worked with experimental theater companies and political street theaters during the 70s. I was specifically interested in designing performances that engaged the viewer directly in the action, incorporated all the senses, which operated on the same physical level as the viewers, and were presented within different communities. We used chance-operational structures, employed slide projections and music, referenced current political issues, and included direct interaction with the viewers. The spaces in which we showed our performances were bookstores, food co-ops, churches, galleries, classrooms and colleges, media centers and the street. By 1977 I had gathered together a group of artists who were interested in experimentation, in creating new work in different media, but primarily in performance. We named ourselves Mobius.

By the early 80s it was clear that my work was aligned with performance art, and that the audience was predominantly the visual arts community. In 1983, we opened a public performance and exhibition center in Boston, and began to present the work not only of the resident group of artists, but artists from Boston, New England, the US, and international artists. Since that time (other than 3 years when we operated out of a studio) Mobius, as a collaborative of artists, has continued to operate public exhibition spaces, our current one being in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In the more than 35 years that I have been involved in performance, I believe that I can say that I have made almost every kind of work - as a writer, as a director, as a performer - in other people's work, in collaborative projects, as well as my own solo pieces. As a solo artist, I have done gallery-based performances, large-scale outdoor events, installations, performances in private homes, secret performances in the woods, street events, infiltrations, performances for a single person, durational performances, short timed pieces, instructional works, text-based performances, body art, visual actions, audience-interactive works, etc.

So, I will name just a few early works that functioned as signposts for me in moving forward in my performance art practice:

In 1981 I designed Video vs. Memory vs. Memory, which was presented at Boston Film/Video Foundation. It was a memory experiment between two performers (Joan Gale and Dan Lang), as well as the audience. It included the audience instructing and correcting the action of the performers based on video that they had just seen. Each new version of the action was videotaped live. By the end, three videotapes had been made, and were played simultaneously on different monitors, so the audience could compare all three versions of the action.

In 1982 I collaborated with Bob Raymond on Time Passes, as part of an evening of performances at Boston Film/Video Foundation produced by (the now defunct group) Boston Performance Artists. At our request, no documentation was made of this performance. Lit with a single light and standing at a black velvet covered table, I played a beautiful hand-blown glass bell as Bob videotaped the action in close-up. When I finished playing, I smashed the bell with a rock. I then walked through the audience carrying a small monitor so that they could watch the video that had just been made of the bell ringing. Finally I returned to the table, unspooled the videotape from its case, and cut it up into tiny slivers of plastic. Interestingly, the response of the audience was split between those who were distressed by the smashing of the bell, and those who were distressed by the destruction of the videotape.

During this time High Performance Magazine was being published out of Los Angeles, and I was especially interested in the artist pages, in which performance artists from across the country described their work. Other books on California performance art were also being published. I remember getting Marina Abramovic and Ulay's book Relation Work and Detour published in 1980. And I was reading Canadian, and UK and some other European books on performance art as well.

In 1984 I began a visually-based series of works with a short piece called pigbaby, and then Breathe/Don't Breathe in the Pleasure/Addiction/Danger series at Mobius in 1985. In those early performances I collaborated with Bob Raymond. We created In the Flesh in 1986, and then I went on alone to make Dreams (breathe/don't breathe) of Home (1987) and The Beginning or the End (1989). Each of the works examined the cycles of living and dying, and involved assembling meat and fish and bones into new creatures, baking bread with hair in it, sewing and singing. The last two works were performed in alternative spaces in the US, in Canada and Taiwan.

One of the most influential works that I experienced was Boston-based artist Ron Wallace's On the Emerald Necklace, which was a series of intimate conversations with individuals as he and that person walked the length (about 7 miles) of the Olmstead-designed park system encircling Boston. What struck me was not only the idea of creating performances for a single audience person, but the deep research in which he engaged over several years, allowing him to answer any question about the Emerald Necklace, shaping the conversation and the experience in response to his companion's interests.

Certainly that work was key to my own Red in Woods (1991-1993), that was a walk for a single person through a snowy, winter forest at dusk. More than 30 images - objects, food, sounds, animals and people, were sited along the path and throughout the landscape. The individual made this journey alone, and several days later met me for a videotaped interview where each described his or her experience, which was the only documentation of the event. It took three years to do this performance for 7 people, because of weather conditions.

Beginning in 1996 I began to create solo performances in response to outdoor sites, often at international festivals. Within this international context I began to focus on designing visual actions responding to the history of the location, as well as using materials found at the site. I have had the privilege of not having to tell festival organizers in advance what I will do, but instead I have been allowed to create a work on arrival. One of my favorite works of this kind was Undertow. In 2005, I participated in PerfoPuerto's 1st International Congress of Performance Art, in Valparaiso, Chile. The festival component was held in an abandoned refrigerator warehouse on the waterfront. The smell of the sea was in the air. With the organizers' help, we covered half the floor of a small room with freshly cut seaweed. Over the course of several hours I slowly rolled through the seaweed, my feet in a ditch of salt water, until the seaweed completely wrapped around me, covering my face and encasing my body.

It has been my experience that performance art offers the broadest canvas for making art, employing one's own body, actions, materials, architecture, landscapes, and other people as participants or witnesses. I have used this openness to challenge myself to attempt always to make something new, to work in ways that I have not tried before, to surprise myself. The edge between risk and safety, failure or success, is always hard to balance. I test my trust that the witnesses will respect my effort, even if they don't like the result, every time I experiment and do something new in front of others. But I would suggest that this is what helps me to stay grounded in the here and now.

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