Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1991)

This isn’t really an overview at all, . . . it’s more like an under view. – Christine Tamblyn in a recent performance



The history of Performance Art in the Bay Area is so mottled, it’s difficult to know how to view it. Local varieties of this art form reached international notoriety (and influence) in the late 1960s while societal change from Berkeley to Paris filled media airwaves and ignited university campuses. The burgeoning counter-culture’s attack on divisions between private and public power aligned with an aesthetics that de-centered art objects, materialism, privileged authority and the late Modernist cult of the individual creative genius.

Performance presented an enticing alternative type of art production. It also satisfied two main functions: media communication and process. Although all the “happenings” did not originate in California, the conditional emphasis of the term was perhaps best coined here.

Radical conceptualism in the Bay Area has publicly waned since the sixties. And some of its historical trajectories have led directly to the domesticating ghettoes of academia in the ’70s. Currently, local performance art has assumed a stylistically minimal and sculptural appearance. Installations, for instance, are now popular within our tightly circumscribed art scene.

Performance has also been usurped by more lucrative large scale theatre-oriented entertainment forms of the late ‘80s. On the surface, most political facets of performance – such as an aesthetic form of resistance – have either attained questionable success by crossing-over, or been tamed and packaged by now.

Beneath the surface, however, manifestations of performance art which critically jiggle, twist and scramble various levels of cultural signification are still flourishing. The heightened conceptual aspect imbedded in this kind of art obviously betrays itself as a grand scheme of infiltration and post hypnotic suggestion (“slipped in at seemingly inconsequential moments”). In other words, performance artists are no longer necessarily willing to limit themselves to the stage.

Key players now undertake performance works that are less public, more personal, and extend over several years. More and more, performance artists are also bringing their art training subtly into the workforce. Some even see themselves as spies or plants, rather than actors, occupying other professional niches in order to perform their art.

Any cartography of the Bay Area’s conceptually oriented performance art is therefore problematic, particularly in terms of providing an object or evidence. Because art targets now move, previous approaches to charting obvious performance events lead to analyses which are increasingly inept, dicey, so much chicanery, or pure fabrication.

These performance artists are, after all, historically understood to be a subversive group who constantly invent ways to avoid being assimilated into art markets or popular culture. Take, for instance, the profile of the renowned art critic who has provided source material for this article.

Christine Tamblyn considers her conventionally contextualized stage persona, Flaming Rose (which originated for her as a vision, avocation and calling), performance art. She also considers her graduate instruction and art criticism to be performance art.

The installation, San Francisco ‘Art Critic’ Performance – 1985 to Present, confirms this.  This installation functions as a comment on the duplicitousness of representation (or characterization). It basically communicates that her acclaimed ultra-serious and astute posturing as an art critic, by confession, is also a performance.

In that installation, photos on gallery walls combined with typeset captions narrated her scenario, further contextualizing her message as another level of performance. As documentation, it confronted audience expectations about performance, art, Tamblyn’s career, as well as the naturalized terms of evidence itself.

Christine Tamblyn is also expert in combining enactments with writings about performance art – for the potentially infinite prospects of “doubling” this arrangement offers. Her works appear thematically viral: each experimental type of art piece dovetails, refers, contradicts, explains or expands a systematically devised body and presence. She likes to think these works quietly feed on their hosts, until eventually the audience’s or reader’s perceptual DNA is completely reconfigured.

This parasitism is clear in many of her performances; A Germ of Truth, an impossible narration of the author’s death; A Personal History of the Woman’s Body, a public offering, handling, mapping and evacuation of her own body as a representational model for consumption; and Seductive Strategies X: Panel Discussion, a mock debate posed within current feminist discourse about body consciousness and the social construction of identity.

Along with the post-structuralist criticism she writes, Tamblyn also embodies what she thinks in her practice. Rather than allowing identifications of teacher or critic to circumscribe her, she uses performance art as a factory to produce variations of her selves, dispersive copies, discursive guises, and, aspects of personas.

As a result, storyline continua in works like A Germ of Truth, appear coincidental.  Author, writer, narrator, performer, spectator, evidence, are all non-collapsible; non-reductive. The heightened state of awareness these performances kick up is also confounded by our common beliefs about self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, it isn’t polite to speak publicly about our own deaths the way she does. The most unsettling aspect of this kind of work is how it simulates but does not exactly copy autobiographical detail.

Moreover, these strategies indicate how almost anything can be considered performance art if framed properly. Presentation, after all, is coded according to context, pretext and subtext. Therefore, art, “non-art,” and anti-art, which typically diverge along these lines, are subject to lots of play.

In her role as art instructor, Christine Tamblyn teaches that happenings, process-oriented conceptual art, body art, feminist art, persona art, even documentation art (this article fits within that textual continuum and framework, whereby conceptual art critics become performers), can all be considered “Life Art.”

On the other hand, the Life Art curriculum that Tamblyn teaches at San Francisco State University ultimately offers a more practical agenda, considering that only ten to fifteen percent of all students that pass through art schools ever become successful enough to work as professional artists. The premiss being, that if you tidy up your own stoop, the whole block looks better. Life Art, in this sense, provides the transferable skills to do so.

Teaching this perspective also provides a forum for challenging market driven myths about merit, particularly useful for art production during periods of repression and dwindling sponsorship. It also introduces people to power relationships inherent in human communication and critiques passive reception of knowledge. By heightening aesthetic attention to different forms and levels of censorship, this perspective helps to keep us alert.


Elliott Linwood: What do you think of compiling an overview of performance art?

Christine Tamblyn: I think it’s a bogus project, because any kind of overview is totalizing and totalitarian.

But you’ve written An Index of Recent Trends in California Performance Art.

Yes, but I felt profoundly guilty and uncomfortable the whole time I was working on it. Although, I guess the thing that secretly amused me about that project, was that I myself saw very few of the performances mentioned in my article. I was going on reviews from Artweek, or other kinds of papers, getting material that sometimes came from non-reliable sources and bad writers. I was trying to alchemically transmute their faulty descriptions into a more platonic essence of performance. I was also trying to collect information in one place as a service because the documentation was so fragmentary and scattered around.

What confuses me is the notion of documentation as performance. If that’s the case, then art criticism becomes very slippery thing.

Well, that’s what they say about conceptual art. There are seminal writings on conceptual art, by people like Joseph Kossuth, in which he claims that conceptual art has invalidated criticism since it forms its own critique. Critics, therefore, become superfluous.

Don’t they become performers?

Well, we should have known, critics are like cockroaches, too tough not to survive. They’ll just mutate pathogenically.

Do you think performance is a process of doubling?

Yes, always. I think it’s always narcissistic and always related to something like the Lacanian “mirror phase.” It’s always trying to create an idealized other, a substitute, a surrogate, a sexual surrogate. Lacan’s whole thing about the mirror phase is that the being we see in the mirror has a wholeness – that phenomenologically – you could never actually feel in the same way. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you see your body as an inviolable whole, whereas you never see your body in that way otherwise – you can only see it in fragments from the head and mostly the front of the body down.

What does being in print do to your personae?

It makes any given persona more real.

In A Germ of Truth, it seemed there was disparity and confusion in the story regarding the act of being named, especially when the author, narrator, and Christine Tamblyn occupied different but strangely overlapping spaces all at once. The audience’s search for evidence seemed excruciating.

Well, the whole story was about the paradox of narrating the story of your own death, because that’s impossible. The narrative faculty disappears!  But when I did that text as a performance, people were really freaked out by it. Some of them even wrote down the date on their calendars to check it out. I figured all representation is duplicitous, so it didn’t faze me in the least.

How do you fit into the small performance art scene in San Francisco?

What’s going on in performance art right now really troubles me because the people succeed is by allying themselves with a certain ideology or point of view that might have some adherence. It is so extrinsic to performance or to art, by which I mean that really the only kind of stuff happening right now is work around AIDS or ethnic roots, or racial or gay issues or feminism. Whereas, I certainly believe in political art, I just feel that there is not the space which does not ally itself to a cause – and that there is so much confusion about the reception of the work because the reception of the work has so much to do with sympathy for the cause and nothing to do with its aesthetic qualities.

On the other hand, your argument seems like a throwback to formalism.

It probably is. It probably has to do with my early training in art school . . . in terms of forms, however, I can only work improvisationally. I can never plan things out. That’s why I like collaboration. Sometime the stimulus is the actual context. To some extent my modus operandi has shifted toward context-specific work.

How do you teach performance art?

I set up situations and make people do some improvisation in which they can’t become a character. I try to find other modes like task-oriented performance.

But aren’t the persona process performances characterizations?

Well, I’m very resistant to that idea of character in a literary sense. It you look at the definitions in literary theory it all has to do with a collection of traits. It’s extremely non-process-oriented and static.

You also work stylistically in ‘asides’ don’t you?

Very much so. It’s very much like hypnosis, where you have to slip suggestions in at a seemingly inconsequential moment.

But then the thought is planted.

Not if it’s reciprocal hypnosis, which involves many levels of human interaction.

Do your audiences understand that your variety of performance art is conceptual?

Some people do. I don’t think it has reached a critical mass in terms of audience reaction. So, I think the work has to be kept mostly left on an emotional basis, which is usually the way that mobs and audiences react. Performance art, in terms of the idea of anything live, is completely obsolete nowadays!

What do you make of your depictions of the body on stage?

I think that exhibitionism is always linked to masochism, and performance is always structurally related to voyeurism – offering yourself to the gaze.

But how did you come through to the other side? You communicate in an obvious way that you have power and know what you’re doing. It’s interesting how you occupy both spaces.

Well, I think the work is about the evacuation of the body. In The Personal History of the Female Body, I created a representational body which was then a substitute for my real body. It was the representational body that I was really offering up for consumption.

This is palpable in your performance. You physically handle and awkwardly manipulate the body you demonstrate, much like a simulation.

This is the “doppleganger” or double – it’s where the alchemy comes in. Even the S/M video loop of two women playing next to me on stage during that performance depicted doubling. Since I’ve always been against the accusatory tone I find in feminism, I try wherever possible to take back the projection of abuse and awaken women to how they may perpetuate their own self-abuse – not that the other isn’t part of it, but repressing violence in women’s minds is just another part of women’s oppression.

It was very confusing for me to witness a woman performer narrate a visceral tirade like the one that occurs near the end of the Body performance.

Again, so much of what I do is about the duplicity of representation. To me, when it is so removed from any referent, this process totally exposes it and detaches it from the real.

In terms of duplicity, don’t you think your work enters the realm of chicanery?

Yes, but I’ve always been a sucker for the occult reading of chicanery. In a Wizard of Oz kind of scene where you tear back the curtain and see the old guy pulling all the levers, if it worked for you, it worked for you. It’s like the destruction of illusions as a sort of consciousness raising or enlightening exercise. But they have to be produced first!  Again, you have this producing and destroying Shiva thing going on.

Was Christine Tamblyn, the critical persona born when she arrived in San Francisco?

Yes.  She was inaugurated when she wrote this totally offensive criticism that created a big name for her immediately – in this incestuous little community where people never write anything bad. They’ve learned!  I can’t say I was particularly courageous. It was probably done more out of naiveté than anything else.

Did people get immediately wigged out or did it take a while for them to understand you were performing?

A lot of them still probably don’t know.

Do you willingly distinguish this veneer?

Sometimes. But I think it’s best to keep some shreds of credibility. Before you pull the rug out from under people, you have to let them walk on it first.