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Personal performances and public presentation

Something I struggle with is the relationship between my privilege and using performance art as a strategy for communication. This is because I am a white guy and bodies like mine have dominated visual histories, including queer ones, and that by performing I inevitably echo and continue featuring whiteness (among others things like maleness) in the art spaces I move through. The various conversations I’ve had with peers and mentors about the performances I have done has left me with a lot of questions. If I’m honest, I feel as though it might be better for me to step back from doing anything live. This would help me address a few things I have continued to be uncomfortable with:

  1. I’m less interested in the relationship between my live body and the audience and more with the internal conversations I have as I perform. The performances have always been personal and having people watch always felt like a requirement or necessity. What I’ve found is the performances functioned as dedicated moments to reflect on topics like intimacy, violence, and loss with the addition of endurance, discomfort, and documentation. The physical circumstances enabled immediate sensations that either reinforced or complicated any attempts to intellectualize what I was feeling and thinking. It made it harder to concentrate and simultaneously prompted recollecting memories about my pain or grief, essentially merging the material I was curious about and wanted to better understand (such as the ongoing AIDS crisis) with my history of trauma and assault.

  2. I did not like people watching me and I did not enjoy having people watch me get hurt. I was always nearly nude and revealing more skin than I usually like to in public settings because I felt compelled to make myself as uncomfortable as possible. Unfortunately, that decision meant that I was also presenting my body as something to be consumed or desired. It would be dishonest of me to deny that it also functioned to attract particular audiences (ie. gay men) to at least look as they were the demographic I wanted to speak to. I hoped that by presenting a nearly naked and conventionally attractive body, one that is white, thin, cis, etc. might garner more attention and that at the very least people would listen for as long as they could leer.

  3. I mentioned not liking people seeing me get hurt and that is because I do not want to hurt people by exposing them to something that could contribute to a traumatic experience or the recollection of one. I tend to be extremely critical of visual culture that is apathetic or dismissive of consent and does not allow people to choose what they see. Though I intentionally avoided any actions that might cause bleeding I did surprise people in a state of undress, I worked with a material that looked like blood, and at one point I ate candy until I vomited in front of a crowd. These aren’t necessarily bad things as long as people are informed and have the right to enter and leave as they please which was a courtesy I regret not always making crystal clear. That has felt surprisingly difficult to accomplish when I was busy juggling other tasks to prepare and is a mistake I don’t want to make again.

  4. I do not want to hire models or other performers to simply diversify my work and would be uncomfortable asking anyone to endure pain on my behalf or for my professional and artistic gain. I am critical of compensation being used to realize ideas that address subjects that can be heavy and carry an emotional or mental tax without care or additional consideration. There have been several instances where I think artists have neglected the health of others to manifest their work and relied on monetary payments to compensate for the ethical dilemmas and moral concerns. The individuals participating should have the right to make that decision for themselves, however, it is just not a strategy I would feel comfortable using personally as the relationship between capitalism and labour is horrifyingly exploitative.

These reasons are a selection from a longer ambivalent list. I see value in the intensity and power of performance art, an attribute I admire in the work of people I have studied and studied beside, but that gravity is also why performing live is something I may not do moving forward. I want to be respectful of the harmful challenges and discriminatory structures I do not encounter because of my privilege and I think the capacity for that oversight in my live performative work is frightening. They were things I would contemplate beforehand as I developed an idea but often stumbled in the actual execution. Critical responses were also something I could not easily have while doing them and the performances often left me in an emotional state that made those conversations afterwards incredibly difficult to have without getting defensive. That is not the relationship I want to have with viewers as having dialogues about the work and the chance to share more about the process is more important to me than generating a spectacle with inadequate follow-ups and decompressions.


Right now I’m thinking about how I can still do performances, albeit alone or privately, and still generate work using them that is more easily accessible (another issue with performance art) and enables me to more confidently address the nuanced and complex problems like those above regarding trauma, consent, and privilege. Documentation will continue to play a key role in this process though I’m still hesitant about how it would be presented and I think this has contributed to my renewed interest in processes like drawing and sculpture. I see an opportunity for drawings to complement sculptures, oscillating between two-dimensional and three-dimensional planes that occupy spaces differently. Additionally, a few sculptures I had planned for a previous show and would still like to make at some point will hopefully better explore the potential for performative objects or objects that can simulate bodies and gestures without my flesh being necessary.


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©2019 Brandon Giessmann