THEY IS THEM, WE IS YOU
In the early 1970s Adrian Piper inhabited the public spaces of New York City in a variety of compromised conditions. She walked down the street and went shopping covered in wet paint, sat on the bus with a white towel stuffed in her cheeks and falling down her chest, and searched the stacks at the public library with a tape recorder in her purse emitting loud belches. You may be familiar with the documentation of these performances. Catalysis IV (the one with the towel) is a personal favourite, particularly the bus photo. Piper occupies the left third of the frame; the rest taken up by two fellow riders. The woman next to Piper is a fashion disaster: enormous round tortoise-shell sunglasses, ironed hippie hair and the worst of the era's cakey white lipstick. She has turned as far away as she can from Piper, clutching her bag tensely in her lap, chalky lips pursed. Next to her, half out of the frame, an older woman cuts an eye at Piper, her expression impassive. This is New York City after all, in 1970.
I am fascinated by the way the responses of these two women to something they fail to recognize as art, becomes art. (2) And I am not alone. Following a performance by Louise Liliefeldt in York University's Vari Hall (a location midway between feeding troughs and library, with a high volume of student traffic), conversation centered around the behaviour of some audience members who happened upon the event accidentally--obnoxious naifs who guffawed loudly at the failures or cheered on the strenuous successes of Liliefeldt's ritualized actions in an "inappropriate" manner. Of course, conversation came around to the assertion that this is what is interesting or important about performance art in public spaces: it reaches audiences who would not normally enter a gallery, and removes the gallery's strictures of awed silence and appropriate response. This is a good thing.
But, in a conceptual field where anything can become a commodified object, attempts to "reach out" to the public often result in the objectification of members of that public (of those who are said to benefit from greater "access" to art when it conducts its business in the streets). This objectification may help to reassert the specialized knowledge3 of art professionals who feel obliged to cater to a public that appears unwilling (or unable) to invest in a rigorous or respectful engagement with contemporary art, and upon whom public artists rely for the authentication of their practices.
Two contemporary Canadian public performance works offer an effective entry into the problem introduced here: Charmaine Wheatley's 2385 Agricola Street (1997) and Day Milman and Paige Gratland's collaborative Free Dance Lessons (2003).