In Lab last week I was quite negative about the Bolivian feminist performance/action group Mujeres Creando1, mainly with respect to their relevance and effectiveness, but also with their translatability to the present state of affairs in Europe and particularly Britain.
This reaction was sparked by an anecdote about their presence at a conference last year where they performed and talked about their work. Apparently their presentation was greeted with a degree of scepticism by the audience as to it’s effectiveness when taken out of the Bolivian (or South American) context. The way the response was described, the audience were put off by the group’s less than academic style (given the context within which they were presenting), and the methods proposed as being those which Britain had seen from activist groups in the 80’s and 90’s and which had proved to have had little effect on politics and society in general.
After this we watched a video of one of Mujeres Creando’s performances in Bolivia. It took place in a public square, with a woman throwing pots of red paint (possibly blood) over the floor while haranguing the assembled crowd. Another member of the group, gaudily dressed as a caricature of someone from the upper-middle-classes (I think). The performance leads to the involvement of the police, performing a predictably heavy-handed eviction and arrest of the troupe. Much struggling and screaming ensues.
And here lies a problem with all works, it depends for it’s immediate effectiveness—it’s affectiveness?—on some knowledge of the context on the part of the viewer. Speaking personally, for this work I have only the vaguest idea about the background in Bolivia, about the treatment of female and/or gay members of their society. So my first contact with the piece lacks the necessary information for me to make anything of it (and given that I do not speak Spanish, I cannot gather anything from the dialogue), and I am hence only able to interpret formal aspects of the show, and relate what I am seeing to similar events I am aware of.
Is this a surmountable problem? In the context of the performance itself, is it a problem in the first place? The Performance only loses it’s context—it’s meaning—through the recording, so when performed I assume the piece works for it’s audience, and only by being mediated does it fail (at least on that front).
So what can be done to regain that context, if that’s all that’s necessary to make the piece work? At a very basic level, the video would need to include a lot of extra information to situate to performance within the social and political milieu, and this information would need to be tailored to a certain extent to the particular audience viewing the piece.
So what can be said about the reaction of the English audience to their work? Many will have no direct knowledge of experience of the situation in Bolivia, thus losing any possibility of an empathetic reaction. The performers at the conference may be able to engender an affective reaction through their engagement with the issues and ability to communicate with their audience.
So is this particular (lack of) reaction just apathy or a reasonable suspicion of this type of activism? Has performance of this type lost it’s effectiveness in Britain?
And what about it’s status as art? Is that relevant anymore? Does being classed as art neuter the work’s political aspirations? Again, does ‘art’ give the work some caché in Bolivia that is lacking in Britain? Have the British become inured to art? Is art not the place to make any kind of statement, if you want that statement to be taken seriously? Has the avant-garde tradition of épater le bourgeois been emasculated?
It’s very difficult for me to relate to what is undoubtedly a very serious situation in Bolivia. Using performance art to address it leaves me with conflicting emotions – on the one hand I can see that in it’s place it could have been effective; on the other I am repelled by the methods that seem to me to be embarrassingly ineffective. But of course, I am only thinking of them in relation to myself, one person’s reaction. Just because I do not react well, does not prevent the work from being effective with other people. I feel bad for being so negative now. I was being very limited in my thinking. I should ask myself what I would do in this situation.