With guest appearances by Barbara T. Smith, Hirokazu Kosaka, Simone Forti, and a number of Donald J. Trump piñatas
“I really need to stand up,” Simone Forti said, during a recent panel discussion in Los Angeles. The artist, who began performing with choreographer Anna Halprin in the 1950s and has been using her body as a tool ever since, had just been asked “if she thought much about spirituality” in her work. It was the first Wednesday in November and she was sitting on a couch inside the high-ceilinged lobby of a large, turn-of-the-century bank building that is now a museum. Longtime L.A. artists Barbara T. Smith and Hirokazu Kosaka were on either side of her.
The artist Suzanne Lacy, who came of age among 1970s feminists, was moderating the panel, which focused on the spiritual and the body, and had asked the question, and she told told Forti to go ahead. Lacy was currently living in the building, the partially-opened, privately-owned Main Museum, with her friend, artist-activist Andrea Bowers. The two had embarked on a pedagogical experiment, Lacy teaching Bowers performance art, all day, every day, while also helming events like this one.
Forti rose, brushing aside Kosaka, who instinctively moved to help her. The tremors that Parkinson’s disease causes can make the 81-year-old artist look far more fragile than she is. “I don’t think of the word spirit very much,” she said, beginning to walk in circles. “I’ve done things like…” She trailed off, realizing her socked feet might not be safe on the unfinished floor. She and Smith had removed their shoes before the discussion began, but now Forti bent to put hers back on. “I’ve done things like leaning in and wondering about… shifting weight,” she said, again walking in circles, speeding up as she spoke. “In walking around and walking around, thoughts come differently. The thoughts are tucked in with the muscle memory, with the body’s understanding.” She continued, “So there’s not just language. There’s language, but there’s not just language.”
Eventually, Forti returned to the couch, and Lacy used language to frame what she had just done (“You walking around here is exactly what I think about in terms of spirituality and embodiment together”), and the discussion resumed its orderly pattern. Lacy issued questions, panelists answering one by one while Bowers sat quietly in a chair near the couch.
“Does she get to talk?” Smith asked at one point, referring to Bowers.
“I’m taking notes,” said Bowers.
“She’s the student,” Lacy acknowledged.
In 2014, Lacy and Bowers, feminists of different generations, did a durational performance at the Drawing Center in New York. Bowers, the younger of the two, taught Lacy to draw while they lived in two tents pitched at the Center. They discussed doing the project again, with Lacy as teacher, but had no concrete plans. Then Allison Agsten, formerly the director of public engagement at the Hammer in Los Angeles, got the job as director of the Main Museum, a non-collecting nonprofit that is the brainchild of downtown developer Tom Gilmore. After a studio visit with Bowers that lasted five hours, Agsten decided “Performance Lessons,” as the program is called, should be her museum’s first project. On October 30, Lacy and Bowers moved into bedrooms adjacent to Agsten’s office, where they stayed for the next ten days. Living together was key to the concept.
“It’s kind of a trope of early feminist performance, and men’s performance as well,” Lacy told me on November 8, the last day of their residency, as museum staff set up for an election night party, hanging a Trump piñata from the ceiling, while six more Trump piñatas leaned against a nearby wall. “It’s a kind of durational experience, where you placed yourself in a situation, whether it’s to get yourself shot in the arm or to immerse yourself in a vat of blood—this was a common way people were looking at the relationship between art and life.” Lacy was referring to artists working in the 1970s, an era she participated in and aimed to teach to Bowers.
“I didn’t know why they did that [durational work] at first,” said Bowers, who attended CalArts in the early 1990s, 20 years after Lacy participated in Judy Chicago’s Feminist Art Program there. “But what I have learned after this is that it kept me from being able to separate life from art.”
“And we’re not really interested in teaching performance art per se,” Lacy clarified. “We’re interested in framing pedagogy and…an important relationship between women.”
“Performance Lessons” officially began on October 30, with a panel discussion on whether performance can actually be taught. “What if we discovered it couldn’t be taught?” Agsten joked as she introduced the event. “That would be shitty, actually.” The panelists concluded that it could be taught, even in classrooms, though it would be wrong to imply there was any easy consensus. A taste of the event:
“I reject the notion of conceptual being separate from body, though, and that idea that the mind is separate,” said performer Nao Bustamante, after Bowers asked artist Rodney McMillan if he considered himself “conceptually-based.”
“This is not my forte,” said Bowers. “But it seems like you can have a conceptual or political strategy or even a mathematical strategy for how your body’s going to move…”
“Sure, but is a concept ever not embodied?” art historian Amelia Jones asked.
“You can move your body without a concept,” responded Bowers.
“I didn’t say that,” said Jones. “I said, Is a concept ever not embodied?”
On November 1, when I stopped by to check in, a sheet of paper taped to the glass doors said, “Artists out to dinner.” A fireman’s suit lay crumpled in a corner. Later, I learned that Bowers had called her brother, a fireman, and asked him to drop the suit off after Lacy gave her a first lesson: adopt a persona. Notes on newsprint, some with stick figures drawn on them, had been taped to a wall. On Wednesday afternoon, before Forti gave a two-hour workshop on movement, a group of undergraduates from the University of Southern California came to visit, sitting in a half circle in the work space used by Bowers and Lacy.
“I dare say this could be a monumental work for our time,” Agsten said of “Performance Lessons,” before Bowers began to talk about feminism and performing.
“It’s like we’re reinventing the wheel,” Bowers said.
She would say this again as we sat discussing the project a week later, on its final day: “I feel like we have to keep reinventing the wheel generation by generation.” She said that she often has not felt connected to previous generations of feminist artists, or privy to functional alternative art world models. In school, she respected and emulated male conceptualists. “They had a strong matriarchal alternative,” she said of Lacy’s community in the 1970s.
“A very strong alternative,” Lacy said.
“It stopped,” Bowers said, “and it hasn’t continued through these generations of feminists.”
“There’s no institutional structure,” Lacy said, mentioning how the Feminist Art Program disappeared soon after Judy Chicago left CalArts.
Bowers pointed out the mind-mapping drawings Lacy had taught her to do, which now filled their working wall and would stay on view after the performance ended. Each explored a different idea in a stream-of-consciousness way, with figures interspersed with text—one labeled “Labor” and “Gender” included questions about identity, the words “Super Woman” inside an orange triangle and a loose depiction of Bowers in the fireman suit. Bowers said, “No one knows that this [way of drawing] was a methodology as a way of getting closer to each other, growing closer.”
This notion of “nobody knowing” suggests scarcity, that only certain people have access to alternative models, and throughout the 10-day event, it could seem at times that this new developer-founded institution was becoming a locus for access. Younger artists, most of them women, who attended the events seemed hungry for information about the histories of performance and feminism that Lacy, Bowers, and friends discussed.
Other artists are already using the methodologies previous generations forged, deliberately not “reinventing the wheel.” The weekend “Performance Lessons” began, Eliza Swann, an artist I met during consciousness raising sessions organized by the Women’s Center for Creative Work, led an immersive workshop on embodied alchemy in the desert, at an ashram near Joshua Tree, California. Swann has sought out her own mentors over the years, among them performance artist Linda Montano, who worked in California in the 1970s, and 69-year-old artist Penny Slinger, incorporating their methods into her own practice.
That same weekend, the collaborative troupe Mutant Salon organized a two-day event at the Hammer, in which Young June Kwak crawled around like a baby, imagining himself reborn female, while artist Kim Ye followed him with a red whip, schooling him on the hardships of living as a woman. Eight-five-year-old Barbara T. Smith helmed a sound performance as younger artists lounged around her. Here, Smith was part of the milieu, surrounded by people she’d influenced, but not more powerful than anyone else.
“I mean, what we’re dealing with as feminists, as women,” Andrea Bowers told me on Election Day, “are these shifting powers—who has power, who doesn’t, often being out of power.”
“One of the challenging aspects of feminist practice is, Where does authority rest?” Lacy said.
When I left that night, after Lacy moderated a panel on politics and performance, the Trump piñata was still swaying above the heads of a crowd that seemed less and less excited about breaking it. Election results confirming Trump’s lead trickled in, and all the “The Future is Female” T-shirts women were wearing that night were beginning to look like pleas.
“Yes, the Trump piñata was broken,” Allison Agsten, the Main’s director, told me in an email the following afternoon. She also described tears, and artists convening in her office as the night wore on, realizing how many alliances still need to be built and how much remained to be done.