On Performance and Labor

With the start of the spring semester- I have shifted back into my role as teacher. And my students are shifting back into their roles as students.  The world today requires that we spend a lot of time cultivating identities and developing a personal “brand.” What I think is compelling about the ePortfolio/grading contract project we have embarked on is how it allows students (and instructors) to start considering this idea of identity and performance in very personal and emotional ways, resisting simple “branding.”  I am extremely interested in how higher education helps students to begin to understand who they are- on their own terms. I feel it is my job as an instructor to act as a sounding board in these explorations, to help give voice to this developing person and to see all the connections that exist between themselves and the long history of pondering of human existence.

And this leads me to performance art! I feel that the seeds of this project were sewn as I developed my own academic identity. As a graduate student, I did a lot of research on performance art. I was extremely excited by the possibilities of an artform that exists not as a thing, an object to be valued or not, but as an experience or a moment or an action, a labor. I loved the idea of resisting the idea of the marketplace or the museum and making work that existed in time. Art that by its very nature springs from the experience of our own selves and bodies and addresses the audience in many different modes.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is part of this conversation.

Ukeles’s groundbreaking work focuses on the intersection between labor and identity. Her public art works require audiences to consider who is left out of conversations we have about art, education, work, and value. Ukeles has mopped and cleaned wooden and concrete floors in museums, she has choreographed garbage truck ballets, and she has shaken the hand of every sanitation worker in New York City. She does this work from a position of privilege — when the video discusses how her mopping and cleaning performances were backbreaking and lasted four whole hours I cringed– but I have always admired how she used her position to direct the audience’s attention. And she pointed to the work of my grandmothers, my father, and myself.  I could see something familiar in her work. It was a conversation that I knew I could contribute to. And that I wanted to contribute to.

Another voice in the conversation is Ellen Rothenburg:

Artist Ellen Rotherburg in front of her art instillation
Photograph by Caroline Picard, Published 6 January, 2011 on magazine.art12.org

Rothenburg was one of my favorite instructors in graduate school. Her work focuses on labor, gender, and the public space. She has created full scale rooms of objects and collections, she utilizes text, and traditional performance. What I am enjoy most about Rothenburg’s work is the way that it absolutely refuses to exclude. She opens her work up and makes spaces for all voices, especially those least heard. She explores history, specifically the history of the labor movement. One of her exhibitions, Reading Landscapes, really reflects the composition/rhetoric classroom of my dreams:

Both were performance/readings modeled on the tradition of “El Lector,” a reader, collectively paid by fellow workers at cigar factories in Cuba from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century to read aloud literature, political texts, and the news throughout the workday, while workers listened and rolled cigars. In this case, a team of volunteers made bundles out of re-purposed camouflage clothing while local writers read works that responded to the ideas in the exhibitions. The work of making the bundles was performed in front of the audience and projected along with text fragments from the writers; we were literally folding and rolling language into the sculptures.– Ellen Rothenburg

This work insists on the political and personal action of reading and writing. We think of these actions as mundane, throw away.  I read cereal boxes, I read hundreds of annoying emails, I read road signs. I read student writing. I read the news. All of these day to day reading experiences are situated in a larger political space. A space charged with assumptions of value and worth.

What I love about the ePortfolio assignment is that it allows each of my students the role of “El Lector.”  They are in position to write and read publicly- to announce their thoughts to the laboring classroom, the laboring family, the laboring community. They are performing, but rather than assuming an artificial role imposed on them by someone else, I hope they are performing something close to who they really are.

Just as an aside, and a interesting transition- I just interrupted my own political act of labor, writing this blog, to make my son’s breakfast. I continue to labor and perform the roles of writer and mother at the same time.

This leads me to the work of my good friend, Rebecca Kautz.

Kautz’s year long duration performance, Artist Working, is another response to the calls of artists like Ukeles and Rothenburg. Kautz added the words “ARTIST WORKING” to a white coverall, the stereotypical uniform of the working class laborer. She wore this coverall for an entire year without washing it. She not only asserted her position as an artist as something happening simultaneously with her position as a student, a mother, caregiver, and citizen; she wanted to explore the marks those identities make over time. Her coverall began in January as bright white but over the course of a year picked up the residue of all of these experiences and became a text. A text that tells the story of trips to the grocery store, caring for a child with the flu, moments in lecture classes, and work in her studio.

Artist and child looking at a painting.
Image from Artist Working, used with permission from the artist.

You can draw a line from these artists to the work my students are doing in their ePortfolios. By opening up the means of expression- taking the focus away from a gatekeeping 8-10 page research paper and bringing it to a project with life outside the academy- we allow students to explore their ideas and identities which may seem outside what is appropriate for academic attention. And what types of sources of information are “good” or “bad.” And what constitutes an “argument.” We are trying to frame questions that are open- that explore the realms between right and wrong. We are wanting our students to make work that reflects their own lives and interests. We want them to see that they have a place in the university- they have ideas that are worthy of attention. They are no longer producing a product that is assigned a value- they are creating something that is based in space and time and is situated in their own identity, in their own experience, their own body. They write because they want to say something.


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