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Members' Research Report Archive

Uneliable Narrators: Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, and Jill Kroesen Perform the 1970s

Catherine Damman [Columbia University]
Twenty-Four-Month Chester Dale Fellow, 2016–2018


Laurie Anderson, As:If, Artists Space, April 25, 1974. Photograph by George Lörinczy a.k.a. Yuri. Image courtesy Artists Space

The 1970s are widely considered the decade of performance, years that saw both the formulation of the term and fierce debates about its precise definition. Championing this novel genre, critics and artists often sought to distinguish performance from both the conventions of theater and the formulas of commercial entertainment. The definition of performance that has since dominated art history ruled out narrative, script, characters, and pretending—all of the elements traditionally associated with theater. However, this understanding of performance relies on a caricature of the genre that excludes much of the work made in downtown New York City in the 1970s: performance art’s constitutive moment. My dissertation, completed during my year in residence at CASVA, is a critical study of this important but heretofore neglected history. In this project, I articulate neither a singular nor an ontological definition of performance but rather a genealogy of the term itself as it was defined, debated, and complexly manifested in the moment of its emergence.

Structured around case studies of pivotal works by Laurie Anderson (1947–), Julia Heyward (1949–), and Jill Kroesen (1949–), path-breaking figures in the downtown milieu, the project considers how artists melded narrative forms, theatrical devices, and charismatic onstage personae with biting social critique. Often challenging television, rock music, and advanced art alike, the performances at hand exemplify the period’s complicated matrix of “selling out” and “crossing over,” adding new dimensions to a long-standing conversation about the relationship between the avant-garde and mass culture. Beginning in the mid-1970s, mass culture was plumbed by a younger group of artists, the Pictures Generation, who borrowed or restaged images from an increasingly spectacular media culture to critique representation itself. As the curator of the 1977 exhibition Pictures at Artists Space, Douglas Crimp theorized that these artists had, in fact, “apprenticed in the field of performance.” In subsequent art-historical literature, this connection has been altogether ignored. Understood as an extension of happenings (Allan Kaprow’s reading of Jackson Pollock’s “action painting”) and minimalism (the viewer’s phenomenological encounter with the sculptural object), performance has been theorized primarily through bodily action and physical presence. My dissertation attends to the ways in which artists of the 1970s in fact mobilized the performing body as a site for exploring the limits of representation and cultural legibility. To do so, Anderson, Heyward, and Kroesen tactically employed narrative, though consideration of its importance has been jettisoned from both performance and art history of the period.

Contemporaneous with these artists’ performance work, the resurgence of narrative was also a major point of contention in the adjacent fields of film and literature. Film theory grappled with the increasing turn of avant-garde cinema—previously dominated by the formal and material concerns of structural film—toward narrative as a critical device within the genre known as the New Talkie. At the same time, a predominantly queer San Francisco Bay Area poetry scene coalesced around the writers Robert Glück and Bruce Boone under the title New Narrative. (Kathy Acker, a prominent author associated with this movement, was one of Kroesen’s friends and collaborators.) The related contexts of both filmmaking and poetry suggest that narrative strategies were understood as necessary for broader artistic reevaluations of subjectivity: the cinematic return to narrative was often localized around debates about feminism, while New Narrative poetry stemmed from the urgencies of telling stories about queer life (often the writer’s own). Coupling comparative and historical perspectives, I reconstruct the circumstances that fomented this “narrative turn,” which I demonstrate was not only integral to the development of performance over the course of the 1970s but also inflected art-making in the decades to follow.

Rather than constituting a total renunciation of theater, as has often been proposed, performance emerged in the 1970s, as I argue, in a complex dialectical relation with theater’s elements. For the artists represented in this dissertation, performance was fundamentally something to be staged—in the sense of contrived, falsified, or manipulated—an instability that productively engages the ways in which stage practices have long been maligned as sites of manipulation, trickery, and deceit.