Performing with Personae: Entrée into Psychology and Politics
by Margaret Dragu (aka Lady Justice)
When a performance artist creates a persona or alter-ego it is very similar to having an imaginary friend as a child.
Psychologists used to describe children’s need for imaginary companions as a narcissistic self-absorption of unrealistic fantasies that should or must disappear by the age of six. Lately, the ability to create an invisible friend is more highly valued. Professor Marjorie Taylor, University of Oregon, thinks invisible companions help children solve problems (ie. Skip is scared of the monster under the bed!), shift blame (ie. Princess Pammy broke the lamp!!), or find a safe/secret way to communicate (ie. Captain Jay really really doesn’t want Uncle Ralph to baby sit!!!). Professor Paul Harris, Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes alter-egos aid children in “trying out alternate viewpoints, probing causal sequences, revising interpretations of changing situations—honing the capacity to take others’ perspectives”. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch, London School of Economics, says that an ability to imagine things and beings that don’t physically exist means humans have access to a form of social interaction unavailable to any other creatures on the planet. We can use what Bloch calls the “transcendental social” to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the Dead.
Shawna Dempsey (aka Talking Vulva, Lesbian Ranger) believes that her various personae “…let me do things that I can’t/won’t/am not comfortable doing. They are me but also larger than me. More exaggerated, stronger.” Anita James (aka Backlashie & Sugar Mendhi) calls her personae “freeing and powerful … they can crystallize, capture, and communicate a larger meaning”. Christine Stoddard (aka Lady of Manchester) explains, “When I perform I may well take on a character, put on some clothes I wouldn’t “normally” wear, but when I’m in it I never think of it as someone other than me. Just a staged version of me. I like the possibilities to be otherwise that a costume can offer… like a little worm hole into other parts of the self. A way to legitimate those other selves that in everyday dress don’t have the habit of appearing. I think I would struggle with being other on a regular basis but then again am I ever really myself? We are all, in a way, constantly becoming other, becoming different. Names, egos, costumes can be ways of harnessing specific potentials that slip by, disappearing in their constant shifting emergence.” David Khang (aka Private DYK & Dr. Decay) says his alter-egos as soldier and mad dentist/monk calligrapher begin with “… some small biographical node, then expands with research, becoming a hyperbole of the original.”
A slightly twisted version of the imaginary friend is the syndrome of subjective doubles in which a person suffers from the HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusion” \o “Delusion” delusion that he/she has a HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doppelganger” \o “Doppelganger” doppelganger with the same appearance but usually different character traits, leading a life of its own, and sometimes operating as a harbinger of death. Perhaps Janieta Eyre is tapping into doppelganger lore when she constructs photographs of “double self-portraits” as if she had a twin. Janieta Eyre and her “twin” inhabit images that are beautiful, schizophrenic and disturbing.
Artists show their alter-egos in the photo frame because it reveals and hides. Cindy Sherman explained to the New York Times in 1990, “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.” Yet Man Ray’s portraits of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy reveal that androgyny, gender play and performativity have a very deep history inside the portrait frame. Carol Sawyer (aka Natalie Brettschnieder) created such a real persona that I frequently cited Brettschnieder as a historic Canadian performance artist before I found out she was really Carol Sawyer who says, “The clues to Brettschnieder’s fictional nature are there to be found but she is believable too — I am interested in the desire to believe but I don’t set out to lie, really. I link her story to other women active in the avant-garde between the wars. She is the disgruntled muse rising up for all misunderstood and appropriated female artists. The unknown soldier of performance art.”
Sawyer’s brilliant con-artistry is heroic because she re-claims lost female power through re-creating history. No wonder artists (through their kinship to a child’s need to create imaginary companions) have created so many superheroes, crusaders, animas, spirit guides, bande dessines, personalities and personae. Adrian Stimson (aka Buffalo Boy) reclaims history, subverts Hollywood through his parody of Little Big Man, and even wears wings into the after life. Morgan Sea Thompson (aka low-budget superhero Citizen Justice) is an endurance/intervention artist concerned with the environment, overcoming mass-media manipulation and making crafts out of garbage. Artists all over the world create persona/alter-egos and bring them to art galleries, books, videos, salons, site-specific venues, the street, nightclubs …
The frame e-x-p-a-n-d-s when artists enter television, radio, web-internet, and other technologies. Artists jump into these frames as pranksters, social animators, politicians and culture jammers. Christo & Jeanne-Claude work with governments, volunteers and media to build urban and rural environment sculptures (ie. wrapping Le Pont Neuf ’75-‘85, Reichstag ’71-‘95, & making a running fence in Califronia ’72-‘76). Suzanne Lacey (In Mourning and In Rage, 1977) made socially engaged performance for the media at Los Angeles City Hall as a feminist response to The Hillside Strangler and all violence against women. The tongue-in-cheek press conferences by General Idea & Guerrilla Girls in the ‘70’s – ‘80’s gave way to Servin/Vamos (aka Yes Men) who are culture-jamming activists practicing what they call “identity correction” by pretending to be powerful people and spokespersons for prominent organizations. They create and maintain fake websites similar to ones they want to spoof, and then they accept invitations received on their websites to appear at conferences, symposia, and TV shows.
Possibly the most public venue an artist can choose is to run for political office. In 1974, Vincent Trasov and John Mitchell designed/performed the ”Mr. Peanut for Mayor” campaign in Vancouver’s civic election. In 1982, The Hummer Sisters of Video Cabaret ran the ART Versus Art campaign to run for Mayor of Toronto. Whilst Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys ran for mayor of San Francisco, Pat Paulsen of Smothers Brothers TV show ran for president of the USA, and Cicciolina (spouse to Jeff Koons) was actually elected to the Italian parliament, I think the most persistent artist-intervening-in-the- political-arena is Lowell Darling. After a decade of environmental and media art actions (ie. sewing up the St. Andreas Fault and performing public acupuncture to cure heroin addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown East side), Darling ran for California governor in 1978. At present, he is not only running for president of USA but is encouraging all citizens of the world to run as well. Darling told Robert Atkins of Carnegie Mellon’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry,
“Conceptual art or whatever you want to call it is like alchemy. One of my kids recently asked why I wanted to run [for President] and I said that ideas become the ingredients that you need to create something out of nothing. I also used to say that to understand a problem, one had to become part of it. With a presidential run, there’s the danger of being consumed by the problem. When I ran for governor, I created a political portrait in reality. This time, I feel more like the paint than the painter. If America wants to be the artist that creates its President, we have to regain control of the materials. I’m running the art supply store and I’m waiting for people to come in and commission themselves to create a piece.”
Artists have been dressing up in funny costumes since Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. And artists have re-created or paid homage to these and other seminal performances as a place to respond and develop performance aesthetic. Cindy Baker (aka Cindy Baker) furthers performance art’s exploration in this area by travelling across the country in a professional mascot costume – as Cindy Baker. Cindy says, “By beoming a caricature of Cindy Baker, I nurture the myth of the character of that person/persona that I constantly examine and toy with through my own practice. By becoming Cindy Baker, I discover and unpack what makes me me – or, more accurately, what makes me appear to be me.”
Perhaps in some way Cindy Baker is creating her own imaginary and very best friend? This is an example of a rigorous imagination. Surely imagination is the key to art practice and political/spiritual change.
I am reminded of Professor Paul Harris’s observation after working with autistic children that
“if you look at children with autism and see how restricted their imagination is, you are forced to the conclusion that imagination is probably something that we can’t do without, and not something that we need to overcome.”