Wednesday night, I attended Steven Cohen’s presentation of film works at CPR in Williamsburg. During one of the brief discussion breaks—led by a becostumed Cohen—one audience member prefaced his question by stating that “the audience inevitably becomes part of your work.” The assumption went unchallenged.
It struck a particularly live chord for me, as throughout that evening, I had been wrestling with this question: To what extent are the unsuspecting people in Cohen’s film documentations a part of the work? For me, it is not a closed case.
The co-existence and co-contextuality of Cohen and the people his performance reaches—generally a live, public, and incidental (if targeted) audience—is certainly integral to the constitution of his work. The two cannot be entirely separated.
But I am suspicious about just how readily Cohen and many others transmute real live autonomous human beings into works of art, which is what we do when we say that an audience “becomes part of the art”; we have circumscribed the audience within the material boundary of the art; we have taken away their autonomy and their will.
Cohen’s work, like the work of certain other artists creating work today (and also like the work of many artists over the last handful of decades), blurs the conservative separation of performer and audience. But while blurring may occur—and I’m starting to understand most definitions as blurred lines, rather than crisp lines—I don’t know that it’s actually ever possible to erase that line.
For me, performance must always be consensual. Absolutely. No question.
It is interesting that in the beginning of the first film Cohen showed, he includes documentary images of Jews in Nazi-era Vienna who were forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes before crowds of jeering onlookers. This presents us immediately with—well, above all else, a morally reprehensible action, but also—a precise illustration of what performance cannot be. Continue reading