Artists' Book

At times, the line between the critical and the cathartic gesture can become blurred. There is sometimes little to distinguish the self-consciously resistant or creative action from a ‘coping mechanism’ or some other form of involuntary survival strategy. Certain actions are wilfully staged whilst others are performed compulsively in order to simply get through the day, where they are used to create individual ‘meaning’ in otherwise meaningless situations. Imaginative projections and daydreaming arguably present one of the more viable options through which one can try to escape or subvert a given reality. Here, dreams of utopia might reflect the measure of an individual’s present dissatisfaction, frustration or discontent. Small acts of resistance are similarly a way through which to protest against increasingly controlled and legislated conditions of existence, where they function as slight or quiet performative acts of societal rebellion that – whilst predominantly impotent, ineffective or insignificant – still remind us that we have some agency and might not always need to wholly and passively acquiesce.

There are a host of artists, theorists and writers who have drawn attention to the nature of our various daily performances and non-performances; and have offered suggestions and invitations as to how we might perform every day (or perform the everyday) in a manner that is at times both resistant and empowering; both poetic and political. Michel de Certeau, in 'The Practice of Everyday Life' discusses a form of resistant consumption, suggesting that in practices such as reading, cooking, walking and even watching television, it is possible to actively and affirmatively produce new meanings and potentialities. He reflects on a form of subversive performativity that ‘makes do’ in any given situation by converting it and recasting its symbols according to another or individual logic. He discusses the way in which certain indigenous communities responded to the attempts of invading missionaries to convert them to their preferred religion and moral values. This was not through visible protest, he argues, but by invisibly continuing to practice their own rituals undercover through the re-inscription or reclamation of the symbols of the unfamiliar systems into which they were becoming indoctrinated. In 'Species of Places and Other Pieces', George Perec offers innumerable examples of strange and prosaic daily performances. He invites the pedestrian to 'find a route that would cross their city from one side to the other taking only streets beginning with the letter C'; or one that would enable them take all the buses possible across the city, or 'prepare a journey that would enable you to visit or pass through all the places that are 314.60 kilometers from your house'.

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies might be understood as prompts or triggers for everyday blockages or glitches in performativity; instructions for beating a creative block by offering a set of cards containing a phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock situation or dilemma. Other artists have used the instruction or invitation in a more ambiguous manner, where it is unclear whether they are to be actualized or imagined. Yoko Ono’s 1964 collection of instructions and drawings, entitled 'Grapefruit', might be described as “thought experiments, where even if a course of action is being suggested it seems more like an invitation to follow a train of thinking.”[i] This is exemplified in ‘Smell Piece I’, where Ono offers an invitation to, “Send the smell of the moon”. Other propositions, such as ‘Conversation Piece (or Crutch Piece)’, appear more like scripts that could be acted out: “Bandage any part of your body. If people ask about it, make a story and tell. If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell. If people forget about it, reminder them of it and keep telling.”[ii]

However, some of these various practices and ideas (and their capacity for playful resistance and the imaginative transformation of the everyday) have increasingly become absorbed and commodified by marketing agencies and corporate branding, where their subversive energies have been neutralised in order that they might be re-branded with more ‘mass appeal’. The pursuit of alternative ways of living and a form of legitimised dissension have been re-packaged and sold as a lifestyle choice, where we are in fact encouraged to find authorised ways of (star)bucking the system. I suppose I am interested in (and somewhat concerned) how the language and apparatus of certain performance and literary practices have the potential to become absorbed and mainstreamed in this sense. There is, perhaps, a strange proximity between the critical and poetic invitations in certain artists’ work and the language of contemporary off-the-shelf self-help manuals, for example. Instructions, provocations and guidelines for daily performances appear to have been swallowed and regurgitated in the form of those ‘little books’ of affirmations you might find on the counter at Waterstones, amongst other similarly benign gift ideas. In different ways they instruct us to reclaim control of our lives, by urging us to ‘decontaminate your mind … open a dictionary and learn a new word … perform karaoke … jump in a puddle … make yourself laugh … go out and play … just say no … smile all day at everyone … send a letter to yourself … go a whole day without speaking … make time.’[iii]

These sketches of ideas, histories and practices came to mind on encountering the artists’ book, Perform Every Day by Joshua Sofaer. I mention them in order to highlight the tensions and contradictions forming part of the context for any contemporary book that advocates the value of ‘everyday performance’. Joshua Sofaer is a live artist who produces cultural events that operate at the interstice between contemporary performance practices and popular culture. His new book, Perform Every Day seeks to establish a relationship between everyday actions and performance, by encouraging us to go about our daily routine, as if it were a work of art.

The book is divided into four sections, where each has 33 numbered entries or notes that correspond to the number of years that the artist has been alive. The first section presents a series of photographic images of objects and individuals recorded in the ‘neutral’ context of a studio set-up. The nature of the images look a little like stock shots produced for slide libraries, in that they are rather open or desirably ambiguous and could be used to conjure a whole range of ideas. We encounter (sometimes more than once) objects including a faded birth certificate; a bottle of unnamed and yet suspiciously familiar pale yellow fluid; two hugging crustaceans; a clock locked forever recording 7.26; an arrangement of globes in different stages of deflation. We witness different individuals engaged in different actions with different props. Someone is caught framing a body part, another with frozen tears. The next section includes 33 instructions or invitations that seem to offer encouragement for a series of small performances that attempt to create a glitch or shift in the way that daily patterns of behaviour are performed. Classification systems are suggested as the means to re-organise the day-to-day confusion that we habitually inhabit; fictional scenarios present the possibility of invigorating stale routines; tips are given for introducing moments of unexpected intimacy with strangers.

The third section takes an anecdotal turn, where each numbered entry corresponds to a story that in a barely concealed fashion appears to relate – one page at a time – to a particular year of the artist’s life. It is difficult not to tend towards a psychoanalytically inflected reading of these pages, due to the recurring tales of stuff put in the mouth; various moments bodily exposure; occasions of love and rejection; scab picking and a curious and rather oedipal confession on the final entry. Finally, the last section of the book appears as a set of endnotes, a loose and partial collection of further reading ranging from specific artists’ work to films, books, critical essays, websites and performances. There is clearly a play on the spectrum of referencing which ranges from the popular (Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat: Pleasure and Principles of Good Food) through to various seminal essays around performance, performativity and the everyday (by Judith Butler, Michael Kirkby, Georges Perec).

The format of this numerical ordering repeated across the four sections is presumably meant to encourage the reader to cross-reference the various entries, which does indeed bring some interesting moments of collision and comparison. Number Six enables the auspicious alignment of a crumpled pillow, an invitation towards insomnia and Marcel Proust’s ‘A la recherché du temps perdu’. Number Two is allowed to maximise on its status as a toilet-related euphemism but conjures a series of urine related (rather than scatological) references. There is a nice meeting point where the artist On Kawara shares space with the 1980s film, Back to the Future. However too often, there is not enough friction or playful association produced by the gesture of cross-referencing. Sometimes the connections are perhaps a little predictable, the instructions not especially arresting. The repetition does not so much allow for collisions of meanings and associations, as the feeling that something has been said once, said again, and then said another two times. The same idea thus becomes played out as an image, an instruction, anecdotally, and – if you still haven’t had enough – can also be followed up through the suggested wider contextual references. Unlike some of the practices discussed earlier – which were successful in part for their exquisite economy of articulation – here the various calls to performance begin to take on an insistency equivalent to a flight manual’s diagrammatic instruction, where the instruction is given pictorially and in as many language variants as is physically possible. This repetition of an idea or suggested performance in fact leaves little space for the imagination of the reader/viewer. The possibility for the reader to imagine acting out the instruction or request is overridden by the recourse to imagery or by Sofaer’s own confessions and anecdotes, which contextualise the specific instruction in relation to an existing event, whether fictionalised or not. These ‘specifics’ anchor the instruction to a particular individual, time and place.

The book, Perform Every Day, increasingly made me think about the difference between instructions and invitations, between obligations and provocations, and about the difference between telling someone to act and asking them to imagine. Instructions can be nurturing or protective; pedagogical or didactic; authoritative or legislative. Too often there is a sense that they are offered by a ‘knowing’ authority where they are seen as something you should do for your own good (thus containing both a sense of threat and promise). I guess that the ‘invitation’ is hopeful rather than assured. Rather than abandoning responsibility by being told what to do, the possibility of acceptance or rejection reaffirms a sense of individual agency by allowing the individual to choose whether, in fact, they are interested or perceive any value in the experience being offered. The invitation that is to be imaginatively performed is particularly resonant because there is never any real way of truly telling whether (and how) it has been realised.

There were moments when the book felt as though it were slipping towards a form of pedagogical instruction or even an introduction to key ideas, rather than an original investigation or challenging addition to this increasingly expanding field of practice. Perhaps this was to do with the nature of the commission itself, which was based on a connection made between the artist and commissioners at an engage conference (the national association of gallery education). Perhaps the intention was for the book to have some kind of educational application? In many senses the book would function very well as a primer or introductory set of ‘exercises’ and thoughts relating to the creative potential of performing every day (and performing the everyday), for an audience who are not familiar with this form of live and performance art, or who wish to explore for the first time their own creative potential as self-conscious ‘performers’ in the world rather than passively manipulated marionettes. However, the potential success of the publication as an educational resource, perhaps limits its success as an artists’ book.

[i] Mike Sperlinger, ‘Orders! Conceptual Art’s Imperatives’, in Afterthought new writing on contemporary art, (Rachmaninoff, 2005), p.9

[ii] All instruction pieces by Ono are from Yoko Ono, Grapefruit, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000), unpaginated.

[iii] These are suggestions taken from Jane Scrivner, The Little Book of Detox – easy ways to cleanse, revitalise and energise!, (Piatkus Publishers, 1999)