Causing Problems: Punk and Performance in the Eighties (A Guest Post by Megan Hoetger)

Geza X at The Masque. Photo: Michael Yampolsky.

I am not usually a nostalgic person. When people start to reminisce about the past I roll my eyes, thinking about how their “memory” of that time is being formed in the here and now―a combination of what he/she chose to remember (individual memory), what circulates in the media about that time (cultural memory), and what the individual’s brain is interpolating from those sources in the present (which usually, especially in the case of punk, is about recalling the better, purer days of yesteryear). It is not this process that causes me to roll my eyes, but the belief that these memories somehow constitute fact, that they are not the individual’s subjective response to a time and place from which they are now (whether they lived it through or not) separated, but, rather, a telling of how it was. This seeming refusal to acknowledge the active nature of memory is what I believe feeds the persistent return of a “having-been-thereness” approach to the field of performance itself.

That said, I must say that I do enjoy remembering punk. Coming of age in the post-grunge years amongst a group of individuals that had taken up a gutter punk lifestyle, traveling a kind of circuit throughout several of Los Angeles’s working class neighborhoods in the mid-1990s, my relation to punk was always already mediated by historical time. It is then not so much a nostalgia for “punk” that I have as much as an enjoyment in remembering the ethos of “causing problems,” which punk inspired in a youth generation tired of the utopian (and in my opinion latently essentialist) rhetoric of the hippie days, and which subsequently inspired me. “Causing problems” here refers to the energy of punk, which disrupted social space in its appropriation and re-signification of commodities, including objects and ideologies, for the purpose of violently exposing the seams―the breaks, ruptures, and failures―in a purportedly seamless dominant culture. The exemplary object being here, of course, the safety pin.

The Screamers

Unable to be contained by what theorist Dick Hebdige has described as the “process of recuperation,” punk caused problems in the streets then. Today, punk has been brought safely back into the fold of dominant mythology thanks to, among other things, the rags-to-riches success stories of a few individuals, which reinforced the rhetoric of upward mobility and “open” society that the movement had originally contradicted, and the “Paul Frank-ing” of the punk style now sold in Hot Topics and Forever 21s across the nation. As a historical movement/moment, however, punk is still causing problems, particularly in its overlaps with art and performance (it may do us well to think about the performativity of punk itself and the ways in which it drew on the theatricality of subcultures determined to be deviant, such as S/M). Consequently, figures like Johanna Went, Stephen Holman, or Jon Reiss (whose work with Target Video was included in the monumental California Video exhibition at the Getty Center in 2008), as well as collectives such as Survival Research Laboratories, among many others, continue to be missing from surveys of art and performance of the period.

Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Implements of Love, 1981/2011. Courtesy of Western Project.

I noticed this in 2008 while curating Un-figuring the Body, an exhibition of Los Angeles-based artists who work in performance (the show included works by Johanna Went, Skip Arnold, and younger generation artist Dawn Kasper). While the strong connection to the Los Angeles punk scene fell into only a footnote in that exhibition, I maintained my interest in the relationship between the two. For this reason, I was delighted to see more exhibitions on the subject appearing recently, including Vicious Circle: Dark Performative Works from the 1980s at Young Projects in 2010, which focused on the performances of Skip Arnold, Survival Research Laboratories, and Johanna Went through the lens of video, and Western Project’s exhibition of objects (installations, sculptures, and drawings) from Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Kim Jones, and Johanna Went earlier this year.

Johanna Went, Alchemy of Monsters, 1991

It is not just the work of these particular artists that deserves critical reconsideration, but the approach to artmaking that was born out of the punk ethos, with its Romantic irrationalism, embrace of the grotesque body, exploration of surrealist extremes, and deployment of aggressive expressionist tendencies. These elements, together with the dark and gritty West Coast pop assemblage tradition, excessively and indiscriminately mixed within the widely varied practices that emerged from the Los Angeles punk scene in the late 1970s and 80s. The difficulty here is to think structurally about the practices in order to identify meaningful continuities, which is difficult in the face of their often spectacular stage presences.

Kim Jones, Untitled, 2008.
Courtesy of Western Project.

The horrific dreamscapes concocted of over-the-top costumes, found materials, and speech without language created by Johanna Went are very different from the almost documentary-like video work—part clinical, part foreplay—by Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, which are equally distinct from the concerns around the body-in-representation at play in much of Skip Arnold’s work. They surely do not look the same, but what each of the practices share is a move away from the normative cues of culture by way of endurance-based works, which emphasize the permeability, fluidity, and vulnerability of the body as an, at times, uncontrollable mass of bulges and protuberances, openings and orifices. The body, in other words, as grotesque, as a series of highly sexualized, fragmented parts both incapable and unwilling to maintain the unity promised by the classical body, whose control had been eroding since WWI and reached its critical mass when the destruction, de-centeredness and breakdown of consensus that followed WWII met with a burgeoning youth culture. Even so, the classical body continued to be upheld as the (physical, mental, moral) ideal in dominant culture throughout the 1980s under the conservatism that took hold in neo-liberal nations at the time.

Skip Arnold, Closet Corner, 1987

This past April, video curator Paul Young organized a panel discussion to complement the Vicious Circle exhibition he had put together at his space in 2010. Held at California State University, Long Beach as part of its Visiting Artists series, the panel included artists Skip Arnold, Stephen Holman, and Sheree Rose, along with musician and Johanna Went collaborator Mark Wheaton. In his introduction, Young remarked: “Punk rock taught all of us to question everything, to embrace all that is difficult and unacceptable to the mainstream, and it taught us that you can be utterly ridiculous and deadly serious at the same time. It was excessive, and it reflected in a very oppositional sense, the sociopolitical excess that defined Thatcherism and Reagan’s America.”

Darby Crash

Young’s work to bring attention to this period deserves much praise, but I am nonetheless highly suspicious of the transcendence-through-transgression model on which he relies in his contextual positioning of the works—a model, I would point out, he is not alone in articulating. While such a model is tempting, it not only assumes that by identifying boundaries we can somehow rise above them, but it points to the limits of analysis. As Hal Foster has described in articles such as “Cult of Despair” and “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,” if the object in question is engendered through the artist’s personal transcendence (or their own deeply personal experience), it leaves little room for critical and historical reflection.

What if, as Hebdige has done, we take such works and the context of punk from which they emerged to represent noise within an orderly sequence of sound? Imagine that we “take the signifying power of the spectacular subculture not only as a metaphor of potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation.” (Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, 90) Through this lens we can perhaps come to understand the politic of transgression, which performance practices, developed under punk during the 1980s, mapped onto the body, foregrounding the volatility (rather than stability) of the ideological codes from which dominant culture is formed. This volatility is also what makes the art that emerged from the movement all the more difficult historically, since it denies any singular or stable message in favor of a field of contradictory positions (held in many cases simultaneously). A traditional search for meaning, then, must be replaced with a sifting through of meanings; contradiction (seams) must be embraced rather than reconciled (made seamless); and “causing problems” must become structurally integrated into the act of writing its histories.

An early Marnie Weber performance

In the meantime, though, I will settle for an engagement of those multiple practices that emerged from the punk movement. In programming such as the recent Queering Sex project at Human Resources—which included video works from artists who emerged from this moment, such as Skip Arnold, Marnie Weber, and Bruce La Bruce to name only a few—as well as the aforementioned exhibitions at Young Projects and Western Project, Los Angeles seems to be re-embracing its punk past.

Stephen Holman with Johanna Went, Tourism Without Tears, Track 16 Gallery, 2006

I would, however, point out that in the Getty’s monumental undertaking, Pacific Standard Time, which gave nearly 3.1 million dollars to 26 art institutions around Southern California (from Santa Barbara to San Diego and inland to Palm Springs) and launches this fall, there is not one single exhibition devoted to exploring the relation between Los Angeles’s punk scene and its art scene, which extends, contrary to what I have heard from some, back into the 1970s. (While it is present in LACE’s Los Angeles Goes Live project, it is by no means emphasized.) Instead, punk appears as a Saturday night event with some old punk bands performing, while the visual art practices generated from within this cultural movement are missing. I can only hope that someone has already taken notice of this gap and is planning a satellite show to fill this glaring omission.

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