Julianna Barabas - Artist, Speaker, Educator, Change Catalyst

Between the Lines - why now?

When I embarked on the original performance series of seamline, I had every intention of presenting a document for all those who could not attend the original. As you will read below, I found out very quickly that I was going to need to schedule out how and when that would happen, or risk burnout. I tried at years 5 and 10 and was about to try at 15 but then.... Pandy. 

The following two presentations mark some pivotal moments in the journey since the original series ended. I hope you find what you need in the words, the images or the audio. 


December 2004

Written for Elizabeth Mackenzie

Feminism, Gender and Culture Studies


The Amenable Object and Performance Life-as-Feminism


Feminism attempts to break down the borders of what constitutes art theory. Feminism attempts to break down the borders of any subject it is applied to because of the times in which we live, in which the dominant paradigm remains male, white, educated and for the most part, middle class. While I have for years identified as pro-feminist, it is only recently that I have allowed the use of the term to be related directly to my work. It turns out that feminism also had to break some of my own borders in order for me to understand how it applies to my life and times. My former reluctance stemmed in part from a disconnect between my understanding of feminist theory and what I viewed to be my place in the world. The old adages of the man hating feminist and stuffy academics had been tainting my view of the theory, and it was not until a more comprehensive exploration of feminist theory that I was able to gain some perspective on where feminism fits in my life. One of the most valuable tools that I have come across in these explorations is Jeanne Randolph's theory of the amenable object. With it, she turns the tables on the relationship of art theory to psychoanalysis (an often used tool in art academia), citing psychoanalysis as a subcategory of art rather than the other way around (Randolph 21). In relation to this reversal I now find myself far from reluctant in applying feminist theory to my work - rather I am embracing it as I explore both my own work and the work of one of my influences, Linda Montano. However, as a relatively new genre, performance work often slips between the descriptors used in art theory. Even the use of the term object becomes problematic when the work in question is live and not what would be traditionally viewed as an object. Further challenging the theory is the very nature of Montana's work - having declared her whole life as an artwork where not a second is wasted (Grey 780). What follows is a playful breakdown of the five characteristics of the amenable object, how they relate and interact with montano's performance works, and observations from my own practice in relation to both.



5 characteristics of the Amenable Object:


1. It is both a found object and a symbol of the artist's experience.

How, then, does the concept of the amenable object as a tool of art criticism relate to performance art (particularly when the art in question is a lifetime)? The idea of performance art resembling the found object is not new; in his description of Montano's work Theodore Shank stated "These living events are framed by the viewer by being removed from their usual context. As a result life - like found art - is transformed into an object for perception" (43-44). Kristine Styles also makes allusions to the Dechampion nature of performance and its use of the ready-made action of everyday life in an altered setting (Stiles 487). However, thinking of life as an object requires extensive mental gymnastics. Can experience constitute an object?


Rather than be tongue tied by the logistics of rationalizing experiential performance into an art object, I will employ Randolph's own method by injecting my experiences and perceptions into the theory of the amenable object. Consider, then, that the art object is not only an object but any moment that has been agreed upon as art, be that performance, theory, teaching, the sharing of food, living, birthing or dying. In her extensive exploration of life as art, Montano has employed most if not all of these aspects of life, reframed as performance. She takes the found 'actions' of her life and transforms them as well as the architecture of her life in a semiotic summersault, going so far as to name her home as 'museum'. Be it 14 years of chakra explorations or 3 days handcuffed to a friend, she reformulates her life into an experience we can share and access for incorporate into our own reality. With the physical boundaries of 'object' thus relaxed, performance and life fits this first characteristic more comfortably.


I first found my object sitting in the Arts Club Lounge listening to a young man slowly implode over the loss of his job in forestry. He had been working in logging camps from the age of 16 (he looked to be in his thirties) and he had no idea what he would do now that his job (life) was over. The group of us tried talking to him about the other aspects of his life - hoping. There was something else to which he could turn his focus.There was, of course - there always is a dream - he loved scuba diving. He was, in fact, passionate about it, but equally vehement that he could not make a living from it and was thus despondent. In the wake of this ongoing conversation, someone at my table picked up a pen and started to doodle on my hand. He traced the inside of all the fingers on my left hand, starting and ending on either side of my wrist. It was striking, simple and concurrently pleasing and disturbing. We agreed that the launch should keep going. "A tattoo!" I said, and we laughed. At first, we laughed, but as the afternoon wore on I realized that the line had a resonance - it felt as though something had been revealed rather than placed on my skin.What would a tattoo like that look like, we speculated. Like a seam, I said, it would look like a seam because that is what it would symbolize - my seam. Like the logger about to mutate into a deep sea diver, I, too, had gone through many chameleonic changes in my life, and knew that experience would continue.


2. It does not disavow the real world come up but belongs to the experience of relating to the real world.


Life and performance thus defined as an object and a symbol of the artist's experience of the world must also relate to the real world. While there are performances that perhaps have disavowed the real world, it would be ridiculous to suggest life as art was amongst them. Far from it, by definition, the real world is repositioned in relation to art in much the same way that Randolph repositions psychoanalytic theory to art. Rather than viewing art as a subcategory of life, Montana has reversed the flow. Her position is that life and all of its bumps, scrapes and bruises along with elations, revelations and silences are a subcategory of art. When she revived her performance 'Blindfolded Art Rest' for the Western Front this fall, she did so by recontextualizing it to the circumstances of her present day life. By sharing stories of her role as a caretaker to her ailing an aging father, she allowed each of the participants to think of ways in their own lives that they were caretakers… we then proceeded to send our caretakers on a holiday while we sat blindfolded, laughing, growling or silencing these aspects of our personalities into tertiary positions, if only momentarily. Andrea Juno summarizes the phenomena well by stating that for Montana "Attitude, intent and awareness are what transforms 'life' into 'art'. It is a terminal assault on art as commodity, and redefines art as a vigilant state of mind" (Juno 50).


I have always asserted that seamline has no end as a performance for me - and in context of an excavated component of who I am,it had no beginning other than as an esthetic addition to my skin. At the beginning of the tattooing series of performances, many questions why I was making this aspect public. Instinctively, I knew that I had to prepare myself for a lifetime of conversation and interaction around the concept of the line, and thus needed the experience of shared ritual to set this stage for what was to come. What I was not prepared for was the exhaustion that was to follow the ritual. It was this question that I took with me into my experience of Montano's work. What does it mean when your entire life is an artwork? Where is there downtime? How does the artist recharge?


3. It can, or has the potential to, extend perceptual capacities, skips precedent for the sake of more intense or extensive perception or envisions other potential realities.


Once the paradigm of what constitutes art has shifted into an experiential reference to a mental state, the potential for such art to change our perceptions of reality as essentially boundless. This third characteristic of the amenable object is synonymous with performance art. The revelations that result may not always be grandiose. In my own experience of Montano's work, it was the exquisite relief of laughing for 45 minutes straight that allowed me to achieve a state of mind that had recently invaded me -to be able to laugh at myself. The simplicity of the action, rather than expiring in boredom, created a space which allowed my perceptions to shimmy out of the patterns which exhaustion and overwork had carved into my psyche. As for my fear of the relentless task that I had laid out for myself, that has been eased by Linda's own musings about her practice "I had just been on the David Ross show at the LA Art convention.I was bold, talkative, funny… Dr. Jane Gooding. The next day, Suzanne Lacey asked me to do something at the Women's Building.I think they were giving a circus. It was upstairs and festive. I was downstairs and feeling somewhat foolish… I couldn't always be Dr. Jane Gooding"(FAT 363-364). Somehow it was not until I reflected on my experience of her work that all that I had read about life-as-art permeated my own stubborn fears. When painting, drawing, or making films, mistakes can be made and erased, painted or recorded over, discarded as learning experiences that might never see public viewing. In life-as-art, the luxury of discarding the unwanted, less than perfect work becomes impossible.The human foible of expecting perfection in our work (and lives) must be relinquished in favour of a willingness to experience the more difficult aspects of our existence with commensurate attention and forgiveness shown to the more palatable moments. In this way life-as-art is a poignant example of performance art's ability to express the social power of art in spite of our own cynicism (Stiles, Quicksilver, 480).


I often do not get to choose when or how people will interact with my showing of seamline - on days when I think everyone will notice and comment, no one does, and vice versa.I take reassurance in the unpredictability of these interactions that I am taking art out of the context of the gallery and bringing my world of art to those around me. As a woman who has struggled with weight issues, body image, the frustration of being judged based on appearance, I welcome the opportunity to offer an alternative approach - that we recognize our bodies as temporary imperfect vessels of the essence of who we are. Sometimes people understand this from the work immediately, most often they do not. One group of women that surprised me with their continued support was the East Van punk dyke crowd. Tough, proud, and for the most part far removed from art theory academics, these women visited and revisited the work. Perhaps the marginal aspect of public disabilities of pain was the draw but unlikely as a novelty this could be found in many other places in Vancouver. I suspect it had more to do with the questions of identity, community and the expression of marginal experience.


4. It has the capacity to sustain a response that is unsettling or thrilling.It is the absence of a solution, the absence of resolution that is significant.


Reactions to performance work are often marked with emotion; the displaced actions are seen as abject. Like Betterton’s single hair as a golden strand or impetus to gag when seen and food, people being asked to sit blindfolded in a room in laugh, or witnessing a tattoo may find themselves squirming, unsure and challenged by the actions in which they witness or participate. (Betterton, 139). The reluctance of some of my classmates to actively join in a classroom version of blindfolded art rest speaks to its unless settling aspect - and fairly so. There is a risk involved when our senses are taken away, or we are asked to witness or view an action which will cause pain, or even the idea of pain in the artist or the audience. Performance, and life-as-art, again proves to be an excellent fit in this regard. Life rarely offers solutions to the moments of discomfort we endure; in life-as-art as well as life it is left up to the participants to discern what will make the situation bearable for them.


An unexpected response to my delineating my body shell by excavating my seam was the licence and agency it seemingly granted strangers to touch my body. People I do not know, or hardly know, will slowly run their fingers down my arm, tracing the line.The act is usually deliberate and measured, and as such antithetical to usual physical contact with a stranger. I found myself becoming extremely conscious of what was covered or not covered on my body, particularly in the summer when the potential for large portions of viewable line are quite high. Experience led me to abandon the examination, as the benefits of contacts often outweigh any risks. The conversations that result from these extended viewings are tremendously educational. One woman in a wheelchair admitted to having great anxiety over the marking of an unscarred body for the sake of an artwork. I have not yet developed my language around the work to highlight these moments as far as I would prefer, but conversely do not anticipate the process will ever be complete - as society consumes the ideas I put forth, it's interactions with my work and my body will change…


5. It retains the ambiguous elements which allow leeway for the viewer's impulse to play with the illusion created. (Randolph 31-33)


The last of the characteristics of the amenable object, that which allows space for the viewer to interpret the work as one which on first inspection has the most friction with Montana's work. Spirituality is extremely taboo not only in art making and art culture, but also in academic thought. The separation of intellect and emotion that characterizes the modern human marks our attempts at recognizing the two by way of spiritual art as vexatious. Perhaps the besetment of marketing in this hyper consumer global economy has linked our collective exasperation at being constantly hawked or polled to the increasingly evangelical nature of organized religions. Regardless of the cause, Montano's references to spirituality and religion might at first seem to dictate the response of her viewers and participants. Some might not get past the religious trappings that sometimes accompany her work, however as noted by a New York Times reporter "As playful as the performance seemed, the humour was really a way to cajole the audience into listening to her esoteric lecture on the relationship between music, the body and the spirit (Holden, C12). Montano is minimal in her approach; this minimalism allows us to take what we want from the work.The use of laughter also creates a gap, a moment for the viewer to sit back and ponder their position to the work. The juxtaposition of Muslim, Hindi, Catholic and Jewish symbols in the Lux Theatre during the Blindfolded Art Rest alluded to an exclusiveness that would allow for variation in interpretation. Rather than dictating our responses, Montano invites a response to her own life which she then conversely incorporates into her own practice.


The sting of a tattoo needle is painful; I knew this, my body knew this, because I have a tattoo that was done many years prior to the beginning of seamline. Numerous people prior and since seamline started have told me how I brave I am for doing this work. For some, it refers to the endurance of pain. For others, it is a recognition of living with a permanently visible mark that has the potential to alienate me from some circles. The aspect of amplification of experience, however, is what I feel courageous for facing. If the needle stings when I am alone with the experience, it digs trenches when there are 50 people watching it happen. It is a feedback loop of energy that takes the sensations and heightens them to a point where the physicality is unrecognizable from the original sensation. As the performances continued, I became less dramatic in my expression of that loop, however. I learned to connect with my witnesses, through their gaze and by allowing through silence and facial expression to communicate through gesture, energetically. Sometimes the witnesses would try to distract me from the pain - one woman donned a clown nose while my neck was being tattooed. The laughter proved cathartic for everyone.The final performance proved to the most effective at incorporating the energy of those around me into the performance.I was the most silent, vocalizing only laughter, and allowing their experience to be also my experience of the peice. In essence, they were performing as much as I was.


The twists and turns with which performance art regales both theory and audience could arguably make it a penultimate expression of not only the amenable object, but of feminist theory. Like the amendment of an object, and feminism, my work and the work of Montano seeks to break down borders - between life and art, between audience and artist, between what constitutes good and bad in our lives. Acceptance of theory as a relevant, vital and intuitive part of my practice has led to the same scopic sensation I used to experience when stargazing as a kid; understanding for even a moment the chaotic 'connectedness' of the universe might ultimately be what feminism is really about.


On a permeable seamline: talking about the politics of care

for PSI 15 , July 2009 - Zagreb, Croatia 

written and presented by Julianna Barabas and christine stoddard




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