Beyond Any Constriction of Space & Time
A Dialogue about performance between Mike Parr and Eugenio Viola
Eugenio Viola: Dear Mike, you are a self-taught artist, and you repeatedly affirmed that you hardly had any exposure to art growing up, despite your mother being an artist. It is quite interesting, because you became one of the most respected, yet controversial Australian artists, and your sister, Julie Rrap, is an artist as well. How happened your encounter with art?
MP: My mother had studied art but in our family my father was the dominant figure and my mother’s drawings & paintings were a kind of hidden activity which would suddenly burst out when he disappeared on his long trips. None of the family really understood what these trips were about. I think the sudden eruption of my mother’s painting & drawing were as mysterious as my father’s disappearances. This art of disappearance must have resonated for a boy with a missing left arm and identifying with my mother I became very interested in an activity that my father proscribed as irrational & meaningless, because I felt early that my disability was a source of great unspoken grief for my father. My mother never discussed her drawing & painting. She had no intellectual opinions about art. Her mother had also painted as an amateur, so art for my mother seemed to be a way of affirming the deep continuity of memory. This artesian, transmissible aspect of art has always interested me. I also needed to make sense of my own difference. It needed to be situated in a way that worked for me, not translated for the convenience of others and the fierce intensity of my mother’s entwined & secret flower studies helped me imagine a jungle of other desires. It meant that when I abandoned the law studies designed for me by my father art was a very natural alternative. I never imagined that I had to study anything, though later I did “study” intensively. I’ve talked at length on other occasions about this “naturalism of impulse” & compulsive rejection of authority. It meant in a way that I was primed to be a performance artist. Julie is five years younger than me, but I was the ice-breaker in the family.
EV: In the 60’s you were dealing with poetry. It is quite explicit your connection to the Wiener Gruppe and the practices of, for example, Friedrich Achleitner, H.C.Artmann, Konrad Bayer and Gerhard Rühm. Why did you suddenly stop dealing with poetry?
MP: I was a conventional, syntactic poet from 1965 to 1969. The break came when I got my first typewriter at the end of the sixties. From that moment forward the machine became my medium rather than poetry as such, because the machine imposed an order that fascinated me. I’m left-handed [only recently established] but my left hand is missing. This fateful entanglement evidently dominates my writing in longhand, but the typewriter immediately arrested the word and it was this conspicuousness that produced the self-reflexivity of my “pre-poems & word situations” [I didn’t refer to my pieces as Concrete poetry].
The idea that my “concrete poetry” came explicitly from the Wiener Gruppe in the 1960’s is really fanciful. How would I have accessed these untranslated German poets? I speak a little broken German now, but I had absolutely no German then. No-one in the Australian art world at that time would have known anything about the Wiener Gruppe and even Alan Riddell, the only obvious Concrete poet of the time in Australia, gives no indications that his work was influenced by the Austrians. The line of transmission in his case was probably Ian Hamilton-Finlay since Riddell makes so much of his Scottish education.
Riddell had published a piece called “Revolver”, a simple version if I remember correctly, of that word revolving to produce a hole and a more elaborate “3-D” version later. The simple version was enough but being a litterateur pictures are important!
One of my earliest Concrete poems Stockpile is evidently indebted to the structure of his poem. I’m sure I was aware of that, but another early piece like REDREAD, with its fused repetition of the words “red” & “read” producing “dread” as a red colorfield goes beyond anything done by Australians at that time, because it parodies in the most overt way the generalized fear of Communism that haunted our cultural life then. It also ruthlessly de-constructs abstract color field painting an sich, because it underlines the conformist ideology that these abstract painters didn’t want to see, acknowledge or debate. I was excoriating the American influenced painting at the Central Street Gallery, Sydney 1966-1969 which was the talk of the town and the prevailing context for advanced painting in Sydney, but INHIBODRESS was born of the politics of the Vietnam War [I was a draft dodger having refused registration while knowing full well that I would be exempted, embarrassing the authorities as a consequence]. This kind of improvised topical engagement was anathema to the Cultural mandarins of the time.
The hole at the centre of “Revolver” is a kind of generalized Avantgarde void and a very literary one at that! Concrete poetry, at least in my experience, was resolutely apolitical. The sedimented influence of Wittgenstein to be sure. I too was influenced by Wittgenstein but by early 1970 I was declaring a move away from “pre-poems and word situations” to Conceptual Art. Wall Definition was begun as a performance of typing during my first exhibition of Word Situations at INHIBODRESS in February 1971. Wall Definition accompanied by Bloodline and Quarto Window Installation were installed at INHIBODRESS in July 1971.
Bloodline is a constructive example, in the context of this discussion about influences, because it is both so overtly political & personal. I typed the word “bloodline” as a continuous line at optical center across the width of a sheet of quarto typing paper, engineering a set-up that allowed me to continue typing the word without interruption. If the word ended as “bloodli..” at the far right edge of the page “.. ne” could be picked up at the start of the next page…and all these sheets conjoined site-specifically made a line of paper the length of the long INHIBODRESS wall. The piece was concluded performatively by me incising my thumb and drawing in the bloodline down the length of the wordline… Rhetorically, if the development [and there are many more that I can describe] represented by Bloodline is owed to the Wiener Gruppe then I wouldn’t know that even now! It’s the virulence of this work and its unrelenting materiality that really needs to be thought about. I am breaking through language and it is this repetition of rupture and the ruthless instantiation of factuality that defines all my work. Why? Because the forms quickly dam up the content and performance is my way out.
EV: Would you like to tell me something more about Wall Definition, which is your first performance script?
MP: I began this work as a critical response to Joseph Kosuth’s famous “definition of a chair, a real chair and a photograph of a chair”. The tautological nature of his piece seemed to lay Minimalism bare. Father, Son & the Holy Ghost. Wittgenstein at his most magisterial and prescriptive but the Wall Definition took this process of definition to another extreme, because my definitions of all the words in a definition of the word “wall” [Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary given to me in 1968 by my father with the suggestion that “I use it to straighten out my mind”] began what was really a process without end, because there was no need to stop at just a definition of the definition… a really big wall might extend the procedure indefinitely. Indeed following the Wall Definition I got started on another piece called A Portion of the Wall. That went to many more hundreds of pages, but it remained incomplete going into the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as A Portion of the Wall [Incomplete]. I began that piece attracted by the irony of the thought that “a portion” could be greater than the whole. Incompletion could only add to the sense of that.
It was the unstaunchable aspect of this process of definition that fascinated me and the “mindlessness” of the task. The typewriter becomes a machine for not making sense and it is this master/slave dialectic that turned the Wall Definition into a performance script. At the outset I announced that I would type for 40 days and I began the work, as I’ve already said, as a performance to accompany my first installation of Word Situations at Inhibodress. I sat on a white chair at a white table typing as visitors to the gallery entered the space. The Australian curator & critic, Daniel Thomas, remarked in his newspaper column, that my “grey sports coat was appropriate, but my green trousers were all wrong”. This sartorial advice caught my attention because it seemed to extend the tension between my work and Kosuth’s piece.
The continuous typing added an auditory dimension too that was also very interesting. I was becoming aware of the impact of a new kind of presence that would begin to define my notion of performance art, but back then a work like this was an “Idea Demonstration”. That was my label for these emerging activities. Typing for 40 days made me think of Christ in the Wilderness. Christ wandering in the wilderness accompanied by Satan’s wiles seemed a long way from the fixed arrangement of Kosuth’s hierarchy. In that context the Wall Definition became a weapon of mass destruction.
EV: You are a prominent figure in the history of Australian performance art. I know you don’t like this expression, but you can be considered “the Godfather of Australian performance art”. However, I prefer to contextualize your 50 years long trajectory in the broader international history of performance art. When did you start to deal with performance? Which aspect of this medium fascinated you the most?
MP: “Godfather” particularly bothers me because both “God” & “father” are institutions that I feel compelled to resist. My first performances go back to the Wall Definition, Bloodline of 1971 where performances produce an effect that is integral to the form of the work… a decisive material intrusion. An important Word Situation that preceded these works was The Surface is Only Skin Deep. I typed that phrase as a continuous block of text [red] and continued over-typing until text & paper were fused and the text-surface began to break up like skin peeled from the surface of a body. Breaking up language in this way, using the typewrite to masticate words led me directly to my own body.
The first performances were Self-Circles which I did August/September 1971. They became prototypes for many of the works included in Idea Demonstrations June 1972, the film of 23 performances performed by Peter Kennedy & myself in the aftermath of the joint exhibition Trans-Art 1: Idea Demonstrations which went on at INHIBODRESS at the beginning of June 1972. I exhibited 75 Programmes & Investigations as a slide work during that show. I also projected 16mm documentation of Hold your breath for as long as possible / Hold your finger in a candle flame for as long as possible. These performances were done in a closed session at INHIBODRESS early in 1972 and it was my work with the filmmakers Ian Stocks & Aggy Read that led directly to Idea Demonstrations.
I think I should describe the presentation of these filmed performance works. Trans-Art 1: Idea Demonstrations was an interesting exhibition. We installed tables and showed white-painted files boxes containing performance scripts, musical “scores”, correspondence. I also displayed the first volume of my NOTEBOOKS 1971-1972 and on the walls we showed unframed diagrams for proposed works [I composed a score for animals where a whole cacophony of sounds was to be produced beyond the range of human hearing… I researched the upper range of frequencies for a range of animal species… to be conducted in a Zoo so that the animals responded choir-oristically for the edification of an invited audience]. Peter Kennedy installed an auto-cannibalising drum kit [feedback at a massive decibel release], and a range of my slideworks from 75 Programmes & Investigations to Earth Book to Blacked-out Book & 3 Weeks Annual Leave were on-hand in carousels for the audience to select for projection. The exhibition was available like a library or resource centre and we were always on-hand to discuss the works with the audience. Once visitors asked to see “Breath & Finger” the gallery lights would be turned off, the projector would be activated, and in the darkness the extraordinary rawness of the performance documentation would be projected large straight onto the wall. Lights up and other parts of the exhibition would be demonstrated.
I am describing this mix to demonstrate the concept of communication, agitation and “use-value” as it applied to the collaborative work at INHIBODRESS. Working in this way I inevitably weighed the impact & implication of performance-based work in a group context and it was these practises that distinguished my emergence as a performance artist. For example, the “concerts” I did for Galerie Impact, Lausanne & Galerie Media, Neuchatel in June 1973 extended this use of media & feedback. I located monitors back into the domain of the audience and used a live video feed to constantly break-down the distance between performer & audience e.g. in one instance I branded myself with the word ARTIST inviting audience members to come forward and be accredited as artists’ too. The double-bind & the process of instant translation [English/French] is an amusing, confrontational dimension of the work. I presented 15 or more new performances in both Lausanne & Neuchatel and “agitation/provocation/communication” meant that I was deploying technology in a way that was very different from the rest of the International mono-structural cohort.
EV: Your first performance documented in video is Pushing a camera over a hill, 1971. Is it your first performance? Would you like to tell me something more about this piece?
MP: It came at the end of 1971 following the Self-Circles. I did it twice. First with an Akai Video-camera with inbuilt microphone and a second time a week or two later using a Bolex, accompanied by a sound-recordist [Aggy Read] lugging the recorder beside me. That was the last time I used the Akai system. From that point on my primary recording medium was 16mm film. I thought Pushing a camera over a hill was a War Movie. Hugging the ground like the Vietcong, ascending the hill, the visionary moment of deep space as we cross the summit and then the accelerating descent through all that noisy grass toward a pick-up truck waiting, observing us from within a copse of trees, accelerating out and away as the camera moves in. Those tangents as we crossed the summit, the distant indeterminate scene as the shot goes in & out of focus, the white thistle flowers bending in the wind, they are the ecstatic moments of revelation that I experience in all my performances.
EV: In December 1970, you co-founded the first artist-run-space in Australia with fellow artists Peter Kennedy and Tim Johnson. ‘Inhibodress’ was an artist collective and experimental gallery in Sydney. At the time it was a leading platform connecting Australian conceptual practice with work in experimental media such as film, performance, sound, video, non-object and mail art, actively associating with international networks of conceptual artists. Although it lasted only a couple of years, Inhibodress was widely influential; introducing direct experiences of new, experimental art forms to Australian artists and audiences. I presume that in Australia it wasn’t easy at all to be in the early ’70’s a performance artist. Would you like to tell me more about this experience? What were your influences at the time? And your Australians peers? Were there many women dealing with performance around at that time?
MP: Yes, it wasn’t easy to be a performance artist in Australia in the early 1970’s but then given the underground bravado of INHIBODRESS it wasn’t difficult either, because the incomprehension and hostility of the establishment nourished our sense of independence. The problem of isolation emerged later after I returned from Europe towards the end of 1973. Performance art, as I discovered, was still very much an underground activity in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Cologne, Oldenburg, Bad Salzdetfurth, Lausanne, Neuchatel, Budapest, Warsaw, Vienna [a selection of the cities I spent time in to meet & work with key people] but artists in these centres knew one another, were supported by a sense of connection and a history going back through Fluxus, Happenings, Aktionismus, Informel.
A very important network for INHIBODRESS had been provided by David Mayor’s “Eternal Network” [brought back by Tim Johnson to INHIBODRESS as a wad of roneoed sheets at the beginning of 1971] which brought us into contact with many artists & underground scenes in Europe, North & South America. We used snail-mail at INHIBODRESS like we all use the Internet now. Served the same function and it was a form too of course, when you think of “mail art”. So yes, INHIBODRESS was connected right from early 1971 and the contacts established then were the basis for the de-materialised stage of INHIBODRESS when Peter Kennedy & I, each in our own independent way took our archive abroad.
Connection then was the key, but since we were all very young artists, emerging as it were from the underbelly of the “global” artworld, connection with our fellows internationally was very horizontal & equal. This was the salience of INHIBODRESS in the Australian context. We had initiated an exchange that was authored by us and we’d invented a form of independent “institutionality” to make the break as dynamic & independent as possible. An organic process really. Very conflicted though at the level of the INHIBODRESS membership, continuous tensions, members leaving, new members joining, running battles with the City Council over the status of our occupation, running battles with the members over the Kennedy/Parr, Johnson triumvirate. A very different Weltanschauung I think to the one now in Australian art. Cruder, more suspicious of “official” culture, deeply influenced too by the rationalism of Conceptual art. We were also naively idealistic. I really did believe that artists must band together to give legitimacy to new ideas and that “new ideas” implied new forms… new forms of an unprecedented kind. I argued strongly that ideology preceded art & that the “new forms” must have a decisive social, political impact. I’ve remained a young artist in that respect. Even now in Australia each new generation seems to emerge without connection to the previous one. I think this makes us a colony in relation to ourselves. The European scene was much more ecumenical, “historical”. When I went to Warsaw Marek Konieczny & his friends arranged a dinner and invited key artists from generations right back to the Constructivist, Henryk Stazewski, who was there in a wheelchair. Marek said to me “this is what the Avantgarde means in Poland”.
But INHIBODRESS was also destructive. By early 1972 only Peter Kennedy and I were left. There was a membership of sorts but the gap between their expectations and our control was enormous and my performance art had now taken hold and I was becoming an extremist. Already, this was beginning to intimate the break-up of the Kennedy/Parr partnership because Kennedy’s brand of Marxism was tending towards sociology while I thought performance art must go deeper in the direction of a New Left ideology, with its re-conceptioning of Marxism in the context of psychoanalysis. Freudian meta-psychology & abreaction analysis then [I was primed to meet the Wiener Aktionismus!].
I should say more about this. I had become aware of the work of Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, Terry Fox, but while the Conceptual elegance of this work appealed to me, its origins in American Gestalt psychology & behaviourism did not answer my need to penetrate the deep disturbances that were beginning to emerge through my own work. My performances came to me & developed as a tremendous self-obsession, feeling of break-through, domination. Immense ungainly emotions, so my awareness of others has always been awkward, incomplete…
I am going to have to say more about psychological disturbance, isolation & abreaction, but you ask me about “Australian peers, performance by Australian women artists”. Jill Orr and Jill Scott stick in my mind [as does the work of Frances Barrett & Diana Baker Smith now] because they were obsessed practitioners & I appreciated that, but Jill Orr emerged towards the end of the 1970’s and I did not meet Jill Scott until the 1980’s. And then of course Stelarc, who is a comrade for me, though we meet like stray dogs. We’re at the opposite ends of a spectrum that defines seventies type performance art, because Stelarc has no inwardness and this is an aspect of his work that divides us. I’m often quoted in the Australian context for having said, “it’s not the body Stelarc, it’s your body”, because Stelarc, I think, has remained a sculptor & a technologist, who uses his body as an object-element.
A story, kind of endearing. Clear memory of him visiting my house/studio out of the blue in St Peters sometime the 1980’s [sic]. I left him there with my daughter while I went up the road to get some beer. When I got back my daughter was waiting at the door in a state of panic. “Dad”, she said, “don’t do it” giving me an imploring look. Stelarc was sitting at the table in the kitchen. He had a partly assembled mechanical arm in front of him. He’d been telling my daughter how he hoped that he & I could do performances together. A kind of Frankenstinian song & dance routine. Insoluble differences!
It was hard in Sydney… in Australia in the 1970’s, because the community of performance artists was [still is] very small & fragmented and hard-core performance has never been accepted. Simple as that. By the end of the 1970’s I was on the verge of destitution and people were crossing the road to avoid me.
EV: Anne Marsh states the wrapping of Little Bay by Christo & Jeanne-Claude and work by Stelarc in 1969 as the first performances in Australia – Do you agree with it?
MP: Yes, but neither of these artists, given my characterization of Stelarc’s work, produce performances that have any real relevance for my work or for Orr or Scott, or the younger performance artists now. My contribution I think has been to see that performance art is about inter-personal communication. I sustained aesthetics of objectification but I also infused my mono-structural forms with a deep subjectivity. Performance by women is very sympathico for me. The vulnerabilities and the feelings of non-identity conferred on me by a strikingly visual disability [over- compensated for by a strong, compulsive assertion of identity] means that I am very responsive to female psychology.
EV: I think it is important to underline how your work is totally connected, and in the same years, to the coeval researches on body and performance in Europe and in North America. Works like Hold your breath for as long as possible, or Hold your finger in a candle flame for as long as possible, both 1972, are task performances which deal with the endurance and the “heroic” act of the artist, and I am thinking to the work of, among the others, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, or Marina Abramović, who performed, with Ulay, a similar task performance, a few years later (Breathing In, Breathing Out, 1977-78).
MP: Yes. But let’s stress incommensurables straight off. Connection & isolation. Commonality & difference. I am motivated in a different way. I have a different kind of immediacy & visibility. Stick into Eye. This brings me back to disability. Even now when I present a major installation/ performance series I can get a completely unfeeling, destructive critical response. The Sydney critic John MacDonald does not hesitate to reveal his revulsion and yet he’d never acknowledge the source of his sneering which seems so atavistic & insensitive. I have experienced a lot of this withdrawal down the years and it’s invariably dishonest. So, my performances are immediately different from all the artists that you are referring to, because I am a performance artist with one-arm and nothing could be more visual than that and my performances are also immediately both a confrontation and a de-construction. Identity is strongly asserted but undermined, because “identity”, which constitutes the whole of the “object scene” in the case of those others, is in my case equivocal, masochistic, self-destructive. My performance scenario always suffers from a visual “lack” and that lack terrorises the objectivity of performance art per se. It sounds like a complicated point but Marina’s poise & wholeness of detachment is transcendent, God-given. A critic like John MacDonald knows the essential vulnerability of my performance art and in his eyes that incompletion discredits me as an artist, because the art he wants is always whole [like the white marble of National Socialism]. Performance art like mine, I suppose, is inherently disreputable because it always implies a “patch up” & an incipient emotional decrepitude, and to make matters worse, the “patch-up” in my case takes the form of language & compulsive analysis, so criticism for the critic is undermined, becomes, what he has already declared in another recent piece, “an impossibility” [not that that’s going to stop him!]. It’s my assertion of autonomy that drives him mad because my kind of “talking cure” rattles the stylistic boxes. In Zizek’s terminology my stump is an “indivisible remainder”. The insoluble after-image that torments the mind of the omniscient commentator.
EV: How important was travelling overseas to the development of your practice?
MP: Very important. It enabled me to get a perspective on some of the difficulties that I mentioned previously, because even in the 1970’s feminist performance and the notion of the “personal as the political” were already beginning to radically change the concept of how art functioned at the inter-personal level and in relation to the question of ideology. Marina & Ulay for example were never “political” in the way that I am. Their work was always closer to the American Conceptual model and their relational work was always about sustaining duality rather than radical resolution, but I realised very early that my performance art couldn’t be ideal in that way because it’s wholeness was compromised, broken in advance. The Swiss “concerts” were very liberating, because I was able to juxtapose the extremity of pieces like Tackline [push tacks into your leg until a line of tacks is made up your leg] and Sew buttons onto your chest. Do up your shirt on the buttons to very different pieces that involved audience members in situations that radically confronted their role as an audience and this dialectic of contrasts breaking the meniscus of the sanctity art was understood by the European audience as a necessity that drove the extremity of the Concerts [Ice-Cold Installation with Dead Fish & Atrocity Images for example, argued that having looked through books of atrocity images and having selected & torn out the images of their choice the audience should be baptised by having their heads dunked in the buckets]. This caused a furore but the lack of a language in common actually facilitated our interaction, because it expanded the sensorium of the concert structure and got us beyond conventional language and in Lausanne the in situ translations performed by the Hungarian translator & artist Janos Urban, were exactly that, urbane and deeply empathetic, because unlike the Australian audience the Swiss acknowledged my disability as a reason for the extremity of my ideas and their involvement sustained the fragility of my experimental forms.
Rules & Displacement Activities Part I strongly brings out this formative role of the audience. So, the complexity of the situation in Europe developed a potential that enabled me to move very fast, very decisively and the memory of that sustained me after my return to Sydney in 1973. Without those long periods of work in Europe in the 1970’s it’s doubtful whether I would have continued in Australia. Really promising young performance artists around INHIBODRESS in 1971 like Neil Evans, David Morissey, Jim MacDonald, Tim Johnson, Ian Milliss and even my co-director at INHIBODRESS, Peter Kennedy had all given up on their initial foray into performance art by the end of 1973. I was strengthened by my European experiences. Strengthened in my radicality, politicization and “incurability”. I had gone beyond INHIBODRESS and the idea that performance art was merely a transitional form.
EV: 150 Programmes and Investigations that you composed between 1971 and 1972, comprises instructions, aphorisms, poems and ideas. This work is the root of numerous performances and remains rich source material to this day. This work occupies an ambiguous space between your early efforts as a poet and performance artist. Some of these instructions are reminiscent of concrete poetry, and your language experiments echo those of artists such as John Baldessari and Sol LeWitt’s instructions for drawing, or Yoko Ono’s series of ‘event scores’ Grapefruit. Would you like to tell me more about this seminal work?
MP: Your description of the range of pieces is very clear. The first instructions [they’re not collected in chronological order] interrupt the concrete language experiments [pre-poems, word situations in my lexicon] in a very calculated way. The process of interruption is not easy to describe except to say that the self-reflexivity of the Word Situations is being broken up by a new sensate awareness. There’s a halo of anxiety and it is the order of the programme to contain and articulate that anxiety in a definite linguistic form. So, getting the writing right was a very big part of the process and I did draw on my experiences as a semantic poet. [The homophonic ambiguity of Write, Right, Rite had been the basis for one of my “Concrete” poems]. Syntax, tense, grammar, euphony were all very important considerations, because getting them right got the ideas & the sensations right.
Another aspect of the process was of course the anthologised nature of the whole work, because the alternation that you describe between instructions, aphorisms, poems and ideas means that the form of the idea is very much part of its content and that impulse & styles of thinking are being thought at different levels of abstraction. There’s a sort of lattice of difference that determines the range of the whole work. I thought that the reader might think about particular pieces in relation to the gaps between all of them. The gaps, repetitions and displacements. Therefore I would distinguish the range and nature of the collection, it’s concatenation of thresholds & its fracture of parts as it’s distinguishing feature, because it’s a work that distributes the emphasis of its forms in a very particular way and that emphasis is all about experiencing bodily states, impulses, correction, amelioration, placation, displacement as a vocabulary of effects that is only fully performed with the advent of Rules & Displacement Activities Parts I – 111.
cxiii The imagination should be used in conjunction with facts.
cxxxiii Execute an idea.
civi Eat what you read.
Record the sonic
content of the work.
cxxii Think up a number of performance works
in the evening.
Write down those you remember
in the morning.
cviii I will destroy elements of my art for a fee.
Ixxxxiv Hold some water in your hand
for as long as possible.
[Please refer to the back of the big Performance Book to make sure the typography has held in transmission]
Re-reading your question I pick up on the word “ambiguous”. Only ambiguous in hindsight, at the time the concatenation of different impulses and thoughts, leading to different structures of observation, thinking and imagining was generative. It allowed anxiety to come to the surface, anxiety that was literally being squashed flat by the process of typing the pre-poems / word situations. The zeitgeist was important of course. Increasingly INHIBODRESS’s growing list of International contributors meant that I knew what was going on, but that was only the obvious form of the work’s significance, much more important was what this work enabled me to do. Re-writing the idea or impulse until it was clear meant managing the anxiety that was associated with it and once programmes or investigation were linguistically resolved I was ready to begin performing them. Pre-poems & word situations had been about not thinking. Beyond the initial idea typing was a displacement activity pure & simple. Endlessly tautological, soporific, detached. I had begun to see Kosuth’s Conceptual work as being like an altar piece. All the people you mention exhibit their forms like “styles of radical will”. My concatenations were about disrupting appearances, breaking down reverential distance, making performance a kind of urgent necessity… risk-taking at the edge of the present tense. The difference between composing Arrange for a friend to bite into your shoulder. He or she should continue biting for as long as possible or until their mouth is filled with blood and the actual performance was explosive. Baldessari, Sol Le Witt, Yoko Ono precipitated nothing like that.
EV: As a young Sydney-based artist, you objected strongly to Australia’s involvement in the US-led conflict in Vietnam, refusing to register for conscription. I believe that it was during these years that you first experienced a sense of intellectual autonomy and the power to question authority. I think it is crucial in your work, and it can be considered a red thread that can be followed all over your five-decade career, till now, and I am thinking about performances like Aussie,Aussie,Aussie,Oi,Oi,Oi, [Democratic Torture], UnAustralian, all 2003, or the most recent Underneath the Bitumen the Artist, 2018, actions in which you have consistently attacked the Australian government over the ‘boat people’ imbroglio and associated policies. I think you are somewhat unique in the Australian art world for your outspoken political beliefs.
MP: Yes I am but I think Anne Marsh might be right when she suggests that my most political works are the extreme body works of the 1970’s because those works weren’t instrumentalised by being aimed at obvious political and social issues that immediately brought people on side. The 1970’s work reveals deeper divisions that can’t be resolved by involving people attitudinally. There was no possibility of preaching to the converted and I was thrown back into the domain of unconscious forces that required much more radical questioning, greater radical resolution than merely taking aim at an injustice that everyone could see. The works of the 1970’s were “beyond the pale” and they produced a pervasive silence in the Australian artworld. Jericho is a series recently performed. The extremeness of these works seems to have divided the Sydney artworld anew, so perhaps the problems I face in a conservative culture never go away.
Our post-modern cultures though want to outlaw real difference, real division. Everything must be subjected to the sanctifying processes of legalisation & “dumbing down” and domestication is the order of the day. I am moving back now in the direction of performance art’s “outsider” status. Political art now in Australia, which is partly prefaced on my work of 20 years ago, is desiccated in its literality and impoverished by the overt banality of its conformity. Aboriginal art too often means now that we know what the message is in advance. I think the depth of their dispossession and the impossibility of a just resolution is being consciously mustered by our governments into forms that the culture can consume. In other words marginality to the power of 10 and homogenised difference like Coon cheese.
EV: For Rules and Displacement Activities Part 1, 2 and 3, you started filming your performances in your own house, as Bruce Nauman, for example, was doing in the same years, in his studio (Pacing Upside Down, 1969). Divided into three parts, Rules and Displacement Activities explore the innate drives compelling human behaviour and relations. The first part documents your relationship with the audience; the second endeavours to remedy alienation with sensuality; and the dramatic conclusion probes the role of family in individual identity. Would you like to tell me something more about this epic compilation of works?
MP: Nauman’s work with its pose of having nothing better to do couldn’t be further from my performance work of the 1970’s. I’m not an American so surface effects, styles of alienation, attitude becoming form, are not my primary concern though this is a “language” for deconstructing art as art, that is also important for my inter-personal performances, because establishing distance is the only way to situate intensely emotional, ragged outcomes. You could say that I like that Nauman ends up filming mice in his studio with night vision video-cameras but that I have a different attitude towards bit parts!
Rules & Displacement Activities Parts I – III, 1973- 1983 emerged incrementally with each film precipitating a next stage as the psychic disturbance becomes increasingly acute. The formal, conceptual integrity of individual performances was paramount but filming also increasingly determined my set-ups, hence the significance of the “performance room” as a space apart within the family home and of course the family home itself magnified the pressure of the collective performance sessions beginning with R&DA Part II.
I should also say now that R&DAI -111 as an edited assembly is strongly preceded by 150 Programmes & Investigations 1971-1972. I now think it emerged out of the structure of that work because repetition/extension is my way of both hanging onto psychic states while trying to go beyond them. I do a lot of writing. You know that, but you might not be familiar with the NOTEBOOKS Vols 1 & 2, 1971-72 now in the collection of Adelaide University. The Menippean fracture of this work foreshadows & contains the abbreviated constellations for 150 Programmes & Investigations. Towards the end of 1971 I had begun an in-depth study of psychoanalysis [Freud/Reich, R.D Laing/Marcuse] in an effort to get a deeper grip on the compulsive nature of my performance art, because the idea that this was simply “the continuance of art by other means” had become impossible to sustain, because in the aftermath of the first performances in 1971 – 1972 states of mind were coming to the surface that I couldn’t control. Reich’s notion of “character structure”, his economic theories of the libido and more particularly his books, The Function of the Orgasm & The Mass Psychology of Fascism had deeply disturbed me. His suggestion that there was a connection between repression, mystical states & Fascist personality structure had really unnerved me. In addition, Laing’s view that the family was the source of the disorder lead me to wonder whether my disability had been magnified by the structure & behaviour of my own family, because there was plenty of breakdown & deep disturbance in my family. These uncertain thoughts finally came to a head with the “Armchop” [Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No 5], August, 1977, when in the presence of an unwitting audience at the Sculpture Centre in Sydney, I hacked off a prosthetic arm filled with blood & meat.
Your schematic account of the three films is accurate, but the repeated problem for all three films was the need to get beyond performance art, or rather to re-invent performance art as abreaction therapy, to break through the veil of “screen memories” and to discover connections between the performance instructions and “real life” situations. Not an easy thing to do when the way out for most people confronted by such awkward material was to perform in turn, but it was exactly that problem that led me to involve my family as the “ground zero” of the performance scenario. I was becoming aware of the fact that “language was part of the problem” and that the psychic disorders that were disorientating me were in the language and that language and family structure formed some kind of disturbed continuum. I didn’t begin reading Lacan until the 1980’s so all my thinking about language was unguided. It had come straight out of my experience of the typewriter as “a machine for not making sense”.
The crunch comes with the final film, which is the longest and most psychologically involuted of the three. Its performances were once again the product of one long single session lasting about 10 days in August 1977, but the editing dragged on for a further 6 years, as I struggled to resolve the contradictions that had emerged through the performance sessions. The family in this film becomes “the primal horde” and the over-throwing of the father emerged as the mythic goal, but many of these performances produce scenes that cannot easily be understood within the context of the Freudian meta-psychology, because I was becoming the tyrant in place of my father, as I ruthlessly imposed a crisis of confrontation & collective performance that over-whelmed all of us.
Totem Murder / Blue Movie, which provides the point of final transition in the 3rd film, is a key example. The scene takes place wholly within the “performance room”, the specially constructed theatre space within the family home, unwinding finally in the case of Totem Murder / Blue Movie to a succession of outdoor locations at night and very early morning, as I first attempt a reparation working with my father to clean and pluck the carcasses and then wandering alone alongside a river in early morning light, across bare expanses of stone, to build cairns and bury the remaining carcasses.
All through the 3rd film the performance room recurs as a bare, interrogative space. It had been very carefully conceived. Lit by 8,000 watts of white, top light angled up and bounced off a reflector ceiling, back down through a layer of scrim to light the whole space as a shadow-less, floating world. I used coloured lighting to bring up the lead-in rooms & filming begins as my father takes a chicken from a cardboard box, while chickens in other boxes look on in terror, lays it down onto a carving block on a white table and using a knife dexterously cuts of its head. I am standing nearby. We are both wearing specially coloured monochrome outfits. I take the headless chicken immediately. Its wings are flapping uncontrollably. I reach up hoisting its bound legs over a steel butcher’s hook, pushing the flapping carcass down a steel rod towards the back of the performance room and then retreat to the unholy glimmer of the front room to collect the next one. My father is working professionally. He knows exactly what he is doing, but the piercing din of the trapped chooks waiting treatment slowly begins to unnerve both of us. The green, red & blue lights distort the harrowing anxiety of our faces and bodily poses, the constant jangling of the steel hooks on the steel rods and the manic flapping of the executed chooks fills the performance room. In the film this auditory rhythm has been turned into layers of looped sound. The camera work is disciplined, ruthlessly methodical, every aspect of this scene is looked at hypnotically. As the climax builds, we suddenly hear the jangling sound of music in a strip club. Jump cut. We’re in the performance room still. Another time, another place entirely. The camera is filming in grainy black & white. The lighting is dim, indeterminate. A whole family and family accomplices are gathered in the black & white room. The walls are covered with black splatters of blood and a black & white porno film is running on the walls. The mother of the family is giggling nervously, looking & not looking. The father with his military moustache sits rigidly, occasionally smirking as the black man penetrates the white woman, young men, young women, siblings, wives, boyfriends some laughing & clapping vigorously others looking haunted & horribly withdrawn sit around & fidget or else laugh nervously. The “blue” movie goes on & on, garish, banal, grindingly automatic. Another jump cut to colour film. We are back in the performance room. The filming now is a wide shot, carefully composed, elegiac, remote. Final movement of the bodies on the steel rods as the rows of headless fowls settle into rigor mortis. The declining sound of dripping blood, the beautiful transcendent red splattered walls, white floor with its pooling circles of congealing blood.
The three films of Rules & Displacement Activities occupied 10 years in the aftermath of INHIBODRESS and my return from 9 months in Europe. In total they include the documentation of 60 or more performances and these documentations are extended by footage and sound recordings generated with audiences, performers and family members. I intercut colour, black & white 16mm, telecine-ed video and built complex layers of soundtrack. The whole work can be thought of as my first montage in space & time but the concept & technology of our current, penultimate “Montage in Space & Time” and the concept of relinquishing my hold on the chronology, of letting the record of my work find a new, unrationalised form by drifting back & forth in time & space [a new, independent understanding of “the endless cure”] was not available to me then. I’ve come to think of the whole project as a vivid failure and I find it hard now in the aftermath of those years to look at these scenes, but Rules & Displacement Activities Parts I – 111 changed my understanding of performance art and opened up the possibility for all my later work. It severed in a deep way my dependent relationship to family but it also heralds in my own mind my independence as an artist because in the aftermath of this project the notion of influences becomes irrelevant not because I turned away from international art [the opposite is rather the case] but because the struggle implicit to the Rules Project had changed my understanding of the meaning of art.
EV: You met quite early the artists from the Wiener Aktionismus. In the same years of this encounter, your work is going through a progressive process of radicalization, which creates an “antipodean counter-part” to those European radical researches. You both dealt with a direct confrontation with sensory and psychic reality in all its aspects—including those that are tragic, difficult to stomach and above all socially repressed. And today we can affirm that you made, with them, a significant contribution to the history of a certain acceptation of “radical” performance art.
MP: Yes, all this is true. I progressively got to know the work of the Wiener Aktionismus from 1973- 1978 and R&DA 11-111 in particular, show the influence of their movement as a whole. I was as interested in the work of Otto Muehl as I was in that of Nitsch, but I assimilated the influence critically. My long essay for Aspect Magazine in 1978 attests to that. I also noticed early the very significant contribution of Valie Export, because her feminism introduces the notion of the personal as the political and her performances sustain a much more open and experimental engagement with the audience than does the work of Muehl & Nitsch. That was very interesting for me because both Muehl & Nitsch manage the dynamics of the “primal hoard” in a strongly patriarchal way which is why Muehl’s AA communes ended up oppressing their communities and why Nitsch’s performative gets fixed as theatre & ritual.
But having said this I should draw a line. I’d already established the zone of my primary concerns and the style of my performances then [1970’s] owed everything to the epiphanic apexes of Conceptual art as much as they do to the “breakdown” of art, because the formal parameters for me were the basis for ruling contents in & out, for managing confrontations that needed a language of pictorial order for deep resolution, so my situations and the films I were making were also a new kind of experimental cinema. The Black Box[es] of The Theatre[s] of Self Correction [1&2], 1979 & 1980 while entailing no filmmaking at all very also films that made my structuralist thinking clear. I should also re-assert that the performances of the Swiss Concerts in 1973 for example, had nothing at all to do with the Wiener Aktionismus, even though Guenter Brus had done some works similar to mine in 1969. When I saw the tape recently, I also saw a very young man baulking at the threshold of his own impulses. Very different from my performative presence. It is why Marina and I remain sympatico. We both go at it with the same sort of logic & resolution. The same sort of do or die.
At this point I should also introduce Rainer too, because he was a major influence after I met him for a second time in 1978 and particularly after I saw an exhibition of his in an abandoned bathhouse in Baden Baden. I was fascinated by his “Face Farces” but also horrified by the evident split between the performative photograph [Rainer’s re-performance of the “Theatre of the Catatonics”] and the over-drawing. My self-portrait project begun in 1981 was an attempt to heal that breach in myself because the performance photograph was nagging at me. Its omnipotence & its abjection. I’ve talked at length elsewhere about gridding up and drawing failed performance photographs in the aftermath of Smiling, ice melting for 24 hours, but there is more to say about that, because my drypoints integrate what Rainer had dissociated, while also extending both my late 1970’s notion of “The Theatre of Self Correction” and the Rules & Displacement Activities of the early & mid 1970’s.
EV: In the ‘80s, as other many other international artists, “deluded” by this medium, you quit with performance, while concentrating on printmaking and drawings. Can you describe the hiatus in which you moved away from performance?
MP: Yes I can. Following Smiling, ice melting for 24 hours in 1981 performance became impossible for me, because Smiling, ice melting for 24 hours was itself impossible, and this impossibility destroyed my confidence in performance art. This is what Francois Pluchart means when he talks about “risk as the practise of thought”. This is the essential, unavoidable risk associated with performance art, because the performance scenario can’t be rehearsed in advance. Rehearsed in advance performance art becomes theatre and the performance artist turns into an actor. Within minutes of beginning Smiling, ice melting for 24 hours the smile had turned into a rictus and the increasing pain of the struggle overwhelmed me. I completed the performance in a broken state and the image that I’d imagined in advance had become a paranoid void. I flew back to Sydney exhibiting a face fixed as a paranoid void or rather in my state of paranoia I flew back to Sydney as an alien. I was a “famous” Australian artist without a medium…with only 10 years of performance photographs to look at. It was a start again situation. In addition, 10 years of filmmaking had bankrupted our finances. My partner then [my wife now] said to me, “you’re like a drug addict. As soon as we get a thousand dollars you spend it on film-making”. I looked at my performance photo archive in this sensitive state and I began to draw the photographs that contradicted the “heroic” performer image. I was accessing the “delusion” of the medium that you talk about even though my performances were the expression of an inner necessity and a highly constructed process of identity alteration. Drawing the self-portrait though stopped the process of introspection, because the “fixed fabric” of the photographic image under-minded representation as such. I had to wait and see and I ended up seeing something that had nothing to do with the photographs.
So, I did drawings from gridded- up photographs. I drew on typing paper. I produced 16 “master/slave” images in 5 years. It was only at the end that I noticed that a cloud of graphite had been ground into every drawing at the same place by the stump of my left arm. Seeing this for the first time I immediately moved to rub these patches out, to clean the drawing up, to “professionalise” it, but I stopped, realising that the drawing with its crude patch was the final form of the work. Shortly afterwards all 16 drawing were acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. My finances had been restored by 1 box of twelve HB pencils. That, in itself, was a revelation! Beginning in 1981, continuing to the present, I used the kryptonite of the “weak” image to undermine the Superman configuration and in the process I began to constitute a new kind of “strong” image by affirming the “weak” in relation to the “strong” [the impoverished first drawings were integrated into series with drawings done much later, by which point I’d become a de facto Renaissance artist and the problem of narcissism had returned]] and I began to re-draw drawings at different scales and to react in the most uninhibited way to drawing as part of the drawing in a prolonged effort to get back to stick into eye/stick into I.
And then at the end of the 1980’s my drypoint series become performance sessions. I work continuously for days at a time. 8-10 hours a day discharging huge amounts of energy as I cut into the surface of the copper sheets nailed to the wall, with heavy carborundum needles embedded in dowel handles of my own design or scratch for hours using diamond points. I think of the self-portraits as accumulating scar tissue and in the final stages of these sessions I don’t know whether I’m constituting an image or destroying it. Drawing for me has become one of the deep reciprocities of performance art.
EV: What happened in 1992 to make you want to return to performance?
MP: I started cross-dressing. I came back as a Bride. Everyone was aghast. I lay in the entrance to an empty gallery after 3 days & nights of not sleeping and the public visiting the gallery had to step over my sleeping body to enter the empty space. I think Ed Scheer counted a dozen or so of these cross-dressing performances at the end of the nineties. There’s been more since. They provide tremendous relief to my strenuous “heroic” image as a performance artist. They’re the opposite of art as suicide.
EV: As you said, the Bride is your antithetic yet complementary alter-ego, your feminine counterpart: the anti-Mike Parr. It flirts with the politics and aesthetics of transgressing identity while creating a dialogue with a lineage of artists through “The Short Twentieth Century” (Hobsbawm): from Rose Sélavy, Marcel Duchamp’s alter-ego, and his “tragic sister”, Claude Cahun, alias Lucy Schwob, till now. Would you like to tell me more about the Bride series, which is a distinct corpus, within the body of your work?
EV: There has been much discussion on the resurgence of performance art over the last 30 years. What is your point of view about it?
MP: For me performance art and Conceptual art are the great movements at the end of the 20th Century. Performance art, in particular, is opening up manifold possibilities for the new century concerned with identity, sexuality, ethnicities and difference, because new art needs new modes for eliciting temporalities and a new speed of imposition & thinking. The forms that provoke the most inclusive grammatology are all contingent, provisional… It sounds ridiculous but performance art documentation is very much like Impressionist painting. The same impossibility of keeping up with the flux of time. The same dawn of the image. The same disorientating accentuations. Drawing & painting blind are serious forms for me. Serious ways of apprehending our place in the world because we know now that “representing” the world in the old, static manner is a way of destroying it. Performance art is becoming the ecology of a newly re-conceived “uncertainty principle”.
EV: Since the beginning of your career, you gave a certain importance to the documentation in your work, which wasn’t common at all in the 70’s. What is the relationship between the live performance and the documentation in your work?
MP: I’ve probably answered this through the course of this interview but live performance for me is a very particular form of address towards an audience. I impose my presence to avert irrelevant seeing. The kind of seeing that sees only incompletion and I direct the 16mm camera or more recently the video camera, to see what I want the audience to see and very often this is a live-feed [right back to the Swiss Concerts of 1973] because closing the circle of involvement is the only way to maximise the corrosive impact of the performance session. But my habitual reply to the question, “why are your performances so extreme, what is the meaning of the self-violence”, because the question itself is a form of agglutination, is to say, “because performance art enables me to think”. My problem of course is that I can’t stop thinking, not that I didn’t think before, but thinking before produced the pressing need to perform as a kind of relief, produced in effect the extremeness that traumatises Anglo-Saxon forms of linguistic representation. I’m well aware of that. My answer to all these questions of yours indicates that I am a writer who perceives the abnormality of thinking but can’t stop the process of thinking that writing extends. So, writing has become one of the primary documentary forms of my performance art, before & after. I’m thinking now of the continuing subversion of the Word Situations because certain effects never go away. They’ve nowhere to go too. That is another form of The Eternal Return. The Empire of chained associations is where the visuality of my writing begins. A profoundly tautological inversion of language as sign. Maximised surface effects. A pre-performance sign-system. This answer now to your question, as writing/thinking, exemplifies that. Is intended to document the form of a dense circularity. Actual performances though, profoundly interrupt this process of compulsive thinking, because I come to think in a new way whether I like it or not and performance art provides, as a consequence, the relief of a stark separation. I’m torn in effect from the body with its mother-tongue. This is an Artaudian syndrome and I know that as well. This is why, when I decided to throw myself into a primitive kind of printmaking, that I said to John Loane the printer, “We are going to revolutionise print-making in this country – that is our goal”. Actually, I had no possibility of thinking otherwise, because I regarded printmaking as performance art. I’ll say no more than that.
EV: A lot of artists, today, are experiencing the possibilities connected to re-enactment of historical pieces. In the last 15 years, for example, Marina has suggested re-performance as the only way to protect and preserve this medium. Which is your point of view about it? Would you be open to people re-enacting or restaging your performances?
MP: It seems to me that re-performance is very close to placation, in other words a very good way of insuring that people do forget performance art, because repeating performances means that performance art becomes indistinguishable from theatre. On the other hand [because in my case that is not a possibility!] the performance instruction is so extreme that every re-performance becomes a traumatic first time, but then, in my case again, we’d require people with one arm or the will to inflict radical self-harm to validate the concept of an eternal first time. Marina sees performances as artefacts whereas I’m more inclined to the provocation of gaps between performances [their semiosis of broken Lacanian discourse] because all performances for me are displacement activities, particularly those performances that are ostensibly political, because the political implicates the artist as much as the audience or “the culture”.
EV: Why do you think performance art has received so little historical attention in Australia over the last forty years?
MP: Because Australian culture is unnerved by the idea of radical continuity. Our “avantgarde” takes the form of amnesia and of all the intransigent experimental forms performance art needs memory, it’s an ephemeral form after all, despite documentation, so generational change in this country invariably precipitates an acute case of “the anxiety of influence” so transmission of memory is discontinued and the government of the day rushes to fund the resultant mono-culture. For a long while this “clean slate” was an adjunct to the White Australia Policy. That may still be the case. There is something peculiar about the rapid totalisation of the promotion of Aboriginal arts. 96.7% of the population get to ride on the black sheep’s back, because the “natural” is the God-given accidental of the “Lucky Country”. But then again Australian culture has always invested in Duchampian delay when it comes to the “art gene”, because everything is always “lost & found” or found & lost again. Government funding of the arts is really a way to keep everyone in line and impose a top down cultural agenda. The Biennale of Sydney went into a meltdown when it was revealed that its primary donor was also the beneficiary of a government contract to run the refugee Detention Centres. The attorney general of the day threatened to stop grants to any artist who objected to this state-of-affairs. This is what we call “arms-length funding” but then this corporeality defines everything about Australian culture from surfboards to iron ore to coal mines. Everything is lost & found. Even Gina Rinehart.
EV: In a 2006 interview for your MCA exhibition, you declared that you started making art because you were interested in problems of communication. How does art alter such communication? Can art solve these kinds of problems? Can art still have a social impact?
MP: Probably not because Post Modern culture ensures that all such social impacts are transient. We have the idea now that art & science [and everything else] is co-constructed with the social. This started with ecumenicalism in the churches when church professionals on the edge of losing their faith or being locked-up got sociology. In the case of art & science it means that fixing appearances becomes more important than solving problems and every representation becomes a form of endless substitution. I’m a kind of cynical extremist in this context. I nail my arm to the wall because the wall has become the form of our ontology. Bringing walls down now is an habitual cultural reflex, but where walls were once is an encroaching desert. Zizek refers to this as “the desert of the Real”. Climate change for argument’s sake is a totalization that we’ll never understand. No plea bargaining can halt the process of Catholic relic collecting.
EV: Who are other performance artists you are interested in today?
MP: I no longer try to keep up with performance art at an international level, but then I never did really, or only episodically and while performance artists were net-worked in the 1970’s they were also isolated, because performance art then was only an emerging form, only tenuously “international”, because the world was divided between the Cold War blocks and many of these artists were “locked up” by the internal political structures of the countries in which they lived. Australia was no exception. It was actually very Cold War. The economy was closed and our manufacturing sector had more in common with the DDR than with the so-called “developed” world. The country had only just managed to overturn 26 years of intensely conservative government. Our access to modernity was managed and our censorship laws were among the most draconian in the “free” world. The new generation of Australian performance artists are unlikely to know this history and the texture of their lives is now very different. Aboriginal Australians did not get the vote until 1962 & Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families to enhance the process of assimilationism right up until 1970. “Differences” at the level of one’s appearance, politics & sexual behaviour were heavily proscribed, not necessarily by overt force but paternalistically, erosively. A kind of psychological pressure that I particularly needed to confront and resist. Much of course has changed for me and Australia since then, but the fundamental tension between my experience of Australian culture now and Australian culture then hasn’t, because Australians “change in order to remain the same”.
We’re all currently in the process of waking up to climate change and it’s fascinating to watch how this is being orchestrated, because of course we’re waking up too late and we’re waking up in order to go back to sleep again. Twelve million hectares of forests have been burned beyond recovery in the space of 12 weeks and one billion native animals have been incinerated. These extraordinary figures were announced three days ago on the ABC Program 4 CORNERS. Thirty-three Australians died in the fires. Died in terrible circumstances, and many homes were lost and many small businesses moved to the edge of bankruptcy. All this is terrible, but Australians still can’t face the truth of climate change and in this context when the chips are down, nature is expendable, because we humans everywhere come first. The 4 CORNERS program gave all its emphasis over to this aspect of the crisis and the destruction of the natural world remained only statistical.
It seems then that everything must remain on the surface and that preserving the surface is an urgent, compelled necessity that precludes deeper thinking & deeper feeling. The void of human nature is not to be looked into. So, in answer to your question about performance art today I’m stressing the continuity of my own practise. I continue to experiment as a performance artist in the context of the implication of my most urgent themes but I’m not hermetically sealed when it comes to the work of other artists and some young Australian artists now interest me a lot, because their work has a social flexibility & an urbanity that my work hasn’t, because I’m pre-occupied with issues that don’t really admit of resolution. I’m “incurable” in many respects, but incurability is where the deepest social & human questions are lodged, and it is “incurability” that gives me access to the deep form-potential of language and the world. We’re in danger it seems to me of losing the ethicality of the struggle for meaning.
EV: Identification No. 1 (Rib Markings in Carnarvon Range, southeast-central Queensland, January 1975) is one of your first work of connection to the landscape and the environment. Towards a Black Amazonian Square, is the most recent: an ongoing series of performances where you intertwine various references, paying homage to Kazimir Malevich (Black Square, 1915) while also materializing your outraged response to the current environmental catastrophe destroying the Amazon rainforest and devastating the Australian landscape.
MP: I’ve already anticipated this question in my answer to the last one. I’ve been long concerned with the science of climate change. When Tim Flannery’s book The Weather Makers first came out in 2005, I was so disturbed that I bought a dozen copies to hand on to colleagues and friends. Ed Scheer was a beneficiary. Clive Hamilton’s book [he’s another Australian] which I read later in 2007 was an even more devastating account of the consequences that await humankind if we continue to ignore climate change. Consequences that Australia is experiencing right now and consequences incidentally that have long put Homo Sapiens at the centre of the sixth mass extinction of species on this planet. Hamilton’s book is titled Requiem for a Species. Why we resist the truth about climate change. The species is ours.
I was put in mind of that book and its title last night. I was watching the ABC program Q & A convened in the aftermath of the 4 CORNERS Program. A panel and 300 or more victims of the recent fires crowded into a hall in Queanbeyan. It was an extraordinary community meeting as the compere probed the experience of the audience and the opinions of the panel. From the sincere Aboriginal panellist, advocating the efficacy of “cultural burning” [but Aboriginals & their descendants have no experience of “climate change” on this scale, because we’re climbing now towards temperatures not experienced by life on Earth in the last 55 million years!] to the lone American scientist trying to speak for the cumulative findings of scientists everywhere and their dire warnings of unmanageable feedback loops and an uninhabitable world.
It was increasingly obvious that this traumatised audience didn’t want scientific projections, they wanted recompense and the certainty that this would never happen again.
The end of art and the threat posed by the dawn of the Anthropocene have become fused in my mind and the form of this fusion is “blind painting”… painting beyond the end proposed by Malevich’s iconoclastic formation, but an end like his end that is also a new beginning. A beginning beyond representation and Homo Sapiens self-centeredness. The logical end to my Self Portrait Project. A new naturalism where art proliferates like trees. A double negation out of blackness & blindness that imagines a new radiant positive. A way of opening the eyes for the first time. We are looping back as I write to the Rib Markings in the Carnarvon Ranges. It’s early January 1975 and I’m climbing out of the Kombi stopped dead in the creek and Tim and I are walking through the bush in extreme mid-afternoon heat looking out across the grizzled savannah towards a distant range swimming in the heat-haze. The mercury as they say is off the scale and the bush is filled with the constant hum of cicadas. I walk towards a dead tree black with charcoal. I point and Tim follows with his Pentax. I stand beside the tree opening my old army jacket, pinch some charcoal from the dead tree and begin marking in my ribs. Tim takes photographs as I stand still. Nothing much is said. Tim never needs to know why. We head back towards the creek thinking of making camp and waiting for the cool of evening.
EV: How do you see, with a retroactive look, the evolution of your work, from the beginning of the seventies to today?
MP: How I see is spread across all these questions. There’s a thousand paths, a labyrinthine way in the process of recollection and the act of memory. It’s the structure of 150 Programmes & Investigations produced ad infinitum and a revelatory immediacy that changes everything.
EV: The Montage in Space & Time represents an extraordinary insight into your most daring and demanding pieces, displayed in a deliberately episodic and disconnected way. It presents an open panorama on the past, present, and future of your uncompromising work, but it is also a new way of approaching your work while challenging the very boundaries of performance as a medium. This presentation complicates the relationship between time and space, and between action, its fruition, and its related post-produced representation. Which is your point of view about it?
MP: You’ve described my point of view with great eloquence. I’ve nothing more to add.
EV: What is performance, according to Mike Parr?
MP: A punctum of blood on the stones of a desert. To be messianic & unconstrained. To end with the answer to a preceding question.