Performance as a process of understanding my “Billy Childish Paintings”
By: Gretchen Andrew
When Marguerite wrote, “This is not a pipe” under his painting of a pipe he was playing with the relationship between an object and its representation. This painting, made by me, follows this tradition; it is a representation of a pre-existing representation. Traditionally it would be known as an “after” denoting the intentional lineage from a stated source image. Billy made this painting; after, I made this one.
Left: Painting by Billy Childish Right: Painting by Gretchen Andrew, after Billy Childish
Conduct an image search for “Billy Childish Paintings.” Paintings made by me appear in the first pages of results. This is what was meant when, Oliver Laric coined “Versions” in proposing that, “Present methods of creative production challenge the hierarchy of an authentic or auratic ‘original’ image. Rather than privileging a primary object, Versions suggests a re-direction for image making, one in which bootlegs, copies and remixes increasingly usurp ‘originals’ in an age of digital production.” In such an image culture there is no relevant chronology, teleology, or hierarchy of images. Ideas, outcomes and processes exist simultaneously, merging in and out of each other. Versioning can be understood as defining image culture in terms of Baudrillard’s Simulation Theory, that there is little or no distinction between originals, simulations, simulacra. Or as Laric might say, such a difference–if possible to determine–is irrelevant.
Google Image Results “Billy Childish Paintings.” The second image from the left was made by Gretchen Andrew
The result is that my Billy Childish paintings are liminal, existing in an inbetween state, both not as Billy Childish paintings but also as not not Billy Childish paintings. Google is correct to determine these paintings as relevant to the search query. James Loxley, author of Performativity, describes this phenomenon: “Their liminal nature emerges not so much in a secure difference from the settled, certain, and actual but more in its capacity to corrode any such assertion of a secure difference.”
This liminal state is more easily understood in terms of performance. Consider an actor playing Hamlet. We acknowledge the actor is not Hamlet but also that he is not not Hamlet. Richard Schechner refers to this as “restored behavior” defining a behavior’s relationship to originality in the same way Laric does for images.
The restoration of behavior considers every behavior to be made up of other behaviors. Consider waving goodbye or knocking on a door. There is no relevant notion of the first time these behaviors occurred. Just as with Versions, “Original truth or source may be lost, ignored, contradicted even while this truth or source is apparently being honored and observed…How the strip of behavior was made, found, or developed may be unknown, concealed, elaborated; distorted by myth or tradition.”
There is a performative aspect to creating versions when studied as a restored behavior. The actor holds the dagger “as if” McBeth, and, to some extent my Billy Childish paintings are created in this way, “as if” Billy Childish. The movements I practice in the course of making a painting are not original but composed of restored behaviors. They are not Billy’s or even van Gogh’s; they have no original owner. In the studio I never feel like I am acting or trying to be anyone but myself. I am not Billy Childish. I’m not even not not Billy Childish. While the internet enables a collapse of image hierarchy, such a thing is not possible in performance. Performance requires the body and the body betrays place within established dynamics of meaning and power.
In a previous essay on Cyber Salon I present the self’s relationship with the body as paralleling the self’s relationship with its digital manifestations. In this essay I described the liberating aspects of disembodiment but without fully considering its present impracticality or specific impossibility in my specific work.
For the past two years I have been passively recording myself making paintings using Google’s wearable, hands-free, point-of-view device known as Glass. The device is small and surprisingly unobtrusive. As a result, I found my behavior to be unaltered by its presence in the studio. (For more on this read my Imperica: Collaborations in Post Internet Art & The Freedom To Be Alone)
Sharing the recordings of my painting’s creation inevitably introduced my body into the viewer/audience understanding of my work. These initial films were not of me but as me, from my point of view. They show only my gloved hands and do not betray gender, sex, age, or race. As a result they are unlike in videos of Picasso or the images of Jackson Pollock where the artists’ masculinity is authoritatively presented.
In bringing the wearable camera out of the studio I maintained the same relationship to the gaze as inside the studio. I wear the camera capturing and manipulating movie-clip-like moments from life for conversion into paintings. These films highlight the process from idea to outcome, connecting moments and images of inspiration with what is painted in the studio. These films are a mixture of acting and honesty, conscious and unconscious to the recording. They are life with light pause, light manipulation, performed as a part of my painting process. They expose my role as director and actress in the life I bring to the studio and, through labor, process into art.
In my Christmas series, I wear the camera directing my family into compositions. You hear my instructions. You see, as if you were me, how my Dad looks at me and then at my Mom when I tell him his pose should be, “A little more American Gothic.” It is a composed moment but full of intimate honesty.
Wearable technology still of me composing a painting from life
Then, for the purpose of putting myself into the painting, I take the camera off and have my Dad wear it. I direct the composition from inside of it. In doing so I enter the work with my full body. Through works like this my body becomes data associated with the painting. Just as a painting’s title is traditionally presented as information to the viewer, I am presenting my body. Not a forgettable name on a white wall, but a body with sex, gender, race and age. Just as any data associated with an artwork impacts the view’s ability to create meaning, my body, and all it light and weighted subject and power positions enters the equation.
I investigated the idea of data’s relationship to painting during my residency at The White Building Center for Art & Technology. I recorded and listed painting time, source image, videos of process, temperature at time of painting, number of likes on Instagram, title etc. as possibly meaningful to the work. Most of this had no real meaning, but the association led the audience to invent one. So it is with the body, used whether I like it or not, whether positive or meaningful, in the process of meaning making.
Trinity: My name’s Trinity.
Neo: *The* Trinity? Who cracked the IRS d-base? I just thought… you were a guy.
Trinity: Most guys do.
Scene from The Matrix
The crux of current advice to women in the workplace is to, “Let the work speak for itself.” But work rarely enters the world without its maker, its carrier, the body. In painting, in art, in any work the body is data, a point of information that can and probably will used to create meaning, even when it isnt or shouldn’t be relevant
Look at my body. I am not Billy Childish. I haven’t the amazing mustache. I don’t even particularly look like an artist. You maybe have been among those who expected me to be a guy confusing my surname, Andrew, for my first name. Maybe if I had an artsier haircut, a commenter on my Huffington Post article wouldn’t have called me a “sorority girl.” Or maybe the reviewer in San Francisco Chronicle would have bothered to mention my paintings instead of my silk dress. It is in drawing the parallels and differences between Versions and restored behavior that I begin understanding what’s going on here. I know my body, how I look, my age, my gender, my sex, my race all impact the way my paintings are understood. The internet doesn’t care about my body. But you do.
It is for this reason that my current body of work (pun intended) employs performance as way to gain understanding of the world and my place within it. For the last three years I’ve been dedicated to painting, but was recently challenged on this when my friend and art collector Alain Servais fairly questioned whether my digital art was just a marketing platform for my paintings. Why, he wanted to know, did my wearable technology and virtual reality art depend on reference to painting?
I thought I knew the answer: I like painting. It is my personal and artistic choice to paint. But I had to look deeper. My primary interest in painting is in its physicality. It’s why I paint on inconveniently large canvases. It exhausts my body, reminds me of my days as an athlete. It does not remind me of my days at Google. His provocation led me to look at physicality as art.
In Jon McKenzie’s “Perform or Else,” he renames “restoration of behavior” to “catastoration of behavior” to highlight its affinity with Derrida’s assertion that, “Every sign, linguistic, nonlinguistic, spoken or written…can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts.” McKenzie points out that just as language can entirely change its meaning, behavior too can be catastorated, “Cut off from the original context, where they begin to function in entirely different ways.” Mirrored in the context of Laric’s idea of Versions, “Images and objects are continually modified to represent something new, from Roman copies of Greek sculptures.”
My work, although visually similar, is inherently different from Billy’s. Considering my physical nature with catastoration urged me to look at the painting process as a raw material for creating something else. Painting, “Originating as a process, used in the process of rehearsal to make a new process, a performance.” I have begun to log my painting process, as observed through two years of Google Glass footage, into clips of behavior and movement. These movements can be shuffled and performed outside the original context of the studio, without paint and brushes, with only my body. In doing so I create a focus on my body and what its inherent and implied differences may be.
Sample: wearable technology footage logged into restored behaviors.
However, this cut between behavior and context, between the gestured behaviors of painting and the studio, is not entire, even if performed in an entirely different situation as on a stage, on the street, or within a kitchen. The separation does not prevent the possibility of the catastorated behavior impacting the original one, for the performance of behaviors to impact the way the painting is understood in its original context. This is the processing occurring through the performance, the open and endless way original behavior and catastorated behavior can impact, change or possibly usurp each other. Here the idea and outcome are further confused, mixed up, rearranged. We again find ourselves in Laric’s realm.
If we divorce the process from the product, the image from its source, the behaviors from their context, the word from its meaning, we end up with something entirely different. My body is full of difference, and with this new work I wish to present exactly and just that, myself.
Stay tuned. Expect something as different as I am.