moira roth & history of california performance

One afternoon in 2005, I strolled down to the Strand Book Store to check out their sales bins outside. I was on a hunt for collage materials for cheap. And in one of those 50 cent bins I found the Arts Magazine from February 1978 containing Moira Roth’s expansive article Toward a History of California Performance: Part One. How fortuitous! Curator, archivist, teacher, and poet, Roth organized the first exhibition of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s visual works at Mill’s College in 1989 and introduced Cha’s art to both Lawrence Rinder and Constance Lewallen. She has graciously given me permission to reproduce excerpts of her article to provide context in which Cha emerged as a artist in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the course of preparing this article, Roth met Cha at a gathering of women Performance artists.

Excerpt from Toward a History of California Performance: Part One.
Mario Savio 1966Inventiveness, diversity, and brilliance – these qualities have marked California Performance from the beginning. . . Political energy and political theater of the 1960s are central to an understanding of Northern California Performance. Simply living in the Bay Area, whether or not one had political convictions, forced awareness of the political scene. Protests and marches were seen and heard, even from behind closed windows and by closed minds. Witnessed from the classrooms, many of the highly visual and dramatic demonstrations seemed more real than lessons. The decade began with the 1960 demonstrations against the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, which were being held in San Francisco’s City Hall. Throughout the 1960s, protests concerning civil rights and Viet Nam took place on the streets of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. On the Berkeley campus, Mario Savio’s denouncements were more vivid than any New York Times account of them could convey.

Berkeley stank not only of tear gas but also of marijuana, the Bay Area during these years having become a locus for psychedelic drugs and the counterculture. Political and social protests merged and, in the process, produced visually and theatrically vivid, often strident symbols, images, and events that fired the imagination and activated ethical convictions among artists. The year 1967 saw the first of the Be-Ins at San Francisco’s Golden State Park, the gigantic San Francisco Peace March, and the beginning of the Huey Newton trial involving the Black Panthers and the Oakland police. The 1969 events surrounding the People’s Park incident served to fuse “performance,” which were often of a surprisingly lyrical nature, with violent confrontation. This combination of political action and visual theater also characterized the 1969 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island. It was a decade when theater was part of life – political theater of the streets, the huge communal celebrations of the Be-Ins, Rock concerts, the Haight-Ashbury scene, dramatics of encounter group therapy, and, also, the ritualized and communal lifestyles of many artists.

At this same time, mysticism of many varieties pervaded the Bay Area. Early performance, especially in Berkeley, was nourished less by the highly publicized activities of Esalon and similar operations than by the private, meditative, and psychological rituals set up among artists and their friends.

Mantra Rock Dance Avalon Poster 1967Finally, the long-standing Bay Area tradition of intermeshing the arts — poetry, dance, music, film, theatre, etc. — provided a model or precedent for early Performance. In the 1950s, for example, Kenneth Rexroth and the Beat poets held highly theatrical jazz-poetry readings. Also in the Fifties, in her dance workshops and public presentations, Ann Halprin merged improvisation of gesture and language with therapy, unconventional costumes and props, and often performed these hybrid events in public spaces. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, begun in 1959, startled the public by moving their radical theatre into the streets. In experimental music, the richest innovations were those of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros; these and other composers were aided by the supportive atmosphere of the Mills Tape Center. At the Fillmore and Avalon, rock concerts — especially with such locals as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish — became high decibel Performances. As for experimental film, the Bay Area became the West Coast center by virtue of the work of Bruce Conner, Bob Nelson, Bruce Baillie, Scott Bartlett, and others.

Tom Marioni, Pissing, 1970. Museum of Conceptual Art, San FranciscoIn the ferment of politics, mysticism and multi-media events, the influence of traditional painting and sculpture on Performance was relatively slight. If models can be identified in conventional artmaking, certainly West Coast funk counted far more than supercool aesthetics of the East Coast Pop and Minimalism. More important as an influence was a long established concern in the Bay Area for what artists were about (as distinct from what art was), and this attitude encouraged the conscious flow of artistic energy into private and casual activities. Because of the dearth of conventional institutional support in the Bay Area — lack of patronage, gallery exposure, and critical attention — there developed a tradition of intense and closed system of personal support among artists and their friends. For example, William T. Wiley, variously described as a “witch and magician, a poet and shaman,” was the benign, loose, but powerful catalyst at U.C. Davis for artists interested in Performance, as were Jim Melchert at Berkeley and Mel Henderson at San Francisco State.

* * *

This brings up the issue of Bay Area women Performers. Their position is intimately linked with the overall difficulties of women artists achieving recognition in the Bay Area, an area singularly inhospitable to them professionally. The situation of sexist bias is intolerable there.

Judith Barry, a fine performance artist, became so concerned with the lack of exposure for women in Performance that she set up “Seven Sundays after the Fall,” a series of Performances by women held at La Mamelle recently, in the Fall of 1977. In it, Barry presented a work called Past Present Future Tense which employs dissolve slides on three screens and sound track dealing with complex interwoven themes of linguistic references and feminist dialogue . . . Among others are Fern Friedman, Terri Hanion, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; the women’s improvisation theatre group Baker/Rapport/Wick (Mary Windser Baker, Debra Rapport and Susan Wick); and the dancers Margaret Fisher, Deborah Slater, and Jill Scott.

Moira Roth, Trefethen Professor of Art History at Mills College, Oakland, is a well known art historian and writer, and the author of Difference/Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (1998). She has written frequently on performance art and feminism since the 1970s, including The Amazing Decade: Women and Performance Art in America (1983). More info: moiraroth.com

Photo Credit: Descriptions for photo #1 can be found here and the image is available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Description for photo #2 can be found here and the image is available under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Unported License. Photo of Tom Marioni may not be reproduced without his permission.

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One Response to moira roth & history of california performance

  1. Cindy Yoon February 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    This article really captures the spirit of that ear.

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