Public Art: The Politics of Puking
In medieval Europe, the seven “liberal arts” that were taught at universities were grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Thankfully, the fields of undergraduate study have increased greatly in the intervening centuries, but with this broadening of academic inquiry, questions such as “what is art?” and “how liberal do we want to be about it?” arise.
On December 12, just before the end of classes and the start of Reading Period, a group of five students led by College junior Kalan Sherrard, dressed up in white and went in front of Mudd Library where they proceeded to consume beets and tomato soup and vomit the red mixture on themselves and each other. This past Monday, according to Sherrard, he met with Kimberly Jackson Davidson, the Associate Dean of Students, to discuss disciplinary measures resulting from that event. Under the current rules, the Temporary Art Installation Policy requires go-aheads and signatures from “the Art Department, Facilities Operations, Residential Education and Safety and Security,” none of which the regurgitating students had obtained.
The performance began at noon, and when Safety and Security arrived about fifteen minutes later in response to complaints, Sherrard claimed full responsibility for the matter. Discussing the parts of the project he wishes had gone differently, Sherrard said, “Two things that disappointed me about [the project] were that I heard later that they called grounds to clean up after us which I felt bad about.... I thought we cleaned up well. Also I wish we had found more people to do it so it wasn’t about me.”
Sherrard is now on deferred probation, meaning that by a certain deadline he has to submit a form or essay to the College, otherwise he will be placed on full probation. He intends to comply with the request but is trying to decide whether or not to challenge the rule, which he feels impinges on his freedom of expression. “Modern dance shows that walking can be a type of art, so banning art in public spaces means banning public spaces,” Sherrard said.
The event generated volatile and highly polarized reactions on campus, hundreds of which were posted on the Oberlin Confessional website. Some students expressed regret that they had missed the performance, while others were thankful that they had. “It’s not just about being ‘offended.’ I’m a recovering bulimic who has a hard enough time during finals as is. I really REALLY didn’t need to see someone puke on themselves with no goddamn warning,” said one poster.
Another poster made a comment more along the lines of something the group might have desired: “I’m sure you’ve been exposed to more vomit from drunken party-ers than performance art.”
Aside from recovering bulimics and emetophobes (those with an irrational fear of vomit) other students lambasted the event for being unhygienic, inconsiderate to the community, artistically invalid and unoriginal.
Speaking to the health issues, Marjorie Burton, assistant director of Safety and Security said, “There’s concern when something involves bodily fluids that [it poses a] danger to other people.” Despite this expressed concern, Burton took a diplomatic stance saying, “We very much respect the complainants and the person we made contact with (i.e. the performers).” She said that she didn’t recall any similar incidents from the past two or three years, and that might have been one of the sources of the security officers’ confusion. “The person we made contact with [Kalan] didn’t make clear whether what he was doing was performance art.”
Conservatory junior Sam Goodman, who has taken part in past improvised actions with Kalan and others said, “There was only one other incident where Safety and Security got involved, I believe. I think they were definitely understanding, they didn’t write us up for anything.”
During the incident in question the group cavorted around improvising on musical instruments, drawing chalk circles in Wilder Bowl and carrying random objects. The source of concern was that some of those objects were butcher’s knives.
Goodman explained the method behind the madness: there are “two forms that we work with doing this guerrilla street theater: one is called gibberish theater and the other is theater of war. Gibberish theater doesn’t have an agenda, it doesn’t have dogma, it’s more or less nonsense.... Theater of war has an agenda, theater of war has a message and it wants to impart a certain thought onto the viewers.”
However, Goodman chose not to participate in this particular project though he noted that that didn’t mean he was indicting it. He said, “To tell you the truth, it didn’t appeal to me at first. I didn’t look forward to actually doing it, to actually sticking my finger in my mouth and vomiting; plus add on to that there were conflicts with my schedule.”
Turn, Turn, Turn: Trends in College Life
College students come and go. We are ephemeral. We bring our stilts and our senses of humor and our causes, and after four years, if we haven’t passed on the passion to someone else at our school it’s like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch. That said, there are revivals, the way Oberlin is now experiencing a revival of performance art on campus that had its most recent heyday in the late nineties.
According to Associate Professor of Art History Erik Inglis, who attended Oberlin from 1985 - 1989 and began teaching here in 1997, “One of the things that makes it hard to measure trends or emphases in a place like Oberlin, and by that I mean a small place, is that the size of the sample is so small that if there were two students interested in doing performance pieces and they each did three performances a year in their junior and senior years that would be six, and then they graduated and the next year there were none, you could say, ‘Performance has fallen off dramatically. What’s wrong or right with the curriculum that performance isn’t happening anymore?’ [but] our sample size is small enough that it could just be well those two people graduated.”
However, Inglis noted, “I think it’s probably accurate to say that I’ve received more invitations to [this type of] events in the late nineties, let’s say my first five years here rather than my second five years here.”
Nathan Kelly, OC ’97, known to his friends as Auntie Nathan, felt that there were a couple of factors that made his years at the school a particularly encouraging time for performance art. After getting his associate’s degree at a community college in Florida, Kelly spent “two years on the Renaissance fair circuit, which was enough of a spontaneous sort of situation, but still required acting. I guess even that could be called performance art.”
Kelly posited an S and M club at the school and may have helped popularize performance art at that time. He explained, “The practice of sadomasochism, for some reason, at least then, seemed to coincide with performance art. Across the country there were people who were sewing their mouth closed on stage, or in my case, being flogged was kind of my ‘in.’”
Then as now Kelly explained that, “blood, saliva and body fluids are always an issue when you’re dealing with S and M, and as a performance artist, it’s your responsibility to take that in hand and make sure that you’re not unduly exposing people to risk.”
At the same time Kelly acknowledged the transgressive value of bloody and bilious mediums: “People want to forget that we have bodies. We’re constantly washing everything off of it and making it smell different, tying it up and altering it, and maybe if we get reminded that we have biological functions we can stay in contact with them.”
But he also credits the school for encouraging interdisciplinary exploration. Among his friends in the performance art scene there were people doing “opera, poetry, photography.... We had ourselves a philosophy / computer science major — we really were an eclectic group. I think [one of the] things that seemed to lead to performance art happening here was we had such an interdisciplinary experiences and at that point there was a lot of work at Oberlin trying to keep that going: painters would be working with dancers who would be working with TIMARA and that can only come out with something new because everybody’s working from a different angle.”
For Kelly’s senior project entitled “Beatin’ the Devil out of Me,” he painted an eight-foot-square wooden depiction of the tarot card the devil while helpers and members of the audience whipped him.
As for the reaction of other students he said, “A lot of people at least came to see, some I know were absolutely disgusted because they got reports from Safety and Security later.... The report was that I was ‘covered in blood.’ Now there was red lighting and, yes, indeed I was receiving what we refer to in whipping communities as a good tanning, but I don’t think the skin was ever broken... I certainly wasn’t covered in blood so I don’t know if they’d come in tripping or if it was just the lighting and so forth.”
Another student who was part of the performance art scene was improv actor and cartoonist Kevin McShane, OC ’00. In addition to being one of the helpers in Auntie Nathan’s senior project McShane dabbled in the genre himself.
“My personal forays into performance art were limited and very tongue-in-cheek,” McShane said. “For my Ecological Art class, I created an effigy of myself out of chicken wire, newspaper and some old clothes. I then duct-taped this effigy to a wooden chair, dragged it out to one of the fire pits in Tappan Square, doused it with gas and torched it in a piece I called ‘The Purging of the White Man’s Guilt’.”
Both McShane and Kelly noted that, for the most part, people outside of the art department paid little attention to the performances. Kelly said, “There’s this intention on the part of the artist to say ‘get up and do something, audience, you’re just sitting there and I was surprised that no one tried to stop me.’ I heard later that there might have been some attempts that were just kind of hushed, you know, leave him alone.”
McShane related, “The only controversy over performance art I remember at all occurred back in 1996, when an all-female punk group called Tribe 8 put on a rather graphic show at the ‘Sco. Several people complained about it, and the group and its defenders played the performance art card, touching off a campus debate about decency and art.
McShane concluded, “But perhaps the piece that best exemplified the zeitgeist of the Oberlin performance art scene around that time was a complete accident. In one of the houses behind the art department that was being used as an installation space by my Time Based Media class, several of my classmates and I happened upon a small TV sitting on a table with a hammer placed on top of it. Thinking it was one of the installations, and an interactive one to boot, my classmates and I put two and two together and proceeded to smash the living hell out of the TV with the adjacent hammer. I mean, we destroyed that thing. It wasn’t until the next day, when one of our classmates — with equal parts chagrin, anger, and amusement — asked “Does anyone know who smashed my TV?” that we found out that the TV and hammer were actually parts of a larger installation being constructed. We then had a lengthy discussion about which piece was better — the one he had planned, or the one that had happened by accident. Only at Oberlin.”