27 Jul 2010
Guest Stars Pt. 2
The second in a two-part essay about artists on television. Part two: James Franco and Kalup Linzy on General Hospital
Between November 2009 and July 2010, James Franco appeared on the daytime soap opera General Hospital (1963–ongoing). The actor, best known for the Oscar-nominated Milk (2008), the Spiderman franchise and the television series Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000), has branched out to explore the possibilities of working as an actor within the framework of performance art.
Franco hoped that, by appearing on General Hospital, he might use his celebrity to brush against the audience’s ‘suspension of disbelief’. Apparently his work with the show is part of a larger performance project, the boundaries of which are still unclear. His appearances on General Hospital climax with an action-packed art opening, staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s gallery in the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. MOCA opened the taping of this episode to fans of the show and to select guests from its own mailing list, who, on June 24th, were invited to attend SOAP at MOCA: James Franco on General Hospital. The resulting episodes aired on July 22nd and 23rd.
‘Franco’ (the name of James Franco’s character) is a famous yet reclusive photographer and performance artist fascinated by crime scenes. The artist is discovered to be a criminal – a serial killer who murders for his art, and who is obsessed by one of the show’s mobsters (Jason Morgan, played by Steve Burton). Accompanied by the strains of ‘Mad World’, ‘Franco’ lurks menacingly under his hoodie, the actor chewing through the scenery with a real gift for the genre.
‘Art’ appears in the story as a cover for the psychotic killer. That story is not new – the presentation of art as a criminal alibi tracks across a range of texts, from Michael Powell’s infamous film Peeping Tom (1960), in which the artist uses a movie camera as a weapon, to Marcel Duchamp’s Etants Données (1946–66), which some argue positions the viewer as a witness to a crime scene. Excepting its framing of the criminal act specifically in terms of performance art, General Hospital’s storyline is well-worn territory.
Drawn into this enterprise is Kalup Linzy – an artist one hears about less than James Franco, but a well-known figure in the art world. For years, Linzy has been making and performing in his own soap opera projects, low-fi ghetto-style queer parodies of daytime melodrama (in which black and/or gay characters are almost invisible).
Linzy plays a minor role as the killer’s sidekick and is also introduced as a performance artist. His appearances are largely confined to on-stage musical numbers, in which Linzy performs much as he does in real life, on stage in clubs, covering songs and modeling the kind of expanded self that is unique to drag-based performance art (à la Vaginal Davis or Justin Bond).
Franco and Linzy do not claim to be ‘doing’ performance art within the soap opera, but around it. One can’t performatively intervene in a scripted, pre-recorded television programme in the way that, for example, performance artist James Luna intervenes in museum spaces before a live audience. (But, as Nao Bustamante shows us in her appearances on Bravo’s The Work of Art, such a guerilla intervention is possible within an unscripted programme, providing one is able to get past the casting agents, editors, producers etc.)
Performance artists have a longer history of engaging with television and with popular culture than is often acknowledged. For all the excitement provoked by James Franco’s appearance on General Hospital, and the anxiety provoked by Jeffrey Deitch and MOCA’s collaboration with Franco, performance artists have worked in and on television for decades.
The genre’s conversation with television takes off with the emergence of video art in the 1970s. Consider, for example, The Adventures of a Nurse (1976), in which Eleanor Antin plays with paper dolls, walking us through a nurse’s serial relationships in an eerie rendition of daytime hospital dramas. Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) is the most famous of a generation of feminist works directly parodying the fully domesticated femininity modeled on television programmes. Suzanne Lacy’s Learn Where the Meat Comes From (1978) and Nina Sobell’s Hey! Baby! Chickey! (1978) both tease out the perverse undercurrents of cooking programmes. All of these works may be read as performance-for-video, and signal the particular investment of feminist artists in television, which has long been marked – and denigrated – as domesticated media. (It should be noted that because of their feminist content, none of these works would ever have been candidates for broadcast on network television.)
The performance artist Ann Magnuson has enjoyed a long career as a film and television actress (appearing in everything from Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985, to Panic Room, 2002, from The Drew Carrey Show, 1995–2002, to CSI: Miami, 2004). That work was presaged in 1981 by her video Made for TV, which switches maniacally between channels, flipping from movies to game shows to midnight evangelical broadcasts and commercials. She appears, however, on every channel, playing the appropriate role. It is a biting satire on the restricted space allocated to women in media.
In 1984 Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel provided the music (titled ‘This is the picture’) for Good Morning Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik’s ‘international satellite installation,’ broadcast nationwide on New Year’s Day in the US. And then, of course, we have the infamous Andy Kaufman – comedian, television actor and, some would argue, performance artist.
More recently, we have Marina Abramović’s 2003 appearance on an episode of Sex in the City, which seems to announce the emergence of something like a middlebrow audience for performance art. Her durational performance House with the Ocean View (Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, 15 November 2002–5 January 2003) provides an air of pious weirdness to the background for Carrie’s flirtation with Alexandre Petrovsky, a Russian sculptor (played by Mikhail Baryshnikov) who is loosely modeled after James Turrell or Dan Flavin. It was many television viewers’ first introduction to her work – and so, at minimum, it was publicity for the artist as well as the genre.
Much press assumes that General Hospital’s recent storyline is a challenge to soap viewers. Franco is too famous to forget he is James Franco; art never appears on television, and viewers will find the whole idea of performance art confusing. A psycho killer artist who uses performance art as a framework to legitimize his murderous campaign hardly stands out, however, in an hour-long episode that also featured a kidnapped baby and a gun fight that was itself the product of a juicy storyline about domestic abuse in the criminal underworld. That in turn led to the shooting of two major characters who may or may not die. Another character manifested the traumatizing effects of his prison rape (which is still a secret). In the middle of all this, the woman whose baby was kidnapped discovers that a friend has died of terminal cancer.
The episode was volcanic. Within this context, I am not sure how many viewers took note of the fact that Kalup Linzy performed a spoken-word version of ‘Mad World’ in drag. That performance provided the musical background for ‘Franco’’s spectacular death – as Linzy sings, the artist leads Jason on a chase to the museum’s rooftop. We hear ‘Franco’ shout, ‘Don’t kill me, I know where the baby is!’ before he throws himself from the building, landing face-down in the middle of his own installation.
The press releases for SOAP at MOCA and Franco’s appearances on General Hospital present the collaboration as an intervention in the relationship between art and television, at the very least in its presentation of the performance artist’s self-awareness as a performer. The episodes themselves, however, demonstrate how well performative self-referentiality works within television. The hall-of-mirrors effect created by General Hospital’s story – in which a famous actor plays a famous performance artist, who then re-enacts past crimes as performance art, before a live audience – is not so disruptive. We soap fans are used to all sorts of antics – and, in any case, within this genre, the suspension of disbelief is subordinate to affect – who cares if a story is plausible, if it’s played to good effect?
To complicate the received wisdom regarding the limits of daytime melodrama (as encouraging naïve forms of media consumption) let us turn to a sublime moment in its history: in 1983, lifelong soap fan Carol Burnett began a stint as a regular actor on All My Children. She played the role of Verla Grubbs, long-lost daughter of Langley Wallingford and Myrtle Fargate. In one 1984 episode, as Verla dines with her mother, Elizabeth Taylor enters the restaurant dressed like a shepherdess (she even carries a staff). Taylor stops at the table to say, in a blowsy accent perfectly tuned to the ruffles of her outfit, ‘Verla Grubbs! I knew your mother! Lovely to see you!’ As she saunters off, Verla/Burnett explains to her mystified companion, ‘I never saw her before in my life, I think that woman’s pilot light is out!’
Taylor, also a soap fan, had already done her memorable turn as the supremely evil Helena Cassadine on General Hospital (in 1981). The character still engineers doom for the citizens of Port Charles, although she is no longer embodied by the violet-eyed screen goddess. Their appearances on these soaps are legendary for their camp – this was fully embraced by both women, and by the show’s producers – because what could be better than to announce to ordinary fans that in their fascination with the genre, they share something with Carol Burnett and Elizabeth Taylor. The television and film icons appear on the All My Children not guest stars, but as star spectators.
Soaps are smart. Their format (deeply repetitive serial narratives that endure for decades) nurses unique forms of self-referentiality. Characters manifest a historical awareness hard to match in other formats, and soaps furthermore regularly invite their fans onto the show, to play bit parts. They are also nearly extinct – barely tenable in the age of reality television and emerging media formats that turn everyone’s life into soap opera broadcasts. This sense of dwindling relevance is perhaps something soap operas have in common with museums.
When a programme like General Hospital opens its doors to the movie star James Franco and his collaboration with Kalup Linzy, it does so as a part of a larger effort to diversify its forms. The show’s network (ABC) already produces web-only viral videos in which, for example, the great villains and villainesses of different programmes square off in accidental encounters. When a museum based in Los Angeles opens its doors to what is arguably the least respected (by the high-minded) but most enduring televisual form, that museum – also part of a dying breed, it seems – is clearly trying to find a new way of doing business.
One detail in Franco’s General Hospital story points to the reality of the relationship between performance art and the museum. The performance artist on General Hospital is a criminal – and performance, staged within the museum space becomes a crime scene. There is a literal truth embedded in this. Guillermo Gómez-Peña described the performance artist as an ‘art criminal’ in a 1996 essay, and more recently addressed the uneasy relationship between performance and art institutions:
‘Our relationship with the Art World (in capitals) is bittersweet […] We have traditionally operated in the cultural borders and social margins where we feel the most comfortable. Whenever we venture into the stark postmodern luxury of the mainstream chic – say to present our work in a major museum – we tend to feel a bit out of place. During our stay, we befriend the security guards, the cleaning personnel, and the staff in the educational department. The chief curators watch us attentively from a distance. Only the night before our departure will we be invited for drinks.
Mainstream art institutions have a love/hate relationship with us (or rather with what they perceive we represent). Whenever they invite us in, they are always trembling nervously, as if secretly expecting us to destroy the walls of the gallery, scratch a painting with a prop, or pee in the lobby. It’s hard to get rid of this stigma, which comes from the days of “the NEA 4”, (1989–91) when performance artists were characterized by politicians and mainstream media as irresponsible provocateurs and cultural terrorists. Every time I complete a project in a big institution, the director pulls me aside the day before my departure and tells me: “Guermo [intentional spelling], thanks for having been so…nice.” Deep inside, he may be a bit disappointed that I didn’t misbehave more like one of my performance personas.’
– Guillermo Gómez-Peña, ‘In Defense of Performance Art’ (2003)
In 1994, Jesse Helms railed from the US Senate floor about the evils of performance artist Ron Athey. A conservative journalist working for a Minneapolis newspaper accused the artist of exposing audience members with HIV infected blood at an event sponsored by the Walker Center for Contemporary Art. The journalist had not seen the performance, and the story included other lies – all designed to put AIDS-panicked wind in the sails of a movement to end the use of public funds to support art work with any visible politics, with any controversial content. American museums have yet to recover from this episode in the ‘culture wars’.
Most US museums backed away long ago from difficult new work in the genre – and, as Gómez-Peña writes, some programmers seem to resent not the political situation, but the performance artists who make the hypocrisy of the moment painfully obvious. And so we arrive at ‘re-performances’ of canonized work. Behind Franco’s soapy story of art crimes, in other words, is a much more gothic tale regarding the interface of performance art and the official spaces of art consumption. His turn as the killer artist gives us a glimpse of the art world’s political unconscious, in which the performance artist appears as a boogie-man embodying the museum’s fears – which ultimately express anxieties regarding its own irrelevance and lack of cultural power.
In this light, Bustamante’s intervention in The Work of Art takes on an additional importance as an alternative vision for how one might smuggle the strange and disarming surprises of performance art into a broadcast culture, as a way to circumvent the deadening impact of the museum on the genre.
In his 1961 declaration on ‘Happenings’ and the New York Scene,’ Allan Kaprow declared that: ‘artists who make Happenings are living out the purest melodrama.’ By melodrama, Kaprow meant the heightened senses that develop around the ephemeral aspect of the Happening, around its mutability, its slipperiness. At the time, the Happening seemed to provide the most ethical space for making work outside the market, for making work open to the pleasures of failure, boredom, and surprise, for making work that felt human. The emergence of an official discourse about on and archive for this category (call it happenings, live art, or performance) has changed the landscape and the stakes. As Marina Abramović sits in museums, accepting visitations from the star-struck, it seems only fitting that other artists would turn to popular mediums like television, and attempt to reverse the flow of traffic.
Jennifer Doyle is the author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minnesota, 2006). She lives in Los Angeles, teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and, with Raquel Guttierez, is curating ‘Aqui No Hay Virgenes: Queer Latina Visibility’ for the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center’s Advocate Gallery.