1. When did you begin to identify yourself as a performance artist?
I haven’t studied art in a formal context but I’ve been working as 1/3 of a performance art group (My Barbarian) for about 10 years. I still have trouble saying “performance artist” when people ask me what I do. I guess what you’re asking is not what I tell other people but how think of myself, so my answer is “I’m a performer who does performance art.” But I’m also a performer who teaches and sings and, in certain social situations, tries to project a sparkling personality, a character. I have my moon in Gemini which gives me a bit of a split personality. Also, I’ve been told by my astrologer that Virgo is a “server” sign… I think that performing can be a service in the same way waiting tables is. Maybe that’s why I have trouble calling myself a performance artist. The artist doesn’t necessarily care to serve the public. The actor needs to to feel validated and important: being liked = being good. And the teacher/performer gets respect and admiration through her service. The reason I feel more comfortable saying that I am a performer is because I actually am more comfortable performing than performance-arting. Early on in my theater career I did a solo show about a megalomaniacal performance artist and I remember people asking me after the shows if I was a performance artist. I would say, “Oh my god, no! I’m just an actress trying to get cast in a movie!” It was always about the distance I created between my real self and the character I was playing. Today, as an individual performing as part of a three person collective, my work is about examining this controlled/created space. Sometimes real-Jade seeps through the cracks a bit but the protective shield of the character remains. It’s probably why I still have terrible stage fright after 15 years of performing in front of people. This is a difficult question. I’m confused about it. Who am I?!
2. What was the first performance art you ever encountered in your life?
I have a few early “performance art memories.” The first one I can remember was with my mom and step dad and we were in Downtown LA. It was an outdoor concert type of deal. I was about 7 or 8. I remember getting dressed for it. I had a green silky “disco skirt” and a fuchsia Chinese blouse. I thought I looked cool. The performance was loud, it hurt my ears. The man onstage was wearing nothing but a loincloth and was running around screaming. I liked it, I think. Next one I can think of involves Barbies and an ’80s lady with crazy hair doing something weird with the Barbies, hanging them upside down, putting blood on them. That bothered me because I liked Barbie. My most vivid memory was when I saw Ron Athey for the first time at Club Fuck in the early ’90s. I was still a teenager and with my boyfriend at the time who was 12 years older than me. He was part of Vaginal Davis‘ performance, playing one of her adoring boys. He got whipped cream sucked off his toes during the show. I was really stoned and dressed inappropriately for the goth club, white cowboy shirt with embroidered flowers. I obviously didn’t know where I was going. I had weird style back then. I think everybody did. Anyway, I was stoned and alone in the crowd and all of a sudden Ron, in a long brown monk robe, was stabbing a small bald woman named Pigpen’s head with long metal surgical spears and blood was gushing out like a geyser. The room began to spin and I kept trying to back up toward the bar for support but it seemed to keep getting farther and farther away. The next thing I remember I was lying on the sticky floor surrounded by kids in black clothes and eyeliner. Everyone was looking down at me asking what I was on. I said “nothing” (even though I was stoned) and that I needed to find my boyfriend who was in the show. Later when I did find him he said, “Did you hear? Somebody passed out during the show!” I was embarrassed. Years later I read Roselee Goldberg‘s book and she mentioned that “several people” had fainted during this particular performance.
3. Do you make distinctions between performance art and theater?
This question seems to come up a lot and no, I don’t really think it’s that important. I think distinctions are for people who don’t particularly like interdisciplinarity. A lot of what makes experimental theater experimental comes from the same impulse as performance art. I think it’s about context and who the audience is and what you want to do to them or get from them.
4. What makes a performance successful?
Success for me as doer or watcher can be different things. As a doer, I’d say: audience reaction, questions raised during the performance, humor, uncomfortable moments, flashes of brilliance, spontaneity, recognition or virtuosity. As a watcher, success or failure is determined by feelings/thoughts such as: Did it make me think? Did it make me jealous? Did it make me laugh? Cry? Want to leave? Want to scream? Want to kill the person onstage? And then there are the performances that you can only read about or see pictures of. Usually I’m drawn to things I can relate to or nicely photographed or videotaped performances that are clever or sexy or pretty or funny or have good costumes and makeup.
5. Who is your ideal audience?
I love performing for friends.
6. Have you found support in the art world, the theater world or other worlds?
Mostly art world, but we seem to be getting a lot of invitations from theater festivals lately.
My undergraduate degree is in theater and I will be going back for an MA in Applied Theater this fall. My mentors have included a man who taught me how to improvise who currently directs for Cirque Du Soleil (Stefan Haves), another who taught me to juggle and stilt walk, who was an extra in Xanadu (Roy Johns). Also a hippie USC professor who specializes in Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (Brent Blair). My favorite artists are women: Kate Bush, Rebecca Horn, Valie Export, Joan Jonas, Madeline Kahn, Eleanor Antin and Ann Magnuson.
8. Who/what inspires your most recent body of work?
All of the above plus collaboration and current events.
9. How important is your body to your work?
I use my face and my voice and my body to communicate stories and ideas and characters. I like to make my body look ridiculous and I don’t necessarily care if the audience sees it as something to admire or not. Sometimes it’s an ugly clown face or a mannequin for a sparkly costume. I can be scary but I never want to be bloody unless it’s fake blood and even that is a bit disturbing.
10. Have you been encouraged by recent developments in public discourse around performance art?
I’m glad Marina Abramovic is the King of Performance Art, it’s like the best Virginia Slims ad ever. James Franco is cute and I think it’s great that Hollywood is invading the art world. I’ve noticed that certain institutions and museums are beginning to recognize that performance art should be part of their exhibition programming. It’s just frustrating that it’s usually included as the entertainment for some big event designed to fundraise or as a way to draw attention to some other visual artist’s work.
11. What does your family think about your work?
No one has any idea what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years.
12. Is performance art just another medium, like painting, or is it possible that it is beyond media?
I like to think of the performer as the psychic medium of mediums.
Jade Gordon in My Barbarian videos.