Interview with Dominic Johnson: On Pain and Performance Art Embodiment

by deborah on 01/25/2011

Dominic Johnson is a performance artist, writer and lecturer based in London. Johnson holds a PhD in the theory and history of visual art and performance from the Courtauld Institute of Art.

As a performer he has visited numerous international festivals, galleries and clubs with his performance Transmission, among them: the National Portrait Gallery (London), Fierce (Birmingham), National Review of Live Art (Glasgow), Queer Zagreb (Croatia), Queer City Cinema (Regina, Canada) and Visions of Excess at SPILL Festival (London) and International Festival of Performance Art (Copenhagen).

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Death Valley, California, 2007, Photo by Serge Hoeltschi (c)


His collaboration with respectable performance artist Ron Athey resulted with two artworks Incorruptible Flesh (Perpetual Wound) in 2006-07, presented at Chelsea Theatre (London) and Fierce (Birmingham); and a subsequent piece, Self-Obliteration Double Bill (2007-08), performed at Souterrain Porte IV: Monstres, (Maxéville), 2007 and Donaufestival (Krems).

Johnson also performs in clubs, like Duckie (2008, 2009, 2010) and Torture Garden (London, 2007; Rome, 2008; Maxéville, 2009; Edinburgh, 2010, London 2011). His performances have been reviewed in Dance Theatre Journal, Art Papers, Gay Times and The Guardian, and documented in Manuel Vason’s Encounters, and the Pacitti Company publications SPILL Tarot Pack and On Agency.

He’s a regular contributor to art magazines and academic journals covering the topics of performance art, live art, body-based practices, subcultural histories (body modification and performance in alternative spaces), histories of sexuality, performance and visual culture. He has edited two artist monographs, on Franko B and Manuel Vason.

When or how did you discover that performance art is the form of art you want explore?

DJ: I started making performances in 2004 while writing my PhD thesis about the pre-history of queer performance. At the time, I was touring with Franko B, assisting him in his bloodletting performances. Franko and a few other artists expressed bewilderment at the idea that I was so invested in performance, and so eager to get my hands dirty, yet had drawn a peculiar line at assisting and writing.

After a few years of assisting Franko, as well as other artists including Ron Athey and Bruce LaBruce, I took a leap and proposed a small piece to a festival that Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis were curating (in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2004). To my surprise, they said yes. It went well, and I got a small gig at a gallery in Zagreb in early 2005, where I developed the piece a bit. And then I just kept making work.

Much of the anxiety about the distinction between theory and practice was dependent on being based in an art history department and, prior to that, studying in an English department. Now that I teach in a drama department, I realise that the distinction is mostly a convention to be forgotten or overcome, and a product of old-fashioned, conservative assumptions about the critic as superior to the practitioner.

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Duckie, London, 2009 Photo by Eirini Kartsaki

Performance scholars are comfortable with the idea that writing and practice are on a continuum, as various forms of research. So my attraction to performance is a result of a critical interest, which spawned a practical investment. It’s not productive to cordon off one methodology from another, and I find that although writing and practice rely on different techniques, they inform each other in interesting ways.

For example, the knowledge I’ve gained about material conditions of production, for example, has not come from reading Marxist theory, but from writing proposals to participate in live art festivals, or from presenting performances in clubs.

You can learn plenty from reading books, of course, but practice also enables knowledge. It doesn’t make much sense to me to separate out theory and practice and imagine that they can’t both be undertaken effectively by the same person. I don’t have an identity crisis about whether I am an artist or a scholar – it’s productive to maintain both roles in equal measures, exploiting the various platforms that are available for different types of work.

What is the working process for performance artist like? I’m asking this because you’re a performance artist who really does not set limits while exploring, treating and exposing the body…

DJ: My process is quite solitary. I usually start with an image or a set of images, and I allow them to muddle together. Sometimes I’ll just forget an image, because it’s problematic, or seems impossible, but will then come back to it. I do lots of drawing and writing – mostly on the run, while sitting on buses or in cafes, or in bed.

I don’t have a studio practice and I never rehearse. I tried rehearsing once and it was boring. I sketch out the different sections of a piece by drawing them and I then get the objects and costumes together and run through the piece in my head. Then I figure out the lighting and make a decision about what to do when I’m getting ready to go on stage.

It’s sometimes terrifying, but I like that feeling of being on the edge. Things will just emerge and then you can keep them for next time you perform the piece. There are lots of little gestures – tricks really – that I find by accident and then decide to keep, like a little action where I wipe blood from my eyes, or blow bubbles in blood as it slides over my lips.

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People’s Palace, London, 2009
Photo by Maciej Urbanek

Another key element of my process is to hold onto useful tensions. At the moment every piece is premised on the tension between glitter and blood. I’m not sure where it came from, but it seems to work for me and I find it a fruitful and unresolved collision. It’s something to do with cheap theatricality on the one hand, and the fact of the vulnerability or volatility of the body on the other. They’re separate ideas, but something strange happens when you run one into the other.

I see pain as an inevitable byproduct of interesting performance, and I think that’s why I’m drawn to it. I think the body is crucial to politically engaged art, and I would be suspicious of any types of performance that downplay its centrality. The work I make takes advantage of the peculiar power of the wound in performance.

A cut or hole made in the body has a curious effect, I think, especially if the event is dressed up in excess – lights, sounds, costume, etc. At best I am bored by work that pretends that the body – that of the performer or the audience – is incidental; at worst, I find that kind of work offensive, as it is actually pretending that having a body is easy. It’s clearly not. Bodies are messy, they are prone to failure, and they take a lot of looking after.

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Kira O’Reilly: close/d, 2000,Trace Gallery (c)

How would you characterize your relation to performance art and live art? What artists did influence your work?

DJ: Live art today is different from performance in the 1970s, not least because of the funding streams that have been developed and formalised in the intervening decades. I’m not so interested in body art and American performance from the 1970s, partly because it has been theoretically and politically overburdened by art historical attention. Performance in the UK, however, has been barely historicised. A few early British names have been acknowledged – Stuart Brisley, Bobby Baker, Gilbert & George — but on the whole the early history of performance and live art in the UK has been grossly overlooked. This attracts me to it.

There are really interesting artists who made important works in the 1970s and 80s who have been really under-acknowledged – Bette Bourne, Bruce McLean, Genesis P-Orridge, Neil Bartlett, Alastair MacLennan… I find these people really interesting, not least because they were making work that seemingly didn’t have a context, unlike today where live art has thankfully been given a more formal context in terms of festivals, funding, the academy, and so on. I don’t think it has been institutionalised, as such, but it is a structurally different moment to the earlier periods. Of the artists I just mentioned, Neil Bartlett and Genesis P-Orridge are hugely important to me.

They’re completely different artists, but I can’t imagine doing what I do without their precedence. Other artists who were crucial to building a deeper and more profound context for artists of my generation include Franko B, Ron Athey, Julia Bardsley, Kira O’Reilly, Marisa Carnesky and Ernst Fischer. All of them are fundamentally important, and continue to make new and exciting work.

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Ron Athey by Ann Summa (c)

My collaborations with Ron Athey were absolutely crucial. The first collaboration was Incorruptible Flesh (Perpetual Wound) (2006-07), which looked at the myth of a wound that would not heal. We read Philoctetes, a classical Greek play about a young boy who helps an older, wounded warrior. This seemed like a useful starting point for the piece we had been commissioned to make, so we took the narrative, and painted over it with a mix of 1940s Hollywood glamour, porno aesthetics, and a touch of SM.

We kept Philoctetes’s permanent wound, but instead of the boy healing him, we made the old man pass on his curse. We thought this was a more realistic eventuality. I think there are some clear differences between Ron’s work and my performances. Firstly, I am not really interested in Christian religiosity. I wasn’t brought up with Christianity, and while we are all bombarded with its imagery, the idea of the sad man on the cross dying for our sins is not something I think about very much.

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Photos above: Franko B, I miss you (c)
Photos bellow: Franko B, Aktion 398 (c)

It’s a really different situation for artists like Ron Athey, or Franko B, who were both saturated in the teachings of the church. I was (and am) deeply inspired by Franko’s harsh aesthetic or Ron’s lunatic beauty, but their religiosity it quite alien to me, in terms of my upbringing. Also, my body in performance is vulnerable, and I celebrate that vulnerability. Ron’s body is triumphant. His works are deeply affecting – devastating even – and while I aim for a powerful affective response, I think in my work that reaction is often produced by a relation between excess and vulnerability.

You call your work as camp… When did you decide that you want to emphasize it as aesthetics in your work?

DJ: In terms of aesthetics, I am particularly interested in what happens when wounds collide with camp spectacle. At the moment I find it to be a very rich space. I am a fan of camp, especially when it is overlaid with disaster. I like to use pink lights, smoke machines, jock straps, glitter, and things that sparkle. Some of the campy imagery I use has specific origins.

The centurion helmet, for example came from a very specific idea. Before the decriminalisation of homsexuality, gay erotica would often use classical imagery to try and give an excuse for showing scantily dressed young men. If you look at old soft-porn, like Physique Pictorial from the 1950s, there are lots of boys in loin cloths, wrestling, or bathing after battle, that kind of thing. I enjoy the weakness of this as a decoy, especially as it is combined with a rather scandalous excess.

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People’s Palace, London, 2009
Photo by Maciej Urbanek (c)

Tell me something about the separation between the audience and performance artist…

DJ: In my work there are often distinct separations between the work and the audience. Audience members are rarely invited into the work as a participant. I can think of one or two times when this has been crucial to the piece. However, there is always some level of reciprocity in a live work. I am not sure to what extent I feed off of audiences, though, but I am grateful to them for being there. It is exciting for a performer to get a rise out of the audience, whether by creating a sense of excitement, or a gut reaction.

I don’t set out to shock, and neither do the artists I relate to. If you set out to shock, you just end up shutting down the audience’s ability to process the images, or to think through the implications of what they are seeing. Audiences seek out challenging work, want to be moved by ideas, and are able to relate difficult imagery to their own experience. I think it’s important to remember that audiences are smarter that some people imagine.

I don’t like to assume anything about audiences – how they will react, what they want, what they need from me. If they find a situation difficult, they know that on some level they can refuse it – leave, cry, laugh, faint. I certainly don’t like the idea of assuming I know what they want, what they feel, what they like to do in bed, or what they find offensive.

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From Incorruptible Flesh, photo by Regis Hertrich (c)

You like to perform in clubs too…

DJ: My attraction to performing in clubs stems from an interest in seeing how work changes – how it produces meaning differently across different spaces. One of the thrills of performing in clubs is that the audience isn’t there for you. They may not even know you’re name, and they might be annoyed that you’re even performing, because I can depress audiences, or performance in general distracts some club people from the more important activities of getting drunk, dancing, or finding people to have sex with.

Other events are related to the form of club performance, but move it into a much more sophisticated direction. For example, Visions of Excess is a really exciting event. I performed in it in Ljubljana in 2005, Birmingham in 2007, and London and Copenhagen 2009. It involves lots of artists doing installations, one-to-one performance and stage shows, and attracts a really mixed crowd – art and performance crowds, club kids, and assorted freaks.

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Visions of Excess Copenhagen, 2009
Photo by Marion Haenan (c)

Transmission was made for this event in 2007, and I re-staged it alongside two other sections in the expanded event in London in 2009. The piece uses glittering chains suspended from hypodermic needles inserted into the skin of my hairline, which I swing like a long sparkly fringe to ornate, florid music I commissioned from Othon Mataragas. When I take them out this triggers bloodletting, and I carry out a few more actions so that by the end all the rivulets of blood are encrusted in glitter. We were all asked to respond to the work of Georges Bataille, which wasn’t too challenging for me as my performances assume that horror is a byword for possibility.

I don’t see my performances as explicitly theory-driven, but they do rework and re-articulate the theory that I am invested in. For example, for a few years I was an avid reader of psychoanalytic theory, and understood Transmission in terms of a structure that fails (like desire). Retrospectively, this helped me to think through the psychoanalytic texts I was working with – that is, how can a structure (desire/the unconscious) be seen to function by way of its tendency towards failure, as opposed to being understood as a structure that is derailed by disaster. But in the end it’s not a reading that’s central to the work, or that needs to be known in order for it to make meaning.

Dominic, Thanks a lot!

Related post: Body cinema – Body modification, A Retrospective