An Interview with Acclaimed Performance Artist and Author, Anya Liftig
Performance art defies a singular definition; it refuses to be pinned down, yet it is perhaps the most visible, impactful, and relevant art form today. It can be celebratory, political, satirical, and mournful. In short, the flexibility and adaptability of performance fuel its power.
In conjunction with a Performance Art-themed CultureTech Newsletter, artist and writer Anya Liftig is interviewed by her old college friend, Nicholas Cipolla. The topics covered include the journey taken in becoming an artist and author as well as the inextricable anxieties and sacrifices particular to those professions.
What was the path that brought you to become a performance artist? What is it about performance art that captivated you?
Prior to college, I was on scholarship at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York and very into her choreographic visions of mythological women. The university I attended did not have a dance department at the time and commuting to New York for daily classes was not an option so I took up photography and sculpture to fill the void. Eventually, I started to examine my life using my camera. I began performing for it. My graduate advisor suggested I just do away with the camera and perform live in front of viewers. I thought it was a terrible idea, but she was my advisor and I decided I would do it once just to prove her wrong. But as soon as I was in front of an audience again, all the power and cosmic energy I felt in the Graham technique came rushing back. It’s been pretty much a straight line since then.
Performance art captivates me because it is so simple and so confounding. Ask five performance artists what performance art is and you will get five different answers. That’s what I love, how we all define it for ourselves and then keep redefining it. I love it because it baffles people and disturbs them. And though I don’t love having no money, I love that performance art, or at least the kind I am constantly drawn to, stays outside the boundaries of the traditional art market. No one has ever really figured out how to sell it or how to collect it.
Who are some of your influences, within and outside the field of performance art?
Lobsters and most crustaceans, 1970s Saturday Night Live, the Muppets, transspecies psychology, Joan Jonas, William Wegman, geological time, dollhouse miniatures, Nina Simone, claymation, Robert Frank, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, vintage hosiery, Mike Kelly, plant cognition studies, Alf, Robert Caro, really loud electric guitar, The Honeymooners, East Kentucky, Tim Davis, David Hammons, Warner Brothers cartoons, Paul McCarthy, Sandy Skoglund, Wendy Ewald, dollar stores, Robert Gober, Edith Wharton, Nikki S. Lee, Borscht Belt comedy, Mary Karr, Andrea Modica, Calvin Trillin, Barbara Bloom, Sophie Calle, William Pope L, Michael Lesy, the films of Peter Sellers, Cookie Mueller, thrift stores, George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, Derek Jarman, Simone Forti, Maya Angelou, Tupperware, Nova Scotia, George Elliot, and Pee-wee Herman.
How do you record and archive your live performances? What is the future of capturing and distributing performance art– interactive VR?
Once a photographer always a photographer. For better or worse, I have done much of the video documentation of my own performances. This isn’t an issue of artistic control, it’s one of resources. I usually don’t have money to pay someone to document and, in some situations, I don’t know anyone in the venue that I can be certain will send me a tape. On certain occasions I have been lucky to have a talented friend or extra cash in my pocket and have been able to get some more high-end images, but basically, I handle it myself. I used to stress over trying to make things look slick and more expensive — basically to try to cover up the reality. Now I try to embed it more in the work. Call attention to it even rather than apologize for it.
As far as what the future holds, I’m just surprised when I wake up every morning and I’m still here. But honestly, great performance is made of the moment. It’s a “you had to be there” thing. You can make a lovely video of something that was amazing, you can distribute the bejeezus out of that, but if you weren’t there in the actual audience, breathing the actual air and riding the collective brain waves, you aren’t going to get the magic.
I don’t know much about Interactive VR. I will say that unless that technology can really give me the true tactile experience of smearing glow in the dark Vaseline on Ron Athey (as I had at the Queer City Film Festival in Regina, Saskatchewan in January 2015) then I’m not hopeful.
In a recent article in The Art Newspaper, the difficulties in controlling the usage and reproduction of ephemeral performances, monetizing such creative output, and the ambivalence of many performance artists to do either of those things is covered. What are your feelings on these particular issues facing artists like yourself?
I am definitely ambivalent on these topics. I do feel ownership over elements of my pieces, though not necessarily such that I would want to sell them at this point in my life. At some point I might consider selling my work as scores, or selling ephemera, notes, or sketchbooks. Coming from a background in photography, I recognize that 2D pieces and items that pertain to performances, but are not the actual live performance itself, can be ways to monetize a piece. I now try to make collages and other images that are adjacent to projects so that there is physical material to sell if a time ever comes.
I think I would want my work to be available in an open archive after I die rather than being sold by a gallery. A citation would be required and some copyright rules over monetization would need to be observed, and I’d have to think through some other issues, but I would just like the whole thing to be open. I have the utmost admiration for performance art archives like Franklin Furnace and Emergency INDEX from Ugly Duckling Presse that are just incredible resources for scholars and practitioners. My dream is to have my artistic work and archive to be given to the Arthur & Elizabeth Schlesinger Library at Harvard.
You’re also a prolific author, too. Does that connect with your artistic output in any way or is it something different altogether?
Most of my performance work is totally silent, so I never explored text in my work. However, a few years ago I was at a residency in Florida with the Stephen Petronio Company. Being in Florida brought up all sorts of associations and memories for me and instead of making a performance, I wrote my first creative nonfiction piece. Stephen had just published his memoir about his journey as a dancer and he encouraged me to embrace the urge to write, that I would come back to performance in due time. I listened to him and then promptly buried my writing.
Eventually, I faced circumstances where it was impossible to make new performance work and I returned to that project simply because it was something to do. Eventually, it looked something like a book, a memoir.
I used to think that my writing was completely different than my performance, if only because of the presence and absence of text. I think I wanted to prove that I could be good at something that I had no graduate degree in, no connections in, no real accolades. So it was an insurmountable challenge, and one I thought was totally independent of my art life. But then one day I realized the damn thing was just another performance, except this time I can’t see the viewer, can’t feel the audience, can’t control the space. I haven’t decided if this is more or less scary.
Tell us a little about your upcoming book, Holler Rat– what is it about and what were some of the challenges of being a first time long-form author?
Holler Rat is a memoir about growing up in two disparate cultures, my mother’s poverty-stricken East Kentucky and my father’s affluent upper middle class Jewish Connecticut. It explores how these early experiences fueled my artistic development and how dance, photography, and performance art became my home in the world. There are first person descriptions of many of my performances structuring the text, and as the narrative evolves, the ties between my work and my life really emerge.
Being a debut author is not as glamorous as it seems. I’m not going to lie– I definitely still get a kick out of saying “my agent” and “my publisher” but it’s been a tough road. I didn’t come up through an MFA in Creative Writing so I was unfamiliar with the culture of literary magazines, writing conferences, and submissions protocol. I have always been an avid reader, but I had to actively educate myself not only about the publishing market, what agents and editors want, and what books sell and why, but also about the current debates and conversations in the literary world.
But I like the idea of subverting the mainstream memoir genre by writing about something as subversive as performance. I mean, based on the cover, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that you are going to soon be reading about your heroine making out with a 14lb salmon to David Bowie, making out with a cactus, or smearing herself with cream cheese, but then, there it is, right in the middle of Barnes and Noble.
Anya Liftig’s biography and past work can be found on her website anyaliftig.com.