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Look At Me: A response by Brendan McCall

Indelible: Christine Blasey Ford as performance artist

By Holly Hughes

Lecture & Performance via Zoom

8 April 2021

Department of Gender, Women´s, and Sexuality Studies

University of Iowa

Depending on which invitation you may have seen online from the University of Iowa’s Department of Gender, Women´s, and Sexuality Studies, Holly Hughes´ Indelible: Christine Blasey Ford as performance artist was billed as a webinar, a talk, or a lecture/performance. Given the rigor with which Hughes has approached her own work, both as a pioneering American performance artist as well as a thinker and academic, it can certainly be framed in any of these categories. This is less a review, more of a response to this engaging and stimulating talk by one of America’s most incisive artists.

Performance art is notoriously difficult to codify or define, Hughes admits early on, but she emphasizes that the form´s concerns tend to be less about beauty, and more about ideas. Unlike theater, there is no artifice in performance art, no rehearsal in preparation for the event; performance art occurs between the artist and the audience, together.

This important point connects us to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in September 2018, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford challenged the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on the grounds that he sexually assaulted here in 1982. This event is not only about these two individuals, but to larger systems of sexism and patriarchy held in place by power and violence. Dr. Ford is an endurance artist, Hughes contends, demanding that all of us look at her when she speaks to us. But if performance art, like feminism, cannot happen by oneself, what are we collectively doing? How many more stories like Dr. Ford´s do we need to hear, or to experience, before meaningful change occurs?

During this piece, Hughes references a number of exceptional performance artists whose work takes seemingly simple actions and reveals the deeper ideas inherent within them. In creating a link with the testimony of Dr. Ford, however, Hughes highlights two disturbing works in particular: Cut Piece (1964) by Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovic´s Rhythm Zero(1974). In both instances, these women create a space filled with sharp objects, and invite the audience to do whatever they wish. The power of their work is a form of martyrdom, as they commit to incredible endurance and passivity, despite having their bodies stripped, injured, threatened. And while both of these are considered seminal examples of performance art by women that Hughes respects tremendously, are they not also normalizing violence against women, aestheticizing their harm and humiliation? Is Dr. Ford´s 2018 testimony doing the same?

Indelible: Christine Blasey Ford as performance artist does not provide simple or easy answers to these and other questions contained within this 47-minute work. Instead, using imagery and quotations from the worlds of politics and performance art, Hughes asks us to reflect on our roles within each of these spaces. Like the audiences in Abramovic´s infamous The Artist is Present (2010) at MoMA, Dr. Ford´s 2018 testimony is an unflinching gaze marked with courage, vulnerability, and pain. Are we able to look back? And if yes, what are we going to do about it?

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