Performing Lag Time

Tagny Duff
January 2005

From: Duff, Tagny. “Performance Lag Time,” Vigilantes – The Dream of Reason, Ed.FADO, January 2005. (illust.) pp. 29 – 36.

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Performance Lag Time

by Tagny Duff

The flight of time is not a straight path from point A to point B. Nor is the time of flight. The movement of time generates a lag—between here and there, departure and arrival, movement and stasis. While flying en route to a destination there is time lag; landing in another time zone creates jet lag; and when waiting for computer circuitry to crush binary code there is lag time. These forms of lag represent time as something that is lost, static or unproduc­tive. The lag I am referring to is anything but fixed or still. It is the time when past and present collide with futurity. It is the time when we are simultaneously flying and falling. It is “overfull, in excess of the actually-performed action.”This is the excess generated during Tania Bruguera’s inflight performances, videotaped as part of Vigilantes: The Dream of Reason.

Travelling on an airplane draws us into an experience of lag time where individu­als partake in collective anaesthetics. My daydream allows me to believe that the airplane’s floor is the ground and there is no possibility of falling thousands of feet to my death. The dream allows me to forget that I might not make it to my destination in a couple of hours, let alone never arrive. I forget the images of hi­jacked planes and the sound of scream­ing passengers. The body’s synaesthetic cognitive system has learned how to pro­tect itself from the trauma of accidents and the shock of excess by numbing the organism: “to deaden the senses, to re­press memory: the cognitive system of synaesthetics has become rather, one of anaesthetics.”

In the eight flights that Bruguera took in and out of the United States during the Time Zones project in 2004,a small dose of speed is added to the anaesthetized senses, creating synaesthetic experi­ences in the form of performances for the video camera. With these performances, Bruguera asks passengers sitting nearby to collaborate by suggesting actions and words for her to use. She also asks them to videotape what takes place. Complete strangers are given the role of amateur videographer and asked to record events in whatever way they choose, without any direction from the artist. As a result, a fel­low passenger becomes Bruguera’s and ultimately the viewer’s prosthetic eye re­cording and witnessing the silent actions occurring on the plane. This roaming eye examines the details of the airplane cabin, in real time, without the “optical correct­ness” and “newspeak eyes” of profes­sionalization found in formulaic reality TV shows(and most performance art docu­mentation). With this body of work, the video recordings and the artist’s actions do not exhibit the careful planning or aes­thetic parameters of Bruguera’s earlier signature pieces. In Vigilantes, Bruguera becomes an ambient prop in the video document, not the focus.

The first inflight performance is record­ed by Jennifer Oldham and Kyla Miller. They both agree to provide Bruguera with a word and to videotape whatever happens. One of the women suggests the word “chink,” the other suggests “silence.” Bruguera responds by writing “chink” on a small mirror. Then she pulls a hair from her head and threads it through a needle. With needle and thread in hand, she looks into the mirror and begins sew­ing the word “silence” onto the medical mask now covering her face. There isn’t a literal connection between the words given and Bruguera’s response. The event is without syntax, nor does it repre­sent a pre-formulated message. For two hours the eye of the passenger lingers on Bruguera. We inhabit an intimate space, repeatedly zooming in on the artist’s skin and hair, examining each texture in mac­ro vision.

My apprehension of the word “chink” physically manifests as time lag. Frantz Fanon defines time lag as something that delays response, making it always too late to annunciate one’s recogni­tion of racism.Time lag happens before I can say, “This is not acceptable.” It is the moment when I feel the violence of naming hit my face. Through the force of the camera’s eye, I am suspended in a space of anxiety. I want the video editing to remove this glitch. How can there be no mediation, no removal of this error? Is this a political statement? Or am I reading racial violence into a harmless word ut­tered spontaneously in a moment of con­fusion? There is no ideological closure in this lag.

The second performance takes place on a late night flight, and is videotaped by Kuo Sa Chen. The sound of children speaking in the dark airplane cabin enve­lopes the image of Bruguera chewing on ice and melting it in her mouth. Unlike the first video, the camera’s gaze remains at a distance, positioned across the aisle from the artist. A boy seated behind Bruguera says, “I am afraid of heights.” The artist remains silent and still. The passengers and the conversations circulating around her are the focus of this recording. Bru­guera’s actions are the ambient gestures of someone who is not threatening, just slightly odd. Other passengers pay little attention to her. No one seems to hear her reciting Ithaka, a poem by Constantine P. Cavafythat focuses on the importance of passage rather than arrival.

As with the first video, I experience the sensation of flight while watching events unfold on the monitor. The child’s refer­ence to “height” reminds me that the plane could crash, which in turn con­centrates my attention on the anxiety to­wards air travel that has heightened since 9/11. Even so, the drone of the jet engine makes me feel sleepy. I get antsy. I look at the time left on the video, in an absurd at­tempt to find out how much time remains on the flight. I am restless and wish time would speed up. Once again I experience the lag time. Here, the glitch and drop-out normally edited out of performance art documentation to mask the slowness of real time is left unedited, making the movement of image and sound feel too slow. The amateur videographer gener­ates the lag as she experiences it. My gaze crosses with hers. I am suspended. It is a physical sensation that heightens my awareness of the chair I am sitting on. Here, a physical awareness of the pas­sage of time is amplified.

Pamela R. Haunschild documents the third flight. The eye is fixed on Bruguera, who wears a dental dam strapped to her mouth, and a T-shirt that bears the inscrip­tion Dissent Without Fear. When Bruguera starts walking up and down the aisle, only two passengers seem to notice. When she disappears into the washroom, one of them leans over the aisle and asks Haunschild what is going on. Haunschild explains, “It’s just a video.” And then she chuckles, saying, “We’re going to be fa­mous.”

While watching this video, I find myself waiting for an accident to happen. I wait for the fall that happens every time we walk. I anticipate the fear of taking off and landing; the fear of falling from the sky; the fear that Bruguera will be detained by airplane staff because of her unusual behaviour. The narrative closure that we have come to expect doesn’t take place. The eye of the camera blinks and then the anticipation of the fall is over as abruptly as it began.

The three video recordings described above are very different from one an­other, but they all embed a lag time that is performed in the circuitry of perform­ance art documentation. These tapes raise critical questions pertaining to the practice of documenting (and archiv­ing) performance events. Traditionally, someone with a trained eye—another artist or a professional videographer, for example—maneuvers the camera with the intention of creating an aesthetically pleasing representation of the live event. When edited, these video recordings of performance affect the sense of sight and sound, not the larger range of sensations experienced in real time, such as touch, smell and taste. (It can be argued that un­der these circumstances the senses are anaesthetized). Performance documenta­tion of this kind is typically used for dis­seminating works, securing funding for new projects, or selling performance-re­lated objects to museums. But when an amateur videographer – one who has no direct relation to the field of art – operates the camera and directly contributes tothe performance, the status of the docu­ment changes. With projects such as Vigilantes, the standard protocol of per­formance documentation is challenged in significant ways. Here, the performance for and of the camera does not represent or capture the event as performance art. It generates a synaesthetic experience, where sound and image evoke a tactile and visceral experience of time, one that potentially shocks the senses out of an­aesthetic slumber.

This series of inflight performances and video documents represent a major shift in Bruguera’s practice. In previous works, she is the central subject of events con­ceived primarily for an art audience. But with Vigilantes, Bruguera (dis)places her identity as “artist” by performing in situ on United Airlines flights, where other passengers also play a vital role in determin­ing how the work evolves.Bruguera is willingly suspended as subject, hovering between anachronism and futurity, both witnessed and forgotten. A sensation akin to the experience of travel.

Vigilantes has none of the overt political content found in Bruguera’s earlier works, such as the Ana Mendieta re-enactments carried out between 1985-1996, or Dis­placement (1998-1999), which addressed social and political issues directly related to the history of Cuba. With the inflight performances Bruguera generates a vo­cabulary of actions that are less defin­able, gestures that meld with the anaes­thetized context of the plane and the videographer’s recording of what takes place. Here, we see events unfold through unrehearsed eyes, and for the first time Bruguera insists that the videographer be given credit for co-authoring the work.

The Vigilantes performances and video documents embrace a lag time that is of­ten edited or omitted in the time of flight. The works highlight the problem of rep­resenting an event as performance art or recalling the duration of travel. The tickets purchased for these flights attempt to reg­ulate time, duration, and space of travel, forming contracts that govern when and where an identifiable subject will travel. They demand that a given subject have a name and nationality authorized to move from point A to point B. At point A, Bru­guera is detained at Customs and asked for her passport and American visa. At point B, her identity is checked once again, and her movements documented. Something analogous happens to all art­ists working within the art system when they claim authorship for the work of art by showing documentation of the original event that arguably has no origin, only a trace among traces.

The lag of experience and the experience of the lag generated through the inflight performances is irreducible to represen­tation. This is the movement in time that Tania Bruguera’s Vigilantes compels us to experience. Perhaps this ticket that we read now offers the potential to en­gage with Bruguera’s rethinking of time, not as symbolic sign of a present past, but as a trace and imprint of time, in ex­cess of itself.