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‘UCSD ART MAFIA’ : COUPLE RIDES PERFORMANCE ART WAVE

San Diego County Arts Editor

A converted water tank seems an odd place to collect one of the most prestigious arts faculties in American academia. But there it is, plug ugly and smack in the middle of the UC San Diego campus, sectioned into studios for the internationally admired likes of Italo Scanga, Allan Kaprow, or Eleanor and David Antin. Earlier this week, the Antins could be found there in Eleanor’s space--a vast split-level clutter of books, papers, Eleanor’s drawings and performance props.

Since 1968, the couple--originally from New York, their accents reveal a Bronx-to-Brooklyn spread--have made Southern California their home, preferring, in David’s words, “its openness, the look of an American dream leading America off a cliff” to the self-absorption of the New York art scene.

Tonight, in fact, the Antins will be among a handful of local artist-performers at a special benefit show, “Taster’s Choice,” which will open an eight-weekend summer performance series at the Del Mar Communication Center, 240 10th St., Del Mar. Sponsored by local performance gallery Sushi and Del Mar’s Public Access Television Channel 37, the series will feature a variety of performers from all over the country.

Eleanor was hobbled by a sprained foot as she made her way to the studio’s loft for an interview. The injury, she mentioned, had something to do with ballet practice. This seemed altogether fitting for someone who has been at the forefront of performance art for more than a decade via her four fictional personae--a ballerina called “Eleanora Antinova,” a black film star, a nurse, and the itinerant “King of Solana Beach.”

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Her role-play has had a seminal effect on the development of that hybrid art form in which artists combine poetry, music, theater and a variety of related disciplines. With its roots in street theater and everything from Dada to Kaprow’s “happenings,” performance art has become increasingly popular. Laurie Anderson may be its greatest popularizer at this point, but Eleanor Antin--still girlishly long-haired and classically bohemian--stands as perhaps its greatest actress.

Likewise, her husband David--his shaven head and prominent features at first glance forbidding--has been at the forefront of improvising, performing poets. His unrehearsed narrative/poetic visions are recorded in the book “Talking at the Boundaries,” while his critical essays on the nature of video and television are among the key theoretical works of the electronic age.

“We’re playing with some ideas about performing together,” said Eleanor of the Antins’ “Taster’s Choice” appearance. “My part will be ‘Being Antinova,’ in which I’m gonna talk about the character, show some slides about Antinova’s great roles. Then I think I’ll read a little bit from Antinova’s memoirs. It would be great to have people ask some questions, too.”

“We’ve been on the same program at times,” observed David Antin, “but in this one we’ll be closer than usual. It’s basically easy for me to adapt. Eleanor comes from a scripted performance background, and I come from a background as an improvising poet, so I have more room to move in and out, playing with the whole thing. If she’s gonna do ‘Being Antinova,’ then I’m gonna do something called ‘Living With Antinova.’ ”

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“And I have no idea what he’s gonna say!” said Eleanor, laughing.

But both Antins have much to say on the subjects that concern them. If they’re at the core of what some view as a self-satisfied “UCSD art Mafia,” there’s nothing elitist or ungenerous about their assessments of their own art and of where performance art in general seems headed, now that it’s genuinely trendy. Eleanor notes the political side of her work, and its increasing orientation toward more traditional theatrical forms.

“The King (of Solana Beach) is essentially my political self,” she said. “And for seven or eight years the King was leading the old people and the young people of Solana Beach against the developers who were destroying Solana Beach, and that was as topical as you could get, living here. When everyone else finally got onto that topic, that’s when I put the piece to bed.

“Now I’m working on a full-scale theatrical play, ‘The American Dance of Death,’ using the King persona as the King of the Underworld picking off people for his kingdom. It’s about the endless dying that is going on all around us in American culture--how death is basically built into the system in all ways, literally and otherwise. And I’ve just finished an ‘Antinova’ play I hope to have produced next year.”

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Eleanor--who has worked with “depraved” forms such as soap-opera in her experimental video works--insists there’s nothing “traditional” about her plays.

“In the ‘70s, performance artists established a kind of bizarre, idiosyncratic space, but that became as predictable as anything else,” explained David. “So, in a sense, if you want to stay on the boundary you have to pass to both sides of the boundary. The fact that Ellie’s playing with doing things for a theater audience (instead of the gallery crowd) is an attempt to force a theater audience to come across the boundary they wouldn’t come across otherwise.

“As for my stuff, it’s starting to get treated as if it were published fiction, since it’s got a lot of narrative to it. So my next book is gonna be like a series of novellas, but it’ll still be built out of the talk pieces I do. In a sense, all we’re doing is trying to keep the zones of our art open.”

The zones of performance art are certainly wide open. The serious, avant-garde tenor of the hybrid has begun, refreshingly, to move toward a new model of popular entertainment. The Antins applaud this, although Eleanor notes that younger performers don’t seem to have “the support for deep, inventive work that we did, coming out of the 1960s. Young performers are starting right out, but there’s not much density propping them up.”

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“The thing that strikes me is how the American entertainment industry has declined rather immensely,” David said. “Maybe performance is an avenue for the eruption of a new vaudeville--for example, what Philip-Dimitri Galas is doing. And that would be great because vaudeville was terrific.


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