First Person with Neal Medlyn

Neal Medlyn, “The Paris Hilton of Performance Art”

I’ve worked in lots of different types of places over the last twelve or so years of making performances. Parks, rented hotel rooms, apartments of mine and others, art galleries, big museums, shitty bars, Wal-Mart parking lots, nightclubs, even downtown institutions “intended” for my kind of work.

I’ve noticed the conversation over the last few years about the contexts or frames that different venues place on or lend to performances. Mostly this conversation seems to be on the hot topic of the aforementioned downtown institutions and what are sometimes described by some downtowners as the swooping, money dripping, carpetbaggers known as Art Museums.

For me, the politics of that part of the question aren’t so salient. I don’t mind visual artists getting paid whatever they get paid. I would not mind being paid for making what I make, I don’t feel like I make art for a rarified audience, nor would I mind a show at the MoMA. I have always focused almost entirely on making my work and if someone wants to present that work and they are not telling me how to do it or making me alter it, then I welcome all comers.

That said, there is a lot to the context question. Obviously when I did a show in a hotel room it was a big part of what the show was as the setting leant itself so much to an artistic consideration or at least acknowledgment of all the meanings hotels have. I made specific pieces for lots of the weirder places I planned to perform. For my longer, fuller pieces, though, I’ve tried to think of them as their own little worlds, able to be set up, itinerant preacher style, in any setting. There’s context conferred by those places, to be sure. When I did my Beyonce DVD reenactment “The Neal Medlyn Experience Live!” at the New Museum, I was super excited about the idea of doing a Beyonce concert in a big museum. I think Concert Performing is an interesting and great American art.

So being able to do that show and being able to feel like I had succeeded in bringing that form of art, as represented in that show by Beyonce, as accomplished a practitioner and bearer of that history as we have right now, was a big thrill. But it wasn’t the only or even the main context of the show, of course. I did the show in festivals, other museums, and various places and I don’t think the show lost any of its core meaning in those other venues.

A lot of my work in New York, tracing a general progression from paying $125 or so bucks when I could afford it to rent Collective Unconscious to put on shows back in 2001 to being curated into places like Joe’s Pub and the Kitchen now, has been about taking opportunities to make the work I want to make and adapting to those opportunities. For example, when PS122 asked me to do a show, I didn’t say no because the context wasn’t right, I just found a way to make what I wanted in that space. Later, some people were worried that my work, which they felt fit so well in PS122 would not communicate in larger spaces like DTW. In that way the venue had provided a frame for viewing my work in that way: some people felt I was a “small venue” performer, meaning my work communicated better up close. In somewhat the same way, I at some point began being referred to in terms of the downtown dance community even though my work isn’t dance based. I didn’t stop anyone from doing that any more than I turned down work at DTW. These frames or contexts no doubt were the honest opinions of various people and may very well be right, but they weren’t my contexts.

At the end of the day, I want to make things. I’m an opportunist. And I like to think that if I can make a good piece it will succeed. If someone calls it dance, and that frame means something to a viewer, either positively or negatively, I’m loathe to reject that frame. I see it as my job to try to craft something as completely and totally as I can and a large part of that and an integral component of it is knowing that there will be institutional, audience-generated, press-generated, cultural, and other frames and contexts that will be laid on top of what I do and I’m happy with that fact. I can’t and don’t control all those contexts and I mostly focus on controlling the ones that matter to me and leave the others to other people.

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