Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nancy Popp: Interventions within the Built Environment

This is a review of Nancy Popp's Artist Talk at Outpost for Contemporary Art on October 24th, 2009 where she presented images and video of her street performances.  Nancy Popp is a Los Angeles based artist whose performance series Untitled (Street Performances) investigates the body as a simultaneous site and material for art.  Her performances challenge the restrictions of movement in public places by reframing the relationship between her body and the public location.  Frequently, this means that Popp climbs stop-light poles at busy intersections in cities around the world.  Like other art works discussed on this blog, Popp's performances investigate the ability of the built environment to determine our experience.  She challenges the traditional hierarchy of subjugation that exists between architecture and the body in the pursuit of liberation highly controlled and predetermined function of individual within the built environment.  Her performances encourage witnesses to reevaluate their relationship to the built environment and urge them to create new paths that have the potential to liberate the individual from the physical confines of the modern urban environment.  She challenges conventional patterns of movement as she elevates herself above the typical confines of public movement.  From her heightened vantage point she assumes a sense of ownership over the public space that challenges notions of what is public and what is private.  She asserts her own power over the space by elevating herself to a place unintended for public movement and by conquering this space liberates herself from it.  Furthermore, the public watching her performance is forced to reevaluate their relationship to public space and how it dictates their daily patterns as well as the thin line that separates public and private.  Her performance proves that public space is only public until it is claimed.  Like a dog pissing on fire hydrant, Popp climbs poles to mark her territory and through this demarcation reverses the traditional relationship of architecture governing the individual because now the individual governs architecture by endowing it with a new, self-serving purpose.  However, the ownership of the space is only temporary until another dog comes along and marks the territory as his.  But the dog that peed there first is not concerned, he has already freed himself of the space by making the space function on his terms.

Popp's performances are interventionist in that they destroy popular notions of what is public and private and challenges human's proscribed relationship to the built environment that confines them.  During her talk, Popp explained that her street performances began in 2004 in San Fransisco because the urban density was making her feel claustrophobic, therefore, she began climbing a telephone pole in an attempt to escape the crowded environment that currently confined her.  Since that first climb, Popp began to consider the relationship between public and private space, and the confinement of the individual inherent within the built environment.  From her newfound vantage point, she realized that she had access to sightlines that were previously inaccesible.  The act of climbing, for Popp, is a declaration of liberation from the typical hierarchy of pedestrian movement, which is subordinated in favor of architecture.  That is pedestrians are at the control of architecture because they are forced to adapt their patterns of movement to circumvent architecture.  Popp's climbing performances present a new possibility that this relationship of insubordination to architecture and defined patterns of movement can be toppled and therefore new theories about the relationship of the human to the built environment can begin to be articulated.  In this new paradigm, public space is available for the taking.  It should be noted though that once claimed the public space becomes private yet this transformation is only temporary.  The pole is Popp's when she climbs it but once she is down, anybody else could climb it and make it theirs for the moment.  This is not revolutionary, its just that we typically aren't aware of this process.  For example, when I sit on a stoop, that space becomes mine for the moment, but later in the day it can be someone else's.  Picking a path to navigate through a crowd is also the same, the space between other people becomes your path, meanwhile everyone else has their own path through the same crowd.

Popp's performance transforms sign into signifier because her body becomes a symbol for a transgression that subverts the regulated use of public space in favor of a temporary escape from the overly-structured paradigm of the built environment as a search for personal freedom and the liberation of self-expression.   Furthermore, her performance can be read as a narrative of the human struggle to reconcile the individual within the relentless onslaught of contruscted space intended to confine the individual.  The individual functioning within established spaces prescribed by the built environment and societal norms is chronically subjugated to the spaces that reinforce societal norms.  A reinvisioning of the use of established spaces is a symbol of revolt against the confines of society.  Popp's performance is, therefore, a narrative about the potential to change our perception of these spaces and thus to liberate the individual from predetermined practices inflicted by the artificial construction of an environment. 

Recognizing that the narrative is limited by the temporality of the performance, Popp seeks to commemorate each perfomance by attaching a sticker of a silhouetted climbing figure to each pole and documents each performance with photography and video.  However, in her talk she notes that each medium of documentation has its own unique way of commemorating the performance that is inherent within the properties of the medium.  The sticker simply recalls the memory that the performance once happened at that site.  The memory of the performance becomes subjective because it is remembered differently by each person who sees the sticker.  Photography presents the viewer with a moment frozen in time, which therefore, emphasizes the absurdity of the action in relation to the normalcy of the street.  In one video clip, Popp showed herself climbing a post at the busy Trafalgar Square in London.  The constant predetermined movement of the street stood in direct contrast to the rebellous stillness of Popp on the pole.  Unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of witnessing one of Popp's performances in real life, but she described that there is a heightened awareness of spatial relationships when she is on the pole and pedestrians are still at ground level.  The absurdity of her action makes the viewer hyper-aware of the spatial relationships and constructs that surrounds him or her and determines many of his or her actions.  She also describes a realigning of energy when she is juxtaposed above the crowded street.  Energy is transported between her and the witnesses on street-level, she draws energy from them and they in turn recieve energy from her simply through the realigning of spatial relationships.  Within this sharing of energy is the possibility for real change in the way that we as a society interact with and interpret the spaces that govern our daily lives. 

One last thing I want to bring up is the idea of Popp's work as protest.  Her work seems to be a protest against the mass acceptance of the subjugation of the individual to the scripted movements determined by the built environment and society's singular usage of the environment.  This reminded me of a protest Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine did at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards in which he climbed a stage prop to protest Limp Bizkit's award.  I could not find any more information on the protest except that Commerford was arrested for it.  Personally, I think Commerford's attempt falls short of the issues that Nancy Popp raises with her performances.  While Popp's work can be read as an action of defiance and protest against the uniform use and interpretation of space, Commerford's is more simply a publicity stunt.  One thing I did think was interesting is that the MTV website has chosen to glorify his act as Rock n' Roll although they had him arrested at the time.  This aspect of it reminded me of Daniel Buren's Inside because there was a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the institution in that the institution capitalized on the artist's protest and the artist could not have executed his protest without working within the context of the institutionAnyways, just food for thought...

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