BONNIE MARRANCA with Patricia Milder

On the occasion of the 100th issue of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Bonnie Marranca, editor and publisher, and author of three collections of essays, met Rail Managing Art Editor Patricia Milder to discuss the journal, as well as her life and work.

Portrait of Bonnie Marranca. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Patricia Milder (Rail): The first issue of PAJ (at that time called Performing Arts Journal) was published in 1976. You were in graduate school at CUNY at the time and you decided to leave to publish the journal. What led to this decision?

Bonnie Marranca: In the early 1970s I started writing for the Soho Weekly News, which was an arts and culture-oriented newspaper. It was such an exciting time in New York: the beginnings of performance art, a lot of new dance and exciting theater, as well as video art. I was going to the theater several nights a week and also writing about some performance pieces. I was seeing work in Europe. Also, at that time the academic field wasn’t so career-oriented, and there were many more kinds of jobs available. There were no teaching jobs in New York then, and I wasn’t willing to leave. I completed all of the course work and exams for the Ph.D., but I never actually did the dissertation.

Another theater student whom I married, Gautam Dasgupta, and I decided—sitting in a cafe in the Village—that we wanted to start a journal. We were unhappy with the kinds of coverage in other theater journals, and the lack of coverage in the New York Times, of this very vibrant downtown scene. We were already a couple of years into meeting artists and being in this world, and we also knew many of the important translators and critics through academia, so we were able to put the two worlds together. We were interested in contemporary work and focused on that, but always with a mind to the modern legacy. In 1976, Michael Goldstein, who ran the Soho Weekly News, said something like, well you’ve written a year for me for free. If you write the next two years for free, I’ll typeset the journal. And that’s how the early journal came out.

Rail: So you were creating a space that didn’t exist for criticism in an emerging field. Were you modeling the journal on anything in particular?

Marranca: We were inspired by the avant-garde journals in Europe between the wars, and when we started to publish books in 1979, since we simply could not fit everything in the journal, our models were Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Helen and Kurt Wolff books. They were really the fine literary houses. They had such a long history of publishing the great world authors, primarily European, so those were our models of trying to do all of an author’s work, and to support writing at a high level, as well as experimentation.

In the late 1970s we also started Performance Art Magazine, and then quickly changed the name to Live. We were publishing books, PAJ, which at the time was more theater-oriented, but always experimental, and then Live magazine, which covered the newest of downtown work, and was more a part of what we might call today the performance and media scene. We published eight issues of Live, and then later we didn’t feel the need to do that—we kept combining more and more of that material into PAJ as the field changed and evolved in the ’80s.

Rail: When you first started writing for other publications, before you started PAJ, what drew you to more experimental work instead of traditional theater reviews, especially coming from an academic program that didn’t cover this kind of work?

Marranca: It was a bit early for the avant-garde theater histories to come into academia. Many of the professors felt, and now I think rightly so, that you could experience the contemporary for yourself, whereas you should study a great deal of the past and gain a historical perspective on your field.

I actually started reviewing in college as an undergraduate. I started the drama and arts page in my college paper as a junior, and I have no explanation of how I decided I was going to be a critic. But my tastes were always very extensive. When I was an undergraduate at Montclair State University in New Jersey, I was already coming into New York to see the shows downtown, but I also saw a lot of the Broadway musicals at that time, and serious dramas there. I went to see performances by, and wrote about, Judy Garland—I have always been a great admirer of hers. I was reviewing things at La MaMa and I was lucky enough to see classics like Al Carmines’s musicals and some of the Gertrude Stein pieces that were done in off-off-Broadway theaters, as well as the Alwin Nikolais Dance Company. When I moved to New York in 1971, my first job was working for a very famous Broadway press agent, Max Eisen, whose office was in the Sardi building.

I always enjoyed really high-style entertainment, but then my interests eventually drew me into non-conventional, non-mainstream theater. I was always interested in both worlds, the great popular singers and comedians of the century as well as what was considered avant-garde performance. Also, in PAJ and in my own work, I’ve never abandoned writing and dramatic literature. And as you know, much of the field of performance has moved away from that, though PAJ has always continued to publish plays and performance texts. We’ve done over a thousand by now, in more than 20 languages. I remain very committed to writing, to criticism, and to the book. I don’t distinguish between virtuosic performances or performance ideas throughout the whole range of works in the worlds of entertainment and art, if you want to draw that distinction.

Rail: A lot of thinking has expanded into this space—understanding that performance exists not only in one particular context, and not even in just an art context. I was actually surprised to read in your essay “Performance, A Personal History,” about the way that you framed life in general as performative. I didn’t realize before reading that exactly how broad your view of performance really is. Despite that, however, my impression is that you don’t take to the NYU-based anthropological view of performance, but you’re somewhere in between.

Marranca: PAJ is an alternative to Performance Studies. That is really an academic discipline that grew out of NYU, largely under the influence of Richard Schechner, who is a theater director and scholar. I’m a writer. Admittedly, Performance Studies has overwhelmed the field, but many people like myself wish there were more alternatives. Dramatic literature and writing were pushed off to the side, and performance became fused with a kind of cultural studies. PAJ has always put the primacy of the artwork at the center of the journal. There are people who don’t like the great theoretical turn and all of the academic writing that has taken over the field.

PAJ has always had a great deal of artist writings. We don’t publish the kind of theoretical discourse that characterizes so many of the theater journals and arts journals in the English-speaking world. Though our writers are sophisticated enough that the journal reflects a knowledge of contemporary thinking, we are primarily interested in moving the critic to the forefront, not in having applied theory. We value the critic’s experience of the work, and education in the field, and also in being knowledgeable about culture and politics and legacies, and about other fields as well, such as the novel, music, film, or opera.

Rail: In the 1990s you changed the name to A Journal of Performance and Art rather than Performing Arts Journal, which was a reflection of the times, correct?

Marranca: Certainly by the early 1990s I wanted to move the journal more toward the visual arts—by that I don’t mean painting and sculpture, but more toward video, installations, and digital culture, and that could also include photography or architecture. I had already realized that there were two histories of performance: one in the visual arts and one in theater. My idea was to combine these two histories into a much larger view of a history of performance ideas. In my teaching since the early ’90s I began to combine the study of performance art and experimental theater. To really bring together an idea of performance that now might include, say, John Cage, the Living Theatre, Jack Smith, and the Theatre of the Ridiculous and Split Britches, and Allan Kaprow and the Performance Group, Judson, and contemporary dance; and that could conceivably also have the Wooster Group and the Builders Association, as well as Meredith Monk and Joan Jonas and Cynthia Hopkins and Elevator Repair Service. I think we’ve been pretty successful in putting together a journal devoted to performance that has a great deal of crossover in all the arts, and you can see that in the kinds of education of the critics who have been writing for us the last five to seven years. More and more of our submissions are by those trained in art departments.

Rail: There is a lot of lip service paid to this idea but in terms of people’s educations, I’ve found that there actually isn’t a lot of crossover in terms of the language.

Marranca: The vocabularies are very different. It is disconcerting that people who write about performance in the art world use as their touchstones only Bertolt Brecht and maybe Russian Constructivism, and now I see Augusto Boal turning up, but there is so little understanding of theatrical performance. I feel that the curriculums in universities, though everyone talks about interdisciplinarity, are very discipline-based in terms of who they hire, and what they teach. There is very little crossover, and we still continue to turn out people in these very defined fields, yet the development of the arts is totally opposite to that. We aren’t even training people to make these connections. That is one of the ongoing interests of PAJ. I feel that an editor of a journal should not only reflect the thinking of the time but also provide some vision, push into new directions, suggest new areas of thinking, and also take the lead in articulating crucial issues in the field.

Rail: In the discussion I moderated for PAJ 100 with contemporary performance curators, we talked about the lack of scholarship in the dance world and the fact that the art writers and curators are coming in and swallowing contemporary dance into art history, contextualizing it only in terms of painting and sculpture, not in historical theater terms.

Marranca: I think it would be very regrettable if the history of performance were to be constructed solely through art history. That is something to really think about and to address. It is very interesting how things are shaping up, and that’s why legacy is such an important topic in PAJ 100, not only in the dialogue that you did but also in another one with some of the downtown theater people who work in its influential groups. The idea of legacy is addressed in many of the artist’s statements in the issue. That is one of the big subjects of our time: How do we think about modernism and postmodernism in relation to the contemporary? In earlier essays I had also written that modernity and theatricality were organizing principles of the 20th century.

One of the things that I’m also a bit concerned about is the received idea that those people who will be writing histories now assume they will be writing revisionist histories. If one looks at a lot of the work of the past through the eyes of the present, that can have considerable distortion in it. It tends to over-politicize certain aspects of performance in the postwar period.

Rail: Do you think the first-hand accounts are better to look back on? Is that what you’re getting at?

Marranca: Periodically, artists’ writings and documents are devalued or brought to the fore, but the idea that one is going to go back and look at 50 years or 100 years of performance and simply emphasize the things that people may value or bring to the forefront now, such as dislocation or rupture, strikes me as not a really valid historical or critical enterprise.

Rail: To relate that to the current issue, PAJ 100, which will be out in January—does it give the sense of the historical? The goal as I understood it was to look at performance now in New York, but with an eye to the past. You spoke about legacies, but does this issue function, in a way, as a history of performance, or is that a different project?

Marranca: This issue, which is titled “Performance New York,” is organized around four central themes, to which nearly 80 artists, curators, presenters, and critics responded. They are 1) Belief; 2) Being Contemporary; 3) Performance and Science; 4) Writing and Performance. There are also three long group conversations on current important topics. It’s quite amazing to see the honesty of those who are writing. There is very little joking around or being ironic. It’s very interesting to see what the contributors to the issue are capable of, because they are not often given a forum of this kind to draw out their deepest thoughts. Everyone took things very seriously. They were asked to reflect on issues that seem on the surface very simple, but when you begin to write about them can become quite profound. The contributors range from their 20s to their 80s, in the fields of theater, performance art, dance, music, sound, science, technology, and media—it reflects a half-century of performance thinking on artistic practice, processes, and making work.

The visual material consists entirely of artist portfolios featuring Laurie Anderson, Elizabeth LeCompte, John Kelly, Brian Dewan, Ralph Lemon, and Julie Mehretu. The portfolios are something I started in the journal in 2008, related to my interest in performance drawings, and those artists for whom drawing is an integral part of their process of making performance. Bob Wilson inaugurated the series, and since that time I’ve published Trisha Brown’s drawings and more recently the work of the young composer Joe Diebes.

Rail: Were there any threads or themes that popped up that you didn’t necessarily plan but that you noticed among the artists’ responses? Was there anything either surprising or interesting?

Marranca: Perhaps I was most intrigued by how well so many artists wrote. I would like to see more writing like this, more forums for artists’ writings that would exist side by side with more academic writing. Historically, painters and sculptors have done quite a bit of writing, and in the performance field there is less—though there are dancers, for example, Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer, who have quite a substantial body of writing, and playwrights such as Richard Foreman and Mac Wellman and David Mamet and Tony Kushner. I would like to see more of this kind of discussion that comes to the public sphere because I think a lot of people would be very interested in how artists address the question, for example, of belief. How deeply rooted are certain beliefs and connections to the artistic process and what do they hope to accomplish? What does the work mean to them, and how do they try to work in the contemporary world?

Rail: The artists whom you wrote about in the ’70s—have you noticed that the same ones who were exciting and interesting at that time are the people whose legacies have lived?

Marranca: By the time PAJ was published, I had already completed the book The Theater of Images,and it had sections on Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines, in addition to their own plays. All of my introductions had to do with the coming together of the visual arts, dance, and music in a particular kind of theater that was not anti-text, but in which text was only one of the languages in the work. So yes, I gathered up the American legacy that contributed to this kind of work then, and now those artists form a legacy. Plus, the European Modernist heritage was fused in the Theater of Images. In a way, as you can see, it has come full circle.

Even if you look at the first editorial of PAJ, our mission has remained remarkably the same, which may have to do, of course, with the fact that I have edited it for 35 years. What is remarkable is that many of the artists who have been written about in PAJ over the years continue to shape the art forms they work in and to be a source of inspiration for younger artists, such as Elizabeth LeCompte, and the Judson dancers.

Rail: When the avant-garde was creating this kind of work for the first time, what you called the “Theater of Images,” do you think there was more of a necessity for some kind of rejection of the existing order? Because I feel like a lot of young people who are working in this mode are not rejecting that heritage at all. In fact, it is within a specific “experimental” tradition now that isn’t really experimental.

Marranca: Yes, it was more antagonistic then because artists downtown were all in revolt against psychological realism and the Method, so there was a real break in the traditional ways of American acting. Then, they were trying to break away from the proscenium arch, which was a way of moving away from conventional architecture, and they were also moving away from the kind of play that was linked to psychological realism, and making different kinds of texts.

Those people who were featured in The Theater of Images were already influenced by the Judson dancers, by minimalism and process art, and by the experimental cinema. For example, Gordon Matta-Clark had a great influence on the American experimental artists from the very beginning, and Jack Smith, and the Cage/Cunningham model of making work, and Trisha Brown dances.

One of the things we’ve suffered from is the lack of performance historians. The field of performance has nothing comparable to all of the books that have been written on visual art and its institutions. What exists is RoseLee Goldberg’s book on live art, but we should have 10 books. Many of our major figures working in the field of performance have none or maybe one book on them, and that is also a big problem in teaching this field and in doing research in it. I feel that more scholarship should have been done by people who had seen the original works.

Rail: A lot of what we have left is actually newspaper accounts about performances.

Marranca: Newspaper accounts by the Village Voice, Changes, and Soho Weekly News, and some of the magazines like Avalanche, Art-Rite, or early PAJ and our issues of Live magazine, or Performance and TDR—publications like that. But this raises the issue, too, of archives. So many of the artists have archives. Where are they going to go and who is going to maintain these collections? What will happen in the future with libraries and print materials? I think these are all very pertinent issues.

When we started the journal and then book publishing, many artists were unconcerned with whether something was documented or whether they had a text, much less video. I remember we had published one author who didn’t seem very interested in having the actual printed book with his play in it, and I finally said to him: “Don’t you have a mother?” This has all changed as artists have aged.

Rail: I want to turn to something you have written about in the past regarding performance and culture. What are your thoughts on the incredible popularity of performance these days and the mainstream idea that performance art is everywhere?

Marranca: It’s confusing because often the idea of the general population may not be connected to what we think of as the historical legacy of performance art, and the complexity that came out of that. I think people subliminally recognize that the artist is the last free person in society, and they just simply are caught up in the mystique. Now ordinary people want to be artists and artists want to be ordinary people. Part of being able to perform, all of the excessive spectatorship, is connected to this psychological condition. This subject was actually my Guggenheim Fellowship project, “The Theatricalization of American Culture,” in 1984. I didn’t work on it as a book, though I have continued over 25 years to write about performance in a way that is very different from the view of those who celebrate the turn to performance in culture. Philosophically, I don’t believe in today’s view of the self as a configuration of ever-changing roles.

I’m actually against the drive toward performance and what that has produced in culture now. I think it is detrimental to the development of a serious American culture. I recall that when I first entered the theater and we started PAJ, many people like myself valued complexity in performance. We didn’t want anything accessible. The idea was that you were supposed to be challenged by work—you may have to do research, you may not know the meaning of it. People are so afraid now. Especially as the education system is in decline there is a deep cultural anxiety: This accessibility that people talk about has to do with the fear of not understanding something, a misunderstanding about what is elitist or what is popular. Also, people are confused by the accessibility that they see in virtual space and the impossibility of capturing that in performance space.

Rail: All such big questions.

Marranca: The stakes are so high.

Rail: I agree, and I think it’s very hard to articulate the feeling that performance can be on the one hand very beautiful, and on the other potentially very frightening in a large-scale cultural context.

Marranca: What are the problems that you are dealing with as a writer in terms of the issues that are being raised again today in terms of value and making judgments? One of the things I realized in looking at the performance criticism coming out of the art world, is that to a great extent it hasn’t sufficiently developed in 25 to 30 years because it doesn’t include any kind of discernible criteria. You don’t know what the terms are or why any one work is more important than another, even within the same artist’s body of work. In some ways, perhaps that is promoting performance art, but for the most part it is very descriptive, and too beholden to the artists. The critic is documenting what the artist’s intentions are or writing a review after an interview with an artist. In the past that has been problematic. In recent years I’ve noticed there is a drive on the part of art-trained critics to elevate performance in a larger scholarly frame. Perhaps that has to do with the legitimization of the form in academia and in the museum. There is now an attempt to pull performance into these large art-historical systems.

Rail: These problems show up in performance but this shows up in art criticism in general as well.

Marranca: What critical problems interest you as an arts editor?

Rail: In terms of New York performance, it is a very small world and a very personal, or at least in-person world, and there is this culture of affirmation where everyone wants to support one another. So if you become someone that covers the field, I definitely see the impulse in writers to avoid actual criticism in favor of advocacy. I think it’s just as important for a critic to believe that they can be involved in the discussion as an independent entity, and not just as someone who is beholden to the artist’s ideas. That’s very important to me. I wouldn’t write otherwise; I don’t see the reason to. I think there is a push back from young writers more recently who are asserting creative or critical individual presence. The idea of good writing is even more important now. I hear a lot more about the craft of writing.

Marranca: In a way, you can’t wait for the art to happen. You have to take your own responsibility as a critic and find the subjects that you’re going to write about. All important critics have done this. You could make this drinking glass so interesting, of course, if you were Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes. You could write about this tape recorder. Certainly, the critics that I admire or learn from or read have all been original voices in their field. In fact, why I am so against the theoretical turn is that all you have as a writer is your voice. You write because you really become attached to the work and you explore your thoughts. I love essay writing. I feel it’s so elegant when it is welldone because you are really reading thinking, and I love that. Maybe that’s why I admire Gertrude Stein. But I’m happy to hear that you think, or know of people who are perhaps thinking, that we do need some new directions in critical writing.

Even though I work in a world of artists I always try to keep a distance. I always write my pieces separate from the artist. I try to understand my experience of the work, and that’s the challenge of writing about new work. I think now is a very exciting time, actually. It’s a terrible, transformative time of crises, but I feel we’re on the verge of perhaps being able to create new models or make new breakthroughs. Many things are going to change—political, financial, and social, and also in the arts. We have many things to write about, many directions to take. I am excited about editing the journal after all this time. I love working on other people’s work as much as my own, and it’s still thrilling to me after 35 years to be able to have a voice in the culture, to be able to bring new ideas to people, and to help shape the discussion of the arts.

Rail: What do you see for the future? Continue publishing PAJ three times a year? Continue for another hundred issues?

Marranca: I keep making the mistake of saying the 100th year instead of the 100th issue. If I live that long, I’ll still be editing. I’ll be editing until I fall over at my desk. 

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Patricia Milder

PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.