What is performance art? It’s not quite the performance of theater, nor even improv. It doesn’t consist of a finished piece that can hang on one’s wall or be propped on a stand. An academic might describe it as anything involving “action, ritual, task” but that misleadingly boils performance art down to following a formula. One might think performance art can be described as an observable event equal to brushing your teeth in the morning.
Rather, performance art is distinct from a mere performance in that it necessitates an interaction between performer and participant, between human and human, in which a level of intimacy beyond the possibility of day-to-day life is achieved.
Dallas-based artist Colton White describes it as follows: “Performance art is about trust, about intimacy, about storytelling in a way — it’s about life.”
Artists often dedicate their lives to their art, but perhaps none embody this commitment as fully as performance artists. White (who is non-binary and uses the pronoun "they") exemplifies this in a couple of intertwined ways. First, they don’t adopt a new character for a performance, the way an actor might; in their performances, they are more themselves than any other time. But in another way, their entire life has been a piece of performance art; it just wasn’t until they started taking art classes in college that they realized performance art could also be a career.
“I originally wanted to start in fashion design. I started learning more about performance art, and I was like, people can do this? They consider this art? I do this every day!”
Since stepping away from fashion and into performance art, White has developed a unique style of performance that fulfills a particular personal desire. “I just want to create beautiful interactions with people," the artist says.
These interactions manifest in varied ways depending on the specific performance piece. Sometimes White takes on a role of dominance, sometimes a role of complete submission. With another piece, they are an emotional conduit for the person engaging in the piece. But regardless of the piece, the human engagement is paramount to White. “I try not to create this hierarchy [where] I am the performer and you are the patron. I want everyone to feel like they’re performing in a way.”
One of their pieces, called “Hotlips,” evokes dominance and the idea of hook-up culture. The premise is simple: Participants select one of five tubes of lipstick, approach White sitting in a chair turned away from them, and sit down beside the artist. “I put the tube of lipstick into my mouth and then I apply the lipstick onto their mouth,” White explains. This requires some level of submission on the side of the participant, and control on White’s part. “I just revel in the drama,” the artist says.
Another piece, “Plaything,” puts White in the opposite position. They stand on a stage surrounded by a rack of clothing, and participants come up and do what they will with White and the clothing, as they would with a paper doll. White doesn’t help and stands still as the participant dresses them. “With the paper doll piece, I became my most submissive self,” they say. This piece forces the participant to engage, not with what White wants, but with what they themselves want.
“We” forges a powerful middle ground between the latter two pieces. In the piece, White dons a sparkly outfit and a mirror mask that completely obscures their eyesight; when a participant approaches, they see their own face reflected back at them. White never sees the participant, and the participant never sees White. But their connection is deeper than sight: White grasps the participant's hands, and doesn’t let go until they do.
“You have to look at yourself while touching someone else. I call that piece ‘We’ and it’s not because we’re one person, it’s because we’re here together. I’m here for you, you’re here for me, but you’re also there for yourself.”
This piece brings about emotional confrontations for the participant, but White is left with the refuse of an emotional outpouring. “We” is one of their most striking pieces, but it is also the most emotionally devastating.
“After performing, my high is gone, but now I have all this emotional weight from people, so I tend to go into a depression,” says White of the aftereffects of their particular brand of performance art.
The depression that follows a performance is now a part of White’s life, and though it is draining and exhausting, the rewards of performance art make up for it. No other aspect of life allows one to achieve the same level of intimacy with another, especially with another stranger: It’s a type of utterly uninhibited connection. White compares their lipstick piece to meeting a stranger at a bar: “I’m not going to be over the top in that situation — I’m going to be guarded. Compared to the lipstick piece: there is no guardedness. I am what I want to be.”
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Performative action allows White to amplify every part of their character, which is essential to the intimacy achieved in their pieces. Yet, performance art per se isn’t necessary for performative action and the intimacy that comes from it. Other artistic media can become performative when the focus shifts from the final product to the process of construction. The way that an artist strokes a brush is specific — it’s all performative. The making of a painting is performance art, even if the painting itself is not.
Even work outside the art world intersects with performance art — and that’s important for a time when art, especially performance art, is put on hold because of a certain pandemic. White finds performative solace even working at a grocery store: “I’ve been sanitizing carts, wiping things down, helping stock groceries; having almost a trance of motion really helps give me a performance space.”
Performance art allows for a heightened approach to intimacy, both on the part of the performer and the participant (whom, of course, White thinks of as a co-performer). That intimacy is put at stake by coronavirus, but White will defend the human need for intimacy, be it provided by a performance piece or a simple service industry job. “A close friend called me an intimacy activist. I will want to fight to still have interaction and intimacy with people. I never want that to go away for me, and I don’t think people want that to go away for them.”