Like no other artist I know, Samantha Johns exposes real vulnerability in performance. She dispenses with dramatic convention, finding more heightened feeling and significance in everyday life, personal identity, and human relationships. She designs structures—prompts, scores, games, directions—that give the performer a space to divulge a personal truth. The instructions are often obvious, throwing the difference between the real and the performative into relief. She made her own romantic life transparent in Five Uses of an Egg, reading a tearful letter to her recently-ex partner Lucas Koski as he cooked her favorite meal. She’s used personal revelation via direct address in SNOWFUCK (created with George McConnell), Man Show [What We Want to See] (created with Paige Collette), and what i want now i will want later (created with Annie Enneking). She’s used children to great effect in her work, highlighting their honesty within nascent social behavior—notably in WORKING (directed with Lisa Channer) and fer fuck’s sake (created with Justin Spooner). In the lineage of feminist performance artists, or writers like Chris Kraus, Samantha Johns puts herself on the line. Her best work performs an opening, granting just enough artifice for something genuine and palpable to slip through.
i’ve never been alive this long before is the work that Samantha Johns created for her 30th birthday. She invited a panel of 10 people, including her mother, close friends and collaborators, and a few acquaintances, to “tell Samantha Johns how to live a life”. Though Sam does not appear in the piece after her brief introduction, her hand as a director is evident throughout. The panelists are not left to open discussion, but rather the piece proceeds as a series of instructions, activities, and interludes scored in advance. The panelists present themselves by sharing their astrological sign, how they met Sam, and what they value. Then together they perform agreement or disagreement with a set of statements—“the glass is half full,” “I know what I’m doing,” “life gets better”—by stepping forward or back. There’s a recurring movement section in which the panelists name Sam’s qualities or things she could improve upon. They pull questions from an envelope and give brief answers: “What is Sam pretending not to know?” “What has Sam always wanted?” There’s a four-part game in which the panelists name Sam’s values, list possible ideal careers, map the two together, and create five-step plans to achieve them. Throughout the course of the show, each panelist has a moment to take the microphone and say what they think Sam should do with her life. Though some of the panelists try to break from this pattern, the resounding refrain is that Sam should “keep doing what she’s doing”. In George McConnell’s words, that means a balance between stability and freedom, having a home and a garden but also maintaining the ability to travel and make art.
In i’ve never been alive this long before, the vulnerability of the panel came through more in the supportive than in the critical moments—like when Sam’s mother’s voice broke as she spoke about Sam’s bravery. As a viewer, I kept waiting for someone to step up and play the tough love advice columnist, but it never came. Most of the individuals on the panel were invited because of their close relationship to Sam, and I assume that they want to continue those close relationships. The show was on Sam’s actual birthday, she’d orchestrated the whole thing, and she was sitting in the center of the front row. Was it really an option for anyone to tell Sam that she was heading down the wrong path? Did the context lend itself to constructive advice that would carry her into the next stage of life? As a group, the panelists most wanted to affirm her progress in life and tell her that she was appreciated. These are beautiful actions, but they foreclosed some possibilities for the range of advice Sam received, as well as what the work itself could have done. It’s not that I think Sam needed or wanted an intervention, but I do think that she wanted substantive feedback—not to follow uncritically but as something to push against, to react to. In the advice it solicited, I don’t think the piece provoked any epiphanies.
For contrast, we can look to a project in which an individual’s friends were interviewed about him while he was not present. In Sophie Calle’s 1983 piece The Address Book, she finds a lost address book on the street in Paris, and contacts each person listed in it. She consults close friends and distant acquaintances about the man in question, trying to obtain a picture of who he is without his participation, solely from the people he knows and their impressions of him. The owner of the notebook was not contacted, and was in fact irate when he learned about it: he threatened to sue her for invasion of privacy. This speaks to the vulnerability inherent in Sam’s position, in soliciting feedback about one’s life and self from other people. It’s less important whether the portrait is positive or negative, but just that the two artistic structures produced very different results, when the social circle is or is not held accountable to the individual in question. Sophie Calle’s arrangement led to greater candor, while Samantha Johns’s work celebrated relationships.
While viewing the piece, I start to think about conflict of interest—as a set of policies but mostly as a concept. The structure of Criticism Exchange itself probably belies how little conflict of interest resonates with me—it asks collaborators and colleagues to review each other’s work, not from a “neutral” vantage point but as embedded critics and co-creators. I see this as a benefit, not a liability. I understand the intent of conflict of interest in formal situations, but it’s always seemed archaic to me when it comes to writing and thinking about the arts, and not reflective of the ways that contemporary performance artists actually work together and build a discourse together. Conflict of interest seems to presume that there can be an unbiased spectator, or that bias is caused by personal affiliation rather than all the other social and cultural lenses that shape how one views work. I’d like to to think that I’d be more critical of the work of someone I know—especially when I have more knowledge of their background, perspective, access to resources, and overall body of work—than I would towards work in a form in which I’m not fluent, when I don’t know what the artist is working with or towards.
But during i’ve never been alive this long before, I started to understand how conflict of interest might also become a detriment. I think Sam was asking for serious advice, both on an interpersonal level and insofar as it was framed as performance. The composition of the piece and the social proximity inherent in it, however, limited the advice that she received. The most uncomfortable it got was Lisa Channer’s comment on Sam’s fashion choices—pretty superficial, in the grand scheme of things. The most specific plan offered, when Colleen Lamb said they should wear neon and raise alpacas together, was a joke. None of the panelists really went out on a limb, told her to change course, or gave her some kind of hard truth to swallow. This would have made for better theater, better drama, but it would have been worse for their ongoing relations. The piece would have benefited, but the people at stake would not have. I had to revise my expectation of what the piece would do as the piece was in progress. Maybe it was not meant to provoke or disrupt, maybe it was meant to strengthen social bonds. It’s not my personal favorite use for performance, but I think i’ve never been alive this long before actually accomplished it, where many productions only pay it lip service.
I also have some lingering fears about the ostensible transition from vulnerability-as-personal-rupture to vulnerability-as-social-glue. This question ran throughout the show, encapsulated well by an audience member during the ending Q&A: “Is this evening all about validating Sam Johns’s want for a baby?” In our culture, the 20s are often construed as a decade of rupture and the 30s as a decade of cementing. And I think that’s exactly Sam’s conundrum at this point in life, which was expressed well by the panel—how to want rupture and glue at the same time. As a 28-year-old, I hope that construction isn’t total. I see now how stability can both enable and detract from the process of art making, but if it came down to it, I’d like to fight for rupture. In a workshop I took with Julyen Hamilton when I was 24, he quoted Harold Pinter on William Shakespeare: “The genius of Shakespeare is that he keeps the wound open.” I am afraid that i’ve never been alive this long before veered too far towards closing the wound. I am not convinced that the wound wants to be closed.
i’ve never been alive this long before
August 7, 2015
Black Forest Inn Cottage
Created by Samantha Johns
Featuring Kathy Jo Ackerman Johns, Lisa Channer, Rye Gentleman, Emma Barber, George McConnell, Colleen Lamb, Maren Ward, Corrie Zoll, Kevin Kirsch, & Dario Tangelson