Holly Faurot & Sarah H. Paulson met with Peter Dobill in their Brooklyn studio on May 4, 2010. The following is an excerpt from the hour-long interview.
SARAH: On your website and in your artist statement, you refer to your performances as “actions.” Why is that?
PETER: I don’t really like to use “performance” because for me it implies that there is always an audience present. I split my practice between doing video work that is done without a live audience and live work for a live audience. Everything is singularly based, meaning that nothing is repeated. So I thought ‘action’ was a more apt description to describe my practice.
SARAH: Did you always call them actions?
SARAH: How did you find the work, or first start making actions?
PETER: At the University of Illinois I studied photography. It was in an art history class that I was exposed to performance artists such as Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden. I got really interested taking photographs of people in weird positions performing for the camera. I would have someone standing in a ditch in a giant bulldozer at 2AM to take a photograph. Eventually, I got fed up with that because I was the one who actually wanted to be in these weird situations. That is when I started doing actions.
I was the only person at school doing performance really. There was not any real new media, video, or performance program. I am entirely self-taught. My first actions were done with photography as the only form of documentation. Starting with HANGING, I transitioned to video documentation.
HOLLY: Some actions are done for a live audience and some not. Is there a difference in your experience in performing them in regards to having an audience present?
PETER: There is always a certain transfer of energy that goes on with a live audience. I can feel the audience being there or interacting with a piece in certain ways. Everything I do is internally based, and something private moves outward to be seen by others. In that way, doing a video action is not terribly far removed from the live work because there is always a cameraperson watching. There is not necessarily a difference in execution or in what I feel during the piece, it is more that there are unexpected situations and energies that happen with live work that I could never get with video work.
SARAH: Do you feel like there is a different intention for yourself in the performance versus the performance as a whole? What is your goal on various levels?
PETER: The only thing I can do is offer honesty to the situation I am presenting and whatever happens through the exchange of what is presented. I do not have expectations with the audience. I try to present something that would not usually happen in that particular way, whether it is visual, or physical, or intensity-wise. Nothing is practiced. Essentially, it is me leaping into whatever void there is within the work and then seeing what happens. Whatever that unexpected human experience becomes, it is not only for me, it is also for someone else. I am trying to present an ecstatic reality in that moment in time that is not experienced otherwise.
HOLLY: What things do you need to do to get ready?
PETER: Even though everything I do is really physical, usually it is much more of a mental game preparing for the work. Not knowing what is going to happen is kind of a wild card, so I need to be by myself and get into just the right state of mind to make the action happen. Hopefully, I am just this body doing something, instead of having this weird personal investment. I would rather just be a reflection of the experience than some kind of personality.
HOLLY: What about post-action?
PETER: A lot of my work is defined by points of exhaustion or failure–whichever comes first. Whether I break or something breaks me is what draws each performance to its natural conclusion. During the work I do not even know what is going on usually, it is all a blur. When I come out of a piece and I have to deal with an audience and whatever else, I need to be by myself and usually with something to take the pain away.
HOLLY: You usually have your girlfriend Katrina Kruszewski or Chris Harding, director of English Kills Art Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn escort you out from each piece. It is a very moving and beautiful transition to watch. It makes the whole experience incredibly human to witness you being taken care of in that way.
PETER: It is definitely about being a person again. It is all just really basic needs, like trying to find a bathroom to go put clothes on or bandages for my wounds. Basic human primal shit…. [he laughs]
SARAH: Do you feel like the work is changing you with each piece? Are you starting over again–as a vessel or body or human?
PETER: Since everything is so singular, I can walk away with a different experience from each one. I certainly have a thrust towards doing more violent work than I did 6 years ago. It was much harder after doing the growing-pains works where I hung myself and burnt my arms with matchsticks. Coming from such violence, I found it more interesting and difficult at that time to do silent works or things that would involve a lot of energy but not a lot of movement, internally focused actions. From those, I was able to move slowly into doing more movement-based actions and thinking of ways to express abstract bodily concepts as well exploring the violence outwardly again.
SARAH: Do you have a guess of where your practice is going to go in 5 yrs?
PETER: I still have a lot of interest in developing full-on installation based works with a heavy physical element. How that develops I do not quite know, it always revolves around the space and time and ideas. Recently I have been exploring different types of lighting and adding more sound elements to the work, and trying different ways to abstract things you take for granted in viewing “endurance” works.
With my latest action, AUTOBEATACTION, I used strobe lighting to dismember the visual physicality of being beaten by chains automatically. It does not convey the expectations of what is happening because it is throwing off your motion sensory experience, abstracting the visual endurance of the body. It is within the same concerns of my work but with a different way to approach it.
HOLLY: What would you say your influences are?
PETER: A lot of my framework in my practice comes from Marina Abramovic more than anyone else. I know for performance art it is like saying your favorite band is the Rolling Stones, but she has a certain way of doing things physically, conceptually and mentally that is on the mark. She is the only one who has done it for 40 years for a reason.
HOLLY: Have you sat across Marina in her performance The Artist is Present at MoMA?
PETER: Yes. That piece is misunderstood. Many people take it for only face value, like “come and stare as long as you can.” People view it as confrontational. But it’s not—It is just 2 people interacting without saying anything. It is a heavy-duty piece if you actually do it, but most people just don’t. But if you do it, she is open. You are staring into her eyes and she is taking everything out of you, your reflections of each other are reverberating. I was probably only there 10 or 15 minutes in the chair.
HOLLY: Will you talk about the curatorial work you do for the performance art community here in Brooklyn.
PETER: There was a certain point a couple years ago when I could not usually find other people in Brooklyn doing performance and I got really frustrated. I felt like I might as well start trying to search out other people doing performance work and attempt to curate. It is not like painting or sculpture where you can go see a two-month long show in a gallery. The other side of the craft in performance is not always having spaces to present your work, or if so, it is usually one-night performance events in primarily underground spaces. That is how the Maximum Perception Performance Festival came into being and how I can provide some service to my performance community, presenting an annual event over a couple nights at English Kills Art Gallery. If I spend a month a year making that happen for people who would not normally have opportunities, I am happy to.