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‘AnNon’, Anna Mosby Coleman, 1998

Self-preservation. Self. Preservation. Two words, taken separately and/or together, mean everything and nothing about this once in a lifetime retrospective of Franklin Furnace, the New York based Live Art lab that hit 30 this year.

Self: because live art, as Franklin Furnace founding director Martha Wilson’s talking head tells it straight to camera videos, isn’t theatre. It’s not some game of let’s pretend. It’s for real. It’s about Karen Finley and Barbara Kruger and Annie Sprinkle and Ron Athey getting in touch with their (sometimes literally) naked ‘I’. And even when they’re not, they’re still being self-ish. It’s like Martha says. ‘If they don’t grab you by the lapels they’ll go mad.’

Preservation: because, in a scene that celebrates itself in all its gory glory and intimations of (im) mortality, documentation is all. Like a page in a diary, it defines a moment, a state of permanent transience, lost and found. Franklin Furnace’s motto: On a mission to make the world safe for avant-garde art.

Until recently, hitting 30 meant growing up, becoming responsible and settling down beyond the squalling brat and the sulky adolescent you once were. As Franklin Furnace moves towards middle youth, however, every day is just one more rite of passage. One more intimate experience to share with strangers. With this in mind, Franklin Furnace discovered the cyber-geek within and went online—live art to virtual reality. My God! How did we get here?

History Of Disappearance plays with Franklin Furnace’s institutionalised elder statesman/woman status from the off. It is re-contextualised in the orthodox gallery space but still laughs at the very Idea, while simultaneously accepting the need to educate.

Britta Wheeler’s massive wall painting explicitly maps Live Art’s historical metamorphosis from the 70s ‘me generation’, when the best minds came crawling from the everybody-is-a-star ethos that was the legacy of Warhol’s Factory down at CBGBS, through the ironic 80s and the identity crises of the 90s. They finish up with a very noughties pick n’ mix.

Wilson’s living history lessons of the 80s ‘culture wars’, when the American right attempted to pull the plug on anything ‘obscene’, are all you need. By way of further welcome, Andrea Fraser’s video, ‘Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk’ offers an arch cut-up of pseudo-academic non sequiturs to set the tone.

Everything makes sense in the second room. A series of films move from explorations of the body to a more explicitly political agenda, bookended by some fin de siècle fever. Linda Montano’s mantra-like ‘Mitchell’s Death,’ in which the artist purges her pain following the loss of her ex-husband, is as ickily discomforting as it is compellingly incantatory. Reverend Billy’s ‘Political Actions’ predates Michael Moore by a decade, while Kim Irwin’s subversion of cheerleader routines is cartoon profane.

Finally, The C-Series, a collection of hand-crafted artist’s books, is tantalisingly tactile under glass. And posters for stand-up art star Eric Bogosian’s mid-80s benefit gig hang next to computers which access Franklin Furnace’s online presence in 1996.

Fifteen years earlier, Tehhching Hsieh produced the mesmeric ‘One Year Performance 1980-1981’. For an entire year, Hsieh filmed himself punching a time-clock every hour, on the hour, 24 hours a day. Speeded up, we see his shaven head, looking like an NY PD mug-shot, grow into an unruly mane. Obsessive and quietly unhinged, it’s a glimpse of life, with all its private pains and secret joys, flashing by in an eerie juxtaposition of motion and stasis. It’s also the definitive Franklin Furnace document, keeping it real to the max.

Like Martha Wilson says, ‘It’s a good thing we have performance art, because otherwise we’d all be psycho-killers.’

Neil Cooper is an arts writer