Aftermaths of Performance: Artists who make an “awful mess”




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TaPRA (Theatre & Performance Research Association)



Peer reviewed



In 1983, Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy organised a programme of ‘like-minded artists’ whose performances make ‘an awful mess and walks an erratic line between horror and humor’ (1983). Featuring the work of the Kipper Kids, Frank Moore, Johanna Went, and Karen Finley, among others, the collecting together of these artists whose practices frequently delve into the abject and the visceral, and flirt with what Dominic Johnson (2019) has termed the ‘extremity’ of performance, the programme marks an important connection between performance artists of the 1970s and early 1980s, but which also speaks to contemporary live art and performance practices. Such performances are characterised by their seemingly haphazard nature, but also in terms of how slippery they are to study or write about, which often feeds into institutional anxieties of curating and programming ‘messy’ work. Armed only with the documents and detritus that remain after the performance, these material objects are often also subject to scrutiny or even censorship for bringing this ‘mess’ into contact with wider audiences. Though the initial characterisation of this ‘mess’ often refers to the viscous materials and foodstuffs used in performance and on or in relation to the body, this paper will argue for the potentiality of ‘mess’ as a term to describe the slipperiness of performance that disrupts and destabilises notions of linearity and coherence. Looking at both historical and contemporary performance, this paper will reclaim and reassert the ‘messiness’ of performance as an important critical tool in navigating performance art’s histories and of issues of containment and mess in the archive.



performance art, mess, abjection, contemporary art


Curtis, H. (2019) Aftermaths of Performance: Artists who make an “awful mess”. TaPRA (Theatre & Performance Research Association) conference, University of Exeter, 4th September.


Research Institute

Institute of Drama, Dance and Performance Studies