Comments on My Story, The Performance Artist
by Lettie Prell
Back in the 1990s I first read inventor Ray Kurzweil’s contention that humans would download their minds into computers and live forever. I found it a fascinating concept yet it disturbed me greatly, because Kurzweil was dead serious. My mind began to spin scenarios of horror but also of transcendence. The ultimate merger of humans with their technology was good; it was bad; it was both at once. My mind probed the ramifications of existence in a downloaded world in detail, enough to fill a novel, which is now completed. Yet I also churned out several stories. I wrote “The Performance Artist” in a weekend. It came out in present tense because I’d been working on my novel synopsis to send out, and synopses are in present tense.
I sort of borrowed the story arc from Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” which I’d read over a decade ago, but like Kurzweil’s ideas those Kafka stories lurk down there in my inner well. All I could remember of the story was a performer giving his all for the audience and his art until there was nothing left of him.
One reader of “The Performance Artist” saw a resemblance between my character Anna Pashkin Bearfoot and the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic of the 1970s. Yes, Abramovic is down there in my well with Kafka, ever since I read an article that described her interactive piece, “Rhythm 0,” which included a gun in an array of implements that could be used on her.
It sounds like a recipe: mix equal parts of Kurzweil, Kafka and Abramovic and “The Performance Artist” will result. This is why writers shouldn’t discuss where they get their ideas; the danger is sounding unoriginal. Yet the ingredients all came from my well and I stirred them up myself.
I used to be a landscape photographer on the level of serious amateur. The thing about that line of art is you come upon a scene people have seen a million times and challenge yourself to make something of it that’s fresh, that makes people go wow. I used to describe my process of taking a photograph as “going non-verbal.” I would look and look, and carefully frame the image until it felt – not right exactly – but meaningful, in a way I couldn’t describe. Now I recognize what I was doing as getting still so I could tap my inner well and make art out of the ingredients of the landscape in front of me.
So while I can describe the ingredients I used in “The Performance Artist,” I can’t tell you what I think it means, just like I can’t tell you what any of my photographs mean. Nor should I try. Explaining one’s work is even more of a taboo than divulging where one gets one’s ideas. But to the extent the reader feels even a bit of what I felt when I looked into my well and pulled out this story, I’ve succeeded.