Yoko Ono ﬁrst performed Cut Piece in 1964, at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. She walked onstage in a loose-ﬁtting garment and knelt down on the ﬂoor. A pair of scissors lay next to her. Cut Piece was one of many ‘instructional’ artworks that Ono conceived — works that required an audience to complete them. Here, the instruction was one word: ‘Cut’. And, so, the audience did, slicing away at Ono’s clothing. Ono repeated this work many times, and, with each iteration, the dynamic changed. Sometimes, the audience was polite, almost apologetic; at other times, it was ravenous. In existing footage of a 1965 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the overall mood is calm. People step forward one at a time. Occasionally, Ono looks down at her cutters, but mostly her gaze is level, focused beyond the audience. At the eight- minute mark, a young man in a pressed white shirt, neat trousers and polished shoes walks onto the stage. You hear him murmur, ‘This might take some time.’ He cuts through the remaining top portion of Ono’s dress to reveal her slip, then makes a vertical incision through her slip to reveal her bra. You sense the atmosphere changing. Ono glances at him more frequently as he continues to cut away her slip, and the camera operators giggle. Somebody says, ‘Playboy’. Then the man in the white shirt slices through each of Ono’s bra straps, and she raises her hands to cover herself. Hissing breaks out among the seated crowd. The footage ends.
Exactly a decade on from Cut Piece, in 1974, Serbian artist Marina Abramović undertook Rhythm 0. Seventy-two objects were placed on a table for use by the audience. Honey, feathers, grapes, a rose; knives, a whip, a gun, a single bullet. The rules were that, for six hours, the audience could do as they pleased to Abramović’s body, and she would not resist, refuse or call a halt to the performance. ‘I am an object,’ she instructed them, ‘you can do whatever you want to do with me.’ Audience interactions began hesitantly, but, over time, grew bold. Abramović remained passive as she was alternately caressed and assaulted. Some people kissed her. Others cut her with knives and stuck rose thorns into her ﬂesh. She was carried around the gallery, and, as with Yoko Ono, her clothes were sliced oﬀ. A ﬁght broke out between audience members after one person loaded the gun, aimed it at Abramović’s head and placed both their own and the artist’s hand on the trigger. After the agreed six hours had elapsed, gallery attendants announced that the performance was over. ‘I start moving,’ Abramović recalls, ‘I start being myself, because I was there like a puppet, just for them. At that moment, everybody run away. People could not confront me as a person.’
Common to both these now-iconic performance works is a cool, unblinking examination of the dynamics that produce objectiﬁcation — and yet the balance of power between audience and artist is not altogether clear. Who is really in control: the audience who do as they please to the performer or the performer who has invited them to do so? Where does consent begin and end? The implications of Rhythm 0, in particular, have haunted me ever since I ﬁrst stumbled across descriptions of the piece as a high school art student, around the same time that I was listening to Live Through This as a form of psychic defence against the relentless hostility of my peers, who saw me as an object to be targeted. I read Courtney Love’s descriptions of her stage diving, but it was years before I saw any footage. When I did, I was deeply disturbed. The aggression meted out to her was extraordinary. ‘Love made a swan dive into the pit, emerging with her clothes in shreds and hunks of her hair plucked out as souvenirs,’ wrote Brenda You of a 1994 Hole show in Chicago. When Hole began touring Live Through This, several months after the deaths of both Kurt Cobain and Kristen Pfaﬀ, some audience members threw shotgun casings at Courtney’s feet.