Reflections on Performing Cougar – Dayna McLeod

Image Credit: Michele P. Clarke

Photo by: Michele P. Clarke

Cougar For a Year was a yearlong, durational performance piece that I began on June 1, 2012 in which I dressed in nothing but animal print clothing, 24/7, to question the stereotype of the ‘cougar’ (a woman over 40 who aggressively demonstrates her sexuality). The original intent of this project was to investigate, live, and try on stereotypes of the ‘cougar’ by wearing her uniform, which I named as animal print for the sake of the project. I chose animal print as the cougar’s uniform for its visibility, clarity, and literalization of representing the ‘cougar,’ and for the sexual signification that animal print performs in western culture.

Cougar For a Year was launched with a cabaret called Cougarliscious, and a closing event marked its end in a finale in which I gave away my animal print wardrobe and re-performed Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. While I was originally interested in performance as an objectless art form, the demands of maintaining a contemporary art practice insists on professionalization and documentation. I was diligent at documenting the project every day through an online interactive database (CougarThis.com), which included daily photographs, diary entries, video, and a Cougar Sightings section where online users could contribute pictures of people wearing animal print or other animal print sightings. The rigorous documentation process for this project was crucial to my success and was necessary not only as a representation of the project, but as a device to ensure that I performed the project every single day. Having to take a picture of myself and post it on the internet every day guaranteed that the project stayed true to itself, whether I felt like dressing head-to-toe in animal print or not.

Perception, Collaboration, and Presence

A key element to Cougar For a Year was how others perceived the ‘cougar,’ not just through existing media texts and cultural stereotypes, but when confronted with her in person. In addition to public interactions and observations that included Performing Proximity – where I would stand next to or follow a person wearing the same animal print as I was – and Cougar Mama – a retooled, ‘cougared’ version of a previous durational work in which a bar-attending public is invited to suck vodka from one of twenty-one vinyl breasts – I was also interested in how photographers would use and represent the ‘cougar,’ as the photographer is traditionally, historically, and formally considered to be a proxy for the audience. It was with this intent that I collaborated with photographers Anne Guillaume, Nikol Mikus, Val Desjardins, Vincent Dilio, Michele P. Clarke, Marisa Portolese, Pierre Dalpé, and Paul Litherland to create representations of my embodiment of the ‘cougar’ over the course of the project. Here, I was interested in a collaborative relationship that pushed the boundaries of my practice by placing myself in the hands of another artist and relinquishing control of my subjectivity. In these collaborations, I was often represented in campy fashion poses. Here, my portrayal of the archetype of the ‘cougar’ often indulged in a confident sexualization of her without addressing the lived experience of women who identify or are identified as cougars. Each photographer captured a performed fiction of a performative moment while addressing the potential for fictionalized representation through photography in dialogue with performance documentation.

Image Credit: Vincent Dilio

Photo by: Vincent Dilio

In contrast, I intended for the online images that represented my daily wearing of animal print to act as markers of durationality and of my experience that could be read as factual proof of the whole endeavour. While I intended for these website images to function as markers of presence, they were not to serve as replacements of presence. However, our dependence on images as replacements for an initial witnessing of a performative experience through photographic truth serves to disrupt the hierarchy of presence. A common response when I saw people offline was: “Oh I have to go to your website to see what you are doing.” To which I would reply, “but look! I am doing it now – in real life! In person!”

I am interested in this response as it relates to presence and absence, because the audience’s presence often comes at the expense of the artist’s absence and the object that the author produces.[1] Photographs in particular foster the audience’s sense of presence; the photographic audience has the license to ignore the work’s origin because of its reliance on the image. Thus an audience to Cougar For a Year may prefer to see a photographic representation of my performance – either the authentic daily ‘selfies’ or fictional collaborative portraits – over my original presence as art object or performance that is encountered live. Presumably, the experience of Cougar For a Year mediated by images is somehow explained and contextualized more succinctly than in a ‘real life’ encounter.

The End: Cougarliscious Point Final.

On May 31, 2013 I ended Cougar For a Year at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, a feminist artist-run centre in Montreal. This closing featured two works: a re-performance of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece and Cougar Photo Booth, in which participants traded their image for a piece of my cougar wardrobe.

Cougar Photo Booth was a collaboration with Nikol Mikus and Alyson Wishnousky. More than 150 items of clothing from Cougar For a Year (minus items with holes or those ragged from too much wear) were displayed on racks as though in a thrift shop or clothing store in the gallery. Members of the attending public were invited to dress up in items from the collection and if they wanted to keep anything, I asked for their image in return for the item. Photographs were taken by Mikus and styled by Wishnousky. My intent for giving away my wardrobe was to disseminate pieces into the community. I liked the idea of elements from Cougar For a Year making their way into the real lives of members of the public. This was also a very cathartic experience, which I did not anticipate. When I saw someone else in my clothes at the closing event, I felt a swell of nostalgia and pleasure at seeing my clothes reconfigured, re-appreciated, and heading out the door. There were a handful of items left over, and I am currently in the process of making a quilt out of these remnants to create a non-digital artifact of the project.

Re-performance of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece

When Yoko Ono first performed Cut Piece in 1964, it took roughly 9 minutes for her clothes to be cut off. When I re-performed Cut Piece as part of Cougar For a Year, it took about an hour.

“How can we think about time, identity, femininity, masochism, gender, race, display, spectatorship and temporality in this piece? What is the self that comes undone in 9 minutes for an audience and is it feminist? What is the time of action? What is the time of passivity? How can we think about this refusal of self as an anti-liberal act, a revolutionary statement of pure opposition?”[2]

Within her practice, Ono often used the female subject to expose its gendered vulnerability. In Cut Piece, Ono’s body is slowly revealed as members of the public cut away portions of her clothes while she passively sits and “comes undone” at the hands of the audience. As J. Halberstam observes, “the audience is mixed but as the performance unfolds, more and more men come to the stage and they become more and more aggressive about cutting her clothing until she is left, semi nude, hands over her breasts, her castration, vulnerability and passivity fully on display.”[3] This stripping of self at the hands of the (predominantly male) audience articulates the violence of patriarchy and a physically enacted colonialism through a vulnerability that places its trust in the audience, a trust that they will hopefully not betray.

When I decided to re-perform Cut Piece, I was interested in how my re-enactment would function in dialogue with Ono’s original performance and the many re-enactments that have been staged of this piece by herself and other artists since. I was particularly interested in the work’s history, Ono’s conceptual practice, her use of the body, and her cultural profile.[4] I was also interested in how this conversation between our practices (Ono’s and mine) would be impacted by time, repetition, vulnerability, and my incorporation of this work into the larger Cougar For a Year project.

Image Credit: Paul Litherland

Photo by: Paul Litherland

Context and audience are the greatest differences between Ono’s original staging of Cut Piece and my re-enactment of it (other than the 50-year difference between the events, her obvious celebrity, and our differences as artists). As a feminist gallery with a 40-year history, La Centrale was the ideal location and context for me to perform this work. At no time did I feel like I was in physical danger, unlike Ono who experienced an atmosphere of violence when she performed Cut Piece at Carnegie Hall in 1964.[5] The gallery was packed with people, and they were very respectful. I felt that the entire audience was taking care of me. I tried to stay as true to Ono’s still and silent embodiment as possible; I did not speak with members of the attending public as they cut my clothes off of me. There were more than a few instances of discomfort for the audience, which I discovered in the hours, days and months to follow. It was a remarkable experience since in the planning I thought that it might take twenty minutes, but never considered that it would take upwards of an hour. This was a fascinating exercise for me as a performer. I am usually quite animated when I perform, but with this work, there was no persona or character that I was embodying – I was (trying to be) myself. I think that this particular audience (also made up of friends and my community) was accustomed to seeing me in a cabaret setting with an amplified personality, while here I was trying to embody passivity in order to best stay true to Ono’s original work. I think that, in combination with the format of the performance in terms of length, my vulnerability, and audience responsibility, this made the audience uneasy.

I noticed three moments through the duration of the piece when the audience seemed to take a collective sigh that it might be over: first, after about two-thirds of my dress had been cut away, a second time when someone cut my bra strap, and a third time when a woman managed to cut the surface fabric of my bra away, leaving the beige padding in place and remaining to cover my right nipple. However, when I did not get up to leave at these junctures to signal that the piece was over, the tension in the room mounted, with members of the audience getting increasingly anxious as I sat there, some people physically leaving the space, others plotting how to cut the rest of my clothes off, and a few projecting their expectations of the work onto my body while interpreting my experience as negative.

Three different women, two of whom I did not know, approached to “help me out” because of my “obvious discomfort,” which I think is significant. Both whispered into my ear while they cut away large pieces of my remaining garments, softly murmuring that they could help get me away from the scrutiny of the crowd. A few performer friends also approached to “help”: the first an actress who found the whole process and timing “excruciating,” while a performance artist friend declared she would help me find an ending for a piece that had “obviously not been considered.” What I find interesting about these responses is that despite my relative comfort and relaxation with the proceedings, they (all women) interpreted my prolonged public nudity as distress, and were impatient with the rest of the audience’s management of my modesty.

A Cougar Without Clothes

Although the ‘cougar’ was my starting point for Cougar For a Year and I am still fascinated with this archetype, I did not necessarily do her justice. Animal print is not exclusively her uniform, because it is not that simple. Something that I wasn’t able to articulate at the start of the project that I now see thanks to Joanne Entwistle, is the way that “dress works on the body, imbuing it with social meaning, while the body is a dynamic field that gives life and fullness to dress.”[6] Age, attitude, class, and race are all contributing factors to how the ‘cougar’ is perceived or even recognized which is further complicated by context, sexual identity, and the presence or absence of a younger object of desire. Clothes activate the surface of the body and can act as signifiers or accessories of identity but they are not identity in themselves. Animal print helps clarify ‘cougar’ but it is not a defining characteristic. Without her body, her clothes have no meaning.

 

Thanks to Krista Geneviève Lynes, Assistant Professor & Canada Research Chair in Feminist Media Studies at Concordia University for her valuable feedback and insight on earlier versions of this text which were written as part of my coursework in a Ph.D program of study.

 


[1] Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance: The American Avant Garde Since 1970 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[2] Halberstam, J. 2008. “The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies.” Graduate Journal of Social Science. Vol. 5 Issue 2; 140-156.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Yoko Ono’s career as an artist would be overshadowed and minimized from the 1970s through the 2000s by mainstream audiences after her marriage to John Lennon of The Beatles in 1969.

[5] Ono, Yoko. “Cut Piece (1964).” onoverse. Yoko Ono & Genesis Publications. n.d. Web. May 1, 2013. <http://onoverse.com/2013/02/cut-piece-1964/>.

[6] Entwistle, Joanne. “Fashion and the Fleshy Body: Dress as Embodied Practice”. Fashion Theory Volume 4, Issue 3 2000: 323-48.

Dayna McLeod is a video and performance artist whose work has shown internationally. She is currently at The Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University pursuing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Humanities. Her dissertation research examines how over-40 feminist performance artists use the body (their own or bodies-for-hire) within their practices and work in relationship to mass culture and the mainstream backdrop against which their work is always/already positioned. www.daynarama.com

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Reflections on Performing Cougar by Dayna McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



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