On the Line: Documents of Risk and Faith

by Makeda Best and Kevin Moore, from On the Line

What is your tolerance for personal bodily risk? How does risk increase with the rising aggressions broadcast in media headlines? How much risk, real or imagined, can you endure if you have no choice? And how are you protected by faith—in spiritual conviction, familiar faces, protective legislation, law enforcement, or your own ingenuity? What beliefs, real or imagined, permit you to be resilient or even take on additional risk for the purposes of everyday survival, a more rewarding or exciting life, or the fight for political justice? 

These are some of the questions we sought to engage while considering works situated at the intersection of contemporary photography and performance. These are not theoretical questions that position performance art and its recording on a historical timeline, but curatorial reflections on art and documentation that embody real-life threats. The complex of problems engulfing the planet is of a magnitude not witnessed before and, though largely of humankind’s own making, inadequately confronted. What seemed like a scattering of isolated concerns now constitutes an existential threat that worries the global consciousness 24/7. Catastrophic predictions by scientists, images of outrage and protest, and the facile solutions (or feigned ignorance) of politicians provoke action and denial in equal measure.

On the Line: Documents of Risk and Faith presents ephemeral public gestures that address, some directly and others subtly, the present social and environmental crises. Rather than decry or declaim, the gestures portrayed here defy and seduce, whether they involve hanging from wires (Cruzvillegas/Foulkes) or diving off seawalls (Friedman). In this climate of urgency, where an individual’s impulse to political action can be swiftly overwhelmed by a sense of futility, the simplest act—the light observation, the oblique reference, the poetic novelty—can have the greatest impact. In this project, we interpret the phrase “on the line” as poetic trope, common metaphor, and hard realism. To be on the line can be as mundane as standing patiently in a queue or as dangerous as awaiting an uncertain fate. It can mean to take a particular subway route or to deliberately put your own life in jeopardy.

Lines themselves occupy an expansive terrain in the modern experience. While we tend to think of them as boundaries designating cultural and linguistic territories, they more practically determine economic resources––their location and control. Lines figure in both production and distribution, from the manufacture and packaging of goods on assembly lines to their dissemination via trade routes. Moreover, policing is required to “hold the line,” to protect territories and the often perilous transport of commodities between them. Lines are everywhere in modern thought, from power lines to lines of communication, lifelines, lines of succession, lines of thought, opening lines, wrinkle lines, union lines, fault lines, offline, out of line, in the line of fire, and many more. Lines map modern capitalist societies’ most rational and aspirational values, in addition to their brutal failings.

In the realm of art, coloring inside the lines, whether literally or metaphorically, preserves the stability of a familiar order. Violating lines, on the other hand, triggers the disorientation and upheaval of change. With the right balance of order and its disruption, illuminating reconfigurations can emerge. A United States map redrawn to highlight, say, tribal sovereignties instead of the standard Lower 48 (Rodriguez) brings an alternative order to light, inviting a changed sociopolitical awareness. In other words, a new way of seeing things, which is what the best art offers.

With performance art––in all its definitions––the stakes are elevated because performance is both temporal and public: it happens in real time and space and before an audience. There is risk. Much can go wrong in terms of both process and outcome. For example, battling a bundle of hanging household debris (Cruzvillegas/Foulkes) leaves much to chance: How will the stuff land and will the performer emerge unscathed, “victorious”? The success of the work depends on what happens, and that success is largely symbolic.

There is a long tradition of performing specifically for the camera, going back to photography’s beginnings, when Hippolyte Bayard posed as a drowned man and Sojourner Truth posed in order to “sell the shadow to support the substance,” and up into the present with Cindy Sherman and her acolytes. In both still images and film/video, the artist uses the viewfinder as an unseen audience member, the space before the camera as a makeshift stage of infinite possibility, capturing their own actions, or the actions of others, for deferred viewing by limitless future audiences. Traditional performances have the character of public stunts, actions performed, usually in dense urban settings, to arouse the interest of passersby and to introduce the natural and fragile into the manmade environment: selling snowballs, absurdly, in the dead of winter (Hammons/Bey); dragging a massive bundle filled with all of one’s belongings through the streets of Brooklyn (Mattingly); or pushing a block of ice around Mexico City for nine hours until it melts (Alÿs). In some instances (Hammons/Bey), the ultimate function of the documentation is unplanned, a lucky memento of an ephemeral event. Increasingly, the technique of performing for the camera has been used to present aspects of identity and complex racial histories, providing a space for self-presentation layered with narrative accoutrements, such as period fashion, old photographs, and tropical patterns (Simmons).

Protest and other forms of public assembly might be seen as a species of performance art, especially with the extended layers of documentation and display. Indeed, in the pre-photography period of the nineteenth century, Socialist activists throughout Europe conceived of their street protests as visual displays. And today, from the use of large puppets in global demonstrations to the mass action of taking a knee­­, the performative self-expression of the crowd continues. The formal conventions of public dissent—marching along a predetermined route, occupying a contested site, forming a human shield often animated with colorful signs, face paint, and costumes––run a close parallel to artmaking by being highly visual and in many cases cleverly innovative. Photographers bearing witness to events, such as peaceful protesters at the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 (Sanguinetti), amplify such actions by recording them and disseminating the images, in various formats, through platforms ranging from media outlets to art exhibitions. Similarly, transcribing the tranquil act of “tree sitting”—passive resistance to logging activities—into a monumentally large color photograph (Epstein) both celebrates the beauty of the flora under threat and honors the action taken to protect it. Further, by enlarging and arranging photographs, such as those depicting presidential inaugurations in the turbulent political arena of Brazil (Restiffe), artists take their work beyond reporting on specific events to contemplating political systems themselves and the challenges governments face in managing diverse and unpredictable populations.

And what of emergent public conditions—not protests but social phenomena—that because of their newsworthiness are documented and disseminated? Along the border between the US and Mexico, certain legible patterns of behavior have arisen due to various material hardships and their causes in Latin America. The margin between documenting migrant refugees and their children in photographs and film (Goldberg) and recording oneself as an artist and person of color crossing the border(s) (Nazareth), with all of the self-awareness that act suggests, becomes narrower with every decision to contextualize the phenomenon through editing, captioning, and display. In a less overt but related endeavor, documenting the US military presence in remote territories along the vertical spine of the Americas (Lê), which happens to be the precise geography of this book and exhibition, registers the forceful hand of national interests against myriad perceived threats.

Any social spectacle can be dubbed performance through documentation. Just as video of police misconduct is regularly disseminated as a form of dark entertainment as well as indictment, every recorded incident in this politically charged climate carries distinct political overtones the moment it is circulated. Teenagers filmed jumping off a seawall in Miami, Florida (Friedman), convey both risk and faith—risk of injury and faith in the buffering properties of water—in addition to hope: these mostly immigrant children might be seen to be performing the economic challenges they face in life with bold style and carefree aplomb. Similarly, celebrating the Black contestants in a North Philadelphia horse competition (Bourouissa) questions old stereotypes of American cowboys while opening new social frontiers, similar to the joyous reverie of Black men dancing in a Colorado landscape (Johnson)—race unbound, not limited by expectations or geography.

Isolated acts and remote organisms, which would be seen by few if not for the lens of the camera, can be spotlit and drawn closer through the documentary capacities of photography. A billboard placed on seasonally frozen waters of the Northwest Passage, between the land mass of Northern Canada and the islands of the Arctic Ocean (Schmidt), evolves from being a lonely protest over global trade and the climate crisis to performing the fate of those dynamics as it slips aways in warming waters. Similarly, originating as ephemeral projections on snowbanks, photographs are embellished with feathers, deer tails, and birchbark to form makeshift totems (Willard), ruminating on Indigenous land rights and value. Or rusting cars on a Montana reservation, documented and preserved on colorful metallic fabrics (Red Star), enjoy an extended afterlife as vessels of family history. Or a representative of the last wild population of an endangered Amazon parrot is “interviewed” (Allora & Calzadilla), offering sad and wise thoughts on the destruction of habitats.


Like every choice these days, to document is political. If documentarians of old, the Lewis Hines and FSA photographers of the early twentieth century, believed in the power of photography to show hardship, kindle emotion, and spark change, their contemporary counterparts adopt an expanded and more ephemeral approach. This is due, in part, to the expansion of the technological tool kit, but also to the growing understanding of the magnitude and complexity of the world’s problems. It appears that countenancing suffering—or greed, or violence, or corruption—is no longer enough. Too many tragedies need our attention, in rapid succession, or all at once. But what if the pressure to act, react, spend, or donate felt more like an invitation to wonder, to admire, to care? What if the outrages sparked by documentary imagery were converted to an invitation to imagine other ways of being in this imperfect world? As if to say: Here is the world that is worth saving. That might be a kind of faith—a faith in the document to correct wrongs and to light the way toward some form of survival, or even salvation.

As Mitch Epstein has observed, there are ancient trees that persist, against the odds, in and around New York City. Some relate closely to civic history, as souvenirs of foreign trips or diplomatic gifts from abroad—immigrant trees who have thrived in their new and harsh urban environment. Though once planted they no longer ambulate but they move effortlessly and gracefully in the hazy smog and North Atlantic wind. The trees’ very existence is a kind of risky performance, a stubborn act of endurance in a city whose primary interests are money, progress, and development. But the trees’ higher purpose, when noticed and recorded, might be to offer another way of seeing our own environment. Rather than serving as a decorative backdrop to human interests, New York’s trees live a vital existence of their own despite sundry abuses and neglect. Their stoicism is a reminder of the essential life-sustaining properties we all depend on. They hold faith in sunlight, water, and soil to the very end.