The swimming race (Mexico City) is the eighth and final component in a body of video work generated for my PhD research project, The paradox of failure: sport, competition and contemporary art, in which I set out to restage a 50-year-old swimming race from the 1968 Mexico Olympics: the final of the women’s 400 metres individual medley.
The act of setting up the swimming race had thrust me into a situation that required ceding a certain amount of authorial control and autonomy. Tracing a particular lineage through the conventions of performance art, Claire Bishop coined the term ‘delegated performance’ to describe “the act of hiring non-professionals … to undertake the job of being present and performing at a particular time and place on behalf of the artist, and following his or her instructions.” This, however, does not take into account the presence of the artist – me – also ‘undertaking and performing’ in the same artwork at the same time, and being as much a ‘non-professional’ as the other performers/competitors. Our ages were similar, and we were all older female swimmers together, but I really had no idea of their swimming abilities or even, indeed, if they would turn up on race day. I had handed over control. Doing so, and delegating performance to others, underlines the inherent risk, uncertainty and ever-present potential for failure that lies at the heart of this restaging project. As a counter to Bishop’s claim that delegated performers provide the artist with “a guarantee of authenticity,” I argue instead that having to cede authorial control within The swimming project, in that it utilised a specific restaging methodology with no pre-determined outcome, contributed to the creation of an ‘inauthentic’ – and therefore new and different – swimming race. For instance, once we hit the water, the race itself was not directed or scripted, the outcome was premised purely upon the swimmers’ abilities, and I had one rule: to swim the race only once. “Just like at the Olympics. No second goes, no reshoots. What happens, happens.”
Extending Boris Groys’ assertion that the artistic installation be considered a “space of exception,” I further argue that the swimming race takes on the attributes of an artistic installation insofar as it restages an aesthetic performance within the space of the swimming pool – as Groys has argued, it “isolates a specific space from the topology of the ‘normal’ world to reveal its inner conditions and determinations.” Norms are suspended in the gallery-like space of the swimming pool: a fluid, watery space – yet power, authority and control are also vested within the concrete space of the swimming pool, this elongated white cube. In opposition to the wild freedom of open water swimming, a swimming pool speaks of discipline, enforcing a rigid logic and rationalisation on bodies with its demarcated lanes and production lines of horizontal swimmers’ bodies. Bodies become forms, moving shapes and configurations within lanes – an ordering, patterning, shaping – in a kind of embodied knowledge. Swimming laps, repeating, looping, and returning to start again creates an ever-deepening palimpsest of erasures, reworkings and restagings that combine to reinforce a conceptual link between the multiple acts of swimming, looping videos and the methodology of restaging within the exceptional space of the swimming pool.
Through Bergson, time is considered as both race time and lived time, and as the visible manifestation of time inscribed on the swimmers’ bodies – or, to borrow from Adrian Heathfield, as a kind of “durational aesthetic”. By substituting the youthful swimmers of 1968 with aged female counterparts fifty years later, this work is a direct engagement with the ageing female body and a riposte to the double standard of ageing that Susan Sontag identified in relation to older women: “The idea of an old woman in a bathing suit being attractive, or even just acceptable looking, is inconceivable.”
My failure to enlist any of the original swimmers from 1968 transformed the event as, predicated upon the thrall of an unknown outcome and through the methodology of restaging, the unplanned produced a new and different result. For, while The swimming project set out to restage an historic event, it deliberately sought to respond to and retain the thrall of an unknown outcome to allow the theatricality to be more ‘sport’ than theatre. Buoyed with uncertainty and precariousness, the project re-introduced the elements of chance and risk of personal failure for each of the competitors – and for me as the artist as well. In this, The swimming project repositioned itself within the field of artistic restaging with a different method of making, one that was open ended, unrehearsed and without a pre-determined outcome.
And I came second! Tui won silver for New Zealand!
Claire Bishop, “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity,” October 140 (Spring 2012): 91.
Boris Groys, In the Flow (London & New York: Verso, 2016), 86.