Question & Answer with Performance Artist, Paul Waddell

Following his November performance of “The Radical Choice to See What You Are Looking At” at the UCO Melton Gallery, artist Paull Waddell sat down with curator of exhibitions Kyle Cohlmia to discuss his work, the current direction of performance art, and the future of the contemporary art scene.

Kyle Cohlmia: How did you get into the genre of performance art?

Paul Waddell: When I was in high school I read “White Noise” by Don Dellio and was allowed to do a post-modern art project for extra-credit. That lead me to make “strange noise” music and listen to Captain Beefheart and watch Frank Zappa’s films. I had a group called “Partially Hydrogenated,” and we freaked out a school assembly. I also saw a retrospective of Paul McCarthy’s large-scale installation and his performance artifacts.

KC: What comes first, choosing the objects you work with or the content of the piece?

PW:Sometimes the object inspires the content, and other times I’m thinking about a subject and I start to see the potential for a meaning within the context I’m creating in a certain object.

KC: Do you plan out your actions ahead of time, or go into each performance with a more meditative, in-the-moment mentality?

PW: It is really about balancing both strategies. I have to be prepared with ideas and materials for specific actions, and I must be open and responsive to the audience and other changes around me. I have often made the analogy that it is like a karate match in which I know why I’m fighting, and I have trained for all the moves, yet I don’t know what the combination of moves will be until I’m in the fight and responding in real time, using all the pieces I have planned when the audience is ready and adapting to the specifics of the members of the audience.

KC: For this particular piece “The Radical Choice to See What You Are Looking At,” you used tents on which the exterior represents a log cabin with the word “home” written on the front. What is the significance of the tent, and specifically, the tents you chose for this performance? 

PW: I choose every object in the performance because I see a potential in that object to have multiple “reads” or possible meanings for the audience. The tents in this piece refer to the thousands of homeless people living in tents in Los Angeles. The particular tents are made for children, and I think that things designed for children carry both nostalgia and optimism about the future. So, positioned in the context of the performance the tents represent the fact that the future could be homelessness and insanity. 

KC: This piece was also about mental illness. How did your “character” or persona/actions in this piece include awareness for mental illness in regards to homelessness?

PW: That is a very difficult question as I can’t speak for the homeless. I do feel that many more people are on the verge of homelessness then our culture really wants to see. Around 30-35% of those experiencing homelessness, and close to 75% of women experiencing homelessness, have mental illnesses. I think it is important for someone visiting LA to know that the nicer the tent the more recently homeless the person. Most people who come to LA are there to follow a dream of being some kind of an artist. So, for me, homelessness is a very real possibility when a young artist moves to LA; they should know it is.

KC: How do you integrate humor into your pieces? What is the significance of using humor in performance art?

PW: Humor can trigger laughter and that creates an openness in the audience to contemplating ideas in new ways. It is easy to learn about something new when you can laugh at it. Although I do speak in my performance most of the humor is in my actions. By manipulating common commercial objects, I gain access to the audiences’ expectations and hopefully confound them.

KC: How do you see performance art in the larger context of the contemporary art world?

PW: Although it has its limits, performance art is a form that lets an artist immediately address a current issue, or to bring an old issue into a contemporary context potentially with no material cost and no barrier to entering a current dialogue. Performance is type of communication that is available to every human being.

KC: What trends do you see developing in the contemporary art world? How do you see the future of art developing in Oklahoma and beyond?

PW: There are major shifts happening in art all over the world. Cities that have been the center of art seem to be losing their hold on it. Oklahoma is very interesting in that a lot of complex ideas are finding an audience here and people are actively trying to create a viable contemporary art scene. It’s important for a young person to understand that they are responsible for building their audience. Artists need to engage in self-sustaining practices and need to understand about promoting their work to be the important activity that it is.

KC: What advice would you give as advice for an emerging artist wanting to get into performance art? Do you suggest a formal education? What resources do you suggest? 

PW: Have a job that is outside of the arts. Don’t expect people to know how hard you work on performing and go out and do it. Work really hard to understand everything that interests you as deeply as possible. Make observations about the world. Care about culture and the people who it represents. Put yourself in a position so that real people can respond to what you are trying to do.Through my experience, I’ve learned performance only really exists at the moment when an audience sees or experiences the action. Read about performance art. Internet search the history of performance art and try to understand the motivation of the artists that came before you on the timeline. Go to school to learn about art and perform on the street in the busiest place in town. Get yelled at and find a way to work with the people who are yelling at you.

To keep up to date on Waddell’s latest work, follow him on Instagram @wpaulwaddell.

The UCO Melton Gallery is open to the public Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. or Fridays by appointment. To schedule an appointment, contact Kyle Cohlmia at kcohlmia1@uco.edu or 405-974-2432.

To see a complete list of all UCO College of Fine Arts and Design events, visit cfad.uco.edu.