The Super Bowl is tomorrow, which means the media build up to the game has been going on the past two weeks. While much of this hype features endless pundits and analysts and highlight reels, a large part of it also features interviews with athletes. Though the monotony was momentarily broken with #DeflateGate, the week of NFL coverage leading up to the Super Bowl is even shallower than every other week. And Marshawn Lynch knows it.
Mr. Lynch is a constant thorn in the side of his tyrannical employer, the National Football League. For years Lynch has been reticent to speak to the media, something the NFL has responded to with fines upwards of $10,000. He’s since responded by attending required press conferences only to repeat the same phrase over and over again. Most recently these included “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” and “You know why I’m here.” Sports reporters, who somehow think their questions in these situations are at all substantive journalism, responded with increasingly hostile questions and frustration, making Lynch’s critique of the ways the NFL simultaneously elevates, objectifies, and eviscerates its athletes painfully obvious. (The latest potential fine Marshawn faces deals with how he elects to dress himself)
For a few examples of this week’s press conferences, see below.
A number of sports writers have evoked the term “performance art” in response to Lynch’s press conference protests. In many ways people use this term as a lump response to any out-of-the-ordinary behavior, and these writers are in many ways responding to critics of Lynch by realizing he does, in fact, have something to say in his refusal to answer questions. Marshawn’s intellectual lucidity and reasons for hating press conferences is well documented in his selected interactions with interviewers and talkshow hosts, including a hilarious bit with Gronk on Conan O’Brian’s show.
However, perhaps the evocation of “performance art” has more to it. What connections lie between the strategies of the Seahawks running back and established performance artists?
First, let’s look at the notion of presence.
In the clip above, Marshawn remarks that he is merely going to stare back at the reporters just as they stare at him. This is an interesting notion that suggests a reciprocity between the viewer and the viewed. In performance art, the sense of presence is not only an ephemerality that removes the “timelessness” of the work of art, but essentially opens up a reciprocity between viewer and subject–one that is hidden in traditional theater by the “fourth wall” and non-existent in painting. The clear precedents here would be Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present (2010) and perhaps even VALIE EXPORT’s Tapp und Tastkino (Pat and Paw Cinema) (1968).
In the Abramovic’s, the artist stared right back at viewers, offering herself for the entire length of the show, all hours the MoMA was open, to viewers to sit across from. She never spoke (except for very rare, poignant moments), and simply stared back. The work of art, the artist, and the viewer became one. There was both an intense power and vulnerability in the entire performance.
In EXPORT’s piece, the artist replaces the objectified female body of mainstream cinema with her real body. EXPORT would look directly at each cinema “visitor” in a work that was meant not merely to deconstruct misogynist cinema, but also open up a space for queer interactions in public space. Thus, in the words Laura Mulvey would later use, the female body’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” is foreclosed and real tactile access is present for both “bearers of the look.”
Another way we can relate Lynch’s press conferences to performance art is his insistence on time.
In both videos you’ll notice he is available for exactly five minutes, the length required of him by the NFL, which he keeps track of with his iPhone. His hyperawareness of time parallels EXPORT’s use of a stopwatch in her work and underscores the notion of “presentness” in contemporary performance art in its complete rejection of narrative (or false) time. Furthermore, we can think of his insistence on time as a way of defining labor. A similar reflection on temporality, labor, athletics, and stardom seen in Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait.
Lastly, one of the most notable strategies of Mr. Lynch’s press conferences is repetition.
Repetition, in a way, is a constant theme in post-60s art as a way to battle the uniqueness and automony of art object. From Andy Warhol’s repeatable Marilyns to Donald Judd’s “one thing after another” so Sol LeWitt’s modular forms, repetition in many ways defined the moment of art in which performance came to the forefront (though I’m thinking of this as distinct from repeatability, which clearly performance art’s “liveness” is opposed to). Repetition often seems absurd, something Lynch’s press conferences and John Baldessari’s 1971 video I Am Making Art or Bruce Nauman’s early video works have in common.
Repetition in these works is not only used to redefine the boundaries of art (literally and figuratively), but also throws claims of authenticity and originality into question. Sports reporters routinely ask athletes the same questions and they routinely give them cookie-cutter answers, which they in turn gobble up and turn into easily digestible sports stories. Lynch is merely making this process explicit. Is not his response to the NFL’s commodification machine not similar to the response of post-60s artists to the commodification of the art market? Does Marshawn Lynch’s use of presence, time, and repetition and his teammate Richard Sherman’s outspoken verbosity make the Seattle Seahawks the most interesting team for the media?
The answer maybe yes to both. Either way, it was a lovely diversion for this art historian on a freezing cold Saturday afternoon.
So for people looking for performance art among contemporary celebrities: forget that poser James Franco, Marshawn Lynch knows why he’s here.
But alas, like all avant-garde gestures, Lynch’s has been quick to dabble in commercialism. Does this complicity in the market make Lynch’s performance art invalid? Perhaps this double reversal of the media machine just makes him awesomer.