Catherine Quan Damman 




A Deceptive History

[monograph in progress]

Julia Heyward, Untitled, 1971

My monograph, currently in progress, offers the first archivally-based history of “performance” in American discourses of the 1970s, and in so doing, radically reshapes our understanding of the form. In brief, it argues that performance—as a distinct artistic form and its surrounding discourses—emerged as a consequence of period-specific anxieties about affective labor. The period saw a rapidly expanding service economy, which conscripted the manufacture and management of workers’ feelings and personalities into waged work more than ever before. Minoritarian artists, at the varied intersections of Blackness, queerness, and femininity, were at the vanguard, both artistic and political, in theorizing the gendered and racialized dynamics of this shift. Their performance work, the book reveals, gave form to one of contemporary racial capitalism’s most enduring social problems.

“Art, Technology, Crisis:
The Work of Carl Cheng”

Carl Cheng, Specimen Viewer
No. 1, 1970

Article published in Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 7, no. 1 special issue “Asian American Art: Past and Futures” (Spring 2021):

While living and working in Los Angeles, the Chinese-American artist Carl Cheng began, in 1967, to produce and advertise his works under a corporate pseudonym: The John Doe Company. These “products” aped the formal qualities of much minimalist sculpture and often used new industrial techniques and materials such as vacuum-molded plastic and Plexiglas. Hilariously impotent machines or tantalizingly deceitful gadgets, these works plait invocations of lurking threats and invitations to look as a gratifying mode of leisure. Yet, amid the late 1960s historical conjuncture that saw a heightened intimacy between art and technological manufacturing, Cheng’s works seem to ask: For whom could the fantasy of art’s collusion with industry—its ever-heightening investments in efficiency and efficacy—seem desirable in the first place? Such questions become especially charged when considered in light of the ways that laboring Asian bodies, in the United States and elsewhere, have long been cast as having an unusual capacity for economic modernity. This article argues that Cheng’s works––deliberate “gimmicks” shot through with visual pleasure––model a crucial, but underappreciated critical operation: inefficiency. As our discipline turns its eye to reparative, revisionist histories, Cheng’s work, I argue, not only deserves its own careful attention, but also might galvanize art histories that begin from the ways that processes of racialization and racisms are never only exclusionary but are also, at the same time, always already extractive.