IRVINE — John White is well-respected on the Southern California performance-art scene, to the point where he now teaches the subject at UC Irvine. His own debut, however, was all wet. Dirty, too. Literally.
White started in performance art in the late '60s by directing an anti-war "dirt event" on a hillside near the Hollywood sign. He and others plunged into a muddy pond, "tilled the soil" with hoes, buried a time capsule "to plant for the future" and built a "factory" out of sticks.
"My background is doing things . . . in bushes and hedges and trees" and other unorthodox venues, said White, who will direct a performance tonight at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. It'll be the first time he's taken performance art off campus since he came to UCI in 1982.
"Rite on the Site" will consist of five short works by six of White's current and former students: Dan Goodsell, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Leslie Nana Masuda, Brian Evans, Michael Biel and Dain Olsen.
Each work will take place in a space at the visual art center that was never intended as a stage--storage closets, huge lockers or the kitchen, for instance--and the audience will be ushered from one site to the next.
Influenced by such experimental performance artists as Steve Paxton (who did one outdoor piece with giant forklifts), White shuns traditional theater dynamics.
Rather than perform on a stage--which, he believes, introduces mental as well as physical distance between performers and audience--he likes to use "surprising sites." It's one way that performance art can break the make-believe spell of conventional theater and create a more immediate, real experience, he said in a recent phone interview from his Santa Monica home.
"In traditional theater, there's a lot of illusion," said White, who performed for some 20 years before retiring in 1987. "The lights go up, the lights go down, and as a member of the audience, you have to alter your belief system.
"If something's done right there on the site, it's much more powerful than reconstructing the situation on a stage, even if it means rolling around in the mud to prove a point. It comes down to the way I teach, which is off-the-proscenium."
In the past several years, there's been a dearth of performance art in Orange County, which some local arts officials have attributed to a lack of appropriate theaters or auditoriums.
But Irvine cultural affairs manager Henry Korn, whose idea it was to present White's work at the center, said the program will reiterate the point that performance art doesn't require a formal space.
"It can occur anywhere, and that's one of its values and virtues," he said. "There's a long history of site-specific and site-referential performance work."
Korn, who said he intends to program more performance art in Irvine, was responsible for such presentations on streets, beaches and parks in Santa Monica when he was that city's chief arts commissioner until last April.
White's students also like the idea of art out of bounds.
"You can (literally) touch the audience really easily," Kelly Fitzpatrick said. "Like if you touch their knee, it makes it very real and they are forced to pay attention. In (conventional) theater, there's always that distance there."
"Rite on the Site" won't focus only on physical space, of course. Typical of performance art, it will address complex and controversial social or personal issues.
Fitzpatrick, 22, has constructed two pieces. One, to take place in the center's kitchen, will deal with women's societal roles. The other, incorporating floor-to-ceiling lockers normally used to store art supplies, reflects her view that the Persian Gulf War reinforced a covert social hierarchy of "patriarchal power," or male dominance, she said.
"In Christianity, everything is concentrated around the concept of He: God is a male, Jesus is a male, and in order for everyone to be saved, there has to be this enormous tragedy--Christ's crucifixion--which is very similar to what went on with the Gulf War. Everyone was being unified over our men being killed and killing others."
Fitzpatrick said she will be opening the lockers to reveal performers and other "surprises" inside to "reinforce the idea of this hidden model of ideology."
Collaborators Dain Olsen and Michael Biel will transform a gallery into a claustrophobic, tunnel-shaped "living room" made out of newspapers, Olsen said. There, they will attempt to convey the oppressive psychological effects of life in a "media-saturated society."
Their actions, amplified on video monitors, will signify emotional states such as anxiety, profound sadness or isolation, said Olsen, 30, who is co-curator of the Pink House, a "roving," Los Angeles-based performance-art collective that has presented events in a warehouse, a home and art studios.
"Performing in out-of-the-ordinary places causes a disruption, and that's good," he said. "The audience doesn't immediately settle into a passive mode. That's best for pure entertainment. When you really want to say something, you don't want people in a passive mode."
"Rite on the Site," performance art directed by UC Irvine instructor John White, will be presented tonight at the Irvine Fine Arts Center at 8:30 p.m. Presented in conjunction with "The Play in Art," an exhibit ending Sunday that examines the relationship between theater and visual art. Admission is free. Information: (714) 552-1018.