Looking back now. Or, a forgotten questionnaire on the historization and contemporaneity of performance art
by Barbara Clausen
This text is based on a questionnaire, sent to me in 2013, which centered on the status of the documentation of performance art and the ongoing institutionalization of performance-based practices. The idea was to publish the responses in a publication series by De Appel called The Shadowfiles. The project never came to life and was forgotten – and most likely because of a change in directorship at De Appel – put into a file. Yet, this questionnaire has frequently popped back into my mind, specifically when I’ve thought about the ongoing significance of performance not only as a tool and a method of working, but also as a meta-genre that functions increasingly like an umbrella, framing interdisciplinary practices concerned with the idea of presence and immediacy in the visual arts. And so, over the last two years, I have continuously updated my responses, and am now finally allowing it to circulate here. For the purpose of its current publication, I have updated and changed some of the questions and answers.
There are many artists active today, in whose work performance or live actions are integral, so much so that in the past decade one can speak of a genuine revival of the genre. Do you think that there are reasons for this recent development?
Barbara Clausen (BC): There are several interests, practices and currents that culminated in the late 1990s in a renewed and steadily growing interest in performance art’s diverse histories. This list is easily extendable and far from finished. The reasons will continuously change and reflect upon those who ask as well as those who decide to respond.
In the early to mid-1990s performance studies and art history started to ask if historical performances could be reenacted, for mostly educational purposes. This hermetic curiosity corresponded with artistic interests of the time, such as the reconsideration of practices engaged in institutional critique, the rise of relational aesthetics and installation-based art practices that tried to engage their audiences. These developments were absorbed by an increasing determination by curators to activate the exhibition space as a site of mediation and participation. All of the above were reflected and shaped by an increasing interest in artistic knowledge production and artistic research.
Another reason is the art markets’ discovery by the mid-1990s of the potential value of the numerous estates and archives of performance artists, documentary photographers, videographers and filmmakers. These archives – often without clearly defined authorial rights at the time – were quickly absorbed into private and public collections, gallery-run estates as well as publicly accessible archives. This has led not only to the historization but also institutionalization of performance art.
And last but certainly not least, was a shift in European and US politics towards the conservative and in some cases extreme right forms of government around the turn of the millennium. This development triggered a need to take action on a variety of socio-cultural levels. This early period of the ’00s was marked by the need to rethink the parameters of democracy – artists literally trying out what it means to position themselves within and take action in public space as well as within institutional frameworks. The paradigmatic events of 9/11 only added to this momentum. These events have since created a multitude of worldwide movements against the machinery of war, the politics of suppression and the infinite power of the market, that despite crashes and increasing consumer awareness has not ceased to dominate cultural politics.
Over the past decade there has been a shift in our understanding
of performance art and its histories from a body-based genre to a hybrid medium and discursive practice which functions as a methodology and a way of working. While the reasons I’ve given for the renewed interest in performance art are debated and continuously explored in both theory and practice, they continue to have an effect on the function of performance-based practices and how they appear and react to being documented, archived and restaged.
What are still relevant differences between the “original” once-only, unrepeatable live moment of a performance and a theatre performance/play?
BC: These interrelated processes used to follow a chronological order, unfolding over time, changing their authors as well as their protagonists. Whereas today, partly because of social media, they embrace the simultaneousness of their appearance in the real as multi-layered media events. This has led to a collapse of the boundaries between layers of time and to accelerated absorption of the performative act itself into its media afterlife. Seen this way, the relationship between the live and the mediated, the original and the reproduction, becomes obsolete as a dialectical framework but remains of interest as a correlative relationship.
Performance art is set at the interface of opposition and cross-manifestation and has, since its beginning in the 20th century, always been rooted in the tension field of three different spheres of medial expression: first, the perception and experience of the body; second, the reproduction of the act through analogue and later digital media; and third, public distribution and reception in all forms of mass media, from the newspaper to the Internet. We can safely say that the dialectical relationship of the live and the mediated has become long obsolete; one could even argue that this has always been the case. The question whether a performance has an original or authentic state of existence has always been a question of ideological interpretation and a strategy of inclusion and exclusion, all of which continuously change over time. What is most important is to look at how artists engage with the correlative relationship between the live and the mediated and consequently ask how the site and time specificity of the exhibition, as an inherently performative medium, is processed, acted out and reproduced within the becoming of its own image, between spectator and action.
What are the possibilities of recording, documenting and archiving particular actions and performances? And what aspects of actions and performances are impossible to record, document and archive?
BC: Looking at the vast image and text-based material available on the history of performance art since the 1950s, most has been commissioned, distributed and archived by artists, professional photographers, chroniclers, witnesses and institutions alike, with admirable and great efforts. The question of what has not been recorded, or is impossible to record, document or archive, can only lead us to ask why someone had consciously refused and taken the effort to not keep a record. Photography, film, video, the Internet and new social media have accelerated this process of immediate reproduction and distribution. The distinction between staging an image for the camera and capturing an event with a camera has collapsed and hence escaped its antagonistic and dialectical relationship and the claim of authenticity.
This said, if an artist decides neither to document nor stage his work for the camera, as in the well-known case of Tino Sehgal, the decision itself will produce an avalanche of non-authorized images, blogs, descriptions and commentaries. One interesting example of an artist who works with this dynamic of documentation in relation to their live works is Tania Bruguera, who recently reversed the process of authorization between the public and the institution by making every image a visitor takes official, while personally limiting and selecting very few the institution is allowed to use.
The question whether works from the history of performance art can be re-enacted, or not, as art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty has rightfully pointed out, should not be centred on the authenticity of the original: “If you believe in the sacred authenticity of the original, then by definition no redo could threaten it; if you think performance is always already mediated, then live bodies are as much a form of representation as any other.”1
Nothing is impossible to re-enact in the sense of re-reading the past, one just has to be clear about whose intentions they are taking as the outset of their work. The impossibility of repetition lies within the personal realm of how each past, present and future participant (regardless of their status as a performer, witness, reader or viewer) individually anticipates, experiences and reciprocates the event.
The early practitioners of the medium have appeared not only to be directing themselves against the conventions and codes of the traditional proscenium or flat-floor theatre – with its reliance on text – but also against certain mechanisms in the art market that concentrated on the object as the ultimate work of art, a commodity. The performance was originally “owned” and “signed” by the artist, the author of the work. Artists today use scripts, scenarios and actors and repeat performances. Is this “just” a redefinition or re-articulation?
BC: While this question was important for the wave of re-enactments that started around the mid-’00s, today, one can’t safely equate the immediacy of an event with an anti-institutional or anti-capitalistic gesture. Just as the translation of a live event into a picture, an object or an installation does not necessarily submit to the rules of the market and can in fact be subversive. And then there is the categorization of performance art as ephemeral – despite the original critical, anti-commercial connotation of this term – which has facilitated the exclusion of vanguard artists from a predominantly hetero-normative canon or many decades.
In fact, the financial reality of performance’s “un-marketability” ended when it started, sometime in the 1950s (Yves Klein and James Lee Byars both throwing gold into the air), when the certificate of authenticity for conceptual art practices, often immaterial as well as performative by nature, became not just a proof of purchase, but the actual object of ownership (certificate) and script for future enactments. This idea is clearly stated and acted out in Lawrence Weiner’s Declaration of Intent, from 1968:
1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.
Existing “iconic” or canonical performances are restaged nowadays or reworked by art practitioners. And the practices of various artists and curators who are involved in performance have inspired the formulation of protocols (Marina Abramovic). How does a performance change as a result of a new context and through being carried out by a different artist in a different place? And how does such a re-enactment relate to the original work?
BC: There are a good number of artists engaged in performative practices today who have embraced the history as well as the more nuanced historiographies of performance art in their work, via strategies of re-enactment and appropriation. In some cases they oscillate between the “original” artist’s intention, the witness’ claims of authenticity and official historical records. In other cases they simply re-stage images of what has become an acclaimed work in the canon of art history, driven by something between nostalgia and market strategy. The desire to appropriate and reconsider historical performance has the potential for critical reflection, i.e. asking what the revival of performance says about an art world increasingly engaged in capturing the politics of everyday life within its walls. At best the relationship to the past is not competitive nor admiring, but dedicated to finding new questions and viewpoints, alternative histories that point out current issues of political emancipation. Some examples would be the work of Jimmy Robert, Sharon Hayes or Walid Raad. The awareness of the fact that any act of appropriation will always change our reading of the original allows for an articulation of the processes of inclusion or exclusion that in turn speaks for both the past and the present. As part of an effort to emancipate, these artists have taken up Judith Butler’s use of the performative, focusing on the disruptive potential of their actions rather then remaining trapped within the normative traditions that determine the politics of the canonization of art history.
Interviews with original performance artists and the study of documents, photographs and recordings of performances (can) become part of new performances, exhibitions and museum collections. How can these be experienced in a new and “lively” way?
BC: The abundance of art historical texts, as well as soundand image-based documentary materials on performance art since the 1960s have become an integral part of critical performance-based art practices, providing an infinite source of knowledge and inspiration. This has led to an increasingly critical reflection on the narrative linearity of performance art and its ongoing institutionalization as a performative process dependent on its medial reproduction. Artists using a documentary approach towards the past, exhibiting an archive based on images of performances, or conducting interviews with witnesses of past performances, increasingly blur the dichotomy between the active and the passive as it relates to the institution, the artist and the spectator. The premise for performance art in the future lies in the conscious integration of the discontinuities, expectations, failures and ruptures that are usually edited out in the process of performance art’s historization.
One way is translating the institutional politics of performance art into the museum and exhibition space, rewriting an institution’s history in parallel to that of the art it shows and the discourses it reflects, and placing the official history alongside other forgotten histories within the mise-en-scène of their works. Good examples of this are found in the works of Sophie Bélair Clement, Babette Mangolte, and Sarah Pierce. While very different in the style and development of their work, all three question performance’s claim of authenticity and the politics of the ephemeral in relation to the power of the archive and the exhibition as a site of valorization.2
Many artists see the exhibition space, or even public space, as an extension of the studio, as a platform for creation. How can an institution provide such a place? Now that performance is cropping up in so many different forms in contemporary art practice, how can shape be given to the relationship between the performance/live art artist and the heritage/collection/museum?
BC: The ongoing institutionalization of performative practices, whether as a method of production or a tool of representation, has shaped the way knowledge is processed and communicated within and through the exhibition. The site of the exhibition plays a major role in this development. Exhibitions have served artists as a format of exploration, a site of intervention as well as a medium of manifestation. In recent years, artists3 and choreographers,4 together with curators, have come to perceive the
exhibition as an environment that embraces both critical and transdisciplinary practices, increasingly found in the conceptual correlation of the performative with the archival.
This crossing of performative and conceptual methodologies
allows artists to “expose” the complexities and
the challenges cultural producers face when tackling the
question of authenticity and reproduction as key issues in
their work. Consequently, the site of the exhibition offers
the opportunity to activate the tension between episodic
and semantic experiences. Works by artists such as Pauline
Olowska, Boris Charmatz, or Gerard Byrne allow us to witness how we experience knowledge by, for example, exhibiting a historical performance from a collection or an archival source (ranging from the library to the Internet), commissioning a series of new performances over a period of time or for a series of events, or asking an artist to engage with an iconic performance. This focus on performance art’s self-reflexive practices as well as time- and process-based states of existence takes effect within, as well as outside of, the medium of the exhibition.
As practices and discourses of the performative and the curatorial increasingly intertwine, playing with the spatiotemporal frameworks of the institution and its increasing dedication to live programming can offer numerous possibilities. This becomes particularly fruitful when performance
art’s claim of authenticity is not debated within the classical framework of a dialectical relationship but rather discussed, developed and translated within the layering of the settings of an exhibition, a symposium, a publication or a performance series as a correlative relationship. The exhibition as a performative format of its own can simultaneously function as a proscenium setting, a contingent context, as well as a site of knowledge production, mediation, contemplation and reception. It has been proven to work this way, especially when allowed to develop over time within an institution, escaping the parameters of the performance as an event that is part of the opening of an exhibition. Examples are If I Can’t Dance; Akira, the mumok performance series; Jay Sanders’ curation of performances for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, the performance series Live Currency, programming at The Tanks at Tate Modern and the DeAppel and many more to come and be rediscovered.