Previous: Vanessa Hill of BrainCraft | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios
Next: Try combinatory play with books. | Pablo Helguera | The Art Assignment



View count:553,341
Last sync:2024-05-21 09:00
Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here:

Dubious of performance art? Break into a cold sweat when you realize it’s about to begin? There’s a reason. Here we present you with a brief history of performance art and attempt to sway you to its potential charms. Let us know if you buy it.

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
Sarah: You're minding your own business in an art gallery when all of a sudden a movement occurs out of the corner of your eye.  It couldn't be!  You break into a cold sweat and look around for the nearest exit.  But it's too late--it's happening. It's performance art.

Why? Why has my precious fourth wall been violated? Why must I be forced to endure this inevitable awkwardness? This is the case for performance art.

Performance art is a term used to describe art in which the body is the medium or live action is in some way involved. This is nothing new, of course; human beings have always performed in front of each other--through rituals, storytelling, dance, carnival, and on and on. But as art evolved, the word became known for describing specific things, mainly objects, like paintings, sculpture, and drawing.

Live action belonged to other disciplines, like theater and ballet and opera. But during the course of the twentieth century, artists began to incorporate live action into works and describe it as art. The Italian Futurists in the 1910s saw performance as the only way to reach a mass audience, staging noise concerts, and a kind of disruptive variety theater aimed at destroying quote, "The solemn, the sacred, the serious and the sublime in Art--with a capital A."

Think artists are kind of nuts? Well, The Futurists wanted you to think that, arguing, "the name of 'madman' with which it is attempted to gag all innovators should be looked upon as a title of honor." Dada artists embraced the crazy as well, and built off the popularity cabaret and post World War I Germany.

Artists Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings opened Cafe Voltaire in 1916 Zurich and invited artists and writers to come give musical performances and readings of all kinds.  No one knew what might happen on any given night. It could be like this, or it could be like this. [CHANTING]

During the Weimar years, the Bauhaus was the first institution to offer a specific performance class, reinforcing it as a medium in its own right.  avant-garde avant-garde theater flourished across Europe, and early surrealist Antonin Artaud theorized what he called the theater of cruelty, proposing a direct communication between the spectator and the spectacle, engulfing the spectator into the action, writing, "we abolish the stage and the auditorium and replace them by a single site, without partition or barrier of any kind, which will become the theater of the action."

After World War II, Black Mountain College in the US became a hotbed of experimental interdisciplinary practice, with avant-garde avant-garde composer John Cage teaching classes and staging collaborative productions. They put on a version of Erik Sate's surreal The Ruse of Medusa, featuring Merce Cunningham as Mechanical Monkey, Buckminster Fuller as Nonsensical Baron, and sets by Willem and Elaine de Kooning.  Cage had shared with his students his understanding of music as it relates to Zen Buddhism--that art should not be separate from life, but action within life, with all of the accidents and chaos and occasional beauty that that entails.

Participants in his productions were given loose scores that left a lot to interpretation, has unpredictable results, and were impossible to reproduce. Choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham's revolutionary approach, also shared at Black Mountain, proposed that such ordinary movements such as walking and standing could be considered dance. The boom of abstract expressionist painting in the 1950s emphasized the body's involvement in making art. It's obvious but easy to forget when you're looking at, say, a landscape, that every painting is document of a series of actions that took place in the past. 

But with works like Jackson Pollock's, it becomes harder to ignore, with art critic Harold Rosenberg explaining the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture, but an event.

The Gutai group in Japan took these ideas a step further. In front of audiences, Kazuo Shiraga through himself naked into a pile of wet mud. Saburo Murakami crashed through a row of paper screens. Tanaka Atsuko donned her electric dress.

Back in Europe,  Yves Klein embarked on a series for which he hired female models to cover themselves in paint and make imprints of their bodies on paper. Instead of walking through a room and glimpsing these things that happened in the past, here it is in the room with you, happening right now.

The godfather of the happening, Allan Kaprow, staged his first in 1959 at Rubin Gallery, stating on the invitation, "You will become part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them." Guests arrived with little idea of what would happen, both witness to and participant in loosely structured actions, left to make of it what they could. Kaprow called it what he did because it was, quote, "something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen."

Artists associated with the Fluxus movement presented ordinary events as art, considering anyone and everyone to be an artist. At a 1962 Fluxus festival, Ben Patterson performed "Variations for Contrabass" where he agitated at strings using a variety of unusual materials. Nam June Paik dipped his necktie and head in paint and drew a line along a 13-foot roll of paper. Alison Knowles made a big salad and shared it. Much of it was playful, but for others, it was dead serious.

Joseph Beuts gave lectures and staged dramatic actions, enacting what he called social sculpture to try to change consciousness, believing art can and should transform your everyday life. In Vienna, a group of artists pursued what they call actionism, calling it not only a form of art, but above all, an existential attitude. Hermann Nitsch enacted ancient rites, which he described as "an anesthetic way of praying." And Valie Export invited the public to reach into a curtain box to touch her unclothed body, a humorous but indicting action questioning the objectification of women's bodies.

Performance came into its own in the turbulent '60s and '70s. The Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism underlined the fact that the body is political, and artists seized on its potential. Carolee Schneemann explained, "in 1963, to use my body as an extension of my painting constructions was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the art stud club."

Through performance, female bodies and black bodies and queer bodies and bodies that bring together multiple identities could be reclaimed, reasserted, and represented through many lenses, not just by white men this time, but by the actual persons in question.

The minimalists were interested in phenomenology, or the study of consciousness from particular points of view, and so were performance artists. Inserting live bodies into artworks was an immediate way to unsettle the delusion that a universal perspective exists, insisting that everybody is a self inscribed by events, language, history, and identity, and is always in perpetual flux.

These selves did lots of things. They became part of paintings. They wore paintings. They positioned themselves in space and in nature. They positioned others in space. They performed tasks, and they asked others to perform tasks. They made constructions specifically to hold their bodies. They followed strangers. They took on other identities. They asked questions. They created stores. They subjected themselves to danger. They tested their endurance. They turned the audience into the performer. They completely merged art and life. They explored desire, androgyny, sexuality, exoticism, and the burden of art historical representation.

Since the '70s, performance art has been a relatively constant fixture in the world of art, used internationally to examine a wide range of issues. It's been documented and exhibited, but is largely resistant to commercial forces, offering artists a way to make work outside of the often oppressive market system.

Performance today is so many different things. It's Kalup Linzy singing as his alter ego, the melodramatic Shantoz (? 7:00), Taiwan, whom he later declared dead. It's Allora and Calzadilla's Olympic gymnast performing choreographed routines on wooden replicas of airline seats at the Venice Biennale. It's Ryan McNamara being taught to dance in public. It's Kate Gilmore's bright pink house with women in white dresses swinging from its windows. It's Bennett Miller's "Dachshund UN." It's Ragnar Kjartansson's "Bliss," a 12-hour performance of the last minutes of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" over and over again. And it's still the classic stuff like Marina Abramovic's wildly popular, "The Artist is Present," where the audience was invited to queue up and eventually face off with the artist. It should come as no surprise when Jay-Z, inspired by Abramovic's work, called his music video a performance art film, arguing, "Concerts are pretty much performance art with the venues changed."

Performance art was born of interdisciplinary thinking, and still thrives in those spaces in between. Think art's a scam masterminded by the rich and ridiculous? Well, so have a lot of artists who have used performance as a strategy to deliberately offend, upend tradition, and remake art from the inside. Performance art was born of a desire to flatten hierarchies inherent in traditional art forms, so that the artist could reach an audience directly rather than through coded forms or the separation of a canvas or frame. It wasn't so much that people wanted to make something called performance art, but more that these activities seeped out from other disciplines where they no longer quite fit in.

As with any art, it's up to you to decide whether or not you think it's any good. But the way into performance is to allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by it, to admit your feelings of suspicion, fear, dislike, or claustrophobia. Performance art can give you room to think about who you are, where you are, and how you relate to those who are not you. It can allow us to contemplate the rules, written and unwritten, of any given space or place. Performance can make you uncomfortable, because that's what it's supposed to do, it's designed to do. Don't leave the room. Stay. Be uncomfortable. Revel in the mystery of what may or may not occur. Think about why you're feeling the way you're feeling. Invite the discomfort. Invite the unknown. You and artists and art will be better for it.