Visual Art Performance vs. Contemporary Performance

With Performa having recently concluded and in the wake of the Marina Abramovic kerfuffle at the MOCA gala, I have been giving a lot of thought to the difference between visual art performance and contemporary performance – more specifically, Time-Based Art with its origins in dance and theater. This is an ongoing obsession of mine and one that I feel needs to be addressed critically. Thanks largely to RoseLee Goldberg, who literally wrote the book on performance art, the visual arts world has “rediscovered” performance in an unprecedented way. Unlike RoseLee, it seems that many of the visual arts curators currently working to promote visual arts performance lack knowledge in contemporary performance, and I think this presents a problem, as well as a challenge.

At the moment, Independent Curators International is offering a workshop on Curating Performance that features a group of teacher/advisors drawn entirely from the visual arts world who don’t appear to have backgrounds in contemporary performance. I find it surprising that ICI couldn’t find – or weren’t interested in finding – a single representative of the contemporary performance sector. And then I started thinking about who they could have approached and I realized that the number of performance curators who can speak eloquently and thoughtfully about why they program what they do is few and far between. Most of the curators I know are reluctant to speak about their criteria and aesthetic frameworks. I imagine this is one reason why the Institute For Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan was created. I have reached out to both ICI and ICPP for syllabi and reading lists to compare/contrast. If and when I receive those materials, I will write an addendum to this post. For now, rather than focus on the different curatorial perspectives I would like to share some of my subjective responses and thoughts related to the difference between visual art performance and contemporary performance.

In the past two weeks I have had several substantial discussions about this topic, two of which stick out for me. The first conversation was with one of New York’s most esteemed artistic director/curators and the other with a prominent director whose work has spanned both avant-garde performance and mainstream theater. From the artistic director I was told, “The visual arts world hates craft, they’re seeking ‘authenticity’,” suggesting that when a visual artist stages a performative event it should not have any degree of artifice, that it be perceived as “real”.

The director I spoke to said that the visual arts world, somewhat understandably, finds theater laughable and as a result rarely studies it. While I share the visual arts world’s distaste for popular theater predicated on “psychological realism”, I lament the fact that there are many, many devoted practitioners of contemporary performance who are as dramaturgically engaged in the construction of their time-based work as visual artists are in creating the intellectual framework around their object-based work, and that this is, apparently, not recognized or valued by the visual arts world. It is as if when visual artists and curators “discover performance” they think that they are the first to ever encounter the aesthetic issues it proposes. It would seem that they are frequently unaware of – or indifferent to – the fact that there is a long history of performance theory; that theater, and especially dance, have for many years explored issues around presence, embodiment, presentational aesthetics, the observed/observer relationship, the visual presentation of the constructed environment, the semiotics of representation, etc., etc. The visual art world might be surprised to read Hans-Thies Lehmann’s seminal writing on post-dramatic theater. They might be surprised to be exposed to the work of Rich Maxwell, Philippe Quesne, Cuqui Jerez, Xavier LeRoy and others who work extremely hard to create rigorous stagings of “the real” – who use artifice to create an experience of the real that is almost indistinguishable from the “real thing”. Or the work of Annie Dorsen who, in using computer programs and simulations, completely undermines the notion of “the real” itself.

I don’t know a lot about visual arts curatorial practice, but I have seen my fair share of both visual art performance and contemporary performance and the lack of meaningful dialogue between the two practices is troubling.

While Performa has taken the long view on visual art performance, tracing its development over the past 100 years or so, I think that when most people talk about performance art from a visual arts perspective they are referring to work that traces its precedents to the 50s through the 80’s, after which performance art fell more or less out of fashion. This may be ascribed (I’m just winging it here, but its a theory) to the rise of solo performance from a performance background – Karen Finley, et al – being labeled Performance Art and a desire by the visual art world to distance itself from that aesthetic.

There’s a revealing interview with Roselee Golberg on artinfo in which she says: “First, I think that artists who’ve never worked with performance before, they really almost don’t know where to begin” and then:

They haven’t dealt with things like performance rehearsals, they haven’t dealt with things like auditions, they haven’t dealt with things like lighting….Then there’s the next layer of questions I ask, where I’m really the guinea pig, I’m the audience member. If I’m going to walk into this room, what is it going to feel like when I walk in? What is the room going to look like? Is there going to be sound right away? What kind of feeling do you want people to have? I spent all these years thinking about performance, looking for all these things that did work or didn’t work, and I feel like that’s my role sometimes, to be critical.

Earlier in the same interview she says:

I think what Performa did was suddenly say, let’s dream up another kind of artist performance, and let’s give visual artists who maybe have never made this kind of work before a chance to create something extraordinary that is the equivalent of beautiful work that we are seeing in galleries and museums, and not backwards-looking material that seems to be getting further and further in the corner in a way and being very much about ‘70s and ‘80s and so on.

The basic idea of artists creating performance that is equivalent to the work in galleries or museums is a compelling proposition – but at the same time it suggests that only those artists identified as visual artists who are entering – naively and lacking practical knowledge and historical background – into the world of performance, are going to be making that work.  It largely ignores the signifcant body of work being created by time-based artists for whom performance is their primary discipline and does nothing to raise the value and perception of that work. To me this is problematic.

Ideally I would love to see Performa acknowledge even more work by time-based artists – directors, choreographers, ensembles – who are creating, on a regular basis, contemporary performance. That seems unlikely, in which case I would like to see the world of Contemporary Performance engage in parallel strategies to those of Performa and work harder to elevate the valuation and perception of staged or site-based performance work. Rather than the chaotic mishmash of APAP season festivals, I can imagine a new festival that ties together the most forward-focused work from UTR, Coil and American Realness under one umbrella with thoughtful dramaturgy and academic panels.

So what are some of the differences between Visual Art Performance and Contemporary Performance?

First I would suggest the notion of context and infrastructure. Visual Art, historically, is about the creation of objects – paintings, sculptures, photographs – that can be sold. One impulse behind Visual Art Performance was the rejection of making objects for sale in favor of creating non-commodifiable, ephemeral events that were meant to critique and undermine the capitalist structures of the art market. Some artists, like Marina Abramovic, have managed to commodify that work in retrospect, completely abandoning any pretense of anti-capitalism, in fact becoming major players in it. (Cue the MOCA Gala kerfuffle).

Since Visual Art has historically been about the creation of objects for sale, there is a massive infrastructure in place to create value around objects – museums, galleries, academics, journals, etc. Artists create with an accompanying intellectual framework and  put their art into the marketplace where it is contextualized by critics, academics and curators. This helps create perceived value. If it gets into a museum show, it raises the value. If the artist works assiduously to hone their public image and awareness of their “brand” the value continues to rise. Objects that were created, essentially, without value beyond the cost of materials, become more prized due to scarcity and a sort of symbolic connection to a larger cultural framework. This art object is then bought and resold over time, with the hope that it will continue to rise in value. Artists rarely share in the resale revenues of work that has significantly appreciated in value, but that’s another story. The Visual Art marketplace is, in a way, as pure an expression of capitalism as one could imagine. The irony of the art world’s frequent embrace of leftist anti-capitalist ideology is not lost on me.

The recent rediscovery of performance by the Visual Art world could be viewed, cynically, as the latest fashion in a milieu that mostly values the new and the “edgy”. Tino Sehgal is a laughable choreographer, but he’s a brilliant businessman. And the art world, to be frank, is somewhat masochistic. They love nothing more than someone who can fuck with them in a novel and ingenious way. The fact that Sehgal has monetized abstraction and ephemerality is a stroke of genius. He has taken advantage of the thrill-seeking impulse of the hyper-capitalist art market and managed, like a financial services whiz, to turn the mere idea of a performance into money. Brilliant.

I propose that when most visual artists come to performance, they are still thinking within the framework of object-making. They may be engaging with concepts around experience and representation, but from a perspective of bringing visual art to life in the time-based world using the techniques and tropes with which they are already familiar. They may not be concerned with the study of movement and embodied presence, of the craft of performance or the  challenges of the created environment. In contrast, Contemporary Performance as a genre has its roots in theater and dance. Experimental, to be sure, but rooted in explorations that are primarily focused on the performative event itself.

I’m no fan of traditional theater. That’s my background, but I long ago tired of the limitations of psychological realism and conventional narrative. I can see why people from a visual arts background might find it less than compelling. But the world of Contemporary Performance has long since distanced itself from “drama” and practitioners of contemporary performance should be acknowledged for the work they do. Dancers and choreographers train for years, and continue to train every day, to master their bodies, enabling themselves to do extraordinary things. They deeply explore the nature of movement, the way bodies moving in space convey different meanings and experiences, point to different ideas. Directors work with dramaturges to develop intellectual frameworks around the experiences they create, around how to integrate the visual and auditory experience with the performance, how does all this point to ideas beyond the performed event? How does the physical representation of ideas on a stage or at a site loop back to the concepts with which they are engaged?

One difference, I think, is that time-based artists working in contemporary performance frequently think about, as Goldberg puts it, “What kind of feeling do you want people to have?” – something that is new to visual arts practitioners. This may seem like a mild distinction, but it is key. Performance practitioners are experience-makers, not object-makers, and as such they are concerned with human engagement. Directors, choreographers and other performance-makers may be engaging with making manifest the inner life of human beings, defining the space between audience and performance as a shared field of intersecting subjectivities. And this means that we’re not only talking about thoughtful, detached examination of intellectual ideas, but, sometimes, feelings. This is where it gets tricky because what makes Traditional Theater so abhorrent to many is the unseemly focus on feelings and emotion. I’ll admit, I think there is nothing more awful than having to sit in a theater and watch some actor “act” the words of a playwright who is blatantly and unsubtly trying to evince an emotional response from the audience. In this day and age the provocation of an emotional response that doesn’t feel obvious or unearned is exceedingly difficult, and artists who are able to do this effectively are few and far between.

That being said, if a visual artist is making work in the context of creating objects for sale, it does not seem like a stretch to suggest that the framework of objectification will translate into the practice of visual art performance. In the visual art context, the body is an object to be manipulated like any other, or it is a canvas upon which the artist can project their desired meaning. If that body becomes more than object, it complicates the essential aesthetic transaction of the visual art experience. The attribution of feelings and emotions to a human being creates the possibility of empathy, moving the body from a field of abstraction into one of subjectivity. [Note: while discussing this essay with a friend of mine I was directed to the work of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and his study of hermeneutical aesthetics. I am only starting to research it, but it is brilliant, fascinating and relevant].

The Abramovic installation at the MOCA Gala appears to have been, based on after-the-fact accounts, objectification taken to its extreme, with human beings serving as literal centerpieces at the dining tables of the wealthy and privileged. From what I understand from performers’ accounts online some were subjected to mockery and ridicule – for instance, a pile of salt arranged like a line of coke in front of the immobile performer – and generally put in an unenviable position. I’m sure that some of the performers had a very different experience, and only those who were in attendance can speak authoritatively, but from my perspective the premise itself borders on disgusting while being emblematic of the values of a hyper-capitalist art market.

So in brief – I am proposing that visual art performance, generally, is predicated on the objectification and abstraction of the human body, whereas contemporary performance – Time-Based Art with its origins in dance and theater – is more frequently predicated on the creation of a subjective field of experience – what I will call “experience design”. The aesthetic challenges of integrating light, sound, visual representation and embodied presence – sometimes even text – into a Gesamtkunstwerk are undertaken not to create a “living object” but to create a shared experience.

So while both visual art and performance contexts rely on the vision of an artist, the path to the desired end result is different. The visual artist comes from an object-making context and approaches their work under that influence, whether by embracing or rejecting that paradigm. Contemporary performance, more often than not, actively acknowledges and celebrates the essential ephemerality of the form. The artwork exists only in the moment in which it is perceived, the audience has a role in the creation of the work itself, each performance and expression is unique depending on who is there to experience it. No two performance events are ever alike – and that is part of the beauty of it. Contemporary Performance events are rarely thought of as objects for sale, or as advancing an artist’s ability to create objects-for-sale. Maybe that should change – that’s a longer discussion for another time.

I will also propose that the practice of art-making in visual art performance versus contemporary performance is reflective of the object vs. experience framework. Performance, even from the most dictatorial choreographer or theater maker, is essentially a collaborative process. In order to bring a performance to life one requires the collaboration of directors, writers, composers, dramaturges, actors, lighting designers, set designers, technicians, programmers, videographers, choreographers, dancers, etc., etc. Visual art making is less frequently like that. Traditional visual arts practice is that of an artist alone in the studio or a master artist overseeing poorly paid laborers hired to fabricate objects under their direction. This method, I surmise, translates into visual art performance, where the same practices hold. Rather than collaboration, there are workers engaged to implement the singular, exacting vision of the artist. So we see a fundamental divide in both the practice of art making and in the theoretical constructs surrounding the creation of any given work. Yes, there are artists working in spectacle-oriented performance – Robert Wilson, for example – who are notoriously dictatorial and exacting. Never having been privy to Wilson’s practice I can’t say how collaborative he may or may not be. But I would imagine that even he must work responsively to the input of his co-creators.

Obviously this is a vast generalization. There are visual artists working with food experiences, community-engaged practices, etc. who defy the framework I’m suggesting. My concern is that for those visual artists engaged specifically in the making of “performance”, the disdain for craft and the disinterest in artists already working in contemporary performance not only results in subpar work being celebrated by the arts market and visual arts infrastructure, but continues the ongoing devaluation of contemporary performance from dance and theater makers.

This is a complicated issue – one which is far too much to fully engage here. Kaprow-style “happenings”, Chris Burden being shot, etc. are experiments in “the real” that become more problematic when “re-performed”. Nina Horisaki-Christens explores this idea in a recent essay in the ICI Journal where she discusses the Visual Art world’s discomfort with “script”. She says:

In his recent musings in Artforum on the future of Trisha Brown’s work, Douglas Crimp posits that her signature solo Watermotor, as performed by Brown, is a masterpiece. He then follows up by inquiring, “Will it ever be danceable by anyone but Brown?”  The question is not so much will it be danced by anyone else, as Crimp was likely aware that it would inevitably be performed by another at some point, but would it be danced as expressively and imaginatively by anyone else other than its maker. In Performance Art this seems to be the crux of the question of authenticity: can the work reach its full potential, retain its essential meaning and character, when performed in a different context or by a different individual?

It is such an interesting – and flawed – paradox. I saw Watermotor performed by Neal Beasley last spring at DTW (now NYLA). It was beautiful and extraordinary. Was it the same as watching Trisha Brown do it herself? Probably not. Does it make it any less authentic? Not in the least. Here is Deborah Jowitt on Beasley in Watermotor:

In 1978, with Watermotor, Brown unloosed the inborn wildness that her earlier plain-jane structures had been reining in. You can see her dancing the solo in Babette Mangolte’s black-and-white film, projected on the DTW lobby wall. Galloping, twisting flinging her limbs into moves and countermoves, she’s a marvel of ribbony obliques; this dance could pass through the eye of a needle. It’s fascinating to see the terrific Beasley perform the piece. He’s a small, muscular man—supple but taut. His Watermotoris less about cool liquid than about molten metal that has to be worked fast before it hardens. There’s no accompaniment but the sound of his breathing. The virtuosic performance lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, and we cheer. Beasley calmly rode Brown’s bronco of a dance and didn’t fall off.

I would suggest that Visual Art’s obsession with authenticity has less to do with respecting an artist’s original intent and more to do with an inherited predisposition towards protecting ownership. Once again this is a larger conversation than can be explored fully here and now. (Maybe someone will give me a grant so I can study this more deeply. LOL.)

The larger point I’m making is two-fold. First, visual art performance, because of its object-based origins and the field’s obsessions with “the real” and “authenticity” rejects craft and discipline. This is problematic because, frankly, it results in a lot of very bad performance. Second, because the visual arts world has a value-creating infrastructure, this bad performance is more highly valued in the marketplace than Contemporary Performance by time-based artists with origins in dance and theater. Performance work that is more sophisticated, thoughtful, challenging and virtuosic is de-prioritized and devalued in favor of unpracticed – but “real” – performative events created by visual artists.

There was a time when both visual art and performance valued craft. Times have changed. Experimental artists in both disciplines are uncomfortable with artifice, reject the obvious falsity of “psychological realism” and seek new modes of engagement with the public. The problem is that they do not share knowledge or even dialogue around their respective practices, aesthetics, goals and strategies. The Visual Art world has no incentive to value contemporary performance, because their work will remain remunerative regardless. Though I would like to see more visual artists reach across the fence to time-based artists and engage them in a collaborative process, I’m not optimistic. If that is not going to happen, then it is time for Contemporary Performance makers to actively re-contextualize their work and for the arts infrastructure to develop strategies for creating value around experience design. Curators, administrators, critics and artists must work together to create a value-appreciation structure that will situate performance predicated on experimental dance and theater in the wider arts world, and identify ways to either leverage or recreate the visual arts model.

Unfortunately I don’t have the time or money to go to grad school or take any of these curatorial workshops like ICPP or ICI, and as I jokingly said before, it is unlikely that I will get some kind of grant to actually research and write on these topics. I’m just a working stiff who has had to figure this out myself as I go along, self-educating as I go. This is only predicated on my life experience, not book learning. Like Michael Kaiser says, I’m just an amateur who needs to be properly instructed by the anointed Brahmins of High Culture. So who knows? Maybe I’m totally wrong. What do you think? What is your experience either lived or studied?

Please discuss in the comments section.

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