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What is performance art?
MARILYN ARSEM

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Often when I am asked to define performance art, I begin by asking the person to first define painting or drawing or sculpture. Even with familiar media, the task is daunting. One can always think of exceptions and complications...

In my simplest description, I say that performance art is "an action by an artist, created and executed as an art work." In speaking of performance art in such neutral terms, I hope to include the broad expanse of human activities that has been or will be identified as performance art. I want to honor the generosity of a field that encourages an inclusive notion of human actions as art, one where the artist defines the work first, and where challenging the status quo is encouraged.

Performance art can be considered as both a context and a process. It is the practice of embodied thinking, experimenting with processes whose outcomes can't always be predicted, in a context that is framed and contained within daily life. Operating on a human scale, the viewers are present in the same time and place as the artist, and witness the act of creation as it unfolds over real time. Both reach the action's completion in the same moment, simultaneously.

Performance art has unique properties. Because the artist and the witness are together, there is the possibility of direct interaction between them, with the option of implicating the viewers directly in the work. A performance artist can also make use of all our senses, including taste, touch and smell, in addition to the visual and the aural.

How meaning is constructed out of the memory of an ephemeral event complicates performance art's historical record. Without an object to revisit, the understanding of the work continues to transform over time for both the maker and viewer, as it is recalled in memory and retellings.

What follows is a more personal description of my own practice in performance art:

The creation of site-responsive performance is an opportunity for me to intensively engage with a particular place and its people, and to be changed by what and by whom I encounter. The challenge is to design an action that reveals that process. The presence of witnesses heightens everyone's awareness of the nuances of the action and its implications.

My performances are dialogues with materials, with physical space, with ideas, with time, with myself, and with other people. Using all my senses, it is an embodiment of thinking, asking questions, testing myself, taking risks, and examining new realities.

Performance art is a practice where I cannot avoid knowing the impact of my actions on the witnesses or the immediate environment, and that exchange is of primary value. It is a practice that remains anchored in the here and now, requiring me to pay attention, and to operate fully in the present. It keeps me grounded in the limits of my body and the reality of time, reminding me always that nothing remains.

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