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What is performance art?
PAUL COUILLARD

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I have been asked this question so many times in the past 15 years that I have come to believe it is my life's work to answer it. But this question cannot be answered with words alone. All that I know I have learned by doing, and so I have come to understand that the answer to this question must be inhabited, like life itself.

Performance art is a place. It is a time. It is a body. And it is a relationship. These are the formal elements of performance art, its essential building blocks. How they are gathered together, shaped or composed will vary according to the art and the artist. Every performance art work is a personal bid for the attitude or approach that turns these elements from raw material into art. What is the uncompromising, essential quality that we seek? Experimentation? Adventurousness? Honesty? Subtlety? Complexity? Sacredness? The unexpected? Whatever the terms, whatever the qualities chosen to be valued, the description is bound to mislead anyone who is not breathing and enduring the moments of performance art's being. It is live art, and so it must be lived.

For me, performance art is a conscious exploration of being. My own history of performance art is not the history of any particular art movement or canonized list of master practitioners. It does not begin with dada or fluxus. It does not end with body art or digital media extravaganzas. Most of it will never be recorded or widely known, though we can catch glimmers of its effects as it continues to transform everything we know. Performance art is a constantly contested set of practices with multiple and conflicting histories. It is as old as the hills and as new as the first green shoot of spring.

Performance art is a self-defined practice, not governed by club memberships or union cards. Performance art is a place for misfits and seekers who have not yet discovered the limits of their territory. It is a land of immigrants, sometimes familiar and often strange. Performance art is a practice that borrows as comfortably or uncomfortably from imagined ancient tribal rituals, family celebrations, science fiction novels and television. Performance art embraces or rejects the processes of sculpting and dancing and composing and acting. It may owe as much to physics and mathematics as it does to philosophy and aesthetics. Performance art comes in every colour and speaks every language.

What is performance art? We will never stop asking the question, because what was performance art in Toronto today will be known tomorrow as music, or dance, or theatre -- or, equally possible, it will be done, and there will be no need to name it. But by that same tomorrow, in that same place -- or perhaps another -- expressing itself with the aid of some body, and asserting itself in some surprising transaction between artist and audience, will be some other thing that rightfully calls itself performance art. It may respond to what is today, or turn its back on what is today, or be ignorant of what is today. But since performance art is not an archival technique, that will not tell us anything about what performance art is.

Performance art is.


September 2000

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