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What is performance art?

What is Performance Art? - an elemental and critical reflection.


Performance Art is an art form, like painting, drawing, writing, poetry, installation, video, photography, sculpture, installation, architecture, object, theatre, dance, film, music ... it is a way to express thoughts and ideas in an artistic manner, a tool to create art. Performance Art is located within a broader field called Action Art, which historically emerged in Europe after the Second World War. Performance art is the creative act of an artist in front of, or with an audience at a certain place/space/site and during a certain timeframe it forms the centre of attention. During a live process the artist and his actions are transformed into a general readable sign.

And here I should stop, because this is my answer to the question. This is Performance Art. This would be enough to explain what it is... if there wasn't the ghost of interpretation that makes each idea that wants to be heard and understood into a dangerous idea. Religion is a very good example of how interpretation can effect an idea. With different forms of interpretation the idea transforms into a violent and powerful tool. This also has happened to Performance Art for years. It is the most diversely interpreted contemporary art form and we haven't found a concrete definition for it yet. Perhaps it might be its quality that cannot be defined, it becomes gets difficult to answer the question and the question must be asked in another way. However this doesn't mean that everything is which is not definable is Performance Art.

Performance Art is nothing holy, nothing special, and nothing extraordinary. Performance Art is often misunderstood as 'the idea of being an artist', as possessing a cool attitude different from other artistic articulations, a way to separate oneself to be special. The openness of Performance Art is misunderstood as independence and license to do whatever you want to do. This is a misleading way of thinking, that everything is allowed in the creation of Performance Art. However, at the end of the term we call it art, the art of performance. What makes it special or extraordinary, but never holy, is HOW we use this art form and HOW we articulate our concepts within this art form. But this is also possible to do in painting, theatre, music, etc_ in the same way. Because we use our body, our personality, our ego to create Performance Art pieces instead of a brush, paint, wood, steal... it makes it somehow special, complicated and often irrationally interpreted.

As an artist I don't want to answer the question 'What is performance art?' at all, because I already express what I want to say in my performance art pieces. If I could talk about it, about what it is that categorises my works as Performance Art, I would then speak or write about it and it wouldn't put such effort into the creation of these art pieces. It is also strange to me to answer directly after a performance, questions about what I have done. In a way it is the same question "What is Performance Art?". I need time to myself to reflect upon those things I have done during my performance. I would love the audience to trust themselves a bit more to interpret what they have seen and experienced. Always we want explanations and answers. Probably we are too shy, but often we are simply too lazy, or even don't trust our own perception in order to find our own answers. As an artist I like to ask questions and not to give answers. And in addition artists also make their tea - like all others - simply with hot water.

As a teacher and with over 20 years of experience in Performance Art, I see myself confronted by students and audiences and I feel their need for orientation. But often I feel that they seek clarification not because about WHAT we are doing, but mostly as a result of the huge range of articulations that Performance Art has. It is easier to indentify a theatre piece as a theatre piece, even it is experimental or classical. But in Performance Art we have so many intersections and possibilities to borrow knowledge's from other art disciplines, which makes it difficult to define exactly what it is. But just because it is an open field, it isn't possible just to do whatever you want. Performance Art has rules and has aesthetics and has frames and structures and this is good. I try to avoid an answer and instead focus on the practical experience. Practical experiences will direct the one who is honestly asking the question to the answers during the process. I say answers, because I believe that there are conglomerates of answers, each telling the truth about a subject, a situation, a moment, a thing or a person - and this does not only apply to art.

If we want to know "What is Performance Art?" we should simply try to experience it ourselves. If I want to know something that I don't already know and speak with someone who is a professional in this field, he or she will explain to me the topic as precise as possible and it will enter my conceptual knowledge. I can say "I have heard about it". For example: in a stadium people who watch a soccer game may see a player who wastes a penalty or a scoring chance. We can observe people getting angry and complaining about the players inability. However, those who have played soccer professionally - not like a hobby after work - have a physical and mental knowledge of the situation and react differently. Our whole knowledge is based on experience and observation. Without trying out and observing what is happening around us we will never know a situation and simply will stay in conceptual constructions. We will always think that we know, but we actually won't really know. We know that an iron is hot, because most of us touched it once. This hurtful physical experience is part of our common knowledge. We probably wouldn't even have a spoon if somebody had not observed how a leaf collected the water from falling rain. In my teachings I mark clearly that nobody needs to understand a performance artist. However, the experience and so the knowledge about Performance - or Action Art is important to understand art in itself, its basic ideas and can also help us to understand other non artistic situations.

So, I consider that the question "What is performance art?" is not a question designed to be answered but to be experienced and discovered. If we skip the word 'performance', we have the question 'What is art?' and this surely we do not want to answer! This we want to do, to show, to see, to experience and to exchange!

The essence of Performance Art is the act, the practical fulfilment of a creative action. As Marcel Duchamp marked in his manifesto "The creative act" that the act of creation is the most important, not the artwork, the product itself. The painting is not as important as the act of painting or the sculpture is not as important as the act of chiselling and carving into stone or wood. Art is not the product; it is the moment of creation. The biggest joy I feel is when I actually do things, while cooking, while eating, while dancing, while kissing, while creating. The biggest pain I feel is when I actually suffer, struggle or fail.

The art product is the result of creative acts that we place in spaces such as museums, galleries and collections for people to look at. Where is the art? For me the art is not in the object, the art is there when something is actually happening, while doing something, for example while looking at a picture on the wall. In the moment of looking and focusing upon a conversation with the picture and the special context where this picture is hanging - there lies the art. Performance Art was also created as a kind of protest to the understanding of art. Nobody should have the chance to own or trade an artwork. In performance art nothing was left - only a memory or a feeling. The product is something else, something that is in each viewer of the action, something that is not directly touchable like a sculpture or a painting. Connected with Duchamp's manifesto Louis Bunuel made a radical statement: "museums are the mortuaries of the art process". I wouldn't go so far, but perhaps museums are the places where art works retire and the vivid part of art - the process of creation - is therefore not so visible anymore, one can only see its traces. Performance Artists went out of those institutions in the 60s/70s to underline these perceptions of art and to find other spaces, such as the public space where they could show their works. However current thinking has changed totally from the original ideas of Performance Art. Documentation of performance such as photography and video or as well 'relicts', objects that have been used or transformed during the performance become collected and archived. The act is not the only focus anymore in current Performance Art practice. We have the term 'old school' or traditional performances or orthodox performances to describe those who don't want their work to be documented in any form and those artists are the minority. Also spaces for art have adopted the ephemeral aspect of performance and included this into their programs, such as the night of the museums. Performance Art you can now see everywhere in art fairs and biennials. It seems that the art institutions are working hard to invite the artists back because the power art pieces created in society is missing somehow in the art institutions. We can look at the appearance of Action Art / Performance Art in an art historical context, when in the 60s/70s this art form appeared on the art scene. There are major examples, often cited by art historians, which I am tired of calling by name. To describe contemporary Performance Art, the journalists, art teachers, critics, historians and curators are using examples of the works of artists such as Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Ulay, Vito Acconci, Gunther Brus, Wolfgang Flatz, Carolee Schneemann and others. Perhaps this is the reason why performance artists today have to fight the argument that Performance Art was something that happened only during this time. It is indisputable that the 60s/70s were important times for our societies and a perfect climate for this art form to grow. But does this reflect Performance Art today? If we always refer to these artists and times in order to explain what Performance Art is, we forget about a very interesting development in Performance Art ever since it first emerged. We exclude important artists that have extended the art form and are responsible for its continuation and development. We don't see the huge range of young and inspiring artists working in Performance Art today and shaping it in a new manner which often is generated by the spirit of the 60s/70s Performance artists, but has in fact little to do with it. If Performance Art was not a changing art form, I would probably not do it today. So in my teachings and discussions I try to show examples from artists like Jaan Toomik, Ingolf Keiner, Antoni Karwowski, Arti Grabowski, Joshua Sofaer, Inge Broska and Hans Joerg Tauchert, Stefanie Trojan, Ieke Trinks, Marcel Sparmann and many others for to make clear that there is a development in this genre.

For me as an artist and teacher it is much more interesting and challenging to look at a wider perception of performance in order to understand what it is, or what it could be. This performativity, maybe the root of Action Art. There are basic examples in our history which show clearly how the art form Performance Art is nourished.

Diogenes taught his philosophy not only by speeches and texts. He is known as one who used action, so called action philosophy, to illustrate his view on life and society. He lived his beliefs in public in the metropolis of ancient Greece and demonstrated with sometimes witty and sometimes mortifying actions what he was thinking about the society in which he lived. Just by reading about some of his actions, we understand that action was a tool already used thousands of years ago. Besides Diogenes I would highlight the stories of Alexander the Great who was confronted with the task of the Gordian knot. No matter how he resolved this challenge (with the sword or with shrewdness) the act was so impressive that it changed the power in Europe and Asia and therefore the story is known today. I could mention as well King Salomon wanting to cut a baby in half to find out who was the real mother. The Bible and as well the Koran are full of performative descriptions of actions. From more recent times we could mention the 'knee fall' of Willy Brandt in Warsaw, a changing point in the difficult relationships between the politics of east and west. Or the Polish politician Janusz Palikot who uses a lot of performative strategies to articulate his way of thinking and to articulate his view of a new Polish society - with success.

In all those examples there is one immanent factor: Something is changing after a (creative) action. It is a change in time, in society, in broader perception. An action without a change is not performative. If the world or the view on the world after a performance art piece is not changing, the performance went wrong.

The anecdote of Christopher Columbus's egg contains a very interesting and for me a significant element about contemporary Performance Art. 1493 Columbus was confronted by cardinal Mendoza who held the opinion that the discovery of the new World was not such a big thing. So Columbus asked the people to set a boiled egg on its top. There were many attempts, but nobody managed to accomplish this task. It was finally said that this was an impossible task, and Columbus was asked to try it himself. He tipped his egg softly on the table so that the shell cracked slightly and the egg remained standing on its top. Those who were present protested that they would have been able to do so just as well but Columbus replied: "The difference is that you could have done it, but I did it.". I am not saying that Columbus discovered the new World, as there is knowledge that the Vikings did it before him. I point to the fact that Columbus managed to solve a situation, with a (creative, clever) action.

The fact of an action is - if it is directed within a context (no matter what kind of context) - reality is changing. Performance or performativity is an attitude that humans have naturally inside of them. It is a very profound form of communication, which we also can observe in children. Artists have started to use this communication tool to produce art pieces and it has become a form to find solutions or to make a statement or to point towards circumstances. In all aspects it is active and has the possibility to change reality immediately. The main question in performance or action art is not what we do - it more important HOW we are doing things and THAT we actually are doing them and not only talking about them.

What makes Performance Art so attractive is its possibilities. It could be seen as a chameleon that is able to adjust to almost all variations of artistic, social or political expressions. This is also a reason why performance art is not so easy to grasp for the audience or those who are not familiar with this art form, as well for historians. Performance Art is also not easy to do. This could be the reason why people don't want to confront themselves with this medium, because the openness causes danger. This is true, because if something is open it has a lot potential to be misinterpreted.

Performance art is most interesting when it merges with other art forms; with science, society, and other fields of human interests. That's why the field of performance art is so huge and so full of variations. Here I can find as a contemporary artist lot of answers that reach beyond the borders of creation, where visions can be felt and touched.

Since 1996 I have use the term 'agierte Bilder' (which is not easy to translate from German into English, but perhaps 'living or acted images' could be a translation for this term). This term describes how I use the art form Performance in order to create 'images', 'collages' and 'paintings' which are not photographed, painted, glued or installed. Those images are done. I never rehearse my 'agierte Bilder'. In the exact moment of the public presentation I realise my concept in the given space, at the given time, with the collected materials. Over time I have generated an alphabet of actions; images that I can use like a painter uses colours on the palette in order to create these ephemeral images. I use the term and the structure of a collage to describe this live process. My research is wide open and I borrow knowledge from all kinds of art forms and combine them with my research into society and my own biographical experiences. This is what I do formally and I locate myself in the visual arts at the roots of performativity and Performance Art. I would never define myself as a performance artist, more as an artist creating Performance - and Action Art pieces.

Without explicitly writing about the body (or better to say the figure), or the time and space aspect within Performance Art, this text focuses on the form. How to put the soul inside of an art form is another question.

By BBB Johannes Deimling, 2012

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