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What is performance art?
RODDY HUNTER

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'things hurry away from their names'
Octavio PAZ

I would not define performance art any more than I would define other (visual) art forms. As it would seem of limited value to continually re-iterate definitions of installation art, sculpture and painting (as examples), so it is the same with performance art. In saying this, it may be true that many performance artists have become so, amongst other reasons, in opposition to seemingly fixed and axiomatic frameworks of assumption in other artforms. The long-term avowal of a 'suspension of disbelief' in theatre and the outmoded self-evidence of a premise of mimesis in 'representational' painting are examples of this. Put simply, I would only want to define performance art in broadly formal terms and in relation to my own practice. In my case, then, I would describe it as 'the act(ion) partially regarded from the perspective of visual art'. There are common features in any characterisation of performance art and visual art more broadly.

What is constant in both is an element of synthesis, and that is also to say some degree of 'framing' takes place. Robert RAUSCHENBERG once asked Willem DE KOONING to give him a drawing so that the former could erase it. RAUSCHENBERG wished only to leave the frame of the drawing intact, which is to say that he wanted to emphasise the material signifiers that determine an artwork. This work, 'Erased de Kooning', and others like Marcel DUCHAMP's 'Fountain' (a urinal installed in a gallery and signed 'R.Mutt'), deliver a manifesto and polemic to both the artist and a wider public. These implicit aspects of framing, recognition and identification in visual art practice lead me to be sceptical of any axiomatic relation between performance art and an imag(in)ing of a pre-sophisticated reality. It is rather the case that performance artists, and those like RAUSCHENBERG and DUCHAMP who originated a performative dynamic in other forms, are those who have encountered philosophy as a method of enquiry in art.

It equally troubles me when I hear the view that performance art is somehow more intrinsically 'authentic' or 'real' than other visual art practices. The audience for art seems to expect an artwork to allow a general navigation of our collective sensibility through a microcosmic real, without risking implications for the macrocosm. Performance, in its tendency to present encounters on a representational ratio of 1:1, clearly and properly threatens that model of engagement. Just because this tendency is perhaps clearest in performance art, however, does not mean it is exclusive to the practice. Performance art and other forms such as assemblage are obvious parents of installation art for example, and this means that this form may equally conduct investigations into encounter. It is unhelpful, I feel, to enforce a sectarian divide, based on the premise of there being a single 'real', between performance art and other visual art forms. Performance art, thankfully, does not carry any meaning axiomatic with its form. I find it ironic that these claims of 'authenticity' are often made 'in favour', and usually 'in defence', of performance art.

This is not to say, however, that performance art practice resists engagement with its immediate context and environment. In fact, it often presents itself outwith the material, and conceptual, signifiers of the gallery and museum because it tends to present encounters which do not reproduce themselves elsewhere. When found on this other side of the threshold of reproduction, amongst the ruins of abandoned and overlooked architecture of contemporary culture, performance art practice implicitly re-issues something of the polemic similarly delivered by RAUSCHENBERG and DUCHAMP. I recently met a young Indonesian artist, Iwan WIJONO, whose practice of performance art emerged, I believe, from his participation in anti-SUHARTO demonstrations in Yogyakarta. He recently sent an e-mail, to other performance artists, asking the question 'what is Fluxus?' His work was not exposed to art histories such as that of FLUXUS: a pivotal, but loose, voluntary alliance of recognised mid-twentieth century avant-garde artists. At certain times, FLUXUS counted amongst its number artists whose practices were situated within particular contexts of specific communities, cultural constituencies and/or social discourses. Given this, and the explicitly 'utopian drive' of early FLUXUS activity (when its 'founder' George MACIUNAS was closer to Henry FLYNT), it is important for WIJONO to be able to ask this question. It is equally important for others to understand the context that has shaped his art.

My approach to 'teaching' performance art is relatively simple and obvious. It is possible to teach artists about performance, but you cannot teach someone to be a performance artist. A diploma, or an academic appointment, does not obviously make one an artist. It is also preferable if one's friends become one's teachers and one's teachers become one's friends. I find it preferable to think of activities within and beyond the milieu of performance art as occurring on a non-linear plane. I am suspicious of those who define progress, especially in linear terms. I only know of the future that as long as there are meetings between people so there will be the practice of performance art. This is what Boris NIESLONY taught me.

My experiences in the milieu of performance art have been and will continue to be manifold and consistent. I experience virulence, non-causality, (r)evolution, insurrection, displacement (of self and others, subjects and objects), revelation, illumination, 'uncovery' as opposed to 'discovery', disappointment, forgiveness. frustration, life and death simultaneously, camaraderie, failure, love and loving and, ultimately, the soul.

May 20, 2000, Dartington, England

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