Karenina.it Express - Theories: Performance
Background image: Caterina Davinio
By Enno Stahl
Some (very subjective) notes to begin with:
When speaking about performance one must first have a look at the prejudices. The usual coverage of this theme, especially on the part of the art press, reports that performance is basically finished; that performance was a phenomenon of the 60īs and 70īs and today can only be regarded as the third rehash, at best. This is often accompanied by those arguments that question the artistic character of performance, both in general and in principle.
Such arguments not only hamper contemporary performanceīs right to exist but they also attempt to undermine the "history of performance" and negate its legitimacy retroactively. The political intentions are obvious. The branch of art being rebuked here is one that has always been a reservoir for the most resistance ; the one most noticeably maintaining the anarchistic, rebellious spirit of the avant-garde. More than all others it is this branch that turns its back on the prescribed institutional art of the establishment and stands opposed to the market and the commercial exploitation (conscription) of art.
Performance is "fleeting". It comes into being and vanishes forever and thus exemplifies the imaginary character of art in general. The accusation that this is no longer contemporary is automatically subject to "ideological suspicion". It intentionally obscures the essence of art and moreover attempts to reestablish the long-since overcome ideal of the "aura" of the artwork. Art criticism thus reveals its own subjugation and demonstrates more than clearly how much it has degenerated. (Unlike in the literary field, art criticism played a definite role in the acceptance of the radical positions of the 50īs, etc.) It now plays a mere accomplice to capital interest.
That is the theoretical aspect of the matter. However, even seen practically, such a defamation of "Performance Art" overlooks the facts. It reveals at least extensive ignorance of all the contemporary developments in this field during the late 80īs and early 90īs. To obtain an overall view is admittedly difficult because, as stated, performance is fleeting. The documentation is fundamentally inadequate (whether it be text, photo or video) because the field of tension that a performance builds is not there. So it is basically only possible to talk about performances that one has personally experienced (and that applies to every time the performance takes place). Additionally, performance seldom appears in the public aesthetic discourse or has write-ups in the daily press or art magazines. There is no forum to carry out a program of regular performance events and none to provide joint information on current trends. Performance takes place to a certain extent in public exclusion. It is a cat biting its own tail: Because it has no media presence the media will not present it.
Any efforts to determine the original qualities or the common ground of contemporary performance unavoidably suffer in this dilemma. Given the heterogeneousness and variety characteristic to performance and the state of available information, any systematic approach seems virtually impossible. In addition, one can only speak about the performances one actually attends.
One thing, however, can be objectively stated in spite of all the prophesies of doom: performance booms and not as a side-show for gallery openings but performance as an independent art action. Between the high point of action-art and the beginning of the 80īs a multitude of performers of a younger generation arose. One center of their activity is the art metropolis, Cologne, which considering the concentration of artists there is not surprising. There and elsewhere numerous performance evenings and festivals take place. Although they are more likely to be organized from the "underground" than to receive any blessing from the art establishment.
Until now there has only been very little overlapping of this young scene with the performers of the FLUXUS or POST-FLUXUS sphere. This is presumably also due to a lack of a firm foothold for performance among the artistic public. On the other hand, it also led to the relatively independent development of a new generation.
Naturally here, as everywhere, there are qualitative differences and at such events one is always confronted with performances that justify the above-mentioned prejudices completely. This indeed raises the questions: when is it performance art, when is it art performance and what is performance itself? The answers are difficult because any (even general) definition of content creates an unacceptable restriction of the field. My suggestion would be: PERFORMANCE IS THAT SOMETHING HAPPENS AND THAT ONLY THAT HAPPENS - which some might possibly find already too exclusive. Consider it a "working definition" so we can have a rough idea of what we are talking about. In any case, generalizations become very difficult and are never compatible with all the important manifestations of performance.
However, a few features of contemporary performance activity can be cited. They are only exemplary features and in no way prescribed or compulsory. First, the performances of today are conspicuously shorter than they used to be. For the performance generation of the70īs a thirty minute duration might have been average, (and at times infinitely longer). Today one usually sees five minute short-performances (Performance-Clips) which are oriented to present-day viewing and listening habits. Even 10 minutes is a rarity. That may first appear to be a simple quantitative criterion but it is more. Such clips are much less likely to bring on the notoriously grating "performance boredom", an otherwise (in view of the earlier performances) not totally unjustified objection to performance. In essence, if one only has five minutes then one must get to the point within that time. Formally this leads to a faster, more compact development of the theme or a reduction or limitation to one or a very few subjects. The result is a greater conciseness of everything that happens within the action. Every hand movement; every component of the action has a great deal more weight in this shortened context. In the craft this can be very noticeable - positively as well as negatively. In that there is no time to linger, one must pay very careful attention to what one does. This does not exclude longer performances but they have gained experience from the shorter ones (or should have) and thus are now also more compact.
Presumably due to the altered awareness of the present generation, performance today is often funnier, more entertaining than in its heyday. This is not to be taken as being against tradition and does not mean that "serious performance" no longer takes place today or is no longer possible. It is simply noticeable that many of the performers today use humor to a greater extent to get their point across. Naturally, at times, that was also the case in the past. Many younger performers might draw on the anarchistic , paradoxical joke components of FLUXUS for example. Performance becomes the documentation of a single good idea, of a bizarre notion which perhaps in all its eccentricity will momentarily shut down this supposedly well-ordered world, question it and make alternative perspectives possible. Performance today no longer fears the "stigma" of entertainment, slapstick and complete nonsense. It does not see the necessity for a mutual interpretation of the world but rather rebels against it. Thus, some performances are to a certain extent in intentional opposition to the "classical" performance idea (if one can even speak of such things), whereas others possibly take up the traditional to develop it further.
The impetus of performance today stems not only from its own genre (DADA, FLUXUS, 70īs) but also from the music (trash, punk, rap) and the video-art/commercial video that arises around it. This everyday life is probably of the greatest principle significance to performance. Everyday life, however, has changed in the last 20 or 30 years and as a result the expressions are different.
This bright, somewhat looser, handling of the themes puts the audience into a new position and the audience is decisive in building that tension which is essential to the performance. The effort is no longer demanded to follow and interpret a heavily clausular, hermetic image. This was the case with many "classical" performances ( and still is among the representatives of that generation.) Now the relationship between the actor and the audience appears to be more sociable. It is easier for the dialogue (which is what the performance is) to develop, for example, when mutually known facts out of the trivial world become the theme of the performance. The audience can then easily follow the performance according to their own store of experience.
These are a few initial ideas and it must be pointed out again that these notes do not pretend to be complete. It is the nature of performance that it defies categorization. However, such a conclusion leads nowhere and only re-enforces the status quo. We still know very little about the contemporary manifestations of performance. This report should, therefore, only be considered a small common denominator and a basis of discussion. It welcomes expansion in whatever respect. Otherwise, strictly speaking if one wants to talk about performance, about the atypical originality which distinguishes it from performance art of the past, one needs concrete examples. There is nothing wrong with this. On the contrary - people should just talk about performances more often.