Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. August 2002

Performing the text
- a philosophical approach to performance art

Veronica Diesen (Bergen/London)

"Concepts lead us to investigation; our expression of interest, and direct our interest."

Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical investigations


To display the fictitious, stylistic and rhetorical function of philosophical language, I have chosen to name my approach to performance art as a form of performing in itself. Since philosophical theory lacks a transcendental superiority, where one supposes that analysis will derive something essential from its object of research, one cannot regard its communication as completely separate from visual communication. One may rather say that their communication depends on each other and mutually influences each other.

My method is inspired by the non-method and immanent view upon the production of meaning as one can see it in Wittgenstein's late philosophy, Philosophical investigations. Consequently, my paper is characterised by being an investigation or a discussion of concepts related to visual communication seen in relation to the performance art field.

My investigation does not however represent an aesthetic research of the refinement developed within performance art styles. I am not concerned with all the complexities that this scene has fostered during the last decades.

I am rather more concerned with a critical discussion of concepts, which has both explicitly and implicitly become correlative parts of what I prefer to define as the "classical" performance art scene.

I will begin with the concept of the avant-garde where performance art first emerged. Then I will discuss the importance of the paradigm shift in art with the commencement of conceptual art, and mention some of its most important contributors.

Finally, I will provide a description of performance artist's derivation of the development of a discourse relative to the building of aesthetic styles. Terms correlative to this discourse (which I intend to investigate), are the concepts of the authentic, cognisant to real-time action and the primitive.


About the emergence of performance art - "the avant-garde"

Traditional philosophy has tended to consider ideas from a mere semantic analytical point of angle, where one only considers the significance of concepts within the construction of rational systems.

However, according to Wittgenstein's late philosophy, concepts not related to any pragmatic context, easily end up at "an idle speed". More specifically, one has to relate a word meaning to the specific practices in which it is used. So to understand the meaning of a certain action, one also has to consider the whole context in which it took place. This should not however be understood in a mere explicit way, where the words in a language are regarded as something corresponding directly to particular, empirical situations. Rather, one may say that language is only able to communicate indirectly or through its interpretation.

Within Wittgenstein's view, it is for example impossible to think of a language without "a person's body" and its diverse relations that produce, reproduce, read, and most importantly, communicate different meanings together with others. This is because language always functions through a diverse range of communication, which also includes codes of visual convention, like gestures and clothes.

Furthermore, one may define language as being intersubjective in that it doesn't belong to anyone particularly, but is always shared through communication. Conclusively, there is no such thing as a private language. For instance, if someone feels a peculiar, inner sensation, and wants to understand what he feels, or explain how he feels to someone else, he has to use the publicity of language. Language has thus its borders, which cause difficulty when for instance, describing a past experience to someone who didn't share it.

All things considered, I will begin with the derivation of the avant-garde from the beginning of the 20th. century, and look into how performance art developed from its outskirts.

L' avant-garde was first a military term, even found in medieval French. According to Weightman(1), the term was first used metaphorically from about 1845 by French political movements. But it was only during the last years of the 19th century that the metaphor was transferred from politics to artistic activity. Weightman further claims that the avant-garde is connected to the scientific movement, and the transition from the static or cyclical view of human existence to the evolutionary view, a view that alongside the new understanding of the heliocentric universe, was going to break with the old understanding of the human as a static being derived from God. The new paradigms within science, economy, politics and growing industrialisation surely had to influence the art paradigm too.

However, the aesthetics were increasingly becoming the new exile of a hidden, spiritual dimension that served the bad consciousness of a bourgeoisie in charge. Art had thus become a commodity that functioned as justification of everything Good, Beautiful and True, as something peaceful hidden somewhere away from society's changes, wars and corruption. Or as Peter Bürger writes in Theory of the avant-garde:

All those needs that cannot be satisfied in everyday life, because the principle of competition pervades all spheres, can find a home in art, because art is removed from the praxis of life. Values such as humanity, joy, truth, solidarity are extruded from life as it were, and preserved in art.(2)

According to Peter Bürger, in practice this was to trigger a new self-criticism within the art sphere, which in turn led to the production of subsystems. Consequently, subsystems like expressionism, Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, Futurism and Surrealism wanted polemically to be more associated with other contemporary life practice.

Although I would argue that all these movements have inspired performance art, I will concentrate on the Dadaist movement and its anti-art program.

The Dadaists wanted to take everything to a radical peak so as "to expose the bankruptcy of pseudo-rational systems that had led Europe to the brink of insanity and war."(3) Hugo Ball and Jan Ephraim founded the movement in Zürich in 1916 with the opening of Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball had an idea of making something he defined as "total art" where everything could be included. This led to a bizarre mixture of multiple art exhibitions, where both unaccomplished and well-known artists were collected in events. Their shows often ran nightly, and were led by performances that could include the audience. The performances were characterised by an often-improvised experimentation, with simultaneous readings, songs, dances and orchestral compositions often made by bells and percussion instruments. The main goal was to make people react by shaking-off any pre-conceptions. Dadaism's basic goal was thus that of an anti-goal, or an anti-movement, where it should be impossible to fancy their events in accordance to old, traditional aesthetic standards. This made them invent noise-music or bruitism, a disharmonic, "hören mit schmerzen",(4) non-music, a shock making where everything was allowed as long as it broke with harmony.

Dada emerged on different scenes in Berlin, Paris and New York. The New York dada was already opened in 1905 in Alfred Stiegletz secession gallery on 291 Fifth Avenue. The three artists most associated with the New York Dada are Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. I will concentrate on Marcel Duchamp in relation to the emergence of conceptual art, and relative to the development of performance art.

Conceptual art and performance

According to Bürger, the avant-garde movement's intention was to eliminate art as an institution in three areas; purpose or function, production and reception. For the Dadaists all these three elements were meant to turn in the opposite direction, characterised by a radical negation. However, the avant-gardiste did not destroy the category of art since their "radical negation"(5) happened within the art sphere. What happened was rather a widening and a secularisation of art practice as a whole.This is also the case of the most radical Dadaist "negation", Marcel Duchamp's "anti-art object", the ready-made. The exhibition of the mass-produced ready-made was to activate a revolution within the art world, where the old aesthetic paradigm lost its hegemony. Since the ready-made lacks visual uniqueness, it negates the individual production by turning the spectators' consciousness to questions of definition and acceptance within the art sphere. Thus Duchamp was able to unmask the art market and showed how the whole art world is based upon a construction of values. If one sees this in relation to Wittgenstein's philosophy, it shows how concept and practice mutually depend on one another. Novel art practices emerged that were often characterised by questioning and stretching the very borders of art, as in the case of Duchamp's conceptualism. Again, the emergence of conceptual art was to play a crucial part in the development of performance, where the artist's own body became included in the very definition of art. One aspect important to remember is thus the "performer's body's" relation to the conceptual, where I will state that without concepts, there would never have been anything like "body art", nor "performance", not even "actions". Within performance art, the body signifies a certain body and its action, certain distinctive actions. I will return to this theoretical problem later on in the article, but first I will write about three artists who alongside Marcel Duchamp became crucial for questioning the very foundations of art. These are Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and John Cage.

During the late 1950's and the early 60's, Yves Klein worked with something he explained as the spiritual quality of "immaterial sensitivity". In 1962 for example, he threw gold leaves into the river Seine while he simultaneously requested the purchaser to burn the written proof of the art transaction. In his exhibition Le Vide (the Void) at the Iris Clert Gallery, Paris, Klein created a "void" or "zone" of invisible pictorial sensibility by removing all the furniture and painting the walls white. In the book Conceptual Art, Tony Godfrey writes how Klein then went on to provide the visitors with a blue cocktail made from gin, cointreau, and methylene blue, "as a result of which they would urinate blue for some days afterwards."(6) By dematerialising the art object with a sort of fake spirituality, he re-mystified the artwork. Thus Klein forced his spectators to become conscious about mystification at work.

Perhaps one of Klein's most famous contributions was his use of "living brushes", a form of performance he started working with in 1958 together with Tinguely. Klein defined them as paint actions, where human bodies were covered with paint and pressed against sheets of paper pinned to the wall or floor. According to Günther Berghaus In Happening and other acts, the methods differed, ranging from "careful impressions of individual parts of the bodies, to full imprints created through dancing and rolling on the canvases, to several models fighting with each other on a canvas."(7)

In October 1960, the photographer Harry Shunk made a series of fictionalised photographic documents with a myth-making image of a "heroic" Yves Klein leaping out of a second-story window, fifteen feet above the street. This manipulated photograph was to have a deep impact on the "self-endangering" "heroic" trend that was to serve as an individual category within performance.

The Italian Piero Manzoni approached the same issues as Yves Klein but his work is even more blasphemous and mocking. He could for instance sell balloons containing his own breath with the title Artist's breath. And on 21 July 1960 Manzoni presented the Consumption of Dynamic Art by the Public Devouring Art in the Azimut Gallery. Here he boiled a number of eggs and gave them to the audience after having signed them with his thumbprint. Then he invited the audience to eat all the eggs, so that the entire exhibition could be consumed. His perhaps most famous and certainly most notorious project was Artists shit, where he filled ninety boxes with his own faeces. They were to be sold, literally for their weight in gold. The complete mockery revealed itself when the artist informed the purchaser, that the work was ruined as a piece of art if he or she tried to open the seal. Again, the spectator had to make an "act of faith", where the most important thing was how the artist defined the art spectator.

John Cage adopted the Dadaist views about the anti-standard to the understanding of music. John Cage's importance for the growing understanding of the performative, started in the 1950´s at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. As a composer, Cage refused to accept any limits for music. As a consequence of this denial, Cage started to create his own instruments, like the prepared piano in which various materials were placed inside on the strings to change the quality of the sounds. And as Michael Kirby remarks in his article The New Theatre, not only did he equate sound and silence so that long passages of silence were integral parts of his compositions, but he pointed out that absolute silence does not exist.(8) For Cage, "music" could not be isolated from other senses like sight, touch or smell. Nor could it be isolated from noise or any everyday sound. And since sounds happen here and now and are ever present to our senses, Cage laid emphasis on the very performative aspect. Much more than being a part of the excluding definition of "music", his compositions formed performance-acts where everything and anything could be included.

As such, Klein, Manzoni's and Cages' work can be said to have had one important thing in common, the detestation of the fixed role of artistic definition and expression. Consequently, all of them believed that it was possible to free the artist from fixation by turning the main focus on the artist as a performer.


The performance art establishment, a few aspects from the 1960s to the 1980s

Accordingly, performance art started as a protest and a wish to liberate art from the art object. By releasing art expression and emphasising the binding relationship between experience, body, space and time, where the artist was the centre of focus. Consequently, the artist's body became the key for exploration of ideas and experience as a whole.

Most of the members of the performance movement Fluxus were strongly influenced by John Cages' lectures in experimental composition at the New School for Social Research. The Fluxus movement's intention was in many ways similar to the desire of the whole avant-garde movement before them, to display a strong disregard of traditional taste and the art market. It encompassed a diverse range of artists and composers, like George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Al Hansen, Yoko Ono, George Maciunas and Ben Vautier (to mention a few), who began to emerge in the early 1960s. George Maciunas coined the term in 1961, he "used the actual dictionary definition of flux as part of the definition Fluxus: a continuous moving on or passing by, as of a flowing stream; a continuous succession of chances."(9) George Brecht for instance, made events which consisted of instructions written as musical scores that could be performed by anyone, as well as involving the manipulation of objects.

Ben Vautier's fluxus work had obvious parallels to both Klein and Manzoni. From 1960 to 1961 he created certificates with which, as Schimmel observes; "he purchased the soul of willing participants; In Announcement of My Funeral he created certificates on which he signed both his own and Klein's death".(10)

One artist who attended to the fluxus movement briefly was Joseph Beuys. It is almost impossible to mention Joseph Beuys without saying anything about his dramatic background. In the winter of 1944, while serving as a pilot for the Luftwaffe, Beuys was shot down over Crimea but was rescued by native Tartar tribesmen. They took care of him by wrapping him in their traditional felt blankets, warming him with animal fat and nourishing him with honey. This crucial experience, as Schimmel writes, was to provide "him with the elements of an artistic vocabulary that he would mine throughout his career."(11)

Joseph Beuys did several fluxus performances between 1963 and 1965 before he separated from the movement in '65. Beuys perfected his performance art by using specific "ingredients", which came to characterise his acts. He very often used the same "costume" and he often used felt, fat and honey, which, biographically, symbolised natural survival tools for him. Occasionally he used animals in his actions.

In Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt(12) at the Schmela gallery in Düsseldorf, 26th of November 1965, Beuys spent three hours walking through an exhibition of his work. His head was covered with honey and gold leaf, and he held a dead hare in his arms. After showing the hare his pictures, he "explained" them to the dead animal by moving his mouth without making a sound.

In another performance called I like America and America likes me, Beuys installed himself for several days in a New York gallery this time with a living creature, a coyote. In Out of actions, Paul Schimmel describes how Beuys had arranged fifty copies of the Wall Street Journal to be delivered to the gallery each day, which served as a "toilet space" for the coyote.(13) Here Beuys wanted to demonstrate the tensions between urban life and the natural postcolonial state. This particular Beuys performance, as was often the case with his actions, represented an explicit protest against capitalist society and consumerism.


Performance art and its myths

The problem with authenticity, the search for a real-time loss, primitivity, naturality and introspection.

One of the basic ideas concerning performance art is its origin in the avant-garde; where the performance artist has a notion of himself as being, what Luis Bunuel defined as, a permanent experimental outsider. Although there are many different notions of being an outsider, one that specifically relates to the classical performer deals with the question of authenticity in relation to the non-fixed provocation. This indicates, amongst other things, a strong underpinning and emphasis of concepts like "live-art" and "action". The impression or feeling of authenticity for a classical performance artist, is thus related to a belief in real-time as a state of constant flux in a certain, particular space. Furthermore, a classical performance artist regards his "actions" as authentic provocation against traditional values in society.

The performance art scene has certainly created some notorious characters, many of who almost put their lives on the line to stretch the borders of personal tolerance and test the reaction of an audience. The notorious performance artist Chris Burden for instance, locked him self in a locker two feet high by two feet wide and three feet deep for five consecutive days. A bottle of water was placed in a locker above him, and an empty bottle in a locker below. Schimmel explains that "Burden would investigate in depth the implications of creating a situation in which the artist simultaneously endangered himself and involved the viewer as a witness to the seemingly life-threatening situation, thus implicating him or her as complicate."(14) And further, during a period of five years, Schimmels writes how Burden had himself shot, electrocuted, impaled, cut, drowned, etc.

Another performance artist working with self-inflicted and risky acts is Marina Abramovic. Inspired by the emotional piece Cut Dress by Yoko Ono in Rythm 0 (1974),(15) Abramovic placed various instruments for pain and pleasure on a table and welcomed the audience to use whatever instrument they preferred directly on her. Over the six-hour duration of the seance, Abramovic's clothes were cut off, she had several cuts on her skin, and someone was just prevented from thrusting a gun in her hand and placing one of her fingers on the trigger.

The exploration of physical as well as psychological limits in both the artist, and occasionally the audience, is a typical feature of body art. In creating unexpected and extreme situations the public may show reactions, or act in a way they would never have expected of themselves.


The action and the problem with reconstruction - the search of a real-time loss

Probably one of the most admired "extreme" performance art groups were the Vienna Actionists with artists like Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Throughout the 1960s, the group made "actions" with "quasi-religious rituals of self-castration, rape, and slaughter using excrement, food, blood and dead animals, which they staged in old, secluded coal-cellars and castle ruins."(16) According to Philip Ursprung, the Viennese Actionists were inspired by everything from surrealism, ancient Dionysian mythology, Catholicism, iconoclasm, catharsis and trauma of Austro-fascism.

Philip Ursprung asks himself however if it is legitimate to neglect the (hostile) reception by the mass media, in search of "the authentic Viennese Actionism", as Peter Gorsen, the closest observer and theoretician of Actionism since the mid-1960s suggests. Or does the "meaning" of Actionism itself reside precisely in the process of fragmentation, distortion, and (mis)understanding of an ephemeral event in the spectator´s and historian´s memories?

I think this is a crucial question in relation to the concept of authentic real-time. What did actually happen? And furthermore; when we know that photographs represent an interpretation even as much as witnesses of the action, what is then left of the "authentic" and real-time situation?

A traditional myth about the Viennese Actionist for example is they slaughtered live animals or endangered the participants. According to Ursprung their actions were however not "real" since that they bought pre-slaughtered animals, and "Nitsch admitted using red paint for his actions because 'it looked more blood-like than blood.'"(17) And further, "The majority of the actions were performed without an audience present and were staged exclusively for the camera. Even the seemingly dangerous actions of Brus were at no time life-threatening.".(18) As such, the Vienna actionism does not transcend any authentic primal level as many "observers" wish to believe, and certainly does not transcend any catharsis. Like Artaud, their acts are more characterised of being highly spectacular and dramatic, which according to Ursprung, contradicted "their own life and work in Austria."(19)

There has however been a good portion of myth making joined to some of the characters within the Vienna Actionist group. In for instance the case of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the youngest member of the Actionists. His occasionally destructive behaviour fostered rumours about both castration, and a suicide supposedly to have taken place during a body action. However according to Kristine Stiles this is not the truth.(20) His untimely death did not occur in such a spectacular fashion, nor did he ever castrate himself, despite the indication of photographic documentation. Kristin Stiles writes that, by the end of 1968 Schwarzkogler began to withdraw, and in 1969 he began to experiment with various physical health regimes for the sake of body purification. During his self-imposed regime, which consisted of only milk and bread, Schwarzkogler began to hallucinate. Kristine Stiles writes further on how he also became increasingly obsessed with Yves Kleins photomontage Leap into the Void. She writes:

On the day of his death, he had been experiencing a period of severe hallucinations and was sitting in the window of their apartment, while Adam worked in another room. She conjectures that he either fell (owing to his altered mental state) jumped (a suicide resulting from depression) or actually attempted to fly (like Klein) from their second story apartment window.(21)

After having read a few books about performance art, there is one thing in particular I have noticed; the descriptions about certain known actions, as for instance Joseph Beuys, very often seem to tell a similar and therefore simplified version or narration. Another aspect relating to artists as well as their theoreticians, the intention to create certain sentimental myths about the artist's person and practice. As such, a performance artist's practice may easily "suffer" the fate of romantic destructivism, which has become a traditional myth within the pictorial art sphere.

I will now provide additional examples. According to Schimmel, "Beuys insisted that the gallery remained closed to the public throughout the performance, and for disseminating his work to a larger public, Beuys relied on the mass media, particularly on the publication of photographs by Ute Klophaus, whose camera became the vehicle by which Beuys created and perpetuated the myths enveloping his actions." And further Schimmel writes that in his action "I like America America likes me", unlike the traditional belief that Beuys was in constant interrogation with a wild animal during the 4 days it endured, this was in fact not the truth". According to Schimmel, "the coyote was for most of the time sleeping in one of the corners of the gallery and

Beuys allowed himself the privilege of joining friends such as Paik and Block upstairs for dinner when the gallery closed: "yet, photographic documentation of the event reinforced the myth that the artist and coyote had interacted only with one other in the context of a caged performative event."(22)

In this case, the idea of performance as a continuous "endurance in time" is thus broken.

Another problem with documentation is the fake "eye-witnesses". Here Schimmel has made a report of the frauds of a once experienced real-time action:

The sheer descriptive simplicity of Chris Burden's events led many individuals to claim they had witnessed them, For example, several swear they remember seeing the artist crucified to the back of the Volkswagen Bug driven around Venice, California in Trans-Fixed (1974). However, as Burden himself attests, in actuality only a handful of witnesses saw him for two minutes as the car was pushed and rolled, not driven, back into the garage.(23)

To summarise; by focusing on moments of reconstructive confusion, I am simultaneously demonstrating the difference developed through an over concentrated focus on the authentic movements of real-time or the action, when the only thing left from these moments are some sheets of "documentation". Documentation does not function as a mirror for the action it attempts to re-construct. As I see it, the consequence of a too strong focus on the action once made, by necessity ends in essensialist thinking in that the so-called real-time event becomes the new essence one helplessly tries to grasp.


The authentic and its objects - naturality and primitivity

Another problematic aspect related to classical performance art's search for something essential and pure, is the extended use of natural materials often seen in relation to the artist's body. Joseph Beuys has probably been one of the strongest inspirations in this matter. The use of blood, honey, fat, excrements, animals etc. have all supported an archaic ingredient, as if the artist, by use of these tools is able to reach a primitive, non-intellectual dimension, hidden underneath civilisation's levels of criss-crossing surfaces. Truly, our civilisation has an unrealistic belief in rational segmentation and technology, and if one then reads nakedness and the use of natural materials as a symbolic reaction against this, the explicit nature can, although added with a distinct flavour of naivety, be illustrating enough. But again, there is always the danger of attempting to locate, or decipher, a hidden meaning beneath this so-called natural state. It is very easy to feel almost obliged, or even emotionally trapped, in a performance situation where the primary focus may be an artist's naked body in relation to a selection of "natural materials".

In Norway, the performance artist Kurt Johannessen has extensively utilised "natural materials" within his performances. I regard Kurt Johannessen as a classical example of the perfected, stylised performance artist. Through observation of his documented work, mostly taken by his wife the photographer Torill Nøst, these pictures serve as fine art in themselves. This is probably better exemplified by Johannessen's minimalism, his black costume, his bare feet, and his meditative style. Johannessen once told me that he wanted his performances to be anti-intellectual, an emptying of meaning, where, as Jon Ove Steihaug writes, almost "nothing" happens.(24) As tools for the illustration of this simplicity, Johannessen has used everything from toys, earth, insects, animals, fire, water, fish, ice, corn oil and sticks.

Last year, in 2000, I attended a discussion between art critic Øystein Hauge and Kurt Johannessen. Here Hauge confronted the artist about his use of material by asking him if these "natural" materials could be said to function as some kind of "tricks" on the artist's side. Here Hauge paid special attention to the dramatic or theatrical expression of his performances. I consider Hauge's question very significant since I understood it as an expression of uneasiness when it comes to how one shall read, or interpret the symbolic meaning of "performative objects", objects that might not echo the artist's personal intention. In the classical, performance art tradition, there has been a tendency to forget that it is possible to analyse visual media. As such, there has been a tendency to forget that the visual communicates.

As an implication of this there has been a tendency to forget that no medium is neutral. When I for instance watch a nude, male body artist, from a middle-class New Yorker background, this will certainly colour my experience of the performance. His white, possibly heterosexual western body is not neutral, and can therefore not reach any "natural state" despite his nakedness. If he then wants to demonstrate his "real, primal, inner perversity" by urinating, masturbating, screaming or self-destructively self-inflicting pain, I am then very conscious about the art context in which he is doing it. He may have good reason to provoke in the manner he chooses, a protest perhaps against an alienated technocratic society. But considering the art context he is operating within, there is wide scope for other motives and psychological intentions beneath the riotous surface. (Who has not seen artists rebel their way up the ladder of art hierarchy?) Take for instance the fluxus movement, who once claimed that their interest lay strictly in their art's fragile moments. During the last decades, many of them have been eager to see their name in art historical print and their "anti-art objects" exhibited in museums. Again, I only wish to illustrate that art societies do not represent neutral backgrounds without a social dimension dominated by hierarchical power structures.

Therefore I will argue that performance art does not belong to any archaic pre-colonists or any primitive traditions, certainly no more than do pierced and tattooed juveniles. Performance art rather belongs to a highly sophisticated art tradition, where even if it occurs in public spaces, is appreciated only by a handful of "soul mates" and insiders who each serve their part on its platform.

When there is no consciousness about the significance of visual communication, art can easily end up as some kind of mystical and incomprehensible introspection, a kind of mute refuge away from any critical discussion concerning its values and standards. As in the case of modern painting, performance art cannot claim a place in the avant-garde forever but will become a part of the establishment itself. Joseph Beuys' work is for instance able to build up the same mystical trimmings as pictorial art through the "documentation" of its "essential action". I have seen exhibitions of Beuys' work where spectators expect to sense the blessing of the reliquaries of his shaman-art. As such, Beuys' art can easily end up as a new escapism, or a new refuge for an audience with a need to attain some sense of art's idealism away from society's corruption, in a similar way to those who seek refuge in the pure, harmonious aestheticism of decorative art.

According to Hubert Klocker, the artist is himself quite conscious about how he wants to communicate his person to an audience. By assuming an extremely subjective position, the artist can provide the spectator with the impression that he inhabits an almost godly character. Or as he writes:

Within the framework of the anthropocentric artwork, the artist assumes an extremely subjective position. Beuys, Nitsch, and Schwartzkogler employ the magical gestures by assuming of the shaman or the priest. [...]They, as well as Monastyrkij's Collective Action Group, claim that art has a cathartic and healing function and that the artist is antithetical, indeed, a tragic subject in the center of the art work itself.(25)

Neo - post - retro

No painting has an active life of more than thirty or forty years. I don´t care if it´s true, it helps me to make that distinction between living art and art history. After thirty or forty years the painting dies, loses its aura, its emanation, whatever you want to call it. And then it is either forgotten or enters into the purgatory of art history. But that´s all just luck, a game between artist and onlooker, or a drug. I´m afraid I´m an agnostic in art. I just don´t believe in it with all the mystical trimmings. As a drug it´s probably very useful for a number of people, very sedative, but as religion it's not even as good as God.(26)

Marcel Duchamp

My conclusion is that parts of performance have become a new convention in art, a convention that has developed its own discourse alongside a whole range of recognisable art styles. Consequently, a performance artist today is mainly concerned with the act of perfecting, or the making of an emblem for their art as performers within a certain paradigm, just as a painter searches for a particular pictorial style he can be known for. This is of course quite understandable both for respect of their art practice and for the need of making an art that is more recognisable to an audience. Furthermore, it has created a history of performance with exquisite performers like Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic and Paul McCarthy, just to mention a few.

Its ability to shake has thus a minor significance today, where most of its vitality has become more sacral and more loaded with mythical pathos. After its conceptual emergence, where one questioned the very foundation of the value of art, and when its freshness made one believe in its political and provoking potential, it has become closer to a certain form of either expressive or minimalist theatre.

Regarding Duchamp's saying about a painting, that it dies after a certain time, when it stops being alive, this is also certainly true for any piece or work of art, just as it is for performance. However concerning hermeneutics, most meaning can be actualised or recycled to a contemporary understanding. In this way, it is not only possible but impossible not to use or actualise aspects from past art in new work. This is also the case for performance. During the nineties, when the heaviness of the 70's and 80's performance had reached a certain level of fatigue, the 90's headed towards an ironical style inspired by the intimate, the social and techno-clubbing, a style that occasionally was so easygoing that it almost reached decadence. Furthermore, during the 1990's one saw an increased disbelief in anything authentic. The emergence of home computers, the digitalisation and manipulation of images, the development of gene-technology, the mapping of the human-DNA, the impact of the AIDS-virus, all this has made the idea of anything authentic and natural even more utopic. The 90's therefore have been far more interested in the performative in relation to photo, video, installation, and especially the manipulation of these media. However, this does not make 90's art more avant-garde than art from the 60's or the 70's. The concept of the avant-garde has become an anachronism in itself, or one may say that it died alongside entropic pursuit of novelty.(27)

Whatever we define as retro-garde, neo this, neo that, post this, post that, one of the most important issues deals with the question of intercourse. What role is art meant to play today, how does it influence or better inflict our contemporary society? Without a high degree of self-criticism related to a deep concern for crucial changes in society, art will be lead into an escapism that once spurred Dadaism into action. Or, one could say in short: no rest for the wicked.

© Veronica Diesen (Bergen/London)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No. 9


(1) Weightmann, John: The Concept of the Avant-Garde - Explorations in Modernism, Alcove Press, London, 1973, p. 17-21.

(2) Bürger, Peter:, Theory of the Avant-Garde - Theory and History of Literature Volume 4, Manchester University Press, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 24.

(3) Ibid.

(4) In English: Listen with pain. I have taken this expression from a song made by the German based industrial rock group called Einstürzende Neubauten. (Cf.: Einstürzende Neubauten: Kollaps. LP 1981 Zick Zack records (ZZ65), CD 1988 Zick Zack records (ZZ65/CD02517.)

(5) Bürger, Peter: ibid., p. 36.

(6) Godfrey, Tony: Conceptual art, Phaidon Press, Art&Ideas Series, London, England, 1998, p. 81.

(7) Berghaus, Günther: Happenings in Europe - Trends, Events, and leading Figures. In: Marielle R. Sandford (ed.), Happening and other acts, from the series Worlds of Performance, Routledge, London, 1995, p. 315.

(8) Kirby, Michael: The New Theatre. In: Happening and other acts, p. 30.

(9) Schimmel, Paul (ed.): Out of Actions - Between performance and the object 1949-1979, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA. Here: Paul Schimmel, Leap into the Void: Performance and the object, (page 33-119), p. 71.

(10) Ibid., p. 72

(11) Ibid., p.80.

(12) In English: How to explain pictures to a dead hare.

(13) Ibid., p. 83.

(14) Ibid., p. 94.

(15) Ibid., p. 101

(16) Ursprung, Philip: Catholic tastes: Hurting and healing the body in Viennese actionism in the 1960s. In: Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, Performing the body/performing the text, Routledge, London and New York, 1999. (P. 138-152), p. 138.

(17) Ibid., p. 138.

(18) Ibid., p. 143.

(19) Ibid., p. 143.

(20) Stiles, Kristine: Uncorrupted Joy - International Art Actions. In: Paul Schimmel (ed.), Out of Actions - Between performance and the object, 1949-1979, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA. (p. 227-329), p. 293.

(21) Ibid. p. 293.

(22) Schimmel, Paul (ed.): Out of Actions - Between performance and the object, 1949 - 1979, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA. Here: Paul Schimmel: Leap into the void: Performance and the object. p. 83 and 84.

(23) I am in great debt to the critical observation of Paul Schimmel. This is from page 98 in Out of Actions.

(24) Steihaug, Jon-Ove: When "Nothing" "Happens" - concentration and stillness in the performance art of Kurt Johannessen. Taken from the nordic art periodical Siksi - 4/94 Nordic art review, p. 71.

(25) Schimmel, Paul (ed.):. Out of Actions - Between performance and the object, 1949-1979, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA Here; Hubert Klocker, Gesture and the object - liberation as action: A European component of performative art, p.191.

(26) This Duchamp quotation is taken from the Donald Kuspit book Idiosyncratic identities - Artists at the end of the the Avant-Garde, Cambridge University press NY, 1996, p. 48.

(27) I have stolen this expression from Donald Kuspit, again taken from his book Idiosyncratic identities - Artists at the end of the Avant-Garde, p. 52.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Veronica Diesen: Performing the text - a philosophical approach to performance art.
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 9/2002.

TRANS     Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 26.08.2002     INST