Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Mai 2001 Editorial

Time Based Visual Media and Performative Arts - An Outlook on Mediascapes at the End of the 20th Century

Karen Kipphoff (Bergen)


This essay is concerned with the interaction of the Visual and the Performing Arts and looks at the way time-based technological arts, especially film and video, have initiated a profound alteration of the communicative structure of both the Visual and the Performing Arts and modified our perception of subject and object.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century and especially since Happening & Fluxus, the traditionally separated Arts have merged. When Allan Kaprow refers to "The Blurring of Art and Life" and the "Un-Artist", he is not only implying a liberal use of diverse media, but a general change of the artist's attitude towards the meaning and function of the Arts as well as his/her own role as a producer of culture within society.(1) The structures of these new forms of performative artistic expression were described by Michael Kirby:

Happenings might be described as a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure.(2)

The historical reference of Happening & Fluxus to Action Painting, Dada, Futurism are well known. The interaction of theatre, music, film, visual arts and text in these compartmented structures and on the basis of text no longer being the leading element, initiated another act of reformulating art processes and subsequently lead to postmodern theatre productions, as for example those of Robert Wilson, Jan Fabre and others. Referring to the productions BAK Truppen, Knut Ove Arntzen has named this phenomenon " a visual form of dramaturgy", expressing itself in an equality of visual, spatial, textual and other elements.(3)

© ZKM & Forced Entertainment, 1998

Emerging new technologies and a further increase of the mediatization in society and cultural productions caused an explosion of media related cultural productions in the mid-late 90's. A look at the questions resulting from the emergence of web based live performance projects or hybrid theatre and art productions that use recycling, sampling, layering, rendering, transmitting and transposing their projects into multiple forms of media, such as in the QTVR production Frozen Palaces (ZKM Karlsruhe 1999) of Forced Entertainment is evidently necessary. This wordless narrative is based entirely on 360° photography and sound, we as viewers are required to tell, witness and relive the story of a dramatic scenario. The means employed to enliven "Frozen Palaces" (1999) are statical and based on photography as used in the Tableaux Vivants of the late 19th century. In this mediatized form it is obviously neither film nor theatre nor performance or work of art in a classical sense, but forms a new mode of expression. Peggy Phelan reflects upon Frozen Palaces in her essay The Space of Performance:

Death in short pivots around the distinction between performance and performativity. That distinction might, at least initially, be understood between singular presence and collective iteration. Performance involves the act being made in a singular dimension of space-time, while performativity signals the iteration of the act that precedes and succeeds the one which the spectator apprehends in the present tense. Thus each singular experience of death is interpreted through the collective history and future of death.(4)

© ZKM & Forced Entertainment, 1998

Hypothesis: The Blurring of Art and Life proposed and noted by Alan Kaprow from the late 50's onward as an active act of the artist merging with his audience in participatory actions, has at the latest since the Gulf War live emissions of CNN in the beginning of the 90's developed further into the blurring of the individual and collective perspective. Events of both local, global or no apparent relevance transported by media are perceived and re-enacted by the individual/collective witnessing and participating in the drama of e.g. the Levinsky affair, Princess Diana's death and funeral proceedings, the US Presidential Elections of 2000. The relevance of the time based visual material thus exceeds not only it's decorative function within the theatre, the arts or tv, it has simultaneously acquired the position of the main character, the spectator and the audience. I would like to support this with further material.

In Fischer-Lichte's writings on the Semiotics of the Performing Arts from 1988, she notes actors, space and non-verbal acoustic signals as constituant parts to the semiotics of theatre. Interestingly enough she puts off and in consequence does not treat film with more than a footnote:

Film, in my opinion, is an element of the decoration [...] At the level of theatrical codes as a system no separate research is necessary.(5)

To be sure: Fischer-Lichte is here commenting on the staging of plays as in theatre, however, tendencies in the emerging performance art, theatre and visual arts at least since the late 1950's, e.g. Bruce Naumann's Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk)(6) from 1968 to use artistic media related to both film and performative action cannot be sufficiently explained by this footnote. In Slow Angle Walk the video camera takes on the role of the audience and Naumann in the setting of his studio that of the actor.
In Vito Acconcis early performance work the only way visitors could participate in the performance and observe the artist was by watching the monitor of a video transmitting the action. Acconci himself would not be present but was sometimes in an adjacent room or hidden on the landing of a gallery during the action. The video thus becoming the mediator of the work and not an element of decoration at all. In fact the role of the video as mediator and performer is complemented by the role of the spectator as victim, witness and audience. The video monitor constitutes the only interface, which implies that the roles could be easily exchanged.

1998 Fischer-Lichte is rethinking her model expressing first thoughts on a Theory of Aesthetic Performativity:

…the relationship between theatre and the other arts, media and cultural areas have undergone severe changes. On one hand theatre has sunk into the other arts, media etc., we can thus speak of a theatralization of our culture. On the other side techniques and practice of the other arts, media etc. have been integrated into theatre, thus strongly enhancing its performativity.[...] the phenomenon named "between" by Buber/Rosenzweig", Merleau-Pontys "between-bodyness", Turners "betwixt and between"or Böhmes "Ecstasy of Things" seems to create a space-time-related field of power [...] In an esthetic theory of the performative this "between" will be a constituant element. [...] (7)

The process of the elimination of authenticity and originality (Andy Warhol!) of the last 30 years that started in the Arts, could also be noted in the Performing Arts and in Mass Media. The Fine Arts claim for authenticity was e.g. based on the fact that real time would be passing in the artistic processes of the 60s and 70s as for example in I like America and America likes me by Joseph Beuys between May 21-25, 1974. Today this concept is outdated: Beuys might have spent several days in René Blocks Gallery together with a coyote and 50 copies of the Wall Street Journal, interacting exclusively with the coyote. It is however reported that Beuys interrupted his stay in the gallery for meetings with Block and Paik ouside of the space. As mentioned above, other performers (Acconci, Burden, Hsienh) also elaborated on the importance of the dimension of real time passing and the duration of their work, in Hsienh's case sometimes several years.

Further developments of the performance art concepts based on duration, and of those based on the corporeal sensation of physical pain & abuse (Abramowicz & Ulay, Pane et al.) have made their way into today's mass media events such as Big Brother, Wa(h)re Liebe and Reality TV shows etc. These examples of dramatic, framed and staged events serve the need for mass-voyeurism by transmitting something that could be named processed reality, being neither authentic nor simulated. These emissions supposedly use non-actors, real time and location. It is mass media's attempt, as ever present on talk- and sex shows, web castings, to establish a truely dramatic and private situation in their public body of witnesses. A witness/spectator can become a participant anytime and vice versa, the role of the spectator and the performing subject are exchangeable, the individual merges with the collective as proposed above.

The common historical basis of theatre and the moving image may offer points of reference. As Oksana Bulgakowa points out in her essay Bruch und Methode about the theatre- and filmmaker Eisenstein, the evolution of film is usually traced back to two different sources, one of which is according to Georges Sadoul technical innovation, and the other, after André Bazin, lies within the further development of Theatre and Variété. Bela Balasz on the origins of Film:

photographed theatre [...] cinematography is nothing but photojournalism, the sensations of moving images and the possibility of reproducing a mechanically repeatable, transportable and exportable performance.(8)

Regardless of the historical origins of film being in theatre, variété or merely in a further technological development, film and media, their structure and significance not only for the other arts but for society and culture in general have indisputably had irreversable effects on all classical means of cultural production and on our perception and communication methods. Virilios Technology and Fragmentization developed the model of our conscience functioning like film montage.(9)
Heinz von Försters hypothetical question, whether we are separate from the universe and look onto it through a keyhole or whether we are a part of it(10), also points out the problems of fragmentized continuities, changes of perspectives, authenticity. In Samuel Becketts Film starring Buster Keaton similar thoughts have become mediaspecific, esthetic material.

The main characters representation is in this situation split up into object (O) and eye (A), they become the fleeing O and the hunting A. [...] A is the camera.(11)

Observing the phenomenon of fragmentization exceeds technical questions of theatre, film or art as we can understand from this excerpt from Beckett's text. In Beckett's entire works descriptions of single-frame images appear, form sequences, collages and illustrate perceptions, memories, emotions and their repetitions. "Esse est percipi" writes Beckett in his thoughts on Film. Here Beckett refers to George Berkleys thesis on questions of perception and identity.(12)
When A and O face each other at the end of Becketts Film they seemingly emulgate into one person. Then O closes his eyes. A and O thus continue to perceive each other as to being something outside of themselves.

"To be is to perceive" wrote Beckett and he might have been thinking of the inevitability of the individual intake of perceived moments per day, week, month, and lifetime and the impossibility to withdraw from those perceptions. Was Beckett also anticipating the time when entire societies transformed into artist collectives producing home videos and road movies? A time, when even the shyest publicly utter and perform their most intimate desires and banal daily routines, in order to be perceived by a collective and anonymous audience. Today, to be is to be perceived in order to gain individuality, in order to become one with the collective of a society that bases it's self understanding on media and representation.

© Karen Kipphoff (Bergen)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.9


(1) Allan Kaprow: Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, London/Berkeley/Los Angeles 1993.

(2) Michael Kirby: Happenings, an Introduction, in: Sandford, M., London/New York 1995, p. 11.

(3) Knut Ove Arntzen: Eine visuelle Form der Dramaturgie, in: Theater etcetera, München 1997, p. 80-91.

(4) Peggy Phelan: "The Space of Performance: Forced Entertainment's Frozen Palaces", Karlsruhe 1999, p.69.

(5) Erika Fischer-Lichte: Semiotik des Theaters. Das System der theatralischen Zeichen,Tübingen 1988, p. 245.

(6) On Naumann: Gijs van Tuyl: Human Condition/Human Body - Bruce Naumann and Samuel Beckett, in: Bruce Naumann, catalogue, London 1998.

(7) Erika Fischer-Lichte: "Ah, die alten Fragen…" und wie Theatertheorie heute mit ihnen umgeht, in: Symposion Theatertheorie, Hrsg.: W. Nickel, Berlin 1998, p. 13-14, 27.

(8) Bela Balazs: quoted in C. Kattenbelt: Film und Theater, in: M. Brauneck/G. Schneilin (Hrsg.): Theaterlexikon, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1986, p. 384 -351.

(9) "Unser Bewußtsein ist wie ein Montageeffekt. Es gibt kein kontinuierliches Bewusstsein, nur ein zusammengestztes. Und die Zusammensetzungen können freiwillig oder unfreiwillig sein: [...] Es wird deutlich, daß man von Einheit und Einheitlichkeit (dem Begriff der Einheit einer Kontinuität) übergehen kann zu Begriffen von Fragmentierung und Unordnung. Damit kehrt sich etwas um. Das Fragment findet seine Autonomie wieder, seine Identität als unmittelbare Gegebenheit des Bewußtseins, wie Bergson sagen würde. Geschichte gibt es nur auf der Ebene der großen Erzählung. Ich meinerseits glaube nur an Collagen.Sie sind transhistorisch." Paul Virilio. Technik und Fragmentierung; in: Barck, K.H./Gente,P./Paris, H./Richter, S. (Hrsg.): Aisthesis, Leipzig 1990, S. 72-78.

(10) Heinz von Foerster: Wahrnehmen, in: Ars Electronica (Hg.): Philosophie der neuen Technologie, Berlin 1989.

(11) Samuel Beckett: Werke I,2; Frankfurt 1976, p.349-350.

(12) "Denn was von einer absoluten Existenz nichtdenkender Dinge ohne irgendeine Beziehung auf ihr Perzipiertwerden gesagt zu werden pflegt, scheint unverständlich zu sein. Das Sein (esse) solcher Dinge ist Perzipiertwerden (percipi). Es ist nicht möglich, daß sie irgendeine Existenz außerhalb der Geister oder denkenden Wesen haben, von denen sie perzipiert werden." Berkeley, G., Prinzipien der menschlichen Erkenntnis (§3), zit. nach S.D. Henning: Film ein Dialog zwischen Beckett und Berkeley, in: Engelhardt, H. (Hrsg.): Samuel Beckett, Frankfurt am Main 1984,S. 199.

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