Critical writting on Performances
Performance: the 1990's.
A critique of the new.
For several years now the classics of performance art have been trying to discredit performance of the nineties by mentioning the patterns, facts, and artistic turmoil of the seventies. The list of their objections included eclecticism, the use of quotations, numerous references to old issues, rendering performance theatrical, superficiality, and organising performance art festivals (sic!). Although I do understand that the former avant-gardists and performance pioneers may be bored with contemporary performance, I cannot resist the remark that the fight for 'purity' of the genre, quite paradoxically, allows for an introduction of some rather undefined rules. Here, we face a contradiction whose absurdity is especially palpable in performance art. I believe that it is more gratifying to examine performance's essence and present condition. Ignoring these questions will merely leave us relishing the past, and no matter how good it was, it is still only the past.
Contemporary performance puts an emphasis on entirely different issues. The artistic fever in performance art is no longer as important as it used to be. The existence of the genre has become the main question. We must also acknowledge the fact that, at the end of the century, performance more and more often risks going in 'wrong' directions. The past 'faithfulness' of performers to the various forms of exploring one's psyche and body is consciously rejected. The performers of the nineties apply completely different strategies and it is no point arguing that these are worse. They are dissimilar. Regardless of being performance critics' favourite activity, assessing and building value hierarchies is of no use. Performance has neither fossilised nor lost it authenticity. Naturally, one does occasionally come across a banal tomfoolery, but such pitfalls have always existed. Yet, clearly there are fewer and fewer performances 'for other artists', in other words, performances alluding to the classics of the genre. Of course, I am not surprised that the performers who were active in the seventies reject the productions that do not recognise the heroic roots.
Criticising contemporary performance we lack answers to the question why artists still keep to this form of expression. Who is the contemporary performer? What resistance does he have to overcome in order to exist and create? What are the new contexts accompanying performance art of the nineties? And the last question is why not organise performance art festivals.
A one-sided argument brings destruction into the genre. I do strongly believe that having received due criticism, performance will emerge stronger.
In order to examine performance thoroughly, we need to plunge into its history and recapitulate performance was about. The idea of performance art emerged in the United States in 1971 and in Europe two years later. In Poland it happened during the 'I AM' festival in 1978. Although some artists had previously adopted forms similar the that of performance, conscious identification with this genre came only later. By saying this I do not intend to blame today's critics of performance; it is a simple statement of the fact. It was significant for defining space, the use of forms, and the emergence of performers' attitude. We should remember that these were times when censorship was an important factor and Polish artists intentionally avoided controversial issues. Our performers of the late seventies were deprived of artistic excitements available to the real pioneers of the genre. Trails had already been blazed. In the early seventies performance was a response to formalised modernistic and conceptual art and its indifference to social and political issues. Performance boycotted the existing artistic world. Galleries, museums, artists, critics, dealers and politicians. Performance emerged with a meaning, not a form. It constituted a strong reaction to the hypocritical promises of a 'better world'. Performers did not enter arguments or issue a manifesto. The notion of performance has never been precisely defined and, therefore, no rules or restrictions have been stated. No form of expression was excluded. No catalogue of values, problems and ideas was not compiled, which allowed for full openness.
People who remember the artistic climate of those times agree that the radicalism of avant-garde artists reached a grotesque dimension, leaving no space for creation. Performance offered an exactly opposite solution. It created an area of unrestricted freedom. It had a creative, anti-market, and anti-object orientation. And that was striking.
At that time performance art fascinated because it evaded 'scientistic theorising'. Its allure consisted in the fact that it did not want to engage in any arguments with other arts. It rejected competition in art as well as a possibility of creating a hierarchy of values. It did not conform to any neatly phrased programmes and theories. Performance was addressed solely to the audience present, thus eliminating all go-betweens, among which were, first of all, critics. It was the artist who presented art. He was not just represented by his work.
Performance carried out a revolution that was originally disregarded. It challenged art's cultural foundations. For the first time was the artist placed before art. It was the human being with his/her sensitive mind that became central, not art's rules or conventions. Performance's pioneers were guided by the conviction that the awareness of one's self and the world precedes the acquired awareness of art. An artificial wall within art was pulled down. Since that time the artist has never been compelled to eliminate traces of his life from art.
Yet, performance could not sidestep its times. The avant-garde mentality of artists survived. And, in a sense, performance came to be recognised as another progressive trend within art, with the whole body of behaviour patterns it carried and a sense of avant-gardist mission with its roots going back to body art and conceptualism. This, however, was no disaster. After ten years performance left the stage quite unexpectedly as its exciting aura had been exhausted.
The eighties and the nineties.
Performance art made a silent come-back in the eighties. New performers, who did not belong to the 'second avant-garde', are not inclined to put it on local and international ranking lists. They are more open. Aware of the roots and original performance rules, these artists do not perceive them as doctrines. And that is why they are much closer to the idea of performance. Unlike the performers of the seventies, who are treated with veneration, new performers are not welcome to galleries. They are still kept at a distance.
In my opinion such a situation does not create conflicts, but on the contrary, it is beneficial for performance art in Poland and elsewhere. Still, there are some interesting questions about the eighties and nineties. What were the reasons for performance's co-existence with postmodernism in a new and awkward configuration? Here, I think, the reason is similar to that of the seventies. A focus on an individual, affirmation of individualism, rejection of art rules and conventions. Obviously, performance no longer bears a revolutionary imprint. And this is the main difference. Performance art has filled a gap that appeared after avant-gardes. Although it is not an avant-garde movement itself, performance shows many avant-garde characteristics. It remains provocative and irritating. It is familiar with social, political, existential and ethical issues. Performance art is engaged in a valid discourse about values both spiritual and real (the ones that surround us). The dispute has no programme. Performance art has accepted challenges that postmodernism fails to accept. No wonder performance art, due to its creative ability to involve viewers in shocking and formerly unimaginable situations, is made to play a secondary role. Or just subtly eliminated. Hence the numerous new tasks for performers.
No comment on art can pass over the fundamental question about the values contemporary societies cherish. We can venture to say that the world strives for a great stabilisation, for opulence and voluminous consumption at the cost of keeping silent about the divisions, convulsions, misery and calamities of this world.
That is why the contemporary artist has rejected the convention of 'the struggling artist', a provocateur asking drastic questions of the audience. Performance art assumes the role of a lonely rebel, yet its rebellion does not attempt to become more attractive by simplifications. It is always addressed to a small number of people. This, however, does not make it less irritating. One cannot fail to notice that performance is generally considered to be controversial and little known. It has been labelled 'unwanted art'. It does not arouse any special interest; in many countries it does not exist, and where it does exist, we can witness an act of civilising 'bad' art. The boycott of performance art on the part of institutions, critics and the mass media is a peculiar revenge for its radicalism. Journalists and officials eagerly search for the sensational and the scandalous rather than the ideological. Reviews which establish a dialogue with the artist are rare. In the information-oriented civilisation, performance art has no allies. Contemporary world is reluctant to finance art and therefore too expressive a performance can become the reason for closing down a gallery or cancelling a festival. I myself have witnessed many police interventions when police for minor reasons. There are also open, brutal attacks on performance art in the press. As a result of this only few galleries and museums in the world take the risk of presenting performance. Museums sabotage performance by refusing to do research or file records.
There are some other dangers too. On the one hand the word 'performance' is commonly abused in show business and minor little theatres. And on the other hand, new notions such as 'live art' and 'time based art' have appeared: they are to neutralise the idea of performance. New notions and terms appear; they are used by those artists who intend to abandon the fetish word 'performance'.
To my surprise I have found out that educating performance artists in art schools is one such 'silent' method. Paradoxically enough, it pushes the process of 'improving' art' further. The programmes of art schools change performance art into 'beautiful, stylish, and intelligently overspoken productions'. The academic, formalised, studied performance resembles a minor theatre and has nothing in common with the performance of the early seventies or the mainstream nineties' performance. Yet, it does fulfil one of the basic postulates from contemporary societies as it is predictable and aesthetic. It poses no threats. That is why educating performers is a tragic mistake. The artists whose main sphere of activity are workshops also try their hands at performance and this is another big mistake. To be a performer is an attitude towards the world and oneself, not towards art.
Performance's openness as a pitfall.
Performance's openness has been its greatest strength. Yet, it became a pitfall too. It brings a lack of limitations and therefore the viewer can be surprised by a sophisticated meaning. A sublime, high consciousness of perception is required from the viewer. Performance is strongly connected with the existence of the form, vivid emotional tensions, and thanks to this it is never semantically empty. A transformation of the matter, signs, objects, mutual relations between the action and the performer takes place. The existing situation changes into an entirely different one. This brings a great discomfort of perception and of notion systematisation. Performance irritates with the accumulation of complex meanings which are not easy to interpret. Interpretation may be difficult even for those who have the necessary education. The objection that too much is demanded from the viewer is a justified one. Clearly, performance is addressed to the thinking viewer. It exposes the shallowness of the general tendency to bother us with the commonplace and the easy like, for example, television, pop, cartoons, and disco music. In our culture innovative means of expression as well as artistic stances that exceed the conventions have no meaning and are considered worthless. Performance's struggle is a silent, heroic fight for the freedom of expressing momentous and significant ideas.
Performance's anti-media character.
One of the 'weaknesses' of performance art is the fact that it is impossible to collect its documentary records. Performance art is not fit for a conventional record or description. It has an anti-media character. Direct recording, for example with a video camera, is just collecting information. And even as such it is simply poor. Taking photographs changes the meaning of an action. An aesthetic image becomes important and such an image creates a different reality. An interesting transformation, or a distortion of reality, takes place: the recorded picture of the performance is a major obstruction in relaying an emotional and intellectual message. Therefore, any action can be very easily trivialised, but, on the other hand, there is a danger of leaving no documentation, no trace for the future. Artists themselves try to solve this problem using different methods, yet none of these is good enough to serve the purpose. The society accepts only the image of contemporary art presented by the mass media. Performance's inherent feature is direct contact with another human being. In the age of electronic communication performance is made to play a secondary role. And that is why it does matter and make sense.
Who is a performer?
A performer is an artist, but of a different kind. A performer's vision of his/her own place in culture is different. His/her reactions to the world are subjective and such is the character of the acts. A performer does not accept the role that is ascribed to artists by the society and culture. The profession does not matter. He/she has no need of professionalism and education, the two features highly estimated in consumer world. Performer's spiritual and social usefulness are more important. It is hard to define a performer. A performer is a philosopher, teacher, rebel, initiator, organiser, nomad, traveller, partner, and a bearer of moral values.
A struggle for space.
Space, those places where the artist can establish a communication with the audience, is performance's most important problem. There are few such places in Poland and all over the world. Each artist seeks new places and, out of necessity, becomes a travelling nomad. There are places in the world where performance art festivals are organised at least once a year. These are the United States, Mexico, Korea, Poland, Japan, Slovakia, and Romania. The countries hosting irregular performers' meeting are Germany, Portugal, Canada, France, Lithuania, Ireland, and Great Britain. A these many or few? They are very few! And these festivals are organised by just one or a couple of artists.
It is not true that festivals are organised because somebody likes performance art. It is the artists that create places where themselves and others can present their art. It is done at high costs, with much effort and only after overcoming a powerful organisational and social resistance. The reason for organising a festival is not that the organisers hope to be invited abroad as a consequence. Facts show it is no conspiracy. Performance exists only in those places where artists themselves can organise its bigger presentations. There are only few curators who are not artists themselves and estimate performance art highly enough to organise festivals or other shows (such people also have to show enough determination).
Contrary to the former phases of performance, in the eighties and nineties the places where performance is presented are more and more exotic. At a river bank, in an old fortress, in a church, in provincial museums, in huge factory workshops, in TV studios, shopping centres, theatres, parking lots, lawns, at a lake, in former military bases or railway warehouses, cinemas, stadiums, somewhere in the country, on a beach, in a street, or on volcano slopes. Seemingly it facilitates contacts with non-artistic audience. Yet, a single gesture or an act belonging to the taboo sphere is enough to destroy an idealistic vision of the audience. To have chance viewers is a rule which turns out to be less attractive than it sounds. Attractiveness is not concerned in this matter. An artist who decides to present his art in a public place expects protection from the organisers. This, in turn, undermines the very essence of performance. Protected art will never taste of real provocation.
We can clearly notice that performance actions have been of interest to gallery-goers and festival guests in the nineties. Performance art has not moved to places where the so-called 'ordinary people' go, although such tendencies also occasionally appear. Performers still hold on to galleries and great art centres hoping to be able to establish a good contact with the recipient. The fear of unknown places makes them adhere to art institutions, which offers a 'safer' contact with the audience. Probably, there is no better solution. Performance exists among organised audiences of festivals and galleries. Other forms are deficient. A performer's individual presentation in a gallery will never attract crowds. In galleries performance becomes a mere product like any other art. The artist becomes a product too. The stronger he emphasises his independence from galleries and the world, the better he is. There is no reason to blame performers for it. All the same, performers dislike galleries. They most often appear in places that have been called galleries for various reasons.
Because it is about the viewer's and performer's time. Festival audiences are diverse. It is the new spatial, social, and cultural context that matters. Artists want to see the art of fellow artists. They want to be together for a few days.
The character of performance art with its postulate of direct viewer participation involves the audience more than any other kind of art. In our everyday bustle and with the common routine of planning everyday activities, it is hard to find people who will volunteer to devote time to others. We can lament and criticise this situation, but it is a fact of life that performance audiences consist of people overwhelmed with a mania of seeking originality and... having lots of free time. It is, therefore, a small circle of 'others' such as artists, critics, students, journalists and officials. Few can fulfil the postulate of personal participation (direct presence) and even they may sometimes happen to lack time. A grotesque incident took place at one of the most interesting festivals: 24 outstanding performers, both Polish and foreign, kept waiting for an audience that never turned up.
The organisers' and performers' problem is to have a good viewer who can become the artist's partner. The viewers' problem is that the world has a limited number of good performers to offer. Time and again it is said that there are just two real performers. Fortunately, each time two different names are mentioned. As we glance at lists of festival participants we can come to an unexpected conclusion that the same names appear on the lists. There is a list of 'the best names of performers', which exists for a simple and prosaic reason ? money. The budgets of all festivals are unimaginably small and, consequently, creating a participant list organisers have to think how to make it 'economical and attractive'. Hence their carefulness in making the list. The Cleveland festival is an exception: a contest for projects precedes each edition of the festival. Making lists of the so-called good artists is a pitfall. There is always a problem of stardom: competitiveness, career, obsessive ambitions and fighting other artists with astonishing ease. It is no tragedy as performance has its inner immunity. In performance there is no room for stardom. The mere fact of appearing in various places in the world brings neither fame nor money. Fortunately, performance is of non-commercial nature.
Several questions appear. Why does performance arouse disapproval in the mid-nineties, when we have been through several revolutions both in life and art, after the great counter-culture and hippie movements? As, generally speaking, performance art can be considered a logical consequence of the former modernistic tendencies propagating the idea of bringing art closer to everyday life. As performance brings up questions that are familiar to all those sensitive.
The opponents are entitled to ask what the whole thing is about: performance eliminated and did not strive for post-interference in the created works. It rejected all rules. It does not wish to be art in the traditional sense. It considers the direct contact with the audience to be the most important. It rejected critics. It was indifferent to any form of advertising. More questions can emerge. From each side.
Translated by Katarzyna Buczak
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