Performance Art

for Women in Music in America Since 1900: An Encyclopedia

by Byrd, Jeffery

Performance art, by its very nature, defies definition. It is a forum used by artists to combine elements of many different media and art forms, incorporating aspects of theater, music and the visual arts. Many performance artists are also interested in crossing the perceived boundary between art and life by thinking of everyday activities in an artistic manner. Performance art is an ever changing, often controversial form.

There are some very general characteristics that may describe some (but probably not all) performance art. One aspect is the emphasis on time. Performances exist in real space and time and the ephemeral nature of the work is often and integral to understanding its meaning. The fact that the performance only lasts for a definite amount of time and will exist only in the memories of its audience is a radical notion in the context of painting and sculpture, which are usually made with longevity in mind. Like performances of music, performance art works can be recorded, but unlike music, performance art often involves interaction between the artist and spectator and therefore a document is unable to fully capture the piece.

Another characteristic is symbolic action. In performance art, the emphasis is on action and doing. This often extends to include the body of the artist as a kind of material not unlike marble or clay in a traditional sculpture. When the body does something or something is done to the body, it can have metaphoric potential.

Performance art is often compared to theater, which it superficially resembles. Performance art, however, rarely communicates its content in the same manner as a play. It usually lacks the plot or character development that we might associate with a play. Theater often requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is not a part of performance art. When we see Othello , for example, we are asked to believe that we are in another place and time. In performance, the emphasis is on the here and now. Performance art attempts to eliminate artifice. Philosophically, performance art also questions the roles of artist and audience and in many cases blurs the distinction between what is an aesthetic experience and an ordinary life experience.

Historians have traced the history of Performance art as far back as the Renaissance when Leonardo and Bernini would stage interdisciplinary pageants. It is not, however, until the 20th Century that Performance art really takes shape as a distinct medium. In many ways, Performance art can be seen as a reflection of the turbulence and cultural upheaval of the century. For example, the Futurists and Dadaists found performance to be a valuable tool when facing the political landscape of their time.

The Futurists, led by F.T. Marinetti, a poet and master publicist, celebrated speed, war and technology as ways of freeing Italy from the burdens of the past. In the Futurist Manifesto, Marinetti urges that museums, libraries and other storehouses of history be destroyed. He compares the beauty of a speeding motorcar to that of the Nike of Samothrace and claims that salvation lies in

looking only forward. Performance was seen as a way of directly confronting the public and also a conduit for testing new and radical ways of art making.

Luigi Ruossolo wrote "The Art of Noises" in 1913 outlining a method of creating music through the use of machines and other non-traditional devices. He created several large instruments called intonarumori which, when cranked in the back, emitted a variety of growls, whirs and industrial noises through megaphones in the front. This idea of all-inclusive sound music has proven to be a major aspect of 20th Century music.

Hugo Ball, a philosophy student, and Emmy Hennings, a cabaret performer and accused forger, founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Ball had briefly experienced battle during World War I and this event was so horrible that he fled to the neutral country of Switzerland with a passport faked by Hennings.

Several others including Tristian Tzara, Marcel Janco and Hans Arp joined them and Dada was born. The name itself is significant in that this was one of the few movements in art history named by the artists themselves. Irate critics named most other groups, such as the Impressionists. Dada was likely chosen because it sounds like random non-sense but it does mean various things in several languages such as ‘hobbyhorse’ and ‘yes, yes.’

Early Dada performances were variety shows including lectures, songs, dance pieces and poetry readings with sets designed and painted by the performers themselves. Their poetry was devised used several methods included a chance method created by Tzara where the poet pulls random words from a hat. Ball and others created poetry from abstract sounds created by the mouth foreshadowing both the vocal works of the Fluxus movement and extended vocal techniques of contemporary artists such as Meredith Monk and Joan LaBarbara.

The Dadaists were also fond of simultaneous recitations of poems and manifestos. This collage effect was often confusing to the audience and at times led to fights and thrown vegetables. The artists themselves were not angered by these negative reactions, but rather saw them as signs of success.

Dada was about changing the role of art in society. They saw war as a barbarous act of absurdity and they wanted to mirror that absurdity in their performances. They felt that society needed to be shocked from its bourgeois complacency and incited to act against aggression.

They were against elitist notions of aesthetics. Such methods as chance poetry and photo collage suggested that anyone could make art and this was notion enraged the Academies and the public as well. One goal of the Dadaists was to make the public distrustful of artists so that art could not be used as propaganda by the Fascists.

The original core members of Dada were together only briefly but other groups sprung up in Berlin, Cologne, New York and Paris. The latter group eventually spawned the Surrealists, who adopted many of the chance methods of creation used by the Dadaists but connected them to Freud’s theories of the subconscious, believing that chance revealed the hidden mind.

Performance was also a major part of the curriculum at the Bauhaus school in Germany. The theater workshops of Oscar Schlemmer provided a place where students could explore two and three dimensional design principles in real space and time. Schlemmer's personal work dealt with the covering the human form through unusual costumes which altered and restricted the movements of the performer. Made from various industrial materials, the costumes looked like bizarre mechanical/human hybrids. Other Bauhaus artists conceived of completely mechanized performances utilizing large moving shapes and automated lights.

The Bauhaus remained an innovative force in European art until the Nazis closed it in 1933. Labeled 'degenerate' by Hitler, many Modern artists fled Europe during World War II and came to America where they passed on their avant-garde ideas to an entire generation of young students.

Among this group of students was John Cage (1912-1992). Cage studied under Arnold Schoenberg and became one of the most influential people in late 20th Century performance art. Cage was also by Marcel Duchamp, a Dadaist who had challenged conventional notions of creativity by suggesting that art was an act of selection rather than creation and that the artist need only choose what is to be art rather than fabricate it. Cage adapted this to music by taking a non-hierarchical attitude towards sounds. To Cage, all sounds were musical. Cage augmented this idea with the Zen Buddhist tenet of suppression of the ego. The composer would no longer play the supreme role in the creation of music.

He shared this philosophy through his teaching at the experimental summer institute, Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the New School of Social Research in New York. Cage’s goal was to erase remnants of his personal biases from his music, composing through the use of chance operations in which he would allow uncontrollable factors to determine the sequence of pitches and their duration. His later work was concerned with giving more creative control to the performers of his music. This may be seen as a de-centralization of the process of composition. In Cage’s Variations works, the performers may decide what they will do and for how long.

Many artists associated with the Fluxus movement attended Cage's classes in New York. Allan Kaprow also studied under Cage and went on to create Happenings in the sixties. Happenings were loosely scripted events that turned all participants into artists.

The sixties and seventies were a vigorous time for performance art. Many artists embraced performance as a means of undermining the notion of art as a commodity to be bought and sold and also a way of working with content beyond the formalist concerns that had been paramount in the art world for some time. The body, sexuality and issues of autobiography and identity became common topics in performance art. Many women artists felt that performance provided uncharted territory to explore, since painting and sculpture had long been dominated by men.

Among the innovative artists of this time is Carolee Schneeman. whose work explored the previously taboo issue of female sexuality. In Interior Scroll (1975), she provided a scathing critique of how women were treated in the art community. Another artist whose work focuses on issue related to female identity is Elenor Antin. Antin's work delves into the notion of what actually constitutes an individual identity. Antin created several characters (The Ballerina, The Nurse and The King) and she literally became a different person operating in the real world for a period of time. Each persona has a history and memories different from Antin. Antin's work foreshadows the work of many later artists such as Cindy Sherman, who elaborately costumes herself and makes photographic self-portraits.

Other performance artists choose physical endurance as their subject. Chris Burden is well known for his actions involving danger. Burden's most sensational work was Shoot (1971), in which a friend shot him in the arm. Burden's work is shocking but the real content lies in the issue of social responsibility. Since no one from the audience attempted to stop the action, all were complicit in the violence that occurred.

Linda Montano also examines endurance, but of a different sort. Montano focuses on ritual and giving structure to her daily life. She had made pieces by obsessively recording the food that she ate or photographing her smile on a daily basis. From 1984-1991, she performed Seven Years of Living Art, which included an demanding regimen of daily rituals based on the seven chakras (energy centers) of the body. In 1982-83, she spent an entire year tied to Teching Hsieh with an eight-foot piece of rope. They did not touch one another for the duration of the piece.

One common factor in the performance work of the sixties and seventies was its interest in finding uncommon venues. Performances took place in every type of place imaginable except for a theater. In the last two decades, performance art has seen a move towards decidedly more theatrical works with overt political content. Artists such as Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas and Rachel Rosenthal all produce work that fits nicely on the stage, assembling recorded and live music, projected slides, films and videos that complement the live action. Anderson focuses on the technology itself, exploring how machines are affecting the human experience. Galas uses her powerful voice to express her anger over the AIDS crisis while Rosenthal touches on environmental issues, comparing her aging body to that of the earth. Others such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena, James Luna, and Adrian Piper use their personal experience to comment on racism in America.

Performance art was the center of a national debate when the National Endowment for the Arts retracted four grants given to performance artists due to their controversial content. The NEA 4 (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller) produced work that, through autobiographical narrative, frankly examined such subjects as incest, rape, homosexuality and lesbianism. The artists sued and eventually the funding was re-instated but the controversy made clear that performance art remains a polemical force.

Performance art continues to threaten dearly held notions of what art should be and how it should behave. Through its ephemeral and immaterial nature, it challenges the position of art within the capitalist marketplace and through its emphasis on the body and life of the artist as a conduit for meaning, it exposes the power structure of the greater socio-political realm.

See Also: Anderson, Laurie; Fluxus; Galas, Diamanda.

For Further Reading:

Goldberg, Roselee. 1988. Performance art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Schimmel, Paul. 1998 Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Jeffery Byrd



Goldberg, Roselee. 1988. Performance art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Gordon, Mel, ed. 1987. Dada Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.

Gropius, Walter and Wensinger, Arthur S. 1996. The Theater of the Bauhaus. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kelley, Jeff, ed. 1993. Allan Kaprow: Essays on the Blurring on Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kirby, Michael and Kirby, Victoria Nes. 1986. Futurist Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.

Schimmel, Paul. 1998 Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Stile, Kristine and Selz, Peter. 1996. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.