Performance art is a performance presented to an audience within a fine art context, traditionally interdisciplinary. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated, spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer's body or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any type of venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.
Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses. As concepts like "democracy" or "art", it implies productive disagreement with itself.
The meaning of the term in the narrower sense is related to postmodernist traditions in Western culture. From about the mid-1960s into the 1970s, often derived from concepts of visual art, with respect to Antonin Artaud, Dada, the Situationists, Fluxus, installation art and conceptual art, performance art tended to be defined as an antithesis to theatre, challenging orthodox art forms and cultural norms. The ideal had been an ephemeral and authentic experience for performer and audience in an event that could not be repeated, captured or purchased. The widely discussed difference, how concepts of visual arts and concepts of performing arts are utilized, can determine the meanings of a performance art presentation.
Performance art is a term usually reserved to refer to a conceptual art which conveys a content-based meaning in a more drama-related sense, rather than being simple performance for its own sake for entertainment purposes. It largely refers to a performance presented to an audience, but which does not seek to present a conventional theatrical play or a formal linear narrative, or which alternately does not seek to depict a set of fictitious characters in formal scripted interactions. It therefore can include action or spoken word as a communication between the artist and audience, or even ignore expectations of an audience, rather than following a script written beforehand.
Some types of performance art nevertheless can be close to performing arts. Such performance may utilize a script or create a fictitious dramatic setting, but still constitute performance art in that it does not seek to follow the usual dramatic norm of creating a fictitious setting with a linear script which follows conventional real-world dynamics; rather, it would intentionally seek to satirize or to transcend the usual real-world dynamics which are used in conventional theatrical plays.
Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about "what art is". As long as the performer does not become a player who repeats a role, performance art can include satirical elements; utilize robots and machines as performers, as in pieces of the Survival Research Laboratories; involve ritualised elements (e.g. Shaun Caton); or borrow elements of any performing arts such as dance, music, and circus.
Some artists, e.g. the Viennese Actionists and neo-Dadaists, prefer to use the terms "live art", "action art", "actions", "intervention" (see art intervention) or "manoeuvre" to describe their performing activities. As genres of performance art appear body art, fluxus-performance, happening, action poetry, and intermedia.
Western cultural theorists often trace performance art, at least in the European tradition, back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the Russian constructivists, Futurists and Dada movements. Dada provided a significant progenitor with the unconventional performances of poetry, often at the Cabaret Voltaire, by the likes of Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara. Russian Futurist artists could be identified as precursors of performance, such as David Burliuk, who painted his face for his actions (1910–20) and Alexander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova.
Performance art activity is not confined to European or American art traditions, and notable practitioners can be found in Asia and Latin America. Performance artists and theorists point pre-20th Century precursors or origins for performance art from different traditions and histories, ranging from tribal to sporting and ritual or religious events. In an episode of the BBC series In Our Time several academics proposed the idea that Antisthenes and Diogenes in ancient Greece practiced a form of performance art and that they acquired the epithet of cynic which means "dog" due to Diogenes behaving repeatedly like a dog in his performances.
According to the art critic Harold Rosenberg in the 1940s and 1950s Action Painting gave artists the freedom to perform—the canvas as "an arena in which to act", thereby rendering the paintings as traces of the artist's performance in his/her studio. Abstract expressionism and Action painting preceded the Fluxus movement, Happenings and the emergence of Performance Art.
Yves Klein had been a precursor of performance art with the conceptual pieces of Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959–62, Anthropométries (1960), and works like the photomontage, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void). In the late 1960s Earth artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Carl Andre created environmental pieces that predict the performance art of the 1970s. Works of conceptual artists in the early 1980s, like Sol LeWitt, who converted mural-style drawing into an act of performance by others, were influenced by Yves Klein and the Earth artists as well.
In the 1960s a variety of new works, concepts and the increasing number of artists led to new kinds of performance art. Prototypic for the art form later explicitly labeled "performance art", were works of artists like Yoko Ono with her Wall piece for orchestra (1962), Carolee Schneemann with pieces like Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975); Wolf Vostell with his Happening YOU (1964 in New York); Joseph Beuys with How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965); Yayoi Kusama, with actions such as a naked flag-burning on the Brooklyn Bridge (1968) and Allan Kaprow in his many Happenings.
Kaprow had coined the term Happening describing a new artform, at the beginning of the 1960s. A Happening allows the artist to experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts, and even smells. One of Kaprow's earliest was "Happenings in the New York Scene," written in 1961 as the form was developing. Notably in the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, the audience members become performers. While the audiences in Happenings had been welcomed as the performers, it is only sometimes and often unwittingly that they become an active part in a Performance. Other artists who created Happenings besides Kaprow include Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and Wolf Vostell: Theater is in the Street (Paris in 1958).
Hermann Nitsch in 1962 presented his "Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries" (Orgien- und Mysterien Theater), a precursor to performance art, close to the performing arts.
Andy Warhol during the early 1960s beginning to create films and video, in the mid-60s sponsored the Velvet Underground and staged events and performances in New York, like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966) that featured live Rock music, exploding lights, and film.
Indirectly influential for art-world performance, particularly in the United States, were new forms of theatre, embodied by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Living Theatre and showcased in Off-Off Broadway theaters in SoHO and at La MaMa in New York City. The Living Theatre chiefly toured in Europe between 1963 and 1968, and in the U.S. in 1968. A work of this period, Paradise Now was notorious for its audience participation and a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while disrobing.
The work of performance artists after 1968 often showed influences of the cultural and political events of that year. Barbara T. Smith with Ritual Meal (1969) was at the forefront of the feminist body-, and performance art of the 1970s; among others including: Carolee Schneemann, and Joan Jonas. Schneemann and Jonas along with Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Allan Kaprow, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Dennis Oppenheim pioneered the relationship between Body art and performance art.
At the beginning of the 1970s, artists whose work had already before tended to be a performance art, as well as new artists, began to present performance art in a stricter form.
New artists with radical performances were Chris Burden, with the 1971 performance piece Shoot, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters, and Vito Acconci in the same year with Seedbed.
The book Expanded Cinema, by Gene Youngblood, marked a shift in the use of media by performance artists. The first book considering video art as an art form, mentions Jud Yalkut as a pioneering video artist. Since 1965 he had collaborated in dozens of intermedia performances throughout the United States, also with Nam June Paik, who beginning of the 1960s already had been a fluxus performer on the way to become a media artist. As to the art of Paik, Youngblood refers to works of Carolee Schneemann and Robert Whitman from the 1960s, which had been pioneering for performance art, becoming an independent artform at the beginning of the 1970s.
The British-based pair Gilbert and George, already in 1970, had documented actions of themselves on video, and created their "living sculpture" performance, being painted in gold and singing "Underneath The Arches" for extended periods. Joan Jonas began to include video in her experimental performances in 1972. Bruce Nauman staged his performances directly for video recording, whereas Jochen Gerz critically examined the state of alienation triggered by new media.
In 1973, Laurie Anderson performed Duets on Ice, on the streets of New York City. Marina Abramović, in the performance Rhythm 10, conceptually included the violation of her body. Thirty years later, the theme of violation, shame, and sexual exploitation would be re-imagined in the contemporary performance works of artists such as Clifford Owens, Gillian Walsh, Pat Oleszko and Rebecca Patek, among others.
Since 1973, the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman's Building in Los Angeles had a formative impact on the wave of performances with feminist background.
Carolee Schneemann’s work in 1963, Eye Body, already had been a prototype of performance art. Schneemann in 1975 went on with innovative solo performances, like Interior Scroll, showing the female body as an artistic medium.
In the mid seventies, behind the iron curtain, in the Eastern European capitals: Budapest, Kraków, Belgrade, Zagreb, Novi Sad and other cities, the performing art was flourishing. Against the political and social control, emerged Orshi Drozdik performance series, titled Individual Mythology 1975/77 and the NudeModel 1976/77. Critical of the patriarchal discourse of art and the equally patriarchal state forced "emancipation program", pioneering feminist point of view on both, made her forerunner in the 70s political and artistic environment.
In 1976, HA Schult filled St. Mark's Square in Venice with old newspapers in an overnight action he called Venezia vive. In his 1977 performance, "Crash", the same artist let a Cessna crash into the garbage dump on Staten Island, New York.
Until the 1980s, performance art had been demystifying virtuosity. Now it began to embrace technical brilliance. In reference to Presence and Resistance by Philip Auslander, dance critic Sally Banes writes "... by the end of the 1980s, performance art had become so widely known that it no longer needed to be defined; mass culture, especially television, had come to supply both structure and subject matter for much performance art; and several performance artists, including Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Willem Dafoe, and Ann Magnuson, had indeed become crossover artists in mainstream entertainment."
Despite the fact that many performances are held within the circle of a small art-world group, RoseLee Goldberg notes in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present that "performance has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture. Conversely, public interest in the medium, especially in the 1980s, stems from an apparent desire of that public to gain access to the art world, to be a spectator of its ritual and its distinct community, and to be surprised by the unexpected, always unorthodox presentations that the artists devise."
Among the performance art most discussed in the art-world of this decade were a performance by Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh between July 1983 and July 1984, Art/Life: One Year Performance (Rope Piece), and Karen Finley's I'm an Ass Man 1987.
Until the decline of the European Eastern bloc during the late 1980s, performance art had actively been rejected by most communist governments. With the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia, performance art was more or less banned in countries where any independent public event was feared. In the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Latvia it happened in apartments, at seemingly spontaneous gatherings in artist studios, in church-controlled settings, or covered as another activity, like a photo-shooting. Isolated of the western conceptual context, in different settings it could be like a playful protest or like a bitter comment, using subversive metaphors to express dissent with the political situation.
Prior to 1982, Hedwig Gorski designated the term performance poetry, to distinguish her text-based vocal performances from performance art, especially the work of performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson, who worked with music at that time. Performance poets relied more on the rhetorical and philosophical expression in their poetics than performance artists, who arose from the visual art genres of painting and sculpture.
From 1981 to 1994, the Dutch visual artist PINK de Thierry created what she came to call meta-performances: a conceptual mix of intervention art in public space, performance art—interacting with an audience, installation art—utilizing large structures to perform in or with, and media art—photography and film to register and exhibit.
While the Soviet bloc disintegrated, formerly repressed activities of performance artists like György Galántai in Hungary, or the Collective Action Group in Russia, became better known. Young artists from all over the former Eastern bloc, including Russia, turned to performance. Performance art at about the same time appeared in Cuba, the Caribbean and China. Chinese performance artists like Zhang Huan had been performing underground since the late 1980s. In the early 1990s Chinese performance art already was acclaimed in the international art scene.
"In these contexts performance art became a critical new voice with a social force similar to that found in Western Europe, the United States and South America in the 1960s and early 1970s. It should be emphasized that the eruption of performance art in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere should never be considered either secondary to or imitative of the West."
Since 1996, HA Schult has installed one thousand life sized "Trash People" made from garbage as "silent witnesses to a consumer age that has created an ecological imbalance worldwide". They travelled to Moscow's Red Square (1999), the Pyramids of Giza (2002) and the Great Wall of China (2001).
In the western world in the 1990s, even sophisticated performance art became part of the cultural mainstream: performance art as a complete artform gained admittance into art museums and became a museal topic.
In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, a number of artists incorporated technologies such as the World Wide Web, digital video, Webcams, and streaming media, into performance art works. Artists such as Coco Fusco, Shu Lea Cheang, and Prema Murthy, produced performance art that drew attention to the role of gender, race, colonialism, and the body in relation to the Internet. Other artists, such as Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Disturbance Theater, and Yes Men, used digital technologies associated with hacktivism and interventionism to raise political issues concerning new forms of capitalism and consumerism.
In the second half of the decade, computer-aided forms of performance art began to take place. Many of these works led to the development of algorithmic art, generative art, and robotic art, in which the computer itself, or a computer-controlled robot, becomes the performer. Similarly, robotics engineer/dancer Amy LaViers has incorporated cell phones in a contemporary dance piece calling attention to the issues surrounding our ever-increasing dependence on technology.
Since January 2003, Tate Modern in London has had a curated programme of live art and performance and in 2012 The Tanks at Tate Modern were opened: the first dedicated spaces for performance, film, and installation in a major modern and contemporary art museum.
From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective and performance recreation of Marina Abramović's work, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA's history. During the run of the exhibition, Abramović performed The Artist is Present, a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum's atrium, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. A support group for the "sitters", "Sitting with Marina", was established on Facebook. The performance attracted celebrities such as Björk and James Franco and received coverage on the internet. During Marina's performance, other artists performed for her.
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