[Picking up the history and development of performance art with the advent of the 1980s, Part 2 of my article will take that discussion into the 21st century and make a little prediction about its possible future. If you haven’t read Part 1 of “Performance Art,” I recommend that you go back to the previous post on ROT and pick up the background.]
During the decade of the ’80s, the media generation, raised in the 24-hour TV world on rock ’n’ roll, Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, and the legacy of the ’60s, came of age. Performance artists of the 1980s interpreted the breakdown of the barriers between life and art as dissolving the barriers between art and media, that is, “high” and “low” art. Capitalizing on the media, such as TV and video, to make their art more accessible and widespread was a hallmark of the ’80s generation, even as it further blurred the boundaries between high art and low (that is, commercial) art and brought charges of selling out from the older generation. (At the same time, some of the performance artists of the early ’70s like Jack Goldstein, 1945-2003; Michael McClard, b. 1947; Robert Longo, b. 1953; Cindy Sherman, b. 1954; and Robin Winters, b. 1950, returned to making art objects—paintings, photos, or sculptures—which were more accessible to the mainstream art world and, therefore, more profitable.) Technology also became an innate part of performance in the ’80s, a phenomenon which only increased (and likely will continue to do so) as we gained more and more technology in our lives. Laurie Anderson’s United States (1982), for example, was eight hours of sound, narrative, and illusions with hand-drawn projections and enlarged photos from TV screens and parts of films as backdrops for songs about life as a “closed circuit.” Anderson used electronics to alter her voice and the performance became popular enough for her to sign a recording contract for it in 1981; a five-record boxed set, United States Live, was released by Warner Bros. in 1983. (Her song “O Superman,” from United States, was released as a single and reached number two on pop charts in Britain, and the top of other music charts there and in the U.S.) Eric Bogosian (b. 1953), trained as an actor, began in stand-up in lower Manhattan clubs and turned actor in the solo tradition of Lenny Bruce and Anderson with performances such as Men Inside (1981) and Drinking in America (1985/86), cumulative diatribes against an uncaring society. Emphasizing acting in his performance routines, he created a series of characters like “Ricky Paul,” a character drawn to power and profanity whom Bogosian likened to controversial comic Andrew Dice Clay, and by 1982, he’d become accepted into the mainstream media with TV and film contracts and Off-Broadway productions of his scripts.
The phenomenon of “mainstreaming” performance art was largely centered in New York City, though similar efforts to commercialize performance as a cabaret-style entertainment is also occurred in cities like Sydney and Montreal. But the move had been resisted in England where the notion of live art presented by “fine artists” persisted. Stephen Taylor Woodrow (b. 1960), for example, elaborated on the “living sculpture” work of Gilbert and George with Living Paintings (1986), a series of works composed of three figures attached to a wall, painted in solid gray or black from hair to shoes and socks, who remained still through the six- or eight-hour performance except when one figure bent at the waist to touch the head of a passer-by.
Just as performance art was informed by dance and theater, it in turn influenced the dance and theater worlds. “Dance Theater,” a development of the New Dance of the 1930s and ’40s, parallels movement in performance art away from the intellectualism of the 1970s to more entertaining and traditional work, reinforcing a renewed interest in highly trained bodies, costumes, lighting, and backdrops as well as narrative. Several especially innovative choreographers were particularly affected by performance art, notably Karole Armitage (b. 1954), Molissa Fenley (b. 1954), Bill T. Jones (b. 1952), Pina Bausch (1940-2009), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (b. 1960), Wim Vandekeybus (b. 1963), and Lloyd Newson (b. 1954). Among these prominent choreographers, Jones, an American dance theater artist, created Secret Pastures (1984) with a company of 14 dancers presenting the narrative of a mad professor and his monkeys on a beach strewn with palm trees (created by former street artist Keith Haring) to a circus-like score by Peter Gordon and dressed in highly styled clothes by fashion designer Willi Smith. Jones’s 1994 dance piece Still/Here in which he used the victims of AIDS as both source material and performers was generally received as sensitive and moving, but was the center of a controversy when New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce wrote she couldn’t review such “victim art” because she couldn’t separate her emotional response to the performers’ conditions from her critical response to the artwork.
Another beneficiary of the performance emphasis was Germany’s Pina Bausch, whose Tanztheater Wuppertal used the easygoing vocabulary of the 1970s, from classical ballet to natural movements, to devise visual theater on the scale of Robert Wilson. Bausch’s dance dramas explored the dynamics between men and women as behavioral discourses between the sexes played out over long hours. A different artist of the movement theater was Martha Clarke (b. 1944) whose “moving paintings,” as her work has sometimes been labeled, draw on theater, dance, and opera to present plotless dreamscapes like The Garden of Earthly Delights (with music by Richard Peaslee; 1984) which was inspired by the like-titled 15th-/16th-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Among her other productions are Vienna: Lusthaus (with music by Peaslee and text by Charles L. Mee; 1986), which “evokes the corruption and excess of pre-World War I Vienna through hypnotic dance, haunting music, electrifying drama, and images inspired by the paintings of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt,” according to Variety, and The Hunger Artist (again with Peaslee’s score; 1987), a performance mélange using mixed media to depict novelist Franz Kafka through his stories. (A revival of Garden at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village in 2008 ran for five months after two extensions. Of a recent piece, Angel Reapers, 2011, about the Shakers using their hymns and a text by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, which blurred the boundaries between dance and theater, Uhry admitted: “I don’t know what to call this thing.” Clarke’s latest interdisciplinary work, a fusion of theater, live music, and dance featuring American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Herman Cornejo, prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri, and pianist Sarah Rothenberg, with a text by playwright Tina Howe, is Cheri, inspired by the 1920 novella by controversial French author Colette, which opens on 8 December at New York City’s Signature Theatre; I’ll be seeing it and reporting on the performance later in the fall.)
The decade also brought minority artists to the fore, using art and performance as a way to explore their own cultures and to force the mainstream public and power-structure to acknowledge them and their “otherness.” Troupes and artists such as Bill T. Jones and the Urban Bush Women (African Americans), Spider Woman Theatre (a Native American company), Ana Mendieta (Cuban-born artist), Guillermo Gomez-Peña (Mexican-born founder of the Border Art Workshop), along with African and South Asian performance artists in the U.K. drew on not only their cultural heritages, but the stereotypes and clichés attributed to them to make socio-political points seldom previously examined in public forums. During the 1980s, performance also became a medium for gay performers to act out their issues and concerns, particularly in the drag clubs and gay cabarets of downtown New York City and other large cities. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 by playwright Larry Kramer and others to focus attention on the HIV health crisis and used radicalized performance as one of its main tools. Nonetheless, in the late ’80s, performance art was also adopted into the popular media in annual festivals, magazines and journals (The Drama Review, founded as the Carlton Drama Review in 1955; Performing Arts Journal, 1976, now titled PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art; High Performance, 1978-97; Live Art Magazine, first published in 1992 in Nottingham, England; Performance Research, founded in 1996; Hybrid Magazine, focusing on music and film since 2000), art-school curricula (Dartmouth in New Hampshire, University of Cardiff in Wales, UCLA), and academic conferences. The 1986 film Legal Eagles with Robert Redford and Deborah Winger, for instance, even cast Daryl Hannah as a performance artist in a Hollywood mystery thriller. (This wasn’t the first movie to present performance art, though it may have been the first mainstream film to use the name. In the 1948 comedy-drama The Time of Your Life, based on William Saroyan’s 1939 play, the character Harry, a “natural-born tap dancing comedian,” gives a performance in the saloon that is recognizable today as an art performance.) In 1983, the Bessie Awards (formally, the New York Dance and Performance Awards) were established to recognize achievement in dance and performance art, further cementing the place of performance in the mainstream, at least of New York culture. The artists, while developing a more minimalist presentation style, strengthened their connection with the spectators, further eliminating the barriers such as those of gender, race, and sexuality.
Following on a virulent 1989 controversy over the exhibition of a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs (Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment) and a photo by Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix immersed in urine (Piss Crist), conservative members of congress, urged on by some critics and commentators, began a campaign to restrict the funding for art of which they disapproved through the NEA and other public agencies. In 1990, performance art was caught in the tangle of religious, social, and political attacks when The NEA Four were denied an Endowment grant on the basis of the content of their controversial work (Finley’s We Keep Our Victims Ready, Miller’s Stretch Marks, Fleck’s I Got the He-be-she-be’s, and Hughes’s World Without End) which explored sexuality and AIDS and employed nudity and images of defecation. Legislation to prevent funding of “obscene and indecent” art passed the U.S. Senate but was defeated in the House of Representatives. In 1991, Hughes and Miller were again awarded NEA grants and in 1993, the NEA Four sued the federal government on the charge that their grants had been improperly denied and won. During the trial, documents proved that NEA chairman John Frohnmayer (who’d been forced to resign) had succumbed to political pressure to deny grants to which some legislators objected. Though some onerous restrictions remained in force after the 1990s, mostly effecting how grants were administered, the effort to eliminate the entire NEA (as well as the NEH), or at least hog-tie it, was averted.
Despite the political backlash on all controversial art, the 1990s became the golden age of performance art (at least so far), moving beyond parochial concerns to grander philosophical issues. A number of performance artists like Anderson, Bogosian, Gray, and Ann Magnuson (b. 1956) attracted large followings, posing the dilemma of maintaining this popularity while remaining innovative and radical in their art. In the early ’90s, for instance, Penny Arcade (née Susana Ventura, b. 1950), a performance artist, actor, and playwright who got her start in the 1960s with John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and in Andy Warhol’s films, made the shift from pure performance art to writing plays. She performed autobiographical material mixed with the satire of contemporary political and social themes, including her problems with the Catholic church, anti-intellectualism, an intolerant art and performance world, and conformity, in a trilogy of plays drawn from her own life: Based on a True Story (1990), Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation to the Beginning of the End of My Career) (1990), La Miseria (1991). Presented at popular venues like La MaMa and P.S. 122 in the East Village, these plays marked Arcade’s earliest steps from solo performance to writing works for other actors (including one who played “Young Penny”). (I reviewed the middle play, Invitation, for the New York Native and have written an unpublished report on La Miseria to which Arcade had invited me because, she hoped, I could explain to her what she was doing.)
A few years later, another downtown artist, Reno (née Karen Reno, b. 1956), hitherto little known outside New York City’s downtown performance scene (where she was already a popular cult figure), made a documentary/docudrama for HBO about her actual search for her birth mother. In June 1998, Reno Finds Her Mom, which featured such mainstream stars as Mary Tyler Moore as Reno’s adoptive mother and Lily Tomlin as her fairy godmother, was broadcast on the cable network known for airing stand-up comedy stars and sports events. Reno, whose style’s been described as “loud, freewheeling and chaotic” by the New York Times, presents satirical social and political commentary with a feminist slant, using plenty of humor, both blue and clean, in such routines as Reno: In Rage and Rehab (1989), Reno Once Removed (1991).
Through the 1990s, performance became increasingly a part of the mainstream of U.S. and western culture, welcomed as a serious art form in established museums, once the targets of performance artists’ opprobrium and protests. RoseLee Goldberg reports that British, U.S., and German universities expanded their performance studies faculties and research collections, and developed new curricula that connected performance art to dance, theater, music, literature, and media studies. At the same time, she notes, art museums hired curatorial specialists to mount significant exhibits of performance art and included spaces for live art in designs for new museums and additions. More and more museums, such as New York’s MoMA, London’s Tate Modern, and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, incorporated departments of performance art in their curatorial structure. Also in the 20th century’s last decade, after having spread from North America and other English-speaking nations (Britain and Australia principally) to Western Europe (France, Germany, and Belgium were especially welcoming to the art form) and around the Caribbean basin, performance made its way into the former Eastern Bloc, where it had been expressly rejected by the repressive communist regimes. The fall of the Soviet Union not only saw the presentation of performance art in Eastern Europe, but performances began to appear in China (where underground performance art had been known since the late 1980s) and Cuba.
The ’90s also saw the incorporation of new technologies into performance. Old groups like Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group began using technology, from video and CCTV to computers and electronic sound, not just as scenic enhancements but as part of the performance texts, one of the ways the story is told. The techniques of other fields such as the technologies of computer design and synthesized sound were adapted to performance use. In Quebec City’s Ex Machina company’s Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994-96), a seven-hour, two-part epic, Robert Lepage brought together film projections and CGI with elements of Japanese traditional theater forms, including Bunraku puppetry, to examine against the backdrop of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and the atomic cataclysm in Hiroshima the agony of horrific tragedy and the hope of rebirth. One of the outgrowths of the merger with technology, as we’ll see, is the blurring among performance artists of the once-distinct boundary between live event and performance video and recorded media.
Reflecting at the end of the 20th century, Goldberg asserts:
Indeed, the history of performance throughout the twentieth century showed performance to be an experimental laboratory for some of the most original and radical art forms; it was a freewheeling, permissive activity for intellectual and formalist excursions of all kinds that could, if studied carefully, reveal layers of meaning about art and artmaking that simply were not clear before.
By the turn of the millennium, performance art had spread to all corners of the world, even into cultures where behavior of all kinds was tightly controlled. The availability of worldwide media, like the Internet, satellite TV, videos and DVD’s, smart phones and tablet computers, not to mention international entrepreneurship, spread the concept and depicted the effectiveness of performance as a form of political protest and dissidence. Goldberg observes:
Performance was the ideal medium for conveying the myriad ideas emanating from such vastly different places. It was predominantly visual, so translation was not a problem; it was ephemeral and therefore the perfect medium for evading government watchdogs in countries where artists’ activities were considered politically subversive; it was cutting edge, in that it frequently used technology to produce sound and image, recording and projection; and it was timeless and accessible in its use of the body, naked or clothed, with its universal figurative language of gestures and movement.
The writer went on to point out that the limitless nature of performance, in subject, media, venue, and length meant it can carry almost any message, no matter how complex or layered—plus it’s portable, needing little or no support matrix, as the artist desires. A performance can be mounted instantly on the streets of Cairo, Khartoum, Rio, or Minsk—and then whisked off to be repeated in Berlin, London, or New York where it garners international attention. Computers and cell phones can carry the image of the event all over the world immediately.
The upheavals of the late 20th century have had their repercussions in the world of global performance. The consequences of the fall of European communism have become the subjects of performance events by artists in regions like Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and the Balkans; the end of apartheid in South Africa and the turmoil in other sub-Saharan African nations; the failure of the Middle East peace negotiations and, later, the exhilaration and subsequent disappointments of the Arab Spring (which has generated performances on both the Palestinian-Arab and the Israeli side); the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the sudden shift of the Chinese government from Maoist communism to a sort of socialized capitalism. Even as the aftershocks of these momentous events continues into the 21st century, the artistic reflection of the regional and global impact, combined with the discovery or encouragement of performance art, has had its own cultural reverberations, both at home and internationally.
Meanwhile, artists around the world began to use performance as a way to explore what Goldberg calls “‘difference’—of their own cultures and ethnicities” and of participating in the wide-ranging examination of global culture. Multiculturalism became a significant theme and focus as minority artists began exploring not just their own ethnicities and cultures, but how those characteristics blended or clashed with the dominant ones. The medium had grown to incorporate multiple styles of art and performance and the new media of the 21st century and computer-assisted techniques. Not all performances were hi-tech, of course: beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the 21st century, Argentine-born Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961), son of a Thai diplomat, started preparing traditional Thai meals which he shared with the spectators in the galleries (first the Paula Allen Gallery in New York, then others including the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and, in 2011, MoMA).
By the 2010s, the feedback loop was completed as the now-often computer-aided performance became a staple of the Internet when a video of Interior Semiotics, in which artist Natacha Stolz (later changed to Gabbi Colette, no dates [b. c. 1991]), a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, squirted SpaghettiOs out of her vagina, received over 1.75 million hits on YouTube. The performance, though, seems to me more like a kind of sexualized Jackass gimmick, more to attract attention and prove the performer’s street-creds than to make a strong artistic or social point.
Biennials and art fairs are featuring performance in their programs, the most prominent being, arguably, Goldberg’s own Performa, slugged “the only biennial dedicated to commissioning, presenting and exploring new visual art performance across disciplines,” which started in 2004. Some might argue that the art form that was adamantly “ephemeral, unsalable and uncategorizable,” in the words of the New York Times’s Carol Kino, has been coopted by the museums and the art establishment whom the earlier generation of artists had repudiated. For example, while performance artists have long sold off photos or video recordings of their work, or props and artifacts left over after the live event had passed, Tino Sehgal, in what appears to be a first in the field, sold the rights to one of his pieces itself: MoMA paid a reported $70,000 in 2008 for a version of Kiss (2003), a living sculpture exhibited at the Guggenheim in 2010. Not only is this a violation of the performance artists’ principle that their form of art can’t be sold, it also violates the notion that it can’t be reproduced after its initial presentation. While some artists contend that the new version isn’t really the same work, others see it as a perversion of the form’s spirit. “Reperformance,” it seems, is the phenomenon of the 21st-century incarnation of performance art. More people, after all, would be able to experience the performance through reproduction than would have been present at the original live event. “Reperformance is the new concept, the new idea!” Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramović (b. 1946) declares. “Otherwise it will be dead as an art form.” Other artists don’t agree, however.
In 2010, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York, mounted a 10-decade retrospective of performance called 100 Years (version #2, ps1, nov 2009), conceived as a “living exhibition” showing live art over the last century. One thing such a look back demonstrates is that most practitioners of performance art (though not all, as the likes of Goldstein, McClard, Longo, Sherman, and Winters demonstrate), once having started working exclusively in the form, have stayed with it throughout their careers. Among the Dadaists, Surrealists, and even Conceptualists, the artists who experimented with performance returned to more traditional art forms after their flirtation. Decades after its birth, performance art still attracts young artists, even if they are changing the form as they work. Still, I don’t hear or read about performance art or artists as much now as I did 30 years ago, during what might be considered the form’s heyday, so perhaps, like the Happening, its hour upon the stage has passed. If it has, and it isn’t reborn or transformed, it’s had a lasting effect on 21st-century theater, dance, photography, film and video, music and cabaret, advertising, talk shows, stand-up, and art.
One possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, for why performance has disappeared from the art-news headlines is that it’s been absorbed, at least theoretically, into the mainstream and acceptability. For instance, as recently as three years ago, MoMA declared that performance art was entering a period of “extraordinary resurgence” as evidenced by performance exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum (Tino Sehgal, January-March 2010), the Neuberger Museum (Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary, January-April 2010), and MoMA’s own performance retrospective of the work of Abramović (The Artist is Present, March-May 2010)—an eventuality that would have been unheard of just a few years earlier.
Another explanation, according to RoseLee Goldberg, is that historically, performance as a medium comes and goes in waves. Every time the art world stagnates and seems to have become complacent, the younger artists, the ones usually labeled “avant-garde,” take to live performance to shake things up and challenge the establishment. “Yet each time that it returns,” writes Goldberg, “performance looks entirely different, even unrecognizable, from the time before.” Writing in 1982, 31 years ago, Goldberg saw a period of quiescence in performance art, and perhaps now is another such time. But when the form reemerges, as Goldberg predicts it must, it will look completely different than the performance art of the ’70s or the ’90s, because it will be responding to a new status quo, a new set of circumstances. It will also be drawing on a new set of techniques and methods, new media, as well.
Certainly, however, the freedom of both subject matter and material, the openness of both creators and viewers, not to mention critics, to new notions of creativity, will remain part of the performing and visual art scene, and artists will, as they always have, look for new ways to create and convey messages about the world they witness. One aspect is probably a certainty: whatever forms performance takes in the 21st century, it will be highly internationalized, not necessarily on subject matter, but in audience because of the ease and speed with which events can be hurled around the globe instantaneously. Given the performance art thesis that, like subject matter, no medium is out of bounds, as new materials and technologies evolve (or are coöpted), it’s also a certainty that the heirs to 20th-century performance will find ways to use them. By nature, performance art constantly changes and evolves, as the artists adopt and adapt to new technologies and media, engulfing new ideas and concepts as they pursue their aims. It’s inevitable that performance will make use of computers and whatever technology comes after that to pursue new interpretations of an art form that by definition has no rules or limits. Just as in the 1920s, Italian Futurists used machines as a symbol, subject, and medium for their art, the performance artists of the 21st century, coming up on 100 years later, will follow a similar, though certainly different, path.
[I don’t know how good I am at prognosticating, so we’ll just have to wait a decade to see if I got anything right at the end. But I’m going to step back, to what may have been performance art’s second golden age, and have a brief look at two performances from the 1990s. I mentioned performance artists Penny Arcade in “Performance Art,” so I’ve retrieved reports on two of her plays, from the early stages of her transition from a solo performer to a playwright who writes for ensembles. I’ll be posting my look back at Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation to the Beginning of the End of My Career) and La Miseria shortly, so log onto ROT in a week or so for a glimpse at one performer’s take on life and art from 22 and 23 years ago.]