A dramatic introduction to performance art

A few months ago, I ran into the editor of this fine journal at a theater bookstore, and we somehow got to talking about performance art. I can't recall what we were discussing; maybe the upcoming Yves Klein show at the Walker, or perhaps something else. Whatever it was, he nervously expressed confusion at the whole concept of "performance art." What is it? Why, as a person with a theater background, did he often feel so in the dark about it? That's a common response, I think. So, as a person who comes from more of a visual arts background than a theatrical one, I told him some of my ideas on the subject. I should emphasize, these are my ideas alone and ideas that some artists would strongly disagree with. However, if you’re coming from the perspective of a performing artist, they may give you an entry point in thinking about work that falls under the umbrella of visual arts though shares some similarities with your own practice.

Interior Semiotics

If you've been keeping up with your Internet memes in the past few months, you may be familiar with a YouTube video called "Interior Semiotics" that was widely distributed this past summer. It depicts a young art school student, at a gallery opening, performing an art piece that involves a can of Spaghetti-Os and certain orifices of the human body (if you'd really like, you can watch it here, but please be forewarned that it is, as they say, NSFW). The interesting thing about the video is not the piece itself, which, for all its youthful, splattery derring-do, is kind of silly (the spoken word section in particular). No, the interesting part of the video is that the person taping the piece spends more time lingering on the faces and reactions of the assembled art students as they watch the performance unfold than they do on the performance itself. It's in the faces that one learns a lot about how "performance art" tends to be received. The majority of the kids have an expression of studied cool. A few look disgusted or horrified. Many are laughing. Some nod their heads, as if to say, "Yeah, I get it." Do they? Maybe. Maybe not. I am sure at least a few of them wanted to leave. I have been in such situations before where I've wanted to leave performances much, much worse than "Interior Semiotics." One of the most unpleasant experiences of my career as an arts patron was at an arts festival a few years ago. I somehow wandered into a gallery where a performance piece was beginning, so took a seat to see what I might see. Five minutes in, after a healthy dosage of flashing lights, reckless nudity and onstage destruction, I knew I wanted out. Not because the hapless performer had epater'd my bourgeoisie, or because I wasn't capable of understanding the artist's intent. Just the opposite: I had a fairly good idea of what the artist's intention was, and I thought it was stupid and unpleasant and I'd have rather seen what else was going on in the gallery. Which is not the most sophisticated aesthetic reaction, I know, but it wasn't the most sophisticated piece. Of course, I couldn’t leave, because the performer's consigliores had closed the gallery doors and were actually blocking them. So I sat in the dark, sulking and watching this mess unfold before me, and thinking, "I fucking hate performance art." Have you ever thought the same?

Just another medium

The fact is, I don't hate performance art. It's as absurd to say you hate performance art as it is to say you categorically hate painting, or sculpture, or film, or theater, or writing. Performance art is just another medium the artist works in, and one when made well, is capable of evoking powerful reactions. It's often a vaguely defined medium, one that bleeds over into conceptual art, performing arts, video art, body art and any other number of disciplines and historic movements. But unlike painting or film or theater, performance art is widely misunderstood. It's unlikely a video piece depicting people's reactions to a painting or a play would strike such a nerve, or that people would find it funny enough to forward to their friends and say, "Look at these artsy idiots." The first thing to understand about performance art is that it doesn't really come from theater. It certainly uses much of language of theater, and there certainly is precedent in theatrical history for some performance art. But to view performance art as a radical offshoot of theater is to misunderstand its history, the impulses its creation comes from, and what it's capable of doing. I think the biggest mistake one can make about performance art – either from the perspective of creating it or viewing it – is to experience it as a theatrical production. When confronted with, say, "Interior Semiotics," the impulse is to passively view it as a one-way experience to be consumed by the audience, which is why all those nice art school kids in the video were sitting politely and trying to tough it out through something most of them probably didn't want to see in the first place. Generally speaking, that kind of approach makes for bad performance art. Many of the first performance artists were sculptors. One of the great early pieces in the medium is Gilbert and George's "Singing Sculpture," where the two artists painted themselves gold and sang the British music hall song "Underneath the Arches" for hours on end in an art gallery. While it was a performance in the sense it involved singing, you can see how it differed greatly from the way a British music hall singer would have handled the same raw material. From a formal perspective, Gilbert and George were most making use of the properties of sculpture: space and form. Theater certainly utilizes space as well, but in a different way. Viewers were free to walk around the piece, experience it from different perspectives, all at their own pace, in the same way they'd engage a regular statue. The duo's performance did not fit into a dramatic context, nor was there an emphasis on the time-based qualities that make the performance of the song work in the context of theater or musical performance. The early career of Carolee Schneemann is interesting, too, in terms of seeing how her work progressed from more traditional forms into performance art. She is best known for her 1975 piece "Interior Scroll" (which "Interior Semiotics" is very likely referencing), wherein she stood atop a table in the way a figure model in a drawing class would, and produced a scroll with a speech written on it from her vagina, then read from it. However, she began as a painter, creating work influenced by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns – assemblage-like paintings, with layers of textured material. From there, she begin to incorporate her body into works that mirrored some of these formal qualities. In "Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions," a performance from 1963 that was also photographed, she put her own body, covered with chalk, dirt and two garden snakes, into an assembled environment created from furniture scraps and bits of detritus. Again, while there's a strong performative aspect to this work, formally it's much similar to the way one would compose a painting or a sculpture. The body simply becomes an element in the whole piece, as does the action. As Schneeman said at the time, "I wanted my actual body to be combined with the work as an integral material -- a further dimension of the construction... I am both image-maker and image."

Relation to theater

Of course, some early direct influence on the development of performance art did come from the theater. Allan Kaprow's 1950s and '60s-era "Happenings" – loose, often improvisational, nonlinear art acts that emphasized audience engagement -- were created using theatrical conventions by actors and performers. However, performance art is by nature a multidisciplinary undertaking, so certainly some of the language and techniques of theater would necessarily be incorporated. It's just that when they are, it's in service of a different type of experience that draws just as much on visual art as on theater. The key difference is in understanding that formally, much of the staging, degree of interactivity and ways of thinking about space and time involved in performance art are markedly different from those in theater. To put it simply: if you're sitting in a chair, in a gallery, taking in a piece of performance art and feeling like you're being preached to or trapped behind a fourth wall for the duration, wishing you could leave, you're not watching performance art. You're watching bad, incompetent theater. The creator may not know it, but you will. There’s a world of difference.
Headshot of Andy Sturdevant
Andy Sturdevant
Andy Sturdevant is a writer, curator, and artist living in South Minneapolis.