Performance Art

views updated May 17 2018

Performance Art

Performance Art is a quintessential catch-all phrase. With definitions as simplistic as that offered by W. W. Norton's Glossary Online "Multimedia art form involving visual as well as dramatic and musical elements"to the slightly more nuanced, if not infuriating, "live art by artists. [S]ince each performer makes his or her own definition in the very process and manner of execution" (1988, p. 9) provided by art historian RoseLee Goldberg, that which definitively separates performance art from either theater, or dance, or even body performance, for video recording remains deliciously elusive. Such is the nature of a "form" that struggles against formula, launches tirades against discipline, and hurls insult at tradition.

In the twenty-first century, when one hears the term performance art, it is usually in reference to modes of performance that evolved in lower Manhattan and industrial Los Angeles during the 1970s, known at the time as the highly controversial "conceptual art." Art colleges such as the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) near Los Angeles and Cooper Union in Manhattan had begun to engage the political and social movements of the time in their course offerings. They sought to invest art and the practice of art with the timeliness of its moment of production. An example of this is the Feminist Arts program founded in part by Judy Chicago at CalArts, as well as the happenings launched in the loft district of lower Manhattan by art students like Adrian Piper.

In addition to the urgency of progressive social movements and antiVietnam War activism, the major urban centers of the United States were beginning to experience industrial flight, leaving behind entire manufacturing districts of architectural promise. Empty factories, sometimes still retaining the mechanized detritus of their former occupants, offered artists a cheap and communal place to live and work and show their work outside of the traditional gallery system of exhibition. Squatting itself became an art practice, as well as a political statement; an instance of disturbing the "naturalness" of art-making as always genteel, sophisticated, and most importantly, buffered and bracketed from the struggles of everyday living through an exclusive (and therefore highly limited) system of patronage and consumption. These were patronless artists, for a time, courtless jesters, clanless tribes, turning out their living spaces for communal experiences of the absurd, the sublime, the disturbing, the disjointed, which was always already the everyday experience of the object of capital: the worker, the citizen. These spaces were never located in "safe" areas of the city, and the circle of participants seemed limited to fellow rebellious students and radicals. Something had to be donein a more visible space. What is an artist without an audience?

In this climate, conceptual artists took to the street, like their activist comrades and foes, bringing art to the people, taking the scale of art objects from the grand and elusive into the common and banal. Showing up was half the point of the "piece." Doing dances in metered parking places (Susan Rose), or giving calling cards to white racists who assumed themselves to be in the company of other white people of like mind (Adrian Piper), unmarked the boundary between make-believe, where it was thought that art with a capital A resided, and the public sphere, a highly contested site of negotiations and exchanges among people of differing ancestry, cultural practices, religious beliefs, and social classes. No longer solely relegated to the gallery, nor charged with only showing the audience beauty, the urban art (graffiti should also be considered part of this movement, albeit the "street" coming into the "gallery," or rendering the sidewalk experience as a gallery) movements of conceptual art, happenings, and ritual/puppet theater, in collapsing production with existing, experience with consumption, created a confrontational climate with the shadow side of everyday social interactions, considered at the time by dominant white structures of power as mere "decorum."

Deemed too political, too disturbing, too ugly, too pedestrian, or too pornographic, conceptual art was anti-art; it was an experience rather than an object that the art lover would take home at the end of the evening. Yet, performance art has become acceptable. Perhaps Andy Warhol and his art of the commercial icon (like the rows and rows of Marilyn Monroe's face or Campbell's Soup® cans) marked the shift of "uptown coming downtown," as they would say in New York. There arrived the moment when the trace of performancethe objects created to facilitate the activity, whatever it wasbegan to accumulate value, much as any piece in a gallery or museum. The collectors called themselves hipsters. The archivists in the group became authoritarians as well as historians on the fragments (as did RoseLee Goldberg with her book, Performance Art [1988]). The patrons returned. Definitions (much like this one) began to proliferate, artists began to mature or die trying not to, the ephemeral quality of the work became its own undoingthere needed to be a record in order to prove one's presence as an artist.

Performance art returned to the gallery, and one could argue that the 1980s real-estate boom in urban centers helped to push artists back into the arms of the patrons. It was safer to reside in the bosom of the patron than risk the demolition crews and eviction notices. Stability of the live/work environment took precedence, and was codified in numerous city building codes. Codification is another word for relegation, especially when spatial usage agreements are involved. For those female and colored bodies who were not as enticing an investment, public art funds and private small philanthropic institutions once again institutionalized the nonwhite male body, creating funding sources and opportunities for performance in the public sector. Zoning laws, application forms, performance permits, and tax codes made the production of performance art just another public object, sufficiently contained and controlled, though such laws ostensibly provided for its continued existence, its institutionalization. Finally back in the schools, in the galleries, and in the museums, performance art is now understood by audiences of art, again with a capital A, as an art form, just not one that can be pinned down. Arguably, this is why those who regularly attend "manifestations," "interventions," "installations," "showings," "happenings," "gatherings," "incidents," "ciphers," "jams," and "performances" go in the first place.

False Starts

This amorphous form is typically traced back through time to beginnings in high European art. Interestingly, artists performing as opposed to creating art objects was a revolt against high-bourgeois norms and ideals. The Parisian futurism of 1903 to 1912 (the movements' "Manifesto" was published in Le Figaro on February 20, 1909) set up a template that subsequent "styles" of antiestablishment art were to utilize and rework over the span of the twentieth century. Initially a group of artists producing art events together, futurism spread throughout European art salons. Plastic, visual, and literary artists thrust themselves into performance as a way to have a more immediate connection with their audience, to enjoy their work, and to make of life an artwork, thereby guaranteeing that living itself was artistry. Moreover, the futurist artists believed that art, like life, should have no logical, determined pattern, nor should its objects speak beyond their users.

Similar in structure to so-called "primitive" cultural practices at the time, a succession of early twentieth-century performance art collectivesfuturism, cubism, dadaism, and surrealismwere in deep conversation with the shifting world around them, especially the rapid colonization of the continent of Africa by European powers (German chancellor Otto von Bismarck's now infamous meeting to partition the continent of Africa began in November 1884). With that in mind, the reader of this entry may step into an "othered" history and definition of performance art, one that does not always trace itself through Paris, nor even call itself "performance art" most of the time.

Sculptures, Colonialism, and Interrupted Rites

It should not come as a surprise, though it still shocks, that cubism (19071914), dadaism (1916 in Germany, 19201924 in Paris), and surrealism (19251938) had their birthing through Parisian contacts with objets d'art of conquered African city-states and colonial subjects seeking education in the metropole (centers of imperial power). Gold amulets and exquisitely carved wooden furniture from the Ghanaian Federation, bronze castings with jeweled inlays and ivory sculptures from the Yoruba sixteen-state federation, wood sculptures and otherworldly instruments from the Songhai empire labeled as fétiches (or in English, fetishes ) and deemed naive, these objets d'arts flooded into Europe as war booty between roughly 1870 and 1914 (though the flow is still a major problem in contemporary developing Africa). These objects were not "art objects" in a hard and fast sense; they were spirit houses divorced from their performative moment. But their effects were not entirely lost in translation. European artists saw and experienced in the sculptures, dance wands, cloth, and power amulets a presence of the flesh and an adoration of the concept that they felt had become foreign to a rapidly industrializing Europe.

They moved their art back to the streets, the parlors, the night clubs, the dance halls, the parks, the stairwells of subways and waterwaysart in Europe returned to the scale of the human, to following footprints along the sidewalk, meandering to no particular point at no particular rate, in marked contrast to the insistence of an ever-industrializing cityscape for synchronization and amelioration of difference, space, and memory. These pieces were confrontations meant to provoke the audience, to challenge their sense of self and social order. Frequently very elaborate productions that used minimal, common, street-gutter language, these precursors to late twentieth-century performance art strove for disarray, an anarchy without a subsequent new order. This art had political yet antirepublican ideals and goals. Eventually surrealism would connect in meaningful ways with actual Africans and other black French colonial subjects between 1932 and 1936 through the poetry and manifestations of Aimé Césaire (the Martinican poet, playwright, and politician), Léopold Senghor (the first president of liberated Senegal), and Léon Gontran Damas (the French Guyanese poet and member of the National Assembly). These three men, surrounded by a bevy of black thinkers, writers, poets, dancers, actors, and singers from around the African diaspora, birthed the cultural and political movement known as Négritude, which, though Parisian, sought to create a Pan-Africanism through artistic and cultural practices.

One must now reconsider the famous picture of futurist Guillaume Apollinaire's studio filled with African "art."

How Did It Get Black? Or, Enter the Moor

Throughout the transatlantic slave trade, performance practices mobilized specific types of tools for both Africans and Europeans seeking a way to comprehend this monumental human tragedy. Dances, songs, street/spontaneous theater set pieces, masquerades, costumes, and even specific types of culinary events that are now lumped under the category of "traditional folk expressions" (or if not so sophisticated, "that ole timey Negro stuff") had their beginnings as "artful performance," back in their day. Such festivals as John Canoe, Bumba Meu boi (The master's bull is mine), and Crop Over, all "folk manifestations" from the nineteenth century, had elements that could be identified as constituting a performance art practice.

Body-based, these performance styles use the flesh of the performer as stage, device, backdrop, setting, time period, and "soundtrack." Multi- or crossmodal techniques as varied as music, dance, sculpture, live painting (on any surface, with any colorant), theater, ritual and/or spell casting are employed freely, without regard to training or discipline. The story line is disjunctive, if there is one at all, jumping through time, stopping time flow for emphasis of the idea over the continued, unbroken narrative arc. The time it takes to execute the piece, its duration, also becomes a performer and is manipulated, usually against the narrative arc; this is known as time-based art. Such works are participatory, engaging the audience as source material or requiring the audience to "complete" the piece as they see fit either mentally or by becoming a player/maker in the piece. By its very construction, the piece is unstable, incomplete, a deconstructive act, and therefore productive of discourse/dialogue/new clarity about old, murky ideas. The piece is repeatable but not reproducible, uniquely performed every time but still recognized as itself, though sometimes confused for real life activity rather than a performance as it blurs social domains. It dissimulates in order to draw out "truths," utilizing trickster characters, set pieces, and phrases.

Invoking godspace through creating a physicalized reality, the act denies any truths other than the physical body's functions, which can be inferred by witnesses as proof for the need for divine intervention; or proof of the absence of a divine spirit, hence the futility or absurdity of human social networks; or conversely, proof of the inherent divinity of humanity itself. So the question for this definition that wants to remain undefined is: When is a black person not in the midst of a performance art piece?

This, though rather flippant, can be distilled as the baseline concept with which most artists of African descent who work in time-based mediums delight in destabilizing, shouting out loud, writing about, reading random lists to passersby, leaving trails and clues on canvases, marking up otherwise excellent records to make one listen more carefully to the distortion. Black performance art is a slave narrative that requires no witness: it finds the audience, flat on its feet, and forces them to recognize their participation in the eventstaged or otherwise.

Genres and Modes

From a more traditional vantage point, performance art can be broken into genres, reflecting the artist's original training, if any. Adrian Piper, William Pope.L, and Robbie McCauley could be characterized as conceptual artists, since they all use "classic" modes of performance art engagement. Yet, Piper is trained as a visual artist, Pope.L as a visual artist who performs, and McCauley as a theater artist who specializes in the monologue. Bill T. Jones, Rhodessa Jones, Joanna Haigood, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings, Alonzo King, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar were all trained as dancers in "high Western Art Aesthetic" traditions, but broke with or metamorphosed their training by taking strategic positions with regard to their art. Haigood and King could be said to perform only as dancers, since text is often missing from their work, yet they restructure dance technique itselfHaigood brought in aerialism and site-specific work, while King layers traditional African diaspora body positions over toes en pointe. Bill T. Jones, Rhodessa Jones, Zollar, Cummings, and Miller continue to work between dance theater with large companies or as solo performers in work that registers as performance art.

Anna Deavere Smith's work is often categorized as performance art, but others argue that she is a thespian, a very gifted one who can hold upwards of thirty-five characters per performance. The work of Damali Ayo, Navin June Norling, and Kara Walker, though based in the plastic and visual arts, also seeps out into performance and digital realms, especially the work of Ayo. Using literature, musical composition, dance, and classic conceptual art modes, Keith + Mendi Obadike have mutated into "net artists," using the World Wide Web as staging device, tool, and technique. Philip Mallory Jones's multichannel video installations are based in his training as a film student but also his contact with conceptual artists and traditional "folk" performers of the African diaspora.

What coheres these artists is perhaps merely approach and the audience's perception of their skin color as a resonator or amplifier of the performance. They manipulate stereotypes as a character and utilize humor in their text or scenario and set it against bathos in gesture, frequently through the use of their own personal narratives, somewhat analogous to slave narratives. Their subject matter and presentational format uses political and confrontational material, especially around race and gender, with an almost deathly serious approach to texts that seem hyper-real, speculative, or ridiculous.

Categorizing artist by genre distorts the true quality of their work, which is a multimodal approach to a series of questions or assumptions. Moreover, when viewed through the lens of genre, there are very few performance artists of African descent, yet a great deal of African diaspora performance exists in forms that defy westernized classification systems. Even those artists that seem to fit neatly into the flow of art history, frequently fall out or suffer extreme professional consequences because of the blackness of their skin or their art's content. By working through periods, perhaps one can establish the particularities of performance art by tracing social forces and political change in black American life.

Time Signatures

Since performance art is itself concerned with "what happens when," more so than "who did what," suppose that, following art texts like Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New and Goldberg's Performance Art, among others, a series of periods were created to name chunks of time that have performances comprised of similar components, addressing

similar issues, in recognizable ways, by clusters of people, many of whom would have worked together literally, or at least been aware of one another's body of work.

For example, it has been argued in the edited volume Black Theatre (2002) that the experience and response to enslavement should be considered types of theater, if not performance art. Saidiya Hartman, in Scenes of Subjection (1997), eloquently argues for the ways in which both European enslavers and African slaves created nuanced meanings and justifications for the brutal exchanges and reductions of human beings into monetized objects. Thus, one could start the timeline on the sea, Trans-Atlantic Trials and Tribulations (roughly 15001865), where slaves partook in "dancing" for exercise aboard slave ships, singing songs for sustenance, or "choosing" the life of a slaving sailor in order to escape chattel slavery itself.

Once on land, where Hartman's book does the bulk of its exquisite analysis, one enters the era of Plantation Puttin Ons (15751880), which includes pretending to dance while practicing to fight, as well as pretending to worship baby Jesus while keeping various lwa, orishas, nkisi, and even Qur'anic phrases up and ready so as not to pretend to be free. The performances from this era cannot actually be labeled "African American," because the system of slavery was a global one, with Africans often landing in various ports in the Caribbean first, where they were trained, or at least put through a dehumanizing and rigorous tests of wills and work in the hopes of increasing the value of their labor, or cutting the loss of their voyage-weakened body. The dates, therefore, include all plantation societies in the New World.

Once in the new land, primarily West Africans had to negotiate the new languages of the Europeans, as well as account for their new status as "nigger," no longer beholden to ethnic and socioreligious groups. A new social ordering was forged, often through interpolating the myths and rituals of each groups' deities and ancestors. The nineteenth century witnessed the height of these new social formations, many of which birthed new performance practices cherished by whites and noninitiated blacks alike. Conjurations (17451935) encompasses such practices as John Canoe, the lantern dance, second line Carnival groups, roots working (a combination of biochemical knowledge with esoteric text, utterances, gestures, and chants meant to heal or do harm to another individual), Moko Jumbi (stilt-walking), spirituals/blues, just-so tales, Brer Rabbit and Aunt Nancy, and pretending to only read so as to serve God better, though actually using the Bible as a divination device. It is important to note that many of the spiritual aspects of these performances were not necessarily documented, so that the practices themselves became part of the folklore of slavery, rather than the active performance of "slipping the yoke."

Shifting more to the British territories that came to call themselves the United States, the liberation of Africans after the attempted eradication of Native Americans, and the splitting of the Union, one could talk about the era of Emancipation (18651877), which includes Reconstruction and land grant schooling meant to train free blacks, primarily to be laboring, agrarian "citizens." Emancipation Day parades, black family reunions, founder's days, and Juneteenth all began in this moment, even under the specter of the white supremacist performance art known as Jim Crow. This was literally a caricature of a black dandy popular in black face presentations that ridiculed the rapid successes of the free black population while waxing rhapsodic and nostalgic about the subjugated, agrarian black body and its "folk" practices. Minstrelsy, as this form was called, which began around 1825 and became an international sensation, ironically had very little room for actual black performers.

The minstrelsy form included usually no less than four male performers who sang, danced, and acted as though a "nigger." Jim Crow, which was also a popular dance-based set piece, was first documented on stage in 1828, performed by the comedian Thomas D. Rice. Interestingly, when blacks began to enter vaudeville, then silent films, they were required to "blacken up" and act like a "nigger," Bert Williams being one of the more famous black thespians who attempted to bring a bit of humanity to these performances. Mammy, Sambo, Coon, and Pickaninny are standard characters of this format, each with its own specific repertoire of set pieces, gestures, dances, and songs. As minstrelsy was widely performed as late as 1950 in the United States, and those characters continue to ghost through filmic representations of black people produced by Hollywood in particular, and finally, since they turn up as sites of investigation in contemporary black performance art, the age of the minstrel is still ongoing.

Seeking to document, perform, and archive actual black performance practice, the age of the Harlem Renaissance/WPA Project (19201935) includes such gifted writers-researchers-performers as Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Langston Hughes, and Josephine Baker, though they all worked under white patronage or federal funding. As lynching became a common performance practice of white supremacy, as the urgency to establish black autonomous practices grew, and as artists could no longer expect patronage for potentially racially explosive art, the era of Un-hand Me (19431964) took shape through the work of performers like Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, and Dick Gregory, and the New Negro Theater Troupe. In the everyday practices of black people, campaigns like the "Double V" project launched in Pittsburgh included signifying through hairstyle and clothing the desire for a United States win in World War II and then an end of racial segregation at home upon the return of the victorious black soldiers. This was not to be.

The civil rights movement focused the energies of several local campaigns to end segregation and what had become known as Jim Crow laws. Eventually, the nonviolent protests of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and other groups came to a shocking halt upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the leaders of the movement, in 1968. In response, a new style of protest erupted, one that did not consider violence to be out of the question, but one that needed to stir the new Negro into a black consciousness. The Black Arts Movement (19651975) created performances based on the essential differences of black people versus white people, whatever those happened to have been at the time. Artists and organizations like Amiri Baraka, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Sun Ra, the African Commune of Bad Revolutionary Artists (Afri-COBRA), and La MaMa (Ellen Stewart) took the maligned minstrel characters and began to give them voices that spoke of things other than watermelon, shoe shines, alligators, and corn pone.

Characterized by Marxist analysis of the black condition, performances of the Black Arts Movement were also in conversation with worldwide liberation struggles in African colonies. Marred by repressive, violent, and extreme state response, especially by the FBI's COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), the Black Arts Movement appeared to dissipate, but it could be argued that it shifted focus from the materialist to the spiritualist analysis of the black condition.

The Rootswork and Motherships period (19771988) includes artists who continued to labor under the idea of an art for and by the people, but who also found themselves dealing with black cultural productions that seemed to penetrate white culture through market practices, known as concerts. Ed Bullins (playwright), Jayne Cortez (poet), George Clinton and Funkadelic (musicians), the LA Rebellion (filmmakers), Bucket Dance Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, Hattie Gossett (poet), Ntozake Shange (playwright, poet, and dancer), Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (dancer), Robbie McCauley (monologist), and Carroll Parrott Blue (filmmaker) all labored in this era to create a decidedly black aesthetic. They sought an aesthetic that did not cleave to artistic divisions like dance, music, film, theater, or literature, for though they have been identified above by their primary modality, since they worked through their themes in ritualistic style, their shows included various techniques of performance, what is often called "spectacle" by dominant society, not necessarily art.

In a similar vein, when what later became known as hip-hop hit the cultural scene, the artists working in the Rap and Rhetoric era (19781993), made use of multimodal performance practices, interpolating one type of artistic production with another, including machinists techniques for bending equipment to new uses. Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Marley Mal, Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah, X-Clan, Public Enemy, Rennie Harris Pure Movement, Jungle Brothers, and Boogie Down Productions all produced work that was marketed primarily as sound recordings (or evidence of its existence as in Rennie Harris), but the recordings are actually archival moments of a vast, site-specific work. Rap also "played" with the concept of distribution as performance, using techniques that today would be considered viral, to promote not the recording label (since they were self-produced), but rather the artist or "crew" responsible for the work, and hence, specific locales. Often considered the "CNN of the 'hood," rap began "reporting" on the myriad failings of civil society with regard to primarily race and class, telling stories of addiction and epidemics, to name a few.

Afflictions, Epidemics, Endgames (19821997) was a period characterized by the influx and traffic of crack cocaine, the surge of AIDS, the proliferation of restrictive local ordinances and laws about public space and drug trafficking, yuppies, savings and loan scandals, and degenerative discourse about "decorum." Artists and organizations working to expand the boundaries of blackness beyond masculinist discourses of nation included Bill T. Jones, Blondell Cummings, Rhodessa Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, the Poetry for the People project at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley under June Jordan, Pomo Afro Homos, Alonzo King's Lines Ballet, Anna Deveare Smith, Grace Jones, Junebug Theater, the Urban Bush Women, and Portia Cobb. These artists struggled to interrogate the social moment and its salience for black people, albeit from a far more complicated stance.

These complicationsof gender identity, of class and caste, of urbanism or ruralismhave always been part and parcel of the articulation of a unified blackness, but frequently to the disregard of those people who did not easily conform to a blackness defined by black male coolness and radical separatism from other cultures. Drawn into a seeming battle with itself, blackness has been revealed as a particularly fractured, even fictitious creation. Identity politics in the Postblack and Digital Frontierism era (1998 to the early twenty-first century) manifests a profound shift in discourse as some artists began to articulate their identity as multiple and hybrid, and not necessarily in struggle with whiteness at all. Interpolated or implicated in the terrain of market capitalism in the twenty-first century, postblack artists work in off-limit terrains, questioning the relegation of blackness to specific iterations like the documentary, the realist novel, the modern jazz dance concert, or collectible music recordings. Afrofuturists, including DJ Spooky, and artists like Kara Walker, Damali Ayo, Joanna Haigood, Susan Smith-Pinelo, Carroll Parrott Blue, Kalamu ya Salaam, Keith + Mendi Obadike, Tara Hargest, and William Pope.L, can be located in this site of performance making, though it would be erroneous to assume that they consider themselves no longer black.

Out of Bounds and Temporal Lobes

This approach does not necessarily give greater clarity, since one period does not relinquish control so easily over the next, as is frequently the case with neat timelines. Many players in one era resurface in another, making their mark through reworked material and new foci of performance. The suggested periods, indeed the entire thrust of this definition, is further thwarted by the existence of a number of black artists who did and still do ascribe to the norms and strategies of the European aesthetic. In particular, Adrian Piper was at the forefront of the conceptual art scene in 1970s New York and considers herself, first and foremost, an artist. That her work is primarily about being a black woman who does not appear like one is irrelevant to the process of her work, but central to its success as art. Her blackness is not definitive for her; rather, it is a moment of confrontation with the racist subconscious of the white patrons at the happenings, interventions, and installations that she has produced from 1971 to 2003.

A few of the suggested time periods are grouped to show a rerouting of historical trajectories, to superimpose African art-making practices as the progenitors of a black art aesthetic, displacing Europe altogether. The black arts movement, particularly the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, sought out African rituals, but in its waning period, which could be called Rootsworks and Motherships, indigenous forms of African-descended cultural practices began to take precedence over "pure" African ones. Instead of "happenings," a passerby may have enjoyed a "ritual" or "conjuration." They would have needed to "vibe" with the multidimensionalists (a term used by AACM member Maia to describe her ability to work across several artistic disciplines at once) rather than "participate." By the late 1980s, it was clear that purity or authenticity could not be the focus of a truly vibrant art form and actually served as breaking points for many flourishing groups. But this is to be expected of body-based temporal art endeavors: beyond the written word, keeping the story straight past five years or more is a gargantuan task when one considers that most of these performers have yet to be adequately documented. Who was where, with whom, and when are the questions that practitioners, critics, aficionados, and scholars alike face as they attempt to describe that which was created to exist beyond description, to defy commoditization, and to destroy spatial constructs called "boundaries," "territories," and "states."

A strictly "African-American" performance art is in the end an improbable proposition, because perhaps more so than in any other field, performance art, conjurations, and multidimensionalism are distinctively black productions that are transcultural, Pan-African, and global in scope.

See also Dance, Diasporic; Drama; Experimental Theater; Jones, Bill T.; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Piper, Adrian; Smith, Anna Deavere


Bean, Annemarie, ed. A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

Bessire, Mark H. C. William Pope.L: The Friendliest Black Artist in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

Chang, Jeff. Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005.

Flowers, Arthur. Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman. New York: Wanganegresse Press, 2001.

Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988.

Goler, Veta. "Living with the Doors Open: An Interview with Blondell Cummings." In The Citizen Artist: 20 Years of Art in the Public Arena, an Anthology from High Performance Magazine, 19781998, edited by Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland. Gardiner, N.Y.: Critical, 1998.

Harrison, Peter C., Victor L. Walker, and Gus Edwards, eds. Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. 1981. Revised ed. New York: Knopf, 1991.

jess, tyehimba. African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy. New York: Citadel, 2003.

Keith + Mendi Obadike. Available at <>.

"Performance Art." A definition provided by Glossary Online. Norton Sony Classical Essentials of Music. Available at <>.

Piper, Adrian. Adrian Piper Research Archive. Available at <>.

Schneider, Rebecca. The Explicit Body in Performance. London: Routledge, 1997.

anna beatrice scott (2005)

Performance Art

views updated May 23 2018

Performance Art

Performance art became known as the distinctive art form of the 1970s, and followed the Happenings and action art of the 1960s. The concept behind performance art has been linked historically to Russian "living newspaper" groups in the 1920s. These groups performed selections of political events and breaking news in the streets, factories, clubs, and colleges. Performance art has been referred to as possessing postmodern qualities and, as such, it tends to be discussed in contrast to modernist art, such as painting and sculpture as well as modernist and avant-garde theater, for its interrogation of language, signs, and visual codes. Unlike most traditional arts and theater, the actual presence, control, and guidance of the artist who conceived the piece was central to performance art. While late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century modernist and avant-garde theatrical performers saw their work as part of a new movement in acting, performance artists were generally artists from non-theatrical backgrounds utilizing the act of performance to convey diverse meanings and create a new type of communication.

Though the term "performance" has been vaguely defined, the performance art piece is usually defined as existing in one time and space for the spectators who are there at the time of performance. Unlike other artists, performance artists are in direct contact with their audiences and, unlike a finished painting or sculpture, performance art is not static; it varies from circumstance to circumstance. Commonly, artists draw from a wide range of media to create their art and choose meaningful durations of time and locations to perform their art. Some have suggested that the migration of artists from traditional art to performance art signaled a shunning of the hierarchical art world for its production of esoteric pieces for a wealthy clientele. But others believe that the move was, for many artists, a matter of professional necessity; a way to enter the art world in a time of diminishing opportunities in painting and sculpture. Performance art offered opportunities to more than traditional artists looking for work. Because performance art did not make creating a masterpiece the artist's ultimate goal and encouraged a blurring between disciplines, it accommodated the work of the non-expert or non-virtuoso.

Performance art has been generally associated with the technology of production and the process of art as opposed to the finished product. In performance art, the idea triumphed over the finished art product and the visual communication of ideas and actions were privileged over pictorial values. Emphasizing the importance of the role of the artist and often times the presence (body) of the artist, performance art highlights the actual production of the work.

A precursor to performance art was the work of music composer John Cage. Cage challenged the disciplinary boundaries between art and performance in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and early 1960s. Cage's work involved the concept of "silence," which he believed the traditional work of art could not convey or embody. Cage's silent pieces were meant to be scored, silent, musical performances which lasted for a specified duration of time, in which no musical instrument was played. Through these pieces, Cage attempted to convey an absence of empty space or time. His music was a compilation of the sounds in any given environment which would have been suppressed by predetermined parameters of other works of music. Cage was opposed to notions of fixity or "real" qualities with respect to art. His work attempted to deflect attention from ideas of the art "object" and focused instead on art's continual state of becoming. The introduction of the concept of silence to the work of art signified, for Cage, the dissolution of the formal integrity and authority traditionally claimed by the art object or piece of music. In addition, Cage's work included the viewer or listener in the art process. By mingling notions of art and non-art, Cage allowed the spectator a hand in the creation of the work.

The poet Vito Acconci became a performance artist when he felt art had reached a stage in which it needed to transcend its standard location on the page or museum wall. Acconci's "body art" of the early 1970s can be said to reveal the ideology behind the historical and cultural construction of the human body. In a 1971 video piece called Waterways, Acconci let his mouth fill with saliva until the saliva was forced to spill into his cupped hands. In another performance piece which took place in a restaurant, entitled, "Rubbing Piece" (1976), he rubbed the same spot on his arm until a sore appeared. Both of these pieces emphasized the time in which it takes the body to perform an action. Acconci also produced a short film, Hand to Mouth (1970), in which he put his hand in his mouth and pushed it down his throat until he choked.

In 1970, Acconci performed a piece in which he ran in place for two hours, pressed up against a painted wall, and left the wall stained with sweat and parts of his body covered in paint. Acconci explored issues of gender in his 1971 film, Conversations. He used a variety of tactics to try to change his body from male to female, including burning the hair off of his breasts and assuming poses in front of the camera in which his penis was strategically hidden. The failure to produce a polished image of a female body for the camera was very much the point of this film as the means in which bodies and genders are constructed and represented was made visible. In his "body art" pieces, Acconci emphasized the degree to which the body's normal functions and productions must be suppressed in order for it to be represented as a natural part of an orderly society. As such, Acconci drew attention to his culture's discomfort and anxiety about notions such as sexuality and uncleanliness.

Performance art tends to intervene in a physical or social reality and to be situational. For example, in 1977, at the Bologna Art Fair, performance artists Ulay and Marina Abramovic stood face to face on either side of the door to the Bologna museum, causing art patrons to pass through the narrow space between the artists' bodies as they entered the museum. The scene was relayed via video camera to a screen in the main gallery of the museum. The performance piece was designed to counter the definition of traditional theater, which creates a set time, place, and space, and attempts to recreate it over and over. This particular performance attempted to expose the hierarchical structure between an art product, the institution surrounding the product, and the consumer of the product.

In another performance art piece, "one year performance: 26 Sept. '81—26 Sept. '82," artist Teh-ching Hsieh lived on the streets of New York city for one entire year without going into a building for shelter. This piece illustrated the ways in which traditional modes of art interpretation are often deconstructed in performance art, as the value of the art does not reside in aesthetic characteristics but in the artist's actions. In this case, interpretation involves considering how and why an action is done. Questions of time and place are also foregrounded in Hsieh's performance piece.

Performance art of the late 1980s and 1990s has been characterized as quieter and perhaps less optimistic than the artform in its earlier stages, with a focus on issues of cultural diversity, spatial politics, and notions of all types of borders and border crossings. For example, in the 1990s in London, as a result of the collapse of a ten-year period of economic prosperity, performance art began to appear in the spatial ruins of the economic boom, taking place in empty factories, warehouses, and office buildings. Along the same lines, adverse conditions with respect to economic, political, gender, and race relations were addressed in the semi-autobiographical performance pieces of such well-known artists as Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley, and Spalding Gray. Radical transformations in city spaces, film, music, video, and television in the last two decades have forced artists to create new contexts for their work: the inclusion of new cultural forms, rather than exclusion, tends to be the rule. In the face of the continued institutionalization of art and culture and prolonged funding crises for independent artists, club-style events have begun to spring up in the United Kingdom and in the United States. These events provide an affordable venue for artists, create a more informal relationship between performance artists and audience members, and incorporate new trends in music and club culture into the performance.

—Kristi M. Wilson

Further Reading:

Auslander, Philip. From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism. London, New York, Routledge, 1997.

Battcock, Gregory, and Robert Nickas. The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1984.

Bronson, A., and Peggy Gale. Performance by Artists. Toronto, Art Metropole, 1979.

Burnham, Linda Frye, and Steve Durland, editors. The Citizen Artist: 20 Years of Art in the Public Arena. New York, Critical Press, 1998.

Childs, Nicky, and Jeni Walwin, editors. A Split Second of Paradise: Live Art, Installation and Performance. London and New York, Rivers Oram Press, 1998.

Dupuy, Jean, editor. Collective Consciousness: Art Performances in the Seventies. New York, Performance Arts Journal Publication, 1980.

Kaye, Nick. Art into Theatre: Performance, Interviews and Documents. New York, Harwood Academic, 1996.

Kostelanetz, Richard. On Innovative Performance(s): Three Decades of Recollections of Alternative Theater. North Carolina and New York, McFarland, 1994.

performance art

views updated May 14 2018

performance art Events that take place before an audience, but which defy the traditional definitions of drama and music. Arguably originating in the USA in the 1960s, performance art is often visually oriented. It tends to be multi-disciplinary, and sometimes improvised or spontaneous.