«No Rehearsal—Aspects of Media Art as Process»
«Art Vital –no fixed living-place/permanent movement/direct contact/local relation/self-selection/passing limitations/taking risks/mobile energy/no rehearsal/no predicted end/no repetition» (1)
This programmatic statement by the artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay conveniently summons up the various ideas and practices to which the term «performance art» has been applied since the late 1970s. Performance is directly descended from the happenings and actions associated with the Fluxus movement, such as Nam June Paik's early «action music», or Stockhausen's «Originale» and the «24-hour Happening», but it also has connections with the idea of «Intermedia», (2) with the «Expanded Cinema» actions of Peter Weibel and Valie Export, and with other forms of experimental and avant-garde art whose history extends back to Dada and the Surrealists.
The boundaries between happening, action art and performance are fluid, but a rough distinction may be drawn quite easily. A happening involves a set of instructions, a location and an open dramatic concept (sometimes with a script or «musical» score), but the participants are free –at least in theory –to decide how far they wish to involve themselves in the events. (3) Actions, by contrast, are based on an idea that is enacted by one or several performers, but the sequence of events is essentially open, since the action takes place in a public space where unplanned encounters with the everyday world are inevitable. At the end of the 1960s the talk was of «anti-art» or «non-art». (4) Performance art approximates most closely to the traditional mise-en-scène, requiring a clear demarcation between actors and audience. Here, the events may be meticulously planned or relatively spontaneous: the significant point is that they always revolve around the individual personalities of the performers. (5) All three genres are concerned with a special kind of intensity, a process-orientated quality that is incompatible with –and stubbornly resists –the commodification of the art work. Though it follows an identifiable conceptual pattern, an artistic event of this type is inherently unique and cannot be reproduced. The events may be scripted, but they have their own dynamic, which often includes an element of randomness. No matter whether the result is esoteric, shamanistic, didactic, entertaining or provocative, the actors and viewers are always involved in a direct exchange, a relationship which we now call «interactivity»: the magic word that has replaced the «communication» of the 1970s.
Exploring or controlling communication by electronic means is a first step towards a process-based media art. For example, John Cage's «Variations VII» takes a range of sounds from several different sources, using telephone lines, microphones and frequency generators, and brings them together in a single space; in the field of «Expanded Cinema», Peter Weibel's «Action Lecture» (1968) allows the audience to regulate the showing of a film through the loudspeaker frequencies; Hans Haacke's installation «News» (1969/70) (6) includes a tickertape machine to receive the latest headlines from the news agencies in real time, thereby allowing the outside world to infiltrate into the sphere of art. Art and life as a system of communicating vessels, art as a «live» event –the two areas, normally distinct, are brought together in an «intermedia» relationship. Only the crossover into television proves difficult to encompass: in the USA, Paik succeeds in luring passers-by from the street into the studio in order to participate in the recording of «Video Commune» (1970), but the attempt of Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini in 1968 to stage a happening («Black Gate Cologne») on German television is foiled. (7) Television and action art are fundamentally incompatible: television is a one-way communication relying on detailed programme planning, and feedback is restricted to viewers» letters and phone calls, whereas process art is based on a genuine exchange, a two-way flow of information between a sender and a receiver.
In the context of political emancipation in Germany, the impetus for actions in the public arena came from the questioning of authority –in such variously ordered systems as television, museums and the theatre –and the wish to expose the prevailing mechanisms of discipline and control. (8) Vostell speaks of «disturbing» realities by employing a model familiar to the audience, such as a television set or a car, in such a way that it causes «a disturbance in reflection, in the audience's awareness». (9) As a sculptor, he works with life itself, instead of relying on metaphorical signs. His «Action Sculpture» uses a real car, covered with concrete, and the process aspect takes on a solid and very tangible form. (10)
Valie Export and Peter Weibel, the noted analysts and critics of cinema, also made a calculated attempt to provoke the bourgeois audience and the authorities. In 1968 they caused a considerable outcry with their «Touch and Feel Cinema» in Munich and their actions at the XScreen events of experimental film in Cologne. A few years later, when the hunt for the Baader-Meinhof terrorists was in full swing, Germany was scandalized by a further, even more radical artistic action that integrated the outraged comments of the press into the video documentation. In «There's a Certain Criminal Element in Art» (1976), the artist known as Ulay (F. Uwe Laysiepen) adopted the underground strategy of stealing a symbol of the bourgeois aesthetic –Spitzweg's sentimental painting «The Poor Poet» –from the National Gallery in Berlin, which he then deposited in the apartment of a migrant worker family, before telephoning the media and revealing who had taken the picture, which was eventually handed back to its owner. Mike Steiner recorded the action with a concealed video camera and organized a public discussion on the events, which for obvious reasons had to take place in secret, with no spectators present. Today, twenty years on, the principle of reality TV allows the audience to be everywhere, at any time, although the critical intentions of the 1970s have very little in common with the live television culture of the present. Leaving the political aspect aside, this also constitutes part of the fascination of action art: it is hard to think of another situation that confronts the audience so directly with a dramatic reality.
Happenings are designed to spur the audience into activity, but the spectators often refuse to accept the challenge: the equation «art=life» does not always work. (11) Actions, by contrast, allow art –with a critical or provocative or disturbing impact –to intervene in life. Performance, finally, insists on the artistic character of the process, since «life is no performance». (12) But art can still be «vital» in the sense of the quotation from Abramovic/Ulay that serves as the motto for this essay. The artist alone is at liberty to decide what should happen (or not happen) (13) and when –in the attempt to subject the art form itself to a closer interrogation.
It is difficult, in the public arena, to translate media-specific phenomena into practice and to reflect on their conceptual basis. Apart from the various one-off events and festivals, a number of specific locations were established for experimental work in action art and video. By the end of the 1960s the «art intermedia» gallery in Cologne had already set up a so-called «action space». Ingrid Oppenheim founded her gallery in 1974 and sponsored the work of various performance and video artists until 1979. The first presentations of action art and performance in an exhibition context were «ADA 1/2 –Aktionen der Avantgarde» in Berlin (1973–74) and «Projekt «74» at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Cologne. Mike Steiner's gallery in Berlin became one of the most important venues for video performances. In every case, the purpose of the –often radical –experiments in these various settings was to explore alternative models and ways of seeing, establishing an emotional and mental framework that integrated the performer and the audience via a direct appeal to the senses. This approach goes beyond the actions of Joseph Beuys and his concept of social sculpture, whose main aim was to initiate new processes of thought («Thinking is sculpture»).
The emergence of performance as an art form more or less coincides with the introduction of video, the new electronic medium. Its first practitioners came from the USA, where artists such as Joan Jonas, Charlotte Moorman and Carole Schneemann began to exploit the freedoms offered by an entirely new form that was not yet burdened with the canons of art history. Performance promptly allied itself with video, as a democratic medium, a tool which was far easier to work with than film, and which women could use for themselves to formulate an independent position in relation to the media society.
In Europe, too, the art world faced the challenge of a new generation of artists, whose members notably included Valie Export and Ulrike Rosenbach: two women who are now universally regarded as pioneers of video and performance, art forms that had not yet crystallized into male-dominated structures. Their work, which is usually specific to a certain site and time, embodies a successful feminist strategy of experimentation with an alternative aesthetic, and exemplifies the general idea, found throughout the genre, of artistic practice as a vehicle of self-liberation. Subsequently, this orientation towards the self led Rosalind Krauss to describe video as the «narcissistic medium». The process is enacted either in public or in a studio (as, for example, in the performances of the American artist Nan Hoover, working in Germany). Video cameras can be integrated directly into the events, in the form of a closed-circuit installation, or they may be used purely for documentation purposes. Friederike Pezold also calls on women to develop a visual vocabulary of their own, but in her own «new embodied sign language», the main emphasis is on formal aesthetic criteria rather than on the confrontation with suppressed thematic content. And sometimes, emancipatory practice is defined from outside: in 1977, Nan Hoover was accused by Berlin feminists of adopting a «male» aesthetic in her semi-abstract performances, which explore the immateriality of light and bodily contours.
The body and the mechanisms that control it have been the subject of gender- and media-specific analysis. Much (self-)reflexive attention has been devoted to the themes of video surveillance and the confrontation of the public with electronically generated representations (of the performer or the audience itself). Video performance has its main strengths in the direct control of the image and composition, but it also offers scope for dramatizing the production techniques associated with the medium: for example, in Klaus vom Bruch's live displays of video editing as a spontaneous process involving free association. Here, the attention of the camera and the public is focused on the artist, instead of the end product of a linear tape. But the boundaries between egocentric demonstration and the artist as medium are fluid: «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 ... 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». (14)
For Marina Abramovic, the public is more than a mere voyeur: «You can get an immense energy from the public that takes you beyond your physical and mental limits». (15) In «Rhythm 0», she challenges the spectators to do whatever they want with her, and provokes them by her sheer passivity. But who decides when the limit has been reached? Here, as in many other performances, the artist's own body becomes the central motif, the site on which extremes of psychological and physical experience are publicly explored. Hence, too, the proximity of performance to body art. The most interesting works by Abramovic and Ulay are precarious balancing acts, offering a genuine liminal experience that calls for stamina and personal courage –and there are no rehearsals. Similarly, the performances of Jochen Gerz have often involved situations of serious artistic and personal vulnerability. For instance, in «Purple Cross for Absent Now», staged in 1979, he demonstrates the dangers of viewing everything through the media: the performer is observed by a camera in a closed room, so that only an electronic image is available to the viewer, who is encouraged to act out his latent fantasies of violence by tightening a noose round the artist's neck. As well as formulating a critique of the medium, Gerz therefore poses the question of violence in his own individual way.
Performance art confronts the traditionally passive spectator with an ambivalent situation. Which parts of the performance are planned and which are not? How much punishment can the body –and the audience –ultimately take? Should we stay or leave, should we intervene or simply watch and listen? The questions remain open: there is no printed programme to provide us with ready answers. Initially, the spectator stands at a distance from the events, but the ambiguity rapidly produces a very strong emotional involvement. In one case the issue of physical violence may be resolved by a viewer who decides to intervene, and in another by the performer's own decision to stop the show. The space between artist and public is charged with a psychic energy that either side can release. But performance can also be effective in the absence of group dynamics. Vostell's «Electronic dé-coll/age Space» (1968), which can only be entered by one person at a time, had already made it clear that an artistic event can take place in a personalized form. Since video facilitates communication between quite separate spaces and times, the staging of processes purely for this recording medium was an obvious next step, which American artists such as Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci were quick to take. In such works, the «live» communication between actor and public is replaced by a mediated relationship, founded on distance, yet this quality is promptly transformed into intimacy by focusing on the individual personality of the artist, often in its most private aspects: «Experiences in the sphere of interpersonal perception are the basis of my work. Desires, feelings and projections emerge via the investigation of a specific person». (16) Rebecca Horn's performances and «exercises» are reworkings of psychic states, employing aesthetic techniques which, as Jochen Gerz indicates, can serve in other works as a means of responding to the inadequacy of political action: «We can now say that, in our highly industrialized part of the world, the real catastrophes are not the atom bomb, or pollution, or war or energy crises, but rather the dismal state –the lifelessness –of our daily lives.» (17)
The attempts to counter this with a living art form, requiring real physical and psychological involvement, have ultimately proved too demanding, for performers and spectators alike. The permanent transgression of social and physical limits eventually blunts the public's sensibilities. When combined with the anti-auratic quality of video, the auratic uniqueness of performance is at once a strength and a weakness. The fundamental question invariably remains: where do we go from here? What happens next? In direct opposition to object-related art, media art has insisted on the temporary nature of a process whose uniqueness and unpredictability can only be documented by the use of recording media. But in the long run, happenings, actions and performance art cannot escape the risk of commercialization and empty posturing, even among their custodians. (18) The appropriation of Beuys's actions by museum culture is only one especially striking example of this trend. Many of today's spectators will regret not having witnessed the events «live». No document can replace the action itself, and relics are a poor substitute for memory.
1 Marina Abramovic/Ulay, Ulay/Marina Abramovic, «Relation Work and Detour», Amsterdam, 1980, p. 19.
2 The term, coined in 1966 by Dick Higgins, describes an interdisciplinary art, operating between the media.
3 In 1959, Allan Kaprow defined the happening as simply allowing «something to take place». (Kaprow later took part, with Vostell, Wolf Kahlen and others, in the show «ADA 1 –Aktionen der Avantgarde» in 1973 in Berlin.) On the history of the happening, see the documentation compiled by Hanns Sohm to accompany the exhibition «Happening & Fluxus», Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 1970.
4 «The term «anti-art» comes from the German Dadaists (...). In France and the English-speaking countries, «non-art» is the more common usage. The German expression is more accurate, since it conveys the idea of active opposition rather than mere negation. For the Dadaists, art was and still an inescapable fact». Heinz Ohff, «Anti-Kunst», Düsseldorf, 1973, p. 8.
5 For an extended treatment of the subject, see Joachim Diederichs, «Zum Begriff Performance», in the catalogue of the «documenta 6», Kassel, 1977, pp. 281 et seq.
6 «Prospect 69», Düsseldorf, also shown in 1970 as part of the New York exhibition «Information», an early general survey of media art.
7 See the text by Wibke von Bonin in this volume.
8 The continual actionist interventions of groups such as the Provos (for example, by releasing white chickens at military parades) led to an extended concept of the happening, as in the ideas of Lebel, «who sees the 1968 student riots in Paris as the most significant happening of his lifetime». Ohff, op.cit., p. 97.
9 See interview with Vostell in this volume. Vostell sees the purpose of happenings on television as «to implant a barb in the public mind», although his only interest in television form is as a pure information medium for a mass viewing public.
10Franz Erhard Walther's conception of the art work belongs in the same context. In Schum's «Identifications», he demonstrates a principle by which his cloth objects can be used.
11 No stage, no applause, «but much whistling and booing. The audience (...) generally has difficulty in playing its required role of creative partner.» Ohff, op. cit., p. 94.
12 See the essay thus titled by Herbert Molderings on the performances of Jochen Gerz in: G. Battcock/R. Nicklas (ed.), «The Art of Performance. A critical anthology», New York, 1984.
13 The film «IMI und IMI» by Imi Knoebel and Imi Giese, featured in the 1969 «Intermedia» exhibition in Heidelberg, consists entirely in the assertion that the film will be shown, whereas Jochen Gerz's «Transsib. Project» (1977) assembles the material traces of a journey to prove that the action did indeed take place.
14 RoseLee Goldberg, «Performance Art. From Futurism to the Present», rev. ed., London, 1988, p. 8.
15 Marina Abramovic, cit. in: Anja Oßwald, «Steiner Art Tapes», Berlin, 1994, p. 95.
16 Rebecca Horn, catalogue «documenta 6», Kassel, 1977.
17 Jochen Gerz, «Das hat doch nichts mit Performance zu tun», in Jochen Gerz, «mit/ohne Publikum/public», Bielefeld/Paris, 1981, p. 28.
18 It is significant, for example, that Marcel Odenbach was greatly acclaimed by the Basel art market in 1977 for his performance «The Great Misunderstanding», which caricatures the performer as an entertainer with the attributes of a clown.
Source: Rudolf Frieling, Dieter Daniels, Medien Kunst Interaktion – die 60er und 70er Jahre in Deutschland, Vienna 1997, p. 163–169.