Past, Present, Future: What is Performance Art?

 by Theodor di Ricco / performance artist & Gallery SoToDo founder

Berlin May 2011 Walking into a room, removing a rubber ball from a pocket and bouncing it on the floor is performance art if the performance artist declares the action to be such. If an observer sitting in a lecture hall and watching someone dressed in yellow maneuver himself to a seat is performance art if the observer declares it to be such. Performance Art does not have a beginning or an end. It happens. It is time based and its ephemeral quality is it commodity. Performance Art is authentic and honest. Whether it takes place as spoken word, as a manifestation, an individual action, or even as a foolish activity, it has always occurred because of the need to communicate information on how to live. Art is a vehicle of communication.

Human beings have learned to be creative and social in order to survive. At the dawn of civilization, the first art works were sculptured from stone and painted on cave walls to communicate lessons learned or deeds accomplished. As societies developed, those who controlled the access of information were the ones favored. In order to preserve their power, they subsequently developed a Machiavellian power structure to organize and control the community.

In every society there are fools, shamans, sages and artists who set themselves apart from the society in general. They are either crazy, have super-human abilities, are wise and creative. To deal with them, the society creates a micro system which mirrors the general Machiavellian structure. Within this tightly controlled micro-system, they are placed at the center and the rest of the community occasionally surrounds.

Within this micro-group it is the artist who sets an example how to live: (make art). The artist is at the center and is able to see everyone. This advantage allows the artist to act as a pressure valve within society, expressing concepts and ideas together with actions and deeds that balance the spectrum of society's common consciousness.

The alternative life style represented by the artist is tolerated and respected to a certain degree. If the quality of life within the society at a whole diminishes, some will seek alternatives. The artist acts as a catalyst for change. However, for this privilege, the artist is placed into the community's focus and must manipulate each side in order to remain in the center: (or alive).

The community is to be shown how to live (make art). They are content to follow the example of the artist, and are freed from the responsibility of having to live (make art) for themselves. Their role is simply to experience. The micro-Machiavellian structure is put into place for the preservation of society as a whole and demonstrates a collective discipline on the part of the artist and the community in order to prevent a state in which everyone is living (making art) for themselves, or in short, a state of anarchy. Once again, in order to survive humans are creative and social. Art is a means of communication. As societies developed, those who have access of information found themselves in control of power. This led to a Machiavellian power structure. Mirroring this structure, a micro-version was set up within where the artist is placed.

The artist remains in the center and acts as a pressure valve within society. Examples of this are the Futurist and the Dadaist. They were caught in the middle of economic and political extremes created by rapid industrialization and the First World War and responded by creating time based environments mirroring the chaos of everyday life. Many art historians define these two groups as the origin of performance art. One could mention groups or names of artists throughout the last century, however, people have always been using time as a medium of communication. It is therefore irrelevant to speak of a history of performance art, to drop names as to who was the first to do it and where it first appeared. What is important is to find the thread that links one's cultural history to time-based events in contemporary life.

Even though Performance Art has always existed, it has only recently been named. The word Performance Art originated from the visual as well as the sound artists' mouths when asked in the Seventies what they were doing. Later the word was used by art historians when labeling a generation of artists that was moving away from expressing their world in stagnant media in sculpture, painting and music and consciously used the element of time as a medium of artistic expression.

Since the end of the Second World War, virtual consciousness has evolved tremendously. The telephone, radio and television had moved humans much closer to experiencing events simultaneously. Today, the internet is increasingly the vehicle of communication incorporating the three as well as being global and instantaneous.

In the last century, artists have strengthened their international network respective to the developments of information technology. They also have moved closer to creating art simultaneously. Perhaps performance art is one of the first art forms that appeared in various cities around the world at the same time some 50 years ago. Today these networks are so close that reality and virtuality are beginning to overlap.

In the sixties, there were Happenings, Sit-Ins, group demonstrations where people came together to manifested a collective statement or common consciousness, An awareness of the body within time and space became Body Art. Within this context, styles of body art such a Endurance where the artist explores the limits of the human body and Survival in which the body is physically mutilated became relevant statements with the context of performance art.

The seventies, Fluxus, in which an object or act is used and manipulated, thus giving it a new meaning. It developed from the concept debated during the period that everyone is an artist in the infrastructure of society; from the gardener, to the craftsmen, the dentist to the politician. It is particular to note, that it is at this time the word Performance Art was deemed proper to use when describing this new and controversial art form.

In the eighties, artists continued expanding their networks globally as well as locally. The saturation of performance art which occurred in the previous decades caused a fatigue to occur among the public and gallery owners. This caused the artists to explore the night club as an venue for exhibition. Within this new environment, performance art began to incorporate the elements of video, theater, music dance and drag. The beginnings of a new genre of performance art was being created.

In the nineties, ritual based performance happened, in which the artist instigates a process, however abstract to impress the experience. Ultimate mass demonstrations took place where people congregated at a site for a brief period and collectively performed one act. Thus the act of mobilizing had become the statement in itself. Theater, dance and music were increasingly incorporating some of the elements of performance art and Live Art was created.

In the naughts or the last decade, artists, having being taught by those who are relevant to the art of performance, have mastered the technique of video and sound and occasionally include other people in their performance. Also the relationship between reality and the virtual is often used as a theme in their performance art.

Taking a closer look at the history of performance art, similarities in European history can be drawn to predict its development in the upcoming decades. Between circa 1835 and 1865 the secret police of Austria, Russian and Germany worked together to control the threat of revolution, which had already occurred in France fifty years earlier. This period is referred to as Biedermeier.

A parallel has recently occurred during the thirty years of neo-liberalism between 1980 and 2010. This economic strategy, where the market would control itself and therefore needed no regulation, predominated. It had been developed in the late Fifties in response to the totalitarian communism of the Soviet Union and China and came to fruition during later years.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the neo-liberalism which had already been exported to South America ruled over the conversion of the former communist countries and China. The shock of political change disorientated many and allowed for a rapid installation of this laissez-faire economic plan. Dissent was labeled as acts against the state and dealt with accordingly. Then came 9-11 and terror reached a new level.

This threat was not limited to the borders of any particular country. Though terrorist acts are site specific, security is global. This provided the impetus within developed countries to install their own neo-liberal policies. As with the Cold War and now the threat of terrorism, fear is firmly installed and governments implement laws that erode civil rights. As with the Biedermeier period, in the last thirty years people retreated into their own four walls due to shock of a neo-liberalism and the threat of terror.

When the artists band together to express an alternative consciousness, they are romantic not knowing how or whether their actions might someday justify their means. The current outlet for free speech is through the internet. With the dawn of Web 2.0, there are not three, nine or thirty-six stations and channels and a separate telephone line, there is only one cable. They are replaced by the computer monitor, whether it is on a desk or hanging on the wall. Our social networks have become in part virtual. We are free to choose what we experience. Art via the monitor will develop within this parameter and performance art is its medium. Because the ephemeral quality of performance art is its means and has been turned into a commodity by those who created it, the future of performance art lies in the action of distributing this commodity via the internet.

There is much debate about what are the characteristics of performance art. What is most essential is that the method of communicating a message be honest and authentic. There is also much debate about the public's response to performance art. Performance art does not warrant approval. The public is not required to applaud. Their role is to experience. Later, if they so chose, to communicate their feelings.

A singular performance art action where there is no public, no documentation or no traces thereof betrays the necessity to communicate a message. Others can debate differently. However, this debate can be compared to the sound of one hand clapping. It is endless and only relevant to those who try to answer it.

It seems nowadays to question the artist's message and purpose is to betray common sense. As with every action, it has a political, spiritual and an aesthetic statement. The can of dog food one buys at the market or the clothes one chooses to put on in the morning is a message about oneself and how one responds to the society in which one lives. It seems to reason that if an artist uses the action and calls it art, that their message should be relevant and the concept clear. The need to communicate information to people on how to live (make art) is the purpose of the performance artist.

The winds of a silent revolution are taking place. The political and economic structures of the last three decades are changing. The world is moving away from neo-liberal capitalism towards a social democracy. Currently there are more socialist countries than before the Cold War. The last Keynesian period of social democracy between circa 1935 to 1965 brought the world modern art. This upcoming period will unleash a flurry of contemporary art and performance art is well positioned to be the art form of the 21st century. Therefore, it is extremely important that festivals and congresses centered around performance art happen. They bring together artists who differ in their distinct geographical and cultural temperaments, thus ensuring a constant influx of new ideas and concepts. These unions also provide a time based environment where the artists and the public can explore current means of artistic expression, communicate, pool resources together and strengthening the bridges that will link them further. The benefit of this exchange, whether artistic or personal, is a highly motivating factor for all those who participate. In this case where life follows art, this collective artistic happening is a service to the artists and to the society at a whole.

The concept of performance art has been debated and continues to evolve. It is the pinnacle of contemporary art simply because it is authentic and time based. It is the performance artist who first defines the zeitgeist, which is later interpreted in other artistic media of sculpture, painting, theater, film, dance or music. Performance art is the act of making art on site at the moment. Yet, even though everyone is allowed to make art, only a few dare to do so. So, to do