a brief reconsideration on performance and its remnants:
Performance’s current designation comes from the late 20th century, while the rise of conceptualism led art to reconsider its own forms and practices, distancing it from the material and recentering the discourse of art around the concept, a very appropriate environment for such an austere medium to establish itself. Nowadays, the definition usually applied to the performative act is rather simple and can be summoned in the following statement: “Performance is live art by the artist.” (1) Essentially, the intentional or unintentional creative act performed live by an artist, which creates an object of art, physical or ethereal, that is perceived by the public during a certain duration of time.
Considering the many writings on the importance of liveness in performance (many times stating its utter necessity), I’d like in this series of essays to focus on its very opposite. First, how to discuss non-liveness in performance (I); secondly, how contemporary approaches on the concept of translation can help us understand this possibility (II); and finally, what are these works of art that lie in the intersection between ethereal and eternal (III). This, I hope, will help us reconsider the relationship between performance and its documentation, as to perform does not always equal to be here, and to transform does not always mean to act. What are the poetics of performance? Can it be physically translated? Where does a performance ends and its documentation begin? These are some of the questions I’ll attempt to answer.
the Performative Realm
As already stated, it is still commonly believed that performance must contain within itself the character of liveness, therefore, performance ought to exist in front of our eyes for a limited time being. As described by Peggy Phelan, “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays
and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Perfomance’s being [..]becomes itself through disappearance” (2)
In this statement, Phelan positions performance’s ontology in opposition to photography’s phenomenological description, which essentially denominates photography as “the mark of an absence,” (3) or in other words, the register of a reality that is there no more and will never be again under the same conditions. In this sense, every photograph marks the disappearance or death of what is represented by holding a part of it in suspension, conserving it; thus she positions performance in opposition to the ontology of document itself. Therefore, performance is a presence that falls into disappearance while photography is an absence suspended
Even though this polarity is a valid one, the assumption that they are unimplementable others is not. Such differentiation is based on the assumption that what is not present cannot perform i.e.: the subject of an image; although, what conveys to ssubject performative characteristics is not the live existence of a human body or any type of
present body whatsoever, but the type of transformations that the subject executes within itself and its environment to perform and perform in time and space. So our first question when reconsidering our understanding of
performance without a live aspect must be: How can a non-live thing perform?
The concept of performative was coined by John L. Austin who introduced it to linguistics within the context of his lectures at Harvard in 1955, which received the title How to do things with words (4). Here, the philosopher differentiated constative utterances from performative ones. Whereas the first describe some state of affairs or state some fact; the latter holds a different set of characteristics: they are self-referential, as they refer to what they do; are constitutive in relation to reality, because they produce the social reality they refer to; and finally, can have happy or unhappy outcomes which are dependent on social and institutional conditions. i.e.: “I declare you husband and wife,” which can only take shape and form if used in the right context by a priest or city clerk;
or “I sentence you to 10 years in prison,” which can only be proclaimed by a judge in court. Their outcome is dependent on the context and ritual within which they exist, but also on the acceptance of all involved individuals to comply with the performative utterance. (5) We can see in which way this can be applied to the dynamics of physical movement, as all actions are constitutive of reality and self-referential. Although the idea of a happy outcome or failure is fairly incoherent with the aesthetics of performance, as the very institution of art does not have ritualized and objective guidelines to determine if a certain piece of art was a failure or not. Even though the author and linguistics, in general, came to abandon the dichotomic position between performative/constative (as it has become widely accepted that to talk is to act), the original performative utterances, which I have described, are still a valid structure we can use to understand what it is to perform in the first place and how non-animated
beings are able to do so. (6)
After this errand through linguistics, even though we can see what kind of transformations a body must endure in order to perform, it still may seem strange to imagine how a non-animated thing can constitute reality. To clarify this statement, let’s look around us. For example, in most countries, every time we enter a store or closed facility we may encounter the sign: “Smoking here is prohibited” (which now has even become a pure graphic sign). This object is undoubtedly performing the space around it, literally altering how we are to act within it, being in itself
the utter abstract voice of an institution or an individual expressing its powers of private property. It expands and exerts its influence in the space, becoming an entity that even holds within itself specific values such as what is or is not allowed to be done and where you can regain the power to act on your own. Another example are the many street signs used on roads around the world which shape where and how we drive or walk in space. Just like non-smoking signs, these objects have the power to change their surroundings and redefine how other entities
conduct themselves within space. Once created, none of these objects need the help of a human to perform space (like many of our tools), doing so completely on their own, excused the time they may need maintenance, which is no more than human assistance to the entity that is the sign.
“This object is undoubtedly performing the space around it”
Now, how can an object of art do the same? As an example let’s take Bruce Nauman’s corridors, architectural installations made to constrict and change the observer’s experience of space and time. This ongoing series initiated in 1969, marks the artist’s transition to installation and the intersection between his performative and sculptural practice. Whereas the first corridor was actually made as a prop for the performance Walking with contrapposto(1968), being only transformed into a sculpture one year later in the exhibition Anti/Illusion: Procedurals and Materials at the Whitney Museum. (7) This first installation was composed of two 6 meter long walls placed 50cm apart and titled Performance Corridor. As described by the artist himself in a letter to the curators of the show, the object was set to be an interactive environment, serving mostly to change the observer’s sensory experience: “The piece as I explained is less a sculpture than a prop for the performance of a dance or studio-exercise which I video-taped. In the museum situation it serves to severely restrict and then re-enforce the available audio, visual and kinesthetic response to anyone who walks in or around the walls – probably the function of any art work.” (8)
And also, one could say, the function of any architectural structure. Now, if we put the characteristics of the installation side by side with Austin’s description of performativity, we will see that this object also contains the same aspects. It is self-referential, as it refers to what it does; and it constitutes reality, as it literally changes by itself the possible experience of the world it exists in. Therefore, through this analysis, one can induce that all architectural structures share a performative aspect. As it is undeniable that they’re made to shape experience on their own and
influence space and time. If that is so, we can also conclude that other objects that contain the same characteristics must themselves act accordingly, leading us to presume that performativity can be seen less as the dependant part of a medium and more of a character that expresses itself within a spectrum throughout many objects and entities. Following this argument, we can presume that performance’s documentation or its remnants may be able to attain its performative characteristics. In order to validate this hypothesis, let us dissect the formal techniques used by
the artist Gordon Matta-Clark when photographing his sculptures and also his holistic approach towards the creative process and what constitutes the object of art.
Starting his first incisions in the early 1970s, Matta-Clark’s work developed into an unprecedented dismantling of preconceived ideas surrounding sculpture, photography, and the very artistic process itself. Using actions such as cutting and splitting as some of his main methods, these sculptures were mostly characterized by huge incisions in buildings destined to be demolished, monuments of negative space. In Splitting, for example, a suburban house received a two and a half centimeter cut that sliced it through the middle splitting walls, floors, and stairs. The
whole structure was then cleaved in two, creating a widening crack that revealed the domestic space, braiding public and private, nature and architecture, into a continuum connected by cuts. (9) Wherein Conical Intersect, Matta-Clark’s contribution to the Paris Biennale of 1975, a conical void of forty-five degrees with the street leading to the roof of the building, opened its skeleton to the eyes of passersby.
”Performativity can be seen less as the dependant part of a medium and more of a character that expresses
itself within a spectrum throughout many objects and entities.”
These works, being inevitably ephemeral, obliged the artist to document their process of transformation into a sculpture. Moreover, they were also inapprehensible from a single point of view, which led Matta-Clark to decide to avoid what he deemed to be purely photographic documentation. This meant approaching the photograph in the same way that he did the buildings themselves, by cutting. Creating collages of manipulated and cut photographs that translated the perceptual experience of walking inside this disorientating multi-perspectival space. “I like the idea that the sacred photo framing process is equally ‘violatable.’ … I started out with an attempt to use multiple images to try and capture the ‘all-around’ experience of the piece. [They are] an approximation of this kind of ambulatory ‘getting to know’ what the piece is about.” (10). This allowed his photographs and videos to be image and volume, to become sculptures themselves which changed the viewer’s perspective of a recorded possible reality. But also, that transformative approach did not end in the relationship between document and
action. Matta-Clark ended up transforming every part of his sculptures developing process into pieces of work themselves – such as letters, restaurant menus, notes, drawings, and several other types of accompanying documents. To see a Matta-Clark exhibition is to dwell through a collection of all the entire paraphernalia that make the life of an artist and thus of an artwork. In his practice, the very interconnection between process – bureaucratic or creative – and the final work, becomes a continuation of the sculpture. Different parts of a whole, that despite
some of its disappearing parts, is far from intangible; in short asserting: the process is the work and the work is the process.
This relationship between video, document, and performance was rather common in the ’60s and ’70s, for performance developed itself side by side with these media, where artists such as Nauman or Vito Acconci never
bothered much to separate them. Acting and reconsidering that same action through a video or a written piece was something embedded in the very process of performing itself. This natural development can be associated with the fact that performance is an artform that was used many times out of necessity, as many of the artists who first approached it during that period did so because they needed to reduce or avoid costs in their practice. (11) These mediums were much cheaper at the time and needed far less space to work with than for example painting or
sculpture, which led to a practical relationship that intertwined video, photography, and writing with performance by transforming these records into the remnants of the action.
“the action lasts forever and the monument performs in your mind”
Even though this is not the case for every documentation of a performance, there are still many cases where the very attempt to translate, transform or involve recording in a certain action, transformed these remnants into the only objects where the work’s realm could be attained. This means that in these cases the performance is not simply suspended in time but actually removed from time itself, residing within its very own time-space. Taking Matta-Clark’s work as an example, we will note that all of his sculptures were ephemeral, although, in the transformation of the photograph into a sculpture and the defragmentation of it into legal documents, it is the very performative characteristic of the work that becomes eternal, the action lasts forever and the monument performs in your mind, thus claiming its realm within the observer while also transforming its surrounding space. These shifts and transformations executed within the subject itself are the very marks of a performative process, which indefinitely constitutes reality and claims its existence, circling back to itself. Finally, this process does not convert the photograph or of the action’s remnants into a performance per se, but it does undoubtedly remove its character of mere documentation. Transforming the piece into an intersectional object that exists within several mediums at the same time. More importantly, it marks the fact that these images are not separated from the action but its direct continuation, as in these cases, attempting to separate the two destroys
the claimed realm where the work exists, which in this case, is a performative realm. A space outside physical time-space where the work exists in a constant performative process, executing shifts from medium to medium, and physicality to non-physicality; delineating several spectrums that, depending on the context in which the work is presented, may bring it close to one of their borders and thus to a clear classification into a certain medium or realm. Therefore, here performance is less about being there, as it is to transform where and when there is.