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Performance and Visual Art 101: Curating Performance


Performance and Visual Art 101 is a series of articles that uncovers points of connection between performance and the visual arts, looking at key moments in the history of relations between these forms and giving attention to the current rise of theatrical aesthetics in contemporary arts practice. Art museums are increasingly programming performance and live art events and at the same time, visual artists are looking to the theatre for aesthetics and forms to incorporate into their work. This series will address the on-going influence of the visual arts on performance studies and chart attempts by art institutions to embrace the experiential and confront the challenges that live work poses for museums and curators.

Performance and Visual Art 101 is divided as follows:

6. Performance and Visual Art 101: Curating Performance

Performance and Visual Art 101: Curating Performance

The rise of experimental theatre and post-modern dance in the sixties and seventies, which changed the scope and interpretation of performance, encouraged a rethinking of the norms of participation in the contemporary arts and edged the way for 20th-century live performance art (Ferdman, 2014). With the new and avant-garde practices evolving in theatre and performance came a renewed interest in breaking with disciplinary models. More than half a century later, new performance frameworks developed within the visual arts, giving rise to an interdisciplinary focus on curation (and process). Performance theory, which deals with the Real and centres on temporality and experience, required that the role of curator became increasingly involved in communicating the relational value of artworks. As such, the rise of the curator grew alongside the evolution of performance and performance theory. With their position experiencing a drastic rise, curators gained cultural significance later recognised as the “curator’s moment” (Michael Brenson quoted in O’Neill, 2016, p. 5).

As they increasingly began dealing with matters of art and performance, the curator’s role transformed into a responsibility that centres the audience - to imagine how they could (and perhaps should) interact, receive, and understand the works. The 21st-century curator, having evolved and become heavily responsible for audiences and their experiences, became the authority on centring and assembling new and surprising interrelationships (Ferdman, 2014). As contemporary art began to expand past objecthood and traditional museum spaces, and therefore traditional museum disciplines, the role of the curator drastically advanced past the need to solely care for artefacts and to organise and select them for presentation. The once carer of collections is now the more discursive, multi-skilled, and creative producer of relation value. In 20th and 21st-century museum and gallery spaces, the care of collections has more to do with generating connections and structuring formats around artworks that communicate the central concepts and contexts for diverse audiences in experiential ways. It concerned creating new and engaging frameworks for such works. Such a responsibility requires an ability to unearth the existing performance or the potential for performance in its display within collections, exhibitions, and performance art. The curator’s role necessitates an ability to consider how these artworks, displays, and encounters are labeled, produced, and presented, especially taking care to distinguish between those that are performance and those that are performing.

Image 1: After-school, youth-driven programs. Smart Museum, Chicago. Photo by Jason Pallas.

The ‘curator’s moment’ occurred when curating was crystallised as a job in 1945 (Ferdman, 2014). The expansion of the art market and a cult status were granted to curators from that moment and deemed curators as a vital part of 20th-century creative spaces. The curator became the access point for artists’ works, and in adopting performance as a strategy rather than solely an art form, the curator’s role soared in visual arts culture. The influence of the curator’s moment on the trajectory of the visual arts was inaugurated in the sixties, in which the rise of immaterial labour and production gave way to installations, performance art, and happenings that had a massive impact on the subjectivity of art. It recentred on the temporality of events and experiences, as opposed to the previous emphasis on objecthood (the display and the artwork itself). This ‘demystification’ of exhibitions in the sixties, which broke away from conventional disciplines within museum-gallery spaces, paved the way for the ‘super-visibility’ of the nineties (O’Neill, 2016). With relational value rising above aesthetic form, a need to question the curatorial models in the visual arts grew, giving an opportunity for the production of curatorial anthologies, graduate programs, seminars, and academic study on the profession (O’Neill, 2016). This attention to the process of the curator’s role not only contributed more status but underscored the expanding culture of performance in the visual arts - that the curator is responsible for extracting, maintaining, creating, and essentially curating – emphasising the dynamic ways to encounter liveness in art. This super-visibility expanded the contemporary arts into adopting the performing arts and, most importantly, live art.

The re-theorising of how existing works and collections can be produced and categorised, as a way of including them as part of a larger vision for the 21st-century museum gallery, is based on the same theory – and therefore its challenges – of performance art. The movement from objecthood and the central contexts and concepts it produces towards the focus on ephemerality, interaction, and mediating situations that represent the age of contemporary art, is a by-product of the super-visibility in the nineties. The changes in the roles and responsibilities of the curator that centre performance theory coincided for artists and performers alike. More and more creators began using the ‘live’ and the real as sources for their work. In adopting performance as conceptual practice, performance art has significantly impacted how to format contemporary art. For this reason, for instance, one key characteristic of contemporary art (that is or mimics that of performance art) is the intention and ability to blur the boundaries of what is staged and what is real to produce a sense of ephemerality. This has led to a diverse range of artists increasingly questioning the form of performance within their works as much as they do for content in modern-day artistic practice (Ferdman, 2014). This attention to the forms of performance is not solely reflective of the culture of performance in the contemporary arts. However, it also evidences the curatorial practices artists adopt and marks the age of performance art. The curation of performance that holds at its core the aim to challenge modes of spectatorship and to create live encounters and interactive exchange is a shared culture throughout the profession and industry of modern and post-modern arts. In adopting curatorial practices and strategies, museum-galleries create the possibility for interrelationships through a praxis of different configurations throughout the industry (Guy, 2016). Through multidisciplinary approaches, performance artists are progressively employing site-based practices, infiltrating audiences (public, private, and virtual), all towards facilitating encounters that challenge existing modes of spectatorship and participation, much like the contemporary curator does (Ferdman, 2014).

Image 2: Jimmy Robert “Descendances du nu” at La synagogue de Delme Centre for Contemporary Art (2016).

Yet, as performance and curatorial practice collaborate to create more inclusive, interactive, and experiential moments for audiences to interact with, the more liberal and duplicitous these forms become. Works that adopt performance through form and structure can be attributed to a broad category of collections in both the performing and performance arts (Ferdman, 2014). The challenge lies in the relationship between museum-gallery spaces and such works. The existing and established curatorial, cultural, and critical frameworks in these institutions may otherwise exclude these experimental processes and experiential practices (Live Arts Development Agency, 2019). Even with a more discursive practice of curatorial practice, the historical and cultural legacies of museums and galleries are not exclusively inclusive or able to support, include, and programme works of a rapidly evolving realm of performance.

A key example of how performance art and curatorial practice met to construct a strategy for interdisciplinary works to exist, can be seen in the foundation of ‘live art’. ‘Live art’ was a term coined by Lois Keiden, director of live arts at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London from 1992 to 1997. Keiden cofounded the Live Art Development Agency in 1999 to provide a curatorial platform for artists engaging in practices that were difficult to categorize under existing models at the time (Ferdman, 2014, p. 9). Paving the way for diverse modes of engaging performance within museum-gallery institutes and toward alternative creating creative spaces, Keiden was aware of the cultural and financial necessity of labeling work to have it legitimised. Live art is the social remedy and cultural strategy that makes space for experimental processes, experiential practices, and the bodies and identities that might otherwise be excluded from traditional contexts (Live Arts Development Agency, 2019). Works excluded from established curatorial, cultural, and critical frameworks are at threat of losing both cultural and financial currency. Concerning the prior, creating a lack of access to modes of participation that enliven the works, and through interrelationships and interactions between artist, art, and spectator create cultural impact. Furthermore, as for the latter, the inability to ‘label’ and categorise performance art leads them to be non-legitimised and unrecognised, and therefore lack funding and development (Ferdman, 2014).

Image 3: Jannis Kounellis. 'Untitled 2000', in Basel (2019). Kounellis is a major practitioner of live art.

As more museums, galleries, and art biennales introduce performance into their collections, curators must engage with diverse curation modes as a strategy. Live art is a curatorial strategy that produces a catalogue of approaches rooted in performance. It functions as more than just a description of an art form or discipline but is also a curatorial strategy and framing device for artists who choose to adopt performance as a strategy and develop works across, in-between, and in the borders of traditional art forms. Roselee Goldberg’s ‘Performa’ is another curation strategy that supports and provides a different kind of financial value and a different set of expectations of live performance in the history of 20th-century art (Ferdman, 2014). Performa is dedicated to exploring the critical role of live performance and encourages new directions in performance. Live art and Performa are just some of the strategies that assist curators in positioning artworks within a specific set of disciplinary and institutional frameworks that have lasting effects (p. 10). The role of the performing arts curator thus emerges as a visionary who understands institutional models enough to warrant new ways of working within, through them, and in constant opposition to them (p. 17). The curator’s function has long been part of the changing paradigms in art making, meaning that curating in the performance arts has begun to take influence. The curator’s role has evolved from “vocational work with collections in institutional contexts to a potentially independent, critically engaged and experimental form of exhibition-making practice” from 1987, corresponding to the shifts in curatorial modes happening in modern-day art that influence artistic creation, museum-gallery programming, and audience participation (O’Neill, 2016, p. 2). Where museums give priority to the conservation, communication, and display of collections, the contemporary curator aids the journey of performance and creates relational value and interactive exchange. Therefore, the standard of live and performance art wants a concept of programming as opposed to the previous logistics of programming in every sense (Ferdman, 2014).

Contemporary curating methods are opting to rethink and reform the long-standing pyramidal structures of traditional concepts of performance (see Performing and Visual Art 101: The Ontology of Live Performance), such as those of theatrical traditions of performance (Ferdman, 2014). The influence of theatrical practices has shaped the scope of curatorial practice in visual and live art today. The techniques and critical approaches that created experimental practice are what have largely allowed museums and galleries - as established structures common to traditional theatres - to programme interdisciplinary live encounters, rethink questions of participation, and offer a heightened awareness of their practices of curation (Ferdman, 2014). The realm of performance, being vague and unstable terrain, has granted the opportunity for practitioners in the profession to move between identities as artists, dramaturgs, creative producers, artistic directors, and festival programmers. This gives testament to a growing practice that embraces diversity in methodology and approach, and that has allowed the curator role to adopt the range and characteristics of this role (as well as allow others to become curators of their own works), to become the inquisitor of preconceived notions and, in the essence of performance challenge established disciplinary models and continue to evolve the discourse of performance and visual arts.

Bibliographical Sources

Ferdman, B. (2014, May 01). From Content to Context: The Emergence of the Performance Curator. Theatre, 44 (2), pp. 5-19.

Fulton, J. (2016, September 8). What Happens When Artists Take on the Role of Curators. Sleek.

Guy, G. (2016). Introduction. In G. Guy, Theatre, Exhibition, and Curation: Displayed and Performed (pp. 1-34). Taylor & Francis Group.

Live Arts Development Agency. (2019, December 3). What Is Live Art? Retrieved from LADA Live Art Development Agency :

O'Neill, P. (2016). The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). MIT Press.

Schechner, R. (2003). Performance Theory. London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Image Sources


Author Photo

Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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