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Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Experience


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:

4. Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Experience

5. Performance and Visual Art 101: Participation and Social Practice

6. Performance and Visual Art 101: Curating Performance

Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Experience

Performance and the various potential futures it creates for the interpretation and experience of art have evolved into contemporary intellectual practice. Experiencing art through a performance theory lens, regardless of context, has granted practitioners, critics, and artists evolving ways to interact with art and shape its future. Performance theory in art has challenged the evolution of artistic styles and histories by bringing them into a modern-day context of intellectualism. Certain historical contexts produce or function within strict narrative structures, but with performance comes an opportunity to elicit new ways of creating, recording, preserving, and writing about art. Each movement can fall under a critical observation and analysis of performance theory by tracing a timeline of performance throughout art history through the various creative structures of art, epochs, and narrative histories. Contemporary art comes under observation as it adopts more of the practice and theory of performance, provoking questions about what constitutes art in the modern age.

Understanding art is to unravel its form; with each epoch's significant structure, contemporary art's form can be elusive. What are the characteristics of performance-driven art, and can its form be delineated between object and experience? In the 20th century, human creative development led to the creation of art in a service economy, observing a form that can encompass the diversity and potential of performance. This is critical to understanding what the definitions of art are in a post-industrial society and how one can interact with them. As understanding art involves engaging form, one must engage with its production's social, cultural, and historical context. The patterns and functions of an artistic form are constituted by an evolving artistic activity that responds to the social contexts of a certain period (Bourriuad, 2002). As such, the artist, and the political and socio-cultural contexts they live in, are essential effects to consider. One of the key factors of contemporary art is that its production marks the movement from an industrial model of artistic production to one in which the performance of services predominated (Ridout, 2008). Understanding contemporary art as artistic production experienced in a historical moment "marked by the emergence of an economy dominated by the production of services rather than goods" (Ridout, 2008, p. 127) is to recognise an artistic production that necessitates relational value and emphasises social interstice.

Image 1: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich (2012).

The 20th century encapsulates a radical movement of art production and art theory, in which performance plays a critical role, both as a factor of production and as a result of the economic shift to immaterial labour. In the earlier 20th century, known as the age of enlightenment, art was intended to prepare and announce a future world (Bourriuad, 2002). Art functioned mainly to critique society and work to form imaginary and utopian realities for the future (p. 13). In this initial stage of the 20th century, a post-industrial society moved away from the production of objects and an economy based on the circulation of objects as commodities. This society gave rise to an economy that is far more immaterial, in which goods are replaced with services, and immaterial labour takes hold - work that does not produce goods but instead produces social relations, communication, and a movement of information (Ridout, 2008, pp. 128-9). The labour of a post-industrial society is centred on service and knowledge economies (p. 129). As such, the modes of creating, distributing, and exhibiting art in a service economy, start to reflect and become "ways of living and modes of action within the existing real" (Bourriuad, 2002, p. 13). Contemporary art, which nevertheless involves conditions in which cultural objects are produced, highlights the changing forms of social life that prefer social relationships and performance of services in the place of material objects.

As a result, contemporary art is an art form that moves with an urban world. Museum and gallery collections, having been rooted in a history of aristocracy and high culture, are changing how visitors interact with art. This change is characteristic of the move away from an object-driven economy, in which they begin to programme events and curate exhibitions that transport artefacts of earlier periods into more modern and relational contexts. This aims to participate in a service economy, which aims to transcend author-audience (owner/collector-public) divisions to create more relational spaces and make the art relevant to an urban society in search of connection and knowledge (Ridout, 2008, p. 129). In this approach is the essence of performance, creating memorable moments and happenings of the present, ever real, and the product of performance in which artists and artist groups, and objects and exhibitions, performatively create and share meaning, communication, and social knowledge. Contemporary art is manoeuvrable, accessible, and mutable in nature. The development of the function of art and its display attest to a growing urbanisation of artistic experimentation (Bourriuad, 2002, p. 15). As such, the contemporary display moves away from the gallery and object-based art form, of an "aristocratic conception of the arrangement of works of art, associated with the feeling of territorial acquisition" (Bourriuad, 2002, p. 15), toward site-specific and conceptualist forms of performance. In other words, contemporary art and contemporary art spaces are more social due to the changing economic context, in which it is no longer possible to interact with space as something to be walked through like a collector's tour, maintaining the imperialist and classist attitudes in which museum practice is historically based(p. 15). Contemporary art, contemporary spaces, and even contemporary writing, which include the essence of performance, present a period, a happening, or moment of time "to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion" (p. 15).

Image 2: Shutter Shock stock image

Much of the work in the service economy ultimately concerns emotion (Ridout, 2008, p. 129). What is understood as a product in a more industrially economic context is more allusive and intellectual within the service economy. What characterises the service economy is affective labour - which produces social networks and forms of community through relational moments and sharing knowledge as a commodity. Cooperation is key to the laboring activity in an economy increasingly built around social relations (Ridout, 2008). In the process of producing social relations, the transcendence of the boundaries between author and audience and labourer and consumer occurs. The immaterial labourer, investing her subjectivity into the experience and communication necessary to the labour process, which involves seeking new ways of making communication and creating social relations, allows aspects of her life to participate, perform, and affect through the performance of her service (Ridout, 2008, p. 129). The liveness of the work is a product of, as well as is, her immaterial labour. Jackson Pollock's action paintings illustrate how person and process are interlinked in contemporary art, born of historical and cultural context and immaterial labour. The effects of his personal and social contexts provoke discussion and make the artist relevant in the communication and experience of his paintings. However, the role of this kind of labour is perfectly modeled by the live artist and their condition to the service of creativity and art. The live artist perfectly embodies the intention to promote continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication. Whether working alone or in ad hoc project groups, she constantly seeks new ways of communicating and creating social relations. She is wholly invested, personally, in a work that is, in fact, her very own life (Ridout, 2008, p. 129).

Art has always been relational in varying degrees and has theoretically evolved from asserting private spaces and independent collections to adopting social forms of display and artistic creation that deal with human interactions and socio-cultural context (Bourriuad, 2002). As performance-based rather than object-oriented, contemporary artworks as social interstice by diversifying aesthetic, cultural, and political goals (p. 14). Art is the place that produces specific sociability. Even in an exhibition, displayed in its inert form, the work of art represents a social interstice. There is a possibility for immediate discussion and reflection within the unique space and time orchestrated by the exhibition, with the encounter between the beholder and picture and the collective elaboration of meaning (Bourriuad, 2002). Within a social economy, art as interstice eludes "the capitalistic economic context by being removed from the law of profit" (Bourriuad, 2002, p. 16). The movement away from object-based production and industrial economic trading to a focus on knowledge economies and human relations, the nature of the contemporary art exhibition "creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life" (p. 16). Contemporary artwork and display encourage inter-human commerce that differs from the communication zones imposed on the public, transposing specific encounters and variable degrees of relation and values into society through art. Contemporary spaces give rise to a specific "arena of exchange" (Bourriuad, 2002, p. 18).

Image 3: Boris Charmatz's 'Musée de la danse' at MoMA (2020).

As contemporary art continues to evolve and explore the horizons of human relations and becomes a human activity-based commerce, art becomes a state of encounter (Bourriuad, 2002, p. 18). Evolving from this is a discourse of art that challenges whether form and aesthetics are the only aspects of art that essentialize the trajectory of relational value. The expanded field of relational practices can be named and recognised as: socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogical art, littoral art, participatory, interventionist, research-based, or collaborative art (Bishop, 2006, p. 179). Transforming formats of art characterise an interesting shift as to what constitutes contemporary art, especially one that labours in and upholds the service economy to the degree that prioritises creative rewards of collaborative activity - the intersubjective service - rather than solely the relational aesthetic - the structure and form that becomes the point of encounter and encourages discourse and social relations (Bishop, 2006). Such an art form becomes increasingly difficult to define based on its performative value and conspicuous engagement with human commerce but for the transcendence of a formal and phenomenological framework (p. 179). Artistic interest in collectivity, collaboration, and direct engagement with specific social constituencies is ever-growing, inspiring creative projects that are active and apparent in the public sector and take form as social events, publications, workshops, and performances. These community-specific works and projects are collective projects that focus on the production of engaged experimental art in the public realm yet are becoming increasingly difficult to market than works done by the individual artist (Bishop, 2006, p. 178). The intersubjective space created through these projects is the primary focus and medium of artistic investigation and public participation (Bishop, 2006).

Within contemporary art, the labour process transcends defining boundaries "between conception and execution, labour and creativity, between author and audience" (Ridout, 2008, p. 129). As such, the movement toward social happenings and encounters that grow from and contribute to social networks remedies a "society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalism" (Bishop, 2006, p. 180). This social agenda moves away from linear object-based production and focuses instead on process rather than product and relationships rather than aesthetic considerations. Art becomes a force, and a means to create or recreate relationships between people and socialise human encounters within a certain context and space. Contemporary art is not solely relational through adopting communication as its aesthetic form but moves beyond to embrace a level of social intervention and social intellectualism (Bishop, 2006). It becomes an influential experience and social process. Art today models possible universes by engaging with networks of people in their immediate environments or embracing the fuller potential of performance within its display or participation in the museum/gallery environment (Bourriuad, 2002). The attempts to activate audiences and invite them in to participate in the process have generated feedback loops that weave their lives and the spirit of their social, cultural, and political identities into the experience of the creative practice.

Bibliographical Sources

Bishop, C. (2006). The Social Term: Collaboration and Its Disconnects. Artforum 44, 178-183.

Bourriuad, N. (2002). Relational Form. In N. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (pp. 11-24). Dijon: Le Presses du Reel.

Guy, G. (2016). Visitor & Performer: The Return of the Relational. Theatre, Exhibition and Curation: Displayed & Performed (pp. 100-138). London and New York: Routledge.

Jackson, S. (2011). Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art. Social Works: Performing Arts, Supporting Publics (pp. 43–74). London And New York: Routledge.

Ose, E. D. (2014). Enthusiasm: Colletiveness, Politics, and Aesthetics. NKE 34 (pp. 24-33).

Ridout, N. (2008). Performance in the Service Economy: Outsourcing and Delegation. Double Agent [Exhibition Catalogue], 126-131.

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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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