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Performance and Visual Art 101: The Ontology of Live 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:

1. Performance and Visual Art 101: The Ontology of Live Performance

2. Performance and Visual Art 101: Theatricality and Art

3. Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Action

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: The Ontology of Live Performance

The key to understanding how performance takes a critical role in the production, experience, and appreciation of contemporary art is to comprehend what it is. A very daunting exercise, as demonstrated by performance practitioner and acclaimed contributor to performance theory, Richard Schechner, the phenomenon called ‘performance’ can be recognised as ‘drama’, ‘theatre’, or ‘ritual’. These phenomena go back as far as history, archaeology, and anthropology can go (Schechner, 2003). The difficulty of identifying the exact definitions of performance is a question of its classification. Is the old vocabulary, with its restrictive meaning and contextual histories, sufficient in defining the more general areas and evolution of performance?

In attempting to answer this, Schechner creates several visual demonstrations (see Fig. 1 and 2) to assist in comprehending performance’s vastness. Schechner, and arguably all practitioners in the arts, show performance to be a collection of all things, offering vast examples from diverse cultures, histories, and practices from around the world. The limitation of one singular definition is that various cultural, political, and historical implications of performance cannot be contained because they produce varying (theatrical) traditions. What can be assumed of performance, however, is that two critical elements apply to all its uses, which are essentially concerned, or are “coexistent”, with the human condition (Schechner, 2003, p. 66). These are the systems of performative transformations and the transformation of time and space (Schechner, 2003).

Figure 1: Schechner’s visual conception of performance as a fan demonstrates the different kinds of performance.

Performance as Reality

One general theme of performance is the presentation of the human condition. From the ideas in Aristotle’s Poetics, that claim that performance essentialises and presents paradigms of reality, to Stanislavsky’s influence on modern theatre, in which he denies ‘performance’ altogether, that is as mimicry of reality, a play on the pretend, and instead proposes a method of the visceral experience of reality on stage (Schechner, 2003). In many examples across the globe, the essence of performance is reality. Performance is refraction, a presentation, a re-living, of meanings and messages that exist and occur in everyday life; by re-creating reality, so to speak, it becomes it.

The extent to which theatre plays a role in contemporary art will be observed more closely in other articles of this series. Nevertheless, the word ‘theatre’, or its conversions rather, will be heavily referred to as its connotations play significantly into interpreting what performance is. It is essential, however, to distinguish between theatre and performance (and from drama, ritual, and script too). To elucidate this movement within an unstable terrain of words and their semiotics, refer to ‘Figure 3’ as a general guide in understanding how theatre and other forms relate to performance. It demonstrates that theatre takes place within the boundaries of performance, and the script and drama are at the centre of theatre (Schechner, 2003, pp. 69-73). This figuration of performance assists in understanding the theatrical techniques and traditions that encompass performance, which are, “transformations: how people turn into other people, gods, animals, demons, trees, beings, whatever – either temporarily as in a play or permanently as in some rituals; or how beings of one order inhabit beings of another order as in a trance; or how unwanted inhabitants of human beings can be exorcised; or how the sick can be healed” (Schechner, 2003, p. xviii).

Figure 2: Schechner’s second visual conception of performance as a web demonstrates its lack of uniformity and deeper structures.

Elicited from this idea is that the ontology of performance concerns what ‘is’. It is also alluded to that the modes of performance are transformations that convey reality ‘as if’ it were (Schechner, 2003). Introduced into this interpretation of performance is a little doubt and disjunction concerning its classification so far. Even as Schechner makes the impressive case for how performance ‘is’ reality, he also coins it as “make-believe” (p. xviii) and an “illusion of an illusion” (p. xix). What continuously permeates the definition of performance, therefore, is an acceptance that it remains an unstable terrain where perception can be made endlessly new. The “semiotics of performance must start from, and always stand unsteadily on, these unstable slippery bases” (Schechner, 2003, p. xix). Depending on countless variables, such as the histories, structures, form, cultures, and intentions of its use, performance is a painstaking process and product of practice and discovery.

Performance as Ephemeral

Pushing further the interpretation of performance is Peggy Phelan, a renowned scholar and author of Performance Studies, and Feminism and Art. She describes performance as a “representation”, “interactive exchange”, “performative expression”, and “supplement” of the real (Phelan, 1993, pp. 146-151), and her findings provide further ontological theorisation. Phelan conducts her research through the lens of cultural concepts, such as those of feminism, patriarchy, capitalism, and gender.

Figure 3: Schechner’s diagram of performance’s structure: concentric, overlapping circles to convey a set of four discs with which each ‘mode’ of performance and how they structure the other.

The deeper structures of performance are examined by Phelan, particularly of the transformations of time and space. Using examples of practitioners’ works, the continuum that is performance is scrutinised to emphasise its liberal, “liminal, dangerous, and duplicitous” nature (Schechner, 2003, p. xix). So far, interpretations of performance have been constructed based on histories and developments of its modes, events, and changes, such as how ritualisations have transformed into dramatic presentations over time. From her work, Phelan unveils a remarkable characteristic of performance that is essential to its ontology. In the opening of her chapter, The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction, Phelan claims:

“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.” (The Ontology of performance: representation without reproduction, 1993, p. 146)

She introduces the concept the performance as ephemeral. She argues that performance is through and through an ephemeral event, a happening. It seems obvious that performance is “doing a specific ‘there and then’ in this particular ‘here and now’” (Schechner, 2003, p. xviii) and therefore only exists within a certain time frame. However, Phelan stakes the claim that performance’s “only life is in the present” (1993, p. 146). She rejects the idea that a performance can be the same in its reproduction, which is often the case in the production of theatre in the 21st century – musicals, ballets, concerts, and museums programming the same material monthly or annually for diverse audiences. This kind of cloning of performance originates in its “as if” quality, which lends itself to becoming a reproduction, either through mimicry of reality or through form (as demonstrated in the institutions set up around theatre and entertainment).

Image 1: A popular example of Performance Art, Marina Abramovic’s ‘The Artist is Present’ (2010).

In the context of the museum gallery, where museums give “priority to the collection, conservation, communication, and display of objects” (Guy, 2016, p. 3), the pressures that performance faces to succumb to the laws of reproductive economy are vast, as to compete with its counterpart, performances are programmed for months at a time. This practice of replaying, reproducing, re-enacting, and documenting live performances so that museums can continue to bring in revenue from audiences moves away from the nature of performance and makes it entirely something else (Phelan, 1993).

Phelan offers an excellent analogy to explain this theory by suggesting that any conception of performance that has been reproduced is metaphoric, whereas true performance is metonymic. Performance art’s metonymic nature is “additive and associative; it works to secure a horizontal axis of contiguity and displacement” (1993, p. 150). Performance as metonym secures its potential for the real. This is because the body of the performer (or otherwise object) is central to performance art. In true performance, the body becomes metonymic “of self, of character, of voice, of ‘presence’” (Phelan, 1993, p. 150), a truthful transformation of the human condition. Contrary, performance as metaphor “secure[s] a vertical hierarchy of value and is reproductive; it works by erasing dissimilarity and negating difference; it turns two into one” (Phelan, 1993, p. 150). This restrictive quality of metaphor is rooted in patriarchal and capitalist notions and is argued to destroy the ability of art to express the real, as it controls its performative transformations within regulated space, place, and time. It robs a true performance of the impact of powerful exchange because reproduction is destructive to the real. True performance can only be lived once, and the claim or attempt to control it by replicating it sensationalises simplicity and pleasure, superficiality, shallow representation, and banality (Phelan, 1993).

Image 2: Participants in Ann Hamilton’s,’ The Event of a Thread’ (2012–13). Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Performance as Exchange

Performance as an ephemeral presentation of the real: ideas, knowledge, emotion, memory, and experience, within a certain context of space and time, cannot be effective or complete without spectatorship. It must be assumed that to performance belongs an entity for comprehension of the meaning it presents, a container of shared memory and interpretation that contextualises it. If performance begins at the source of the human condition, then it must complete itself in its consumption by the human body. Therefore, a complete interpretation of performance is the relationship between “the object of attention and the human body” (Guy, 2016, p. 2). Without the spectator, performance cannot offer form, shape, or appearance to its object of attention, to be communicated and interpreted.

The ritualisations discussed earlier in this article, which transforms into dramatic presentation, apply to audiences, spectators, and visitors. The reality that transpires through performance not only begins from the “preparations for performance […] by performers (training, workshop, rehearsals, preparations immediately before going on)”, but that of the spectators as well, in deciding to “[…] attend, dressing, going, settling in, waiting)” (Schechner, 2003, p. xviii). It is not only the body of the performer that is the envoy of reality but also the spectator that receives it and embodies it. If anything, the deep structures of performance that make it ephemeral and arguably that much more unstable are due to the continuously changing audiences that encounter it and their shifting receptions of it (Schechner, 2003).

Image 3: The front cover of a visual essay entitled ‘A Spectator is an Artist Too’ (2020). The essay concerns human behavior around art and makes a significant claim on how objects being received is worthy of art scholarship.

In the relationship between the spectator and the body (of the performer and of the work), the spectator not only participates in the spectacle but also in the structural welds that create a presumably unified event. The spectator is inserted into the folds of performance, and, with her participation, her knowledge is entangled too. This exchange is what provides performance with great power to evoke reality because it kinetically and psychologically bonds the art and spectator.


What is evident by virtue of artists, institutions, and various art and performance scholarship, is that performance remains this expansive concept capable of morphing and changing depending on its context. As daunting of an idea as this may be, with all things considered, it may be as simple as to accept certain rules of performance that maintain unchanging regardless of its vast scholarship, history, and cultural implications. Performance is a tool to evoke perception and experience within the realms of human consciousness. It is ephemeral in nature, can exist in one singular moment and space, and cannot be reproduced to its exact previous nature. It is mutable and adaptable to varying art forms, and most importantly, it is always in relation to the real.

The next article will explore the devices and traditions used to display within the museum/gallery, examining what is borrowed from theatrical traditions, and the implications this presents for performance of visual art.

Bibliographical Sources

Artists, V., & Edmunds, K. (n.d.). Spectator. In Terms of Performance. The Pew Centre of Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia.

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

Idema, J. (2020, September 11). A Spectator is an Artist Too. BIS Publishers.

Phelan, P. (1993). The Ontology of performance: representation without reproduction. In P.

Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (pp. 146-166). Taylor & Francis Group.

Schechner, R. (2003). Performance Theory (Vol. 2). London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Wood, C. (2018). Performance in Contemporary Art. London: Tate Publishing.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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