The Life of Performance Arts

What Happened; or, Finishing Live

by Rebecca Schneider

The essay begins:

When you get a pebble in your boot—flesh, stone, and leather rub, irritating each other into and out of comfort. This essay is like that. In 2012, I stumbled over a minor comment made on April 19 at the conference “Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage” at the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, curated by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson. The comment was made by Sabine Breitweiser, who at that time was the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Speaking of “acquiring actions” when “collecting” performance, Breitweiser said, almost as an aside during the question and answer session after her talk: “If live artworks are collected correctly, I believe they can acquire a patina over time.” The comment puzzled me, and I scribbled it down for memory’s sake with a question mark at the lead. What could it mean?

My difficulty was surely disciplinary. In a blog posting circulated in advance of the same conference, Malik Gaines, who was also an invited speaker, had written:

Visual art and performance are in a classic bad relationship. Art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive. But art will belittle performance in public, will call it late at night but won’t let it stay over, doesn’t really believe what performance does is valuable. Art’s esteemed family only barely tolerates the relationship. Performance stays with its more powerful partner for the money, for the stature, the trips to Europe, for feeling like it belongs to something, for fear of having to go back to that old senile boyfriend, the Theater. How else can it support itself? But performance never feels like it really belongs in art’s world. It’s always using the wrong fork at dinner.

Indeed, as a scholar of performance studies trained in a history of actions that include mime, theater, dance, and other historical forms more “theatrical” and less “object art,” I felt like an awkward guest at the dinner table in relationship to Breitweiser’s comment. I looked up “patina” in various dictionaries, but it only turned up the meaning I anticipated. Patina is

  1. A thin coating or layer; an incrustation on the surface of metal or stone, usually as a result of an extended period of weathering or burial; a green or bluish-green film produced naturally or artificially by oxidation on the surface of bronze and copper, consisting mainly of basic copper sulphate …
  2. A gloss or sheen or finish; that on wooden furniture produced by age and polishing …
  3. An acquired accretion of an abstract quality; a superficial impression or appearance.

None of these definitions works simply or seamlessly with the immediate definition of performance art as typically featuring “live presentation.” Though definitions vary quite wildly across dictionaries—some describe performance art as essentially “collaborative,” others as “solo,” some say “theatrical,” some refer to its “fine art context”—they almost all use the word “live.” And though synonyms for “patina” like “distressing” or “weathering” might appeal to tragedians or expressionists (anyone might agree that a live performance of King Lear would employ weathering and distressing), “oxidation” is less quick to comply with disciplinary orientations tuned to dance or theater. And yet, Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings might seem closer kin to live performance than the average “bluish-green film” on the skin of a local monument. Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings, or piss paintings as they are commonly known, might be read as something of a theatrical parody, making base bodily fluid the agent of oxidation. Still, might one not easily argue that patination may be standard “senile boyfriend” theater as usual? That is, the crusty monument model might resemble the standard American theater to the degree that such theater often trots out productions so encased in layers of accrued acting convention that they can barely strut and fret (spread by the deadly MFA model of training in the United States and the tendency of the professional theater to produce nothing but replicant white and male playwriting). But if this is the case, why would we desire patination for performance-based art in general?

To make a long story short, I scrapped the paper I had carried with me to the conference, and, in the wake of Breitweiser’s comment, I began to track a new set of thoughts, live, as it were. I wanted to try to respond to the notion of a patinal live, but I knew the fork I would take would be different, and I wondered, as well, what or who exactly was being served by thinking of patination as desirable. The essay that follows tracks thoughts that, like thought, do not always track in a linear fashion but overlap, change direction, cross paths, interrupt each other, get swept under, and tend toward general promiscuity. My hope is not that one thought might align with another, or one discipline with another, for in that parallelism nothing can amount to encounter. Rather, I hope that the thoughts collected here might swerve, jump, bend—we could say dance—not under protective cover of singular disciplinary orientation, but open to weathering, on the move. Continue reading …

This essay asks what happens to live performance over time: Can it develop a patina, as claimed by at least one major art curator? Are intervals between or among performances part of a work itself, like skin or film that grows in the cracks of a work? Or is performance itself a kind of patination process? In short, can liveness be finished?

rcschnei_photo__thumbnailREBECCA SCHNEIDER is Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She is the author of The Explicit Body in Performance (l997); Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (2011), and Theatre & History (2014) and editor and author of many anthologies, essays, journal special issues, and book series.

Dance as a Poetics of Problems

A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems

by Bojana Cvejić

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The essay begins:

This text is written with a double mission. By observing choreographic and dramaturgical ideas and methods in the performances of the Croatian collective BADco, I want to revive the importance of poetics in light of the predominance of practice in today’s discourse on art. BADco is a performance collective based in Zagreb (founded in 2000), and its artistic core comprises three dancer-choreographers, two dramaturges, and a philosopher: Ivana Ivković, Ana Kreitmeyer, Tomislav Medak, Goran Sergej Pristaš, Nikolina Pristaš, and Zrinka Užbinec. As the dramaturge Goran Sergej Pristaš has argued, today we are witness to a transformation of artistic work into praxis, whereby artistic labor is extended, atomized, and dispersed in a variety of activities in which the artist manifests his/her will. These purportedly free, yet commodified activities are often presented under the paradigm of art as research and education: as lectures, workshops, encounters, methodological exchanges, residencies, and so on. These occur in a familiar rhythm of fragmentation that subsumes life under work, that is, within the all-encompassing term artistic praxis. In such a regime of production little time is left for the artist actually to engage with his/her art, Pristaš concludes. In his brief statement “Praise of Laziness” (1993), the Croatian conceptualist Mladen Stilinović suggests that to engage in art making the artist must endorse (and perfect) laziness, in an emphatic annihilation of capitalist production and the institutional market. Laziness emerges as a poetics for Stilinović (and for Kazimir Malevich and Marcel Duchamp, both of whom he draws upon), or as a condition for poetics, understood as an engagement with the principles of production (poiesis).

According to Aristotle, poiesis is one of the three categories of human activity. It is poietikai technai that designates the art of making, forming, and composing, or production, in contrast to, on the one hand, praktikai technai, which refers to activity without an end or product, carried out for effect in public, hence, a performing art or an instantiation of the political life of citizens. On the other hand, poetics is also distinguished from teoretikai technai, which signifies investigation, or theory as opposed to practice. However, this distinction can barely hold any longer, as the term “practice” has broadened to such an extent that it incorporates both poetics and theory. Moreover, the discourse on artistic practice has cannibalized poetics, emptying it of thought concerning what the product of artistic activity is, what it means, and how its principles might become instruments for looking past art into society.

In order to explain what this double (artistic and political) articulation of poetics entails, as well as to situate the geocultural context in which BADco’s work arises, I will briefly introduce a book I co-edited with Goran Sergej Pristaš entitled Parallel Slalom: A Lexicon of Non-Aligned Poetics. The volume features essays on notions of poetics devised by Yugoslav artists and cultural workers—ideas and working principles that exceed the autonomy of art by also pointing to the political unconscious of a society (that of the former Yugoslavia, now under EU capitalist democracy, and then under socialism). One example would be Stilinović’s “laziness,” mentioned earlier; others would include the concept of “delay,” or the misrecognition, from the viewpoint of the Western-centered conception of modernity, of art in Eastern Europe or the concept of “radical amateurism,” which describes the artistic practice of taking the stance of the amateur who dares to ask disturbing, nonprofessional questions.

Two attributes characterize this kind of thought: parallelism and nonalignment. The latter refers to the nonaligned movement of states that were not formally aligned with either of the two major power blocs during the Cold War. Nonalignment suggests that neither the discourses of art in the grip of the Soviet socialist regime nor the postcolonialism of the West and its academic variants can adequately account for experimental performance practices in former Yugoslavia. While much of the experimentation was probed in writing—forming, since the year 2000, a regional (post-Yugoslav) platform of performing arts magazines such as Maska, Frakcija, and TkH/Walking Theory—the artists’ pages that were supposed to present performance artists from the Yugoslav context remained “empty.” Due to a lack of infrastructure for producing performances, artists and theorists were more often able to “rehearse thought” than to maintain a performance praxis, a fact evidenced in the export of Eastern European theorists and dramaturges into the Western context. Additionally, the spirit of collectivity and self-organization in life and artistic production within the independent scenes of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje, made the identification of experimental practice difficult or irrelevant. In the Yugoslav cultural legacy authorship isn’t branded as personal cultic expression or assigned clearly to one discipline, medium, or genre. BADco’s practice as a self-organized collective, a “nameless association of authors” (the acronym “BAD” in BADco stands for “bezimeno autorsko društvo” in Croatian) entails the rotation of responsible roles for each single work according to the varying wishes and concerns of the participating artists, roles that then transform in the course of the working process, rather than following established competencies of the individuals involved.

Now, returning to parallelism, calling poetics as a kind of thought a “parallel slalom” is to use the metaphor of a sloping ride, indeed, of a downhill ski race, which underlines the swift parallel connections between artists’ conceptual imagination and their critical insights into history and its political unconscious. The registers of poetics, politics, and philosophy here run parallel and sometimes get short-circuited among the notions of this lexicon. Parallelism also implies a kind of thought that arises from within, or close to, artistic practice in its productive rather than interpretive aspect. While today most art schools in Europe foster a procedural knowledge of art making, the poetical concepts in parallel slalom emphasize learning how to look through and from art rather than how to create it. Perhaps thinking of the political usefulness of art as a set of critical tools is a reflex from previous socialist times. Parallelism also accounts for the aesthetic similarity between Eastern and Western European performance practices, which has contributed to the perception of the Eastern as a déjà vu, as old-fashioned in the Western gaze, causing some misunderstanding and disenchantment in the West in the 1990s. Boris Groys has explained that the misrecognition of Eastern “non-art” by critics in the West, who failed to recognize it as art, reveals the difference in the use of art, not in aesthetic categories of form and style.

This difference in the aesthetic function of art is what we are going to observe in BADco’s choreographic poetics. Continue reading …

This text explores choreographic and dramaturgical ideas and methods in the performances of the Croatian collective BADco. It illuminates them within a distinctive poetics of performance—“non-aligned” with either Western or Eastern European cultural legacies—as a kind of thought that produces art, while it also looks past art into society.

BOJANA CVEJIĆ is a performance and dance scholar, a philosopher, and a performance maker. She is the author of several books, most recently Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance (Palgrave, 2015) and Public Sphere by Performance cowritten with Ana Vujanović (b_books, 2015, second edition).