Each time July 29th rolls around the Present Tense gets a year older. Next year we will celebrate 10 years of the Present Tense, I can’t believe that nearly a decade has already passed. Late summer always brings a time of reflection on where Present Tense has been and where its going, this year I found myself thinking a lot about gallery SoToDo and the Performance Art Congress. While the Congress and SoToDo (which was a floating gallery) never officially worked with the Present Tense in an organizational capacity, it was the source of many of the artists we’ve connect with and shown over the years. While I was thinking about it a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find that SoToDo’s website was still up, despite it being inactive since 2009. On it, I found a wonderfully written statement from Theordor Di Ricco, the organizer of SoToDo.
Past, Present, Future; What is Performance Art
by Theodor di Ricco
11. Sept. 2009
project space LAB39 in Mullae Artist’s Village, Seoul, South Korea
Walking into a room, removing a rubber ball from a pocket and bouncing it on the floor is performance art if the performance artist declares it to be such. Sitting in a lecture hall and watching someone dressed in yellow maneuver themselves to a seat can be considered performance art if the observer declares it to be such. Performance Art does not have a beginning or an end. It happens. Whether it is takes place as spoken word, as a manifestation, an individual action, or even as a foolish activity, it has always occurred because of the need to communicate information on how to live. Art is a vehicle of communication.
Human beings have learned to be creative and social in order to survive. At the dawn of civilization, the first art works were sculptured from stone and painted on cave walls to communicate lessons learned or deeds accomplished. As societies developed, those who controlled the access of information were the ones favored. In order to preserve their power, they subsequently developed a Machiavellian power structure to organize and control the community.
In every society there are fools, shamans, sages and artists who are set apart from the society in general. They are either crazy, have super-human abilities, are wise or creative. To deal with them, the society creates a micro system which mirrors the general Machiavellian structure. Within this tightly controlled micro-system, they are placed at the center and the rest of the community occasionally surrounds.
Within this group it is the artist sets an example how to live (make art). The artist is at the center and is able to see everyone. This advantage allows the artist to act as a pressure valve within the society, expressing concepts and ideas together with actions and deeds that balance the spectrum of society’s common consciousness,
The alternative life style represented by the artist is tolerated and respected to a certain degree. Because if the quality of life within the society at whole diminishes, some within the community seek alternatives. The artist acts as a catalyst for change. However, for this privilege, the artist is trapped by the community’s focus and must manipulate each side in order to remain in the center (or alive).
The role of the community is to be shown how to live (make art). The community is content to follow the example of the artist, and is freed from the responsibility of having to live (make art) for themselves. Their role is simply to experience.
The micro-Machiavellian structure is in place for the preservation of society and demonstrates a collective discipline on the part of the artist and the community in order to prevent a state in which everyone is living (making art) for themselves, or in short, a state of anarchy.
Once again, in order to survive humans are creative and social, Art is a means of communication As societies developed, those who have access of information found themselves in control. This lead to a Machiavellian power structure. Mirroring this structure, a micro-version is set-up within where the artists is placed.
Remaining in the center and acting as a pressure valve within the society an example of this is in the beginning of the 20th century. The Futurist and Dadaist, caught in the middle of economic and political extremes created by rapid Industrialization and the First World War, responded by creating time based environments mirroring the chaos of everyday life.
Many art historians define this two groups as the origin of performance art. I could continue mentioning groups or names of artists throughout the last century however people have always been using time as a media of commutation. It is therefore irrelevant to speak of a history of performance art, to drop names as to who was the first to do it and where it first appeared. What is important is to find the thread that links one’s cultural history to time-based events in contemporary life.
Even though Performance Art has always existed, it is only recently been named. The word Performance Art originated from the visual as well as the sound artists’ mouths when asked in the Seventies what they were doing. Later the word was used by art historians when labeling a generation of artists that was moving away from expressing their world in stagnate medium in sculpture, painting and music and consciously used the element of time as a media of artistic expression.
Since the end of the Second World War, virtual consciousness has evolved tremendously. The telephone and television had moved humans much closer to experiencing events simultaneously. Today, the internet is increasingly the vehicle of communication incorporating the two as well as being global and instantaneous.
During the last decades, artists have strengthened their international network respective to the developments of information technology. They also have moved closer to creating art simultaneously. Perhaps performance art is one of the first art forms that appeared in various cities around the world at the same time some forty years ago.
In the sixties, there were Happenings, Sit-Ins, group demonstrations where people came together to manifested a collective statement or common consciousness,
The seventies, Fluxus, in which an object or act is used and manipulated, thus giving it a new meaning. It developed from the concept debated during the period that everyone is an artist in the infrastructure of society; from the gardener, to the craftsmen, the dentist to the politician. It is particular to note, that it is at this time the word Performance Art was deemed proper to use when describing this new and controversial art form.
In the Eighties, artists continued expanding their networks locally as well as globally. The Performance Art began to incorporate the elements of dance, theater, video and music. New genres within performance art were created. An awareness of the body within time and space became Body Art Also, Endurance performance art where the artist explores the limits of the human body and Survival in which the body is physically mutilated became relevant statements with the context of performance art.
In the Nineties, Ritual based performance happened, in which the artist instigates a process, however abstract to impress the experience. Ultimate Mass demonstrations took place where people congregated at a site for a brief period and collectively performed one act. Thus the act of mobilizing had become the statement in itself. Theater, dance and music were increasingly incorporating some of the elements of Performance art and Live Art was created.
In the Naughts or the last decade, artists, having being taught by those who are relevant to the art of performance, have mastered the technique of video and sound and readily included others people in their performance.
Taking a closer look at the history of performance art, similarities in european history, can be drawn to predict it’s future in the upcoming decades. Between circa. 1835 and 1865 the secret police of Austria, Russian and Germany worked together to control the threat of revolution, which that had already occurred in France fifty years earlier. This period is referred to as Biedermeier.
A parallel has recently occurred during the thirty year neo-liberalism period between 1980 and 2010. This economic strategy where the market will control itself and therefore did not need government regulation was in response to the totalitarian communism of the Soviet Union and China.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the neo-liberalism which had already been exported to South America, ruled over the conversion of the former communist countries and China. The shock of political change disorientated many and allowed for a rapid installation of this laissez-faire economic plan. Dissent was labeled as acts against the state and dealt with accordingly. Then came 9-11 and terrorism.
This threat was not limited to the borders of any particular country. Though terrorist acts are site specific, security is global. This provided the impetus within developed countries to install their own neo-liberalism policies. As with the Cold War and now the threat of terrorism, fear is firmly installed and governments implement laws that erode civil rights.
As with the Biedermeier period, in the last thirty years people retreated into our their own four walls due to shock of a neo-liberalism and the threat of terror. When the artists band together to express an alternative consciousness, they are romantic not knowing how or whether there actions might someday justify their means.
Many understand that in order to change society one must also work from within. The current outlet for free speech is through the internet. With the dawn of Web 2.0, there are not three, nine or thirty-six television channels and a separate telephone line, there is only one cable. Both are replaced by the computer monitor, whether it is on a desk or hanging on the wall. Our social networks have become, in part, virtual. We are free to choose what we experience. Art via the monitor will develop within this parameter and performance art is it’s artistic media. Because the ephemeral quality of performance art is it’s means and has been turned into a commodity by those who create it. The future of performance art lies in the action of marketing this commodity via the internet.
There is much debate about what are the elements of performance art. What is most essential is that the method of communicating a message be honest and authentic. Repetition of another person’s work for entertainment purposes is not performance art. There is also much debate about the public’s response to performance art. Performance art does not warrent approval. The public is not required to applaud to show respect. They role is to experience.
A singular performance art action where there is no public and no documentation thereof betrays the necessity to communicate a message. Others can debate differently. However, this debate can be compared to the sound of one had clapping. It is endless and only relevant to those who try to answer it.
It seems nowadays to question the artist’s message and purpose is to betray common sense. As with every action, it has a political, spiritual and an eastectic statement. The can of dog food one buys at the market or the clothes one choses to put on in the morning is a message about oneself and how one interprets the society in which one lives. It seems to reason that if an artist uses the action and calls it art, that their message should be relevant and the concept clear. The need to communicate information to people on how to live (make art) is the purpose of the performance artist.
The winds of a silent revolution are taking place, the political and economic structures of the last three decades are changing. The world is moving away from neo-liberalism capitalism towards a socialist democracy. Currently there are more socialist countries than before the Cold War. The last Keynesian period of social democracy between ca. 1930 to 1960 brought the world modern art. This upcoming period will unleash a flurry of contemporary art and performance art is well positioned to be the art form of the 21st century.
Therefore, it is also extremely important that festivals and congresses centered around performance art happen. They bring together artists who differ in their distinct geographical and cultural temperaments, thus ensuring a constant influx of new ideas. They also provide an time based environment where the artists and the public can explore current contemporary means of artistic expression, communicate, pool ideas together and strengthening the bridges that link them further. The benefit of this exchange, whether artistic or personal, is a highly motivating factor for all those who participate. In the case of life following art, this collective artistic happening of performance artists is a service to themselves and to the society at whole.
The concept of performance art has been debated and has continued to evolve. It is the pinnacle of contemporary art simply because it is time based. It is the performance artist who first defines the moment, which is later interpreted in other artistic medium of sculpture, painting, theater, film, dance or music. Performance art is the act of making art on site at the moment. Yet, even though everyone is allowed to make art, only a few dare to do so.
So, To Do.
As I began working on this blog post, I noticed that the SoToDo website had disappeared. I can only hope this is temporary, as it houses a wonderful archive including an epic list of every artist that’s performed at the Congress dating back to 1987. For now, we’ll just have to view the site via the Wayback Machine.