I’m taking some time off from (public) performances to teach a series of workshops across London as part of Openlab, and possibly the UK (if you count Newcastle and Birmingham as across the UK). Also, our crew at ML Studio has been working on a few exciting new projects, from laser-projected dancing to games and apps for multi-touch surfaces. I’ll post more news of our developments very soon, there’s a lot to write about!
In the midst of all that, I am also contributing towards a new Video Games Arts degree at the University of the Creative Arts, Farnham, where I’ve been teaching for the last three years. The exciting thing about it is that I get to do some heavy reading into video games, art, and design – always a few of my favorite topics.
Today I was researching performance art around the 1960’s, specifically Allan Kaprow, and came across this chestnut:
Alan Kaprow: Performance is the replacement of the word happening, or event, or activity, which we used in those days to refer to a number of somewhat related kinds of real time events. What’s called an installation today is the child of what used to be called, before the happenings, an environment. Now, I think that if you look at the words there, the shifts indicate something like a real change toward the installation compared to that of the environment, and the performance to that of the happening. If you look at the word installation, installation means, very simply and literally, that somebody is taking something already fabricated or made, generally, and installing it. It has a kind of implicit art activity to it. It also suggests a kind of aesthetic intentionally, much as you would install a sculpture in a museum. The environment, the etymology of the word, and the whole connotation of the word environment, is that of a surround, in which the particular parts are not necessarily placed with some kind of formal care for their external cohesion, but rather as an interaction between the person who is being surrounded and the stuff of that environment. It has a kind of a fullness to it, which the work installation doesn’t. Installation suggests a discreteness. Now, look at the word performance. It too has a conservative evocation. When you hear that word you think of Jascha Heifitz performing on the violin, Sir Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare, and so on. You don’t ordinarily think of a high performance engine, which is the more vernacular meaning of the word in English, and in many other European languages it’s used the same way. So, there is the return to a kind of artifying activity, a kind of singular focus on the performer as artist, in a way that a virtuoso was a performer in classical music, or still is. Or an actor.
Now, I think those two words, installation and performance, mark accurately the shift in attitude toward a rejection or sense of abandonment of an experimental, modernist, position which had prevailed up to about, lets be generous, up to about 1968-1969, and began gradually becoming less and less energized. So, I think what you’re getting there is the flavor of modernist exhaustion and incidently a return to earlier prototypes, or models, of what constitutes art. And it’s no accident that the majority of most performance nowadays, there’s not much installation anymore, by the way, the majority of those performances tend to be of an entertainment, show biz, song and dance, in which the focus is on the individual as skilled presenter of something that tends to have a kind of self-aggrandizing, or at least self-focusing, purpose. It is artist as performer, much like somebody is an entertainer in a nightclub. And they’re interesting. Some of them are very good. I think Laurie Anderson is very good. She’s got all the skills that are needed in theater, which is what this is. Many others who jump on the bandwagon, coming from the visual arts, have no theatrical skills, and know zilch about the timing, about the voic about positioning, about transitions, about juxtapositions, those moment by moment occurrences in theater that would make it work. But it’s another animal, whether good or bad, from what we were doing, and I think, in general, even the good ones are a conservatizing movement.
This is a very short and insightful view of modern-day art, and how it differs in flavor from the earlier experimental artists of the 20th century such as Duchamp. Being a performing artist who tries to break through the “audience/performer” mode of live art, I understand what he is saying: art can certainly be performance, and good performance, at that; it can also be an experience that dissolves the boundaries between audience and artist, dissolves the picture frame, compositional shapes, and entirety of itself until it ceases to be a series of dramatic, jutaposed actions, and instead becomes an all-encompassing mollasses.
Also excellent is his “Art Which Can’t Be Art” essay, which reminds me a lot of Godel and his Incompleteness principal, which is a similar sort of paradox where you can create a system of thought (the counting numbers, in this case) in which things that cannot be proved neither true nor false are true precisely because of that inability to prove. Quite the interesting paradox, in both cases.