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> Performance Art > Introduction

Series 1:
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Series 3:
 —   Modern and Contemporary Art
 —   Conceptual Art
 —   New Media Art
 —   Participatory and Relational Art
 —   Installation Art
 —   Public Art
 —   Performance Art
Introduction   |   Essay   |   Resources   |   Booklet

What is Performance Art?

This introductory text provides a brief overview of Performance Art. Terms associated with Performance Art are indicated in CAPITALS and are elaborated on in the glossary or by hovering the cursor over the term.

PERFORMANCE ART is a form of arts practice that involves a person or persons undertaking an action or actions within a particular timeframe in a particular space or location for an audience. Central to the process and execution of Performance Art is the live presence of the artist and the real actions of his/her body, to create and present an ephemeral art experience to an audience. A defining characteristic of Performance Art is the body, considered the primary MEDIUM and conceptual material on which Performance Art is based. Other key components are time, space and the relationship between performer and audience.

Primarily an INTERDISCIPLINARY practice, Performance Art can employ any material or medium across any discipline, including MUSIC, DANCE, LITERATURE, POETRY, ARCHITECTURE, FASHION, DESIGN and FILM. While Performance Art employs strategies such as RECITATION and IMPROVISATION associated with THEATRE and DRAMA, it rarely employs plot or NARRATIVE. Performance Art can be spontaneous, one-off, durational, improvised or rehearsed and performed with or without scripts. Performances can range from a series of small-scale intimate gestures to public rallies, spectacles or parades presented in solo or collaborative form. In contrast to conventional methods of theatre production, the visual artist is the performer, creator and director of the performance. Performance Art can be situated anywhere: in ART MUSEUMS, GALLERIES and alternative art spaces or in impromptu sites, such as cafés, bars or the street, where the site and often unknowing audience become an integral part of the work's meaning.

Performance Art can trace its early influences to medieval performances by poets, minstrels, troubadours, bards and court jesters and also to the spectacles and masquerades of the RENAISSANCE. However, the origins of Performance Art are more commonly associated with the activities of early twentieth century AVANT-GARDE artists, in particular those associated with FUTURISM, CONSTRUCTIVISM, AGITPROP, DADA, SURREALISM and the BAUHAUS.

Celebrating all things modern, Futurist artists devised new forms of art and artist-led events, such as repetitive actions, lectures, manifestos, mass demonstrations, and live street tableau x, to express the dynamism of modern urban life. Artists drew inspiration from all forms of performance, including popular entertainment formats, such as the variety show, circus, cabaret and opera. Live public engagement was paramount and performances involved improvised, unpredictable and often chaotic programmes delivered by artists, poets, actors, architects, critics and painters, frequently accompanied by discussions and debates to spread and initiate new cultural ideas.

Other formative influences on the development of Performance Art include the socially-orientated, utilitarian ethos of Constructivism with its emphasis on audience participation; the underground theatre of Agitprop; the nihilistic, antiart agenda of Dada with their anarchic collaborations, cabarets and performances; the experimental performances, films and theatre productions of the Surrealists and the innovations of the Bauhaus school and its influence on interdisciplinary arts education. These experimental and innovative art movements contributed to the displacement of the art object as the locus of artistic engagement and the establishment of performance as a legitimate form of artistic expression. They also set a new precedent for interdisciplinary COLLABORATION, where artists employed a range of art forms to create new modes of performance and artist-led events.

The influx of European artists into America in the 1930s and '40s, in particular those associated with Surrealism and the Bauhaus, contributed to the emergence of ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM and ACTION PAINTING as the dominant modes of artistic expression during the 1940s and '50s. The development of Performance Art is associated with the photographic and film documentation of action painters. Artists perceived the action of creating the art object as a potential for performance in itself, and reinterpreted this through live painting performances using the human body as a paint brush.

The MULTIDISCIPLINARY events and performances known as HAPPENINGS in the late 1950s and early '60s had a significant influence on the development of Performance Art. Happenings emphasised the importance of chance in artistic creation, audience participation and the blurring of the boundary between the audience and the artwork. Similarly, the interdisciplinary approach employed by FLUXUS artists sought to blur the distinction between art and the everyday.

Prompted by the social, cultural and political changes during the 1960s, artists became concerned with the increasing COMMODIFICATION of art and the relationship of the art institution to broader socio-economic and political processes. Informed by new developments across a range of theoretical and practical disciplines, such as FEMINISM, POSTCOLONIALISM and CRITICAL THEORY , and drawing on earlier strategies of disruption, artists devised new forms of practice, such as temporary, TEXT-BASED, DIDACTIC and performative work, to complicate the perception of the art object as commodity.

By the 1970s the term Performance Art had come into general usage and was closely associated with CONCEPTUAL ART , which emphasised the production of ideas over art objects. The ephemeral, corporeal and radical potential of Performance Art appealed to artists committed to destabilising the material status of the art object. The potential for Performance Art to bypass the museum or gallery and mediate directly with the public instigated a surge of ARTIST-LED INITIATIVES and alternative spaces in which experimentations in performance could be devised. Performance Art employed many of the tendencies of SITE-SPECIFIC ART and INSTITUTIONAL CRITIQUE in its consideration of space, context, site and intervention.

The proliferation of Performance Art in the 1970s resulted in the emergence of new forms and categories of Performance Art. Prompted by the political and social upheaval of the 1960s, activist-based performances, such as ACTIVIST ART, STREET ART and GUERRILLA THEATRE , sought to draw attention to political and social issues through satire, DIALOGICAL and protest techniques. Body-based performances were influenced by the emergence of feminist theory and critique in the 1960s and '70s which re-evaluated traditional representations of the female body. Artists used their bodies to challenge restrictive definitions of sexuality, actively exhibiting their own naked bodies to undermine conventional notions of female nudity. Similarly, artists used their bodies to test the limits of the performing body, pursuing themes of endurance, self-control, transformation, risk and pain. The body was interpreted as a universal READYMADE which gave rise to offshoots of Performance Art, such as BODY ART, FEMINIST ART and LIVING SCULPTURE.

PHOTOGRAPHY, FILM and VIDEO played a central role in the DOCUMENTATION of Performance Art and these mediums became the primary means by which Performance Art reached a wider public. By the 1980s, performance artists were increasingly incorporating technological media into their practice, such as SLIDE PROJECTION, SOUND, DIGITAL MEDIA and COMPUTER-GENERATED IMAGERY to create associated art forms such as VIDEO ART, SOUND ART and INSTALLATION ART.

Having circumvented the museum and gallery for decades, more and more Performance Art is situated and performed within museum and gallery spaces. The ephemeral and transient nature of Performance Art presents challenges with regard to its conservation, archiving and re-presentation. However, many contemporary museums and galleries are restaging early works, presenting new work, adopting interdisciplinary programming and acquiring live performances into their collections. There are numerous organisations, training programmes and festivals dedicated to Performance Art and an increasing body of professional practitioners continue to address its boundaries, relevance and significance as a form of CONTEMPORARY ART.

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