From Joseph Beuys cozying up with coyotes to Amalia Ulman pulling a Kardashian-grade Instagram takeover, “performance art” seems to only be limited by what its audience is willing to designate as such. Outside the conventional art world, the mantle of performance has been taken up by the famous (Solange’s much heralded Guggenheim takeover) and the infamous (the lawyer of alt-right misinformation king and Infowars founder Alex Jones attempting to offload his client’s on-air hate speech as an elaborate performance piece).
So how can you separate out the genuine from the inauthentic, and why does performance continue to straddle these boundaries? Is it the synchrony between our increasingly accelerated lifestyles and the ephemeral, reactive nature of performance art? Is it because the medium is particularly well-suited to the protest movements, urgency, and ambiguity framing our global politics? And how have new media and post-internet aesthetics redefined the look, feel, and political potential of performance art in the 21st century?
Answering these myriad questions means tracing the history of performance. Beginning with the so-called “performative turn” of the 1960s, which built up the medium’s (literal) street cred as a boundary-defying movement that would radically redefine the future of art in the second half of the 20th century, we track the evolution of performance and speculate on the reasons behind its impact today.
It’s safe to say that after the ’60s, performance art was never the same. Trumpeting political freedom and economic opportunity, post-war America emerged as the world’s major hub for all things avant-garde. Europe’s budding art stars—from Eva Hesse to Claes Oldenburg—poured into New York City to take part in this cultural explosion. Meanwhile, the bohemian rock-n-roll flair ushered in by the likes of the Velvet Underground fused with the experimental performances of Pop Art darlings like Andy Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events to create an unprecedented public hunger for happenings that washed over the streets of New York.
Most importantly, the “performative turn” of the ’60s emerged from a distinct moment of political and cultural upheaval across America. From the emergent civil rights movement and race riots that ripped through its cities, to the blossoming of sociology with Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), to seismic political events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, America in the 1960s exposed the hypocrisy and weakness in the government’s handling of both global and domestic affairs.
And, like always, crisis became a catalyst for the art world. Performance art tore down walls and broke laws of taboo to establish itself as all that was unconventional, infusing the attitude of Euro-zone Fluxus (a movement that eschewed commercialization and conventionality) with American politics through the likes of Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramović, Nam June Paik, Yayoi Kusama, and Wolf Vostell, whose works created moments of solidarity on the street, but also exposed the brutality of post-war America’s military-industrial complex.
The 1970s saw performance sober up but still keep its provocative edge. Stricter rules came into play, with the artists involved establishing credibility for the medium and cementing it within more moneyed art circles. The predominant 1970s strand of performance saw its icons returning to the white cube, if only to work inside these four walls to destabilize the institution and critique everything happening outside of it.
A prime example: I like America and America Likes Me (1974). On a blazing summer day in 1974, the streets of New York lit up with the whirr of an ambulance’s sirens, this one on a beeline from JFK International Airport to Soho’s René Block Gallery. Its cargo included the German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys. Cloaked in what would become his iconic shamanistic garb for the groundbreaking performance piece, Beuys was delivered by stretcher into the back room of the West Broadway gallery. It is here that the artist spent the next three days both healing and being healed by his temporary roommate: a wild coyote, in a move that would change performance art forever.
Beuys’s performance was not just groundbreaking because of the extreme lengths to which the artist went to articulate the meaning of his art. He further challenged the boundaries for what was already an extended performance piece, politicizing his own entry into the United States while exposing the inward violence and cultural erasure, especially of Native Americans, at the heart of American identity. In performing both the healer and the healed, Beuys simultaneously became the victim and the perpetrator, setting the pace for the future of performance that, more than any other medium, would increasingly politicize the personal to critique its contemporary society.
The Second Performative Turn?
In the 1980s and ’90s, globalization and the electronic superhighway promoted performance art as an open-access platform rooted in the body’s relationship to technology and new modes of visibility. As mainstream culture clocked into the movement, the brave new world of internet cultures lit up global connectivity, further internationalizing the performance art scene, from China’s Zhang Huan to the Russian Actionism movement that emerged from the rubbles of the Soviet regime. Performance’s ambiguous relationship to materiality and commodification confidently tackled consumerism, embraced pop culture, and pixelated itself with glee.
But the influence of new media on performance art of the ’80s and ’90s was a two-way street. Faced with an increasingly object-oriented world of insatiable supply and demand, some performance artists like Tehching Hsieh dug deeper into materializing personal attachment to the present. Hsieh’s piece with life partner and collaborator Linda Montano, One Year Performance (1983–84), incorporated a stunning feat of human bondage, seeing the duo connected at the waist by an eight-foot rope for an entire calendar year.
This radical exposure of private life intensified in the first decade of 21st-century performance, in which the blogosphere increasingly politicized the personal. Crossing the needle-thin threshold between performance and pop culture, artist Marisa Olson turned her audition for American Idol’s 2004 season into a “performative exploration of the norms bound up with the show,” extensively documented through the personal blog format. Her anthropological-grade investigation ran parallel to the presidential election, for which Olson hoped to bump-up registration for among her (mostly) young followers by conducting opinion polls for every aspect of her Idol persona, from shade of blonde to shoe style, as well as bringing voter registration cards to her IRL auditions.
The critique of “performing for the camera” hit Instagram with Amalia Ulman’s “Excellences and Perfections” (2014) series (a five-month digital performance of a semi-scripted extreme makeover documented through selfies) and Molly Soda’s Youtube “makeup tutorial”-inspired aesthetic to tap into the paradoxes at play in web-based performance art. Both works raise questions about the supposed intimacy afforded by the internet, and the authenticity of performance.
Separating the Meaningful from the Lazy
So how, then, can we separate meaningful performance from the flatline and lazy? “Bad performance art is a prescriptive, single-channel vision,” says Soda. “Good performance can be subtle or over the top… but not like, someone pouring chocolate all over themselves and screaming. It has to be self-aware.” Olson suggests the distinction lies within the intentions of the artist rather than any objective read of the quality or format of the performance. Good performance art “creates a mood and a moment to collectively take an audience to a space where we consider the edges of our expectations and our highs and lows,” she says. “Bad work is making a bunch of assumptions about who’s in on your clever inside jokes with yourself…in a way that you can’t see is hubristic.”
Opacity and the capacity for multiple reads emerges as the key characteristic of performance done right. So how does the internet help out with that? Olson’s American Idol Audition Training Blog project suggests that its broad reception was independent of whether or not her audience “knew or cared that I was doing a performance art piece,” she explains. Soda’s read of the cybernetic free-for-all is somewhat more somber. “It’s cool to see activism on your news feed,” Soda says, “but then we have to ask ourselves, who rules these channels and what are they mediating?”
Performance, Protest, and Politics
The rapid-fire economy of performance art and its quick-reaction politics primes the medium to be the art world’s most cogent critique of contemporary global culture. The increasingly blurred boundary between performance and protest further politicized art fairs this year from the controversy surrounding holding documenta 14 in Athens, which Greek economist, academic, and politician Yanis Varoufakis referred to as an exercise of “disaster tourism,” to the “Black Death Spectacle” of the Whitney Biennial. In I Can’t Work Like This (2017), a new reader on the relationship between politics, protest, and performance art today, curator Joanna Warsza suggests that the “glamour, symbolic, and financial concentration” of these mega art events is strategically co-opted by art world protest, which likewise relies on social media’s incessant documentation for publicity to spread its message and impact.
Ultimately, the internet puts a two-way mirror up to performance art as a platform for protest, tearing down the boundaries of exclusion that traditionally fenced off the high art world from ordinary viewership and everyday criticism. But while the screw-ups and scandals of the art world are now broadcast, live-streamed, pinned, tweeted, hashtagged and boomeranged into oblivion with an echo chamber of angry reaction faces, what larger issues might fly under the radar? Performance art operates on a similar “currency of immediacy,” says Olson, suggesting that it occupies “a liminal state between the categories established for tangible art media by capitalism.” In this site of ambiguity, performance can react instantaneously, assimilating into the very thing it critiques to become contemporary art’s most powerful medium.