About Action Art, the Museum and the Object Between. Sergio Edelsztein

About Action Art, the Museum and the Object Between
Sergio Edelsztein

(A lecture delivered by Sergio Edelsztein at the 11th Performance Art Conference at the E.P.I. Zentrum NRW, at the Machinenhaus, Essen; 4-4-2003.)

The following lecture is about a subject that has been in my mind for several years. Having organized and curated performance events in different locations – from galleries to opera houses, I used to wonder about the lack of performance shows in museums.

In 1999 I was invited by the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea in Santiago de Compostela – in Spain to curate a performance festival. The event took place in December 2000 and it was called “La Accion y su Huella” that means: “The Action and its Footprint”.

Setting curatorial parameters to this event gave me an opportunity to think for the first time systematically about the significance of something as uncommon as showing performance in museum settings. It is clear that the relationship between performance and the museum is dysfunctional – when not straight away antagonist. When we come to think about it, the reasons of this antagonism are quite obvious to us all. Amelia Jones argues in her book “Body Art – Performing the Subject” that “body art practices, which enacts subjects in “passionate and convulsive” relationships (often explicitly sexual) [and thus] exacerbate, perform and/or negotiate the dislocating effects of social and private experience in the late capitalistic, postcolonial Western world”. (p. 1) No doubt there is enough sex and violence in this quote to ban performance for a hundred years of kindergartens and museums…

Practical reasons for not showing performance could also be the “time-based” quality of events that requires advertisement and Public Relations efforts that are beyond the institution’s reach. However, these issues might change, whether by the changing interests in performance, or relocation of resources within the museum.

In my mind, however, there is a deeper incompatibility between the museum and performance surrounding the issue of the artistic object. To understand this conflict, we have to go back in time, briefly, to the very roots of modern action art and modern museums.

The origins of Action Art go back to the origins of history – and before. It is found in pre-historic religious and magical rituals. However, from the point of view of Contemporary Art, Performance is traced back to the Dadaists in the second decade of the 20th century. Taken over by the Surrealists, and flourishing towards the 1950s with the Happening, the fluxist and neo-realist tendencies in Europe; and with the Gutai in the Far East, Performance arrives to present days with a capital P - with an impressive artists tradition, and with an equally consistent tradition of conflict with artistic institutions.

It is true, the movements that I mentioned - and as a matter of fact, all the artistic avant-gardes, denounced Museums for being temples that consecrate the old, passed and decadent styles that this Avant Garde pretends to topple. The futurists compared the Museums with cemeteries, Mayakowsky wrote “Make bombardments echo on the museum walls…” (Renato Poggioli pg. 53)

This general attitude is an extension of the basic belief of the artistic Vanguards that any artistic expression before its own creation was a complete waste of time, and therefore its sanctification and conservation are to be condemned.

The point is, that while all avant-gardes repudiated Museums, Performance art has the merit of having always been the only artistic medium in history that has steadily been repudiated back by the museums. In this way, a whole generic conflict between the avant-gardes and the keepers of tradition is funnelled through Action art.

This singular characteristic seems to be rooted in the fact that Museums have always depended on objects. From the Renaissance “Studiolo” till the megalo-institutions of our times, Museums have always devoted their resources to the conservation, research and exhibition of objects. >From small Palaeolithic flint stones through dresses, spoons, paintings and sculptures – all the material manifestations of human culture - including an “Urinal”.

Talking about art at the beginning of the twentieth century – when this famous Urinal was first displayed in a museum, there is a fundamental aspect that we always have to bear in mind: even for the most revolutionary modernists “art” is identical with “object” – and most specifically paintings and sculptures. Hans Richter, one of the most theoretically oriented Dadaists titles his narration of the times “Dada – Art and Anti-Art”. For him, as for all the vanguards, “anti - art” means “anti - object”. This was indeed one of the most revolutionary aspects of Dadaism, and one that fostered their interest in action as an alternative way of expression. It is significant, however, that an heterogeneous group of plastic artists, and among them Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, Marcel Janco, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Hans Richter and Marcel Duchamp created an artistic movement much more involved with political and literary contents than with pictorial ones – a movement whose raison d’etre was to scandalize the bourgeois and its principal strategy was performative. It seems that these were Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Richard Huelsenbeck who prompted this performative direction – being already aware of the Futurist’s works and theories.

In fact most of the theories that were developed by the dadaists were already stated – and sometimes enacted by the futurists since 1909. They where the ones that discovered that Performance was the most direct means of forcing the audience to take note of their ideas – using it a s a means to disrupt their bourgeois complacency. Futurists and later dadaist successful “soirees” were normally accompanied by missiles of assorted vegetables and furniture coming from the public – with the artists retaliating with creative insults. My favourite is Carlo Carra’s yelling “Throw an idea, instead of potatoes, idiots !”.

Moreover, as it is clear form the manifests, performance was the surest way of blurring the limits between artistic disciplines. Painters, musicians, poets – they all became “Performers”, art objects in themselves – the ultimate Subject.

If anyway I start my recount with the Dadaists, it is because, while the Futurists’ ideas were as radical as they can be, and showed the way to all the real avant-gardes of the 20th century, their respect to objects of art is manifested – if not in their ecstatic manifests, then in the objects themselves that they created, their oil paintings, and bronze sculptures. The crisis of the object was clearly formulated in my mind by the dadaists. A crisis of which Action art was equally its cause and consequence.

The dadaists formulated their performative ends and strategies through a systematic break with traditional principles that regulated theatrical practices since the Ancient Greeks’ times - these are the conventions of time, space and the character of the actors, actually the idea of the actor itself. For the Dadaist action and since then for all Action art, time and space are always “here” and “now”, and the character is always the artist himself . Following this line of thought, the crisis of the object is rooted in the fact that – without past or future, artistic objects loose their significance and function.

Paradoxically, from Dadaism itself raised a new paradigm of the artistic object as it was elaborated by Marcel Duchamp, and is still ruling today. There is no doubt that Duchamp’s starting point in inventing the Readymade was this same dadaist irreverence to the art object and by extension a certain validation of the non-artistic object. However, Duchamp twisted what should have been the Dadaist cri-de guerre - “Art is Garbage” into his own, saying “Garbage could be Art – if the artists wants so”. In the end, the Duchampian Readymade saved the artistic object from the tremendous crisis that was imposed by Dadaism.

As a matter of fact, shortly after enunciating his theory of the Readymade, Duchcamp takes the precaution of calling off the elements of massification implicit in this new artistic discipline writing: “I realized very soon the danger of
repeating indiscriminately this form of expression and decided to limit the yearly production of Readymades to a small number”

It is here where Duchamp aligns himself with the principles that regulate the production and distribution of art objects. It is here where the Mona Lisa with moustache becomes a work of art as desirable as the one it tries to parody. This duchampian mercantilist alchemy rules contemporary art till today. It is based in the power of the artists to lift objects- as Hans Richter wrote - “from the limbo of unregarded objects into the living world of works of art”.

I could sign off here saying the crisis of the object started with dadaists and ended with Duchamp, but undoubtedly something remains damaged and incomplete in regard to the artistic object, and it has to be re-defined by each artist, and each art movement since then. Also today the market and the institutions are negotiating the relevance of artistic disciplines and trying to find its way not only through performance, but through new media, video, film and ever proliferating non-material disciplines, as well as extremely demanding material ones.

We’ll see how a few of these historical movements reflected this material crisis, but first, let’s focus on yet another embryonic moment in the history of Performance – when Dadaism met Surrealism; when the chaotic genius of Tristan Tzara met with the intellect of Andre Breton. Already in the first mise-en-scene in Paris, some differences were clear between the two streams. We could say that the Zurich crowd would respond more to cries, gibberish poems, rhythms, masks and noises. The Parisian bourgeoisie was much more easy to upset – entrenched in centuries of art and elite culture, it was only necessary to attack their paintings. In fact, it is worth reading a description of the Premier Vendredi of the Surrealists in Paris because of its remarkable iconoclastic character.

The action in question took place on January the 23rd 1920 at the Palais des Fetes – only six days after Tzara arrived to the city. The “soiree” was structured - following the structure that has been developed by the Futurists and later by the Zurich Dada, as segments of different media, starting and ending with readings of poetry pieces by the Surrealist group. According to the schedule, the “art” and the “music” segment would be in-between. But it was precisely this art section that sparkled the scandal that made the event so successful – in dadaist standards.

“After Breton read a piece about the works of Leger, Gris and de Chirico, and several canvases and sculptures were shown, he introduced onto the stage Picabia’s painting entitled “Le double Monde”. The painting appeared wrapped in a carton on which were painted a confusion of black enamelled lines and the words “TOP” (on the bottom) “BOTTOM” (across the top, “FRAGILE”, “DESTINATION: HOME” and other such confusing and meaningless designations. Across the carton in bold red letters the obscene pun “L.H.O.O.Q” appeared in public for the first time. The audience barely had time to respond to this effrontery when Breton wheeled out a blackboard on which there was a “painting” and several inscriptions in chalk, among them the painting’s title “Riz au Nez” (pun ? rice in the nose or “reason”). The blackboard painting remained in its original form only long enough for the public to see it when Breton erased it – “the picture was valid for only two hours”. Such ephemeral validity brought the audience to further anger and through the next few events they were alternately calmed down and goaded into fury.” (Anabel Melzer, “Dada and Surrealist Performance”, pg. 26)

It was about this event that Tristan Tzara wrote one of the most amazing and contemporary statements concerning the performing artist: “All I wanted to convey” – he said - “was simply that my presence on stage, the sight of my face and my movements ought to satisfy the people’s curiosity and that anything I might have said really had no importance” – a stunning statement in its contemporaneity. It implies the final metamorphoses of the artist into the subject , it signifies the final defeat of the object.

In any case, Breton’s and Tzara’s intention was to make a scandal, but not by screaming or making loud noises, but by using the public’s own bourgeois vision of the artistic product as merchandise, and the nihilism implicit in the frantic changes of artistic fashion. This Premier Vendredi made clear the critical potential imbued in dadaism towards the object of art, and the position of the artist’s presence at its center - a potential that Surrealism, as Duchamp before was not interested in exploiting.

Dadaism laid down the basis of performance art by rejecting theatrical reality, and putting the artist presence at the center of the artistic practice - but no less by adopting the Readymade as a performative motive; that is, by introducing daily “non artistic” actions as part of the vocabulary of the performers. This trend flourished specially after the 1950s, when the Dada spirit resurges in the Unites States in the events created and orquestrated by John Cage at the Black Mountain College.

Although similar to the futurist and dadaist actions in structure - as a consequent mix of different disciplines, the actions of John Cage were not conceived as a succession of “tableaux”, but as one on-going event in which different disciplines would alternate according to a given score. John Cages’ “concertated actions” as he called them included pieces of music, dance, poetry reading; film and slide projections, lectures and of course the exhibition of artistic objects. In Cage’s Theatrical Piece #1 at the end of the 50s for instance, Robert Rauschenberg presented 4 of his radical “White Paintings” from 1951, and during the “Homage to David Tudor” in Paris in 1961 he painted life his First Time Painting. The canvas in this piece was standing with his back to the public. The artist was seen painting throughout the event – but the public never saw the actual work. It is important to stress this iconoclastic – although not nihilist – character of the works of art included in these events, a character that is about to disappear altogether towards the end of the decade, when the Happening made its appearance in the American scene.

There are numerous differences between the Dadaist actions and the Happening. While Dadaism, as an avant-garde was basically iconoclastic, nihilist and destructive, Happening – in its interest in creation of environments and the use of assemblage techniques as a means of plastic expression is basically “constructive”.

This “positivistic” aspect is ever-present in the historic vision of Allan Kaprow, the unquestionable Guru of the movement. In 1961 Kaprow boasted that Happening: “grew out of the advanced American painting of the last decade, and those of us involved were all painters”

Thus, instead of detaching itself from former movements – as in the avant-garde tradition - Kaprow does not announce the death of older art, nor the birth of a new way of making art, but declares his Assamblages, Environments and Happenings a logical continuation of the former generation’s work, specifically Jackson Pollock’s “Action Painting” . In this way, Kaprow situates the objects he and his colleagues created in the surroundings of the market.

Along these lines, Claes Oldenburg, talks in 1962 about the “residual objects” of his actions: “Love objects, respect objects” – he writes - “…Residual objects are created in the course of making the performance and during the repeated performances. The performance is the main thing, but when it’s over there are a number of subordinate pieces which might be isolated, souvenirs, or residual objects”

Even though this flirt with the market, Happening denounced the Museum as an institution and did not intent to be integrated in its program, but for different reasons: in 1964 Kaprow wrote ; “As artists become more worldly, their work is less precious, less likely to profit from a setting whose silence and privacy suggest a chapel for the disembodied soul”. Happening renegades the museum not because it is a temple consecrating the irrelevant art of the past, but because it didn’t coincide with its mundane character. Kaprow did not have problems with commercial galleries – an the contrary, most of the event of this movement took place there.

It is clear that these two poles – the Dadaist, nihilist and destructive, and the constructive and assemblist represented by Happening are the ones defining objects in Performance history - and through these, to the transcendence in time that Museums expect.

Other characteristics of Performance were and still are fundamental in defining the alienation between the medium and the Museum. For instance the traditional relation of performance towards the public. As we saw, modern action art in itself began as a technique for shocking the public. For the dadaists only a shouting, insulting public was a measure of success. We should rule out this aspect in the present. But for a few examples, the scandal in performance comes more from the public’s narrow-sightedness than the express intention of the artist. This does not please museum executives and its patrons – which are normally the narrow-minded.
In any case, the complex system of relationships that performance art developed with the public – or without it, should be the subject of another lecture as exhaustive as this one. Let me just mention the complete abstention of the public in performances done for the video or film camera in the 1970s as in the works of Vito Acconci and Lawrence Weiner whose object was the total control over the setting, the timing, the viewpoint of the performance.

Although the museum is still out of the reach of mainstream performance, one important, isolated and ambitious attempt to approach it was the exhibition “Out Of Actions” which opened at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art in 1998, travelling later to Vienna, Barcelona and Tokyo. To be fair to this historic exhibition we have to stress its full name: it was subtitled “between performance and the object, 1949-1979”. The curators, then, positioned the exhibition in a way that could serve first of all the market by focusing on the objects produced by performers in their actions, sanctifying the historiography that served these aims. The curatorial idea of this show was to enhance the value of American painting from the 1950s and 1960s as an avant-garde practice by highlighting its kinship to performance on one side and to Conceptual Art on the other.

So, informed by all this history I set out to shape a curatorial approach and a negotiating strategy towards the CGAC. For me I was clear it was necessary to give the performances a proper museal setting, that is to perform in the actual museum halls, and not in the foyer of the building, the auditorium, the atrium and other marginal spaces. My interest was already set not in the objects created or manipulated during performances, as in the “Out of Actions” show; but in the setting the artist creates for himself to act within or as part of the process.

For a few years I’ve been watching artists creating in their performances what could be called an “installation” a setting they work with and leave behind; an array of object - mostly daily object and readymades. Very often, these objects in themselves “perform” certain tasks in the performance, move, smoke, sound, burn etc. etc. I often wondered if these installations would be valuable as art works in themselves, as other installations are. The central curatorial idea of the event in question became to check this. I invited artists that work this way, or address the subject of the art object. We decided, together with museum officials that each performance will take place in a different space, thus allowing this “installations” to stay in place after the action is finished so we could check its permanence along a few days - and see how and if these settings can work detached from the presence of the artist. The outcome was hardly surprising, but I’ll come back to it later.

Now I want to present a few of the works – specifically some by artists that are with us here, and thus they could also add to my presentation their own view and feeling about the problems raised here.

My decision to focus, for this event, on the function of “installations” as part or product of actions was directly influenced by my previous experiences with Alastair MacLennan’s work, in 1993 and 1999. In these opportunities, I noticed that while most of the artists that work with objects “create” the installation during the performance, Alastair normally starts from a neat and meticulously organised installation, working his way through it in series of destructive and constructive actions towards another setting, just slightly - but profoundly different that bears witness to the passing of the artist. This “passing” , for me , is MacLennan’s “Actuation”.

Lid of a Daffodil was an actuation of 13 hours duration around a 13 meter long table. The performance, in fact took place from dawn till dusk, and the changing light had a definitive impact in the work due to the huge window on the side heightened by the white marble floor and white walls of the foyer in the CGAC. On the table there were, 26 complete couverts (forks, knifes, wine glasses and dishes), yet all the seaters were MacLennan himself, each half-hour changing places and performing the same carefully choreographed set of actions.
What looked in Santiago as impeccably set table turned slowly, along the actuation, into an intriguing and theatrical set-up. Alastair’s black and threatening trademark presence took in Lid of a Daffodil more than any other work of his I had witnessed, a somewhat surrealistic turn. De Chirico or Ernst would, undoubtedly been proud painting this long table - at odds in perspective with the diagonals of the pristine foyer; and 26 identical black silhouettes performing tiny, fruitless, clockwork actions that in the end turned the setting of a banquet into the scene of a crime.

Roddy Hunter based his work in a close relationship with the architectural setting – choosing for his performance a very narrow space, composed by uncharacteristic diagonals and with a dominant height. His action was based in processes of drawing – and this was clear while watching the development from above –which was also the easiest way. The white marble space became a white sheet of paper. Roddy’s work took place during a few hours each day of the 3 days of the event. In between, he left in the space a array of the few objects he worked with - a clock, a bell, the wooden planks and color cloths) These indeed gave away the on-going presence of an artist. It was an installation, but an installation-in-waiting.

Joan Casellas normally makes either very simple, situationistic actions or quite complex ones. For La Accion y Su Huella he preformed a complex one, a “drifting” event – as he calls it, and it included also “foto-actions”, these are a series of actions that are documented photographically and exhibited later. The subject matter – as expected from a Spaniard - was the religious context of Compostela and the pilgrimage movements that have been – and still are - connected to the city. Casellas’ work was highly interesting in this context because of the way it integrated the museum and the city outside. He focused his camera on the transport, on the process of re-placing stones that he would find in the city and bring into the museum, where these were carefully “installed”. The photographs would then document the original emplacement of the stone and this same place without the stone. Joan is, maybe initiating a new aspect of the Readymade by asking “How will bicycles look if all the wheels are turned into art ?” What happens in the “limbo of unregarded objects””. when an object is elevated into “the living world of works of art”? is a vacuum created ? is a new “unregarded object’ taking its place ?. In the last part of the performance, Casellas takes the motive of the five heads of the apostle Jacques that were reivindicated during the Middle Ages by moulding his own head five times in aluminium foil while recounting into a microphone the process of stone transportation that took place in former days. In the end the masks were also turned into small stones and remained part of the installation.

Nieves Correa’s work was significant in this context because of the effort it made in engaging the public. Nieves played a game in which someone from the public would cast a dice and therefore force her to “perform” a task. These tasks were accompanied by stories and involved moving the public throughout the museum. Being true to the basis of street performance, she not only refused to confine her work to a space in the building and engaged the public, but also used as part of the illustrations to her stories a number of materials, all perishable that were left scattered - and smelling throughout the museum.

Tomas Ruller chose for his performance a useless and unused, and impossible to use passageway that connects the first floor hall to the outside. It suited him fine for his “alchemical process” action, even more so by being unprotected at a height of about 8 meters above ground. This was the reason for long negotiations with the museum officials, which enlightened me quite a bit regarding the image these people have of performance and performers as well as the veneration they have for the building and horror for anything that can harm it.

Esther Ferrer delivered a mute lecture on Performance – were the word Performance and a wide variety of adjectives were the only words uttered. Her use of objects reflects the rage of the destruction art of the 70’s. Its results were a scattered mess of broken eggs, pots, chairs etc.

The issue of the body of the artist as art object was heightened by the presence of Spanish artist Paco Cao. Actually he didn’t come. He was borrowed from the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, to which he gave his artistic body on loan in 1995. Paco Cao was treated throughout the event like a work of art, from the tramitation of his loan, wrapping and transport, feeding and other “conservation” issues. His presence imposed upon the public and the staff of the CGAC a protocol of communication in third body that involved everyone in a “transitive performance”.

Now I’d like to go back briefly to some of my conclusions out of the event in Spain. I’ll leave out though, the “institutional” conclusions, because there might be merely circumstantial. But the most surprising aspects of “La accion…” were related to the works and to the artists.

Regarding the installations, what I called the “footprints” of the performances: no doubt about it, these installations were dull and lifeless, these were more leftovers. The idea of having these installations laying around for the duration of the event to check this validity as art objects made the place look - and sometimes also smell - like a garbage yard rather than a museum. Coming back into the museum the day after the performance, I had the feeling that the objects were abandoned, rather than carefully arranged. In the end, it seems to me that the creation of a work of art needs a mysterious and hidden process. The quasy-religious veneration that art objects enjoy needs to be the outcome of a mysterious or shall we say magical process. The fact that the installations were set, re-arranged and messed with in public could be the cause of this un-interesting appearance.

The second point is regarding the relationship that can be established by a performance artist and the public in a museum, as opposed to the one is established in an alternative space – or the street. As you can expect, the general atmosphere that imbued the event was one of museal sanctity. One of the indicators of this was the automatic respect and acceptance the public had for the works. That was, it appeared to me; sometimes disconcerting or frustrating for the artists. The relation that was established with the public, therefore was quite one-dimensional, loosing the edge of surprise, of game and of antagonism, there were no surprises, and very few laughs…

“La Accion y Su Huella” then was a proposal of reconciliation between the Museum and Performance as a medium araising also from the belief that institutions have a lot to win out of this . When action art is closing its one-hundred birthday, it is a museum quality event – if not object. Also the museum becomes more and more dependent on the events to draw a larger public. Action Art and its ability to regenerate itself might be more able to reach out to a younger public who absorbed from video, TV and Pop cultures the situational concepts that are common to action – and not to painting or sculpture. I say “not so much” regarding painting because presently, after mass media has taken over culture, even the art objects gain significance from the events surrounding them. Take a painting, for instance, and ask: What is its value ? Is it its artistic and historical contents ? Not only. Who bought it ? For how much ? Who showed it ? Who came to the opening ? etc. etc. These are questions that give value to the works of art in the eyes of the wide and un-professional public. The Society of the Spectacle has invaded the most intimate realms of the work of art. The boundaries between artistic value and the event are being steadily blurred – being this a necessity of the objects, the museums and it patrons.

Also to deepen into the history, the theory and the practice of performance is of supreme importance to the institutions, who praise themselves in understanding and defining the development of contemporary art. Robert Rauchenberg, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Rebecca Horn, Dan Graham Matthew Barney and Mike Kelley are only a few of the artists considered pillars of contemporary art whose work is researched, written on and exhibited exhaustively by museums. Yet, these research constantly fails to acknowledge the importance of the early experimental stages in their work that was mainly performance oriented. Until researchers do not accept these work and are able to assess their importance, a comprehensive history of contemporary art would not be written.

Another by-product of understanding Performance Art, its perishability and in-materiality is specially acute nowadays for the institutions because of the introduction in their programs and collections of new media. Works of art done for computer or other electronic platforms are bound to disappear in a few years. Museums and collections have – in the last couple of years – began to face the vanishing of the video collections they started to purchase about 30 years ago. Conservation of these works involves huge amounts of money – and brings ethical and practical questions that are without parallel in art conservation history. New Media works life-span might be much shorter. We all have experienced the need to change and renew computer platforms every two or three years, we all lost documents we first saved in computers that we couldn’t hold to. New media works share this same problems, and while most of the museum accept their artistic value and are able to commission or purchase – they have to elaborate a theory of new media in which non-materiality – as derived from Action Art will play a central role.

Sergio Edelsztein

Texto extraído de:
Slaps Banks Plots
Performance Art Magazine
Issue #7