Ivo Dimchev, AVOIDING deLIFEeath (all images courtesy Performatik17 and the artists)

BRUSSELS — Performance is an expansive field. Dance, live music, theater, social practices, burlesque, and opera all fall within its borders. Perhaps because it’s such crowded terrain, individual groups inhabiting it often guard their domains intensely. It’s less common for other disciplines to wage war over whether a work can properly be included within their fields. But those working with performance often take up these acts of exclusion with particular relish.

Perhaps the most protective of their territory are the folks known as performance artists. How precisely to define performance art, particularly in relation to theater, is a contentious question. Godmother of performance art Marina Abramović not only draws a line between the genres, but advocates an adversarial relationship, “… to be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake… The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real.”

Theater artist Kristin Idaszak suggested the difference between theater and performance art is a question of the artist’s creative lineage (how they contextualize their own work) and the venue where they are presenting (whether it’s known as a theater, a peformance art venue, or something else).

Shannon Cochrane, head of FADO Performance Art Centre, offered a more direct (and humorous) line during a 2011 panel at Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival, “If there are chairs, it’s theatre. If there are no chairs, it’s performance art.”

So what to make of Performatik17, the 17th Brussels Biennial of Performance Art? Presented in numerous locations, including galleries, theaters, and site-specific venues, the event mixes dance, theater, intervention, social practice, and more. The biennial is either the dream of someone seeking an expanded field or the nightmare of someone craving rigid borders. The festival program calls it an “intriguing twilight zone where artists… tinker with the codes of the visual and performing arts.” Marina Abramović would not be impressed.

What we end up with is a mixed bag of artists investigating other disciplines. Sculptors take stabs at theater. Playwrights investigate durational performance. Choreographers explore interactive works. We also have plenty who remain within familiar territory, contributing works consistent with what they’ve made before.

Grace Schwindt, Opera and Steel

German-born, UK-based artist Grace Schwindt, is no stranger to performance. Featuring an acrobat, two dancers, an opera singer, and two musicians, her piece Opera and Steel looks at an ornithologist studying the effects of oil pollution on seabirds. The festival program identifies it as her first creation for the theater — a strange claim given the decidedly theatrical sensibility of her previous works like 2014’s Only a Free Individual Can Create a Free Society.

Part of the key to theater, to any time-based art consumed from beginning to end, is an understanding of how individual pieces relate to create an overall arc. Here, material is bizarrely ordered, with little sense of how sections interact, occasionally soliciting awkward laughs from the audience. Schwindt may want to instil confusion, mirroring the horror we feel at the fossil fuel industry’s destruction of the planet at the same time we struggle with our own culpability in this devastation. But the result seems more like an accident resulting from not understanding the form she’s investigating rather than something consciously produced.

Orla Barry, Breaking Rainbows

Orla Barry may be the world’s only artist-cum-shepherd. Along with her practice, she tends a flock of 80 sheep in Wexford, Ireland. Breaking Rainbows blends these worlds, combining two performers and nearly 700 pounds of raw wool. Aiming to “reflect upon the primal, poetic and unpredictable bond we have with the natural world,” the show fits easily within the theatrical genre, despite being presented in an art gallery

Breaking Rainbows is really two shows stuck together; a casual performance about a ram and the woman who wants to buy him and a series of (largely) scripted vignettes, randomly ordered based on papers pulled from a bag. It’s a quirky play you might see at a Fringe Festival. But its scripted nature places it decidedly outside the boundaries of performance art, even for the most open-minded viewer.

French theater director Philippe Quesne’s Caspar Western Friedrich is consistent with his own oeuvre and the wider genre of theater. Drawing inspiration from German Romantic painter Caspar David Frierich’s fondness for isolated figures in sprawling landscapes and the archetype of the cowboy (often imagined as a lonesome dude in a wide open space), the show features five cowboys mucking around a painter’s studio and, at times, inside paintings.

Philippe Quesne, Caspar Western Friedrich

The festival positions the work as a melding of genres because it’s a theater director exploring the works of a painter. But the show is solidly theater and there’s nothing wrong with that. While he doesn’t do so much to challenge theater’s conventions, Quesne creates one of the festival’s more satisfying performances that left me wanting to know more about the relationship between his subjects, proving you can challenge an audience without necessarily doing battle with form.

SSSSSSSSSSSS (Hiss It, Don’t Say It) by Lithuanian visual artist Ieva Misevičiūtė unfolds against the backdrop of the Galleries Royal Saint-Hubert (a posh, glass-roofed shopping street in the city center). Sporting a red dress and black and white tights, she performs a solo dance about survival instincts. A crowd gradually gathers as she performs. Elderly couples try to avoid her unpredictably swinging arms as they pass. Shopkeepers occasionally push through with carts full of garbage.

It’s a puzzling work to read, particularly in this space. But as Kristin Idaszak suggests, creative lineage may provide some clues to the artist’s intentions. Misevičiūtė’s background is in circus, specifically clown, so perhaps this should influence our reading of the work. A clown’s performance is fundamentally about watching someone fail, usually over and over. If clowning is an element here, then the show makes more sense. In that case, we’re not supposed to be moved by her eratic dancing in a posh shopping mall. We’re supposed to find it humorous.

Ieva Misevičiūtė, “SSSSSSSSSSSS (Hiss It, Don’t Say It)”

Ivo Dimchev is often referred to as a choreographer. But the Bulgarian artist’s oeuvre includes painting, sculpture, poetry, and music. His dance works often feature more talking than moving (not uncommon in contemporary dance). But he’s chiefly made a name for himself by pushing against the constraints Abramović applies to theatre. His performances make liberal use of his own blood (sometimes by cutting himself, sometimes by drawing it out with a syringe).

Employing these tropes of performance art in the theater has been a big part of his success, and provoked distaste among certain circles that consider him a shock artist. AVOIDING deLIFEeath reverses things, however, bringing elements of his theater making into a performance art context. Presented over six consecutive days for 14 hours at a stretch, audiences can watch Dimchev as he scores music, writes text, paints, and shoots videos.

Durational performance art is not usually intended to be watched beginning to end. Viewers might drop in at different points, witness only the beginning or ending, or not see the work at all, instead experiencing it through the documentation. But with Dimchev, as the hours clicked by, I felt no desire to leave the space. I was totally comfortable being there with him, observing his process.

How you might react to Performatik’s programming, depends on your perspective. Artists of the Abramović lineage would bristle at the inclusion of so obviously theatrical works in an event billing itself as a performance art biennial. But perhaps there’s something to be gained from all of these genres rubbing up against each other in the same context. It may be the friction of these edges causes them to slowly wear down, showing us that individual genres can survive on their own without being absorbed or annihilated by others.

If there’s a lesson to be gained here, it may be that the boundaries between genres of performance are not only artificial, but unnecessary. Instead of standing sentinel, guarding their territories, perhaps performance artists can open their borders and create space for other works to flow in.

Performatik17 continues at various venues throughout Brussels, Belgium through April 4. 

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Chris Dupuis

Chris Dupuis is a writer, creator, and co-founder of the curatorial platform RT Collective. He divides his time between Toronto and Brussels.