By definition, performance art is transitory. It’s sometimes spontaneous. It’s often interactive. And it’s always an experience. It isn’t, however, a tangible object like, say, a painting, sculpture or even a string of musical chords on paper. And so, we’re left with a perplexing question: can performance art ever be bought? In other words, is it possible for a piece to be “owned” by anyone other than the artist once the performance is over?
For some, the answer might be obvious — see: MoMA’s acquisition of Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss” (2003) for what was reputedly a five-figure sum. For others, it’s a bit more complicated than just a yes or no. For some clarity, we turned to a group of performance artists, art festival and collective leaders, and curators to answer our question:
Can performance art be collected or reproduced and still maintain its original message and ephemerality?
* * *
Chief Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, MoMA (New York, NY)
Performance art takes on various formats after its first “live” formation and can be considered as hyper-media. Artists have spent a great deal of time and experience to think about how their artwork can be represented after it was performed. Props and other materials that were used in the staging of the work, photo and video documentation of the performance itself, texts and sketches created by the artists to underline the context of the work and the artistic intentions, but also original invitation cards, flyers, or even statements made by the audience watching or participating in the performance can become part of the work. How should we consider such a presentation of the “after-life” of a once original performance? How and to what extend can the once performative nature of a work benefit from its medial representation covering a multitude of aspects of the work, its context, the artistic concept, the making of and the reception of the work?
Like plays in theater, works of performance art have always been and are staged several times. Recently the notion of “re-performance” got emphasized as a possibility to revitalize a historical work of performance art. It was especially the program of repertoire incorporated by the bourgeois theater to which performance art strongly objected to, aiming to deliver a specific and authentic experience beyond a practice of mimicry. Indeed, translocating certain works from its specific social and political context to today can be a challenge.
Like the presentation of any complex and relational work, the presentation and mediation of performance art requires in depth research and a certain choreography to be discussed and developed. In fact the politics of representation of process and time-based oriented artworks plays a significant role in 20th century art until today.
Founding Director and Curator at Performa (New York, NY)
I can think of so many things that people collect that maintain their integrity and carry a message, and that bring pleasure to the collector.
The person who is likely to buy a performance, or the ephemera from a performance, is no doubt inspired by what the “matter” represents, the cultural references, and other associations of the work.
A performance is unlikely to have resale value, except again to someone who might be obsessed with the artists’ ideas.
Principal Project Specialist/Consulting Curator, Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art at the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles, CA)
That’s a difficult question to answer. But I think that performance art can — almost to the same degree that any other artwork can.
It’s true with painting and sculpture as well that their original message, their original impact, changes over time. We’re not shocked by the avant-garde of the early 20th Century in the same way people were, but both with a little act of the imagination we can try to think back and still feel that impact. The same is true with Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol or even someone like Jeff Koons, his work felt more shocking in the 1980s than when we see the artwork now because art has developed. So every artwork goes away a little bit over time, but that’s not a reason for us not to still think about those works and appreciate those works.
Performance, of course, is different because it is a temporary act, so there’s sort of an added step for a viewer who wasn’t there. There’s the added step of encountering the work either through documentation, photography or video or film, sound recording or reading the artist’s original score — those are just sort of mental acts that we can do with no problem.
At the Getty Research Institute, where I work, we have amazing products that are documenting early firework spectacles from hundreds of years ago and there’s no way for us to imagine how amazing something like that might’ve been hundreds of years ago because it’s so common now but there’s still these prints, this documentation, these beautiful artworks in their own right.
I think it’s challenging because we see museums now trying to collect performance art and there’s always the question of what they even should collect, how you would piece together ephemera or what form of performance you would even say is the object. And that’s a problem that a lot of artists take on individually. A lot of artists have very strong feelings about what form their documentation should take or what type of objects leftover after a performance might be turned into artworks and that’s just part of an artistic process too.
Artists continue to be creative in the way they treat what’s left after. They put the same degree of creativity into assembling documentation of work, producing scores that are beautiful, it’s just another step of the creative process for them. Of course other artists are focused only on the ephemeral and don’t try to do that, so it changes from case-to-case. But I guess nonetheless there’s still value and reason for us to learn about this type of work and to make our own intellectual acts of trying to take from it what we can even if it’s not the full original object.
Artist and Founder of the Itinerant Performance Art Festival (New York, NY)
Performance Art is a different form of expression. We are not talking about a painting, sculpture or even a video that can be archived, collected, sold and exchanged. Performance Art can be documented through film, video, photography and other media, but it is ephemeral in nature. The message itself is embedded in the action and the form the performance takes place. A live performance is experienced in a different manner than let’s say, for example, seeing the documentation of the same performance.
It is important for performance artists to document their projects so there is a record of it even if the performance is meant to live only for a few minutes. As an artist, I always make sure that there is someone documenting my performances. As the organizer of the festival Itinerant, I make sure that we documented all performances, public actions and presentations including the talks with the artists. That is a record for posterity, but it doesn’t have the same “value” as experiencing the live performance.
In terms of “collecting” performances, Performance Art cannot be treated as an object. However ephemera from performances could be collected. The objects left by the artists serve as mementos of what happened live, but they are only pieces and those pieces cannot reflect the entire performative act.
In terms of reproducing a performance, if it is scripted and the artist leaves detailed instructions of its execution, and if there is documentation to substantiate the original presentation, it could be reproduced. But is it still the same performance? Is the question. Unlike theater, dance and other performative disciplines, performance art exists for a particular moment within a particular historical, social and political framework. The relevance of a piece might be extremely important in a determined period of time, but within a few years, that relevance might not speak to audiences in the same manner. Therefore, although the performance might be the same, its message might not translate or be what the artist intended.
What I elaborated above is in terms of live performance art. Video performance is different because the performance has been created for a particular medium, video, and that can be treated differently. A performance for video exists for that form and within that type of presentation. It is possible to collect it, but more difficult to reproduce because one needs to know what the original intention of the piece was and how the artist put together all the elements within the structure of video presentation.
Performance Artist (Brooklyn, NY)
A performance itself cannot be collected, because, as life, it can never be truly contained. The ephemerality of a performance can never be taken away regardless of any attempt to commodify it; it just is. What can be collected, however, are what I refer to as “mementos” of the original event. Just in the way that people collect family heirlooms, home-movies and memorabilia from daily life, we can collect these elements from live art. So photos, videos, sculpture, installations and other remnants of the performance can be collected.
It is possible to attempt to re-enanct, or, to use your words, re-produce, a performance, as Marina Abramović did in “Seven Easy Pieces,” and as I have done in my “Found Performances” from life, but it will always be different the second time around. If the performance is strong, it will capture the emotional experience of the original event, as I try to do in my life re-enactments.
By collecting or re-producing performance art we are trying to make its ephemerality immortal and timeless in a sense — we are fighting against the very nature of what it is. But to try to do this is utterly human, and driven by the nostalgic need to hold onto the wondrously fleeting moments of life.
Performance Artist (New York, NY)
When I went to the Guggenheim to see Marina Abramović re-perform Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed” (1972) I realized that the only way I had encountered Acconci’s piece was through documentary photographs and written descriptions. The re-performance differed from Acconci’s original in significant ways.
First of all, Marina is a woman, and a woman masturbates differently than a man. Acconci used a ramp that sloped upwards into the gallery wall and Abramović used a free-standing circular stage with a small ramp on the side for viewer access. The scale of the Guggenheim atrium made the intimate thoughts that Abramović was expressing almost inaudible while the 1972 piece had a much lower ceiling and the audio was able to be understood. Throughout the seven nights of Marina’s piece, I was watched as she reinterpreted the works of her predecessors but I couldn’t help feeling the attendant sadness I would never actually see Acconci under THE actual ramp at Sonnabend. I would never see Beuys muttering to a dead hare. That the past was past and maybe it was best left that way. I love reading about history, it is a deep passion of mine, but reenactments bore me and tickle that bone of doubt that feels art is frivolous in a world with bigger problems.
Yes, performance is ephemeral, but it takes a really talented and charismatic performer to make that ephemeral moment something that sears into your memory. Not all performers are created equal in this regard. And lately, the attitude is:
“I have something I would like to do in a performance that I am not physically or mentally capable of doing, so I’ll just hire someone to do it for me and say that it is my work while they run on treadmills or jump up and down all day or eat dirt.”
That is crap to me.
I think the best model for re-performance is the old career comedy joke, “The Aristocrats,” where everyone adds their own spin to the telling. No one owns a single interpretation, but over time, each person becomes known for their particular style. In performance, this takes the form of a score. It is a free, open source way of interpreting action and can be passed infinitely.
Trying to collect performance art and, it goes without saying, monetizing it, is a little sad to me, like catching lighting bugs in a jar and watching them die.
Executive Director of DEFIBRILLATOR performance art gallery (Chicago, IL)
Several things come to mind right away.
First is simply semantic: The idea of a performance work having a “message” is problematic. I think theater has messages, TV shows have messages, but I don’t think it is usually an element in performance art. Perhaps the idea of maintaining an original “impact” might be a more fitting way to say it …
The second thought I have is that artists work in many different ways. I know there are performance artists who frown upon work presented more than once, or are opposed to wearing a costume, or the idea of rehearsal. Some artists feel this falls into the territory of theater. I don’t believe that. I’m very frustrated with those who attempt to limit or define a medium that by its very nature is limitless and enigmatic. I do believe that performance art sits in the realm of visual art. And I do prefer action-based and conceptual performance work that is distinctly different from theater or dance. But I also think it’s wonderful that theater is becoming more abstract. And I think dancers have an awareness of space that many performance artists might do well to learn from. I see no reason for there to be animosity between these time-based disciplines. So the idea of reproducing a performance art work — though a convention of theater — is completely possible and viable, though not necessary. In terms of creating performances that are repeated (in repertoire, so to speak), I must admit that it is like sex — the first time always feels the best, but it might be a little clumsy. Down the road, it isn’t as exciting, but the kinks are worked out and it has a different sort of strength.
How to collect performance art? I run a gallery in Chicago and we collect objects from performance. We — at this stage — have no intention of selling this work. We are simply interested in the memory that an object holds, especially if presented alongside some other form of documentation. Video and photo are standard ways of documenting a performance, but we’re curious about other ways that a performance can have a second life. This is a key idea. The moment of the performance is truly ephemeral and it is something special that cannot be replicated — it is the art work itself. However, the work can take on a second life. As an installation, as a video, as a photograph, as a poem, an object, or a memory. These are not the same work, they are a version — another form, a replica that will never be the same as the original. But that doesn’t diminish its value. I know strong performance works that have poor documentation and I know weak performances that have amazing documentation or artifacts. It happens.
I think of photography whenever I wonder about the ephemeral nature of performance. When we look at a photograph, we never question whether or not we are feeling or experiencing the same thing that we may have felt if we were there at that time. It’s understood that we are simply looking at a record of an ephemeral moment. There is never a question of whether it is good enough or an accurate representation. It is simply a captured moment with the potential to give the slightest glimpse of what it may have been like to be there. In some ways, a photograph may be more powerful. A moment built in the mind is sometimes more rich than one experienced in reality.
Video of performance is an unfortunate thing. It never manages to capture much of anything. Those of us who are familiar with viewing video documentation are able to translate (or forgive) the shortcomings of this form of documentation. In my own work, I often document the performance FOR the video camera, with no audience. This has the potential to be more palatable than documentation of a live performance. But this is not always an option. Of course, in the case of public performance (on the street or what-have-you), live documentation is key.
I would like to see a day when objects used in performance, or possibly, documentation of performance could be collected. As it is now, performance artists have few ways to make money from their art. Is it possible to collect the moment itself? For collectors to commission a work and then determine when or if it is ever presented again? I wonder …
Performance Artist and Co-Founder of The Panoply Performance Laboratory (Brooklyn, NY)
Yes, it can be if it is meant to be. Performance art is difficult to speak of as a single discipline or form. Certain kinds of performance art are easily reproduced. For example, pieces which exist solely as an instruction for an action. Performances can also be documented in written form (by the artist or by another), filmed or photographed, and these documentations used as scores for reproduction.
Whether or not re-performances maintain the “authenticity” of the original performance is a huge issue when the discussion is compounded with value-based concerns. For economic reasons, artists and gallerists wonder if they can convincingly market re-performances as “the real deal” when the original artist herself is the selling point.
Other considerations of this question are more theoretical: performance art as it stems from conceptual and body-based traditions has often included formal intentions towards “post-product” operation, “situation,” “liveness” and “ephemerality.” One has only to attend a performance art Friday night at Grace Exhibition Space to overhear almost religious insistence that works of performance art should not be considered the “same” performance when they are re-performed.
Personally, I would also argue that economic models developed for music, video art and other time-based forms (royalty systems, recordings, objects from the video or film) should not be applied to performance art, even though they certainly can be. Thus, whether it can be/if it does and should it be/if it ever does become different questions.
For me, it is crucial that performance art continue to deal with its own participation in existing social and economic structures, both as part of the work and as part of the field’s dialectic. Artists performing now, such as Rafael Sanchez, Jörn Burmester and Florian Feigl attempt to practice ways of being by dealing directly with performative social ritual. Other artists, Anya Liftig, for example, enact emotional attachments to concepts, translating them into image.
Monetization around these practices involves the space/site, documentation and the identity of the artist. Performance artists themselves can only rarely be collected. If performance artists intend to make something that you can collect and/or reproduce, those possibilities will be a part of the work itself and the ways to do it will be obvious.
Performance Artist, Member and Founder of Mobius, Inc., Full-Time Faculty at SMFA Boston (Boston, MA)
What can you actually collect of performance art? You might acquire a still or moving image of the performance, a relic or an artifact of the work, instructions for recreating the event, or a description of what happened from the artist or a witness. You cannot possess the original action of the artist.
In each case, these documents operate as triggers to memory and imagination. No one experienced the action in the same way and no memory of the event is complete. Each rethinking and retelling of the experience reconstructs it. The meaning changes over time, as the work is considered within different contexts.
All art is essentially a document of an action, whether it is done in private or for a witness. And in that respect, even a painting can be considered a document of an action by an artist. While the artist may have some intent in making the work, or some message that she or he wishes to convey, it is ultimately the viewer of the work who constructs its meaning.
And all artworks are disintegrating and disappearing. Nothing lasts forever. The rate of decomposition is just different between flesh and canvas and stone. Conservators are engaged in a race against time, shoring up a work in what is ultimately a losing battle with the inevitable, but natural, process of decay.
Al Paldrok, alias Anonymous Boh
Performance Artist, Non Grata Group (Estonia)
Yes, for sure it can be collected and still maintain its original message. If we are concern about message, it is even easy to reproduce. Of ourse there is so many other levels in performance, what we can never reproduce. The vast majority of performances are interactive and in whatever crazy situations one can expect anything: from verbal disturbances to direct physical attack by the audience, unexpected spatial configurations, interference by the police, fire brigade, ambulance, etc.
Of course there is so many different forms of performance and some of them are very much reproducable. Reactions and process are then, of course, different. The artist’s own body can be a performance instrument, however, today its importance gradually decreases — there are robots, electronic and mechanical devices, automobiles, crowds of people — that can all be remotely directed. One’s own body is definitely the most available means. One can direct a performance totally separate from one’s body, using only one’s brain. To create a non-carnal space, a virtual performance or global catastrophe where performative activities start functioning on their own, disconnected from body.
As the brain is still a material part of one’s body, a thought originating from there is already a compromise between an idea and materialized reality. The real world is, as we all know, imperfect. Within the compromise between the spiritual and real, the carnal side finally determines, as it acts as a filter or stirrer of the channelized idea. Filters and stirrers are widely used in all kinds of technical activities precisely as the factors that distort the original signals and raise the quality. Carnal filter in co-operation with the surrounding real absurd theatre at its best will result is a creation of a reality shift which, in turn, will bring about a new mental dimension that will, on the meta-level, initiate new processes. Therefore, the initial idea being thrown into the mundane reality is rather in a secondary role, it is more of a trigger.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.