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How is performance art different from the performing arts?

Performance 11: On Line/Trisha Brown Dance Company

Performance 11: On Line/Trisha Brown Dance Company

Performance art, as formalized by artists in New York City in the 1970’s, largely explored how the body, normally used as an instrument in canvas painting and sculpture, could be seen as a material, an instrument, and a work of art in and of itself. Its differences between the performing arts were subtle in many ways, especially when seen alongside choreographers and musicians who were working in NYC at the same time.

Choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, for example, were interested in the deconstruction of formalized dance practices from Balanchine’s New York City Ballet to American modern choreographers like Martha Graham. Rainer and Brown wanted to explore movement outside the standard technique – rehearsal – performance cycle and find moments where natural body movements, improvisation, and informality shed light on how our common, natural bodies might unite us in both public and private environments.

Composers Phillips Glass and John Cage were interested in a type of collaboration that fell outside typical compositional methods. Phillip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” a 5-hour opera, included installation, movers, musicians, and singers, was compositionally based on sketches and storyboards, and lacked narrative. Composer John Cage, who regularly wrote music for choreographers Merce Cunningham and David Tudor, taught an “Experimental Composition” class at the New School. These classes, which have been since considered “Happenings,” included performance artist Allan Kaprow and helped to influence Fluxus.

Performance artists were also trying to break free from traditional discipline and technique, but I believe their work was different than Rainer, Brown, Glass, and Cage. Performance artists were more concerned with exploration than they were a final dance or opera. Their final product was not something that could be replicated via dance notation or a score. It could not even be accurately documented through photography or video. It was an action that existed in a moment and then evaporated. It was a work of art – strictly in the present tense - that had not really existed before.

Performance art’s ephemerality was epitomized by Marina Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim New York City in 2005. Though the show recreated historic works by innovators like Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane, and Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic simply created a copy of something that was long past, thus losing its temporal and environmental context and ultimate poignancy. Instead of works being viewed in small, sparsely attended galleries, they were seen in a large institutionalized space. Instead of works being performed by all types of bodies, they were all seen on Abramovic’s. That is to say, though the actions could be mimicked, they could not exist in their true form again.

If the original choreography of the 19th century ballet “Swan Lake” by Marius Petipa and the score and libretto of 18th century opera “Orfeo and Euridice” by Christoph Gluck are still being used in existing theatres, then the difference between performance art and the performing arts is that works by Nauman, Beuys, and others cannot be recreated. And though you might consider them “lost,” because of this, their influence on contemporary artists is uncontestable. Valie Export, and “Tap and Touch Cinema,” for example, continues to influence artists who are concerned with voyeurism and participation.

As it has evolved, performance art continues to have a relationship with music, dance, and other performing arts. Artist and former dancer Tino Seghal finds movement indispensable to his works, as seen in “These Associations” performed at the Tate Modern in 2012. Janice Kerbel and her operatic work, “DOUG” was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2015. But other artists, like Adrian Piper, do not use performing arts disciplines in her works at all. And yet, all can be considered performance artists. So, what does this mean?

Performance art has the capacity to include all types of collaborators, influencers, and technicians in order to create structured and/or improvisational works that have a unique temporal quality, one where specific actions are pushed into the world – seen or unseen – never to be experienced in the same way again. This is in contrast to the definability and recreation inherent in the performing arts. And though the two forms overlap in significant ways, it is important to consider them differently. When seeing performance art we must temper our expectations. We must embrace what might be seen as mistakes or foibles as evolutions of a process. We must reimagine the beautiful. We must connect what seems irreconcilable. This is what makes performance art both difficult and breathtaking, absurd and perfectly reasonable.

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