On Performativity


Walker Living Collections Catalogue




Curator Elizabeth Carpenter surveys the notion of performativity in the context of the Walker Art Center’s own history of interdisciplinary programs and collecting landmarks. “How do institutions reconcile the challenges facing the art world today,” Carpenter asks, “regarding the historicization, canonization, institutionalization, documentation, preservation, and presentation of performance and, by extension, of the objects that it often leaves behind?”

Carpenter, Elizabeth. Introduction to On Performativity, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter. Vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014. http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/performativity/introduction.
Walker Art Center ©2014
Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Canfield, 1969, performed in Mario Merz exhibition galleries, Walker Art Center, 1972. ©1972 James Klosty.

The premiere volume of the Walker Art Center’s Living Collections Catalogue is devoted to the complex and multivalent topic of performativity. It contains original research and writing on five “performative” artworks that have entered the collection since 2005. The works in question are by Trisha Brown, Eiko & Koma, Yves Klein, Hélio Oiticica, and Tino Sehgal, reflecting both the chronological scope of the collection, from the historical to the contemporary, and the conceptual richness of the topic. These artists share a core belief in the seemingly limitless potential of ideas to take form as actions and in the constant questioning of what constitutes art and artistic practice as they turn to the live, the immediate, the immersive, and the participatory for the realization of their work. Despite these commonalities, each also presented productive challenges to the organization of the catalogue. Given their profound heterogeneity, they can be seen as problematic case studies leading to divergent theoretical conclusions and calling into question the notion of performativity itself. Indeed, they bring to mind the provocative statement made by Dorothea von Hantelmann in her essay for this volume: “There is no performative artwork because there is no nonperformative artwork.”1

In its attempt to come to terms with this topic, this volume has generated more questions than answers. Perhaps the most pressing question is that of how a collecting institution such as the Walker, with its vital and internationally renowned performing arts programs and commissions (including dance, music, and experimental theater),2 might go about transforming its acquisition strategies to include the collection of not only “performative objects” but performance itself.3 In 2010, the Walker took its first steps toward this potentiality with the acquisition of Tino Sehgal’s This objective of that object (2004), one of the artist’s most logistically and conceptually complex “constructed situations” to date. A first in the Walker’s august history of collecting performance, this purchase will undoubtedly also long be recognized as one of its most controversial and unorthodox, as nothing was actually accessioned but the oral production instructions for a future gallery rather than stage-based event. In my essay “Be the Work: Intersubjectivity in Tino Sehgal’s This objective of that object” in this volume, I discuss the economic impact of Sehgal’s gambit. As he set about building the cycle of production, distribution, and consumption of his art, he insisted that the work not stand apart from or in opposition to the customary operations of the art market, arguing that in order for the artist to support himself, the output of his labor (the artwork, his product) had to be purchased.

Sehgal’s project stands in marked contrast to the Walker’s standing with regard to the nearly 240 performing arts commissions it has supported creatively and financially over the past 50 years without recourse to the benefits of ownership. The selection of Eiko & Koma’s Naked (2010) for this volume formalized another way of thinking about collecting performing arts—one that has long been a rather radical (and controversial) institutional mindset—which contends that our performing arts commissions be understood as equal in importance to artworks that have been matriculated into the collection and assigned accession numbers. Rather than promoting ownership through monetary exchange, ownership is based on stewardship, if only to emphasize that the commissions have shaped institutional mission and identity in much the same way that our collection of art objects has done. In a 2011 symposium on the subject of ownership in the performing arts hosted by the Walker, former Walker collections curator Joan Rothfuss put it this way: “An institution’s holdings are not really about collecting and buying, at their heart. ‘Collecting’ works is primarily about preserving and protecting them, presenting them for the public.… ‘Collecting’ a piece is a way an institution declares its commitment to making the work a community resource, something shared—it’s not a declaration that the work is something to have and to hold, separate from that community.”4

With these two models for collecting performance represented by the Walker’s investment, intellectually and financially, in the art of Sehgal and that of Eiko & Koma, we join other like-minded institutions around the world who are in the position to reconcile the challenges facing the art world regarding the historicization, canonization, institutionalization, documentation, possession, preservation, and presentation of performance and, by extension, of the objects that it often leaves behind.

The Walker is uniquely positioned to tackle these fascinating problems, to consider the intersections between the disciplines, and to accommodate the migration of bodies, objects, and images from stage to gallery and back again. With the state-of-the-art William and Nadine McGuire Theater adjacent to the Walker’s galleries, there is greater opportunity for artists who present their work here, in contrast to other institutions without fully developed performing arts programs and facilities. The question of the right site for a piece is one largely dependent on the artist’s objectives and presentation strategies, rather than reliance on traditional assignations. A major breakthrough in the Walker’s multidisciplinary history took place in 1998 with the cross-departmental collaboration on Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham / Meredith Monk / Bill T. Jones, an exhibition that traced the development of these three influential artists while also offering historical insight into the performing arts programming at the Walker.5 In her introduction to the catalogue, then-director Kathy Halbreich made the case for the Walker’s prescience in “providing opportunities for our audiences to chart the creative endeavors and overlapping concerns of visual, performing, and media artists while commissioning new work across disciplines.” She went on to state that “as the only museum in this country persistently engaged in establishing the relationship among the artistic activities that occur in the light and dark spaces of galleries and theaters, between static and moving images, between real and fictive time, I believe we also are uniquely positioned to participate in the congruence of these disciplines into the twenty-first century.”6

In the wake of this landmark exhibition, the Walker acquired the stage set for Merce Cunningham’s 1968 dance performance Walkaround Time, which was designed by Jasper Johns using images from Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–1923). Unprecedented in the history of the permanent collection, the purchase immediately created a heretofore unfamiliar conundrum: how to contextualize a performative object by one of the most important artists of the twentieth century who adamantly disavowed the piece as a work of art.7 Much progress has been made since then in creating a historical and theoretical basis for the introduction of performative objects into the galleries, and this formerly fraught situation is now normative. In fact, the Walker’s commitment to these issues (and artists) has only continued to grow, perhaps most dramatically through the 2010 acquisition of Meredith Monk’s remarkable stage set for 16mm Earrings (1966/1998), which was reconstructed for the Art Performs Life exhibition, and the acquisition in 2011 of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Archive that comprises more than 3,500 examples of costumes, set décor, and backdrops from nearly every dance choreographed by Cunningham since 1942.

Since then, curators have sought to display and acquire artworks that span the Walker’s areas of collecting and programming, and opportunities to collect cross-departmentally are pursued as a matter of course. It remains a priority and a challenge to identify artworks that pose difficulties in categorization. Indeed, increasingly since the early 1990s, one focus of the Walker’s acquisitions has been historical objects from the 1950s through the 1970s by artists whose performative practices resulted in paintings, sculptures, installations, props, relics, photographs, films, and videos. Examples from the Walker’s collection include objects that were related to or arose from Happenings (Claes Oldenburg); Japanese Gutai (Shozo Shimamoto, Kazuo Shiraga, Atsuko Tanaka); Nouveau Réalisme (Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri); Hi Red Center (Genpei Akasegawa); Viennese Actionism (Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler); Fluxus (Joseph Beuys, Alison Knowles, George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Ben Vautier); Neo-Concretism (Lygia Clark); conceptualism (Robert Barry, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Adrian Piper); Body Art (Ana Mendieta); and video art (Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Dara Birnbaum, Dan Graham, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann). While the collection is not comprehensive in this area, it presents a somewhat patchy but nevertheless informative genealogy of some of the key players in the history of performative practice.

Most histories of the object within performance-based practice begin in the wake of World War II, with five of the greatest artists and thinkers of the twentieth century: Jackson Pollock, whose balletic dispersion of paint over the horizontal substrate of the canvas ushered in a monumental shift from representation to action; Lucio Fontana, whose perforated and lacerated monochromatic paintings reflected a rejection of pictorialism and a determination to create space beyond the canvas; John Cage, who explored chance operations and created Theater Piece No. 1 (1952) at Black Mountain College, the proto-Happening that brought together such artists as Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, M. C. Richards, and David Tudor, marking a critical juncture in art and performance history; the Japanese Gutai artists, with their viscerally gestural and destructive actions presciently and intentionally caught on film; and Allan Kaprow’s philosophizing and advocacy of Happenings, performative interactive environments in which bodies, objects, lights, and sounds involved and impacted the art audience to an unprecedented extent. An important critique or reality check of this felicitous but oft-told history must be kept in mind if we are to give a balanced account considering the vantage point of dance and theater studies. As Michael Rush stated in his review of the landmark 1998 exhibition Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles:

Given the cross-fertilization among artists of different disciplines (painters, dancers, filmmakers, experimental theatre artists), at least in New York during [the period from the 1950s to the 1970s], it is likely that performance art would have emerged even without Pollock. Indeed, what has come to be called “performance art” was already being practiced in some form, historically, in … the noisy theater of Futurism; in Dada performance; in Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty”; in Brecht’s theater of alienation; and, contemporaneously, in the theatrical experiments of Tadeusz Kantor … and in the many theatrical and dance movements in downtown New York by artists such as Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Meredith Monk.8

All these milestones and epistemological narratives come together in the gestalt that is the Walker’s multidisciplinary collection.

Despite the consistent use of the term “performance” in this text thus far, the title of this volume of the Living Collections Catalogue is On Performativity, a noun with etymological roots in the adjective “performative.” As is thoroughly explored in the three major essays commissioned for this catalogue, the genesis of the latter term can be traced to the British philosopher and semiotician J. L. Austin, whose influential text How to Do Things with Words, published in 1962, proposed the concept of the “performative utterance,” a form of speech in which words enact rather than describe (an example would be the statement “I do” in a marriage ceremony). Now common terms used freely and flexibly in the critical literature, “performative” and “performativity” are at once theoretically specific (i.e., referring to Austin and his followers) but also impossibly broad, as they are typically descriptive of a type of art related to performance or with performancelike qualities enacted in time and space. As Shannon Jackson writes in her essay in this volume: “The hazy understanding of the term [performativity] arguably contributes to its ubiquity, as ‘performative’ becomes a catchall in an art and performance scene that has undergone incredible expansion…. It seems to provide an umbrella to cluster recent cross-disciplinary work in time, in space, with bodies, in relational encounters—even if the term does this work without saying anything particularly precise.” Jackson identifies this phenomenon as the intermedial use of the performative vocabulary. We perpetuate this intermedial use in this volume of the Living Collections Catalogue as we extend the terms performative and performativity to the history, form, and meaning of performance as it permeates the visual arts and is applied to works residing within (and on the periphery of) a performance-based canon. A corollary undercurrent running throughout also self-reflexively questions how a multidisciplinary collecting institution such as the Walker can present performative art and contribute to discourses on the topic without reducing the artworks to mere artifacts.9

Another goal of this publication is to present in-depth, primary research and writing on specific works that operate under the umbrella of performativity, complemented by newly commissioned essays by leaders in the field. In order to broaden the discursive scope, we asked Philip Auslander, Dorothea von Hantelmann, and Shannon Jackson to write texts on performativity as it pertains to their distinctive areas of concern. In an essay titled “Performativity and Its Addressee,” Jackson, a scholar specializing in rhetoric and contemporary visual and performance art and theory, provides us with an important and necessary grounding in the topic of performativity through the position and role of the receiver (i.e., the audience, beholder, visitor, interlocutor, participant, spectator). She explores the frames and stakes of both the intermedial and reality-making contexts of performative practice while clustering her reflections around selected artworks and thinkers from the mid-twentieth century to the present. She argues for a precise and varied vocabulary for the wide variety of expanded, cross-media practices that we now encounter regularly in museums, on stages, and in the streets. Her focus ultimately is on three different historical moments that are framed by “performative” vocabularies: the “action turn,” the “Minimalist turn,” and the “relational turn,” each one a performative speech act with its own felicities and blind spots.

In her essay “The Experiential Turn,” art historian and curator Dorothea von Hantelmann examines the increasing significance of “experience” in contemporary artworks from a twofold perspective. Starting with Minimalism and its orientation toward the phenomenological space in which art is presented and experienced, and continuing with artists such as James Coleman, Robert Irwin, and Tino Sehgal, she frames the artistic focus on the creation of experiences from the 1960s to the present. She poses the following questions: how can “experience” advance to something like an artistic medium? How are experiences shaped in and by specific artworks? How do they produce meaning? In which way does this challenge the aesthetic experience of the viewer? Second, von Hantelmann argues that art’s so-called experiential turn—along with the new focus on the perceiving, experiencing subject that comes with it—resonates with the fundamental economic and cultural transformations of Western bourgeois industrial societies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Referencing sociological texts such as Gerhard Schulze’s Experience Society, she makes the case for the artistic shift to the creation of experiences, which has become a central focus of cultural, social, and economic activity.

In his essay for this volume, “Surrogate Performances: Performance Documentation and the New York Avant-garde, ca. 1964–1974,” performance theorist Philip Auslander furthers the thesis of his 2006 essay “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” in which he argues that performance documents are not simply records of past actions but are themselves performative in J. L. Austin’s most basic sense, not only generating images and statements that describe a performance and report that it occurred but also producing their own events.10 Auslander argues that one of the sites of the emergence of such documentation as a self-conscious practice was the New York art and performance scene of the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, which fostered a particular mindset about the relationship between performance art events and their reproduction. Auslander identifies Michael Kirby as the primary theorist of performance documentation at this time. Kirby distinguished documentation from criticism, regarding the latter as needlessly dominated by interpretation and lack of objectivity. Auslander goes on to discuss photographers Peter Moore and Babette Mangolte, who shared Kirby’s beliefs, contrasting their approach to those of theater and dance photographers of the early twentieth century. He then returns to speech act theory to propose a more refined concept of the performativity of performance documentation, enlisting John R. Searle, one of Austin’s successors, who proposed a “taxonomy of illocutionary acts,” distinguishing declarations from other performative speech acts primarily in terms of their “direction of fit between words and the world.”11

Through the contents of this catalogue, we enter the current discursive fray, in which the topics of performance and performativity have received increased attention, as evidenced by the conspicuous proliferation of international museum exhibitions, acquisitions, and publications; academic and curatorial symposia; university programs offering degrees and curatorial certificates in performance studies; and the evolution of a major biennial, Performa, which debuted in 2005. While the nuances, complexities, and contradictions inherent to the topic of performativity can seem challenging and unwieldy, with this volume we hope to make clear that creative risk-taking and an openness to collaborative, interdisciplinary thinking have been hallmarks of the Walker’s programming and collecting, as well as its mission, for nearly half a century. These principles have stood us in good stead as we continue to question how and what we collect, and stay open to and respond to developments in the expanded interdisciplinary field.

Elizabeth Carpenter is an independent curator and scholar. She came to the Walker from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where she was on the curatorial team responsible for the exhibition and catalogue Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (1997). At the Walker she was curator of visual arts and collections from 2001 to 2013. During her tenure she organized numerous exhibitions, including Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo (2012), Frank Gaard: Poison and Candy (2012), Robert Irwin: Slant/Light/Volume (2009), Hélio Oiticica/Rirkrit Tiravanija: Contact (2010), and Frida Kahlo, which opened at the Walker in 2007 and traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is currently a Walker adjunct curator working on an upcoming exhibition and catalogue with artist Katharina Fritsch. Carpenter holds an MA in art history from the University of Minnesota and an M.Phil. in art history from the City University of New York.