The difficult time is when there is nobody … when we are waiting to be seen but no one is there. —Eiko1
In November 2010 visitors to the Walker Art Center perambulated as usual through its gallery spaces. They lingered before paintings and circled around sculptures, eventually happening on a gallery that housed an enclosed room. Upon entering, visitors found leaves, rocks, water, and minerals. They might have discerned a tremor in a small pile of leaves, looked twice at the pallor of what appeared to be a stone before realizing that the structure also contained live bodies, two of them. With barely perceptible movements, Eiko & Koma lay prone in what might have been defined as an ecological art piece, never fully still but not exactly moving either, poised precisely to prompt awareness of the precarious nature of aliveness itself. When asked to discuss what it was like to perform this signature work, Naked, they said that the hardest part was not the length of time or the discomfort of being gazed on by strangers but the peculiar hollowness of moments when they were alone. As Eiko notes in the epigraph to this essay, the absence of a spectator brought not relief but a strange tenuousness: it was as if the work, “waiting to be seen,” did not quite exist without anyone there to witness it.
Eiko & Koma are artists whose work—along with that of thousands of others—has been characterized as “performative” in some way. Now we might ask what that characterization means. Are their works performative because they are performance artists? Can art be performative without being performance? Can performance not be performative? Are some types of art performative and some not? While I do not want to ignore this tangle of questions, I do want to take another philosophical tack to chart our way through them. Most generally, I would like to consider the philosophical history of the term performative, focusing especially on what the concept implies about the position of the receiver. As it turns out, the receiver’s role—the role of the figure we might variously call the audience, the beholder, the visitor, the interlocutor, the participant, or the spectator—is fundamental to understanding the uses of the term performativity. Indeed, the reception by the audience is key to constituting any artwork, action, speech, or event as “performative” in its power. This factor creates new philosophical tangles when we consider what it means to “collect” an artwork; an institution or collector does not simply acquire a performative object but also acquires a structure for renewing its relations of reception.
Let us first consider the term performativity in contemporary art discourse—along with its varied, fuzzy, and sometimes contradictory uses. The hazy understanding of the term arguably contributes to its ubiquity, as “performative” becomes a catch-all in an art and performance scene that has undergone incredible expansion. First of all, performativity is often used to describe work that seems to partake of performance but does not quite conform to the conventions of the performing arts. Cross-media pieces might incorporate a body, exist in time, or perhaps ask their visitors to do something. But what is their medium? Their genre? They might be choreographed but are not quite “dance.” They are theater-like but not theater. Some might call such works performance art, and yet others would be unsure about the use of such a term, especially if the piece lacks the chocolate (of Karen Finley), the scissors (of Yoko Ono), the loaded gun (of Marina Abramović), or the oozing blood (of Ron Athey) that would confirm its place in the increasingly canonical history of that genre. In the face of critical confusion, the term performative comes in to save the day. 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. Let me call this phenomenon the intermedial use of the performative vocabulary. As we will see, the audience—the receiver—in fact plays a central role in navigating this intermedial interplay. Depending on what art form they understand the work to be challenging, their reception will take different forms and make different judgments. Their responses gauge a work’s closeness and distance to sculpture, to dance, to theater, to film, to painting, or to other mediums. Indeed, such calibrations will in turn affect whether the receiver calls herself a beholder, an audience member, a spectator, a viewer, a visitor, or a participant. The imprecision of “performative work” in terms of medium thus gets tested most urgently in the encounter with someone who is deciding what kind of receiver she wants to be.
There is a second cluster of hazy and contradictory uses, however, although they are uses that acknowledge the more philosophical understanding of the term as linguistic action in the world. In this cluster, “performative art” seeks most specifically to do something, to bring a world into being with its action. The term performative comes from a longer tradition of speech act theory that explores the world-making power of language. In this school, language is understood not simply to describe the world but to constitute it. Speech shapes our perception and also alters the conditions in which we live, structuring how we think about ourselves, about our relationships, and about our environment. As a term that arose within a strain of Western philosophy, it coincided with a Western history of post–World War II art practice, one that was itself preoccupied with philosophical and political questions of subjectivity, action, and autonomy. This is where Dorothea von Hantelmann, in her essay for this volume, steps in to argue that, by such a definition, all artwork is performative. “It makes little sense to speak of a performative artwork,” she says, “because every artwork has a reality-producing dimension.”2 Indeed, in the long history of aesthetics, scholars have debated the question but have largely concluded that representational acts of art are always reality-producing actions, contingent upon their conditions of production. Interestingly, it is precisely at this point that the position of the receiver comes in once again to advance and consolidate this process. As we will learn from examining the work of one of the most formative speech-act theorists, J. L. Austin, the reality-making capacity of the performative happens in the moment of a receiver’s “uptake.” A world is made in that exchange. This is something that Eiko & Koma seem to understand with some degree of urgency. The reality made by their artwork is all too fragile, dependent upon someone to be there.
In what follows, I explore the frames and stakes of both the intermedial and reality-making contexts of performative practice, clustering my reflections around selected artworks and selected philosophers that span the mid-twentieth century to the present day. In reflecting on these uses, I find it important to understand and value the impulses behind them. Given the wide range of expanded, cross-media practices that we find ourselves encountering in museums, on stages, and in the streets, it seems important to develop a more precise and varied vocabulary for what they might be doing. While this essay focuses on correspondences across twentieth-century Western philosophy and Euro-American art practice, we will also see that these correspondences are revised and critiqued by practices that engage a wider global history. After introducing some key concepts and conundrums, I focus on three different historical moments that are framed by different “performative” vocabularies. For the purposes of this essay, I will somewhat reductively call them the “action” turn, the “Minimalist” turn, and the “relational” turn, although we will soon see that such namings are themselves performative speech acts with their own blind spots. I hope that a general consideration of these three turns can help us get back inside what are indeed true artistic puzzles about how we encounter and evaluate contemporary art, contemporary performance, and their many antecedents. Following the position of the receiver in these varied contexts provides a way to navigate their forms and their effects.
Acting with Words/Acting with Painting
In 1955 Austin delivered the prestigious William James Lectures at Harvard University. In advance of his appearance, he had been offering earlier versions of these thoughts in a course at Oxford that he called Words and Deeds. It was the Harvard version, however, that would be remembered, transcribed, and ultimately distributed. The propositions, explorations, and qualifications that appeared in those lectures ultimately became a book, How to Do Things with Words, that received a good deal of attention in its own time and would become required reading for many students of critical theory as the twentieth century wore on.3 I will explore later why interest in speech act theory resurged in our contemporary moment, but first perhaps it is worth remembering a network of related developments at midcentury. This was also a moment in the art world when Abstract Expressionism had established itself as a distinctively American post–World War II art movement that invoked but reworked the nonfigurative abstractions of the European and Russian schools. As many critics tried to come to terms with the large allover canvases of Abstract Expressionist painters, some found themselves just as preoccupied with the movements and processes by which painters made such works. Harold Rosenberg would give a name to this approach, defining “action painting” in the United States in 1952 at the same time that Austin was rethinking the nature of words and deeds across the Atlantic.4 For Rosenberg, the distinctiveness of “American” Abstract Expressionist canvases came from a change in attitude toward painting itself. The conventions of two-dimensional representation were undone by painters who no longer viewed painting as a domain to “reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express,’” instead regarding it as an “arena in which to act.” As Rosenberg described it, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”5 He attempted to call such actions “American,” somewhat speciously mixing metaphors of politics, spontaneity, and individual liberation; meanwhile, a variety of (usually male) artists were placed under this umbrella, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Cy Twombly. Jackson Pollock would of course become the most emblematic “American” action painter of his time. That notoriety was solidified when Hans Namuth documented his painting in action, following the cigarette-smoking, hypermasculine American artist as he moved deftly and determinedly with his drip brush across a canvas that was propped horizontally in the great outdoors.
I cannot do justice here to the histories and debates that surround both speech act theory and action painting. But for the confined purposes of this essay, it is worth noting that their pursuits share a number of implications and consequences. Without overdrawing equivalences, we can spot a parallel between Austin’s attempt to overcome a purely descriptive understanding of language’s function and Rosenberg’s attempt to describe the stakes of action painting’s refusal to represent. Said Rosenberg, “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.”6 The canvas was thus a documentary trace of an action, an encounter that was a “doing” to the canvas rather than a brushstroke aimed to represent a prior “image in his mind.”
A similar if not equivalent desire to dissolve the referential relation—that is, the “prior”-ness of the referent, the image, or the signified before a signifier—preoccupied Austin. “It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ‘statement’ can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to ‘state some fact,’” he wrote. Rather than statements whose integrity was determined by the veracity of their description—that is, their representational or descriptive accuracy—he focused on statements that approached the world with the intent “to do” something to it. Considering linguistic phrases like, “I bet” or “I promise” or, most famously, “I do,” he found them most interesting for their implosion of the referential relation. Indeed, it was by virtue of that implosion that such phrases transformed reality. He called such phrases “performative utterances,” choosing the root perform, he said, because “it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is a performing of an action.”7 Both these 1950s Western intellectuals were thus interested in reorienting our understanding of their respective mediums, a reorientation that foregrounded the capacity of language and the capacity of painting not simply to represent an already-given world but to install transformative encounters that brought the world into being.
This decade followed and preceded a number of transformative and self-consciously “active” art experiments in Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: Dada, Surrealism, the Bauhaus, Neoconcretism, Gutai, Constructivism, Minimalism, institutional critique, and more. Before Austin, after Austin, and whether or not they had read Austin, artists in various contexts were questioning the parameters of traditional aesthetic forms in painting, sculpture, theater, and dance. Importantly, the “action” in self-consciously active art incorporated and deflected the sociopolitical contexts in which artists found themselves, responding to the emergence of psychoanalysis (Surrealism), to collectivist aspirations (Constructivism), or to the rising corporate capitalism and the new wars (including cold ones) that defined the second half of the twentieth century. To notice that art movements invoke a term like action is thus not to assume that there is any equivalence among the “realities” that such performative acts seek to make.
With that caveat in mind, it is worth lingering just a bit longer on Rosenberg’s text and context to notice how this emphasis on action affected the reception of the painting. For one, it redefined the relation between the artist and his work. “A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist,” said Rosenberg. “The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.”8 This lack of separation expanded the notion of the artist’s “signature” at a presumably existential level. Viewers were encouraged to see a painting as part and parcel of an artist’s existence, not simply “reading” biographical content into its imagery but, more radically, encountering the work as life itself. With this stance on the work, the artist’s actions were celebrated as much as the canvases themselves; when the canvases alone were displayed, beholders were encouraged to discern the choreographic actions that produced them.
Intriguingly, Rosenberg began to use the language of the theatrical medium to describe a new kind of viewing. “Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.”9 Intriguingly, the art critic tried to discern the duration of the work’s creation, imagining the gallery display as a kind of performance piece; with this kind of encounter, the painting’s “beholder” took on the qualities of a theater’s “audience” member. The performative gesture of action painting thus required an intermedial calibration, one that implied duration, one that reflected on the difference between gestures that were “spontaneous” and those that were “evoked.” To encounter action painting meant learning from other art forms in order to become a different type of receiver.
Let us compare such work with another early example that exposes the intermedial and reality-making performativity of painting: Yves Klein’s famous two-hundred-piece series of Anthropometry paintings. During what would be an unfortunately short career, Klein began to produce monochrome block paintings in his beloved blues, a pursuit that was for him about accessing a life force, albeit one inflected by an unorthodox combination of Rosicrucian spiritual and existential reflection. Klein’s search for “absolute freedom” in painting meant pushing the boundaries of painting itself; his language called for a spatial expansion beyond the two-dimensional: “Today anyone who paints must actually go into space to paint.”10 Klein famously went “into space” with his Leap into the Void, a moment of apparent flight and apparent danger captured in a photograph and circulated in a self-published journal under the intermedia title “Théâtre du Vide.” The Anthropometrie paintings were another mechanism for the spatialization of painting, one whose theatrical elements were also quite pronounced. Beginning in 1958 and hiring women to serve as “living paintbrushes,” Klein organized numerous salons in which spectators were invited to watch as female ensemble members immersed themselves in human-size trays of his trademark ultramarine blue paint, prostrating themselves in turn across a huge horizontal canvas on the floor. In looking at the canvases now, we find ourselves speculating about the choreography behind the images. We can see how the intensity of the blue varies with the intensity of the press of the three-dimensional body parts as they made contact with the canvas. The women’s own acts of self-painting—the smears over the abdomen and circular swirls over their breasts—now remain on the canvas as the signature “brushstrokes” of the artist. Meanwhile, the white space of the canvas marks absent spaces where the rest of their limbs should be; their hands are isolated in negative white space, detached from their limbs and seemingly splayed in panic. The effect of the Anthropometries is thus one that recalls Rosenberg’s formula; the performed painting was one in which a painter’s material is “doing something” to another material, in which “the image would be the result of that encounter.” Knowledge of those historical actions affects how we encounter them now. The paint presses and brushstrokes are indexes of actions whose “gradations” we try to discern, speculating upon the existential “biographies” of their makers as we do.
While the concept of “action painting” seems to resonate with Klein’s practice, it is also important to note that he resisted this alignment. In fact, the terms in which he rejected it bring forward other intermedial and philosophical questions:
Many art critics claimed that via this method of painting I was in fact merely reenacting the technique of what has been called “action painting.” I would like to make it clear that this endeavor is opposed to “action painting” in that I am actually completely detached from the physical work during its creation. … I would not even think of dirtying my hands with paint. Detached and distant, the work of art must complete itself before my eyes and under my command. Thus, as soon as the work is realized, I can stand there, present at the ceremony, spotless, calm, relaxed, worthy of it, and ready to receive it as it is born into the tangible world.11
Initially it is perhaps a little hard to reconcile Klein’s desire to enter “into space” with the assertion that, in the Anthropometries, he preferred to be “detached,” “distant,” and “spotless.” Interestingly, the apparent contradiction uncovers another alignment with the conventions of “theater” as a practice. Unlike the action painter, who positions himself as the instrument of action, Klein essentially delegated and ordered the actions of others, a position very much akin to the director’s role in the theater. Moreover, he was more able to remain “calm” and to receive the work as it unfolded by practicing the piece with his ensemble first: like any theater director, he “rehearsed.” Hence, the delegated and rehearsed quality of this performed painting did not conform to the lone and spontaneous conventions of American action painting as Rosenberg had celebrated it, a fact that makes a painting like Suaire de Mondo Cane all the more intriguing. As a piece that was made “in rehearsal” in 1961, it is an index of a central aspect of Klein’s practice. One can thus look at the canvas and wonder what “was automatic, spontaneous, or evoked,” but one looks simultaneously with an eye toward speculating as to what “spontaneous” acts Klein might have kept in the script. What “evocations” did he decide to eliminate? And what elements could have been rehearsed until they were “automatic?” More pointedly, different kinds of contemporary receivers might find themselves reading different kinds of content into the canvas. Certainly for a spectator asking feminist questions about the painting’s production, the imprint of the female body parts has a particular urgency. By what logic could this male artist imagine that his own “freedom” would be expressed from such a spotless position? And what were the stakes of that freedom for the mute, unnamed female nudes who became his living paintbrushes?
The intermedial expansion of painting has taken many shapes. Allan Kaprow shared Harold Rosenberg’s stance on Pollock and wrote his own account of what he felt was most important in “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock.”12 Kaprow developed an array of Happenings to extend the action of action painting, positioning them as experiments that further blurred the boundaries of art and life and that carried Pollock’s action legacy even further into the sphere of the everyday. It is also important to recognize, however, that other artists innovated in the experimental expansion of painting—and not necessarily in the same legitimating spheres in which Rosenberg and Pollock circulated.
In 1954, in another part of the world, Japanese artists formed the Gutai Art Association to craft alternative techniques and an alternative place for the artist in postwar Japan. Invoking gutai, or “embodiment,” as a first principle, they explored the performance of painting, developing new gestures and methods of working with paint, throwing it, applying it with their feet, spreading it with their own bodies. As actions, these artworks preceded Kaprow’s Happenings and developed independently from the work of either Pollock or Klein. Staged in a Japan that had recently surrendered in World War II, the actions of artists such as Jirō Yoshihara, Saburō Murakami, and Kazuo Shiraga were deliberate attempts to create an alternative “embodiment” to the one they found in the political atmosphere of their homeland. As Ming Tiampo has argued, the regional specificity of these actions “decenters” narratives of innovation and experiment recounted from an exclusively Western modernist perspective.13
The frame of action painting can become more heterogeneous when we consider not only global and gender diversity outside of Euro-American exchange but also diversity within it. A great deal of visual art made by women can be helpfully understood as an extension—and often a parody—of the actions of male painters. In San Francisco in 1958, Jay DeFeo took the idea of action, art, and the everyday to different extremes when she began working on a huge canvas in her Fillmore studio. Layering white and gray paint into forms that became sculptural in their three-dimensionality, she undertook a process of scraping and relayering, turning her own actions as a painter into a daily ritual that lasted for nearly eight years. In her hands, the action of painting was not simply spontaneous but also continuous, transforming the creation of what she would eventually call The Rose into a durational and social relation in her studio. If a feminist rereading of the “everyday” in action painting is made possible through the example of DeFeo, feminist critique becomes more pointed and direct when considering something like Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965) or Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975). Whether squatting to paint a horizontal canvas with a brush secured beneath her dress (Kubota) or displaying her naked body as a locus and container of textual authority (Schneemann), these artists addressed the gendered undercurrent of previous action experiments. For historians of feminist art of the 1970s such as Amelia Jones and Rebecca Schneider, the intermedial challenge was clear.14 If access to “life” was going to be possible for the female paintbrush, it could happen only under her signature and when she controlled her own relationship to the canvas.
Minimalism and Its Misfires
The performative role of the addressee would become newly heated and newly debated with new sculptural movements in the 1960s and 1970s. The term Minimalism became a catchall for this turn in art and performance—variously defined as “literalist art,” “primary structures,” or “specific objects”—one that reduced the parameters, materials, and gestures of art in order to provoke an expanded reflection on what it meant to be encountering it. Before considering these art movements and their critical reception, however, it is important to elaborate upon some other dimensions of performativity’s propositions. Indeed, having concluded the previous section with examples of feminist reinterpretation, it seems important to return first to historic discussions of performative utterances. As much as connections between art and Austin can be found in the emphasis on action, a deeper investigation shows just how much the “felicity” of those acts depends upon their reception. Indeed, How to Do Things with Words is most interesting for Austin’s meditations on what he called the “uptake” of an utterance. He conceded quite early that performative utterances could not have world-making power unless they—somewhat paradoxically—also had the cooperation of the world around them. “Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate.”15 Such contingent circumstances empowered speech to be performative. Austin thus became fully engaged with all the inappropriate or precarious conditions that short-circuited performative efficacy, creating a vocabulary for what he called “unhappy” performatives, or “the doctrine of the things that can be and go wrong.”16 Elaborating on different types of “infelicity,” he thought at length about the concept of the “misfire,” speech that missed its mark. He explored a variety of examples in which the intended meaning of speech differed enormously from a receiver’s uptake. He further distinguished the misfire from what he called an outright “abuse” of language. Abuses were not simply mistakes but utterances in which the “sincerity” of the speaker was in fact dubious. The difference between the sincere misfire and the insincere abuse prompted a great deal of anxious reflection—not unlike our most fraught debates around the effects of contemporary art.
One of Austin’s most famously fraught reflections involved the theater: “a performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in a soliloquy. This applies in a similar manner to any and every utterance—a sea change in special circumstances. Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use—ways that fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language.”17 The idea that theatrical representation was hollow, void, and parasitic thus had intermedial implications. Certainly it resuscitated a historic Western antitheatrical prejudice that has led commentators since Plato to worry about the effects of letting actors and poets into the arena of serious civic debate. Austin’s argument on the “nonserious” nature of theatrical language would be quoted and critiqued by subsequent thinkers—including Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Shoshana Felman, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—who worried about its implications for a variety of aesthetic sites at risk of being dubbed nonserious or insincere.18 After all, the history of Western art has seen artists, poets, and actors constantly renewing their bid to gain legitimate entry into the public sphere. Meanwhile, much of the recent history of late twentieth-century experimental art has given itself a more urgent charge, seeking to undo the art-life binary that would define theater—or any art—as “parasitic” in the first place. If parasitism assumes a reality that precedes it, much contemporary art and performance exposed the dependence of that reality on a language that defined it. Perhaps reality is actually the parasite.
While much of the art criticism that invokes Austin focuses on his reflections on “parasitism,” there are other dimensions of his theory worth emphasizing here. In fact, in the same period that Rosenberg was writing and painters were “acting,” a variety of critics were decidedly unhappy about this nascent performative discourse. Clement Greenberg is the powerful art critic most famous for launching analyses of Abstract Expressionist painting that critiqued Rosenberg’s vocabulary in the strongest of terms. Keen to develop a specifically “modernist” art criticism, Greenberg found it necessary to reassert the autonomy and essentially “self-critical” qualities of modernist painting. Joining AbEx painters with other artists he admired, he posited that the modernist strength of their paintings lay in the degree to which they did not reference conditions outside themselves; properly modernist paintings focused on their own essential “medium-specificity,” their two-dimensional uniqueness as a work on canvas. “It was the stressing … of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”19
For Greenberg, Jackson Pollock’s paintings were groundbreaking not because of the actions that coincided with them, not because of the existence or life force of the painter, but because the paintings foregrounded the specificity of painting qua painting, meditating upon their own essential flatness. For Greenberg and other critics, such as Michael Fried and Hilton Kramer, there was nothing intermedial about such painting. “What does he mean by the canvas ‘as an arena in which to act’?” Kramer asked of Rosenberg in frustration.20 To recall such claims and such frustrations is to remember that many disagree with the notion that “all art is performative.” Moreover, as Greenberg had elaborated, a painting was a good painting when it did not depend upon the uptake of the receiver. After all, properly modernist painting “criticized and defined itself.”
Certainly the most notorious and hence most often circulated argument against the intermedial and performative turns in contemporary art came from a former student of Greenberg’s, Michael Fried. His “Art and Objecthood” is a text that is returned to again and again—some might say too often. I return to it briefly here only to remind ourselves of how the receiver figures in the text. Fried trained his attention largely on Minimalist sculpture and the influence of what he perceived to be its theatricality. His scandalized concern focused on many aspects of the work: its supposed literality, its durationality, its “in-between-ness” as an intermedial form. But one of his prime anxieties about Minimalist sculpture had to do with its effect on the beholder—indeed, its dependence on the beholder. “For theatre has an audience—it exists for one—in a way the other arts do not; in fact, this more than anything else is what Modernist sensibility finds intolerable about theatre generally.”21
While Fried found the audience relation intolerable, many Minimalist artists sought actively to cultivate it. They were interested in creating artworks that encouraged viewers to avow their own relation to the work of art; receivers had to reckon with themselves in shared space with an artwork whose constitution as a work depended upon them. Robert Morris’s reflections on what he called “the better new work” defined this pursuit: “One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”22 And Morris’s own work incarnated the pursuit as well. In his historic solo exhibitions at the Green Gallery in 1964 and 1965, the gallery space was reorganized and even overwhelmed by the arrangement and volume of Morris’s large geometric structures. Viewers had to adjust their comportment in the space, noticing heretofore unacknowledged spatial elements—including the corner occupied by his Untitled (Corner Piece) (1964)—and questioning the assumed boundary between artwork and gallery space, which was blurred by his Mirrored Cubes (1965). Mel Bochner would join his own interest in numerical systems with the environmental expansiveness of Morris in works like Measurement Room (1969). Lining walls, ceilings, and floorboards with a tabulation of the room’s dimension, Bochner called viewers’ attention to the gallery as a spatial container, indeed, positing the work as coincident with the container in which it is viewed. If Minimalist art encouraged viewers to come to terms with themselves as bodies in a space, Eva Hesse pushed that embodied awareness further, transforming rigid geometries into serial presentations of soft, bulbous, spindly, and sometimes prickly materials that seemed to invite a tactile encounter.
Even if Morris, Bochner, Hesse, and other formative Minimalist and Postminimalist artists did not cite Austin explicitly, they were well aware that art was constituted in the moment of “uptake,” and they conceived art that exposed its own interdependence upon this primary encounter. For Fried and other allied art critics, however, such a gesture was not only formally compromising but decidedly unnerving as well. Fried famously analogized the encounter with Minimalist sculpture as a kind of threatening rapprochement with the “silent presence of another person.” Furthermore, Minimalist art called increased attention to what Austin would have called “circumstances,” an extended imagining that was, for Fried, hard to bear: “But the things that are literalist works of art must somehow confront the beholder—they must, one might always say be placed not just in his space but in his way. … It is, I think, worth remarking that ‘the entire situation’ means exactly that: all of it—including it seems the beholder’s body. … Everything counts—not as part of the object, but as part of the situation in which its objecthood is established and on which that objecthood at least partly depends.”23
Ultimately the performative role of the address would be celebrated by some as vociferously as it was condemned by critics like Fried. In this reconsideration of “the crux of Minimalism,” Hal Foster expressed the change in the viewer’s relationship to the art object as follows: “Rather than scan the surface for topological mapping of properties of its medium, he or she is prompted to explore the perceptual consequences of a particular intervention in a given site.”24 Although Foster was discussing a different kind of art than was Rosenberg, his terms chime with Rosenberg’s account of how action painting transformed the viewing relationship. In both action painting and Minimalist work, the viewer focuses on the artist’s gesture as itself an intervention. Whether standing before a canvas or in a site, she becomes a “connoisseur of the gradations” of that action, taking account of its “perceptual consequences.”
Looking back at this kind of thinking from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, we know that Fried and Greenberg would not have their way. Much contemporary experiment seems an active attempt to reinforce the notion that “all art is performative,” even if some artists and critics have had an interest in disavowing the degree to which this is so. Meanwhile, many developments in contemporary art are explicitly influenced by the challenge launched by Minimalism and have extended it in ways that even Minimalism’s founding fathers might not have anticipated. For Paul Thek, Minimalist sculpture hardly went far enough in engaging the perceptual and political imaginary of its beholders. In the mid-1960s, frustrated by a cool geometry that did not come close to responding to the “entire situation” of the Vietnam War, Thek installed fabricated “meat pieces” inside cubic vitrines, pushing beholders to reflect on what it meant to encounter material that looked like it could have once been alive. Decades later, Glenn Ligon took the geometry of the Minimalist block in another direction. In To Disembark (1994), he further literalized Fried’s “silent presence” by imagining such blocks as containers of cargo of another sort, recalling the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who gained freedom when he allowed himself to be shipped in such a box from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia. The geometry of To Disembark thus reminded receivers that the legacies of slavery are part of the “entire situation.”
Uptaking Performance and Other “Relational” Turns
Let us now return to the work of Eiko & Koma. We left them prone amid minerals, plants, and water, waiting for someone to enter the gallery space in which Naked was on view. It is easier to see the significance of their realization of how difficult it was to sustain Naked without a receiver in the room; the felicitousness of their work’s performative gesture depends on the presence of an addressee. It also seems fairly clear that the installation violates a variety of modernist art principles and embodies much of what modernist art critics feared. If Fried was menaced by a Minimalist sculpture that came upon visitors like “the silent presence of another person,” then Naked also literalized that supposed literalism by using silent people to create a kind of sentient structure. Like other Minimalist challenges that expanded attention to an “entire situation” and “included the beholder,” Eiko & Koma’s piece had an environmental reach. The floor of the gallery strategically functioned as a sound trigger when a visitor entered the room. With each step, one announced one’s presence, and the artwork seemed to respond. The resulting self-consciousness in the visitor might have felt welcoming to some and distressingly “in the way” to others.
Moreover, Eiko & Koma are very aware that “uptaking” takes many forms. They know that some visitors pass relatively quickly through the gallery while others linger for multiple hours. The artists’ sense of their own relation to the beholder—one that might include “the beholder’s body”—expands as well. “Their eyes not only see the entire frame. They travel to some other area and back to my body part. … Sometimes they see one part of us, sometimes Eiko’s knee. We are inviting people’s gaze to travel.” Intriguingly, the structural pursuit of Naked lies in part in its ability to accommodate different types of uptaking. Rather than hoping for one particular kind of encounter, Eiko & Koma want receivers to notice how they are co-constructing the exchange. “They have to put themselves in the mind, change their conditions … sometimes people say, ‘That’s enough … I want to stay more but I have more important things to do.’”25 The invitation to beholders to calibrate the conditions of beholding means that Eiko & Koma also have to respond and accept the results of those choices. The performers thus have to maintain a flexible notion of what qualifies as felicity in this performative encounter.
With the work of Eiko & Koma, we also get the opportunity to think about other intermedial puzzles and tensions. As Japanese expatriates influenced by Gutai’s aesthetics of embodiment, they bring to their work a cultural specificity that is registered to varying degrees by receivers on the global art and performance circuit. Moreover, while Naked was created for a museum gallery, and perhaps appropriately understood as an expansion of the display conventions of visual art, Eiko & Koma have also conceived work for other types of venues. Their pieces are often sited in theaters, for instance, a different kind of aesthetic location that engages different horizons of expectation for its receivers. When they work “onstage,” say Eiko & Koma, viewers “tend to think about one evening as a whole thing,” whereas in a gallery the durational parameters of the whole are much less fixed.
Those temporal and spatial horizons widen and retract in more ways when we think of other sites in which Eiko & Koma have located their work, including schools, streets, and even a large lake outdoors. Indeed, dance critics are just as likely as art critics, if not more so, to review their work. And just as visual art critics have had to adjust the parameters of evaluating their sentient sculpture, so too have dance specialists. Deborah Jowitt once argued that the pair seeks to “de-condition you for dancing,” a statement that both unsettles the category of dance and reinstalls dance (rather than sculpture) as a compass from which their work’s innovation is measured.26 For their own part, Eiko & Koma are quite clear that different kinds of venues have “medium-specific” ways of uptaking, however intermedial any artwork or performance piece happens to be. The decision to place Naked not in the theater but in a gallery space was thus deliberate, a key dimension of the kind of experience that they were trying to create for receivers. Rather than taking a seat in a row within a theater setting, waiting for the curtain call before departure, gallery visitors participate in the creation of the “whole thing.” As Eiko & Koma elaborate, “They have to choose which bench, where to sit … they make a decision to leave us.”27
The intermedial stakes of performance-based work thus shift depending on the conventions of the venue in which they are received. This contingency is an intriguing one for many of the artists gathered in the Walker’s collections, especially if one considers the Walker’s relationship to a history of experimental performance. Eiko & Koma are part of the “collection,” says Philip Bither, the museum’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, because of the institution’s long history with them as a commissioning partner.28 This kind of tacking between the professional spheres of different mediums has occurred with other “performative” artists. William Kentridge’s drawing videos have been displayed in the Walker’s galleries, but his work with Handspring Puppet Company appeared on its stages in 2011. Merce Cunningham’s company has appeared on the Walker’s stages for decades—and made its own contribution to the “deconditioning” of dance. Now, however, the Cunningham company’s materials will be part of its “collection” (a status, it should be said, that is much different from being part of a performance library’s “archive”). This means that Robert Rauschenberg is represented in the Walker’s collection not only by a discrete painting like Trophy II (1960) but also by his intermedial redefinition of the theatrical “set” in his work with Cunningham. Meanwhile, Trisha Brown’s dance Lateral Pass (1985) premiered at the Walker, and her canonical choreographic work Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) was remounted in Minneapolis in 2008. Moreover, pieces such as It’s a Draw—For Robert Rauschenberg (2008) give Brown a place in the Walker’s visual art collection as well.
The protocols and paradoxes of “acquiring” performance-based works create their own new puzzles that exceed the parameters of this essay. To the extent that such acquisitions are also promises on the part of art organizations to sustain a future of continued reception, however, it is worth lingering on some more recent turns within the artistic history of performative encounter. Indeed, much recent conversation about “the performative” in contemporary art came about not so much to recall action painting or to embrace Minimalism’s “theatricality” or to notice a history of performance curating that has been going on within visual art contexts for many decades, but to come to terms with more recent “relational” art practices. Dorothea von Hantelmann captures much of this discussion in her account of the “experiential” turn in her essay in this volume. Many contemporary artists have been creating extended events of social encounter under a variety of newer labels, and each of the terms—social practice, community engagement, participatory art, relational aesthetics—has a different resonance and different stakes. A number of artists tend to serve as indexes of more recent experimentation—including Felix Gonzalez-Torres with his “stacks” and “spills,” Rirkrit Tiravanija with his cooking installations, Santiago Sierra with his disturbing installations of unemployed humans in the gallery, and many more. The phrase “relational aesthetics” is often credited to the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who used the term to describe a variety of work in which “intersubjectivity” functioned as the “material substrate” of the art event.29 That is, rather than paint, clay, wire, metal, or canvas, the “material” of the art object becomes the relational exchange that it provokes. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the “new” turns of these participatory forms can certainly be found in earlier work and in a variety of mediums, including the performative encounters of performance.30 As we have also seen thus far, the relational exchange among participants will certainly have different stakes depending upon how receivers understand the regional politics and perceptual parameters of the situation in which an encounter occurs.
The task of contextualizing, mounting, and collecting relational work comes to the fore in yet new ways when we consider the work of Tino Sehgal. A piece like This objective of that object (2004) differently refracts the puzzle of the performative in contemporary art. Sehgal’s objectless pieces have recently received worldwide attention, in part because they actively resist the structures of both visual and performing art. Trained in economics and dance, he seeks to make work that uses no natural resources and leaves no material imprint. Previous pieces have drawn on experimental choreography, distinctive in part because he forbids documentation or any reproduction that could substitute for the live event.
This objective of that object shares company with a number of recent pieces that make use of a game-like structure, including This Situation, recently acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and This Progress, originally sited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and remounted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York to bemused renown. This objective of that object is composed of five interpreters who form a loose circle around gallery visitors with their backs turned. The interpreters breathe softly, and then each successively begins to whisper, “The objective of this work is to become the object of discussion.” They repeat the phrase, as noted in the Walker’s acquisition write-up, “in expectation of the visitor’s response.” If there is none, the interpreters will gradually lower their voices and, after pauses and moments of silence, sink to the floor, apparently undone by the fact that their performative utterance has not produced a felicitous uptake. If, however, a visitor does offer a response, the interpreters actively celebrate the apparent “happiness” of the performative encounter. There may be an exchange between a visitor and an interpreter. The interpreters may then decide at any moment to initiate a circular dance and a series of phrases and exit the room, often leaving one remaining interpreter behind to sustain conversation with the visitor. As in other works by Sehgal, the interpreter may finish by reminding the visitor of the name of the artist, the name of the work, and the year it was made, both parodying and reinforcing visual art conventions of attributing artistic authorship.
If much late twentieth-century art has called upon the receiver to avow her role in the constitution of the art object, then this piece isolates that directive in its skeletal structure. The piece is an encounter about encounter, thereby making explicit the primary condition that Eiko & Koma endured. Because it uses text and language more than the other artworks described so far in this essay, the Sehgal piece also more explicitly returns our discussion of the performative to the exchange of speech. How, after Austin, is this piece doing things with words? The “objective” is the intention of an utterance as well as the intent of the work. Reciprocally self-constituting, the work is itself the “discussion” that it seeks to produce; if felicitous, that exchange will be both the form and the content of the work. The utterance of the work is “happy” when the “object” of the discussion becomes the discussion itself. Meanwhile, the work has less than satisfying mechanisms for contending with a lack of uptake; interpreters sink to the floor until the process can start again. But the aspiration is also to induce awareness in receivers of their own role in producing the outcome. Importantly, that sense of embeddedness comes within a structure that is simultaneously the work’s theme. It is an exchange about exchange whose misfires are about misfiring.
There is a kind of recursive quality to Seghal’s work—one that in turn produces recursive sentences from critics like me who are trying to come to terms with it. However, it might be exactly that sense of recursion that explains the interest of so many critical theorists in Sehgal. Earlier I noted that interest in the mid-century reflections of speech act theorists resurged as the twentieth century wore on. The recent revision of performativity theory was part of a broader effort to understand the complexities of subject formation, a project that questioned the assumption that self-making was essentially a voluntary operation, regulated only by the exercise of internal will. More recent thinkers as varied as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and many others began to excavate a history of critical philosophy to mount alternative conceptions, frames that took seriously the degree to which social “circumstances” in fact produce our internal perception of a voluntary will, often with particular ideological effects.31 It was in such a context that the notion of the “performative” was revived, this time to tease out the implications of the constitutive power of language that J. L. Austin himself might not have pursued. Indeed, for many recent theorists, it is most important to consider the degree to which the primary “doing” of the performative is the ideological constitution of the doer herself.
To ground such a complex notion, let us look at one famous philosophical example that dramatized this kind of recursion—and, incidentally, served as a resource for Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” is a key text in this conversation, particularly for the vocabulary of “hailing” and “interpellation” that he introduced and for the example he used to describe how we participate in our own ideological formation:
That very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing … can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!” Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one hundred and eighty degree physical conversion, he comes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed” (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed.32
Althusser’s teachable example proved fruitful for many subsequent conversations in critical theory. It temporarily anthropomorphized “ideology” as a cop whose performative utterance sought an addressee; moreover, it was by physically and psychically allowing ourselves to be addressed that ideology did its work. That famous “turn” was a form of uptake that ensured the felicitousness of ideology’s performative reach. Moreover, Althusser was keen to note that the process of address and uptake had a temporal coincidence: “Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. … But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.”33 Althusser thus posited interpellation of subjects by ideology as itself a recursive process, as “one and the same thing.” Joining an Austinian language with an Althusserian one, Judith Butler would attempt to tease out a degree of variability in the process of hailing: “As Althusser himself insists, this performative effort of naming can only attempt to bring its addressee into being; there is always the risk of a certain misrecognition. If one misrecognizes that effort to produce the subject, the production itself falters. The one who is hailed may fail to hear, misread the call, turn the other way, answer to another name, insist on not being addressed that way.”34 At the same time, if misfire or misrecognition is possible, it still occurs within a recursive structure that both constrains and enables the subjects it made.
It is no coincidence that some bloggers and other commentators have used the language of Althusser’s “hailings” to describe the exchanges at work in Sehgal’s pieces.35 Since Sehgal is concerned with exposing the ideological nature of subject formation within museum institutions, we could say that This objective of that object is an interpellation about interpellation. Indeed, the choreography of the piece seems to invoke but revise the choreography of Althusser’s “theoretical theatre.” In Seghal’s piece, in fact, the addresser’s back is turned while the addressee reckons with being hailed by the piece. Any “comment” is registered as a felicitous “recruitment,” prompting the addresser to instantiate its success by making her own 180-degree turn.
Moreover, the piece seems to hail participants whether or not they fully intend to be recruited. In Von Hantelmann’s accounts of the enactment of this piece, its structure accommodates a wide range of responses, even turning ringing “cell phones” or discreet “comments in a foreign language” into a felicitous uptaking. Visitors thus find themselves “hailed” despite themselves, reckoning with the process of recruitment. It is thus perhaps no wonder that accounts of Sehgal’s pieces include so many critics’ chronicles of their own process of reception. We find critics using the first person more often in their accounts, as the evaluation of the work coincides with a highly personal process of exchange. (I have my own story, one that involves the effects of bringing my children to This Situation in Paris and watching how their presence unsettled the commentary of the players until one found a way to interpellate my son into the piece.) We also find critics trying to push the structure of the work to test its hailing capacities. When he participated in This Progress at the Guggenheim Museum in 2010, a “theoretical theater” that included structured conversations with child players, the critic Jerry Saltz was not sufficiently attentive to its discursive conventions. The result was that his child interlocutor burst into tears, prompting Saltz to write an account titled “How I Made an Artwork Cry.”36
Like all the work chronicled in this essay, Sehgal’s oeuvre also brings forward intense reflection about the intermedial nature of so-called performative work. He quite actively refuses the language of theater and performance to describe his structures, using terms like interpreter or player to refer to the interlocutors he hires. At the same time, he is perceived as challenging the conventions of a visual art world motored by the creation and purchase of material objects. As Rebecca Schneider has argued, these pieces seem to accrue a good deal of “medial panic” as artists, critics, and curators debate different frames of legitimation and delegitimation.37
Finally, the intermedial puzzles of contemporary art create new performative realities (and new performative problems) for receivers trying to make sense of them. If a residual “antitheatrical” discourse still influences the evaluation of self-consciously “performative art,” then artists like Sehgal have an interest in making sure that no one calls their work theater. And if performing artists such as Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and Eiko & Koma are to receive the legitimation of a visual art-world context, it certainly helps that they have created work for gallery spaces and produced objects that are collectible. But it also seems important to explore the possibility of recursion and reciprocity happening in more than one direction. A museum context does something to these intermedial works, but these works also do something back to the museum. They require new presenting apparatuses; they ask the institution to make new kinds of promises. It will be exciting and intriguing to see whether and how intermedial panic can be turned into intermedial transformation. The performativity of art will, in the end, perpetually transform the institution that houses it.