The Performatik festival is based around shows, actions and performances, with the occasional exhibition thrown in. Nothing special, were it not for the fact that the performers are actually well-known theatre artists as well as visual artists, and the two ‘types’ of artists sometimes create something together. In this way Performatik highlights the fact that it is often difficult to maintain the old distinction between ‘theatre’ and ‘visual art’ (word and live action versus image). The festival gambles on the fact that the most interesting ‘art in general’ develops somewhere in that middle ground. During the 2013 edition I had a number of conversations with artists and curators and carefully monitored most of the programme. Afterwards festival curator Katleen Van Langendonck organised a meeting about the festival with Mette Edvardsen, Alain Franco, Vincent Dunoyer, Danae Theodoridou, Karlien Van Hoonacker and myself. The works themselves as well as the many conversations inspired this reflection.
At first glance, theatre and the visual arts cannot be compared. Visual artists even used to look down on theatre-makers. After all, theatre is an ‘impure’ art form: it is under the authority of the writer, but relies on other ‘applied’ arts such as scenery and costume design, music, verbal craftsmanship, singing and acting. A play therefore doesn’t have an undiluted ‘authorship’. Paintings in contrast supposedly emerge from the genius of one creator, who knows how to take an abundance of things and extract from them an essential image that affects our view of the world.
In the 20th century, however, visual art took a new turn, under pressure from social revolutions and new imaging techniques such as photography and film (which have also affected the theatre). Representation was no longer central; instead it was the question of how it worked, for whom and with what resources. In other words, visual art went in search of the conditions for its own existence, with the most extraordinary results, for example an increasing expansion – corruption – of the resources employed. One of the consequences was that artists often deployed a punctual, time and place-bound relationship with the viewer, almost always with the aim of forcing him to choose a position. Dada was the first and most boisterous example of this, but by no means the last. Strangely enough the museum world developed in the opposite direction. It exploited the ‘eternal value’ of contemporary art. That presupposed a completely different subject that could commit to these eternal messages in a disconnected way without taking a stand.
This is the stuff of conflicts. Which completely blew up in the 1960s. But during the Dadaist era a revolution was already brewing in the theatre, more specifically in dance. A new sort of body with its own expressiveness appeared on the stage and addressed the audience directly, not in coded language. According to Alain Franco, this opened the way to performance, which became an essential vehicle of the more recalcitrant visual arts after WWII.
Performance as a linchpin
The question of the mutual influence or interpenetration of visual art and theatre is therefore quite recent. It is accompanied by the appearance of artworks which, formally speaking, are not obviously part of either domain, because they ignore or change one or more of the codes. In that case, their genre is often determined by the institutional context in which the works emerge. The medium (a word from the visual arts) or genre (a word from the theatre world) of the performance plays an important role here, because it is precisely there that the boundaries appear to be crossed over and over again.
André Lepecki sees the very beginnings of this blurring of boundaries in two works. 18 happenings in 6 parts by Alan Kaprow (1959) is a ‘score’ which is written out beforehand and is only then performed. Incidentally, Kaprow formulated the ideological framework for the new, hybrid art with the view that artists were no longer painters, sculptors or musicians, but just artists. Strangely enough, this implies that Kaprow preserves the 19th-century myth of genius, while breaking with the formal demands of the art ideal of that century. Artists who were intensely concerned with the body as a source of artistic practice, such as Franz Erhardt Walther, Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, objected fiercely to this. In any case, the question immediately arose as to the place and nature of the artwork. Was that the performance or were they the written instructions? A similar problem would surface in the work of Anna Halprin.
Earlier still, in 1955, the Japanese artist Saburo Murakami jumped through six consecutively positioned frames across which a sheet of paper was stretched. The title At one moment opening six holes reflected exactly what the work was: an action that was still felt by others in the ‘completed’ work. But was the work the jump and the preparation for it, or was it the series of destroyed frames or was it the idea that lay at the basis of both? Lepecki places these two works in the context of a broader cultural sensibility. Thus, certain individuals including Alan Kaprow asserted that Jackson Pollock was a pioneer in this area: his paintings were the result of a rhythmic movement across the canvas while he splattered paint around. A film by Hans Namuth served as ‘proof’, although there is still the ambiguity that the action was carried out not only for itself, but also with an eye to a ‘canvas’.
However, you can go back even further in time than Lepecki, to the beginning of the twentieth century. The work of Loie Fuller, for example, inspired artists such as Picasso to new visual forms such as Cubism. It would probably now be regarded as a sort of performance rather than dance. The remarkable thing is that one could therefore conjecture that the mutual penetration or effect of performance art and visual art was instigated by a development in dance, as Alain Franco suggests.
A nightmare for museums
These developments cause numerous problems for museum directors. How, for example, can you purchase a work by Tino Sehgal when that work isn’t even written down on paper, but only conveyed verbally? These questions were raised during the first debate of Performatik 2013, with Jenny Schlenska (Moma PS1, New York, USA), Catherine Woods (Tate Modern, London, UK) and Ann Demeester (De Appel, Amsterdam, NL). They were less about the relationship between visual art and performance art than the specificity of ‘performance art’ as a ‘historical’ phenomenon. Among other things, the issue was how that art can still be preserved and unlocked when the artists themselves are no longer there. The oldest performance artists are now over 70 or dead. The remaining film images are open to incorrect interpretations. Without an insight into the context at the time, the original use of actions is often no longer comprehensible. The historical irony here is that performance was often legitimised as an attack on the museum as a bastion of an abstract, bourgeois concept of art and guardian of the market value of art. Now, however, museums are among the last institutions to hold their position in the face of the market logic that now governs the art market. Just as ironic is the fact that the revolt of performance art against art as an object of speculation has since been turned into its opposite (with an artist like Tino Sehgal as a notorious exception to that rule).
What makes things even more confusing is that, initially, performance artists firmly distinguished themselves from theatre-makers. Roughly quoting Ulay and Abramovic, they were all about the moment. Theatre-makers were all about repetition (in other words: a paler version of the absolute reality of the performance). A late echo of the scorn felt by the pure arts for the theatrical bastard. Nor was that necessarily true even then, as the early work of Trisha Brown demonstrates. It is also a dubious or in any case very specific Western understanding that couples truth with the body as an indubitable touchstone. Now the argument no longer seems relevant. Prominent artists such as Markus Shinwald and Martin Creed continually break this rule: they seriously rehearse their work, or at least the performance part thereof (and also salute many ambiguous ideas about the body). And vice versa, Rosas performs in Tate Modern and Moma.
In the final analysis, however, the debate was chiefly about the different ‘economics’ of visual art and performance art. This begins with different production conditions, but continues to a difference in ‘sale’ and distribution, etc. Moreover, this comparison came down in favour of the theatre, at least as regards respect for artists. Yet these are all only secondary matters, as Franco again asserts. Performance in the museum only makes sense if it helps make the visitor more aware of the subjective, interpretative and therefore also political nature of his viewing. Which in a certain sense leads us back to the position that Dada took at the beginning of the 20th century.
Representation, Knowledge and the Subject
Franco states unreservedly that the discussion on the blurred boundaries between art and ‘live art’ is about a policy of representation. In his view, theatre is the place that society created to clarify social structures dialectically via story and language, at strategically chosen moments. The viewer’s real-life – and that also means physical – experience was and is not necessarily taken into account here. Indeed, theatre – and dance – was something of a puppet show until late into the 19th century. After that, it was mainly dancers who then began to use the body as an expressive tool with its own logic and language. From then on the body ‘speaks’ and the concept of (performance) language was significantly extended. It was then a small step to performance art in which the body ‘does the work’.
According to Franco, museums had another calling: important clients and – from the 19th century – governments made the viewer-visitor visible in the way in which they collected and exhibited work: the amateur who takes pleasure in visiting museums in order to see and be seen. The museum brought the ‘missing viewer’ in the history of representation into the limelight. As a result, the choice of artworks represented the preferences of that viewer, like a parliament, but not the struggle that preceded it. Museums thus neutralised the most radical art, by fitting it into a History with a capital H. The ‘other’ history, where art does force the viewers to become knowledgeable about works and to take a stance, where the viewer is the subject of history, stays in a museum out of the picture.
Franco, in any case, sees a major difference between a theatre-goer and a museum visitor. Unlike the theatre, a museum controls the time experience, the viewing or the intentions of the public. Theatre performances bring people together to share in something, and are therefore a potential source of conflict. In a museum everyone chooses for himself what he wants to see and for how long. In so doing each visitor can deliberately neutralise the most radical political art by ignoring it. The fact that collections are currently governed principally by the market value of art also makes it difficult to give ‘political’ work any credibility. What can museums do to combat this?
They can obviously engage the viewer more closely with the collection by giving lectures, etc. However, it’s more effective to bring in the artist himself, the only one who hasn’t yet been represented in the museum. That has indeed resulted in very high attendance figures on some occasions. However, as long as the museum stops at introducing an ‘alienation effect’ à la Brecht, it is wishful thinking to hope that the visitor as Subject will relate to the history that he sees before him. Franco makes this sarcastic comment: ‘The stage is where the people are, the value is on the wall, political messages are to be found in the cloakroom down in the basement and art is an applied department of communication studies. In short: we feel “at home” in the museum and behave as such.’ Basically: nobody takes the responsibility to relate to what Art represents politically and socially (or even asks themselves if it actually does anything other than affirm itself).
The question that obviously occupies us here is whether performance can play a role in this, and if so how and what role. Danae Theodoridou suggests, in the wake of Paolo Virno and Alain Badiou, that art is not about representing or speaking to a general public but rather about making the abnormal and singular possible, without compromising social coherence in the process. Not ‘the’ public, but the ‘multitude’ of many possible positions is what it comes down to. This ‘multitude’ is then reflected in an art that is constantly challenging the rules. However, this concept remains very vague. In the application of a specific work, namely Brouillon, you can however see what they are driving at.
When does a work that fluctuates between theatre and visual art ‘succeed’?
Performatik, in 2013, confronted the public with quite a lot of shows that took them out of their comfort zone. Whether this creates the alienation that allows the spectator as a subject to take a position about the work is not a necessary consequence of that. What did seem to happen is that many statements of the obvious and rituals from the theatre and visual arts were ignored or amended in the border region between the two. For example, there were a multitude of works in which the authorship – once a sacred cow of the visual arts – as well as the actual nature of the work was unclear. This applied to works including Counter-relief (Kaai) 2013 by Jimmy Robert and Maria Hassabi. The work called Counter-relief by Jimmy Robert already existed as an installation with boards, arranged in a variable geometry, a film and a (coloured-in) text. At Performatik, Jimmy Robert and Maria Hassabi appeared together in this installation, which they manipulated before the eyes of the spectators or visitors. Those who didn’t know any better immediately assumed that this was a show with sophisticated scenery and behaved accordingly. Those who knew Jimmy Robert’s work, however, were mainly interested in the configuration of space and film material, or were even indignant about the dramatics that Hassabi contributed. In any case, her presence changed both the work and the authorship, and also the potential concept of the work. It definitely changed the content.
An operation like this has far-reaching implications. It raises questions about the current idea that a work of art has an intrinsic meaning. Firstly, because it doesn’t allow the viewer to look at the work freely, but forces him to do so within a specified time limit and in a specific group, with the suggestion that it is precisely this time-frame and the presence of a public that helps determine the meaning. Secondly, because the work itself is de facto changed by its manipulation and integration within another work, in the sense that the story of its reception is being rewritten while the viewer is actually looking at it.
The spectator or viewer is not only wrong-footed by the variable meaning of the art objects in this operation, but also by the fact that he cannot fall back on a familiar viewing attitude. On the one hand, it is abundantly clear that the setting is theatrical in nature. A space-time continuum is used that is separate from the usual time and space. Thus, each event acquires the character of a game that does reflect what happens outside this space-time continuum, but in a completely artificial way. In a conventional theatre setting, the spectator becomes part of an audience and thus also represents society in concrete and formal terms. The spectator therefore finds himself in a position that implicitly involves a greater responsibility than in a museum, where as a flaneur or art-lover you can ignore or scrutinise a work as you please. In this work the uninvolved museum viewer-visitor is thus forced into the unusual, involved role of spectator.
On the other hand the performers find themselves in a position that differs completely from that of the actor. In a conventional theatre setting an actor plays a role. He’s not there ‘for himself’, he is not giving his own performance, as an artist does when you see him in action in his studio (or, similarly, a footballer during a match). Here something is actually created, not played, in situ, with the bare lives of the artists as instrument. At least, that would be a logical assumption on the premise that in the end everything centres first and foremost on the visual object. We just can’t be sure of it. Maybe it is a fully developed choreography, or a score after all. But how can you make a judgement about that? How can you attribute meaning to what you see? How do you know what is noise and what is a decision by the artists? If the spectators, for example, are driven away by the action, is that something to do with the format of the room, or is it a deliberate disturbance of ‘their’ space. What importance should you attribute to it?
If a ‘museum-oriented’ way of viewing is therefore obstructed by the specific setting of the work, then the theatrical view, which rests on a precise cohesion, is also hindered or disturbed. We can’t assume that there is a more or less defined representation at the basis of what we see. In the best case we can compare the event with an improvisation in dance, where the emphasis also lies more on the creative moment than on the representation. Whatever the case, whether you see yourself as a viewer or as a spectator in this work, you have to commit yourself in order for it to work. You have to jump.
Viewer or spectator
The example of Counter-relief therefore raises a question that came up frequently during the festival. The perspective, the viewing attitude – a theatrical spectator or a museum viewer – has a decisive effect on the appreciation of the work. Katleen Van Langendonck maintained that time after time. In the case of Counter-relief they appeared just to see another work by focusing either on the temporal-performative or on the material-visual aspect of the events. A sensitive subject for a curator: which public should you have in mind when compiling the programme? Conversely, from an art history perspective, the impact of the ‘framing’ of works only becomes really clear via such a paradox. Performance is a practice that disturbs not only the position of viewer or spectator but also that of an art institution.
This disturbance of viewing expectations and positions was the order of the day at the festival. Take for instance The Untitled Still Life Collection, the fruits of another collaboration between a performance artist, Trajal Harrell, and a visual artist, Sarah Sze. This meeting was a one-off. The event at Performatik was a ‘re-enactment’ of that original work, with Harrell as himself and Christina Vasileiou as Sarah Sze. As a rule, Sze’s work consists of fragile, unstable constructions made of wire and other formless materials. Yet they define an arrangement of space in a quasi-miraculous way. Consequently they also trigger, as if by themselves, the close involvement of the viewer (in this sense the work is comparable with that of Gego). In the performance that Sze sets up with Harrell, they both manipulated wires that they stretched between each other, via fingers, limbs and mouth. You can imagine how this performance updated something of the interactive, sensual potential of Sze’s installations, but that it was also irreproducible for precisely this reason.
Another combination of visual artist and performer also created a conflict in framing for the audience. Berlinde De Bruyckere once asked dancer and choreographer Vincent Dunoyer to put on a small, precisely-defined performance at set times during her exhibition at the Istanbul Biennial. I didn’t see it myself, but I can vividly imagine how the sinewy, tense gesticulations of Dunoyer relate to the semi-recognizable, sinewy bone-and-flesh constructions that De Bruyckere piles up on shelves. The difference between a coherent living body in an insecure and in any case undifferentiated, museum situation and De Bruyckere’s incoherent, imaginary cut-up body parts must, by their cool juxtaposition, certainly emphasise the tension between real and phantasmal bodies. In Istanbul the ‘dance’ therefore had the effect of a booster of the imagination relating to the images themselves. The Dunoyer performance became central during Performatik. It no longer followed a prescribed scenario and was supported by the dramatic cello part Sept papillons by Kaija Sariaaho, performed by Alexis Descharmes. This situation unwittingly turned De Bruyckere’s images into a sort of scenography. This is how the visitors behaved during the performance that I saw. They barely gave the images a second glance and immediately went to sit in a circle around the performer.
In this way Performatik showed us something that we already know, but at the same time always forget: an art exhibition increasingly organises the way people can relate to a work. It takes the viewer or spectator along an ingenious path in exhibitions, through a sophisticated programme in theatre festivals, through a strong discursive framework in both cases. However, if the traces are intentionally erased, the result is also uncertain, and it suddenly becomes clear how insecure both makers and viewers/spectators can feel in the face of actions that, to paraphrase Frank Vandeveire, time and again ‘paint over’ a blind spot, a traumatic point in our understanding of the world, without ever being able to catch it or make it disappear.
It may be a question of taste, but for me at least some of the works at this festival successfully managed to choose a position and make their point on the narrow line between theatre and visual art. By creating just the ‘right’ kind of confusion, so that things remain comprehensible but at the same time forcing you to take a position about that image. The work of Zhana Ivanova, Theo Cowley and Meggy Rustamova comes to mind here. Of course there was also the energetic Brouillon, set up by Boris Charmatz and his crew.
Borrowed Splendour by Zhana Ivanova is for example not a play, but it looks like one. The protocol of the action consists of three random people delivering a one-off performance of what the artist and an assistant (Sarah Van Lamsweerde) tell them to do. This ‘one-off’ aspect is very important. These tasks are not after all exhaustively described; there is room for interpretation. As the tasks are announced, however, they seem to be a fairly precise description of an argument between two men about a woman. The ‘actors’ discover this task at the same time as the audience. So initially they are not playing a role, but carrying out a task. Gradually, however, they discover ‘who they are’ and they begin to use more imagination to fulfil their role. They then shift from ‘executors’ who converge with their performance, to actors, who are playing a role and are therefore no longer converging with their performance. They manipulate their task. As this happens, those present change from being viewers to being an audience witnessing an intrigue. There is, however, a lot of leeway in this experience. Every viewer remains aware of the more or less random interpretation that the ‘actors’ put on the events, and can also be fascinated by all the chance things that happen in parallel with the story. It makes you aware of everything that happens in addition to the role when you witness a performance, to the point at which the story becomes ‘secondary’ again over time. (Looking ahead to what follows: the ‘story’ is a platform where the singular can emerge, where differences become visible. That is the opposite movement to the classic play or classic novel where all random events eventually fall into place and draw to a ‘conclusion’).
In that respect Ivanova’s work is not theatrical, but a conceptual construction that clarifies something for us about theatre as a canvas, as the basis for our actions. Her work always consists of meticulously written protocols that often impose virtually impossible restrictions, but still manage to produce ‘stories’ that are then instantly annihilated. Her work thus builds on the ideas of the Oulipo collective (workshop of potential literature), and in particular on the work of author Georges Perec. In his work there are endless lists of possible perspectives, descriptions, inventories of situations that as a rule seem extremely banal; but nobody demonstrated the uncommon in the common as intensively as Perec. Not by giving opinions, but merely by listing with meticulous fanaticism and according to strict procedures what there is, which inevitably turns the spotlight on everything that is missing. And that is precisely what Ivanova does. Lists and procedures are her artistic alpha and omega.
Ivanova makes art that depicts theatre as a process and shows in one movement what such a context excludes, but also what reappears in all its singularity in these lists. This makes her an ‘artist in general’, an artist who uses theatre quite regularly as a potential medium, but more especially as a subject of research – albeit to some extent destructive research.
Her work continues, however, to evade categorisation. It poses as theatre, with its duration and with the suggestion of a narrative, but it works with formal principles taken from experimental literature, film and visual art which strip down this narrative. And it pops up both in the gallery circuit and in the theatres. But all these formal and strategic decisions and choices by the artist serve one precise and well-defined purpose. That this ‘work’ is, there is no doubt.
When are we going to see something?
The same can be said – mutatis mutandis – of Theo Cowley. He too takes a microscopic look at human actions. On Foot (Red Hat) was deceptive in its simplicity. The performance was shown at nightfall in the Royal Saint Hubert galleries, that monument of 19th-century promenade culture designed by Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar for the heart of Brussels. Many visitors were no doubt wondering when they were going to see something. You have to look closely to spot that, amongst the people who are moving genially, hastily, arm in arm, deep in thought, window-shopping through the gallery, there are a number of people who deviate a tiny bit – even more as time goes on – from the usual scene. This could be seen in details such as a strange item of clothing (hence ‘red hat’), a weird dragging foot, a limp, excessive agitation, etc. You couldn’t be certain of it until you noticed that the same abnormal people kept coming past, as if they had nothing else to do but walk up and down the gallery.
The timing and movements of these performers was perfectly orchestrated, as if in a score: just discrete enough not to stand out too much, yet clearly deliberate enough to create discord, if you kept looking for long enough. The meaning of this action was at no point clarified by any story. You might think that the slightly unusual gait of the performers was inspired by the example of catwalk models, who always sway their arms and legs with a little more emphasis than normal. The combination with the location, however, might also make you think – and without any contradiction – that these figures represented the poor descendants of the flaneurs who in the 19th century exposed the force of the masses in just this kind of place by means of their unusual clothing and strange conduct. The emphatic decor of the place also invites this interpretation.
Moreover, these performers make you more aware of your own behaviour. Places like these lay down unwritten rules about what is acceptable, what not, and as such define the affinity and repulsion of others, even though you may be completely unaware of it. We unconsciously conform to such rules and as a result we also play a role, though in a less conspicuous way, in a play that is not a play. Or maybe you simply thought of Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ lover: he too had people just walking across a stage following a loosely defined time schedule to make us aware of the enormous variation within the ‘democratic’, banal body. Except that here you can see how closely that democratic body listens, how quickly you can fall outside that canon.
Here too, you see once more how a conscious, deftly chosen manipulation of context, time, observation and conventions produces something that forces a relationship to the work itself but also instantly opens up a historic and mental space.
Another similar performance that got me thinking about the relationship between theatre and visual art was (Dis)location by Meggy Rustamova, an artist of Georgian descent who grew up in Belgium. This work could be seen in two ways: as a video-installation and as a live performance. In one case a camera scanned – at least to my recollection – pictures from books about the area in which she was born. The camera stopped at incongruent details, such as a man in a residential area walking across the picture. The film framing and the voice-over provided a powerful image of the alienation that familiar pictures from the distant past can evoke. Those sorts of details also came up in the performance, but then as a mysterious thriller element.
Using plants that had been roughly re-potted, this performance gave a symbolic portrayal of the experience of displacement that Rustamova herself experienced when making the trip from Georgia to Western Europe. There she linked it to a story of a mysterious letter. What struck me was how Rustamova successfully understood that in a context like that of the Kaaitheater there might be a need for a sort of theatrical surplus, which she translated into a recognisable narrative, i.e. the most elementary form of theatre. But her ethic was not that of a performer or actor, who would do everything to bring the story to life with striking details. To make you forget that you’re watching. Quite the contrary: her acting was limited to a series of actions that she performed with extraordinary dryness, like a construction whose seams remain clearly visible. Her ethic is that of an image-maker who offers elements in a strictly thought-out formal combination, but leaves the viewer to fill in the detail. The latter has to invent the drama himself, or preferably, be aware that he longs for that drama. It is precisely because she filled nothing in, that the mystery of the images remained intact. It didn’t absolve you of a burdensome sort of responsibility to understand why that camera fixed on apparently uninteresting (post-) Soviet images. If she’d filled it in herself, we could have imagined ourselves there, albeit at the cost of an inevitable trivialisation of the images into ‘something somewhere there’ and ‘how awful it all was’. But she didn’t. So that also raised the question of what the performance added to a video that was rich enough in itself.
The installation/performance that perfectly sums up the ambitions of Performatik is Brouillon. In a nutshell this was what it was about: for two whole days seven performers, including Charmatz himself, Mette Ingvartsen, Tim Etchells and Jan Ritsema, developed a series of actions around and with the exhibited objects, within a given, carefully constructed exhibition. They moved films, images, photos around, imitated them, or added something to them. It was like seeing curators busy discussing how they were going to exhibit works while the exhibition has already opened. Afterwards the exhibition ran for a few more weeks in a slightly altered configuration, but more especially under another name: Bon travail (more about that later).
Musée de la danse, the organisation with which Charmatz develops his artistic activities, was not new to this kind of thing. A similar experiment was conducted in 2010 in Rennes, and Charmatz has a long history of experimenting with ‘living museums’ or ‘exhibitions in motion’. Tim Etchells is perhaps best placed to explain what exactly was going on here. ‘It is a process that is accompanied by searching and touching. We don’t have a highly defined idea about what we’re going to do. Our insights are often very diverse. But if you show that in front of an audience, you demonstrate how you conduct a dialogue with the works, how you test them.’
Visitors were explicitly advised to leave a lot of time for their visit to Brouillon – several hours even. More than enough to look at the relatively small selection of artworks, even if you watch the videos all the way through. But that wasn’t the point of it. These two days were not even an ideal opportunity to see the exhibited works because the actions of the performers effectively railroaded any peaceful contemplation of them. Or because they might for example draw you unsuspected into one of their performances. For example, you could be persuaded to be an accomplice in moving and rearranging the 300 or so photos and documents that Pierre Leguillon collated in 34 aluminium boxes under the title La grande évasion (2012). Admittedly this disparate collection of images that relate to movement and choreography demand expressly to be reconceived and reworded – narrated – by a viewer, but that is something very different from physically manipulating the objects in a game. You could also play ping pong on an artwork by Julius Koller which was actually in the form of a ping pong table (Ping-pong (UFO), 2005). This is about a radical demystification of the artwork as almost untouchable, creating a concept using an object surrounded by a mythical aura.
The momentary nature of the interaction with the works made it virtually impossible to predict or explain beforehand what would happen and what meaning would arise from the event. A viewer could at best find out about the exhibited pieces beforehand, so he knew something about them. But that was a useless exercise, because the events prevented any worthwhile viewing of the works anyway. Yet the idea was certainly not to chase viewers away, but rather to get them to stay as long as possible to test the experience of the works according to the way performers handled them.
This essentially simple operation had many effects. For a start, nobody was ‘at home’ here: not the theatre-goers, nor the lovers of visual arts or performance. The visitor had to invent a role or place for himself, without any external help. The status of the ‘event’ (for want of a better word) and the relationship between its separate components defies simple categorisation. After all, in visual art terms, it is virtually unsellable because it is almost impossible to document. This sort of event can’t even be managed as a running exhibition. You can’t let such an event go on for more than two days without getting into financial or practical difficulties. As Danae Theodoridou puts it: ‘Experimenting with the ways in which we can “sketch” new temporalities, thus, Brouillon enacts the possibility for multiple, contesting relations between things, bodies and the ways in which they relate to visibility and legibility … outlining new grounds for institutions able to transform productive collaboration into political collaboration and pass from the universal of the state to the general of the multitude, without destroying the particular.’
So was Brouillon a kind of general destabilisation of an artistic regime? Brazenly pissing against the church of art? Certainly not. To start with: the artworks were very carefully selected. To set up Brouillon, Ive Stevenheydens from Argos sat down with Boris Charmatz and Martina Hochmuth, who is curator at the Musée de la danse in Rennes. They focused on controversial representations of ‘work’ and ‘non-work’. If collaboration – and that was very clearly the case here – is a ‘hip’ item on the contemporary international art scene – both in 'live art’ and in visual art – then work and the quantification thereof is a ‘hot’, even burning item. After all, artists, together with ‘knowledge workers’, seem to be the pioneers in a total disruption of the traditional working relationships because – half by compulsion – they are obsessively occupied with promoting and exposing their individual achievements in a gigantic rat race to prominence, fame and eventually wealth. This very often comes down to a terrible form of self-exploitation. In many cases, the thing that also excludes real collaboration, because every collaboration is focused to such a high degree on output and profit, is that the very reason for going on a joint quest for solutions and making the time to do so vanishes.
In this context, and with a desire to provoke, they chose Mladen Stilinović’s 1978 piece Artist at work as an emblem for the exhibition. This photo shows a man, the artist himself, sitting in bed aimlessly staring ahead. The praise of laziness (1993), a framed manifestation of doing nothing as a fundamental precondition for producing art, highlighted things still further. The artist maintains that Western artists are so consumed by hectic activity that they can no longer be artists. In his view, making art is about understanding the sense – in the senselessness – of being, and too much work clouds that understanding. Anyone who proposes something like a motto, says in so many words that art as a practice, in whatever form, is about an irritation that cannot be painted over.
In her text, Danae Theodoridou elaborately demonstrates that the choice of this text and artist is more significant than first meets the eye. She notes that none of the familiar 'co-' words such as collaboration, cooperation, collectivity, connectivity, etc., appear in this project. At first that appears to be just a casual observation, but the more she looks into it, the less this seems to be the case. Such concepts, she remarks, circulate obsessively in the art world, as if to conceal the fact that they are actually not a real factor in the social domain ... because artists don’t have time for it, or worse, because the sustainable bonds in which they can exist are increasingly out of reach due to the precariousness of working conditions. These sorts of conditions seemingly force artists to do more and more to make the potential of meetings more productive. Theodoridou quotes, with her permission, Bojana Kunst, when she states that precisely the opposite is important: leaving the potential intact, so as not always to exploit it immediately. That’s not so different from what Stilinovic thinks. These potentials were the case in point here.
In this light, there were a few other exceptionally provocative selections. Take for instance Historic Photographs: To crawl into: - Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938, a work from 1996. Metzger enlarged photos of Jews who, after the Anschluss, were forced to clean the streets of Vienna on their hands and knees. These images are laid on the floor, under a wire net, covered with a tarpaulin. To see them, therefore, you have to get down on your knees like the poor unfortunate Jews and crawl across the floor without being able to see the whole picture. With a little imagination it’s not hard to find the parallel between fascist sadism and the neoliberal straitjacket into which art has been forced. Ironic and provocative, but, on the rebound, almost touching was the contrast with an installation by Hans Op de Beeck in which a man endlessly stamps documents. A form of administrative work which would now be mercilessly economised out of existence, but which was not exactly elevating at this man’s time either.
In this way a situation arose which was ‘hors norme’ in every aspect. For one thing, as with Robert/Hassabi, the status of the exhibited works was unclear. By being used in another work – albeit a draft – their significance was enhanced. The viewer-spectator, however, was continuously forced to make a multitude of decisions for himself – and that is crucial. A precise duration for a visit to the event was after all not set down in writing, so that, unlike with Robert/Hassabi, there was no clear temporal focal point for understanding a beginning, end or build-up of the action. Duration, beginning and end could thus not be exploited to extract a story from the action. Yet, unquestionably, there were often traces of stories to be seen. For example, I saw Tim Etchells obsessively transferring words from the double video Khiam by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige onto a wall. Words of former prisoners in a camp that the Israelis built in an occupied Lebanese area until 2000. The film documents how people desperately made things and invented work in order to survive in such a hopeless situation.
While Etchells was clearly looking for a relationship with the exhibited artworks, Charmatz himself seems at a certain moment to be quite unmoved by it. I saw him in action with the pretty impressive photo-video montage We are winning. Don’t forget (2004) by Jean-Gabriel Périot. Hundreds of images of business life raced by to a crescendo of bombastic music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Initially it was about classic images of workplaces – often from days gone by. These were followed by no less stereotypical group portraits of employees, who often gather together somewhat stiffly behind a boss. Or people proudly showing a diploma. Thereafter, however, the atmosphere becomes bleaker: strikes, demonstrations, fights at the factory gates... or how indeed the old world of work was violently replaced by a struggle of everything against everyone else. Reconcile that with a man, Charmatz, crawling round on his knees while stuffing food, spaghetti, waffles and fast food into his mouth with both hands and in so doing dirtying the whole floor. The fact that the artist is creating a project about food does not help you feel any less uneasy, outright embarrassed and intellectually affronted. Here, the image of history as an atrocity is thrown in your face in a way that is hard to digest let alone understand.
When the dust settles
The 2013 edition of Performatik included much more than the works mentioned here. the fault lines by Meg Stuart, Philipp Gehmacher and Vladimir Miller, for example. Or the no less extraordinary Record of Time by Alexander-Maximilian Giesche and Lea Letzel. Works that have clearly been influenced by the blurred boundaries between visual art and performance art. However, they have not been scrutinized more closely here because their construction and presentation clearly puts them in the theatre category. Just as an exhibition by Philippe Vandenberg, Angel Vergara, Mohammed Targa and Tom Woestenborghs is obviously in the other category, that of visual arts. This doesn’t take away from the fact that in the total palette they were important as a demonstration of the sliding scale between genres and conventions.
In Performatik however, what we saw mainly, with Brouillon in the lead, was a sort of toxicological experiment. We are now far removed from the situation in which a performer takes the mickey out of a stale concept of art by standing naked in a doorway or producing unsellable art. We are now in a situation in which everything has become merchandise, even as regards stuff that is not marketable, where borders between the ‘creative industry’, ‘knowledge works’, ‘design’ and ‘art’, are becoming increasingly difficult to draw as a result of being topped with the indigestible sauce of 'lifestyle’. Everything is in some way well-conceived, better conceived and simply extraordinary. Along with the lasting requirement to choose and therefore to be. The paradox in all its glory: if you choose something, you are somebody, but how should you choose, because to do that, don’t you first need to be somebody? So where does that leave us? When you get to the end of the line, then you notice that the most powerful work at Performatik was messing around with that problem. Messing around indeed. But not just any old how.
Performance is a way of sowing confusion that differs from the confusion that the market dazzles us with. Performance turns us into a subject who notices that there are no legs left on his chair. Perhaps that’s all it needs to do.