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ThemesOverview of Media ArtPerformance
Reality / Mediality
Hybrid processes between art and life
Rudolf Frieling

It is astonishing how artists' positions were polarized from the moment they began to work with electronic media: Whereas some worked with (or against) their chosen mediums in order to emphasize corporeal presence and materiality, others investigated aspects of immateriality and other possibilities opened up by the apparent disappearance of the physical body brought about by the media. As early as the 1960s, the conceptual and technological foundations for virtualizing the body had been laid, as yet undisturbed by any theoretical discourses about displacement and simulation. This essay deals with a broad spectrum of hybrid processes between art and life. Its examination of the concepts underlying happening, action and performance art focuses on the question about the body—about the body along with its media interconnections as a field of both private and public action—and moves back and forth between public, collective structures that were participatorial in a number of regards, and personalized body-related performances delivered in a dialogue with the audience. In view of contemporary art practices that are returning to, and under new premises investigating, precisely those radical beginnings of process-based artmade with and in the media, the question of authenticity has lost nothing of its relevance in regard to performative media art. The borders with site-specific installations and interactive environments may be porous, yet it seems feasible to suggest that exactly this insistence on the reality of the body is a central motif in more recent actions that make the body the arena of telematic and Net-based interventions. Although I initially scrutinize the influence of twentieth-century avant-garde currents on the relationship between happening, action art and performance[1] and the media, Modernist critique of the imaging and representation of the body is not highlighted (interesting though the subject is). Instead, I concentrate on the question of the ambiguities and hybrid processes that «occur» in the media-based field of action.

Retinal shock

An entire Hollywood tradition is based on the symbolic cinema experience of watching bodies being injured, and physical and mental violence being inflicted; shocking scenes are aimed at the viewers' mind and have an impact not just on the retina but on the emotions, too. There is probably no greater second of cinematic horror than watching an eye apparently being sliced with a razor blade in the Surrealist film «Un chien andalou» by Luis Buñuel. The undiminished shock effect is due to the radical physical attack made upon the organ of sight. Buñuel shows the very act of seeing to be in danger. Here, for the first time (at least in the history of visions), both the symbolic and real struggles against putting up taboos are confronted with their own limits. Borderline experiences are therefore part of the cinematic experience. And yet how soothing to remember, once the shock wears off, that it was ‹only› a film. What a relief to know that the theater of cruelty involves only the actors, and when next we see our theatrically destroyed object of desire (on TV, in a magazine or film), all trace of injury or imperfection will have vanished. But what if this border between art and life no longer exists? How do we conceive of a notion of art that so radically forces real life-time into an artistic performance concept that the duration and stubborn persistence of the result surpass our powers of imagination? Even in the present apparently tabooless media age, the symbolic or real infliction of bodily harm remains a central moving force of action and performance art.

Private / Public

Borderline experiences that tested artists and audience alike were tackled fundamentally in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet although these experiences now possess the special historical status elaborated below, their impact on the eyes, ears and senses is undiminished today. From the contemporary perspective, the act of crossing borders no longer needs to be top-heavy with utopian or ideological justifications such as the cause of sexual liberation: In the meantime, we have come to understand that since the body is simultaneously re-coded, such liberation is not to be had value-free, let alone free from power structures. Valie Export's «Tapp- und Tastkino,» a street action staged in collaboration with Peter Weibel as market-crier («Leap over the boundaries!») in 1968, illustrates the enduring power of such direct-action ‹cinema› even outside the historical context of politically and artistically avant-garde action art and expanded cinema.

While we continue to distinguish between private and public space, however blurred the boundaries may appear in specific cases, the immediate reality of the body and specific location as a collective space is subject to manifold displacements. Let us take as a second example Tehching Hsieh and his «One Year Performances» of the 1980s. His «Time Piece» from that series casts a searching spotlight on all «time-based» art forms.[2] Hsieh wanted to illustrate the experience of time, but in its purest form rather than in connection with a specific work or action. His stamina and perseverance—both physical and mental—confound our powers of imagination. And yet we believe the artist, not lastly due to the fact that the reality of the performance was verifiable. The announcement of time, place and content may have been part of the public performance, but its impact is felt in retrospect. While warranting authenticity, the media recordings (and possibly the oral accounts of those who participated) at the same time point to the fundamental difference between the artistic act and its reception. An adequate response to Hsieh's performance would be to treat it as a manual for transposing it—in whatever manner— into one's own life. That would also mean becoming the producers of our own lives.

Art = Life

A common interest in producing «dynamic sensations» is evident in the anti-bourgeois, provocative and situative artistic happenings ranging from the Futurist's «Grande Serate» (1910 onward) to the Dadaist's Cabaret Voltaire and the events staged by neo- Dada and Fluxus artists («Neo-Dada in der Musik,» «International Festspiele Neuester Musik»). As Umberto Boccioni's caricature of 1911 shows, the Futurists produced what we would now call a multimedia happening. They wanted visuals, sound, and multiple and parallel actions without any plot to join together to constitute an occurrence taking place «here and now» and directly involving the spectator: «[T]he spectator [must] live at the center of the painted action.»[3] The Futurist's documented affinity with the technological dynamic of industrialized society preformulated an assertion made in constantly changing guises by later movements: That art and life are inseparable in an industrial or media-based society. Contemporary art must occupy the commensurate fields and forms of action, and seek production processes that do not isolate art from life but instead influence life.

Allan Kaprow, whose Environment «18 Happenings in 6 Parts» (1959) originated the term «happening,» spoke of the need to keep the line between art and life as fluid and indistinct as possible,[4] a statement that inspired the provocative equation «ART=BEN»[5] from showman and Fluxus artist Ben Vautier. Another artist who propagated the notion that «life and people can be art» was Wolf Vostell, who not without good reason wrote about the «event as a whole.»[6] This demand for a holistic linkage of art and life was intended to play a part in loosening the constraints of inflexibility and tradition in both the social and political spheres, yet in its essence always referring to the individual.

The Society of the Spectacle

One of the most influential forerunners of the happening movement was probably the Situationist International, which existed from around 1957 to 1972, but built on the radical film experiments and written theses on the «Society of the Spectacle» that Guy Debord had been producing since the early 1950s:«The construction of situations begins on the ruins of the modern spectacle. It is easy to see to what extent the very principle of the spectacle—nonintervention—is linked to the alienation of the old world. Conversely, the most pertinent revolutionary experiments in culture have sought to break the spectators psychological identification with the hero so as to draw him into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life. The situation is thus made to be lived by its constructors.[7] According to Roberto Ohrt, it was above all the practice of using (art) objects for purposes other than originally intended, along with the category of the context, that constituted the revolutionary Situationist approach. The provocative and poetical practice[8] also included the aimless drifting («dérive») in urban space, the provocative construction of situations intended to have a direct political effect—as indeed they did during the period of student unrest in Paris. The impetus that is interesting for our context lies in the actionism targeted at media impact. The scandal that was taken up by the media became an integral component of artistic actions and later of directly political activist concepts. Mediatedness, it might be pointedly concluded, is based on the skilled handling of media conditions, but not per se on the direct deployment of technological or electronic means.[9]

Artists preoccupied with crossovers between the most disparate art forms and with using a range of different media moved in circles associated with anti-bourgeois practices such as those of the Viennese Actionists («an activist gesture pertaining to the body»),[10] with scandals and art as anti-art,[11] all the way up to Yves Klein's art-immanent experiments and «Anthropometries» consisting of painting processes with naked female «living brushes» staged for a bourgeois audience between 1958–1960. At the same time, these artists displayed a decided interest in the technological conditions of society. Artists like Allan Kaprow, John Cage and later the Fluxus artists did not just want to concede chance and indeterminacy a primary role in art, but were particularly concerned with the participation of active spectators.[12]

John Cage—The aesthetic of heterogeneity

Working partly in close proximity to, and with great sympathy for, these experimental forms, John Cage was exploring an alternative to circumnavigating the twin perils of the Gesamtkunstwerk and «art = life» practice. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage tried out an enduringly productive collaboration. They saw collaboration by no means as a holistic «fusion» of the various arts but instead, in Lawrence Alloway's words, as an «aesthetic of heterogeneity.» According to the hypothesis, the implicit belief in the possibility that something unable to be achieved with intentional action will be revealed through the combination of chance occurrences liberated unconscious levels of meaning. The key notions of situation, multiplicity, parallelism or contingency, which have remained pertinent up to the present day, were the guiding lines in an open system of operations that, for instance in regard to music, liberated the musicians from the constraints of predefined timing and harmony. According to John Cage, this was acknowledgement of a notion of time «which has already been recognized on the part of broadcast communications, radio, television, not to mention magnetic tape, not to mention travel by air, departures and arrivals… [and] not to mention telephony.»[13]

John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg—and as a result many productions by the Judson Dance Theater, where Yvonne Rainer and Carolee Schneemann «directed»—placed their stakes not on holistic aspirations but on artistic autonomy and difference. In doing so, they followed on from the argument that Bertolt Brecht used against the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in his «Notes on the Opera» (1930): «So long as the expression ‹Gesamtkunstwerk› (or ‹integrated work of art›) means that the integration is a muddle, so long as the arts are supposed to be ‹fused› together, the various elements will all be equally degraded, and each will act as a mere ‹feed› to the rest.… Words, music, and setting must become more independent of one another.»[14] John Cage, as already cited, applied this view to the most diverse technical and electronic recording and broadcasting mediums. The interactive dance project«Variations V» put on stage by Cunningham together with Cage, Billy Klüver, Nam June Paik and Stan VanDerBeek in 1965 was a representative example of many structurally open performances that included the usage of media technologies: It generated its own soundtrack to accompany the music by means of photo-electrical sensors and microphones that responded to the dancer's movements.[15]

However, in Cage's performances (here in the more narrow sense of a theatrical or musical delivery) the experience of one's own body in a real time and place also became a performance, became the performative act of an open structure: «The purest example is probably the famous «4'33'',» first performed by David Tudor in Woodstock, New York, in August 1952. Inspired by his experience in an anechoic chamber—where instead of experiencing total silence as he had anticipated, Cage heard both the pitched impulses of his nervous system and the low-pitched drone of his blood circulating—he decided to demonstrate that ‹silence› in music is actually composed of any number of ‹incidental› sounds originating from sources other than the musicians and their instruments.»[16] Thus, an artistic act situates itself always in the not purely metaphorical area of tension between interior and exterior.

>Happenings: Technical apparatuses for participation

While the happening—defined, by Allan Kaprow, with the simple words «something happens»—had no predefined outcome, it still relied on the event character in a way wholly different from Cage's compositions.[17] The happening was not the singular manifestation of a specific historical constellation, but in some aspects characteristic of twentieth-century avant-garde movements. See, for instance, James Joyce's notion of the epiphany, Walter Benjamin's references to shock as a poetic principle and the lightningfast recognition of that which is «irrevocably losing itself,»[18] or the often cited example of Jackson Pollock's action painting, which pointed out the process-based character of painting, or Yves Klein's method of staged body-painting. However, the happening added a crucial component to the avant-garde currents of the twentieth century that Jean-Jacques Lebel expressed as follows: «What we have been doing with happenings is not just giving peoplesomething to look at, we have been giving them something to do, something to participate in and create with. We are giving them a language for their hallucinations, desires and myths.»[19] That made it clear that it was no longer a question merely of altered, process-based production methods, but of dialogical or participatorial processes between production and reception in art, in the media, on the street.

In the essay «Concepts for an Operative Art» (1969), Jeffrey Shaw wrote: «The event we look for is when a particular structuring of art/architecture/spectacle/technology makes operational an expanded arena of will and action open to everyone.»[20] Associated with this notion of the operative was a multifarious range of parallel, interfering activities («intermedia,» to use the term coined by Dick Higgins). Contingency and continuity, the fluid and the amorphous, the open and the process-based—these concepts aimed at dismantling the patterns and codes of traditional cultural production. The same aim inspired Wolf Vostell to coin the famous term «dé-coll/age,» (variously adapted in titles including «Television Décollage,» «TV-Décollage no.1,» and «TV-dé-collage für Millionen»). The intention was to transfer art, as a disruptive factor, into life, and vice versa. In London in 1966, for instance, Gustav Metzger organized the noted «Destruction in Art Symposion,» in which devastation was staged as a creative process. An essential element of this attitude was the constructive creation of environments and, to use the current term, open platforms. Art was what spectators and participants made it. In Peter Weibel's «Action Lecture» (1968), the audience interactively—over its own volume frequency—regulated the screening of a film. Some projects even dispensed entirely with the usage of preproduced content or technical media. There was a wealth of multimedia and immersive environments in the context of expanded cinema and experimental architecture that enabled the participants to move, so to speak, entirely within the medium.

While the happening was capable of taking on totalitarian character, as Al Hansen commented in reference to Wolf Vostell's happening «YOU» (1964), it was less the totalitarian aspect than the pluralism and parallelism of occurrences or non-occurrences thatcharacterized happenings in general (see the «24-Hour Happenings» staged by Rolf Jährlings at the Galerie Parnass in 1965). The gallery was venue to Europe's first public presentation of, among other things, Paik's Robot K-456, «the first non-human action artist.» Yet, according to Paik's illuminative and biting critique, the happening had to choose between «real experience» as a non-public individual or group process and the staged/media-conveyed concert variant.[21] Paik's soiling of his own nest was something that many artists associated with Fluxus could not forgive (see the postcard «Traitor, you left Fluxus»). As is obvious from Allan Kaprow's own equivocal attitude to the term «happening,»[22] the experience of equating art with life led to the increasingly calculated staging of actionist or performative processes that simultaneously paved the way for a return to the traditions of the theater and museum, although the intention had been a merging with «life» itself.[23] One way of sidestepping the alternative of either art context or real life was to use spaces outside the scope of the traditional art world.[24] Television offered one such possibility.

«Action» in the media: Dramaturgy and do-it-yourself

The very diverse artistic attempts to allow occurrences to «happen» culminated in the period around 1968. However, the inherent crux of these concepts was that occurrences cannot be planned. The happening artists solved this problem by turning either to staged actions and performances, which often operated with a decided anti-television impetus, or else to more specifically media-oriented actions in and outside the framework of television.[25] Content was not presented specifically to meet the demands of television, but instead as part of a process-based situation that demonstrated the media conditions under which television operates. The success of an action was measured against the viewer ‹participation› documented in the form of protest letters or phone calls. If an action was ‹lost› during broadcasting and did not ruffle the monotonous harmony of television consumption, it was deemed to be a failure or, in some cases, was translated back into an art context in order to be noticed in the first place.

As delineated by Umberto Eco in his influential book «The Open Work,» published in 1962, livebroadcasts harbored the potential for real-time participation. («Exposition of Music and Electronic Television»). Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini's pioneering television happening «Black Gate Cologne» (1968) illustrates the extent to which the wealth of options to act and intervene could be undermined by artistic concepts and produce a passive audience response. The requirements of television, which was continuing to serve mere consumers on the ‹other› side, thwarted the actions in the television studio involving audience and artists in front of and behind the camera as both art and technical directors. In the course of the production, a concept planned as a potentially mindexpanding happening involving a studio audience turned into a visual bombardment of the viewers—whether in the studio or at home—with collage-like impressions, superimposed and manipulated images. All the same, this experiment (produced for WDR by Wibke von Bonin) importantly displayed the boundaries of directly transferring to a media context the happening-based forms of the theater and exhibition space. Television functions according to its own laws and conditions, which «Black Gate Cologne» had not been able to make productive. ‹Live› art harbors a risk, and the TV producer therefore prefers to keep a distance from this responsibility—as was still evident some years later, during the introduction to the live broadcast of the opening of documenta 6 in 1977.

In order to avoid obstructions by institutions or individuals and at the same time to delegate responsibility, artists like Wolf Vostell attempted to free happenings from the constraints of space and dramatic structure, and instead produce them in the spectator's minds, either as «blurrings and conceptual fields that are realized by the viewer's imagination and in which they can find their confirmation,»[26] instructions for action in, for instance, «Morning Glory» (1963), or as reformulated in the 1990s in the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist's «Do It» project.[27] The venue of action was a gallery or television, or even the street or a private home. The degree of predefinition of the conditions therefore varied. Today, actionism is realized in the final consequence on a purely conceptual level in the form of participation via the Internet. The venue is now variable in the highestdegree, open and potentially globally interconnected. Thirty years on, the consciousness-raising action has survived as a hobby and variant on «do-it-yourself,» and artists can document their updated concepts by posting photographs on a project website. While Joseph Beuys propagated the theory that everyone can make art, the postmodern variant proposes something along the lines of «now you must do everything yourself—even art.»[28]

Media and stage: Media amplifiers

In the mid-1960s it was scarcely conceivable that only a few decades later people would be purchasing electronic tools at their local discount supermarket. Nevertheless, awareness was growing that it was impossible to investigate the links between art and technology while wholly ignoring the electronics industry. While on the one hand a development towards critical, political activism influenced art in the wake of the Situationists ( Jean- Jacques Lebel's rededication of the Parisian May of 1968 as a unique and superlative happening may be seen as a typical example),[29] at the same time one of the most influential initiatives for investigating possible cooperation between artists and engineers was originating in the USA under the name of «Experimentsin Art and Technology» (E.A.T.). Billy Klüver was the group's technological expert, while Robert Rauschenberg took the artistic lead. In terms of media art, the group staged one of its most trailblazing events in 1966: «9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering.» The title made it clear that it was a matter of further developing prior experiments with theater. Yet neither a theater nor a museum could have offered space sufficient for an experiment of that nature. The chosen venue, the vast and empty New York Armory, presaged the unusual new sites or abandoned old spaces that would be favored for media events and temporary festivals in later years.

Due to the overlapping approaches of expanded cinema and pop art, but equally—and tellingly—to cooperation with corporate sponsors, there was a boom in media-based theater productions. As if Guy Debord had never articulated his annihilating critique of the society of the spectacle,[30] a line can be traced from underground events such as those of theEventstructure Research Group (with Jeffrey Shaw and others) over the first corporate occupation of audiovisual immersive space at the Osaka World's Fair, 1970 Expo (where the Pepsi Pavilion was created by artists associated with E.A.T.) to the mega-multimedia performances staged as pop events ( Jeffrey Shaw and Genesis, Mark Boyle and Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and others) in the 1970s. Kinetic art structures—pneumatic objects inviting participation, diverse projection techniques—were seamlessly integrated into the pop industry's ever more perfect spectacles and light shows. Any talk of consciousness- raising was now limited to the pharmaceutical aspect, and collective, collaborative events became happenings for the masses, the body a mass media icon on the stage.

Proof that mass media pop events could evolve from the performance tradition was delivered by Laurie Anderson—«I am in my body as other people are in their cars»[31]— and her paradigmatic rise from street performance artist to intellectual's pop icon after the release of «United States I–IV» in the early 1980s. Her unique stage show made up of personal narrative, a technologically altered voice, electronic body scanning, and a pool of freely associated images was based on the mass media literacy of a generation for whom the pop industry and television were equally formative influences.

This essay can merely touch upon the more contradictory and conflict-ridden process of integrating stage performance and mediatization in Europe. Throughout the 1980s the Catalonian theater troupe La Fura dels Baus toured with a series of body-centered spectacles employing mechanical and electronic equipment and repeatedly centering on the viewer as the target of the performer's disinhibited actions.[32] In the meantime, the group is back on the same classical stage it originally tried to avoid, playing in large theaters. No survey of theatrical performances[33] would be complete without mentioning the technologically advanced troupe Dumb Type.[34] Composed of Japanese multimedia artists, the group's elaborate stage performances were based not on extreme physical feats, but rather precisely on the mediatization of the body.

A distinct line leads from the theatrical experiments of E.A.T.'s «9 Evenings» in 1966 to the latermultimedia spectacles mounted by rock bands or by directors and ensembles on the international theater scene (William Forsythe, Robert Lepage, Robert Wilson, Wooster Group). The technical and logistic complications experienced in the course of the «9 Evenings» were an early demonstration of the problems of live electronics that even today make many directors reluctant to risk the imponderables of hi-tech sets, not to mention interactive performances. It was hence not only an ideological but also a pragmatic issue to stress the importance of the process as opposed to the result of these experiments. That the curiosity about new territory was not confined to classical theater venues was demonstrated by artists like Alex Hay, who as early as 1966 said: «I want to pick up faint body sounds like brain waves, cardiac sounds, muscle sounds, and to amplify activity, its changing tempo and value.»[35] His words illustrate the degree in which utopian visions were connected specifically with the permeation and amplification of the body and its linkage with media. Many performance artists subsequently worked on the question in different ways and in opposition to the mass media and theatrical venues. While globally televised information continued to gain importance for the formation of society, artists were increasingly placing their stakes on the most direct point of local reference, namely their own bodies.

Performance: Anywhere, anytime

The thin line between personal experience and social situation was thematized above all in the performances of Abramovic/Ulay. Their motto—«Art Vital—no fixed livingplace/ permanent movement/direct contact/local relation/self-selection/passing limitations /taking risks/mobile energy/no rehearsal/no predicted end/no repetition»[36]—underscored in particular the mental dimension of their own work and the risks it involved. The duo accomplished what probably amounts to the most consistent and longest series of performances, running under the invariable motto «no rehearsals» and exploring in multifarious form the border between power and impotence, between the self and others, between watching passively from the sidelines or actively intervening. While their work as a couple focused on the mental dimensions of extreme physical experiences over a sustained period of time, in his soloaction «Da ist eine kriminelle Berührung in der Kunst» (1976) Ulay perpetrated and documented on video a real-life art robbery as a critical reflection on the mass media and the museum as a bourgeois institution. He deliberately violated the museum rule of «Please do not touch» in order to make the predictable reaction of the media and tabloid press part of his action and the aftermath. Initially, performances were held primarily outside the traditional art venues. They extended into even the most private spaces, and tried out diverse approaches.

Performances delivered alone in front of the video camera for audiences that would see them at a deferred point in time insisted on their status as art and were suspicious of audience participation—see Bruce Nauman's early films and video tapes or Jochen Gerz' «Rufen bis zur Erschöpfung» (1972). Other works demonstrated how predictably violently audiences responded when confronted with technical apparatuses ( Jochen Gerz, «Purple Cross for absent now» 1979). Street actions barely noticeable («Ausstellung von Jochen Gerz neben seiner fotografischen Reproduktion» 1972) contrasted with provocative incursions into the public domain (Valie Export/Peter Weibel, «Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit» 1969). Vito Acconci attempt-ed to draw up a classification system for his own works.[37] Between the almost private gesture, or attitude, and the public interventions, concepts were to be found that precisely investigated the interconnection of the private and the public. In that way, a performance might take place at home, but would still be addressed to the public. Describing «Step Piece» (1970), Acconci wrote: «The public can see the activity performed, in my apartment any morning during the performancemonth; whenever I cannot be home, I will perform the activity wherever I happen to be.»[38] Thus, artists deliberately extended the venue of the art action into the private sphere, charging it with both cultural and political codes. With her action «Triangle» in 1979, Sanja Iveković demonstrated how private space is subject to public surveillance and a private, sexually explicit action can be interpreted as a public threat by a totalitarian state. Documented in photographs, this action simultaneously points to the media apparatus of the surveillance state and the resultant thematization of the political and collectivebody, primarily by East European artists.[39] The extent to which the collective body is also one propagated by the history of images and by the visual media will be discussed below.

Without audience: A room of one's own

The reality of state control in Eastern European countries was in contrast with the specific search for non-monitored «domination-free» spaces in the west. Referring to «Baba Antropofágica» (1973), Lygia Clark stresses the establishment of collectivity as a process of group dynamics: «We arrived at what I call ‹collective body,› an exchange between people of their intimate psychology. This exchange is not a pleasant thing … and the word communication is too weak to express what happens in the group.»[40] But no matter how much the body could join up with others to form a temporary, flexible structure—as was the case in the group actions by Lygia Clark or the multimedia, usable installations by Hélio Oiticica—it still remained a hermetically sealed border. The body «disclosed» itself solely to the internal view and mental experience of one's own body. Bruce Nauman defined the body as a «sphere» and worked with isolating and anonymizing body concepts, with «mental and psychic activities.»[41] Nauman's performances in a studio without an audience now became a performative act in which the viewer was likewise isolated (as in «Live-Taped Video Corridor» 1970). This attitude, which isolates the first person in both the processes of production and reception, was in line with Nauman's later mistrust of any kind of audience participation.[42]

Despite his success with interactive installations, Gary Hill similarly rejects any notion of currying audience favor, instead insisting on the autonomy of the work of art: «There is always a sense of opaqueness in the way that the work is not calling out for an audience, or for that matter, not calling outside itself at all. Perhaps this is left over from my sculpture days, but the autonomy of the work itself is still something that I'm very aware of, at least in terms of keeping theatricality at bay.»[43] Watching, as in his «Viewer» installation of 1996, becomes a performative activity on the part of the viewer, while on the «other» side of the screen watching is all that the performer does.[44] In Gary Hill's work, and basically inBruce Nauman's, too, the body—whether one's own or somebody else's—is ultimately an unfathomable «sphere,» a sign of existence that cannot be permeated or scrutinized, let alone linked up to electronic media. These artists are concerned with a bodily presence in time, but it is a presence each viewer must feel for him or herself. Theater simply needs an audience.

Performativity and video

If that which remains is precisely what distinguishes art, as Jochen Gerz once suggested, then it was a logical step to artistically design the way processes are exhibited. The act of directing productions in the media, in a wider sense any «time-based art,» must also be seen as a performative act when it is reproduced, restaged or exhibited—something for which the videotape offered ideal conditions. Bruce Nauman's performances, produced alone in the studio with a video camera, were therefore first perceived as a performative act when viewed by visitors to an installation. In contrast to the event character of many public happenings and actions, Bruce Nauman was concerned with the anonymity of the performer even in his early films and videotapes such as «Bouncing in the Corner» or «Slow Angle Walk» (1968) His video performances lasted the length of the tape— either thirty or sixty minutes. They were Minimalist and Conceptual anti-events that Andy Warhol had tried out in his own way as cinematic real-time concepts, for instance in «Sleep» (1964): The event was precisely that nothing happened. Declared as a media event, the unspectacular everyday, trivial act was placed up against the «society of the spectacle.» In this way, a distance between performer and viewer was reflected in ruptured form, but not eliminated—and that was the point. The distance that remained offered the «viewer» the possibility of experiencing something personally. The general concept of the happening—«something happens»—was thus surreptitiously transformed into a psychologizing «something happens with me.» Neither Nauman nor Acconci was interested in video as a mass medium, but instead in precisely the private, intimate quality of the medium and in the irritation that a deliberate limitation of freedom to actcan rouse in viewers and visitors. In this case, however, intimacy and psychology were not criteria associated with introspection. On the contrary, other artists took up an artificial and theatrical posing that complementarily reflected Warhol or Nauman's opposition to a return to naturalness and subjectivity. Gilbert & George's «living sculptures,» as presented in their tableau for Gerry Schum's television broadcast «Identifications,» (1970) set the «artificial, rigid, remote and single» against the «fluid, interactive and plural.»[45] Insistence on the artistic aspect of hermetic signs of bodily presence, on the one hand, and the theatrical pose adapting traditional motifs for performative sculptures and tableaux vivants—these opposites encompassed a central aspect of time-based media art.[46] Between the two poles, the scope of the problem was roughly outlined, but there was no desire to furnish an analysis of its social and political vectors. By the late 1960s, however, more and more artists were becoming interested in delivering such an analysis.

Performativity as inscription, recording, signature

In archaeological terms, artistic treatment of the in-body storage of experience, history and identity can be grasped as a process of disillusionment and disclosure—in line with Richard Kriesche's motto «Painting covers up, art reveals!». On the other hand, the same process can be demonstrated and produced as an act of inscription, as in «Film No.6, Rape» ( John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1969). Whereas a classical artistic perspective on the question of the body-conditioned nature of perception was still evident in Dennis Oppenheim's statement, «My body is the intention, my body is the event, my body is the result,»[47] (see his film «Two Stage Transfer Drawing,» 1972) or Gary Hill's video installation «Crux,» an overstepping of the symbolic was obvious in Chris Burden's famous actions such as «Shoot» (1971), in which he allowed himself to be shot in the arm, or «Prelude to 220, or 110» (1976), in which he exposed himself to the danger of electric shocks. In 1974 the French artist François Pluchart published a body art manifesto that equally applied to those early 1970s performances targeting the media. He calls them«irreconcilable,» a form in which «the power of a language counts that disturbs, dissects and reveals.»[48] Once again, therefore, it was a matter—reflecting the tradition of Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty—of the inalienable aspect of an experience conveyed through the body. The art historian Kristine Stiles discerned in such performances the «illustration of the deep belief in the ego as subject,» a rebellion against the imminent dissolution of the notion of the subject. Or as Carolee Schneemann put it: «Performance art [has got] an enormous amount of internalized fury, anger, rebellion that would potentially, in another kind of society, go to very positive social action.… So much alienation and fury indicates to me a breakdown of the utilization of the self and of its integration into a real functioning unit.»[49]

«Discovering just how much reality humankind can bear.»[50] The question of what is real can probably be answered only in specific aspects: philosophically, biologically, and so forth. In terms of media theory, then, the question must run: Which constitutive media element is characteristic of reality, or is it a matter of a fundamental antithesis? It is helpful when considering this issue to look back to the time before Reality TV with all its theoretical implications and examine the hybrid relationship between reality and mediatedness in early body-oriented productions of media and action artists. Their agenda might have been reformulated as: «Discovering just how much mediality humankind can bear.» Even in the early 1970s, however, concentration on the «body as (mediated) occurrence » reflected the discovery that no lasting impact had been achieved with political interventions in other media and contexts. Performance artists therefore saw themselves as impelled to produce more violent actions—see the works of Gina Pane, Mike Parr or, later, of the Autoperforation artists in what was then East Germany. If in 1961 Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely had articulated their cause with the words «Shoot at art,» the motto now became «Shoot at the artists,» for instance in Chris Burden's «Shoot.» Burden saw danger and pain as catalytic converters that must be understood as exercises of power and self-control in the literal sense.[51] The art historian Henry Sayrestresses the implicit mediatization when he refers to the «market value» of an artist who has been shot at—a dubious honor so far confined to Andy Warhol, on whom an attack was perpetrated in 1968 and whose face the media promoted to a kind of pop icon of art.

Transformations of, and inscriptions on, the body should not however be understood as a purely visual act. Valie Export's «Body Sign Action» of 1970 is paradigmatic of the indelible inscription of cultural codes onto the body. Thus, the body becomes the medium of codes legible in various ways—economically, socially, sexually. Peggy Phelan drew the following theoretical conclusion: Performance does not admit symbolic representation but is a representation of reality; not, however, as a fundamental antithesis to the mediated, since the latter always contains the real.[52] As Valie Export demonstrated in her public tattooing action, this act of inscription could be diverted into the field of artistic identity: As an act of self-inscription, the gender-constructed identity can be made visible and thus potentially be experienced in a different way.[53] For artists like Martha Rosler, Ulrike Rosenbach, Valie Export and Joan Jonas,[54] the new medium of video, as yet unfettered by the constraints of tradition, immediately became an important means of exposing the mechanisms by which female identity was constructed and assigned. Sigrid Schade reaches the conclusion that «femininity is not defined in specific idealized images, but possesses the status of being an image, an image however of the absent gaze: a flat-screen projection surface.»[55] Since the early 1960s, Carolee Schneeman had been wholeheartedly and excessively staging the relationship between image production and real bodies. Her kinetic eye-body-theater[56] always moved between the extremes of sensual exploration and feminist critique of reducing women to images: «I was permitted to be an image but not an imagemaker creating her own selfimage.»[57] In particular, the film-action «More Than Meat Joy» (1964) and the film «Fuses» (1967) won her a reputation as a performance artist of sensual ecstasy and the delights of the flesh. That also set her apart from the Fluxus artists, with their more conceptual approach:«In Fluxus, sexuality was more sublimated than the overtly hedonistic performance practices of Happenings and Pop Art that coexisted, overlapped, and sometimes interlocked with it in the 1960s.»[58] It is no coincidence that she also began taking part in the expanded cinema movement as soon it as was founded by Jonas Mekas and, by using film and electronic elements, consistently carried forward her kinetic theater based on moving objects, lights and sound. She was supported in her endeavors by E.A.T., among others. She received invitations to Germany, for instance to show her «Electronic Activation Room» at the «happening und fluxus» exhibition in 1970. The work of Carolee Schneemann did not translate the necessary and radical critique of images of traditional femininity into desexualized processes, and that lent her performances a very sensual and playful aspect. That being a «projection surface» did not always necessarily imply the status of victim, but could be offensively reinterpreted, became more evident in the 1990s above all through the success of artists like Pipilotti Rist, Sadie Benning or Tracey Emin.[59]

Hybrid experimental setups

Carolee Schneeman knew how to play with the status of the image, but like most people she drew a clear distinction between art and life. The French performance artist Orlan has been the most radical in siting her personal artistic identity in the relationship between internal image and external perception and ascription. Since 1990, in the course of her «The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan» she has undergone a series of surgical operations on her face in order to re-embody certain physiological features that have served as models in the history of art. Her «models» were Venus, Diana, Europa, Psyche and Mona Lisa.[60] Christine Buci-Glucksmann refers to the notions of scenography and the event when referring to Orlan's oeuvre: «What is distinctive about Orlan is that she creates an art of the event in itself.»[61] Not only were Orlan's operations based on mediated images, after all—they took place as media events for the camera.

In work ranging from Timm Ulrich's «Self-Exhibition» over that of Gilbert & George and Abramovic/Ulay up to Tanja Ostojić's more recent «Personal Space,» it was the case that not only seeing and using one's own body as an art object but also publicly exhibiting it as suchsimultaneously placed the body beyond the touch of its viewers. While many artists went one step further and symbolically exposed the body to potential public interference, aggression and violation, a small number even made this part of a real participatorial event. One example was Yoko Ono's «Cut Piece,» restaged by Lynn Hershman for video in the early 1990s—incidentally, similar examples of recurrence have taken place with the works of Vito Acconci, as shown (again in the 1990s) by Paul McCarthy's/Mike Kelley's «Fresh Acconci.» Cutting and cutting out, as well as shaving, burning and injuring, became one of the trademarks of later body art. From the contemporary media-society perspective, however, the consistency of Ono's reflection of mediated conditions (later also as a reaction to her husband John Lennon's popularity with the mass media) has even more impact than the later actions that directly deployed the body. Able to negotiate and transgress the borders between the esoteric Fluxus circles and the mass media Beatles events, together with the Austrian public broadcaster ORF Ono and John Lennon produced the television broadcast «Film No. 6, Rape» (1969). As Reality TV—an unknown woman was genuinely stalked by a camera— the broadcast anticipated many aspects that would later be elaborately produced in the form of games[62] or «Big Brother»-like soap operas. Ono's authentic interference in an anonymous woman's private sphere went much further than a conceptual action like Vito Acconci's «Following Piece;» it touched upon real or imagined traumatic experiences, and even today leaves behind a claustrophobically realistic impression. The longer one watches the broadcast, the more unbearable the voyeuristic viewing of the obsessive, dialogical relationship between reality and its media recording becomes.

What Rassim Krastev documents on videotape in «Corrections 1996–98,» an action repeated by an eastern European artist as an ironical rejoinder to the western body cult, obeys the logic of merchandise and image value. The raw material of the artist, the intervention in his own body, ultimately remains the production of an image to capitalize in the art market. Similarly, the performances of Vanessa Beecroft (see «VB 50,» one of the most recent, which was delivered at the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial and featured tableaux made up of nude, stylized women's bodies) are based on advertising images and the utopian visions of humancloning. Due to the lack of occurrences, however, the act of exhibition and that of voyeuristic watching become ever more incidental in the course of the performance. The border between naked and clothed persons, between performers and viewers, becomes blurred. What remains is a situation not unlike the noise of a television running in the background: We occasionally glance at the screen to see what's showing, then return to our everyday activities. In an exhibition situation, we simply pick up the threads of a conversation we were having. Interestingly, Vanessa Beecroft repeats her performances on a different day exclusively for the purposes of electronic documentation: As if the audience were not part of the performance but only a performance framework that has to be allowed for. Although Vanessa Beecroft works with real bodies, the ultimate goal is the body image. Photographs—«stills»—are therefore the logical medium for exploiting her performances.[63] The exposure of one's own body is a paid job demanded only of others. At least we discover this much about the truth of the body, whatever that is: The body has yet again congealed into an image, even if these images are «live.»

Body and interface

If the reality of the body was investigated with the use of media, it was often also advanced as an argument against them. Body art was on the one hand an extreme example of the clinging to the precarious subjectivity and physical essentialism of the ego. Orlan's operations, on the other hand, testify to the cultural determination of every physical formation, in the truest sense of the word. It begins to become clear that the polarity posited at the beginning of this essay—between, at one end of the spectrum, using (or counteracting) media in order to demonstrate the presence and materiality of the body and, at the other extreme, exploring the immaterialities and potentialities implicit in the gradual disappearance of the real body due to the media—had its roots in the 1960s. In that decade, the foundation for the virtualization of the body had been laid in both conceptual and technological terms.

One of the earliest performances to substitute an electronic screen for the human body was delivered in the framework of expanded cinema and its practice ofconsciousnessraising. «Son et Lumière: Bodily Fluids and Functions,» in which one of the first video projectors was used for art purposes, was staged by Mark Boyle and Joan Hills in Liverpool in 1966: «In the sperm sequence a couple wired to ECG (electro-cardiogram) and EEG (electroencephalogram) celebrated intercourse [hidden behind a screen], while the oscilloscopes of the ECG and EEG were televised on closed circuit television and projected with an Eidofor TV projector on to a large screen behind the couple. Thus, their heartbeats and brain waves were instantly revealed.»[64] Now as good as forgotten, this performance paradigmatically defined a central motif, namely interest in the invisible and process-based aggregate states of the body. In other words: interest in the image of the body when «viewed from the inside.»

This concentration on the body had already been reflected from a media theory point of view in Oswald Wiener's cybernetic «Bio Adapter.» Not long afterwards, the artist Jean Dupuy and the engineers Ralph Martel and Hyman Harris took first prize in a competition staged within the framework of the E.A.T. exhibition «Some More Beginnings.» The prize led to a parallel exhibition of their work at two renowned New York art institutions – the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art—in the show «The Machine—As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.» Their processbased sculpture «Heart Beats Dust»[65] enabled the cardiac rhythm to be made visible over prerecorded tape footage as well as a stethoscope connected to the sculpture itself.

The «instrumentalization» and visualization of the body has been increasingly perfected in the course of the past forty years. Although artists were not always able to keep pace with technological progress, they succeeded—with the aid of sensors, interfaces and, in the final consequence, implants – in deploying apparently non-manipulable body processes as real-time imaging techniques in performative and participatorial closed-circuit installations. By the 1990s at the latest, advances in the field of bio-engineering sparked an increased interest in the linkage of humans and computers as hybrid beings, as opposed to revealing subconscious or unconscious mentalprocesses. Initial attempts to produce artistic bio-feedback are discernible in works such as «Breath» (1992), an early interactive installation by Ulrike Gabriel. The difference was that artists now confronted their inner life in the form of a large-scale visualized abstract fabric. The experience of hybrid space as a complex and immersive data realm was no longer confined to laboratory conditions in an academic framework.[66] The viewing of an installation became a performative act of encounter with an audiovisual constellation synchronized by the body.

Yet, this linkage with the machine is never free from anxiety or the structures of domination. In the 1990s, the Ars Electronica festival repeatedly addressed the subject of the body as a «battlefield» of technological, social and ideological wars.[67] The same theme was underscored in «Rehearsal of Memory» by Graham Harwood/Mongrel. Similarly, as feminist practice became more theorized, the blind spot of all technological debates became increasingly clear: The subject—artists and participants alike—is a construct shaped by social and historical aspects. No matter how radical a happening or, subsequently, a performance was, it was unable to provide access to mythical, prehistorical, natural experience. In the recent past, exponents of a notion of the performative shaped by Judith Butler's gender theory have included Marie-Luise Angerer, who notes that «the performance is essentially the movement (of bodies and signifying processes), that drives on the spectacle or event.»[68] She also concludes that «in the performance the body [must] be allocated an autonomy that precedes the intentionally acting individual.» The body— be it somebody else's, one's own, or a collective body—speaks; and language, as we know, is a social convention. Under these premises, even the apparently spectacular and voyeuristic performances of Vanessa Beecroft become complexly coded anti-spectacles.

Intervention in the body of the other

Vanessa Beecroft demonstrates how the serial aspect of our identity construction nevertheless produces subtle, coded differences. Yet her artistic concept is comparable with the one-way communication of television—which is, of course, her main target. Ineither case, one sender informs many receivers. Things start to get interesting when artists like Stelarc reverse the perspective, with the result that numerous senders «inform» one receiver. The body becomes a syntopic location or, put differently: One's own body becomes, also in telematic terms, the other's field of action.[69] Stelarc provides the paradigmatic conclusion of this essay insofar as his development as an artist illustrates the path from confronting the real body with its own limits to cyber-utopian experiments with dislocated bodies. One of the first to use medical visualization techniques for art purposes, in the early 1970s Stelarc began to «penetrate» and film his own body with the aid of electronic tools. «Probing» and «piercing» are also the terms he uses to describe these early films of the inside of his body. He subsequently became famous with his «Suspension » performances, which were directly in line with the body art tradition. His next step, however, was to extend and enhance the body through physical and virtual extensions like the «Third Ear,» «Virtual Arm» or similar. In «Ping Body» and «Fractal Flesh,» he aspires to a «human-machine symbiosis» that is literally «post-human» inasmuch as the artist acts as a mechanical system able to be remote-controlled—ultimately even via the Internet. While the venues of his performances are real, physical, visible spaces, the unity of the human body no longer applies. Using mechanical extensions, Stelarc expands his body and, over a global network of synapses, his nervous system, too: He becomes the agent for the actions of others. Impulses delivered via the Internet are the triggers for a «moving movement»:[70] «I get so tired and irritated when people talk about the Internet as a kind of strategy for escape from their bodies. They say that the Internet is ‹mind to mind› communication. Well! If ‹mind› means this reductive realm of text with a few images thrown in them, that notion of mind for me is a very reductive concept. Mind for me is smell, sight—all these things generate this notion of a mind in the world. It's not a mind that should be talked of separately from the body. We're superimposing old metaphysical yearnings onto new technologies. We have this transcendental urge to escape the body, and we've superimposed this on technology.»[71]

Augmented reality

A discussion of projects tackling the virtualization of the body and its functions and desires would offer material for a separate essay.[72] Around the world any number of contemporary performative approaches are aspiring to link, often with the means of dance choreography, real bodily presence at a given location with strategies of dislocation and mediatization (see, for example, Christian Ziegler's cooperation with dancers in «scanned V»), or experimenting with aspects of telematics and real-time Internet connectivity. Company in Space is one of many multimedia theater or dance groups working at the intersection of the Internet with live events in order to translate our understanding of the notion of «distributed authorship» and «augmented reality» into physical embodiments in real locations.[73] Events focus less and less on the relationship between real and mediated, whereas artistic interest is increasingly concentrating on narration and a wholly new treatment of expanded data space. The deployment of new modular software for real-time telematic operations enables the vestiges of Modernist avant-garde concepts to be dispersed in the diversity of heterogeneous data spaces. The data helmet that once covered a performer's head is increasingly being replaced by an entire data suit, a ‹second skin› that in the near future may not even be recognizable as such. The symbiosis of human being and data implant has long since started to leave the realms of science fiction and become reality.

My opening question about the reality of the body cannot be distinguished from the body's own mediatedness, be this in the biological sense—as a being that has possibly already been genetically manipulated and was therefore prefabricated on the basis of an imaginary model—or with respect to the external manipulation already possible and demonstrated all too clearly by artificial figures like Michael Jackson, or in regard to the body's performative aspect as an agent coupled to binary codes. The data glove is superfluous; the entire body is becoming a mouse, an interface—yet to deplore this as a loss of subjectivity and morality would not amount to an artistic stance. The new body opens up options anddifferent identities. In all time-based media and projects, time alone remains a linear process– even if artists are countering the bio-genetical manipulation of the human being by going back to the kind of subjective confrontation with body processes that was extensively conducted in the 1960s. Performances such as that of the Cuban video artist Felipe Dulzaides in «On the Ball» (2000), are symptomatic of the continuing relevance of these low-tech positions. However the body is seen, interpreted, mediatized or deconstructed, it remains at the center of identificatory processes. It is, in other words, in all cases the «given.»


Translation by Tom Morrison

© Media Art Net 2004