During “Vivat Fluxus,” an event organized at Performer Stammtisch in Berlin in 2009, performance artist Norbert Klaasen (1941-2011) performed a series of Fluxus scores. One of them read:
A hammer in your right hand, a hammer in your left hand. Hit the flat ends of the two hammers against each other. This produces a high-pitched sound. Repeat.
Florian Feigl, performance artist and educator based in Berlin who was a guest speaker in our SNSF project “Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge” (Monday, March 8, 2021), recalls that Klaasen, who witnessed Fluxus during his artistic career, must have repeated the action several hundred times. At the first glimpse, the enactment of the score seems simple. The work appears to be about producing sonic effects by hitting two hammers against each other. But this simple action might generate a range of results that create utterly different sonic and haptic experiences—a fact that reveals itself only in the moment of putting the information into action. If we choose two heavy hammers to perform the score, we might soon find out not only that the sound becomes unbearable but also that our endurance is limited due to the lifted weight. If the hammers are light and handy—like French hammers employed in shoemaking—chances are that we might arrive at a few hundred repetitions, accompanied by a distinct sonic effect. These two experiences of hammering will vary significantly as if the action effectuated from two different scores. When performing the score and experiencing it first-hand, no more can we simply say, this work is about hammering. The stuff in our hands makes the experience of the sensation contained in the action produced. The ordinary patterns of thought are challenged if we remove the “about.” As we learn from the Fluxus scholar Hannah B. Higgins, “if a piece is not about things but actually is them, then the signifying chain often applied to visual art in semiotic analyses needs to be modified to make physical or actual experiences central to the process of signification” (Fluxus Experience, 2002). Higgins points to the way in which [Fluxus] works problematize the Western metaphysics since Plato and Aristotle, which separated primary experience, e.g. the feel of hammering with a hammer, from secondary experience, that is the mental concepts related to it.
Is performance experience, then? What actually is performance?
For Feigl, who is highly reflective about his practice and also happens to be an excellent discussant, performance is about practice, continuity, and processes—things that lead to one another, things we do. Known for 300 (2009 – ongoing), a series of performances built upon everyday activities that take place within a prescribed time interval of circa 5 minutes or 300 seconds, the series exemplifies the concept of continuity in his work. Born in the moment of crisis while feeling overwhelmed by domestic obligations, his concept for this series followed a necessity to allocate slots of time to work. One can always find five minutes for doing something:
Fünf Minuten. Ohne Diskussion. Ohne Zweifel. Und weil ich Performancekünstler bin, sollten diese fünf Minuten der Performancekunst gewidmet ein. Fünf Minuten Performances sollten von nun an meinen Prozess bestimmen, mein Video Skizzenbuch sein, eine Art Tagebuch (Portfolio, n.d.).
There is a time-based quality to Feigl’s work that goes beyond the sheer fact of its limited duration. This time-basedness is first and foremost the regulation, if not regimentation, of time, the effort to contain the otherwise loose action in a temporal frame. The paradox of these frames lies in their seemingly short duration— five minutes that, theoretically, everyone and everything can endure when engaged in action. But when five minutes turn into 300 seconds of continuous washing hands, licking a (very small) bicycle or waiting for fogged glasses to clear up, time slows down to gnaw on us, becoming an intense experience. Five minutes becomes the pure experience of time, and of the self.
The question of conserving these performances also resonates on the temporal register. Feigl is invested in fugitive art that leaves no traces. The five-minute videos ordered neatly into categories such as, among others, “self-portraits,” “lick pieces” and “sound pieces” made available on YouTube seem at the first glimpse to belie this point. But a recording can only convey so much. What it shows is a fraction of the work and its world and a proof that a document can only ever be partial, fragmentary and reflective of the subjectivities involved in its making. Feigl refers to his video recordings as an “Art Diary” and allows them to be used for teaching. Remaking a performance based on a video, performance students create their own interpretation and documentation of 300. Grasped as visual instructions, the recordings become an educational device that participates in the transfer of skill, gesture, knowledge and experience. Capturing this process of remaking situates the initial realization in a larger chaîne opératoire of making, or of becoming, never fixed or at rest. The mediality in Feigl’s work is always already a multimediality in which the initial event is only one of many aspects of the artwork, one that converges aspects of live performance, of film making and screening (and its instructional dimension), and potentially, of remaking.
To hammer two hammers against each other is an ideal entry point for our contestation with performance, with what performance is. To practice hammering might be useful as it forces us to turn attention not only to the pitch of the sound but also to its various intensities and textures. If practised long enough, we might become a carrier of embodied or tacit knowledge which might be either passed on or held arcanely. During this exercise, the hammer that we have taken for granted might break, revealing its inner workings and mechanics, its Heideggerian tool-being. Roughly speaking, the act of using a tool diminishes our awareness of its qualities. Once one becomes familiarized with the tool and forgets to think about it beyond its use-value, the tool withdraws itself from being present-at-hand, transparent and inconspicuous. Consequently, when the tool falls into the state of unreadiness-to-hand (when it fails or breaks) its reception alters radically – its user may once again become aware of it. Malfunction, as the philosopher Bruno Latour believes, can trigger another perspective on things.
Conservation presumes first of all an understanding of its object before any measure or treatment takes place. However, performance, which is all around, seems to be many things. This plurality is also inherent to the very notion of conservation, not only in a wider sense of cultural practice but also in the sense of the conservation of performance which is often grasped as a synonym with archiving and documentation. Although these processes guarantee a distinct way to access aspects of performance work in the future, is the potential of performance conservation exhausted by them? Is it enough to say that, to be conserved, the supposedly ephemeral or disappearing acts of performance should be archived or documented? Perhaps we need to question the very principle of conservation as an apparatus, with its practices, affordances, knowledge structures and mechanisms and institutions. In other words, perhaps one needs to “break” the familiar tools of conservation—to deconstruct and reconstruct them again with new charisma and mentality—to arrive at new horizons of care.
Featured image: Florian Feigl, 300 – 006 (2009 – ongoing), from the series “Lick Pieces.” Artwork reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Copyright Florian Feigl.