It was during the pandemic year 2020 when we began the SNFS research project “Performance : Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge”. A year in which the previously canonized would be radically questioned, when nothing less than the relationships between space, time, the body of the artist, and the public (in English, finely balanced between “audience”, “spectators”, “listeners” und “witnesses”) would dissolve, to be reorganized and reassembled – unexpectedly fast – into new relationships and forms of (re)presentation within a digital spatial and temporal structure. Performance art, though often bound to a specific site – realized “in situ” – had, in the past, also been regarded as an art practice not generally bound to institutions. The performance space could also be the performance stage; from taking place in your pants pocket to the large public space, or indeed, transported into the immense, no-longer-earthbound, digital media space. In a metaphorical sense, performance art might even take place in that blurred margin that the spotlight outlines on a black stage floor: a fraying, shimmering boundary, oscillating between the black box of the theater and the white cube of gallery and museum spaces. How, then, can this fraying, bluish-violet, shimmering margin of light – called the “corona” in the glossary of stagecraft – be expressed and described?
And how to even conserve it?
Performance art, generally described as “the art of (real) action”, is regarded as the “art of the ephemeral”, as a mostly non-repeatable and, accordingly, non-reproducible event.
Performance art does not have a back stage area such as those designated by the transformation zones – from everyday life into the artistic space – such as a dressing room, makeup or storage room (in ancient Greek theater, the skene, tent, or roof, from which the word “scene” derives), nor does it have fixed settings, like the standardized stage for touring theater, nor, in the literal sense, other framing. In addition, performance does not know “vernis”, the varnish that is applied to the freshly painted picture to protect it from dust and light and thus, on the occasion of the vernissage, endows it with an enduring museal status.
Ausgerenkte Kräfte (Dislocated Forces) is the title of a work from the year 1920 by Kurt Schwitters (who, with his Ur-Sonate, is often cited as one of the pioneers of performance art); today, the piece is in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern. This image – a collage – is, in a more metaphorical sense, a hinge to the discussion of our topic, the conservation of performance art. The artist assembled expired admission and travel tickets, cancelled postage stamps, the fragment of a headline, and much more. These were worthless, functionless, and, in part, broken relics of the quotidian and consumer world. Created shortly after the end of the First World War, Schwitters gave the objects a new meaning. In a reference to the date of origin of the work, he wrote: “I left my job without any notice of termination, and then it got going, then it really started to come together: I felt free and had to scream my joy into the world. Out of frugality, I used what I found. Because we were a poor country. You could also scream with pieces of trash and I did that, by glueing and nailing them together. Everything was broken anyway, and it was viewed as building something new out of shards and broken fragments.”
Hardly another painting could have kept the museum directors of the Kunstmuseum Bern – especially the conservators and security people – as busy as “Ausgerenkte Kräfte”. The assemblage of wood, metal spring, cloth, paper and oil on board, is framed with raw roof battens that are painted black and nailed together; Schwitters dissolves the difference between the actual picture and the frame. The frame is an integral part of the work and does not correspond to the idea of a frame, which, as a rule, should bestow additional value upon a picture. This has to be a challenge for conservation: the static quietly becomes dynamic, the paper yellows, the metal spring oxidizes, and expands and stretches and tightens and contracts. Unseen, under cover of dark, the collage “Ausgerenkte Kräfte” carries on its creaking game…
What are we to make, though, of performance art in the context of conservation? In English, there is a subtle differentiation between “conservation” and “preservation”. Conservation, in the traditional sense, means to make something last through special treatment. There are conservational (prophylactic) dental treatments, we know about preservatives from the food industry, and up until the 1980s, we’ve known the professional job title “conservator”, which usually refers to (mostly male) museum directors and has today perhaps been replaced by the analogous “curator” (Lat. curare; to take care of, nurture, maintain). Thus, there is already a smell of decay with and around the term conservation in connection with performance. When jazz became academic, Frank Zappa, the rock musician who studied composition with Arnold Schönberg, complained “jazz is not dead, it just smells funny”, and meant that through academization, jazz had become too complex, too complicated, and in the face of all the institutionalization, had lost its groove. Is that what’s happening to performance art? Yet, compassion came immediately: an unforgettable question (actually more a statement) posed by our colleague Julia Pelta Feldman during one of the many zoom meetings of our research project “… I mean, can you kill performance art?”
Ever since “14 Rooms – Live-Kunst von 14 international renommierten Künstlern” [14 Rooms – Live Art by 14 Internationally Renowned Artists], a co-production of the Beyeler Foundation, Art Basel and Theater Basel, designed by the renowned architecture firm Herzog & De Meuron and curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist for the 2014 Art Basel Fair, the issue of the standardization, canonization, and institutionalization of performance art has become more acute. The artists Marina Abramovic, Allora & Calzadilla, Ed Atkins, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Damien Hirst, Joan Jonas, Laura Lima, Bruce Nauman, Otobong Nkanga, Roman Ondák, Yoko Ono, Tino Seghal, Santiago Serra and Xu Zhen were not present themselves, but instead instructed the performers how the works were to be realized. From the very beginning, instructions have also been part of the essence of performance art, yet here it felt completely different: Was it the framework? Was it the repetitions, the predetermined time slots of usually 15 minutes? Then, all of a sudden, the performance format and the interpretation comes into play: the classical sequence of author – work – interpreter – performance. As if by osmosis, the “solvent” of a classical piano sonata seeps into the art scene, ergo into performance art – a veritable shock for someone like me who studied classical music, but since the late 70s/early 80s always sought out things off the beaten track, was interested in everything expanded (cinema, music, etc.) and today teaches performance art at a university (always with Zappa’s bon mot in my ear…).
Today, as a practice-based artist, within the framework of the project “Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge”, I am enthusiastically engaged in a kind of review, in the sense of a distanced and distancing auto-ethnography of a work which, in collaboration with my wife, artistic partner and in the best sense of the word, life companion, Klara Schilliger, has grown since 1982. And I catch myself, muttering and pacing over the creaking parquet floors of the apartment and – like an expectant father, testing all variations of names for his future child for their sound, appeal, and evocation – reviewing what we are doing here: “re-enactment”, “re-shaping”, “re-charging, “re-, re-, re-…”
The term “re-creation” that our colleague Emilie Magnin brought into play, remains suspended, reverberates, and encapsulates the active “creation” of “conservation” or “preservation”. I like that! How enormously I enjoy the challenges, the multifarious conversations and the many fascinating inputs, also from colleagues outside of conservation. As a performance artist who will soon have been practicing forty years – one who has always seen documentation and archiving as an inherent element, as an artistically integral method of performance art too – it’s as if a new field has opened up to me with conservation, one that is generating, in the best sense, new fields of tension. I am therefore very much looking forward to the upcoming high-profile colloquium “The Ethics and the Politics of Care – 1. Mapping the Field”, which will take place from May 29-30.
“Art is what makes life more interesting than art” (Robert Filliou)
Translation into English by Laurie Schwartz.