This blog post celebrates the publication of a new volume, Object—Event—Performance: Art, Materiality, and Continuity Since the 1960s, which saw the daylight from Bard Graduate Center, New York this summer (2022) and is in distribution by The University of Chicago Press. The volume, which considers questions of conservation that arise with new artistic mediums and practices, features ten chapters by prominent scholars and thinkers and senior and junior academics in fields as diverse as art history, performance and dance studies, media studies, museology and conservation studies, artists, and museum curators.
Below, I will provide a short introduction to the book and will subsequently discuss chapters that are particularly relevant to our research project, Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge, and its accompanying questions of the continuing life and conservation of performance-based art.
It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas (with) . . it matters what matters we use to study other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts.—Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble
In the 1960s, the art world and its objects began to experience a dramatic shift in what and how art can be. New modes of artistic expression— happenings, performance, video, experimental film, Fluxus activities, and the emerging practices of media art—questioned the idea of art as a static object that endures unchanged and might thus be subject to a single interpretation. In contrast to traditional visual arts, the blending of genres and media began to transform not only curatorial and museum collecting practices but also the traditional function and mandate of conservation, which became augmented to accept the inherent dynamism and changeability of artworks.
How do these artworks endure over time despite their material and conceptual changes? How do their identities unfold in relation to ruling knowledge, values, politics, and culture? Object—Event—Performance: Art, Materiality, and Continuity since the 1960s examines the physical and immaterial aspects of artworks at the intersection of art history with theory, performance studies, media studies, material culture studies, and conservation, focusing on artworks that evade the familiar physical stability of such traditional works as painting or sculpture, which are often conceived in a single medium and meant to last “forever.” Intrinsically changeable and often of short duration, these “unstable” artworks challenge art, conservation, and museological discourses. Not only do they test standard assumptions of what, how, and when an artwork is or can be, they also put forward the notion of materiality in the constant flux that plays a significant role in the creation and mediation of meaning.
This book builds on two strands that pervade current thinking about the material lives of artworks created in the second half of the twentieth century. It rests, first, on the premise that artworks such as installations, performances, events, videos, films, earthworks, and forms of intermedia involving interactive and networked components pose particular questions when it comes to defining what (and how) exactly the work is, both physically and conceptually, and what should be preserved. Second, this volume revisits the traditional notions of conservation and collecting practices, particularly in museums, that are built on a conception of static, fixed, inactive, and immobile artifacts, with the ambition to shed some light on the novel thinking developed in these fields.
This collection includes essays by Hanna B. Higgins, Hanna B. Hölling, Gregory Zinman, Andrea Gyorody, Alison D’Amato, Megan Metcalf, Rebecca Uchill, Susanne Neubauer, Beryl Graham and Johannes M. Hedinger.
In the remainder, I will briefly address several chapters that take on the idea of performance, either directly as they discuss performance works, or as a method, effect or conceptualization of their subject matter.
The two-part chapter, “Introducing ‘Fluxus with Tools’” (pp. 40-61), that opens the volume combines scholarship with performance. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus scholar and “witness” (she is the daughter of Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles), enacts with her mother a lecture-performance that incorporates Fluxus events using food. Her essay combines an art historical analysis of performative learning with an experimental, scripted performance. She emphasizes the importance of primary experience in the reception and understanding of a work of art. Recognizing that conventional modes of lecturing are ill suited to multimodal experiential works, Higgins is interested in bringing critical analysis and live performance together “with common performers, in a common site, for a common duration, and before a common public.” Her performative lecture breaks with the conventional narrative of art historical writing by creating a script that makes the historian a performer and the artist a participant in making history creatively. The chapter traverses sixty years of art making, art curating, performance thinking, performance making, and the long-twentieth-century project of dismantling the notion that materiality and corporeality and also concept and enactment are mutually exclusive. Higgins calls attention to the deadening effect of placing documentary evidence of performances in archives—a fate shared by many of the performances of the 1960s and 1970s. Although she acknowledges the value of archives, she mourns the aspects of works that are “lost in the process of their historicization, theorization, and documentation on paper.” Performance, then, is a way to keep their structural and material aspects alive. As Higgins puts it, materials “reveal themselves through interactions with each other, with people, with a world ever in flux.”
The materiality of Franz Erhard Walther’s Werkstücke (Work pieces) is subject matter of “Exhausting Conservation: Object, Event, Performance in Franz Erhard Walther’s Werkstücke” by the present author (pp.62-84, download available here). Although Walther neither belonged to the Fluxus circle nor was particularly interested in categorizing his practice, his Werkstücke are reminiscent of Fluxus works and their cognitive/embodied realizations. Walther’s works cannot be approached as if their materials could be kept in an untouched form. They are neither simply objects nor simply performances; rather, they are fluid and heterogeneous assemblages—partly implements, partly sculptures—of activated performances and at the same time active physical artifacts. Inherently unstable, their completion in the mind of the viewer adds yet another level of complexity. Werkstücke are both relics a priori and remnants of a future. They are accompanied by instructions in the form of drawings, videos, photographs, scores, and the artist’s verbal directions. The chapter presents copying as performative learning: the works generate material and corporeal knowledge. The relationality of his work and its vital materiality, lively power, and efficacy challenge traditional approaches to conservation.
Alison D’Amato, in her chapter “Mutable and Durable: The Performance Score after 1960” (pp. 137-56), examines the idea that a fleeting work can be grasped in a score or notation. Alison D’Amato is a trained performer, choreographer, and scholar of contemporary dance. Her essay focuses on the years 1960–61, preceding the ground-breaking concerts at Judson Church (1962–64) that paved the way for modern dance. D’Amato shifts the focus from performances to scores and uncouples choreographic notation from preservation, arguing for the validity of notation beyond its obligation to preserve movement and continuity. She finds movement not only in dance, which notation is meant to capture, but in the notational document itself as a malleable, living structure. In this sense, the open-endness of performance is further enhanced by the openness of the score. The object-performance binary dissolves; neither object nor performance maintains its capacity to clearly signify time. If, in its openness, the unspecified and undetermined score enters time / becomes durational in performance, then perhaps the performance stabilizes it. D’Amato offers a historical review of inscription as a means of standardizing, preserving, and reproducing the choreography’s corporeal culture. She then suggests that recent generative scores guarantee the survival of performances not because the scores are a weapon against ephemerality but because they assure a performance’s persistence in an inherently changeable and revisable form.
Art and dance historian Megan Metcalf’s essay, “Sometimes an Artwork: Simone Forti and the Choreographic Logic of Objects and Institutions” (pp. 157-81) continues to pursue choreographic concerns in relation to Simone Forti’s work. An Italian-American artist, Forti started experimenting with choreography in 1961, issuing “dance reports” that she would read to the members of her dance composition class. One report features an onion-artwork that has been subsequently restaged. Metcalf tracks the evolution of the curious artwork “from (printed) page to (museum) stage,” placing it in the context of Forti’s other works of the period and artworks by other artists in the same milieu. As a dance itself and in relation to other dances by Forti, the “modest little vegetable” complicates distinctions between object and event, idea and material, and the past and the present, challenging conventional methods of curating and conservation based on a historical “original” and/or an artist’s initial impulse. As Metcalf argues, these concepts have become less reliable in the wake of 1960s practices that dismantled the notion of a single art object and the authority of the artist’s hand. By staging and choreographing Forti’s “dance,” curators have tested assumptions about what can be preserved and what constitutes an artwork’s identity. Metcalf’s essay raises the question, Can a humble vegetable become both a model and a metaphor for understanding some of the implications of the encounter between the visual and the performing arts? Forti’s onion reflects important challenges that performances and works since the 1960s encounter with regard to their production, exhibition, documentation, and preservation in museums and puts forward novel ways of thinking about these works’ materiality, durability, and continuity. Dance and choreography may achieve continuity without a permanent material form—a recurring motif in Object—Event—Performance.
Observing the long performance of a degrading artwork, Andrea Gyorody in her chapter “Resurrecting Hannah Wilke’s Homage to a Large Red Lipstick” interweaves Hannah Wilke’s and her mother’s personal stories with issues of impermanence and decay in Wilke’s art. The fragility of the degrading material of Wilke’s works parallels the fragility of her body as it succumbed to illness, which the artist documented in biographic photographs. In a gesture of preservation, the curator and art historian Andrea Gyorody places work that has disappeared from view in the limelight again. Gyorody argues convincingly that in Wilke’s case the radical acceptance of impermanence allows the work to vanish; art does not need to be forever. She guides the reader through the complexity of curatorial work in collections of recent art that engage with fugitive materials, making decay and degradation part of the creative process. Even if a work falls apart and ceases to function as it once did, it need not be relegated once and for all to the museum vault. Wilke’s sculpture may transgress the limits of acceptable change, but its current state of disintegration can be seen as a part of its “long performance,” which warrants our attention for reasons that are obviously different from when it was created. Putting such a performance on display enlivens the work and guarantees that it does not become irrelevant. The essay poses such questions as, Can we embrace an openness to time, uncertainty, and failure? Can the life of a work last well into its entropy? When does entropy actually preserve something of an artist’s intention? Can conservation allow for decay? Gyorody makes a case for a new aesthetic that accepts and promotes the experience of decaying, unstable, and radically transformed materials and media—one that gives change, transitoriness, and degradation a positive value, allowing us to appreciate such processes in objects that are not destined for perpetuation.
Shifting from traditional essay to a conversational format, the last chapter of the book invites the reader on a journey with Bloch—a work created by the Swiss duo Johannes Hedinger and Marcus Gossolt. Bloch is an open, generative form, with an immense creative potential. Bloch’s central element is a traveling tree trunk, an example of a three-hundred-year-old Swiss Appenzell tradition. Bloch straddles contemporary art and folk culture, creating an exchange among people and things of different cultural backgrounds; it exists between media categories and aesthetic definitions. The work is living and changing, sharing its energy with the energy of those invested in a collaborative effort that brings Bloch as a global project to fruition. Without a determined end, Bloch is an object and an event that unfolds in time and is continued in the lives of works produced during its journey. Both tangible and intangible, Bloch’s expanding archive accumulates traces, objects, stories, and memories. It also challenges forms of preservation and the notion that an artwork must be a discrete object that endures in a physical form. The conversation foregrounds the artists’ vision for Bloch’s continuing life. To continue its performance, Bloch will return to the site where it originated, perhaps back to the Appenzell forest or in the town square in Urnäsch, where, exposed to the weather, it may one day turn into dust. Bloch exemplifies how our efforts to keep things from the past, so that we and our stories will be remembered, is always time-bound, and how, ultimately, we—and they—will disappear and new things will emerge, starting the process again, perhaps beyond human history.
To explore the book’s remaining chapters, please visit this link and click on “Table of Contents.” We hope you will enjoy the reading and look forward to the conversations spawned by its arguments.
Order the book here.