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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28.1 (2005) 3-19

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Performance, a Personal History


After a century of hybridization in the arts, the concept of "performance" has come to the forefront of contemporary thought on art and culture. The word "performance," whether it describes a live event or personal acting out; or the features of a car, a perfume, a sound system; and whether it refers to economy or therapy or the act of mourning, performance now shapes contemporary thinking about people and things. Some of the chief preocccupations of our time—namely, spectatorship, memory, the body—are framed within the terms of performance. Offering a vocabulary of human action that can be used to shape a view of the world and its histories, performance is the condition to which American culture increasingly aspires. Who doesn't want to be an American "idol"? Reality shows have brought to the culture the national theatre America always lacked.

The borders delineating art, culture, and commerce, art and entertainment, and experimental art and popular culture, have been blurred for a long time. Likewise, the separation between visual and theatrical arts has become less pronounced. Museum shows on post-war American art have increased the attention given to performance, video, dance, and sound as part of a larger view of visual culture and spectatorship. To give some performance examples, works by Yvonne Rainer, Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Joan Jonas, regularly are included in museum and gallery shows here and abroad, along with documentation of Happenings, Fluxus, and independent cinema, which only serves to highlight their art-world values.

Probably the first group of contemporary American theatre artists whose work demonstrated so openly the commingling of the visual arts and theatre were Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Mabou Mines, whom I had written about in the late seventies in The Theatre of Images. These artists, soon to be joined by The Wooster Group, now one of the most influential theatres in the U.S. and Europe, were shaped equally by the European modernist heritage and the new American arts and pop culture of the post-war period.[End Page 3]

This theatrical generation had created an art-world aligned theatre, which elaborated the idea that there were many more languages of the performance experience than a text could provide and that the performing body, space, sound, objects, and images could also be considered as kinds of language or text. It was understood that the visual image had its own rhetoric. This way of working inspired an interdisciplinary approach that could encompass theatre, music, dance, painting, photography, video, sculpture, and architecture. Thirty years later, it continues to offer a resonant set of artistic values—to work with and to work against—for artists involved in the evolution of performance ideas, chiefly in the area of new media. In the recent performances of such different artists as Cynthia Hopkins and Les Freres Corbusier and Big Dance Theatre, the impact of Foreman and The Wooster Group was highly visible; the imprint of Wilson's style on opera and theatre in the U.S. and abroad has been true for some time; and Lee Breuer brought to the Dollhouse another exceptional Mabou Mines encounter with a classic.

It would be impossible to measure the impact that two major inspirational figures, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, have had on the last half century of artists, whether in dance, music, theatre, performance, or video. The powerful Cage/Cunningham model, essentially elaborated by Cage in his prolific writings and compositions, is founded on the principle that there are no centers, only multiple perspectives on a field of events, each creating its own "right to space." Music, movement, text, and design can exist in space as autonomous elements, each with its own vocabulary, even created separately and in isolation from each other. This is really a new ecology for the arts.

Recent commentary on the growing interest in sound art and electronic music, enhanced by new technologies and the availability of world music on the Internet and...


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