- Expanding Performance
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Spread over the course of three months, longer than the lifespan of your average exhibition, the Dutch center for art and architecture Stroom Den Haag’s ambitious program of fixed and changing exhibits as well as lectures, reading groups, and satellite performance events entrusted to guest curators, started from an arresting premise: “Performance art is gradually changing from an art form dominated by creeds unrepeatable, undocumentable, unsaleable, to an art form that includes repetition, documentation and objects.” There is some truth to this claim; and yet the fact that each of its tenets could be challenged reveals just how slippery, or supple, a category performance art is.
As one of the participants in Tino Sehgal’s These associations at Tate Modern (July–October 2012), an interactive live art piece which involved a great deal of repetition but no documentation or recordings—at least not officially sanctioned or in any way encouraged (yet, for once, not actively discouraged either)—and no objects to speak of, I could be forgiven my initial skepticism. Though Sehgal balks at the use of the term “performance art” to describe what he does, coming at live art from a background in choreography and dance, his radical and influential artistic practice provides powerful counter-examples to the above claim both overall and in detail. For one thing, major institutions, art galleries and private collectors own his work, which can be bought and sold despite Sehgal’s refusal to create objects.
Whether performance needs expanding is in itself debatable. Unlike the focus of Rosalind Krauss’s influential 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” from which Expanded Performance takes its title, performance art is not obviously “a historically bounded category” with an internal logic and a clear set of rules, defined partly through what it excludes (sculpture, as Krauss has it, is thus poised between “not-architecture” and “not-landscape”).1 In the visual arts, it is a productively eclectic and malleable [End Page 42] category, capable of assimilating into its fold a wide range of disciplines and fields rather than being defined in opposition to them—from painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, and dance to photography, video, and film. It can, but need not, happen live before an audience, or be performed for video, recorded on stills, filmed, or written about.2 The artist’s body likewise can, but need not, feature in a performance. Given that it prohibits nothing, strictly speaking, the case for pushing the boundaries of performance art is hard to make.
While “expanded” this, that, and the other seem to be the flavor of the month, eagerly seized on by curators of every ilk, the modalities of “expansion” and what is understood by the term appear different each time. “Expanded cinema”—an expression coined by the American filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek in the mid-1960s, which gained currency after Gene Youngblood used it as the title for his landmark study of video art in 1970—thus moved beyond the narrow confines of movie-theatre viewing to include live, multimedia projections and video art installations shown in alternative spaces. In stripping down cinema to its bare essentials and drawing attention to the materiality of film, “expanded cinema” reverted to the pre-motion-picture spectacles and, curiously given its name, amounted to a narrowing of the cinematic medium. Something equally paradoxical was at work in Stroom’s Expanded Performance program, which focused on “performing” objects and at times appeared to do away altogether with the live element of performance in the name of expanding the field.
The five works that made up the core of Expanded Performance were all spatial interventions involving more or less obstructive objects, designed to make one self-conscious about space. The...