Semantics, Context, Mediums: “collaborative performance art”

Does the category “collaborative” or “large scale” performance art exist or is it just another term for theater? Is it necessary? Is it worth making distinctions between “THEATER” and “PERFORMANCE ART”? (this is a prompt to comment folks…I’d love to know what you think!)

On the side of YES:

One could argue that we need to identify performance art vs. theater, because theater and this “something else” (which could still be multi-performer, may have a director, a playwright/text czar, etc) seem to be drawing farther apart, along fissures in ideology, intention, form, and content, or, perhaps just because “context is everything,” and the name of the medium greatly influences the audience’s perceptions and ability to access the piece. L.J. Sunshine suggests this in her article about Donna Uchizonos longing two, entitled Aesthetics of Denial in this month’s Brooklyn Rail in which she asks “Had longing two been advertised as a mixed-media art installation rather than a choreographic work, would I have liked it more?” (and dance is supposed to be the “liberated twin” of theater, in terms of acceptable rebellion of craft and form).

Donna Uchizono and Hristoula Harakas in 'longing two'

If L.J. Sunshine would have liked this piece better if it was called a mixed-media art installation, then why would she have liked it better? Perhaps because we (as vaguely as “they”) perceive the visual arts as being 1.) more directly a product of the creator’s subconscious/subjective vision in some sort of Romantic way and therefore when boredom sets in, imagined autobiography of the creator fills the void? 2.) the visual arts are perceived by theater and dance people as a godless, formless territory in general and therefore a piece being devoid of an element the viewer perceives as essential to a stricter medium such as “dance” or “theater” is more palatable if it falls into this devil’s zone? and/or 3.) conceptually, a work of visual art is not expected to communicate, refer, or even necessarily symbolize anything in the “real” shared world, intellectually or emotionally, it may be pure aesthetic Modernity, completely opaque to the viewer and therefore justified in any incomprehensibility on the part of the audience member?

Bottom line for YES: we want audiences to enjoy that which is experimental, and we should call it whatever facilitates their experience, and allows them to open their minds and hearts. Opening up a new medium has worked before with conceptual art, and it could work again with this re-definition-as-rupture, creating a kind of loophole through which artists who wish to truly experiment with their practices may slip.

Taylor Mac's OBIE Award-winning work, 'A Lily's Revenge' at the HERE Arts Center

On the side of NO:

These three points (above, about perceptions of visual art vs. theater/dance) are interrelated of course, but the last point produces the most undesirable offshoot ideas in my mind, springing off into the question, Does calling theater/dance a visual arts medium simply throw it into a nebulous, a-critical zone wherein the audiences of theater and dance can write it off as outside their realm of interest or subjective application? Do audiences really want to engage? Or would they rather call experimental work “visual art” and therefore justify their lack of interest/time/ability to accept the ideas, images, viewpoints, and emotions that are present in the work? A bad taste in the mouth! Never should audiences be made to think “this was not made for me but for audiences in another medium.” Taylor Mac (above) writes in his artist statement: “I believe my job as a theater artists is to remind my audience of the range of their humanity. I do this by using theatrical traditions and established styles and forms (which allow the audience to recognize what they’re experiencing) and injecting them with as much originality as I can (which creates surprise). Surprise (not to be confused with shock) is the way I get audiences to feel. When they feel they’re confronted with their humanity.”

After all, THEATER vs. some kind of collaborative or “large scale” performance art, needs nurturing engagement from an audience, no matter how diverse that audience may be, regardless of the form of the work itself. So would any type of “large scale performance art” or the like, therefore the re-labelling merely serves as an intellectual and emotional “out” for both the creators to follow only their own desires and not consider their audiences at all, and for the consumers of the work to immediately reject anything they haven’t seen before.

Bottom line for NO: we want our audiences, those members of our artistic community who share our aesthetic memories, to come with us in new directions, to accompany us on our formal and artistic journeys and to engage critically with us as we figure out what works and what doesn’t, they form our work more than anything. If we make a new medium, we will have no audience to tell us whether a piece of work is effective.

This declaration is basic narratology, stolen directly from Mieke Bal. She very helpfully lays out some basic things for us:

“Performance Is not; it occurs. It happens and takes time. It has a past and a future, and hence, a present. From linguistics and the philosophy of language, we take the notion that utterances do something: they perform an act that produces an event. From theatre, we borrow the notion of role-playing, which can be extended to include social role-playing, then restrict it to that aspect of playing that is effective in that it affects the viewer. From anthropology, we take the idea that the performative speech act, in the extended sense, requires the participation in the production of meaning, of the ethnographer’s partner, that is, of the people belonging to the culture studied. In art, this entails the indispensable participation of the visitor to the museum or the viewer of the work, without whom the artwork is simply nothing, just a dead object.” (see how helpful I am? I bolded at least half of this quote…)

Yes, a fancy way of saying “there is no theater without the audience” but it’s nice to hear it from Bal in addition to Shechner. There are also subtleties here: note that this is the statement of a narratologist, narratology is crucial to our work in performance mediums at the moment, is has been since Hans-Thies Lehmann identified what he calls post-dramatic theater, which hit English-language readerships in 2006, as a performance of states, references, and scenographic considerations. In English-language texts responding to Lehmann we find an endless focus on narrative, inchoate pre-narrative forms, post-narrative conclusory declarations, and emotional clouds hovering around narratives, a fascination with the lack of narrative, or so-called “alternative” narrative forms.

…but that’s for another post, back to the point here: Narrative does not necessarily mean story, it means rather a time-based perspective (this is a lowest common denominator definition taken from that which Barthes, Bal, Ricoeur, Propp, and as many others as possible might agree to), which COULD BE (and I make this statement with some trepidation) the difference between any supposed visual arts medium performance and THEATER as such and such: the former deals with an author-narrator. I.e: a performance art piece’s narrative and perspective/narrative logic of the artist herself, which is additionally underlined in many cases by her use of her own body and the latter deals with the experienced narrative of the audience, as it perceived/narrativized (meaning(s) extracted) from what it experiences. If you know of a book or article either saying this or arguing against it, please let me know.

Bacially I suppose my conclusion is that THEATER, as a medium (like Piscator says) evolves to suit the needs, both emotional and intellectual, of its audiences and their historicity/social context. So if a piece of theater is unable to reflect anything outside the creator’s subconscious cycle of anxieties (although the artist as a conduit/product of society is another argument entirely: what if the audience simply doesn’t LIKE seeing its face reflected), perhaps there is no reason to make it…but on the other hand, if it is effective in some kind of uncanny, “other medium-ly” way, perhaps those feelings of repulsion, disturbance, a shiver, then a thrill, are the side-effects of being an audience member to the avant-garde.

Here are some examples of theater companies and artists who have been said to create “collaborative performance art” but usually perform/create work in a theater venue and exist in the theater community in terms of awards, grants, audiences, criticism, section of the newspaper, etc but are highly respected by the visual arts or music community and often shown in those contexts:

Taylor Mac
Nature Theater of Oklahoma (they even have “theater” in their name)
Richard Maxwell
Meredith Monk
Object Collection

Actually I could have just as easily made this a post about how funding, venues, and publications, the capitalism-driven industries of these theater and performance art/music/dance/video/whatever keep mediums apart for (largely classdriven) marketing reasons when they are actually the same thing…so many perspectives, so little time!

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