On Performance

by Tim Griffin and Kathy Noble


Elad Lassry, Untitled (Presence), September 13-16, 2012 at The Kitchen, New York. Photo: Paula CourtElad Lassry, Untitled (Presence), September 13-16, 2012 performance at The Kitchen, New York. Photo: Paula Court


What has performance become today? What does it represent in the economics of art institutions? Has it lost its authenticity, perhaps, or has it invented a different kind of authenticity? Does it make sense to talk about interdisciplinary research? Against the backdrop of the piece by Tino Sehgal at the Tate Modern, Tim Griffin and Kathy Noble weave an extraordinary analysis of the state of the (performance) art.


TIM GRIFFIN: It’s very risky today to begin a conversation in print around interdisciplinarity, I think, since most readers by now are used to conversations around, say, performance and art that lack any specifics beyond saying just that they have a renewed confluence today. You can be dismissed as cliché before you even begin.

KATHY NOBLE: It’s rarely broken down. You don’t talk about painting as one broad spectrum, nor the same with sculpture, or any other medium. Why is it this way, when there are so many types of work that could be termed performance—or more broadly speaking, to get away from the word performance and its connotations, art works that are live—but that are actually very different things?

TG: So I think we have to take the end of such conversations as our beginning. To get a few well-rehearsed bases for this confluence out of the way, there is art’s relationship to the experience economy, and the notion that artistic production necessarily has ties to prevailing modes of production in society—meaning here that we see objects on display in institutions during the industrial age, and then experience displayed as object in a postindustrial age. The performance is “installed.” Turning to artistic production itself, we also find that dialogues around performance in the officeplace and service economy—in addition to increased ambiguity around authenticity and inauthenticity arising given the rewarding of creative expression in the marketplace—have subsequently given rise to an infatuation with the “performance of the self.” And this is only amplified by a historical trajectory for artists’ interest in adopting personae, to say nothing of how all this impacts modes of institutional address to audiences, as the former seek to be as alluring as possible to the latter in larger numbers.

KN: Well, performance is often still used to create a spectacle, and still not necessarily as something to be taken seriously in the same way, possibly, that other art forms in the museum or gallery are. It acts as a form of ‘entertainment’ on some levels.

TG: Absolutely. This demands that we recognize a historical shift in the very ideation of performance. What we call performance now is not what was called performance in the 60s. For example, pieces that were presented in an earlier period could be said to occupy the same social space as the individuals who made up any audience, whereas here they were on occasion much more pictorial, existing in a highly administered, representational space. Intentionally and not, depending on the project.

KN: I guess that has something to do with the idea of ‘presence’ and where that ‘presence’ is situated, both spatially—gallery, theatre, street, shop, and socially—is the audience ‘viewing’, ‘participating’ etc.

TG: Partly the question here should be: “What does being in a gallery ‘do’ to a performance”? How does the frame impact both the meaning and the experience? And what kind of performance actually takes the gallery into account? I am really curious to get your take on the difference between performance in earlier times and performance now, in order to historicize the very notion of it; and to consider even what performance is against what people think they’re talking about when they talk about performance. But maybe a simpler question is to ask what are the most significant challenges that you’ve ended up having to deal with in your institutional context at Tate?

KN: One thing I have been thinking about a lot recently is “affect” and its role in performance and in art in general. This is perhaps a bit of a tangent, as well as having curated performance at Tate Modern for years, but I’m taking part in Tino Sehgal’s Turbine Hall piece These Associations (2012), curated by Jessica Morgan. I’m not sure what drew me to want to do it initially, but I fascinated by what it might mean. The work is a combination of choreographed movements and games, spanning the whole length of the hall, working with around seventy people. I guess, for me, underlying this is the question: how can you have a mass of individuals moving together whilst still retaining each person’s individuality? Perhaps in opposition to the Totalitarian history of mass choreographies. Aside from the fact that we are all in our own clothes, moving in our own ways—there are people of all ages, some very fit, some less so—the piece involves a lot of running! But the way Tino has really emphasized the individuals is to literally incorporate their own histories via stories. There are six topics we can respond to—being satisfied with yourself, dis-satisfied with yourself, someone you admire, belonging, arriving and you can pay someone a compliment. At any point in the movement you can walk out and talk to someone, telling them a story from your life that responds to one of these. I love telling stories, but this is a strange experience, as people respond in all sorts of different ways. What really threw me was when I made someone cry. It was a very weird experience. I was recalling a story about my ex-boyfriend in relation to being unsatisfied with myself. I thought it was a form of tragic-comedy myself, as involved really embarrassing moments, but the way she read the story was just tragedy.


Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer, February 26, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial. Photo: Paula CourtSarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer, February 26, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial.
Photo: Paula Court


TG: The person you were speaking with?

KN: The person I was speaking to, yes. You walk up to someone and begin speaking to him or her, without any idea who they are—although I consciously choose people I feel might relate to me. They don’t know that you’re talking about being unsatisfied with yourself. With some people you end up in a long conversation. With others you have none; they just look baffled. But this woman started crying as I relayed reading my boyfriend’s emails to his ex, telling her he still loved her—a very contemporary dilemma! And then I suddenly realized that maybe it was quite tragic and I wanted to cry then. I told Tino afterward and he said, “That’s a good result.” But this is a form of staging affect. In one sense it is real—as it was from my life—but in another sense, when I was telling that story I was performing it. If one recalls works that occurred in the 60s and 70s, some artists actions—in particular those which were performing their work themselves—were, on a basic level, considered in terms of their authenticity, very often in regard to an emotional or physical of catharsis. So if you consider that in relation to Tino’s staged yet “real” conversations, the idea of authenticity within human experience and the art work also occurs: yet as authentic as the story may be, the staging of “affect,” within this moment of transaction between two people, is what interests me. Of course, you could bring Debord into this in relation to “affect” and the representation of reality, or Baudrillard on simulacrum—but these are still inherently discussions based around images.

TG: Looking to larger culture and staged but “real” conversations, I’ve previously wondered if a corollary for Tino’s pieces can be found in your everyday nice encounters with cashiers and bartenders. They’re real, they exist, but what is their specific value? What is the nature of the connection? But then your story also reminds me of something Richard Maxwell said about staging his rehearsals in the recent Whitney Biennial, which is that he was the director but here became hyper-aware of how he was appearing as an actor whenever he spoke. The frame of the gallery created a sense of disembodiment. In this regard, and to go back to something I said earlier, I’ve previously placed these kinds of encounters at the center of that spiral of authenticity and inauthenticity that was described a decade ago by Boltanski and Chiapello. But the way you described that experience just now made me want to think about affect more allegorically. Not wanting to go to a previous day’s prevailing model, but nevertheless…

KN: All these things are cyclical.

TG: Ok, then please bear with me. If discourses around allegory at one point were steeped in photographic representation, then what use might they have for dealing with works in real space that are nonetheless steeped in representation? Alternatively, if there was very recently a prevailing interest in the archive and documentary in art, then might the use of first-person experience here play a similar role in art? When you described working with Tino I couldn’t help but think of how to account for something that is at once true and false as an encounter. Put another way, I wonder whether the work is so different from a still life, or vanitas, which induces an emotional response in a viewer. Perhaps only the vernacular of the day has changed. And what we need is another language to describe it. If you look at a painting that is asking for a kind of response, or if you’re reading a book of fiction, because there’s a kind of response that comes out of that, in all likelihood, then is this just a continuity of that kind of staging? Which is perhaps actually completely contradicting previous ideas of performance, because they were supposed to escape that kind of staging. The artifact becomes an object, which is maybe something that we don’t want to have.


Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, Tate Modern, 2012. Photo: Anne Van AerschotAnne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, performance at Tate Modern, London, 2012. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot


KN: Do you mean that this moment of experience, taken from reality and stripped of its original context, becomes akin to an object when put in the situation of a museum? The other thing with Sehgal—which is different from other artists using “reality” as material in a more overtly political way, such as Tania Bruguera, or Katerina Šedá—is that he only creates these structured “situations” with galleries and museums, so they are always in their original context. Yet rewind to the Renaissance and consider altarpieces: although an artwork, an altarpiece was created for a specific social situation with a purpose. You take that altarpiece and put it in a museum, the “affect” of that altarpiece of course becomes a different—perhaps more sanitary—thing. Which perhaps occurs with some of Bruguera’s or Šedá’s work.

TG: I think, on the most basic level, it’s just saying that affect is an object or making what had been so elusive into an object, if not for exchange…

KN: But I think previously the affect came through the authenticity of what the viewer perceived the artist was experiencing. And within that, catharsis between artist and viewer was sometimes present. I am not yet sure how this affect then plays out when the act is “delegated” (a term Claire Bishop recently described as a tendency in performance form the last decade) to another, in a structured way as a task, yet one that is still based upon an emotive experience.

TG: What becomes key here still is what you were saying about a given work’s having to be presented in an institutional context, and how it accounts for that frame.

KN: Exactly. And to go back to where we started—if you take these historical moments and place them, or remake them, within the institutional context today, they very often lose their supposed authenticity and they become an illustration of the past, as you suggested earlier. So instead live works now are often produced specifically for the institution, very often using the structures as a material too.

TG: In this regard, I have to say what drew me to The Kitchen today is its flexibility as an institutional context. It has the diverse history among disciplines as a precedent—so the engagement with different disciplines isn’t forced, with one medium being placed in a space designed for another—and yet the different spaces are in immediate proximity, allowing for some exchanges that nevertheless underscore difference. There is a gallery that doubles as a performance space and a performance space that’s a black box that may also be used as an installation area.

KN: The performance space at Nottingham Contemporary is something in between gallery and theatre; it could be used in many ways.

TG: The betweenness then becomes interesting.

KN: That’s the most interesting thing for me in a lot of work that’s being made now. I don’t want to call it performance at all. It’s something that exists in between these different parameters and boundaries—spatially, socially and culturally—and is in no way medium specific.


Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s whisper #5, 2008. © the artist and Tate Modern. Photo: Tate Photography/Sheila BurnettTania Bruguera, Tatlin’s whisper #5, 2008. © the artist and Tate Modern. Photo: Tate Photography/Sheila Burnett


TG: This is exactly where the beginning of the conversation is. On some level, when it comes to pursuing a real dialogue around interdisciplinarity, you’re no longer just dealing with the art, you’re dealing with the actual shape of the institution. Because I feel that, like any good business, the art world is designed to reproduce itself. Galleries produce art on some level. Museums produce certain kinds of projects. And so if one wants a different kind of project to occupy your space, you have to create a different kind of space.

KN: Within that you have to create different structures. The structures at Tate Modern in this area do not really exist still—even though the programme has existed for nearly ten years. They have also recently opened these great big spaces, The Tanks, placing emphasis on performance and film, citing that it’s a major part of the programme, but there’s very little infrastructure to support that. All the old systems of having art handlers and conservators and multiple people to deal with one object do not exist for performance—it still acts as a kind of parasite on the institution, which is perhaps what keeps it interesting. I think you have this amazing freedom at The Kitchen because you’ve got the building that’s a shell that has a history of performance and other things, but that you can mold into something you want it to be now.

TG: That I do like is how by having the gallery and theater right next to each other, open to exchanged uses, one can gauge how such spaces are geared for very different kinds of temporality, and different kinds of attention. This was great for Elad Lassry’s project here, where people could visit the exhibition, go to the performance, and return to the exhibition—making the piece in the theater just another piece in the exhibition. In fact, we saw a portraiture vocabulary placed in a theater performance’s syntax. And so, looking further afield, my hope is that, if a different kind of choreography and a different kind of composition is arising as artists are appearing in different settings and realizing that there is a whole spectrum of temporalities at their disposal, we can accommodate that.

KN: A museum is a space you walk through. You might stop for a little bit—although I think the time the average person looks at a painting in Tate is three seconds.

TG: But the Tate is also, like every museum, built for circulation. You’ve got to keep them moving.

KN: Yes, I think that one thing that presenting any kind work that has a different form of temporality is, as a viewer, you’ve got to stick with it to get anything from it.

TG: Yes.

KN: Galleries are not built for that.

TG: And of course one of the people who came to mind was Sarah Michelson at the Whitney where her piece is all about duration.

KN: I wish I’d seen it! Did it become more sculptural in that space?

TG: I don’t think so, because it wasn’t in the round.


Jack Goldstein, Two Boxers, 1979. Restaging at Nottingham Contemporary, 2011. Courtesy: Nottingham Contemporary. Photo: James BrouwerJack Goldstein, Two Boxers, 1979. Restaging at Nottingham Contemporary, 2011. Courtesy: Nottingham Contemporary. Photo: James Brouwer


KN: Ah. When we invited Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, to perform her early work Fase in the Tanks, she initially wanted to turn the Tank—which is this big round concrete thing—into a theater, with seats and staging. Yet we were really keen for the work to become something that people could come across, existing both as a time based work but also a sculptural entity. She eventually came to the same conclusion and decided to stage it with no floor, simple fluorescent lighting, and no seating. Therefore the dancers and audience were face to face; for both it was an intense experience. For me dance in the traditional proscenium often forms an image. That’s why I wondered if the Sarah Michelson became something more of a sculpture because of the proximity.

TG: It had a blend. On the one hand, yes, there was the smell of sweat and there was that kind of proximity—and you have to acknowledge how she used the wide open floor of the architecture in a literal way—but as the dance goes on the dancers were going to be way on the other side of the floor, so they seemed three inches high, and then seemed an image.

KN: That’s interesting.

TG: I do think that that aspect is central to any kind of conversation around live performance at this juncture, in part because the institutional space is necessarily a representational space, even if it involves staging that has cultural correspondences, because everything on some level is staged.

KN: In terms of what you were saying about Elad’s project at The Kitchen, the thing that interests me is the way he perceives the image as the object and then this object becomes a live image, within the gallery space.

TG: Another thing I’m trying to do here is recognizing and trying to have, I have this thing called The Kitchen LAB, L-A-B, language, art, bodies, what I was realizing about The Kitchen is that it’s got a diverse audience but it’s atomized, you know, dance people see dance, music people see music, art people see art.

KN: This is so typical, though this is what happens anywhere. You might think crossover but audiences don’t think crossover.

TG: Just to go back to this question of working in the round, which is sort of curious in the museum context, in terms of, how do you deal with the stage or not, at once perhaps. When you look at these old performances, it’s really interesting to me to see Eighteen Musicians by Steve Reich because you’ve got this historically important piece and yet everyone listening to it is sort of lying on the floor and weirdly maybe that’s both the past and the future as well. We can talk about the art as much as we want, but necessarily tied to that is a sort of imagining of the audience and their position. That is another aspect of the interest of performance now because it is one of those things where it actually demands that one recognize the situating. Performance is a vernacular of situations. Especially in a moment where not only institutions but even the idea of societal organization is being tested.

KN: What do people today do though? Sixteen-year-old girls (and boys) perform Beyoncé in their bedroom and then post onto YouTube. The necessity to perform and then broadcast moments of life is a condition of contemporary culture—today more than ever before.


Originally published on Mousse 35 (October–November 2012)


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