Originally published in Dispatch, the online journal published by Independent Curators International

In his recent musings in Artforum on the future of Trisha Brown’s work, Douglas Crimp posits that her signature solo Watermotor, as performed by Brown, is a masterpiece. He then follows up by inquiring, “Will it ever be danceable by anyone but Brown?” The question is not so much will it be danced by anyone else, as Crimp was likely aware that it would inevitably be performed by another at some point, but would it be danced as expressively and imaginatively by anyone else other than its maker. In Performance Art this seems to be the crux of the question of authenticity: can the work reach its full potential, retain its essential meaning and character, when performed in a different context or by a different individual?

Within other forms of live art such as theater and music, it is generally taken for granted that successful works will be performed repeatedly. Inevidably, repeated performances will be carried out both by the original performers or later by others who will often re-interpret and slightly alter the original to fit their own work. In fact, this is a general conceit of much classical training: as a young violinist I was taught to mimic a specific performance of each new song, learn the work through that voice, and once I knew that interpretation intimately, to then begin experimentation using my own impression of the original written work as I saw fit. Similarly, a good theater actor is aware of historical renditions of her character, but rather than attempting to recreate a previous performance, she embeds her own unique voice inside the character. Authenticity is found in each individual performer’s novel interpretation of the original score or script.

The main difference between Brown’s Watermotor and a violinist’s recital of Sibelius’ Concerto in D Minor is in the conflation of author and performer in the former. When the author and the performer are the same, as is often the case in performance art, then the intention of the work can speak to action rather than recreation. As Catherine Wood explains in her analysis of Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind is a Muscle, “It was the performance situation only, perhaps, that might – for the performing modern subject that Rainer represented – collapse the activities of doing and thinking into a single present instant.”

The importance of that idea of presentness becomes even more critical in works like Matt Mullican’s series of performances done under hypnosis: the work collapses a past and a present in the psyche of the artist that is out of his/her conscious control. The author surrenders to the moment, responding to the props not according to some script or even some specific set of rules, but rather due to the volatile impulses of his psyche. To expect that a second or third performance by Mullican, let alone another performer, would yield the same results is unthinkable, as it would require a scripting that precludes an authentic hypnotic experience.

In these hypnotized works, as performed by Mullican, however, there are certain recurring themes within the series. Similar actions as well as a recognizable, though constantly evolving, language of symbols emerge. While the performances may not be identical, the basic parameters of the work remain the same, and thus could be considered to constitute a “re-performance” of the work. In the case of these performances under hypnosis, the substitution of a new performer would dramatically change the results, and as such it would be hard to consider it an accurate restaging of the work since the psychologies of the new performer would be so influential on the outcome.

But this concern over presence can also be overstated. It is possible as an audience member to experience works such as Rainer or Mullican’s without an awareness of the author/performer’s presentness in that moment. If performed well, a scripted work can appear as spontaneous as Mullican’s ramblings and outbursts and cause the audience to be aware of their role as viewers or spectators without Rainer’s personal involvement. In fact, this concern relates directly to the argument regarding performance documentaiton that emphasizes the importance of physical presence to truly experience the performance. As Amelia Jones elucidated, “there is no possibility of an unmediated relationship to any kind of cultural product, including body art.” She goes on to argue that while the live viewers may have access to the phenomenological aspects of the performance, they may not have the distance and resources to understand the work from an historical or analytical standpoint, crucial in comprehension of the work’s meaning. Just as the authenticity of the performance experienced live versus performance experienced through documentation is really a misnomer (the authenticity remains but the experience differs), the authenticity of the performance remains regardless of whether one experiences the original performance or a considered restaging in a different context or with different performers.

To return to the question of presence, it is also important to understand that once the author and performer become separate entities, the work begins to read more like a script than an action. Fields that take this scripting for granted, such as music and theater, avoid this question of authenticity. However, Performance Art, perhaps thanks to its relationship to the visual arts field, continues to feel uneasy with the idea of the script. This is unless, like many Fluxus works, it leaves a great deal of ambiguity that forces the performer to think about their action, bringing back the presence of the performer in the moment once again.

Perhaps this discomfort felt by performance artists stems from the shift of visual artists from studio practices into performative works: the performance space often seems to serve as a stand-in for the studio, allowing the audience a view into the creative process. If the performance space takes the place of the studio, then the performance itself – the actions and their traces – are equivalent to the painting, sculpture, or drawing for which there is only one authentic original. Any copies undermine the authority of the original, and so in this equivalence a copy of a performance (i.e. a restaging or representation of an old performance) undermines the authenticity of the original performance. However, it is important to realize that as the creative process shifted from studio to performance space, so did the procedural parameters. Visible influences upon Performance Art also extend to music, theater, literature, and conceptual practices unhindered by this one-to-one concept of process and product found in the studio. Performance Art is a field that constantly questions the basic expectations of all performing and fine arts, and so while it is impossible to give one blanket statement that “re-performance” of all formats of Performance Art are legitimate renderings, the so-called question of authenticity is misleading. In reality, it is a question of whether the intentions of the work, including its effect on performer and viewer, remain similar enough in the new presentation to still consider it a restaging of the original. And while action may give way to script as more and more Performance Art works find themselves subject to revisitation, this can be generative in and of itself, breathing new life into works that are not, as we must remember, static, but rather find their purpose in the variability of live action.

Cited Sources:
Crimp, Douglas. “You Can Still See Her.” ArtForum, January 1, 2011.
Wood, Catherine. Yvonne Rainer: the mind is a muscle. London: Afterall, 2007.
Jones, Amelia. ““Presence” in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation.” Art Journal 56, no. 4 (1997): 11-18.