Over 40 artists from around the world, among them: Valie Export, a leading representative of the Austrian feminist art; Ewa Partum, a pioneer of conceptual art; world pioneers of performance art; interdisciplinary artists from Germany, Poland, Canada, Norway, Ukraine, Portugal. There were sound works, installations, interventions in public space, screenings, exhibitions, presentations and discussions, as well as a versatile open platform for young artists. All this and more could be seen during the 7th edition of CONTEXTS International Festival of Ephemeral Art taking place in Sokołowsko from 21 to 25 July 2017.
Artists, performers, filmmakers and musicians invited to participate were asked to express their take on the enigmatic phrase „That’s the way”. It was an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at and to speak with artists, curators and festivals’ directors about the current status of performance. We ask them about the present state of performance art and whether contemporary art and artists should comment on the global affairs.
1/ What’s the current status of performance? Is the medium still capable of embodying current issues, needs and phenomena or has it already been rendered too obscure and academic?
Art is always created for art’s sake, but it’s never for itself. The aura always has social or political context.
The thing is everybody can stage a performance nowadays. Seemingly, this ubiquitous medium requires no prior knowledge or preparation. Still, only unrivalled and fresh practice holds genuine value for art history. One does not break new ground by following their regular patterns. Young artists start with performance because they find it easy. That’s one of the reasons behind its diluted meaning. Personally, I opt for performance when I deem the form suitable for the message I wish to convey, such as highlighting a different approach to men and women growing old by ageing my own body as part of a feminist act of performance.
Is it still relevant? The short answer is: I don’t know. A little bit longer answer is that since the 80s there is already an idea that we need to find other words for what today we call performance. For myself, I’m still looking for better words, but I haven’t found them yet. So, I prefer to call what I do voice performance. I do artistic research. In this way for me it’s relevant, but is it also relevant for society? Some people say that performance art is the art for neoliberalism, for our late form of no capitalism and I think that they are wrong. But I can understand why they believe that. It’s because there is some similarity. If we decide to do a performance we need to be really careful what to do not to support that what we fight against – which is always the case.
Performance is also the most academic kind of art. In the 80s, it entered the fine arts academies, and people get some training which is right to have some kind of skills. You can learn something about your body, about your voice and then use it artistically. There is nothing wrong in that. It’s not yet a thing. But does performance help you to bring our times into artistic expression? I don’t know.
First of all, performance is the most highbrow discipline of contemporary art. There is rarely something noteworthy and exciting happening. Performance rarely defies academic convention. The juxtaposition of an act of performance and its documentation has remained largely unresolved. The majority of the artists turn a blind eye to the issue of documentation, pretending it doesn’t exist. What is more, an intrinsic connection between performance and reproduction is still ignored. Secondly, performance runs a significant risk of turning into some stagey show instead of an invigorating experience it is supposed to be, due to rather limited modes of expression at one’s disposal.
I’m under the impression that experienced performance artists welcome fresh young blood with open arms but forge co-dependent, slightly toxic relationships with them to tap into their potential. This, honestly, seems a bit disturbing (a section dedicated to young artists is scheduled for the final days of the festival…I wonder how many hot-shot artists and journalists will stick around).
All arts have been developing; I mean painting and sculpture exist for a while, and people still use them now. Forms adapt to time. So, I used performance because I can connect so many things I like and with which I like to work. I also work with my body. The combination of the two is the way I can express myself. I choose body… I like to explore it, to research limitations. It’s just the way I look at myself and art. I fill more strongly with my body than with words and any other way of expression.
The number of performers has definitely been growing exponentially. Performance artists used to belong to an exclusive small group, and now we have schools of performance, which is just ludicrous. How can you teach someone an improvised form of expression based on a unique perception of one’s own body? A sheer paradox.
Correspondingly to all emerging trends, performance art exerted the most profound impact when it had just been discovered. Today, even cult performances have much weaker resonance due to their context and current political and social situation. As time passes, obscurity fades away, replaced by an uninspired formula that wields no power whatsoever.
Performance is incredibly academic, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, performers run workshops about a body, one’s self-awareness and role in the environment, which is fine. On the other hand, I can’t help it but wonder how relevant these subjects are today. I don’t consider myself a performer. My artistic practice focuses on responsive activities designed for certain communities, which encourage audience engagement and participation. They originate from my entire back catalogue and fulfil the needs of both sides. When I used to be a longstanding member of the theatre company Akademia Ruchu (Academy of Movement), I also initiated my own simultaneous art projects. In Sokołowsko, I designed a game of sorts that addressed the dearth of social structures. Our social circles and modes of communication are limited and unsanctioned. I attempt to tackle these issues. Performance serves as a tool to communicate with oneself at a symbolic level. Its scholarly nature gave rise not only to a closed set of gestures and utterances but also to a predictable and repetitive form.
2/ Great social unrest has ruled the world for several months and years. Shocking global and national news, terrorist attacks, populism, restricting human rights, continuous protests on the streets against government policy…how does art respond to all this? Since the very beginning, performative and ephemeral art has always rested upon an individual (in the physical, corporeal sense, alongside with their rights and role in the society) reacting somehow to the current events and reality. Should contemporary art and artists comment on the global affairs?
Now we have a difficulty with the word ‘performance’. Of course, I saw some excellent performances, but on the other hand, performance now is sometimes a part of showbiz, entertainment and it’s not related to the artistic world. But at the same time, you can find compelling performances also here in Sokołowsko. For example, Ralf Peters who had prepared the performance with a voice. Also Ewa Partum – this is a kind of performance but also an installation. It’s very significant for Poland, and it’s strongly connected with the current situation.
Some people and their art are detached from reality. In my opinion, art must feel ‘real’, it must respond to reality. I was the one who placed prohibitory traffic signs in the public space back in the 1960s and 1970s, after all.
Artists need to rise, today because those disturbing events in the world affect us all. Art can’t shy away from dealing with them, since it is precisely art and culture that can sense the pulse of society, and make its members feel it, too.
It’s a little bit difficult for me to answer this question. Because I am German, I would like to be careful. I can say one thing that I’m surprised that there is so little talk during this festival about what is happening in Poland nowadays. And I wonder if Polish people are more relaxed about what ‘s going on than the Germans…. I was a little bit confused not to hear anything about it. When I came here, the question was: “Can I do here what I do in a German context, in the same way” because in my opinion here art has something else to do. I do art in political spaces, so I am not against this socio-political context. But art always has to do with research and we, as the artists, we have to fight for the right to do such research and to do what we do. But if we started to do art against the political situation it’s a dangerous thing. Of course, sometimes you have to because there is no other way, but we can’t judge. It’s difficult to put a political statement in artistic form, but this is not an art, this is a statement. For a long time performance art had a provocative impact which was good, but in times like this when we have Trump for example who is also provocative and unconventional we can ask whether art still can do that – use the same way. So we need to find another language. Now it’s a time of questioning…
The discourse of art establishes certain relations. Some great artists are engaged in the reality, and some choose not to be. There is no right answer. What matters is seeking unconventional relations, whether directly or indirectly. Reality snubbed is the reality responded to.
The fact that the festival in Sokołowsko isn’t a gathering of circus performers seems worth mentioning. Instead of presenting their well-rehearsed hits, the artists come here to participate in an open discussion.
For me it’s important to not talk so much about my work with words – it spoils a performance. I always work not with one idea but with a few in parallel; for one my work can be political, for other can be social and at the same time personal. And getting to your question… Did you see the limitation of the boxes in my performance? Through that, I ask a question about the limits/boundaries, how our way of living and attitude to reality are limiting us. How we can adapt or overcome limits. Is it possible? I hope the audience can find in my action many layers, also political, because we are living in such times that you cannot separate yourself and your actions from the times you live in. It’s the way of how we are thinking, feeling, how we expressed ourselves in art and life. Our body is connected with art.
Art market expands, art commercialises, marginal artists, including those specialising in ephemeral arts, such as performance and what we do here, in Sokołowsko, enter the mainstream. The circumstances are ironic since, at its very core, performance encapsulates an independent anti-establishment, institutional and systematic practice. Scores of artists make art that would thrust them into the limelight. But there are ever so many world-famous artists the world can accommodate…needless to say, art is the product of one’s ego and artists are true iconoclasts. However, the persona of an artist can’t overshadow their work. It’s a blatant mistake. You create works of art to express something, to convey a message and you are nothing but a messenger.
Art for art’s sake is the construct I don’t believe in. Every work of art should refer at least to tradition and creative process, in particular. Artists are capable of discovering new territories and broadening the scope of art by speaking their own visual dialects that can be widely understood or not. Recent protests on the streets shared some of their aspects with those of performance. We witnessed (and still do) people lying on their backs and kicking the barriers – the epitome of crossing boundaries or distance, which are frequent subjects of performances. Barriers were used as sports equipment. Furthermore, police officers reacted and approached someone only if their knee passed onto the other side. In response, people retreated and, for instance, started doing push-ups. The notion of a boundary is paramount to every protest that, as a result, bears some resemblance to a performance, meaning the form of art calling for your direct involvement.