I don’t like performance art anymore and it’s all my fault

It’s really just a matter of preference, I suppose. And when it comes to art, participation is what I’m really after. I’m weary of watching, of listening, of reading, of the taking-in-all the-time. I want to interact, to do, to sweat, to work, to play, to invent, to make messes. I want to be on the creation side of things. When I do create, I want others to mess with my stuff. I want to engage others to the extent that their participation alters the work itself. I want unpredictable results and I want results that matter.

I’m inspired by the potential of performance art to blur the boundary between audience and performer. I see the possibility for transformation through participation and then nothing much seems to happen. Even when the piece calls itself “interactive” or “participatory,” the distinction between audience and performer seems even more significant, and the result is often confusing at best, and sometimes simply humiliates the participating audience with no lessons learned.

I admit that my disappointment has more to do with my own misunderstanding and distorted expectation of what is possible than the result of anything wrong with the form itself.

On what else can I blame my confusion? Maybe it’s that much of performance art takes place in intimate settings, or that performance is live, or performers often look like they have no special talent and are doing what anybody could do, or that performance often demands imaginative interpretation. Maybe it’s because so many of us still don’t know what performance art is.

I’m not blaming performance art. It’s all my fault. I should know better. Maybe if I had gone to art school…

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4 thoughts on “I don’t like performance art anymore and it’s all my fault

  1. There are tremendous boundary issues with interactivity. As someone who has been an artist’s model for a classroom of people, I am accutely sensitive to different levels of boundaries.

    It is ok to look at the model nude. But not to touch. If the model is clothed, between sessions, the model can participate in the artists space.

    And there is a distinctive membrane between those in the class/room, and people from the “outside”. It is extremely uncomfortable to have someone walk in, who has not been psychologically admitted into the agreement space.

    If you are performing, there is a kind of tension that creates the joy of the activity. Without that tension, a performance lacks life. The difficulty then, is how does another perform under tension? And if all parties don’t know the context, skills and activities of the performance, how do you anticipate their reactions to keep things safe?

    And on the other hand …

    I have led large group rituals, as well as participated in performance based ceremonies. My experience is that, for many activities, direct participation, if in some manner that allows one to engage one’s own sense of meaning, is vastly better than simply watching or having some minute, and essentially unimportant activity to perform.

    One way to structure things would be to have the performing group include persons whose responsibility is to focus on the “unpractised” participants. Acknowledging the requirements of the situation in a concrete way, might allow for a method to be achieved that makes such interactivity possible.

    Another course, is to create that smaller group boundary, and allow for trust to be developed. In one sense, I think this is what street performers do, as they identify who in the audience is responding to their performance, and then, especially if a performance takes place over a somewhat longer period, gradually shape their performance to include the elements afforded by responsive viewers.

    But more typically, you see this at conferences, classes and workshops, where people are brought into the group identity, and some time is spent establishing the group’s mores.

    A very inspiring topic.
    (I stumbled upon your blog through a search for Information Architecture, which led to your husband’s blog. I truly enjoy the what and how of your writing that I have seen here.)

  2. Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments. I had considered removing my post because I really do love performance art. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because you’ve really given me something to think about.
    Participation is so badly under utilized in the arts. Everybody used to create stuff just a couple of generations ago. You didn’t have to be expert or technically schooled to be able to play an instrument or sing along. Now, it seems that we have to be “good” to be allowed to play.
    There is so much that’s possible with performance art. I’ve seen too many audiences confused and alienated by “interactive” pieces (mine included). Thanks for the suggestions regarding including audience.
    Maybe when audiences come prepared with information and are given some expectations ahead of time, the risky business can be diminished and people can be freed up to participate fully.

  3. Maybe it’s not a distorted expectation of what’s possible. I have a gut feeling that it’s not… You have this VISION, that’s the beginning… and you notice a gap… I can’t wait to see you fill that gap and create something totally revolutionary. 🙂 Can you give me some links or something so I can learn more about participation in art?

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