Action-arts or Performances (Performing Arts)*

Dialogue on Contemporary Art, Lisboa, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation/ACARTE

"I will cry unto God that performeth all things for me"
(PSALMS) (1)

In the fifties people became aware of the ambiguity of defining a boundary between what is considered as art, and life itself. One of the most important focal points of this awareness grew up around the lessons and experiments 
of the American composer John Cage in the Black Mountain College and the New School of Social Research in New York Aesthetic operators such as Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Merce Cunningham, George Segal, David Tudor, Earle Brown, etc., formed an important movement which would shortly be joined by a European group with Maciunas, Jacques Lebel, Filliou, Vostell, George Brecht and even the Gutai Group from Japan. All of them sought the participation of those who had formerly limited themselves to being apparently mere' spectators. It was the era of happenings, actions, events, installations...; assemblages, environments, etc. For some of these activities there are exact equivalents in the European languages and especially in Portuguese. Other expressions were also created such as ambiente, arte pobre, etc.

But obviously names are of secondary importance and many other sources of this movement could be indicated, such as kinetic art. The basic idea, which is still extremely up to date even today, is that of participation. Participation, which was also avidly sought in other circles such as the theatre (the evolution from Berthold Brecht to the Living Theatre) would have a complex and varied history, culminating in the sixties in a severe crisis that was not only aesthetic but social and even political (e. g., the 1968 street movements in Paris and the various underground movements in America and other places).

The lack of confidence felt by the aesthetic operators in relation to the various modalities of public participation resulted in a rejection of the classical processes of spectacular catharsis. It was about this time that the word performance began to be used, which in turn was linked to other experiments such as land art and body art.

The "artists" (we shall again call them by this name, certain however that the difference between artist and non-artist continues to be a problem) faced up to this crisis in a very distinct manner: in short, by giving of their bodies, sometimes to the point of cruelty, sometimes opting for an acutely conceptual path. The story is long and richly varied in its different modalities. We would merely state that, as in any artistic movement, the performances resulted in a corresponding wave of mediocrity, of people who took poetic license for absence of effort and commitment. In particular, this notion of giving cannot and should not be confused with some kind of variation of striptease. In fact, an artist always gives of his body, gives his word, gives his look, profoundly, beyond the epochs and the definitions of the different currents.

G I V I N G                     DÁ DI VA

GIVES LIFE                   DA VI DA

"Every look is already a theory about the world!" This statement by Goethe is always valid, but... always contradictory and paradoxical. In fact, like all theory, it tends towards universality and globality and includes its own axioms and indemonstrable principles. Furthermore: how to disconnect the look from the gestures and the words that support them? 
They are inseparable; they are voluntarily or involuntarily (not) ingenuous: they prepare and provoke a fraud, amazement allover the world. Amazement! You lift your hand, you look at the Other, you perform Love in this your clamor or simple greeting ... In doing so you are not ingenuous, nor are you unaware of the codes, rules and prejudices that will permit adequate interpretation of your gesture, your hand closed in a fist or open like a plane leaf. But you are also ingenuous because your gesture-look has to be spontaneous, almost infantile ... sincerely turned towards the future.

Invent the future: for you certainly have a future to invent, whatever happens, heaven or hell!

Heaven; applause that is not only mundane... Congratulations, but be prepared for the next phase that might perhaps turn out to be Hell, perhaps the origin of the future. To begin again is not easy, to see or say again all the marks, all the emblems, all the signs of the earth, the sky, of your own body. Accept the fact that you were wrong, recognize your own ignorance. Once more on a knife's edge with eyes closed, determinedly in search of another breach in the wall. It is not easy… But to invent the future there is no other way: the future can only be performed.

Word, look, gesture? These are the origin of some of our current perplexities, the question of all questions.

It would seem evident that visibility is not primeval: all that one sees is false. Not even the light of Parmenides would refer to the outside image of things: and any attentive reader of photo-novels will agree that whenever anything is illuminated it is by interior light. And what would we say of Titian's Assumption of the Virgin? ... It is the interior light that is on the verge of any question, in any representation. It is that which illuminates or is confused with any reply; it is a part of all problems even when it takes the form of silence.

The interior image or the respective writing (or inscription in space), the imaginary and also all dreams... are simultaneously and contradictorily the shadow of the Word and the indication of the Place even if the latter is deserted, dilacerated and nocturnal, in the here and now that we merely are, created or creators, artists or amateurs. (Contradictorily, because in fact we are what we are only in the 
Other's reply, in the distance, in the future or in the past, absolutely absent.)

Art and non-art. Art and life. Participation. Author, actor, spectator. Work of art and aesthetic act. All these categories – we know this after all the modernisms and after the post-modernisms – belong to the same system of lines of communication. And there they have always belonged, with the exception of the already mentioned balance, past/ future. This explains the statement of a great writer of our times: "My life is, in itself, a performance – of which I give some outlines, some relics. Have we lost Paradise? We are now working to rediscover it. What we are doing is only a dress rehearsal."

* Note on the word performance – This is not a word of Anglo-Saxon origin as IS generally believed. It originates from a Romance language (Latin). According to various erudite opinions It comes from archaic Italian or French: per formar, just formed or newly formed. Besides this error regarding its origins the present meaning is also of Interest: success achieved by an athlete, a runner, cyclist, racing driver, etc. Success In the world of show business. The best speeds or standards achieved by a runner (animal or man), a car, a ship, a plane, etc. Recently this word has been used In the world of the arts, after much use had been given to words such as happening, event, assemblage, environment, etc.

  1. Evidently a good translation of the following passage from the Bible cannot avoid a certain quality of paradox which arises from the word performance. "I will cry unto God that performeth all things for me!" The paradox is inevitable as the word performed either refers to a whole, already completed; or to a whole that is entirely new, entirely to be undertaken: the past and the future, both absent. What would remain in the center? A Zero, an absent God? Bu we would have to enter into theological (negative theology), ontological and metaphysical discussions, and discussions on the theory of knowledge in general, which are beyond the score of this Introduction.