Performance art: Priceless?

The concept of performance art is, if anything, difficult to grasp. This week saw the opening of the 10th edition of Performa, the New York performance art biennial. An opportunity for H A P P E N I N G to take a look at the origins of the medium, and the future of an ever-evolving art.

For RosaLee Goldberg, founder and director of the biennial, one of the main objectives of Performa 15 is to present artists who are able to reinvent the boundaries of contemporary aesthetics. In her famous essay, she states that since its inception, performance has been “intangible, it left no traces and it could not be bought and sold.” Despite considerable visibility since the early 1970s, notably in the United States, in principle, it was impossible to sell.


Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg © Daniel Shea via The New York Time Magazine

Whilst the medium is defined as the materialization of an artistic concept, performance concerns an immaterial experience of time and space rather than a physical representation. To the question of whether it is always politically and socially engaged, Goldberg told Artsy that performance is an art that evolves with its epoque.
In 1970, the bodies of artists Klaus Rinke and partner Monika Baumgartl, in Primary Demonstrations, form a moving sculpture that shifts delicately according to a geometric configuration over the course of several hours. Witness to these infinitely small changes, the spectator is confronted with the perception of his/her own physical reality. Time, space and movement thus appear as characteristic elements of performance since its very debut.

Klaus Rinke, Primary Demonstration: Horizontal-Vertical , 1976 © Klaus Rinke - Oxford Museum of Modern Art

Being the most subversive dimension of contemporary art at the time, artists refused their performances to be depublicated in video format, or to be reproduced by others. To cite Gérard Mayen, dance critic at the Centre Pompidou, performance originally boasted a radical questioning of the established process of representative codes. Favoring immediate contempt for convention, trailblazers of performance refused to reduce their art to an arrangement of objects, possibly assimilated by way of a market or the authority of an institution.
Nonetheless, attracting the masses — an audience hungry for interaction since the explosion of social media — performance, previously regarded as suspicious, has since established its place on the commercial artistic scene.

In 2003, perfomance entered the museum arena in the form of temporary representations. The Tate Modern in London bought Roman Ondak’s Good Feelings is Good Times, before acquiring This is Propaganda by Tino Seghal two years later. Following in their footsteps, MoMA purchased another piece by Seghal in 2009. His essentially invisible artworks will set you back $100,000. The contract between artist and institution is purely verbal and transactions are made in cash with zero records or receipts issued. Ever since, performance has become the darling of art world circles, with fairs such as Frieze and Art Basel reserving an important place for the genre during their events.

Ulla von Brandenburg, Sucession, 2013 © Galerie Art Concept - Paris 

Whilst the art market in its entirety is in perpetual expansion, the performance market is beginning to take form too. But how to commercialize, that is, to materialize a concept that is in essence immaterial? How can we capture the representation of an artistic form whose existence is to be lived and felt directly?
“Photo and film often serve as physical traces or imprints” explains Guillaume Piens, curator of the 2015 edition of Art Paris, “these images are sold by gallerists as separate works.” Gallerist Nathalie Obadia agrees, “you have to create derivative products.”
“We are able to commercialize performance in three ways,” says gallerist George-Philippe Vallois in the Figaro. “You can buy the performance itself, the protocol for which is that the performance can be reproduced under very specific conditions. You can acquire the surrounding documentation: videos, audio pieces, photographs. You can acquire the works that are the result of a performance piece, including installations. Today we are able to sell performance without issue. Something that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”
Could this embodied ephemeral art be running out of imagination?

Adrien M / Claire B, Le mouvement de l'air, 2015 © AMCB

At a time when performance is quickly becoming commodified, some are still fighting for innovative and intense work, such as artist duo Adrien M / Claire B, who combine dance, sound, new technology and live interaction – seeking out a new aesthetic contemporary language, on a quest for abstract forms rendered by the body.

“To create interaction we use sensors, graphic tablets, and controllers to manipulate the images while observing the dancers. It’s like a digital puppetry. We like to make images go out of the frame. They are living partners,” the artists revealed to The Creators Project.
 Performa is running from November 1 through 22 2015 throughout New York.