In Theory – Blog – Reinterpreting Re-performance

Reinterpreting Re-performance

For most of his career Alan Kaprow, the creator of Happenings, believed re-enacting his seminal performance events would “undermine their suchness or immediacy.”[i] However, weeks before his death he gave the Hans der Kunst gallery in Munich permission to redo one of these Happenings, 18 Happenings in 6 parts (1957), by enacting a re-performance of the original event. Happenings are “premeditated events involving various objects, sounds images, smells…that requires the presence of either a performer or spectator as a way to access the art.”[ii] How to best preserve performances of the past, such as Alan Kaprow’s Happenings, has long been the unanswered question on the lips of artists and curators alike.  Peggy Phelan, an art historian renowned for her writings on performance art, disregards the need for documentation of the discipline, scorning re-performance entirely.  Phelan stated, “To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.”[iii]Marina Abramovic, self-proclaimed grandmother of performance art takes an oppositional stand to Phelan, championing ideas of re-performance.  Like Kaprow she once believed “any documentation…could not be a substitute for the real experience: seeing it live.”[iv] However, Abramovic and other key performance artists of the 60s and 70s begun to see merits in preserving their work, driven by a ”need to leave some trace of the events for a larger audience.” [v] I am going to argue, re-performance, the appropriation of previously performed artworks, can provide an excellent output for reinterpretation and preservation.  The ranging contexts in which re-performance manifests itself, can be seen to subsume a significant effect on audience perception, sometimes resulting in a misconception.  However, in the example of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, the score of which was re-performed over various decades in various countries, the artist was able to monopolise on the experience of each re-enactment to further develop the work.

So why did Kaprow, after such a rebuttal of re-enactment, decide to permit the re-doing of one of his most important Happenings?  Prior to its reconstruction 18 Happenings in 6 parts did “not exist beyond fragmentary first hand accounts preserved by the select group of people who attended the event.”[vi] Re-performance enables work such as this to transcend to a further audience.   Archiving and documenting ensures a place for performance work within the art history canon but why is there a need to re-perform the work?  Abramovic claims to be dissatisfied with the unreliability of traditional documentation forms such as photography and video, consequently declaring, “the only way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece itself.”[vii] Photography has always been the prime method used to document performance art.  It is a method, unfortunately, rife with limitations; such as the possibility of faking or manipulating a photograph; the influence of the photographer’s gaze; the impossibility of representing duration through a single frame; and/or the chance of a sole image misrepresenting the entirety of a whole performance.  Above all photographic and video documentation can never re-create what it is like to actually be in attendance at a live event.  It is the idea of a need for liveness that Phelan frequently promotes and has led her to believe that “Performance’s only life is in the present.” [viii] It is in answer to the call for liveness and a more accurate form of documentation that has turned many artists towards re-enactment.

In giving permission for the re-doing of 18 Happenings in 6 parts Kaprow facilitated an inspiring curation for a retrospective of work characterised by this liveness.[ix] Descriptions of the re-doing in 2007 include “crisp, clean and neatly choreographed”[x] and “they had clearly rehearsed very carefully some very specific rules.”[xi] Descriptions of the original sway in much the same direction.  Kaprow had developed blueprints using stick figures to predetermine each participant’s immobility (See Figure 1), a script, a musical score, and a geometrically divided floor plan.  The original Happening was “clear, simple and unspontaneous.”[xii] It seemed Kaprow had provided the perfect set of instructions that enabled the smooth running of the subsequent re-enactment.  I want to suggest that the development of an instructional score based performance can induce an effective model of re-enactment. Abramovic proposed the idea of likening performances to musical scores to be repeated in her re-performance exhibition, Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim 2005.[xiii]

Kaprow’s fluxus contemporaries of the 1960s previously developed and advanced the idea of the score and the instruction within art and music.  George Brecht, inspired by John Cage’s experimental music and choreography, developed what he termed the “event score.”[xiv] Brecht mailed performance instructions to his friends and created works such as Three Chair Events (1961), in which the audience was instructed to choose to sit on a coloured chair.[xv]During the same period Ann Halprin’s dancer workshop motivated artists such as Simone Forti to produce dance choreography contingent to instructions.  An example of Forti’s “dance reports”[xvi] was, “One man is told he must lie on the floor during the entire piece.  The other man is told that during the piece he must tie the first man to the wall.”[xvii]

Fluxus artists themselves were constantly taking the instructional scores of their peers to construct their own re-enactment.  For example, Le Monte Young created the piece Composition 1960 #10 instructing the performer to “Draw a straight line and follow it”.  In 1962 Nam June Paik reconstructed this score at a fluxus festival, entitling the work Zen for Head.  His re-interpretation of the score involved him dipping his head in ink and dragging it along rolled out paper (See figure 4).  I would argue that it is in Nam June Paik’s reconstruction of Young’s original score that we can see what artists can achieve through re-performance – reinterpretation.  Writing on re-enactment Richard Blackson dismisses simple repetition, reproduction and even simulation, postulating that, “re-enactment invites transformation through memory, theory, and history to generate unique and resonating results.”[xviii] In Richard Rinehart essay, ‘A System of Formal Notation for Scoring Works of Digital and Variable Media Art’ we can find a description of a score that enables interpretation, be it for a different medium.  Rinehart proposes a formal notation system that can provide access to re-development but leave room for interpretation.[xix] “It should be descriptive of levels of agency and choice within the work, allowing for a continuum of assignable human or automated roles from creator to user.”[xx] John Cage taught both Brecht and Kaprow experimental composition at ‘The New School for Social Research” and had a great influence on both their careers.  His 4’33” (1952), a musical score stating that no intentional sound must be produced between this time parameter was termed by Liz Kotz a “temporal container”[xxi].  This “temporal container” that could potentially be filed with any material was perhaps the first score that enlisted a reinterpretation.[xxii]

Marina Abramovic Seven Easy Pieces (2005)

In Seven Easy Pieces (2005) Abramovic set her own conditions for re-performance.

“Ask the artist for permission.

Pay the artist for copyright.

Perform a new interpretation of the piece.

Exhibit the original material: photographs, videos, relics.

Exhibit a new interpretation of the piece.”[xxiii]

Through this exhibition Abramovic aimed to expose a model for re-performance that respected the past and opened up possibilities for reinterpretation.[xxiv] She re-performed five works by key artists who had influenced her practice, her own performance Lips of Thomas and an entirely new performance, making seven performances in total.  The first re-performance was Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure (1974).  The body of this work actually took the form of a set of instructions, telling the viewer/participant to press their body against a wall in various ways.  Bruce Nauman never intended to perform the score of this work.  In Abramovic’s reinterpretation she presented a live display acting out each instruction as it was read overhead.  In her appropriation of the instructional score she produced a discourse of live performance.

Abramovic prescribed that each re-performance would last for seven hours regardless of its original duration.  Abramovic’s re-enactment of Valie Export Genital Panic showed how reinterpretation could change the nature of the work through an altered audience perception and artist experience.  Valie Export originally performed Genital Panic in an underground pornographic cinema.  The performance is associated with an iconic photograph (See Figure 5) rather than any ulterior documentation of the event.  Export is said to have strolled into the cinema with her crotch clearly on display, aiming to expose issues surrounding the male gaze by placing a real image of female sexuality in front of the cinema customers in the place of one manipulated by an industry.  The iconic photograph is what provided Abramovic with her score for re-performance.  She took to the stage for the seven-hour duration embodying the confrontational costume and stance of the original artist (See Figure 6).  Accounts of this re-performance describe how Abramovic was engaged in an eye lock with a female member of the audience for over an hour, fascinated the remaining viewers.[xxv]This eye lock supposedly only came to a close when both artist and spectator broke down in tears.  Through re-performance Abramovic celebrated the important work of Valie Export whilst developing her own engagement with performance.

Peggy Phelan, with her preference for authentic, live performance works has stated that, “Performance occurs over a time which will not be repeated.  It can be performed again, but this repetition marks it as different.”[xxvi] Re-performance is always going to be “different” to an original performance, but perhaps this difference is what makes it so important.  If Blackson was right to disregard simple repetition or duplication then Abramovic re-performances can co-exist with this disregard because they fall into his category of “re-enactment”. [xxvii] They have drawn from the “script of history”[xxviii] but the artist herself has appropriated them to form a “different” body of work.  If a re-performance artist was aiming towards complete simulation that would be near impossible as, as Phelan states the time in which performance exists can never be repeated and neither can its context.  Valie Export’s initial Genital Panic was performed in the wake of the feminist movement and was structured around the interior of a cinema.  Abramovic performed in 2005 in a world-famous art gallery.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964, 1965, 1966 and 2003)

Yoko Ono was also originally identified with the fluxus movement, working alongside Cage, Brecht and Kaprow.  She is known for her Instruction Pieces, which direct a performing viewer in a similar way to Brecht’s event scores.  Her most famous performance Cut Piece has been performed and re-performed by the artist herself six times in different contexts.  In the article ‘Performing the other: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece’ Jieun Rhee described each performance, concluding that “the dynamics of each performance is heavily indebted to the cultural context of its audience”.[xxix] The score for Cut Piece invited the audience to come onto the stage to cut away at Ono’s clothing using scissors.  Ono has described the piece as an “act of giving” declaring that, “the artist gives what the audience choses to take”.[xxx] Rhee juxtaposes Ono’s performance in Japan with her performances in New York and London.  At the time of the Japanese stint of Cut Piece (See Figure 7) there was a significant hostility towards the US, with their troops still occupying parts of Japan.  Yoko Ono performed under the guise of an American avant-garde artist and was adorned in western garb.  This is perhaps what led to a more violent attitude towards Ono as the audience felt they were given the opportunity to manifest their American resentment by destroying her yofuku (western dress).[xxxi] Rhee believes that Ono used her experience of the Japanese reception, of which the artist rarely discusses, to position herself in the west as a “Japanese practitioner”.[xxxii] She was received in London in 1966 (See Figure 8) as an ‘exotic’ body, a Japanese female, and it was within this she constructed her position in the western world.  She used the varying contexts of Cut Piece to alter the development of the work.

In Japan her performance was associated with a striptease.  In London and New York there was little attention payed to ritual as the audience, laughed and jeered as one “playboy” grabbed her breast and cut to reveal her brassiere.[xxxiii]Rhee believes that it was in her 2003 reconstruction of Cut Piece in Paris that her message of the ‘act of giving’ was finally received (See Figure 9).  In 2003 Ono declared that, “When I first performed this piece in 1964 I did it out of rage and anger.  This time, I do it for you with love for the world…Cut Piece is my hope for world peace.”[xxxiv] She re-performed Cut Piece in the wake of 9/11 altering the work so that each audience member cut a passport sized piece of fabric from her clothing and mailed it to a friend to spread the message of world peace.  She directly used a re-performance of her own score to develop the work in a new context and to inspire her audience and her own individual practice.

Tania Bruguera On the Political Imagery 2010

Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 parts was recreated for the Huns der Kunst retrospective of his work.  On the Political Imagery was the Neuberger Gallery’s answer to the call for a retrospectivesque exhibition of Tania Brugera in 2010.  This exhibition containing re-performances and re-constructed installations provides an example of how work so inherent to its original context can fail to translate its significance once removed from it.  In her review of the show Eleanor Heartney has said that it “showed what is lost in immediacy and political significance when site-specific works are recreated.”[xxxv] Tania Brugera is a Cuban artist whose work can be seen as confrontational and political within a Cuban society that is entirely restrictive and sees all art as political.  One her most famous works Taitlin’s Whisper (2009) involved the organisation of a platform and microphone in which the Cuban public were given the opportunity to speak for one minute with a dove on their shoulder, representing the dove that famously landed on Fidel Castro in the revolution of 1959.  This work had huge presence in a country where the practice of free speech is forbidden but in the US retrospective the platform went mostly unused in a country where the practice of free speech is so readily taken for granted.[xxxvi] Her performance Burden of Guilt in which Bruguera was dressed in the carcass of a lamb and ate dirt was re-performed daily by another artist (See figure 11).  The initial ritual was strongly routed in Cuban tradition and myth so outside of Cuba it is hard for the work to be fully understood.  Bringing re-performances to new contexts can be beneficial to both artist and audience in understanding the culture of different receptions, like in the example of Yoko Ono.  However, it is hard to translate performance so routed in its original context using the realm of re-performance.

At the 53rd Liverpool Biennale Tania Bruguera and her Arte de Conducta became the next Happening reinterpreters, staging reconstructions of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings throughout the duration of the biennial.  Writing on the online blog for these re-performances Lorenzo Fusi states

“This will be the only realm where these ephemeral actions so exist having happened…unless you have personally taken part in them in which case they will stay in your muscles, hands, heart, soul and memory.”[xxxvii]

Fusi is writing about the re-enactment of Transfer, first performed in 1968, in which the score proposed the relocation of sixty oil drums.  In this quote Fusi has described what can be found in both the initial Transfer and its re-performance, an experience centred around a live performance, which only those involved will be able to keep, in their memories.  Through re-performing this score of work a new group of participants was able to experience it.  It is unlikely that each performer shared the exact same experience but it is only through re-performance that they were able to obtain any degree of experience at all.   As re-performance enters the canon of performance art it too will need documentation, which will succumb to similar criticisms of traditional performance preservation.  It has its own difficulties with authorship and authenticity.  In the re-performance of Transfer each oil drum was labelled “Transfer by Allan Kaprow” rather than Tania Bruguera and Arte de Conducta.  Re-performance, however, is characterised by Phelan’s ever-important liveness and as this liveness reaches new audiences a form of the performance lives on.   A re-interpretation of the score will be found in all re-performances, as the conditions will always be slightly, if not drastically, altered.  An open-ended musical score or formal notation built around a performance work will always enable a re-performance, characterised by reinterpretation within these ever changing contexts.  For artists seeking reinterpretation over simple reproduction it is towards re-performance they should turn.



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