BEWARE

By Daniel Buren and Donelle Woolford

First published in frieze 118 (October, 2008): 178–181.

This text was written for the exhibition Conception at the Städtisch Museum, Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, in 1969, before we had seen the works exhibited there. Our skepticism in certain respects was proved justified. Given that this text is neither a profession of faith nor a bible nor a model for others, but merely a reflection on work in progress, for this new context we have wished to change certain words, delete or rework certain phrases, and delve deeper into particular points. Alterations or additions to the original text are set in a range of tones that indicate the severity of each change.

WARNING: Performance Art
A ‘performance’ may be understood as ‘the general physical and public representation of an action or ‘the premeditated staging of a moment in time’. Now, considering the success this word has obtained recently in art circles and the kinds of artworks that will be grouped under its parameters, and considering how successful terms like ‘social sculpture’ or ‘event’ have been in eliding the art historical baggage of Performance Art and re-branding it for a new generation, it seems necessary to begin by saying whatperformancemeans in para-artistic language. Although the term is a matter for philosophical discussion, its meaning is still restricted. Performance has never meant ‘horse’.

We can distinguish five different meanings in the various examples of performance happening now, from which we can draw five considerations that can serve as a warning to anyone thinking that performance—or whatever we want to call it—will rescue art from the evils of market exchange.

Performance / Project
Certain works that until now were considered only as rough outlines or proposals for works to be acted out by the artist in another place will henceforth be raised to the rank of performance. What used to be nothing more than the menial labor of making art becomes a mesmerizing demonstration of vulnerability through the miraculous application of one word. There is absolutely no inquiry into the idea of performance per se, but quite simply that the designation ‘performance’ transforms any moment into an artwork that cannot be achieved by other means.

Performance / Mannerism
Under the pretext of performance the anecdotal is going to flourish again and with it, academic art. Of course it will no longer be a question of the labor time represented by the number of beads on a rack of antlers nor of picturing naked youths in trees, but of discoursing upon the number of pedestrians in a queue or shopping excursions in Mexico City. In order, no doubt, to get closer to ‘reality’, the performance artist becomes gardener, scientist, sociologist, philosopher, storyteller, chemist, sportsman. It is a way—still another—for the artist to display his or her talents as a conjurer. The ‘realistic’ painters, be they Bouguereau or the Pop artists, Lucien Freud or Kelley Walker, were no less earnest in striving after reality. In its implicit preference for the framing of time and space as art, combined with the absence of any obvious commodities, the very word performance implies a return to Romanticism.

Performance / Intuition
To lend support to their pseudo-cultural references and to their bluffing games, with their blatant displays of questionable scholarship, certain artists attempt to demonstrate to us what art would be, could be, should be—thus making a performance artwork. There is no lack of vulgarity in pretension. We are witnessing the transformation of a pictorial illusion into a political illusion. In place of unpretentious inquiry we are subjected to a hodgepodge of justifications that only serve to obfuscate the paucity of thought. For these practitioners, performance art is faith and intuition. They are no longer living in the twenty-first century, but wish to revive the twelfth.

Performance / Idea / Art
More than one person will be tempted to take any sort of idea, make a performance of it, and call it art. This possibility seems to be the most dangerous because it is very attractive and entertaining, because it is more difficult to dislodge, and because it acknowledges a desire that really does exist: how to dispose of the object? We will attempt, as we proceed, to clarify this notion of object. For now let us merely observe that ‘to exhibit’ or set forth a performance is at the very least a fundamental misconception that can, if one does not take care, involve us in a succession of false arguments. As soon as an idea, a gesture, or a moment in time is removed from its context or reframed as such it is indeed being ‘exhibited’ in the traditional (and sometimes profitable) sense of the term, whether it takes the form of a material object or not. To exhibit a performance, or to use the word ‘performance’ to signify art, turns the performance into just another object. This would suggest that we are to think of the people who inhabit a performance as objects as well—that is, in terms of commodity exchange.

Performance / Efficiency
Lastly, the designation ‘performance’ is as economical as it is political or spiritual, and audience members can profit from this aspect as well. One of the more agreeable side effects of recent performance art occurs when the title of the performance alone tells us everything we need to know about the event, without our having to see it. Paul Chan’s ‘Waiting for Godot In New Orleans’ is an example of six words creating such a strong and knowing impression as to make buying a plane ticket and traveling to New Orleans unnecessary. Not only are we able to love this piece without ever having seen it, we are also quite certain that the version of the piece that exists in our imaginations is superior to the one that people actually witnessed on the ground in the Ninth Ward, at the intersection of two unpaved roads.

Even if we admit that not all performances and events are prone to these interpretations, this warning seems necessary to us because nine-tenths of the performances that have been staged over the past year or so relied on one of the five points raised above. Some artists may even have partaken subtly of all five at once. As such they fall back on the traditional and ‘evergreen‘ in art and rely on idealism and authenticity, earnest defects that unfortunately art has not yet eradicated. We know from experience that whenever a trend like this arises people are only too quick to impose its rubric upon any work shown. In this particular case, the parameters will be approximately as described above, i.e. those of the new avant garde, which has become ‘immaterialall over again.

Every act is political and, whether one is conscious of it or not, the presentation of one’s work—especially one’s self as one’s work—is no exception. Any product, any artwork, is social and has political significance. Therefore, although concerned with confronting problems, let us henceforth suspend judgment; our present task is not to solve any enigmas, but rather to try to understand what is being put forth and recognize what an artwork is actually proposing. For example, if the participants in a performance are given enough agency within its structure so as to give the impression of being responsible for themselves, then performance art is ethically no different from any other industry in which live human beings are the willing stock in trade: fashion, music, theatre, sports. Thus our suspicion is that one of the fundamental attractions of performance art now, what makes it exceptional even in comparison with everyday commerce, is precisely its license to exploit the good faith of the viewing public for personal profit and notoriety. This is nothing more than to identify, in a more or less new form, with the Prevailing Ideology.

Art is the form that it takes. Regardless of whether such blatant opportunism helps or hinders our understanding of art, its form must continually renew itself to ensure the development of what we call new art. If we start from the assumption that new art is in fact never more than the same thing in a new guise, then the heart of the problem is exposed. To abandon the search for a new form at any price means trying to abandon the history of art as we know it. It means passing from the Historical to the Fictional, from the Real to the Performative.