An Event is Just an Event
text by Esther Ferrer
based on an interview with Clara Gari
in Barcelona, 1997, translated by Tom Johnson
People often speak of the euphoric explosion of performance art, but we could also speak of crisis - a growth crisis maybe - because it is quite clear that performance art is going through a complex period, despite the fact that it is now an established part of the art world.
One question today is its theatricalization.. My interest in performance arose from the fact that from the beginning this form of art intented to transcend the limits of the visual arts, and to transcend those typical theatrical situations, where there was no interaction with the public, and where the audience received its spiritual food more or less like geese. Many artists in the 60s wanted to change this, and do something more dynamic, create a situation that was more alive. The artist became a constructor of situations, as explained by the International Situationists, when they wroten in Vers une International situationiste that all interesting research in culture intended to cut the psychological identification of spectators with heros, intended spectators to be active, intended to provoke them to change their own lives. The observer must identify only with himself. The role of the audience is no longer a passive one, like the stand-in characters on the operatic stage, watching the Aida procession go by. They are living characters, acting out their own lives. In French they said that the observer becomes a "viveur" and not an "acteur." There must be an increase of those that are not merely actors but "viveurs," people living out their lives.
That is more or less what happened in the early history of performance, in the Gutaî movement, in happenings, and in Fluxus events, all of which took place in a sort of unofficial underground. Since that time, however, performance art has become institutionalized, because institutions have begun to take a litle interest in this type of activity. Their interest helps the artists, of course, but it is also dangerous. Quite frequently now festivals of performance art are organized in limited, controlled spaces, where everything has to happen in a predictable and closed manner. Generally this all takes place in auditoriums, film spaces, or theaters, where both the audience and the performers find themselves in a completely theatrical enviroment, even before the action begins. The performer is up on the stage and the audience is down below, in comfortable chairs, exactly as if they were watching Shakespeare.
Institutions have no interest in events that may have an unpredictable outcome, or in spaces where they can't control everything that happens. But when you abandon the unpredictability, you also abandon the tension between the people proposing the action and the people present in the action, and when this tension disappears, performance art disappears, because this is what it is all about. The open work without formula, without assured results, fed by a desire to research, runs the risk of becoming a closed work with norms, rules, and guarantees. In this way it can happen that the only thing left is a sort of theatrical situation that prevents the immediate communication one is supposed to have in performance art. It's a situation that can perhaps best be described as innocuous, inoffensive, empty. Maybe television has had an influence, because it conditions people to confront the world circulating around them in a frontal manner, by looking into a screen, which of course neither sees nor hears the spectator. The situation in a traditional theater is not much different.
Another reason for this evolution is the arrival in the field of performance of artists with theatrical or dance backgrounds. These people, perhaps frustrated by the limitations of the theatrical language, are attracted to the freer form of expression they find in performance. But actors always act. Wherever they go, people who have studied acting are always acting, and wherever they walk, they generate a kind of performance that resembles theater. and the spectator-become-viveur is transformed back into a passive spectator once again.
Another change in performance is that more and more the performers require much technical aparatus. It is difficult to set up all this equipment and to get it to function the way you want, and it is all very fragile besides. You can't put computers and projectors and synthesizers just anywhere, and there are security problems too, requiring controlled situations and vigilance over valuable materials. Nothing must be left to chance, and the unexpected is rapidly eliminated. Thus the vulnerability of performance its risk, disappears, and the unknown event that might happen never happens. The accidental, which should nourish the action, is simply eliminated. As Cage explained, speaking about recorded music, it becomes a bit like a postcard, communicating knowledge about something that has already happened, rather than a not-knowing about something that has not yet happened.
All this creates rigid situations that have little to do with the spirit of performance events as I understand them. For me the performer is not an actor, is not a musician, is not a ballerina. The performer is not representing something, interpreting something, but is simply present, doing something. Performance doesn't need theatrical parafernalia, because an event is just an event, and nothing more than that.
My performance is anything that happens in the performance, and I mean absolutely anything that happens, from the moment I begin until the moment I decide to finish. Whatever happens happens. If the people present applaud, cry, laugh, don't laugh, walk out, don't walk out, this is all part of the performance. The creation is never pure, and I like all of these impurities, which chance may place in my performances. As the performer I provide the point of departure, but I can never be sure how things will come out in the end. In this way I am for the Cage idea of "non-obstruction." Cage said not to obstruct the sounds from being what they are, and in terms of performance this means to let the action evolve however it will.
This development of action without obstructions, this here-and-now presence, is the most exciting thing in performance, but that is rather my personal point of view. Others have to make their own decisions as to what they believe a performance is for them, hopefully always respecting with great rigour their own criteria.
Performance events are the most democratic works of art in the world. All that is necessary is the will to make one. No technique is required. and no performance place is necessary, since a performance can take place anywhere. Performance is an itinerant art, a homeless phenomenon, and everyone knows that the home of the homeless is in the street. To quote the International Situationists once more, "what changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting." Maybe that is the real reason I like to do performance on the streets.
I am aware that some types of performance art can not be read according to what I am saying here, and of course, I am not trying to define "Event" with a capital "e" or to say that the events of some artists are more genuine than those of others. Performance has diversified a great deal, has opened up a great deal, and the its definition must also remain open. Everything that is projected into this great empty performance art space is the performance art I am thinking about, wanting, hoping for.
Performance for me is a raw art, and when we begin to cook it, we lose something. It is anchored in the real. Of course, the public may be bored, because what they see is so simple, but performance events for me are not shows, and I am not doing them to be amusing. Today people need to be amused and stimulated by something outside themselves, and I don't mean to say that this is bad, but I can't work in this spectacular way. What I want is the most possible with the least possible.
But perhaps what distinguishes performance from the other arts more than anything else is that performance integrates, rather than excludes, and often even integrates the artist and the art object as a single phenomenon. There is no fiction, no role playing, just an event. An event is just an event. Time, space, and presence are the essential elements, and these are not abstractions. They are as real as tables and chairs. The time is real time, the time that I and the public are actually living at the moment, and the space is the actual space where we are, the actual particular performance space. We must be conscious of the fact that we are present in this time and this place and no other. Then we are ready for a performance.