You are on page 1of 16




Sven Goyvaerts 1TM

PAPER 2008-2009







critical theory – representation

(critique on) RE-ENACTMENT

(critique on) NEW MEDIA

parallel theory – durational aesthetics




There has been a slow acknowledgement on both the scholarly and the institutional level
that ephemeral, performative, and notational practices such as Kaprow’s are increasingly
central to any adequate account of art from the late twentieth and early twenty-first

My Transmedia studies have been a continuation of last year’s Documentary Film

project, which was an investigation into the relation between live performance art
and its documentation. I had decided to focus my attention on the work of Marina
Abramovic (°1946, Belgrade), the self-proclaimed ‘grandmother of performance
art’, who also happens to be known for her obsession with documenting her work.
In order to find out all there is to know about the process of preserving live
performance pieces, I knew Abramovic would be the one to turn to.

But things proved to be not as simple as that. Because, as Abramovic would be the
first to admit, ever since its conception, performance and the document have had
some serious trouble getting along with each other. Allan Kaprow, arguably one of
the first pioneers in the field of performance art, rejected the idea of documentation,
opting instead for the concept of a Happening, ‘time based art’, a form of expression
which had to be ephemeral, gone after it had taken place and which was therefore
directly opposed to keeping any hard evidence after the fact.

Abramovic had always been less dogmatic in her own approach to documentation.
“I had inherited an attitude from my mother: she was really fanatical about
collecting and filing everything. So I was always thinking that there has to
be some documents. I was very aware of the historical importance of
documentation.”2 My last year’s paper covered nearly all of Abramovic’s live
performances and the way they were meticulously documented, starting with
the roughly shot photographic material of her first performance Rhythm 10 up
to the crisp high-definition footage made for her Seven Easy Pieces. However,
what remains most important to this day for Abramovic is the performance itself,
which, according to her, cannot ever be replaced by the documentation that is left
behind. Or, as performance theorist Peggy Phelan provocatively declared once:
“Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented (...): once it does so, it
becomes something other than performance.”3

In spite of the stubborn rejection of documentation by hardcore performance critics,

one cannot help but point out that live performance art began to achieve recognition
precisely thanks to the record kept. Were it not for the videos made of Abramovic’s
pieces, I would never have had such clear impressions of these events now, several
decades later, nor would Marina Abramovic probably have achieved such popularity
in the art world. Let us not forget that video made it easier for many artists to do
experiments within the confines of their studio before presenting their most intimate
confessions to the outside world. Artists like Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci
went on to inspire the more live oriented performance people, such as Abramovic.

One can even go on and argue that some of the most accomplished works in known
performance art history have consciously combined and/or confronted the apparent
contradictory concepts of live performance and the documentation. Through reading
about Abramovic I had gotten to know the work of the Taiwanese performance artist
Tehching Hsieh, who she considers to be the ‘master’, due to his series of One Year
Performances. His first one, One Year Performance 1978-1979, later became known
as the Cage Piece. For a year long, beginning on September 29th 1978, Hsieh lived
inside a cage he had built in his studio, refusing to “converse, read, write, listen to
the radio or watch television”4 until he unsealed himself again on September 29th
1979. To assist him in this brutal undertaking he had asked his best friend Chen
not only to take charge of his “food , clothing and refuse”5, but also to take snap-
shots every so often, over the entire duration of the piece. His second yearlong
action, the Time Clock Piece, went far further into incorporating and questioning
documentary strategies. Hsieh promised himself to punch a time clock in his studio
on the hour for a year long, from April 11th 1980 until April 11th 1981. To document
this procedure, he had made use of an inventive technique: “With a 16mm camera
I shall document each time I push the Time Clock by shooting one frame.”6 Adrian
Heathfield, author of Hsieh’s recent monograph Out Of Now – The Lifeworks of
Tehching Hsieh, describes Hsieh’s concept eloquently: “Once again Hsieh has made a
lifework that rested somewhere in the fusion and the clash of its constitutive forms –
between the performance and its documents – but this time quite uniquely, between
the incommensurable durations of a yearlong performance, the instant of a photo-
gram and the flux of a six-minute film.”7 As remarkable a film as it may seem, the
overwhelming feeling you get when thinking about it is that this document leaves out
infinitely more than it takes in. The lived experience of Hsieh can hardly be captured.
One had to be there and witness Hsieh’s daily struggle to get any kind of impression
of the ordeal he must have put himself through.

Tehching Hsieh may very well be the single most extreme performance artist that
has ever graced the art world and his work holds a lesson for any person to follow in
this tradition of live performance and its documentation. When asked to comment on
the importance of documentation in his work, Hsieh said: “For me, the document is
secondary. It has been handled subjectively, and so it can be seen as another piece.
But the document can hardly restore art. I think art and the document should not be
treated identically. Instead of approaching art through the document, we need to go
back to art itself; to feel art, we need to use our own experience and imagination.”8
These days, live artists should not be forced to work with (let alone be satisfied with)
the filmed or the photographic document as the definitive record of their actions.
This brings us to the topic of two distinctly contemporary phenomena, namely
re-enactment and the rise of new media.


The only real way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece
itself. … Seven Easy Pieces examines the possibilities of representing and preserving
an art form that is, by nature, ephemeral. 9 (Marina Abramovic)

As part of PERFORMA05, The First Biennal of Visual Art Performance, organized in

2005 by acclaimed critic RoseLee Goldberg, Marina Abramovic presented a project
which would turn the performance world upside down. She wanted to pay tribute to
some of the artists that had influenced her work from early on. To do so she had
selected pieces of these people of which there was very few documentation left in
circulation, but were nevertheless considered to be milestones in performance art
history. The lack of trustworthy information surrounding the works had caused for
mystification and much speculation about what had really happened. This had all
become to bother Abramovic: "There's nobody to keep the history straight. (...)
I felt almost, like, obliged. I felt like I have this function to do it." 10 She decided to
redo the pieces herself, in her own way, after she had done her very best to get
hold of every smallest piece of factual evidence and after she had received the
permission from every artist in question, or from their respective heirs. For 7
days Marina Abramovic performed one piece each day for 7 hours on end: Bruce
Nauman’s Body Pressure (1974), Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972), VALIE EXPORT’s
Action Pants: Genital Panic (1968), Gina Pane’s The Conditioning (1973), Joseph
Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), her own Thomas’ Lips (1975)
and a new work: Entering the Other Side (2005). The filming of the event was left
in hands of Babette Mangolte, a New York based experimental filmmaker, already
known for having recorded other historical performances earlier in her career.

Although the resulting feature length version of Seven Easy Pieces can be deemed a
tour-de-force in terms of picture quality, editing and sound design, it is plain to see
that watching the film will not ever be able to replace the experience of being there.
In the Motivation Letter, part of my application to the Transmedia program, I already
made reference to the debate which ensued in 2007, during the second installment of
PERFORMA, in a conference that was held called You Didn’t Have To Be There11,
with a panel consisting of the three women mentioned above. Opinions were formed
on how photographic and video images contribute to or detract from the memory of
performance and questions remained whether documentation served its purpose to
understand performances better, whether sometimes this documentation could be
even considered as art itself or whether these recordings were instead dangerous
enough to jeopardize the integrity of the work.

For my individual presentation, I chose to invite Mikes Poppe, a Master student in

autonomous arts at Sint-Lucas Antwerp, who I have been working with for over a year
now. Poppe has been quoting a number of live performances that have become part of
the artistic canon from the sixties onward. Last year he re-enacted work of Marina
Abramovic, Merlin Spie, Danny Devos, Jan Fabre, Vito Acconci and others. I have
been attempting to capture Poppe’s performances on video from the start in order
to discover ways of representing the old as well as the new.

During my presentation we managed to bring up several issues such as (1) the

controversy about the current definition of performance art, (2) the problem of
exhibiting documentation of live performances and (3) the unreliability of the
document as a possible end in itself.

(1) The word ‘performance’ has grown to encompass way more than it did when it
first originated, often unrightfully so. Mikes and I object to the idea that contemporary
dance for example can be labeled live performance and that dancers can be asked to
do re-enactments of classic performances. Festivals such as Project Perform and
Re-Act12 attest to this trend. Mikes is also convinced that performance can only be
about providing commentary on visual arts. Although I was first apprehensive of his
view, I have come to realize that there is truth to be found in it. To me, the Real core
of live performance art is an anomaly, a field which keeps reconfiguring itself so it can
hold a critical stance toward the art world - but also to life in general - breaking out
while remaining part of it and being deeply rooted in the here and now.

(2) The greatest challenges facing the performance world today are preservation and
exhibition. Marina Abramovic is handling both matters as we speak. Her Foundation
for Preservation of Performance13, which will be equipped with video gear and
editing rooms, is scheduled to open around 2012 in Hudson, NY. A huge retrospective
at the MoMA is also in the works, with auditions already over for performance artists
that were hoping to re-perform some of her iconic pieces in the spring of 2010.
For Mikes and myself, the prospect of making an exhibition is also a daunting one.
With teachers warning us from both sides about our final presentations, we need to
figure out ways of showing our year’s work while staying true to what we believe in.
This means keeping the physical and ephemeral aspect of live performance in mind,
the interaction with the audience, the duration of the pieces, the places where they
were done, the state of mind in which they were performed, etcetera. Mikes plans
to organize a few auditions of his own by assembling witnesses which were present at
his earlier performances, to record their memories of what had happened and to invite
them to come and talk to people who attend his exhibition.

(3) The unreliability of documentary material in itself – be it photographs, video or

relics that were kept after a live performance – is something I consider to be harmful
when this is not made clear to the public. I must admit that I have never been a fan of
mockumentaries and I have no intention of becoming an illusionist either. My proposal
would therefore be to symbolically destroy the documentary as we know it, which
proves itself to be incompetent on this subject of live performance, allowing it to
mutate into something else. The documentary filmmaker can decide not to show the
material he shot or show up at a performance and not record it; a performance in
itself of non-action which is perhaps the most radical. There is the option of filming
and destroying the material afterwards or in the process of capture. The camera can
become an integral part of the performance also, which may turn the document into
a video art piece later on. Another one is to present a documentary film in which the
director admits his own failure, like for example in Chris Burden’s introduction14 that
I showed in my presentation. Two more options involve the implication of new media.


Made in the 1980s your work was effectively pre-digital, but even so it evinced an
acute sensitivity to the modes and technologies of capture, existing and emerging.
… Your 16 mm film, compressing the time of a whole year, rehearses a billion street
corner cameras, a million web cams. Your daily hand-drawn images, which record
your movements through the city of New York, prefigure the ubiquitous GPS, cell
phone tracking and electronic tagging of three decades later.15
(Tim Etchells in a letter to Tehching Hsieh)

When I showed Robrecht Vanderbeeken the book I was reading on Tehching Hsieh
he immediately argued that this was then, in the seventies, but that today we are
living in a different era. There is no way any longer to ignore the mediated society
under surveillance that exists around us, so the best is to deal with this, instead of
returning to what once was. In other words: it is not enough anymore to lock yourself
up in a cage for a year and ask someone else to take pictures of you doing it. Or is it?

To first pick up where we left in the previous chapter, I will mention the two other
scenarios which could help resolve the documentary-performance split. One option
is to try and make the most objective exhibition (in)humanly possible, incorporating
every new medium at hand, in which the documentary filmmaker deliberately erases
himself from the final picture. This I tried to accomplish with my last year’s project
on Marina Abramovic, Documentary/Performance, but by using older media instead
of newer ones. The work involved the use of video on monitors, a sound recording,
books, photographs, e-mail correspondence, written testimonies and a score for a
new performance which I acted out in the school auditorium. The main reason why
I came to Transmedia was to become familiar with more recent technologies such
as generative computer programs and live internet feeds to incorporate in my
documentary installation. These new media led me to think of one final answer.

This last solution would be the documentary filmmaker mutating into a mobile, readily
available, hi-tech, semi-virtual lecture performer or interactive interface, who remains
humbled by the incompleteness of his attempts to properly document performances.
As much as I like to fantasize about turning into this sort of Stelarc-like bionic, live
broadcasting, internet linked, GPS tracked documentary man-machine, I feel that this
striving of mine will always be countered (and – for the time being – defeated) by its
opposite: the assurance that the sum of all this technology will never amount to the
experience and the memory of attending a performance at a certain time and space.

But what is interesting to see is that our concepts of time, space, memory and even
our bodies have already begun to change dramatically. Time is something we all have
too little of, but things like access to information through the internet and our modes
of transportation have significantly sped up over the last decades. Our space has also
increased enormously, now that we can be in contact with the other side of the world,
virtually, by telephone or by simply hopping onto a plane. It is hard to separate our
memory from photos and videos we have seen of our childhood, while global events
were informed to us through television and the worldwide web. We have become far
less reliant on our own immediate physical experience during our lives. Frank Theys’
documentary Technocalyps sheds light on the future possibility of mankind being
upgraded to a race of godlike disembodied internet-surfing robots even. Where is
this going to end?


critical theory – representation

For freedom to be free it must continue to move in the space of the unrepresentable,
it must be unstilled and unheld by the thought that would tame and contain it.16
(Adrian Heathfield)

The work I mean to present – or, should I say, NOT to re-present – can be seen as
a critique on all of the aforementioned, while simultaneously being an embrace of it.
To explain, let us first return to the issue of re-enactment.

(critique on) RE-ENACTMENT

Jo Huybrechts and Sofie Van Loo have asked me to find out what it is that makes
re-enactment so appealing to young artists these days. I believe part of this has to do
with the desire to keep performance history (a)live. Another aspect is this chance to
learn from the masters, through research and by physically re-experiencing some
of the emotions these actions may have sparked in the artist and the public back in
the days. There is of course one other reason that is more troubling. The fact is that
the original intention or meaning of a piece will become overshadowed by the new
interpretation and context in which it is represented - be it the time, the space or
the frame of mind. And to Mikes Poppe, this is precisely the window of opportunity
which re-enactment offers: by re-doing a work you create a new work altogether.

Poppe feels he is backed by the theories of Walter Benjamin: “The notion of

originality relates necessarily to the idea of authenticity and to the work's authority,
but with the technological revolution the issues of authenticity and originality has
become irrelevant.”17 Although this quote seems to be thrown out of its post-Marxist
context, live performance art does remain one of the only art forms for which there
exists no copyright. Question is if this is something to be exploited or if there need
to be found ways to regulate the practice of re-enactment, like Abramovic proposes in
Seven Easy Pieces18. My position lies in between, gravitating towards Abramovic’s plea
for a bit of courtesy: when I redid Abramovic’s student exercises last year, I called it a
documentary performance, emphasizing the documentary nature of the project. This is
also a reason why I keep referring to myself as a documentary performance artist.

The choice of how to exhibit my work will forever be threatened by Peggy Phelan’s
unforgiving standpoint. She “articulates the resilient resistance of performance to
commodification and its troubling structures of representation and knowledge.”19
The documentary methods I summed up earlier on in this paper are imperfect,
‘unreliable’ ways of handling this dilemma. But, as Malcolm Le Grice pointed out
to me in the beginning of the year, it is possible to turn this problematic element
into the very subject of my work, which has now become the case actually.

(critique on) NEW MEDIA

Although I would be the first to argue in favor of the immense possibilities brought
by recent technological achievements (such as the iPhone, of which I proudly own
one), it is clear to see that the backlash of this progress can hold devastating
consequences. Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has introduced the
concept of ‘interpassivity’, which is the opposite to interactivity: “Is the necessary
obverse of my interacting with the object instead of just passively following the
show, not the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of,
my own passive reaction of satisfaction (or mourning or laughter), so that it is the
object itself which ‘enjoys the show’ instead of me, relieving me of the superego
duty to enjoy myself…”20 Zizek gives the example of when you have don’t have time
and record television movies on your VCR, then you no longer feel obliged to look at
the films afterwards - you are already satisfied by the idea that your VCR has seen
them for you. By trusting our own pre-occupations to machines we are slowly turning
into passive objects ourselves. Or, when applied to my vision of a live broadcasting,
holographic, multi-sensory documentary artist: it is quite obvious to see that my
personal role inside these streaming technologies would become significantly less
important, while people at home can sit and experience the performance from their
lazy couches, or record it on their VCR.

Aside from that, the media have become such a large part of our lives that we tend
to forget that they are a product of our thriving capitalist society - nothing more,
nothing less. Either we choose to come to terms with the idea that people are
already rapidly upgrading themselves through machinery or we can ask ourselves
who is profiting from this situation, at which people’s expense, and stop and think
about what it is that makes us free humans, namely the extent in which we cannot
seem to relate to the definition which is put on us by any authority what so ever.

parallel theory – durational aesthetics

Hsieh’s lifeworks can be read through what Lee acutely identifies in the closing
passages of Chronophobia as an ‘ethics of slowness’, a laborious commitment in
a cultural context of acceleration to a different pace and understanding of creative
generation.21 (Adrian Heathfield)

What lies at the root of Tehching Hsieh’s artistic practice, as well as Abramovic’s, is a
decision to take time in our ever faster moving society. In the abovementioned quote
Adrian Heathfield makes reference to one of Pam Lee’s books, Chronophobia – On
Time In The Art Of The 1960s. Lee introduced me during our personal meeting to
the work of Japanese artist On Kawara, who has also dealt a lot with this concept
of time. Kawara is known for his Date Paintings, part of the ongoing TODAY series
which he started doing in 1966. He makes one painting each day for long periods
of time (with some lengthy intervals in between), picturing just the date, in white
typography against a background. The artist never gives any interviews nor does he
release any pictures of himself.


What is interesting to see here is that instead of a performance being documented,

it can also be the other way around: keeping documents of time can become a live
performance, which amounts to the same thing more or less. But in this case, more
emphasis lies on the notion of the passage of time as being the Real constitutive
element of the artwork, much more so than what the artist’s creative input might be.
This idea is most apparent in Hsieh’s Time Clock Piece, where punching a time clock
on the hour has the function of a mere document, while also forming the very basis
of the yearlong performance. “Most of the time [Hsieh] is waiting, doing ‘nothing’,
his actions lack function and utility, they make little of visible or material value. And
when he does do ‘something’, it is an act of submission to corporeal registration, he
simply stands to be counted, a mere giving of his presence to the apparatus, a
hollow form of accounting.”22

I feel it is common for works of long duration to somewhat downplay the authorial
contribution of their makers. Like in most documentary practice, we see the artists
rendering themselves invisible, while staying fully present in the events that unfold.
Once the lapse of time becomes the explicit form of the work itself, time turns into
an all-consuming force, questioning any intentions the artist might have and even
undermining his/her identity by opening up to outside circumstances - allowing ‘life’
to seep in. Despite the fact that the Cage Piece happened inside Hsieh’s studio, as
well as in his mind, Hsieh opened himself up to his memory, recalling the life he had
lived before. Hsieh’s first One Year Performance, from inside the cage, had less to do
with setting a heroic personal record than with a deliberate tactics of self-effacing
and reconstituting: “The freedom thus proposed by Hsieh’s work would seem then to
hover in an unconstituted space of non-identity, of inaction and of silence: a mute
and inert space of erasure.”23


This same will of the artist to dissolve into the work - into time - and an attempt to
filter out any remainder of private personal content communicated through the work
is something we see returning in the work of Marina Abramovic. One series of works
in particular, called Nightsea Crossing, which she performed together with Ulay,
illustrates this quest for an absolute ‘now’. Ulay and Abramovic sat silently across
each other at a table for 7 hours straight, often for a couple of days in a row in which
they did not eat or talk. The timeframe of 7 hours corresponded to the opening and
closing of most museums, so that people were never able to see the beginning or the
ending of the piece. Abramovic explains: “That moment now is the most difficult for
us in the West because we’re always reading the past or projecting the future and
now doesn’t figure in this. We are in a TV time which is always the future, the
direction is always forwards which is why performance is important to freeze the
moment ‘now.”24

Aside from time, space is also something we should prevent from slipping away at the
hands of the powers that be. For One Year Performance 1981-1982, also known as the
Outdoor Piece, Hsieh stayed outdoors for a year, never going inside a place. This
happened in a time when public space in New York City got capitalized and privatized
rapidly. Moving through these places became a merely productive act, functional or,
in worst cases, prohibited. Heathfield points out: “Hsieh inserts into these locales acts
whose purposelessness and evident wasting of time presents a marked difference from
the increasingly predominant orders and experiences of temporality. … In a movement
culture oriented toward acceleration he proposes stalling, deferral and misuse of time
as a means to access alternate realities.”25

Our time, the space around us, our memories and our bodies are things we should
hold dear and handle with caution in an age where we can see these concepts
changing at high speed.


1. Meyer-Hermann & Perchuk & Rosenthal, Allan Kaprow – Art as Life, 2.

2. Abramovic, 7 Easy Pieces, 14.

3. Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, 146.

4. Quoted from artist statement of One Year Performance 1978-1979:

5. Ibid.

6. Quoted from artist explanation of One Year Performance 1980-1981:

7. Heathfield & Hsieh, Out Of Now, 32.

8. Quoted in Heathfield & Hsieh, Out Of Now, 326.

9. Abramovic, 7 Easy Pieces, 11.

10. Quoted in Kaplan, Deeper and Deeper: interview with Marina Abramovic.
Art Journal, Summer 1999.

11. A video registration of the conference can be found at

12. Project Perform is a festival which was organized by Perform Platform from January
29th until 31st 2009 at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. Re-Act, organized by Gynaika
vzw, will be held on May 15th 2009 at the Theatergarage in Borgerhout.

13. For more information about this project, go to

14. This introduction is part of Burden’s video Documentation of Selected Works (1971-
1974) and can be viewed at

15. Quoted in Heathfield & Hsieh, Out Of Now, 356.

16. Ibid, 29.

17. Quoted on the site of Mikes Poppe:


18. Abramovic introduces 5 conditions for re-enactment:

- Ask the artist for permission
- Pay the artist for copyright.
- Perform a new interpretation of the piece.
- Exhibit the original material: photographs, video, relics.
- Exhibit a new interpretation of the piece?

19. Heathfield & Hsieh, Out Of Now, 51.

20. Zizek, The Interpassive Subject.


21. Heathfield & Hsieh, Out Of Now, 23.

22. Ibid,

23. Ibid,

24. Quoted in Scheer, Edward, Shock and aftershock: Edward Scheer interviews
performance artist Marina Abramovic. RealTime 24, April-May 1998.

25. Heathfield & Hsieh, Out Of Now, 39.



Abramovic, Marina, 1998. Artist Body. Milan: Charta.

Abramovic, Marina. 2007. 7 Easy Pieces. Milan: Charta.

Benjamin, Walter. 1935. The Work Of Art In The Age Of Its Mechanical Reproduction
(translated in 2008). London: Penguin.

Heathfield, Adrian & Hsieh, Tehching. 2009. Out Of Now – The Lifeworks of Tehching
Hsieh. Boston: MIT Press.

Kaplan, Janet A., Deeper and Deeper: interview with Marina Abramovic. Art Journal
58:2 (1999):6-19.

Mangolte, Babette, dir, Seven Easy Pieces. 2007. 93 min. USA.

Meyer-Hermann, Eva & Perchuk, Andrew & Rosenthal, Stephanie. 2008. Allan
Kaprow – Art as Life. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications.

Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Milton Park:Routledge.

Scheer, Edward, Shock and aftershock: Edward Scheer interviews performance artist
Marina Abramovic. RealTime 24, April-May 1998.

Theys, Frank, dir. Technocalyps. 2006. 156 min. Belgium.

Watkins, Jonathan. 2002. On Kawara. London: Phaidon.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Interpassive Subject.


Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence. London: Profile Books.