Biarritz! At last I was on the way, after as many promises as promptings, to see my friends, Miyuki and Steve. Calling me in London, Steve asked if I’d like to take part in a performance during my stay; the idea being to paint a large canvas to music in front of an audience, with Miyuki playing the piano alongside an American artist friend of theirs, Lesley Varela, and myself splashing the paint about the canvas. Good for an evening’s entertainment; an improvisation in colour and sound; I said, “Yes” straight away and thought about it later.
I had yet to meet Lesley but Steve’s reports were enough to think we’d get along, which we did, just fine. As for the show, we knew what we were doing, the details we’d plan at the time. I took along some equipment we might need – long-handled brushes, pigments, stuff like that – and gave myself over to toying with the notion of an art performance. What is it?
For sure, it’s not the same as Performance Art. That’s a different creature with a stranger flavour. Now long established, with conventions and its own world within the Art World, it wasn’t always like that. Before it had a name, when I was a kid growing up, we heard talk of folk about the place; Denmark, California, Paris, Amsterdam.., doing strange things, artistically stopping the traffic, causing disruption and mayhem. Manifestations, I seem to remember, was the name they went under. A Dada-inspired action to freak straight society called on a “performance” that was really happening and for the “audience” who were present during the action to be aware only of the sudden reality they found themselves in. Theoretically, this was not in any sense fiction, or a “play”. Instead of suspended disbelief, what these pranksters created and operated in their theatre was frozen responses, with jaw-bone dropping behaviour to surprise or shock people into awareness. To a teenager, happy to hear of anyone redirecting angst back at grown-ups, it seemed a very hip thing to do.
These events took place in galleries or in public places. Often, it was people taking their clothes off. Or, with clothes on, what outrageous stunt had someone come up with? The move into being a genre started, I suppose, when there came to be a difference between those performances that were documented and those whose reputations only existed through word of mouth. As soon as a performer has one eye on another audience not the one in the firing line we know there is a community, a pecking order at work. The spectator is then a stepping-stone to greater renown, the performance may be directed at him or her, or, you or me, but the target audience is elsewhere. An everyday example of that is the television studio audience. In smaller, closed worlds the people who count are fewer in number. So it happens that at a crowded art-do it the artist may be found who is bitterly disappointed that “no-one” is there, quite upset that it isn’t stuffed with the kind of crowd that matters. And so Performance Art, in twenty years or so, went from being a marginal activity to sharing centre stage in the Art World.
Which is why we called our event an Art Performance, we were using borrowed currency. In spirit, however, what we were doing was closer to the Fairground Showman than to an intense shamanic ritual. We had a little speech, to set the scene, read out by an important person. And dressed in white boiler suits, like Kraftwerk, hence the silly shades, we went out on stage to make our little theatre in the sun. And it was a lovely afternoon.
Wasn’t it just?