Performance Art History & Theory Exam

Christopher J. Walsh
John K. Wilson
Spring 2012


The term performance refers to the process of action for some purpose: this includes the behaviors of an organism in relation to its environment; action is self-assessed in accord to its purpose, which in turn is assessed by its environment: this equals an audience-performer dynamic. (1b) Performativity refers to the quality of a given action in respect to its purpose, as assessed by the performer and the audience. In practical terms, I understand the responsibility of written communication, in relation to my own expression, and the society with whom I converse; hence, in recognizing the purpose of writing—to communicate with society and express my self, I perform this action with a certain quality, to which I assess, and am assessed.


Performance is thus the structure of experiences as actions in contexts. Structure implies composition, and so we may say performance is composed behavior. In this regard, with the unconscious environment of social rules, the artist purposes behaviors to shock and intensify—to sensitize awareness of the environment, so that we may see, assess and transform behaviors accordingly. During this semester, I composed the behavior to sketch people on the train ride to and from school. In doing so, the mundane behaviors normally associated with public transit transformed by the effect of my boarding-invasive play with the social fabric, all through the simple act of seeing a person, and recording the motions of my sight with pen on paper. This performance continues, and as I probe this social organism of the train, new experiences emerge, surprising myself beyond a drawing, to human interactions: smiles, eye contact, irritance, ignorance, appreciation, and what else I may not suspect: for humans are individual—unique as their response is, I can only trigger the events which ensue.


Based on Michael Kirby’s idea of an Activity, which being a composed behavior based on a written score with one’s self as performer and sole audience, intended for the self-reflective effects of action: I scripted the action to stop at the same place every day on a routine walk home from school; to find an aesthetic view of a tree in space, and contemplate this formal relationship. Through the semester, the effect of contemplating, as digression from reaching the destination of home, transformed the purpose of my travels. On one level, I am to reach home, though since walking becomes a practice of digressing and contemplating, I am to awaken and be sensitized to the environment in which I exist. Specifically, the tree form’s expression of the landscape, its angular branching dividing space, the frequency of its sway and rustling sounds in response to winds, the shadows it cast, puddles in which it reflected, the way people passed it, birds sung from it, I sat under it, and kissed with my forehead to cool the engines of feeling: the layers of spacetime combined in experience to create a singular aesthetic, isomorphically formed as a neural network: I become the tree, the space; we are inseparable, now companions, I discover the origin of drawing.


A) Wait While Doing Nothing: I am only certain of how necessary these moments are to my capacity for deep thought—to amass a sense of void, through which new perceptions emerge. As with allthings, balance is key.

B) Feel Eternal: Contemplate quanta: the discrete units of energy that forms all spacetime; what exists between discrete events of energy? How did energy form out of nothing? Consider that nothing connects everything. Nothing as the zeroeth dimension, merging all direction, forces, displacements.

C) Disconnect the phone: My phone is off right now. Well, sort of. For better and for worse, I trained my peers to call infrequently, to expect leaving a voice message, which may or may not reach in time. So even if my phone is off, its use is strategic and thus minimal. The isolation is meditative, and there’s the universe to contemplate. We communicate on many levels of reality, some of which are hindered by constant reference to the cell phone; thatsaid, I feel phones are training wheels for psychic dynamics of communication.

D) Plunge into cold water: When I took showers, the cold water faucet held my anticipation for exceeding normalcy: I’ve always found techniques to do so; early on, I began bodyweight training for similar exhaustions of normal concepts of experience. So the cold means stepping outside of the comfort of mediocre, routine perception. At a certain point, the cold itself becomes routine, adjusted, but therein remains the journey: it is not the cold, but the breaths that I take in response to the cold that shifts reality—and from these breaths emerges an infinitude of extraordinary perceptions. Cold as sensation is dichotomous in relation to heat, though in physical terms they are relative values of the same phenomena, interpreted in terms of biological homeostasis. In experiencing either hot or cold deliberately or situationally one may begin transforming their dichotomous psychology in contemplating their sensations as measures of the frequencies at which molecules vibrate: so cold is a slowing of vibration. These terms align the perception of sensation with the physical reality, and push the limits and operating conditions of the biological, and psychological realities. How did we end up seeing this way, and where are we going? Thus, upon plunging into a bath of winter-chilled rain water, breaking through the dark, reflected image of night, I pass through the gates of one reality to the next, as though things slow with temperature, and breath depletes, recirculates, thoughts, fears, curiosities, determinations merge in the absence of heat.

E) Fast for a while: I strategically eat and fast to access my intellectual capacities. Thought is rhythmic—knowledge is musical, and so memory has a tempo, and epiphany a climax, and bridge. In this way, each of the body’s organs receives an increase in blood flow at rhythmic points in the progression of each day, year, lifetime, so that its capabilities are emphasized in patterns of bodily functions. Thatsaid, by submitting my intellectual drive to that of nutrition and survival, and later submitting the evolutionary impulse of eating to the intellectual drive, I maximize the use of blood in both cases: one serving the stomach, and the other, the brain. All functions are interrelated and thus such rhythmic distribution of emphasis is musical, or aesthetic, in the sense of completing a process in which subparts are aspects of the whole.

F) Eat too much: While the phases of a biological system lead to such aesthetic consideration, any single excess in emphasis will effect the system as a whole in a negative, or destructive feedback loop. While this may apply to fasting, in the form of starvation, it often appears as an overload of consumed food. The line between a positive and negative feedback loop in these phases of excess is defined by the intent, and determinations of the organism within a greater process; if the dissonance is reconciled, beauty is achieved.

G) Become Music: With all this reference to the esthetics of biological processes, it becomes natural to see life as music—the rhythmic, harmonic, dissonant transforming progressions of spacetime. So that while listening to music, my sympathy for rhythm is encompassing many levels of experience: biological, intellectual, emotional, atomic—as in phonon lattice vibrations, and string theory modes that form matter: they say God is music resonating through ten-dimensional hyperspace. Thus, the walls of perception merge and fade in the expressions of sound. This must be due to the apparent mathematical structures of our musical appreciation: for mathematics is a universal language. We may apply this principle of understanding to any frame of sensation to achieve an equivalent effect of “becoming music”.

H) Swallow an emotion: To the effect of sustaining an emergent, pervading force in perceptions: truth, I am often called to set aside human whims of desire—to create a presence of truth that would otherwise meet another society, generation, another person, or whomever the progression of the universe grants opportunity to see as deep and as clear as truth of the universe itself. There are infinite paths to meet this point, and as performative esthetics reveals, only the path through experience and discovery meet the necessary means of this truth-seeking: that is, the path creates itself by experience.

I) Leave the cinema in daytime: Effect: blinding. People are working on construction, oblivious to the struggles, the emotions, the imaginings of the cinema: a dissonance occurs between this sharp contrast of reality. I am able to adjust pupil dilation and expectations for reality by criticizing the film with my dad.

J) Recover lost memories: Dreaming and déjà vu experiences emerge from deep, hidden regions of the mind. A forgotten memory appears as surprise, yet occurs without a doubt or skip in beat, as though expected. It’s as though a part of my self rejoins, and points of spacetime merge, whether of the future or past; this revisit is opportunity for new interpretation, and integration: the memories color experience.

K) Turn off the sound of the TV: In addition, turn on the sound of the radio, and allow the mind to associate the audio-visual events; each information source has a natural wavelength, or frequency of processes, and thus consonances and dissonances occur in complex intervals. This, also with the wavelengths of my mind, attention, thoughts, harmonizes to create fascinating forms of experience.

L) Find the infinitesimal caress: I raised my dog as a puppy to an elder, as a sister, my mother, and my love. Ever since bonding in patterns of play and intimacy, discipline and survival, our interactions grow as deeply intersubjective emotional connections. Her emotional intelligence exceeds normalcy, in part because of my consistent emotional engagements. With this, even the idea of petting brings about years of trust and love: a psychic connection precedes the physical contact, and thus the infinitesimal caress reaches from even before the caress itself.

M) Try not to think: Thoughts occur discretely, as whole units of individual particles of experience; there is space inbetween thoughts, and within thoughts. I can decrease the amount of particles that compose a thought, and the overall frequency of gestalt units of thought, by engaging different parts of the environment through my body— something of a yogic contemplation: stillness achieves this result as much as movement might, in the sense that movement may call upon stillness, and vice versa: the mind of thoughts may call upon the acting body.

N) Calligraphize: What are the natural motions of my hand and mind: here is where language begins. If I write nonsensically, aesthetically, physically, eventually, a consistency emerges with its own meanings, cadence, conversation.

O) Laugh at an idea: Absurd-reason, nothing-everything, origin-completion; paradox is a universal joke, devastating to ambitions, sweet to the taste of a moment. Humans facing God. These composed behaviors may become art through the lens of my experience, by the framing of my performance of the composition. The descriptions alone are not art, but rather, thinking of and composing the descriptions is art; for art is a process—a performance of aesthetic tensions. My completion of an activity, composed by the author, constitutes art so long as aesthetic purposes inform the action. Thus, art is the experiential transgression from textual, symbolic material to actual events, informed by aesthetic intention.


A) Performance Art: The aesthetic framing of composed behavior.

B) Histrionic Sensibility: the perception of meaning in human action; seeing the material out of which an artist creates.

C) Principle of Assimilation: Susan Langer’s concept of layered apparitions, that one art form will always supersede another in successful hybridizations.

D) Framing Device: The function of context for objects of perception; it is the cue, which sets forth a mode of seeing, a way of being: it is the summation of an activity by its boundary.

E) Illusive Transivity: In reference to Langer’s Deceptive Analogies, this denotes the inherent limitations of linguistic descriptions of art categories, and therefore the fallibility of qualitative comparisons between types of art. In other words, art mediums differ on a fundamental level, for reasons of which they are separately defined. Langer concludes stating that there does indeed exist a unification of the arts in their essence, or pure abstraction, though historically most deliberate attempts at unification appear weak in form.

F) Aesthetic Attitude: The distanced, yet engaged sensitivity to forms, with their experiential resonances.

G) Performative: The quality of behavior in reference to its purpose.

H) Performance arts as a function of the clown: Society grants a set of unique set of purposeful behaviors: traditionally, the hunter, shaman, leader, and clown. The clown functions to express the absurdity of human conditions of hubris, suffering, to settle the vigor of conquest, the exploit of conditions, and the purpose of life. In Art, artist egos, commercial values, and religious intentions all become material for the clown to engage: performance art is a void in disciplines, or the antidiscipline, that permits the clown to act in disaccord—to humiliate conventions in view of human history.

I) Liminal: The boundary between one realm and the next; i.e., where the before and during, or during and after of an event blur.

J) Penumbra: The liminal portion of a shadow where light fades into shadow. In terms of performance, this refers to the behavioral space between life and art that performance art occupies.

K) Tertium Quid: A third, unidentified thing that occurs in the combination of two known things: perhaps performance and art create a third, unidentified thing.

L) Syncretic: The combining of traditions, often in contradictory ways, to create an eclectic behavior. Post-fifties cultural studies shifted emphasis from traditional, defined centers of culture, to the areas of their confluence. Such is the pattern in contemporary arts, and thus the performance discourse applies to emerging disciplines, and reimaginings of tradition.

M) Fusion: The chemical, or dynamical combination of two or more elements into a single unit. Liminal cultural studies observes such dynamic unification of behaviors, as does contemporary arts; namely, performance art.

N) Defamiliarization: The act of changing the frame, or context of behaviors to achieve unique, or surreal perceptions—that are defamiliar.

O) Non Sequitur: In logic, this means a conclusion that does not follow its argument; in comedy, the absurdity of the phrase “it does not follow” is unsettling, and thus a humorous device. In performance art, as in the Dadaist or Surrealist traditions, the combined phrase of two unrelated behaviors, as a non-sequitur device, serves to upset normal perception.

P) Via Negativa: Performance Art, as the antidiscipline, or device of negative capability, is discerned in defining what it is not: it forms in repulsion to the accepted parameters of activity.

Q) Intentionality: The purpose, or qualitative reference for behavior. Intent is a framing device.

R) Primary Apparition: From Susan Langer’s terminology, it is the pervading, singular, dominant, over-arching mode of expression in an artwork. As opposed to the secondary apparition, which may oscillate between various modes, and even contain modes within modes, but never equals the presence of the primary apparition (see C: Principle of Assimilation).

S) The Social Drama: The line between art and life blurs as each assimilates the other: theatre imitates life, and life then imitates the theatre, to express itself in theatrical terms; hence, social interactions become behaviors performed on stage.

T) The Performative Turn: In reference to the shift in thinking, starting in cultural and theatrical studies, which moved from a primarily textual, symbol based acting, to an emphasis on the performance of the body, the oration, and audience-stage relationship.

U) The Marvelous: A Surrealist term coined by Andre Breton, referring to the extraordinary perceptions resulting from seemingly unrelated, or shockingly associated things.

V) Shock: As a function of achieving The Marvelous, the experience of unusual, unexpected behaviors disrupts the normal procedures of the brain, effectively shocking it, so that it must become aware and reorganize.

W) Irony: Irony is a form of shock achieved through contradictory juxtapositions, often humorous or pessimistic.

X) Ars Spagyrica: The alchemical arts of medicine: perhaps the dynamical fusions of language and behaviors for the effects of art.

Y) Protean: Mutable—capable of many forms, in reference to the changing seas: “protos” meaning first, this equals the
primordial waters from which life evolved, and constantly births. This then applies the “ultimate abstraction” where arts unify, as referenced by Susan Langer in her concluding remarks for the Deceptive Analogies lecture, or the liminal territory out of which new art forms emerge, and that performance art occupies.

Z) The Poetry of Action: Behavior as language; hence, the poetic composition of behavior.

AA) Stochastic: Probabilistic, inherently sporatoric, or non-deterministic systems. Performance art is stochastic in that though a script may exist, the event is defined as it occurs, by the conditions of its occurrence, such that the event transcends the determinisms of a script.

AB) Negative Capability: A term first expressed by John Keats, referring to creative individuals to receptivity to nature, and defiance of categorized knowledge. Such relates to Carlson’s discussion of performance art research in academia, where the act of study becomes the object of study itself, hence defying traditional methodologies, or ways of study—to a “radically empirical” method to objectivity—the performance of research and writing.


The four steps to art as described by Susan K. Langer:

A) The object must be removed from its original context.

B) The object must be worked on by the artist.

C) The object must be framed.

D) The object must be viewed.

This idea enables the appreciation of traditional processes of art, and may even apply to the collapsed object-observer dichotomy of performance art: consider one’s experience, that must be removed from ordinary experience to that of extraordinary experience: this requires work— discipline, and action to engage, to be deliberate and expressive in composed actions. Further, these actions must be framed, according with intent, and the environmental context. And the performance of behavior is witnessed, by one’s self and the environment. Such that all stages of performance art are successfully translated in Langer’s terms of art.


The ideas of Fischer-Lichte in her book, The Transformational Power of Performance, provides aesthetics for performance work that is not solely informed by the idea of art as virtual presence established through symbolization: the “performative turn” is first drawn, setting the stage for her discussion of Abramavic’s Lips of Thomas performance. While heavily symbolized, her performance ultimately took form through the audience’s participation: their moral obligation to stop her self-mutilation completed the work; thus, upon layers of symbolization, the intersubjective, stochastic engagement of the audience transformed symbols into direct experience. The symbols function as reference—memory capacitors, to the actual content—the intersubjective experience that collapsed audience-performer, and symbolic-actual dichotomies.


The concept of performance converses with art, psychology, sociology, and linguistics, and any other field of study, in that it restructures methodologies from purely rational and objective means to an integration of empirical, experiential based study. Thus, novel paths to knowledge are recognized through the concept of performance. Performance itself is informed by these fields, in that they are unified in the practice of performance: disparate fields, discourses merge, synthesize, to create emerging forms of knowledge; the pPerformance is enabled by the array of disciplines, and deliberately fuses them to transform behavior.


A) Trisha Brown: A contemporary dancer/choreographer who composes with ordinary, repetitive actions.

B) Emmy Hennings: Dadaist poet, performer, and wife of Hugo Ball, fellow dadaist artist.

C) Jospeph Beuys: German born Fluxus artist, whose work includes sculpture, performance, art theory, pedagogy: his main concepts embrace the notion of art’s power to shape society.

D) Allan Kaprow: Student of John Cage, early Fluxus artist, and creator of “Happenings”.

E) Anna Halprin: Post-modern dancer— the “breaker of modern dance”, who pioneered notions of kinesthetic awareness as the basis of choreography, and the democratization of dance.

F) Gilbert & George: A collaborative duo of artists from the United Kingdom, who profess their lives as art: they are living sculptures.

G) Alfred Jarry: A French absurdist writer of the 1920’s who preceded the Surrealist theatre in his works.

H) Adrian Piper: A first generation conceptual artist and philosopher, working in the field of meta-ethics, and creating performance works based on the “indexical present”, integrating techniques from yoga and meditation.

I) Oskar Schlemmer: A German painter who worked at the Bauhaus, as the maser of form in the theatre workshop. His most famous work transforms dancer’s bodies into geometric shapes.

J) Marina Abramovic: A Serbian performance artist beginning work in 1970, exploring performer-audience engagement, thresholds of the body, and potential of the mind.

K) Andre Breton: French writer and founder of Surrealism.

L) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: Italian poet and founder of Futurism, authoring the Futurist Manifesto in 1909.

M) Richard Schechner: Early proponent of performance studies in the theatre at New York University.

N) Francis Picabia: Dadaist artist involved with the Dada periodical 391, and created a dadaist ballet called Relache, with music composed by Erik Satie.

O) John Cage: Pioneer of chance investigations in the structures of music, whose ideas preceded the development of performance art, specifically the Fluxus movement.

P) Marcel Duchamp: A pioneer in the art of decision, Duchamp is famous for his “readymade” sculptures, his investigations of chance, and his notion of viewing as the completion of an artwork.

Q) Caroline Smith:

R) Bobby Baker: Performance artist with mental disorder, whose work chronicles her condition, and enables her to turn the disorder into a certain kind of order.


Performance art is an antidiscipline, in the sense that its premise—performance, is not an expansion of existing disciplines, but a restructuring of the processes of disciplines; thus, in describing the recently formed art genre of performance art: a seemingly redundant addition, since performance is omnipresent in all disciplines, we expose the conditions—the traditions through which this antidiscipline formed, to understand how the restructuring of experience, or conceptual understanding of the processes of experience, enables new forms of expression. This challenge to existing traditions awakens the original premises of any discipline: consider action painting, which engaged the physical processes of painting, the physics of paint, and the union of paint and painter: it is still painting, but how it diverges from traditional processes, or goals, creates the necessity of new language, and purposes: hence, a new discipline, formed by its rejection of existing methods. The Dadaist movement epitomizes rejection, forming the non-art art movement; its method was to run from ideas, from beauty and language: to absurdly embrace absurdity. This rejection formed the basis of Surrealist Art: a positive extension of a negatively defined activity. Thus, perhaps Performance Art as a genre is a positive extension of an inherently ineffable, or rather, ubiquitous activity. Thus, the essence of performance art remains a tool for revolution— awakening processes: something of a mirror, forming a virtual image of the process at hand.


Performance art creates transgressing aesthetic behaviors: perpetually evolving the processes of experience. It reveals, and thus assesses standard behaviors, subjecting them to transformations. Performance art is the ars spagyrica of aesthetic experiences; that is, the transformative medium of activity. In principle, processes are performed; thus, performance is the essence of form, of the arts. The arts being utmost expressions of purposes, that in turn fulfill a greater purpose of the universal process. Thus, performance art creates reality, through the masterful expression of life in spacetime contexts.