Mediated Presence

Performance, Technology, & Presence

Excerpt from MA Visual Culture Final Dissertation, The University of Nottingham, September 2013
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The performance is really about presence. If you escape presence, your performance is gone. It is always you, the mind, and the body. You have to be in the here and now.1

Marina Abramovic

The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising or in the high arts is towards participation in a process, rather than the apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt.”2

Recalling Marshall McLuhan’s words, this paper is an attempt to study the effects and consequences of technology and how it allowed performance artists greater flexibility in experimenting with space, time and representation, engaging in a social and institutional critique. The pertinent questions here are: how are performance artists reflecting upon our social and political structures today, and what would the role of technology be in such critique? If performance art, which is a time-based art that emphasizes interaction between artist and audience, is still concerned with keeping ‘art’ close to people, it will need to take into account the new spaces and times engendered by technology. Furthermore, it will need to devise its own space and time, fashioning its own modes engagement and perception, by questioning how the artist can still be present today in a world where we interact with screens more than people, where we broadcast our lives instead of living them.

By the 1960s and 1970s, many artists, from Carolee Schneeman and Chris Burden to Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, have been questioning the concept of art and their body offered an adequate tool to express their investigation. Performance art thus became a ‘catalyst’ in the history of twentieth-century art, as many art historians including RoseLee Goldberg, declared. It was “a way of breaking down categories and indicating new directions.”3

It was never a simple task to explain the parameters of this artistic genre, perhaps because it was oscillating between visual art and theatre.4 Indeed the history of performance has been contested, and it can be said to derive from three different historical narratives: from the history of theatre, as a counterpoint to realism; from the history of painting, as an extension of Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting; or from anthropology since performance presents a return to the investigations of the body.5

This paper does not attempt to unpack this contentious history, but rather it will focus on one crucial aspect of it: presence, as suggested by Abramovic in the above quote.

With these words, Abramovic establishes a pivotal relation between performance and presence; one that her contemporaries would concur with despite the divergence of their practices.6 Nevertheless, this statement remains imbued with ambiguities, loaded with meanings. It triggers questions and demands clarification, not just about the meaning of performance, but also of presence. For what is presence and how does it shape the performance? What does it mean for the body to be present, in the ‘here’ and ‘now’?

‘Perform’ comes from French parfournir: par which means ‘through’ and fournir ‘provide’; to provide through. The act of providing establishes a relation, hence an exchange, between a provider (the performer) on the one hand, and the provided for on the other (the audience). Furthermore, ‘presence’ comes from Latin praesentia, which means ‘being at hand,’ being available to the other, with the other. Presence, hence, signifies interaction. Performance can thus be read as an active state of presence whereby the performer engages with their environment: it is an artform anchored by the way the viewer experiences the performer’s presence. The message of the performance is then communicated, or ‘provided through,’ by the way the body presents itself and engages with the surrounding, whether animate or not. Joseph Beuys talked to a dead hare one time and lived with a coyote another time; Marina Abramovic transferred her agency to the spectator, inviting them to interact with her passive body; Allan Kaprow ‘instructed’ the performance to his audience.7

But ‘presence’ also signifies time: it is present in relation to the past. It also refers to space, which houses our presence and affects how we interact with each other. Presence is thus inextricably linked to three elements, to the where, when, and how.
However, the ‘here’ and ‘now,’ the space and time Abramovic was referring to, are volatile dimensions, in constant flux, in a world that is constantly changing day by day as technology evolves. Media and new technologies problematize the conventional notion of presence, upon which performance bases itself, and Abramovic’s definition does not seem to account for this problematic.

The inventions of photography, film, television and the world wide web, have raised many questions and challenges. Walter Benjamin was one of the first to highlight and examine technology’s effects on our life, influencing other writers, from Roland Barthes to Marshal McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, who explored how media shape new modes of behavior, perception, and engagement. Focusing on this body of literature will allow us to understand how technology, as it evolves, alters space and time, and hence affects ‘presence.’

Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980) offers an insightful reading of photographs, which I borrow to examine how performance documentation affects our apprehension of the original event. McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) invited his readers to look at technology as an extension of the human body and nervous system; our consciousness and our presence have been extended in the electronic age where space and time seem to almost disappear. Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) expanded on McLuhan’s writings to examine how the digital and the virtual space blurs the line between reality and representation to the point where reality disappears and what we are living in is a ‘hyperreality’ where the world is swallowed in its own image.

But it wasn’t only these theorists who were pondering upon the role of media in our lives. Performance artists were equally engaged in an institutional and social critique, as mostly exemplified in the work of the 1970s. In parallel to the theoretical framework laid out earlier, I track the evolution of the artist/spectator relation as the apparatus that mediates it changes from the bodily to the photographic, the televisual, and the digital, in order to re-evaluate performance, as a definition and as a practice, in the space and time of the mediated presence. I will be exploring notions of presence and proximity in performance and how these elements are altered within three modes of technological mediation as each medium offered the artists a myriad of possibilities to engage with the viewer: from the small scale of the photograph to the box-like image of the television monitor and to the enlarged and projected image in screen installations.

The first chapter will highlight the debates raised around the first medium used in conjunction with performance: photography. Most of what we know about performance art comes from photographs, which, arguably, stand as proof of their presence in that point in time and in that particular space. Performance documentation seemed to present a threat to performance; a threat to replace it. Against these accusations, Amelia Jones defends the photographic document and releases the spectator from the burden of witnessing the performance live as it unfolds, arguing that second-order witnessing is capable of equally delivering the message of the performance. But though the meaning might be preserved, the experience of witnessing the ‘live’ versus the mediated body is not. What does the photograph keep from the original performance that could equally engage the viewer in a similar phenomenological experience, as Philip Auslander proposed in his The Performativity of Performance art Documentation (2006)? To answer this question I look at Chris Burden’s White Light / White Heat (1975) as the first case study. In this work, the artist lived in the space of the gallery for twenty-two days; he was present and yet invisible to visitors as he lay on a raised platform. How do we read his invisible presence as performance? Furthermore, Burden relied on photographic documents as empirical evidence, but what does this document tell us about the experience itself? How does the viewer experience the twenty-two days in the instant of the photograph?

From the photographic encounter, I move to the televisual in the second chapter. By the 1970s video became an affordable, portable, and an appealing medium for artists to experiment with. The space of performance could not escape technology’s influence, and television monitors have become widely used in the gallery space. Artists were using the medium to deconstruct it, exposing its materiality and challenging the passive mode of spectatorship inherent to broadcast television. Video became an integral element of performance as artists from different disciplines, from dancers to conceptual artists, worked with the medium. Dan Graham’s Present Continuous Past(s) (1974) is an example of the hybridized works conceived in that period. Using two video recorders, a tape delay, and mirrors, Graham devised an elaborate spatial and temporal system, which he later exited, leaving the viewers to be the observer and the observed, the spectator and the performer. But while the first camera records what is immediately in front of it, the second plays the recording back with an eight-second delay and feeds it into the TV monitor. What the viewer ends up encountering is his presence in the past. Borrowing McLuhan’s reading of technology as an extension of our presence, I extend the phenomenological reading of the photograph to television, which was manipulated to actively engage its viewer, and question the possibility of considering such work as a performance where the artist is absent while the audience engages with his technological extension.

In the third chapter, I look at the moving image as it was freed from its technical support to inhabit the large-scale projection screens, turning the white cube into a black box. Looking at installation art’s and expanded cinema’s immersive environment, I examine the new possibilities available to performance artists to further experiment and challenge the limits of the body, of presence, in the digital age where we only interact with simulations, where reality dissolves into hyperreality.
MC9 (2013), presented in the Tanks in Tate Modern, is an installation/performance conceived by video artist Charles Atlas, in collaboration with other artists. In one ‘electronic’ live performance, four dancers are co-present with four large screens that hang from the ceiling, and Atlas records, edits, manipulates and projects their movements unto the screens. The space devised by the artist, and enabled by advanced video-editing software, merges reality with its representation, the artists with their images, overwhelming the viewer whose attention shifts back and forth between the real and the virtual until the latter overpowers the former. Based on this work, I examine screen installations ability to reflect, critique and investigate today’s hyperreality. It further raises questions about the future of performance in a highly mediated world.

This paper will focus on a slice of performance art’s short and yet contentious history in order to treat it as a pivotal reference point for today’s practices. The works conceived in the 1970s were very much imprinted by and embedded in political and social activism, and examining them now, in contrast to more recent works done at the turn of the 21st century, offers an insightful reading of the development of performance in relation to its institutional context. The historical leap made in this paper serves to expose the shift in practice, both aesthetically and ideologically, from the first to the third generation of performance artists.  
More importantly, this paper argues that such reading was enabled by technology. The spatiotemporal elements specific to each medium presented in each chapter inform different modes of perception and engagement, which are culturally and historically influenced. As these critical elements – space, time, and interaction – shift, so does the term ‘performance’ itself. Addressing these issues in the digital age seems inevitable and inescapable within the space of performance art, even though it will lead to re-evaluating its definition and its disciplinary parameters in relation to other art forms.

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  1. Marina Abramovic, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 211
  2. Marshal McLuhan, “Letter to Harold Adam Innis, March 14 1951” in Essential McLuhan, ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 73
  3. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism To The Present (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011, c1979), 7
  4. Many mistook performance for theatre due to close affinities, such as live spectatorship. But the artists were keen on differentiating Performance Art from Theatre, often antagonistically. For more about performance and theatre, refer to Judith Rodenbeck. “Madness and Method: Before Theatricality” Grey Room  no.13 (Autumn 2003), 54-79
  5. Peggy Phelan, Live Culture: Performance and The contemporary – Part 1: Welcome and Introduction: Peggy Phelan, Tate Modern video, streamed on 29 March 2003, Also refer to: Paul Schimmel, Out of Actions: Between Performance And The Object, 1949-1979 (London: Thames and Hudson 1998)
  6. The work of artists such as Carolee Schneeman, Hannah Wilke, Chris Burden, focus on their presence within the artwork, presenting their bodies as both subject and object.
  7. Joseph Beuys, How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare (1965); Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974); Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0 (1974); Allan Kaprow, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959)