The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium MAKING TIME: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage taking place from April 19-21, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “what does the phrase ‘time-based art’ mean to you?” in advance of the event. This posting is by Malik Gaines, Assistant Professor of Art at Hunter College, New York.
Visual art and performance are in a classic bad relationship. Art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive. But art will belittle performance in public, will call it late at night but won’t let it stay over, doesn’t really believe what performance does is valuable. Art’s esteemed family only barely tolerates the relationship. Performance stays with its more powerful partner for the money, for the stature, the trips to Europe, for feeling like it belongs to something, for fear of having to go back to that old senile boyfriend, the Theater. How else can it support itself? But performance never feels like it really belongs in art’s world. It’s always using the wrong fork at dinner. Performance is always acting out, marginalizing itself, relishing the freedom of that marginal position, then wondering why it can’t get any respect in art’s world. These dynamics can be traced back to each partner’s childhood.
Art was born among aristocrats, but went to school with merchants who made it big. They value value. Their wealth is derived from a displacement of value onto objects. These objects are sometimes useful, like tools, machines, and slaves; but those are meant to be handled by the servants. Art’s family is hierarchical, those on the top surround themselves with beauty. Beauty is not material, like so many tools, but ideal. One may not touch an ideal. As this family grew increasingly rational and scientific, an empirical interest in observation met an emphasis on visuality to bolster art’s importance. Art has always been very good-looking, and has long served as a site of contemplation for its many admirers. As such, folks tend to project what they want onto it.
Performance is older than it looks, much older than the infantilized position imagined by art. It grew up in a religious milieu, but eventually found its secular purposes. In either context, it was always trying to do something, make something happen. In an increasingly alienated and imagistic world, performance found that it could foreground its own body as the instrument of ideal relations, a material iteration of ideological constraints. This act is ambivalent: it can mystify or deconstruct; it can promote heroism or criticality. The body and its cultural trappings are so thoroughly marked, so easily recognized, that performance can sometimes feel over-determined to those who encounter it.
During a political rough patch, both were radicalized. Art started dating outside its class. Performance dared to leave home. They met in an avant-garde café. The rest is history: or Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present …