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In the textbook, Practices of Looking, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright write that “the idea that we perform our identities, rather than the idea that they are fixed within us, is a key aspect of postmodernism” (324). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines performance art as “a nontraditional art form often with political or topical themes that typically features a live presentation to an audience or onlookers (as on a street) and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance, or painting” (Merriam-Webster). More simply put, performance art is the combination of visual art of some kind with dramatic performance.
In order to fully comprehend what exactly performance art is, it is important to first understand an example of it. The textbook offers a perfect and simple example of just one of the copious illustrations of what exactly performance art is. They do so using artist Nikki S. Lee who used photography as a way of playing off ideas of identity and performance. She combined performance art and ethnography which is the study of cultures through empirical means (Sturkin & Cartwright 324). She doesn’t just observe, she also adopts the styles of different subcultures and identity groups. For example, to fit in with certain groups she will change her hair, style of dress, weight, and mannerisms. Her goal was not to fool people into believing she was an authentic member of the different groups, but to experiment with the idea of forging new identities through cultural performance. She would then introduce herself to members of the group she infiltrated and explain to them what her artistic project was and then gradually gain acceptance over the next few months. Once she became part of the group, she would have someone take pictures of her in her new social environment, and these photographs were then displayed as part of her artwork (Sturkin & Cartwright 324). The first picture is a photograph taken of Nikki S. Lee as her natural, real self. The second picture is a photograph from her “Hispanic Project.” She is the one in the front on the left side. The third photograph was taken of Nikki from her “Hip Hop Project.” The fourth picture is from Nikki’s “Senior Project.” She is the one on the far right. Her work is truly incredible and it is clear that she took this project very seriously and truly looks as if she is a part of each group.
Performance art is unique in that it is extremely versatile and comes in many different forms and variations. According to Laurie Anderson, an American avant-garde performance artist, composer, musician, and film director writes that “performance is freer to be disjunctive and jagged and to focus on incidents, ideas, collisions” (22). Essentially, what Anderson means by that is that performance art lacks a strict list of guidelines. It has a certain openness about it that allows the artist to freely perform and express themselves through their performance in whatever ways they choose to do so. Anderson also wrote in her piece on performance art, “if you want to talk bout earthquakes in a performance, you don’t have to have a character who is a geologist or back from the tropics where an earthquake triggered a love affair or introduce someone who is otherwise suitably motivated to bring up the subject” (22). She explains that in theatre, it is the actor’s job to convince you that he or she “is someone else in some other time and place” (Anderson 22). The video attached is of an actress named Sarah Jones who does an incredible job of exemplifying what performance art is. She truly convinces the audience she is each character she introduces them to, while also sharing little pieces of her and her real personality through her characters. (Click here for link to video)
Performance art accomplishes a multitude of different expressions of oneself. In Dominic Johnson’s book titled, The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art, he writes that performance artists “have remodeled their bodies through surgery, body modification or anomalous daily practices… folding every practice of their life into the continuous endeavor of artistic becoming… or found other means to expose the interior workings of their creative, imaginative, emotional, sexual, or medical lives” (1). In other words, performance art is a medium that allows individuals the ability to express themselves wholly and openly as either themselves or someone they hope to be. They have the freedom to modify or change their own bodies as platforms for expressing themselves through performance art. Their innermost desires, feelings, and emotions are released through the expression of themselves through performance art. Johnson also wrote in his book that performance art is often engaged in the practice of “turning one’s life – both body and subjectivity – into the stuff of art” (3). Furthermore, Johnson mentions in his book that performance art is an outlet in which people explore how to live a more fulfilling, unique, inspiring, effective life.
Dominic Johnson attempted to define performance art in his book and came up with a definition that stemmed from Vito Acconci’s account of performance art (Johnson 5). Johnson felt that Acconci’s thesis “usefully entertains the function of a general rule for the way performance operates” (5). What Johnson settled on was this: “performance art necessitates the appearance of a performing body, experienced by an audience as material, present, and apparently immediate – even when (or precisely because) it is mediated” (6). Essentially what Johnson proves in his book about performance art is that since the late 1960s, innovators of performance art began to think beyond their fixation on the isolated and formal considerations of visual art and force contact. This was done by way of performance. It was a new form of art that encompassed theatre, film, music, and beyond (Johnson 6).
According to Anthony Howell, author of the book, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice, performance artists “do not see themselves as actors – they do not necessarily take on roles different to their own” (16). He continues, writing that “even if they think they are simply “being themselves,” they are still projecting a self or a persona through posture, body language, and their clothing” (Howell 16). This is what Howell calls “constructing a performance self” (16). The performance self that Howell writes about also projects a gaze and is gazed upon. Howell writes something that is quite fascinating when he says that “in everyday life (which is a performance), and in performance on some specific, witnessed space, one attempts to see oneself seeing – to imagine what one looks like as one looks” (16-17). Howell identifies that everyday life itself is a performance, which is quite fascinating to think about.