What is Performance Art / Live Art / Action Art?

Complicated. Complex. Hard to define. So lets try.

Performance art, Live art, Action Art, Body Art…

Books on Performance Art (short list – see literature section below for more)
  • Aravena, Christin ,Henaro, Sol, Moreno, Alejandra, Smith, Brian – Action art in Mexico
  • Forte, Jeanie – Focus on the Body: Pain, Praxix and Pleasure in Feminist Performance Art
  • Goldberg, Roselee – Performance Art: From futurism to the Present
  • Heathfield, Adrian – Live Art and Performance
  • Howell, Anthony
  • Jones, Amelia – Body Art / Performing the Subject
  • La Ribot, Maria – Art and Performance Live: La Ribot
  • Wark, Jayne – Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance in North America
History of Performance Art

I have cobbled together a long / brief history of performance art here.

Why is this site interested in performance art worldwide?

As an open and experiential form, performance art is highly adaptable to cultural, political, and inter-sectional issues. Looking at how artists in different corners of the globe are approaching and adapting the form explores the boundaries of performance / live art. While performance art as specific form is relatively recent, art that engages, protests, and stretches the limits of what is acceptable in society is as old as civilization. How the live art form compliments and feeds these older traditions creates opportunities for distinct cultural expression in a form that is becoming global. This study also opens up new avenues of exploration for performance artists struggling to expand their voice.

Defining what performance is is slippery, but it is generally some combination of time, space, the body of the performer(s) and the interaction between the artist(s) and the audience.

Amelia Jones explains that “Body art and performance art have been defined as constitutive of postmodernism because of their fundamental subversion of modernism’s assumption that fixed meanings are determinable through the formal structure of the work alone.”

Live Art Development Agency says ‘Rather than a description of an artform or discipline, Live Art is a way of thinking about what art is, what it can do, and where and how it can be experienced. Some may experience Live Art in a gallery, others in a theatre, and others still in forests or town squares, or as a process in which they are involved.’

Got it?

OK, Performance art has a basis in body-as-medium and from there deals with site, time and audience interaction. It can be based in visual arts, dance, theater, music/sound art/ installation, film, writing, activism – basically any and all art forms. As an interdisciplinary form, there are no inherent limitations on presentation.

One thing that this form has in common with conceptual art is the lack of commodification – that is, there is nothing to sell (generally). The structure and even the meaning of the art may be hard to formulate (challenging the assumption that “fixed meanings are determinable through the formal structure of the work alone)”, but the experience of the art is key to the form.

While some see action art / live art / action art as the same, not everyone agrees and there are reasons for differentiating these words (and also for not). In non-english speaking countries the terms action art or live art tend to be used more than the term performance art. This may because of meanings in other languages, or because of evolution of performance art or even because it may resist the colonization of the art that is being produced in those area.

From LADA: ‘Live Art is influenced by late 20th century Performance Art, where visual artists, in a rejection of objects and markets, turned to their body as the site and material of their practice, and by multiple generations of artists who broke the traditions and expectations of theatre and dance.

Now, it incorporates a huge range of practitioners, from those working at the edges of theatre, dance, film and video, to performance writing, socio-political activism and the new languages of the digital age.

For many artists, Live Art is a generative force. It wants to shock, to destroy pretense, create sensory immersion, break apart traditions of representation, and open different kinds of engagement or interaction.

For others, Live Art can be a means of connecting people, places and ideas, becoming a form of community building and cultural empowerment.’

In this case, the definition of live art and action art could be said to be the same, while looking at performance art as a precursor to where the field is now. I would argue that it is also separating from the European roots of performance art, allowing non-European artists the room to decolonize their art process and work.

I may disagree with the notion that it was only European and American visual artists who “turned to their bodies as site and material”. My history has been from dance where as of the mid 20th century, artists like Anna Halprin, John Cage, Kei Takei, Kazuo Ohno, and Growtowski (dance, music, dance, dance, and theater respectively) were all breaking these barriers of form and material. We do hear a lot about the visual artists but there was much cross pollination through the arts.

Also, the history of political or contrary performative art interactions is not limited to European and American traditions – or even in that history- to the 20th century. Examples of these questioning performative forms can be found in every culture with different traditions and meanings.

The reasons and impetus behind performance artists around world are driven by a multitude of different forces, influences and circumstances which result in a regional and local approach to how this form is implemented. At the same time, the globalization of knowledge also creates a connection across the globe.

Questions to ponder as this form is studied-

  • What does Action art/ Performance Art/ Live Art address that attracts artists to it?
  • What underlying similarities run through this form around the world?
  • What personal/regional/genre differences run through this form around the world?

Performance Art – resources
  • Literature (a not comprehensive list)
  • Aravena, Christin ,Henaro, Sol, Moreno, Alejandra, Smith, Brian – Action art in Mexico
  • Barber: The Function of Performance in Post Modern Culture
  • Belting, Hans, Buddenseig, Andrea, Weibel, Peter ed.: The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds
  • Besacier, Hubert: Cinc ans D”Art Performance Lyon – Five years of performance art in Lyon 1979-1983
  • Blocker, Jane: Where Is Ana Mendieta: Identity, Performativity and Exile (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 24
  • Bourriaud, Nicholas: Relational Aesthetics
  • Brady, Sara: Performance, Politics, and the War on Terror: ‘Whatever it Takes’ (Performance Interventions) 2012th Edition
  • Broms, Gustaf: 9Questions, an artist project by Gustaf Broms
  • Bruguera, Tania: Vigilantes: The dream of Reason
  • Bueys, Joseph: Image of Humanity
  • Butler, Judith: Performative Arts and Gender Constitution
  • Calirman, Claudia: Brazilian Performance Art, 1960s to 1980s: An Aesthetics of the Margins
  • Calirman, Claudia: Case Study: Antonio Manuel’s Body Art and Media Appropriation
  • Cianetti, Alessandra: Performing Borders – A study room guide on physical and conceptual borders within Live Art
  • Couillard, Paul: From Ironic to Iconic: The Performance Works of Tanya Mars (2009)
  • Couillard, Paul: La Dragu: The living Art of Margaret Dragu (2002)
  • Couillard, Paul and Liva, Alexandra: Alain-Martin Richard: Performances, Manoeuvres and Other Hypotheses for Disappearing (2014)
  • Finley, Karen: Constant State of Desire
  • Forte, Jeanie: Focus on the Body: Pain, Praxix and Pleasure in Feminist Performance Art
  • Fusco, Coco: The Other history of Intercultural Performance
  • Gilroy, Paul: The Negative Dialectics of Conviviality
  • Goldberg, Roselee: Performance Art: From futurism to the Present
  • Gomez-Peña, Guillermo: Ethno Techno
  • Graver, David: Violent Theatricality: Displayed Enactments of Agression and Pain
  • Gray, John. Action Art: A Bibliography of Artists’ Performance from Futurism to Fluxus and Beyond. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993.
  • Gubord, Guy: Theory of the Dérive
  • Heathfield, Adrian: Live Art and Performance
  • Hincapie, Maria Teresa: Accion, Corporeidad y el Dominio de lo Feminino en Columbia
  • Howell, Anthony: Being Clothes: The Analysis of Performance Art
  • Huxley, Michael, and Noel Witts, eds. The Twentieth Century Performance Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Irwin, ed. East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe. London: Afterall, 2006.
  • Jakovjevic, Branislav: Alienation Effects: Performance and Self-Management in Yugoslavia, 1945-91
  • Jones, Amelia: Body Art / Performing the Subject
  • Jones, Amelia: Pollackian Performative
  • Kaprow, Alan: Happenings in the New York Scene
  • Kaye, Nick: Site-Specific Art Performance Place Documentation
  • KAJIYA Kenji: Japanese Art Projects in History
  • KuroDalaiJee or Kuroda Raiji: Video Screening of Performance Art in the 1960s Japan
  • Krauss, Rosalind: he Originally of the Avant-Garede and Other Moderist Myths, MIT press 1986
  • Kwok Kian Chow: Channels and Confluences – A History of Singapore Art, Singapore Art Museum 1996
  • Kwon, Miwon: One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art pp38-63 University of Minnesota Press
  • Kwon, Miwon: Genealogy of Site-Specificity
  • La Ribot, Maria: Art and Performance Live: La Ribot
  • Lamarque, Peter, Stein Haugom Olsen: Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition: and Anthology, Blackwell, 2004
  • Langenbach, Ray: Performing the Singapore State 1988-1995 PhD Thesis Center for Cultural Research University of Sydney aug 2003
  • Lasch, Christopher: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Dinimishing Expectations, W.W. Norton London 1991
  • Lee Wen: A Waking Dream drawings and poetry 1981 Select Books, Singapore
  • Lee Wen: The Future of Imagination 3, Catalog, Singapore 2006
  • Lee Weng Choy: Chronology of a Controversy and A Review of Joseph Ng’s Performance edited S.K. Sanjay Krishnan 1996
  • Lee Weng Choy, Ansar Sadali: Lim Tzay Chuen Makes a Proposition Broadsheet Vol. 33 No. 2 2004 p 33-34
  • Lippard ,Lucy: Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (ny Praeger 1973)
  • Marcal, Helia, Matos de Oliveira, Fernando, Barques, Bruno, Mourao, Rui, PINA, Osnia, Carmo, Alexandra: Portuguese Performance art: Special Issue
  • Maretti, Franco: Dialectic of Fear, New Left Review 136 (Nov. Dec>) p 67-85 1982
  • Martel, Richard ed: Art Action 1958-1998 Quebec 2001
  • Mbembe, Achille: On the postcolony, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001
  • McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Ginko Press, 1964
  • Mengesha, Lilian: Indigenous Theater
  • Metello, Verónica: From first Portuguese Performance Art to Transmission MoMA, Varsóvia, 2015
  • Meyer, Mónica: Mujeres y Performance en México
  • Meyerhold: The Biomechanics of worker management theory
  • Miller, Tim: My Queer body
  • Miller, Tim and Roman, David: Preaching to the Converted
  • Muñoz, José: Performing Disidentifications
  • Munroe, Alexandra: Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky, Harry n Abrams NY 1994
  • O”Donnell, Darren: Social Acupuncture
  • Petrešin-Bachelez, Nataša: Resilient Practices: A Few Case Studies on Performances in Public Spaces and their Controversies in the former Eastern Europe
  • Phelan, Peggy: Ontology of Performance
  • Pope, William: Sandwich Lecture
  • Ramirez, Mari Carmen, and Héctor Olea, eds. Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Sandoval, Rosemberg: artist catalog 2004, Bogota
  • Schneider, Rebecca: Explicit Body in Performance
  • Shanken, Edward A., ed. Art and Electronic Media. London and New York: Phaidon, 2009.
  • Smith and Sawchyn: Fluxus Performance Workbook
  • Somaya, Sandra: Primer Encuentro Mundial de Arte Corporal (caracas: Ministerio de la Cultura 2006)
  • Stiles, Kristine: Performance Art
  • Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Wagner, Anne: Performance, Video, and the Thetoric of Presence
  • Wark, Jayne: On the Road Again: Metaphors of Travel in Cultural Criticism in Resident Alien: Feminst Cultural Criticism Cambridge 1995
  • Wrights and Sites: A manifesto for a new Walking Culture
  • Wu Hung, and Peggy Wang, eds. Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.
Resources (completely not comprehensive)
Performance Art Festivals and Presenters
Artists at Risk Resources
  • Artists at Risk Connection – a network of organizations that help artists around the world in trouble with governments and more.

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