warehouse warehouse

Where now? Who now? When now?

by Christian Grüny
Chris Burden: "Trans-fixed" (1974) © Chris Burden. Image courtesy of The Chris Burden Estate and Gagosian

And the princess and the prince discuss
What’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden

Bob Dylan

In an age of universal mediation, immediacy appears as a scarce resource, sought after and cherished. It suggests something that we cannot simply let go of, its philosophical critique notwithstanding: presence, proximity, reality, resistance. The interaction of real bodies in real space, present to each other, skin on skin, tongue on breast, fist in face. No, it’s not necessarily pleasant, but what makes the fist so compelling is the fact that it is not an argument, will not be reasoned with, creates rather than states a fact, leaves a trace.
This promise of reality was irresistible to some artists, and a lot of spectators. When Michael Fried accused minimal art (or “literalist art”, as he called it) of theatricality because it created a situation in which artwork and spectator inhabited the same space, he failed to the see that this is not the situation of theater at all. Inevitably, theater is illusion and representation just like a picture or a sculpture, and to arrive at the immediacy of a real situation theatricality had to be abandoned as well. Tony Smith, Robert Morris and Donald Judd’s objects were not theatrical but real, or in Judd’s terms specific. From here it was a logical next step (of course there are always innumerable logical next steps, and their obviousness and necessity are only noted ex post) to get rid of objects and their stubborn permanence as well and resort to action plain and simple: no text, no pretext, no repetition, no permanence. The immediacy of contact could be intensified by its fleetingness. [Read on]


  1. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked. The Politics of Performance, London 1993, p. 146.

  2. Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, Philadelphia 1985, p. 35.

  3. Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, Philadelphia 1985, p. 36.

  4. Peter Osborne, Anywhere or not at all. Philosophy of contemporary art, London 2013, p. 48

  5. Damaged Goods/Meg Stuart, Are we here yet?, ed. by Jeroen Peters, Dijon 2010

  6. Raqs Media Collective, We Are Here, But Is It Now? (The Submarine Horizons of Contemporaneity), Berlin 2017.

  7. Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains. Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, London/New York 2011, p. 25.

Meg Stuart: "The fault lines" (2010) © Eva Würdinger

Now the impulse to abandon illusion came from many different directions and took many different forms, not all of them stressing immediacy to the same degree. In dance, theater, and music real bodies did not have to be introduced because they were there all along – but they had to be taught not to dance and not to play. It was in visual art where the introduction of the body implied the greatest rupture. Artists renounced the trappings of theater and the mediation of the score and sought to retain the immediacy of the specific, literal object, transforming it into literal action.
What could be more literal than the body itself? The body not as conveyor or locus of meaning but as an agent of movement in space as well as an object that can be acted upon. “Body art” is the proper name for this, while “performance art” is more ambiguous, distributed between different disciplines, approaches and aims. And what could be more obvious than turning to violence and sex in order to pin this body down? If “pinning down the body” is an appropriate description of this move, Chris Burden’s early pieces embody it in its purest form: stuffed into a locker, shot in the arm, nailed to a car, Burden subjected himself or rather his body to various ways of being pinned down, being brought to the here and now. This, it seemed, was reality, finally, and immediacy.

Chris Burden: "Trans-fixed" (1974) © Chris Burden. Image courtesy of The Chris Burden Estate and Gagosian

Of course, there is something wrong with this reconstruction, in fact several things. First of all the body is so overdetermined that anything you do to it or with it evokes a plethora of meanings, and references into all possible directions, so even the immediacy of the nail driven through the hand (or rather, especially this) or a cock penetrating another’s orifices is an illusion. They are real, no doubt, particularly to the one they are done to, but as a statement they inscribe themselves into the cultural fabric with rather less force than the elaborate constructions of the tradition.
Secondly, there is something deeply problematic about the emphasis on presence and unrepeatability that permeates body art and has been claimed for performance art in general. It found its authoritative formulation rather late, in Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked from 1993. In the passage on the specific ontology of performance she famously writes: “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.” 1

That is a rather curious claim. It is analogous to the observation that talk about a chair is not itself a chair, or that a photograph of a tree will not provide shade on a hot summer’s day. Does that mean it’s impossible to talk about anything? There really is no fundamental difference here between things and events, both of which are never identical with any of their representations – but who ever claimed such a thing? We might not want to call all these ways of representation and reference “saving” because this seems to imply precisely what they cannot do, which is to keep the action itself in existence or transform it into words, images etc. While a chair doesn’t need saving, an action cannot be saved, just talked about, photographed, filmed, reenacted – but so what? Every note ever played, every spoken word, every gesture, becomes itself through disappearance, and there is nothing particularly awe-inspiring about that. Also, the depreciation of representation and documentation strangely underestimates the role these played for iconic performances like Burden’s: documentation and discourse are their very life, of which Burden himself was of course fully aware. [Read on]

Chris Burden: "Trans-fixed" (1974) © Chris Burden. Image courtesy of The Chris Burden Estate and Gagosian

Thirdly, there is no such thing as a new action, an action that has never been there before. Richard Schechner draws on Anthropology to elucidate this. Like ritual, performance is “restored behavior” 2, i.e. behavior that has been grasped and made explicit. The performer knows what she’s doing, and it is precisely this that counteracts the fleeting, ephemeral character of her behavior; if she truly didn’t know what she was doing and had no control over it, her actions would most likely amount to a blind enactment of the most deeply ingrained habitual routines of the society she finds herself in. So: “Performance means: never for the first time. It means: for the second to the nth time. Performance is ‘twice-behaved behavior.’” 3

Score page from „Both sitting duet“ (2002) by Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion @ Jonathan Burrows

This also implies that it can be repeated. Any structured action can be repeated, any situation recreated (even though you might want to avoid repeatedly getting shot in the arm). Does this mean that any performance of it is as good as any other, that it doesn’t matter what exactly you saw or if you saw it at all because every action is only one instance in an endless row of identical repetitions? Of course not. There’s no such thing as an exact repetition, and the only way to experience any action is to see a specific performance of it (or many). The repeatability of the action and the uniqueness of each instance don’t exclude but mutually imply each other.
Neither does all this mean that it doesn’t matter whether you were there when Burden got shot, saw a picture of it or the brief video or read about it. That seems to suggest that it’s all the same, which of course it’s not. Action, documentation and discourse are fundamentally different from each other, and that is precisely the reason they can form a medial constellation where each instance supports and explicates the others. It might have been an intense but very confusing experience to have been there in 1971, or maybe even a bland or annoying one, which only later readings may have clarified and solidified, as it were, into a momentous historical event.

If performance acknowledges this, it may come to discover a different ontology for itself: an ontology in which the idea of an original makes no sense because it consists in a “distributive unity” 4, as Peter Osborne has termed it, an open constellation of various medial instances that is subject to change and thus historically open. The important thing to understand about this constellation is the fact that none of the instances can be reduced to any of the others. This not only means that the actual performance really does occupy a special place and experiencing it cannot be substituted by anything else but also that the video or the written analysis and/or critique are not bad or somehow lesser versions of the same thing, but actually something wholly different. What we mustn’t do is mistake one for the other, which is what Phelan seems to be implying. Rather than being the same they are part of the same.
The internet with its ability to present a multitude of different instances of this distributive unity in digitally coded form, along with the various links between them and to other relevant (and not strictly relevant, and completely irrelevant) references seems to be the perfect mode of presentation for this. There is an inherent danger here as well, though: the digital presentation and apparent universal availability suggest a flatness, a uniformity that contradicts the very thing it supports. The web may appear as a universal here that is nowhere in which the differences that count get lost rather than enhanced. And, after all, some of what counts here takes place in ‘meatspace’, away from the screen. [Read on]

Screenshot (11.07.2017)

Distributive unity cannot be assembled in its entirety. At any time you have already missed something, and parts of what is happening and relevant will continue to elude even the most ardent spectator. Letting go of the idea of completeness shouldn’t mean weakening one’s critical awareness, but it does imply a more relaxed attitude. Pierre Huyghe’s work seems to me to be the perfect embodiment of all this. The 2014 exhibition in Paris, Cologne, and Los Angeles assembled works in different states of aggregation, as it were: films, documentaries of performances in image or video, objects, actual performances, natural processes, and of course Human, the very calm and detached dog roaming the exhibition freely and regarding the visitors with a cold eye. There was no way to see everything because some of it had already happened and other things were going to happen in the future, but that was fine. The fact that everything referred to something else did not invalidate what was there. Everything that happens happens now, and being in a certain place implies not being somewhere else. References can be followed, and they will, but there is no overview and no completeness. After a while the calmness of the dog was communicated to the spectator.

This calmness should not be confused with complacency. If there is a lesson to be learned from performance, it is to undermine the certainty of the here and now, of its representations and their relation to one another. Hence Meg Stuart asked “Are we here yet?”, 5and recently Raqs Media Collective answered “We Are Here, But Is It Now?”; 6 Or, in Rebecca Schneider’s words: “If events are not exactly happening (or not only happening) in a here that is now or a now that is here – where, then, is the here? And when, now, is the then?” 7 Reality is not simple, and we are not here yet. Nor will we ever be.

Meg Stuart: "The fault lines" (2010) © Nina Gundlach

Christian Grüny teaches philosophy at Witten/Herdecke. His areas of research are aesthetics, the philosophy of music, semiotics, and phenomenology.