Breaking into Performance Art
July 28, 2008 3:45 AM   Subscribe

How do I get into performance art?

I've seen this video series and read some links, and find the concept of performance art interesting. However, I'm finding it hard to get more resources and help on breaking into performance art.

Whenever I try asking people about it, they think I'm asking about performing arts and start referring me to theatres and choirs. (Google does the exact same thing.) Trying to describe performance art is tricky too - "well, they do weird stuff. In all sorts of styles. And it has a concept."

I have plenty of ideas for potential performance art, but I don't know how to start putting them together. I'm worried about seeming wanky or pretentious, when really all I want to do is express myself in a mixture of mediums. (A large part of this involves creating a persona, which is also another hard subject to Google - I keep getting stuff about MPD or superheroes.)

How do I find a teacher to guide me? What resources are out there and how do I find them (without getting stuck into the Performing Arts section)? How can I develop myself and my art? How do I get my ideas out of my head and onto...well, whatever my stage happens to be?
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Read about Laurie Anderson's early work in Stories from the Nerve Bible.
posted by DarkForest at 4:08 AM on July 28, 2008

Well, speaking as someone that lived in New York in the late 70's through early 90's - the heyday of the so-called downtown performance art scene, I think the biggest part of getting into or breaking into it is just doing it.

Back in those days in New York you'd see an amazingly wide range of acts, with various skill or levels of professional polish. They Might Be Giants were pretty damn rough the first few times I saw them at Darinka (some guys flat that he turned into a club weekends), and although they weren't that impressive they just did it. And got really good really fast.

Same thing for David Byrne (he used to do this speed shaving on the street corner that had absolutely nothing to do with Talking Heads) and a load of other names that I don't think I'll drop.

The East Village in the late 70's and 80's was all about experimentation, and even the people that emerged successful went through a number of changes, tried a lot of stuff on before finding their style. Getting out there will get you into contact with others, you'll see their work and they'll feedback on yours.

Just do it.
posted by Mutant at 4:21 AM on July 28, 2008

Reading about and watching performance work is the best place to start when it comes to putting together your ideas, I reckon. You can get lots of books and DVDs from This Is Unbound (which is an offshoot of the This Is Live Art, a UK group which is branching out internationally, and has a good list of links to live art practitioners. See also The Live Art Archives of Bristol University.

I've never been entirely clear on the distinction between 'live art' and 'performance art', though the live folk tend to do more stuff directly addressing the body. There are also pretty blurred boundaries between performance work done by people with an avant garde theatre or dance background and those with a fine art background (often the only difference that I can see is that theatre critics review the former, and as a visual art critic I get to review the latter).

How do I find a teacher to guide me?

If you were in the UK, I could point you in the direction of various festivals, organisations, etc., but I don't know about Australia's scene, sorry. I imagine phoning up your nearest school of art would be a good place to start, any artist-run galleries/organisations, or a nearby theatre that tends to put on the more out there stuff. If my friends who do this kind of work are anything to go by, collaborations between artists/performers are pretty common, and, eg., someone who has a lot of experience in the theatre will pass on skills to someone who is moving into performance from video/sculpture/painting/whatever. So next time you're at a performance event, collar the artists and get chatting!

I'm worried about seeming wanky or pretentious

This really is not a problem in the performance art world, believe me.
posted by jack_mo at 4:23 AM on July 28, 2008

Try to get a gallery or performance space interested in your idea. If your idea interests them enough, they may be willing to help you promote the event. Worse case scenario is that you have to rent a space and promote it on your own.
posted by JJ86 at 5:48 AM on July 28, 2008

If you live in Brisbane, I hope you'll apply for the 2 High Festival. You didn't hear it from me (and I'm not associated with the festival), but at least one of the performance art works there has been from someone with no real experience, just great ideas, determination to put them to stage, and a way of exaggerating previous experience/qualifications.

Hope I'll see you there!
posted by surenoproblem at 5:51 AM on July 28, 2008

Its worth knowing that performance art often occurs under different categories these days. Such as Live Art, Interdisciplinary Arts, or even Media Art. This might help you in finding resources. For instance this page on Career development for Media Artists from the Australain Council for the Arts covers some performance artists but is under the Interdisciplinary Arts section. Performance art is still used, as a term, but tends to be associated with work that came out of the Visual Arts, starting in the 1970's, and this does not really describe today's scene where people more often come out of a performing arts background.

There are University level courses that teach performance art more or less ( it is what I did as an undergraduate, and my partner it currently studying something similar at the pst grad level) though, at least in the UK they tend not to be called that (for reasons to do with the peculiarities of funding).

Even though you don't want to performing arts per se, I wouldn't dismiss as a route to training. You could do a lot worse than take courses in contemporary dance, choreography and theatre skills, you will pick up a lot of useful skills that won't necessarily push you towards the conventional performing arts. There is certainly a lot of cross over between contemporary dance and live art, and its common for people to train in, as well as produce work across different disciplines.

I'd recommend Twyla Tharps ' The Creative Habit' as a good general book on what it takes to make art.

Also weird and pretentious: you will have a really high bar to meet with performance art. I'm speaking as someone who has performed half naked, smeared in mud and balancing a potato on his head, and that's tame compared to somethings I've seen.

ps from Tallus' partner:
the specific references already given are good ones. I would like to underscore looking at what's happening in contemporary dance because I think that's a sector that is pushing the mixing of bodies, media, painting, graphic design, whatever! Particular styles that have helped me are improv based: Action Theater, butoh are the main ones.

Another practitioner I'd highly recommend looking up is Guillermo Gomez-Pena. He has a bunch of wonderful books where he lays bare his technique and reflects on the currents running through contemporary performance. He'll lead you to loads of other interesting practitioners.

RoseLee Goldberg:Performance, Live art since the 60's is a good overview of the field.

Most importantly: have fun and be fearless.

- Lena
posted by tallus at 6:39 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you answer these questions for us, I think we could point you in more specific directions:

- Where do you live? : Where you are based will have an enormous bearing on how you will 'break into' any performance scene. Big cities are by nature more likely to habour flourishing scenes - the smaller your locale is, the more specific those scenes are likely to be. I spend quite a lot of time frequenting the London poetry scene, and most specifically the scene of poets who consider their art is performative, rather than simple linguistic. I was lucky enough to become connected to that through my Masters course and also because my girlfriend is a very active (and talented) performer.

- What kind of performance art are you interested in? : Say the word 'poet' and suddenly people have a very established idea of what you mean. They think Wordsworth and Seamus Heaney and do not think 'performance' at all. The same goes for a whole series of art forms (labelling is always troublesome). A dancer is very different from a performing artists who incorporates dance into their work. What I am saying, I suppose, is that breaking into a 'scene' is very troublesome when you have an already established view of what you might come into contact with. Your starting point, whatever you are interested in, is to discover poetry nights in your area, go to 'private views' of people's art work and talk to anyone who'll listen. Before you go searching for one specific thing try and get an idea of the wealth of happenings that are out there.

- Hobby or study? : Are you interested in really making performance art the focal point of your life or is it just something you wish to pursue as a hobby? Study is the key here. Look for night courses about art in your area, maybe even start researching BAs and/or MAs you might apply for. Art has always been an interest of mine, but it wasn't until I started my Masters degree that is became something that I did, that I engaged in. My course is very experimental and is run by a couple of poets who have strong links to the performance poetry scene. Their interest became part of mine quite unexpectedly. Look at the work of artists you admire/wish to emulate and follow their process back to the people/scenes/ideas which influenced them. The world of art is massive - you need a starting point.

Once you have started thinking about, and even answering these questions, then you are well on the way to 'being' a performance artist. The only thing left to do is to put yourself out there and practise your art in front of audiences who, like you, are incorporating their art within themselves.
posted by 0bvious at 7:21 AM on July 28, 2008

In addition to Gomez-Peña, take a look at Carmelita Tropicana's performance art. Here is a googlebooks link to Alina Troyano's book about her; here is the bibliographic details of a film about her.

For a very different, far more self-destructive approach, this MeFi FPP on GG Allen is pretty eye-opening. The point being, "performance art" covers a lot of ground, and will lump you in with some people whom you aren't sure you want to be connected to, either because of their vapidity or extremism, or both.

One thing you'll notice from the second link is that, like most performance artists, she has a day job. With a few exceptions, it doesn't pay all that well -- you chase grants and fellowships, but rent and food gets paid for either by teaching or being a professor, or by having a regular job that gives you evenings and weekends free to do your art.

About the pretentious thing: I think it takes a certain kind of pretension (in a good way) to stand up on a stage and think that you are worthy of being watched by an audience. You need a robust ego, an ability to deal with hecklers, and a willingness to believe that what you have to say is worth being heard. I really suspect that there is no such thing as non-pretentious performance art; the pretension is simply definitional to the genre.

Finally, I think that there is a pretty fine line between "performance art" on the one hand, and then on the other hand other performance-based things like stand-up comedy, the less painful kinds of improvisational theater, some music acts, vaudeville, burlesque, and so on. People will parse out these categories with great care, but at heart they are all about being up on the stage totally exposed. The point being, it is worth considering which flavor of performance art speaks to you more, and on which traditions you want to draw upon in creating your own act.
posted by Forktine at 7:32 AM on July 28, 2008

A lot of good references here; I think looking beyond "art world" PA and including work connected to music and other scenes is really important.
In many circles you'll sound cooler if you just say "performance" (though in other circles it will just be more confusing).
But what I like about that shift in language is that it encourages you not to worry about making "art" but to start from what you want to do.
posted by Mngo at 7:32 AM on July 28, 2008

Just do it. That's the trick with performance art. You just start doing it. Print up some flyers, invite your friends, whatever.

You want to do good performance art? That's something else entirely. If that's your interest, I'd suggest you need to review the history of modern art, and take a very close look at work that happened from the 60s on, as that is when performance art really started to become more common (although there's certainly roots back to Duchamp* and beyond). Most modern work is a response or a elaboration (or masturbation, I suppose some would say) on existing works; it doesn't come from a vacuum. In order to do this you need to know your history well.

As for being wanky and pretentious? Well, the ha-ha of it is "that never stopped anyone before", but realistically, being informed about the art form will probably help in this area. Performance art is essentially a catch-all in which you could put temporal art, or art with no visible product, or a bunch of other things -- maybe we could say that it is essentially art that is simply about process. You should understand what it means for an artist to have a process -- Jackson Pollock is probably the canonical example of this for modern work and like it or not, you're going to have to read about him anyways. You also need to understand how documentation works in these examples, because often documentation is your product when nothing else is created: this can take the form of photos, or video, or something else.

I would strongly suggest -- if you can do it -- that you take a performance art course because it should provide a comfortable environment in which to receive criticism. Criticism is how you learn.

The other piece of advice I'd give if you're worried about being pretentious and wanky is this: it's ok to have a sense of humor. It's ok for what you're doing to not be totally serious -- it's ok to make people laugh. It's ok to be absurd. It's ok to not perform at all, but quietly do a task and document it. The performance doesn't always need an audience present when it occurs.

Lastly, if you're asking how to 'break into performance art that will get collected by museums', I would say you need to move to New York or another major art center and make work for ten years or more, build some connections, possibly go to art school, and get really goddamned lucky. there's certainly a fiction of overnight art stars who get 'discovered', but I think the truth is far from that.

posted by fishfucker at 7:48 AM on July 28, 2008

performance art that will get collected by museums

You could think of that as photography or video, of a certain genre, being "performance documentation."
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:19 AM on July 28, 2008

It only takes a twist in perceptions to posit any art as performative. If the performance space is the page then poetry is the performance within that space
posted by 0bvious at 10:05 AM on July 28, 2008

surenoproblem: Ha! I actually know someone who's working at 2High Festival. I don't actually have anything to perform, though I might go there to see what others are up to.

0bvious: Answering your questions:

- Where do I live: Brisbane, Australia. Which has a pretty vibrant arts scene but it can get rather messy for a newbie/outsider.

- What kind of performance art: Uh, this is where I'm stuck. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. I have concepts in my head (for example, cutting up my "heart", smothering it with different things to represent different emotions, then pressure-cooking it) but I have no idea where to go from there. I'm open to experimentation.

- Hobby or study: This would mainly be a hobby. I'm not opposed to it being a job, but I'm pretty sure it won't pay even half my bills. Besides, to stay in the country I need a more stable job! But I'd like to pursue performance art as a way to get my creative side going, as it is rather underutilized at the moment.

Does anyone know of any good courses along these lines in Brisbane that could help? I'm enrolling in an improv class, and have done circus, singing, and dance, but any other suggestions are good too.
posted by divabat at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2008

Performance art is pretentious. Get used to it. Get a book on fluxus or Maciunus.
posted by pleasantries at 6:41 PM on July 28, 2008

Final update from the OP:
Ever since that post, I got into circus and burlesque, which led to all manner of performance arts adventures across Australia and parts of the US, which eventually led to an MFA in San Francisco which I just graduated from. There was a time gap between when I posted that question and when I actually got started, but I have come a long, long way.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 9:15 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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