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TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT: “Performance Art(ists) and Language(s)”

TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT: “Performance Art(ists) and Language(s)”

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“Terms of Engagement” is a monthly column about relationships between performance art(ists) and language(s). Please send your responses to

Do we (“performance artists”) want to argue that “performance art” is so slippery, ephemeral, complex, sensual and “insensible/insane” that imperial, written European-language art history and art criticism—or written language of any kind—can never claim to hold, understand, know, or own “performance art? Or do we (“performance artists”) want to argue for the value and sanity of performance art within dominant (art)world(s) and dialectic trajectories (or “otherwise”), and/or to claim that performance art is an “artistic discipline” like any other and subject to the same markets, framing devices, and recognitions? What are the implications of writing on and about performance art, for us (“performance artists”), and for our practices, if neither of these options seems quite right? Can we devise and relationally develop linguistic engagements, using dictions, languages, ways of writing, and communication processes which perform with, as, and through performance art, increasing its potentialities, becoming ways of “standing under” performance art rather than “understanding” “it” as some-thing(s) to own?


Box sent to author from Anya Liftig.

Terms Themselves

Performance artist and writer Anya Liftig sent me a box covered in stickers, containing a winter coat, a porcelain pickle, and Kay Redfield Jameson’s book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Free Press, 1993) about the relationship between madness and artistic process. Jameson writes in search of what she calls “a fine madness,” a madness that enables instead of disables. In this book, a certain “productivity” is sought. The author argues that “the disease” need not be ameliorated, it can rather be abstracted and appropriated by a conscious subject, made to emerge autonomously as an abstraction or readymade, allowed to per-form as “artistic reason(ing)” itself.

Present Tense: I am holding the pickle

The abstracted and/or readymade “art vehicle” hovers above sense and nonsense. The performance artist is holding the pickle, producing an image of herself doing so. The image itself is (in)active, (in)formative, and can also turn “inward” on the performer, becoming an instruction: hold the pickle. The description/inscription of the action (conceptual score) is “the autonomous artwork.”

Performance art, when it particularly takes this common form of “autonomous act,” can and often is frozen and held mid-explosion by objective/objectifying reasoning and (de)(in)scription. Much of late 20th and early 21st century criticism deals with performance art by emphasizing the vehicular, terminological frames which describe what the work is describing in one flattened, descriptive breath.

There is an ontologically-positivist (and rather “Modernist”) assumption embedded here, that stable perspectives in timespace are more sane, more valuable, and moreover, productive of “critical” writing and “rational” analysis. Hereby, criticism and discussion of performance art is often limited to description only. Chris Burden had his friend shoot him in the arm. Yves Klein used naked women as paintbrushes. Vito Acconci masturbated under the floor. (Notice that these historic performances, easily described in short sentences, are made by white men)

The directive to pause, to freeze, to delimit sensing and perceiving to a vantage point of singular(ity of) presence, is also the directive provided to manic depressives during an episode. The objective eye is seen and sees itself autotomizing an object of attention, which it can then subjectively navigate, analyze, know, own, hold, and (ideally) control.

Is understanding the same as controlling? Are there ways of understanding (“standing under”) which do not seek to control, to make into property as knowledge, to own?

I am not the first or only person to point out that CONTROL is the most general, doxastic and dominant objective of capitalism and other colonial agendas, that control is the objective underlying patriarchy and white supremacy. “Under control” is a very definition of sanity and reason, as (re)produced and co-constructed by/within these paradigms.

“The disease” and “the performance artwork” are commoditized, known, and controlled via terminological description. For “the disease,” this objectification allows diagnoses, pharmaceutical management, therapy, a “corrective” control of “the illness.” For “the performance artwork” it enables participation in art markets via quantification of value, contextualization within art history, and qualification of aesthetic sensibility, a “corrective” control of “othered” practices.

Detachment of concept turns concept into valuable object

In Western art a detachment (or “autonomization”) of conceptual and performative processes turns these into an object/product/art. This automization is realized through two dominant processes which are both conceptual and terminological: one could be called “ready-making” and the other “abstraction.”

How are terms such as “abstract” and “readymade” applied to performance art? Can and/or “should” these terms be “applied” as controls on/of performance art? What are the implications using these terms to describe and/or to engage performance art? Can these terms become terms of engagement rather than solely serving to objectify and commodify performative and conceptual processes?

“Abstract,” as an art-historical and critical term, encompasses both the way in which the work was made (abstractly, abstracting) and interprets that work as “abstract.” When an existent/extant work is described as abstract, the insinuation is that the work has been “extracted” from a source material or materialization process; an abstraction has been performed, resulting in abstract art. The work of abstract art exists or is extant not as a representation, signification, or reference to material/matters, but rather exists or is extant somehow “in its own way” or “of its own accord.”

“Ready-made,” as an art-historical and critical term, involves both the way in which the work was made and a way of interpreting that work as “a ready-made.” When an existent/extant work is described as ready-made, the insinuation is that an object has been “extracted” from its original context, moved whole into an art context. The ready-making action exists or is extant not as a representation, signification, or reference to material/matters, but rather exists or is extant somehow “in its own way” or “of its own accord.”

IV Castellanos, RED GLOBOS (2015) at JACK. Photo by Laura Blüer.

IV Castellanos is the performance artist who comes to mind regarding “abstract” performance art. They are the only performance artist whom I’ve heard specifically describing their own practice in this way. In one sense, this description of a performance as “abstract” may refer to the artist’s intentional, ideologically-driven refusal to presuppose interpretations or attempt to communicate single or particular meanings “through” an artwork. An ideological position on meaning-making that values multiplicity and difference makes sense here. But, this is not to say that the acts and images of the “autonomous artwork” (in this case, a performance) cannot be said to be abstracted from somewhere/somehow. Castallanos “abstracts” acts of construction with hammer and nails, military obstacle courses, and certain actions such as building and breaking out of literal boxes can be seen as metaphorical.

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Crop Killa (2017) at Panoply Performance Laboratory. Screenshot from house video documentation.

A “ready-made” performance might be seen as an appropriation of describable, existing-as-such acts. When Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow teaches soca steps to the audience while dressed in carnival garb “soca steps” and “the act of soca dancing” are removed from their “original” contexts and placed into a gallery, framed as and made art. Framing elements may hold and contextualize the acts outside of their “original/originating” contexts; contents, describable as actions such as “soca dancing” are suspended in the center of the frame. The acts themselves remain recognizable and describable, but their meanings are proliferated and a multiplicity of interpretations are made possible. Descriptions of performances in ready-making modes can correlate source contexts and practices; it is often seen as inherently meaningful for artists to “make visible” an act “from elsewhere” and to frame and contextualize it in a way that enables description, interpretation, and of course (e)valuation.

Critical analysis of performance art often solely involves description of the acts themselves (i.e. “the artist cut themselves out of a foamcore box with a sawsall”), sometimes involving description of where the act comes from (i.e. “soca comes from Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1970s”). Works, as autonomous vehicles for sense, hereby drive a productive line between order/sanity and chaos/insanity, translating between these two spheres via objectification of process and presence.

In conclusion: ENGAGEMENT

Through the little semantic test above, I find that it is absolutely possible to use “art world” terminology to describe performance art. Words such as “abstract” and “ready-made” can be applied to performance art. There are, however, implications to terms of engagement limited to application. Application of particular terms narrows purview, excluding other considerations and frames by emphasizing terms which have themselves been autonomized. Practices are simplified and coerced to “fit into” these terms.

“Abstraction” as a term applied to performance art, for example, can serve to negate bodily presence: Performance art cannot operate “on its own” in the way that an abstract painting can because the artist’s person is present. Persons—“bodies” if you like—prevent performance “works” from being seen and experienced as entirely “abstract;” in our current historical-political context, every person is also a political representative, signifying elements of identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and so on, which participate as in-formations within larger paradigms. There is no “neutral” human being-body who does not carry and present cultural, political, and social significance. Therefore, it may be useful to use the term abstraction more simply as a verb, without relying heavily on “an abstract art” as a descriptive framing term used to define an objectified artwork. When an artist is performing abstractly, perhaps we can say they are translating particular verbs as modal elements of identity, ideology, and experience; pulling apart, laying out, using as a tool, and so on are more particular (and perhaps more meaningful) ways of talking about “abstracting” as a process. Each verbed term engages and materializes interpretations (e.g. proliferates meaning-making potential) in their own way(s), perhaps coming closer to the artist’s intention not to close or delimit potential meaningfulnesses.

Similarly, “Ready-Making” as a frame negates social process and interaction as contextualizing and meaning-making forces; an “action” is not an isolated object (like a urinal or box of soap) possible to be observed juxtapositionally (object-in-time-space) by one ideal and located observer; actions in performance are performed by person-bodies (see above) in a particular time and place, with and for particular persons who cannot be cohered into a singular “observer” or single “audience.” Witnessing live art is always participatory, destabilizing and more essentially reforming and altering “the already-made” element, even if that act is performed presentationally. A social act like soca dancing has an even more complex variety of affects and meaning-making potentials for those involved and co-performing. It is almost impossible to separate “the act” from “the actors” and how, where and by whom this act is enacted takes primacy over the act “in itself,” its appearance, or the semiotic potentials of its “ready-made” objective description/inscription.

It is not that there can be no “object of attention,” i.e. “the performance,” it is that this description fails in its attempt to own or know the performance. Persons are within a live performance, part of it, not without it, looking at it, and this “within-ness” is not subjected to a “made” material or matter. I would argue that a social performance in particular can never really be effectively described by the term “ready-made.” Performance, especially social performance like Lyn-Kee-Chow’s soca dancing “class” used an example here, deranges dichotomies between subjects and objects rather than solidifying an object and re-framing it. The sorts of sense made by Crop Killa are somatic, sensory, associative, and symbolic and while a single person (a critic or art historian) can describe the conceptual significance of the act (and its contextualization) as an object of attention from a fabricated objective position in time (after the [af]facts), this description in no way involves or engages with the situation of the live performance, which “is” the artworking.

Performance art often self-reflexively deals with that which is so complex, haptic, and conceptual that it seems chaotic, radically insensible.

Is the objec(tive) control of the body?

Performance art often self-reflexively deals with that which is so complex, haptic, and conceptual that it seems chaotic, radically insensible. Liftig and I have both been told that our mental health would be “improved” by an abandonment of performance art and told that perhaps the making of performance art is a good way to relegate “the disease” into discrete, controllable acts.

Anya Liftig, PLANTS action for camera (2012) at MANA Contemporary during the MDW Art Fair. Screenshot from house video documentation.

Through conversation, anecdote, forms of recall and expression of intention, images, video, and other modes of substantiation and critical engagement, colloquial languages, art-historical languages, theoretical languages, and many other dictions, vocabularies, and semantic shenanigans, this column will balance between chaotic dissolve and orderly attempts to communicate through, within, and as performance art. Like performance art “itself,” writing can perform an (in)tension between and partially autonomous from either the verbose, delusional, associative and abstract wildings of mania or the deterministic, and erasing appropriative nihilism of depression.

You can use any terms you want, but terms are terms of engagement and have their own political and formal implications.

To a performance artist (or a manic depressive) words can be offered, contracted, seen mapped out in vast webs, jerking with inner spiritus of their own, mutilated and compelled into service of ideations oppressive and/or liberative. Any terms selected have mutual influence on performance art. You can use any terms you want, but terms are terms of engagement and have their own political and formal implications.

Without departing on a vast survey of other writers engaging with performance art who have similarly argued that greater subjectivity, more “poetic” language, and other “less formal” theoretical tools work better with performance art, I want to conclude this essay with an initial proposal for how writing might engage with performance art rather than merely describe, autonomize, and e(value)ate it.


Through this column, I will attempt ways of writing which are:

-are verb-oriented (as with abstracting) and use description/inscription solely to re-present the artist(s)’s processes not to describe “the whole work” as an object qualified within terminological qualification and (e)valuation schemas

-Recall the experience of being within/witnessing the performance, from the perspective of the subjective writer and staying very close to (as if within) the writer’s body (not just describing “what happened” but also the temperature in the room, associations arising in the mind, etc)

-try to evoke the feeling or sense of (a) performance by analogizing forms of language with the forms of the performance, for example a discussion of an abstracting performance might be written like uuuuuuhhhhuai, grrrrrrrrmmp, thlululuhic…

-distribute subjective interpretations through forms of interview and transcripted conversation, accumulation of documentation images, memories, etc. from multiple positions within/as the performance, from within/during the performance

-consist of intentions and ideations, frames and forms written by performance makers about and through as part of their practices and performances

-how else? Please write to with responses, further thoughts, relevant images, and/or video. These materials may be uploaded here (by emailing me you will be consenting to have your materials made public).





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