NEW MATERIALISM AND PERFORMANCE ART
There is a special kind of relationship between matter and art. Barbara Bolt argues: “Art is material practice and that materiality of matter lies at the core of creative practice.”9 She writes that dance, theatre, and fashion as embodied practices engage the matter of bodies. In music, the material bodies of composers, musicians, and singers co-collaborate with instruments and other technologies in spaces that allow music to emerge. Moreover, she mentions visual artists who engage all manner of material processes in making and assembling art. “The material facts of artistic practices seem so self-evident and integral to our understanding of our art it may seem unremarkable to frame them in terms of material turn,”10 she writes.
Bolt does not mention performance artists – or perhaps she includes them in the category of visual artists – but I think performance artists have a unique relationship with matter. Firstly, performance art is known as embodied practice, a matter of body. Secondly, performance art quite often involves a special kind of relationship with things.
It is not only about the things artists use, but performance art is also largely concerned with creating relationships with objects or showing something about the ways in which we relate to objects. These relationships can be conceptual or corporeal, and quite often they are both. If I think of classic performance art pieces like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) or Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 with 72 objects (1974), they both work with objects and show something about the relationships between humans and objects, not to mention that they both contain a bodily aspect.
In her video Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler presents kitchen objects by naming them very clearly: “A is for apron”. The setting is familiar from TV cooking shows, but Rosler’s semi-aggressive mimicry related to objects does not lead the viewer to think about a kitchen full of delicious smells. At the latest by the time when Rosler is making a Zorro gesture with raised knives, it’s clear that the semiotics of the kitchen have nothing to do with cooking.11 Rosler herself has said of this work: "I was concerned with something like the notion of 'language speaking the subject,' and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity."12 Through the material objects, Rosler criticizes the place that is given to women. The kitchen objects are part of a subjectivity process that is not only semiotic but also a material convention.
Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 was a very different kind of performance, but it also demonstrates something very significant about our relationship with objects. In her performance, Abramovic stood still while the audience was invited to do whatever they wished to her using one of the 72 objects she had placed on a table. The objects included a rose, a feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar, and a gun loaded with one bullet. Abramovic herself has described her experience this way: “I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”13
We can analyze Abramovic's performance not only as an interaction between the artist and the audience, but also as an experiment of intra-action between humans and objects. On the one hand, there was the audience and their interaction with the objects that were available, their opportunity to use those objects. On the other hand, we can think of how the objects were related to the artist’s body (and how she felt about it). Of course, one can also ask what it means that the artist herself chose such objects to be used on her: what actions do these objects carry in themselves, what actions do they suggest, how do they perform, and what is the potentiality of matter?
However, materialistic approaches in performance art vary widely. As a more recent example, I would like to mention Tero Nauha’s performance Tell me about your machines (2012), in which he asked the audience to talk about their relationships with the machines that they use in their daily lives. Nauha describes the performance setting as follows: “There was a lot of black electric cables and wire on the floor, which created a kind of ‘nest’ or ‘network’ between the audience and myself. At the beginning of the performance I asked three or five people from the audience to become participants in the performance. They were asked to sit on the chairs reserved for them, which were closer to mine. These participants heard my voice through headphones, while the rest of the audience heard it normally without amplification. The participants were asked questions about the machines and devices they had.”14 The questions asked included, for example, how people used their machines or whether their machines used them. Who has control? Do the machines have their own individuality?
At the end of the discussion part, Nauha asked the audience to project or imagine their machines on the empty wall. Then he went to stand in the front of the wall telling the audience that he was the machine now and the audience could direct him as they wished. Members of the audience could tell Nauha how to move, what sounds to make, and so on. “The machines” were embodied and performed.
The performance was a part of Nauha’s doctoral dissertation, Schitzoproduction: Artistic research and performance in the context of immanent capitalism (2016), in which he asks what kind of role technological devices have in our everyday lives and how their role is related to the production of subjectivity. Following Gilbert Simondon’s thinking, Nauha states that our relationship to objects, here to machines and devices, is “an affective process, within a milieu – a system of objects and beings, where, in Gilbert Simondon’s terms, the question is not of ontology, but ontogenesis – a process of becoming in and through relationality.”15 So, matter is not only matter, but part of the system(s) of how we define ourselves.
In her performance Alphabets of Performance Art (2012), Leena Kela presents 26 objects and materials that are typically used by performance artists. The objects are titled from A to Z (‘a for an apple’, ‘b for a balloon’, ‘c for cardboard’ etc.) and each one includes an action with the object. The apple is for throwing on the floor, balloons are used here for floating in the air above a vacuum cleaner, and on the cardboard, Kela writes, “This is too noisy” as a comment to the vacuum cleaner that is still on. Kela’s performance can be seen as an introduction to the world of performance art, underlining the aspect of everyday life and its object-oriented nature. Kela comments on the genre of performance art with a touch of irony, but in a hearty manner, fully conscious of the conventions of the genre and the repetitive forms that it takes. Her performing attitude is far from Rosler’s aggressiveness, but rather playful and ‘educational’.