Performativity in Art and the Production of Presence

Susanne Jaschko


Curator of the exhibition, Berlin

The high level of connectivity and the widespread dissemination of digital networks have massively altered our perception of space and time and of ourselves in relation to those entities. This fact is no news, but rather the opposite: an old hat that contemporary culture has been wearing with some persistency. Again in the context of Process as Paradigm it is necessary to pull it out of the closet, because this new perception of us as particles of larger networks – an effect of real-time connectedness – is one of the major conditions for the prevalence of the present and of process as a concept in culture and in the arts.

Connectivity has a huge impact on societies that have the technological means to be part of real-time networks – and reciprocally on those that don’t. To those people who partake in the electronic realm of unlimited access to digital communication and to production facilities, the shift to the networked society has brought about new kinds of relationships and has consequently resulted in a weakening of more traditional social bonds. It has also generated new modes of collaborative production over distance, of which the organisation of this exhibition is only one example.

We who are involved in these new and different typologies of scattered communities, groups, manifold production networks and communication grids, act within them with different intensities, but with an awareness of our own dispersed presence in all these systems. We have become agents of these processes. One might even argue that we are like little robots that only execute the programme that is assigned to us by those systems, while still believing in our own autonomy.

No doubt, the degree of performance and presence that is demanded in all these systems – not only the technological ones – is tremendously challenging. We live in a culture of the present in which the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ – in its new interpretation – has become a universal condition. In this celebration of presence and the present lies one of the major factors for the turn in the arts to processuality and performativity, a shift that is gaining momentum.

Admittedly, these concepts have been explored and discussed before in the context of several artistic practices. For example, during the rise of interactive art, its event-like character was deduced from the underlying real-time process. New media artist Masaki Fujihata noted in his essay on interactivity in the Ars Electronica catalogue of 2001: “A coming interactive art will not preserve any objects, but serve as an interaction with a function/system for generating an energy/place where participants’ struggles can emerge in real-time. It is this real-time process during which a user activates his/her thoughts to simulate happenings between now and the future. Far beyond reading/writing, real-time action can breach the barrier between the expression of the creator and the experience of the user. It is not a document, but an event that takes place here and now.”[1] Much earlier, the terms ‘process’ and ‘behaviour’ became central to the artist Roy Ascott. Already in 1967 he wrote: “When art is a form of behaviour, software predominates over hardware in the creative sphere. Process replaces product in importance, just as system supersedes structure”.[2] Both Ascott and Fujihata referred to process as a participatory momentum that evolves through the morphological relationship between artist, recipient/user and the (technological) system, which is the usual way of looking at process as a central characteristic of interactive art.

In contrast to generative art, in which only the technological system on display performs and behaves autonomously, in interactive art both humans and technological artefacts perform. In both cases however, generative and interactive art, live processes take place that generate unique configurations and dynamics (a notion on which I will later expand) driven by individual behaviour, and result, for the spectator, in a strong sensation of immediacy and presence. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is one of the few humanists who critiqued the hermeneutic culture of interpretation in the arts and who assigned presence a quality next to meaning. Gumbrecht turned against the exclusive construction of meaning in the humanities, and against their limited focus on signs and meaning structures. He argued that there is another valid access to the world beyond representation – the aesthetic experience of presence.[3] Gumbrecht further speaks of an “oscillation between presence effects and meaning effects” which I would identify as a property of all processual art.

With the exhibition sk-interfaces, curator and theoretician Jens Hauser revealed the presence and meaning effects of artworks based on processing and generation of skin as a living matter and interface.[4] By presenting works of performance art, documentations of projects and objects the sk-interface exhibition introduced artistic strategies that articulated biological systems and biotechnical procedures as means of expression.

Many artworks that are attributed to the genre of Bio Art transfer biotechnical methods from the laboratory into the art space, and often imply the maintenance of a process or an experiment by the artist or qualified personnel. Projects like Victimless Leather by the Tissue Culture & Art Project[5] or the Biomodd installation by Angelo Vermeulen[6] for instance imply the presence of the artists and their collaborators during the construction of the system and for conducting the processes. The art space thus becomes performative, a space in which the living activity, the processual experiment and the dialogue between work, artists and their audiences constitute the artwork. The physical object or system still plays a role, but cannot be isolated form the other components of the process.

Artworks with a limited life-span or that unfold as live processes in (collaborative) development, flux and change are unique in that they cannot be repeated or reproduced in the same way. With some works in the exhibition, like Peter Flemming’s Leak to Lower Lazy Levitating Load,this uniqueness is produced by their designed ability to respond to the special place in which they are located, what in science is termed as ‘initial conditions. This workbehaves in dependence of changes of the natural light outside of the exhibition space. Because of the gallery’s architecture and lack of natural light inside, sunlight collectors have to be placed outside. The display of the installation nonetheless reveals that this component exists and is an active agent in the process.

Other works are not responsive to the environment, but instead are totally isolated from it. Ralf Baecker’s The Conversation for instance is an entirely self-contained work, active in a continuous operation that aims at keeping the system’s balance of forces. Through relaxation and contraction, different initial rubber-band configurations generate different patterns in time. Autonomously, the system comes up with ever-changing formations that may be difficult to differentiate. However minimal the visual changes are, the succession of patterns is never the same.

An intrinsic property of these and other works in the exhibition is to produce difference through their unpredictable performance. Even if the system that generates the process stays the same, it produces a flow of differences as a series of subtle micro-events. Through differential output in the form of unique moments and situations in process, hence of presence in art, authenticity is generated. In the art system, authenticity is in permanent jeopardy, and for that reason is a distinctive quality between art and non-art. In the light of the inimitability of processual art at the moment of its presentation, the request for the original, most notably made by Walter Benjamin[7] is taken into account. But the unique process is more than just a time-based original; it is also authentic in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s sense, in that it is created with some conceptual distance from the art system’s catechism and grows out of a self-conscious, self-driven and independent research.

The subtle changes being characteristic of processual art have a strong impact on the specific, subjective perception and understanding of the here and now. While today we increasingly experience a “tyranny of the here and now,” with its unrelenting demand for our attention in everyday life, the delicate and ambient nature of processual art allows for shared attention, the choice between active and passive agency on the part of the recipient, and a multiplicity of access points. In this regard, processual art opposes the oppressive canon of the spectacle and instead introduces the idea of art that merges with life.

Processual art has the potential to mirror, respond to, or comment on the changing, processual nature of existence on a long-term basis. Consider for example the city as a living organism constantly reshaped by both rapid change and permanence. Processes inside this organism progress evolve at different speeds and at varying levels of complexity. By the integration of processual art within this realm, everyday processes – say, urban flows – can for instance be transferred into dynamic movement and abstract form, thus becoming living public works and active agents in the larger processes of building identity and community.

Nevertheless one might criticise processual art for its strong bond with the present, particularly when recalling what Guy Debord’s wrote about the reign of the perpetual present and the power of the spectacle to annihilate historical knowledge, in particular the recent past.[8] Indeed, the temporality and fugaciousness of processual art does not support necessarily building historical knowledge, although there are exceptions such as the project Territoris Oblidats that in particular generates an archive of forgotten places in Catalonia, Spain.[9] In absolute contrast to spectacle, processual art builds on time and produces a history in itself which is displayed as traces of the past. Here it becomes obvious that processual art in its contemporary, relatively long-lasting forms refuses those old categories and theories at large, but calls for a fresh and undisguised approach.

As much as processual art offers as an experience of presence and for the construction of meaning, it carries with it a question that until now remains unanswered. How much visual interface, how much “display,” how much “screen” or “sign” must it produce or be made of in order to be identifiable and acceptable as art? This question becomes critical first and foremost in the face of works with a strong activist or interventionist character, or which appropriate the visual languages, methodologies and technologies of disciplines not related to art. This is the case of many works in the genre of “Bio Art.” [10] If we are willing to accept the paradigm of an art beyond representation, are we then willing to accept that of an art beyond the regime of the “display”? Admittedly, the exhibition Process as Paradigm does not provide an answer, since it is packed with material processes and visualisations that address the classic sensory apparatus for the perception of art. But perhaps the meditation on the condition of the “display” – that is, the visual appearance of an artwork – is a wrong approach, which too easily follows the beaten path of looking at sign and meaning separately. A useful thought comes from speech act theory. Linguist John L. Austin developed the idea that every act of speech holds the dimension of an act beyond the oral performance.[11] He claimed that the border between the word and the thing is more an ‘infrathin’[12] than a divide, in that speech is not limited to the description and analysis of the world, but has the power to generate and to constitute conditions of the world. In the light of this theoretical proposition, processual art reveals similarities to the act of speaking through its properties of performativity, that is, in the way in which it collapses form and meaning into one single entity.

For Austin however, the generative power of speech is limited to the domain of social facts. Speech can generate facts and conditions, provided it is the nucleus of a social act. If we follow Austin’s argument and test it on processual art, we discover meaningful and interesting symmetries between utterance and processuality, which are two lines in time. When integrated into, and conceived for the realm of a social structure – that is, when it emphasises performativity over visuality – processual art has the power to generate new conditions of the world.

[1] Fujihata, M. „On Interactivity“, in TAKEOVER. wer macht die kunst on morgen, Ars Electronica, Linz, 2001, p. 318.

[2] Ascott, R. “Behaviourables and Futuribles”, in Siles, K. and Selz, P. (eds.), Theories of Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.

[3] Gumbrecht, HU. Production of the Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, Stanford University Press, 2004.

[4] The exhibition was first presented at FACT-Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool, in 2008.

[5] The Victimless Leather project (2004) problematised the concept of garment by making it semi-living. The Victimless Leather is grown out of immortalised cell lines which cultured and form a living layer of tissue supported by a biodegradable polymer matrix in the form of a miniature coat-like shape. The Victimless Leather project addresses growing living tissue into a leather-like material.

[6] The Biomodd project was first developed in 2007 at The Aesthetic Technologies Lab at Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts in Athens, Ohio. It was continued with the help of local collaborators in Brazil, Singapore and the Philippines. It takes shape in the form of locally created art installations that incorporate living ecosystems and networks of modified computers. The structures include a system of recycled computers connected to an aqua-phonics system, and a multiplayer game that enables visitors to interact with the sculpture.

[7] Benjamin, W. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit“, in Tiedemann, R. and Schweppenhäuser, H. (eds.), Gesammelte Schriften I, 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1980, pp. 471-508.

[8] Debord, G. Commentaires sur la societé du spectacle, Editions Gèrard Lebivici, Paris, 1988, p.29.

[9] This participatory online archive will be developed further during the Interactivos? workshop that was organised in the context of the Process as Paradigm exhibition. Like all projects that are worked on in the workshop, Territoris Oblidats will be presented in its latest state of development in the exhibition. http://www.pmurba.net/territoris

[10] Lucas Evers elaborates on this kind of works in his essay Processes and Art Beyond Representation in this catalogue.

[11] Austin, JL. How to do things with Words,in Urmson, JO. (ed.), The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, Clarendon, Oxford, 1962.

[12] Marcel Duchamp coined the term infrathin“ for the all but imperceptible difference between two seemingly identical items. See Duchamp, M. Notes (trans. Matisse, P.), G.K. Hall &Co, Boston, 1983, pp.1-46.