The Stories We Tell – Performance Artists As Curators


In many cases artists whose practice is predominantly performance based, are recognised by the autobiographical tone of their work. Using identity as a primary credential, this article will address the consequence and expectations in terms of how certain performance artists are often framed, marketed and dramatically characterised within the wider discourse; a path that

The term artworld itself is one coined by the presently disillusioned and yet influential art critic, Arthur Danto, “Danto’s definition has been glossed as follows: something is a work of art if and only if (i) it has a subject (ii) about which it projects some attitude or point of view (has a style) (iii) by means of rhetorical ellipsis (usually metaphorical) which ellipsis engages audience participation in filling in what is missing, and (iv) where the work in question and the interpretations thereof require an art historical context.” It has been argued as to how clause iv) makes the definition institutional.leads some to a form of self-curation and a way of making themselves visible in the artworld.


In mining this definition further towards the subject of artists as curators, one has to ask a more general question; which artists are termed Performance artists or should they known as ‘artists who perform’?

I would argue that one of the key ways a number of these artists are institutionalised is by an autobiographical appendix that remains indexically linked to the way their work is presented, received and historised. So all of the above clauses including the distinct one of an autobiographic reading are applicable to artists but specifically to performance artists.

One of the prime examples of such an autobiographical tagging would include the passionate German artist Joseph Beuys, who in 1941, volunteered for the Luftwaffe. He began his military training as an aircraft radio operator in 1941 and the perennial bind of surviving a plane crash and on rescue being wrapped in fat and felt to keep him alive remained deeply ingrained.

He wrote, “Yet, it was they (the Tartars) who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness. The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in – I always preferred free movement to safety belts… My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact – there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying ‘Voda’ (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.”

It is not inconsistent with Beuys’ work that his biography would have been subject to his own reinterpretation; this particular story has served as a powerful myth of origins for Beuys’ artistic identity, as well as providing the interpretive key to his use of unconventional materials, amongst which felt and fat were central to an array of acrimonious public acts.

The above encounters led Beuys to resolve his dilemma by modes of autonomous representation, in a repatriation of knowledge and organisation. Beuys subsequently founded the German Student Party, the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research and in 1976 ran for the German Bundestag (parliament). In mapping a legacy where avant garde materials and methods are used in art, the autobiographical and self governance become a necessary portal to a successful confrontation to and with the conservative ideological artworld.

The autobiographical presence for artists who are committed to performance or an avant garde trajectory is, I would like to suggest, a necessary strategy as an act of renewal of democracy.

A second form of artistic-led mobility towards presence is evident in the generation that followed Beuys; decades which saw the formation of groups rather than associations, collectives and cooperatives rather than an International coalition around ideas.

One of the most important was the Black Mountain College, from which a narrative or causal relation to each other as interdisciplinary artists, provided a collective marking. Dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer and musician John Cage emerged alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Buckminster Fuller. A student of John Cage, Allan Kaprow, later termed and held the first happening. It is impossible to condense the work at Black Mountain College, or Cage and Cunningham’s extensive and influential careers, experimental by nature and committed to a multifaceted approach. The college attracted a faculty that included many of America’s leading visual artists, composers, poets, and designers, whose interest was in an allowance for complexity including that “committed to democratic governance and to the idea that the arts are central to the experience of learning.”

In an artworld where there is no logical certainty, judgments, whether aesthetic or concerning how to evolve in a market or institutional practice are not clearly provable.

Having said that, in my position as a curator and in my conversations with artists, it is possible to evaluate the potential that they have been able to source, including the historical legacies of autobiographical tagging and in the formation of groups. The latter have certainly provided cohesive steps towards a form of recognition that accommodates their practice to be embedded into funding and exhibiting structures. Frameworks, as well as collective networking, allow for the distribution of ideas and address the goal for visibility and continuity.

Since the times of Beuys and the Black Mountain College, we find ourselves living and working in increasingly expensive cities with rental arrangements gradually becoming unmanageable; combined with art and luxury cohabitation, the control of art has to a large extent reversed within its stakeholders, resulting in art practitioners. Its producers are in competition with the art industry whose disproportional use of its prowess has disturbed the course of trust, good will, generosity and a great deal of other traditional factors, including philanthropy and patronage, access to media, and the entry to both private and state collections.

In so many cases it is the gallerist or its assistants who mediate many of the relationships and it is in this broken interpersonal relationship that ideas have gradually been replaced by an economy of signs. We continue to look for security in our relationships, although it is increasingly obvious that our models for that area of life are also not matching up with reality very well.

From a curatorial perspective what has been interesting to note down are the following modes of presenting ideas and operating in this contemporary setting that allow for the artist to recover their pace of development but, even more importantly, preserve a sense of independence both as producers and amongst those actively involved in its curatorship.

I state the following trends by implying that these fragile relationships have meant that artists who are involved in marginalised practices, including performance work, digital and ephemeral artists or even those involved in art as protest, have had to accept change in the last two decades and to incorporate self organisation as a working reality. Often they find themselves outside institutional curators’ and collectors’ radars.

The first of the two changes is in the rise and use of lectures and essays by artists; a foreshortening that stems from the nineties production of ethical frontiers between art theory and practice. I refer here to artists who see themselves in a performing context, a mode not necessary considered as such by organisations who initiated performance or live art from the 70s, 80s and even the 90s.

Prime practioners of the essay performers include, Hito Steyerl, Harun Farocki, Liam Gillick and Rabih Mroue- all present cautionary tales approximating a social consciousness from a global perspective, dovetailed to the culture of anxiety.

A relevant factor to consider in terms of the market and the institutional support that initiates curated exhibitions, is that these artists’ practice emerged in correlation and association with the pioneering e flux, email subscription service. E flux’s ever increasing meta database and progressive experimental ideas, a thrust from e flux’s editorial board as a professional promotional agency for global institutions, has effectively provided a series of opportunities and settings for a group of artists; linking data and potentials which have for these critical writers, speakers, performers and video based artists been important. Initially a number of analogous artists were presented through e flux’s journals and conferences and progressively created access for curating institutional exhibitions, followed by their work in compatible collections, resulting in successful ventures into the commercial market.

Such a contemporary model based on a campus of assembled intellectuals working with a directed agenda, was the domain of endowment institutions including the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts or the Getty Foundation but has rapidly been devolved to art publications including the proposed art education facility to be established by frieze magazine.

As a conclusion to this first wave of associative practices, perspectives and art services inclusive of the market and curating have been highly effective in productively linking data to an emerging philosophical rim. To this extent, it has shaped a network for a large group of artists who are regularly programmed by related museums and institutions and teach on predominantly curatorial courses throughout the world; a framing of discourse that finds itself made relevant and has even emerged in the market.

A second and lesser emerging platform is once more related to discourses with an emphasis on geographies rather than to political address, as such designated as expanding narratives. The content is articulated and reflective of fictional and non-fictional places, achieved through performative lectures, installations and collectable publications, embraced in the work of Simon Fujiwara and Slavs & Tartars.

These artists rely on commissions by sympathetic foundations, biennales, art fairs and concurrently work with commercial galleries. Their work is collected in the form of objects, videos but, more importantly, the process allows them to realise their ideas on multiple, including self curatorial, platforms from which the relics as publications, objects, video or documentary material are released as commercial stock.

In the former times presenting research as a strategy for artistic practice, had remained the sole domain of research funding from higher education institutions, as it is often a precarious and beguiling balance based on strategic re-formulation; Slavs’ and Tartars’ regional linguistic web-like encasing or Simon Fujiwara’s intriguing journeys involving gumshoe archeology, travel and sexuality are dependent on revealing specific correlations; their instigations have won over funders willing to stay the course, a condition that allows a great deal of curatorial independence.

The fascinating absorption in the artists’ process alongside the empowering of difficult projects has played an interesting role for the funders who often contribute as co-producers; a role that came to the fore in the undertaking of the ambitious Cremaster Cycles spurred by the performance work of Matthew Barney, a testament to artists’ films as major film works. The Cremaster Cycle was produced as films by his New York gallerist, Barbara Gladstone and is viewed as a tour de force for the curatorial ambition of an artist and an achievement in terms of tackling a difficult and industrialised genre.


It is fast becoming obvious that artists who preside as an authority over unrestrained assembling are operating in this definitive mode. Ryan Trecartin’s, co-curation of the New Museum Triennale, Surround Audience (2015) provides a generational setting that “grapples with this sense of multiple realities, or at least the idea that the digital has diced and sliced the ways in which we experience the world.” The presence of Trecartin’s work at the Venice Biennale and major commissions at KunstWerk, Berlin and Zabludowicz Collection, London amongst others, has permitted inserting his sense of a community of interlocutors including the New York based Dis Collective as the forthcoming curators of the Berlin Biennale (2016).

Finally, I would suggest that the recent presence of the artists’ collective has enforced a sense of production by self- determination, a battle against hegemonic invisibility and powerlessness.

Many collectives have successfully ventured into the curatorial realm and their presence has been incrementally persuasive in the arts. Some of the choices they have made have synchronicities to others around them including the art market. I personally believe that the role of the collective is not solely based on networking but the gentle observation which guides the intuitive nature of how they have understood and read artists’ careers in their national state and, later on, their standing in the international artworld.

These collectives include Raqs Media Collective, Camp and the fearless collective (India); MadeIn Company (China); Theertha (Sri Lanka); Rungrupa (Indonesia); Chelpa Ferra (Brazil); Artists Anonymous, Slavs and Tartar (Germany); gelatin (Austria); The Otolith Group, Archive of Modern Conflict, United Visual Artists (UK);

DumbType (Japan); Chto Delat, AES+F (Russia); Dis, K- Hole, Exteriority, Bernadette Corporation, Claire Fontaine, Bruce High Quality Foundation, Etoy Corporation, YAMS, and slightly earlier collectives Goat Island, Ant Farm, guerrilla girls (USA); GCC Gulf Coperation Council (Gulf and beyond) and the Arab Image Foundation (Lebanon).

Often multidisciplinary, they quickly become known for thoughtful, provocative reassessment of the absolute history of authorship that inadvertently questions who presents representation. A large amount of their activities include rewriting from a participative turn that shapes histories rather than history towards an allowance for complexity.

In many cases, artists’ careers do progress in leaps and bounds, whether in terms of sales, media attention, the scale of work or even critical acclaim. All of these do attract the apprehensive eye from other artists, but also from places where the artists’ career is under scrutiny by roving curators. The artists’ remains a subject of research, specifically what and how artists’ work is programmed and placed or of their proximity to specific goals, commercial or other.

An artist who approaches the idea of success as sales of work or even by accumulative adulation can as easily be reined in by ‘circuit breakers’ that maintain the steady course of development. The recent case of performance and visual artist, Terence Koh, whose career was short but meteoric is a key example – from major exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, to commercial galleries as well as his involvement with pop celebrities, all of this did not protect his practice.

Surprisingly, Koh is not the first or last to emotionally and physically surrender to the pressures of performing as a lifestyle, many others have to live up to the storyline as institutionalised tags or instant commercial success can become toxic.

A balanced, persistent and measured approach, one you are compelled towards is needed. One wherein many conversations can be had and each conversation does not need be a test but rather a coming together of ideas and experiences. There is no set career path in the arts. It might even be seen by some as incoherent, a process that unfolds on its own timeline, dependent as well as moving at an independent pace that needs maintaining but not necessarily without critically speculating its myths and ones own mythologizing. What better field to test oneself than to curate and work experimentally to make sense of the whole?

In other words, be one of the people who has something—not just aesthetically, art historically, or career-wise—at stake, but one who once in a while tests historical and curatorial contingency.

藝術世界(artworld)這個詞彙是由俱有影響力卻不再對藝術世界抱有幻想的重要藝術評論阿瑟·丹托 (Arthur Danto)創造出來的。“丹托的定義是這樣的:某物只有在滿足以下條件之後才是藝術作品:(i) 該事物有主題 (ii) 該事物有關於該主題有一定的態度或視角(有一種風格) (iii) 該態度或視角(或稱風格)使用著一種修辭缺失(一般是比喻性的),這缺失通過觀眾的參與填補空缺,(iv) 而這作品以及相關的解讀需求著一種藝術史的語境。”人們關於第四點如何能夠體系化整個定義存在爭議。



“自傳式”標簽最顯著的例子包括充滿激情的德國藝術家約瑟夫·博伊斯(Joseph Beuys)。在1941年,博伊斯誌願參加了德國空軍(Luftwaffe)。同年,他作為一名空軍無線電操作員接受了軍事訓練,後在一次飛機失事事件中存活下來,被墜毀地居民以油脂和毛氈包裹所拯救。這些生活經歷一直出現在他的藝術實踐之中。



上述的經歷指引博伊斯通過自主再現、知識以及組織的回歸解決了他的心理困境。在這之後,博伊斯建立了德國學生黨(German Student Party),自由國際創造力大學(Free International University for Creativity)以及跨學科研究機構(Interdisciplinary Research)並於1976年參加了德國國會(German Bundestag)競選。在進行先鋒藝術實踐質料以及方法使用的宏觀景觀繪製的時候,自傳式內容以及自我掌控成為了對保守意識形態世界有效對峙的必經之路。



在這些團裏,其中一個最重要的是黑山學院(Black Mountain College)。在這裡,各個跨學科的藝術家之間的敘事或因果聯繫為我們提供了一種集體標誌。舞蹈家/編舞家莫思·坎寧安(Merce Cunningham)、編曲家/音樂家約翰·凱奇(John Cage)、藝術家羅伯特·勞申伯格(Robert Rauschenberg)以及巴克明斯特·福樂(Buckminster Fuller)是學院中的佼佼者。凱奇的學生艾倫·開普羅(Allan Kaprow)定義了偶發藝術(happening)並以此開始藝術實踐。壓縮黑山學院的藝術實踐至某個簡單的敘述是不可能的,同樣不可能的是壓縮凱奇或坎寧安的長期、有著重要影響的藝術生涯至一兩句話。他們的作品充滿實驗性,在許多不同的層面上進行創作。黑山學院吸引了一大批日後在美國產生了重要影響的視覺藝術家、作曲家、詩人、設計師,他們的志趣眾多而龐雜,包括“致力於民主管理,並相信藝術對於學習的經驗來說是無比重要的。”








大量進行寫作的藝術家之中,主要包括:西托·斯特爾(Hito Steyerl)、哈倫·法洛基(Harun Farcoki)、利亞姆·吉利克(Liam Gillick)以及拉比·姆魯埃(Rabih Mroue)——這些藝術家都以一種全球的視野進行寫作,與焦慮文化的現實相吻合,呈現了一種模擬社會意識的告誡式敘事。


這一種基於一群知識份子共同協作完成的當代模式在最初只是由包括賽恩斯博利視覺藝術中心(Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts)以及蓋迪基金會(Getty Foundation)在內的數個機構進行支持,但迅速地,包括frieze雜誌在內的藝術刊物也參與到了這個潮流之中-frieze希望在近年建立一個獨立的藝術教育體系。


第二種有著相對小影響力的平臺更多地與地域話語相聯繫,而不是與政治話語相聯繫,這種模式被稱作是擴展中的敘事。這種模式的內容對虛構的或非虛構的場所做出反映,進行行為式授課、裝置藝術並製作收藏級別出版物,代表者包括Simon Fujiwara以及Slavs & Tartars。


在過去,提交研究成果作為藝術實踐的策略一事往往只是與高等教育機構的研究經費相聯繫,因為這行為往往是基於策略重組而做出的不可靠的、迷惑性的平衡;斯拉夫和韃靼(Slavs & Tartars)的地域語言學網狀包裹研究或藤原西蒙(Simon Fujiwara)引人深思的旅程-包括調查考古、旅行、以及性別研究等-則依賴對於特定相關性的發覺;他們的努力贏得了資助者持續的投入,而這繼而為他們帶來了重要的策展獨立性。

對於藝術家創作過程的癡迷以及對於困難計畫的支持對於資助者來說有著非常有趣的角色-資助者因而作為合作製作者對藝術實踐以及計畫作出貢獻;馬休·巴尼(Matthew Barney)的行為作品向宏大的《懸絲(Cremaster Cycles)》系列的轉變就是這種角色的代表性體現,藝術家電影也因此得以成為大型電影作品。《懸絲》系列是作為電影長片由巴尼的紐約畫廊主芭芭拉·格拉德斯通(Barbara Gladstone)製作的,這系列影像作品被視作是藝術家實現策展野心的典範,也被視作是處理一個困難的、工業化了的藝術類型的重要成就。

很快變得明朗的是,作為淩駕於不受限制的集結之上的權威的藝術家往往傾向於使用這種模式。瑞安·特雷卡丁(Ryan Trecartin)為紐約新當代藝術博物館三年展(New Museum Triennale)與他人共同策劃的《包圍觀眾(Surround Audience,2015)》提供了一種裏程碑式的環境安排,這安排“反映了有關多現實的感覺,或,最起碼,回應了這樣的一種想法:數碼科技已經完全把我們體驗世界的方法切割得支離破碎。” 特雷卡丁的作品展於威尼斯雙年展,他也接受了來自德國柏林KunstWerk、倫敦Zabludowicz收藏等機構的委託創作項目。這些成就允許他將自己的群體參與意識置入紐約藝術家群體Dis Collective之中,並共同擔任2016年柏林雙年展的策展人。



這些團體包括:Raqs Media Collective、Campe and the fearless collective(印度);沒頂公司(中國);Theertha(斯裏蘭卡);Rungrupa(印度尼西亞);Chelpa Ferra(巴西);Artists Anonymous、Slavs & Tartar(德國);geletin(奧地利);The Otolith Group、Archive of Modern Conflict、United Visual Artists(英國);

Dumb Type(日本);Chto Delat、AES+F(俄羅斯);Dis、K-Hole、Exteriority、Bernadette Corporation、Clair Fontaine、Bruce High Quality Foundation、Etoy Corporation、YAMS、以及年代更為久遠的Goat Island、Ant Farm、guerrilla girls(美國);GCC Gulf Coperation Council(海灣地區),以及Arab Image Foundation(黎巴嫩)。



嘗試追求商業成功或甚至嘗試通過諂媚式行為的累積獲得成功的藝術家能夠很輕易地被控制著藝術工業發展軌跡的人物收編麾下。在最近,進行行為藝術以及視覺藝術創作的藝術家許漢威(Terence Koh)短暫而耀眼的職業生涯便是一個很好的例子-他在大西洋兩岸都舉辦了重要的美術館展覽,在商業畫廊獲得了成功,與流行明星有著緊密的聯繫,然而這一切都不能為他保全持續的藝術實踐。




Other Views 

“It was commented that artists can do without curators and writers etc, but not vice versa. Of course power structures are problematic but it is ridiculous to even speak of art today without recognising that visibility structures produce the work we examine . Art as we know it is produced by a complex web of actors and the further we go towards recognising and utilising this the better.”—Dr Becky Shaw, artist, research tutor at Sheffield Hallam University.



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