(Article published in www.cartanart.com on 5th May 2014, editor: Johny M.L/Sushma Sabnis)
Performance, in visual arts, is a display of the artist’s physical self, as it is visible from within the limitation and possibility of photography. It is not a mere coincidence that such a performance became intense, as a twin to digital reproducibility. Watch any performance i.e photographs of performances, the audience is visible and verbal, as inevitable participants. This is because the ‘performance-photographer’ is always a newcomer to this mode of perfo-presentation. The photography and its author, in this case, cannot bifurcate the performer from the audience-performance, no matter how well orchestrated the performance is. If it is an outdoor performance, the photograph becomes the most spontaneous document of worldly occurrences. It erases any possible differences between the way the performer poses from that of the almighty creator’s performance.
Hence performance is actually performance-photos in essence (not to be confused with ‘photo-performances’, though the latter shares a genetic connection). The audience, no matter at which point of the performance they are being represented, look generally clueless, the cluelessness based within the performance. Being clueless is also being away from white cube and its ritual of ritualistic behavior as well (Carol Duncan). No matter what the nature of performance is, the audience is mute, often literally, even when they mumble absurdly. The performance-photo is served silent by the relation between the prepared posture of the artist as well as the accidental presence of the audience. This comes from the way one is framed while attending traditional Indian weddings: you need to pose for both the still and video, at the same time! Marriage photos, like performance-photos, capture a similar expression on their faces (except that of the bride and groom, since they are subject to multiple rehearsals). Genetically and historically, performance-photo is the product of a deep rooted, articulated bonsai of street play minus its theatricality.
The imminent absurd nature of performance – often due to its newness and novelty, is the reason for and catalyses the unpredictable nature of audience behaviour. The gaze of the audience is also a certain anticipation that is unfulfilled, always. An expression, for the audience, is an occurrence when being served and fulfilled with a traditional methodology of entertainment. Performance-photo documents the opposite of it – by becoming mute, the audience is invited to serve the role of an alien-in-his/her-own-environment. In this sense watching performance-photo is a document of the breakdown of traditional behavior. In other words, it is attending a cremation of the conventional and convention of expectations.
The anticipation is conditioned by a certain pre-set knowledge about the history of what is being viewed. In performance-photo, the clueless-expression of the co-performers (audience) speaks more than being baffling in a double mode! She is unprepared to add on to the performer’s demand (a stage-magician takes advantage of such a character in a randomly chosen audience) nor can she stay away from being inevitable and an unwilling participant. There is a third character, an option, to the audience: You attend a performance only on unconditional binding that you become this unwilling performer! Hence watching performance-photo is the best mode to impose the convention of looking upon the unexpected. Memory is ‘frozen’ within performance-photos while it is ‘chosen’ in the convention of whitecube display.
The audience i.e co-performers are so (co-performers) because they know the artist but not his/her work. Performance, arguably, is the artist’s self, inevitably unified with his medium of expression. What is that the audience, who occupies the major physical space of a performance-photo, is perceiving? She gazes, anticipates, expects but never accepts the performance in the present.
Often some (by now the audience and the performer are inseparable) are waiting in turn as well. The artist, in turn is acquainted with the performer in a way that did not exist during and before the whitecube, whose condition is a clear bifurcation between artist, audience and the media. If you can keenly observe performance-photo, you can bifurcate strangers even among the audience, their curiosity is never successfully overtaken by boredom and blankness of what is happening around them—immediately; analogous to their life as the urban elite. On the other hand, conventional audience is always unaware of whose work they watch.
Performance, in relation to visual arts, is a photo-document of mutually emotionally alienated audience, who are inevitable-performers; and those who are apathetic to any convention of performances that are inclusive of recitations, narratives and spectacle.
Performance is to distrust the media, outside one’s physical self. Performance-photo (PP) is a legitimised stage of such an act, through the inevitable autobiographical-avatar of the media of photography. Every PP is, first of all, a certain self-narrative of photography, mostly digital. The only performer kept out of the whole burial-of-the-convention is the photographer himself. Also, PP promises like a wedding vow and certifies like a death certificate that the performer ‘did’ and actually ‘occurred’ when the owner-of-the-whole-event was physically alive. The ‘presence’, that Derrida points out, is a compulsory aspect that is put into an ‘arrested jeopardised moment’. Or, its essence is rather transfused into the media of photography, bringing in a metamorphosis between the body and photography.
Artistic Demonstrations of art schools, practice of leather puppetry, the political concerns of street plays are the three primary aspects of one’s culture that performative-photo protest by ardently allowing itself to follow them. When someone performs, she lets the audience perform her relation to the camera which is the spirit behind the ambiguous terminology of ‘performance-photos’.
(Inspired by the incessant Facebook traffic jam caused due to the Happenings and Performances in and around Bangalore).