Please Do Not Touch: Exploring the Human Experience of Performance Art

This piece was first published in HERO Issue 24, on sale now.

Enter any gallery or museum and the four-word configuration ‘please do not touch’ crops up more than any other. Alongside painted lines, stanchion ropes and motion detectors, these barriers are set up around artworks to maintain distance, to cordon off, protect, and prolong — underscoring the idea of art as ‘preserved’ and ‘unattainable’.

Yet throughout the twentieth century, performance art has encouraged the exact opposite: doing away with distance and restriction in favour of freedom and spontaneous creation. Designed with the intention of not being contained in a box or frame, performance can be mystifying and magical, troubling and captivating. It demands a complete experience that goes beyond mere observation, often establishing a relationship between performer and audience that confronts and questions. It makes us feel uncomfortable because it demands a reaction, it demands us to step outside our comfort zone and be present.

As the world adapts to a new normal enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, restrictions on touch and distance have become a necessary part of everyday life, and our primitive desire to interact is being stifled. With the majority of performance art pieces on pause or shifting into digital spaces, the medium is facing its biggest challenge: how do you engage with one another when you cannot be in the same environment? The proliferation of performance mirrors society’s own obsession with interaction, but what happens now? As these questions begin to take flight, the performance art canon encourages a history of evolution and adaptation we can take encouragement from.

Art critic Adrian Searle once explained that, “art without an object, or without the body of the artist or the spectator somewhere in the midst, is unthinkable. No human subject, no art.” He was speaking at the time about 11 Rooms, an exhibition that took place in 2011 at the Manchester Art Gallery. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach, rooms were filled with time-based performances playing out at regular intervals as visitors navigated their way around the space. In one room, a naked woman examined her body continually with a round mirror almost like she was observing curious new flesh. In another, more nudity: a woman appeared pinned to a wall with a bright light bearing down on her, legs and arms splayed as though restrained. These are works by Joan Jonas (Mirror Check, 1970) and Marina Abramović (Luminosity, 2011–13) and both question the notion of reclaiming the stage: is it the performer who commands the room or the audience?

Elsewhere, in a piece by Allora & Calzadilla (Revolving Door, 2011), a group of dancers linked arms and moved around a room not much wider than their collaborative wingspan with a militaristic stomp, forcing visitors to hide in any available corner of the room for fear of getting in the way of this “revolving door.”

11 Rooms intentionally forced the audience into uncomfortable proximity to performers through the curation of claustrophobic spaces that might otherwise only display a single painting or two. Performers were described as “human sculpture,” by Obrist and Biesenbach. 11 Rooms was their response to the traditional gallery format, stating that “there is something reductive in the way that the ‘exhibition’ format focuses on a static human- to-object relationship.”

Performance art is often created to give a voice to the silenced or marginalised, as is the case with the multidisciplinary Berlin-based artist Satch Hoyt whose work explores the African diaspora and its complex global history. In a piece called Say It Loud (2007–2014), a large platform ladder was surrounded by more than 500 books related to Black history and accompanied by a recording of James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud!A microphone was placed at the top of the ladder, creating a podium for the audience to ascend and voice their own thoughts on pride whilst considering the systemic silencing of Black voices.

The piece was just one of a number of profound performance works created by Black artists in the 2012–13 group exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art in Houston, where Black voices and bodies were “forced into the public spotlight” and given a “compulsory visibility” after centuries of oppression.

Distancing techniques have long been adopted by performance artists seeking to isolate themselves in order to emphasise or hone audience engagement. In doing so they utilise a stage, a platform, a box or a window, perhaps in an attempt to focus an idea through a material object. In 1995 Tilda Swinton spent seven days sleeping on a mattress encased in a glass box in the middle of London’s Serpentine Gallery as part of Cornelia Parker’s The Maybe. The performance posited the audience into a role of involuntary voyeurism, transforming the intimacy of sleep into a public spectacle whilst elevating Swinton to the status of sculpture, sealed for preservation. From the blatantly exposed to the explicitly hidden: Vito Acconci’s infamous Seedbed (1972) consisted of a seemingly empty room with a purpose-built ramp towards the rear of the space. As visitors entered the room, Acconci hid under the ramp and masturbated to fantasies about the people directly above him. Verbalising these fantasies, he projected his voice through loudspeakers into the main gallery space in an attempt to conflate intimacy between artist and audience.

So much of the electricity in performance art hinges on its audience, but how does a piece function when the audience makes the decision to not show up? In March 2020 dozens of helium-filled metallic balloons floated near the ceiling of the gallery walls at Tate Modern. The piece was a reproduction of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, which debuted in 1966 at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. In the original installation, the balloons would move around the room depending on the number of people below, displacing the air and often colliding with other balloons, squeezing through tight gaps like viscous fluid or gliding down to gently bop visitors on the head. The art of the piece seemed to lie in the action of movement, an involuntary performance created by physical presence. If not strictly considered performance, it nonetheless flirted with the idea.

In 2020, the work felt different. In a near-empty Tate on a Friday evening, just as social distancing began to take hold, and people were staying at home, the playful nature of Warhol’s famously celebrity-driven work withered without captivated spectators. Those metallic pillowy balloons remained eerily static, clinging to the ceiling, tantalisingly out of reach like reflective smiles turned upside down. Without an audience the work felt nullified, reductive perhaps, much in the way that Obrist and Biesenbach referred to exhibition formats being a “static human-to-object relationship.”

The work of African American artist Senga Nengudi encourages us to blur the distinction between performance and sculpture in similar ways. A seminal series of works titled R.S.V.P. (1975–77) combined her fascination with sculpture and movement by improvising performance through a collection of partially knotted wall-hung pantyhose. The previously-worn undergarments were then stretched, contorted and filled with sand at various points along the gallery walls. The nature of the material, with its fragile yet durable potential and intimate connotations, provided a new environment for fellow collaborators, encouraging them to interpret these sculptural objects through performance — tugging on the pantyhose and stretching them further or pushing their shape into different positions. R.S.V.P. — which literally translates as “please respond!”– arose through Nengudi’s reflections of her body during her first pregnancy and led to a discourse around “shared womanhood,” the elasticity of the body and the ways we respond in kind. Defying traditional exhibition advice, Nengudi actively encourages touch, to “brush up against sculpture.”

Performances of self-isolation frequently have an endurance aspect to them, as though the artist were seeking to test the limits of patience through the act of disengaging from human civility and returning to a more primitive state of subconscious thought.

One of the most profound and enduring works of performance art arrived in America in 1974 after travelling directly across the Atlantic from Europe. German artist Joseph Beuys arrived at New York’s JFK airport and was immediately transferred to an ambulance, cloaked in felt and driven to a room at the René Block Gallery in SoHo where he spent three days quarantine-style with a wild coyote as his co-star. At first the coyote was hostile and erratic, viewing Beuys as an intruder and at one point trying to tear away his shroud. Yet over time the coyote became more tolerant and even allowed Beuys the chance to embrace it, a sure sign that the only requirement to respect others — whether feral species or fellow humans — is humility, respect and communication.

When the three days were up, Beuys was escorted to the airport and flown back to Germany without having ever set foot on American soil, except for in the shared space of the gallery with the wild coyote.

Photographic documentation of the intense performance shows a fascinating oscillation between hostility and intimacy, doubt and trust, solace and companionship, intolerance and acceptance — that which we fear or misunderstand. Beuys believed art has the power to heal deep-rooted social divides and with this performance suggested Americans could only mend their differences through communication, conversation and mutual understanding. I Like America and America Likes Me upended performer-audience narratives by choosing a wild coyote — often a symbol of nature’s primordial force — as its only constant witness, operating with dual interpretation as animal cage and sacred space.

In contrast to performative acts of self-isolation are live works that exercise the action of physical touch. Audience roles in performance art are often as critical as that of the artist and have been utilised as a two-way exchange to encourage intimacy, closing the gap between artist and viewer altogether. Members of the audience become collaborators, contributing pieces of themselves to the process of the artwork. In 1964 Yoko Ono staged Cut Piece, in which audience members were encouraged to cut away sections of her clothing with scissors while she sat motionless. Some were hesitant, others less so. Men often acted differently to women. The actions of strangers drew attention to the role of women’s ownership in art whilst opening conversations around violation and consent, leaving the audience to quite literally take from it what they wanted. Ono suggested the work was inherently feminist as “women all too often have to give up everything in this world.”

Ono revived the work in Paris in 2003. Her life had changed considerably in the intervening forty years, but the instructions for the performance remained the same. Cut Piece is a key example of the live immediacy of performance art, often outlining an initial set of instructions that at some stage pass into the sphere of chance occurrence, thereby removing the notion of something going ‘wrong’. The potential for unexpected outcomes often provides more questions after the performance ends — outcomes that hinge on the idea of a revelation.

It was an idea taken even further by Marina Abramović almost ten years after Ono’s initial performance with Rhythm 0 (1974). The work presents striking similarities to Ono’s exploration of audience participation, only this time Abramović sought to dehumanise and objectify herself through systematic endurance. Audience members were invited to use a range of 72 objects laid out on a table in front of her in any way they wished. Some of the objects included were noticeably dangerous (razor blades, a kitchen knife, a fully-loaded pistol). Here the artist has the potential of foresight to at least speculate on what could happen whilst choosing to relinquish control, striking a fine line between intimacy and violence with complete strangers.

Both Ono and Abramović required the element of touch to facilitate their instructions, and in doing so, raised the stakes, provoking a conversation about limitations and codes of conduct in society. Abramović was carried around the room, had rose thorns stuck into her flesh, was cut with knives and — like Ono — had her clothes removed. At one point a loaded gun was placed at her temple, ultimately marking the point at which the performance was called off. In her own words she became “a puppet just for them.”

In 1977, for a piece titled Imponderabilia, both Abramović and her then- partner Ulay stood completely naked opposite each other in a doorway, allowing just enough distance for audience members to cross into the next room but not enough distance for them to avoid direct contact. Not only did the fully-clothed visitor have to choose which naked body to face, it created an uncomfortable (or perhaps exciting) tryst that placed the spectator firmly at the centre of the artwork. In this instance, Abramović and Ulay envisage themselves as the stage on which the performance is taking place, like physical platforms that seek to exhibit the emotions of the audience.

Abramović achieved perhaps the purest form of intimacy in the now-legendary 2010 exhibition The Artist Is Present at MoMA in New York, where she sat at a table for eight hours a day for nearly three months opposite members of the public. By staring at each other in silence for as long as they wished, Abramović and her temporary companions took on both the role of the observer and the observed as hundreds of people watched, waiting for their turn to become a part of the spectacle. Maintaining such an open brief invited all sorts of unexpected outcomes. Establishing trust with strangers, Abramović was able to disarm her audience and allow them to explore a spectrum of emotions in the pre-conceived context of a gallery setting. Some chose to be vulnerable and wept openly. Some brimmed with happiness and smiled. The work invited discussions around the notion of voyeurism and vulnerability, of seeing and being seen, and the duality of artist and audience. What emerged was a new way of encountering time and space through a very public staging of events.

Audiences for performance art have expanded greatly over the last fifty years, yet often the politics of the time affect how urgently those audiences respond. In 1971 the artist Robert Morris created Bodyspacemotionthings, a “participatory installation” at Tate Britain that transformed an empty space into an adult’s playground by filling it with tunnels, swings, slides, pulley- systems and ramps. Visitors were encouraged to play in the space which, without their involvement, would’ve remained a room stacked with objects. The experience soon descended into pandemonium as visitors began to understand the prospect of being in total control of the space, completely free from social restrictions that would usually be implemented. When faced with an opportunity for unbridled freedom, the audience chose to take the idea of disorder to an almost rebellious degree. After four days (and countless injuries) the exhibition was cut short.

The work gained infamy over the years, so it came as a surprise when Tate announced a re-staging in 2009. Only this time, all of the sharp edges would be removed. Curated in line with strict modern health and safety standards, the audience performed very much within the confines of the status quo. The original 1971 performance challenged the notion of liminal space and orderly conduct during a time of political and social upheaval. Perhaps the destructive events of the original came from a desire to show off to fellow visitors inhabiting the same space. Perhaps the polite calmness of the 2009 re-staging came from a feeling of increased surveillance that permeates our lives, from CCTV to social media. For all intents and purposes, from the moment we find ourselves in a space deemed public, we act differently. It seems for better or worse, all the world’s a stage.

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