My conception of performance art begins at the basic definition I helped write for teenage art students: “performance art is not scripted theater, but instead calls on the artist to use his or her body in real time and space to express an idea.” The key words in this sentence, body, real time, and space, express a fundamental truth about my experience of performance art: it’s all about the relationship created between an artist and her audience. The nature of this relationship, be it antagonistic, confusing, erotic, cooperative, or something else, is the raw material of a performer’s work. Curator and art critic Nicholas Bourriaud, in his series of essays Relational Aesthetics, suggests that we inhabit a moment in the evolution of art history when artists have begun to privilege the relationships that artworks enable over the production of objects. The “art object” in this context can be considered a byproduct of an experience of interaction among viewers, orchestrated by the artist. Interactions and relationships among viewers are the real media in which contemporary artists work, and physical objects are simply a lens through which an artist might choose to focus or express these interactions.
As with any other medium, performers can exert more or less control over their materials during the creative process, but that control wavers when another person or people enter the equation. The beauty and the terror of audience lie in the utter unpredictability of their responses — will this be a hit? A disaster? An embarrassment? A fire-code violation? After the audience has viewed my work from every angle, will I still recognize what I originally made? Performance art invites this introspection, both in the moment of a piece’s presentation and in retrospect. In scrutinizing the behavior of an audience towards a performer, there is potential to learn about the relative success or failure of the performer’s concept, but also a chance to observe the unexpected interpretations those outside the creative process bring to the work. Perhaps more than any other artistic discipline performance relies on the active presence of viewers to complete a piece, their reactions to and interactions with the performer making meaning from a relationship among individuals. When live bodies and real time, two increasingly complex variables, enter the equation, the outcome of a work can change all its participants and their relationships to each other.