text: Jörn J. Burmester
1. The Frame
The Fluid Academy comes in a number of different shapes. The first form it took was part of the performance art festival BONE, which in its 18th edition in December 2015, decided to go back to school. This text is the current emanation of the Fluid Academy. Which means, it is not a text in the tradition of the holy text. The text as truth. I know no truth. Let’s think of this text as an open space for discourse. It is not me who writes it by writing it. It is you who do, by reading it.
The Fluid Academy comes in a number of different shapes. The first form it took was part of the performance art festival BONE, which in its 18th edition, the year it came of age, decided to go back to school. „Schools of connectivity“ was the subtitle and motto of the 2015 edition. It took place in December that year. It took place in Bern, the federal capital of Switzerland, the strange little rich country in the middle of Europe.
This text is the current emanation of the Fluid Academy. Which means, it is not a text in the tradition of the holy text. The text as truth. I know no truth. Let’s think of this text as an open space for discourse. It is not me who writes it by writing it. It is you who do, by reading it.
Fluid Academy was commissioned by BONE festival as a space to think about, try out, discuss, argue about some questions regarding performance art. including:
CAN PERFORMANCE ART BE TAUGHT?
IF SO, HOW?
IF SO, SHOULD IT?
Why is this even a discussion, some might ask. Any skill can be taught. But is performance art a skill? For those who are familiar with topics and issues of the performance art scene, the discussion might appear as a rather old hat. It is time for a first digression, a footnote that, instead of being positioned on the bottom of the page, is included in the body of the text. A bodynote, a livernote, a intestinal note. A throat note.
Performance art, being a relatively young art form, is just now beginning to be included into curricula of schools and universities in continental Europe. The US and Britain have had courses of live art and performance art for some years. How the term Live Art has, footnote to the throat note, influenced and determined the development of performance in the UK since its inception, is a whole other discussion. One we won’t have here. Scandinavia is also a bit ahead in terms of teaching performance art. Some courses exist. But still, the issue is fresh enough to be debated. It is by no means clear what it means to teach performance art in the way it is clear how to teach, say, chemistry, or the violin (I’m sure those who teach chemistry or the violin disagree. Good.)
Including performance art into academic institutions brings up questions. One: What should be taught and how? There are lots of skills that can be helpful in developing a performance and performing it, but there aren’t any without which it cannot be done. Anything can be in a performance, nothing has to. Everyone who does performances has to invent his or her own way to do it. Anything can be a performance, as long as it is framed to be seen as such.
Two: How can anyone criticize, judge and grade whatever the students do in response to whatever is taught? If there are no skills, how can quality be measured? This, some would argue, is more difficult when it comes to performance art than it would be in other subjects, because performance art can be anything.
This is the FLUID ACADEMY. It is FLUID.
It is always in favor. To fall into the trap that good luck has set (In die Falle gehen, die das Glück stellt).
Fluid is a mixer. Mix in some solids. Re-create primordial gook. Something might emerge.
These were some of the notes I took preparing Fluid Academy. I did this because I grew up a protestant, and the virtue of working is deeply ingrained in me. Not working equals failure in the world I come from. But I had no content for the Academy. That was its main reason for existence. The goal was to make an empty frame and wait and see what would fill it. This made me very nervous.
The frame itself turned out quite nicely. There were two rooms of Bern’s PROGR Art center, part of the city gallery. On my request, the festival borrowed a black board and some antique school desks. These had an opening on top where an inkwell would have gone, and a hatch you could open to put books inside. The desks were, for the opening day, arranged in traditional school room order in the first room, with one larger desk facing a bunch of smaller ones. After that day, the arrangement was changed into a semi circle, because the original one had proved to be too oppressive. No one was able to think anything useful in that school room arrangement.
There also were a kettle and a coffee maker, a bowl of fruit, a projector and a printer.
The other room was left mostly empty, except for a collection of small items that had previously been used in performances, arranged along the walls. This room was meant to be used for performance experiments and practice.
The rooms were arranged carefully. The content had to make itself.
The building that houses PROGR is a former secondary school. The rooms of the Fluid Academy were, most likely, former classrooms, returned to their original designation for four short days.
Opening the Fluid Academy for the first time, half the members of the famous Performance Art collective Black Market International are in attendance. I have no plan what to do. I tell them that and an uncomfortable silence ensues. But not for long. Alastair MacLennan silently asks „Can we play with it?“ and I gladly give permission. An intense group performance, including Black Marketeers and Fluid Academy staff, ensues for almost two hours, ending with Singapore artist Lee Wen sobbing on the floor in a corner of the space.
2.1.1 A Myth
The history of performance art, or rather one of its founding myths, says that the art form was begun by artists who felt the need to distance themselves from the art market, focusing on the process of making art rather than the product of it. Exhibiting the process, the ephemeral actions of making art, so goes the myth, meant to refuse the greedy art market the fetishized objects it needs, and thus liberated art from the throes of capitalism.
This is obviously bullshit. But quite persistent.
2.1.2 Economy of Performance Art
In one video in this edition of ICE HOLE, you can listen to members of Black Market International speak about how they learned and teach performance art. Almost all of them say it cannot be taught. And almost all of them teach it.
This oddness necessitates another detour of our Academy. Let’s stay fluid. Be water my friend, as Bruce Lee supposedly said. I know this only because a company that offers purified water or water purifiers or something equally superfluous in the gentrified part of town that I live in uses this quote, which they claim was first said by Bruce Lee as an advertising slogan for their company. Where are we now in the body of our text? Maybe this is a nerve note.
The economy of performance art is indeed a strange one. A vast majority of performance artists, including well established and respected ones („mid-career“ as the open calls etc. have it), do not earn their living from making performances. Basically, the choice is: day job or teaching. So we teach.
In spite of this, making performance art seems to be an attractive proposition to many young people. As they are not yet invited to any festivals or venues where they could do so, because no one knows them (performance art is a very small and incestuous world. Almost every artist is also an organizer; „I invite you to my event because you have invited me or will potentially invite me to your event“). Young people flock to the workshops that are offered everywhere to make performances. While hardly anyone is willing to pay more than three Euros for watching performance art, these young and presumably not very affluent art students or recent art school graduates or musicians or dancers or whatever other paupers have you, shell out hundreds to partake in the magic of the workshop. To expand their practice.
Some performance artists, often the same ones who claim that performance art can not be taught, build multi-national empires on offering workshops. What is going on here? They claim themselves to have nothing to teach, you hear them say „I learn more from my students then they learn from me“, but they get paid for it. The students pay. For learning nothing?
Working on „The School of Doing Nothing“ I sit alone on a stool in the performance space, trying to do nothing. Of course, it’s impossible. I breath, hear, see, sweat, agonize, think, swallow, blink, digest etc.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, one festival artist in the school room quietly pastes together sheets of A4 paper to create an installation designed to aid the user in doing nothing. Returning to the class room I find a string of white paper stretching from the ceiling to the floor. On another sheet, the artist had left instructions:
Lay down (on your back)
Look up the line
3. The author revealed
I’m going to take a moment to reveal my own story. Not all of it, just the bits about my discovery and involvement in performance art. I’ll begin with a confession: I did theatre before I did performance art. This is frowned upon by some in the performance art world. I was not very good at it, never was accepted into a theatre school, floundered around in independent theatre, and my career remained sketchy, to say the least. After some years of this I gave it up, and went to university, taking a course of theatre studies, because I could get in. I was lucky: The course was rather good, and it was there I first heard about performance art. It was not exactly taught, but it was in the air. Some students did performances. I passed an examination by telling a small board of old art history professors what little I knew about the performance art of the 70s. They were quite amazed, seeming to know much less about it then me. They let me pass. I got my degree.
Quite a few of my co-students went on to do what is known in Germany as „performance theatre“. This term would merit another detour, but I’ll just call it experimental theatre for now. Devised theatre would be another term.
Eventually, in the early 2000s, some years out of school, I started to do my own performances. Still heavily influenced by theatre, I wanted to show my work, and to expand my horizon by watching performances. I found out that, even though I lived in Berlin, there weren’t many opportunities to watch and do performance art. So I got together a small group of friends and colleagues, mostly alumni from my school (everybody was moving to Berlin then), and we started to meet once a month to show each other what we were working at. We called it Performer Stammtisch. Soon word got around, and other artists started to join. We met artists with backgrounds in the visual arts. Discussions ensued about what should actually be called performance art. They continue to this day. Soon word got around some more (performance art is a small world, see above) and performers from other cities and countries started to visit to show their work at Performer Stammtisch. We wanted to see it all. „If you call your shit performance art, we want to see it“ was our motto. We did this for around ten years. More than 150 artists showed their performances and were questioned by us. Performer Stammtisch was my art education.
3.1 How to learn performance art
From my story I conclude: One way to learn performance art is to
WATCH AND DO AND DISCUSS PERFORMANCES.
Not the worst one, if I say so myself.
Basically, all a performance art academy needs is just that: a space to watch and do and discuss performances. Maybe it is that simple.
There are as many ways leading to performance art as there are artists. Most of them have a different artistic practice before they discover performance as a strategy to do something with their art that the traditional practice won’t allow them to do. Some people prefer to look at performance art as a strategy to apply to different artistic and non-artistic fields, rather than an art genre or discipline. In many performances, many such practices are used as resources. There are (some former, some active) theatre people, visual artists and dancers who do performances, but also musicians, researchers, teachers, activists and many others. I know one former surgeon who now makes sculpture and performances.
The majority of artists now active in performance art have biographies similar to those. Learned one practice, grew dissatisfied with it. Discovered and tried out performance art. Seemed to work. Got stuck with it.
Some performance art courses accept only students who have a history in another art field.
Others are faced with the interesting challenge to teach the strategies of performance art to young people who have nothing yet to apply it to.
Guest professor Joël Verwimp arrives with an ambitious program. He prepares to launch a campaign to make the UNESCO list performance art as an intangible cultural heritage. He succeeds in thoroughly confusing some students who wonder in.
3.1.1 Thinking Spaces – Born Out of Crisis
Going back in time again, to the early years of my making performances, roughly parallel to the early years of learning performance art through Performer Stammtisch. I mostly did collective pieces. It felt important to make them about relevant issues: war, capitalism, work. My colleagues and I had long discarded written plays, roles, characters etc., but we were still following the theatrical model of production: preparing performances in a combined sort of rehearsal and research process, usually quite brief for lack of time and money, and then showing them once they were „ready“ or not, simply because the time had come that was agreed to show something. We often felt that something was missing, and began increasingly incorporating elements that were happening within the framework of the performance itself, without much preparation, like, for example, interviewing someone who had come as a member of the audience, have a discussion amongst ourselves or let the audience decide what to do next. We usually would have a detailed schedule for these events, which tended to be quite long, a whole day or three working days. But we gladly strayed from schedules if anything came up that seemed more interesting than what was planned, or if an item on the list lead to a heated discussion that seemed to need more space. Eventually we began calling the spaces we prepared as well as the events taking place in them „Thinking Spaces“. We though of them as installations, designed to enhance the collective thinking of all present, erasing the distinction between performers and audience (as the performers were still determining the frame and leading the common process, this erasure was a fiction, but we liked it very much).
The first part of the Fluid Academy that took place at BONE 18 festival in December 2015, might be considered the latest of the Thinking Spaces.
3.1.2 The Framing Exercise
It might be asked if the Fluid Academy itself should be understood as a work of performance art. Performance art, we remember, is itself poorly defined. Quite a few definitions exist, but few people, involved with the art form or not, ever seem to agree on one. The easy way out is to define it as „whatever the artist says is a performance“. And no one said the Academy was a performance. It was an Academy and it dealt with performances. But maybe it could be a performance about performances, could it not?
Performances dealing with performances are tricky. Metaperformances. One activity that Janne Saarakkala and myself conducted during the Academy demonstrates this. We made a wooden frame of roughly two meters by one, and carried it into the city of Bern. We placed it in areas with a lot of pedestrian traffic and observed everyday activities of the people of Bern through it; shopping, going to work, visiting the Christmas markets, cycling and even someone riding a unicycle. We also observed tourists who were mostly just gazing at stuff, while we were gazing at them. It is remarkable how much the simple device of the frame changes the way you look at things. It takes some adjustment, like finding adequate places to put it, and finding the perfect distance to observe it from. You need to take a few steps back, so the frame comfortably limits the field of vision, without obstructing it too much. The images inside the frame (or should I say, behind it?) take on a new quality. Almost like they were in a movie. The two sides of the frame are effectively separated. Looking through the frame from one side, you observe the goings on on the other side of it (in the frame) in an abstract, aesthetic way. You notice that actions take place on different layers, foreground, middle ground, background, like you would describe a painting. A person progressing through the layers, by walking diagonally from background left to foreground right, for example, makes a strong impression on the viewer.
By framing actions with our wooden frame, and observing them, we removed the actions from their mundane existence as random stuff people do and transformed them into artworks. But was it us, by initiating the transformation, or the people acting within the frame, who made the artwork? Can you create an artwork without knowing you do? Could you call it an unwitting collaboration?
We then went back to the rooms of the Academy to re-create some of the actions. Then it was clearly studio work. There the actions from the street looked like performances, and nothing else.
But while out in the street, the frame was an artwork that people, while doing what they were doing, also, involuntarily, made artworks inside of. And in that way, it was exactly like the Fluid Academy itself. It was a frame provided to make art in.
4. Why the Academy needs to be a shapeshifter
Watching, doing, discussing can mean different things to different people. In the beginning, another myth might go, there were exactly as many schools of performance art as there were performers, as everyone made up their own stuff. As performance art is absorbed into academia, there will be fewer schools. The ones powerful enough to make it onto the curricula of the institutions push the smaller, less robust, more volatile ones to the margins and eventually obliterate them. The schools, the professors, the boards, determine how they make their specific frames. Sure, every professor will say that he or she is completely open, that all they do is guide the students in finding and bringing to the surface what they want or need to express.
Like with the Thinking Spaces or in the Framing Exercise: whoever determines the frame, determines what is and isn’t to be considered as art.
At the same time, we do need those frames. We need spaces that are protected and filled with interest and good will to encourage us to go beyond our borders in them. But if the frames stay the same for a long time, they become rigid and become borders in themselves. Instead of providing freedom they limit it. Maybe this dialectic of freedom and limitation characterizes any form of education. Total freedom equals total randomness. Total control equals death. To accept and agree on a certain set of limitations, that all involved in the process deem useful to further whatever their endeavor might be, might be the secret behind … something.
Therefore, the Fluid Academy will have to return in different shapes, if it returns at all. In its first emanation it was two rooms, a certain number of people in them over the course of six hours on four consecutive days. Now it is this text, written on the top deck of a bus on a nightly highway in Germany. Next time it might be a performance ritual going on around the clock. It might be a trip taken by a group. It might be a party. It might be an intimate hour spend by two people in a museum. It might be a book or a video or a performance that lasts only a few seconds. It might be all of these things at the same time. We have to keep bending the frame to surround our needs.
A full day! We continue the discussion of Performance Art as an Intangible Cultural Heritage and receive a visit by 20 future elementary school teachers and their art teacher, who are taught Islamist rap songs by guest professor Dani Ploeger.
At the end of the day, the remaining professors and guests form a march. We take the frame and some flags for a rally outside the venue. Chants of Performance Art sounded in the gloomy December afternoon. Champagne was drunk, and the day – the 4th of December – was declared the International Day of Performance Art.